Read an interview with Michael Griffith, conducted by Superstition Review.
Archive for the ‘Features’ Category
We’re doing something unusual with this feature—running a piece from our pages (in this case a story in our current issue, “It Was Just Swimming” by Tom Paine) in its entirety on our blog. We hope to present you with more such content in the future, and we are grateful to LSU Press for allowing us to reprint the story, which will appear in Tom Paine’s collection, A Boy’s Book of Nervous Breakdowns, this October. Below we offer commentary from volunteers and staff members Katie Knoll, A’Dora Phillips, and Nicola Mason, as well as remarks by the writer on his work. To read “It Was Just Swimming,” click here.
From A Boy’s Book of Nervous Breakdowns: Stories by Tom Paine, Copyright © 2015. Reprinted by permission of LSU Press, lsupress.org. All rights reserved.
Katie Knoll: Tom Paine’s “It was Just Swimming” is the perfect example of a story going where you’re convinced it won’t, where it can’t—where, in its first lines, it has already promised to go. “They asked the clerk at the Best Western if the water was safe. . . . of course it was safe!” Reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Paine lets disaster lurk in every line, capturing the strangeness and danger of a day on the Florida beaches. The story’s roving gaze makes each image unexpected, each action as surreal as the next. “People up and down the beach baked under a sherbet of umbrellas. The American flag was snapping. The sky was plutonium blue. He was going to ask his girl to marry him tonight.” The piece has this delightful willingness to just experience itself—the world it creates—and the mind of the man who takes it all in. This willingness to just see lends a wild energy in the piece, which races from grandmothers giving tongue-kisses to asphyxiating boys to car-chase scenes, all while maintaining the kind of heart-stopping line-writing like “when the sunset murdered the sky.” “It Was Just Swimming” left me reeling; eager to stay in Paine’s world, a little scared to get out of it.
A’Dora Phillips: Who doesn’t wonder what might be lurking in the ocean’s depths? In “It Was Just Swimming,” this ubiquitous sense of unease adds to the bewitchment in the story’s backdrop: Is the water enchanted or dangerous? The eerie slipstream mode Paine has adopted works well to create an elusive sense of what is real. The trouble, we might think, is the narrator himself, who has “gotten weird lately,” his impressions warped as his mind feverishly travels from thoughts of his pregnant girlfriend giving birth in a Jacuzzi to perceptions of the Kodachrome-brilliant beach. At the vacation hotel, the clerk seems too old to have children, yet his “twin boys” are out there, catching silver minnows. When there’s “something grainy,” some “weird alien stuff” on the protagonist as he surfaces from the waves, we don’t necessarily realize that we ought to be on alert. The kind of person who throws himself into experience, our narrator takes in stride the water tasting of Clorox, his burning eyes.
Though the story is securely anchored in contemporary reality, Paine is preoccupied with the “tripline of miracle” that surrounds his characters. Instead of the old fisherman and his wife, instead of the lighthouse keeper, Paine gives us the twenty-first-century seekers: the narrator, his girlfriend Catalina, and his friend Jimbo. And when the inevitable occurs and something does emerge from the water, something terrible, you wonder why more writers are not reconditioning the ancient tropes of storytelling in light in today’s real-world horrors.
Nicola Mason: “It Was Just Swimming” is a masterpiece of pitch. It hits the highest register in almost every paragraph, and though Paine never swings away from this extreme mode of expression, the tone modulates, toggles back and forth, blends, lending the pitch wildly varying shades of emotion. He’s like a virtuoso playing a one-stringed violin. What begins as jubilance (“It was 101 degrees out! Who wouldn’t charge the ocean? The ocean was liquid salvation! God’s own swimming pool!”) merges with incredulity as the narrator and his pal Jimbo encounter a strange substance in the surf (“The only way to get the waxy orange stuff off was to go at it with plastic knives from the dining room of the Best Western. Even then a couple of layers of skin were lost!”). Soon thereafter, alarm enters in (“He scooped up the kid who was clawing the air. The beach was spinning under him, but he charged with the boy to his Harley. Taking action!”), followed by outrage (“Those twin kids were just playing on Fort Walton Beach! Building a sand castle like every other American kid in summer! That’s not supposed to be playing with napalm! There was something in the water! In the water!), fear (“They zapped Jimbo’s heart with the paddles. Handlebar doctor glared up at the red numbers of the digital clock and stopped compressions. Handlebar stopped compressions!”), confusion (“It was like every pore in his body was leaking at once. But he had no temperature! You can’t sweat buckets without a spike in temp! He was coming back negative—negative negative negative—on all the tests.”), and an odd form of realization (“A lot of these guys had been his sworn enemies. Jesus! They were going to miss him!”). The story does not relent until everyone—characters and readers alike—are inhabiting the same charged consciousness, feeling the same pervasive dread, the same stunned grief. Then—in the final line—it releases us, grimly, beautifully.
