Archive for October, 2012

Why We Like It: “The People Who Ignore You Are the People Who Live Here”

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

Last week, when volunteer Suzanne Wendell strolled into our offices, we complimented her new chin-length bob. “Nice ‘do,” we said. “I did it myself,” she replied. “Huh?” we said, because Suzanne’s hair actually looked pretty good, nothing like the inch-from-the-hairline bangs we cut for ourselves when we were kids. “Yeah,” she replied. “Actually, I moonlight as a stylist to the stars. If you want, I could give you guys a makeover.”  Of course, we put ourselves completely in her capable hands.

Extracurricular hair-cutting aside, Suzanne also participates in a multitude of editorial activities at the CR office, including blogging for our Why We Like It series. Here’s Suzanne’s take on Lauri Anderson Alford’s “The People Who Ignore You Are the People Who Live Here,” from soon-to-be-released issue 9.2:

Suzanne Wendell: There’s something about the voice of Alford’s narrator that immediately attracted me to this story, something subtle and reticent. “The People Who Ignore You Are the People Who Live Here” is set up as a mystery, the mystery of what happened to the narrator’s fiancé, Leo, but there is a smaller mystery on every page. The narrator herself remains something of an enigma throughout her narrative, and in her ambivalence toward her missing lover, the mysteries of their relationship, and perhaps all relationships, are amplified.

Alford intertwines humor and sadness with an almost inadvertent ease. The narrator describes the billboard of Leo’s picture erected during her search for him as “less like a call for help than an advertisement for a cruise ship.” In her deadpan tone she observes, “Alaska, he seemed to be saying, It’s not just for old people.” Her explanation for treating Leo’s disappearance so casually in the beginning, “I thought we were having a fight,” perfectly illuminates what so much of the story is about; the silliness and tragedy and bewilderment of the whole thing.

One of my favorite novels is Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. I love it because the most important character is dead before the story even starts. Similarly, Leo has almost more presence in the story than the narrator, despite him never appearing outside of flashbacks. Alford’s readers will know him, feel the loss of him, and feel haunted by him. They will understand why his jilted fiancé agonizes over him, but they still may not expect the final chilling sentence of the story.

Inspiration: Bonus Material from Grossman, Lawless, Osier, and Pople

Monday, October 29th, 2012

We like to find out from our writers what inspired their work. We expect to hear the following: childhoods of neglect, too much book-learnin’, time spent working on a communal farm in the Ukraine, or an overdose of beautiful vistas on their recent road trips. These contributors to Issue 9.1 have higher concerns: we noticed that they are especially interested in the intersection of geography and economics, and with the relevance of art. (This is our last feature of bonus material from Issue 9.1, which you can order here; keep an eye out soon for bonus material from 9.2!)

Sara Grossman: Abandoned industrial factories populate the eastern seaboard. I’m interested in the ways that these postindustrial spaces are often thought of as sites of economic and industrial ruination, but never as sites of ecological ruination. I wrote “Pittsburg Plate & Glass Company, Lot 63” as a way to think beyond popular discourses of economic and industrial ruination. This poem (and the sequence from which it comes) is interested in paying attention to the distinct ecological and chemical elements that inhabit and transform American postindustrial space.

Gregory Lawless: I wrote “Foreclosure” and “Straw Lady” during a poetic splurge in the fall of last year, when I was busy exploring new ways to represent/inhabit both the rural and post-anthracite-urban regions of Northeastern Pennsylvania, where I grew up. I was also thinking about the particulars of economic and environmental collapse. In addition to the housing crisis and all of its miserable consequences, Pennsylvania was then newly beset by natural gas companies, which were and are fracking there while not paying much in taxes. The poems alternate between syntactically-hysterical and soberly-descriptive modes of speech, though these modes cooperate, I think, in helping me question the legitimacy of conjuring beauty from social and environmental disarray.  They are poems of spastic hate and hurt, plus whatever love is left over. I would like very much to stop writing them.

Jill Osier: (On “The Rain Falls Far”) This piece came out of my being taken with the work of Friedensreich Hundertwasser, and writing poems based on the titles of his paintings, one of which is The Rain Falls Far From Us.

Ian Pople: (On “Wood in the Air”) Last year I went to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. The Summer Exhibition at the RA is traditionally an “open” exhibition, for which artists both famous and otherwise submit items for selection to be exhibited. The artists on the general selection committee each curated a particular exhibition room. In one room, the artist Anselm Keifer had hung a piece called “Aurora.” This consisted of a model of a rusting submarine, suspended against a stained and rusting metal background. I could not help thinking of those who work in such submarine environments. I was reminded, in particular, of the tragic events surrounding the Russian submarine, Kursk. Part of the drive for my poem is a working outwards from the claustrophobia of the submarine to the work of those who work with machinery in the open air.

