Archive for the ‘Soapbox and CR’ Category

Collaborative Feature—Soapbox and CR

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

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!

Collaborative Feature—Soapbox and CR

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

For our second collaborative feature with Cincinnati’s own online magazine Soapbox, we’re featuring Lili Wright’s short-short story “Handyman” from issue 8.2. 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 Wright’s “Handyman” 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.


I am walking down to the beach in Maine to see if my husband is having sex with our friend Levi. It’s an idea so crazy it makes sense. Sex would be the culmination of what I’ve been feeling all summer: that my husband likes Levi more than he likes me. Daniel slips out of bed at six a.m. so he and Levi can climb twenty-foot ladders and reshingle our house. All day long, the men work shoulder to shoulder, making jokes I can’t hear. Daniel tells Levi about his hemorrhoids. They sing “Penny Lane.”

Levi is like Jesus. A carpenter who builds things and fixes things and never loses his temper. Levi rolls his own cigarettes and never wears sunblock and plays War nicely with our children and sleeps in a tent and grows bean sprouts and is thinner than a cricket. He isn’t gay as far as I know. His partner is a Mexican woman, Ana, but he hasn’t seen her in months, and men being men, needing sex as often as they do, something may have bubbled to the surface.

All summer, Levi has taught Daniel the construction skills he never learned because Robinson men are lawyers, tax lawyers, estate lawyers, loophole lawyers, men in wool suits who call people like Levi to fix whatever is broken. The more cocky Daniel becomes, flexing his biceps, swinging his hammer, the more he expects me to play wife: produce cookies, applaud progress, take photographs documenting each miracle. And I did this for a while until the whole setup got on my nerves. Everything slid into two against one.

Recently, the men started taking a midmorning break to eat peanuts and skinny dip. They call it “refueling.” They walk to the beach, strip down, and dunk themselves in the ocean, which is freezing. You can hear the screams. Later, they come up all doggy grins, hair dripping salt water, ready to shake. Daniel tells me to stay up at the house.

But it occurs to me now that something else is going on. I march past the daisies like the commander-in-chief I’ve felt like ever since I became a mother. I can’t be as nice as Levi, and Daniel knows it. Gravity pulls me to the shore like the moon pulling tide. Things feel weighted, inevitable, a movie I’ve already seen. The wind blows past my ears. The spruce don’t budge. Old trees rarely turn around.

Getting closer, I brace myself to see what I can’t imagine: my husband, the former Catholic choirboy, making out with our houseguest. How will I tell the kids—years later—about this summer, the summer of reconstruction, the summer where their father learned how to cover old siding with fresh shingles, learned to snap a plumb line, learned that male friendship is easier than marriage?

I can see the little changing house now. The bluff above the shore. Compass Island. The view. Everything that happens happily ever after depends on what happens next. But this is always true. Every minute of your life.

Lili Wright is author of the travel memoir, Learning to Float. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Florida Review, Southern Indiana Review, Cream City Review, The Normal School, and other publications. She won the Mary C. Mohr Nonfiction Award in 2008 and the inaugural nonfiction prize given by Wag’s Revue. Her work was noted for distinction in Best American Essays 2010 and Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010. A graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program, she teaches writing at DePauw University in Indiana.

Lili Wright: I wrote “Handyman” in one short blast. A friend of mine had recently learned her husband was having an affair, a discovery that reminded me of the precariousness of marriage. We also had a house guest for the summer, a wonderful man who was far more patient and kind than I am. One day, I walked to the beach and had a rush of “what if” thoughts. So I took these elements and told the story in a voice not my own. As I was writing, I felt I was channeling Grace Paley, though the story probably doesn’t sound like her at all.

“Handyman” is essentially a travel piece, though it’s only a walk to the beach. A walk to the beach might change your life. I knew the story had to be short because I wanted to leave the ending ambiguous. The reader’s wondering would mimic the wife’s wondering, her fear about what she might find, her fear that she might deserve it. Most of the editing I did was designed to heighten the drama and select details that carried the greatest metaphoric weight. This is the fun stuff: Compass Island, Penny Lane, the card game War—all there for the taking.

