Archive for the ‘From our Contributors’ Category

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.

Source Texts: Abbate, Leithauser, Silano, Van Winckel

Monday, November 17th, 2014

As writers, we’re often asked about what inspired a piece, what outside stimulus provided the germ, the grist, or the spark for a first draft. Even the word inspiration, from the Latin inspīrār (to blow or breathe into), implies an agency without rather than within the artist, as if we were nothing more than receptacles for the generative murmurings of the muse. When we asked 11.1 poet-contributors about what occasioned their poems, we received some answers that made us reconsider such assumptions. While Francesca Abbate and Martha Silano discovered source texts in more conventional places (Abbate in a lesser-known figure of Greco-Roman myth, Silano in a famous painting by Georgia O’Keeffe), both poets repurposed these influences to fit their own needs. Hailey Leithauser and Nance Van Winckel mined their own memories for source material, drawing upon remarkable interactions between people witnessed while having drinks or dining out. Read on to find out how our poets incorporated these “texts” into some of the most inspiring work we’ve published in our pages to date.

Francesca Abbate on “You Can’t Teach a Pig to Sing”: My homeroom teacher in high school really did have a cartoon taped to his podium with a similar caption. Maybe the caption was closer to Mark Twain’s quote—“Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig”—but at this distance—thirty years—the details are a bit sketchy. I thought of my homeroom teacher as a desperately bitter man. He taught English, and I may have come to appreciate him had I had an actual class with him. In the poem’s world, he’s Not Baby’s mother’s teacher. Not Baby, also known as Melinoe, is Persephone’s daughter by Zeus. The story goes that Zeus disguised himself as Persephone’s husband Hades, which makes more sense than Hades being the father of anything. When Melinoe wandered the earth at night with her retinue of ghosts, she brought nightmares to sleepers and made dogs bark for no discernible reason. Her job was to escort the souls of the newly dead to the Underworld, hence the Eleusinian mysteries depicted in the fresco in Pompeii. This project has been plagued by coincidence: I was reading Mary Beard’s The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found when the pigs in the poem met their demise. Not Baby/Melinoe used to be a bartender, but has now joined the “daylight” world. Depressed, displaced, and reading Montaigne and Lucretius (etc.), she’s grappling with the question of how a woman searching for, and finding, solace in history can relate to her exclusion from it. Not Baby—the nickname—was born of a typo for Nobody. I was transcribing an article regarding a body found on a trail that I bike on. “Nobody,” initially, seemed to know who the woman was.

Hailey Leithauser on “Overheard at the Blue Moon”: One night several years ago as a friend and I were standing at the bar of a restaurant waiting for our table, we overheard two women talking about a third woman they knew and whom they had seen on their way in. They were speculating about whom she might be meeting—was she seeing someone new, was it this person or that, everyone knew she’d had a thing for so-and-so for years, and then there was another so-and-so everyone knew had a thing for her, or maybe she was getting back with her ex who was no good. What a terrible idea that would be.

As the speculation ranged over a lengthening list of scenarios, the conversation became so interesting that when it finally came time for us to go into the restaurant, we spent the entire meal looking from couple to couple trying to guess who “she” was and which of her potential lovers she had chosen.

That is one explanation for how the poem was written. Another explanation is that I didn’t overhear a  conversation at all; it was my friend and I who had the discussion about someone we knew, but I changed it to make the poem more interesting.

Or another explanation—I was alone at the time, and all of this speculation went on inside my own head.

Or maybe there never was a woman at all, and I just liked the sound of the first three lines. Perhaps they came to me in the tub, or walking my dog or waking up from a dream. As the poem says, anything (and everything) is possible.

Martha Silano on “The World”: This poem began while I was 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 minuscule, 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. In a trance-like state, my fingers flying over the keys, boy and World became one. Georgia O’Keeffe’s Pelvis IV provided the final image, followed by a series of “f” words I have always enjoyed on the tongue.

