Why We Like It: “Stolen from the Cries of Ravens and the Red Smell of the Wind” by Jay Leeming

November 23rd, 2015

Anonymous crawled down a muddy slot in the earth
to put red handprints
on the cave wall, Anonymous who painted the Crab Nebula
onto a rock ledge and translated the winter wind
into black ink
on vellum, Anonymous the unknown
worker, toiler in darkness, craftsman with a name
drowned in shadow. All our works are but footnotes to the creations

of Anonymous…

José Angel Araguz: So begins Jay Leeming’s “Stolen from the Cries of Ravens and the Red Smell of the Wind,” a poem whose main themes are the evolution of art both as process and as instinct, and the way in which all of mankind’s material accomplishments mean nothing in the teeth of wind and time.

Y’know, light stuff.

In all seriousness, though, there is a deftness to the lyric voice in this poem that keeps the reader engaged and the narrative fluid despite the big concepts driving it. As Leeming’s poem traces ideas of ancestry from the get-go, I cannot help but read into the poem a kind of poetic ancestry, other poems that this poem seems to point back to and be kin with.

The first that came to mind was “Hands” by Robinson Jeffers, which starts:

Inside a cave in a narrow canyon near Tassajara
The vault of rock is painted with hands,
A multitude of hands in the twilight, a cloud of men’s palms, no more,
No other picture

These opening lines echo Leeming’s. Both poems make use of the image of handprints, but where Jeffers reads into it a connection to earlier humanity and life, Leeming takes the symbol of the hand to begin a meditation on the artistic process. His “Anonymous” is fast at work in the first stanza, throughout time and mediums. When the speaker of Leeming’s poem says “All our works are but footnotes” to the work of Anonymous, he is acknowledging the precedent and connection to Anonymous via art, as if each new artwork was a way for an artist to turn and face those that came before and raise a hand in greeting.

I find another poetic “ancestral” link via the layout of the poem. Noting how it is structured in eight-line stanzas on the page, I immediately thought of Lord Byron’s “Don Juan,” a carnival of a poem that doles itself out in the eight line stanza known as ottava rima. Beyond sheer number count, where Byron and Leeming meet is in ambition. Byron’s poem is a favorite of mine not for sheer virtuosity (though hundreds upon hundreds of rhymed stanzas is no small feat) but for the elasticity Byron is able to work into his lyrical line, a line able to hold politics, myth, literary criticism, and humor.

Leeming accomplishes a similar feat as he moves from meditating on the “early works” of Anonymous to casting an eye to our contemporary world:

…So short a journey
from runes carved on a ship’s bow to egg tempera
on a walnut board, from manuscripts illuminated with the colors
of crushed acorns to a thirty-foot-high poodle
constructed of pink birthday balloons
and neon-green hubcaps.

As Leeming’s poem comes to its conclusion, the speaker tells us of a tribe “whose every member/ was born blind” and:

who out of the cries of ravens
and the red smell of the wind carved a spiraling labyrinth of skewed huts
and towers crafted only in jubilant answer to the visions

of the inner eye…

This image of a blind people creating in the dark returns us to the opening note of the poem, back to Anonymous and how little we know of the humans inhabiting that era aside from what they left on a cave wall. Reading these lines, the reader is once again before Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “traveler from an antique land,” who tells us about Ozymandias and his ruins. But where Ozymandias, that “king of kings,” asks us to “Look on my works, ye Might, and despair!,” Anonymous’s call, according to the last line of Leeming’s poem, is to create art despite the knowledge that it will be “…scattered to all the thousand/corners of the air where no hand or eye will ever find it again.”