And yet as tragic as the piece becomes, there is something about its excess that reminds one of those movies titled “Outbreak,” “Contagion,” “Carriers,” “Quarantine.” It is grandly, madly tragic; even absurdly so as odd moments of humor slip in (“Jimbo had the other kid by the hand and was telling him to keep gargling Coke. Jimbo had a strange faith in the curative power of Coke”); or bits of bloviation (“No, he wanted to be more help, he did! But he was a shrimper, not a doctor”); or melodramatic medical gobbledygook (“I’ve got four autopsies already of people who went swimming today. I’ve seen dissolved esophagus, enlarged hearts, and we’ve got samples of ethylbenzene, m-xylene, hexane-2, 3-methylpentane, and isooctane. . . . This guy’s body is full of things you wouldn’t believe.”)
The story is both horrifying . . . and entertaining. It gives you that gut-sick feeling . . . and makes you snort. It is, to use an old simile of my dad’s, as serious as a wolf in the woods, yet it’s also a spoof of sorts. With “It Was Just Swimming,” Tom Paine creates a new genre: the contemporary eco-disaster black comedy.
Tom Paine: I’m a little uncomfortable with writing about a story. Commenting on one’s work means using the word “I” a lot, and maybe that’s why I moved to fiction. The anonymity. But here goes: Corexit. We sprayed Corexit, a cousin of Agent Orange, all over the Gulf after the BP oil spill. Corexit adhered to the oil and pulled it out of sight to reduce BP’s liability. But Corexit made some Floridians very, very sick. Medieval boils and pox and vomiting and death. Not to mention we left the Gulf an ecological septic tank and took a very oily shit on the sealife. So the story seems like SciFi, but is based on testimony. People really did have these horrible allergic reactions and died–not that it made the news. We live in a time when water and skin–the simplest relationship– is in question. What happens to the ancient sea-loving soul when the sea is poison?
Graphic designer extraordinaire Gabe Ostley is putting together the story of Moth: The Graphic Play—an anniversary-year project of ours. All subscribers will receive this 56-page, full-color bonus book along with their winter issue (due out in November). Click the following link to see part one of The Making of Moth.
We at CR are excited to announce that composers from UC’s acclaimed College-Conservatory of Music have set to music some of the poems in our pages. They will be performing these pieces, with the help of CCM musicians and vocalists, in a special concert tomorrow, April 24, at 2:15 p.m. in room 3250 (the Masterclass Room) of Mary Emery Hall.
The works were created through the CCM class Explorations in Art Song. One composer, Steven Weimer, was inspired by Kathleen Winter’s “Eve, Seducing the Apple” (CR 4.1). A second composition by Sarah Hutchings took as its source Jeff Gundy’s “March Ode.” And there’s a kicker: Our own departing associate editor Lisa Ampleman’s poem “My Internal Count” also received the CCM treatment. If you’re in the area, come check out this unique performance opportunity.
Music. Poems. Music-poems. We LOVE this idea. Why stop with this one performance? As part of our upcoming tenth-anniversary year, we are continuing collaborations between our CR poets and composers from the College-Conservatory of Music. In our Winter issue (due out in November), we’ll be featuring an insert of “Eve, Seducing the Apple” that includes Weimer’s score. AND we’ll offer a podcast of the performance on cincinnatireview.com. In fact, we hope to follow up with several more poem-composer collaborations, mailed as wee booklets to our valued subscribers throughout the year (with, of course, accompanying podcasts of the performances on our website). It’s our anniversary. Let the band play on!
