“I hope you’re working on your platform,” wrote my agent last year after I sent a substantive revision of my manuscript. I had previously published three nonfiction books with small presses, but I typically spent more time following other writers on social media than promoting myself. That might not be unusual, but I did have one unique challenge: I needed to build online visibility, but I didn’t have a smartphone—a conscious decision. I wasn’t sure how to boost my social media presence without carrying a screen in my back pocket. But I was determined to try.chop! chop! read more!
The question is a familiar one, full of angst and hand-wringing, one I often asked myself but never out loud: How do you do it? How do you become a writer?
There are more questions contained in this question—Where do you get your ideas? What should I write about? Where should I start?—and all these questions lead to the ultimate question: Is there a secret to this thing that I am not privy to?
Yes and no. Yes, there are secrets. It wouldn’t be an art if there were not. But no, they are not secrets you couldn’t be privy to. It only takes knowing who to ask and learning that the person to ask is ultimately yourself.chop! chop! read more!
Almost anyone who has taken a writing class has encountered the sacrosanct dictum: Show; don’t tell. The late Wayne C. Booth, Professor Emeritus of the University of Chicago led me to question this doctrine in his influential book, The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961). I like books about rhetoric, so when I came across the book at my local Barnes and Noble, the title hooked me. Professor Booth is a warm and clear-eyed guide. And while he occasionally feels compelled to cut through thickets of scholarly debate, he always manages to keep his focus on the rhetorical devices that make fiction work.chop! chop! read more!
I hoist the case up onto my desk and struggle to release the typewriter. I don’t remember my portable typewriter in college being this cumbersome. Plug it in, feed a sheet of paper through the roller thingy, and flip the switch. Oh yeah—I’d forgotten that motor sound. Do I remember how to use this thing? I consider the keys. My fingertips find home row. Like getting on a bike again. The next thing I know I’m typing. Energy flows into my fingers. I can still do this! Even though it’s been more than thirty years. Through the serial number, Barbara confirms that this typewriter was manufactured in 1964. I was only eight years old then, trying to pick up Dad’s bowling bag. Talk about a time machine.chop! chop! read more!
Anna March and I never crossed paths, but she and Seth Fischer did. According to the Los Angeles Times, March, who apparently posed as a writing mentor, organized eleven workshops during 2016 and 2017, including one slated for Positano, Italy. Fischer signed up and bought a cheap ticket to Italy, but two days before the program’s start, March canceled it—an apparently frequent move. Fischer and some others traveled to Italy anyway, since his ticket was nonrefundable and he figured he already had a place to stay. Wrong. Says the Times, “They learned when they arrived that no rooms had been booked for the workshop at the advertised hotel.”chop! chop! read more!
“Show-don’t-tell” is fine advice—unless you apply it absolutely, as if you should always show and never tell. Here are seven ways your prose and poetry can breathe with both showing and telling.chop! chop! read more!
Slipping my reality into fiction was not overly difficult for two reasons: first, the story was taking place some years after I’d left Kabul. While I could picture the Kabul, I’d lived in, I also knew it had changed as the Taliban continued to creep up and in. Second, once I attributed a personal anecdote to a character, I found I no longer owned it. Rather, I sought ways to transform it, playing with the facts to fit the narrative. This was the case for all the characters, including the aid worker, who I fashioned after myself. In most cases, I wanted to add details that I didn’t remember to enrich the descriptions or create tension.chop! chop! read more!
There are two things I do nearly every day without fail: write and run. I like to talk and think about them together because, to me, they are twin feats of both discipline and imagination. Growing up a competitive runner, never very good compared to the other people I competed against, I learned to value the sport as a way to keep me both grounded and honest. Your body has a way of letting you know how well you’ve treated it. Or how poorly. Lining up for an ultramarathon, I view the months of training prior as a succession of drafts. Practice gives me an idea of what to expect out of a race, but I like to leave room for surprise because the body, like a poem, holds more wonder than we can grasp. One of the reasons I race these long races is less because of some feeling of accomplishment that comes with finishing, but more for the strange and wondrous moments of mental and bodily access that arrive without any warning.chop! chop! read more!
