Hey, Space Needle, you think you’re towering? You ain’t seen nothing. We Monsters of the Midwest are going to **literary reference alert** throw a Buick at you. You think you’re observation central? We’re going to **here’s another one** outgaze you into the abyss. You think you’re where the party starts, Seattle-wise? Wrongers. It starts at Unicorn (well, technically at Narwhal, which is, confusingly, inside Unicorn). At least, it will when Cincinnati Review, Mid-American Review, and Ninth Letter hit your burg in February like a belletristic battering ram. Like an erudite Godzilla. Like a supervillain who’s really good at Scrabble—and also from the Midwest. AWP is approaching, O pointy one, and come Thursday, February 27, you’re going to be shaking in your . . . girders or rivets or something else metal. That, or wishing you could hear a really awesome reading by really awesome readers whose names will be announced when we figure out who they are. Space Needle, have you ever noticed how you kind of look like a big unicorn horn with a fried ginger and jalapeno pork ball stuck on the tip? Maybe that’s where the kitchen types at Unicorn got the idea. For the pork balls. Which sound good if you eat meat, but even if you don’t, there are lots of other bizarrely yummy sounding food options and day-glo **we made that up, but it would be pretty cool** drinks called things like the Shay Shay Mar Mar and the Gavin MacLeod. Space Needle, this whole direct-address business is getting sort of strained, but if you wanted to make sure to attend this powerfully cute event, you’d mark your calendar now and write 6:30 to 8:30 under AWP/MONSTERS. And under that, in smaller print, check blog later for more details.
Archive for October, 2013
Coming of age is difficult, as any awkward teen will tell you. Your body is raging with hormones, creating sweaty palms, cracked voices, and terrible decisions. You have crushing responsibilities like taking out trash and cleaning your room. You’re supposed to find yourself (and you may be looking your whole life). You are vulnerable to weird fashion trends, expensive drugs, and romantic heartbreak. It’s so bad, in fact, that many adults deny they were ever young (despite photographic evidence). In CR 10.1, our contributors don’t forget. They find inspiration in that terrifying passage from youth to adulthood.
Suzanne Paola (on her poem “At the Teddy Bear Museum, Jeju-do, Korea): I traveled Korea with my husband and son when my son had just turned thirteen. Toward the end of our trip we visited Jeju-do, a Korean island popular with honeymooners that boasted lots of kitschy entertainment, including a museum of teddy bears in all sorts of tableaux, dressed as the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, in fatigues storming the beach at Normandy. As my son sank into a new teenage moodiness, my own adolescence knocked at me again, with its heroin and shock treatment and the years I had blanked out myself through drugs—years I could recapture only in the way the teddy bears could live the deadly Normandy invasion—a surface sign shorn of a content not just painful but, in many ways, inexplicable. I was influenced in writing this poem by the Korean form of the sijo, especially in the turn in the last line.
Erin Belieu (on her poem “Olentangy River”): I think the most difficult passage from youth to maturity begins in having your heart well and truly broken. We come to know ourselves maybe even a little too fully in the process. How awful, to be that woman, that man, now doing those things you’d strongly advise against when a lovesick friend comes to cry on your patio. Terrible, to be so vulnerable, the flimsiness of our pride revealed, to know exactly that of which we are capable. In this case, the speaker is left with the strong sense of a door that was partially opened. But the almost lovers here never get to follow their story to the end. So the story goes on, at least in the speaker’s mind, a grief that is something akin to the Herbert poem it references. Therefore my sudden soul caught at the place. Some people stick to us, no matter how many years go by.
Michael Reid Busk (on his ’80s: A Brief Primer short-shorts): I was born in the mid-’80s, with six much older siblings having already marched through the Carter and Reagan years. Their clothes were egregious, their hair large. I had no idea what they were doing, and it was all wonderful. Sometimes we ate waffles. I still like waffles, my hair is large, and my clothes are, by any reasonable standard, egregious. I started writing about the ’80s a few years ago, and I now have enough entries for a minor encyclopedia. This is the decade as best as I can remember it.