Fiction Mashup Contest

November 19th, 2015

Thanks to the scads of readers who contributed to our Cento Contest! Actually, there were only two of you—but your centos delighted us—so much that we’re adding a full year to both your CR subscriptions. Same holds true for anyone who offers us a cento using lines from CR 12.1 by the end of the day tomorrow. We should mention that Assistant Ed. Jose Angel Araguz took the form to new heights by creating a sonnet cento of last lines. To check all these out, simply click on the title of the CR Cento Contest post and scroll down.

mashupsAnd now it’s time for a genre switcheroo. A fiction cento, as it were, though that’s not really an existing term, so we’re just calling it a fiction mashup. Same deal: Those who submit credible efforts—and especially those who submit incredible efforts—get a year added on to their subscriptions. Associate Ed. Don Peteroy played it pretty loose when constructing the mashup below—grabbing a phrase, part of a sentence, or just some interesting word pairs from every prose piece in our current issue. The result is . . .

Hot Raisin Bird for the Temptation Arm of My Father

by Don Peteroy

     “I want you to come over. Right now,” Earl said.

     “It is forbidden,” Esther said. He hung up the tapeworm and ran out into the rain with his Cape of Invisibility. Except it never worked.

     He called 911.

     “Welcome to Mr. Milkshake. Can I take your order?”

     “Are you ready?” he asked. Words clogged his helicopter.

     “I want you to come over. Right now,” she said.

     He was driving over in his disaster of a car. She opened the shed. He reached over, putting his arm around seas of cantaloupe slices. She had makeup insurance won’t cover. The girl sometimes wore firewood.

     “You nervous?” he asked like a pinecone.

     “You signed a contract,” she said.

     “Good, but could you squeeze harder?”

     That hot, itchy feeling was leaking from him, kind of shaped like France. He said he’d been taking a lot of heat from Pastor Joe: She’s seeing a therapist rumored to be in Rising Sun. It snugs up to the Mason-Dixon line, covered by a Vampire Weekend poster.

     He sat on the edge of the bed. Her throat was always on schedule, the damp smell of the locker room. One month, they’d eaten nothing but sailors, but after the divorce, he couldn’t stop thinking about a tub of cottage cheese. When he was nine, he’d been chased through concrete. Chickens were miles away. Rain fell unceasingly in preserve jars. Pastor Joe had bailed him out of jail because her neuroses allowed him to feel like potato salad charred to purity. Winter came. They all ate.

     “Did you fight back?” Esther said. A spatula simmered in the crockpot.

     He unrolled an old treasure map. She hit him with her secret cave. Everyone got a chance to.

     I called 911, popped out my left boob, and said, “No daughter of mine is going to be a rock star.”

     Me. It was the last thing she was expecting. Me in full makeup and costume, with their chemistry teacher wired directly to a defibrillator. “Look, let’s go over the options in person,” I said.

     “We just want to eat bacon,” she said at length, like a fragile foot.

     “She shits herself all the day,” he said, putting his dick away. “I hate salmon.”

     I wanted to inhale my wig. “I’m in the band,” I said.

     “No way. You’re making that up,” she said.

     I unrolled condom wrappers, built to look like coffins. “I’m in the band,” I said.

     She threw a pillow. Chickens were miles away. Nipping at each other. That night, she would sit me in a bucket of crabs.

The CR Cento Contest

November 16th, 2015

Rochelle Hurt:
The cento is a collage form in which a poem is composed entirely of lines from other poems. It can be an homage to the originals, a subversive twist, or just a fun game. Contemporary examples of the form include “The Dong with the Luminous Nose” by John Ashbery and “Wolf Cento” by Simone Muench.

In homage to the poets of our current issue, I’ve composed a couple of centos in which each line comes from a different poem in issue 12.1. (I’ve added punctuation here and there.) We encourage you to compose your own 12.1 cento and post it on our blog. We’ll float a free issue to creators of the strongest three (either gift for a friend or added to your current subscription). Pro tips: 1. Remember to cite the authors you quote from the issue; 2. enjambment is your friend!


Storm Cento

The sky lit up like a glass of water,

flipped eyelids first glint of light.

Our zinc roof unpeeled to show

Father the split fibula where the marrow must rust.

Dark blue run, rim of

a portable dark. Maybe a cave inside

leading to the sea. Grime and pastel.


Blindness is medicine for those who have

a secret room of hands.

Yes, simply because it contains all the secrets of

my transparent body.

