Archive for the ‘From our Contributors’ Category

Where the Heart Is: Davis, Kimbrell, Miller, and Vang

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

cabinSara Watson: Since my MFA years at Chatham University, a program grounded in themes of nature and travel writing, I’ve developed a particular interest in poetry of place. So much of my own work looks inward, or, at its most ambitious, reaches out from my body toward another. I love it when other poets are able to look up, to look around, to record a world outside themselves. The contributors below have taken their inspiration from a number of locales, using place to investigate themes of home, family, history, and identity.

Susan Davis on “Bertie Mae”: The manuscript from which these poems have been taken is about houses and how people relate to them. How do they feel about the private and public parts, other people’s houses, empty houses telling wordless stories, ownership, centeredness, towns/villages/suburbs and cities, and how they shape the types of dwellings people call home? How did house-building develop in America? The “Bertie Mae” poems are specifically my mother’s stories, starting in 1921 on a farm, ending with a widow alone in a house filled with the memory of her husband. They are snapshots of her along that life path. Although the poems have an elegiac quality, she is very much alive at ninety-three, filling us all with admiration, and challenging me to think of how I will leave myself to my own children.

James Kimbrell on “Pluto’s Gate: Mississippi”: I ran across an article in 2013 about the discovery of an ancient cave opening in Hierapolis, Turkey, believed by archeologist Francesco D’Andria to be the famed gates of the underworld, replete with toxic mist capable of killing any animal that had the ill fortune to breathe there. We all have our own hells with their own gates. Naturally, I started thinking about my home state of Mississippi, and about how far the state—given its history of poverty and racism—has come, and how far it hasn’t. More than most poems I’ve written, I felt that this poem was out of my control, a feeling like being a ventriloquist’s dummy, my mouth getting worked by some unknown voice, both scary and one hell of a rush. In short, this poem is a love letter to Mississippi, and to my friends there, especially to poet C. Leigh McInnis, whom I’ve known since we were both teenagers in the Mississippi Army National Guard, writing poems on legal pads with our desk drawers open so that if anybody walked in our office, we could close the drawers in one quick motion and appear to be hard at work on matters of military readiness.

Wayne Miller: I wrote “Marriage” in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where my wife and two-year-old daughter had accompanied me for six months while I was teaching at Queen’s University on a Fulbright. We were living in faculty housing—a narrow, street-level apartment across from campus—and it poured freezing rain for the first three months we were there. Also important: My wife and I were in our eleventh year as a couple (and second year with a child)—a point in a relationship pretty much no one can imagine when they first get together. Probably because of the weather-induced confinement of those first three months, I kept dreaming myself into different, exotic locales, which was ironic since we’d just traveled all that way to be in Belfast—where, of course, I always woke to find myself. The way my mind kept reaching out and returning home—that lassoing—seemed to me a good description of how a relationship comes to operate ten (or more) years in. As soon as I found the rhyming form, the poem took off.

Mai Der Vang: “Cipher Song” emerged from my attempt to explore and reconcile the lack of an official literary history within my Hmong culture. It’s the idea of writing about not having writing. Yet how does one even begin to tackle such a daunting and elusive past? It’s overwhelming, to say the least, especially given that this history carries profound implications for a new generation of Hmong-American writers like myself, who are seeking to shape a literary identity. In this poem, I try to explore how something as simple as a jacket, along with other items of clothing, can have attached to it centuries of literary and historical documentation. As an oral culture, the Hmong fled southern China in the mid-1800s as a result of persecution, and many migrated into Laos along with other parts of Southeast Asia. Yet just before fleeing, the women secretly embroidered colorful symbols and patterns onto their clothes to represent what the Hmong had been through so they would not forget their history. Much of this traditional clothing is still worn today in our culture.

“Toward Home” is a poem in search of the idea of home, which, to me, is also the search for origin. I feel like I’m constantly digging toward the past, trying to find vestiges of my Hmong cultural history because so little of it was documented. While this poem does not explicitly take up that notion, it still tries to convey the sense of searching for something unexplainable only to be left feeling vulnerable. Craft-wise, I was obsessed at the time with pairing odd objects together, things that just didn’t make any sense. I seem to always be journeying backward, and so much of that internal process can be confusing and bewildering yet still lead to some bizarre and beautiful discoveries, like an oryx as a window, or a lighthouse inside a cave.

Special Fiction Feature: Tom Paine’s “It Was Just Swimming”

Monday, April 13th, 2015

covsketch_final (2)We’re doing something unusual with this feature—running a piece from our pages (in this case a story in our current issue, “It Was Just Swimming” by Tom Paine) in its entirety on our blog. We hope to present you with more such content in the future, and we are grateful to LSU Press for allowing us to reprint the story, which will appear in Tom Paine’s collection, A Boy’s Book of Nervous Breakdowns, this October. Below we offer commentary from volunteers and staff members Katie Knoll, A’Dora Phillips, and Nicola Mason, as well as remarks by the writer on his work. To read “It Was Just Swimming,” click here.

