Archive for the ‘Why We Like It’ Category

Why We Like It: “Classified” by Sarah Burke

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

New volunteer Matthew Pennock hails from NYC, where he studied, earned a poetry degree, and taught school, but he is mainly known for being the reincarnated Houdini. As a baby, Matthew escaped from his crib nightly, and in the morning his parents would find him stuffed inside his sock drawer or an empty box of Tide. Though he grew larger as he aged, Matthew challenged himself to fit inside, and then escape from, smaller and more oddly shaped containers: the helmet of a suit of armor, a clarinet case, a bottle of Britney Spears’s fragrance Curious (he emerged redolent of Louisiana magnolia, golden Anjou pear, and dewy lotus flower). Considering his past life and accomplishments, we do not find it curious that he chose to write on “Classified” in our current issue.

Matthew Pennock: Sarah Burke had me at line 1. I turned the page to her “Classified” and read “Wanted—shell the mollusk exudes like sweat.” What follows is an immaculately rendered poem in which images work in concert to create a feeling of paranoia and exhaustion all too present in our current cultural climate.

The poem, as the title implies, alludes to the structure of a classified ad, relying twice on the italicized verb “wanted,” which is then followed by a series of images, all of which are variations on one theme, close confinement: “Think glove, not box. Vase,/not tank.” These images, however, do not feel claustrophobic; in fact, they feel like the only safe spaces one may inhabit: “Think womb, think flashlight/burning in a makeshift tent of quilts.” After bearing witness to this cavalcade of tight fits, I couldn’t help but see the title in a new way. “Classified” no longer functions solely as an indicator of structure—the form of a want ad—now it takes on the mantle of government. It is a Secret with a capital S, calling to mind the NSA’s wanton violation of our privacy, the vague terror threats the FBI says they’ve foiled but will never reveal. Whenever I think of all the various undefined ways the world wants to destroy me or what I hold dear, I too want to find the safest, most confined space. I want to crawl into an “anthill chambered as a heart.”

Reoccupying the Office: Salutations

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

Hey, all you lit types. We missed you this summer. Hope you got some reading d0ne, swilled some sweetly sour drinks, fed your pets faithfully, and added a few entries to the Annals of Lawn Care. (We know you didn’t go to that Tom Cruise flick, because that thing lost millions.)

We’ve been pretty productive over the so-called break and will soon have some Schiff Prize winners to announce, an amazing graphic play to gladden your eyeballs, and a fall/winter issue (now with the typesetter) jam-packed with long-form goodness (thanks again, NEA)!

With the new term we say a sad farewell to departing Associate Editor Brian Trapp (tears, lamentation) and a cheery hello to new Assistant Editor Don Peteroy, who has served the mag valiantly for four years—even starting his own characteristically zany blog category: Peteroy’s Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers. (Look for a new entry later this week.)

In the spirit of transition, we give you a last look back at issue 10.2. For those of you who’ve fallen out of the CR loop, issue 11.1 hit stacks and stands and all manner of grubby palms this July. It’s our 10th anniversary issue, so grab it if you haven’t already.

Now: Volume 10, Number 2, we remember you!

Emily Dickinson wouldn’t leave her bedroom. Robert Frost had a paralyzing fear of public speaking. A certain poet in the CR office only makes eye contact while wearing sunglasses. Poets are notoriously introverted. They spend a lot of time looking out the window, which is probably why, when pressed to make small talk, they are apt to comment on the weather. Read on to learn how our 10.2 contributors have made an art form of window gazing, and elevated “the weather” from small talk to poetry:

Catherine Pierce (on “The Tornado Wants a Companion”): I grew up on the East Coast, where we had occasional hurricanes and blizzards, but never tornadoes. When I moved in 2007 to north Mississippi, a place that frequently experiences tornadic activity (to use a phrase often heard on TV here), I was struck by how terrifying I found this phenomenon—far more terrifying than even the worst weather incidents in my hometown. Eventually I realized my fear stemmed not from the statistical odds of being killed by a tornado (those odds are lower than the odds of dying from, say, smoke inhalation or electrocution, things I don’t think much about in my day-to-day life), but because tornadoes seem to me to have agency. Unlike a hurricane or snowstorm, which just occurs all around you, here’s this single, discrete thing that you can actually witness wreaking havoc. You can watch it coming, and you can hope it doesn’t come for you. I wanted to write a series of poems that explore that agency: If a tornado had a reason, what would it be? What in the world is it that the tornado wants?

