Archive for the ‘Pas de Deux’ Category

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.

Pas de Deux: Phillips & Snider

Friday, October 31st, 2014

And now for Part Deux of the exchange between Carl Phillips—on his poem “Hold Tight”—and Bruce Snider—on “Creation Myth”—both published in CR 11.1. Happy reading!

Carl Phillips: Your poem works largely by juxtaposition, the largeness of an Indiana dusk, next to the specificity of Aunt Bev’s crocheted oven mitt, moths beside meth labs, a lynching one moment, aphids on honeysuckle the next. Could you speak to your choice of this strategy and how it works as narrative device?

Bruce Snider: That’s an interesting question, and one I didn’t really consider while composing. It’s definitely true that I’ve always been drawn to narrative, but my own storytelling instincts (shaped, in part, I suspect, by wonderfully bad ’80s television) are very linear. Over the years, I’ve tried to find ways to resist or at least complicate that linearity. I guess juxtaposition is one way for me to do that, especially when paired with anaphora, because the latter allows you to move through time and space quickly and seamlessly, creating the cohesion that in turn allows for the more disruptive effects of the juxtaposed elements. In the end, I suspect the real power of much juxtaposition comes from what’s been left out. Between the “Indiana dusk” and “Aunt Bev’s crocheted oven mitt,” for example, there’s so much that could be included, but the poem doesn’t go there. And one thing I’ve learned is that good storytelling is as much about what you leave out as what you put in.

CP: Given the statement about being a child of form, toward the poem’s end, how does form work for you in this poem? I note, for example, the rhyme that closes the poem, between form and worm, and the way in which it brings to mind the sonic closure of an English sonnet; meanwhile, the poem is also very invested in anaphora as rhetorical device. . . .

BS: I wrote the early drafts of this poem by simply following the sounds of the language as much as I could, letting the textures of sound suggest the textures of image and idea. You can probably see that most clearly in the move from “moths” to “meth,” “honeysuckle” to “yolks flecked,” and at the end when “gasket ring” leads to “disenchanted thing,” etc. The poem’s sonic closure, though, was something I was a bit more conscious of, since from the beginning I think I had some sense that this was a poem about form—bodily, intellectual, historical—though I couldn’t anticipate how that would play out. Of everything in the poem, I most remember writing the final lines, and when “form” led to “worm,” the sonic rightness of the rhyme paired with the unsettling logic of the meaning, and I found myself thinking of Louise Glück’s line, “A love of form is a love of endings.”  In this case, of course, worm suggested the ultimate ending.

CP: Your image of the uncut grass immediately brought to mind Whitman’s description of grass as “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.”  Was Whitman an influence on this poem, and in what way—or if not, who would you say might be some of the ancestors behind this poem that seems very much to concern ancestry, even as it enacts the creation of a self through its assembling of influences?

BS: I’m sure Whitman is always hovering somewhere over my work. I can certainly see his influence in my use of anaphora, my listing of sensory detail, my indulgence in the textures of place. My “uncut grass” wasn’t a conscious reference to his work, but the grass section from “Song of Myself” is one of my favorite passages in all of poetry. And now that you point it out, I’m suddenly aware of how often grass appears in my poems. But I often envy Whitman his great surrender to excess. I feel bound by what I think of as a more modest midwestern temperament. As much as I’m drawn to the freedom and visionary qualities of Whitman’s work, I’m also drawn to the limiting aspects of form, and the wonderful tensions and discoveries that can result when you see a writer wrestling against it, like Donne in his “Holy Sonnets” (which actually also came to mind when I was reading “Hold Tight”) or Bishop in “Sestina” or “One Art”. In particular, Bishop has that remarkable control and precision, which runs counter to the strengths I associate with Whitman. In some ways, I suppose that in “Creation Myth,” as in much of my work, I felt pulled between those two sensibilities.

Pas de Deux: Snider & Phillips

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

Welcome back to the CR dance-party the hipster kids are calling Pas de Deux, our two-part interview exchange between recent contributors. In this encounter, Bruce Snider asks fellow poet and 11.1 contributor Carl Phillips how his poem “Hold Tight” transitioned from a squiggle on a bev-nap to the polished tour de force we’re proud to feature in our pages. Read on to discover what Phillips thinks about repurposing the sonnet form, juxtaposing different grammatical moods within a single sentence, and the pitfalls of memory.