Sources, in order: John McAuliffe, Dong Li, Safiya Sinclair (x2 – different poems), Marianne Boruch, Benjamin S. Grossberg, Justin Runge, Nick Courtright, CJ Evans, Changming Yuan, Kiriu Minashita.


Cynic’s Cento

O keel and swerve,

bird that flies from the past to the past

in a room adjusted by a metallic voice.

The future, clover-shaped, hail-beat.


Relax, this is only a sketch

of the inner eye. I would travel many days to see

these plastic heavens

the blue darkness vividly boils around.


My faith’s not what I’m told God wants it to be.

When the boats sail, I let them.

Sources, in order: Joelle Biele, Chelsea Jennings, Kiriu Minashita, Justin Runge, Krzysztof Jaworski, Jay Leeming, Christopher Robley, Kiriu Minashita (different poem), James McMichael, K. A. Hays.

Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers: In Which We All DIE Edition

November 12th, 2015

Associate Editor Don Peteroy is back with another of the irrelevant questions that one might, if one were science-fictionally inclined, liken to little spaceships zooming madly around in his head, shooting out tractor beams in the hope of sucking up writers he admires. This week’s abduction: one Ron Currie Jr. Now to the alien examination room!

BOD-1Question: Members of an unnamed alien civilization from antimatter Galaxy NGC 9221are currently coming to Earth. They plan to blow us up, for the hell of it. Their engines are powered by an energy force called Ron Currie Jr. Likes to Read. Worry not. I’ve done the calculations. You’ve got three books to go before they enter our solar system, four before they’re within firing range. If you want to thwart their attack, you can stop reading books right now; if you want to press your luck, you can go ahead and read three more. What would the last three books you’d read be? And you wish to read a fourth, what world-destroying book would you choose?

Since very little I do seems to have any measurable effect on the world, I like the idea of something as simple and seemingly innocuous as reading a book bringing about the end of human life. That in mind, I’m going all the way. Wait, so do I get to finish them all? Does the attack commence the moment I turn the last page of the fourth book? I’m going to assume so. Okay. This scenario reminds me of another circumstance I face fairly often, one with similar stakes: I’m at a restaurant, and I’m starving—I mean don’t-put-any-part-of-your-anatomy-near-my-mouth hungry—and I’m trying to decide what to order, which of course is made more complicated and difficult by the fact that I’m too hungry to think. Chances are I’ve eaten at this place before, and I have my one or two favorite items on the menu. I’d say 25 percent of the time I’m foolish enough to try something new, and when I do, I almost always end up disappointed, which when I’m really hungry makes me angry as shit, and then my whole evening (and, chances are, that of anyone in my company) is ruined. Okay. So wait, what was the analogy? Oh yeah. This is like that, except it’s not just that I’m really hungry, it’s that this will be my last meal ever. So will I be foolish enough to risk squandering the experience on a book I haven’t read, no matter how good everyone says it is? I will not. Instead, I will reread books I know are excellent, and that way I can guarantee I won’t be disappointed. And you know what, just for shits and giggles let’s go with exclusively story collections. Probably will start with The Things They Carried. You know, I haven’t read Malamud’s Collected Stories in a while, and it’s hefty enough that we’ll all live a little longer. Here’s something interesting—I already know what the fourth book will be, and it’s also written by a straight cisgendered white guy, so I’m sitting here debating internally over throwing in a collection by a woman, or a black dude, or a wheelchair-bound Quebecois separatist. Or maybe just Drown by Junot Diaz, because it’s excellent. But you know what? The world’s coming to an end, so demographic quotas, I’m afraid, can no longer save us. Hence, book #3 will be What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. And finally, the only story collection with the power to actually bring the world to an end: Jesus’ Son.