Katherine Bode-Lang (on “Death in Midsummer”): I have long been fascinated with astronomy—the sky and our smallness in its presence. This poem is one moment when the strange weather of the hills met our movement against the sky. And I happened to be looking out the window at the right time.

Kurt Steinwand (on “Frankie the Storm” ): Storms in the news. We give them names, personalities; Sandy with her ironic innocence, though the displaced sand of the Jersey Shore made a connection. The Media sensationalizes, tells the stories. My storm was Italian, a goombah, an intruder, no admired Rocky Balboa. The storm was serious, a shorted-lived member of the Mob who thought he was in cahoots with God; His henchman, maybe even thought he was better, an extension of the Almighty, the Short Reign of Frankie IV. I gave him a name, then believed it was too gratuitous, too legitimizing. I took it out, then put it back in the title and let him have his little moment in the clouds. The power of a poet is often to give a brief life, Godlike, allow it to blow onto the page, be taken seriously with all the senses, and be gone. Or is he? When at the end he’s still “coming in.” That was the essence of this poem.

Why We Like It: Ana Blandiana

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Whether championing the dry-rub brisket of his native Texas or sharing self-deprecating anecdotes from his MFA-daze at NYU, veteran blogger and recent volunteer Jose Araguz infuses the CR office with his characteristic humor and generous intelligence. “Sorry,” Jose will say after praising a sestina’s inevitable yet surprising end-words, “I’m easily excited.” We on the CR staff disagree; when it comes to assessing submissions, Jose displays a keen discernment—a quality everywhere apparent in his appreciation of the brief lyrics of Ana Blandiana (10.2). In fact, Jose’s installment of Why We Like It marks this blog’s first appreciation of any writing-in-translation featured in the magazine—an oversight Jose was enthusiastic to remedy.

Jose Araguz: I have long been a champion of the short lyric. The poems of Ana Blandiana, as translated by Paul Scott Derrick and Viorica Patea, are marvelously complex examples. The two pieces that struck me in particular were “I’m Blinkered” and “Hourglass.”

“I’m Blinkered” begins: “I’m blinkered/ Like the eye of a horse,” setting a sardonic tone right off. The poem then explores the experience the title names, a state of seeing the reader quickly discovers is about not seeing, of being hindered, bothered to the point of not wanting to bother. “Don’t ask me,” says the speaker, “What trees and flowers/ I’ve found along the way.” Capable of both wit and gravity, this nuanced voice pulls the reader in until we are left, like the speaker, receiving “messages/ That [we] don’t understand in the clouds.” The poem is visceral in that it conveys the condition of being physically blinkered, but also expresses a kind of metaphysical ennui.

In “Hourglass,” the speaker contemplates how a grain of sand, stuck in the narrow passage between glass bulbs, “refuses to fall.” Because of the stuck grain, time has stopped: “Nothing moves.” Through this predicament, the speaker relays humor, then pushes forward into more serious territory. The poem ends with the declaration: “A dream of stopping/ On the road toward death/ Is almost the same as being dead.” Suddenly, the reader is moved from contemplating the grain of sand into being the grain of sand.

What does it mean to be stuck? Is dreaming a way of being stuck? What do we miss while “blinkered” by our daily thoughts? These questions are just some of the places I go when I read these poems. Whether grain of sand or the eye of a horse, Blandiana’s short lyrics find ways to transform her personal vision into accessible and meaningful poetry.

Why We Like It: Daneen Bergland’s “Animals Invaluable to Epidemiologists for Tracking the Spread of Disease Will Appear to Us as Angels”

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Sara Watson: As an animal lover, I was immediately drawn to the subject of Daneen Bergland’s “Animals Invaluable to Epidemiologists for Tracking the Spread of Disease Will Appear to Us as Angels.” This poem not only considers our relationship with animals, but even offers them an autonomous dream life.

