new hybrid writing by Tina Barry
The pieces below are part of a series in-progress. I envision this work of fiction eventually appearing in two parts: one-part interview and one-part hybrid writing. The interview, which is set in August 2020, is conducted by James Linette, the editor at Skin Deep: The Magazine of Tattoo Arts. Linette’s guest is Sasha Daniels, the daughter of Rachel Daniels, a famous Russian Jewish tattoo artist, shortly after Rachel’s death from Covid-19. Rachel’s book Tattoos and Other Tortures, considered a seminal work in tattoo literature, was published in the 1960s and re-released in 2019.
Some of Linette and Daniels’ conversation relates to writing of Rachel’s that appeared in Tattoos and Other Tortures. A lot of the conversation, though, is Sasha describing growing up with Rachel, and the aftermath of the book’s publication. Rachel’s writing begins with awkward English and evolves as she ages.
Some excerpts from the interview:
James Linette: Can we talk about the fallout your family experienced after the book’s publication?
Sasha Daniels: I think about that time now as a tsunami. A wave that appeared suddenly, this great, darkened shadow blocking the sunshine. Then the deluge of destruction that happened immediately after the book’s release, and kept happening, one seismic tremor after another. When Rachel was outed as a tattoo artist, she stopped being seen as a wife and mother, and became this subversive thing. She had kept the tattooing a secret from everyone. Even me. I felt betrayed. Her friends felt betrayed. What little family we had were aghast. More than aghast. Sickened. Wounded. They felt like the book was a mockery of everything they were. And the letters. The antisemitism. It was utterly blatant.
There had been tension between my parents for weeks. Rachel had been agitated. She could barely sleep. She’d go to bed with my father around 11, and by 11:30 I could hear her footsteps in the hall, and then down the stairs. The tea kettle whistled. Sometimes a short blast; other times she’d let it shriek and shriek, until either I’d stand on the stair landing, and I’d scream “Mom!” or my father would run down the stairs and turn it off. Night after night. A couple of times, I’d stand on the landing and look down on her in the living room, pacing back and forth, back and forth. Once I called to her, and she jumped, as if I’d woken her from a trance. She came back up the steps; I have never seen her face like that. Any face like that, really. Huge, dark circles around her eyes — and the eyes. I still shiver. Just empty. Nothing there at all. “Mom,” I’d say, and she’d walk right past me. Never looked at me. Never said anything. I’d go back to bed utterly shaken.
You look skeptical.
JL: Well, I have to wonder if anything is ever really a secret. Especially something as visual as a tattoo.
SD: I didn’t know. Really. You have to understand. At first, Rachel didn’t make tattoos because she liked them, they weren’t an art form for her at all. They were a compulsion she couldn’t control. Something she had to do. She talked about it in Tattoos. Rachel was so conflicted. She was an atheist but the lessons her family taught were ingrained. “You shall not make gashes in your flesh…or incise marks on yourselves: I am the LORD,” which comes from Leviticus, I think. And here was mom: a cutter and a tattooist. She carried a lot of shame. A lot of secrets.
I think what drove Rachel was much like a cutter’s need to slash open a space and let the anguish out. She tattooed her body for the same reason she cut it: if she didn’t, she’d have gone mad. People see the later photos of her, when she was out as a tattoo artist, and covered from the neck down with her weird drawing-like tattoos. But before I found out, Rachel had kept the tattoos confined to places no one, well, maybe my father, but that’s a whole different conversation, could see. Under her breasts, behind her ears so they’d be covered by her hair, near her crotch, and while I don’t know, and certainly never saw, possibly on or even in her vagina.
I am in memory no not memory
not to remember
we like that in this place
call rooming house in this room in house
we make forest around skin keep wolves
out sometime birds and light
stories same different
no one say do not talk about before
but we do not just make little
talk dog and cat
boy dance with crazy bent arms
like chicken we laugh
dream of food we miss
sturgeon herring cabbage borscht blini
how our skin now color of sauerkraut
Want cold rain
here is first time
I feel sting
no on train too
but not know
not know what sting is
it badness gathered
like black swarm over pond
I want to cut out not want need
to cut must
open little hole in skin
free bad stories from prison
bring file also poison
One bad story itch
if I get up from bed someone
will lay down on warm spot
warm spot gift I turn on side push feet
against sleeping person press against
me I tear off long piece of nail
with teeth it sharp
like small knife
reach hand under shirt
feel for poison spot push nail deep
blood on fingers scare me
story leap out and hang there
it scream bad things then drift
away like poor little boat
JL: Did you ever ask Rachel why she stopped cutting and started tattooing?
SD: Rachel didn’t start inking her body until years after her book came out. She was a cutter up till then. I did ask her once. “Oh, Sasha,” she said. “I make cuts, then I make pictures to cover cuts up.” When I pressed her, which she didn’t like; she would ball up her hands into little fists; she said, “Sasha, it is better way to remember.”
JL: Can we talk about some of those pictures?
JL: The igloo.
SD: Journalists and tattooists called that tatt the “igloo,” but Rachel never did. The theme of ice tunnels and paths appear early in Tattoos. Later she started drawing and writing about ice blocks with that orb-shaped, crawl-through entrance, but she referred to it as the “icehouse” or “ice palace.” One winter when I made an igloo on our yard with a friend, Rachel referred to it as a lednik, which is a really crude, old-fashioned ice box.
As Rachel got older, the igloo appeared in different forms: the crude one I mentioned. But there were other ice houses and ice palaces, that originally looked like what they were, and then morphed into chandeliers, and then a single crystal. Mom had a picture of a woman named Anna, who had this elaborate, lacy looking castle that Rachel inked on her back. I asked her why a castle, and she said, “Anna like tsarina.” Supposedly, in the 1700s, there was a tsarina named Anna, who created an insane wedding, where she had artisans carve ice sculptures of swans and deer and fox, then load them onto giant sleds. She made all the guests climb onto the sculptures, and then they were dragged around the castle grounds. I don’t know if it’s true or some kind of folktale, but whenever I was being a pain in the ass, Rachel would say, “Stop complaining, Anna.”
Is ice palace today
with lady of house and daughter
sip tea two tsarinas
me on knees with wash bucket
scrub floor little circle little circle
tsarinas bend together talk
wedding soon daughter want
white dress with long piece behind
to drag down floor out door want
snow ball diamond on fat finger want
violin flute piano with many candle want
opera woman sing Here is Bride want
pond full of cherries want
cake like big white building touch ceiling
my nails black
in soapy water
Daughter like Russian folktale
tsarina Anna big mink hat
fur coat to floor this tsarina
have man face dark moustache
legs thick logs like in fireplace
daughter say Hel-loooo Ray Chel Ray Chel
name shutka little joke
tsarina in folktale make man dwarf marry
stranger lady spend wedding night
in giant ice palace guests ride
ice swans wolf deer camel
not warm bed for man wife
couple sleep on ice in ice palace
wish cold bed
for this daughter tsarina
JL: In Tattoos, Rachel seemed obsessed with bees. Can you talk about Tailor Bee?
SD: You picked the tatt with the most weighted history, and the one with the most literal interpretation. Briefly, Tailor Bee symbolizes Rachel’s father, who was a tailor in Russia. Under her breasts and in her arm pits, and high up her thighs near her vagina, and possibly on or in her vagina, were tiny upraised spots. She literally sewed “him” to her skin.
After the book came out, she showed me those spots. You know the expression seeing stars? I did. I had to run and vomit in the bathroom. That she did that to herself! It only took 20 years of therapy, but now I understand why, or I think I do. There were times when Rachel sat quietly on the living room couch, or at the dining room table when she thought she was alone, and she’d be completely lost. She’d make these gentle circles with her fingertips over her shirt and under her breasts, as if she could feel the thread beneath her clothing. It scared me as a child, but as I got older, I realized that this trance-like state was something she needed. A way of self-soothing. I’d see her lost there and just walk away.
(“Tailor Bee” comes later in Rachel’s section)
I never think before tonight about Papa sewing needle and my inking needle. Why is that? Maybe Papa needle just instrument to make money. One hem so many kopeks. Two sleeves so many rubles. It just thing for him. That is all. Papa not need to hold needle. Like me in basement when Tailor Bee hums in my head so loud I think Sasha and Marty hear it. I feel Papa hand on mine. I see dark hair like barbed wire on knuckles. “Like this, Rachal.” I hear his words, but voice I am forgetting. To forget voice is to forget. I hold needle. Not tattoo needle, sewing needle like Papa use, with thread. I say “Papa.” I do that with family. Feel for spot next to a Mama Bee. Papa Bees are hives under skin. There are many, under breasts, inside legs up where no one see. I like to feel them and know Mama Bee near too. Mama—dot, dot, dot. Papa—stitch, stitch. It hurt, yes, to push needle into skin. To feel thread pull. The first stick make me cry. I want that. It good pain. To take Papa. Stitch him to me. It only time I hear his voice.
published books by Tina Berry:
Beautiful Raft is the fictionalized story of the artist Marc Chagall’s lover Virginia Haggard, and Haggard’s five-year-old daughter Jean McNeil, told in the women’s voices. The story is set in the 1940s, when the family lived for two years in the hamlet of High Falls, New York.
excerpt from Beautiful Raft:
Make my body your raft. A black raft drifting down a slow, bumping river. A happy raft. Your useful raft. Climb on, please. Am I big enough? Are you comfortable? How do I look against the blue water? Should I change color? Should I change the color of the water? I want you to look at me and think, Beautiful raft.
Ida arrives in her city clothes: a hat with a tidy veil, a nipped jacket and tight skirt. I have told her my plans for my afternoon alone: Café. Coffee. Book. Shoo, she tells me. Go! Go! as the children hug her legs. I don’t reveal my real intentions; until I drive to the dirt road and park, I don’t know them myself. I walk along a path that twists and twists deeper into the unknown woods. The stones beneath my sandals guide the way. Trees heavy with emerald fringe a rock-trimmed oval of water. I undress with no shame. No fear of being discovered. Cold circles my knees. Then waist. Then neck. My skin contracts, nipples tighten. I’m a long white eel dividing the dark pond. My laugh, high and keening, a child flung into the air.
The neighbors know me here. “Tall gal.” A toot of the horn. A wave. Eyes on the road, moving on. If they got close, they could probably smell me, as I smell them. The fraught air of chickens. Cigarettes stale or burning on the breath. Always, the fat scent of meat. Can my neighbors smell the man, the children, who feast on me, ticks on a fat hound? Shouldn’t the blue of delphiniums dim in the dark? Shouldn’t the roses’ blousy heads bend beneath the leaves? Crickets hoot a hypnotic opera. Frogs bleat lovelorn laments.
a conversation about writing between Tina Barry & Krysia Jopek—JANUARY 2021
When did you first begin writing hybrid and micro? What is it about the genres that attracts and challenges you?
I started writing memoir pieces about 15 years ago but I had a difficult time telling the truth. I always wanted to write in service to the story, not about what actually happened, so I turned to fiction. About a year into that, I decided to participate in a reading. The readers had no longer than eight minutes each, so I had a great deal of editing to do. What emerged was so much better than the original story. After that, I challenged myself to keep writing shorter and tighter, to express what needed to be expressed in as few words as possible. I was curious at that time too, to see if others were writing very short, under 500-word pieces, and discovered the flash and micro community whose work inspired me.
As my writing evolved, it became more lyrical, more poetic, and I just allowed it to be whatever it wanted to be.
What are you striving to do with the type of persona you construct?
For the past few years I’ve felt the need to do a deep-dive into other people’s worlds, so I’ve focused on the persona prose poem, or some form of it. That’s what I did with Beautiful Raft, which is based on Virginia Haggard, the lover of Marc Chagall, and Haggard’s five-year-old daughter Jean McNeil, who I discovered after I moved from Brooklyn to the hamlet of High Falls, in upstate New York. Chagall and Haggard had lived in the hamlet for two years during the 1940s, and researching their time here, and all the questions that that raised, inspired the writing.
Ink-antation (working title) is fiction, although I’m drawing on my family’s history as Russian immigrants too. Again, I’m exploring a mother/daughter relationship, but this time the daughter is in her sixties, an adult looking back.
I guess what I’m striving for is what any fiction writer strives for: to invite readers into the characters’ worlds and to make those worlds compelling.
How much time do you typically spend each day writing? Do you have any writing practices, habits, or rituals you’d like to share?
I wish I could say that I was a disciplined writer who adheres to a schedule. I try to write for a couple of hours every day. Sometimes I’m successful but often I’m not. On the flip side, I can sit for hours just lost in the work.
Like most writers, I carry a notebook. Often an idea, something I’ve overheard that I might want to use, or a word that I’ve been searching for pops up when I’m away from my desk, so having a notebook helps me to remember. I keep a notebook near my bed too.
Can you speak to your writing process—from the conception of a new piece of writing through its completion.
I sit down with an idea and start writing. Usually, my original idea morphs into something different, and I try to stay out of my way and let the writing go where it wants to go. Then I rewrite until I choke the life out of the piece, go through the earlier drafts, see that the work was most alive at draft 10 or so, and go with that.
How has your experience been with publishing your two books as well as shorter pieces of hybrid and micro in literary journals?
Robin Stratton at Big Table Publishing, who until recently published the Boston Literary Magazine, was the first person to accept my short fiction. When I finished my first manuscript, I sent it to her and was thrilled that she wanted to publish it. That was a great experience, so I wanted her to publish Beautiful Raft too.
A few years ago, I sent a piece to a literary magazine and received a reply from the editor. He said he really liked the work but he wasn’t sure if it was poetry, fiction or creative non-fiction. He published it as fiction, but really, he could have published it as any of those categories. That kind of “What is this?” doesn’t happen much anymore. I see more and more literary journals that ask for hybrid work; the boundaries of what makes a poem a poem, and fiction fiction are blurring.
How do you find which journals to publish your work?
Duotrope is helpful for finding venues to send your work, but there are free sources too. I find Newpages.com and Entropy.org really helpful, as well as Trishhopkinson.com and ErikaDreifus.com. A good way to find information is to join a Facebook group. I’m constantly reading and responding to the posts in the Binders’ groups. The writers there share a lot of information about literary journals, deadlines, concerns about particular publishers; it’s a great resource.
Do you have any advice for writers now navigating the fiction-publishing seas?
My advice is to just keep plugging away, which is easier said than done, especially during those lulls when you’re struggling to get anything down on paper. I try to think of the down times as part of a cycle. The struggle hurts, but it’s the only way to get to better, more fulfilling work. Also, and I can’t stress this enough, find a writer’s group with people whose work inspires you, and who support and challenge you. I have one that meets once a month. I don’t know what I would do without the writers in that group. As for publishing, try not to let rejection derail you. If you believe in a piece, it will find a home.
Tina Barry is the author of Beautiful Raft (Big Table Publishing, 2019) and Mall Flower (Big Table Publishing, 2016). Tina’s poems and fiction have appeared in numerous literary publications such as The Best Small Fictions (Top 13 stories, 2020, and 2016), Inch Magazine, Drunken Boat, Yes, Poetry, Connotation Press, The American Poetry Journal, Nasty Women Poets: An Anthology of Subversive Verse and A Constellation of Kisses. Tina holds an MFA in creative writing from Long Island University, Brooklyn (2014). She is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and has several Best of the Net nods. Tina is a teaching artist at The Poetry Barn, Gemini Ink and Writers.com.
Tina Barry’s website: TinaBarryWriter.com