Emerging Writers: Writer as Reader, Part II

Friday, October 26th, 2012

Welcome back, CR-ers. Get ready for the second part of our interview with UC’s Emerging Writers Ben Loory, Danielle Evans, Ron Currie Jr., and Caitlin Horrocks, as they discuss “The Writer as Reader,” moderated by Professor Jim Schiff. In this installment, you’ll find out how Ben Loory’s Brady Bunch/Virginia Woolf childhood affected his work and how Danielle Evans’s obsession with the educational video How to Raise a Street-Smart Child taught her about the power of danger.

Jim Schiff: What kinds of things are you attentive to on the page? How have you changed as a reader from when you were younger, and how have your reading tastes changed?

Horrocks: I enjoyed The Hunger Games. There are books that I want to be entertained by and I want to respect and enjoy what that author does well. But if the writer is not paying much attention to their sentences, or if their language is just really clunky, I find it hard to turn off or ignore that. It’s like nails on a chalkboard. I think there are now multiple ways in which I read. I read as a teacher or an editor or a judge of a contest. Reading for pleasure, unfortunately, gets pushed to the side.

Evans: People say “MFA programs might not make you a better writer, but they’ll make you a better reader.” I’m sorry to say that is a lie. When you start to only see a book as a piece of work, you see all the puppet strings in them. I like to read to be immersed in another world, and the more you get tangled up in the puppet strings, the harder it is to do that. When I have to work to think about things to say about a book, when I’m just immersed in the world of it, that’s when I know a book is really beautiful. I think it’s important to get to that state. . . . I like the books that remind you of the sheer magic of being immersed in a novel.

Currie: When I was younger, I read with that immersion you’re talking about. And as I get older, I find it harder and harder to access. At first I thought it was a function of age. Maybe I’m getting too cynical or I’m reading too critically, but I’ve become convinced recently that it has more to do with the din of modern life, particularly the internet. Everything I take in on the internet, it’s all very brief; it’s all encapsulated. It requires very little of me. I had an experience this summer where my girlfriend and I rented a cabin off the coast of Maine and there was no choice but to disconnect. And within two days, I found myself reading quite naturally. I had that experience of reading as I did when I was younger, which was I look up three hours later and I’m three-quarters of the way through a book. So for me, it’s not my critical faculties getting in the way, though that does happen. The primary problem is that it’s too goddamn busy all the time. It requires a good deal of discipline when I come back to the real world. I realized I have to be careful what I expose myself to and how often, if I want to retain that pleasure, which is really why I read and write: to re-create that total immersion that I certainly got when I was a kid and now more rarely, but that I enjoy just as much.

Loory: I think ironically I’m more accepting of certain kinds of books as I’ve gotten older. I find something to like in almost everything. I’m always just looking for something that’s different from anything else. I’m always pushing myself into new genres. The last month I’m reading a lot of cyberpunk from the eighties and reading early-twentieth-century Japanese literature, and I love all of it. When I was younger, I was obsessed with finding out what the great books were and who was the best writer. And I would compare each book to the one I just read. “Oh, okay. Now I’m reading Hemingway, and now I’m reading Faulkner. Is Light in August better than The Sun Also Rises? Yeah . . . I think it is.” There was always this pyramid I was building inside of my head. It was all judgmental and unpleasant. Now, somehow, that’s all gone and it’s fun just reading as much and as widely as I can.

Schiff: Who are your literary influences, your “constellation of writers’” in your mind?

Evans: Someone pointed out to me that there is an undercurrent of danger in my work. My mother was briefly engaged to a cop who had given me as a birthday present a video cassette called How to Raise a Street-Smart Child. I was a very obsessive child, and I watched it every night for like . . . years of my life. It’s all the terrible things that could happen to you as a child. It’s weird the things you’re influenced by. But as for writers, when I need to be reminded that certain rules were meant to be broken, I go back to Baldwin a lot. There are things he does with the sentence that get away with all kinds of things. [As a reader], there’s questions you ask about plot and point of view, and you ask those questions generally because something else isn’t working, something else is making you question the voice. But with Baldwin’s characters, we don’t ask how he knows the details of his dead brother’s wife, because we just want to hear him keep talking. . . . Junot Diaz was the first contemporary literature that sounded like it came from a world I recognized. I thought if I wanted to write about African American characters I had to go back to slavery. But this was serious literature that sounded like the world that I lived in. I didn’t know until then you could do that.

Currie: I can’t separate the different of genres that inform my writing. It’s a hodgepodge and a sort of schizophrenic one. I think it’s impossible to grow up in the ’80s and [not be influenced by television]. Cable was just coming on line, and in a way it was a bigger deal than it is now. It was a novelty to have more than the two broadcast channels nearest you. The content was getting more varied and interesting. David Foster Wallace talked about television and his work,  and he was a huge consumer of television. But I don’t understand what the word influence means. Pretty much anything that comes across my mental transom is going to find its way into my work. That included books, television, songs. My process is so intuitive to me that it makes it difficult to articulate influence.