Bruce Snider: One of the first things I noticed about this poem is that it looks like a sonnet and is, in fact, fourteen lines. Something about the sonnet’s demands for compression often gives it a “gripped” quality, almost fist-like, which seems especially apt for a poem called “Hold Tight.” Your looser interpretation of the form (no iambic pentameter or strict rhyme scheme), however, also seems fitting, since the poem’s content quickly sets “holding tight” against the notion of “letting go.” It seems to me that the poem’s form does both at once. Do you think of “Hold Tight” as a sonnet, or at least intend for it to gesture toward the form and its traditions?

Carl Philips: I don’t know if I intended for the poem to gesture toward the sonnet and its traditions, but I agree with you that it seems to do so. For the last few years, I’ve noticed that so many of my poems have been between twelve and fifteen lines, so there seems to be something in me that wants to hover around that sonnet length—and I agree, it’s just the right length for setting up a kind of tension that can seem like release and restraint at the same time.

BS: Your poems are admired, among other things, for their complex, elongated sentences, and for the way you use lineation to emphasize and disrupt that syntax. Could you talk about your approach to these elements in “Hold Tight”? In particular, I’m curious about your use of an em dash in line 6 to join what could have been two separate sentences (the line could have been punctuated: “I forget to think about it. If I don’t think about it . . .”).

CP: Well, I don’t know if it’s worthy of being admired (!), but I have a fascination with the relationship possibilities between short and long sentences. Though not overly conscious of this when writing, I’m sure I was aware, by revision time, that this poem consisted of five sentences, one of which contains the poem’s only question—I like thinking about the mixing of grammatical moods, as well, a nerdy activity that has turned out to be useful for writing. . . . About that em dash, huh, good question. Maybe the dash is a way of rushing, a way to avoid the pause of a period, which would imply a moment to do the very thinking that the poem wants, anyway, to avoid. That’s how it reads to me, now. Again, though, none of this really occurs to me when I’m writing, it just sort of comes out that way.

BS: There’s such a lovely balance between mind and body in “Hold Tight,” between abstract thinking and image, the sense of a mind actively working through the sensual particulars of the world. I especially admire how the imagery serves to both clarify and complicate that thinking. How consciously do you consider the relationship between abstract thought and concrete sensory language when composing?

CP: You’ve probably figured out that I write pretty much intuitively, without a lot of thinking ahead—it’s as though, if I were to be overly aware of what I was doing, I’d be unable to do it. But having said that, I do know that I have a propensity for abstraction—I’m most interested in wrestling with the big unresolveable subjects, so things like love, death, sex are hard to steer clear of. And yet I also know how many poems address abstraction in ways that can be off-putting; they can sound like philosophical tomes instead of poems. . . . I’ve always been excited about the natural world. I spend a lot of time observing minute details in nature, and I think this has turned out to be an instinctive lens through which to consider abstraction. And it also suggests both a kinship to (or at least a desired one) and tension between the natural world of instinct and our human world of self-consciousness and abstraction. It’s probably related to how the Transcendentalists thought about the natural world, but that’s going back to tenth-grade English, for me, so I don’t trust my memory on that one.

Pas de Deux: Hoyt & Silver

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

And now for part deux of the danse macabre between Dan Hoyt and Doug Silver. (And a BONUS for the morbid among you: a list of notable people throughout history who were beheaded, “arranged alphabetically by country or region and with date of decapitation.”)

Douglas Silver: The opening sentence in “Here I Am”—They came for him at work, at Burger King—succeeds in both hooking the reader and imparting a sense of familiarity with this world, as if we were pages deep into the narrative instead of nine words. By the end of the first paragraph, the protagonist (and the reader) is up to his eyeballs (sorry, I couldn’t resist) in conflict. Was this immediate urgency what you envisioned in the early stages of writing the story?

Daniel A. Hoyt: I always want an opening to reach out and grab readers, maybe straighten their lapels, maybe shake them a bit. At least I hope for this. I want an immediate sense of storyness: conflict, plot, urgency, some sense of this mattering—to a character and to a reader. In my fiction classes, we often analyze first lines. Some writers can utilize eight elements of craft in twenty words. Here’s one of my favorites: “The pump repairman was cautious.” It’s from “Same Place, Same Things” by Tim Gautreaux, and it doesn’t seem like a great first line until you read the whole story, but so much is established in five words.