Ron Currie, Jr. is the author of Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles, Everything Matters! and God Is Dead, winner of the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. Often compared to Kurt Vonnegut, he was recently presented the Addison M. Metcalf Award by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Why We Like It: “Book of Distances” by Brandon Amico

November 10th, 2015

bulletCaitlin Doyle:
 Russian playwright Anton Chekhov famously advised writers that a gun introduced in the first act should always go off in the second. Poet Brandon Amico aims his gun in the opposite direction: “In my book of distances a bullet fired / on page thirty-seven pricks the reader’s / thumb on six.” Amico deftly blurs the line that separates the universe inside of his “book of distances” from the world of his poem, in which the mysterious book has been figuratively placed. We can never be sure whether something will stay within the book’s covers or break though (like the thumb-pricking bullet) to penetrate the many boundaries that Amico tests—between poem and book, past and present, reader and words, self and other.

On a first encounter, “Book of Distances,” with its wild leaps and surprising juxtapositions, might discomfit a person accustomed to experiencing language as a linear and narrative medium. Yet the poem never alienates such a reader. What I admire about Amico’s work here is that the piece rewards both seasoned poetry-lovers familiar with navigating associative modes and readers who come to poetry in pursuit of more basic pleasures. By placing an imagined book inside of a poem, one form of written artifice inside of another, he asks us to reconsider the relationship between art and creator. He also spurs us to reflect on our own relationship to artistic works and those who make them. “Book of Distances” embraces difficulty and eludes easy understanding, even while inviting us into a world alive with images that we can see, touch, hear, smell, and above all, feel.

RooseveltAmico observes “how far Aeolus’s breath carries the resilient germ / of history, / genicular, Franklin and Eleanor / Roosevelt being fifth cousins.” He then informs us that “genicular has no closeness to genes / except in the brain’s language center,” information that is “covered in detail in chapter eight” of the book of distances. It’s no accident that Aeolus (known as the ruler of the winds) is a name shared by multiple characters in Greek mythology, all of them thought to be genealogically related, much like Franklin and Eleanor.

When Amico notes how the “brain’s language center” joins “genicular” to “genes,” even though there’s no shared etymological connection, he extends his exploration of genetic ties to an examination of how we view units of language in relation to each other. As readers, we can’t help but develop an association between the two words, despite the poet’s insistence that none exists. This paradox comprises one of the many slyly artful strategies that Amico uses to interrogate how humans both inherit and create different forms of connectivity.

As the poem progresses, we move backward from chapter eight to the “fourth chapter” in the book of distances, which is “a compendium / of keys. / Office key, key to the city, / car, the shed . . .” Initially, the keys appear to promise another kind of linkage, a bridge between our yearning to enter closed-off spaces and our ability to tangibly do so. They also seem to glimmer as a possible symbol for the larger question of how we might unlock the poem’s complicated meanings. But when Amico observes that the locked shed can be entered without a key—“the frame/ can be shifted, the latch slid out”—he suggests that keys of any kind, whether literal or metaphorical, may prevent us from seeing that we can often access what we desire without relying on means beyond ourselves.
GunLitDeviceOf course, no writer should introduce Chekhov in the first paragraph (is there any gun more loaded than that?) without returning to him. So it seems fitting for me to finish my appreciation of Amico’s poem by evoking, once more, the Russian maestro. As the piece approaches its end, Amico asserts that, whether or not we read the book of distances, “we still stretch / toward our lovers’ knees and our first homes.” Like a weapon introduced in a play’s first act and fired off later in the show, the knee image here brings us back to the word “genicular,” with its surprising meaning (of or relating to the knee), in the poem’s opening lines. Amico compels us to remember his use of “genicular” in association with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. When we picture one of them reaching for the other’s knee, Amico’s exploration of the human hunger for connection finds its final, strangest, and most memorable embodiment.