This month, UC’s English Department hosted its Emerging Writers Festival, bringing to campus four fiction writers who are emerging from their rough-spun cocoons into full-fledged writerly beings. (Okay, maybe all of them already have awards and critically acclaimed books.) During their time at UC, they took part in readings, discussions, and discussions about reading, and this week we’re delighted to bring you some excerpts from a panel discussion dubbed “The Writer as Reader,” moderated by Professor Jim Schiff. Read about how W. G. Sebald broke Ben Loory’s heart and how Ron Currie Jr. is actually not afraid of the internet. Stay tuned for Part II, coming later this week.
Jim Schiff: Name a book you love, and tell us why.
Ben Loory: Probably my favorite book is Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald. He was this German writer, this super, hyperintelligent, overeducated guy. All of his books were just him going to some foreign country, stumbling around in some depressed fog, taking pictures of buildings and thinking about all the horrible things that have happened there. And also the good things and the literature and art that came out of it. I just loved it. When he was writing, it was this brand new thing I’d never seen before. And then he died in a car accident. And that was the last time I read contemporary literature. I just couldn’t handle that I had found this writer and then he died. I just completely checked out. Now I only read people who are already dead or who have written enough books for me. But there’s something in his writing in which the entire world is a haunted house. All the books are these ruins of what happened and a forerunner of what’s coming.
Caitlin Horrocks: For me, it’s Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I was able to read it as escapism and enjoy it as a reader. It’s a book that’s fearless about what a book can do and what he’s capable as an author of pulling off. It’s a magic trick. You think, “You can’t pull this off,” and you’re waiting for him to fall off, and I don’t think he does.
Ron Currie Jr.: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I’m reluctant to say it’s my favorite book, but it’s certainly the heavy-weight champion in terms of scope and ambition. It appreciates the importance of and demonstrates the possibility of being bound by nothing in fiction. I don’t really see the point of writing fiction if you’re not willing to hang your ass out in the breeze and just get as crazy as you possibly can without going over the edge. A lot of people think Wallace went way over the edge with Infinite Jest, but for me, it’s an absolute master class in the possibilities of fiction. [. . .] That’s what I was after as a kid. How far can we go with this; how fantastical can it be?
Schiff: In your view, what’s the contemporary literary landscape? Are people doing different things than they were doing ten, twenty, fifty years ago?
Horrocks: A contemporary writer who is a sort of representation for things right now is Karen Russell. She does such a great job in picking zombies or picking vampires or taking these playful things and integrating them into such beautiful stories, doing something that is both realist in some ways and magical in others. You can see that in the aesthetic of places like One Story. There is this hunger for things that are not magical realism in a Marquez sense, but a contemporary formulation that is still evolving. Also, Roxane Gay for both fiction and nonfiction. She somehow writes and processes at internet speed, which I can’t. She does so much online writing with quick turn-around and responds to things happening right now, but there is that depth of thought and that humanity and a gracefulness that comes through in a lot of what she’s doing.
Audience Member: How does the business of life affect your fiction?
Currie: Everything I write, including the book coming out in February, is very episodic, even when it’s published under the guise of a novel. That may be the result of the din of modern life. Maybe I don’t have the attention span, or maybe I can’t write a coherent narrative. I have no doubt that the staccato pace of information intake is affecting how I write. I sort of hope that it’s because that’s the direction we’re heading. It’s only going to get more compact and shrunk. I think the kind of book Franzen writes is a dying breed. I’m fascinated by possibilities of technology. I’m fascinated by that New Yorker story that Jennifer Egan did on Twitter. She wrote the story for the medium. It worked really well. I tried to imagine it being a longer narrative in that form, and I couldn’t do it.
Lorry: You go to a bookstore, and lots of books are similar, and I think that’s a result of writers all talking to one another. No one is developing in isolation, on their own.
Horrocks: But I think there is still a hunger for big books from readers. People want to sit and be immersed in a world. With the internet, people are always like, “This will usher in a renaissance for flash fiction or the short form because people only have a little bits of time.” But that’s not true. Even short forms require really close attention. Short forms take a lot of work for the reader. This is a weird moment when writers can think of being driven to short pieces, but for readers, as pressed for time as they are, there is still a hunger for that unbroken dream.
