Pas de Deux: Hoyt & Silver

June 23rd, 2014

And now for part deux of the danse macabre between Dan Hoyt and Doug Silver. (And a BONUS for the morbid among you: a list of notable people throughout history who were beheaded, “arranged alphabetically by country or region and with date of decapitation.”)

Douglas Silver: The opening sentence in “Here I Am”—They came for him at work, at Burger King—succeeds in both hooking the reader and imparting a sense of familiarity with this world, as if we were pages deep into the narrative instead of nine words. By the end of the first paragraph, the protagonist (and the reader) is up to his eyeballs (sorry, I couldn’t resist) in conflict. Was this immediate urgency what you envisioned in the early stages of writing the story?

Daniel A. Hoyt: I always want an opening to reach out and grab readers, maybe straighten their lapels, maybe shake them a bit. At least I hope for this. I want an immediate sense of storyness: conflict, plot, urgency, some sense of this mattering—to a character and to a reader. In my fiction classes, we often analyze first lines. Some writers can utilize eight elements of craft in twenty words. Here’s one of my favorites: “The pump repairman was cautious.” It’s from “Same Place, Same Things” by Tim Gautreaux, and it doesn’t seem like a great first line until you read the whole story, but so much is established in five words.

I had some form of that first line — “They came for him at Burger King”—from a very early draft, but the editors at The Cincinnati Review said it wasn’t clear for a while that John, the protagonist, actually works at Burger King. I tweaked accordingly, and it’s better. It solidifies the concept of work, which is so central to the story. (An implicit message here is to listen to good editors.)

DS: The central conceit of this piece is that John, a middle-aged supervisor at Burger King, is beheaded by axmen, and miraculously survives as a bodiless head. Absurd as this is, I always felt grounded in the world. What challenges did you encounter as you unfolded this surreal element into a world otherwise like our own?

DH: Perhaps it’s telling and problematic that my first instinct is to say it was no problem. But of course all stories are a problem. And even though I think our lives can seem strange and surreal and eerie, they’re not this type of impossible. To counteract that, I thought a lot about the doubters in all of us. I had to think through the fictional reality of a cephalophore and try to stave off the nagging questions that might accompany one: For example, wouldn’t he die from blood loss? I tried to do some preemptive thinking, and I also tried to get the real-world details right. That Burger King exists, and that Watch Your Head sign is in the back, and they did have posters up for a long while pushing those smoothies. I’d never been inside it until I peeked in to get a look at the floor, a homely tile. I resisted the smoothies.

DS: For a story with such a morose premise, it is often quite funny, particularly John’s insights and recollections as he experiences life divorced from his body. What if any struggles did you face capturing a narrative voice that could convey John’s regrets over his lost daughter and underachieving life with the same poignancy imparted to the bizarre sexual tryst encounters of his youth and an awful job he had years earlier at a recycling center?

DH: I almost never feel “just sad” or “completely happy,” and sometimes when I’m the most bummed out (but not completely; it’s never complete), that’s when I seek—sometimes consciously—the consolation of humor. Part of my attempt to create the “reality” of John’s experience was to bring in a jumble of unexpected thoughts and feelings. The confusion of his mind foils the confusion of the event, this mysterious beheading. It had to be plainspoken and close, and I think it helps too that John questions his own thoughts. He’s thinking of these random highs and lows, and he’s getting lost in his consciousness, which is what the beheading does in some way: separate his mind (stuck in place, stuck in itself) and his body (off in the world).

DS: As the story progresses, it becomes apparent John was disconnected from his body, and by extension his life, long before the axmen blindsided him. Displayed like a circus freak, he admits, wistfully, his admiration for Jason, a slacker employee at Burger King whose shift John had been covering when he was decapitated. Jason was the only person he knew who did what he wanted on a perpetual basis. Given the amount of time I imagine you spend alone at your desk (or wherever you write), is this a sentiment with which you often grapple?

