Bring In the Old: The Writer as Collector

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There was a time in my mid-twenties when I was unhappy, for reasons that now seem ridiculous to me but were no less potent because of their ridiculousness. I wanted to be a writer, but I worked a business consulting job from home and spent a lot of time alone in my old Victorian in downtown Raleigh–a house once owned by a woman named Swannanoa Branch. We used to get Swannanoa’s mail–mostly evangelical pamphlets that talked about bathing yourself in the “fire of Christ’s love.”

When the realtor showed us the house, she was careful to point out that we would be the proud owners of the oldest in-tact outhouse in Wake County. I think this appealed to me more than to my husband, who opened the door with the sawed-out silhouette of a moon, revealing a rusted, cricket-infested toilet. It was an outhouse turned garden shed. I have always approved of adaptive re-use; take something old and make it your own. Abuse and honor it. Fill it up with your spirit. This is one way to make art.Continue Reading

Round Down: Is Reading a Right or a Privilege?

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After almost a year of protests by free speech advocates and famous authors, the UK’s Ministry of Justice is going to give prisoners the right to receive books in parcels from family, starting in February. Perhaps the most curious aspect of this case is not that books, among other items that a family member might send via packages as personal property, were banned, but that this case saw lawyers demanding that law be more nuanced with regard to determining whether books are rights or privileges.

Obviously (perhaps more obviously to those of us who have inhaled two seasons of Orange Is The New Black) prisons restrict what is allowed on their premises to prevent the smuggling of drugs and other paraphilia—and it must be noted that the public library system in British prisons was never in danger of being removed. But this case still feels like a victory for free speech and art in one society’s most limited venues.

And it makes me wonder about our prison system in the United States. I did a tiny bit of research and found out that in Florida, inmates often are restricted to having only four books in their possession, and those books must come directly from a publisher or mail distributor—if a family member attempts to send a book via a package service (like UPS) it will be rejected, just as books were restricted in the UK before the amendment to prison policy.

This limits on reading material strikes me as ironic, given that I spent four years teaching in various public education systems in the U.S. where, as teachers, we often grimly passed around research that showed federal prisons’ use of third grade reading scores to determine how many prison cells they needed to construct for the next generation of inmates. In this regard, it seems less important to worry so much about book access once inmates are in prison, and way more imperative that we focus on getting more books in the hands of children before it’s too late.

And yet, high-profile debuts from Guantánamo Bay, such as the release at last of Mohamedou Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary, showcase not only how important it is for society to allow narratives to go in, but also to come out of our prison systems. One only has to think of a long canonical history of letters, diaries, and poems from prisons (by notable authors such as Henry David Thoreau; Miguel de Cervantes; Martin Luther King, Jr.; O. Henry; Oscar Wilde; e.e. cummings; Nelson Mandela; etc.) or look at the inspiring work done by volunteers with various Prison Arts non-profits to realize the value of reading and writing for all citizens, especially those at the mercy of the criminal justice system. I mean, for goodness’ sake, it wasn’t that long ago that it was illegal for citizens of color to read or write, period.

When we consider that fact knowing that a the disproportionate number of inmates are men of color, it is even more imperative that we take a hard eye to our policies regarding books in prison–to prevent us from repeating the mistakes of the past. Only when we take a hard look at how we extend rights to the most shackled of our citizens do we truly understand the extent to which we value our freedoms.

Satire and the Question of Taste

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In the past few weeks, we’ve seen a lot of takes on the tragic Charlie Hebdo massacre (see the Round Down for a good selection). One of the most common, and understandable, reactions from writers and thinkers has been the attempt to parse the sensitive cultural issues involved—this stems from the fact that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were often racist, specifically anti-Muslim. Add to this tangle the question of privilege: To whom does free speech really belong?

In this post, however, I will not lament the case of cartoons versus mass death. Many others have done it better before me. The issue I am interested in concerns the content of the cartoons. It is one of taste, and one of offense.

In 2006, Christopher Hitchens wrote about the controversial Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed: “As it happens, the cartoons themselves are not very brilliant, or very mordant, either.” The same could be said of the Charlie Hebdo illustrations that spurred the attack. They are not subtle. They are in fact so sophomoric that they seem to have found the low bar set by MAD magazine and ably limboed under. The drawings are emphatically not in good taste.

But why does good taste matter?Continue Reading

Borne Back Ceaselessly into the Past: Visiting Authors’ Graves

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I’ve always liked cemeteries. Not in a morbid or macabre way. I’m not really a graver, a tombstone tender, stone stroller, death hag, or taphophile, I just like the quiet peace of cemeteries, those simple records of lives that came before.

My daughter has spent much of her childhood in cemeteries, giggling inappropriately over stones like those for women named “Tootie” and “Thankfully Dick” or the angel-wing–shaped monuments that resemble boobs. It was in a cemetery that she learned the word “phallic.” I, on the other hand, am fascinated by the eloquence of gravestones for the spare ways that they capture the characters of the dead.

That’s especially true of writers’ graves, which often strike me as peculiarly wordless monuments to lives lived by words. There is nothing, for instance, on the Cavendish, Prince Edward Island grave of Lucy Maud Montgomery that acknowledges her as the author of Anne of Green Gables. Scrollwork on the cemetery archway does proclaim it “The Resting Place of L.M. Montgomery,” as if another hundred people aren’t also buried there. Two pines guard her stone and a flower garden spreads out in front. A fence and chain provide added measures to keep tourists at bay. Montgomery’s husband, The Reverend Ewen MacDonald, is listed first, followed by “Lucy Maud Montgomery MacDonald,” identified only as “Wife of Ewan McDonald”—the more famous writer wife subsumed under her husband’s identity. In what strikes me as an amusingly passive aggressive move, his name has been misspelled in the second reference.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Night Island” by Mary Helen Specht

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I’m a believer that some story shapes lend themselves more readily to pieces of different lengths. The shape of Mary Helen Specht’s story, “Night Island” (Prairie Schooner, Winter 2014), is risky and surprising, and might not work as well in a longer story or novel. But it’s what allows her six-hundred-word flash fiction piece to resonate at the depth of a much larger story.

The author quickly situates us in tropical Panama using rich sensory details. We find Isabella and Billy, two environmental researchers, on a tropical beach stalking a leatherback turtle, “phosphorescent plankton throwing off light in response to each footstep.” They’re hoping to recover the turtle eggs from the mother’s nesting site, then move them to a more suitable place to bury them—one not easily found by poachers.

While they go about their task, we get hints of Isabella and Billy’s attraction to each other: their arms touching, their legs touching. It’s also revealed that Isabella’s mother is worried about their future together far away in Texas, and that Isabella dislikes the way Billy can become completely immersed in their conservation work to the point of forgetting her completely. The culmination of these details forms an obvious question in the reader’s mind: Is their relationship going to work out?Continue Reading

“Bringing the Poem Back to the Actual”: An Interview with David J. Daniels

rural-jurorDavid J. Daniels writes poems that sneak up on you. Smart and worldly, emotional and funny, they convey a sense of life-as-it’s-lived: culture both high and low, our strivings and failings, the countless ways we let each other down and hold each other up. Because of the immediacy of voice and freshness of language, you might not realize at first that his poems also often rhyme and come to life in sophisticated formal structures. David’s first book, Clean, received the Four Way Books Intro Prize and was recently named a finalist for the 2015 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. He is also the author of two chapbooks, Breakfast in the Suburbs and Indecency, both from Seven Kitchens Press. He teaches at the University of Denver.

Matthew Thorburn: Two poems in Clean have postscripts – “Public Indecency” is followed by “The Casserole: a Postscript” and “Letter to Curtis, Dead at Twenty-Four” is followed by “Postscript to Curtis.” I love the idea of a poem having a sequel. Could you talk about how these poems came to be? Did you finish a poem and then feel there really was more to say?

David J. Daniels: Thom Gunn has two adjacent poems in his collection Boss Cupid, “In the Post Office” and “Postscript: The Panel.” The first is an elegy, delivered in second person to the dead, and the second begins fairly directly in prose form: “Reciprocation from the dead. Having finished the post office poem, I decide to take a look at the stained-glass panel it refers to, which Charlie made I would say two years before he died.” There’s a lot I’ve learned from Thom Gunn – his attention to rhyme and syllabics, his mix of high and low dictions, his use of asides – and these poems have lingered with me, the latter providing a commentary and new mode of interior inquiry into the former. I love that! Continue Reading

Literary Blueprints: The Mad Woman

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In this second installment of the Literary Blueprints series, we’ll look at the Mad Woman. Don’t forget to read the first Blueprint, The Byronic Hero.

