Archive for October, 2015

Why We Like It: “Raisin Man” by Chelsea Bieker

Wednesday, October 28th, 2015

Samantha Edmonds: Voice is something one tends to hear a lot about when discussing fiction writing—“Oh, this has a great voice!” or “The voice of this piece really compelled me.” Those of us who teach may encourage our undergraduates to make better use of it—“Let your character’s voice drive the story.” But what exactly does it mean for a story have a great voice?

It doesn’t (usually) mean writing in dialect or slang or barely recognizable jargon. Rarely does it include, though it certainly can, the sprinkling of a foreign language. The best voices are subtler than that, more innate, something to be felt in the character, not just a rendering of speech.

voiceGreat voice is a line like “the way she forgot to wear unders like a lady should.” This appears in the first paragraph of Chelsea Bieker’s gorgeous story “Raisin Man” in CR’s current issue (12.1) and immediately gives the reader a clear sense of who Herd Collis is, where he comes from, the way he was raised.

In writing that something is “sweet like cane” or “the crops ain’t fit for nothing,” Bieker is offering more than characterization; she is offering backstory, setting, insight into why and how the narrator behaves as he does.

The voice in “Raisin Man” is also worth praising for its restraint. The language never becomes overbearing. It does not try to sound the way many think a narrator in a rural setting should, burdened with dropped g’s and verbs ending in apostrophes and phonetically spelled dialect; it merely shows us a particular human, both in scenes of great interiority and in spoken dialogue. The sentences are short but elegant in their brevity, simple and gorgeous, and the overall sense is that Herd is standing just before you, saying all of this out loud. Even when he isn’t speaking, you can hear him in every word.

Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers: Whale Woes

Monday, October 26th, 2015

It’s our pleasure to present another edition of Peteroy’s Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers, a blog feature in which Associate Editor Don Peteroy lobs a bit (or a lot) of ludicrousness, like a great white written spitball, at an author he admires, and the author bobs and weaves to avoid taking the sodden mass in the eye. This episode’s delightfully game target is Anne Valente. Coming at you, Anne! Cweappppppptttthhhhh [sound of written-spitball release].

moby_dick_11Question: You’re teaching an undergraduate novel-writing class. The first two students up for workshop hand in phonebook-sized manuscripts. At home, you begin to read the first one, and it’s not long before you realize the student has turned in an exact copy of Moby-Dick, word for word. You open the next manuscript, and the first line reads, “Call me Ishmael.” It’s another Moby-Dick. In class, you yell at the students, but they don’t know what you’re talking about. In Survey of British Lit, 1580-1700, you’d assigned The Taming of the Shrew. When you initiate conversation, the students start talking about homoeroticism as it pertains to Queequeg and Ishmael. You glance inside your copy of the Shakespeare play, and—it goes without saying—the entire text has been replaced by Moby-Dick. You then look in every book in your office. Kafka’s The Trial is about Ahab’s search for the whale. On the Road? A tale about whale hunting. Even Joyce Carol Oates’s entire oeuvre has become Melville-infected. And then you look in your own book, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down. “Call me Ishmael,” it reads. Your publisher phones to discuss a new novel you’re working on. She says, “Look, Anne, I’ll be frank. I don’t know what the hell you’re trying to do. Let’s try something new, something inventive. I’ve had this idea floating around in my head, and you can take it and expand upon it if you wish. Okay, so this guy, Ishmael, ends up on this whaling boat with this crazy captain named Ahab. . . .” As she explains, you open your inbox. You’ve received a rejection from a literary magazine. The email reads: “We’re sorry, but your work does not suit our needs at the moment. We’re currently looking for fresh stories about a captain in search of a white whale…” In brief, describe the next twenty-four hours of your life.

 

Valente1AV: First, I pull from beneath my bed the Ouija board that’s been gathering dust since junior high. I dim the lamps, light some candles and incense. Even though Witchboard and The Exorcist and even the Hasbro instructions have all warned me not to play alone, I place my hands on the planchette and ask the ether of the living room, “Herman Melville, is that you?” The wind blows against the panes. The candlelight flickers. The spade-shaped indicator creeps slowly around the board, not toward the YES or NO at the top corners but instead around the letters until it spells a full sentence: IT IS I. My hands flinch away from the board. Herman Melville is in the room! I gather my thoughts and wonder what I can possibly ask him. I think of my students, the whale-filled manuscripts, the call from my publisher, the literary magazine rejection. My hands find the board. “What do you want from me?” I say to the room.