DH: I used to have these great failure fantasies, back when I was journalist in my twenties: I’d get fired somehow and that would allow me to recreate myself, to be free of deadlines, to light out west (to San Francisco usually, where I thought I could crash on a couch for a while). Sadly, I never got fired. There’s some part of me now that thinks I should have quit, but I’m sort of an anti-Jason. I tend to do what is required of me. I’m pretty good with rules, with expectations, and, of course, there are times when I feel hemmed in by them, by attending academic meetings or by grading reading quizzes or by cleaning the gutters. I almost never feel trapped, though, when I’m writing. I think a lot about what all of the effort means, however, both as I write and as I help teach others to write: I choose to believe that the act of writing is valuable and necessary. The choosing makes it so.

DS: Fate vs free will is a central theme in this story. While that’s nothing new, what struck me was John’s uncertainty as to which he’d prefer. He is, by the end, a man without choices questioning if that ever wasn’t the case. Did the axmen choose him randomly? Was he marked from birth?  What if he and his wife had been more secure in their finances? He is an effect desperate to unearth his cause. In contrast, as the story’s powerful conclusion makes clear, John’s body has continued to live the life from which John is now barred. In your opinion, who has it worse, the conscious mind relegated to a crushed-velvet case in some basement or the mindless body acting out the motions of life with no sense of life’s possibilities?

DH: This is a great question, and it’s exactly the kind of question I usually try to dodge about my stories. I want readers to mull something like this without my interference. I just write the fucking things, you know? But, oh well, here goes. In my reading, on this morning in April, I think the mind has it worse. The body is out there. The body is free, and John at least—John’s mind—can’t escape from asking, Why? I believe deeply in the electrochemical wonder of our minds. Our brains can free us too, but John—John’s mind—is a prisoner, and the oppression of that adds an important layer: He’s dehumanized in so many ways, down in that basement, where he tries to tell the future, where he tries to hold on to his rights of personhood. He’s trapped and trapped and trapped, and the body’s loose and lost, all instinct, all desire, all pain.

Oh, man, can I just say that they’re both screwed?

Postscript: I feel compelled to add a quick final note: Thanks, TCR, for doing this series, and, Doug, thanks so much for indulging my love of Dickens, asking such good questions, and writing such an interesting story.

News from the Crypt

June 19th, 2014

Hey, CR followers. We’re breaking our summer skeleton-crew silence with a reminder, an update, and a treat.

First, don’t forget our summer contest. There’s some lovely moolah attached to the Schiff Prizes—and even if the eds don’t pick your piece to win, they may still want to publish it at our usual per-page rate ($30 for poetry, $25 for prose). In the event that we don’t opt to publish your stuff this time around, you still get a full year’s subscription to the mag, which includes bonus music features AND the 64-page, full-color graphic play MOTH, which we plan to mail out with our November issue. Illustrator Gable Ostley is hard at work and sending us new “rough inks” almost daily, and playwright Declan Greene is supplying captions and dialogue for Gabe’s sketches. The finished product is going to be amazing.

Now for the update: We just approved the final proof for our summer issue and expect the shipment in the next week or so. Our TEN-tacular issue includes last year’s Schiff Prize winners, three reviews that meditate on the staying power of the classic Moby-Dick, the usual complement of terrific stories and poems, another great translation feature,  and—bonus—it will be accompanied by our latest music feature, composer Sarah Hutchings’s score for Jeff Gundy’s poem “March Ode.”

Today’s treat comprises a last delightful look at our winter number in the form of our (relatively) new blog feature Pas de Deux, in which contributors to a given issue interview each other about what intrigued, puzzled, or impressed them in the another writer’s story, poem, or essay. This installment features an exchange between Daniel A. Hoyt and Douglas Silver on the latter’s story  ”Found Peoples.”  Check back in a couple of days for the switcheroo: Doug’s questions and Dan’s responses!