POETRY AS PRACTICE How Paying Attention Helps Us Improve Our Writing in the Age of Distraction A Craft Essay by Scott Edward Anderson In this lyrical essay on the writing life, Scott Edward Anderson shows how poetry can be more than a formal approach to writing, more than an activity of technique, but a way to approach the world, which is good for both the poet and the poem.—Grant Clauser, Editor Walking in Wissahickon Park after dropping my twins at their school in Philadelphia, I find muddy trails from the night’s heavy rains and temporary streams running along my path. The fuchsia flowers of a redbud tree shine brilliantly against the green of early leafing shrubs. A few chipmunks scurry among leaves on the forest floor. Birdsong is all around me: I note some of the birds—if they are bright enough and close enough to the trail or I recognize … chop! chop! read more!
He put his book down and looked at me over the top of his glasses. “I never said that, Billy.”
“Said what, Anton?”
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
“Oh, that. Yeah, someone turned what you actually said into a show-don’t-tell rule. On behalf of all the writers who should know better, I apologize. If they’d read your stories, they’d notice how skillfully you balanced showing and telling.”chop! chop! read more!
I recently finished a memoir manuscript about my bipolar mother and her eventual suicide.
Light, easy writing, right? When I tell strangers about my manuscript, they cock their heads in sympathy as if to say, “You poor thing. ” Some even suggest I’ve misconstrued the events in my own life. Surely your mother wasn’t really mentally ill. You must have it all wrong. Others lean in as if they are about to hear a juicy story. But the majority recoil: Mothers. Daughters. Mental illness. Who would touch such a topic?chop! chop! read more!
Compulsory diversity reads like a checklist: one character of color, one queer character, one character with a disability. Ta-da, instant diversity, just add water and stir. Predictably, this shallow formula reads pretty false. Black characters written by black authors are always going to be more real. Bookish people on twitter have been talking about this for a couple of years now and a phrase that I’ve seen pop-up a couple of times is “stay in your lane.” I love this analogy. We’re all readers and writers on the same highway. We all want to do good art that reflects the world around us. We should be aware of all the cars on the road. We shouldn’t merge just because that’s where all the traffic seems to be going: changes to our destination can be dangerous. Your writing and your perspectives are important.chop! chop! read more!
For the uninitiated, if it’s even possible there exist humans unaware of Flowers in the Attic, the series concerns a family called Dollanganger (in hindsight, perhaps a sly play on doppelganger?) who, for reasons I can’t and don’t even care to remember, end up living with the mother’s parents in a big old Gothic mansion in Virginia, where the mother agrees to lock her four children away in an attic for an unspecified stretch of time. (Spoiler alert: it turns out to be years.)chop! chop! read more!
Was there a noticeable difference in the way I structured my writing? Did I have a particularly feminine way of tapping the keys of my ancient word processor? When my very loud printer zig-zagged along could it tell the prose churning out was written by a woman? The stacks of perforated pages, waiting to be carefully separated and submitted, did they have the indelible pinkish watermark of ‘girl’ stamped upon them?chop! chop! read more!
The superhero is a staple of pop culture, but poets can use elements of superhero identity to craft poems and explore their own mythology. Lynn Levin offers a writing prompt designed to allow poets to reach beyond the real in search of other truths.chop! chop! read more!
Anyone who has written and submitted anything—poems, stories, essays, books—knows that immediate acceptance is extremely rare. When that happens, we celebrate and try not to let it spoil us. Much more often, we receive negative feedback in the form of outright rejection, advice, and/or an invitation to revise and resubmit (an option much more common in the academic world than in the poetry and fiction publishing scene).chop! chop! read more!
The blackout was a revelation. It happened at around eight PM, in Trinidad, Cuba, on one of those moonless tropical nights that fall so suddenly you barely notice the dusk. This was several years ago—before the loosening of travel regulations that occurred under President Obama—and the number of American tourists remained small. In common with many others who’ve dedicated their lives to the dream of producing enduring literature, I’ve had to make my living by other means. I was a Spanish major in college, and through a series of happy accidents I ended up developing a parallel career as an educational travel guide with specific expertise in Cuba. Before the resumption of diplomatic relations, organized cultural travel programs provided a highly sought after legal method for Americans to travel to the country, and my knowledge base was much in demand. At the time of the occurrence described in this essay, I was traveling to the country with cultural tourism groups at least half a dozen times a year.chop! chop! read more!
Pacing in poetry can be used as a focusing technique. Both fast and slow pace equally have the ability to draw in a reader’s focus in slightly different, but complementary, ways. A sudden shift into high gear can raise our excitement or anxiety, while hitting the slow motion button compels us to look with greater scrutiny and concentration. Either way, pace is a kind of volume adjustment–by turning the volume of the poem up or down you force a shift of attention upon the reader.chop! chop! read more!
