“She did not let go until her story had been told”: An Interview with Sandy Longhorn

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Sandy Longhorn is the author of three collections of poems, Blood Almanac (Anhinga Press, 2006), The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths (Jacar Press, 2013) and The Alchemy of My Mortal Form (Trio House, 2015). She teaches at Pulaski Technical College in Little Rock, Arkansas, and co-edits Heron Tree, “a journal of online poetry, bound annually.” I first found out about Sandy’s poems by way of her blog, Myself the Only Kangaroo among the Beauty (the title comes from Emily Dickinson), where she writes candidly about the daily struggles and little victories that come with being a poet in the world. Her poems are carefully structured and quietly moving, un-ostentatious and often unforgettable. We caught up via email for this conversation late last year.

MATTHEW THORBURN: The poems in The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths create and inhabit their own world, right from the first poem, “Disclaimer,” in which “the Author” is “painting the sunlight” and “coaxing things out of the ground.” Did you have a sense of where these poems take place right from the beginning, or did it come into focus as you were writing?

SANDY LONGHORN: This book, my second, is closely linked to my first, Blood Almanac. In the year after Blood Almanac came into the world thanks to Anhinga Press, I didn’t write much at all. When I did return to writing poetry, I found myself writing poems that continued the trajectory of being set firmly in the Midwest. Although I haven’t lived there in over 15 years, that landscape is at the essence of my voice. At the time I was writing the oldest poems in The Girlhood Book, I was also reading diaries of women who had lived in Iowa at various points in history. In each of them, weather was a central factor of the entries. I began to imitate that on my blog, and weather became an even bigger focus of “place” for book two. In short, yes, the sense of place was paramount from the beginning.Continue Reading

Literary Blueprints: The Temptress

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If the Byronic Hero is the bad boy of literature, then the Temptress is his female counterpart. The Literary Blueprints series looks at dangerous ladies and their wanton ways.

 “She looked slick as hell; polished, neat, and with that feminine deadliness that can drive you nuts. They work on it till they get complete control of the situation. There’s no use trying to break them down. They’ve made it.”—Gil Brewer, noir writer

Confined to the dregs of pulp noir writing in the 1960s, Gil Brewer wrote alongside masters of the genre like James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett without ever receiving the literary pedigree for which he longed. Central to most of his narratives were femme fatales, all described with borderline perverse ecstasy by the men they would eventually destroy. The granddaughter of the Temptress, the Femme Fatale resides in popular culture as the resident man-eater penned so vividly by Brewer. But her literary origins are classical, perhaps making her one of the oldest female archetypes.

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Ploughshares Spring 2015: An Extended Introduction by Guest Editor Neil Astley

411banner blogWhy is it that most American poets know very little about contemporary poetry from Britain and Ireland? A good number of them are published in Britain; they give readings at festivals in the UK and Ireland where they’re able to meet and hear the work of their British and Irish counterparts. Many of the poets they meet here will not only be much more familiar with current American poetry than the Americans are with British and Irish poetry, they will also have been influenced by a wide range of American poets—modernist, postmodernist and mainstream alike. A number of American poets have even become role models to British poets, including John Ashbery and Jorie Graham for our postmoderns, Sharon Olds for women poets, and Terrance Hayes for the younger generation of British black and Asian poets.

So why does most of the traffic appear to be one-way?

The main cause, I believe, has been the partial, haphazard and, in some cases, falsified ways in which British and Irish poetry has been presented to American writers and readers by publishers and editors of anthologies and magazines.

There are representative anthologies, but few of these seem to have travelled the Atlantic or been picked up in the US—mostly notably four books offering millennial overviews: Poetry in Britain and Ireland after 1945, edited by Sean O’Brien (Picador, 1998); The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945, edited by Simon Armitage and Robert Crawford (Viking, 1998); Harvill Book of Twentieth-Century Poetry in English, edited by Michael Schmidt, which covers the US and Australia as well as Britain and Ireland (Vintage, 1999); and Bloodaxe Book of 20th Century Poetry from Britain and Ireland, edited by Edna Longley (Bloodaxe, 2000).

There’s also a four-book “chain” of anthologies representing successive generations of British and Irish poets, beginning with A. Alvarez’s The New Poetry (Penguin, 1962). Prefaced with selections by four influential Americans (Berryman and Lowell, with Sexton and Plath added to the revised 1965 edition) and his combative “Beyond the Gentility Principle” essay, Alvarez sought to represent “the most significant work of the British poets who began to come into their own in the ’50s” (no Irish allowed here). Only five of Alvarez’s poets, however, are still with us.Continue Reading

Round-Down: Is the “Most Challenged Books of 2014″ List Real?