Recently, I’ve fallen in love with the short form. I am not a poet but this is the closest I can come. Moments like this one bubble up, unannounced, usually when I am traveling, when I’ve left my heart ajar.

Becky Adnot-Haynes: Lili Wright’s “Handyman” encapsulates a moment both small and large: small, because it is one afternoon in a woman’s life; large, because it may be the moment that changes everything. It accomplishes what flash fiction does at its best: captures something on the cusp—a brief but important point in time, a moment which may or may not transform the course of her marriage. It’s a statement on the precarious state of our happiness, on how close we may be to the beginning of our worst-case scenarios—or how far.

The story’s sentences are both economical and incisive, describing richly the narrator’s feelings toward her husband’s newly developed bond with their handyman without rendering the subject matter sentimental. The narrator tells us that “Levi isn’t gay, as far as I know,” but that “men being men, needing sex as often as they do, something may have bubbled to the surface.” These are the facts as she sees them; these are the facts as she delivers them to us. Levi is the man who may or may not be sleeping with her husband, but he is also a man who plays war nicely with her children and who never loses his temper. The story doesn’t attempt to incite anger or pity on behalf of the narrator—there are no villains, no martyrs, only people—and it is all the more emotionally resonant for that.

Nicola Mason: The short-short, as it’s known, has really taken off in recent years. There are even e-zines and print mags devoted to exclusively to this compressed mode of storytelling. The fun thing about the short form is its surprising versatility. It’s often unclear whether a given piece is poetry (a “prose poem”) or fiction—and even when the category is clear, the work can go in any number of directions. The most successful short-shorts are often ones that present an intriguing, offbeat idea and then elaborate on it, building a meaningful context for the idea to inhabit. Thomas Israel Hopkins’s three short-shorts in our Winter 2012 issue are delightful examples of surreal scenarios that are grounded in real emotion. For Soapbox’s feature, however, we chose to highlight Lili Wright’s “Handyman” (from the same issue), in large part because it is the hardest kind of short-short to pull off. Often such submissions feel like half-baked entrees, missing a crucial ingredient, cold in the center. Wright’s offering, however—though only a page and a quarter in the journal—manages to complete an arc of story that could well spool out in a dozen pages, but is even more fulfilling as a swift dive into a charged moment.

One of the accomplishments of the piece is how efficiently it settles us into the physical and emotional landscape using recognizable tropes: the “cocky” lawyer proud to conquer new territory, the bromance, the wife-become-mother who, in her role as commander-in-chief, feels she “can’t be nice.” Wright smoothly joins the physical and psychological, imbuing concrete details with a shrewd significance: “How will I tell the kids—years later—about . . . the summer when their father learned how to cover old siding with fresh shingles, learned to snap a plumb line, learned that male friendship is easier than marriage.”  The story ends inconclusively by design, the moment’s potent uncertainty exemplified by the “changing-house” near the water as well as the view of “Compass Island.” In the last line we, like the speaker, are poised at the brink, not knowing which way the needle will swing.

Michael Griffith: What I love about “Handyman”: the bracing directness of our entry into the story; the way it establishes immediately that its length does not doom it to simplicity or lack of range (by the end of the second paragraph, we’ve encountered Jesus, the Beatles, hemorrhoids, bean sprouts, a Mexican woman, male lust, sunburn, and feats of carpentry); the easy self-assurance that lets the reader know straight off, “I am in good hands. I trust this writer.” But best of all, from my point of view, is the sense of rich, complex uncertainty Wright conveys here. Is there an affair? Consider the evidence. Pop duets and bathroom confidences? Hmm. “Refueling” with peanuts and a skinny-dip together? Uh-oh. But what her suspicion proceeds from is not facts, but rather the sense that what’s gone wrong with their marriage has to have a name, a proximate cause, lest it be just a slow, inexorable, terrifying slide toward unintimacy and indifference. Does she hope to catch them making out? At least a little . . . because that’s a narrative she knows, “a movie I’ve already seen.” What she fears most, it seems, is not so much that she’s lost her husband to this other person (which would be awful, but she can deal with it) as that she’s doomed now, for the rest of her life, to keep losing him minute by minute, day by day.

Collaborative Feature—Soapbox and CR!

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

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:, 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.