Exotic Locales: Pankey, Parry, & Marberry

January 29th, 2015

Write what you know. It’s easy to tire of the adage, to bristle as the tweedy, bespectacled creative-writing-instructor-within brandishes his red pen at the slightest intimation of the unknown: dark matter, psychic surgery, monkey robot vampires from Planet Zed. When we asked 11.1 contributors Eric Pankey, Lesley Parry, and Michael Marberry to discuss their process, a shared theme emerged: exotic locales. Pankey writes about the lavender fields near Senanque Abbey in Provence; Parry about a state park built around sulfur springs outside Orlando, Florida; and Marberry about that strangest, yet most familiar of foreign places: the womb. Read on to discover how Pankey, Parry, and Marberry negotiate these and other realms.

Eric Pankey: Both these poems were drafted in Provence in the summer of 2013, when I had the luxury of a month-long fellowship and residency at the Dora Maar House. Both poems are located in the same place, Senanque Abbey, a lovely medieval Cistercian abbey, founded in 1148, and well-known for its lavender fields, which were in bloom when I visited, walked the property, and attended Vespers. The moments attended to in the poems continued to lengthen then foreshorten in memory, and the poems attempt to capture the stillness, the mutability of those moments.

Lesley Parry: While I was a resident at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, a woman named Kim suggested I visit a state park nearby. She told me there was a restaurant on the grounds where you could cook pancakes right at your table. (Pancakes! I was sold!) But when I arrived at De Leon Springs, I was struck not only by its extraordinary beauty, but by its history, until then unknown to me. Years ago it had been a resort (featuring, yes, a water-skiing elephant) and before that the site of settlements, plantations, and wars. I spent the day there, watching for birds, walking the silent trails. Around this same time I’d been thinking about my sister, who worked as a singer on a cruise-ship. It’s a strange psychological terrain you enter when you live and work in the same confined space with the same group of people for months on end—the shorthand, the melodrama, the déjà vu. I’d been thinking about what that kind of intimacy and monotony does to your sense of self—to your notions of autonomy, complicity, and duty. So as I wandered the paths around the park, fueled by pancakes, imagining what had passed before, those two terrains overlapped to form the bedrock of this story. (And wherever you are, Kim, thank you.)

Michael Marberry: The first of these two poems published in 11.1 (“second son”) enacts the speaker’s failed attempt to accurately describe a recurring dream in which he is, simultaneously, a) being conceived; b) a fetus in the womb; and c) already an adult. The boat piercing the water’s surface is overt sex; the firework imagery is both literal and figurative, so to speak. There is a failure in language to capture the dream to the speaker’s liking. But starting over again doesn’t help: The feelings of being accidental and unwanted seem passed on from the nameless, faceless father—a sort of perverse (genetic?) inheritance, a lineage of shameful bastards.

The second of these two poems (“future son”) enacts the speaker’s failed attempt to provide clarity and foresight. The speaker of this poem is a possibility and not, necessarily, a certainty—someone from one potential future among many. Even then, we would like some answers to our questions, which he is happy to provide. But absent the questions themselves, the answers are only modestly insightful. There’s some Don Rumsfeld (of all people!) thrown in for “good” measure—i.e., what we know we know, what we know we don’t know, what we don’t know we know, and what we don’t know we don’t know. Like “second son,” it’s a bit about loss and being sad, even at losing what we don’t know we’re losing.

Back-Issue Giveaway!

January 26th, 2015

Our new issue is wheeling its way toward us, and our storage room is packed tighter than a clown car. Gotta make room, readers, so if you’ve been pining for a particular back issue or three or four, now’s your chance to load up on some of the best stories, poems, essays, and reviews of the past decade. The issues are FREE. We ask that you pay only for postage. Because we ship everything media mail, you can get a lot of lit for your buck.

Here’s what to do: Check our archives and note which issues you want. Each one weighs about 13 ounces. Consult the price chart below and tally up your total. Call us up and place your order (we take most credit cards). We’ll charge you for postage and ship out your issues in a pretty little box. We’ll even toss in some paperclips. THAT’S how generous we’re feeling. Our number is 513.556.3954, and the office is open most of every day. The storage room is not. We’re afraid to go in there.

NOTE: Our earliest issues are no longer available: 1.1, 1.2, 2.1, 2.2, 3.1, 3.2, 4.1.