Justine McNulty: A first collection of stories, Battleborn presents us with a compelling new voice, and over the course of the book, its author, Clare Vaye Watkins, displays a deft handling and understanding of, not only prose, but narrative. I appreciated the way the first story plays with the idea of “beginnings,” the way it nods to “truth” yet fictionalizes it, manipulates it into something literarily dazzling. This story and others break down the conventions to make each piece seem innovative and story itself, in some way, limitless. Although often the frames Watkins chooses are not novel in themselves, the way she positions and pulls narrative from these structures feels fresh.
When I read, I enjoy picking out an author’s obsessions. For Watkins, Las Vegas, pregnancy, depression, suicide, sisters, sex, and parents are all very prevalent, albeit reimagined in captivating ways.
What’s more, the prose is deft and engaging. Watkins does not shy away from the sentimental, tackling of big issues again and again. There is much one can take from these stories, including the notion that you can do what you want with your narratives—as long as you can get away with it.
Technically, our tenth isn’t till 2014, but we’re already gearing up for a TEN-tacular year. We just received the artwork for the anniversary poster, as well as some fabu key chains we’ll have at our AWP book-fair table. And there’s WAY more to come. Beginning with our November issue, we are extending our reach, if you will, with an art-song feature. (Composer Steven Weimer set Kathleen Winter’s “Eve, Seducing the Apple” [from 4.1] to music, and we’re publishing the score alongside the reprinted poem, as well as putting up a podcast of the performance on our website.) If you’re a subscriber, you’re also going to receive some bonus mailings in the coming year—more art-song scores, printed individually (with corresponding podcasts), and the newest limb in our growing arm-y of artistic appendages, a graphic play. More on this latest enterprise—and a call for illustrators—soon. For now, we leave you with a jaunty wave. Times ten.
The blog was silent on Friday to mark the sudden passing of Sarah Richards Doerries, a contributor to our Winter 2008 issue who had been steadily and generously reading CR submissions for more than a year. She volunteered for this work because she loved it, and the editors here looked forward to her informed and lively assessments of the poetry and prose assigned her. Sarah was a longtime friend of Nicola Mason and Michael Griffith. They met in the early ’90s when she came on staff as a graduate assistant at The Southern Review. Sarah went on to publish her poetry and to edit books for many of the top publishing houses in the country, as well as to work and teach at her alma mater, Newcomb College/Tulane University. Her last position was that of editor at the Historic New Orleans Collection, and she was on her way to represent the Collection at the Frankfurt Book Fair when she suffered the brain aneurysm that ended her life. She had a vast intelligence, a nimble wit, a warm heart, and a brilliant spark. We will sorely miss her.
You know how when you’re not sure what to order for lunch you throw a dart at the menu? No? Really? Just us? Okay, then you know when you aren’t sure how to stop your mother-in-law from buying you t-shirts with cute critters on them (because six is enough) you send a letter to Ann Landers? Or when you need an interpretation of your latest naked-at-your-AWP-panel dream you Ask Jeeves?
Well it turns out that our resourceful contributors, who are always teaching us newfangled things, have a way of finding answers on their own. It’s sort of like how, when you can’t remember the spelling of a word, you write it out various ways, trading an a for e here, inserting a double letter there, working through the possibilities. Lucky for us, our contributors’ strategy for working out their questions is more reliable than our methods—and no one gets hit by a stray dart.
Mark Belair: The poems “Listeners” and “Taking Refuge” were prompted by small found moments that gave me a feeling of oasis in New York City. Concerning “Listeners,” I was walking late at night by some sidewalk cafes about to close, and the intense attention that clusters of listeners brought to their speakers made their silence and the night sky suddenly seem a benevolent shelter. “Taking Refuge,” by contrast, is set in the oasis of a bedroom inhabited by a couple taking shelter with each other, the city outside reduced to traces of light on the window blinds. Many of my poems begin with such snapshot moments, ones that catch my attention because they create a vague, puzzling feeling of latent meaning that I try to decipher by writing about it.
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 “Boy into Polished Concrete” 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 is the title). 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.
Martha Silano: In his 1911 “Lecture on Radium,” Loie Fuller shares his belief that there are two kinds of magic—one type created by man, and the other a result of natural causes. Radium, he states, is this latter kind of magic, “nature’s magic.” I was thinking a lot about nature’s magic when I sat down to write “Ode to Mystery” in the fall of 2011. In looking back at the first draft I’m surprised by how much I ended up cutting, including how life managed to evolve from unicellular blue-green algae to the mythical monstrosity known as a blue whale. But in lamenting what I left out, I realize this is a poem that really could have gone on forever—that the wonders of our planet and its species are endless. Hopefully you’ll agree that my decision to stop at 36 couplets was a good one.
