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Can Literature Make Sense of War?

18 Dec

Whenever I read literature about war, I’m left with a feeling I can’t quite explain. It’s something difficult to reify, or even contemplate. One can envision war, see it dramatized, or listen to firsthand accounts told by a relative. But none of that really does any justice to the true experience. Instead, it creates a vision for what it might have been like.

As a result, it’s presumably burdensome for those who have stories to tell knowing their audience has a limited understanding. As Tim O’Brien writes,

They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.

Recognizing that conflict can bear a heavy load on the psyche, literature functions as a powerful cathartic experience. The title of O’Brien’s novel, The Things They Carried, suggests the weight of persistent and painful memories immune to erasure, leaving many veterans like O’Brien in a state of Sisyphean torment with no way of truly communicating their actual experience. As a result, some write about it.

The Things They Carried.jpg

Literature can help articulate this understanding, as reading fiction generates empathy in ways other genres do not. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is a fitting example. Despite never having served, Crane manages to craft a narrative that transcends experience, illuminating the psychology of war through sketches of landscape and vivid characterizations rather than relying upon the minutiae, jargon, and other formalities accompanying the tedium of a soldier’s life to accomplish that for him.

Stephen Crane, 1897

Foregoing visceral combat scenes in favor of a more distant narrative observation of combat, Crane acknowledges his limitations and sticks to what he knows. What war narratives like The Red Badge of Courage reveal are the degrees of separation that influence how the author interprets conflict, either physically or psychologically. Even Crane’s vision for his nameless protagonist, the Youth, reflects that separation as he eschews the brutality of war for a more romantic interpretation of its theater,

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors.

It remains evident that narrative conventions supersede the necessity for the more true-to-form backdrop of a blood-soaked battlefield, howling artillery shells, the crashing of gunfire, and the deafening battle cries.

Tim O’Brien’s 1990 National Book Award-winning novel also abandons pyrotechnics. O’Brien adheres to a realism grounded in experience alone and depicts a broad swath of emotions akin to the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, and acceptance.

From the book’s first chapter, “The Things They Carried,” the fictional protagonist Lieutenant Jimmy Cross has to cope with death from a commanding officer’s perspective. O’Brien introduces death early on as a continuous theme running throughout the novel. Cross has to reconcile a common humanity with a brutish disregard for his enemy,

When someone died, it wasn’t quite dying, because in a curious way it seemed scripted, and because they had their lines mostly memorized, irony mixed with tragedy, and because they called it by other names, as if to encyst and destroy the reality of death itself.

Another grim realization is that confusion that is never requited, never made sense of. Much like the death of a comrade, the Vietnam conflict is itself even much less clear to O’Brien, the fictional Norman Bowker, Kiowa, or the other characters. Remunerative diplomatic rhetoric like Domino Theory propagated neoconservative aspirations of global interventionism, a self-shaping hand of the American war machine, but it left little in the way of salient justification.


The Domino Theory visualized

“On the Rainy River,” an earlier chapter, engages this idea of a pointless war, in which O’Brien grieves over a life forever changed for dubious causes, delivering some of his most biting invective:

Twenty-one years old, an ordinary kid with all the ordinary dreams and ambitions, and all I wanted was to live the life I was born to—a mainstream life—I loved baseball and hamburgers and Cherry cokes—and now I was off on the margins of exile, leaving my country forever, and it seemed so grotesque and terrible and sad.

TBR-Logo-Partners-InverseIndeed, it is rather sad and grotesque. In his recent talk given here at Virginia Tech sponsored by the Big Read NRV, O’Brien elaborated on his own reservations of the need for military action, even when it seems obviously necessary. When asked in earnest by an audience member his opinion on current foreign policy directives—whether or not to re-involve ourselves in the Middle East—he maintained that he is staunchly anti-war.

The pacifist sentiments the visibly shaken O’Brien espoused emerge in the chapter “The Man I Killed,” where after a very brief firefight with Viet Cong insurgents, a young man, probably eighteen or nineteen, has been shot. The chapter pays an homage to him in a beautiful way, not as a ruthless killer, but rather a human being with a family and friends. Stripping the enemy of their humanity, he argues, is the only way to cope with incessant brutality:

He was not a Communist. He was a citizen and a solder. In the village of My Khe, as in all of Quang Ngai, patriotic resistance had the force of tradition, which was partly the force of legend, and from his earliest boyhood the man I killed…would have been taught that to defend the land was a man’s highest duty and highest privilege. He had accepted this. It was never open to question. Secretly though, it almost frightened him.

Coming to grips with the craven psychologies of men at war—from both sides of the Pacific—is O’Brien’s purpose with The Things They Carried. He attempts to explain, in conciliatory terms, the dark side of blind patriotism so palpable early on in the conflict, the hopeless regret midway through, and the grim realities that appear after occupying forces have taken down their last base camp.

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Vietnam Moratorium Committee protest in Washington, DC, 1969

When conflict is young and the cause seems very clear, it’s easy to wax patriotic and encourage those to rally behind war efforts, as Katharine Tynan captures in her WWI poem, “Joining the Colours”,

There they go marching all in step so gay!
Smooth-cheeked and golden, food for shells and guns.
Blithely they go as to a wedding day,
The mothers’ sons.

But that sentiment almost always fades, especially when the term ascribed to World War I, “The Great War”, is echoed in a unifying, liberating slogan: The War to End All Wars.

By the same token, I am reminded of Wilfred Owen—a veteran of The Great War—who writes in “Dulce et Decorum Est,”

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Dulce Decorum est / Pro patria mori” translates to “It is glorious to die for one’s country.” O’Brien’s work at least speaks to, but does not confirm, that notion. How glorious is it to die for a cause with which you hardly agree? The Things They Carried examines a persistent cultural conviction woven into the fabric of American society, and at times deconstructs the moral rectitude of the Vietnam conflict as one built on false pretenses. The fated Domino Theory came to be decidedly untrue, leaving millions dead in its wake.

Inscription at Arlington National Cemetery

Recognizing that veterans, families of veterans, and those merely interested in the war may be less attuned to the politics of the matter, his talk only further confirmed his dedication to helping others cope with the harsh realities of overseas conflict. O’Brien advocates the healing power of literature, and merely hopes to share the weight of the things they carry.

Andrew H. Wimbish hails from Martinsville, Virginia and is currently pursuing a master’s in English at Virginia Tech, where he also earned a bachelor’s in English. As an academic, his research interests lie in textual studies, 19th-century British literary history, and digital humanities. He is a former newspaper columnist and now an editor at large of a forthcoming publication, The Pylon.

A Complete, Totally Definitive Guide to Short Story Craft

13 Nov

1. Start the story with an intriguing first line, something that propels the reader forward, captures their attention, makes them feel compelled to read on. Do not start with something boring or commonplace. This is the worst thing you can do. This will make the reader throw your story into a trash compactor and compact it with the rest of the garbage, which is where your story deserves to be because it is yawn-inducing and lame.*

*Unless, of course, you are Alice Munro, who frequently begins with a much more subtle first line. Ex. from “The Progress of Love”: “I got a call at work, and it was my father.”; or from “The Beggar Maid”: “Patrick Blatchford was in love with Rose.” Are you riveted? Probably not. But you read on anyway. Another writer who doesn’t seem to care much about a snappy first line is Anton Chekhov. Ex. from “Grisha”: “Grisha, a chubby little boy, born two years and eight months ago, is walking on the boulevard with his nurse.”; or from “The Darling”: “Olenka, the daughter of the retired collegiate professor, Plemyannikov, was sitting on her back porch, lost in thought.” See what I mean? Not a ton of pizazz there. These two writers are not interested with hooking the reader right from the beginning, but with setting a confident tone from which the rest of the story can develop. Alice Munro and Anton Chekov. Those two.

Chekhov, looking writerly

Where possible, Chekhov advises cultivating a writerly mustache

2. Also, start the story with the main character. The only exception to this rule is if you want to start off with some natural imagery to set the scene, or maybe a date is okay, but then get right to it. Present his/her name as soon as possible along with any other pertinent information, i.e., physical description, age, social position, food allergies, etc. If you don’t, your reader will likely feel like one of those baby penguins who gets off course from their penguin flock and ends up frozen in the antarctic tundra. Do not turn your reader into a frozen baby penguin.*

*However, there is a pretty famous story that doesn’t do this at all. The story is called “The Dead.” It is by a writer named James Joyce. This story doesn’t introduce its main character, Gabriel Conroy, until page 3. The story starts with Lilly, the maid, who really doesn’t figure into the story too much. Ulysses also doesn’t really introduce its main character until around page 50, depending on your edition. I repeat: Ulysses.

3. Do not write pages and pages of backstory before you get into the actual story. This is pretty much always long-winded and ridiculous and sucky for everyone to read. A couple lines here and there—all right, we’re with you, but do not give us pages and pages. There is no way I can overstate this piece of advice. Pages and pages of backstory will be considered an act of aggression, and our retaliation as readers will be swift and devoid of mercy.*

Please see John Cheever’s “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” for a story that starts with loads of backstory—pretty much the main character’s entire life. The action of the story really doesn’t begin till around page 3. That’s Cheever for you.

4. Make sure your characters are sympathetic. Please do this one thing for us, okay? Readers want to feel empathy for your characters. They don’t want a bunch of boneheads doing a bunch of bonehead stuff. They want people who they wouldn’t mind sharing a cup of coffee with, or an egg salad sandwich, or a croissant. If they wanted to be entertained by a bunch of boneheads—well, they could just flip on the T.V.*

*That is, unless of course you are talking about Denis Johnson’s 1992 collection of short stories, “Jesus’ Son,” where the main character, Fuckhead, shoots up a lot of heroin, assaults a mother in front of her kids, punches his girlfriend in the stomach, gets messed up on drugs while he’s working in a hospital, basically does a bunch of abhorrent things. Unless you’re talking about that collection.

5. While we’re on the subject of characters: for God’s sake, make sure your characters are “three-dimensional.” We’ll allow you a couple “flat” characters here and there, but mostly we want your characters to feel “alive”, the same way our friends and family do. Most readers want to pretend that characters are their friends and/or family.*

*Please see the majority of Western Literature before the 19th century for an example of how this is not entirely true.