Ron Currie Jr. has had stories in Cincinnati Review issues 7.2 and 2.2—the latter story, “False Idols,” appeared in his collection God is Dead (Penguin, 2007). He is also the author of the novels Everything Matters (Viking, 2009) and the forthcoming Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles (Viking, 2013). Currie has also received the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award and the Willard L. Metcalf Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Caitlin Horrocks’s story “Embodied” appeared in issue 3.1 of Cincinnati Review; it was her first published story and later appeared in her collection This Is Not Your City (Sarabande, 2011). Her stories have also appeared in the New Yorker, Best American Short Stories 2011, the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009, Pushcart Prize XXXV, and elsewhere, and she’s won awards including the Plimpton Prize and a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Fellowship.
Ben Loory’s fables and tales have appeared in the New Yorker, Gargoyle, and Antioch Review, as well as on NPR’s “This American Life,” and live at Selected Shorts. His book, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (Penguin, 2011), was a selection of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program and the Starbucks Coffee Bookish Reading Club.
For our third collaborative feature with Cincinnati’s online magazine Soapbox, we’re featuring Brian Barker’s prose poem “Bats” from issue 9.1. Soapbox tells the new Cincinnati story—a narrative of creative people and businesses, new development, cool places to live, and the best places to work and play. And every other month, Cincinnati Review will contribute some of the best lit—poetry, fiction, and nonfiction—in the country. Here, we’ve reprinted Barker’s “Bats” in full, as well as “bonus material” in the form of comments from the writer and our staff, including the editor who accepted the piece for publication—also on the Soapbox website.
They will crawl out of the ashes of cold barbecue pits. Their wings will be cut from the backs of chimney sweeps. They will hang from the antlers of an elk like a congress of drowsy trapeze artists. At dusk above houses, they will appear and disappear and appear, weaving a jagged cotillion through the trees. Their songs will travel before them like aneurysms on strings, shattering streetlights, car alarms, nerves. When winter comes too early, we will see their faces in our frostbitten fruit. Insomniac, they will be your alphabet at the window. Sleeper, they will be the jewelry of your death, tangled in silk pajamas, in a wet beehive of hair.
Brian Barker: This poem belongs to a sequence of linked prose poems I’ve been working on recently called “Natural Histories.” Each poem in this sequence concerns a different animal, and the poems are linked in that animal images, which occur organically within the poems, dictate the subjects. For example, the poem that precedes “Bats” is “Hippopotamuses,” where I write: “When they belch, fruit bats will glide from the caves of their stomachs and startle the moonlight.” The poem that occurs after “Bats” is “Elk,” following from the line, “They will hang from the antlers of an elk like a congress of drowsy trapeze artists.”
I say that the images occur organically because I’m not working from a list of particular creatures I’d like to write about. The animals appear naturally and feel unforced. This kind of formal constraint, like other formal constraints in poetry, imposes restrictions. That is, at times I end up with animals that I don’t know how to write about, or didn’t anticipate writing about, and I have to find an imaginative way through such impasses.
Bats, on the other hand, felt like a gift. I’ve always had a mixture of fascination about and fear of bats. They are strange beings with their furry, fox-like faces and exaggerated ears, and those wings—the thin, leathery skin stretched over dainty bones—look a bit like a botched experiment. I’ve spent many summer evenings watching them weave through my neighborhood, a flight that seems to vacillate violently between the graceful and the erratic.
This poem, like all of the poems in the “Natural Histories” series, mixes the factual with the mythic, and exploits the simple future verb tense (“They will”), which lends a mystery to the voice. Who speaks with such authority? Where are we in time? The poems, in my mind, seem to emanate from some otherworldly force out of a black void, as much creation myth as natural history.
In the poem, I have tried to capture the fear and the revulsion that so many people feel about bats. No matter how many insects they may eat, it’s hard to shake the notion that all bats are rabid, cunning bedroom invaders looking for a tender neck to suckle. And yet, they are amazing creatures! The only mammals that can fly, they are equipped with echolocation and spend much of their lives hanging upside down. When I watch them “appear and disappear and appear” above the houses in my neighborhood, it’s hard not to think of them urgently tracing a kind of alphabet in the sky, a message from one mammal to another that must be decoded before the dusk deepens into dark.
Lisa Ampleman: When I think of references to bats in poetry, I hear the final line of Robert Hass’s “Happiness”—“our eyes squinched up like bats”—or Ariel’s song in The Tempest: “On the bat’s back I do fly/ After summer merrily.” Such happy bats in those poems, the graceful divers of summer twilight.
