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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.

The Voice: CR-style

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

We’ve just finished proofing the winter issue, which boasts—in addition to the usual singing signatures—a hundred extra pages. It’s the first of two issues devoted to long forms (thanks, NEA!), which of course makes it special, but what struck us most when reading over this winter’s ample offerings was their range—an especially appropriate word as pertains to voice. The voices in 11.2 are as varied as they are vibrant. A few snippets for your mind’s ear:

From Sam Taylor’s “GodIs (2.0)”:

Says your name, Please touch me

Please devour me enlist me become me

But not all the way, touch me

a little all over briefly forever and almost

with your octopus arms, your suction cups, your oversized flannel, your lace-top camisole,

Are you sure that’s your name, octopus arms?

Are you sure, suction cup, Miracle Bra, Jake brake, peacoat?

From Steve Almond’s “Okay, Now Do You Surrender?”:

Loomis was going to be helpful because it was the right thing to do. He held to this conviction until the precise moment his eyes fell upon a small container of Greek yogurt. He and Kate had discussed this product at length. They had agreed it was an unnecessary luxury. He tamped down the urge to speak, then realized he was tamping down the urge to speak, then glared at Kate, who was reaching into the fridge to put the almond milk away and humming—humming, of all things! Her ass looked delish. This made Loomis wish he had not seen the yogurt. But it was too late. He was going to say something now, something awful and thrilling—he’d had enough of muzzling himself, of kowtowing, of groveling, which is probably how Kate had got the idea that the fucking Greek yogurt was back in play. She turned from the fridge. Her eyes followed his. He suffered an exquisite moment of pre-regret, of wanting to fall to his knees in some kind of spiritual silence. Then his vile mouth began to speak.

From James Kimbrell’s “Pluto’s Gate”:

Lord we say

we need wings to match the other wings

we don’t have

we need a bubbling we can hold

Yahweh Hot Rod Sky Talker

Talk to us Mister Master

Cloud Cork of the Transcendent Cava

Amen and Amen.

From Tom Paine’s “It Was Just Swimming”:

The two stumbled over the sandbar, sore to the bones. Nothing better than total destruction by the sea gods. It tore the bullshit off you! You felt born again! Insignificant, but alive! He tossed an arm around Jimbo, and then stopped in his tracks. Jimbo stumbled on past the grandmother at the shoreline. She lay in an aluminum lawn chair as if she had fallen from a plane. . . . A wave suddenly toppled her over. She was on her back, waving her mottled arms in the swirling sand. Like she was trying to make a sand angel! Her wig floated away like a black anemone. She was bald. He scooped her up. She clawed her fingers into his chest hair and said, “Take me out there.” He looked back to the breaking surf, and there were two real surfers out there now. The beach was pretty empty. Catalina was watching him with her hands on her hips. She looked angry.

Jimbo was already up at the showers.

So he carried someone’s grandmother out to the sandbar. He walked with her in his big arms into the smashing waves. It was something he had to do. He cradled her body as the waves walloped them. She was in a cave of his strength. He had never been defeated as an MMA fighter. A surfer railed past them, cutting and spraying. Knocked to his knees once, he held her tight in the crashing water, only to rise again from the foam like Poseidon. Coughing, choking, and gasping, she kissed his lips hard when he returned her safely to shore, even slipped him some ancient tongue. Kinky as it might seem, it was his sexiest kiss ever, though he had no idea why.

From Kirsten Skrinde’s “Frackville”:

If Marge doesn’t want me, I don’t want her. I shall not focus on those serpents beneath my feet and at my back. I have a realm of music, art, and literature here in my home. What more could I require? The hideous kitchen light has begun to pulsate madly, perhaps to its doom. But no matter. Out, out, brief candle! I walk into the living room, past the welcoming forms of my uncle’s Depression-era furniture. The sofa is lumpy and sometimes exhales clouds of dust, but it is still perfectly good, as is the phonograph. What accompaniment is appropriate for the day? A wild gallop of Valkyries, I think. Hoyotoho!