Horrocks: It’s a little cliché at this point, but Flannery O’Connor was a huge influence for me. She will go to dark places and have a lot of cruelty and unkindness. There’s always that sense of mystery. We have so much other media now. You can always watch a movie or television show. It’s always worth asking, “What does fiction do well?” If you want to write a car chase, if you want to write a zombie apocalypse, fiction is probably not the form to do that. But then I think what happens is a lot of short stories that are very airless and static with lot of people sitting, having conversations, staring at walls, and having epiphanies. And the idea that plot has no room in fiction, I think that ground gets ceded too much. And that’s something that Danielle’s stories do really well. There’s a lot of momentum and intrigue and a lot of humor. With influences, I think I know what fiction does, and then an author shows me I’m wrong. Calvino did that. And Saunders showed me you can have both humor and humanity.

Loory: We lived on the edge of town, and my parents were both English teachers, and all there was was books. So I’ve had a love-hate relationship with books because that’s all there was to do when I was a kid. So I just read everything. And then when I was in seventh grade, we got a TV and I never had to read another book again. I would come home from school and watch four episodes of Brady Bunch, and then at dinner my parents would lecture about Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot. It was a very strange childhood. After I graduated from college, I went to film school to become a screenwriter. I sort of backed into writing short stories. It was never my goal. I always wanted to make movies, and I started writing what I thought were outlines to ideas of what would become movies. I was just writing as fast and as many as I could. And after writing some of them, I started to realize that they were actually short stories, about single characters in short periods of time, and that they were never going to become screenplays. So a lot of my influences, despite that I’ve read so much, are mostly from television and movies and Warner Brother cartoons and Twilight Zone.

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Ron Currie Jr. has had stories in issues 7.2 and 2.2 of Cincinnati Review—the latter story, “False Idols,” appeared in his collection God is Dead (Penguin, 2007). He is also the author of the novels Everything Matters (Viking, 2009) and the forthcoming Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles (Viking, 2013). Currie has also received the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award and the Willard L. Metcalf Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Danielle Evans is the winner of the 2011 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize and is a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree. Her stories have appeared in Paris Review, A Public Space, Best American Short Stories 2008, and Best American Short Stories 2010, and she is the author of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self (Riverhead, 2010), a collection of stories.

Caitlin Horrocks’s story “Embodied” appeared Cincinnati Review’s issue 3.1; it was her first published story and later appeared in her collection This Is Not Your City (Sarabande, 2011). Her stories have also appeared in the New Yorker, Best American Short Stories 2011, the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009, Pushcart Prize XXXV, and elsewhere, and she’s won awards including the Plimpton Prize and a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Fellowship.

Ben Loory’s fables and tales have appeared in the New Yorker, Gargoyle, and Antioch Review, as well as on NPR’s “This American Life,” and live at Selected Shorts. His book, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (Penguin, 2011), was a selection of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program and the Starbucks Coffee Bookish Reading Club.

Mourning the Loss: Black, Day, Hyett, Lyons, and McFee

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

We just got our final proof from the printer, which means that Issue 9.2 will soon be trucking toward us (you can order the issue here). There’s a kind of grief in every transition; we mourn what’s passing as the new thing emerges, so we find ourselves decked out in black for the final few weeks of glory for the current issue. These five contributors to 9.1 write about more profound kinds of grief, and we’re thankful they’ve shared this commentary about their pieces:

Rebecca Black: “Lament for the Makers” is a hybrid of two failed poems, written over eight years apart, both parts written before I had a child, but only juxtaposed in the months right after my son was born. People always say “You’ll understand x, y, or z about your parents when you have children of your own,” and I always hated the sanctimony of that statement.  The truth is, you do have new visions about your parents after you have a child of your own, but they are not the perspectives anyone expects, predicts, or particularly desires. This poem is a proto-elegy for my father, who has lived ten years after a paralytic stroke. He always wanted me to be a writer. I have a fear that I won’t be able to write about him after he dies, so I’m trying to do it now.

Lucille Lang Day: One night my husband and I were talking about Haiti, and I wanted to reread the short story “Ti-Moune” in Love & Like by Herbert Gold, so I went to the bookshelf where I thought the book should be. It wasn’t there, nor was it anywhere among my husband’s and my books. While I was looking for it, I noticed that many other books of mine had gone missing. I felt devastated and started to cry. Some of the missing books had been inscribed to me, and one was a collector’s edition of Jane Eyre that had belonged to my father. A villanelle seemed like a fitting way to mourn them, so I wrote “The Lost Books.” Later I found some of the missing books in boxes in the basement that I had packed and forgotten about, but others never turned up. I fear they were in a box that mistakenly got sent to the Salvation Army during one of our periodic basement cleanouts. I hope someone, somewhere is enjoying them.