Brian Barker’s bats are not that kind. They dance the cotillion, yes, but Barker aligns them with ashes, chimneys, aneurysms, car alarms, and frostbite. And, he reminds us of our worst fear of them: that they could become entangled in our hair. His are the bats of late October, as the evenings begin to cool and darken, when night-creatures are more threatening.
His form, the prose poem, uses the qualities of both genres: it moves by a series of associations and employs figurative language, while retaining the rhythms and formatting of prose. Though it’s been prevalent in other movements and time periods, the prose poem is closely associated with nineteenth-century French Symbolists, such as Baudelaire and Mallarmé. I like the description of prose poetry that the Academy of American Poets uses, from Peter Johnson, the editor of The Prose Poem: An International Journal: “Just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels.” Barker’s poem feels at once like a lyrical ode and a paragraph in an odd naturalist’s guide.
Brian Brodeur: I love the startling and often disturbing associative leaps in Barker’s prose poem. It opens, not with the phoenix of Eurasian mythology, but with the drowsy resurrection of bats. This local, suburban version of the classical creature “crawl[s]” instead of flies “out of the ashes of barbeque pits.” Moving from these backyard “ashes” to those caked on the “backs of chimney sweeps,” bats become the strange earrings adorning the “antlers of elk,” then transform once again into “a congress of trapeze artists,” a metaphor that suggests the precarious way bats hang by their toes to sleep. Like William Blake’s chimney sweeper, who is “a little black thing among the snow,” Barker’s “little black thing[s]” are conspicuous in spite of their smallness, speed, and nocturnal nature. Indeed, their “songs” are so loud they “shatter . . . streetlights, car alarms, nerves.”
As early practitioners of the prose poem understood, this hybrid form often employs rapid turns and contradictory perceptions, making it a great vehicle for nightmarish ideas and images Barker exploits in “Bats” (e.g., “aneurisms on string”). But I’d wager even Aloysius Bertrand, often cited as being the first to work with the form, would be envious of Barker’s image of these winged mammals as “weaving a jagged cotillion through the trees.”
Don Bogen: When I first came across Brian Barker’s “Bats,” I was struck by the strange use of future tense the poet himself mentions. That, coupled with the generalized “they” and “their” that appear in every sentence—we never see an individual bat but only bats en masse—lend an oracular quality to the piece, as if it were a dark prophecy of their future invasion. And they will be everywhere: from the skies above our houses, to the food in our hands, to the insides of our dreams—or should I say nightmares? The increasingly ominous tone of the poem adds to its sleek movement as it progresses from the mild discomfort of “cold barbecue pits” to “aneurysms,” “frostbitten fruit” (surely an echo of “forbidden fruit”), and at last “the jewelry of your death”—not a generalized “our death” but yours, reader, tonight most likely, in your sleep (cue demonic laughter). Well, it is only a dream, and Barker’s hint of humor throughout keeps us from having to spend the rest of our evening awake behind locked doors.
As Brian and Lisa note, the prose poem has a distinguished lineage, especially in French literature. Its energies lie in what Brian calls “associative leaps” between juxtaposed images, connections that are not rational but imaginative. Writing without the support of lines, the poet has to generate not only an effective progression of details but also a verbal music that can lift prose beyond its reputation as a mere carrier of meaning, useful only to tell a story or get a point across. “Bats” achieves this by subtle repetition and variation in sentence length and structure, starting with simple constructions, then adding more clauses and phrases in the middle of the poem, then shifting to direct address at the end. And inside the sentences themselves there are some gorgeous patterns of sound: the rhythmic lilt of “appear and disappear and appear,” where you can almost hear their dipping flight, or that “congress of drowsy trapeze artists” where the s’s and z’s are as clustered and off kilter as the bats hanging upside down from the elk antlers. “Bats” looks like an everyday paragraph, but it sings like a poem.
We’re running Brian Barker’s “Bats” right next to his “Slugs” in the issue, so it was interesting to hear how he developed organic links between animals as he was working on the “Natural Histories” series. As “Slugs” refers to “the severed head of a pig,” no doubt a porcine prose poem is also snorting somewhere in the group. But for now we get a glimpse not of the barnyard but the graveyard, with slugs that “suckle at the tear ducts of the dead” and bats tangled in our pajamas as they haunt our dreams. Happy Halloween!
