Archive for March, 2015

Cranial Comparisons: Ashley Anna McHugh

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

The human skull—perhaps no artifact so powerfully represents ephemerality and longevity, vulnerability and strength, enlightenment and its concommitant darkness, apex and nadir, life and death. Its complex and conflicting associations have historically made the skull a powerful symbol in art, literature, mythology, and ritual, representing the unknown as well as the known. Meshell Ndegeocello has remarked, “I’ll never understand what makes our minds do the things we do. It’s like that statue of the monkey holding a skull. We’re trying to use a thing we don’t understand to understand ourselves.” In an evocative long sequence inspired by two ornamented skulls, Ashley Anna McHugh offers a richly contemplative exploration not just of the head, but of the heart.

Ashley Anna McHugh: My manuscript Descent unspools the mythology and beliefs of our earliest civilization in three interwoven poetic sequences to see what it has left us, and what lasts. In Descent, “The Red Hours” forms part of a sequence about prehistoric burial rites in the ancient Near East, and it was inspired by the archeological finds of skulls in Jericho (7000 b.c.)—and commonly across the Near East, actually—that were decorated to resemble fleshed human faces.

HirstWhile considering what these finds might mean to us now, I came across Damien Hirst’s For The Love of God—a real human skull casted in platinum and encrusted with over eight thousand diamonds. Originally, in an early attempt at writing about these two skulls, I made a one-to-one comparison, but it eventually seemed to me like my poem wasn’t as good as the art it was about—a challenge that any ekphrastic poem must overcome.

So I started from scratch. I studied and took notes about traditional historic interpretations of skulls and diamonds, and I tried to make connections; I wrote questions in my notebooks, though I had no answers. I copied out Hamlet’s speech to Horatio by hand, and I listened to Kanye West’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Remix)” on loop for weeks while I wrote. In short, I tried to uncover why both of these skulls—the one from Jericho, the one created by Hirst—were meaningful to me, each in their own distinctly disturbing way.

In the end, what struck me about both skulls was how they each tried to overcome death, to remake death—through love, through beauty and wealth—and how they both failed. In “The Red Hours,” I wanted to capture the mind grasping for a rationalization, for a proof against death—and ultimately, finding nothing to hold. I wanted to illustrate both our intense longing to outlast death in some way, and the inevitability of the fact that we won’t.

Why We Like It: Reading Susan Wheatley’s “The Recording Angel” with Wim Wenders’s WINGS OF DESIRE

Thursday, March 26th, 2015
Rochelle---aka The Angel of---Hurt

Rochelle—aka The Angel of—Hurt

Volunteer Rochelle Hurt, who will be coming on staff next year as one of CR’s assistant editors, once went by a different name. After college, drawn by the bright lights, frenzied crowds, and—it must be said—classy costumes, she devoted herself to the glory known by professionals as the grappling arts. As the avenging Angel of Hurt, she powerbombed, chokeslammed, and moonsaulted her way to the top of her field. Yet standing upon the stacked spines of conquered opponents, she felt . . . empty. Whereupon she saw something . . . up there . . . twinkling in the distance. Yea, the ivory tower glowed even more powerfully than a klieg-lit coliseum. There was one more celestial stronghold left for her to scale. She promptly applied to grad school.

WINGS_OF_DESIRE_SE-21Rochelle Hurt:
 Reading Susan Wheatley’s “The Recording Angel” reminded me of a favorite Wim Wenders film, Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin), in which angels roam Berlin, invisible but always in close proximity to humans. Against a backdrop of graffiti and 1980s pop cultural icons (including Nick Cave and Columbo’s Peter Falk), these angels listen to and record the thoughts of humankind. Susan Wheatley’s angel plays a similar role. The poem begins: “For he observes when the posts are well sunk beneath the frost line/ And he knows when they are not, and the wooden church will fall/ For he stayed the hand of Abraham and keeps the oceans in check.” The potential for sentimentality in a list like this is undercut by the poem’s point of view: We’re not given the recording angel’s unfiltered observations, but rather an image of him in the recording process. The poem is really about the act of amassing knowledge, not the knowledge itself. There is an emphasis on lack and passivity in the angel’s process: “he knows when they are not”and “keeps the oceans in check.” This kind of knowledge-building through lack is mimicked in the poem’s rhetorical structure, which piles up information through the anaphoric repetition of “for,” suggesting that these bits of knowledge are explanations of an antecedent we never get in the poem. Its absence allows the poem’s content to accumulate indefinitely, because it avoids the closure of a complete sentence.