From A Boy’s Book of Nervous Breakdowns:  Stories by Tom Paine, Copyright © 2015.  Reprinted by permission of LSU Press, lsupress.org.  All rights reserved.

Katie Knoll: Tom Paine’s “It was Just Swimming” is the perfect example of a story going where you’re convinced it won’t, where it can’t—where, in its first lines, it has already promised to go. “They asked the clerk at the Best Western if the water was safe. . . . of course it was safe!” Reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Paine lets disaster lurk in every line, capturing the strangeness and danger of a day on the Florida beaches. The story’s roving gaze makes each image unexpected, each action as surreal as the next. “People up and down the beach baked under a sherbet of umbrellas. The American flag was snapping. The sky was plutonium blue. He was going to ask his girl to marry him tonight.” The piece has this delightful willingness to just experience itself—the world it creates—and the mind of the man who takes it all in. This willingness to just see lends a wild energy in the piece, which races from grandmothers giving tongue-kisses to asphyxiating boys to car-chase scenes, all while maintaining the kind of heart-stopping line-writing like “when the sunset murdered the sky.” “It Was Just Swimming” left me reeling; eager to stay in Paine’s world, a little scared to get out of it.

 

A’Dora Phillips: Who doesn’t wonder what might be lurking in the ocean’s depths? In “It Was Just Swimming,” this ubiquitous sense of unease adds to the bewitchment in the story’s backdrop: Is the water enchanted or dangerous? The eerie slipstream mode Paine has adopted works well to create an elusive sense of what is real. The trouble, we might think, is the narrator himself, who has “gotten weird lately,” his impressions warped as his mind feverishly travels from thoughts of his pregnant girlfriend giving birth in a Jacuzzi to perceptions of the Kodachrome-brilliant beach. At the vacation hotel, the clerk seems too old to have children, yet his “twin boys” are out there, catching silver minnows. When there’s “something grainy,” some “weird alien stuff” on the protagonist as he surfaces from the waves, we don’t necessarily realize that we ought to be on alert. The kind of person who throws himself into experience, our narrator takes in stride the water tasting of Clorox, his burning eyes.
beachThough the story is securely anchored in contemporary reality, Paine is preoccupied with the “tripline of miracle” that surrounds his characters. Instead of the old fisherman and his wife, instead of the lighthouse keeper, Paine gives us the twenty-first-century seekers: the narrator, his girlfriend Catalina, and his friend Jimbo. And when the inevitable occurs and something does emerge from the water, something terrible, you wonder why more writers are not reconditioning the ancient tropes of storytelling in light in today’s real-world horrors.

 

Nicola Mason: “It Was Just Swimming” is a masterpiece of pitch. It hits the highest register in almost every paragraph, and though Paine never swings away from this extreme mode of expression, the tone modulates, toggles back and forth, blends, lending the pitch wildly varying shades of emotion. He’s like a virtuoso playing a one-stringed violin. What begins as jubilance (“It was 101 degrees out! Who wouldn’t charge the ocean? The ocean was liquid salvation! God’s own swimming pool!”) merges with incredulity as the narrator and his pal Jimbo encounter a strange substance in the surf (“The only way to get the waxy orange stuff off was to go at it with plastic knives from the dining room of the Best Western. Even then a couple of layers of skin were lost!”). Soon thereafter, alarm enters in (“He scooped up the kid who was clawing the air. The beach was spinning under him, but he charged with the boy to his Harley. Taking action!”), followed by outrage (“Those twin kids were just playing on Fort Walton Beach! Building a sand castle like every other American kid in summer! That’s not supposed to be playing with napalm! There was something in the water! In the water!), fear (“They zapped Jimbo’s heart with the paddles. Handlebar doctor glared up at the red numbers of the digital clock and stopped compressions. Handlebar stopped compressions!”), confusion (“It was like every pore in his body was leaking at once. But he had no temperature! You can’t sweat buckets without a spike in temp! He was coming back negative—negative negative negative—on all the tests.”), and an odd form of realization (“A lot of these guys had been his sworn enemies. Jesus! They were going to miss him!”). The story does not relent until everyone—characters and readers alike—are inhabiting the same charged consciousness, feeling the same pervasive dread, the same stunned grief. Then—in the final line—it releases us, grimly, beautifully.

sperianAnd yet as tragic as the piece becomes, there is something about its excess that reminds one of those movies titled “Outbreak,” “Contagion,” “Carriers,” “Quarantine.” It is grandly, madly tragic; even absurdly so as odd moments of humor slip in (“Jimbo had the other kid by the hand and was telling him to keep gargling Coke. Jimbo had a strange faith in the curative power of Coke”); or bits of bloviation (“No, he wanted to be more help, he did! But he was a shrimper, not a doctor”); or melodramatic medical gobbledygook (“I’ve got four autopsies already of people who went swimming today. I’ve seen dissolved esophagus, enlarged hearts, and we’ve got samples of ethylbenzene, m-xylene, hexane-2, 3-methylpentane, and isooctane. . . . This guy’s body is full of things you wouldn’t believe.”)

