Archive for the ‘From our Contributors’ Category

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.

On Marriage: Duffy-Comparone, Beasley, Clark, Seaton

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

Divorce. The rate in the US, by some estimates, is 50 percent, but it seems like more. I mean, Al Gore and Tipper. Not to mention Deb and Gary, your high school friend’s really cool parents. And Gwyneth Paltrow and that guy from Coldplay? If they can’t make it, who can?  As Louis C. K. says, “Marriage is just a larvae stage for true happiness, which is divorce.” He says that because he is . . . yep . . . divorced. Everyone, it seems, is either divorced or getting married so they can get divorced. So why try? Why tie the knot in the first place?

For one, you crazy kids, it might just work out. And for two, you might get some fantastic poems and stories out of it, like our four contributors in CR 10.2, who find inspiration in this ancient institution. Emma Duffy-Comparone addresses whether there is marriage through our many reincarnated lives, if you have a soul mate as a fish or a birch tree. Bruce Beasley ponders the intersection of marriage and atmospheric disturbance (hint: wind is divorce). Kevin Clark found his poem in the juxtaposition of an Italian Renaissance painting and the story of a marital love life gone stale. And Maureen Seaton looks at her daughter’s marriage for proof that her generation’s idealism has not gone to waste.

Bruce Beasley (on his poem “On Marriage”): During a period of several weddings of couples close to me, set alongside divorces of several other couples at the same time, I started thinking of marriage as a balance of desire and satiation, stability and restlessness for change.  During a windstorm I started mulling the fact that what we call “wind” is nothing but air driven by changing atmospheric conditions into motion. I thought “divorce is to marriage as wind is to air”: an unexpected turbulence that disrupts or destroys.  The inverse, though, also seemed true: marriage as a contained turbulence of desire. In thinking about the weddings and the divorces (and a divorce followed quickly by a marriage) I thought about the word immotive, which means “unmoving, immovable,” but sounds a great deal like emotive, which means “moved.”  Marriage, then, as a mixture of the emotive and the immotive, the moving and the unmoveable.  Marriage as a mixture of stasis and change, the restlessness of desire and the stability of devotion. I went looking for oxymoronic words and phrases—“hold fast” suggesting both stillness and speed; “still” containing both incompletion and change on the one hand (still going on) and motionlessness and stasis on the other (stillbirth) to suggest the paradoxical nature of marriage as a stillness amid the perturbations of change.

Emma Duffy-Comparone (on her story “Crossing the Sagamore”): I watched a Ted Talk once about how mushrooms can save the world: something about how they can clean up our most brutal waste, our oil spills, and our nuclear meltdowns. After learning this I went nuts, cooking with them almost every night. I think the affair lasted about a week, and then I called it off. But then I kept dreaming that I had beautiful gills down my ribs. I think these gills were more like a mushroom than a fish, but that made sense, too: my love for the ocean is so physical I’d have to call it lust, and I’ve always known on some level that I’ve lived in there. I mean, I just know I was a fish. And then, partly related to this issue is the question of whether there is a soul mate, one you keep bumping into whether you’re tuna together or birch trees on the side of the highway or soldiers in the Civil War, etc. I’m not sure if I believe it, but Deirdre and Ted seemed to, and then I sent Ted away. And in the meantime I gave those mushrooms a lot of work to do.

Kevin Clark (on his poem “Watching Kira Learn to Surf”): The poem emerged out of the longest sequence I’ve ever attempted. I’d known a long-married woman decades ago who broke up with her husband because he had no imagination in bed. Year after year, same thing in the same order, no matter what, she said. I’m sure that wasn’t the only problem, but I’d carried the idea of such a circumstance around in the back of my mind until I thought to myself, hey, that could be a dramatic subject for a poem. The effort led to the idea for a verse novel I’m calling Magdalene in Ecstasy, after a Renaissance painting by Sigismondo Coccapani. I want each poem to stand on its own, much in the manner of Andrew Hudgins’s After the Lost War, even though my book is structured differently than his. Marie, the speaker of “Watching Kira Learn to Surf,” is the main character, though two others speak as well: her ex-husband Jesse, a Vietnam vet and surf shop owner suffering silently from PTSD, and a lonely Italian lit professor named Raffaele with whom she’d spent a memorable night in the Baja when they were both twenty. Kira is Marie and Jesse’s only child. The poem describes a key moment in which Marie is with Jesse when she realizes that she must eventually leave him. The three characters have experienced a mix of deeply erotic and spiritual longing on their way to hard-earned, barely certain self-reliance.