Both Wenders’s and Wheatley’s angels serve as artist figures, though the two have very different temperaments. While Wenders’s angels take pleasure in even the most mundane human musings, Wheatley’s can hardly bear the earthly world: “he bandages his ears so as not to hear the people pleading.” The risk of becoming emotionally overwhelmed is implicit in the angel’s struggle. In this way, speaker-as-writer and angel are compared. Likewise, in Wenders’s film (which he explained was partially inspired by Rilke’s poetry), the creative process as a result and a means of observation is examined through music, acting, writing, drawing, and performance—and this process is far from painless for Wenders’s characters. One of his angels begins to feel too much for the world he observes, falling in love with a circus performer. In doing so, he essentially assigns more value to the content of his recordings than to the art itself, sacrificing his ability to record the world for an ability to participate in it. The similarly meta-poetic quality of Wheatley’s poem (a recording of a recording) is explicitly recognized in the final stanza: “For he is scribe and intermediary/ For I am scribe and intermediary.” Angel and writer watch each other, and so they seem equal, but the poem’s final turn reveals the fallacy of this logic: “For I cannot see/ And he cannot turn aside his many eyes.” Ultimately the writer cannot see the world from the distance afforded the omniscient angel, while the angel cannot not see the world in its unbearable totality.

What We’re Reading: The Things I Don’t See

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

CvrThingsDontSee_bookstoreDon Peteroy: Hemingway notes that in effective prose, writers will omit aspects of the story, but the reader will nonetheless sense the presence of what’s not there. “The dignity of the movement of an ice-berg,” Hemingway says, “is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” Likewise, in Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud describes the empty, transitional space between comic panels as a potent ground for the untold story beneath the surface. Nathan Holic’s novella, The Things I Don’t See, exemplifies McCloud and Hemingway’s theories of omission through conventional storytelling and comic graphics, creating a haunting and sometimes terrifying reading experience. Though it’s marketed as a horror novella, you won’t encounter haunted houses or monsters. The ghosts in this story are our own monstrous secrets, refusing to be brought into the light.

Craig, aspiring to live life like a “sitcom dad,” has relocated his wife and step-son to a developing community outside of Orlando. Unfortunately, Phase II of the construction is cancelled when the recession comes, and Craig’s family is surrounded by unfinished homes, dirt roads, muddy craters, and the unfulfilled promise of a pool, a clubhouse, and communal happiness. His step-son, Taylor, was already a “problem child” before they’d arrived in the ghost-community, but its emptiness seems to have exacerbated his growing hatred toward Craig. A horror film fanatic, Taylor draws pictures of Craig being murdered in the most gruesome ways. The child’s violent fixations become the object of his step-father’s obsession, culminating in a power struggle. Each chapter alternates between timelines conveying Craig’s childhood and present. Even as Craig reluctantly confesses the truly horrific things he’d done as a child, we see him “investigating” Taylor, attempting to preempt or prevent what Craig believes will be Taylor’s intricate, bloody revenge. He knows Taylor is keeping dangerous secrets because that’s what he’d done as a child, and presumably, that’s what all boys do:

“. . . we were children and we believed our own lies and we were fucking evil, everything that an adult should be afraid of. And I don’t care how many diapers you change or how many loving glances you receive from your baby, you don’t know what children are capable of when your eyes are shut, when the clouds choke out the sun. A damaged child, full of hate? Shit. Best not to shut your eyes.”