The story is both horrifying . . . and entertaining. It gives you that gut-sick feeling . . . and makes you snort. It is, to use an old simile of my dad’s, as serious as a wolf in the woods, yet it’s also a spoof of sorts. With “It Was Just Swimming,” Tom Paine creates a new genre: the contemporary eco-disaster black comedy.

 

Tom Paine: I’m a little uncomfortable with writing about a story. Commenting on one’s work means using the word “I” a lot, and maybe that’s why I moved to fiction. The anonymity. But here goes: Corexit. We sprayed Corexit, a cousin of Agent Orange, all over the Gulf after the BP oil spill. Corexit adhered to the oil and pulled it out of sight to reduce BP’s liability. But Corexit made some Floridians very, very sick. Medieval boils and pox and vomiting and death. Not to mention we left the Gulf an ecological septic tank and took a very oily shit on the sealife. So the story seems like SciFi, but is based on testimony. People really did have these horrible allergic reactions and died–not that it made the news. We live in a time when water and skin–the simplest relationship– is in question. What happens to the ancient sea-loving soul when the sea is poison?

 

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.

Exotic Locales: Pankey, Parry, & Marberry

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

Write what you know. It’s easy to tire of the adage, to bristle as the tweedy, bespectacled creative-writing-instructor-within brandishes his red pen at the slightest intimation of the unknown: dark matter, psychic surgery, monkey robot vampires from Planet Zed. When we asked 11.1 contributors Eric Pankey, Lesley Parry, and Michael Marberry to discuss their process, a shared theme emerged: exotic locales. Pankey writes about the lavender fields near Senanque Abbey in Provence; Parry about a state park built around sulfur springs outside Orlando, Florida; and Marberry about that strangest, yet most familiar of foreign places: the womb. Read on to discover how Pankey, Parry, and Marberry negotiate these and other realms.

Eric Pankey: Both these poems were drafted in Provence in the summer of 2013, when I had the luxury of a month-long fellowship and residency at the Dora Maar House. Both poems are located in the same place, Senanque Abbey, a lovely medieval Cistercian abbey, founded in 1148, and well-known for its lavender fields, which were in bloom when I visited, walked the property, and attended Vespers. The moments attended to in the poems continued to lengthen then foreshorten in memory, and the poems attempt to capture the stillness, the mutability of those moments.

Lesley Parry: While I was a resident at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, a woman named Kim suggested I visit a state park nearby. She told me there was a restaurant on the grounds where you could cook pancakes right at your table. (Pancakes! I was sold!) But when I arrived at De Leon Springs, I was struck not only by its extraordinary beauty, but by its history, until then unknown to me. Years ago it had been a resort (featuring, yes, a water-skiing elephant) and before that the site of settlements, plantations, and wars. I spent the day there, watching for birds, walking the silent trails. Around this same time I’d been thinking about my sister, who worked as a singer on a cruise-ship. It’s a strange psychological terrain you enter when you live and work in the same confined space with the same group of people for months on end—the shorthand, the melodrama, the déjà vu. I’d been thinking about what that kind of intimacy and monotony does to your sense of self—to your notions of autonomy, complicity, and duty. So as I wandered the paths around the park, fueled by pancakes, imagining what had passed before, those two terrains overlapped to form the bedrock of this story. (And wherever you are, Kim, thank you.)

Michael Marberry: The first of these two poems published in 11.1 (“second son”) enacts the speaker’s failed attempt to accurately describe a recurring dream in which he is, simultaneously, a) being conceived; b) a fetus in the womb; and c) already an adult. The boat piercing the water’s surface is overt sex; the firework imagery is both literal and figurative, so to speak. There is a failure in language to capture the dream to the speaker’s liking. But starting over again doesn’t help: The feelings of being accidental and unwanted seem passed on from the nameless, faceless father—a sort of perverse (genetic?) inheritance, a lineage of shameful bastards.

The second of these two poems (“future son”) enacts the speaker’s failed attempt to provide clarity and foresight. The speaker of this poem is a possibility and not, necessarily, a certainty—someone from one potential future among many. Even then, we would like some answers to our questions, which he is happy to provide. But absent the questions themselves, the answers are only modestly insightful. There’s some Don Rumsfeld (of all people!) thrown in for “good” measure—i.e., what we know we know, what we know we don’t know, what we don’t know we know, and what we don’t know we don’t know. Like “second son,” it’s a bit about loss and being sad, even at losing what we don’t know we’re losing.