What’s Poetry Got to Do with It?: Astrology (Pisces)

November 5th, 2015

Musings by José Angel Araguz

Episode 2: Astrology (Pisces)

In “What You Should Know to Be a Poet,” Gary Snyder lists what he feels to be some indispensable resources and skills for poets, including:

your own six senses, with a watchful elegant mind.
at least one kind of traditional magic:
divination, astrology, the book of changes, the tarot;


As I am knowledgeable about astrology, its inclusion drew my attention—especially as it can be a touchy subject. Reactions range from “What, you believe in Santa Claus too?” to “You may know my sign, but you don’t know me!” Both statements are true (word to K. Kringle). Still, I can’t help having grown up in a Mexican-American household, which, for me, meant having several depictions of the Last Supper around the house (painting, mirror, clock, etc.), as well as saint candles and rosaries by bedsides. It also meant enacting several rituals to combat the Evil Eye (¡Ojo!), one including an egg.

Most relevantly, though, it meant this man:

This is Walter Mercado, a television personality and astrologer. Whether on TV or on the radio, Mercado’s horoscopes for day to day life were a definite presence and influence in my formative years. (Speaking of, the word influence has an older use specifically tied to astrology, i.e., the influence of the stars, because of how the stars, uhm, influence one’s life.)

Fast forward to my reading Snyder’s poem . . . and to pondering what poetry has to do with astrology. As a poet, I work hard to stay away from generalizations and clichés. What is of interest always is specificity and possibility. Once I read past the generic horoscopes in the newspaper and learned about my chart, I began to form a specific narrative lens with which to view my life. Astrology as theoretical lens, if you will. In my reading, I have learned that each sign has an essence that plays out in poets’ work in various ways.

Here, I am focusing on Pisces and my experience reading The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon.

A few weeks ago, I traveled to Warrensburg, Missouri, to participate in the Creative Writing and Innovative Pedagogies (CWIPs) conference. Along for the ride was Sei Shonagon’s book, which is filled with lists, musings, and observations of 11th Century Heian Japan. A seemingly impersonal project, Sei’s book becomes personal indirectly via the power and focus of her writing.

At one point in my travels, I had the following text message exchange with my wife (excerpts from Shonagon were shared via photos):

me: Also, been reading Sei Shonagon, thinking of her as a Pisces.
wife: I can see that.
me: Case in point:

84. I Remember a Clear Morning

I remember a clear morning in the Ninth Month when it had been raining all night. Despite the bright sun, dew was still dripping from the chrysanthemums in the garden. On the bamboo fences and criss-cross hedges I saw tatters of spider webs; and where the threads were broken the raindrops hung on them like strings of white pearls. I was greatly moved and delighted.

As it became sunnier, the dew gradually vanished from the clover and the other plants where it had lain so heavily; the branches began to stir, then suddenly sprang up of their own accord. Later I described to people how beautiful it all was. What most impressed me was that they were not at all impressed.

wife: Nice.
me: Also:

61. One of Her Majesty’s Wet-Nurses

One of Her Majesty’s wet-nurses who held the Fifth Rank left today for the province of Hyuga. Among the fans given her by the Empress as a parting gift was one with a painting of a travelers’ lodging, not unlike the Captain of Ide’s residence. On the other side was a picture of the capital in a heavy rainstorm with someone gazing at the scene. In her own hand the Empress had written the following sentence as if it were an ordinary piece of prose: When you have gone away and face the sun that shines so crimson in the East, be mindful of the friends you left behind, who in this city gaze upon the endless rains. It was a very moving message, and I realized that I myself could not possibly leave such a mistress and go away to some distant place.

wife: Haha. I love it. “That they were not at all impressed.” That could be the entire story of my childhood.
me: The translator comments on her snarkiness essentially, and describes her admiration of Her Majesty as bordering on pathological.
wife: Haha.
me: Has to be Pisces because another famous translator describes her as the greatest poet of her time, a fact “evident everywhere in her prose” but not her poems. Think about it: it’s both the best and worst compliment at the same time. . . .

A few things to note: my wife is a Pisces (I myself am a Virgo; see how neatly all over the place I am). Also, Shonagon’s birthdate is not known. In identifying her as a Pisces, I am going on intuition and the lens I spoke of earlier. My favorite Pisces poets convey in their work a sense of being forgotten, dismissed, and misunderstood, as well as being generally okay with that. Kind of.

