Archive for December, 2010

Interview with Jane Springer

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

The Cincinnati Review is delighted that our contributor Jane Springer is one of the winners of this year’s Whiting Awards. Her first book, Dear Blackbird, won the Agha Shahid Ali Prize and was published by the University of Utah Press. Jane’s other awards include the Robert Penn Warren Prize for Poetry, an AWP Intro Award, and an NEA Fellowship.

Whiting Awards of $50,000 each are given annually to writers of promise early in their careers. Here’s some of what the judges had to say about Jane’s work: “She makes splendid connections between the narrow world she knew as a child and the intimate rhythms she acquired as a poet. She is a poet full of verve and lyrical passion, a new and authentic American voice. There’s as much verbal energy in a single poem as many poets use in an entire book. She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty and play in the mud of Poetry Land.” We heartily concur.

Poetry Editor Don Bogen interviewed Jane early in December:

First, congratulations! The Whiting Award is wonderful news, and much deserved.  Tell us about how you found out, and what the ceremony in New York was like.

Thank you. In late September, Whiting Foundation board members called to tell me the news. I called their number back the next day to make sure it was not a joke—several co-winners expressed to me, later, they’d had the same sense of awe and disbelief at hearing the announcement.

The ceremony was held at the Morgan Library, and Peter Matthiessen delivered the keynote speech (informative, witty, and delightfully odd). Each winner was lauded and received a book with a check enclosed (mine arrived in a volume of James Agee’s work), then we gathered upstairs for the reception. What was it like? First ride on a wooden roller coaster—nowhere to go but—

Did the judging committee consider just the work in your first book, Dear Blackbird, or was it a combination of that and more recent poems?

Whiting Awards are shrouded in secrecy—I don’t know who nominated me or what materials the panel of judges considered over the course of the year it took them to decide that I would be named a Whiting recipient. Maddening—not to be able to thank whoever it was who had a hand in the whole shocking and blissful mess.

Dear Blackbird was selected by J. D. McClatchy for the Agha Shahid Ali Prize and published by the University of Utah Press in 2007. Looking back, can you tell us a bit about your sense of that book and how the work in it might compare to what you’re doing now?

I view my work now as an extension of Dear Blackbird, which was, to my mind, a book- length pastoral elegy and love letter to the South. The major difference between that book and my new manuscript (Murder Ballad) is this: Murder Ballad concerns itself more with the decline of the oral tradition of storytelling than with the encroachment of “civilization” with regards to landscape. Both books seek to explore the shifting mythologies of the American South at the crossroads of language where narrative and lyric forms collide.

The poems you’ve published in The Cincinnati Review—”An Addict’s Guide to Pregnancy” in Winter 2007 and “Whiskey Pastoral” and “Murder Ballad” in Winter 2010—are striking for their range and overall energy.  These are all poems of a good length—four pages in the case of “An Addict’s Guide”—with a powerful sense of voice  behind them.  How do you go about writing such dynamic stuff?

You are very kind to describe those poems as dynamic. Thank you. I try to tell stories worthy of retelling when I write. I guess I always have, in the back of my mind, Lorca’s thoughts on duende—how it arises from a kind of human urgency and life/death struggle that trumps meditative musings that demonstrate mastery of poetic technique so seamlessly as not to shed blood. I say I try because I fail far more often than I succeed—and I hope I get closer to writing with an authentic voice with each poem.

As the titles indicate, the subject matter in your poems is anything but tame. Where do your poems come from?

They often begin with trouble that I hope the poem will help me sort out (though not, necessarily, resolve). For example, “Murder Ballad” acknowledges the violence inherent in that form of music and asks: So why do we hate the thing we love? “Whiskey Pastoral” asks what the pastoral looks like in the 21st century (an age of environmental wreckage).

“Addict’s Guide?” When I was nursing my newborn (and hardly allowed to take half an aspirin), a friend of mine dropped a pile of mushrooms on my coffee table and asked: “I don’t suppose we could do these, considering?”