The planchette flies quickly around, spells out the longest sentence I’ve seen since the board told me in junior high NO YOU WILL NEVER MEET TORI AMOS SORRY. I memorize the letters Melville gives me, decode them in my head. WHEN YOU READ MOBY DICK A FEW YEARS AGO YOU SKIMMED THE WHALING CHAPTERS AND I WANT YOU TO KNOW MORE ABOUT WHALE TAXONOMY AND BALEEN AND HARPOON ROPES.

Then the board goes silent. The wind stops blowing and the incense burns out. I set the board quietly inside its box, slide it back under the bed, and pull Moby-Dick off the shelf. It takes twenty-four hours to read all 663 pages, but by the following night, my eyes bloodshot with a lack of sleep, I know everything there is to know about the history of whaling and uses for whale oil and the difference between a humpback and a minke.

The next morning, my students submit manuscripts that don’t begin Call me Ishmael. We discuss The Taming of the Shrew. I receive a follow-up email from the lit mag saying submissions are closed for their whale-theme issue. I wonder for a few days if using the Ouija board alone will cause me to writing only of white whales, but Herman Melville never contacts me again.

Anne Valente’s first short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names, won the Dzanc Books Short Story Prize and was released in September 2014. Her debut novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, is forthcoming from William Morrow/HarperCollins in 2016. She is also the author of the fiction chapbook, An Elegy for Mathematics. Originally from St. Louis, she is a faculty member in the Creative Writing Department at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.

Exposing Our Roots: Coben, Wineman, Revell, Bagdanov

Monday, October 19th, 2015

Seamus Heaney’s famous poem “Digging” provides a well-loved metaphor for the writing process: pen as spade, the past as soil. “Between my finger and my thumb,” he writes, “The squat pen rests./I’ll dig with it.” In discussing their work from our upcoming winter issue (due late November), several contributors similarly explain their process as a kind of excavation—or, by contrast, a palimpsest built upon the past. Whether finding inspiration in family, biography, the literary canon, or the human body itself, these writers all reveal the constant presence of history on the page.

Joshua Coben: “Antechamber” is one of several poems about fatherhood that I’ve worked on in recent years. It reflects some of my most troubling questions about myself as a son and as a father of sons. I am trying to come to grips with the legacy of silence and misunderstanding that can be passed from taciturn father to quiet son across generations. Each son tries and, in many ways, fails to penetrate the mystery of his father. He seeks not only love, but also the means to understand himself. His father’s example, with all the unanswered questions it engenders, inevitably informs the kind of father he will grow into. This poem tries to convey the ancient dance of filial longing and paternal love, where the latter is often concealed behind barriers we do not mean to erect. The three-beat lines give it the lilt of a waltz, as father and son circle each other, changing places with each turn of the generational wheel.

Steven Wineman: When I heard about Alice Goffman’s book On the Run, I was drawn to the subject (a study of fugitive life in a poor African American neighborhood) and curious whether she was related to the great sociologist Erving Goffman. I did some poking around on the internet and found that, sure enough, Alice is Erving’s daughter. I also learned that Erving Goffman died when Alice was a baby, which seemed especially poignant given that he had remarried only the year before, at the age of fifty-nine. I came upon something else I had not known about Goffman: his first wife suffered from bipolar disorder and committed suicide in 1964. Suddenly I had a very personal link to Erving’s biography; I also was married to a woman who struggled with bipolar disorder and who took her life. I began to think about how to weave all these strands—a young woman taking up the work of the father she lost as an infant; two women crushed by mental illness; two husbands overwhelmed by suffering and loss—into a single essay. “Erving and Alice and Sky and Elisabeth” is the result.

Donald Revell on “Fresh Dante”: The poem for me arose from a crowd of living palimpsests—the city of Toulouse, vivid now as it was vivid centuries ago as the capital of the Troubadors; the Garonne, a river running through the city and through the Cantos of Ezra Pound; a sense of Dante in the midst of all, still and still embodied as he was in Eternity where his shadow dumbfounded the shades, including the shades of the Troubadors themselves; and eventually my own flesh, inscribing and effacing my days. We die into our books and then out of them again. The imperfections of our words match the imperfection of our loves, in the flesh and out of it. For me, Toulouse is at the center of it all.

Kristin George Bagdanov on “Resurrection Body”: I worry about extinction. I wonder how much of my life is actually an interaction with residue (shadow, echo, fossil, language) rather than the thing itself. I wonder if a poem, like the world, is always tending toward extinction, if the poem itself is a fossil in the making. In “Resurrection Body,” I reimagine the concepts of metempsychosis and bodily resurrection by considering the fact that our material bodies are not wholly our own—they are both person and thing, self and other, human and other-than-human. The human body, for example, has ten times more bacterial cells than human ones—so what implications does this have for calling one’s body “human” or saying “I”? This poem also elegizes the current and future loss of this world; the last line could be read as hopeful, or perhaps a realization forged too late in this epoch: that the damage we’ve inflicted upon other bodies is damage we’ve inflicted upon our own, and that this residue will persist beyond any individual’s death.