As I place the record on the turntable, the lamplight goes out. The strobe from the kitchen stops as well. Two bulbs expiring at once, or is Con Edison expressing dismay at my negligence? I lower the needle onto the record, but it too lies inert. Oh, for a muse of fire!

From Brock Clarke’s “The Radical”:

She’s watching one of those television shows that are made from books that we couldn’t be paid to read but that, once they’re made into television shows, we can’t stop watching, even though we have to pay to watch. We’re watching this TV show on Therese’s computer. Because we are so through with watching TV shows on TV.

“The last I saw Romark he was galloping past the Keening Wall in West Remarksfen toward the Forbidden Realm,” one of the characters says to the other. This is the way they talk. They wear fur, and if they’re men they wear beards and long hair and usually they’re battling or riding off into battle, and if they’re not doing something battle related, they’re entering the womenfolk from behind. Speaking of, a woman walks into the chamber—there are no rooms in this show, only chambers—and you just know one of these two guys is going to enter her from behind before the scene is over, and I hope neither of the kids walks in.

From Ashley Anna McHugh’s “The Red Hours”:

Now place an ostrich feather on the scale—

slender, nearly weightless. Long ago,

the spirits of the dead could not depart

unless their hearts were light as this. Don’t grieve.

Most men don’t lose their bones to a common grave,

but if we sink to the ocean floor, the sea

will fashion of us something rich and strange—

like the platinum skull, its diamonds pavé-laid:

the opulence of light made manifest

in those dazzling sockets, where there once were eyes.

From John William McConnell’s “House of Wine”:

The morning of the Pommeroys’ visit, John William McConnell had woken up fetally curled beneath a towel, and on the couch. His hangover . . . Wagnerian: mountain dwarfs going hammer and tongs at the base of this skull. The towel was mildewed and damp. Whomp whomp whomp, hammered the dwarfs.

John sat up. The room around him flexed and contracted, a fishbowl effect. The light, the light. John thought, Hmmm. He threw off the towel and did a tactical risk assessment. Was he on the outs? The circumstances of the couch, he couldn’t remember: the whys hows and whose ideas. He’d been working on this story, about his surgery. Lilith at a show. He felt the pinch of his scar. He rolled an empty bottle with his bare foot. He picked up his laptop on the floor and turned it on and waited, closed his eyes and delivered himself yea verily unto his hangover, slid backward into it. The laptop blinked on: Wjatever upi wamt/ Sje saod/ Sjeodod mpt spimd omterested/

John mouthed the words. Had it been brilliant and lucid prose, originally? Had it been a suicide note? He looked up and found himself observed by Lilith, leaning against the doorframe. He thought, Her hair is red. She was smiling, almost.

From Jack Snyder’s “Come Deciduous”:

O little moon o light at the end of

convince me my brain-knots are not

for naught these trees are all buck

& burl even the blackout heavens

are gnarled w/ slender antler-sprawl

that connects the star-specks o little

moon o light at the end of the world

The Making of MOTH, Part 3

Friday, November 14th, 2014

Illustrator Gabe Ostley, in collaboration with playwright Declan Greene, has made us a tenth-birthday present, and we’re sharing it, free with our next issue, with all of our subscribers. Check out Ostley’s process in hyper-speed below.

Why We Like It: “Vogelsong” by Leslie Parry

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

A self-proclaimed tech-geek and amateur dog-trainer, new volunteer and first-year PhD student in fiction Brenda Peynado has a talent for incorporating her disparate interests into conversations at the CR office. A discussion about the midterm elections or streamlining our contact database can lead Brenda into an analysis of the male catcall in the Dominican Republic or a consideration of myth and realism in the novels of Isabel Allende. It’s this interest in the multifariousness of human consciousness, Brenda tells us, that attracts her to Leslie Parry’s haunting story “Vogelsong” (11.1)—the idea that a single person contains multitudes, and that the many can speak as one. Read on to discover why Parry’s story continues to fascinate and even disquiet us so many months after we first encountered it.