When I finally picked my novel up again, there were sections I didn’t even recognize as having written. It was the passage of time which showed me that I had a bigger problem with how the novel was built, and it was time that helped take me through a final revision that ultimately led to the manuscript getting placed. Being away from, and then returning to, a dormant work helped me come to three important realizations…chop! chop! read more!
Pat answers are the comfort of some other disciplines. We who write and teach creative nonfiction don’t get that luxury. Ours is more like: philosophy, but with consequences. No one’s life is riding, as far as they know, on math, yet in writing classrooms and around workshop tables students may approach us like hotline workers, hands out for the right word, the final word, the bottom line, the prophecy, the truth of their life stories, and thus, their lives.chop! chop! read more!
Playing in my Dollhouse has been important to my writing. The scenes, photos and videos I make match the imagery of the color Polaroid photographs of the 60s. I have a deep affinity for the babies, in particular. Staging a scene mimics the feeling of writing the first draft of an essay, achieving a mythic freedom on the page where my voice is alive and unconcerned with self-editing. I remember playing this way as a child, immersed in my fantasy world, and utterly happy. Children are metaphor makers and their language is play.chop! chop! read more!
Writing poetry has also reminded me once again to pay attention to the rhythm of language. Rhythm is central in poetry, but I often overlook it when writing nonfiction. When we read anything, there’s a hidden music to it. We hear the words, as well as the relationship between the words, the stressed and unstressed syllables, the complex intertwining of word and phrase and sentence. Listening to rhythm is understood and expected in poetry, but I’m now more conscious that it’s just as important in nonfiction. I’ve been thinking much more about rhythm and flow. I’ve started reading my nonfiction aloud, as I do with my poetry. Since I’m a musician, I’ve always at least unconsciously understood the relationship between writing and melodic line and rhythm. Writing poetry, however, has reminded me of that relationship, made me sit up and take notice. And in recent months, my nonfiction, such as my short essay “Cut,” has become more rhythmic and musical.chop! chop! read more!
I live in Provincetown but I’m from West Virginia. I’ve been thinking of the simultaneous provocation and balm that literature, like art, can have on moments of social and economic crisis. In Provincetown, year-round residents are disappearing as more and more houses are bought as second homes, thoroughly and exquisitely renovated, and then occupied in the summer only. In my hometown, Madison, West Virginia, streets have emptied out as an economy built on coal mining weakens, in part due to worries that burning fossil fuels overheats the planet. I want to paste a poem on the front of the beat-up house down the street from me in Provincetown where, in the last few months, shade trees have been cut and an architect’s sign has been planted out front. Here’s the possible poem…chop! chop! read more!
As a writer I’m forever reverse engineering great stories. That tendency to reverse engineer initially sparked might interest in first lines. First lines, like titles, are often given short shrift. Good lines, like good titles, have a way of becoming wallflowers.chop! chop! read more!
Soon after I moved from Denver to Loveland, Colorado—a town of close to sixty-five thousand people and an odd mixture of artists, retirees, and hicks—I agreed to hold a series of one-on-one creative writing workshops for a twelve-year-old girl. Once I set everything into place, her mother phoned and explained that she wanted me to give her daughter feedback on her writing, yet above all, she wanted me to discourage her from becoming a writer. She wanted me to verbally agree to this proposal, this instruction to put an end to her daughter’s dream. I somewhat addressed the mother’s request—I told her that the writing industry is quite competitive and can be challenging to break into and that I could explain this to her daughter.chop! chop! read more!
50,000 words in November. That’s 1,667 words a day. Typing at a good clip, that’s 21 minutes of work for me. But is National Novel Writing Month really about writing? For me, it’s about climbing a mountain. It has less to do with writing than with the sense of accomplishment that goads me as a writer. And I’m not alone: last year, 431,626 writers worldwide cranked out a couple of billion words.chop! chop! read more!
I began as a fiction writer, naturally drawing from my childhood as my mother had told it to me, working hard to bring her stories to life through scene, dialogue, and sensory detail, pacing them as mysteries. The memoir that many of these fictionalized stories eventually became is better, I think, because I didn’t start out writing memoir, trying to “remember.”chop! chop! read more!
There are two kinds of important reader: the one who hates you, and the one who understands you.
When I write, I come to the page knowing that someone will probably hate what I produce. In fact, I count on this. As I work, I read each sentence as though I am my own worst enemy. Zadie Smith says to “try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.” That means that every adorable turn of phrase—everything that I thought was so smart—gets bullied out of the final copy.chop! chop! read more!