Do you remember what the birth of your first child was like? The joyous miracle/year-long adaptation to the yowler’s outrage at all forms of would-be sanity and sleep? I googled hallucinogens/breast milk exhaustively that night before conceding, reluctantly: “I suppose not.” The poem went where I could not possibly go in my new role as a responsible adult.

That’s another way of saying I tend to explore the boundaries of contradictory forces (both real and imagined) with genuine curiosity in the hope that this subversive act will produce the kind of tension/forward momentum that could justify writing 2-4 page poems (my preferred length). If Flannery O’Connor and Larry Levis had a kid . . . that’s what I’d like to read and what I aim to write.

You grew up in small towns in the South and earned your doctorate at Florida State.  Do you consider yourself a Southern writer?

Dyed in the wool.

At Florida State you studied with another of our contributors, James Kimbrell, whose poem “How to Tie a Knot” is in our new issue. What was that like?

He showed me his first version of “How to Tie a Knot” in 2006. It’s gone through many permutations since then; regardless of what form it shows up in I consider it one of the most personally-influential-poems-extant. The voice there (as in all of his poems) is so compelling, rhythmic, authentic, surprising, and smart (and the questions asked in the poem are so deeply moving, pertinent, and unanswerable) that I wrote a whole cadre of inferior knot-poems after he showed it to me. I couldn’t/cannot still get the voice out of my head. I don’t think it is overstatement to say his poems are flat-out genius touchstone pieces that inspire me to try and write beyond my own capabilities.

When he sends me new poems now, I share them with students to hear them say: “Wow—you mean we can do that?” (Sure you can do that! Go read Archimedes, sit in a chair 5 hours a day for several days a week for several years writing and revising, then show me what you’ve got.) Does that answer your question? Its sort of like asking what was Keats (if Keats had a drawl and an uncle Skinchy) like as a teacher? Well—read the Odes.

You’ve been teaching at Hamilton College in upstate New York for a few years now.  How do you like it?

What I ask from a college: a) writing faculty whose work I genuinely find exciting, b) students who work hard when given reason to do so, c) an administration that values the humanities beyond the concerns of the corporate profit margin (dying breed).

Hamilton College knocks all three out of the ballpark. As to the region: I live in the foothills of the Adirondacks in the snowbelt. Dark by 3 pm. The snow fell the day I arrived—2 ½ years later it hasn’t yet ceased. 11,782 feet last time I measured it. No wonder the highlight of fall is the annual snow plow parade. And honey-crisp apples. So sweet they would make Eve’s Paradise worth ditching.

Thanks very much for talking with us. One last one: Now that you’re rich and famous, will you still be sending us those terrific poems?

Aw. The most compelling writing always is in literary magazines, don’t you think? That’s where the greatest risks are taken—by writers who have not yet earned reputations they dread losing. The more success that meets a poet—the harder it is to write with a sense of abandon (Virginia Woolf said it best: The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages).

Considering the stack of form-rejections littering my desk right now, I’d say I’m un-famous enough to write with the fervor afforded by anonymity. I’m humbled you’d consider my work at all and will send you some soon—thanks so much for requesting it.

Submission Trends

Friday, December 10th, 2010

by Matt McBride

Though the work we receive here at Cincinnati Review is always eclectic, we do occasionally notice odd trends in what comes over the transom. Here are two that have cropped up lately.

Poems, including a sestina, about Lady Gaga: This is, we suppose, not surprising. It’s just the way the world is headed. In fact, there’s a proposal in Congress right now to do away with the outdated practice of putting the stern, gnarled faces of dead presidents on our currency and replace them with  covers from Lady Gaga albums.  “Could I get four The Fame’s for a The Fame Monster?” we’ll ask shopkeepers. A new epoch will be born. 1986, the year of Gaga’s birth, will become year 0, and every subsequent year will be followed by AG, or “After Gaga.” Soon we’ll have an inability to read anything BUT stories and poems about Lady Gaga. “This character isn’t very believable,” we’ll say in workshops. “Instead of being an elderly Cuban fisherman pulled out to sea by a large marlin, could he be, say, a twenty-something pop star wearing a dress made out of Kermit the Frog dolls?”