The speaker in this poem is assertive. She knows her stuff. “A body is just a place to keep your guts safe,” she says, and, “Music has always been good for sad things.” It’s more than the phrases Bergland builds that ring true, however; it is her tone of utter assurance. But the speaker is curious, too, and compassionate, gazing into the face ( the teeth, to be exact) of what must be a very small and very frightened bat, asking, “Do you think we are the stars of animals’ anxiety dreams?”

Charming, funny, and smart, the voice here leads me, ultimately, to new questions about myself and the world.

Why We Like It: “Penis Interview”

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

New volunteer Dario Sulzman has had many previous lives. We don’t mean that in the flighty New Age sense, though if we brought in the right mystic, perhaps we’d learn that Dario was a WWII pilot who pressed “eject” instead of “bomb” by accident, or a seventeenth-century Russian seamstress who died of infection after she forgot to wear a thimble. We don’t know (because mystics are expensive).

We do know that before Dario became a PhD student here at UC, he had a motley collection of jobs that would look good on the back of any book jacket. He’s done the usual gritty work of washing dishes and making sandwiches. He’s been an intrepid newspaper reporter and a reading specialist. He’s been a barista and heroically battled the milk steamer in what he calls the “dance of resistance.” He was a real estate appraiser for divorce cases in New York, wisely judging the value of brownstones and high-rise penthouses for their owners to later fight over. He was once hired by Dunkin’ Donuts to walk around Rockefeller Center with a “jet pack full of hot chocolate.” Now Dario is our reading specialist, and we’re happy to have his appraisal of Michael Barach’s “Penis Interview,” which is as good as a jet pack full of hot chocolate.

Dario Sulzman: Before reading Michael Barach’s poem “Penis Interview,” I’d have referenced Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint or Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow if anyone had asked me for recommendations of classic works involving phallic personification. Now, in our most recent issue of Cincinnati Review, Barach offers a new . . . perspective. The first time I read “Penis Interview,” I was struck by the poem’s blunt, singular honesty. Some “answers” are exactly the kind of crass responses we’d expect of such a carnal appendage—“When can you start? (Duh.)”—while others reveal a surprising vulnerability—“What do you fear? Myself.”—but every line is spoken immediately, without hesitation or wasted energy.

Upon my second reading, I realized how technically layered this seemingly simple, fairly short poem actually is. Its terse impermeability is built up not just by Barach’s consistent use of a question-answer (mock interview structure), but also by playful and varied use of rhyme schemes. Sometimes the answers rhyme, but not the questions; other times only the questions rhyme, leaving the corresponding answers to diverge. Barach uses end rhyme and slant rhyme as well as sudden changes in cadence to create a poem with all of the suspenseful, volley-and-return energy that one feels watching a championship tennis match . . . or some other sport where men with sticks hit balls back and forth to each other.

Fear and Clothing: Julianna Baggott

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

From Julianna Baggott’s essay “My Mother in Her Mail-Order Scott Paper Company Dress: A Portrait of Intergenerational Neuroses” (10.1), we learned . . . well, first of all, that paper dresses exist. Or rather that they existed, er, before all those women caught on fire. Perhaps more to the point, we learned how this sartorial innovation appealed to people with a certain psychology, one marketers of disposable products later targeted. In Baggott’s words, “My mother was a germophobe before it was cool, and by cool I mean before it became a marketing strategy to fearmonger mothers, in particular, into buying products to sterlize and protect the lives of their family. My mother’s fear—epitomized in this essay by her desire to buy disposable dresses during the short-lived paper-dress craze of the ’60s—shaped her life and mine. And now this base fear (of super viruses) affects us all.”

Assistant editor Sara Watson appreciates yet another intriguing aspect of the essay: “What I admire most is the care with which the author treats her mother. ‘Some people,’ Baggott writes, ’speak of barely surviving their childhoods because of the oddities and disturbances of their parents. Oh, we survived all right, but she struggled.’ At some point in our small and tortured lives, many of us will arrive here, at the understanding that our parents are people with their own set of problems. The best we can hope for is to learn from them, not just about ourselves, but about themselves. ‘She hovers when we’re sick,’ Baggot writes of her mother: ‘She worries, and it is prayer.’ Clearly part of what Baggott describes as ‘intergenerational neuroses’ is an overwhelming sense of compassion. And that’s worth passing on.”