Reading Our Readers

Monday, October 12th, 2015

lightbulbsIt’s Celebrate Our Readers day. Not the readers of our journal (though we are ever so grateful for you), but the diligent and conscientious behind-the-scenes readers of the six thousand plus (and rising!) submissions we receive each year. These intelligent and dedicated humans, who are just as busy as you are and receive no payment for their pains, spend hours every week rendering thoughtful assessments of the random poems and stories, by writers both new and seasoned, that continuously fill their inboxes. Below are a few examples of our readers’ reactions to the work you send our way.

Good poems, but not very inventive or new—except for the last one, which I think does something sort of fresh by reversing the typical depictions of boys/girls and children’s perceptions of gender—but then undercuts itself in the final line. Would like to hear another poet’s thoughts.

*

I feel like this one is on the cusp? The reveal feels kind of like a trick, and there are many disturbing unanswered questions, specifically about character motivation, but it’s beautifully written and interesting and haunting.

*

Well written estranged father-and-son story. Not horribly interesting, though.

*

From this batch, I recommend “O——” for further consideration. The poem deviates and subverts the ekphrastic tradition throughout. At the beginning, it does this via nuance, but by the end the poem has taken the narrative (and the reader!) to a whole other immediate place. It is this immediacy at the end that is most compelling to me, especially in an ekphrastic poem, most of which tend to dwell in the past tense of description.

*

This is not really a literary poem, though it does occasionally exhibit startling word choices. A bit like Jim Morrison, if Jim Morrison were a tanned teen girl in a bathing suit crushing on her boyfriend.

*

Wow, this story hooked me. The author’s use of indirection is superb, and I love the how insistent and forceful the protagonist is when it comes to protecting/maintaining the dignity of symbols (snakes and fish). The dialogue is convincing, the pacing well controlled. Guess what I don’t like? The ending. I sense the writer couldn’t find a way out of the story so concocted a deeply symbolic and ambiguous gesture.

*

Well written, but I find the frame this story uses much less original and interesting than its focus. I don’t know the narrator enough to really feel affected by his lost son. The whole conceit feels contrived in order to give weight to the frame.

*

There are nice observations and images concerning things like lawn mowing and drug stores, but the poet doesn’t do much new or interesting with these images. Adjectives over insight.

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Story is over 10K words, contains “Track Changes” corrections, and features laborious stretches of description (mountain wilderness and dogs). The piece exhibits no sense of pacing, though there are fleeting moments of mystery / tension.

*

I pass this batch on because I enjoy many of the images and a lot of the wordplay in the first three poems. I’m on the fence overall, but when I’m on the fence with poetry, I figure it’s best to let another set of eyes see it.

*

These are worth further consideration. “S——” introduces a conceit and doesn’t over-indulge in it, rather it stays focused on the emotional resonance of the ending. “O——” made me think of Pablo Neruda’s odes to everyday objects, but with a modern sensibility.

What’s Poetry Got to Do with It?

Thursday, October 8th, 2015

JoseMusings by José Angel Araguz

Episode 1: Shoes

Poetry: three mismatched shoes at the entrance of a dark alley.
—Charles Simic, Dime-Store Alchemy

One of my favorite moments in the classroom comes from sharing this quote and, before digging into the meaning of this singular definition of poetry, turning to my students and asking: What shoes do you see at the entrance of a dark alley? As students call out their specific visions (High heels! Muddy boots and a sneaker! Sandals!), the suggestive power of this lyrical phrase is made clear. With our respective “shoes” in hand, we are able to go back to the opening premise and work at answering the question: What’s poetry got to do with shoes?

My goal in these columns will be to muse on various everyday ideas and objects that might not naturally be associated with poetry. I believe that no matter how high its aesthetic, a poem lives or dies essentially on its relation to real life. This work of relating one thing to another is poetic at its center, like a set of muscles that is exercised via metaphor versus crunches. I plan on discussing things as varied as astrology, barbeque, and knitting, all with an eye toward how people relate different experiences and literacies to make sense of the world, themselves, and, yes, sometimes even poems.

shoesIn the case of Simic’s mismatched shoes at the entrance of a dark alley, the conversation moves forward in questions: How did the shoes get there? What happened for them to get there? Who’s walking around with one shoe on? All of these questions are poetry, or rather, this questioning after meaning is poetry. Move from the dark alley to the shoe store for a moment, and think of that feeling of finding a new pair of Converse (or your own preferred shodding) in an odd color, that mix of questions to the self (Can I pull these off? Are these shoes really me?); then move back to the dark alley: Who pulled these off?