We’re trying something new and different—a collaboration with the amazing online magazine Soapbox.
Soapbox tells the new Cincinnati story—a narrative of creative people and businesses, new development, cool places to live, and the best places to work and play. And each month, Cincinnati Review will contribute some of the best lit—poetry, fiction, and nonfiction—in the country. The full text of a poem or story will run in Soapbox, and we at Cincinnati Review will post on our blog “bonus material” in the form of comments from the writer and our staff, including the editor who accepted the piece for publication.
Our first collaboration features a poem that appeared in issue 8.1: “For I Will Consider” by Terese Coe. If you don’t have a copy on hand, you can read it in Soapbox by clicking here. Look for our next feature—a fiction selection—in February!
Terese Coe’s poems and translations have recently appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, Ploughshares, Threepenny Review, Poetry, Agenda, New American Writing, Orbis, and Cyphers, among numerous others, and will soon appear in Alaska Quarterly Review and The Connecticut Review. Her first collection of poems, The Everyday Uncommon, won a Word Press publication prize and was published in 2005.
Terese Coe: Normally I don’t care to track how my poems were written, but this case is different. It came to me suddenly after rereading Christopher Smart. The lines flew off my pen. There were more than twice as many as now. At first it was a straight intuitive/objective exploration of the individual, a loading of facts and now and then an attempt at reasoning them out. Smart’s “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry” is partially a search for cause and effect, as in the Psalms, but for me that search emerged more clearly in the writing process. I put together a list of one cause that lead to another—as if it could make sense, or explicate existence. But nothing can make sense of existence. Nothing can make sense of the outlandish crevasse between life and death.
Some months later I began trying to reorder the lines, cutting whatever seemed out of place and trying different permutations. I did not add; I simply cut. I knew the poem needed gravitas. I wanted irony only at the end.
It is a story told in the form of litany, or dialogue with oneself, which makes it essentially dramatic. I find the lines are more open to variation in performance than I had expected, and that is characteristic of drama. The meaning varies according to vocal inflection, tone, and mood variations, like dialogue. Of course, it is also a dramatic monologue in which the lines have immediacy and flexibility. And the poem is peculiar in that it doesn’t seem to matter that most of the lines are quite unlike contemporary dramatic dialogue. Smart’s style adds something enigmatic to the subject/protagonist, and that produces a counterpoint to his evident interest in nature and the natural.
Lisa Ampleman, Assistant Editor: Although the long lines and anaphora of Coe’s poem may call up Walt Whitman’s ghost for some readers, “For I Will Consider” is more directly indebted to Christopher Smart, an eighteenth-century writer best known for “his reckless drinking and spending habits” and “religious mania” (as the Academy of American Poets puts it)—and for writing a poem celebrating his cat, Jeoffry.
That poem (link: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15798), from Jubilate Agno, captures the cat-ness of the cat as he “sharpens his paws by wood” and “can catch the cork and toss it again.” This cat, however, also is “hated by the hypocrite and miser” and “knows that God is his Saviour”—atypical feline traits.
As we read Coe’s poem, we think about how Shay seems cat-like: fishing is his way of nourishment, he needs little to survive, and he sleeps on the carpet and is pleased. However, he is also one with his dog and tinkers with the Kawasaki—things Jeoffry would be unlikely to enjoy.
Matt McBride, Associate Editor: I like to think of poems as perpetual motion machines, little Rube Goldberg devices of language that accomplish the impossible—they add up to more than the sum of their parts; they make something out of nothing. The most engaging thing, for me, about Terese Coe’s poem is the way it generates itself, the way it pushes itself along by its own momentum.
Coe does this through the use of repetition. By beginning each line with “For,” Coe sets us up for a poem that will be nothing more than a list with each object weighted equally. However, we quickly see that is not the case. Repetition inherently lends import. This import, though, can quickly become hollow, a weight without substance (see for example every political slogan ever). Coe prevents this by subtly raising the stakes as the poem progresses, matching the poem’s content with the power generated by the repetition, so the “For at the first glance of a girl in his direction he worships dutifully” becomes, a few lines later, “For thirdly he works not upon relationship but extends himself quietly.” The “For fishing is his way of nourishment” becomes “For the sea is in him” in the next line.