MEDIA MAIL RATES

not over 1 lb: $2.69

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Long Forms: Time Limit

January 23rd, 2015

Long forms, we have come to appreciate anew your grand-scale grace, your unhurried pace, the way you are willing, like a guest at an Indian wedding, to dance in the street for days. Our overstuffed winter issue will hit the mail trucks next week, and we just filled our spring/summer number, which promises to be still more . . . hippoesque. NEA funding stretches only so far, however, so though we will continue to read—with an eye toward publication—the long forms submitted in recent weeks, we must close the category at the end of this month. Writers of amplitudinous poetry and prose: You still have one week left (12 a.m. EST January 31) to stagger us with your sumo-sized submissions. Bring them on!

Testing Limits: Duhamel & Wade, Rafferty, Robbins, Williams

January 22nd, 2015

As those of you following along know by now, last Friday here at UC Mary Szybist read from her National Book Award–winning collection Incarnadine. What you might not know is that during said reading Szybist shared an ekphrastic poem (a poem responding to a piece of visual art), an abecedarian (a poem in which each line begins with A, B, C, D, . . . Z), an erasure (a poem made by crossing out words of an existing text), and a cento (a collage-poem made from lines of other poet’s work, or, in Szybist’s case, lines from The Starr Report and Nabokov’s Lolita). It will come as no surprise to writers that giving oneself a set of constraints, or forcing oneself to try a new form or device, can produce surprising and lovely results. Find out below how 11.1 contributors Denise Duhamel, Julie Marie Wade, Charles Rafferty, Richard Robbins, and P. J. Williams used constraints to generate their imaginative new work:

Denise Duhamel & Julie Marie Wade: “Pink” and “Red” are from a series of lyric essays we wrote by email, one section at a time, limiting ourselves to 250 words per section. We riffed off each other, knowing we would also limit ourselves to ten sections. We used color as a point of departure, and it helped that one of us (Julie) has synesthesia. We each came to the project with our past and our passions, our associations with blushing and fire, gender conformity and the need to bust out. Each section is like a photograph or painting, a block of color and the shadows it casts.

Charles Rafferty (on his prose poem “Quarry”): For a few years now, I’ve been interested in the possibility of the prose poem—to see what can happen when I abandon the strictures of line. It’s oddly freeing. The poems feel fat, gluttonous, like anything can be brought into them and digested. In this case, I started with a whim: How could I make a poem that could contain “virginity” and “metamorphic,” “penny” and “dynamite.” Somehow, being allowed to proceed without the idea of line reining me in made the poem a little wilder, a little more expansive, a little more able to take these words and find a suitable place for them—together but not touching—like hand-me-down furniture that ends up seeming like part of a set. It has nothing to do with the fabric or the style. You just need a big enough living room.

Richard Robbins (on “Secret Father Rollover” and “Secret Father, Beginnings”): I’ve been attracted lately to writing sequences with independent poetic parts. It allows me to confront an idea or image, like mountains, over time and across disparate pieces. The idea may certainly have autobiographical resonance, but in any case it conjures real or contemplated situations that, through language, I find myself navigating on the page. The Secret Father poems are evocative for me in this way. Each involves a different problem for a different Secret Father, even though all of these fathers share a core concern about being hidden or disconnected. In the two pieces CR published, there are, coincidentally, contrary movements: One poem enacts the father’s methodical disappearance from lives he has been connected to, and the other reconstructs a connection after a dramatic auto accident. I’m sure there are deeper reasons these poems get written—I hope there are—but these are the triggers.

P. J. Williams: I wrote “Myth” at a time when everything coming out of my head was in iambs. I’d wake up in the morning, pour a cup of coffee, and begin: da DAH da DAH da DAH da DAH da DAH. Perhaps it traces back to listening to a bunch of blues, which I always think of in terms of structure, of familiarity, of little variations on tradition. I was also in the middle of wrestling with old memories and family histories and stories–some I’d asked my father about, others I remember vividly on my own, and the ever-shifting misremembered bits and pieces. “Myth” addresses that tenuous nature of memory, and how its instability becomes a topic itself, even when remembering something exactly and carefully feels like the most important thing. I chose the sonnet because of the form’s two-fold fit for “Myth”: first, it is a nod to tradition and the musical nature of storytelling; and second, the sonnet has a volta just as memory might suddenly turn on us. The form acts out my misremembering of the fish, the gravel road, the shrunken mountains. The only memory in the poem I can confidently say is true is that I faked crying at my grandfather’s funeral. But, then again, I wonder–and hope–that I’ve misremembered that, too, and that in my nine-year-old desire to cry–in my panic of wondering why I couldn’t cry–I’d actually wiped away my tears before they had a chance to reach the surface.