Just What the Doctor Ordered: Cameron and Weisert

Friday, August 30th, 2013

You’ve heard the expression Laughter is the best medicine. A look around the CR office would suggest that we rely on Laffy Taffy to cure most of our ills. But jokes and candy (and candy with jokes!) aren’t the only things that make us feel better when we’re feeling worse. Author Jeanette Winterson told a rapt audience at last year’s AWP conference in Boston: “When my leg is broken, I go to a doctor. When my heart is broken, I go to a poem.” As you’ll see below, some of our contributors prefer words to waiting rooms; and they’re willing to share, no prescription required, in issue 10.1.

Carey Cameron (on “Thursday”): I have a family member dealing with hearing loss, and a family dealing with that family member’s hearing loss. I searched a couple of times on the internet for help—literature, groups—for the families of those experiencing hearing loss—a kind of Al-Anon, but for hearing-loss-affected families—but found nothing. Maybe I was simply not adept enough at searching on the internet, but it led me to want to write something inspired by my family’s experience in the hopes that it might resonate with others. There are a lot of baby boomers out there, struggling with hearing loss and other “ordinary” problems of aging, which, however, require extraordinary adjustments.

Hilde Weisert (on “Mercy”): My friend the poet Molly Peacock calls the sonnet “the emergency form.” My emergency was a serious illness, and writing sonnets—short reflections or explorations contained by the safety, surprise, and grace of form and rhyme—seemed natural, and “Mercy” the most natural of all.

The first two lines (“My chest’s a knothole and my arm’s a stick/ I creak and sigh like something on a hill”) came out aloud, like a statement of fact, more literal than figurative. It took me a moment to realize there was a figure there—“Oh. Oh, a tree.”  I had the first stanza but no idea where to go, and then Daphne appeared, leading me into the second stanza with a real question I wanted to answer. And having started with a sentence I spoke, the poem ends with a sentence spoken to me.

In a way, the poem did what it said, which I hope it might do for others, emergency or not.

. . . in which the staff springs into action

Monday, August 26th, 2013

The term has officially begun. That means we here at the mag are reuniting our posteriors with the loving impressions they long ago made in our chairs. Though the office is taking some getting used to, our reading period isn’t. It began earlier this month—August 15, to be exact. So we’re already in the thick of thinning a new crop of submissions. (Editor’s note: Farewell, comfy spot with great light in my neighborhood coffee shop. See ya next summer.)

As now becomes evident, we’re also back to blogging. And indeed, there is much to blog about. Our new issue has been out there shooting off sparks all summer, and if you didn’t see it, a lovely review of said issue has been wending its way through the web. We follow up on that exceptionally keen assessment of 10.1’s riches with a closer look at Ian Stansel’s fiction offering—considered below by ever-so-delightful volunteer Justine McNulty.

Justine McNulty: In Ian Stansel’s “Traveling Light,” the characters power the piece. Through shifting perspective and free-indirect style, Stansel pulls the reader into each narrator’s unique voice, fears, longing. As we watch these people come together and drift apart, we are left asking ourselves the same thing Edie wonders early on regarding her divorce and the loss of her two stepsons: “What is a person . . . if she is not essential to another?”

The characters’ intimate perceptions lead us through this tale of a brother’s guilty love, a woman’s loneliness, another woman’s search for herself, bodily and spiritually. Paul’s moment of anger at his sister (at the prodding of Edie’s handyman, Tucker) is honest and visceral, and we understand his guilt and the rejection of it, just as we understand Edie’s compassion as she soothes him after his proclamation, “I’m not a good person,” with her own brand of insight: “Who is?” As Margot runs, once again on her own, her isolation is juxtaposed against the hope of Edie and Paul’s future together.