I had some form of that first line — “They came for him at Burger King”—from a very early draft, but the editors at The Cincinnati Review said it wasn’t clear for a while that John, the protagonist, actually works at Burger King. I tweaked accordingly, and it’s better. It solidifies the concept of work, which is so central to the story. (An implicit message here is to listen to good editors.)

DS: The central conceit of this piece is that John, a middle-aged supervisor at Burger King, is beheaded by axmen, and miraculously survives as a bodiless head. Absurd as this is, I always felt grounded in the world. What challenges did you encounter as you unfolded this surreal element into a world otherwise like our own?

DH: Perhaps it’s telling and problematic that my first instinct is to say it was no problem. But of course all stories are a problem. And even though I think our lives can seem strange and surreal and eerie, they’re not this type of impossible. To counteract that, I thought a lot about the doubters in all of us. I had to think through the fictional reality of a cephalophore and try to stave off the nagging questions that might accompany one: For example, wouldn’t he die from blood loss? I tried to do some preemptive thinking, and I also tried to get the real-world details right. That Burger King exists, and that Watch Your Head sign is in the back, and they did have posters up for a long while pushing those smoothies. I’d never been inside it until I peeked in to get a look at the floor, a homely tile. I resisted the smoothies.

DS: For a story with such a morose premise, it is often quite funny, particularly John’s insights and recollections as he experiences life divorced from his body. What if any struggles did you face capturing a narrative voice that could convey John’s regrets over his lost daughter and underachieving life with the same poignancy imparted to the bizarre sexual tryst encounters of his youth and an awful job he had years earlier at a recycling center?

DH: I almost never feel “just sad” or “completely happy,” and sometimes when I’m the most bummed out (but not completely; it’s never complete), that’s when I seek—sometimes consciously—the consolation of humor. Part of my attempt to create the “reality” of John’s experience was to bring in a jumble of unexpected thoughts and feelings. The confusion of his mind foils the confusion of the event, this mysterious beheading. It had to be plainspoken and close, and I think it helps too that John questions his own thoughts. He’s thinking of these random highs and lows, and he’s getting lost in his consciousness, which is what the beheading does in some way: separate his mind (stuck in place, stuck in itself) and his body (off in the world).

DS: As the story progresses, it becomes apparent John was disconnected from his body, and by extension his life, long before the axmen blindsided him. Displayed like a circus freak, he admits, wistfully, his admiration for Jason, a slacker employee at Burger King whose shift John had been covering when he was decapitated. Jason was the only person he knew who did what he wanted on a perpetual basis. Given the amount of time I imagine you spend alone at your desk (or wherever you write), is this a sentiment with which you often grapple?

DH: I used to have these great failure fantasies, back when I was journalist in my twenties: I’d get fired somehow and that would allow me to recreate myself, to be free of deadlines, to light out west (to San Francisco usually, where I thought I could crash on a couch for a while). Sadly, I never got fired. There’s some part of me now that thinks I should have quit, but I’m sort of an anti-Jason. I tend to do what is required of me. I’m pretty good with rules, with expectations, and, of course, there are times when I feel hemmed in by them, by attending academic meetings or by grading reading quizzes or by cleaning the gutters. I almost never feel trapped, though, when I’m writing. I think a lot about what all of the effort means, however, both as I write and as I help teach others to write: I choose to believe that the act of writing is valuable and necessary. The choosing makes it so.

DS: Fate vs free will is a central theme in this story. While that’s nothing new, what struck me was John’s uncertainty as to which he’d prefer. He is, by the end, a man without choices questioning if that ever wasn’t the case. Did the axmen choose him randomly? Was he marked from birth?  What if he and his wife had been more secure in their finances? He is an effect desperate to unearth his cause. In contrast, as the story’s powerful conclusion makes clear, John’s body has continued to live the life from which John is now barred. In your opinion, who has it worse, the conscious mind relegated to a crushed-velvet case in some basement or the mindless body acting out the motions of life with no sense of life’s possibilities?