Maureen Seaton (on her poem “Skinny Dipping”): “Skinny Dipping” came along as one of those poems that slams into your brain, messes with it, and leaves by the back door. I’ve been trying ever since to figure out if I actually believe what I wrote. I want to. I want a practical idealism, not something my imagination cooked up to keep me in the poppy field. I wrote it at 7,500 feet above sea level in New Mexico, far from the farmland of upstate New York, observing my daughter and her husband as they went about their gentle lives: December 2012. I think it occurred to me that something luminous had indeed survived from those four sodden days, our small and large wars, our bare feet and poppies. That my father had been wrong, after all, and there was Mike’s and my kid and Diane and Morton’s kid to prove it. Look at them, I thought, and the poem crashed into me fiercely, like music at 3 a.m., Woodstock, turn of an epoch.

Pas de Deux: Murvin & Romanosky

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Christa Romanosky and Jennifer Murvin are having a literary party, and you’re invited. Sit down with a glass of wine or beer or ginger ale (just drink something, even if it’s morning) and listen in on the conversation in another edition of Pas de Deux, a two-part exchange between contributors. This time, Romanosky is slinging the questions and Murvin dishing up the answers on the latter’s lyrical essay “How to Put Your Child to Bed,” which appears in CR 10.2. The discussion runs the gamut, from use of the second person, process, warm literary hugs, and unspeakable truth.

Christa Romanosky: Your nonfiction piece “How to Put Your Child to Bed” is poignant, compelling, and carefully crafted. I hear the echoes of a children’s book in the repeating “One night . . .” You also juxtapose fantasies of an artist-lover with the ever-changing imagined appearance of the stripper. How did the idea to create this particular piece begin, and what was your writing process like?

Jennifer Murvin: Mary Gaitskill compares why she writes to why “children like to draw pictures of houses, animals, and Mom; it’s an affirmation of their presence in the corporeal world.” The distance of the years between what happened with my husband and the stripper and my discovery of it, the way this distance and the almost comical melodrama of the narrative made it seem like a story instead of fact, compelled me to write if only to affirm its presence in our history—this had happened, to him, to her, to me.

While I was writing, the use of repetition and refrain gave me comfort and structure, much like the real-life act of putting my son to bed. The refrain came to represent the physical routine of motherhood, against which I could meditate on how this discovery had begun to take on a sort of kaleidoscopic significance. Over several months and several revisions, I was able to recognize a connection between what had before seemed disconnected: bedtime, miscarriages, sexuality, age and illness, infidelity, and also literature, its function to make meaning from chaos. The objective restraints allowed me to order and contain wild emotion in a manageable space.

CR: Someone writing in the second-person pov always risks alienating the reader, yet your piece seems to do the opposite. It draws the reader in like an invitation to a private party. (I was thrilled to have been invited, because it was fucking awesome.) Tell me about your decision as a nonfiction writer to craft this piece in second person instead of the more common first person.

JM: We need a lot of wine at this party, ha! I recently heard a craft talk by the wonderful Pam Houston, a master of second person, in which she argued that the second person point of view “creates a thin layer of shame over the narrator and deflects tension from the things he/she is ashamed of. ‘I’ is afraid to say ‘I’ and so says ‘You.’” When Pam said that, I thought, Damn. That is exactly why I had to write “How to Put Your Child to Bed” in second person.

I was certainly ashamed of what had happened and also how I was reacting or not reacting to it. The point of view provided the distance I needed to be honest and vulnerable, to take the emotional risk of fully imagining the stripper, of imagining being her myself. Writing the essay in second person helped me to access myself as a character. This was the first piece of nonfiction I had ever written seriously, toward the goal of publication.

CR: I’m interested in how writing nonfiction affects you. Did you emerge from “How to Put Your Child to Bed” knowing more about yourself, your goals and intentions as a writer, your role as a mother or partner?

JM: I’m interested in how writing nonfiction affects me, too! I am still very new to this genre as a reader and writer. What I do know is that it is deeply satisfying to have something tangible, something “made,” from these difficult moments in my life. I tried to touch on this in the essay itself, this question of how art and life intersect, how readers and writers negotiate that space. I continued to work on this essay as I went through a separation and divorce, and I also changed my MFA emphasis from fiction to nonfiction. I have more questions than answers. Writing a lived experience must change it in the mind; when I think of this time in my life, I often think of the lines I wrote and rewrote in the essay.