This piecing together, clueing in and out of ideas of self, are what shoes have to do with poetry. There’s also all sorts of puns to be gotten from shoes (some real “sole” talk, if you will), but that would be another column.

 

Schiff Awards Finalists and Honorable Mentions

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015

featWithout further ado!

Finalists

Michele Herman
Kate McQuade

Honorable Mentions

Michael Alessi, Steve Amick, David Armstrong, Chris Arp, Sarah Batkie, James Bennett, J. Bowers, Mason Boyles, Elizabeth Denton, Darrin Doyle, Andrea Eberly, Emily Franklin, Scott Gloden, Becky Hagenston, Carissa Halston, Simon Han, Rob Hicks, Mark Hitz, Mark Holden, Christian Holt, David Joseph, Bradford Kammin, Rachel Kondo, Kevin Mandel, Terrance Manning Jr., LaTanya McQueen, Sarah Menkedick, Billy Middleton, Christina Milletti, Christopher Mohar, Derek Palacio, Michael Pearce, Karenmary Penn, Todd James Pierce, Maegan Poland, Lara Prescott, Hannah Timmins Reid, Katie Rogin, Anna Rowser, Chad Schuster, Sarah Taggart, J. Duncan Wiley, Hannah Withers, and Rolf Yngve

Schiff Awards Follow-Up!

Monday, October 5th, 2015
Thanks to everyone who entered our seventh annual summer contest. You sent us essays: There was that beautiful meditation on the altered state of motherhood, for example, as well as that investigative, yearning search for a family past erased by slavery. You sent us pitch-perfect comic stories: We got one featuring a computer coder with a suicidal grandma and a girlfriend obsessed with an Amish reality show. (You thought you had problems!) You sent us sharp and lyrical realist stories: We received several heartbreaking and disorienting tales about what it’s like to live with dementia. You sent us imaginative fabulism and odd magical realism: We got many stories that explored gender, including one in which a woman wakes up with a man’s (ahem) hardware. And you sent poems. One of you imagined the sex life of zombies. One of you imagined the sex life of Gollum. Several of you reimagined that original sex scandal in the mythical garden of yore.  You sent us secrets and heartbreaks, childhoods and dreamscapes. You sent lists and villanelles and rondeaux, and a record-breaking number of prose poems. You sent us (vicariously) to the boulevards of Paris, the villas of Italy, the research labs of Antarctica, and the backyards of post-apocalyptic America. We had an embarrassment of riches, and we’re embarrassed we could only pick one winner.

Don Bogen on the winning poem: Jaime Brunton’s “Chase” is the first prose poem to win the Schiff Award and a great example of the genre at its best. Here are some things I especially admire about it.  First, it’s definitely a poem. Neither narrative-driven nor expository, “Chase” can’t be mistaken for flash fiction or a paragraph in an essay. It uses sentences the way a good poem in free verse uses the line: with grace, variety, and special attention to sound. “Chase” revitalizes phrasing, so that the most impersonal, empty constructions—“There is,” “There are”—come to support subtle emotional exploration. What the poem has to say about time, loss, and our hopes for a clear arc in the lives of those we love is marked by discovery and insight. “Chase” is sharp, sensitive, and brilliantly rendered, a standout among prose poems and poems in general.

Michael Griffith on the winning story: Robert Long Foreman’s “Awe” features a documentarian who, adrift after a project gone tragically wrong, has quit his profession and is seeking . . .  well, is seeking renewed access to the sublime, to awe. His bizarre stratagem is to arrange through Craigslist to watch a woman give birth. In Foreman’s nimble hands, Bill’s alternately comic and poignant (mis)adventures with the couple who agree to allow this make for a delightfully askew, surprisingly emotional story.

Check the blog tomorrow for our distinguished list of HONORABLE MENTIONS. (Sorry, meant to announce them today, but there have been logistical . . . complications, and we don’t want to leave anyone out!)

 

Winners of the 7th Annual Schiff Awards!

Thursday, October 1st, 2015

WordOfArt1aOur sincere thanks to those who submitted work to The Cincinnati Review’s summer contest. This year’s field was wildly varied in form and content, and it was difficult to choose from among the many quality entries. In addition to the winning pieces, we have a distinguished list of finalists and honorable mentions, as well as the editors’ comments on the entries and the prize poem and story. Please visit our blog on Monday for more contest content.

Those who participated in the contest will receive a year’s subscription to The Cincinnati Review, beginning with our winter issue, due out in early December, and also including the spring/summer prize issue.

Without further ado, the winners of the seventh annual Robert and Adele Schiff Awards are:

Jaime Brunton for her poem “Chase”

and

Robert Long Foreman for his story “Awe”