6. Make every word count. The short story, besides poetry, is the place where every single word needs to count the most, where it must count. Superfluousness is not permitted in this art form and any practitioners of superfluousness will be kindly asked to return their pens, pencils, composition notebooks, typewriters, laptops, home computers, etc., and will thenceforth be forbidden from ever writing again.*

*Then there is Lorrie Moore’s story “Real Estate,” which contains two and a half pages of nothing but the word “Ha!” written over and over again. She does not plug this in as an afterthought, either. It begins on the first page, second paragraph. It’s generally agreed upon—as far as the American short story goes, it doesn’t get much better than Lorrie Moore.  

Lorrie Moore

Pictured: literary consensus

7. Do not screw around with time. Moving around too much in time messes with your readers’ heads. It’s hard for them to keep up with this lousy technique, and they will inevitably get confused and put your story down because it hurts to read it, and they sense, deep down, that you’re a pretentious a-hole, and they’ll be right. Shame on you! Stop messing with time!*

*There could be a very long list of stories here that screw around with time. One of my personal favorites is “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade” by Richard Bruce Nugent. Check it out. It’s bad-ass stuff. Also, William Faulkner loves to “Faulk” with time.

8. Conflict, conflict, conflict. What are you doing if you aren’t telling us a story about a character coming into conflict with something? You’re wasting our time. Time being money, you’re wasting our dollar. And guess what? We’re busy people. Thanks for bringing us that much closer to death, selfish. Get another profession.*

*The jury is still out on this one, but please refer to this interesting article about a type of Chinese and Japanese story,  kishōtenketsu, that eschews conflict.

9. We need epiphanies, people! Joyce got it right in 1914 or whenever, and there’s no reason to change that now. How are we supposed to feel connected to the intricacies of human experience and relationships if there aren’t any epiphanies? The answer is, we can’t.  If your characters aren’t epiphanizing, we don’t wanna read it!*

*For a really great essay on why writers should eliminate the epiphany from their fiction, please see Charles Baxter’s piece “Against Epiphanies” from his book Burning Down the House. Charles Baxter gets it.

Charles Baxter, getting it

Charles Baxter, getting it

10. Write about what you know. Do this one thing for us, would you? You are unique. You are a bright, shining snowflake. You are a bright, shining snowflake who can also read and write and communicate through complex language. Yes. You are a walking, talking, writing snowflake. Remember this, always. This is what we, your readers, demand from you. Do not test our patience.*

*Please see T.S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” to learn how to better extinguish your personality and become an instrument of tradition. This has been a seminal thought in literary criticism for the last hundred years or so. Quite a long time.

Travis McDonald was born and raised in Massachusetts, but spent the last decade living in Texas. He received his bachelor’s in English Literature from The University of Texas at Austin. His work investigates communication breakdowns, the unknowability of the other, and the standardization of the American landscape. He is interested in the unique challenges that the short story and the novel face in the technological age. His work has appeared in various publications, including The Adirondack Review and Five [Quarterly].

Making Those Last Words Count

6 Nov


Hopefully you already read this wonderful piece on first lines in fiction. Those sentences are important because, of course, they color a reader’s perception of the rest of the story. Daniel discusses a “solicitation of trust”—“a chance for the author to communicate that the reader is in capable hands.” And he’s right: I’ve put down more stories in my life than I’ve actually read because of authors failing to convince me to follow them, failing to convey that they know how to sustain my interest and that, if I take their hand and see a story through to the end, I won’t regret it.

But this piece isn’t about those first lines—it’s about the last. Those words that, when it comes down to it, determine whether or not the story is successful, or whether it falls flat on its textual face. In most cases, hopefully, by the time the story’s over those first lines have been overshadowed by good storytelling, great sentences. But even when the story is good—and I see this all the time—if the ending falls flat, or tries to jackhammer some thematic/ideological point too deep (see: Unnecessary Didactic Ending) or if, in getting there, the puppet strings become too visible (my favorite metaphor for conspicuous construction) then, well—


So strip the scaffolding, snip the strings. Allow your characters to fall and flail through the fictional abyss.

Now let me undermine the false sense of authority I’ve established on the subject with this—nothing I say is absolute, and everything I say is exclusive to my own opinions on what constitutes “good writing.” Instinct tells me to mention avoiding the “twist,” but it can be done effectively. Instinct begs me to warn against conspicuously packaged Joycean epiphanies when something more discreet might do the trick (but wait: what’s the trick again?). Many submissions go for dialogic endings, which seem to aim to provide the text with some final punctuation. But these are difficult to pull off in a meaningful way if your name isn’t Flannery O’Connor, often reading as a case of the author trying to get in a word or two of his or her own before ending. I know, I know. It’s tough. Writing fiction only gets harder as you discover more possibilities of what fiction can be. It’s no real pleasure in life.

Pictured: strong, evocative imagery

Pictured: strong, evocative imagery

At the risk of pedantry, my best advice is to follow the story’s lead and, as an author, stand back. Surprise yourself. Sometimes ignoring your own brain is the quickest route to satisfaction—or, whatever degree of satisfaction is possible for a writer. It’s probably not much. What I’m really saying is that those endings we find ourselves constantly returning to might need to be examined more closely—that they might not be the best choice.

I know, I know—what do I know? I’m not sure. But as far as endings go, you know what I rarely see, but always want? Strong, evocative images. Powerful gestures. Let me step out of the abstract, let me spitball a few examples: Barthelme’s “The Balloon,” Barry Hannah’s “Water Liars,” Rachel B. Glaser’s “The Kid,” Jason Ockert’s “Echo,” Lydia Davis’s “The Great-Grandmothers.” And I could probably go on and on and on but, for both our sakes, I won’t. Instead, I’ll attempt to explain what charges them with such electric resonance, and I’ll attempt to do it in a single word.


Not to be confused with saccharinity, or sentimentality. This is what I want to feel at the end, and there are so many different routes in getting there. A great mentor once told me a good ending aims to skewer the heart—so here’s to it, then. We’ll be waiting. Skewer our hearts, skewer your own. Read the stories that skewer you most, remove the spear, reassemble. Read, remove, reassemble. Then write. Submit your heart to the minnesota review. I can’t wait to read it when you do.

Pat Siebel is the Interviews Editor at Hobart. His work has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, Cartridge Lit, Go Read Your Lunch, Hobart, the Susquehanna Review, and was featured in the Best of Black Heart 2014 Anthology

One Reader’s Not-Quite-Manifesto on Poetry Selection for the Lit Magazine

30 Oct

Magazines have outlines for the kinds of work they want – format, delivery, length, and maybe a few general dos and don’ts (no genre pieces, no previously published, no rhyming, please do rhyme, etc.). Beyond that, the only indication anyone usually writers is to “read our previous issues” – which, while not bad practice, doesn’t always tell the whole story on what a magazine might be looking for, especially at the many magazines (like the minnesota review) which are run by MFA students and where the turnover of readers and editors is high.

Like any lit journal, the minnesota review gets a lot of submissions. And like any group of readers, those of us at minnesota all have pet peeves, preferred tastes in writing, and distinct (yet collective) editorial visions. What we do in selecting pieces is, ultimately, subjective. We do, and should do, all we can to make our selection process fair and equitable. But what we do ultimately does comes down to personal judgement calls.

With that in mind, and as a matter of full disclosure, I thought it might be useful for other writers to get a sense of what at least one reader at one MFA-run lit magazine considers when selecting poems for publication. Are my opinions indicative of the industry, or even of the entire staff at the minnesota review? Probably not. They may not even tell the full story of my own decision process, since so much of what we call taste really does come down to unconscious preferences and biases. But I hope that it might do at least some of the work of making submission a clearer, more honest space, at least for some of us. And so, the following points about my personal factors for selection –

Point No. 1: I read with identity in mind. No apologies.

Few people seem to like admitting that extra-literary factors play into what pieces of writing appear on the market. Most of us would like to imagine a publishing landscape free of bias, where all pieces are considered equally – with literary friendships, social identity, market stature (i.e. Writer X’s poems have appeared in Poetry and The New Yorker), and any litany of factors other than “did this poem/story/essay blow my socks off?” completely off the table.

But that simply isn’t the case. Factors other than the aesthetics of a piece do matter—and sometimes that’s even a good thing. We may cringe, of course, when we find out that yet another literary award has gone to a student from the same MFA program as the judge, but none of us would (or at least none of us should) cringe at the positive work of groups like Cave Canem or Persea Books, who create spaces in the literary market for voices still too often marginalized or minimized.

Cave Canem

U.S. publishing culture is still inherently inequitable, and some voices and some groups still have more power than others. I can say this, by the way, because most of those social groups are groups I belong to – white people, guys, Christians, straight folks, native English speakers, the college educated. So do I consider race, gender, age, and location when I read submissions? You’re damned right I do. VIDA counts matter. The voices of writers of color matter. The voices of writers from places off the MFA and New York publishing house literary map matter.

Does this mean I’m going to get it right, or that my own vote count may not remain skewed by my own unconscious bias towards people who share my identity? No, it doesn’t. Or does this mean that I have to give especial attention to writings from marginalized groups of writers because the quality of their work wouldn’t merit inclusion otherwise? No, of course not. What it does mean is that of the many quality pieces I receive, I know I’ll have a limited space to use to promote those pieces and the voices and writers they represent. And so I do my best to help my magazine produce a product that will reflect the best writing we receive and which will be inclusive of the diversity of writers we hear from.

Will I get it right? Maybe not. Will any issue of any magazine I help produce look like a true map of the U.S. or international writing scene? I hope so, but maybe not. Still, these things matter—and I do consider them.

Point No. 2: Please, get political.


W. H. Auden, noted curmudgeon

I love Auden’s poems, his model MFA curriculum, his erudition and curmudgeonly approach to form; but when he said that poetry does nothing, he was wrong. If Auden had been right, then why did Garcia Lorca get shot by the Francoists? Why was Lorraine Hansberry followed by the FBI? And how did Vaclav Havel ascend to the presidency of Czechoslovakia? It wasn’t because they had a Super PAC, I know that.

Writing poetry is an inherently dissident act. Because so much of poetry is about noticing the unnoticed, about making the unclear clear/making the unsaid said, and about establishing intimacy and comfort with abstraction, writing poetry moves us away from the status quo. As such, poetry lends itself to the political, and particularly to the politics of dissidence.