Eric E. Hyett (on “Like Leaves”): It’s amazing the tricks grief can play. This poem, perhaps more than any I’ve ever written, was very much influenced by my colleagues in the Workshop for Publishing Poets. It started with otters. I thought I was writing about otters—their gallant rituals, their orderly dance. That lasted a draft or two. Then my friend and fellow poet Matthew Sisson told me—out of the blue— to change the word “otters” to “watch”—the worst thing about losing your watch. That felt truer somehow, since people do lose watches, and also it gave me something about hands making wide circles. The poem stayed that way (“watch”) for a few dozen more drafts, during which it became a pantoum, and then NOT a pantoum (I love the repetition that the pantoum form brings, but it was too weighty for this poem to bear). Then, perhaps around draft 200, I was up late revising and changed “watch” to “son,” and suddenly there was the poem—the worst thing about losing your son . . . It had been there all along, but I needed to come to it circuitously and by following what felt bearable at each step of the way. Matthew was right; it wasn’t about otters. It’s amazing the tricks grief can play.

Richard Lyons (on “I Will Begin”): I wrote this poem, and several like it, after I had decided to eschew the stanza break for a while. I wanted to chant as Whitman, Stern, and O’Hara do, and I was re-immersing myself in the sensual rituals and rites of Odysseas Elytis’s poems. I was half serious and half not about the efficacy of amulets, but I thought the chanting would open me up and my poem up to the chances of magic or fate or any force outside my own desires. I am pleased that this poem “I Will Begin” evolved into a failed exorcism or a failed catharsis. I am pleased that this poem’s escape from uglier emotions owns up to those emotions. I am currently working to articulate a sense of the tribal in my poems without lying about the speaker’s fear and rage.

I am mourning the loss of Adrienne Rich, but her poems will endure without any help from me. In my life and in my poems, I hope to explore the complexities behind her line: “That intricate losing game of innocence long/ overdue.”

Michael McFee (on “Dust to Dust”): Last year, I decided to thin out the books on my overcrowded shelves, to sell or donate the volumes I really didn’t need to surround myself with anymore. It’d been many years since such a winnowing, and so I slipped each book out, considered it, then wiped off its edges with a rag before either returning it to the freshly-dusted shelf or adding it to the teetering stack of rejects. Somewhere toward the end of this slow and increasingly tedious process—weeks of sneezes, tissues, and sore knees—I finally realized: There’s a poem here. It wasn’t so much about me (yawn) as about a man who buys and organizes books on shelves all his life, but never really reads them as planned, and then his family has to deal with those dusty volumes after his death. (Okay, maybe it is about a version of me, but I hope it’s also about all of us readers and writers and lovers of the endangered book, that precious ink-and-paper literary artifact we can hold in our hands, its “written, printed,/ bound, forgotten words” as close as we may come to immortality.)

Emerging Writers: Writer as Reader

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

This month, UC’s English Department hosted its Emerging Writers Festival, bringing to campus  four fiction writers who are emerging from their rough-spun cocoons into full-fledged writerly beings. (Okay, maybe all of them already have awards and critically acclaimed books.) During their time at UC, they took part in readings, discussions, and discussions about reading, and this week we’re delighted to bring you some excerpts from a panel discussion dubbed “The Writer as Reader,” moderated by Professor Jim Schiff. Read about how W. G. Sebald broke Ben Loory’s heart and how Ron Currie Jr. is actually not afraid of the internet. Stay tuned for Part II, coming later this week.

Jim Schiff: Name a book you love, and tell us why.


Ben Loory: Probably my favorite book is Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald. He was this German writer, this super, hyperintelligent, overeducated guy. All of his books were just him going to some foreign country, stumbling around in some depressed fog, taking pictures of buildings and thinking about all the horrible things that have happened there. And also the good things and the literature and art that came out of it. I just loved it. When he was writing, it was this brand new thing I’d never seen before. And then he died in a car accident. And that was the last time I read contemporary literature. I just couldn’t handle that I had found this writer and then he died. I just completely checked out. Now I only read people who are already dead or who have written enough books for me. But there’s something in his writing in which the entire world is a haunted house. All the books are these ruins of what happened and a forerunner of what’s coming.

Caitlin Horrocks: For me, it’s Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I was able to read it as escapism and enjoy it as a reader. It’s a book that’s fearless about what a book can do and what he’s capable as an author of pulling off. It’s a magic trick. You think, “You can’t pull this off,” and you’re waiting for him to fall off, and I don’t think he does.

Ron Currie Jr.: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I’m reluctant to say it’s my favorite book, but it’s certainly the heavy-weight champion in terms of scope and ambition. It appreciates the importance of and demonstrates the possibility of being bound by nothing in fiction. I don’t really see the point of writing fiction if you’re not willing to hang your ass out in the breeze and just get as crazy as you possibly can without going over the edge. A lot of people think Wallace went way over the edge with Infinite Jest, but for me, it’s an absolute master class in the possibilities of fiction. [. . .] That’s what I was after as a kid. How far can we go with this; how fantastical can it be?

Schiff: In your view, what’s the contemporary literary landscape? Are people doing different things than they were doing ten, twenty, fifty years ago?