Nance Van Winckel on “Fist”: In a restaurant, a person in our group of ten slammed his fist on the table to make a point. The sound of it brought back to me in a very sensory way—the rattling glasses, the echo, the jarring movement of the table—this manner of taking control that was something my stepdad did. Aside from him, the table in my girlhood home was all women, and we could indeed become boisterous. His fist banging down was his way of diverting our attention to him. Even all these years after his death, it’s odd and often a bit disconcerting that when a fist pounds down, I think of him. I think of the power in that fist, and increasingly (in light of continuing conflicts in the world) that power feels larger than one person; it feels quite masculine, primitive, and endless.

Inspired Lines: Bar-Nadav, Hanson, Sunderlin

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

One of the million cool things about making a magazine is putting various works in conversation with each other. No poem is an island, after all. Or, if a poem is an island, then CR, and poetry in general, really, is an archipelago. And like the flora and fauna that travel from one discrete landmass to its neighbor, common images, melodies, and themes—obvious or otherwise—are bound to arise across any selection of work. Language is funny that way: It travels. It haunts. It is shared and borrowed and adapted and revered.

The poets below are quick to recognize their affinity  for a certain mode or line that has inspired them. Hadara Bar-Nadav “enthusiastically join[s] a tradition of writers who have written about objects,” such as Pablo Neruda and Gertrude Stein. Julie Hanson gets permission from Sappho to “give up the struggle against” writing nature poetry. And Jacob Sunderlin pirates Moby-Dick for a way of venerating his buddy, “enthusiastic wearer of flannels,” Grosso.

Hadara Bar-Nadav on “Door,” “Motel,” and “Spine”: I am currently at work on a poetry manuscript that explores the inner lives of objects (both plastic and bodily). This poetry-based exploration of objects in turn reveals the inner lives of humans who depend on, assign meaning to, and fetishize these objects: a wineglass, motel, and thumb. We fill our days with such matter, such clutter. Objects can seem to disappear inside of their particular (and often very necessary) function. Do we really think of the life of the bedroom door, what she has witnessed? Or the fountain with its sculpture of a boy standing naked in a city square? And what of the spine and its relentless support of our cumbersome and thankless heads?

I enthusiastically join a tradition of writers who have written about objects, and I accept them as companions and sources of collaboration, including Francis Ponge, Gertrude Stein, and Pablo Neruda. Like these writers, my poetic investigation of objects through a unique contemporary lens brings to light the visceral and playful potential of our own lives.

Julie Hanson: I can account for the trigger for “It is unconquerable; it has” with surety. I was directed to the subject matter through the words “a vine that grows up trees” (which is, in its entirety, fragment 173 in Anne Carson’s translation of fragments of Sappho, If Not, Winter). Because I know such a vine, and know it well, it might have occurred to me as poetic material much earlier in my life. It didn’t. I suspect that it occurred to me as poetic material at the point of giving in, giving up the struggle against it, at the point, in other words, of my surrender. I suspect, too, that it was in the writing that I was first able to take part in the fun the vine has had with me; before that it was just effort and exasperation and fruitless struggle—which to some extent, of course, remains the case. Nature is bigger than I am. She is the vine, persistent, victorious, and, in this case, creepy!

Jacob Sunderlin on “Grosso”: I used to read Moby-Dick (also written about coincidentally and beautifully in this issue of Cincinnati Review) after getting home from a night job I once had stuffing ads into newspapers, and this passage directly inspired the content and style of the poem: “In old Norse times, the thrones of the sea-loving Danish kings were fabricated, saith tradition, of the tusks of the narwhale. How could one look at Ahab then, seated on that tripod of bones, without bethinking him of the royalty it symbolized? For a Khan of the plank, and a king of the sea, and a great lord of Leviathans was Ahab.” Where I’m from in Indiana, my friends do things like work in magnet factories and lay brick and do HVAC and start bands called Wabash Trash and they are my royalty. I’ve written several poems about one of them, Grosso—an Ahab in The Pequod called Wednesday—who is introduced here.