Not to sound stentorian, but we write too few, read too few, and receive too few politically motivated poems in the MFA world. We get more than our fair share of current event poems, more than our fair share of partisan dogma, and more than our fair share of well-intentioned-but-not-quite-there sympathy poems from people in dominant groups writing about folks in marginalized groups. But we don’t really get all that many poems that attempt to speak out and act out in the world, to change a mind or change a heart, or to offer a perspective on a situation that does beyond one side or one series of talking points.

Point No. 3: Stop trying to impress me. Start trying to break my heart.

I don’t give a good damn about a poem’s intelligence. I don’t care about its vocabulary, about its pedigree, or about the density of its allusions. What I do care about is that it is alive, human, and humane. As much as I think Auden was wrong about the doing power of poems, I think he was right as could be about another thing he said (I paraphrase here) – plumbers and farmers and welders, not just other writers, should be the audience for your work. These people may not know what flarf is, or the formal rules of a sestina, but they do know the architecture of heartbreak, what ambition is, and what it’s like to finally be in a room with someone who truly understands you after years of feeling alone. Give me a poem that speaks to those things, so that the poem will speak to them, and you’ll have something special.


Point No. 4: There is no right or wrong craft, but there is good and bad craft.

There are good avant garde poems. There are good post-confessional poems. There are good poems in rhyme. But what ties all of them together is that the choices in them feel deliberate, that they are designed and delivered with a sense of sound and a sense for the senses of the world. Please, give us poems with lines that pay attention to the way it feels and how it sounds to say it out loud. Include the specific things of the world. Be a formalist, or a free verser, or an avant gardist, or all of it – but please, be tactile, attend to sound and sight and feel both in the world and on the page, and make your choices of form and craft and content deliberate, whatever those choices are.

In the end, these thoughts may not be any more specific than any other set of submission requirements, but they do spell out what I think I’m looking for in the poems I read, in the poems we select, for our magazine: crafted pieces which are based in the heart as much as (or more than) the head, which are attendant to the issues and happenings of the world in nuanced and unexpected ways, and which come to us from a variety of people from a variety of styles and backgrounds.

Matt Prater is a poet and writer from Saltville, VA. Winner of the both the George Scarbrough Award for Short Story and the James Still Award for Poetry, his work has appeared in numerous journals, including Appalachian Heritage, The Honest Ulsterman, The Moth, Munyori Literary Journal, and Still. An MFA candidate in poetry at Virginia Tech, he has taught literature and composition for colleges across the Mountain South. 

Why You Really Should Read Graphic Novels

16 Oct

I mostly read graphic novels nowadays. My mom once asked me accusingly, “Does that mean you read books about sex and porn?!”

Not graphic and not novel - The Spectator

Who’d have thought?

Sorry to disappoint, but the graphic novels I read have pictures of talking mice, angry spouses, and manic reiterations of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. The history of the graphic novel is both chaotic and intriguing, but also somewhat secondary to the history of the “real” novel (we’ll get to that). The first comics in the United States came about through newspaper comic strips in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Over time, newspaper barons like Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst began to seek out comic artists, which made comic creation a desirable profession. DC Comics and Marvel came into existence around this time, and with these two publishers, the disposable comic book was born.

In the 1950s, the powers that be became disturbed by the emerging “sex, drugs, and violence” in some comics and instilled a Comics Code, pushing comics with “adult themes” underground. Comic sales fell and would be slow to recover. In the 1960s, a comic critic named Richard Kyle coined the term graphic novel, asserting (and this is a paraphrase) that there was no reason why artists couldn’t create text-image mash-up novels. And thus, the graphic novel was born. The graphic novel differs from the comic book due to its length and typically more true-to-life feel. While the comic book is a periodical, graphic novels are typically published in standard book format.

Now, before you think that the graphic novel’s popularity soared immediately (because who doesn’t like pictures in books?), consider that the origin of comics came from mud-slinging newspapers and entertainment magazines. It would take time for the graphic novel to establish a presence in the school of thought that deemed literature in the canonical sense. I would venture to say that we still are not quite there yet. However, that doesn’t mean one can’t become acquainted with graphic novels and discover the enriching power of words and pictures. So here are three of my favorite graphic novels to date:

Maus,' Art Spiegelman - Drawn Out: The 50 Best Non-Superhero Graphic ...

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Maus is a story within a story. The author, Art Spiegleman, interviews his father, who recounts the story of his experience growing up during the Holocaust and World War II. The second story is Spiegelman’s father Vladek’s personal history, which includes his marriage to a beautiful wife, his capture by the Gestapo, his life in the camps, and his life after the Holocaust. In the novel, the Germans are cats, the Jews are mice, and Polish Gentiles are pigs. Although the novel is in black and white, each frame is packed with narrative, dialogue, and reflection. The images are poignant, though sad at times. Ultimately, Maus is a true story about family and loss through generations after the Holocaust.

Building Stories by Chris Ware - Books - Random House Books Australia

Building Stories by Chris Ware

What’s in the box??

Building Stories comes in an awkward-to-carry-around-campus, Monopoly-sized box. Now before you maniacally yell, “What’s in the box?!” (Brad Pitt style), consider that Building Stories is probably the most illuminating and riveting text I have read. It’s infuriating, relieving, sad, honest, and one of the most empathetic texts out there. The “story” comes in multiple physical forms: book, newspaper, game board, pamphlet, booklet, and handout. I’m not kidding. One of the many points of this story is that you, dear reader, have to build the story yourself from the many pieces it comes in. The main character (if there is one) is a middle-aged amputee who reflects on her childhood as a young amputee, her love life (with an older man), her almost-pregnancy, her real pregnancy, and her entrance into adulthood and marriage. There are multiple intersecting stories (including one about Brandford Bee, a sad bumble bee) and an abundance of variation in frame presentation and color. Building Stories is an example of how “you have to know the rules to break the rules”, and Ware breaks the rules well. This novel engages with a wide array of emotion: you’ll cry and be angered, and you’ll be empathetic and thoughtful.

COORDINATES : Ellen Forney reads from Marbles twice this month: 11/10 ...

Marbles by Ellen Forney

Marbles is the most recent addition to my collection, and probably my favorite graphic novel, if I had to pick just one. Forney tells the story of her diagnosis with bipolar disorder, her reflection on her own history, and her coming to terms with how her manic and depressed episodes affect her creative process. The main question throughout the novel is: “Can I be both creative and sane?” Forney discovers how to navigate her art along with her diagnosis in a way that allows her to be true to her sense of self. This novel is in black and white, but does include a variety of presentations. Some pages have traditional panels, some have a single drawing, and some change viewpoints so you are looking through Forney’s eyes at various books and pieces of art. The style definitely bends the rules of the graphic novel, but is an honest account of creativity and mental illness. I cannot put this book down.

Others to read that I haven’t mentioned above, but that are quite good: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast, and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. There are plenty of others – just go to Barnes & Noble or your local independent bookstore (as Matt said last week). Even if you aren’t looking for a particular book, go to a bookstore. Just go.

Many of the graphic novels I read are a mixture of fiction and nonfiction, memoir and biography. The beauty of the graphic novel genre is that it inherently bends the rules by mixing words and images to create one lively, ingenious thing.

Ashley Whitman is working toward her Master’s degree in English at Virginia Tech. She is currently studying how authors with mental illnesses and psychological disabilities use graphic novels as a way to communicate their experiences. In her free time, she writes nonfiction (usually having to do with medicine), practices calligraphy, and watches too many crime dramas.

The Novel is Back! (Well, sort of.)

10 Oct

I’m so excited I might split my pants. This fall, the literary world gets two giant releases: Jonathan Franzen’s Purity and Avenue of Mysteries, John Irving’s fourteenth novel. I might very well drive to Barnes & Noble, pluck these novels from the shelf, and stand in the checkout line. I might take my time with each, poolside, or read feverishly while sprawled on my recliner. There’s no way to tell. There are plenty of short story collections crowding my bookcase—I could read these (and I will), but each story will feel like a snapshot…a Snapchat, even: there in full Technicolor one moment, but then gone much too quickly. I desire characters. Long digressions that fail to advance plot. Minor characters, for Christ’s sake. I want to be lulled and led—follow me all the way through this unnecessarily long flashback! I want to live with characters I both detest and adore for 500 pages (563 in Franzen’s latest).


But wait. Maybe I should curb my giddiness. Wasn’t the novel supposed to be dead? Who has time for make believe when there’s reality television and Facebook feeds? When there’s Donald Trump? In the early ’00s, when Survivor and Big Brother reigned (followed by American Idol and Duck Dynasty—do people really watch this?) I might have…no wait, I did fear that novels would go the way of poetry and aerobics classes—sure, these things are good for you, but who’s got the time, really? The American public seemed disinterested in fiction, let alone the novel. Televised singing/dancing/juggling competitions, however, now that’s entertainment! When you’re smack dab in the middle of the fad, it’s difficult to see the fad for what it is. From 1995 to 1999, I proudly wore a chain wallet. It was cool and would always be cool. Only when you unsnap that chain from the belt loop on your jeans, though, do you recognize how silly you’ve been.

This brings me to Netflix. Thank god for Netflix. If you need any evidence that the novel is alive and kicking, look no further than Netflix. Okay, follow me here… By the end of the ’00s, the American public had started coming out of the reality television mania that had held the networks and cable channels hostage for so long. People craved story. Characters. Plot. Shows like Breaking Bad and Dexter and True Blood had huge followings. At work, people weren’t talking about what contestant ate what exotic (and possibly poisonous) food on Fear Factor, but were now speculating on who was truly the evil one on Lost, Jacob or the Man in Black. Netflix was live streaming and people were catching up on shows that their best friends were urging them to watch—it’s like the best show ever, seriously. So friends, as you can see, the novel is back and bigger than ever. Case closed.


Not exactly.