Horrocks: A contemporary writer who is a sort of representation for things right now is Karen Russell. She does such a great job in picking zombies or picking vampires or taking these playful things and integrating them into such beautiful stories, doing something that is both realist in some ways and magical in others. You can see that in the aesthetic of places like One Story. There is this hunger for things that are not magical realism in a Marquez sense, but a contemporary formulation that is still evolving. Also, Roxane Gay for both fiction and nonfiction. She somehow writes and processes at internet speed, which I can’t. She does so much online writing with quick turn-around and responds to things happening right now, but there is that depth of thought and that humanity and a gracefulness that comes through in a lot of what she’s doing.

Audience Member: How does the business of life affect your fiction?

Currie: Everything I write, including the book coming out in February, is very episodic, even when it’s published under the guise of a novel. That may be the result of the din of modern life. Maybe I don’t have the attention span, or maybe I can’t write a coherent narrative. I have no doubt that the staccato pace of information intake is affecting how I write. I sort of hope that it’s because that’s the direction we’re heading. It’s only going to get more compact and shrunk. I think the kind of book Franzen writes is a dying breed. I’m fascinated by possibilities of technology. I’m fascinated by that New Yorker story that Jennifer Egan did on Twitter. She wrote the story for the medium. It worked really well. I tried to imagine it being a longer narrative in that form, and I couldn’t do it.

Lorry: You go to a bookstore, and lots of books are similar, and I think that’s a result of writers all talking to one another. No one is developing in isolation, on their own.

Horrocks: But I think there is still a hunger for big books from readers. People want to sit and be immersed in a world. With the internet, people are always like, “This will usher in a renaissance for flash fiction or the short form because people only have a little bits of time.” But that’s not true. Even short forms require really close attention. Short forms take a lot of work for the reader. This is a weird moment when writers can think of being driven to short pieces, but for readers, as pressed for time as they are, there is still a hunger for that unbroken dream.

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Ron Currie Jr. has had stories in Cincinnati Review issues 7.2 and 2.2—the latter story, “False Idols,” appeared in his collection God is Dead (Penguin, 2007). He is also the author of the novels Everything Matters (Viking, 2009) and the forthcoming Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles (Viking, 2013). Currie has also received the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award and the Willard L. Metcalf Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Caitlin Horrocks’s story “Embodied” appeared in issue 3.1 of Cincinnati Review; it was her first published story and later appeared in her collection This Is Not Your City (Sarabande, 2011). Her stories have also appeared in the New Yorker, Best American Short Stories 2011, the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009, Pushcart Prize XXXV, and elsewhere, and she’s won awards including the Plimpton Prize and a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Fellowship.

Ben Loory’s fables and tales have appeared in the New Yorker, Gargoyle, and Antioch Review, as well as on NPR’s “This American Life,” and live at Selected Shorts. His book, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (Penguin, 2011), was a selection of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program and the Starbucks Coffee Bookish Reading Club.

Why We Like It: Peter Cooley’s “Possible Body”

Friday, October 19th, 2012

Here at the CR, we like our editorial assistants to have extra skills (in addition to perceptive reading acumen, superior letter-opening talents, and a song-and-dance routine), so we were thrilled when Michael C. Peterson joined the staff. As we’ve blogged about before, Michael has welding experience. When we learned that, we asked him to grab his welding helmet and acetylene torch, to fix our conference table, which a volunteer-who-will-not-be-named had karate-chopped in a fit of rage at the lack of stories about laser cats. Michael grabbed his equipment and got started. Though we had to shield our eyes from the brightness of his flame, as he worked we heard him share the following appreciation of Peter Cooley’s poem “Possible Body,” from our upcoming Issue 9.2. (You may notice that the Bowie video he describes features a brief scene with welding and more, starting at 1:38.) After half an hour, he had repaired the unfortunate damage AND enlightened us:

Michael C. Peterson: I’m trying to recall that fantastic/terrible David Bowie video. I think it’s “Let’s Dance.” You know, the one where Bowie is somewhere in the middle of the Australian outback, pretending to play the guitar just as well as the guy who actually played it on the track. Stevie Ray Vaughn, I think. There was all this wind, and Bowie’s trousers were really going nuts. Actually, it may have been Brazil, and there were these weird primitive-looking, shirtless teenage kids who were searching for this big modern city, and Bowie’s chiseled face was sort of palimpsesting over everything.

I might be making this up. I don’t think I am. I feel like I just saw it yesterday, but as if yesterday is right now. Which is how I feel reading Peter Cooley’s exceptional “Possible Body,” a poem that works brilliantly to answer a hypothetical by way of similar extension across time and space. I like Cooley’s piece for its elision, its sliding quality in both sense and sound. “I’m you, that’s why I understand your speech,” the self says. Not so fast. “Beggar come up below the overpass/ To ask me in—Vietnamese?—for cash,” the self says, recalibrating. These slips and recalibrations are the low-humming engine of “Possible Body” and, for me, the loci of its pleasure. Lines click over like synapses firing, the capacitors of the poem’s circuit releasing current; it is a kinetic by which a variety of personal histories might coincide. Cooley’s poem feels timeless not just for its across-time-ness, but because it seeks a transcendent moment of out-of-time-ness in which we might connect with future selves without total irreversible consequence. The effect is near perhaps to what the poet Robert Duncan calls “the psychic depth of time transformed into eternity”—a transport fundamental not just to the work of poetry but to the work of the self.