2015 Elliston Poet-in-Residence: Mary Szybist

January 21st, 2015

Mary Szybist is UC’s 2015 George Elliston Poet-in-Residence. Last Tuesday, January 13, Szybist held a Master Class titled “The Concessional Structure” on the multifarious ways in which poems turn. The following day she led a session for students enrolled in the graduate poetry workshop, offering praise, helpful suggestions, and thoughtful critiques of student work. On Friday, January 16, Szybist read poetry from Incarnadine, which won the 2013 National Book Award for Poetry, stunning the packed Elliston Poetry Room with an elegy for Donald Justice, a former Elliston Poet-in-Residence, as well as her imaginative reinterpretations of the annunciation myth.

Explaining her workshop strategy, Szybist says: “I usually make the first day of my workshops a sort of quick ‘lightning’ round; rather than delving into extended discussions of poems, I try to have everyone’s voice included in the first day with much of the focus on trust-building. Everyone reads a poem, everyone has a poem considered; I ask for descriptions, interpretations, compliments, etc.—no criticism, no suggestions. I want everyone to trust that we’re trying to see what each poet is up to before we venture into revision ideas.”

Szybist will return to Cincinnati on February 27 to work with graduate students one on one, lead another workshop, and deliver a second Master Class titled “Repetition and Resonance,” the latter at 4:00 p.m. in the Elliston Poetry Room, 646 Langsam Library. This lecture will be free and open to the public.

Mary Szybist is most recently the author of Incarnadine, winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Poetry. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rona Jaffe Foundation, the Witter Bynner Foundation in conjunction with the Library of Congress, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center. Her work has appeared in such publications as Best American PoetryKenyon Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, and two Pushcart Prize anthologies. Her first book, Granted, won the 2004 GLCA New Writers Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. A native of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, she now lives in Portland, Oregon, where she teaches at Lewis & Clark College.

Paying Attention: Karrie Higgins, John Warner, and Holly Goddard Jones Discuss their Inspiring Moments

January 20th, 2015

Creative inspiration is often rooted in a writer’s ability to be attentive to the moment. Frank Baum is a prime example: he’d tell improvised fairy-tales to his children, and after they’d fallen asleep, he’d jot down his stories in a notebook. Eventually, these revised fairy-tales became The Wizard of Oz. He expanded upon his world by incorporating into it many aspects of his life at the moment. For years, he’d had recurring nightmares about scarecrows. Perhaps he purged the terror by rendering his nocturnal antagonist as a kindhearted, sentient heap of hay and burlap. The origin of the name “Oz” exemplifies the inspirational importance of being attentive to the mundane details of our surroundings. One night, when Baum was reading to his children, he glanced across the room at a filing cabinet he’d built. He’d labeled the drawers alphabetically, one of them being, “O-Z.” Immediately, he knew his fictional world would be named Oz, and from there, his imagination filled in the details. The following contributor comments show how paying attention to conversations, physical surroundings, and one’s body can provide the impetus to creation.

Karrie Higgins: “The Bottle City of God” began as a spin-off of another essay about my early experiences in Salt Lake City, entitled “Nowhere, No Place, Like Home” (published in Black Clock). In the Black Clock piece, air pollution played a minuscule part, but long after I finished that essay, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the air was my key to understanding Zion. As I studied and wrote about the complex chemistry of the pollution, I fell sick with asthma, and it felt magical, like I was writing my illness into being. Realizing how particulates had insinuated themselves inside my body changed my entire concept of self and place. I was carrying Zion inside me. The distinction between micro and macro evaporated. It was, to me, a kind of conversion. Joseph Smith received a revelation (Doctrine & Covenants 97:21) in which he declared Zion “the pure in heart.” To me, it described my asthma: I give my body to Zion, just like Zion gives its body (via the grid) to the City of God. In that sense, my sickness was a miracle. It made me part of the “at-ONE-ment” about which Hugh Nibley writes in “Temple and Cosmos.” This is going to sound super cheesy, but I also played Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven on Earth” a bazillion times while writing “The Bottle City of God.” I even blasted it while taking walks through the thick, metallic-tasting smog. In the midst of the dreary, dark days of the Mother of all Inversions, I would dance around to that song and believe, really believe, that I was living in the earthly manifestation of heaven, that it was end times–and there was no time or place I would rather be.