The public’s need for story is one thing, and television and live streaming are not, of course, the same as engaging with a book. But I submit that there is some crossover here. Save for the latest Star Wars, set to be released this December, people seem more interested in long-form storytelling. We want to stay with a character for 9 seasons. We want to watch all 9 seasons this weekend. Many of the shows we binge watch were novels; has Tom Perrotta written anything that hasn’t been adapted for film or an HBO series? There’s some good news on the bookstore front, too: independent bookstores are actually increasing; Barnes & Noble is still a thing—and please go there, today, and buy a tangible book. Are all book sales up? Certainly not, and the number of authors out there who can put up sales numbers like Franzen or Irving are few…and yet, I remain positive when it comes to the novel. Positive because people still crave characters. The novel is always on the brink of extinction, or so we’ve been told. But as long as we’re suckers for big sweeping stories, the novel will never be a fad, even if it is more fashionable some years than others. And if it is a trend, trends come back, right? So this weekend, I plan on digging out my old chain wallet, snapping it to a pair of jeans, and then leaning all the way back in my recliner with a novel in my hand.  

Matt Hall is an MFA fiction candidate at Virginia Tech.

Book Review: The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson

2 Oct


Although summer is now officially over, school is back in session, and all of us here at the minnesota review are back to reading submissions, I wanted to share my thoughts on a book I read this summer. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which came out earlier this year, chronicles not only her relationship with her partner, Harry Dodge, who does not prescribe to any set gender label and who starts using testosterone throughout the course of the book, but also how they build a (nuclear) family through Nelson’s process of having a baby.

Nelson, whose work I came to admire greatly as an undergraduate student after reading one of her previous books, Bluets, uses The Argonauts (both the book and the Greek myth) as a vehicle to question the different facets of not just her own life but of human existence, including gender, sexual identity, heteronormativity, motherhood, and the meaning of language. Nelson begins this exploration at the beginning of the book, when she recalls the moment that she first said I love you to Harry:

A day or two after my love pronouncement, now feral with vulnerability, I sent you a passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing the ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.

This idea of changing identity sets the course for the rest of the book, which like Bluets is broken into paragraph entries that read like pages from a diary, in which Nelson recounts her memories. However, Nelson also intersperses quotes from famous poets and theorists such as Lucille Clifton, Anne Carson, Judith Butler, Jacques Lacan, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick among others, in order to foreground her own thoughts and challenge our very notion of what is “normal,” how we think about the world, how we think about the people with which we interact, and – perhaps the biggest existential question of all – how we define ourselves. For example, she describes one night in which she and Harry attend a dinner party:

Soon after we got together, we attended a dinner party at which a (presumably straight, or at least straight-married) woman who’d known Harry for some time turned to me and said, “So, have you been with other women, before Harry? I was taken aback. Undeterred, she went on: “Straight ladies have always been hot for Harry.” Was Harry a woman? Was I a straight lady? What did past relationships I’d had with “other women” have in common with this one? Why did I have to think about other “straight ladies” who were hot for my Harry? Was his sexual power, which I already felt to be immense, a kind of spell I’d fallen under, from which I would emerge abandoned, as he moved on to seduce others? Why was this woman, who I barely knew, talking to me like this? When would Harry come back from the bathroom?


Another aspect of the book I liked is how honestly Nelson asserts herself and her position to us as readers. For example, midway through she says,

I am interested in offering up my experience and performing my particular manner of thinking for whatever they are worth. I would also like to cop easily to my abundant privilege – except that the notion of privilege as something to which one could “easily cop,” as in “cop to once and be done with,” is ridiculous. Privilege saturates, privilege structures. But I have also never been less interested in arguing for the rightness, much less the righteousness, of any particular position or orientation. What other reason is there for writing than to be traitor to one’s own reign, traitor to one’s own sex, to one’s class, to one’s majority? And to be traitor to writing.

Thus, The Argonauts, which tackles the difficult task of exploring several different, important themes, serves as a bare portrayal of Nelson’s views and experiences, one in which we put our trust in her to show us how to think about our lives in different ways in the hopes of breaking down barriers, stereotypes, and preconceived notions. This is no slight feat for Nelson, culminating in a well-thought-out book that is sure to be celebrated for years to come.

Kevin West is a first year MFA candidate in poetry from Maryland. He is a graduate of Towson University, where he majored in English with a concentration in creative writing, and has previously published a poem in Grub Street

On Writing Race

25 Sep

A lot of us here when asked to talk about race are most comfortable, or least uncomfortable, talking about it in the language of scandal. It’s so satisfying, so clear, so easy. The wronged. The evildoers. The undeserving. The shady. The good intentions and the cynical manipulations. The righteous side talking, the head shaking. Scandal is such a helpful, such a relieving distraction. There are times when scandal feels like the sun that race revolves around.

—Claudia Rankine, introduction to The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind


Last week, I had a chance to attend a craft talk and reading by our Visiting Writer, Claudia Rankine. During her visit, she talked about the importance of poets and writers creating writing that confronts the divisive topic of race in order to place race within the context of conversation, rather than reducing any writing which addresses race to mere “political writing,” as if all writing isn’t political in one way or another. In addition, she discussed how writers of color can use their work as a way to bring readers into an actual moment, so that an audience can feel their experiences, rather than imagining them; this gives writers of color agency within their work and control over their own narratives. Rankine also mentioned how these same narratives often go overlooked or become lost within a white supremacist worldview, as those who are living and experiencing microaggressions from the margins go on to feel invisible. These microaggressions are often brushed off or normalized, while minority narratives risk erasure and displacement. In turn, by writing about race, writers of color can create visibility for these absent narratives and fill the gaps in societal representations and understandings of race.

Claudia Rankine also suggested that both white writers and writers of color ask themselves what assumptions they have when they are writing about race, whether it be their own race or that of the Other. After Claudia Rankine’s visit, I found myself questioning my own place as a South Asian woman writing about my own cultural identity in an MFA program. Being a Bangladeshi-American woman and a first-generation immigrant, I often question whether an MFA program is a place that I have permission to occupy. Such spaces are claimed by white writers and poets whose skin color offers them a type of visible credential for legitimate written life experiences. But I often wonder if being a South Asian woman in a white-dominated field means that I have to uphold a certain standard of brown authenticity within my work, given that there aren’t many South Asian people that I know who choose to get an MFA. I wonder if that makes me a “bad South Asian” by not choosing a “real field” of model minority study, such as medicine or engineering, where we’re “supposed to” belong, according to racial stereotypes. I wonder what type of obligations this comes with as a writer: whether I can utilize Bangla within my work only if it is translated by the surrounding English text within a timely manner in a piece of poetry or prose, or if certain racial language isn’t acceptable, due to any offensive reactions it could attract from a white audience. Or the possible criticism from a South Asian audience, who may think I’m offering a white-washed narrative in place of the uncensored one, strained with the pain and anger attached to a brown body in the aftermath of post-9/11 America.

Citizen book cover

“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” —Citizen

During her craft talk, Claudia Rankine also mentioned how no one in the audience brought up the word “white” when she asked us what came to mind when we thought of the word “race.” She said there’s this prevailing notion that white isn’t a race—instead, whiteness is seen as the norm, the universal, the ideal standard of life, the marketable image of beauty. Whiteness is the standard set for superiority, and it’s one that’s become ingrained in the minds of people of color, who have been conditioned to think that a lack of whiteness implies a deficit, a failure. It instills a sense of self-hate and cultural shame within us.

I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has asked me, “What are you?”—as if any mention of the words “race” and “ethnicity” in their inquiry about my racially ambiguous identity was too unpalatable for the American tongue. It reminds me of middle school and high school, which were all within a few years of 9/11. I used to take pride in passing as a different ethnicity, one where people didn’t think I was the wrong kind of brown—the kind that got called a terrorist and a dot head and had their baggage inspected on routine at the airport. I was the whitewashed kind of brown that tried to be like the white kids, despite being hated by the white kids, who continually reminded me that I could not be one of them. Throughout the years, my white friends and peers have told me how I’m basically white anyway, how Indian and Bangladeshi are the same thing, how they want to hear me say my name “the real way.” It has been 14 years since 9/11, but I still ask myself from time to time whether being invisible is better and less painful than being the wrong kind of brown.

Near the end of her craft talk, Claudia Rankine mentioned that when writers and poets of color write about race, people often consider them to be coming from a place of anger; but it’s not necessarily anger—it’s profound loss. It’s profound sadness and disappointment, especially when microaggressions are committed by people we care about and respect. It’s how I and other writers of color feel when we write about race, in hopes that someone is listening.

So when asked what I look for in a poem, my answer is this: I want to read poetry that speaks to me in its raw, emotional truth, rather than polite rhetoric. I want to read work that makes me feel, that digs its fingernails into the flesh. I want to read poetry that reveals what hasn’t been seen, but is clamoring for visibility.

Anuradha Bhowmik is a Bangladeshi-American poet and writer from South Jersey. She is the poetry editor for the minnesota review and a first-year MFA candidate in poetry. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2015. Anuradha has been awarded a Grin City Collective Emerging Artist Residency, as well as scholarships to the New York State Summer Writers Institute and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in The Boiler, Origins, Pithead Chapel, Lunch Ticket, Star 82 Review, Lumen, Word Riot, and elsewhere.

On First Lines in Fiction

18 Sep

For further insight into what we tend to look for in a fiction piece here at the minnestota review, please see Joe Truscello’s excellent post from this spring.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a good beginning to a story: a good first line, a good first page, a well-set lure for the reader.  I don’t want to gore anybody, though.  An open-palmed invitation, then: just a firm, literary handshake between consenting individuals.  A trail of breadcrumbs through the forest – no, that’s not right: that would mean the kids got started without us; I guess the reader is the birds that eat the breadcrumbs; where are those kids, anyway; they must be shepherd’s pie by now, or whatever you bake kids into these days.  This is why people hate forests.  Maybe I’m not cut out for metaphor (or is it analogy?).  You get the idea: this stuff is hard to do well.    

When you’re reading short story submissions, you tend to have a lot of variations on this conversation: what makes you want to keep reading?  What makes you lean in, anticipate what’s to come, absorb the rhythms of the prose without hesitation or distraction?  Is there some kind of sluice gate that gets opened in the mind?  What opens it, exactly – is it a one-time thing?  I hear some folks aren’t big on the word moist.  Will the poorly-timed use of the word moist lower the sluice gate for good?  

Hell if I know.  Let’s look at some lines.  

If these passages have anything in common, it might involve the solicitation of trust.  The beginning of a story is a chance for the author to communicate that the reader is in capable hands.  This can be a demonstration, however brief or exhaustive – Stick with me here.  Look what I can do – or it can be a promise, a dare – Look what I’m going to try to pull off.  Don’t you want to see if I can do it?  As readers, we hope that the author will fulfill her part of the bargain.  The sooner we have reason to hope, the sooner we start to believe.