DH: This is a great question, and it’s exactly the kind of question I usually try to dodge about my stories. I want readers to mull something like this without my interference. I just write the fucking things, you know? But, oh well, here goes. In my reading, on this morning in April, I think the mind has it worse. The body is out there. The body is free, and John at least—John’s mind—can’t escape from asking, Why? I believe deeply in the electrochemical wonder of our minds. Our brains can free us too, but John—John’s mind—is a prisoner, and the oppression of that adds an important layer: He’s dehumanized in so many ways, down in that basement, where he tries to tell the future, where he tries to hold on to his rights of personhood. He’s trapped and trapped and trapped, and the body’s loose and lost, all instinct, all desire, all pain.

Oh, man, can I just say that they’re both screwed?

Postscript: I feel compelled to add a quick final note: Thanks, TCR, for doing this series, and, Doug, thanks so much for indulging my love of Dickens, asking such good questions, and writing such an interesting story.

News from the Crypt

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

Hey, CR followers. We’re breaking our summer skeleton-crew silence with a reminder, an update, and a treat.

First, don’t forget our summer contest. There’s some lovely moolah attached to the Schiff Prizes—and even if the eds don’t pick your piece to win, they may still want to publish it at our usual per-page rate ($30 for poetry, $25 for prose). In the event that we don’t opt to publish your stuff this time around, you still get a full year’s subscription to the mag, which includes bonus music features AND the 64-page, full-color graphic play MOTH, which we plan to mail out with our November issue. Illustrator Gable Ostley is hard at work and sending us new “rough inks” almost daily, and playwright Declan Greene is supplying captions and dialogue for Gabe’s sketches. The finished product is going to be amazing.

Now for the update: We just approved the final proof for our summer issue and expect the shipment in the next week or so. Our TEN-tacular issue includes last year’s Schiff Prize winners, three reviews that meditate on the staying power of the classic Moby-Dick, the usual complement of terrific stories and poems, another great translation feature,  and—bonus—it will be accompanied by our latest music feature, composer Sarah Hutchings’s score for Jeff Gundy’s poem “March Ode.”

Today’s treat comprises a last delightful look at our winter number in the form of our (relatively) new blog feature Pas de Deux, in which contributors to a given issue interview each other about what intrigued, puzzled, or impressed them in the another writer’s story, poem, or essay. This installment features an exchange between Daniel A. Hoyt and Douglas Silver on the latter’s story  “Found Peoples.”  Check back in a couple of days for the switcheroo: Doug’s questions and Dan’s responses!

Daniel A. Hoyt: I have lots of questions about bodies and lots of questions that seem to beget more questions. “Found Peoples” starts with such gripping, visceral language as Feng, the story’s protagonist, examines a dead body he’s fished from the river. I was immediately convinced by the body; I was there with Feng as he “pinched the green eye, and the contact lens peeled off.” How did you create these artful and disturbing states of decay? What kind of research did you do? Is this a feat of imagination, of medical textbooks, of Google?

Douglas Silver: Google is generally my first stop—be it for a spicier Massaman curry recipe or the particulars of each stage of human decomposition. Numerous websites and academic journals provided an indispensable foundation in the science of decay. I read a lot and emailed a few experts and saw many images I would like to unsee. From there, it was a matter of backtracking—from ashes to animation—and deciding upon those details that provide a glimpse into the lives of the deceased.

DH: How about your depiction of China? How did you go about imagining and creating the physical setting and the rich sociological dynamics underpinning the story?

DS: China’s abysmal record on human rights and personal expression is infamous the world over. It is a dreadful place to be writer and a fascinating place to write about. Much of the societal and physical depictions were the product of research, but the narrative atmosphere was strongly influenced by my visit to China after graduating high school. When I arrived at the airport in Beijing, I noticed a sign that read Warning: Drug Trafficking is Punishable by Death in the R.O.C. Being 18 and an idiot, I thought this a superb photo-op. Before I could put away my camera, two officers approached me. One took my luggage and emptied it in front of everyone while the other demanded my passport. When they didn’t find drugs, they repacked me (admittedly neater than I had packed myself) and welcomed me to the country. When I told someone I met about this interaction, an American who had lived in China for years, she explained how lucky I was, how much worse it would have been if I were Chinese. I sought out that airport photograph when I began the story and kept asking myself what becomes of the unlucky.

DH: Because these questions are for a Pas de Deux feature, this question seems almost mandatory: Will you discuss the way you use foils in “Found Peoples”?