Ekphrastic poems: Now this trend is a bit harder to understand. Don’t get us wrong, an ekphrastic poem, when pulled off, can make both the referenced artwork and the poem resonate, like in a Lady Gaga/ Elton John duo. However, the writer also runs the risk of the two being awkwardly juxtaposed, merely existing in the same space without really illuminating each other, like in an Elton John/ Shania Twain duo. Ekphrasic poetry “works” when art is the lens as opposed to what’s observed.  Keat’s “Ode on Grecian Urn” excels not because it gives us a lifeless description of an urn but because the urn leads to a description of life.

Of course, all this isn’t to discourage you from sending us your “Ode on Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’”; it’s just a reminder to writers that for all the expensive stages and iambic baselines, it’s what Gaga sees through those rhinestone sunglasses that’s poetry.

“Remedial Weeding”: Why We Like It

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Okay, blog-readers, get ready for our sixth pupil-dilating installment of  “Why We Like It”—weekly reflections by our  volunteers on why the good stuff in our pages is the good stuff in our pages. Little known fact: Our volunteers often act out the pieces they intend to write on, and the staff really enjoys these little performances, especially if there are props involved and someone remembers to microwave popcorn. Occasionally, however, a volunteer gets a little too immersed in his role, which is why there’s now a jagged crevasse in the middle of our office floor. While “weeding” the decades-old, dirt-colored carpet in our cramped office (which he kept referring to as his “word loam”), Eric Bliman got carried away with his trowel and carved the following insights into the building’s subterranean foundation.

Eric Bliman: Julie Hanson’s poem “Remedial Weeding,” in the Summer 2010 issue, transforms a familiar situation, even a familiar trope (using physical work to distract from the pain of a loss, say), into a brilliant meditation on the virtues of remaining grounded in the here-and-now, or on looking “no more than one weed ahead.” Her poem has that Dickinsonian quality of treating grief with formality, yet what makes it rare, appealing, and fresh with each repeated reading, is its use of a vocabulary that mixes learned and everyday speech, and that finds room for a neologism that is immediately recognizable to the general reader.

This neologism, the wildly precise image of roots as a “complex undermop,” whose echoing peaty sounds “comp” and “mop” remind us of the sounds of repeated digging, is an intriguing objective correlative for the speaker’s emotion: just as such wonderfully strange-haired things as roots thrive out of sight, so the speaker’s grief, or her heart’s “stunned” back-story, stays almost entirely hidden from view, while remaining for the speaker “dominant.” Such lines and images that allude to the speaker’s dilemma are characteristic of the poem’s tone of restraint, which is both compellingly modern and almost classical.

Midway through the second and final stanza the reader is afforded a glimpse of the action or situation that has driven the speaker to take on her task of remedial weeding: “For those times when the heart, still/ resonant and stunned,/ is dominant,/ this is the kind of work you want.” This partial revealing leads the speaker into a meditation that anyone who has felt staggered by loss, any loss, can relate to; moreover, it answers Auden’s requirement that a Prosperian poem (or loosely, a poem that’s moody and wise, as opposed to one of the Ariel sort, which is light and musical and joyous) must show us how to live, ending with the insistence that it is necessary to keep the eyes on something right in front of you, to lose yourself in “mindless work,” and “[drill] the focus downwards” to remain whole, and here.

Cincinnati Review on NPR

Monday, December 6th, 2010

Thanks to Richard Russo for giving a shout out to Cincinnati Review on this past weekend’s All Things Considered. Check out the interview, in which he discusses Brendan Mathews’s story “My Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened with the Lion Tamer,” first published in our pages then reprinted in Best American Short Stories 2010. Click on the image below to hear the interview.

Holiday Deal!

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Do you have a friend, relative, or spouse who enjoys hot, portable beverages, carrying things in satchels, and reading engaging, eclectic poetry and fiction? Do they enjoy doing these simultaneously? OMG we have a deal for you! For just $25 you can get a one-year subscription to Cincinnati Review, a CR sling pack, and a CR thermos. Write us at editors@cincinnatireview.com and we’ll set something up.