Testing Limits: Duhamel & Wade, Rafferty, Robbins, Williams

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

As those of you following along know by now, last Friday here at UC Mary Szybist read from her National Book Award–winning collection Incarnadine. What you might not know is that during said reading Szybist shared an ekphrastic poem (a poem responding to a piece of visual art), an abecedarian (a poem in which each line begins with A, B, C, D, . . . Z), an erasure (a poem made by crossing out words of an existing text), and a cento (a collage-poem made from lines of other poet’s work, or, in Szybist’s case, lines from The Starr Report and Nabokov’s Lolita). It will come as no surprise to writers that giving oneself a set of constraints, or forcing oneself to try a new form or device, can produce surprising and lovely results. Find out below how 11.1 contributors Denise Duhamel, Julie Marie Wade, Charles Rafferty, Richard Robbins, and P. J. Williams used constraints to generate their imaginative new work:

Denise Duhamel & Julie Marie Wade: “Pink” and “Red” are from a series of lyric essays we wrote by email, one section at a time, limiting ourselves to 250 words per section. We riffed off each other, knowing we would also limit ourselves to ten sections. We used color as a point of departure, and it helped that one of us (Julie) has synesthesia. We each came to the project with our past and our passions, our associations with blushing and fire, gender conformity and the need to bust out. Each section is like a photograph or painting, a block of color and the shadows it casts.

Charles Rafferty (on his prose poem “Quarry”): For a few years now, I’ve been interested in the possibility of the prose poem—to see what can happen when I abandon the strictures of line. It’s oddly freeing. The poems feel fat, gluttonous, like anything can be brought into them and digested. In this case, I started with a whim: How could I make a poem that could contain “virginity” and “metamorphic,” “penny” and “dynamite.” Somehow, being allowed to proceed without the idea of line reining me in made the poem a little wilder, a little more expansive, a little more able to take these words and find a suitable place for them—together but not touching—like hand-me-down furniture that ends up seeming like part of a set. It has nothing to do with the fabric or the style. You just need a big enough living room.

Richard Robbins (on “Secret Father Rollover” and “Secret Father, Beginnings”): I’ve been attracted lately to writing sequences with independent poetic parts. It allows me to confront an idea or image, like mountains, over time and across disparate pieces. The idea may certainly have autobiographical resonance, but in any case it conjures real or contemplated situations that, through language, I find myself navigating on the page. The Secret Father poems are evocative for me in this way. Each involves a different problem for a different Secret Father, even though all of these fathers share a core concern about being hidden or disconnected. In the two pieces CR published, there are, coincidentally, contrary movements: One poem enacts the father’s methodical disappearance from lives he has been connected to, and the other reconstructs a connection after a dramatic auto accident. I’m sure there are deeper reasons these poems get written—I hope there are—but these are the triggers.

P. J. Williams: I wrote “Myth” at a time when everything coming out of my head was in iambs. I’d wake up in the morning, pour a cup of coffee, and begin: da DAH da DAH da DAH da DAH da DAH. Perhaps it traces back to listening to a bunch of blues, which I always think of in terms of structure, of familiarity, of little variations on tradition. I was also in the middle of wrestling with old memories and family histories and stories–some I’d asked my father about, others I remember vividly on my own, and the ever-shifting misremembered bits and pieces. “Myth” addresses that tenuous nature of memory, and how its instability becomes a topic itself, even when remembering something exactly and carefully feels like the most important thing. I chose the sonnet because of the form’s two-fold fit for “Myth”: first, it is a nod to tradition and the musical nature of storytelling; and second, the sonnet has a volta just as memory might suddenly turn on us. The form acts out my misremembering of the fish, the gravel road, the shrunken mountains. The only memory in the poem I can confidently say is true is that I faked crying at my grandfather’s funeral. But, then again, I wonder–and hope–that I’ve misremembered that, too, and that in my nine-year-old desire to cry–in my panic of wondering why I couldn’t cry–I’d actually wiped away my tears before they had a chance to reach the surface.

Paying Attention: Karrie Higgins, John Warner, and Holly Goddard Jones Discuss their Inspiring Moments

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

Creative inspiration is often rooted in a writer’s ability to be attentive to the moment. Frank Baum is a prime example: he’d tell improvised fairy-tales to his children, and after they’d fallen asleep, he’d jot down his stories in a notebook. Eventually, these revised fairy-tales became The Wizard of Oz. He expanded upon his world by incorporating into it many aspects of his life at the moment. For years, he’d had recurring nightmares about scarecrows. Perhaps he purged the terror by rendering his nocturnal antagonist as a kindhearted, sentient heap of hay and burlap. The origin of the name “Oz” exemplifies the inspirational importance of being attentive to the mundane details of our surroundings. One night, when Baum was reading to his children, he glanced across the room at a filing cabinet he’d built. He’d labeled the drawers alphabetically, one of them being, “O-Z.” Immediately, he knew his fictional world would be named Oz, and from there, his imagination filled in the details. The following contributor comments show how paying attention to conversations, physical surroundings, and one’s body can provide the impetus to creation.