In any case, the point in all of this is that those kids in that Bowie video (either primitive or futuristic) were looking for a city (either Sydney or Brazilia) so they could dance on that dusty hill against some difficult futurity. It doesn’t matter which city, or what year. It is, rather, that the search is so fundamental. Cooley’s poem reminds us that it must both send us out and bring us home. In doing so, the dance becomes both revolutionary and timeless.

Order Issue 9.2, or any other issue, here.

Collaborative Feature—Soapbox and CR

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

For our third collaborative feature with Cincinnati’s online magazine Soapbox, we’re featuring Brian Barker’s prose poem “Bats” from issue 9.1. Soapbox tells the new Cincinnati story—a narrative of creative people and businesses, new development, cool places to live, and the best places to work and play. And every other month, Cincinnati Review will contribute some of the best lit—poetry, fiction, and nonfiction—in the country. Here, we’ve reprinted Barker’s “Bats” in full, as well as “bonus material” in the form of comments from the writer and our staff, including the editor who accepted the piece for publication—also on the Soapbox website.

Bats

They will crawl out of the ashes of cold barbecue pits. Their wings will be cut from the backs of chimney sweeps. They will hang from the antlers of an elk like a congress of drowsy trapeze artists. At dusk above houses, they will appear and disappear and appear, weaving a jagged cotillion through the trees. Their songs will travel before them like aneurysms on strings, shattering streetlights, car alarms, nerves. When winter comes too early, we will see their faces in our frostbitten fruit. Insomniac, they will be your alphabet at the window. Sleeper, they will be the jewelry of your death, tangled in silk pajamas, in a wet beehive of hair.


Brian Barker: This poem belongs to a sequence of linked prose poems I’ve been working on recently called “Natural Histories.” Each poem in this sequence concerns a different animal, and the poems are linked in that animal images, which occur organically within the poems, dictate the subjects. For example, the poem that precedes “Bats” is “Hippopotamuses,” where I write: “When they belch, fruit bats will glide from the caves of their stomachs and startle the moonlight.” The poem that occurs after “Bats” is “Elk,” following from the line, “They will hang from the antlers of an elk like a congress of drowsy trapeze artists.”

I say that the images occur organically because I’m not working from a list of particular creatures I’d like to write about. The animals appear naturally and feel unforced. This kind of formal constraint, like other formal constraints in poetry, imposes restrictions. That is, at times I end up with animals that I don’t know how to write about, or didn’t anticipate writing about, and I have to find an imaginative way through such impasses.

Bats, on the other hand, felt like a gift. I’ve always had a mixture of fascination about and fear of  bats. They are strange beings with their furry, fox-like faces and exaggerated ears, and those wings—the thin, leathery skin stretched over dainty bones—look a bit like a botched experiment. I’ve spent many summer evenings watching them weave through my neighborhood, a flight that seems to vacillate violently between the graceful and the erratic.

This poem, like all of the poems in the “Natural Histories” series, mixes the factual with the mythic, and exploits the simple future verb tense (“They will”), which lends a mystery to the voice. Who speaks with such authority? Where are we in time? The poems, in my mind, seem to emanate from some otherworldly force out of a black void, as much creation myth as natural history.

In the poem, I have tried to capture the fear and the revulsion that so many people feel about bats. No matter how many insects they may eat, it’s hard to shake the notion that all bats are rabid, cunning bedroom invaders looking for a tender neck to suckle. And yet, they are amazing creatures! The only mammals that can fly, they are equipped with echolocation and spend much of their lives hanging upside down. When I watch them “appear and disappear and appear” above the houses in my neighborhood, it’s hard not to think of them urgently tracing a kind of alphabet in the sky, a message from one mammal to another that must be decoded before the dusk deepens into dark.

Lisa Ampleman: When I think of references to bats in poetry, I hear the final line of Robert Hass’s “Happiness”—“our eyes squinched up like bats”—or Ariel’s song in The Tempest: “On the bat’s back I do fly/ After summer merrily.” Such happy bats in those poems, the graceful divers of summer twilight.

Brian Barker’s bats are not that kind. They dance the cotillion, yes, but Barker aligns them with ashes, chimneys, aneurysms, car alarms, and frostbite. And, he reminds us of our worst fear of them: that they could become entangled in our hair. His are the bats of late October, as the evenings begin to cool and darken, when night-creatures are more threatening.

His form, the prose poem, uses the qualities of both genres: it moves by a series of associations and employs figurative language, while retaining the rhythms and formatting of prose. Though it’s been prevalent in other movements and time periods, the prose poem is closely associated with nineteenth-century French Symbolists, such as Baudelaire and Mallarmé. I like the description of prose poetry that the Academy of American Poets uses, from Peter Johnson, the editor of The Prose Poem: An International Journal: “Just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels.” Barker’s poem feels at once like a lyrical ode and a paragraph in an odd naturalist’s guide.

