Why We Like It: “Bedside” by Andrea Cohen

December 11th, 2014

Poet, first-year PhD student, and rock-star volunteer Matthew Pennock harbors some idiosyncratic aversions: proems that overuse anaphora, hoppy beers, zombie films that try too hard to make a point. In the office last week, as Matt entered copyedits into WordPerfect, we caught him gazing longingly at a stack of unopened boxes of back issues. When we asked what was wrong, Matt sighed: “Why can’t poetry be as creepy as Toddlers & Tiaras?” Read on to discover why Matt admires Andrea Cohen’s brief but affecting lyric “Bedside” (11.1), a poem, Matt says, that keeps him thirsting for more.

Matthew Pennock: Economy of language—that’s the name of the game in poetry. Who needs all those words, anyway? That stuff’s for dead Russian novelists, and magazines in dental-office waiting rooms. Give me a six-line poem any day. Give me a dense little word star radiating from the page. Andrea Cohen only needs twenty-five words in her poem “Bedside” to accomplish what Tolstoy might’ve taken twenty-five pages to do.

Cohen’s poem revolves around the central metaphor of water. Water is life, youth, and love, and when we lack these things we wither; we dry out. The lasting effect is a piece fraught with angst and disbelief: fear that current loneliness will become permanent; fear that age has taken its toll, and that the speaker is long since passed her prime—all of it hinging on a central image, “When did the tumbler // of water, bedside, fill / with dust?” A palpable experience for anyone who has awoken to a dry mouth and reached for last night’s water glass—the taste of one night’s dust altering the flavor of the water. I know that taste. I know that fear. Cohen’s poem makes me experience it all over again.

What We’re Reading: Campus Satires

December 9th, 2014

Don Peteroy: Come mid-February, I will stand before three examiners and, hopefully, demonstrate that the University of Cincinnati’s English department didn’t make a grave mistake when they accepted me for PhD candidacy. My areas of study are Skepticism on the Early Modern Stage and Comic Fiction. Since May, I have been trudging through my reading lists. One of the modules in my Comic Fiction area involves campus satires. I hadn’t chosen this deliberately; after about a month of reading I’d noticed an unequal proportion of humorous novels that take place at colleges and universities. At first glance, one might be hesitant to read campus satires insofar as the genre might presuppose specialized knowledge of institutional practices and utilize professional discourses that, to anyone outside of academia, would sound like gibberish. The four novels (of about ten campus satires) I’d like to mention—Moo by Jane Smiley, Straight Man by Richard Russo, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, and Blue Angel by Francine Prose—are wholly inviting to readers, even those who have not experienced nonsensical departmental meetings, tenure committees, the constant threat of funding cuts, interdepartmental rivalries, academic infidelities, and, of course, irate students. While these four novels contextualize their narratives within the university system, academia is simply the satirical medium though which we gain access to—I hate to use this phrase—universal human folly. In other words, the pressures inherent to these institutions bring out in the characters shortcomings that anyone can relate to.

Each novel uses humor differently, though they all gesture toward tragedy. Unlike novels by Christopher Moore, Douglas Adams, and Carl Hiaasen—where the comic elements are the consistent, primary focus—the particular novels I’ve chosen either begin funny and evolve into tragedy (though some portray the inverse), or they’re primarily tragic with moments of comic relief. The common question raised in campus satires concerns the extent of individual autonomy: Do institutions necessitate “bad behavior,” and how difficult is it to free oneself from the institutional script? The humor in these novels lies precisely in individuals’ efforts to stand apart from the inevitable rivalries, conflicts, infidelities, gossip, and backstabbing.

Amis’s Lucky Jim follows James Dixon’s catastrophic trajectory during what might end up being his final year as a lecturer of Medieval History. Naturally, he wants reappointment, but his immaturity—often manifested in his resistance to institutional etiquette—gets in the way. He’s a master of self-sabotage—an alcoholic and a compulsive prankster—and he manages to conflate the disasters of his personal and professional life with utmost expertise. For any reader who fantasizes about raging against the institutions that govern their own lives, Jim provides a perfect vicarious experience. His tragic fate is inevitable; by the end of the first chapter we know he’ll lose his job, but the pleasure in Lucky Jim is in the journey,which builds up to a final scene in which he must give a high-stakes public lecture. He’s drunk, cynical, heartbroken, and unprepared. As readers, we’re divided: we want Jim to get something right for once, but we also want to see just how far he can push his own ruin. Typical of the final act of classic farces, everything goes wrong, and more. It’s one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read, but I’m not laughing at Jim—he isn’t the fool here. It’s the entire system that made this train wreck possible.