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As anyone ever tasked with disciplining a child (or heck, even anyone who has ever been a child) can attest, telling someone they are forbidden from accessing something only makes that person more likely to want that particular thing. Case in personal point: when I was about thirteen, my parents came home from a trip with a special gift for me: the newest edition of the Harry Potter series. But I was not, they said, allowed to read it until the weekend, because it was a school night and already late and I needed to get to bed. Instead, I waited until they went to bed and snuck the book into my closet with a flashlight and read until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore.

Such is the psychology behind American Library Association’s annual Banned Books List, the most recent of which came out last week during National Library Week. The list helps the ALA draw attention to censorship efforts in communities across the United States (Harry Potter was once on the list), and, in some ways, helps promote the targeted titles in such a way that counteracts the efforts to censor them. Book are ranked, according to the ALA, by how many formal challenges are lodged against them in community or individual efforts to remove them from libraries.

Sherman Alexie, author of 2014’s most challenged book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, tweeted that he was proud to top the list. And no wonder, since some articles have pointed out the usefulness of a book receiving the “banned” label.

Another controversial title from 2014 includes And Tango Makes Three, a children’s book by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell about two male penguins who find and adopt a baby penguin. It’s, as Leslie Knope would say, “cute.” Leslie Knope, for those poor, confused, deprived people who are as of yet unaware, is the protagonist of the hit show Parks and Recreation who works as a dedicated government bureaucrat passionately fighting for what she believes in. In one episode, she accidentally marries what turn out to be two male penguins in order to promote attendance at the local zoo. When she comes under fire from the Society for Family Stability Foundation, Leslie is only that much more determined to stand by her actions.

It is quite possibly because of the extra publicity banned books receive that conservatives like Dan Kleinman, self-appointed library “watchdog” and patent lawyer and founder of the Safe Libraries organization, are upset. Kleinman went as far as to accuse the ALA of faking their banned books list back in 2010, when Tango first appeared on it. He is quoted in this article saying he has no doubt, given evidence he had provided earlier, that the list is suspect this year. His “evidence,” as listed on his blog, is that he overheard another top-ten-banned-book author, Amy Sonnie, say that she was told by an ALA representative that her book only received a few challenges, but that because it was banned from a library, it merited a spot on the list. Sonnie’s book, Revoluntionary Voices, is an anthology for and by queer youth. Kleinman then claims to have called the ALA and have gotten a representative to tell him And Tango Makes Three only received four challenges in 2010. (And I’ll tell you what, even if that’s true, that’s still four times more intolerance than I’m comfortable with).Continue Reading

Impossible to Pin Down: Truth & Memory in Nonfiction

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Nonfiction as a genre confronts the discordance between memory—a slippery, subjective entity that can be the antithesis of truth—and actuality. Roy Peter Clark writes of the “essential fictive nature of all memory.” Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, editors of Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, write “of the elusive nature of recollection.” Roy Peter Clark‘s essay, “The Line Between Fact and Fiction,” in the Nieman Foundation’s guide, explores this further:

The way we remember things is not necessarily the way they were. This makes memoir, by definition, a form in which reality and imagination blur into a ‘fourth genre.’ The problems of memory also infect journalism when reporters, in describing the memories of sources and witnesses, wind up lending authority to a kind of fiction. […] The postmodernist might think all this irrelevant, arguing that there are no facts, only points of view, only takes on reality influenced by our personal histories, our cultures, our race and gender, our social class. The best journalists can do in such a world is offer multiple frames through which events and issues can be seen. Report the truth? They ask. Whose truth?

It’s one thing to be subject to memory’s slippery subjectivity, and another to consciously pick and choose where to place scenes. The latter is evidence of an experienced writer, who chooses responsibility to the narrative over the facts. Vivian Gornick might agree with this approach in The Situation and the Story:

A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. […] Truth in memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required.

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Try to Become Him

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One thing I’ve learned teaching in the Cornell Prison Education Program is that a person in prison, more often than not, is someone whose whole life has felt like a long imprisonment. People don’t become prisoners at random. First came the violences of neglect or poverty. Or the glimpses of horror. As children, they were the first to find their father’s body, or the last hope to feed their family. These are not uncommon beginnings. And yet, knowing their lives had been marked by this, I was still surprised at the particular ways they interpreted stories.