CR: What was your timeline in writing this piece? Did you face any unanticipated challenges?

JM: I wrote the first draft in June 2011 and put it away for several months. I picked it up again in the spring of 2012 during the separation and divorce from my husband, and I shared it with a close editor friend that summer and my MFA advisor in November, who was kind enough to let me submit it along with my fiction. The emotional challenge was to keep writing through the changes in my life, and the artistic challenge was to create a cohesive thread between all the disparate elements in the essay. I received a few personal rejections from other magazines before the piece was accepted by Cincinnati Review. The acceptance felt like a warm hug after a very long and lonely journey. A kind of closure not just for the writing of the essay, but for all that had happened, too.

CR: I noticed the speaker in your essay presents alternate versions of the same story, of what is told to different people and what actually happened. For example, when the son asks his mother to tell the story of his birth, he receives a version of this tale. Then the reader receives a more complex explanation of events leading up to the birth. Can you talk about how versions of truth shape the speaker?

JM: This question makes me think of Tim O’Brien and his discussion of story-truth and happening-truth. We tell stories because the real truth is, in a way, unspeakable. It is lived only. Memory is fallible; objective, verifiable fact is often unavailable and/or falls short. Mimesis in this and so many experiences is impossible. Stories or narratives—series of events, sensory details, specifics—access the necessary complexity and contradiction of life’s happenings. For children, stories often perform the opposite function: simplification. The negotiation of these truths—which story best tells what needs telling to the person needing to be told—seems to me the work of being a mother and also a writer.

CR: Which books were on your nightstand while you were writing your essay?

JM: Whenever something emotionally difficult is going on, I turn to Maeve Binchy, whose novels are to me the literary equivalent of hot chocolate and cinnamon toast. If I could go back in time, I’d place by that girl’s bathtub Light Years by James Salter and The Meadow by James Galvin.

Jennifer Murvin’s essays and stories have appeared The Sun, Mid-American Review, Midwestern Gothic, Bellingham Review, Cincinnati Review, Baltimore Review and Moon City Review. She is a faculty member at Missouri State University, where she teaches Fiction Writing, the Graphic Novel, and Contemporary American Fiction. Jen is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon.

Christa Romanosky earned her MFA in poetry from the University of Virginia. Her poetry has been featured in Cream City Review, North American Review, Cimarron Review, Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. Her fiction has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Cincinnati Review, Boston Review, and Crazyhorse. She has also completed two albums of music, All Things Left Unsaid and Talk About the Sky, available on Amazon, Pandora and iTunes.

Pas de Deux: Romanosky & Murvin

Monday, March 17th, 2014

The feast continues with the second course in our feature Pas de Deux, in which Jennifer Murvin turns the tables on fellow 10.2 contributor Christa Romanosky and asks how in the heck she came up with her ironic, biting, and heartbreaking story “Assets.” In what follows, Romanosky reveals her secret recipe: one part biography, eight parts imagination, and two parts kitten experiment, with a dash of Deborah Eisenberg.

Jennifer Murvin: “Assets” is both wickedly funny and deeply moving. The narrator Louise Hayle approaches rather serious conflicts with a sarcastic and clever charm; for example, the word “asset” functions in the narrative as both verbal and situational irony. Tell me about the role of humor in your writing. Did you have any writers or stories in mind as a model while creating the voice of your narrator?

Christa Romanosky: I think the idea for this piece came about when I received a call about my student loans from a debt collector who insisted, out of the blue, that my loans were ninety days overdue, and that if I didn’t pay immediately, the company would seize all of my assets. Panicked, I called my father, who assured me that I had no assets. It ended up being a mistake, but the experience led me to ponder what exactly defined an asset. That’s where it all began. I wanted to write a story about a girl who had nothing, and yet seemed to still be losing things. I had a real-life Marla at the time I was working on “Assets.” Our motto was to laugh at the really hard stuff, since we’d be crying about it later anyway. I try to carry this philosophy with me. I was reading a lot of Deborah Eisenberg’s short stories at the time, which probably helped to sculpt this view.

JM: “Assets” is structured in titled vignettes, some of which contain numbered lists. I absolutely love the choices you’ve made here. How did you come to this structure for the story?