Oblique Elegies: Contributor Comments

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

Like many of our friends and colleagues who edit, write, and teach poetry, the CR staff is often asked about the uses of this craft or sullen art. As we hawk our wares at readings, distribute sample copies at neighborhood coffee shops, or even speak with conference-goers at book fairs, readers either curious about poetry or confused about its relevance to their lives shrug and say some version of, “Poetry? But what does it do exactly?”

One possible answer comes from the elegy, one of the oldest subgenres of lyric poetry. Elegies, from the Greek elegeia or “lament,” ask us to enter into the experience of loss, uniting author and reader in shared expressions of grief. Whether praising the life of a deceased public figure or mourning a private loss, elegies, ideally, bring us closer to consolation by giving a form to grief.

Issue 11.1 assembles a number of powerful, moving, and even unlikely elegies that, as Emily Dickinson put it, “tell it slant.” Among these indirect elegies we find a poem that confronts the tragic early death of poet Jake Adam York through the objective correlative of an upright piano destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, as well as an elegy for the dead exhumed from the cemeteries of San Francisco in the 1930s and ’40s, a period in which the city voted to reappropriate this land for other uses. Read on to discover what our contributors have to say on the subject of loss, and how each poet shaped these losses into some of the most mournful, melancholic, and plaintive poems offered in our pages.

Keith Ekiss on “Burial Fragments”: In Buena Vista Park, on the edge of the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco, if you take the path from Haight Street to the top of the hill, you might notice that the gutters along the walking path are made from marble. It seems rich, this marble, a remnant from another era in which public parks were considered civic treasures. And if you stop and look closely, as a friend once told me to do, you might notice inscriptions, names—or parts of names and dates—and bits of phrases that memorialize the dead. These fragments are the remains of cemetery headstones.

In the 1930s and 1940s, after a series of ballot measures and various proposals, San Franciscans, seeing themselves as short on usable land, started eliminating most of their cemeteries, digging up the graves and building new cemeteries south of the city in Colma. Unclaimed headstones and graveyard statuary (the dead could not object) were broken up and “re-purposed” throughout the city, as seawall by the beach and as gutters in Buena Vista Park. There aren’t many names visible, given all that marble, and I like to think the person who laid the gutters, out of some vestige of respect, tried to hide most of the names. In the back of my mind, I was probably thinking of Richard Hugo’s poem “Graves at Elkhorn,” with its commentary on the way cemeteries reveal cultural values, which ends:

The yard is this far from the town because
when children die the mother should repeat
some form of labor, and a casual glance
would tell you there could be no silver here.

Elton Glaser on “Circuits Open and Closed”: What’s behind this poem never gets into the poem. In April 2011, my wife of forty-two years, apparently in good health, died unexpectedly in her sleep. Ever since then, my own sleep has been erratic. Sometimes I fall asleep at 8:00 and then come awake at midnight, unable to close my eyes again. Variations on that theme make up my nights. This poem probably began with the phrase “my late, abbreviated sleep,” and the images accumulated from that point, prompted by jottings on notecards I’ve kept over the years.  The conclusion of the poems returns to its secret source: “I may have come / To the end of something, but there’s no end to the end.” The poem finds its closure, but the hurt never does.

Christopher Lee Miles on “Battle Tank Truck”: This poem is in memory of my brother. He died young, too young. Rather than label the poem “Elegy” and address him directly, or lament him indirectly, my technical purpose was to melt these common elegiac forms of address into the poem itself. I wanted the images, rather than the voice of the poem, to communicate his absence. I wanted the loss tucked into the very structure of the poem. Did I succeed? I cannot say.