And this is what makes this piece so beautiful for me, the way it accrues. Coe’s poem is like snow, or the Dirty Harry films. Any single discrete part of the larger whole is not in itself amazing, but somehow these seemingly unimpressive parts (though many of the individual lines do have a kind of beauty in their sentiment and expression) add up to a value larger than the constituent elements.
Don Bogen, Poetry Editor: Back in Issue 4.1 (Winter 2007), we published Terese Coe’s “Boy Hustler”—a smart, tough sonnet spoken by the title character—and I was delighted to have another rich and energetic piece of work for the latest issue. Except for the fact that they are both young men, the figures the two poems present have little in common. The forms of the poems are different as well, but in both cases Coe really livens up the conventions. Those lines about the cat Jeoffry from Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno are among my all-time favorites, and (full disclosure) we’ve had a cat in our household for many years now, so I was skeptical at first that Shay could live up to his illustrious feline predecessor. But, as Lisa mentioned, the young man has a certain cat-like mixture of grace and separation from the world that is immediately appealing.
Coe’s variations in pace, tone, focus, and line length keep the poem and the figure at its center constantly shifting and developing. I suppose one key challenge in a “perpetual motion machine” of this sort (to use Matt’s term) is how you get it to stop. Coe’s last line is a quick jolt off in a new direction that caps the poem perfectly. What moves me most in the poem, though, is the depth of characterization embodied in the details—Shay’s take on girls, on the outdoors, on needs in general, and, my favorite, on self-defense: “For when attacked, he will grab the other’s wrists and hold them tightly rather than fight. / For I have seen this twice and was glad of it.” The observation is sharp, the character distinct, and the feelings of both mother and son rendered brilliantly.
Check out this great article on Cincinnati’s literary landscape. Thank you, Soapbox!
Michael, our fiction editor, talked five smart writers—Alexander Chee, John McNally, Keith Lee Morris, Leah Stewart, and Justin Tussing—into reassessing the 1961 National Book Award for fiction. There’s no medal or cash prize to hand out, but we have a winner. To find out which book won, and to read our judges’ essays on the five finalists, you’ll have to get your hands on our summer issue, available in May. But here’s a hint: The Waters of Kronos by Conrad Richter, the actual 1961 National Book Award winner, didn’t even come close.
Michael initiated this project last year, when he conscripted Antonya Nelson, Steve Almond, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, and Brock Clarke into judging the 1960 National Book Award for fiction. The judges’ decisions and deliberations appeared in Ninth Letter (one of our Monster Mags of the Midwest friends at AWP).
The plan is for this project to continue, rotating among three journals. As soon as we learn which journal will host the 1962 NBA redux, we’ll let you know.
Why do this at all? (Aside from the obvious: It’s a hell of a lot of fun.) Below, we’ve posted a snippet of Michael’s intro from last year’s reassessment of the 1960 award, followed by an excerpt of Leah Stewart’s forthcoming intro for the 1961 reassessment:
Michael Griffith (excerpted from Ninth Letter):
. . . . What troubled me at core was my own hypocrisy [ . . . ] If in 1999 you’d asked me what books I liked best that year, Jane Shapiro’s The Dangerous Husband would have tripped off my tongue, and Susan Sontag’s In America, which I’d read with chilly admiration and not a few longueurs, wouldn’t have been in my top twenty. But would I, drafted by miracle onto the jury, have touted Shapiro’s novel (which centers on a woman moved by her spouse’s feats of ever-more-aggressive clumsiness to hire a hitman) over a smart, big, highly wrought book by an eminence like Sontag? Not forcefully enough, I’d guess, because Sontag had written exactly the kind of book I believed prize committees were designed to reward. I would have wondered, “But which will LAST?”—and would have come up with the (it now occurs to me) false answer that the Sontag would, and would have given scant weight to the argument that we the committee might have some small part to play in what would (or at least might) last, and thus should be counted on first and foremost to pick a book we LIKED, a book we’d want to recommend to flesh-and-blood friends rather than to the abstractly imagined hanging judges of posterity.
The dreary worthiness prevailed; in fact, Shapiro’s acid domestic comedy probably never even blipped across the committee’s screen. It was this sort of choice that fueled my crankiness—yet when I was asked to give a list of my favorite novels for a volume called The Top 10, I promptly began ticking off unsinkable classics I’d be embarrassed to leave out, rather than the urchin-spiked oddities I love best.