DS: One of the challenges of the piece was providing the reader a palpable sense of Feng’s former life. It seemed the most organic method to achieve this was through Feng’s encounters with those who were devoted to his family, and leveraging this juxtaposition for the benefit of both characterization and narrative tension. At some point, it occurred to me that it is Feng’s contact with the living through which the reader derives the clearest prospective into Feng’s past, i.e., the life he lost. Conversely, it is his dealings with the dead that most clearly render his present life—a paradigm that is upended by his time with the young woman’s body.

DH: There’s a strangely mundane yet magical moment in “Found Peoples” when Feng thinks of and explains the story of the prodigal son. To many members of a western audience and to many western characters, that explanation is unnecessary, but Feng has to think about it in a different way. How did you discover Feng’s point of view? How do you go about shaping point of view in your stories?

DS: I’m of the belief that the surest way to figure out a character is to determine what he or she most desires. If my character doesn’t have an urgent need, then I don’t have a character. At least not one I have any right to expect readers to invest in. I start by asking myself the basics: What does CHARACTER want? Why does CHARACTER want it? What is preventing CHARACTER from getting it? In Feng’s case, while he spends his days working vigilantly and dishonorably to afford basic human necessities, he desires at his core the safe return of his family and the communal acceptance that carries. But he is powerless to achieve that desire; his sole option is faith—something he has never possessed, what divided him from his family prior to their incarceration and what he can’t acquire without them. Once I realized the paradox of Feng as a man who doesn’t believe and therefore isn’t believed in (and therefore can’t believe), I felt like I might have character worth following.

DH: This one may seem like an assignment rather than a question, but I wish more people would read Our Mutual Friend (you too, Gentle Reader of The Cincinnati Review blog!), so here goes: As I first read “Found Peoples,” I immediately thought of Gaffer Hexam, the “night bird” in Our Mutual Friend, who, like Feng, fishes corpses from a river and strips them of valuables.  Here’s a link to the opening chapter, when we first meet Gaffer and his daughter, Lizzie. Doug, I know you were initially inspired by a news article about men who retrieve dead bodies from rivers in China, but had you read Our Mutual Friend? What kind of dialogue do you see between your story and the opening of Dickens’s novel?

DS: I’m embarrassed and grateful that I had not heard of Our Mutual Friend. Having now read the first chapter, I am not sure I would have had the confidence to write the piece had I known that none other than Charles Dickens had employed a similar conceit, especially given that both stories start out in medias res. While it appears Gaffer and Feng are not driven by similar desires, both have no qualms about plundering the dead. Gaffer’s rhetorical statement “Has a dead man any use for money? Is it possible for a dead man to have money? What world does a dead man belong to? ‘Tother world. What world does money belong to? This world. . . .” places a premium on corporeality similar to that of Feng, whose ken is viewed through the lens of materialism. Again, I have read one chapter, so my analysis might prove to be total bunk. (But I’m enjoying it thus far, as might you, Gentle Reader of The Cincinnati Review blog!)

Pas de Deux: Nuernberger & Lessley

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

Thanks for stopping by to check out the last poetry Pas de Deux of the season: our second interview between poets and 10.2 contributors Kathryn Nuernberger and Shara Lessley. Below, Nuernberger asks Lessley about her poem “They Ask Me to Send,” one of a series of narrative-lyrics that explore Lessley’s time living in Jordan. Scroll down to learn how she negotiates the autobiographical and speaking selves in her poems, what it’s really like for an American woman to shop for soap in the downtown suqs of Amman, and how spectacular the night sky appears when populated with hundreds of fire balloons at the end of Ramadan.

Kathryn Nuernberger: “They Ask Me to Send” makes me want to reread Edward Said and Elizabeth Bishop. Which writers were you thinking about when you wrote the poem?

Shara Lessley: I’m very interested in how Americans romanticize and deride the Middle East (sometimes in the same breath), although Said’s Orientalism certainly wasn’t on my desk during the drafting process. What I remember most about “They Ask Me to Send” is the moment that triggered the poem. My husband and I were having drinks on a patio overlooking Amman’s many hills, its downtown maze of suqs and mosques. We’d only lived in the Middle East a few weeks and I couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing. Drifting over the rooftops and then across the face of the Citadel, there they were—the “paper chambers” Bishop so perfectly depicts in “The Armadillo,” the ones that “flush and fill with light / that comes and goes, like hearts.” Fire balloons! I couldn’t believe my luck. Unlike Bishop’s illegal balloons, however, the globes weren’t “rising toward a saint / still honored in these parts” but launched to celebrate the final hours of Ramadan.