Craig discovers on Taylor’s computer a series of animated drawings that are difficult to see as anything other than a promise of destruction, yet we can never be sure what Taylor’s drawings are telling us, or what the story between the frames actually is. Either way, both Craig and Taylor show signs of psychopathic potential, and by the final scene, we’re not sure who is going to do the killing, or if there will be any at all.

I’ve read a lot of horror stories, and those without the ghosts or murderers (Shirley Jackson comes to mind) can be just as terrifying as those with these elements, sometimes more. Aside from Holic’s ability to render sophisticated characters, his sentences are alive with haunting details of an abandoned suburbia, idiosyncratic in voice, poetic at times, and attentive to the power of each word. When horror writers actually care about the prose (about half do)—get this—the sentences intensify the thrills in the plot. Holic wants his readers to believe and feel the terrors on the page, and he succeeds by raising the bar with careful, artful prose. In 126 pages, he manages to juggle multiple themes, which pull the reader in as effectively as the sentences: aging, brotherly rivalry, the death of a loved one, abandonment, 1980s nostalgia, peer pressure, middle-class ennui, denial, passivity, honesty, humility, and ultimately, what it means to be a father.

You can purchase The Things I Don’t See from Main Street Rag Publishing at


Crossword Solution

Monday, March 16th, 2015

pencil-happyThe first puzzle-solver to send us answers was the ever-so-sharp Laura Somerville (who won many—perhaps all—of our blue pencil prizes some years ago). Congrats, Laura! And the runner up (around 3 hours shy of first place) was contributor Katherine Karlin, whose haunting story “We Are the Polites” is in our current issue. Thanks for playing, Katherine!

Click here for the crossword key.

Emerging Fiction Festival Begins Today!

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

Robocop-robocop-31038763-1024-768The Department of English & Comparative Literature at University of Cincinnati will host its sixth biennial Emerging Fiction Writers Festival, featuring former CR contributors and crime-fighters Dean Bakopoulos and Alissa Nutting, as well as corruption-crushing magnificoes Ed Park and Nelly Reifler. Read on for a full schedule of events, including a seminar concerning tricks and tips on nuclear disarmament.

For the sake of our country—Nay, our world!—we hope to see you there.

Fiction Reading: Dean Bakopoulos & Nelly Reifler
►March 11, 2015; 7:00 pm
►McMicken 127

Panel Discussion: “The Engines of Fiction” (moderated by Gwen Kirby and Dario Sulzman)
This panel will focus on the propulsive elements of narrative, in both the short story and the novel. The most obvious topics include plot, event, structure, and suspense, but panelists might also discuss elements such character, language, tone, form, and atmosphere.
►March 12, 2015; 11:00 am
►Tangeman University Center, Room 400B

Fiction Reading: Alissa Nutting & Ed Park
►March 12, 2015; 7:00 pm
►McMicken 127

Panel Discussion: “Realism and Fabulism” (moderated by Dan Paul and Brenda Peynado)
This panel will address issues and implications of various modes of representation in both the story and the novel. Possible topics for discussion include premise, genre, logic, world-building, credibility, authority, and the utility of a central distinction between realist and non-realist fiction.
►March 13, 2015; 10:00 am
►Tangeman University Center, Room 400B

Participant Bios:

1416512843977Dean Bakopoulos is the author of the novels Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon and My American Unhappiness, both published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. His new novel, Summerlong, will be published by Ecco/HarperCollins in June 2015. The winner of NEA and Guggenheim fellowships, he is writer-in-residence at Grinnell College and teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.



1416510096131Alissa Nutting is the author of the novel Tampa and the short story collection Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls. Her fiction has appeared in publications such as The Norton Introduction to Literature, Tin House, Bomb, and Conduit; her essays have appeared in Fence, The New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, and other venues. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at John Carroll University.



1422553952502Ed Park is the author of the novel Personal Days, which was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and other honors, and was named one of the top ten fiction books of the year by Time. He was a founding editor of The Believer, the editor of The Voice Literary Supplement, and an editor at The Poetry Foundation and Little A. From 2008 to 2011, he taught in Columbia’s M.F.A. program. He is currently executive editor at Penguin Press. His next two books, the novel Same Bed, Different Dreams and the story collection An Oral History of Atlantis, are forthcoming from Random House.