This is a story of people, but more than just the characters enrich and enliven these pages. Stansel writes about all of us here—causing us to reflect on the deepest of human experiences, and what creates our sense of belonging

Why We Like It: “Olentangy River”

Monday, May 13th, 2013

We’re sad to say goodbye to our hardy, super-duper volunteer Lisa Summe—who just graduated with an MA in creative writing from UC and is headed to Virginia Tech for an MFA in the fall. Our loss is their gain. The office won’t be the same without her brightly colored clothing, strong work ethic, and trenchant remarks on veggie burgers. (Which one tastes like a hockey puck? Which has the best blend of vegetables? How great is corn?)

Before she goes, though, this future Hokie wanted to share one last thought: why she likes Erin Belieu’s poem “Olentangy River,” which appears in Issue 10.1, due out next month.

Lisa Summe: From the start of Erin  Belieu’s “Olentangy River,” one is aware of the striking lack of punctuation. Ultimately, the poem is one long sentence broken up by a series of colons. More interesting than the absence of traditional punctuation, however, is the way Belieu uses spaces to effect separation and emphasis in a way that commas and semicolons cannot. These spaces slow the poem at all the right moments, turning it into a potent pile of little fragments, each one raw and deliberate, each one needing the weight Belieu confers on it.

The form beautifully enhances the poem’s content: the fragments convey the speaker’s desire for and obsession about a past love: ” you’ve never been     imagined    as / I     imagined     you:     today   with a  wife   sleeping / in Ohio   and babies     down the hall.” The self-awareness and vulnerability of this consciousness, together with universal longing and sadness conveyed in the poem’s details, drew me in. The speaker reminisces about nights driving past the former love’s house, nights the speaker calls inevitable because “there   was you   there / somewhere   sleeping   or     toasting bread     or / staring   tired at TV   and   ending lost:   always lost.”  What are our old lovers doing without us? Regular things, perhaps, like making toast. Or not. How does our understanding of how they moved on vary from reality? We will never know.

Putting the Period on Our Reading Period

Friday, April 12th, 2013

Nicola Mason: As they say in the auction world when something is about to go, Fair warning! In this case, our Submission Manger is about to go offline  for the usual issue-filling bits of poetry and prose. If you want to shoot us something for consideration, do it this weekend.  The hammer falls on April 15. Please note, however, that we will open up on June 1 for submissions to our contest, The Robert and Adele Schiff Awards. Important info: You can submit and pay the entry fee online AND ONLY ONLINE.

As we’ve mentioned in blog posts past, our reading period has shifted this year for the first time since the mag was born. Wanna know why? Read our apologetic explanation.

I should emphasize that we actually read year round; there are just fewer of us poring over submissions during the summer. If anything, reading is more fun then because there are fewer interruptions, so I can really get in a groove with it, and also because, without a staff to oversee, I can spend time with your stories and poems on my porch swing, in coffee shops, even (oh glory) at the beach. I happily recall the moment, last July, when I first read D. J. Thielke’s “Frantic Hearts,” upcoming in our May issue. I was in the passenger seat of my mother’s car. She had picked me up from the Raleigh airport, and I was getting a bit of reading in during the three-hour ride to my folks’ house on the NC coast. I picked up a new submission—an actual sheaf of paper, not an electronic submission—and encountered these lines:

The funny thing about the mastectomy was that Laine had already lost a part of her left breast, years earlier, to a brown recluse spider bite. While the right remained resiliently healthy and slightly larger, that treacherous left now housed a small collection of tumors, like bright porcelain trinkets shelved in the vaporous gray mammogram images.

“Some luck,” Dr. Kirzinger said after giving her the news. He didn’t specify whether he thought it good or bad.

She knew it wasn’t funny, but the more he talked, the funnier everything seemed: the flyers he forced on her for all-female gyms and one-sided bras. The name of a tattoo parlor with an artist who specialized in fake nipples. The way he casually reached across his desk and patted her breast, like a small, naughty child they were talking about.

I admire “Frantic Hearts” for myriad reasons: the skillful and affecting way Thielke blends the comic and tragic, her gift for metaphor and telling detail, the care with which she explores the nuances of character, and the way she sneakily turns what one initially thinks of as a cancer story into a searching struggle between older mother and adult daughter. “Frantic Hearts” succeeds in presenting not just a fraught situation, but in revealing a complex consciousness thrust into an uncertainty and granted, finally and through harrowing difficulty, a slant sort of grace.