Brian Brodeur: As part of my reading for qualifying exams here at University of Cincinnati, I’ve been researching a module on Contemporary American narrative poetry. Though unfairly regarded by many poets and critics as déclassé, this poetic genre has enjoyed something of an awakening in recent years. I’m thinking not only of the verse novels of the 1990s such as Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate and Mark Jarman’s Iris, but Geoffrey Brock’s more recent dramatic monologues spoken by nineteenth-century naturalists J. J. Audubon and Alexander Wilson, two examples of which will be published in our forthcoming issue (10.2).
One of the pleasures of exploring this genre in depth is discovering work I’d never encountered before and probably wouldn’t have otherwise. One such example is the title poem from David Mason’s second volume, The Country I Remember (1996). Mason, who is adept at both long and short forms of narrative poetry, most recently published the historical novel-in-verse Ludlow (2007). Composed in flexible blank-verse, “The Country I Remember” is a dramatic monologue spoken by two voices: Lieutenant John Mitchell, a Civil War POW captured at the battle of Chickamauga who helped to free over one hundred men from the infamous Libby Prison; and his restless daughter, Maggie Gresham, who escaped social convention by traveling alone across the American West in search of a self-sufficient life.
As Dana Gioia remarks in his introduction to Robert McDowell’s verse novel The Diviners (1995), “the new narrative must tell a memorable story in language that constantly delivers a lyric frisson.” Like any successful long narrative poem written after Modernism, “The Country I Remember” achieves this frisson through fragmentation, associative leaps, compression, and dramatic irony. Most noticeably, however, “The Country I Remember” distinguishes itself through another Modernist technique: juxtaposition. In its most radical structural move, the poem plays two familial voices against each other, alternating monologues in rapid succession with only a section title as transition. Because both characters actually speak their respective monologues across a considerable distance of space and time (John from Pomeroy, WA, 1918; Maggie from Los Angeles, CA, 1956), this device achieves the dramatic effect of issuing both voices at once. It is Mason’s ability to create two disparate, credible human beings, and to impart the unique experiences of both characters in a convincing way, that unifies his narrative, that provides the story with emotional poignancy, and that makes these different voices sing as one.
Alice Munro has been named the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature. Way back in 2006, The Cincinnati Review featured three reviews of her collection The View from Castle Rock. Did our prescient Managing Editor Nicola Mason call it early for Munro, knowing that a mere seven years later, she would win the big one?
She is claiming “yes.” In fact, she bet on it and has been gloating since yesterday. Assistant Editor Sara Watson bet big on Phillip Roth, and will be forking over part of her UC stipend to buy office pizza every other Friday. Assistant Editor Brian Brodeur thought Haruki Murakami was a shoo-in, and now has to shave his precious New England beard. Associate Editor Brian Trapp thought the day would belong to Bob Dylan, and now has to sing in a whiny, gravelly, late -Bob Dylan voice “Blowin’ in the Wind” whenever Nicola claps twice. If they’d read the reviews in CR 4.1, they would have known: Don’t ever bet against Munro. In her twelfth collection, she mines her own ancestral and personal history to create fiction that spans centuries and comes closest to her own life. Here are brief excerpts of what our astute reviewers had to say:
Dika Lam: Though Alice Munro doesn’t immediately come to mind as a spinner of costume dramas, I believe her work already carries the weight of historical record—born of another era entirely, when it was scandalous for a girl to ride a bike past the age of thirteen, when ladies didn’t smoke, when one had to burn sawdust in the furnace for heat (as the cash-strapped Laidlaws do in “The Ticket”). Though The View from Castle Rock opens and closes with images of graveyards, it is far from moribund, reminding us that fiction, no matter how closely aligned to real life, is as compelling as anything promoted with the authority of memoir.
Scott Kaukonen: Perhaps the writing of such stories is an attempt to validate that family history, that personal history, but writing it as fiction, gives us—as writers, as storytellers—the freedom to reach for something more. We seek significance, meaning, understanding—of those early settlers, of our fathers and mothers, of ourselves—and it is in stories that we work this out. It’s a refusal to leave the stories untold, the lives unacknowledged, as though those lives—our lives—had nothing to tell us.