1422553933144Nelly Reifler is the author of the story collection See Through and the novel Elect H. Mouse State Judge. Her work has been published most recently in Story, Tweed’s, The Atlas Review, The Weeklings, and Lucky Peach, among others, and has been aired on NPR’s Selected Shorts. She currently teaches in the M.F.A. programs at Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia. She was the Writer-in-Residence at Western Michigan University in 2014, and she has been an editor at Post Road since 2008.

The CR Crossword Challenge . . . continued

Monday, March 9th, 2015

braincrossIn the spirit of our Games, Contests, & Diversions category, we give you—our bloggy wogs (i.e., followers of our blog; and yes, we just made that up)—a second crossword challenge by come-lately cruciverbalist (and fiction editor) Michael Griffith. Regarding this month’s puzzle, Michael says, “Clues in the ‘ham//board’ format are after-and-before clues. You’re looking for the word that ends a two-word phrase beginning ‘ham’ and starts a two-word phrase that ends with ‘board.’ In this case, the answer is ‘sandwich.’”

As before, the first person to solve the puzzle will receive a free issue of his/her choice. Submit your entry by commenting on this post (click the title) or contact us at editors[at] Good luck, word wonks!

Click here to view (and print) the crossword.

Last Call! Reading Period Ends March 15

Friday, March 6th, 2015


Attention writers: If you’ve been putting off submitting your work, delay no longer. Our reading period ends in nine days—yes, that’s right, nine days—on March 15th at 11:59 pm EST. Or, in the celebrated words of Bertolt Brecht, originally set to music by Kurt Weill in 1927, and later covered by the likes of David Bowie and The Doors:

Oh moon of Alabama
We now must say goodbye
We’ve lost our good old mamma
And must have whiskey
Oh, you know why.

In case you don’t know why, here’s an explanation of our revised reading period. And don’t despair! We’ll continue to post updates, contributor comments, crossword puzzles, teasers, and other such features from our offices at University of Cincinnati, which are remarkably similar in appearance to the prohibition-era brothels and whiskey bars of Alabama. Or so we’ve been told by the visiting Brecht scholar living in the boiler room of McMicken Hall, who, when asked for a pithy remark on the German master, grunted and slurred:

In the asphalt city I’m at home. From the very start
Provided with every last sacrament:
With newspapers. And tobacco. And brandy
To the end mistrustful, lazy and content.

Auf widersehen, Dear Readers, for now.

Mary Szybist: The Return

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Ondrej Pazdirek: Last week, Mary Szybist returned to UC for her second and final stint as our 2015 Elliston Poet. She left her students at Lewis & Clark College and flew into town on Tuesday, February 24—with the airport crew still clearing off the remnants of a busy snow week—and jumped right back to work with her temporarily adopted students: nine of us in John Drury’s graduate poetry workshop. From what I came to know about Mary, I now assume she was writing comments in the margins of our poetry packets even on the plane. She met with our class on Wednesday, and on Thursday met with each of us individually to discuss our work. She concluded her visit by delivering a second Master Class lecture, titled “Repetition and Resonance,” on Friday evening to a packed Elliston Room.

SzybistAs the Elliston Poet-in-Residence, Mary was prepared for and fully devoted to her time in Cincinnati. An exceptionally attentive workshop leader, she was willing to consider each poem on its own terms, and on the terms of the writer, in addition to considering what it could be. As a poet, Mary struck me as someone who treasured each word, took a rare, quiet patience with every syllable, a poet serious about poetry, its success. In our January workshop, she quoted Ezra Pound’s alleged remark that it does not matter who writes the great poems; what matters is that they get written.

I believe I can speak on the behalf of my classmates, and perhaps even on behalf of other people who have had the chance to come into contact with Mary Szybist during her (albeit brief) stay, when I say that her two visits in Cincinnati were truly wonderful, and resonated with each one of us.


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 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.