Small is huge, Wells Fargo tells us with a Pleasantville main street gloss. It’s tough to admit when a cynical corporate slogan hits the mark, but I can’t think of a better way to describe Portland’s Future Tense Press and its portfolio of literary fire-starters. Run by literary community extraordinaire and Powell’s ambassador Kevin Sampsell, Future Tense has consistently published work that eviscerates everything I thought I knew about literature. Future Tense published Chloe Caldwell’s breakout Legs Get Led Astray and the immersive Excavation by Wendy C. Ortiz, And the most interesting part is, they’re doing it in bite-size form. Novellas, short memoir, and the curious chapbook.
The Future Tense chapbook may be palm-sized, but the lyric, dense prose takes over your entire world. In the last year I’ve become addicted to these small, subversive texts—they’re like vinyl for book-lovers. An old-school vibe, an air of knowing something underground that the shiny book clubs haven’t heard about yet. The soul of a zine with a beautiful typeface.
Recently Kevin Sampsell sent me a copy of Future Tense’s newest chapbook, Soft Split, a collection of vignettes drifting through a woman’s dreams. In 32 tiny pages, writer Szilvia Molnar deconstructs a fraying marriage, sexual taboos and an evolving relationship with an aging body.
Molnar is a prose and poetry writer with work published in Two Serious Ladies, Electric Cereal, Little Brother, and The Buenos Aires Review, among others. Her artwork has been published by Girls Get Busy, Flavorwire, Jezebel and Icon—El Pais. Born in Budapest and raised in Sweden, Szilvia now lives in Brooklyn, New York. I spoke to her over email about the origins of Soft Split, the pitfalls of consciousness and self-image, and how chapbooks have become so totally fabulous.
Tabitha Blankenbiller: Soft Split elicits a dizzying effect on the reader, a kind of REM sleep brought into vivid light. I found myself playing a guessing-game on whether the narrator was awake or not in each section—the kind of thing I’d love to get in a drunk AWP conversation over. Were you intentionally playing with the conscious/subconscious line? Or do you view that distinction as inconsequential?
Szilvia Molnar: Yes it was all intentional. Just today I was reading a manuscript where the narrator wants to describe her dream but says she’ll spare us the details because it’s boring to listen to people’s dreams, which reconfirmed this feeling I had when writing that we look down on dreams in literature, and I remember wanting to avoid falling into this trap. But if you never really know what’s real and what isn’t, then you have the option to keep the reader dizzy with them guessing.
TB: I didn’t realize how liberating this embracing of dreams could be until the week after I read the book. I found myself paying attention in the mornings and asking myself questions. Why did this person’s presence make me uncomfortable? What surprised me? What’s really going on in my heart? How did I free myself to listen closely? It’s kind of a permission I didn’t know I was waiting for.
SM: That makes me happy to hear. These are such important questions to ask! I’ve gotten better at remembering my dreams and even though I still get horrific nightmares from time to time, I cherish dreaming. I really do. Sleep is an absolute treat for me. I’ve gotten fairly good at knowing the tricks I need to pull in order to get a good night’s sleep and when I do, I dream such fantastical stories. It’s like I’m high and entertained at the same time.
TB: How did the writing of Soft Split begin—were you initially writing an essay or series of poems? The writing has an undeniable lyric quality, and you’ve widely published both short stories and poems. The style seems to marry poetry and flash fiction.
SM: It’s a short story that is told through a series of short scenes but sure, the style is never really one or the other. I learned about flash fiction at university in London and it’s definitely been the form that I’ve felt closest to, even though I haven’t always been able to define it. Sometimes it’s made me feel like a failure (to be writing flash fiction), but I’ve tried to remember to not care in that sense and care in the sense of what I feel I need to do.
TB: The structure of the book, the weaving and braided poetics, seemed (as a reader) to be absolutely effortless, which usually means that the arrangement was a most considered and thoughtful artifice on the writer’s part. Can you describe how it took shape?
SM: I remember letting go. And being playful. I had a collection of scenes and thanks to Kevin Sampsell (who was patient and happy to play along with me) I managed to build a clearer arc around the scenes. I remember having fun at making sense of some of the nonsense but also letting nonsense stand on its own.
TB: The story describes a woman’s blossoming, kind of second-coming of sexual awakening after growing older and navigating a failing marriage. The narrator seems slightly older than the typical coming-of-age character, and her desires seemed bolder and more refined. It reminded me of Cheryl Strayed’s description of a “second adolescence” in a woman’s thirties. Was this an experience you were trying to evoke?