Chang-Rae Lee opens his first novel, Native Speaker, as follows: “The day my wife left she gave me a list of who I was.”  Lee will spend the rest of the book trying to answer one of the simple questions this opening elicits: Well, who are you?  In a more utilitarian sense, the line economically engages our curiosity and propels us forward: Why did the wife leave?  What did she write on the list?  We want to read at least far enough to find out.

Deployed with skill, allusion can be a powerful shorthand.  Even a brief line like “Call me Ishmael” is imbued with a faint echo of Biblical resonance that would not be present in, say, “Call me Gary”.  This device doesn’t need to be high-handed or pompous; in the famous opening to The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger establishes a conversational, cynical voice for his narrator with the aid of a dismissive reference to Dickens:

CatcherintheRyeIf you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy
childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.  

Ralph Ellison employs both modes in Invisible Man, recalling the opening of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground (and possibly H.G. Wells) in his first line while defining his marginalized, alienated narrator in negative relation to the macabre in the next:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of those Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.


Stylistic homage, parody, or pastiche can also help a writer make a quick impression.  In “How to Be an Other Woman”, Lorrie Moore borrows some of the atmosphere and terse-yet-florid language of the private eye genre to establish a tone of wry, playful intrigue:

Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night.  Like a detective movie.  First, stand in front of Florsheim’s Fifty-seventh Street window, press your face close to the glass, watch the fake velvet Hummels inside revolving around the wing tips; some white shoes, like your father wears, are propped up with garlands on a small mound of chemical snow.  All the stores have closed.  You can see your breath on the glass.  Draw a peace sign.  You are waiting for a bus.

The second-person instructions suggest a covert mission, but its seriousness is undercut by the self-aware tone, the friendly diction of phrases like “pea-soupy night”, and near-non-sequiturs such as “Draw a peace sign”.  Meanwhile, the closed stores and the artificial wintry display windows provide a melancholy, reflective quality that complicates our internal picture of the narrator.  Which mood will win out?  

Denis Johnson’s “Dirty Wedding” takes us on a jittery, near-literal roller-coaster tour through the city and the narrator’s psyche in one breathless run-on sentence:

I liked to sit up front and ride the fast ones all day long, I liked it when they brushed right up against the buildings north of the Loop and I especially liked it when the buildings dropped away into that bombed-out squalor a little farther north in which people (through windows you’d see a person in his dirty naked kitchen spooning soup toward his face, or twelve children on their bellies on the floor, watching television, but instantly they were gone, wiped away by a movie billboard of a woman winking and touching her upper lip deftly with her tongue, and she in turn erased by a—wham, the noise and dark dropped down around your head—tunnel) actually lived.

If we haven’t already been keyed in by the adrenaline-fueled (among other substances) rhythms and the rambling, parenthetical tangent that hijacks the main line of thought, the startling interruption of the em-dash and italicized wham underlines the narrator’s volatility and jars us out of the hypnotic lull the long run of descriptions initially produced.

A minimalist like Raymond Carver can convey an off-kilter personality by using short sentences and plain language, often achieving a deadpan humor in the process, as in this opening from “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit”:

I’ve seen some things.  I was going over to my mother’s to stay a few nights.  But just as I got to the top of the stairs, I looked and she was on the sofa kissing a man.  It was summer.  The door was open.  The TV was going.  That’s one of the things I’ve seen.

More succinctly, Carver opens “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” with these two low-key, disarming lines: “My friend Mel McGinnis was talking.  Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.”


Alice Munro doesn’t resort to any linguistic or conceptual pyrotechnics in “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” but she establishes a lived-in world with skill and purpose: 

Fiona lived in her parents’ house, in the town where she and Grant went to university.  It was a big, bay-windowed house that seemed to Grant both luxurious and disorderly, with rugs crooked on the floors and cup rings bitten into the table varnish. Her mother was Icelandic—a powerful woman with a froth of white hair and indignant far-left politics.  The father was an important cardiologist, revered around the hospital but happily subservient at home, where he would listen to strange tirades with an absentminded smile.  All kinds of people, rich or shabby-looking, delivered these tirades, and kept coming and going and arguing and conferring, sometimes in foreign accents.  Fiona had her own little car and a pile of cashmere sweaters, but she wasn’t in a sorority, and this activity in her house was probably the reason.

Writers of short stories, especially those looking to publish in literary journals, are often advised to avoid opening with gobs of exposition.  Whether or not you go in for “all that David Copperfield crap”, though, it doesn’t hurt to take a page out of Munro’s playbook here: establish an entryway into your world; let the story unfold through this perspective; make sure every sentence tells us something new.  


Sometimes an opening doesn’t even need to make any sense at all to be compelling.  Here’s Julio Cortázar in “Blow-Up”:

It’ll never be known how this has to be told, in the first person or in the second, using the third person plural or continually inventing modes that will serve for nothing.  If one might say: I will see the moon rose, or: we hurt me at the back of my eyes, and especially: you the blond woman was the clouds that face before my your his our yours their faces.  What the hell.

What the hell?  Let’s see where this is going.

— Daniel L.

Location, Location, Location: Appalachian Women Writers

27 Apr

As many of our readers know, tmr, despite its moniker, actually makes its home at Virginia Tech, but you might not know that VT is located in Appalachia. When you think about Appalachia, you probably don’t think of show stopping women writers. Well, I’m going to change that or at least I’m going to try.

Chances are that you haven’t encountered a lot of Appalachian writers; often, this is because there is a tendency to project misconceptions about the region onto Appalachian writers and their work. I’m very familiar with these stereotypes because I am a native West Virginia, and when I was young and pretty dumb, I believed them. At least I did until, as an undergraduate, I was lucky enough to take Appalachian Literature with WV poet laureate, Irene McKinney.

Being in Irene’s class, at least for me, was very much like being in church. Every day we would all shuffle in and she would preach the good work of Appalachian Literature. Irene referred to the authors we read as “rednecks, hicks, hillbillies, or mountain folk,” saying these words as though they were honorable titles. I had come to class expecting a semester of pastoral, apologetic writing that lauded the quiet, simple life, but the pieces we read were not simple or quiet and they were surely not apologetic. They were loud because they had important things to say. They were also sad and sometimes a little bit angry because they came from a place of poverty, discrimination, displacement, and environmental destruction. Before she passed away in 2008, Irene McKinney helped me understand the worth of Appalachian writers and their work, and I hope that her work will do the same for you, but in addition to Irene, I’m going to tell you about a few more amazing female, Appalachian writers, just to be safe.

51oyk33OfDLIrene McKinney grew up on a farm in West Virginia and frequently drew from her experience as a self-proclaimed hillbilly to write poems that earned her substantial critical acclaim from such organizations as The National Endowment for the Arts and The Bread loaf Writers Conference. McKinney also served as professor emerita at her alma mater West Virginia Wesleyan College.

McKinney’s poems exist in a space that expertly bridges the real and the imaginary, entering the life of rural, working class Appalachians through the land that sustains them in such a way that the human world and natural world often become one. McKinney published five collections of poetry during her life, all of which I would highly recommend. However, if you want a taste from each collection, might I suggest Unthinkable: Collected Poems 1976-2004?

Adrian Blevins is a Virginian poet who has taught at both Hollins University and Roanoke College, but who currently teaches at Colby College in Maine. Blevins won the Bright Hill Press Chapbook Award for her first chapbook The Man Who Went Out for Cigarettes and has continued to win a variety of awards for her full lengths collections of poetry.

When I read poems by Blevins, I feel like the very voice of the mountains and the people who live in them come together to expose the secrets of Appalachian life. Blevins uses this expertly crafted, lyrical voice to access truths about relationships and ancestry. Although I love The Brass Girl Brouhaha, I heard Blevins read from her newest collection Live from the Homesick Jamboree at AWP and ordered it immediately.

doris davenport is a performance poet whose work is influenced by growing up in the Appalachian foothills of Georgia. Although poetry is davenport’s primary genre, she had also penned essays dealing with race, class, and sexuality that will leave you speechless. davenport currently teaches at Stillman College in Alabama.

davenport’s poems latch on to detailed images and often tangible objects to move through different times and different spaces in an effort to help push the reader towards a new way of understanding. More often than not davenports work involves finding paths to both explore and celebrate her existence as an African American, lesbian, poet from the south. davenport has eight books of poetry, but I am still partial to her first book, it’s like this, but I also like her newest collection 65 poems.

51LERbKvL1L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Ann Pancake, a native of West Virginia, is not only an expert novelist, but also a fine short story writer and essayist. Pancake’s work is focused around the exploration of modern life in rural West Virginia with a specific focus on the effects of poverty on working class families and young women. In addition to writing, Pancake has taught writing in the US and abroad.

Pancake’s debut novel, Strange As This Weather Has Been utilizes authentic Appalachian vernacular, sparse dialogue, and unflinching imagery to discuss the devastation of mountain top removal by examining the affects it has on characters in a small southern West Virginia town. I read the novel six years ago, and the images and characters are still with me.

51P-cop7VtL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Maggie Anderson was actually born in New York, but moved to West Virginia with her parents when she was a teenager. Anderson went to college in West Virginia and has mostly remained in Appalachia throughout her life, teaching at various schools and colleges in the area. Anderson’s poetry has received a number of awards including fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Art’s Council. She has also been honored by Emory and Henry College and Kent State.

Using visceral, physical language, Anderson explores Appalachian existence through poems that feel so present it seems like you are a part of the action. Often the words are direct, even plain, but the images are anything but. Anderson has published six books of poetry, but if you can’t decide which read first, consider Windfall: New and Selected Poems.

513g3soGBiL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Crystal Wilkinson, a Kentucky native, is a founding member of Affrilachian Poets, a writing collective that promotes the creative work of African American Appalachians. Wilkinson is not only known for her spectacular poetry and fiction, but for her ability to teach and foster Appalachian voices. Currently Wilkinson is the Appalachian Writer-in-Residence at Berea College.

Wilkinson’s latest short-story collection Water Street uses startlingly authentic dialogue and vulnerable, expertly crafted characters to offer the reader a chance to experience the day to day struggles of African American’s living in the rural South. The humanness of the characters and their relationships along with the seamless flow of the language kept this poet enthralled until the end. Also make sure to check out Wilkinson’s debut collection, Blackberries, Blackberries.