Origin Story: Also referred to as “The Mad Woman in the Attic,” this character type hails from the dark side of Jane Eyre. Bertha Mason, the mysterious Mr. Rochester’s first wife, barely appears in the text, popping up only to terrify the sweet and unsuspecting Jane. She is violently insane, and is kept away from the world, the badge of shame in Rochester’s life. Her irrational behavior somehow justifies him almost becoming a polygamist when he attempts to marry Jane. Only after Bertha literally burns Rochester’s estate, Thornfield, to the ground, dying in the process, are the lovebirds free to pursue their happy ending. Crazy women are so inconvenient while they’re still alive.

Characteristics: Part of the Gothic world, the Mad Woman is not just crazy–she is crazy and isolated from society. In many cases, she is locked away by a male figure, usually a husband or other family member. It may be in an attic, a bedroom, or a basement, but, regardless, the character is separated from the world by a door and a key.Continue Reading

New Ploughshares Solo: “Villa Bohème” by Kevin A. González

Gonzalez-FinalWe are pleased to announce the publication of the latest in our Ploughshares Solos series: “Villa Bohème” by Kevin A. González!  The Ploughshares Solos series allows us to publish longer stories and essays first in an affordable digital format, and then in our annual Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Series. For more information and some great reading material, check out our previously published Solos, or the Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Volume 2.

About “Villa Bohème”

Villa Bohème is a Puerto Rican motel where, in the words of one of the “strays” who have assembled there, the people are biding their time. They drink, they play darts, they wait on the beach for something to happen. This washed-up place is run by a washed-up lawyer with one remaining client, and into it steps Tito, the lawyer’s son, fourteen years old, smart and surly, fleeing his mother and her annoying boyfriend. Amid the various lost people who inhabit the motel, Tito begins to make his way into adulthood, serving drinks, reading Judy Blume books in secret, fantasizing about the sexy bartender, and navigating the heady atmosphere of Puerto Rican politics.

“Villa Bohème” is available for $1.99.Continue Reading

Round-Down: Same Booker Prize, New Booker Rules

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The Man Booker Prize was first described to me by a writing mentor as “the book prize of all book prizes,” its winning titles fast-tracked to literary canonization and international renown. With so many novels vying for that golden spot, the prize judges have a little bit of reading to do. So it’s no surprise that in 2013, when the prize opened its doors to American authors—a move that some worried placed the prize at risk of “losing its distinctiveness”—the sheer breadth of books under consideration for the title of “best” made for what I can only imagine was and continues to be a torturously difficult vetting process leading to a torturously difficult final decision.

The Prize recently released other changes to its rules. One such revision clarifies the difference between publisher and self-publisher; self-published works are disqualified from consideration. According to the entry rules, a publisher “must publish a list of at least two literary fiction novels by different authors each year.”

Additionally, eligible books first published outside the UK now must have been released no later than two years prior to their UK publication dates.

Perhaps the most pivotal change: A title’s publisher must also make an e-book of the longlisted work available if publication follows the longlist announcement. Conversely, if upon announcement a longlisted title is available as an e-book, the publisher must make 1,000 print copies available for retail sale within ten days.Continue Reading

Since Feeling is First: Elements of Craft to Express Emotion

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Emotions, feelings, desires—whatever you choose to call them—are central to writing. e.e. cummings wrote “since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you.” But how do we pay attention to syntax while retaining feeling?

There are countless elements of craft to aid the expression of emotion: sensory details, and the diction one uses to describe the world, can speak volumes about the inner landscape of a narrator or character, as can establishing background and setting the stakes.

Take, for instance, Paul Harding’s Enon. The novel follows Charlie Crosby for a year as he reels from the untimely death of his only daughter—an event revealed in the opening paragraph of the book. Immediately, Harding establishes this event, this background, and the reader waits to see how—or if—Charlie can recover. Knowing that his only daughter has died validates anything emotional the character expresses, ranging from numbness to excruciating physical pain. Grounded in what happened, none of his internal monologues wax melodramatic.

The landscape of the book also lends itself to Charlie Crosby’s grief. Enon is set in the fictional town of Enon, Massachusetts, where Charlie was born and raised. The rich bank of memories he has in this place confront him wherever he goes, re-experiencing and renewing the loss. His wanderings afford him reflections that lead to expression or repression of emotions. There is a depth and dimension to his grief because it’s inescapable.Continue Reading