In his poem “The More Loving One,” W. H. Auden expresses what I feel to be an essential Pisces sentiment. From the “go to hell” and comments on indifference at the start, to imagining “an empty sky” at the end, Auden’s meditation on the stars presents the complicated nature of being human, of being able to relate only in human terms. His poem is kindred to what Shonagon means when she writes: “What most impressed me was that they were not at all impressed.”

The More Loving One – W. H. Auden

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

What We’re Reading: The Locusts Have No King

November 2nd, 2015

PowellCoverAlex Smith: Hemingway once called Dawn Powell (sarcastically, perhaps) his favorite living writer, and Gore Vidal dubbed her “The American Writer.” She was, indeed, a contemporary and friend of many famous novelists of the mid-twentieth century. And yet her work is virtually unknown today.

Hence my surprise upon reading Powell’s brilliant The Locusts Have No King, which is set in late 1940s New York. The author’s personal knowledge of the city and her thoughtful descriptions make the urban landscape a character in its own right. The novel is essentially a satire, though this fact seems to have escaped the few reviewers of the book, who find fault with its humorous unconcern for human feeling. These critics miss the masterful way the novel manages to be simultaneously hysterical and heartbreaking. As a reader, I was constantly torn between the desire to laugh and cry.

Cast as a love story between Lyle Gaynor, a married New York playwright, and Frederick Olliver, a repressed academic historian, The Locusts Have No King uses misunderstanding, double-talk, and a diverse cast of characters (my favorite being the unforgettable frenemies Caroline and Lorna, who “repeat the revelations they had been repeating [to each other] for years to glazed eyes and deaf ears”) to obfuscate the relationship that might otherwise seem of central importance. In fact, for chapters at a time we lose sight of both protagonists and hear about them only through snippets of gossip the peripheral characters reveal. The novel’s insistence upon rendering a multitude of perspectives causes the reader to see the central relationship in context and to question the possibility of love in a world of consumption and materialism.

The ending is startling for its uncharacteristic sentimentality, but rather than assuring the reader of the healing power of true love, it becomes a bleak reminder of the transactional nature of relationships. This complexity makes Powell’s work not only compelling but also significant to the American literary tradition. Her astute rendering of its characters’ inner and interpersonal lives is reminiscent of Edith Wharton’s, and the novel’s humor reminds one of John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces. The successful blending of absurdity and realism suggests how Powell’s work might enrich intertextual conversations across genres.

In short, I’m now obsessed with Dawn Powell. Upon completing The Locusts Have No King, I ordered several more of her novels, which promise to be just as starkly honest, comical, and satisfying.

Why We Like It: “Raisin Man” by Chelsea Bieker

October 28th, 2015

Samantha Edmonds: Voice is something one tends to hear a lot about when discussing fiction writing—“Oh, this has a great voice!” or “The voice of this piece really compelled me.” Those of us who teach may encourage our undergraduates to make better use of it—“Let your character’s voice drive the story.” But what exactly does it mean for a story have a great voice?

It doesn’t (usually) mean writing in dialect or slang or barely recognizable jargon. Rarely does it include, though it certainly can, the sprinkling of a foreign language. The best voices are subtler than that, more innate, something to be felt in the character, not just a rendering of speech.

voiceGreat voice is a line like “the way she forgot to wear unders like a lady should.” This appears in the first paragraph of Chelsea Bieker’s gorgeous story “Raisin Man” in CR’s current issue (12.1) and immediately gives the reader a clear sense of who Herd Collis is, where he comes from, the way he was raised.

In writing that something is “sweet like cane” or “the crops ain’t fit for nothing,” Bieker is offering more than characterization; she is offering backstory, setting, insight into why and how the narrator behaves as he does.

The voice in “Raisin Man” is also worth praising for its restraint. The language never becomes overbearing. It does not try to sound the way many think a narrator in a rural setting should, burdened with dropped g’s and verbs ending in apostrophes and phonetically spelled dialect; it merely shows us a particular human, both in scenes of great interiority and in spoken dialogue. The sentences are short but elegant in their brevity, simple and gorgeous, and the overall sense is that Herd is standing just before you, saying all of this out loud. Even when he isn’t speaking, you can hear him in every word.

Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers: Whale Woes

October 26th, 2015

It’s our pleasure to present another edition of Peteroy’s Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers, a blog feature in which Associate Editor Don Peteroy lobs a bit (or a lot) of ludicrousness, like a great white written spitball, at an author he admires, and the author bobs and weaves to avoid taking the sodden mass in the eye. This episode’s delightfully game target is Anne Valente. Coming at you, Anne! Cweappppppptttthhhhh [sound of written-spitball release].

moby_dick_11Question: You’re teaching an undergraduate novel-writing class. The first two students up for workshop hand in phonebook-sized manuscripts. At home, you begin to read the first one, and it’s not long before you realize the student has turned in an exact copy of Moby-Dick, word for word. You open the next manuscript, and the first line reads, “Call me Ishmael.” It’s another Moby-Dick. In class, you yell at the students, but they don’t know what you’re talking about. In Survey of British Lit, 1580-1700, you’d assigned The Taming of the Shrew. When you initiate conversation, the students start talking about homoeroticism as it pertains to Queequeg and Ishmael. You glance inside your copy of the Shakespeare play, and—it goes without saying—the entire text has been replaced by Moby-Dick. You then look in every book in your office. Kafka’s The Trial is about Ahab’s search for the whale. On the Road? A tale about whale hunting. Even Joyce Carol Oates’s entire oeuvre has become Melville-infected. And then you look in your own book, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down. “Call me Ishmael,” it reads. Your publisher phones to discuss a new novel you’re working on. She says, “Look, Anne, I’ll be frank. I don’t know what the hell you’re trying to do. Let’s try something new, something inventive. I’ve had this idea floating around in my head, and you can take it and expand upon it if you wish. Okay, so this guy, Ishmael, ends up on this whaling boat with this crazy captain named Ahab. . . .” As she explains, you open your inbox. You’ve received a rejection from a literary magazine. The email reads: “We’re sorry, but your work does not suit our needs at the moment. We’re currently looking for fresh stories about a captain in search of a white whale…” In brief, describe the next twenty-four hours of your life.


Valente1AV: First, I pull from beneath my bed the Ouija board that’s been gathering dust since junior high. I dim the lamps, light some candles and incense. Even though Witchboard and The Exorcist and even the Hasbro instructions have all warned me not to play alone, I place my hands on the planchette and ask the ether of the living room, “Herman Melville, is that you?” The wind blows against the panes. The candlelight flickers. The spade-shaped indicator creeps slowly around the board, not toward the YES or NO at the top corners but instead around the letters until it spells a full sentence: IT IS I. My hands flinch away from the board. Herman Melville is in the room! I gather my thoughts and wonder what I can possibly ask him. I think of my students, the whale-filled manuscripts, the call from my publisher, the literary magazine rejection. My hands find the board. “What do you want from me?” I say to the room.

The planchette flies quickly around, spells out the longest sentence I’ve seen since the board told me in junior high NO YOU WILL NEVER MEET TORI AMOS SORRY. I memorize the letters Melville gives me, decode them in my head. WHEN YOU READ MOBY DICK A FEW YEARS AGO YOU SKIMMED THE WHALING CHAPTERS AND I WANT YOU TO KNOW MORE ABOUT WHALE TAXONOMY AND BALEEN AND HARPOON ROPES.

Then the board goes silent. The wind stops blowing and the incense burns out. I set the board quietly inside its box, slide it back under the bed, and pull Moby-Dick off the shelf. It takes twenty-four hours to read all 663 pages, but by the following night, my eyes bloodshot with a lack of sleep, I know everything there is to know about the history of whaling and uses for whale oil and the difference between a humpback and a minke.

The next morning, my students submit manuscripts that don’t begin Call me Ishmael. We discuss The Taming of the Shrew. I receive a follow-up email from the lit mag saying submissions are closed for their whale-theme issue. I wonder for a few days if using the Ouija board alone will cause me to writing only of white whales, but Herman Melville never contacts me again.