Karrie Higgins: “The Bottle City of God” began as a spin-off of another essay about my early experiences in Salt Lake City, entitled “Nowhere, No Place, Like Home” (published in Black Clock). In the Black Clock piece, air pollution played a minuscule part, but long after I finished that essay, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the air was my key to understanding Zion. As I studied and wrote about the complex chemistry of the pollution, I fell sick with asthma, and it felt magical, like I was writing my illness into being. Realizing how particulates had insinuated themselves inside my body changed my entire concept of self and place. I was carrying Zion inside me. The distinction between micro and macro evaporated. It was, to me, a kind of conversion. Joseph Smith received a revelation (Doctrine & Covenants 97:21) in which he declared Zion “the pure in heart.” To me, it described my asthma: I give my body to Zion, just like Zion gives its body (via the grid) to the City of God. In that sense, my sickness was a miracle. It made me part of the “at-ONE-ment” about which Hugh Nibley writes in “Temple and Cosmos.” This is going to sound super cheesy, but I also played Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven on Earth” a bazillion times while writing “The Bottle City of God.” I even blasted it while taking walks through the thick, metallic-tasting smog. In the midst of the dreary, dark days of the Mother of all Inversions, I would dance around to that song and believe, really believe, that I was living in the earthly manifestation of heaven, that it was end times–and there was no time or place I would rather be.

John Warner: The origin of “Nelson v. the Mormon Smile” is in a conversation I had with former CR contributor Keith Lee Morris when we were colleagues at Clemson University. He alerted me to an article he read about the dangers of cellular waves while I related something from the news about how the aluminum in deodorant may be a contributor to Alzheimer’s. It was an odd conversation that I filed away for later use, wondering who I could get to say these things instead of a couple of middle-aged college instructors, and where they might say them. I settled on a couple of stoner snowboarders, Nelson and Jurgen having the conversation in a marketing research call center in Utah. Complications ensued and I just followed along to the end.

Holly Goddard Jones: My husband teaches interior design in High Point, North Carolina, which is home (surprisingly) to the biggest furniture industry trade show in the world. We went to a party once that was held by a designer, and it was an odd night, an odd mix of high class and low: this gorgeous house and some important people but also cheap wine and cheap eats and a fair number of nobodies like me and my husband. So that’s the genesis of the story’s major components, its location and situation. But the story’s real inspiration was my attempt to write about a thoughtless character. Thoughtlessness fascinates me. In my lifetime I’ve known a handful of people who act with an almost innocent sense of self-absorption and entitlement. It isn’t malicious, but it just doesn’t occur to them to consider how their actions affect others. With Eldon, I imagined this man who, in his pursuit of self-reinvention, is able to shed his loved ones like a coat that’s gone out of style and then wonders why he’s alone. Is there any way to make that man plausible? Could I make him a little bit sympathetic without transforming him into the kind of character I usually write about?

Contributor Close-Up: Steve De Jarnatt

Monday, January 12th, 2015

We just got wind of this extraordinary interview on Popdose with CR contributor Steve De Jarnatt, whose story “Mulligan” (8.2) was selected for 2012’s New Stories from the Midwest. The interview begins:

Not every creative professional can claim to have badgered Ringo Starr on network television, ushered the popular SCTV characters Bob & Doug McKenzie onto the big screen, and directed a nail-biting cult classic of ’80s cinema before having his first published short story, “Rubiaux Rising,” chosen by The Lovely Bones author Alice Sebold for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 2009. But as Steve De Jarnatt writes in “Mulligan,” another one of his acclaimed stories, “You can’t change your mind so easy if you keep yourself in motion.”

Click here to read the interview in full. And look for another of Steve’s signature stories, “Harmony Arm” (lavish with his special brand of lunacy), in issue 12.1—due out in June. A teaser:

Impressed with Earl’s creative thinking, Ma let him in on some oddball Gunderson history. In the nineteenth century, half the clan had briefly given themselves over to an offshoot of the Charles Fourier Phalanx and run off to Utopia, Ohio. This collectivist movement believed that if humans could live together in peace for sixteen generations, a new appendage would evolve, a human tail called a Harmony Arm.  It would be as powerful as an alligator’s, but supple as a cat’s. A sort of prehensile hand flexing at the tip—a huge thumb and two fingerish knobs with the retractable talons of an eagle. This reenvisioned noble ape in touch with his true nature would flourish, wielding the tail-arm as a labor aid, weapon, and even a source of sensual pleasure. Naturally, it was a failure of a dream.