KN: Your bio in Cincinnati Review indicates that you are a “recent resident of the Middle East,” which reinforces inclinations readers might have to think of this poem as nonfiction. The speaker castigates family and friends of the family, and the poem approaches an emotional climax with frustrating phone calls from the speaker’s mother. How do you think about the line between yourself in the world and yourself on the page?

SL: The three years I lived in Amman were a privilege. However, even as I did my best to immerse myself in the language and traditions, to learn as much as I could about the country and its people, to engage respectfully with its values and flaws, I remained an outsider. Another American passing through. “They Ask Me to Send” is less castigating of others than of the cultural script we’ve been given of the region (enter Said?). The first questions I’m asked about Jordan almost always concern safety and sexism. At no time while bartering for soap or scarves was I ever Carrie Bradshaw—you know the cartoonish Middle Eastern scene in the Sex and the City movie where Carrie and company traipse through the suq like circus clowns while crowds of hostile Arabs gape and stare?

We often ask readers to separate the speaker from the author—and for good reason. In this case, the speaker is clearly me, although my mother never demanded “a precise ‘timeline’ detailing / our stateside return.” (Sorry Mom!) What’s true is that expats are often asked for stuff. Trinkets. Recipes. Evidence of a life abroad. “They Ask Me to Send” takes stock of the care packages I shipped from Jordan. I mailed Dead Sea products, mosaics, Lebanese sweets. A lot of coffee. Miniature flags and stickers and stuffed animals (camels mostly) that were probably made in China. The boxes were filled with good intentions, but failed to convey a life lived. No matter how hard I tried, I could never send what makes Amman so magical—the generosity of its people, for instance, “the air at Aaron’s tomb,” or fire balloons drifting over columns from the Temple of Hercules, fragments more than six thousand years old.

Pas de Deux: Kirby & Alcalá

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

Team Alcalá -Kirby strikes again with this rematch Pas de Deux interview in which David Kirby spars with Rosa Alcalá, administering his questionnaire regarding—appropriately—her poem “Questionnaire” (10.2). Stay tuned to read the incomparable Alcalá’s ruminations on the care-taking of an elderly parent, domestic doppelgängers, and the philosophy of the Q&A.

David Kirby: I’m a sucker for questionnaires—I always answer phone surveys as dinner cools in the other room—so naturally I love your beautiful, provocative poem. You seem to be questioning just one person in the first few stanzas, but then the questions start becoming more cosmic. Can you talk about that change?

Rosa Alcalá: The speaker is watching someone else take on the role of daughter, reaching the realization that her “avatar,” the nurse’s aide who performs the job of taking care of her mother with much more care and sensitivity, is less able, for socio-economic reasons, to refuse that role.  The realization is that the caretaker, in temperament and class station, is closer to the mother than the daughter. In short, the speaker indirectly asks the mother: Who is this woman doing what I should be doing? Which is really the question she’s asking herself. She’s anguished by the presence of her twin, but also by her own absence. The doubling effect is there to suggest that the daughter and the caretaker are not distinct, although there are important differences. Each could have easily taken the place of the other had life’s circumstances been slightly different (or maybe this is just the romantic version she tells herself). The speaker, with her “questionable” agency and power, gets to administer the “scripts,” in the sense of both roles and prescriptions, that keep her and her mother strangers.

DK: As we all know, a great thing to do in a poem is to set up a pattern and then disrupt it just when the reader is starting to get comfortable. When and how did you decide you wanted to answer your own questions? Also, you answer just three questions, not all; how’s that work? For me, one quick test of a poem’s quality is asking whether or not it can be taught, that is, will the poem generate a fruitful conversation among people who know about and love poetry? Now that’s the case here, but all poems (and conversations) must come to an end, and we all know that endings can be tricky. Your question calls for a yes or no answer, but are there other options? Or did you just want to throw out a rhetorical question and leave the reader saying, “Hmm . . .”?