Here’s my greatest fear: that I will never be able to name the essential emotions I perceive in myself and others. Our shifting tide and all its smells and sweat and words and secret hidden codes and eyelashes and old letters and emotional ephemera that moves across the surface of the human world like that gyre of discarded belongings and trash that is so large it could cover Texas and is comprised of plastic, the things made of plastic that surround us our whole lives, including baby pacifiers and Barbie dolls and old soccer balls and parts of cars and rubber duckies and condoms and tiny things collected by the swale of the sea the way we will accumulate a hundred precious objects and love them as though they were anything but trash, our collection of special garbage with our memories attached, our stories which burrow deeply into our minds and tell us that there is more to this than plastic, more to this, more.chop! chop! read more!
I. Towards a New Empathy
A couple of years ago, Leslie Jamison and Francine Prose debated in The New York Times about whether or not it’s ethical to use your children as literary fodder. They discussed the demerits of transforming real life into words on a page in a pair of pieces titled “Is It O.K. to Mine Real Relationships for Literary Material,” and the conclusion seems to be this: that real people get stuck on the page, often one-dimensionally, trapped like mosquitoes in amber.
I know a few real people I’d love to trap. For all of its hardships, writing’s appealing in no small part because it allows one to pin down an idea like a butterfly in a shadowbox, to memorialize whatever or whoever you find worth remembering, in whatever state you might remember them. That prick you knew it high school gets his comeuppance, even if it’s only to an audience of several Facebook friends or readers of a literary magazine.
Tempting as it is to play God (albeit a fairly unimportant one, bound to the MLA Handbook), it was memoirist and poet Mary Karr who instilled in me an appropriate fear and reverence. In a piece for The Fix, she said, “Everybody I ever wrote about, including David [Foster Wallace], I talked with in advance and said, ‘This is what I wanna do.’… I wasn’t going to use his name, then after he died, I’d talked to him before he did it and included him enough that I was gonna give him a pseudonym—which he said he didn’t care about…” I puzzled over this in the back office of the bookstore where I was supposed to be doing other things. What do we owe the subjects of our work, especially those without masks? I’d always found Mary Karr brave for the way she broached her subjects, receiving the permission of her wild and alcoholic mother (with whom she’s reestablished a relationship).chop! chop! read more!
THE EMPATHY MACHINE, Part Two
by Kelly McQuain
Tweet No Evil
In an effort to get my head around what I consider the purpose of art-making, I attended three writing conferences during summer 2015. The first was at U.C. Berkeley and was supposed to commemorate the influential 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference fifty years prior, inspired by a student Free Speech Movement earlier that year. But poet Vanessa Place’s inclusion on the bill caused the commemoration to implode.
Place, whose current project uses Twitter to disseminate instances of the “n-word” from Gone With the Wind, has been the subject of controversy before. Place’s name on the Berkeley schedule caused many invitees to drop out in protest. The organizers canceled the conference and replaced it at the last minute with Crosstalk, Color, Composition: A Berkeley Poetry Conference.
I made it from Philadelphia in time to attend the last day. There was a lot of talk about colonization theory, and at the end of the day people sat in circles discussing race and their feelings in ways that were careful not to offend. I learned that the organizers kept notice about “conference 2.0” largely on the down-low out of fear of protests. Ironic, I thought: How do you create a platform for change when safety concerns the conversation to members of the Berkeley phone tree?
What I know of Place comes from her controversies and the strange fact on the Internet she likes to pose for pictures in Salvador Dali drag with pineapples. Like Goldsmith, Place has become another poster child in the debate over who is allowed to say what.
Cathy Young, writing for The Washington Post about the dangers of appropriation, recently observed, “When we attack people for stepping outside their own cultural experiences, we hinder our ability to develop empathy and cross-cultural understanding.” I agree in principle, but I don’t think it applies to Vanessa Place or Kenneth Goldsmith.chop! chop! read more!
by Nathaniel Popkin
In early 1951, when the Mexican writer Homero Aridjis was almost eleven, he came home from playing soccer with friends and, following a vague urge, took his brother’s shotgun to the yard. He shot into the air, scattered the birds aloft from the sapodilla tree, and dropped the shotgun to the ground. The gun fired and struck Aridjis in the stomach. He barely survived. The accident, writes Chloe Aridjis, his daughter, “cleaved in two” his life and sealed off his early childhood “like a locked garden.” In the aftermath of the accident, Homero Aridjis began reading and writing in earnest, the crucible of an astonishingly prolific career, but without access to memories of his own boyhood.
