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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.

Things You Will Learn From Spending A Day With Percival Everett

9 Oct

You will learn that Percival Everett’s favorite word is No. You will learn that the gizmo used to castrate a horse is called – somewhat appropriately – an emasculator. You will learn the importance of reading forklift manuals. You will learn that Percival Everett doesn’t believe in the ‘craft’ of writing. You will learn about the craft of writing.

What I think bothers Everett about the term ‘craft’ is its implication that ideal forms, structures and processes exist (and can be taught) to generate fiction. As a writer whose reputation has been built on his unwillingness to accept categorization – of either his writing, or his person – and his career-long experimentation with form (some would even say rejection), this discomfort with the idea of a ‘right way to write’ is entirely consistent with his worldview.

As a consequence, Everett focused on ends rather than means during his September visit to Virginia Tech : on what effective fiction achieves, rather than how it is made. And it became clear to this author over the course of a day’s interaction with Everett – first in his ironically titled ‘craft talk’, then at a public reading of en excerpt from his novel-in-progress, and finally at dinner in an Italian restaurant whose walls were decked with pictures of horses (thus the emasculator) – that he cares most about how fiction is experienced. For Everett, it is the reader alone who creates meaning (I am tempted to describe this approach as post-modern, but that I suspect that would annoy him).

Everett rejects the notion that fiction has an ‘asymptotic’ relationship with reality (you will also learn that Percival Everett studied math in college). In other words, he rejects the idea that fiction aspires to be ‘objectively true’ and that the greatest fiction is that which comes closest to a depiction of the real world.


Rather, he conceives of fiction as a series of strategic convergences and divergences from reality that create an authentic experience on the page.


There are times when real-life is too absurd to read as authentic on the page and so, as writers, we must beware conflating truth with verisimilitude (you will learn that Percival Everett thinks that any MFA student who defends their work by protesting “but it really happened!” should be defenestrated).


Conversely, there are times when authenticity on the page, comes from the ‘hyper-real’.


An example Everett discussed was the difference between speech in real life, which generally reads like dribble when transcribed on the page (with all its inelegant ums and ahs…and in my case, liberal cursing), and fictional dialogue, which – if we were to reproduce it in the real world – would just make us all sound like pretentious wankers.

Crafty, no?

-Beejay S.

Coming Soon: Issue 83, Writing the Anthropocene

14 Aug

We’re wrapping up the details on our latest issue, and we can’t wait for you to see it this fall! In the meantime, here’s a quick peek at what you can expect from issue 83, which features a special focus section on Writing the Antropocene. If you don’t have a subscription yet, you can subscribe here to make sure you won’t miss:

Creative Work from:

Nicholas Wong
Julia Koets
Jessica Rae Bergamino
Philip Jason
Melinda Wilson
Matthew Yeager
Aaron Apps
Eunsong Kim
Sara Watson
John Hogan
Nance Van Winckel
Shaun Barbosa
Jill McDonough
Jim Warner
Marty Cain
Matthew Null
Robert Wrigley
A. Minetta Gould
Chad Reynolds
Natalie Lyalin
Aaron Gerber
Portia Elan
Jason Bredle

Special Focus Section: Writing the Anthropocene, guest edited by Kate Marshall and Tobias Boes

Including critical essays from:

Kate Marshall and Tobias Boes
Jesse Oak Taylor
James Pulizzi
Tobias Menely
Margaret Ronda
Gabriele Dürbeck
Nicole Merola
Derek Woods
Noah Heringman
Calina Ciobanu
Joshua Shuster

[From the Archives] Engaging Advocacy: Academic Freedom and Student Learning

7 Aug

Charlotte A. Kunkel and Sheila Radford-Hill‘s “Engaging Advocacy: Academic Freedom and Student Learning” first appeared in issue 76 (Summer 2011) of the minnesota review. Kunkel is a sociologist who is passionate about teaching.  Her work and teaching center around social justice issues, particularly anti-racism and the intersectionality of race, class and gender.  Most recently her research interests lie in the investigation of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment as they impact the construction of transnational identities.  She teaches at Luther College in Decorah, IA. Radford-Hill is the Executive Director of the Luther College Diversity Center.  She is a faculty associate in the Education Department at Luther and teaches courses in Africana Studies.  She is the author of Further to Fly: Black Women and the Politics of Empowerment (Minnesota, 2000). To read the rest of “Engaging Advocacy: Academic Freedom and Student Learning” please visit our online archive, available through Duke University Press.


Engaging Advocacy: Academic Freedom and Student Learning

Academic freedom is a concept whose scope and limits are often debated across different cultural and political contexts. Traditionally, in the US, academic freedom consists of the right of individual professors to teach and conduct research without fear of sanction or loss of employment; it also generally includes their right to speak in public as professionals and as private citizens (AAUP, 1925, 1940, 1970). From an institutional standpoint, academic freedom traditionally involves the right of colleges and universities to determine who can teach, what is taught, and who can be admitted. Both aspects of academic freedom—the individual and the institutional— are grounded in cultural traditions, legal precedents, disciplinary methods, educational policies, and general ethics (Nelson, 2009, Andreescu, 2009). Understanding the principles and practices of academic freedom is essential to a healthy professoriate because on-going debates about academic freedom affect what and how professors teach and ultimately what students learn. In this sense, professors’ views about academic freedom shape the educational experiences of every college student.