SM: Yes, definitely. I wanted to write about how you can convince yourself of a lie but you can’t convince your body to lie. You can go ahead and live the life you think will bring you happiness with whatever superficial things that entails (and perhaps they did bring happiness in the beginning) but you can’t let it dictate if it starts to eat you up from the inside. If your body is calling and saying that it needs to be spanked, tied up or laid down gently in a bubble bath, then you have follow what the body wants. Why should we deny those instincts? I don’t think these instincts are tied to an age and they keep evolving with time.
If your body is calling and saying that it needs to be spanked, tied up or laid down gently in a bubble bath, then you have follow what the body wants. Why should we deny those instincts? I don’t think these instincts are tied to an age and they keep evolving with time.
Funny coincidence that you mention Cheryl Strayed because I started writing the book at the same time as the “Dear Sugar” podcast started (January 2015). I listened to it every week and sought comfort in their words even though they weren’t for me.
TB: I love what Strayed has opened up for discussion and consideration, especially with Dear Sugar and Tiny Beautiful Things. The notion of “following what the body wants” also reminds me of Lidia Yuknavitch, obviously another huge influence on our emerging generation of writers.
In the past 10 years, we’ve gotten a lot of cultural conversation on body image. We seem to finally be working past the concept of an ideal or normal woman/human. The book seems to evolve that conversation into the honesty of subconscious and its relationship to the body. If the body and the dream can’t lie, do you see our conscious selves as the next barrier to break? Where do you see the conversation going from here, as the “millennial” approaches that second coming of age?
SM: You’re the second person in the last couple of months who has mentioned Yuknavitch to me in relation to SS. I need to get my act together and read her (editor’s note: everyone should put that on their list immediately!). “Following what the body wants” also reminds me of Merritt Tierce’s character in LOVE ME BACK. I was impressed by how the author didn’t let her character evolve, change or “improve” which is not just expected from women in general (constantly), but expected from female writers who write about female characters. But I got the impression that Marie stays ruined/stained even passed the book and that’s brilliant. There’s a great scene towards the end of the book where Marie is in a car with two men, it looks like one of them is taking crack, and that’s where Marie tries to draw the line (“I tried crack only once and it didn’t work and now I’m hoping I have some limits”) but then she starts grinding on one of the men and she knows it’s not enough: “…my body will do this without me if it has to.” That’s so intense to me. Who is really doing the talking when the body has a voice of its own?
Who is really doing the talking when the body has a voice of its own?
Do you mean “our conscious selves” in terms of the norms and perceptions we view ourselves and the world in? It’s complicated. One of the most powerful art shows I saw last year was Jen Schwarting’s “Age of Consent” which was a series of prints, paintings, sculpture and collaborative artwork about” privacy, agency and authorship”. It centered around a series of images of “drunk girls” that had been shared online after being taken for “personal entertainment”. They were so sinister and upsetting to see, and that’s why I thought the show was brilliant. They showed moments in college environments that for me were private at the time (8 years ago) but girls don’t have this kind of privacy anymore, so what does that mean in terms of their freedom? It was such a powerful show that continues the necessary conversations about consent, online bullying and rape culture. I want these conversations to continue.
TB: How did you become involved with Future Tense Press?
SM: I found them through Chelsea Hodson‘s work online and reached out to them when I needed some help with finding out what Soft Split was or could be. I feel lucky that we found each other.
TB: Well funny you should mention Hodson! Pity the Animal was one of the best books I’ve read in the ’10s and has stuck with me far more than most books 20 times its length. It’s interesting to see the chapbook become such a lauded and powerful form. When I started grad school 6 (!!) years ago, announcing you had a chapbook coming out was basically a joke. Now it’s a bow-down honor, and as you’ve demonstrated, an extremely powerful form. Is this a paradigm shift you’ve noticed?
SM: Haha, I had the same impression too. And there was a lot of navel-gazing 120 page fragmented prose being published in Scandinavia at that time that I wasn’t excited about short prose as much. I also wasn’t really paying enough attention to what kind of chapbooks that were being published but there’s so much good stuff out there. I get so much pleasure from reading something short that was recommended to me by a friend (like it’s a secret you’re allowed to not keep), than reading a 500-page novel that everyone is raving about just because it’s so massive. There’s time and place for both.