Brenda Peynado: I’ve always loved the first-person plural. I love that it can propel the reader into dizzying relationships quickly, and then show how a whole group is haunted, how a whole group falls apart. “Vogelsong” is a beautiful example. Like a ghost story, the collective memory of the day a busload of blind schoolchildren came to the eponymous Florida attraction still lingers desperately in the staff’s imagination, spoiling the sanctuary they’d tried to build there. In turn, the collective character’s nostalgia of what they cannot keep forever chills the reader.

Nothing about “Vogelsong” is typical. The cast includes a harmonica-playing elephant, an ex-beauty queen with her face disfigured, the German immigrants who own the retreat, orphans, and a drunk performance-diver. The setting, exquisitely rendered, exploits surreal elements of the Florida landscape: a discarded fountain of youth, old walls of a slave plantation that advertise death tallies, alligators and canoes, and “a breeze carrying the smell of molasses and rust up the river.”

Parry’s offering will stay with you long after you put it down, haunting you the way only the best ghost story can. Except here, the ghosts are the exquisite moments of your own life that slip away, whole days that disintegrate, until all that is left is the recollection of how “the wheezy hee-haw music would follow us as we rounded the fountain, as two otters splashed away and darted to the shore, and just as we turned east, the sun would flame to life behind a black whoosh of birds, and then we’d think, Oh.”

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.

Inspired Lines: Bar-Nadav, Hanson, Sunderlin

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Why We Like It: “Bonsai Dawn Redwood Grove” by K. E. Duffin

Friday, October 17th, 2014

Volunteer Daniel (“Dan”) Groves comes from a long line of Groveses. His father was a Groves, his father’s father was a Groves, his father’s father’s father was a Groves. Naturally, when Dan writes last name, he scribbles “Groves,” but don’t be fooled. On the day he was born, the hospital intern responsible for typing out birth certificates, an avid disco fan, was listening to a cassette on his brand new, ten-pound, $325.00 Sony Walkman. The cassette was a limited edition, fan-club-only album titled Songs You Never Knew the Bee Gees Wrote. The intern received Dan’s info just as the title track from the famed John Travolta/Olivia Newton John film blared through his headphones, and the intern sang along: “Grease is the word, is the word that you heard; it’s got groove, it’s got meaning.” As he sang, he happened to be typing what should have been “Groves.” Instead, he typed “Grooves.” Dan has succeeded in concealing and correcting this blunder for decades, but sadly, he has also internalized it. Unbeknownst to Dan, groove is the criterion that informs his entire aesthetic. Were you to wake him in the middle of the night, when his cognitive filters are disabled, and ask him why he likes such-and-such poem, he’d mumble, “It’s got groove; it’s got meaning.”

Daniel Groves: In K. E. Duffin’s “Bonsai Dawn Redwood Grove,” the poet observes that “time/ is undone,” and then immediately asks—“but by what mechanism?” One answer could be that time is undone by the mechanism of the poem itself, which seems to invoke ancient artistic practices, with which the poet is aligned, in order to evoke even more ancient—ageless even, by comparison—natural processes. Moving down the page we follow the references as they move, like the sun, from East to West. The title refers to the ancient art of Bonsai, native to Japan, Land of the Rising Sun; the first line’s description of Bonsai Dawn Redwoods as having “many-fingered green hands” alludes, with a playful variation, to Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn” mnemonic, often used to mark beginnings, and thus to the dawn of the Western poetic tradition; lastly, the poem takes the form of a sonnet, “little song,” a form imported to England from Italy during the Renaissance. Amid these references to cultural heydays, the poet notes that the “green hands” “reach out from the Eocene” (“Eo-” from the Greek for “dawn”—the Eocene being the dawn of modern mammals), but even evolution itself has not had time enough to produce a bird “tiny enough to adorn such feathery fern.”