The humor and satire I enjoyed in Russo’s Straight Man and Prose’s Blue Angel center on classroom and departmental power dynamics. In Straight Man, William Henry Devereaux, Jr, a professor and an unlikely chairman of the department, must deal with the possibility of budget cuts (his diplomatic maneuver: he threatens to kill a duck a day until the budget passes), ridiculous rivalries, and extramarital temptations. The novel asks whether Devereaux is competent to do anything, and the narrative moves form one trial to the next, offering both funny and heartbreaking episodes that reveal what Devereaux is really made of. Blue Angel is similar, though Prose is doing something courageous, bold, and downright terrifying. Returning to the question of how much autonomy individuals have in institutions that more or less construct and define individuals’ behaviors and identities, Prose puts Ted Swenson, an “innocent” and content middle-aged professor who loves his wife unconditionally, in a situation in which he experiences urgent temptation to conduct a sexual affair with an undergraduate. This is a rather sophisticated and complex circumstance: readers are convinced that Swenson would never act so disgracefully, yet something subtle suggests his act of harassment and infidelity is inevitable. We can’t pin the blame on him entirely: the institution he’s wrapped up in makes his disgrace inexorable, and the young woman clearly desires him for self-serving reasons. Yet, we cannot exonerate him either. This is, essentially, a novel about a man who is in denial of his act of sexual harassment. It’s haunting, it’s gross, and it manages to be funny (its humor, like in the previous novels, centers on exposing the pretensions of academic culture). Prose embraces the height of ambition here, making us laugh in the most uncomfortable of situations.

I’ve found that humorous novels delivered in first-person and close-third seem to exhaust the humorous voice after about fifty pages. In Moo, Jane Smiley overcomes this obstacle by narrating in a roving third-person POV, each chapter focusing on a different individual within the academic institution. As a result, each segment is fresh: we get voices and modes of interiority characterized by wild idiosyncrasies. Furthermore, the characters work in different departments within the university, so we experience diverse discourses. Ultimately, these eccentric voices clash, so the pleasure and humor never run dry.

Claudia Emerson, 1957–2014

December 4th, 2014

from PINION, “Sister’s Dream of the Empty Wing”

Through room after room

I follow the mockingbird, mocking

no other, calling out with original

voice the generation that speaks also

in me, in this wing that leaves the house

behind it forgotten—where I will

not wake, the cage of my ribs swept clean.

NEA Fellowships for CR Contributors

December 3rd, 2014

We’re thrilled to announce that poets and contributors Jessica Greenbaum (4.2, 6.1); Shara Lessley (6.1, 10.2); and Eliot Khalil Wilson (1.2) have been awarded Creative Writing Fellowships in Poetry from the National Endowment of the Arts. We hoist our glasses, beat our drums, raise the roof, and kick up our collective heels to Jessica, Shara, and Eliot on this much-coveted and well-deserved honor.

Jessica Greenbaum’s first book, Inventing Difficulty (Silverfish Review Press, 1998), won the Gerald Cable Prize. Her second book, The Two Yvonnes (2012), was chosen by Paul Muldoon for Princeton’s Series of Contemporary Poets. She is the poetry editor for upstreet and lives in Brooklyn.

Shara Lessley is a poet and teacher. The author of Two-Headed Nightingale (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2012), she is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. Shara’s awards include an Artist Fellowship from the State of North Carolina, the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, an Olive B. O’Connor Fellowship from Colgate University, the Reginald S. Tickner Fellowship from the Gilman School, and a “Discovery” The Nation prize. She is the 2014 Mary Wood Fellow at Washington College.

Eliot Khalil Wilson is the author of The Saint of Letting Small Fish Go (Cleveland State Poetry Press, 2003). He has received a Pushcart Prize, a Bush Foundation Fellowship, the Hill-Kohn Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and the Robert Winner Prize from the Poetry Society of America.

Pas de Deux: Parry & Leegant

December 1st, 2014

Welcome to the adagio movement of our Pas de Deux between fiction writers and 11.1 contributors Leslie Parry and Joan Leegant. Read on to witness these virtuosos pirouetting around such topics as adapting fairy tale motifs in contemporary literature, the advantages of dramatic action in short fiction, and (a nod to Black Friday) the dangers of what Leegant accurately classifies “the manic annual bridal dress sale at Boston’s Filene’s Basement.” We’ve all been there, and we were terrified.