Anne Valente’s first short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names, won the Dzanc Books Short Story Prize and was released in September 2014. Her debut novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, is forthcoming from William Morrow/HarperCollins in 2016. She is also the author of the fiction chapbook, An Elegy for Mathematics. Originally from St. Louis, she is a faculty member in the Creative Writing Department at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.

Exposing Our Roots: Coben, Wineman, Revell, Bagdanov

October 19th, 2015

Seamus Heaney’s famous poem “Digging” provides a well-loved metaphor for the writing process: pen as spade, the past as soil. “Between my finger and my thumb,” he writes, “The squat pen rests./I’ll dig with it.” In discussing their work from our upcoming winter issue (due late November), several contributors similarly explain their process as a kind of excavation—or, by contrast, a palimpsest built upon the past. Whether finding inspiration in family, biography, the literary canon, or the human body itself, these writers all reveal the constant presence of history on the page.

Joshua Coben: “Antechamber” is one of several poems about fatherhood that I’ve worked on in recent years. It reflects some of my most troubling questions about myself as a son and as a father of sons. I am trying to come to grips with the legacy of silence and misunderstanding that can be passed from taciturn father to quiet son across generations. Each son tries and, in many ways, fails to penetrate the mystery of his father. He seeks not only love, but also the means to understand himself. His father’s example, with all the unanswered questions it engenders, inevitably informs the kind of father he will grow into. This poem tries to convey the ancient dance of filial longing and paternal love, where the latter is often concealed behind barriers we do not mean to erect. The three-beat lines give it the lilt of a waltz, as father and son circle each other, changing places with each turn of the generational wheel.

Steven Wineman: When I heard about Alice Goffman’s book On the Run, I was drawn to the subject (a study of fugitive life in a poor African American neighborhood) and curious whether she was related to the great sociologist Erving Goffman. I did some poking around on the internet and found that, sure enough, Alice is Erving’s daughter. I also learned that Erving Goffman died when Alice was a baby, which seemed especially poignant given that he had remarried only the year before, at the age of fifty-nine. I came upon something else I had not known about Goffman: his first wife suffered from bipolar disorder and committed suicide in 1964. Suddenly I had a very personal link to Erving’s biography; I also was married to a woman who struggled with bipolar disorder and who took her life. I began to think about how to weave all these strands—a young woman taking up the work of the father she lost as an infant; two women crushed by mental illness; two husbands overwhelmed by suffering and loss—into a single essay. “Erving and Alice and Sky and Elisabeth” is the result.

Donald Revell on “Fresh Dante”: The poem for me arose from a crowd of living palimpsests—the city of Toulouse, vivid now as it was vivid centuries ago as the capital of the Troubadors; the Garonne, a river running through the city and through the Cantos of Ezra Pound; a sense of Dante in the midst of all, still and still embodied as he was in Eternity where his shadow dumbfounded the shades, including the shades of the Troubadors themselves; and eventually my own flesh, inscribing and effacing my days. We die into our books and then out of them again. The imperfections of our words match the imperfection of our loves, in the flesh and out of it. For me, Toulouse is at the center of it all.

Kristin George Bagdanov on “Resurrection Body”: I worry about extinction. I wonder how much of my life is actually an interaction with residue (shadow, echo, fossil, language) rather than the thing itself. I wonder if a poem, like the world, is always tending toward extinction, if the poem itself is a fossil in the making. In “Resurrection Body,” I reimagine the concepts of metempsychosis and bodily resurrection by considering the fact that our material bodies are not wholly our own—they are both person and thing, self and other, human and other-than-human. The human body, for example, has ten times more bacterial cells than human ones—so what implications does this have for calling one’s body “human” or saying “I”? This poem also elegizes the current and future loss of this world; the last line could be read as hopeful, or perhaps a realization forged too late in this epoch: that the damage we’ve inflicted upon other bodies is damage we’ve inflicted upon our own, and that this residue will persist beyond any individual’s death.