Earl was never sure if Ma was joshing when she claimed that, as testament to those early Gundersons and their stalwart believings, one in three of the extended family had been born with a vestigial piglet tail, some as long as seven inches, still glistening with tawny lanugo. Doc Grandey always snipped them quick, before the newborn’s first bawling. Some of the witchy aunts supposedly kept a specimen jar with dozens for use in ancient harvest rituals.

Ma would never say if this was true of him, but young Earl sometimes wished himself a tail so bad he couldn’t sleep. He was sure he could feel the scar back there atop his heinie, and scratched his coccyx madly in hopes of making it grow. Of all life’s iniquitous fates, to have been robbed of this seemed the worst.

NEA Fellowships for CR Contributors

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

We’re thrilled to announce that poets and contributors Jessica Greenbaum (4.2, 6.1); Shara Lessley (6.1, 10.2); and Eliot Khalil Wilson (1.2) have been awarded Creative Writing Fellowships in Poetry from the National Endowment of the Arts. We hoist our glasses, beat our drums, raise the roof, and kick up our collective heels to Jessica, Shara, and Eliot on this much-coveted and well-deserved honor.

Jessica Greenbaum’s first book, Inventing Difficulty (Silverfish Review Press, 1998), won the Gerald Cable Prize. Her second book, The Two Yvonnes (2012), was chosen by Paul Muldoon for Princeton’s Series of Contemporary Poets. She is the poetry editor for upstreet and lives in Brooklyn.

Shara Lessley is a poet and teacher. The author of Two-Headed Nightingale (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2012), she is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. Shara’s awards include an Artist Fellowship from the State of North Carolina, the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, an Olive B. O’Connor Fellowship from Colgate University, the Reginald S. Tickner Fellowship from the Gilman School, and a “Discovery” The Nation prize. She is the 2014 Mary Wood Fellow at Washington College.

Eliot Khalil Wilson is the author of The Saint of Letting Small Fish Go (Cleveland State Poetry Press, 2003). He has received a Pushcart Prize, a Bush Foundation Fellowship, the Hill-Kohn Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and the Robert Winner Prize from the Poetry Society of America.

Pas de Deux: Parry & Leegant

Monday, December 1st, 2014

Welcome to the adagio movement of our Pas de Deux between fiction writers and 11.1 contributors Leslie Parry and Joan Leegant. Read on to witness these virtuosos pirouetting around such topics as adapting fairy tale motifs in contemporary literature, the advantages of dramatic action in short fiction, and (a nod to Black Friday) the dangers of what Leegant accurately classifies “the manic annual bridal dress sale at Boston’s Filene’s Basement.” We’ve all been there, and we were terrified.

Leslie Parry: For the short time they’re reunited, Patricia acts as the parent to her own ailing mother. She buys her ice cream, improvises a spoon from a set of earrings(!), lifts her like a child when she’s too weak to stand. I was moved by her patience and pragmatism, her utter lack of self-pity. Even though both women are prone to violent outbursts (Patricia punching a stranger over a wedding dress, her mother wounding her father with a thrown glass), they can’t fully articulate their sadness or disappointment—or even their love. Their conversations are very practical; they ask only the immediate, necessary questions: What kind of dress? Do you want toast? As Patricia explains, “I had her last name and her bone structure and her lack of interest in staring down the barrel of the past.” And yet in the process of telling this story, she is exploring the past, and elliptically revealing her own fears and desires. What were the challenges to creating Patricia’s unique narrative voice, and to developing such a complicated relationship, especially in only a few thousand words?

Joan Leegant: I’d have to say that I didn’t so much create this narrative voice as receive it. I know that sounds kind of woo-woo, writer-as-vessel, but the voice in this case—actually, in all my stories, at least those that work—was there from the start. I like how T. C. Boyle put it (in the Introduction to his excellent anthology Doubletakes): In all of his fiction, he’s begun with “a voice and tone revealed to me in the first line [my emphasis] and pursued the unfolding of the story from there.” Or Maile Meloy (in Fiction Writer’s Review): “The stories don’t go unless I have the voice. It’s like getting into a car with a tricky clutch, and you can either get it in gear or you can’t.” So I got lucky here. A voice revealed itself, and I was in gear.

How did that voice arrive? A mystery, of course. But I remember where I started this story, which perhaps made it possible for that voice to emerge. I was teaching an all-day workshop for adult (that is, not college-age) writers, encouraging people to bear down on their sentences and write with urgency, to push past the tentative and polite. It was a lot of permission-granting, which is often necessary to get people, especially polite adults, to unplug. I wrote alongside everyone else, and the first line that emerged was the first line of “The Basement”: “The woman looked at me as if througha gunsight.” Immediately I knew where I was: the manic annual bridal dress sale at Boston’s Filene’s Basement in the 1960s. It was legendary. I’m not a native Bostonian, but I’ve lived there off and on for the last forty years, and within another few sentences, I knew exactly who these characters were: tough South Boston types, no-nonsense, heavy on the accent (pahk ya cah in Hahvahd Yahd). This attachment to the locale and characters carried me through the story and enabled me to quickly discover the mother-daughter relationship.