Daniel A. Hoyt: I have lots of questions about bodies and lots of questions that seem to beget more questions. “Found Peoples” starts with such gripping, visceral language as Feng, the story’s protagonist, examines a dead body he’s fished from the river. I was immediately convinced by the body; I was there with Feng as he “pinched the green eye, and the contact lens peeled off.” How did you create these artful and disturbing states of decay? What kind of research did you do? Is this a feat of imagination, of medical textbooks, of Google?

Douglas Silver: Google is generally my first stop—be it for a spicier Massaman curry recipe or the particulars of each stage of human decomposition. Numerous websites and academic journals provided an indispensable foundation in the science of decay. I read a lot and emailed a few experts and saw many images I would like to unsee. From there, it was a matter of backtracking—from ashes to animation—and deciding upon those details that provide a glimpse into the lives of the deceased.

DH: How about your depiction of China? How did you go about imagining and creating the physical setting and the rich sociological dynamics underpinning the story?

DS: China’s abysmal record on human rights and personal expression is infamous the world over. It is a dreadful place to be writer and a fascinating place to write about. Much of the societal and physical depictions were the product of research, but the narrative atmosphere was strongly influenced by my visit to China after graduating high school. When I arrived at the airport in Beijing, I noticed a sign that read Warning: Drug Trafficking is Punishable by Death in the R.O.C. Being 18 and an idiot, I thought this a superb photo-op. Before I could put away my camera, two officers approached me. One took my luggage and emptied it in front of everyone while the other demanded my passport. When they didn’t find drugs, they repacked me (admittedly neater than I had packed myself) and welcomed me to the country. When I told someone I met about this interaction, an American who had lived in China for years, she explained how lucky I was, how much worse it would have been if I were Chinese. I sought out that airport photograph when I began the story and kept asking myself what becomes of the unlucky.

DH: Because these questions are for a Pas de Deux feature, this question seems almost mandatory: Will you discuss the way you use foils in “Found Peoples”?

DS: One of the challenges of the piece was providing the reader a palpable sense of Feng’s former life. It seemed the most organic method to achieve this was through Feng’s encounters with those who were devoted to his family, and leveraging this juxtaposition for the benefit of both characterization and narrative tension. At some point, it occurred to me that it is Feng’s contact with the living through which the reader derives the clearest prospective into Feng’s past, i.e., the life he lost. Conversely, it is his dealings with the dead that most clearly render his present life—a paradigm that is upended by his time with the young woman’s body.

DH: There’s a strangely mundane yet magical moment in “Found Peoples” when Feng thinks of and explains the story of the prodigal son. To many members of a western audience and to many western characters, that explanation is unnecessary, but Feng has to think about it in a different way. How did you discover Feng’s point of view? How do you go about shaping point of view in your stories?

DS: I’m of the belief that the surest way to figure out a character is to determine what he or she most desires. If my character doesn’t have an urgent need, then I don’t have a character. At least not one I have any right to expect readers to invest in. I start by asking myself the basics: What does CHARACTER want? Why does CHARACTER want it? What is preventing CHARACTER from getting it? In Feng’s case, while he spends his days working vigilantly and dishonorably to afford basic human necessities, he desires at his core the safe return of his family and the communal acceptance that carries. But he is powerless to achieve that desire; his sole option is faith—something he has never possessed, what divided him from his family prior to their incarceration and what he can’t acquire without them. Once I realized the paradox of Feng as a man who doesn’t believe and therefore isn’t believed in (and therefore can’t believe), I felt like I might have character worth following.

DH: This one may seem like an assignment rather than a question, but I wish more people would read Our Mutual Friend (you too, Gentle Reader of The Cincinnati Review blog!), so here goes: As I first read “Found Peoples,” I immediately thought of Gaffer Hexam, the “night bird” in Our Mutual Friend, who, like Feng, fishes corpses from a river and strips them of valuables.  Here’s a link to the opening chapter, when we first meet Gaffer and his daughter, Lizzie. Doug, I know you were initially inspired by a news article about men who retrieve dead bodies from rivers in China, but had you read Our Mutual Friend? What kind of dialogue do you see between your story and the opening of Dickens’s novel?