This essay is about how academic freedom ought to be practiced in college classrooms; it argues that advocacy, defined as the passionate engagement of ideas leading to a principled stance, is the best way for professors to foster student engagement and promote learning. When it comes to the classroom, academic freedom should safeguard the right of professors to take positions on issues and to encourage their students to do the same.

Culture Wars and the Academy

“Take the problem of higher education and the tenured radicals who have taken over America’s universities. All conservative action groups agree that this is one of the most serious problems facing our country.”   Horowitz Freedom Center, 2007.


For most of the past three decades, academic freedom has been embroiled in America’s culture wars. Neoconservatives have been politically active in the fight to rescue students from what they argue is a liberal bias that pervades college classrooms. For example, the Horowitz Freedom Center, a conservative organization founded by David Horowitz, conducted a study that analyzed voting registration records to gauge the political affiliations of faculty at several institutions of higher learning. On the basis of this analysis, the study concluded that American colleges and universities are bastions of liberalism because there are more professors registered as Democrats than as Republicans (Horowitz and Lehrer, 2003).

Fall Reading Period Opens Friday (August 1)!

31 Jul

Our fall reading period opens Friday, August 1, and we’re looking for your best fiction and poetry. Please remember that we won’t be reading creative nonfiction during this reading period, and we never publish reviews of creative work.

Please remember that the minnesota review has a new submission system! We will be accepting creative writing submissions via our new online submission system. Critical authors may still send submissions via email to

Please consider our submission guidelines before sending us your work:

  • We only consider unpublished work. Please do not submit previously published material, including work published in anthologies, chapbooks, or online.
  • We read creative work August 1-November 1 and January 1-April 1 of each year. Submissions may be uploaded at any time.
  • Simultaneous submissions are permitted. Please notify us immediately if a work is accepted by another publication.
  • Due to the large number of submissions we receive, we must place a limit on submission of new work until three months after your last submission, regardless of whether we’ve made a decision on your most recently submitted work. If a work is still under review, you may withdraw it and submit new work, up to the limits already mentioned.

If you have any questions about the submission process or our new submissions manager, please email Lorin Shellenberger at

Contributor Update: Susan Meyers

24 Jul

Susan Meyers’ “Waiting Room,” excerpted below, first appeared in issue 63/64 (Spring/Summer 2005) of the minnesota review. Since then, Meyers received her Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Composition and the Teaching of English from the University of Arizona. She also holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota, and she is currently an Assistant Professor in English at Seattle University, where she teaches creative writing, literature, and composition. Meyers has also published in Calyx, Dogwood, Oregon Humanities Journal, Wilderness House Literary Review, Rosebud Literary Magazine, WomenArts Quarterly Journal, Gender and Education, and Community Literacy Journal. She is currently working on a historical novel about her family’s circus, which operated during the early part of the twentieth century, as well as an ethnographic monograph about literacy and migration in the U.S./Mexico context. To continue reading “Waiting Room” please visit our online archive, available through Duke University Press.


Waiting Room

Carla Ramirez. Here in the waiting room, with a child. An infant, shivering and nodding with the small, uncertain movements of a newborn. Its eyes are large and flat, like round quinientos coins. The hands like little claws. Carla’s baby. Her first? her second or third? How long has she been married? and to whom? Lucky man. But I’m not bitter. Not now. Only, disoriented. Back home in Chile. My country again after fifteen—no, sixteen years. Unsure which streets connect with which. Which lives cross and intersect now. Like Carla and her husband. And their child, here in the clinic, waiting for vaccinations.

It’s strange, but I know it’s all a fluke, the way lives bend and shift like continents—and shift back. To find the old things here and look at them with freshness, but not newness. These are things I’ve seen before: Alemda, la Virgin, la Vega, el Cerro San Cristobal. But they don’t claim me the way they did when I was twelve. The way I’d hoped—just days ago on the plane—they might, when I returned.

And it’s strange, too, seeing all of Carla’s features again in one face: connected. Not coming in and out of focus, the way they did when I was in Germany. First the eyes, then her brow, her chin and lips and cheeks. Soft mejillas flushed pink. It’s almost unnerving, seeing them together again, as though my memory of her were not entirely correct—and I wonder whether it is her.

But of course it is. The same face I’d imagined, writing all those heartfelt, adolescent letters—so many letters! Carla, I will be home soon. Carla, my parents have promised. Mi Carlita, don t forget me. Your friend, here, on the other side of the world.

But my mother never sent those letters. “Better not to think about home, hijo,” she’d warned. “Better to cut things clean. Like slicing through an onion—smooth, even sweeps. Or else the tears will come.”

Fall Reading Period Opens August 1!

11 Jul

Our fall reading period opens August 1, and we’re looking for your best fiction and poetry. Please remember that we won’t be reading creative nonfiction during this reading period, and we never publish reviews of creative work.

We will be accepting creative writing submissions via our new online submission system. Critical authors may still send submissions via email to

Please consider our submission guidelines before sending us your work:

  • We only consider unpublished work. Please do not submit previously published material, including work published in anthologies, chapbooks, or online.
  • We read creative work August 1-November 1 and January 1-April 1 of each year. Submissions may be uploaded at any time.
  • Simultaneous submissions are permitted. Please notify us immediately if a work is accepted by another publication.
  • Due to the large number of submissions we receive, we must place a limit on submission of new work until three months after your last submission, regardless of whether we’ve made a decision on your most recently submitted work. If a work is still under review, you may withdraw it and submit new work, up to the limits already mentioned.

If you have any questions about the submission process or our new submissions manager, please email Lorin Shellenberger at


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