Twenty years after the gun accident, with his wife, Betty Ferber, pregnant with Chloe, the couple’s first child, Aridjis began to have “astonishingly vivid dreams” of his childhood. These dreams unlocked the garden of memory. He eventually recounted them in a slender memoir of childhood, El poeta niño, published in 1991. Now, Chloe Aridjis, the author of the novel Book of Clouds, has produced an English translation, The Child Poet, brought out by Archipelago Books this month.
I am particularly hungry for this book because my own childhood is locked away, and my writing suffers for it. It isn’t clear why—there is nothing so acute as a gun accident in my history.
My mother, like Aridjis nearing 76, is the keeper of the garden. She calls me with “sad news.” Stephen, a friend from when I was six, has died. “You remember playing with him, don’t you?” she says. I shrug, not because I’m callous, but because I can only conjure a vague image of a yard, a dark kitchen. Nothing about the boy. Another time she says she’s run into my third grade teacher, Mrs. So-and-So. “She was the one who got you interested in books.” Oh?chop! chop! read more!
THE MAN ON THE COUCH AND THE MAN WHO SPEAKS POEMS by J.G. McClure I pay a therapist an hourly rate to listen to my feelings. I pay literary journals reading fees to read about my feelings. My therapist says she’s struck by two parallel versions of me: the Man on the Couch who seems pathologically unable to feel, and the Man Who Speaks the Poems who feels all too deeply. She wonders which is real, or are they both? One of me finds a parallel in art to go with this question from life. In his classic short piece “Borges and I,” Jorge Luis Borges talks about two versions of himself, whom I’ll call Borges the Famous Author (who wins awards and has deep thoughts) and Borges the Guy Drinking Coffee (who reads with befuddlement about the exploits of Borges the Famous Author). Borges the Guy Drinking Coffee enjoys … chop! chop! read more!
WHY I WRITE
Or, It’s The End of the World as We Know It and I Feel (Sorta) Fine
by J.G. McClure
I remember as a kid going to a science museum somewhere in Missouri. They had an exhibit—basically a rickety computer with MS Paint hooked up to a radio transmitter. The idea was this: you’d draw a picture, the transmitter would transmit it upward, and voila, your masterpiece would travel out among the stars, waiting for distant life-forms to receive it. Whether this actually happened or whether it’s merely a cocktail of youthful misunderstanding and nostalgia is beside the point. I remember it, and I remember the conviction that aliens would discover my rudimentary stick figure family and feel a pang of pathos for life on our little rock.
This was a great deal of pressure. If the drawing was bad, what would that say about our society? The aliens who found my little sketch—the lines rough, the colors off—might decide not to visit us after all. Or worse, they might rain fiery death down on us all for my grave sins against representational art. (My sketches were not good. If that turns out to be what dooms our world, I apologize.)
A recent piece in Esquire, entitled “When the End of Civilization Is Your Day Job, or, Ballad of the Sad Climatologists,” explores the “pre-traumatic stress” experienced by climate researchers: the prevailing sense of apocalypse among the folks who know apocalypse best. The story describes “the gradual shift from hope of prevention to plans for adaptation” to an Earth so unrecognizable that we shouldn’t even call it Earth anymore. (One writer proposes “Eaarth”). Even the “optimists” of the story speak of glacial melt, rising sea levels, and the obliteration of coastal cities worldwide as a foregone conclusion. As one researcher puts it, “We’re fucked.” Some of the less-hopeful scientists have moved into the woods (as far inland as possible) and set up off-grid cabins to wait out the end of days.chop! chop! read more!
IN PRAISE OF MISTRANSLATIONS
On Conversational Translation
by J.G. McClure
We all know Freud talked about the ego and the id. Except he didn’t. What he actually talked about was Das Ich und Das Er, which is to say, “The I and the It.” The words “mean” the same thing, except they don’t. When we translate Freud, we use the Latin pronouns for “I” and “It,” whereas Freud used the regular, everyday pronouns of his German.
It’s the same meaning, sort of, but the Latin “id” is outside our ordinary speech, and so it lacks the disturbingly uncanny mix of familiarity and otherness that “the It” conveys. “The id is made up of our primal desires—inaccessible and constantly influencing our actions, while the ego struggles to keep up.” “The It is made up of our primal desires—inaccessible and constantly influencing our actions, while the I struggles to keep up.” Hear the difference?