Brian Brodeur: I love the startling and often disturbing associative leaps in Barker’s prose poem. It opens, not with the phoenix of Eurasian mythology, but with the drowsy resurrection of bats. This local, suburban version of the classical creature “crawl[s]” instead of flies “out of the ashes of barbeque pits.” Moving from these backyard “ashes” to those caked on the “backs of chimney sweeps,” bats become the strange earrings adorning the “antlers of elk,” then transform once again into “a congress of trapeze artists,” a metaphor that suggests the precarious way bats hang by their toes to sleep. Like William Blake’s chimney sweeper, who is “a little black thing among the snow,” Barker’s “little black thing[s]” are conspicuous in spite of their smallness, speed, and nocturnal nature. Indeed, their “songs” are so loud they “shatter . . . streetlights, car alarms, nerves.”

As early practitioners of the prose poem understood, this hybrid form often employs rapid turns and contradictory perceptions, making it a great vehicle for nightmarish ideas and images Barker exploits in “Bats” (e.g., “aneurisms on string”). But I’d wager even Aloysius Bertrand, often cited as being the first to work with the form, would be envious of Barker’s image of these winged mammals as “weaving a jagged cotillion through the trees.”

Don Bogen: When I first came across Brian Barker’s “Bats,” I was struck by the strange use of future tense the poet himself mentions. That, coupled with the generalized “they” and “their” that appear in every sentence—we never see an individual bat but only bats en masse—lend an oracular quality to the piece, as if it were a dark prophecy of their future invasion. And they will be everywhere: from the skies above our houses, to the food in our hands, to the insides of our dreams—or should I say nightmares? The increasingly ominous tone of the poem adds to its sleek movement as it progresses from the mild discomfort of “cold barbecue pits” to “aneurysms,” “frostbitten fruit” (surely an echo of “forbidden fruit”), and at last “the jewelry of your death”—not a generalized “our death” but yours, reader, tonight most likely, in your sleep (cue demonic laughter). Well, it is only a dream, and Barker’s hint of humor throughout keeps us from having to spend the rest of our evening awake behind locked doors.

As Brian and Lisa note, the prose poem has a distinguished lineage, especially in French literature. Its energies lie in what Brian calls “associative leaps” between juxtaposed images, connections that are not rational but imaginative. Writing without the support of lines, the poet has to generate not only an effective progression of details but also a verbal music that can lift prose beyond its reputation as a mere carrier of meaning, useful only to tell a story or get a point across. “Bats” achieves this by subtle repetition and variation in sentence length and structure, starting with simple constructions, then adding more clauses and phrases in the middle of the poem, then shifting to direct address at the end.  And inside the sentences themselves there are some gorgeous patterns of sound: the rhythmic lilt of “appear and disappear and appear,” where you can almost hear their dipping flight, or that “congress of drowsy trapeze artists” where the s’s and z’s are as clustered and off kilter as the bats hanging upside down from the elk antlers. “Bats” looks like an everyday paragraph, but it sings like a poem.

We’re running Brian Barker’s “Bats” right next to his “Slugs” in the issue, so it was interesting to hear how he developed organic links between animals as he was working on the “Natural Histories” series.  As “Slugs” refers to “the severed head of a pig,” no doubt a porcine prose poem is also snorting somewhere in the group. But for now we get a glimpse not of the barnyard but the graveyard, with slugs that “suckle at the tear ducts of the dead” and bats tangled in our pajamas as they haunt our dreams. Happy Halloween!

On the Schiff Prize Winners . . .

Monday, October 15th, 2012

Fiction Editor Michael Griffith on choosing Carey Cameron’s “Thursday”:

“Thursday” takes up—in subtle, touching, psychologically acute ways—a subject that seems to get relatively little attention in literary fiction: the slippages and frailties of late middle age, the tectonic grindings and intricate negotiations necessary to long marriage. It’s a sharp, smart story, tender but resolutely unsentimental.

Carey Cameron: You write about what you know, and I wrote “Thursday” because I have a family member dealing with hearing loss, and a family dealing with that family member’s hearing loss. I searched a couple of times on the internet for help—literature, groups—for the families of those experiencing hearing loss—a kind of Al-Anon, but for hearing-loss-affected families—but found nothing. Maybe I was simply not adept enough at searching on the internet, but it led me to want to write something inspired by my family’s experience in the hopes that it might resonate with others. There are a lot of baby boomers out there struggling with hearing loss and other “ordinary” problems of aging, which, however, require extraordinary adjustments.

Cameron is the author of Daddy Boy (Algonquin, 1989) and Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana (Algonquin, 2002, published under the pseudonym “Isadora Tattlin”).