If you really can’t get enough of awesome, Appalachian lady writers, check out these anthologies Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia, Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Writers, and/or Her Words: Diverse Voices in Contemporary Appalachian Women’s Poetry.

-Kaitlen W.

The Minnesota Review at AWP 2015

20 Apr

1470413_10152912097084217_1411001212320592702_nAs a first-time attendee of AWP, the conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, what I loved most about the conference in Minneapolis this year was the bookfair, the sheer number of panels (at least ten per time slot!), and the Skyways.

At the bookfair, the minnesota review was represented by some of our finest  (including Mariana and Lisa in the picture above). For me at least, it provided the opportunity to explain to many inquisitive Minnesotans that we are not in fact a Minnesota journal. We are based out of Virginia, particularly Virginia Tech’s MFA program, with only our birthplace being the cold land (at least in winter) of Minnesota.IMG_8551

The panels were plentiful for all three days of the conference. I got the chance to see Maria Elvira, a fellow MFA student, present on the importance of diversity in higher education and her workshop experience as a Latina student. Of all the panels I went to, this one sparked the most passionate responses from the audience and kept attendees long after the time was up.

I was also able to see Ed Falco, one of the MFA instructors from Virginia Tech, present on a panel about small presses vs. large publishing houses. As a reader for the minnesota review, I concurred with Ed that small presses certainly care for their writers and the manuscripts they receive in a way that Ed, and the other panelists, suggested larger publishing houses may not. I know that often the readers for the minnesota review grieve to each other about submissions and submitters who were so close to making it in the journal, but which we ultimately cannot take. We often send out kind rejection letters, and we certainly mean the kind part of them.

facebook_event_203190256360552 Minneapolis itself is a thriving city with lots of great places to eat, like Gluek’s pub, but what makes the city most unique is its extensive Skyways. I found the Skyways fascinating and slightly disconcerting, almost in the vein of a dystopia. But the above ground tunnels that connect basically all of downtown Minneapolis functioned in a couple memorable ways. Since the weather was snowy and cold the first two days of the conference, AWP attendees used the tunnels to get from place to place, so that I was constantly running into people with badges even when I wasn’t close to the hive of activity. The tunnels encouraged and extended the sense of community present at the convention center.

The tunnels are also full of food. The best discovery I made there was the frozen kefir—similar to frozen yogurt, but creamier and much better for you. Why doesn’t every city serve this? That stuff is amazing! With blueberries and almonds, it was the perfect thing to pick up after a long day of panels.

Both the minnesota review and I are looking forward to AWP 16 in LA. We hope to see you there!

-Mandi M.

Listening to George

16 Apr

audio-book-GettyI’m a huge fan of audiobooks, or as my dad still calls them, ‘books on tape.’ There’s something wonderfully immersive and intimate about having someone read to you. As a child, it’s how I discovered that the meaning of life is 42, and that the world is a flat disc balanced on the backs of four elephants which in turn stand on the back of a giant turtle (and how I miss you both, Doug and Terry).

Audiobooks turn ordinary moments into adventures: a walk to class, grocery shopping, waiting for the bus. I seldom leave the house without my headphones on, and a voice whispering stories in my ear. And after more than two decades of aural dedication, I’ve begun to develop a theory – that there are some books or authors you simply need to hear; work that doesn’t ‘click’ until you remove the transaction of the written page, and have it piped straight into your brain.

tenth_december-203x300George Saunders is an author I needed to hear. When I tried to read the ‘The Tenth of December’ I felt I was missing something: the characters grated, the language tripped me, it seemed to be trying too hard – or perhaps I was. And then I listened to the audiobook (read by Saunders himself; a rare treat) and it finally made sense. The stories had an internal music that I hadn’t been able to find on my own…

Which is a very long way of setting up how deeply excited I was at the prospect of seeing George Saunders read his work in person on his recent visit to Blacksburg as part of the VT Visiting Writers Series. I bought my tickets months in advance, turned up far-too-early to get a too-eager seat near the front, and waited for the magic to begin. But he didn’t read a damn thing!

George-Saunders-012Instead, he did something even better; he talked about why storytelling and storytellers matter. In a 90-minute speech that was part craft talk, and part defense of the arts, Saunders demonstrated, with wit and irreverence, how the process of writing invites – nay, demands – empathy and kindness; how it is not possible to write compelling characters without furnishing them with histories and vulnerabilities, and that this transference of essential humanity enhances our own. Even our darkest and most challenging stories – the nasty, naughty, mean and gross – help us to see the best in ourselves, to value our fortunes and privileges, and stress-test our assumptions and ideals.

It’s a powerful message, and one that I needed to hear. I come from a culture in which a career in the creative arts is often seen as frivolous, as ‘playing’ rather than working. It has been difficult for me to come to terms with my choice to leave a career to pursue an MFA: to learn to be proud, rather than defensive. And the Saunders talk reinforced that there is much to be proud of – it reminded me that storytelling is one of the most primal, powerful and important things humans do; that the qualities of great stories are the qualities that make us most human: curiosity, generosity, creativity, inclusiveness, humor and most importantly, imagination and empathy.

We need stories, even if we don’t always know why.

The power of stories is why I’m here in the VT MFA program, a hemisphere away from my home and family. It’s why I never leave the house without a book in my bag…and a voice in my ear.

-Beejay S.

Fiction Submissions

6 Apr

fiction!At the minnesota review, we have space to publish roughly three stories per issue. As a result, we reject a lot of good stories. Our fiction staff consists of five people, and we go through somewhere between 50 and100 stories per week. It’s a fairly tedious amount of reading, but it’s also really exciting when we come across stellar writing.

We are, of course, human, and so your submissions are subject to our very human biases. As such, I’d like to take this opportunity to outline the way I read submissions so that you, future submitter, have some insight about what one editor at our journal is looking for.

I’ll start with what I don’t want to see:

  1. Affectation: too often we receive submissions that sound like a writer is assuming a voice he is unable to actually own, and it’s wincingly apparent. Write in language you know you can make yours.
  2. Truckloads of back story: if the story seems concerned with telling a whole history of its characters, it makes me wonder why the back story isn’t the front story.
  3. Lack of clarity (not to be confused with ambiguity): don’t hide thoughts that the character would obviously have for the sake of being mysterious. It suggests that you don’t actually know what the character would think or feel in a certain moment.
  4. Stories intended to shock: we read so many stories. You’re not going to shock us, no matter who gets beheaded or abandoned or whatever. If a shock or surprise is the crux of your story, the story is probably lacking depth. This is not to say surprises are not good. In fact they are. But your story shouldn’t rely entirely on a gasp moment.
  5. Heavy-handed endings: I might be projecting here—because I have a tendency to wax (painfully) eloquent at the end of my own drafts—but when we see a story where the language becomes oddly lofty at the conclusion, it’s hard not to reject.

What I want to see:

  1. A strong, consistent voice: when I believe your narrator from the first word to the last, you have my attention.
  2. Particularity: language and situations that I haven’t seen before.
  3. A choice: when the character has to make a decision I feel personally concerned about, I realize I’m reading an excellent story.
  4. Form and content alignment: we receive stories written backwards, sideways, upside down, in funny shapes, in mini-chapters, from the POV of a chicken, from the POV of a baby, in the form of emails, text messages, emojis, etc. We’ve seen a lot of forms, but what’s most exciting is when the form actually works with the content. For example, in our next issue we’re publishing a story that’s told backwards, and the author’s decision to tell the story this way goes hand-in-hand with the story’s actual content. In other words, the form doesn’t feel like a gimmick. It feels like a necessity.
  5. Levity: one of the rarest things I see in a submission pile is a truly funny sentence.
  6. Unpredictability: if I don’t know what an author is going to do next, but I really want to know, I feel like I might be reading a potentially publishable piece.
  7. Concision: the stories we tend to accept rarely waste words. Every sentence and every phrase ought to add something to the narrative.

That’s all I can think of right now. I submit stories, too. I get cold rejection letters, and I know how it feels to submit into the void. I often wonder who reads my submissions and what they think before they tag me for rejection, so I figured I’d let you have access to one of the very limited minds that interacts with your submissions here at tmr.

-Joe Truscello

Five Women Writers I Recommend

29 Mar

As Women’s History Month wraps up, I thought I’d offer a countdown of female authors that I love. Then I realized half of them are names most readers have probably heard over and over again: Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros, etc. So instead, here are five female writers who readers are a little less likely to be familiar with, but whom I highly recommend:

  1. Cristina Garcia: The Lady Matador’s Hotel

cvr9781439181751_9781439181751_hrWhy she’s fantastic: Garcia tackles politics, race and gender norms, and human nature in a way that’s specific yet universal. She’s great at using magical realism elements in her writing without letting them overwhelm the narrative or even be the main focus of her novel.

Why you should read her book: What I admire most about Garcia’s The Lady Matador’s Hotel is the way in which it weaves together the stories of six very different characters, all staying in the same hotel but connected by so much more. Despite juggling all of their complex story lines, she manages to create an original and cohesive narrative in this relatively small novel.

  1. Karen Tei Yamashita: Tropic of Orange51IX3qcoM8L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Why she’s fantastic: Yamashita’s intellect and worldliness are both obvious in her writing, as she writes vastly different characters with vastly different backgrounds and makes me believe each one. She clearly knows her setting and its history, and puts that knowledge to good use.

Why you should read her book: Form is definitely a strength of Yamashita’s novel, and one of the reasons I’m obsessed with it. Contained to the perspectives of seven characters with a daily chapter each across the span of a week, Tropic of Orange is written so that its 49 chapters can be read in a few different orders and still work as a cohesive and insightful novel.

  1. Ana Castillo: So Far From God

so-far-from-godWhy she’s fantastic: One of the things I love about Castillo is that she’s unafraid in her writing. Magical realism, experimental writing forms, liberal amounts of codeswitching—Castillo uses all of these things to her advantage to tell a fantastical story.

Why you should read her book: Underneath all of the supernatural elements, So Far from God is firmly rooted in the complexities of family. Through this family, it tackles issues of nationalism, history, and identity with one of the strongest       narrative voices that I’ve ever experienced.