Kevin Simmonds on “Upright”: In 2005, the late poet Jake Adam York traveled to New Orleans. He did so shortly after residents were allowed to return following the breeches of the levees during Hurricane Katrina. I’d asked if he would visit my childhood home and see if my upright piano was still there in my bedroom. He kindly said yes and took several pictures for me to see what was left of it and my home. (I was living in Singapore at the time.) That piano meant a lot to me growing up and I wanted to write a valediction of sorts–not only for the piano but for the other losses the water left in its wake. And I wanted to dedicate it to the memory of a warm-hearted, conscious and talented poet who inspired the poem.

Reoccupying the Office: Salutations

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

Hey, all you lit types. We missed you this summer. Hope you got some reading d0ne, swilled some sweetly sour drinks, fed your pets faithfully, and added a few entries to the Annals of Lawn Care. (We know you didn’t go to that Tom Cruise flick, because that thing lost millions.)

We’ve been pretty productive over the so-called break and will soon have some Schiff Prize winners to announce, an amazing graphic play to gladden your eyeballs, and a fall/winter issue (now with the typesetter) jam-packed with long-form goodness (thanks again, NEA)!

With the new term we say a sad farewell to departing Associate Editor Brian Trapp (tears, lamentation) and a cheery hello to new Assistant Editor Don Peteroy, who has served the mag valiantly for four years—even starting his own characteristically zany blog category: Peteroy’s Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers. (Look for a new entry later this week.)

In the spirit of transition, we give you a last look back at issue 10.2. For those of you who’ve fallen out of the CR loop, issue 11.1 hit stacks and stands and all manner of grubby palms this July. It’s our 10th anniversary issue, so grab it if you haven’t already.

Now: Volume 10, Number 2, we remember you!

Emily Dickinson wouldn’t leave her bedroom. Robert Frost had a paralyzing fear of public speaking. A certain poet in the CR office only makes eye contact while wearing sunglasses. Poets are notoriously introverted. They spend a lot of time looking out the window, which is probably why, when pressed to make small talk, they are apt to comment on the weather. Read on to learn how our 10.2 contributors have made an art form of window gazing, and elevated “the weather” from small talk to poetry:

Catherine Pierce (on “The Tornado Wants a Companion”): I grew up on the East Coast, where we had occasional hurricanes and blizzards, but never tornadoes. When I moved in 2007 to north Mississippi, a place that frequently experiences tornadic activity (to use a phrase often heard on TV here), I was struck by how terrifying I found this phenomenon—far more terrifying than even the worst weather incidents in my hometown. Eventually I realized my fear stemmed not from the statistical odds of being killed by a tornado (those odds are lower than the odds of dying from, say, smoke inhalation or electrocution, things I don’t think much about in my day-to-day life), but because tornadoes seem to me to have agency. Unlike a hurricane or snowstorm, which just occurs all around you, here’s this single, discrete thing that you can actually witness wreaking havoc. You can watch it coming, and you can hope it doesn’t come for you. I wanted to write a series of poems that explore that agency: If a tornado had a reason, what would it be? What in the world is it that the tornado wants?

Katherine Bode-Lang (on “Death in Midsummer”): I have long been fascinated with astronomy—the sky and our smallness in its presence. This poem is one moment when the strange weather of the hills met our movement against the sky. And I happened to be looking out the window at the right time.

Kurt Steinwand (on “Frankie the Storm” ): Storms in the news. We give them names, personalities; Sandy with her ironic innocence, though the displaced sand of the Jersey Shore made a connection. The Media sensationalizes, tells the stories. My storm was Italian, a goombah, an intruder, no admired Rocky Balboa. The storm was serious, a shorted-lived member of the Mob who thought he was in cahoots with God; His henchman, maybe even thought he was better, an extension of the Almighty, the Short Reign of Frankie IV. I gave him a name, then believed it was too gratuitous, too legitimizing. I took it out, then put it back in the title and let him have his little moment in the clouds. The power of a poet is often to give a brief life, Godlike, allow it to blow onto the page, be taken seriously with all the senses, and be gone. Or is he? When at the end he’s still “coming in.” That was the essence of this poem.