What also helped in the writing was the emergence of a number of fairy tale references. Nasty Aunt Ro looks like she could sail off on a broomstick; the muffins at the Pewter Pot are like those in the folk tale in which the dough rises so much it fills the house; the wedding dresses are, themselves, “a fraction of retail for the start of the fairy tale.” These were not consciously placed in the story; they appeared in the sentences, and I noticed them and kept them. I hoped they would carry some of the mother-daughter thread, the fantasy—the storybook wedding with a beautiful dress and beaming mother—as well as the dark underside. I also liked the whimsical tone they gave to what could otherwise be a somewhat grim (pardon the pun) story.

LP: The structure of this story is masterful. It opens with a singular incident, a frustrated act of violence: We see the protagonist at her breaking point. Rather than slowly building to this climactic moment, the story begins with it—Patricia, fighting over a wedding dress at Filene’s, knocks out a woman’s teeth. Then the narrative goes back in time—to earlier in the day, to the night before, all the way back to her mother’s own wedding—to answer the question why? Did you begin with the idea of the fight, and then set out to explore the well of emotions behind it? Or did the story originate elsewhere? And how much did you play with structure before the story found its form?

JL: Thank you for your kind assessment. Like the voice, the structure was there from the outset. Which is starting to make the writing of this story sound ridiculously (and embarrassingly!) easy. And, as I think about it, the story was one of those rare and lucky gifts: The voice was there, the characters, the setting, and, yes, the structure. Which I think has to do with the environment in which I began writing it—that workshop. I guess I was giving myself permission, too, allowing myself to cut through the tentative. So the fight happened at the opening. I should add that there was never an idea for a fight; it’s not something I ran through my head. I can’t work that way. I just write the sentences and see what they tell me. Once the narrator punched the lady in the jaw, I was off and running.

What appealed to me about the punch was starting off with such an assertive and vivid and, above all, physical action. Around that time, I’d been tiring of subtle, restrained stories—hence the exhortation for urgency in the workshop—and wanted to paint in broader, bolder strokes: maybe allow a few stereotypes (the Boston cop named Murphy), have some bossy people with strong feelings run the show, retain the fairy tale motifs.

As for playing with the structure, I had to be careful to keep the sequence clear since the story loops around in time: it starts out with the punch, and much later, the reader gets to the moment right before that punch.

LP: I won’t spoil it, but the ending made me gasp. There’s one particular sentence that floored me: Patricia describing her mother’s last action in a frank, almost perfunctory manner. It’s so hard to pull off an ending like this, and yet it’s absolutely stunning—not just the action itself, but the way Patricia presents it. She doesn’t dwell on it or try to explain it. She doesn’t report on her grief. Instead the story ends with her own strange act of honor and defiance. Were you always writing toward that conclusion? Or did you make that decision as you got deeper into the story and the lives of these characters?

JL: The conclusion only appeared as I approached the end of the draft. As you can probably tell, I’m not one of these writers who can think through a story and have it work. I have to grope my way. So the ending—both the mother’s ending and the story’s ending—were only known to me when I wrote them. The challenge for me in writing this way is to hew closely enough to the unfolding narrative, without being yanked away by intentions or external ideas, to get to those seemingly inevitable and true endings.

But in terms of the daughter’s description of her mother’s last action, and her own act of honor and defiance (thank you for that apt way of describing it), I was helped enormously by these characters’ very distinct ways of being in the world. This daughter has been taking care of herself for a long time; she’s had a mother, of sorts, so she wants no part of a surrogate (like her mother-in-law) or a stepmother (like her witchy Aunt Ro). And she’s not going to—as you say—dwell on the bad stuff, because that’s not going to accomplish anything. She’s matter-of-fact—she’s had to be that way to survive—but she also has feelings. Which, in keeping perhaps with the fairy tale motif that snuck in, are best expressed not by the character but by the dress. Which has, I suppose, become a character in its own right.

Pas de Deux: Leegant & Parry

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

Welcome back to another dynamic performance of our double-interview feature Pax de Deux, this time between fiction writers and 11.1 contributors Joan Leegant and Leslie Parry (about whose story “Vogelsong” Brenda Peynado wrote a glowing appreciation last week). Scroll down to view the entrée of this two-part duet, in which the dancers brisé across such topics as the challenges of the first-person plural point of view, cabaret singing on a cruise ship, and water skiing elephants.