CR: The structure came about as I was making lists to keep track of Louise’s thoughts and feelings. Vignettes helped me to create a sense of movement, a change in topic or time that might otherwise seem too abrupt or jarring. “Assets” was the first successful short story I wrote, and it was a lot of trial and error, a lot of experimentation. I think sometimes it’s a good thing to not know what you’re doing—to color outside the lines because you don’t understand what the lines are—like those poor kittens in the psychology experiment by Blakemore and Cooper that were deprived of vertical lines: dendric field modification for new writers. That should be a class.

JM: The story juggles several plotlines—a terminated pregnancy, a two-timing boyfriend, a flirtatious best friend (everyone needs a Marla!), financial troubles. Tell me about how these different conflicts emerged during your writing process.

CR: I embraced the idea that sometimes bad shit happens to good people. I mean, Louise isn’t perfect. She’s the other woman in a relationship with Paul, and she hasn’t made the best career choices. She’s got low self-esteem, but that’s real life. I’m very interested in gender and sexuality, how it shapes our identities—what women and men deal with on a day-to-day basis, and what we often refuse to talk about despite the fact that it might be a basic biological function most everyone experiences, like sex. Statistics indicate that approximately one in three women has an abortion by the time she reaches forty, yet the topic is so provocative that it’s rarely discussed without the frills of shame and verdict. The multiple conflicts and plotlines emerge in “Assets” as a way to diffuse the idea that unplanned pregnancy (or other crises) happens in a void, or that choices are made without other considerable factors, some helpful, some not. I wanted to write about how people cope.

JM: “Assets” is written largely in conversations between the narrator and Paul, the narrator and Marla, and the narrator and Dan from Advanced Credit Solutions. Can you talk (no pun intended) a little about your approach to writing dialogue?

CR: A former professor of mine stressed the importance of daydreaming about characters and conversations, and I find that I work out dialogue best that way. I start with one phrase or statement, then assemble at least ten different ways that conversation could develop, depending on what is said to whom, how s/he interprets it, how the speaker wishes to be interpreted, the mood, etc. I sometimes do this in my own life, while conversing with strangers or acquaintances. When I’m asked a question I imagine entire branches of dialogue that could transpire, weigh each potential response, insert sarcasm or wit I’d heard somewhere, envision future interactions that might go poorly because I misrepresented myself, panic about our incompatibility, wish I’d done things differently, and return to reality to finally reply “yes” or “no.” It’s a hard-knock life for an introvert.

JM: I admire the specificity in which you write your characters. Paul doesn’t just have a girlfriend who lives far away; he has Judy, who lives in Phoenix and writes poetry. Louise doesn’t just receive calls about her outstanding loans; she receives calls from Dan of Advanced Credit Solutions. Tell me about how you arrive at this level of detail in your characterization.

CR: I wanted the reader to feel as though she stumbled upon lives already in motion, dynamic lives. While I was writing “Assets,” I daydreamed about these characters in great detail: internal struggles, attachment styles, former relationships, emotional capacities, even the types of foods they would eat. I spent a lot of time at coffee shops, pondering.

JM: I may be reading too much into this, but there is something lovely and almost metafictional about the dialogue in the last scene when the narrator says, “This is as good a place as any to end it.” How did you know you’d reached the end of the story?

CR: I like looking at fractals, at repeating patterns, not just in nature, but in relationships and in what shapes us. The ultrasound image of Louise’s pregnancy, in her mind, looks a lot like female anatomy, the one part of her that Paul clearly wants. I knew that Paul and Louise must ultimately part ways if Louise was to ever have a shot at growth and happiness, but that she needed to build agency before she could break away. When Louise imagines announcing to Paul, “You’ve been sleeping with a potato. . . . Don’t you feel stupid,” it is her way of beginning to put Paul in his place, using what small amount of power she has. It took a total of about two years to finish this story. It was on again, off again, like a very unstable, ahem, relationship. But I finally ended it.

Jennifer Murvin’s essays and stories have appeared The Sun, Mid-American Review, Midwestern Gothic, Bellingham Review, Cincinnati Review, Baltimore Review and Moon City Review. She is a faculty member at Missouri State University, where she teaches Fiction Writing, the Graphic Novel, and Contemporary American Fiction. Jen is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon.

Christa Romanosky earned an MFA from the University of Virginia in poetry. Her poetry has been featured in Cream City Review, North American Review, Cimarron Review, Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. Her fiction has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Cincinnati Review, Boston Review, and Crazyhorse. She has also completed two albums of music, All Things Left Unsaid and Talk about the Sky, available on Amazon, Pandora and iTunes.