  1. Dorothy Allison: Bastard Out of Carolina9780452297753B

Why she’s fantastic: I recently saw her speak in neighboring Radford and I have to say, she completely won me over. I was a fan of Allison long before attending her reading, but now I’m desperate to read everything she’s ever written. There’s immense depth and passion to her that seeps so clearly into her writing—reading her makes me want to write.

Why you should read her book: Bastard Out of Carolina tackles the tough subjects head on with characters so real that it makes for some truly heartbreaking, powerful reading. The realness of the main character and Allison’s superb use of dialect are two reasons this is a must-read.

  1. Julia Alvarez: In the Time of the Butterflies

in-the-time-of-the-butterfliesWhy she’s fantastic: Before there was Junot Díaz, there was Julia Alvarez. A Dominican-American author, Alvarez was the first Latina writer I ever read and the first writer whose novel made me think of national identity and individually identity as intimately connected. Her writing is accessible and beautiful, and her stories are personal and universal.

Why you should read her book: Based on historical events and real people, In the Time of the Butterflies simultaneously tells the story of four sisters and the story of a nation. Alvarez paints a picture that stays with readers, and depicts a bravery that deserves to be depicted.

-Ana-Christina Acosta Gaspar de Alba

Citizen by Claudia Rankine

14 Mar

This past fall, for a class in fiction “after modernism,” I gave myself the task of writing a paper on literary depictions of postmodern blackness as they stem from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (and how it figures in my own writing), but struggled to find a contemporary text that could entirely reflect the new 21st century erasure of blackness. I needed a text that would put into context the recent events that have been bombarding my own consciousness for the past few years. I wanted to find some way to talk about Trayvon Martin and how the media aftermath made me feel as a black person in America who thought herself relatively sheltered from racial encounters, but suddenly could not avoid them despite never being one of the bodies involved. I wanted to do this through the lens of someone else’s work because I needed to ground it in something literary and because it wasn’t something I had worked through myself yet. For weeks I was stuck—until I began reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, which I had recently borrowed from a poet friend. What follows is an [edited] excerpt from that paper plus some quotes from Rankine herself for added context.

—Jasmine Francis

In 1952 Ralph Ellison coined the term “invisible man” as a way of describing the social position of black Americans. More than 60 years later, it is just as relevant.

As Ellison’s narrator explains in the preface, his invisibility is not the stuff of science fiction or “a bio-chemical accident.” It’s the refusal or inability of others to see him as a person, which “is sometimes advantageous” but often causes him to doubt his own existence. The effects of this invisibility on the narrator’s psyche is crippling and consuming; the pain of it makes him want to lash out, which he does, both physically and through his participation in protest movements. But in the post-civil rights era, for many blacks, met with micro-evidence of their own invisibility, there is no lashing out. There is surprise, confusion, and, if not acceptance or denial, a raging silence. bell hooks writes:

“The period directly after the black power movement was a time when major news magazines carried articles with cocky headlines like ‘what ever happened to Black America?’ This was an ironic reply to the aggressive unmet demand by decentered, marginalized black subjects who had at least for the moment successfully demanded a hearing, who had made it possible for black liberation to be a national political agenda. In the wake of the black power movement, after so many rebels were slaughtered and lost, many of these voices were silenced by a repressive state and others became inarticulate.”

The “black power” movement has since degenerated to the less ambitious notion that “black lives matter.” While many blacks have been able to achieve upward mobility in to the middle and upper classes, underclassed blacks are finding themselves in deeper holes. Class and racial segregation has remained alive through property-tax-based funding of public education, network-based employment opportunities, discriminatory drug laws, unjust policing activities, biased juries and judges who hand down harsher punishments for black defendants…and the list goes on. As bell hooks says, “For African-Americans our collective condition prior to the advent of postmodernism and perhaps more tragically expressed under current postmodern conditions has been and is characterized by continued displacement, profound alienation and despair…We are talking here about tremendous hopelessness.”

This is the context that I see as precipitating Citizen. However, though Rankine does explore institutional racism, she also focuses on smaller moments between people, moments that happen, not only to victims of institutional racism, but to the upwardly mobile black class as well. Rankine says, in an interview with NPR:

“I wanted to create the field of the encounter; what happens when one body comes up against another and race enters into the moment of intimacy between two people…On the one hand, I am talking about institutionalized racism. But on another and, I think, equally important level, I’m just talking about what happens when we fail each other as people.”

One such failure is detailed in Rankine’s “Open Letter: A Dialogue on Poetry and Race,” which she presented a few years before Citizen in response to a colleague’s poem that featured a seemingly un-admonished [racist] speaker who says things like “I couldn’t help wanting / the white girl to come out on top, / because she was one of my kind, my tribe.” Giving her colleague the benefit of the doubt, Claudia went to have a conversation with him about the poem’s aims and was met with the response that the poem was “for white people.” Everything in Rankine’s response (excerpted here) to the poem—particularly the friction between the “old black” and “new black”—is explored in Citizen. And towards the end of her address, we see the stark difference between Ellison’s 1950s invisibility and today’s—today, it’s not so much that blacks in America are not seen and acknowledged as people, but that they are seen or recognized as people who don’t quite belong (“one of my tribe”):

Not long ago I was in a room where someone asked the philosopher Judith Butler what made language hurtful. I could feel everyone lean forward. Our very being exposes us to the address of another, she said. We suffer from the condition of being addressable, by which she meant, I believe, there is no avoiding the word-filled sticks and stones of others. Our emotional openness, she added, is borne, in both its meanings, by our addressability. Language navigates this.

For so long I thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase me as a person, but after considering Butler’s remarks I begin to understand myself as rendered hyper-visible in the face of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that I am present. My alertness, my openness, my desire to engage my colleague’s poem, my colleague’s words, actually demands my presence, my looking back at him.

This overwhelming presence is deeply felt in Citizen, particularly in the book’s prose poems at the front—all true stories from Rankine’s personal experience and the experiences of some friends and colleagues. To mirror this “addressability” of which Rankine speaks, she writes these poems using direct address. In one such poem, the “you,” a black professor, is told by a white professor that the dean “is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.” The “you” wonders, “Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me?” but never says so aloud, remains silent:

“…you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists the medical term—John Henryism—for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure. Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, claimed the physiological costs were high. You hope by sitting in silence you are bucking the trend.”

In the supposed “post-racial” society, in order to maintain your position of having escaped being one of the black underclass, “you” must be silent to white micro-aggression that questions your place among them. That silence in action can be witnessed in this excerpt from Chapter 1:

More such micro-aggressions abound in Citizen: being called by the name of the one other black person in your workplace and subtly being blamed for it (“Apparently your own invisibility is the real problem causing her confusion”) (43), being told your photograph looks angry (“Do you look angry? You wouldn’t have said so. Obviously this unsmiling image of you makes him uncomfortable, and he needs you to account for that”) (46), or being asked beforehand by a cashier whether or not you think your card will work when your white colleague was not asked the same question. Themes of erasure and whitewashing continue, as blacks are expected to act as if the past has had no effect on their present: “You like to think memory goes far back though remembering was never recommended. Forget all that, the world says. The world’s had a lot of practice” (61).

Citizen, however, will not let us forget the past, particularly in its connection to the present state of our institutions. In an interview with BOMB magazine, Rankine explains how the chain of micro-aggressions, and the people behind them, can reverberate into more dire consequences:

“The scripts in chapter six seemed necessary to Citizen because one of the questions I often hear is “How did that happen?” as it relates to mind-numbing moments of injustice—the aftermath of Katrina, for example, or juries letting supremacists off with a slap on the wrist for killing black men. It seems obvious, but I don’t think we connect micro-aggressions that indicate the lack of recognition of the black body as a body to the creation and enforcement of laws. Everyone is cool with seeing micro-aggressions as misunderstandings until the same misunderstood person ends up on a jury or running national response teams after a hurricane.”

This is exemplified no better than in the section of Citizen dedicated to Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old boy pursued and killed in 2012 by a man—later found “not guilty” by a majority-white jury—who thought Martin “looked suspicious”:

“My brothers are notorious. They have not been to prison. They have been imprisoned. The prison is not a place you enter. It is no place. My brothers are notorious. They do regular things, like wait. On my birthday they say my name. They will never forget my name. What is that knowledge? Is it sadness?

Those years of and before me and my brothers, that years of passage, plantation, migration, of Jim Crow segregation, of poverty, inner cities, profiling, of one in three, two jobs, each a felony, boy, hey boy, accumulate into the hours inside our childhood where we are all caught hanging, the rope inside us, the tree inside us, its roots our limbs, a throat sliced through and when we open our mouth to speak, blossoms, o blossoms, no place coming out, brother, dear brother, that kind of blue.”

(Click here for video: “Situation 5, by Claudia Rankine and John Lucas”)

Here Rankine alludes to the startling statistic that one in three black men will go to jail during their lifetime, many of them for non-violent offenses. How can that be? Elsewhere, in her poem for the Jena Six, Rankine writes, “…the fists the feet criminalized already are weapons already exploding the landscape and then the litigious hitting back is life imprisoned” (101), detailing the way in which black male lives are sought out disproportionately by the current climate of the justice system, pre-determining their fates: “Trayvon Martin’s name sounds from the car radio a dozen times each half hour. You pull your love back into the seat because though no one seems to be chasing you, the justice system has other plans” (151).

In that same interview with NPR, Rankine says the following:

“There are two worlds out there; two America’s out there. If you’re a white person, there’s one way of being a citizen in our country; and if you’re a brown or a black body, there’s another way of being a citizen and that way is very close to death. It’s very close to the loss of your life. It’s very close to the loss of your liberties at any random moment. And so I wanted that to be considered.”

But blacks are told that Trayvon Martin’s death was not about race. After Trayvon’s killer is let off, deemed “not guilty” for killing an innocent boy whose blackness made him “suspicious,” blacks are expected to respond: “Yes, and this is how you are a citizen: Come on. Let it go. Move on.”

Books We Love: Crush, by Richard Siken

14 Feb

41pRD9tiqEL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In honor of Valentine’s Day this week, I want to celebrate a book of poems I’m in love with. Richard Siken’s Crush changed poetry for me; after reading this book, poetry suddenly became something that was passionate, tender, and complicated, but also accessible. This was the book that made me think I might want to read a collection of poems as much as I’d want to read a novel, something I’d never even imagined. Though at this point I had been studying poetry for years, this is the book that made me love poetry.