I love translating poetry. I’ve done many translations. But it’s my suspicion that translation is fundamentally impossible. As Cervantes said: reading even the best translation is like looking at a Persian rug from behind.chop! chop! read more!
THANK YOU, JUDGE JUDY
by Jen Karetnick
I’m a poet and fiction writer by vocation and a journalist by trade. The first two I learned in school, ultimately ending with two MFA degrees, one in each genre. Journalism I was taught on the job, trained by several editors. But seven years ago, when the economy crashed and the future of print journalism was a serious concern, I took a job in a charter school for the arts, charged with creating and teaching a program for grades 6-12 that included poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction.
For poetry and fiction, I had few worries, but for personal essays and memoir, I had to expand my repertoire. That’s when I began to watch the television show Judge Judy, and found that everything I needed to know about writing and teaching creative non-fiction was an oft-repeated truism that came directly from the Honorable Judith Sheindlin’s lips.
I didn’t come to this conclusion right away. At first, I started to watch the show because it was on when I got home from school. I was so exhausted from my unexpected new career path that I immediately took to my bed, unable to do anything else but gaze in stupefaction at the television.
I settled on Judge Judy because she belittled her litigants so much more than I yelled at my students that she made me feel better. Plus, those who appeared before her were so ill-equipped to deal with the world that it gave me hope for those who came to my classroom each day, even the ones who clearly would never become writers. Or ones who asked me what country we lived in when I taught them how to write self-addressed stamped envelopes. Or who thought they could only use apps like email or Dropbox from their own computers because their parents had set it up for them to open automatically.chop! chop! read more!
CROSSING BORDERS IN FICTION
by Ellen Meeropol
The main character in my second novel, On Hurricane Island, is a lesbian. I’m straight. There are also an African-American attorney and a cross-dressing F.B.I. agent in that book, and I’m neither of those. So what right do I have to burrow under these characters’ skin, see the world through their eyes, and write their voices?
It’s an important question and one that has been frequently argued, especially when a white author writes from the perspective of a person of color. Think about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People, and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. Over the decades, fiction writers have been roundly criticized for appropriating the voices of marginalized groups.
More recently, writers have also been criticized for not writing characters who represent our diverse world.
The opportunity to explore “other” voices – to live lives and tell stories that are not our own personal experience – is, I think, one of the main reasons why many of us write. I want to know how it feels to be a lesbian kidnapped by misogynist national security officers, and what it’s like to be a cross-dressing F.B.I. agent. I trust the combination of research and imagination to take me there.chop! chop! read more!
CONFESSIONS OF A FICTION EDITOR
by George Dila
I am the fiction editor of a respectable independent ink-and-paper quarterly literary journal. We publish short fiction of up to 1500 words. I see every piece of prose submitted to the journal. The editor-in-chief has given me sole discretion to accept or reject any piece submitted.
Here are my confessions.
Confession #1: I reject nearly everything. Most work I see should never have been submitted in the first place. It is embarrassingly amateurish. It makes me wonder whether these submitters have even a modicum of critical judgment of their own work. Frankly, I would have rejected much of what I see published in other journals, too.
To the dismay of my editor-in-chief, who probably thinks my standards are too high, some issues of our journal have run with no fiction at all. Other issues have included work that I should have rejected. I accepted them because they were, at least, competently written, and the boss was getting antsy. A few issues have included some real gems of short fiction, and of those I am most proud.
Confession #2: I make up my mind fast. I read few submissions beyond the first paragraph, some not even beyond the first sentence. For some submissions I know my answer by the time I’ve read the title—still, I always read at least the first sentence or two. From that, I can tell if a writer knows what they heck they’re doing, and if it will be worthwhile reading further.
Some writers may find this admission dismaying, even shocking, even arrogant. How do I know the story doesn’t really take off in the second paragraph, they might ask. How do I know there isn’t some deathless prose within those pages that I will never see because I stopped reading too soon? Who in the hell do I think I am, anyway? Well, I’m the fiction editor, and trust me, I know.
I accept most of the stories I actually read through to the end.chop! chop! read more!
LEAVING APPALACHIA: Overlap in Poetic Landscapes
by Julia Paganelli
In August, I stuffed my summer dresses and cooking implements into a Toyota and trekked eighteen hours from Appalachia to the Ozarks. I’ve been tallying the difference between the mountain ranges.
Appalachia is older than the Ozarks—cliffs softer. More oil painting than chiseled sculpture.