DS: I’m embarrassed and grateful that I had not heard of Our Mutual Friend. Having now read the first chapter, I am not sure I would have had the confidence to write the piece had I known that none other than Charles Dickens had employed a similar conceit, especially given that both stories start out in medias res. While it appears Gaffer and Feng are not driven by similar desires, both have no qualms about plundering the dead. Gaffer’s rhetorical statement “Has a dead man any use for money? Is it possible for a dead man to have money? What world does a dead man belong to? ‘Tother world. What world does money belong to? This world. . . .” places a premium on corporeality similar to that of Feng, whose ken is viewed through the lens of materialism. Again, I have read one chapter, so my analysis might prove to be total bunk. (But I’m enjoying it thus far, as might you, Gentle Reader of The Cincinnati Review blog!)

Robert and Adele Schiff Awards in Poetry and Prose

May 30th, 2014

The Cincinnati Review invites submissions for the annual Robert and Adele Schiff Prose and Poetry Awards. One poem and one prose piece (fiction or creative nonfiction) will be chosen for publication in our 2015 prize issue, and winning authors will receive $1,000 each. All entries will be considered for publication in The Cincinnati Review.


Writers may submit up to 8 pages of poetry or 40 pages of a single prose piece, per entry. Previously published manuscripts, including works that have appeared online (in any form) will not be considered. There are no restrictions as to form, style, or content; all entries will be considered for publication. Simultaneous submissions are acceptable under the condition that you notify us if your manuscript is accepted elsewhere. As the contest is judged blind, no contact information may appear anywhere on the manuscript file. Files that do include identifying information will be rejected unread, and entry fees will not be refunded (though you’ll still get your free subscription).


The entry fee is $20, and includes a one-year subscription to The Cincinnati Review. Multiple submissions are welcome and come with additional yearlong subscriptions, which can be used to extend your original subscription or given as gifts. We will be accepting submissions only via our online submission manager, through which contestants can pay the entry fee. Again, please do not include the writer’s name or any identifying information in the manuscript file. Instead, in the “comments” field at the bottom of the entry page, enter the writer’s name, mailing address, telephone number, email, and the title(s) of the submitted work(s). Also, be sure to use the “genre” tab to indicate whether your submission is poetry, prose fiction, or prose nonfiction.

Note to international entrants: Our payment gateway requires you to enter a US state or territory and zip code as part of your address. We suggest you use ‘OH’ for the state and ‘45202′ for the zip code. If you already have an account with us, you’ll need to change this information on your account page before submitting payment. After your payment has gone through, please change your address back, so that your free subscription will go to the right place.

All entries will receive equal consideration.


Submissions will be accepted from June 1 to July 22.

Winners will be notified October 1, and an announcement will appear on our website and in the Winter 2015 issue. Winning entries will be published in the Summer 2015 issue, which comes out in May.


If you have any questions about the contest or problems submitting and/or making payment, please email editors[at], and we’ll get back to you shortly.

The good news about “Good Faith”

April 28th, 2014

We’re excited to announce that Colleen Morrissey’s story “Good Faith” (CR volume 9, number 2) will be included in the 2014 O. Henry Prize Stories, due out in September. Huge congrats, Colleen!

Pas de Deux: Nuernberger & Lessley

April 24th, 2014

Thanks for stopping by to check out the last poetry Pas de Deux of the season: our second interview between poets and 10.2 contributors Kathryn Nuernberger and Shara Lessley. Below, Nuernberger asks Lessley about her poem “They Ask Me to Send,” one of a series of narrative-lyrics that explore Lessley’s time living in Jordan. Scroll down to learn how she negotiates the autobiographical and speaking selves in her poems, what it’s really like for an American woman to shop for soap in the downtown suqs of Amman, and how spectacular the night sky appears when populated with hundreds of fire balloons at the end of Ramadan.

Kathryn Nuernberger: “They Ask Me to Send” makes me want to reread Edward Said and Elizabeth Bishop. Which writers were you thinking about when you wrote the poem?

Shara Lessley: I’m very interested in how Americans romanticize and deride the Middle East (sometimes in the same breath), although Said’s Orientalism certainly wasn’t on my desk during the drafting process. What I remember most about “They Ask Me to Send” is the moment that triggered the poem. My husband and I were having drinks on a patio overlooking Amman’s many hills, its downtown maze of suqs and mosques. We’d only lived in the Middle East a few weeks and I couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing. Drifting over the rooftops and then across the face of the Citadel, there they were—the “paper chambers” Bishop so perfectly depicts in “The Armadillo,” the ones that “flush and fill with light / that comes and goes, like hearts.” Fire balloons! I couldn’t believe my luck. Unlike Bishop’s illegal balloons, however, the globes weren’t “rising toward a saint / still honored in these parts” but launched to celebrate the final hours of Ramadan.

KN: Your bio in Cincinnati Review indicates that you are a “recent resident of the Middle East,” which reinforces inclinations readers might have to think of this poem as nonfiction. The speaker castigates family and friends of the family, and the poem approaches an emotional climax with frustrating phone calls from the speaker’s mother. How do you think about the line between yourself in the world and yourself on the page?

SL: The three years I lived in Amman were a privilege. However, even as I did my best to immerse myself in the language and traditions, to learn as much as I could about the country and its people, to engage respectfully with its values and flaws, I remained an outsider. Another American passing through. “They Ask Me to Send” is less castigating of others than of the cultural script we’ve been given of the region (enter Said?). The first questions I’m asked about Jordan almost always concern safety and sexism. At no time while bartering for soap or scarves was I ever Carrie Bradshaw—you know the cartoonish Middle Eastern scene in the Sex and the City movie where Carrie and company traipse through the suq like circus clowns while crowds of hostile Arabs gape and stare?

We often ask readers to separate the speaker from the author—and for good reason. In this case, the speaker is clearly me, although my mother never demanded “a precise ‘timeline’ detailing / our stateside return.” (Sorry Mom!) What’s true is that expats are often asked for stuff. Trinkets. Recipes. Evidence of a life abroad. “They Ask Me to Send” takes stock of the care packages I shipped from Jordan. I mailed Dead Sea products, mosaics, Lebanese sweets. A lot of coffee. Miniature flags and stickers and stuffed animals (camels mostly) that were probably made in China. The boxes were filled with good intentions, but failed to convey a life lived. No matter how hard I tried, I could never send what makes Amman so magical—the generosity of its people, for instance, “the air at Aaron’s tomb,” or fire balloons drifting over columns from the Temple of Hercules, fragments more than six thousand years old.

Pas de Deux: Lessley & Nuernberger

April 23rd, 2014

We’re back with an early Mother’s Day installment of Pas de Deux in which Shara Lessley interviews fellow poet and mother Kathryn Nuernberger about her poem “Toad” from issue 10.1. Read on to discover how Lessley and Nuernberger confront some of the painful/joyful moral ambiguities of motherhood in the twenty-first century, and to finally figure out how Toad, beloved cartoon character from the Frog and Toad easy-reader series, cures his amphibian melancholia.

Shara Lessley: Poems about parenthood frequently figure the child as static or godlike, enigmatic or revered. What I love about “Toad” is its refusal to idealize mother or daughter. What roles do kids (or mothers) typically play in poetry, and how does “Toad” defy such conventions?

Kathryn Nuernberger: There’s a disconnect between our idealized expectations of mothers and the lived experience, which, if you’ve internalized the impossible standards of the romantic ideal, can only result in falling short. Motherhood is composed of many spots of time, while lyric poetry has tended to the put the spotlight on just one kind of moment. Robert Hass has this really insightful, humane line in “Dragonflies Mating.” He writes:

When we say “mother” in poems,
we usually mean some woman in her late twenties
or early thirties trying to raise a child.

We use this particular noun
to secure the pathos of the child’s point of view
and to hold her responsible.

Hass points out we use the word mother as a stand-in for “every need fulfilled,” and that’s not a sustainable endeavor for an actual mother. How many years can a real parent go before the child cries for reasons no mother or father can solve?

I could give you a seven-page treatise on the theme of parenthood in contemporary poetry, but nobody wants to read all that on a blog. So my final words on the subject will have to be: Brigit Pegeen Kelly, K. A. Hays, Douglas Kearney, Matthea Harvey, Rachel Zucker, Jennifer Kronovet, Larissa Szporluck, Corey Marks, et alia.

SL: “Toad” perfectly enacts the daily chaos of parenthood—that contradictory rush of surprise that interrupts routine, our sad (perhaps I should speak only of myself!) efforts to manage, maintain, monitor, make fun! The poem’s sentences are both energizing and exhausting. Can you talk a little about how syntax builds momentum and what it suggests about the speaker’s emotional state?

KN: Toddler frenzy + sleep deprivation = addled. Addled = long sentences + overreliance on conjunctions.

SL: At the beginning of “Toad,” a mother admits to pushing her child to the floor and then spins fifteen or so lines narrating the scene before arriving at the turn: “And I know this should be the poem about how I’m horrified/ at myself,” the speaker confesses, “the poem about what in ourselves we have to live with . . .” I wonder here about the speaker’s expectations—of herself, of motherhood, of poetry’s ability to capture the complex dynamics and unstated tensions that accompany parenthood. When you were drafting “Toad,” did the “but” that follows the aforementioned lines surprise you? Did it feel risky to write? To justify why the speaker pushed her “two-year-old/ against a wall”?

KN: One thing I like about poetry is that when you say something is “not” something it instantly becomes that something, while remaining not it at all. To say “this is not” is to invite the reader to consider what it would be if it were. And so it is a poem about what in ourselves we have to live with.

SL: The poem finally flashes forward to a playful (more idealized) day that involves hide-and-seek, hunting for bugs, and reading Frog and Toad. How does the children’s book connect with the title? Why is reading so significant to “Toad”?

KN: Toad suffers some pretty crushing melancholy in that book. He won’t get out of bed, and Frog tricks him into coming into the sunshine to play; he lives in squalor because he can’t find the will power to wash his clothes or clean the kitchen. We all know part of becoming an adult is realizing your parents are people, and I think the image of the daughter reading this particular book alone points in that direction.

Meet Gabe Ostley, Our New Graphic Play Illustator

April 17th, 2014

The long search is over. After over one hundred applications, many from hugely talented and qualified artists, we’ve selected Gabe Ostley to adapt Declan Greene’s play Moth into a graphic novella.

Gabe Ostley is the artist for The Hammer (DC Comics), as well as Hero Action Persons, Snatcher Bodies, and My Date With Medusa, published by Devil’s Due Digital. He was born in Minnesota and graduated from the Savannah College of Art & Design with a BFA in Sequential Art. After working in illustration and licensed characters in New York City, he moved to Hong Kong to the post of Artist-in-Residence for Yew Chung Education Foundation. His work has expanded to include murals and large scale sculptural works in addition to paintings in galleries around Hong Kong. Recently he has worked in animation for Filmages. He’s also storyboarded, filmed, and edited several documentaries and short films for Yew Chung.

Gabe’s next project? Moth the graphic play, a handsome 6×9-inch perfect-bound book, coming in at about 56 pages, which will be mailed (free of charge!) to our subscribers. So if you haven’t subscribed for our anniversary year, do so here.

More on Moth: Moth is the story of Anime-obsessed Sebastian and emo art-freak Claryssa as they awkwardly navigate the cruel social hierarchy of high school. A horrific event on the school’s athletic field threatens their friendship and sends Sebastian on an apocalyptic mission, whereby fantasy and reality intermingle with dangerous consequences. Written with dark wit that’s ultimately after your heart, Moth is an exploration of friendship, adolescence, loss, and mental illness. It is currently making its American debut at the Studio Theater in Washington, DC. Click here for a preview of the play, and then imagine it expertly illustrated by Gabe Ostley.

Our Reading Period: Pressing Pause

April 14th, 2014

Citizens of writerdom, our reading period ends tomorrow. That does not mean we stop reading. Nay. We have more than fifteen hundred manuscripts waiting in the Submission Manager wings, which is why we need to close for a wee while. Can’t keep you fine people waiting endlessly for a response from our swamped selves. So tomorrow the portal becomes . . . a lot less portal-like, and we wade into all that swampy goodness with our rubber overalls, as well as nets (for the slippery submissions) and tranq guns (for your wilder offerings) and snorkels (for the deep stuff). Come August 15, we’ll have worked through the backlog and will fling open the doors again. In the meantime, you can submit to our summer contest, which runs in June and July, with winners (one in poetry, one in prose) announced October 1.

On Marriage: Duffy-Comparone, Beasley, Clark, Seaton

April 10th, 2014

Divorce. The rate in the US, by some estimates, is 50 percent, but it seems like more. I mean, Al Gore and Tipper. Not to mention Deb and Gary, your high school friend’s really cool parents. And Gwyneth Paltrow and that guy from Coldplay? If they can’t make it, who can?  As Louis C. K. says, “Marriage is just a larvae stage for true happiness, which is divorce.” He says that because he is . . . yep . . . divorced. Everyone, it seems, is either divorced or getting married so they can get divorced. So why try? Why tie the knot in the first place?

For one, you crazy kids, it might just work out. And for two, you might get some fantastic poems and stories out of it, like our four contributors in CR 10.2, who find inspiration in this ancient institution. Emma Duffy-Comparone addresses whether there is marriage through our many reincarnated lives, if you have a soul mate as a fish or a birch tree. Bruce Beasley ponders the intersection of marriage and atmospheric disturbance (hint: wind is divorce). Kevin Clark found his poem in the juxtaposition of an Italian Renaissance painting and the story of a marital love life gone stale. And Maureen Seaton looks at her daughter’s marriage for proof that her generation’s idealism has not gone to waste.

Bruce Beasley (on his poem “On Marriage”): During a period of several weddings of couples close to me, set alongside divorces of several other couples at the same time, I started thinking of marriage as a balance of desire and satiation, stability and restlessness for change.  During a windstorm I started mulling the fact that what we call “wind” is nothing but air driven by changing atmospheric conditions into motion. I thought “divorce is to marriage as wind is to air”: an unexpected turbulence that disrupts or destroys.  The inverse, though, also seemed true: marriage as a contained turbulence of desire. In thinking about the weddings and the divorces (and a divorce followed quickly by a marriage) I thought about the word immotive, which means “unmoving, immovable,” but sounds a great deal like emotive, which means “moved.”  Marriage, then, as a mixture of the emotive and the immotive, the moving and the unmoveable.  Marriage as a mixture of stasis and change, the restlessness of desire and the stability of devotion. I went looking for oxymoronic words and phrases—“hold fast” suggesting both stillness and speed; “still” containing both incompletion and change on the one hand (still going on) and motionlessness and stasis on the other (stillbirth) to suggest the paradoxical nature of marriage as a stillness amid the perturbations of change.

Emma Duffy-Comparone (on her story “Crossing the Sagamore”): I watched a Ted Talk once about how mushrooms can save the world: something about how they can clean up our most brutal waste, our oil spills, and our nuclear meltdowns. After learning this I went nuts, cooking with them almost every night. I think the affair lasted about a week, and then I called it off. But then I kept dreaming that I had beautiful gills down my ribs. I think these gills were more like a mushroom than a fish, but that made sense, too: my love for the ocean is so physical I’d have to call it lust, and I’ve always known on some level that I’ve lived in there. I mean, I just know I was a fish. And then, partly related to this issue is the question of whether there is a soul mate, one you keep bumping into whether you’re tuna together or birch trees on the side of the highway or soldiers in the Civil War, etc. I’m not sure if I believe it, but Deirdre and Ted seemed to, and then I sent Ted away. And in the meantime I gave those mushrooms a lot of work to do.

Kevin Clark (on his poem “Watching Kira Learn to Surf”): The poem emerged out of the longest sequence I’ve ever attempted. I’d known a long-married woman decades ago who broke up with her husband because he had no imagination in bed. Year after year, same thing in the same order, no matter what, she said. I’m sure that wasn’t the only problem, but I’d carried the idea of such a circumstance around in the back of my mind until I thought to myself, hey, that could be a dramatic subject for a poem. The effort led to the idea for a verse novel I’m calling Magdalene in Ecstasy, after a Renaissance painting by Sigismondo Coccapani. I want each poem to stand on its own, much in the manner of Andrew Hudgins’s After the Lost War, even though my book is structured differently than his. Marie, the speaker of “Watching Kira Learn to Surf,” is the main character, though two others speak as well: her ex-husband Jesse, a Vietnam vet and surf shop owner suffering silently from PTSD, and a lonely Italian lit professor named Raffaele with whom she’d spent a memorable night in the Baja when they were both twenty. Kira is Marie and Jesse’s only child. The poem describes a key moment in which Marie is with Jesse when she realizes that she must eventually leave him. The three characters have experienced a mix of deeply erotic and spiritual longing on their way to hard-earned, barely certain self-reliance.

Maureen Seaton (on her poem “Skinny Dipping”): “Skinny Dipping” came along as one of those poems that slams into your brain, messes with it, and leaves by the back door. I’ve been trying ever since to figure out if I actually believe what I wrote. I want to. I want a practical idealism, not something my imagination cooked up to keep me in the poppy field. I wrote it at 7,500 feet above sea level in New Mexico, far from the farmland of upstate New York, observing my daughter and her husband as they went about their gentle lives: December 2012. I think it occurred to me that something luminous had indeed survived from those four sodden days, our small and large wars, our bare feet and poppies. That my father had been wrong, after all, and there was Mike’s and my kid and Diane and Morton’s kid to prove it. Look at them, I thought, and the poem crashed into me fiercely, like music at 3 a.m., Woodstock, turn of an epoch.

Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers: Smell the Page

April 8th, 2014

Donny Boy P. is back on our blog with an olfactory edition of Peteroy’s Irrelevant Questions—a whenever-he’s-not-swamped-and-can-actually-get-writers-he-admires-to-respond-to-his-crazy-questions series, this time with John Henry Fleming, who, obviously, responded.

John Henry Fleming’s story collection, Songs for the Deaf, has just been released from Burrow Press. He’s also the author of The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman, a novel, Fearsome Creatures of Florida, a literary bestiary, and The Book I Will Write, a novel-in-emails originally published serially at the Atticus Books website. His short stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, North American Review, Mississippi Review, Fourteen Hills, Kugelmass, Better: Culture and Lit, and Carve, among others. He teaches creative writing at the University of South Florida, where he is advisory editor of Saw Palm. Visit his website at

Question: You have many devoted readers. Ideally, what would you like your readers to smell like when they read your fiction, and why?

JHF: Ideally, the reading experience of any good book changes the scent of the reader. Can you not tell, stepping into a coffee shop, which patron is reading Flaubert and which Tennyson? It is written on the breeze. Well-crafted language transforms; one has only to open one’s receptors and activate one’s glands. Pheromones are released, poisons get sweated. A once-secret self broadcasts like the charged air before a storm. Are there words for it? No, if the scent could be contained in words it would not be itself. It is you but not you. It is you on books, on this particular book, this story, this poem, this line. It’s good, you say, looking up at the sound of my deep inhale. Have you read it? No, but I’ve read you reading it, and sometimes that’s enough. I know you better now. I love you, reader of books. I love the scent of you, the multitudes your book-scent contains, worlds so light as to drift on the breeze, settling now onto steamed milk like dustings of cinnamon. But don’t let me interrupt your reading. Cinnamon is fine, too. I can absolutely accept cinnamon if that’s how my readers smell. Warm crayons are also good. Either way, thank you for smelling.