The poet, however, can “will it there, furtive and unheard,” as a figure for her dawning sense of herself, which is “small on these mossy slopes” but nonetheless serves as a mechanism by which “Eons pass” (this “Eo” a false dawn) and “time is undone” as “the mute bravado of duration elopes with all my smoldering days.”  Though I remain congenitally wary of most groves, K. E. Duffin’s “Bonsai Dawn Redwood Grove” is a delightful exception.

From Our Winners

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

We’re on a bonus-material kick, so here’s some good stuff related to our contest—statements from the readers of your many amazing entries and a bit from the winners on their moolah-worthy works.

NOTE on the POETRY: We were impressed with the formal variety of this year’s contest submissions. The things you’ve done with a page!  There were sonnets, of course, and even sestinas (a few!). There were poems about water in very long lines stretched out like rivers. There was a series of LA Haiku. There were prose poems, prose poems with holes to fall (or think) in, lineated proselike poems in which every line was end-stopped. There was a “Poem as a Field of Action.” There were elegies, histories, taxonomies, narratives, and lists. There were tiny, itty-bitty, microscopic lyrics. And the content! There was a poem for Thelma & Louise and one for Charlie Chaplin. There were pomegranates, epidemics, vibrators, and snow. You sent us your most romantic love poems, the finest tributes to your very best friends, your brightest joys, your deepest heartbreaks. And having to choose just one winner, for us, was the biggest heartbreak of all.​

Chelsea Jennings (on her winning poem, “Elegy”): Birds appear often and with great symbolic power in elegies. Watching the birds that perch on the telephone wires outside my window or that have nested in my kitchen vent, I wondered what it might mean to live among these creatures that harbor our losses. I began to imagine every bird as bearing the weight of someone’s grief. “Elegy” is a record of the world created through that perspective—when the feeling of loss collides with the peculiar, everyday magic of birds.

NOTE on the PROSE: It was a pleasure to read so many well-crafted and accomplished stories. We got absurd and surreal stories, like the one featuring absurd postcards from D. H. Lawrence’s trip to Mexico in which Frieda has a prosthetic head. We received imaginative, magical realist stories—one starring a spell-casting farmer creating magical problems for encroaching suburbanites. You sent us meditative and emotionally moving personal essays, telling us (for example) about loving the film Father of the Bride and your conservative father when you eloped into same-sex marriage. We got lyrical and psychologically acute realist stories, like the one where a man has an existential crisis at a bird fair with a much younger girlfriend.  You send us so many wonderful stories that to pick just one winner was downright traumatic. We had to do it, but we’ll never be the same again.

Tom Howard (on his winning story, “The Magnificents”): I started with the little scene in the beginning of the story: a dumbshow in which the character of Death is savagely beaten in front of cheering spectators on someone’s front lawn, as part of an extravagant birthday celebration.  And I imagined this strange middle-aged guy standing and watching, hopelessly out of place—kind of lonely, holding a bottle of meat-flavored champagne, with his head halfway in the clouds. I didn’t think this world had much use for someone like him, someone without any real talent or ambition or ruthlessness. But I liked him. And it became (among other, stranger things) a story about giving him a chance to show what he, or anyone, is really worth.

Free Beer . . . Tomorrow

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

Over the summer our lovely subscribers received, along with issue 11.1 (our TEN-tacular number), a bonus music feature, in which we presented Sarah Hutchings’s score for Jeff Gundy’s “March Ode” (published in 2011). In our excitement, however, we . . . er . . . forgot to post a recording of this boisterous bit of music, playfully retitled by Hutchings (who uses only part of the poem in her piece) “Ode to Free Beer.” As Don Bogen writes in his introduction to the feature, “Sarah’s setting captures [the poem] with wit and grace, from the rhythmic opening figure to the bold refrain. An ode is traditionally a poem of praise—and here’s one that has found a fit subject and a new musical voice.”

Click this link to listen: Ode to Free Beer. And look for yet another music feature—Ellen Ruth Harrison’s score for Jakob Stein’s sequence Sefiros—in issue 11.2, due out in December.