Leslie Parry: For the short time they’re reunited, Patricia acts as the parent to her own ailing mother. She buys her ice cream, improvises a spoon from a set of earrings(!), lifts her like a child when she’s too weak to stand. I was moved by her patience and pragmatism, her utter lack of self-pity. Even though both women are prone to violent outbursts (Patricia punching a stranger over a wedding dress, her mother wounding her father with a thrown glass), they can’t fully articulate their sadness or disappointment—or even their love. Their conversations are very practical; they ask only the immediate, necessary questions: What kind of dress? Do you want toast? As Patricia explains, “I had her last name and her bone structure and her lack of interest in staring down the barrel of the past.” And yet in the process of telling this story, she is exploring the past, and elliptically revealing her own fears and desires. What were the challenges to creating Patricia’s unique narrative voice, and to developing such a complicated relationship, especially in only a few thousand words?

Joan Leegant: I’d have to say that I didn’t so much create this narrative voice as receive it. I know that sounds kind of woo-woo, writer-as-vessel, but the voice in this case—actually, in all my stories, at least those that work—was there from the start. I like how T. C. Boyle put it (in the Introduction to his excellent anthology Doubletakes): In all of his fiction, he’s begun with “a voice and tone revealed to me in the first line [my emphasis] and pursued the unfolding of the story from there.” Or Maile Meloy (in Fiction Writer’s Review): “The stories don’t go unless I have the voice. It’s like getting into a car with a tricky clutch, and you can either get it in gear or you can’t.” So I got lucky here. A voice revealed itself, and I was in gear.

How did that voice arrive? A mystery, of course. But I remember where I started this story, which perhaps made it possible for that voice to emerge. I was teaching an all-day workshop for adult (that is, not college-age) writers, encouraging people to bear down on their sentences and write with urgency, to push past the tentative and polite. It was a lot of permission-granting, which is often necessary to get people, especially polite adults, to unplug. I wrote alongside everyone else, and the first line that emerged was the first line of “The Basement”: “The woman looked at me as if througha gunsight.” Immediately I knew where I was: the manic annual bridal dress sale at Boston’s Filene’s Basement in the 1960s. It was legendary. I’m not a native Bostonian, but I’ve lived there off and on for the last forty years, and within another few sentences, I knew exactly who these characters were: tough South Boston types, no-nonsense, heavy on the accent (pahk ya cah in Hahvahd Yahd). This attachment to the locale and characters carried me through the story and enabled me to quickly discover the mother-daughter relationship.

What also helped in the writing was the emergence of a number of fairy tale references. Nasty Aunt Ro looks like she could sail off on a broomstick; the muffins at the Pewter Pot are like those in the folk tale in which the dough rises so much it fills the house; the wedding dresses are, themselves, “a fraction of retail for the start of the fairy tale.” These were not consciously placed in the story; they appeared in the sentences, and I noticed them and kept them. I hoped they would carry some of the mother-daughter thread, the fantasy—the storybook wedding with a beautiful dress and beaming mother—as well as the dark underside. I also liked the whimsical tone they gave to what could otherwise be a somewhat grim (pardon the pun) story.

LP: The structure of this story is masterful. It opens with a singular incident, a frustrated act of violence: We see the protagonist at her breaking point. Rather than slowly building to this climactic moment, the story begins with it—Patricia, fighting over a wedding dress at Filene’s, knocks out a woman’s teeth. Then the narrative goes back in time—to earlier in the day, to the night before, all the way back to her mother’s own wedding—to answer the question why? Did you begin with the idea of the fight, and then set out to explore the well of emotions behind it? Or did the story originate elsewhere? And how much did you play with structure before the story found its form?

JL: Thank you for your kind assessment. Like the voice, the structure was there from the outset. Which is starting to make the writing of this story sound ridiculously (and embarrassingly!) easy. And, as I think about it, the story was one of those rare and lucky gifts: The voice was there, the characters, the setting, and, yes, the structure. Which I think has to do with the environment in which I began writing it—that workshop. I guess I was giving myself permission, too, allowing myself to cut through the tentative. So the fight happened at the opening. I should add that there was never an idea for a fight; it’s not something I ran through my head. I can’t work that way. I just write the sentences and see what they tell me. Once the narrator punched the lady in the jaw, I was off and running.