All of which gave rise to the [Ninth Letter special section]. With the help of William Gass, whose terrific “Pulitzer: The People’s Prize” set me on the path, I started wondering, “What sorts of ambition do prize juries tend to value most highly? What things in fiction actually do endure, as opposed to what kinds of things in fiction do we imagine will endure, or what kinds of things do we feel constrained to call enduring because we’ll be ashamed if they turn out to endure while we were touting a book about a cabal of zombie robots who infiltrate the Orange County PTA?
If you looked back in 2060 at the best novels of today, I mused, what might you come up with? And then it occurred to me that one might assemble a committee of writers and take a look back fifty years instead, revisit the work of the National Book Award Committee of 1960. After we named a winner, I thought, we could each append a short essay—to take up the cudgel for an undervalued or long-forgotten favorite, to reassess the anointed books of that year, to reflect on the ebb and flow of literary reputation, to investigate the politics of award committees, etcetera. I was lucky to find four fantastic writers to help: Brock Clarke, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum (whose first novel, Madeleine Is Sleeping, was among the finalists caught up in the bewildering controversy of 2004), Steve Almond, and Antonya Nelson.
Leah Stewart (excerpted from our next issue):
[In 1961] the prize went to The Waters of Kronos by Conrad Richter, a (to my mind) rather dreary, heavily allegorical book that dropped fairly quickly off our radar. The other nominees were: Louis Auchincloss for The House of Five Talents; Kay Boyle for Generation Without Farewell; John Hersey for The Child Buyer; John Knowles for A Separate Peace; Harper Lee for To Kill a Mockingbird; Wright Morris for Ceremony in Lone Tree; Flannery O’Connor for The Violent Bear It Away; Elizabeth Spencer for The Light in the Piazza; Francis Steegmuller for The Christening Party; John Updike for Rabbit, Run; and Mildred Walker for The Body of a Young Man. At that time, the contenders for the award were books published in the previous year, so we hunted for other books from 1960 we might want to consider, but came up empty, though Keith did jokingly suggest Green Eggs and Ham.
As we set about narrowing the list to five books we’d consider seriously, the four that seemed fairly obvious for reasons of fame and longevity proved also to be, in our opinion, the most worthwhile in and of themselves.
To read our judges’ 1961 National Book Award deliberations get a copy of our summer issue.
You can read about the reassessment of the 1960 award, and about the inception of this rotating feature, in Ninth Letter. Also, keep an eye out in the months ahead for news about where the upcoming feature—a reassessment of the 1962 National Book Award—will pop up next.
WITH COMMENTS FROM GREG AND CINCINNATI REVIEW’S FICTION EDITOR, BROCK CLARKE.
Brock Clarke: We’ve published two stories by Greg Baxter, “Dead-End MF” and “Two Incidents in the Hindu Kush”—the latter about the war in Afghanistan, and the former about a screw-up who wants to throw a big party. They sound like they couldn’t be more different, but both stories have big things on their minds (war in one, race in the other) and both are entirely irreverent—brutal in places, hilarious in others—in their pursuit of these big things. I loved both of them. They’re exactly the kind of stories we want to publish at CR: stories that have something to say that runs counter to the way these things are normally said, stories that might get the writer and the publisher in trouble.
Greg Baxter: “Dead-End MF” and “Two Incidents in the Hindu Kush” both mark the relative high points of two early phases in my writing. They were composed only months apart but were inspired by different influences and interests. “Dead-End MF” was written during a profound personal low, and was part of series of stories about losers in bad jobs or with no jobs. I spent about eight months working in a TV news station in Baton Rouge as the web guy. Elements of the story, including the fact that I had to change the date on every story every morning, and played video games all day, and the presence of the nappy-headed pot smoker, are entirely true. The fictionalized aspects of the story allowed me to introduce the question of race, which was something I wanted to explore. The personal low, curiously, did not hit until after I left that job and found myself unemployed in Dublin, Ireland, working several even more demeaning jobs. I turn all my personal lows into writing, so I don’t throw myself into the sea wearing a pair of flatirons. “Two Incidents in the Hindu Kush” was written about twelve months later, as part of series of stories about war. I had, like a lot of people, become deadened by headlines, and I wanted, in whatever limited way that was available to me, to try and repersonalize violence.
Click below to read the stories in full: