Side A: “OUR SPERM COUNT IS DOWN!,” a collaborative work by Vi Khi Nao & Jessica Alexander


We watched a magic-heist last night. It was like J.K. Rowling wrote an episode of Law & Order & David Mamet directed it. We thought the magicians were one step ahead of the law but the law was the greatest magician of all. We agreed the female lead was too pretty for haggard old Mark Ruffalo, who miraculously became more beautiful after shedding his false-cop persona and pulling a magical Mark Ruffalo out of his own hat. In the morning, we woke and showered together and you left your muffin in the refrigerator.

I did not leave the muffin in the refrigerator. There were two left: one for you and one for me.

In the Chancellor Hall, a reception was held. I arrived 20 minutes late & everyone asked where I got my PhD. I was ashamed to say I had only a terminal illness in fine arts. They wore wedding bands. They talked of their husbands and wives like poison ivy something everyone must experience at least once in their lifetime. I wanted you here with me. I wanted to know what you’d think of the Chilean wine I drank from a plastic cup. And, what you’d think of the anthropologist from Puerto Rico, who said neanderthals fucked a lot and thus we inherited some of their characteristics. For instance, because we fucked a lot with them, we have a higher tolerance for plant based toxins. We also have a high tolerance for nicotine. From him, this anthropologist dressed in a light blue suit, I learned that our plant based tolerance is diminishing. We have more allergies, our sperm count is down (especially mine), and our imaginary narrative is endless, infinite. I wonder if you’d find him handsome. I learned all this when we stepped onto the outdoor terrace & took off our masks. I came back and I sat down. I wanted two plates, one for you and one to cover it. But the overly attentive waiter said, “Woman, you have two plates.” I couldn’t make him understand. So, I gave one plate back, but was able to get you the reception food I was allergic to: mainly food capable of sitting in the latent air too long.

I like when the car rolls over the peak to Boulder & the mountains spread open like two opaque curtains and the highway ushers me into the immensity of sky & valley & I park the car & wait & when I look up there you are! at the hood of my car, with a heavy wool sweater & two paper plates.

Mini-interview with Vi Khi Nao & Jessica Alexander

HFR: Can you share a moment that has shaped you as collaborators (or continues to)?

VKN: It was early in March—Jess and I had been corresponding over email. I had sent Jess some dried mangos and she had torn a few pages from Restless Rake and mailed them to my Iowa address in her clean, neat, all caps handwriting. I thought: who is this woman? Who is so willing to capitalize everything she writes, placing so much emphasis on the casual stylization of her penmanship? And, then I knew—she and I would be ambushing each other’s inboxes with the foreign, familiar voices of our emotional, erotic shifting existences.

JA: Vi’s penmanship was calligraphic. The envelope and contents looked like an Eisenloir canvas. We wrote letters and emails and zoomed. We met in Houston with Ali Raz and saw Twombly. Eventually, we drove to Denver, where we found an arcade with free skee-ball, Pac-Man (not free), and motorized scooters (also not free). Since then we have been eating mangos, shrimp, and gluten free pizza. These are moments on fast forward, but I do think they inform our collaboration.

HFR: What are you reading?

JA: I pick Vi up from Boulder on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and on the car ride there, I listen to Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents. On the car ride home, Vi reads me a Milton study guide she found outside her office. I learned from this that Milton and his young wife were incompatible. She left him to live at her parents house. I suspect that’s why Milton was so vocal about the imperative to procreate—I mean, he was really, really insisting that god ordained a superabundance of sex between husbands and wives. I think he wrote a lot of tracts about that when his wife went home (to get away from him). I think she died—in childbirth!—shortly after returning to Milton. She died and left him with maybe 10 babies. There’s a chance I’m wrong about the finer details. Often I’m busy not missing our exit. Recently, Vi found a very short introduction to Marx. What have we learned about Marx, Vi?

I’m also reading Tiny Nightmares: Very Short Tales of Horror edited by Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto, a draft of Ray Levy’s novel School, and lots of dissertations!

VKN: Marx, Jess, looks like Elvis Presley in 1836 (at age 18). He likes using Fredrich Engels as his sugar mama and when he is older and less impoverished, he chills out at spas. Do you like the portraits of Milton on Google, Jess? I am reading my soon-to-be published manuscripts for editing purposes. I am also reading a lot of short stories, stories I assigned to my Fiction undergraduate students—books written by Lily Hoang & Ismail Kadare; stories by Daisuke Shen and Paige Cooper. 

HFR: Can you tell us what prompted “OUR SPERM COUNT IS DOWN!”?

VKN: I had attended a casual demitasse, a welcoming formal event hosted by the English department, so that those who were hired during COVID could get to know the faces of the new faculty from both the Science and English departments. I met a man there who told me that “our sperm count is down.”

JA: Yes, Vi, I do like the portraits of Milton. None of them look alike. I like him looking virginal with coral lips, but my favorite is the lithograph: “Young Marx at a Drinking Club,” which looks like a Bosch painting. I think Milton is there. Do you have a favorite portrait, Vi?

Also, we’ve been watching Heist films. We watched Now You See Me the night before writing, “OUR SPERM COUNT IS DOWN!”

HFR: What’s next? Are you working on another collaboration?

VKN: Of whom? Milton? Or of someone else? If it’s Milton—it would be the portrait of him looking like a baguette that has been chopped off by its elbow with Milton’s eyes, sumptuous lips, and nose attached at the center. Here, Milton looks effeminate and yeast friendly. Yes, I am (with Jess) co-writing a funky, hemoglobin friendly, scatologically jocular literary project with Ali Raz (a trio-endeavor) and working on a large poetry manuscript with Sarah Burgoyne.

JA: Yes, we’re working with Ali Raz on a wild trio-romance between a demon named O, a Countess, and Lady Elizabeth of Morehead! I’m working, a little, on a detective novel. Soon, I think, Katie Jean Shinkle and I will need to edit our forthcoming novella, None of This Is an Invitation.

HFR: Take the floor. Be political. Be fanatical. Be anything. What do you want to share?

VKN: This is so awesome:

JA: So is this: and $5 masks:

Vi Khi Nao is the author of six poetry collections: Fish Carcass (Black Sun Lit, 2022), A Bell Curve Is A Pregnant Straight Line (11:11 Press, 2021), Human Tetris (11:11 Press, 2019) Sheep Machine (Black Sun Lit, 2018), Umbilical Hospital (Press 1913, 2017), The Old Philosopher (winner of the Nightboat Prize for 2014), the short stories collection, A Brief Alphabet of Torture (winner of the 2016 FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize), and the novel, Fish in Exile (Coffee House Press, 2016). Her work includes poetry, fiction, film, and cross-genre collaboration. She was the Fall 2019 fellow at the Black Mountain Institute:

Jessica Alexander’s novella, None of This Is an Invitation (co-written with Katie Jean Shinkle), is forthcoming from Astrophil Press. Her story collection, Dear Enemy, was the winning manuscript in the 2016 Subito Prose Contest, as judged by Selah Saterstrom. Her fiction has been published in journals such as Fence, Black Warrior Review, PANK, Denver Quarterly, The Collagist, and DIAGRAM. She lives in Louisiana where she teaches creative writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

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