RA: Rosmarie Waldrop, in an essay on translation, quotes Hans-George Gadamer who says that of every statement you can ask, “Why do you say that?” I like that here each question propels the speaker, with mounting insistence, to keep asking until the final question is really the terrifying answer. In fact, all the questions for me are really answers, as they reveal the speaker’s sense of her own identity and estrangement (who, who, who, like an owl on a limb, alone, at midnight). So, following Gadamer, of every question we can ask, “Who is asking and why?” But the final question is certainly not rhetorical. I think it’s the question that implicates the reader in this situation (she must be to blame), but even that realization leads to more questions: Did she create this situation? Or was the situation created and she perpetuates it? This sense of perpetuation, of inevitability, is present in the anaphoric rhythm of the poem.

Pas de Deux: Alcalá & Kirby

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Welcome to our third installment of Pas de Deux in which Rosa Alcalá interviews fellow poet and 10.2 contributor David Kirby about his poem “Is Spot in Heaven?” Scroll down to discover the secrets behind Kirby’s characteristically staggered (and staggering) stanza patterns, to read Kirby’s thoughts on the popular-versus-high-culture debate, and to finally learn whether heaven—or at least doggie heaven—exists.

Rosa Alcalá: Your poem has an interesting form. For the most part, the tercets are enjambed, which allows for continuity in the narrative, but also shifts. Can you talk about your intentions regarding the relationship between form and content?

David Kirby: Oh, gosh, Rosa. When I’m asked about my signature stanzas, as I often am, I think, “How do I explain thee? Let me count the ways.” Probably the baseline explanation is this: I like long, loopy sentences, which means lots of “ands,” and since lines tend to break after nouns and verbs, that means a whole series of lines are going to have “and” as their first word. And, and, and: that’s pretty unsightly, yes? So by staggering my lines this way, I avoid those word stacks. There’s an essay on my work where the writer says I’ll take six or eight bits—a childhood memory, something I read, a piece of overheard conversation, and so on—and create a kind of emotional pendulum so they all swing back and forth together, and the look of a typical poem heightens that effect. But the truest answer to your question is what we say when someone asks us why we do anything, which is that other people seem to like it.

RA: Humans don’t come off as particularly sensitive or kind here: they keep elephants in cages, train bears for their own amusement, and mock a child’s innocence. Yet, the speaker, whom I gather is human, knows he will meet the same end as Spot, and takes comfort in that. Can you tell us how these observations emerged? What issues do you see this poem addressing, and did you know the poem was heading in that direction?

DK: I never know where a poem is heading. As I say above, I gathered a lot of disparate materials that share an emotional core and began to play with them. I certainly don’t mean to say that humans are bad (you are correct in pointing out that I, too, am a member of that species), but I did want to isolate some moments where humans were thoughtless. That’s the way we are, and there’s no cure for it, except in poetry. As with a lot of what I write, here I use my poem to think and feel my way toward a world I’d like to live in, in this case, an Eden of sorts.

RA: I thought the mention of Leonard Woolf was clever (Virginia’s husband, yes?). The only enlightened human here shares his name with an animal. But in citing Woolf you also engage us in different realms of knowledge and world views, from Catholicism to Sam Cooke. Can you talk about your use of high and low culture (or larger philosophical issues and the quotidian)?

DK: Ha, ha! That’s another one you interviewers are always throwing at me. I guess I don’t see the difference. I wrote a poem once about looking at Michelangelo’s statue of Moses in Rome and hearing Aretha Franklin singing “Chain of Fools.” Why not? Both works are pretty colossal, pretty passionate. Another writer once said I was a Kitchen Sink Poet. Hey—guilty, your honor!

RA: I read this poem as saying: we subjugate or suppress because we fear the unknown; we control what we can. The speaker is starting to see the other side of the river, and he’s welcoming it. He wants all things, then, to be free, to have his freedom to love and be loved. What’s your perspective regarding your poem?

DK: That’s it, Rosa. You get the poem; in fact, you get it better than I do, because, as I say, mainly I’m playing here. But, yes, I want more, and I want the world to be better to all its inhabitants. I’m glad you point out that the new and better world hasn’t arrived yet. A lot of my writing (thinking, teaching, talking) deals with these almost-moments. If you lead your reader and yourself up to the edge and let them look over, that’s more moving in a lasting way than it would be if you concluded tidily and put up a little placard that said “The End.” As the filmmakers say about a scene, you should arrive late and leave early.

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.