What appealed to me about the punch was starting off with such an assertive and vivid and, above all, physical action. Around that time, I’d been tiring of subtle, restrained stories—hence the exhortation for urgency in the workshop—and wanted to paint in broader, bolder strokes: maybe allow a few stereotypes (the Boston cop named Murphy), have some bossy people with strong feelings run the show, retain the fairy tale motifs.

As for playing with the structure, I had to be careful to keep the sequence clear since the story loops around in time: it starts out with the punch, and much later, the reader gets to the moment right before that punch.

LP: I won’t spoil it, but the ending made me gasp. There’s one particular sentence that floored me: Patricia describing her mother’s last action in a frank, almost perfunctory manner. It’s so hard to pull off an ending like this, and yet it’s absolutely stunning—not just the action itself, but the way Patricia presents it. She doesn’t dwell on it or try to explain it. She doesn’t report on her grief. Instead the story ends with her own strange act of honor and defiance. Were you always writing toward that conclusion? Or did you make that decision as you got deeper into the story and the lives of these characters?

JL: The conclusion only appeared as I approached the end of the draft. As you can probably tell, I’m not one of these writers who can think through a story and have it work. I have to grope my way. So the ending—both the mother’s ending and the story’s ending—were only known to me when I wrote them. The challenge for me in writing this way is to hew closely enough to the unfolding narrative, without being yanked away by intentions or external ideas, to get to those seemingly inevitable and true endings.

But in terms of the daughter’s description of her mother’s last action, and her own act of honor and defiance (thank you for that apt way of describing it), I was helped enormously by these characters’ very distinct ways of being in the world. This daughter has been taking care of herself for a long time; she’s had a mother, of sorts, so she wants no part of a surrogate (like her mother-in-law) or a stepmother (like her witchy Aunt Ro). And she’s not going to—as you say—dwell on the bad stuff, because that’s not going to accomplish anything. She’s matter-of-fact—she’s had to be that way to survive—but she also has feelings. Which, in keeping perhaps with the fairy tale motif that snuck in, are best expressed not by the character but by the dress. Which has, I suppose, become a character in its own right.

Pas de Deux: Leegant & Parry

November 25th, 2014

Welcome back to another dynamic performance of our double-interview feature Pax de Deux, this time between fiction writers and 11.1 contributors Joan Leegant and Leslie Parry (about whose story “Vogelsong” Brenda Peynado wrote a glowing appreciation last week). Scroll down to view the entrée of this two-part duet, in which the dancers brisé across such topics as the challenges of the first-person plural point of view, cabaret singing on a cruise ship, and water skiing elephants.

Joan Leegant: I was struck by your remarkable use—or maybe a better way to say it is deployment—of the multiple first-person. This went beyond merely telling the story in a plural voice so we’d know many people were involved; you also remained faithful to that multiple voice when describing individuals, as in this sentence: “We remembered later that it was a Monday because we missed our favorite radio program, or the weekly call from our sister, or the fish fry social at the church down the road, where we sometimes won a jar of marmalade in the raffle or got hopped-up with the townies behind the garage.” A less bold writer, concerned about mixing pronouns incorrectly, might have written something like: “We remembered that it was a Monday because one of us missed his favorite radio program and another of us missed the weekly call from her sister,” etc. The construction you chose appears several times in the story and works terrifically well to maintain the collective tone, which, in turn, works perfectly with the ending when all are understood to be complicit.

How did you come to use the multiple point of view as a way to tell the story? Was it there from the start? And how did your bold and unusual construction for describing individuals, while being faithful to the multiple voice, evolve?

Leslie Parry: This is one of the rare cases where I decided on the point of view before I began. I was interested in the cliquishness, camaraderie, and dysfunction that occurs when people live and work in the same place. (My sister was a cabaret singer on a cruise ship, and that dynamic—living in bunk beds, sailing around in a circle for eight months—always fascinated me. I was also interested in how quickly someone can tire of the novelty. Oh God, she would say, not Barbados again.) The Vogelsong performers collude in a daily illusion for their guests, which gives them a very specific bond: They know each other onstage and off, in the sun and in the shadow. But that lifestyle also means they have no real privacy, and the boundaries between them quickly disappear. I wanted to suggest that nobody has anything that’s truly her own anymore (even a radio program, or a telephone call), and because of that, nobody has any secrets either.  Identities are merely superficial in a place like this. I kept a few individual distinctions, ones that might seem innocuous at first, but which carry greater weight as trust unravels and suspicions grow. I wanted to write about that blurring of selves, and what a person might cling to when she finds her individuality diminished. Where is the line between intimacy and complicity? When does loyalty give way to culpability? Is a secret worse when it is your burden alone, or when it binds you eternally to others?

JL: You create and sustain tension not simply by making the story about a boy who is lost but by giving the reader occasional glimpses into the shadow side of life there. Early on, we learn there are places the narrator(s) never tell the tourists about, that are left off the map—remnants of an old mural and an old slave cemetery. Later, we read about things the narrator(s) may have left out when reporting to the police early in the investigation—the diver being drunk, the alligator man flirting, the conquistador sneaking about with a young man and the scent of dope. These glimpses prepare us for the stunning ending, which begins: “But there was one thing we never told anybody.”

In the course of writing the story, did the ending come to you first, after which you added those earlier intimations of the unspoken? Or did those earlier episodes lead you to the ending? Can you tell us about that?

LP: When I started writing, I knew how I wanted the story to end—maybe not the precise sentence or image, but the tone, the feeling of it. The narrators are bound and haunted by their unspoken secret. It unites them just as fully and perilously as it divides them. Their differences appear more trivial at the beginning: their tasks, their hometowns, their sexual inclinations. And with no chance to exercise a truly private life, and with every misstep and impulse already common knowledge, what could possibly remain unknown? And yet by the end, every small detail becomes a potentially loaded clue. So once I had written the ending, I went back and examined those quieter discrepancies, reaching back through time much in the way the characters did. What was the one thing they had taken for granted? What had they missed, or unwittingly allowed? Ultimately I felt it was better that I didn’t make a hard decision either—that I, as the writer, could speculate alongside the characters, but I could never know more than they did. It might have been any one of those things, or none of them. I can’t be sure myself.

JL: Place is central to the story, and is beautiful and terrifying and primeval: nature trails, snakes, date palms, a lynching tree, German figurines of children in lederhosen. A black whoosh of birds, an alligator gnashing in its cage, a horse that can throw its rider, an enormous elephant. Ultimately, the place, and its inhabitants, devour the boy, and then it’s all torn down, vanished, though not in the dreams of the narrator(s).

Were there particular challenges you faced in evoking that place? Did you worry about having too much detail, or visuals that might seem too freighted with symbolism? Did you have a sense of the place when you began the story, or did it evolve in the course of writing?

LP: I loved writing about Vogelsong. I based it (loosely) on a state park I visited in De Leon Springs, Florida. As soon as I set foot on the trail, with all of its wild beauty and eeriness, I knew I had a story. Then, when I learned a water-skiing elephant had once performed there, I knew I really had a story. The challenge was in making the setting (in all its iterations, from conquistador landing to plantation to amusement park) a real and necessary character, not just an interesting backdrop. It’s easy to get swept away with description and exposition, so I kept myself tethered by thinking of it this way: This particular story could only happen in this particular place. The details had to work on two levels: They had to set the stage and orient the reader; and they had to contribute to an underlying tension. They needed to convey both the wonder and artifice of this place, as well as the uneasy combination of inertia and mortality. Itemizing even the most mundane details—the map, the duties, the meals, the schedule—seemed gratuitous at first, but I found that it helped me to explore just how disorienting and dramatic a single aberration could be. I suppose, in a way, I was also writing about my greatest fear: getting away with something, and then having to live with it.

The Voice: CR-style

November 19th, 2014

We’ve just finished proofing the winter issue, which boasts—in addition to the usual singing signatures—a hundred extra pages. It’s the first of two issues devoted to long forms (thanks, NEA!), which of course makes it special, but what struck us most when reading over this winter’s ample offerings was their range—an especially appropriate word as pertains to voice. The voices in 11.2 are as varied as they are vibrant. A few snippets for your mind’s ear:

From Sam Taylor’s “GodIs (2.0)”:

Says your name, Please touch me

Please devour me enlist me become me

But not all the way, touch me

a little all over briefly forever and almost

with your octopus arms, your suction cups, your oversized flannel, your lace-top camisole,

Are you sure that’s your name, octopus arms?

Are you sure, suction cup, Miracle Bra, Jake brake, peacoat?

From Steve Almond’s “Okay, Now Do You Surrender?”:

Loomis was going to be helpful because it was the right thing to do. He held to this conviction until the precise moment his eyes fell upon a small container of Greek yogurt. He and Kate had discussed this product at length. They had agreed it was an unnecessary luxury. He tamped down the urge to speak, then realized he was tamping down the urge to speak, then glared at Kate, who was reaching into the fridge to put the almond milk away and humming—humming, of all things! Her ass looked delish. This made Loomis wish he had not seen the yogurt. But it was too late. He was going to say something now, something awful and thrilling—he’d had enough of muzzling himself, of kowtowing, of groveling, which is probably how Kate had got the idea that the fucking Greek yogurt was back in play. She turned from the fridge. Her eyes followed his. He suffered an exquisite moment of pre-regret, of wanting to fall to his knees in some kind of spiritual silence. Then his vile mouth began to speak.

From James Kimbrell’s “Pluto’s Gate”:

Lord we say

we need wings to match the other wings

we don’t have

we need a bubbling we can hold

Yahweh Hot Rod Sky Talker

Talk to us Mister Master

Cloud Cork of the Transcendent Cava

Amen and Amen.

From Tom Paine’s “It Was Just Swimming”:

The two stumbled over the sandbar, sore to the bones. Nothing better than total destruction by the sea gods. It tore the bullshit off you! You felt born again! Insignificant, but alive! He tossed an arm around Jimbo, and then stopped in his tracks. Jimbo stumbled on past the grandmother at the shoreline. She lay in an aluminum lawn chair as if she had fallen from a plane. . . . A wave suddenly toppled her over. She was on her back, waving her mottled arms in the swirling sand. Like she was trying to make a sand angel! Her wig floated away like a black anemone. She was bald. He scooped her up. She clawed her fingers into his chest hair and said, “Take me out there.” He looked back to the breaking surf, and there were two real surfers out there now. The beach was pretty empty. Catalina was watching him with her hands on her hips. She looked angry.

Jimbo was already up at the showers.

So he carried someone’s grandmother out to the sandbar. He walked with her in his big arms into the smashing waves. It was something he had to do. He cradled her body as the waves walloped them. She was in a cave of his strength. He had never been defeated as an MMA fighter. A surfer railed past them, cutting and spraying. Knocked to his knees once, he held her tight in the crashing water, only to rise again from the foam like Poseidon. Coughing, choking, and gasping, she kissed his lips hard when he returned her safely to shore, even slipped him some ancient tongue. Kinky as it might seem, it was his sexiest kiss ever, though he had no idea why.

From Kirsten Skrinde’s “Frackville”:

If Marge doesn’t want me, I don’t want her. I shall not focus on those serpents beneath my feet and at my back. I have a realm of music, art, and literature here in my home. What more could I require? The hideous kitchen light has begun to pulsate madly, perhaps to its doom. But no matter. Out, out, brief candle! I walk into the living room, past the welcoming forms of my uncle’s Depression-era furniture. The sofa is lumpy and sometimes exhales clouds of dust, but it is still perfectly good, as is the phonograph. What accompaniment is appropriate for the day? A wild gallop of Valkyries, I think. Hoyotoho!

As I place the record on the turntable, the lamplight goes out. The strobe from the kitchen stops as well. Two bulbs expiring at once, or is Con Edison expressing dismay at my negligence? I lower the needle onto the record, but it too lies inert. Oh, for a muse of fire!

From Brock Clarke’s “The Radical”:

She’s watching one of those television shows that are made from books that we couldn’t be paid to read but that, once they’re made into television shows, we can’t stop watching, even though we have to pay to watch. We’re watching this TV show on Therese’s computer. Because we are so through with watching TV shows on TV.

“The last I saw Romark he was galloping past the Keening Wall in West Remarksfen toward the Forbidden Realm,” one of the characters says to the other. This is the way they talk. They wear fur, and if they’re men they wear beards and long hair and usually they’re battling or riding off into battle, and if they’re not doing something battle related, they’re entering the womenfolk from behind. Speaking of, a woman walks into the chamber—there are no rooms in this show, only chambers—and you just know one of these two guys is going to enter her from behind before the scene is over, and I hope neither of the kids walks in.

From Ashley Anna McHugh’s “The Red Hours”:

Now place an ostrich feather on the scale—

slender, nearly weightless. Long ago,

the spirits of the dead could not depart

unless their hearts were light as this. Don’t grieve.

Most men don’t lose their bones to a common grave,

but if we sink to the ocean floor, the sea

will fashion of us something rich and strange—

like the platinum skull, its diamonds pavé-laid:

the opulence of light made manifest

in those dazzling sockets, where there once were eyes.

From John William McConnell’s “House of Wine”:

The morning of the Pommeroys’ visit, John William McConnell had woken up fetally curled beneath a towel, and on the couch. His hangover . . . Wagnerian: mountain dwarfs going hammer and tongs at the base of this skull. The towel was mildewed and damp. Whomp whomp whomp, hammered the dwarfs.

John sat up. The room around him flexed and contracted, a fishbowl effect. The light, the light. John thought, Hmmm. He threw off the towel and did a tactical risk assessment. Was he on the outs? The circumstances of the couch, he couldn’t remember: the whys hows and whose ideas. He’d been working on this story, about his surgery. Lilith at a show. He felt the pinch of his scar. He rolled an empty bottle with his bare foot. He picked up his laptop on the floor and turned it on and waited, closed his eyes and delivered himself yea verily unto his hangover, slid backward into it. The laptop blinked on: Wjatever upi wamt/ Sje saod/ Sjeodod mpt spimd omterested/

John mouthed the words. Had it been brilliant and lucid prose, originally? Had it been a suicide note? He looked up and found himself observed by Lilith, leaning against the doorframe. He thought, Her hair is red. She was smiling, almost.

From Jack Snyder’s “Come Deciduous”:

O little moon o light at the end of

convince me my brain-knots are not

for naught these trees are all buck

& burl even the blackout heavens

are gnarled w/ slender antler-sprawl

that connects the star-specks o little

moon o light at the end of the world

Source Texts: Abbate, Leithauser, Silano, Van Winckel

November 17th, 2014

As writers, we’re often asked about what inspired a piece, what outside stimulus provided the germ, the grist, or the spark for a first draft. Even the word inspiration, from the Latin inspīrār (to blow or breathe into), implies an agency without rather than within the artist, as if we were nothing more than receptacles for the generative murmurings of the muse. When we asked 11.1 poet-contributors about what occasioned their poems, we received some answers that made us reconsider such assumptions. While Francesca Abbate and Martha Silano discovered source texts in more conventional places (Abbate in a lesser-known figure of Greco-Roman myth, Silano in a famous painting by Georgia O’Keeffe), both poets repurposed these influences to fit their own needs. Hailey Leithauser and Nance Van Winckel mined their own memories for source material, drawing upon remarkable interactions between people witnessed while having drinks or dining out. Read on to find out how our poets incorporated these “texts” into some of the most inspiring work we’ve published in our pages to date.

Francesca Abbate on “You Can’t Teach a Pig to Sing”: My homeroom teacher in high school really did have a cartoon taped to his podium with a similar caption. Maybe the caption was closer to Mark Twain’s quote—“Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig”—but at this distance—thirty years—the details are a bit sketchy. I thought of my homeroom teacher as a desperately bitter man. He taught English, and I may have come to appreciate him had I had an actual class with him. In the poem’s world, he’s Not Baby’s mother’s teacher. Not Baby, also known as Melinoe, is Persephone’s daughter by Zeus. The story goes that Zeus disguised himself as Persephone’s husband Hades, which makes more sense than Hades being the father of anything. When Melinoe wandered the earth at night with her retinue of ghosts, she brought nightmares to sleepers and made dogs bark for no discernible reason. Her job was to escort the souls of the newly dead to the Underworld, hence the Eleusinian mysteries depicted in the fresco in Pompeii. This project has been plagued by coincidence: I was reading Mary Beard’s The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found when the pigs in the poem met their demise. Not Baby/Melinoe used to be a bartender, but has now joined the “daylight” world. Depressed, displaced, and reading Montaigne and Lucretius (etc.), she’s grappling with the question of how a woman searching for, and finding, solace in history can relate to her exclusion from it. Not Baby—the nickname—was born of a typo for Nobody. I was transcribing an article regarding a body found on a trail that I bike on. “Nobody,” initially, seemed to know who the woman was.

Hailey Leithauser on “Overheard at the Blue Moon”: One night several years ago as a friend and I were standing at the bar of a restaurant waiting for our table, we overheard two women talking about a third woman they knew and whom they had seen on their way in. They were speculating about whom she might be meeting—was she seeing someone new, was it this person or that, everyone knew she’d had a thing for so-and-so for years, and then there was another so-and-so everyone knew had a thing for her, or maybe she was getting back with her ex who was no good. What a terrible idea that would be.

As the speculation ranged over a lengthening list of scenarios, the conversation became so interesting that when it finally came time for us to go into the restaurant, we spent the entire meal looking from couple to couple trying to guess who “she” was and which of her potential lovers she had chosen.

That is one explanation for how the poem was written. Another explanation is that I didn’t overhear a  conversation at all; it was my friend and I who had the discussion about someone we knew, but I changed it to make the poem more interesting.

Or another explanation—I was alone at the time, and all of this speculation went on inside my own head.

Or maybe there never was a woman at all, and I just liked the sound of the first three lines. Perhaps they came to me in the tub, or walking my dog or waking up from a dream. As the poem says, anything (and everything) is possible.

Martha Silano on “The World”: This poem began while I was in residence at one of my favorite places on Earth—a scholarly retreat center located on a small island in Northern Puget Sound. I’d brought a notebook with a quote from Georgia O’Keeffe scrawled inside. She said it was the unexplainable in nature that made the world feel big, far beyond her understanding. When I sat down to write this poem, I put that quote at the top of the page and began attempting the impossible: to express my awe about this place where we live. I was also thinking about my son. As the poem revved up and began to find its footing, my son and the world were both there on the page—but as two separate entities. Once the engine was humming, I relished choosing the most alliterative and slant-rhyme-y ways to describe my favorite sphere—huge and minuscule, silent and loud, what and how it spews. Turning Earth into a twelve-year-old boy didn’t occur to me in the first or tenth or twentieth pass, but much later, while working in a room along the Seine River. In a trance-like state, my fingers flying over the keys, boy and World became one. Georgia O’Keeffe’s Pelvis IV provided the final image, followed by a series of “f” words I have always enjoyed on the tongue.

Nance Van Winckel on “Fist”: In a restaurant, a person in our group of ten slammed his fist on the table to make a point. The sound of it brought back to me in a very sensory way—the rattling glasses, the echo, the jarring movement of the table—this manner of taking control that was something my stepdad did. Aside from him, the table in my girlhood home was all women, and we could indeed become boisterous. His fist banging down was his way of diverting our attention to him. Even all these years after his death, it’s odd and often a bit disconcerting that when a fist pounds down, I think of him. I think of the power in that fist, and increasingly (in light of continuing conflicts in the world) that power feels larger than one person; it feels quite masculine, primitive, and endless.

The Making of MOTH, Part 3

November 14th, 2014

Illustrator Gabe Ostley, in collaboration with playwright Declan Greene, has made us a tenth-birthday present, and we’re sharing it, free with our next issue, with all of our subscribers. Check out Ostley’s process in hyper-speed below.

Why We Like It: “Vogelsong” by Leslie Parry

November 12th, 2014

A self-proclaimed tech-geek and amateur dog-trainer, new volunteer and first-year PhD student in fiction Brenda Peynado has a talent for incorporating her disparate interests into conversations at the CR office. A discussion about the midterm elections or streamlining our contact database can lead Brenda into an analysis of the male catcall in the Dominican Republic or a consideration of myth and realism in the novels of Isabel Allende. It’s this interest in the multifariousness of human consciousness, Brenda tells us, that attracts her to Leslie Parry’s haunting story “Vogelsong” (11.1)—the idea that a single person contains multitudes, and that the many can speak as one. Read on to discover why Parry’s story continues to fascinate and even disquiet us so many months after we first encountered it.

Brenda Peynado: I’ve always loved the first-person plural. I love that it can propel the reader into dizzying relationships quickly, and then show how a whole group is haunted, how a whole group falls apart. “Vogelsong” is a beautiful example. Like a ghost story, the collective memory of the day a busload of blind schoolchildren came to the eponymous Florida attraction still lingers desperately in the staff’s imagination, spoiling the sanctuary they’d tried to build there. In turn, the collective character’s nostalgia of what they cannot keep forever chills the reader.

Nothing about “Vogelsong” is typical. The cast includes a harmonica-playing elephant, an ex-beauty queen with her face disfigured, the German immigrants who own the retreat, orphans, and a drunk performance-diver. The setting, exquisitely rendered, exploits surreal elements of the Florida landscape: a discarded fountain of youth, old walls of a slave plantation that advertise death tallies, alligators and canoes, and “a breeze carrying the smell of molasses and rust up the river.”

Parry’s offering will stay with you long after you put it down, haunting you the way only the best ghost story can. Except here, the ghosts are the exquisite moments of your own life that slip away, whole days that disintegrate, until all that is left is the recollection of how “the wheezy hee-haw music would follow us as we rounded the fountain, as two otters splashed away and darted to the shore, and just as we turned east, the sun would flame to life behind a black whoosh of birds, and then we’d think, Oh.”