John Warner: The origin of “Nelson v. the Mormon Smile” is in a conversation I had with former CR contributor Keith Lee Morris when we were colleagues at Clemson University. He alerted me to an article he read about the dangers of cellular waves while I related something from the news about how the aluminum in deodorant may be a contributor to Alzheimer’s. It was an odd conversation that I filed away for later use, wondering who I could get to say these things instead of a couple of middle-aged college instructors, and where they might say them. I settled on a couple of stoner snowboarders, Nelson and Jurgen having the conversation in a marketing research call center in Utah. Complications ensued and I just followed along to the end.

Holly Goddard Jones: My husband teaches interior design in High Point, North Carolina, which is home (surprisingly) to the biggest furniture industry trade show in the world. We went to a party once that was held by a designer, and it was an odd night, an odd mix of high class and low: this gorgeous house and some important people but also cheap wine and cheap eats and a fair number of nobodies like me and my husband. So that’s the genesis of the story’s major components, its location and situation. But the story’s real inspiration was my attempt to write about a thoughtless character. Thoughtlessness fascinates me. In my lifetime I’ve known a handful of people who act with an almost innocent sense of self-absorption and entitlement. It isn’t malicious, but it just doesn’t occur to them to consider how their actions affect others. With Eldon, I imagined this man who, in his pursuit of self-reinvention, is able to shed his loved ones like a coat that’s gone out of style and then wonders why he’s alone. Is there any way to make that man plausible? Could I make him a little bit sympathetic without transforming him into the kind of character I usually write about?

The Mailing of Magnitude

January 15th, 2015

We’ve heard from the printer that our Winter 2015 issue will ship on Jan 20—which means it’ll be hitting subscribers’ mailboxes right at the end of this month. If you’ve been keeping up with the blog, you know that 11.2 is a special long-forms issue (with a phat phalanx of extra pages) that comes with a killer companion piece—our long-awaited, full-color, 64-page graphic play, MOTH.

11.2 also offers another of our fab translation features—this time out focusing on the wildly popular (in China) poet Hsiu Yü—a soulful art-song (score by Ellen Ruth Harrison; poems by Jakob Stein), and the delightfully provocative woodcuts of Renegade Printmaker Sean StarWars.

While this is the culmination of our 10th-anniversary initiative, we’ve got lots more celebratin’ planned. Another long-forms issue awaits the intrepid readers of our mag. Start going to the gym, people, so you can lift 12.1. It’s going to be a whopper!

Contributor Close-Up: Steve De Jarnatt

January 12th, 2015

We just got wind of this extraordinary interview on Popdose with CR contributor Steve De Jarnatt, whose story “Mulligan” (8.2) was selected for 2012’s New Stories from the Midwest. The interview begins:

Not every creative professional can claim to have badgered Ringo Starr on network television, ushered the popular SCTV characters Bob & Doug McKenzie onto the big screen, and directed a nail-biting cult classic of ’80s cinema before having his first published short story, “Rubiaux Rising,” chosen by The Lovely Bones author Alice Sebold for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 2009. But as Steve De Jarnatt writes in “Mulligan,” another one of his acclaimed stories, “You can’t change your mind so easy if you keep yourself in motion.”

Click here to read the interview in full. And look for another of Steve’s signature stories, “Harmony Arm” (lavish with his special brand of lunacy), in issue 12.1—due out in June. A teaser:

Impressed with Earl’s creative thinking, Ma let him in on some oddball Gunderson history. In the nineteenth century, half the clan had briefly given themselves over to an offshoot of the Charles Fourier Phalanx and run off to Utopia, Ohio. This collectivist movement believed that if humans could live together in peace for sixteen generations, a new appendage would evolve, a human tail called a Harmony Arm.  It would be as powerful as an alligator’s, but supple as a cat’s. A sort of prehensile hand flexing at the tip—a huge thumb and two fingerish knobs with the retractable talons of an eagle. This reenvisioned noble ape in touch with his true nature would flourish, wielding the tail-arm as a labor aid, weapon, and even a source of sensual pleasure. Naturally, it was a failure of a dream.

Earl was never sure if Ma was joshing when she claimed that, as testament to those early Gundersons and their stalwart believings, one in three of the extended family had been born with a vestigial piglet tail, some as long as seven inches, still glistening with tawny lanugo. Doc Grandey always snipped them quick, before the newborn’s first bawling. Some of the witchy aunts supposedly kept a specimen jar with dozens for use in ancient harvest rituals.

Ma would never say if this was true of him, but young Earl sometimes wished himself a tail so bad he couldn’t sleep. He was sure he could feel the scar back there atop his heinie, and scratched his coccyx madly in hopes of making it grow. Of all life’s iniquitous fates, to have been robbed of this seemed the worst.

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.