Joan Leegant: I was struck by your remarkable use—or maybe a better way to say it is deployment—of the multiple first-person. This went beyond merely telling the story in a plural voice so we’d know many people were involved; you also remained faithful to that multiple voice when describing individuals, as in this sentence: “We remembered later that it was a Monday because we missed our favorite radio program, or the weekly call from our sister, or the fish fry social at the church down the road, where we sometimes won a jar of marmalade in the raffle or got hopped-up with the townies behind the garage.” A less bold writer, concerned about mixing pronouns incorrectly, might have written something like: “We remembered that it was a Monday because one of us missed his favorite radio program and another of us missed the weekly call from her sister,” etc. The construction you chose appears several times in the story and works terrifically well to maintain the collective tone, which, in turn, works perfectly with the ending when all are understood to be complicit.

How did you come to use the multiple point of view as a way to tell the story? Was it there from the start? And how did your bold and unusual construction for describing individuals, while being faithful to the multiple voice, evolve?

Leslie Parry: This is one of the rare cases where I decided on the point of view before I began. I was interested in the cliquishness, camaraderie, and dysfunction that occurs when people live and work in the same place. (My sister was a cabaret singer on a cruise ship, and that dynamic—living in bunk beds, sailing around in a circle for eight months—always fascinated me. I was also interested in how quickly someone can tire of the novelty. Oh God, she would say, not Barbados again.) The Vogelsong performers collude in a daily illusion for their guests, which gives them a very specific bond: They know each other onstage and off, in the sun and in the shadow. But that lifestyle also means they have no real privacy, and the boundaries between them quickly disappear. I wanted to suggest that nobody has anything that’s truly her own anymore (even a radio program, or a telephone call), and because of that, nobody has any secrets either.  Identities are merely superficial in a place like this. I kept a few individual distinctions, ones that might seem innocuous at first, but which carry greater weight as trust unravels and suspicions grow. I wanted to write about that blurring of selves, and what a person might cling to when she finds her individuality diminished. Where is the line between intimacy and complicity? When does loyalty give way to culpability? Is a secret worse when it is your burden alone, or when it binds you eternally to others?

JL: You create and sustain tension not simply by making the story about a boy who is lost but by giving the reader occasional glimpses into the shadow side of life there. Early on, we learn there are places the narrator(s) never tell the tourists about, that are left off the map—remnants of an old mural and an old slave cemetery. Later, we read about things the narrator(s) may have left out when reporting to the police early in the investigation—the diver being drunk, the alligator man flirting, the conquistador sneaking about with a young man and the scent of dope. These glimpses prepare us for the stunning ending, which begins: “But there was one thing we never told anybody.”

In the course of writing the story, did the ending come to you first, after which you added those earlier intimations of the unspoken? Or did those earlier episodes lead you to the ending? Can you tell us about that?

LP: When I started writing, I knew how I wanted the story to end—maybe not the precise sentence or image, but the tone, the feeling of it. The narrators are bound and haunted by their unspoken secret. It unites them just as fully and perilously as it divides them. Their differences appear more trivial at the beginning: their tasks, their hometowns, their sexual inclinations. And with no chance to exercise a truly private life, and with every misstep and impulse already common knowledge, what could possibly remain unknown? And yet by the end, every small detail becomes a potentially loaded clue. So once I had written the ending, I went back and examined those quieter discrepancies, reaching back through time much in the way the characters did. What was the one thing they had taken for granted? What had they missed, or unwittingly allowed? Ultimately I felt it was better that I didn’t make a hard decision either—that I, as the writer, could speculate alongside the characters, but I could never know more than they did. It might have been any one of those things, or none of them. I can’t be sure myself.

JL: Place is central to the story, and is beautiful and terrifying and primeval: nature trails, snakes, date palms, a lynching tree, German figurines of children in lederhosen. A black whoosh of birds, an alligator gnashing in its cage, a horse that can throw its rider, an enormous elephant. Ultimately, the place, and its inhabitants, devour the boy, and then it’s all torn down, vanished, though not in the dreams of the narrator(s).

Were there particular challenges you faced in evoking that place? Did you worry about having too much detail, or visuals that might seem too freighted with symbolism? Did you have a sense of the place when you began the story, or did it evolve in the course of writing?

LP: I loved writing about Vogelsong. I based it (loosely) on a state park I visited in De Leon Springs, Florida. As soon as I set foot on the trail, with all of its wild beauty and eeriness, I knew I had a story. Then, when I learned a water-skiing elephant had once performed there, I knew I really had a story. The challenge was in making the setting (in all its iterations, from conquistador landing to plantation to amusement park) a real and necessary character, not just an interesting backdrop. It’s easy to get swept away with description and exposition, so I kept myself tethered by thinking of it this way: This particular story could only happen in this particular place. The details had to work on two levels: They had to set the stage and orient the reader; and they had to contribute to an underlying tension. They needed to convey both the wonder and artifice of this place, as well as the uneasy combination of inertia and mortality. Itemizing even the most mundane details—the map, the duties, the meals, the schedule—seemed gratuitous at first, but I found that it helped me to explore just how disorienting and dramatic a single aberration could be. I suppose, in a way, I was also writing about my greatest fear: getting away with something, and then having to live with it.