While working on my MA thesis, a chapbook of poems, at the University of Cincinnati, one of my professors, Danielle Deulen, in reviewing my work, said that my poems lacked tension. She was right. In trying to point me to poems that displayed different kinds of tension (dramatic, linguistic, as well as tension in form, in juxtaposition, in movement, etc.) she gave me a packet of poems that modeled these, as well as a list of exercises that might help me generate work that inherently contained “tension.” The first poem in the packet was Siken’s “Planet of Love,” filed under “dramatic tension” section. Danielle told me to read that poem and then go home and buy the book.

Crush won the 2004 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. In his book, Siken writes about panic without saying “panic” and writes about obsession without risking cliché sentimentality or becoming predictable. While Siken is devoted to emotions, he is also interested in the physical body and the damage both can do. Siken spent fifteen years writing Crush, influenced by the 1991 death of his boyfriend. Siken was born in New York City and currently lives in Tucson, Arizona, where he is also a filmmaker, painter, and editor at Spork Press, a small press in Tucson that publishes a quarterly literary magazine called Spork, as well as chapbooks and novels. His second (and much anticipated!) book, War of the Foxes, is coming out from Copper Canyon Press in April.51c--Jy36qL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

One thing I like about Siken is that he is not afraid to use the entire page; long lines that often wrap around into the next line are mixed with short lines that are often indented or even flush to the right margin. Because of this, the reader can sense the chaos and panic in these poems before she even begins reading them; glancing at a single poem can make her feel overwhelmed, frantic, and even claustrophobic because so much is packed onto a single page without any sign of pattern. With the very long lines often come very long sentences, but just like the lines, there are many very short sentences amongst the long ones. The mixture of long and short sentences with long and short lines add to the rush by making the reader fall into the speed of the poems but slam on the breaks when she gets to a short line or sentence.

“I Had a Dream About You,” for example, is a dream poem about the speaker’s lust and desire for the “you” in the poem, which later turns almost savage and displays an emotional brokenness in the speaker and a physical brokenness in the “you.” After a whimsical and funny narrative about the speaker’s desire for the “you,” the “you” is lying on the highway and the speaker drives him home because the “you” is mangled and incoherent. Then the poem jumps to various locations: they are at the hospital, then by the side of the road. This poem is ultimately about the speaker waiting for the “you” to love him. The rushing mania Siken induces is evident in the images and shape of the line on the page:

There was a show on the television about buried treasure.

You were trying to convince me that we should go buy shovels

and go out into the yard

and I was trying to convince you that I was a vampire.

On the way to the hardware store I kept biting your arm

and you said if I really was a vampire I would be biting your neck,

so I started biting your neck

and you said Cut it out!

and you bought me an ice cream, and then we saw the UFO.

These are the dreams we should be having. I shouldn’t have to

clean them up like this.

Siken gives the reader anxiety, making her laugh, as well as breaking her heart. This is one of the things Siken does best.

Many would call Crush dark and grotesque. Consider the first six lines of “A Primer for the Small Weird Loves:”

The blond boy in the red trunks is holding your head under water

because he is trying to kill you,

and you deserve it, you do, and you know this

and you are ready to die in this swimming pool

because you wanted to touch his hands and lips and this means

your life is over anyway.

While this passage, and the book as a whole, are certainly dark and sometimes painful to read, there are also many moments when Siken successfully pairs humor with heartbreak and vulnerability. One of my favorite examples of this comes from “Boot Theory:”

A man walks into a bar and says:

Take my wife—please.

But you take him instead.

You take him home, and you make him a cheese sandwich,

and you try to get his shoes off, but he kicks you

and he keeps kicking you.

You swallow a bottle of sleeping pills but they don’t work.

Siken’s book is full of moments such as this, moments that are gentle but violent, innocent but too grown up. One could argue that this is simply an entire book of moments, specific moments that are injected with lust, fear, desire, obsession, panic, and anxiety.

Crush accomplishes the rare distinction in poetry of being a “page-turner.” This first collection about panic and obsession effortlessly makes the reader obsessed with Siken. His ability to talk about both the beautiful and the ugly aspects of human desire that make the reader feel sympathy for the speaker (often while laughing) is what makes this book stand out. Crush is a success because it makes us ruminate about our own vulnerability. How romantic. Pick up a copy for your lover here.

-Lisa Summe

Rethinking Stealing with Jamaal May

9 Feb
Jamaal May

Jamaal May

I spent a good chunk of February 5th with Jamaal May. In hindsight, I should have chugged a gallon of espresso in order to keep up with this fast-talking, passionate, Detroit-based poet. Over lunch with a few Virginia Tech MFA students, May gave away morsels from the craft talk he would be delivering soon afterwards, titled “Steal This Class.” Having experienced teaching poetry in Detroit public schools, May deplores how something as idealistic as the U.S. education system has been boiled down to the place where we are merely programmed.

He elaborated on this during the craft talk at Shanks Hall, where he demonstrated how intelligence is nowadays assessed by how well we are programmed.

“What’s 1 plus 1?” May asked the audience. The chorused reply: “Two.”

“Let’s complicate the question,” May proposed. “One of what?” He went on to explain how this outside-the-box thinking in schools is often interpreted as disrespectful and results in reprimands.

“It depends. For example, if you combine a ball of clay with another ball of clay, you get one ball of clay. 1 plus 1 can equal 1.”

On the subject of looking at things from a different point of view, May shared his perspective on creativity when it comes to writing. “Creation is not making something out of scratch,” he said. “Writers’ building blocks are words that already exist. Creation is in the arrangement.”

And here’s where “Steal This Class” comes in. Art, according to May, is about stealing… and then transforming what you’ve stolen until it is unrecognizable. “Your brain shuts down when it thinks, ‘I know where this is going.’ That’s why clichés don’t work in poetry. Give every line you write something unexpected, while still leading them on with familiarity. If I started with ‘once upon a time,’ you know you’re about to hear a story. But if I said ‘once upon a clothing line,’ that makes your brain go: ‘Wait, what?’”

HumPerhaps the best bit of advice he had for writers was that we should like our own work. While he spoke of editing his manuscript for his award-winning poetry book, Hum, he said: “I rewrote every line until I liked it.” Devoid of arrogance, May professed his love of sounds (which makes sense, given that he also works as a freelance sound engineer) and language. These are what guide his attitude toward his own work. This was made even clearer later that night at his reading, where he delivered an impassioned performance of his poems (from both Hum and an upcoming publication) at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute.

“Poetry is always about the space between,” May said. When asked about what he attempts to achieve with his poetry, he answers that he explores opposing forces and emotions and how they attract and repel each other, representing “the uneasy spaces between human connection.”

According to May, there are three ways to respond to poetry. When a poet is telling you they “feel ways about stuff,” you as a reader can also “feel ways about stuff.” Or you “don’t feel ways about stuff.” Or… you could shut up and listen.

And when you shut up and listen to Jamaal May, you’ll see the space between.

-Mariana S.

Want to know more about Virginia Tech’s Visiting Writers Series? Click here!

Minnesota Review now accepting submissions!

21 Jan issue86


Issue 83 now available!

19 Dec

Issue 83 is out! Check out the table of contents and subscribe!

Why Do We Write About Others?

13 Nov

Rachel ZuckerOn November 6, Rachel Zucker, author of nine books, most recently a memoir called MOTHERs and a dual collection of prose and poetry called The Pedestrians, visited VT. I got to pick her up from the airport. This semester, she’s teaching two poetry classes at NYU, one of which is on “the long poem.” Based on our conversation, I’ve added some books to my “to-read” list: Jane by Maggie Nelson and The Descent of Alette by Alice Notley. We talked about students and teaching and MFA programs and her kids. It was intimate. She admitted that one of her sons recently got her a little bit into football. I admitted that I like Taylor Swift.

The craft talk she gave discussed the ethics of putting other people in your work, people who are alive and close to you. People you could potentially hurt. Zucker began her talk with this: “It’s really hard to write a good poem in which people don’t appear at all.” Zucker is not worried about keeping people out of her work in order to protect them (in fact, the poems she read later in the evening at the reading at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at VT were all poems that at some point she “got in trouble” for writing), however she still grapples with the ethics of writing about others, still finds this discussion necessary.

The talk was framed around a series of about ten photographs Zucker showed in a powerpoint presentation. The photos were various portraits of people in various contexts; some the photographers took with the subject’s permission and others without, some were people the photographers knew and some were strangers, some were shot from a distance while others were taken very close up.

She first asked for general reactions to the photos. At first, I was unsure about how this related to writing. But her whole point of talk goes back to a question she posed: “What is your relationship to your subject matter?”

Throughout her talk she asked other important questions, too. Why do we write about others? To mark the passage of time? To critique something? To change the world? What kind of poet are you? What kind do you want to be?

I’m not sure about my own personal philosophy on the ethics of what Zucker discusses. My instinct is to write whatever I want–that my stories are my stories, that my experiences are my experiences, that my truths are my truths, so then it shouldn’t matter how I portray others in my work. I would even add to that as long as my intention is not to harm others in the process, writing anything I want to is fair and just.

But it gets confusing. What if you harm others without meaning to? I struggle with this in the context of writing about my father, which I’ve generally avoided, though when I’ve done it, have thought, I can’t send this out for publication, this would kill him. I have a lot to say about my coming out experience, and that experience was a bit traumatic for me because of my father’s reactions (i.e. he told me that if I acted on my feelings, I would go to hell, etc.). This is one part of my honest experience. But I personally think this makes my father look like a monster, which he isn’t.excerpt

I go back to Zucker’s question: “Why do we write about others?” I feel compelled to tell my story for a few reasons. The first is selfish, though not malicious. My relationship with my father is so complicated that the best way for me to understand it is to write about it. Someone might tell me to go ahead and do that, but keep it to myself. Why publish it? Another reason is to help others in situations like mine. To show that you can come from x kind of family, but still lead a happy, y kind of life. Another reason is for more queer presence in literature. I think one way for queerness to be considered less “weird” by the mainstream is to inject itself into the world and one way to do that is via literature. I want to show that much of my father’s behavior in response to me being queer is not acceptable and perpetuates homophobia and general hate. So maybe I think I CAN change the world. But should I at the expense of my father? I honestly don’t know.

-Lisa S.

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