Poetry Editor Don Bogen on choosing Emily Hipchen’s “Boy into Polished Concrete”:

“Boy into Polished Concrete” struck me at first reading by its command of music and structure. The stanzas each have a clear focus as the poem progresses from the schoolroom, to the test, the boy going to bed, and his feelings in bed; and the whole poem is framed brilliantly by the far-away galaxies we cannot see at the start and the close-in memory of the spiral “galaxy” of spilled milk at the end. That milky way spills out as a fluid play on blank verse in the last line, a subtle and effective contrast to the rattling, consonant-laden phrases that express the boy’s anxiety at the start. The craft here is both noteworthy in itself and seemingly natural to the scenes described.

Great craft alone, of course, does not make a poem, but in the case of “Boy into Polished Concrete” it builds an intimate and persuasive character study. I’m impressed by the way the boy’s distinctive integrity grows even as we get closer and closer to his inner thoughts. This poem brings us inside the boy’s world—and his family’s too—with insight and grace. It’s a rich and deeply moving piece of work.

Emily Hipchen: “I just hit things,” my friend said, “hard. Like in football. And for a split second I could think.” He took a sip of beer; I frowned. “Look,” he said, “It’s a cognitive disorder. This is what we had to do: my son’s teachers thought that children needed to sit still to take tests. My son needs to throw himself on the floor. Over and over.”

This is where the poem came from—my trying to understand what that must be like for my friend and his son—but more generally what the relationship is between knowledge and the floor, and the motion of falling to the floor, and the point in that gesture at which knowledge becomes accessible, and why that place? It’s not like I got answers over the raft of revisions I did (the only original line here is the title), which makes all the periods in this version look really bizarre to me. I just had the questions, and this picture in my head of the boy, his fat pencil, the test, the floor; his father, his mother; the way the noise in his head must be like watching a badly-tuned television. The way my father used to pound the side of ours to fix it, which did fix it, most of the time.

Hipchen is a Fulbright scholar, the editor of Adoption & Culture, one of the editors of a/b: Autobiography Studies, and the author of a memoir, Coming Apart Together: Fragments from an Adoption (2005). Her essays, short stories, and poems have appeared in Fourth Genre, Northwest Review, Arts & Letters, and elsewhere. She is an associate professor at The University of West Georgia.

Secret Talents of the CR Staff: Round Two

Friday, October 12th, 2012

Last week we gave you a taste of the CR staff’s nonliterary talents (it turns out that in addition to being experts at polishing manuscripts for publication, we’ve got mad skillz in quite a few different areas). Today, the fun continues. To give you another deeper look into the CR family, we extracted (using gentle voices and promises of Tootsie Rolls) some more highly classified, super-secret talents:

Senior Associate Editor Matt O’Keefe: I’m too modest/embarrassed to reveal all my secret talents, but here are a few of the more interesting ones: beekeeping, urban trapeze, cat whisperment, “baking,” and also, I do a killer but PG-13 karaoke version of Britney Spears’s “If U Seek Amy,” where I play up the seeming incongruity of Britney using the word “seek.”

Editorial Assistant Michael Peterson: Before becoming the unbridled reading force that I am now, I toiled in various metal shops as a welder and fabricator. Strangely common customer request: Could you weld a bottle opener to my bike seat? Yes. Yes I could.

Associate Editor Lisa Ampleman: I am a pretty organized person. One example: When I go grocery shopping, I create the shopping list in the order of my movement through the store. I also have a great memory for detail sometimes; I can tell you what day of the week we had lunch together and what we were wearing. My husband thinks it’s scary and says it’ll get him into trouble someday.

Oh, what these chopsticks can do--in the hands of Brian Trapp.

Editorial Assistant Lisa Summe: Couldn’t think of any talents outside of school. Had to ask outside sources. Apparently I’m the best at finding the most coveted colored pants. I have two pairs that glow in black light. Pants are my favorite accessory; I have over 20 pairs.

Assistant Editor Brian Trapp: Growing up, I was never allowed to have a drum set in the house. So after college, when I went to China to teach English, one of my first executive decisions was to purchase a drum set. I formed a blues band with other ex-pats. We would often hang out in bars with music instruments on stage just waiting to be played. One problem: There were usually no drumsticks. So I would go to the nearest restaurant and borrow their heaviest pair of chopsticks. I brought them back cracked or bent, but the guitar solos had a solid backing beat. The drum rolls were harder, but the chopsticks came in handy for late-night stir fry.

Five Reasons to Love Best American

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

It’s here! The Best American Poetry 2012 has “dropped” and is in stores/amazon warehouses as you read this. Guest edited by the poet extraordinaire of Mark Doty, this issue features five, count em’, five CR poems. That is almost 7 percent of the whole anthology. And we didn’t even have to bribe. In its pages, you can find Eric Pankey’s  “Sober Then Drunk Again,” Julianna Baggott’s “For Furious Nursing Baby,” James Kimbrell’s “How to Tie a Knot,” and Dean Rader’s “Self-Portrait as Dido to Aeneas,” all of which the world first saw in issue 7.2. Don Russ’s “Girl with Gerbil” was also chosen, from issue 8.1. That’s not too shabby, if we say so ourselves. You can order a copy of Issue 7.2, 8.1, or any other back issue here.