I’ve been reading up on architecture. In the book Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture, Rowan Moore writes, “Where things get interesting is when desire and built space change each other, when animate and inanimate interplay” (19). Of course, Moore is referring to the architect her structures, but I’ve approached these theories otherwise. I’ve approached as poet to landscape.
Moore states, “Architecture is experienced as background or not at all” (91). An architect fails when she creates a place that cannot be added to by he who lives there. Landscape is meant to be lived into, as are poems.chop! chop! read more!
THE POET’S “I”: DISTANCE THROUGH FIRST-PERSON
by Katie Rensch
In a recent conversation with a group of mixed-genre writers, it came to my attention that we were all writing in the first-person, well, more or less. In fiction, we call the first-person the “main character”, in poetry we say the “speaker” of the poem, and in nonfiction it’s the writer’s name because the “I” must, by definition, be the person writing. We might just call these labels for the first-person simply labels. Character, speaker, writer –is there really any difference? I would like to think the “I,” that one small, vertical line, one letter, was so simple.
Because voice is a basic element of craft we are encouraged to think no true distinction exists between genres. As writers we enjoy the simple rules of voice because it gives us boundaries. We have three choices: first-, second-, or third-person. In my own reading and writing of poetry, though, I have noticed a great capacity for the use of the first-person voice, and I’ve come to understand it as a gesture, one that is possible in all three modes of voice.
Lately I’m drawn to Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971) and the way the first-person voice draws distance between the speaker’s voice and the body, the natural world, and place. In her often matter-of-fact voice, Bishop navigates the geography of our human landscape. In these poems, I find a skilled craftsman who uses the first-person in nearly all her poems –even ones that on the surface seem to be in second- or third-person. These poems expose the ability of the “I” to create both intimacy and distance.chop! chop! read more!
by Nathaniel Popkin
Two men, one aged 61, the other 65, each born in late January, each a father in grief. The first is the Israeli writer David Grossman, whose son Uri was killed in the brief 2006 Israeli war in Lebanon. The other is the American poet Edward Hirsch, whose son Gabriel died of a drug overdose in 2011. On a bookshelf these men and their books may stand together, G then H, Grossman then Hirsch, David then Edward. They are joined too by the instinct to drill into unfathomable sorrow. In 2008, Grossman produced a startling work of preemptive mourning, a novel published in Jessica Cohen’s English translation in 2010 as To The End of the Land and last summer the ecstatic lamentation Falling Out of Time (also translated by Cohen), both brought out in U.S. by Knopf. Hirsch reviewed Falling Out of Time in the New York Times Book Review shortly before Knopf published his piercing seventy-eight page elegy, Gabriel.chop! chop! read more!
TRAPPED IN THE ALPHABET
by Niels Hav
When Barack Obama was inaugurated as president in USA, the poet Elizabeth Alexander was reading at the ceremony. The poet may take on a similar role in different cultures. But in everyday life, and most of the time, the poet is an outsider. A lonely bandit in the desert. That’s how it is in Europe, and so it is in the rest of the world.
We writers are soloists. We celebrate the same virtues as the Bedouins: perseverance and generosity. Some poets among our best colleagues know about hunger and thirst, heroic poverty and longing. There are other values than the material, and retaining this knowledge is one of poetry’s tasks.chop! chop! read more!
CROSSING THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE: ARCHER, BOB’S BURGERS, AND CONTEMPORARY POETRY by J.G. McClure 1. The emotional landscape of the reader determines the work that can reach her. Imagine the interior world as a sea: the boat-poem can move ahead, but the truck-poem can’t. Conversely, if the interior world is a field… 2. Over the holidays, I’ve been binge-watching Netflix, especially two animated comedies starring H. Jon Benjamin, Archer and Bob’s Burgers. The same deadpan voice comes from two vastly different characters. Sterling Archer is a James Bond parody working at an inept spy agency. He’s wildly narcissistic, a barely-functioning alcoholic, a womanizing braggart whose skill as a secret agent is—as he constantly reminds everyone around him—nonetheless legendary. He is, above all, a terrible person. For example, we often find him planning to inflict bizarre punishments on his servant Woodhouse—the man who raised him in his mother’s absence—for minor failings. (“[Woodhouse] … chop! chop! read more!
RETHINKING THE SHITTY FIRST DRAFT
by George Dila
I do not write shitty first drafts.
In fact, that phrase, inspired by Ernest Hemingway, popularized by Anne Lamott, offends me slightly—both the idea of thinking of my own work this way, and also that word itself, shitty, to my ear an ugly and repellent adjective.
What does the phrase mean, though?