William Pierce: But this hypothetical revue, this story-by-story lineup, would eventually reach the second half of the book. And there I’d drop to my knees. The stories of part two—those germinating from details of Munro’s life—show a major figure of world literature at work. They stand among the best Munro has written, and to comment on them, to point out a few of their strengths and shocks and techniques, feels like standing by the ocean and attempting to describe why the water calls to us and how the waves curl. They spark the writer in me, wow the editor, and shrink the critic to a healthy irrelevance—all without depressing me in the least, though they balk at nothing.
We asked our Schiff Award winners in prose and poetry to shoot us a few words on the pieces that garnered both praise (from our editor judges) and prizes (from our treasure palace). Here’s what they had to say.
Karrie Higgins: “The Bottle City of God” started as a spin-off piece from an essay I wrote about my early experiences in Salt Lake City undergoing a reluctant conversion—not to the Mormon faith, but to the concept of faith. In that piece, the air pollution played only a small part, but as my understanding of Zion deepened, and as I got sick from the air, I realized I was gaining what the Mormons call a “testimony.” But what did it mean to have faith without belief—and belief without faith? To be a gentile Mormon? The answer, I realized, was in the air. “The Bottle City of God” is evolving into a book: part theodicy and part grimoire wherein the pollution, the Zion grid, Mormon forger and bomber Mark Hofmann, Gary Gilmore, Ronnie Lee Gardner, Hugh Nibley, Brigham Young, Joseph Smith, David Copperfield, a local weather tower, and a cast of “missionaries” are colliding to cast a magic spell for atonement/at-ONE-ment.
Martha Silano: “The World” began while in residence at one of my favorite places on Earth—a scholarly retreat center located on a small island in Northern Puget Sound. I’d brought a notebook with a quote from Georgia O’Keeffe scrawled inside. She said it was the unexplainable in nature that made the world feel big, far beyond her understanding. When I sat down to write this poem, I put that quote at the top of the page and began attempting the impossible: to express my awe about this place where we live. I was also thinking about my son. As the poem revved up and began to find its footing, my son and the world were both there on the page—but as two separate entities. Once the engine was humming, I relished choosing the most alliterative and slant-rhyme-y ways to describe my favorite sphere—huge and miniscule, silent and loud, what and how it spews. Turning Earth into a twelve-year-old boy didn’t occur to me in the first or tenth or twentieth pass, but much later, while working in a room along the Seine River seven months later. In a trance-like state, my fingers flying over the keys, boy and World became one. Georgia O’Keefe’s Pelvis IV provided the final image, followed by a series of “f” words I have always enjoyed on the tongue.
Recent volunteer and PhD-poet extraordinaire Julia Koets joins us by way of San Francisco and Summerville, South Carolina. When asked about how the Midwest stacks up against northern California and the Deep South, Julia graciously restrains her contempt for goetta, her bemusement about the Ohio General Assembly, and her utter indifference toward the Bearcats this season. “Queen City rocks,” she says. Julia, who’s been writing villanelles exclusively for the past year, often breaks from reading submissions to gaze out the office windows at the buckeyes flaming orange on Clifton Ave, laughing through her nose about something she sees. “Did you know the word squirrels,” she says, “comes from the Greek skiouros which means ‘shadow tail’?” “No,” we admit, “we didn’t!” “It’s true,” she says, returning to her stack of submissions. Five minutes later, Julia starts laughing again. “Marmots are squirrels, too,” she says: “Marmot. Now that’s a good end-word for a villanelle!”
We’re pleased this week to share Julia’s thoughts about surprise and sonic-integrity in Mark Belair’s poem “Listeners” from issue 10.1.
Julia Koets: I recently read a poem about sound by Yona Harvey in her first collection, Hemming the Water. In one line, the speaker equates sound with God. In Mark Belair’s poem “Listeners,” sound feels that encompassing, that important, that big. And it’s unexpected that the poem begins: “All the listeners / are out tonight at the sidewalk cafes.” I would have expected all the talkers to be out at night, and that’s what I love about this poem. It’s surprising at first, but once you read it, you realize it’s telling you something you knew all along. The poem pays attention to the silences, which are as important as the voices that are more often heard. It is lack of speech, not speaking, that gains force, that gains resonance, that says something important.