To quote the wonderful Miss Lamott, from her book-that-everyone-has-read, Bird by Bird, “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”chop! chop! read more!
THAT DEXTEROUS MARGIN
by Michael McFee
A poem is a visual as well as a verbal object.
Its language is primary, obviously, the sounds the words make, and the effects those sounds have on the reader, phoneme by phoneme and as a whole aural object. But the shape the poem makes on the page is crucial as well.
I spent my first two years of college in design school at a technological research university. It was not a very verbal place or time for me. I logged many hours in studios, drawing and drafting and working on various design projects. I was learning to observe closely and to present what I saw in clear yet imaginative ways.
That visual urge abides in me. My imagination is most often triggered by something I see and try to convert into lines. And once those lines start to become a poem, I can’t stop thinking about the way it looks: my favorite medium in design school was pen and ink, and I want the poem to be perfect down to the very last crosshatch.chop! chop! read more!
The Art of Despair
by Allison Seay
I. Out of the Depths
Perhaps it is a weakness to rely only on my own poetic experiences or sensibilities as a way to talk about craft or as a way to teach. In writing this, I thought of all kinds of things I could write about, things I have discovered about form and experiment and figuring out what it means to write from a Real Place. To be self-referential is sometimes not interesting or helpful to another’s plight in art or otherwise, even if we intend it. I can only say how it has been for me. I can only say the truth as best as I know it and hope that you find some seed of truth you might use for your own work, or find some luminosity that might illumine your poems in a new way.chop! chop! read more!
TO STAY OR TO GO INTO EXILE: Milosz and Szymborska by Niels Hav translated by Heather Spears This year Patrick Modiano received the Nobel Prize for Literature and, as often before, it was a complete surprise when the secretary of the Swedish Academy opened the door and released the name to the press. Every year this event is a celebration, and the joyous news spreads round the world with the speed of light. I was in Warsaw the year Tomas Tranströmer was awarded the Nobel Prize. Sitting in the mild October sunshine in front of the Literature-House with a group of poets from many countries. It was a few minutes past one, and Transrömer’s name passed cheerfully from table to table. Wislawa Szymborska, Nobel prizewinner from Poland, was asked by a journalist, “What did you think when you heard that Transrömer won the Nobel Prize? “I was so pleased,” she … chop! chop! read more!
IN A SPRAY OF SPARKS:
Emotion, Sincerity, and the “Skittery Poem of Our Moment”
by J.G. McClure
Pick up any fashionable poetry journal and you’re likely to see an example of what Tony Hoagland has called the “Skittery Poem of Our Moment.” Such a poem does not simply lack coherence; it actively resists it….
The characteristics are familiar: leaping from thought to thought, sharply-written-but-largely-nonsensical phrases, quirky humor, an assertive-yet-evasive voice, and so on. We move from talk to skin to cities to tubas to friends, never afforded the chance to stop and consider any one element. The mode is so widespread as to be instantly recognizable: it is what many readers likely think of immediately upon hearing the phrase contemporary poetry….chop! chop! read more!
SAY IT AGAIN, BUT BETTER:
Resistance and Revision
by Devi S. Laskar
Writers get writers’ block. Happens to everyone at one point or another. It happens to some writers every solstice, every month, every fortnight. I struggle every day.
Thanks to a recommendation from an old friend, I’ve been reading Steven Pressfield’s really great book, The War of Art, which talks about resistance and how we as writers get sucked in to the war of Doing Anything But the Writing That is Most Important to Us.
Resistance, as Pressfield calls it, comes in many forms, including but not limited to: fear, self-doubt, self-dramatization, victimhood, isolation and general unhappiness.chop! chop! read more!
THE MISEDUCATION OF THE POET:
High School and the Fear of Poetry
by J.G. McClure
When I was an undergraduate taking one of my first poetry workshops, my poet-professor joked that “high school is where poetry goes to die.” I chuckled, thinking he was simply making fun of the melodramatic effusions of teenage writers.
I’ve since come to realize that what he was getting at is a much more systemic problem: that the way we’re taught about poetry in high school (the last time that many people will likely ever read a poem) bleeds the living energy from poetry and teaches students that the art is nothing but the dusty stuff of a museum of antiquities.
I’ve since come to realize that what he was getting at is a much more systemic problem: that the way we’re taught about poetry in high school (the last time that many people will likely ever read a poem) bleeds the living energy from poetry and teaches students that the art is nothing but the dusty stuff of a museum of antiquities.chop! chop! read more!