Early in the semester was Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I didn’t see it coming, but to them, it was a study of the incarcerated mind. They recognized how one’s thoughts in a hostile environment are prone to wanderlust, how a person can “slip away into daydreams, just pretending.” Yes, they agreed, “imagination was a killer,” but a necessity, too, as it was for Lieutenant Cross. They understood how O’Brien’s soldiers could be “too frightened to be cowards.” Yes, there are expectations in prison: keep the emotions to a minimum, keep the personal holed up so that it can’t be used against you. Walk coolly past the meanness, the stabbing, don’t look flustered, keep kindness under wraps, don’t let a soul take advantage of you. Both war and prison can turn you into monsters, one said, and many nodded.

A few weeks later, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” again read to them as an allegory of imprisonment. Of course the pattern on a wall can become embodied. One of the old timers in the class told of a guy he knew who’d befriended a cockroach while in solitary confinement.  They each seemed to shudder—privately, of course—at the depiction of the mind’s frailty under duress. I think they each felt the real possibility of becoming that narrator.

I was enlarged myself by their readings, and told them so. One of the most satisfying parts of a teacher’s work is making a student’s ideas, grounded in experience and deep reflection, feel legitimate. This prison program gives them a platform to be listened to and taken seriously, and this makes all the difference, considering that only a person who feels like he matters will open his mouth to speak at all. Self-worth is the difference between a blank page and a stab at text. A student must believe he has knowledge to make and share. When he searches that middle distance in front of him—as we all do in the act of writing—trying to follow the moths of his thoughts, he must believe that in his air flits thoughts worth pursuing. Prison can make a person’s air feel empty. Seeing students writing diligently in a space of meditative quiet is gratifying in any classroom, but especially in prison, where communal silence, nearly impossible to come by, is a sanctuary.

But tantamount to realizing that their readings matter is realizing that their readings are not enough. None of ours are. Virginia Woolf’s “Do not dictate to the author, try to become him” presided over us on the blackboard. Is this possible? There was debate in class. I believe it is, and I tried communicating this to them, that expanding one’s perspective is possible, is necessary even, as necessary as O’Brien’s “imagination,” is an act of imagination itself. I told them that before meeting them I’d never envisioned prisoners to be gentle, or smart, or afraid, or wanting desperately to repair themselves. Now I know better. I’ve been changed beautifully and irrevocably by brushing up against realities I once didn’t understand.

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “The Know-It-All” by Jeff Spitzer

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Some narrators announce their unreliability in the opening sentences of a short story (see Matt Sumell’s “All Lateral”), and in this way their skewed vision of the world serves as a stylistic lead, drawing readers in. In “The Know-It-All,” from the latest New Ohio Review, Jeff Spitzer creates a narrator whose reliability is revealed slowly, aiding the development of a satire as hilarious as it is terrifying.

We meet this narrator as he’s debating with his wife whether to attend a New Year’s Eve party with his co-workers, whom he considers “…fellow academics, the least redeemable bores in human society…” But the real reason he doesn’t want to go is Charlotte Roon, a wildly successful professor with a penchant for lording it over her colleagues. We discover that at the same party, two years ago, she’d shamed the narrator, who drunkenly quoted a stanza to Whittier.

“A surprised silence. People stared oddly in my direction as I halted, my glass poised before me.

‘Whitman,’ said Charlotte Roon.

‘Pardon?’

‘Whitman wrote it. Whittier could never have written it.’”Continue Reading

Our Spring 2015 Transatlantic All-Poetry Issue is Now Available!

3D Spring transparentWe are excited to announce that the Spring 2015 issue of Ploughshares, guest-edited by Neil Astley, is available for purchase! For the first time in our forty-four year history, we present a transatlantic issue focused entirely on poetry.

Acclaimed publisher and editor Neil Astley, founder of Bloodaxe Books, guest-edited this special issue, which features poets from North America, Great Britain, and Ireland. The issue contains a stirring diversity of work: the writers have roots everywhere from Guyana to Pakistan to Zambia, and have written not just in English, but also in Welsh, Irish, Gaelic, and Scots. Much of the work is from accomplished British and Irish poets who are still little-known in the States. As Astley writes in his introduction, the issue aims to break down “the illogical divide between readerships on either side of the Atlantic,” and spark a conversation that will enliven and invigorate both poetic traditions. This issue features poetry by Fleur Adcock, Elaine Feinstein, Nick Flynn, Tony Hoagland, Michael Hofmann, Roddy Lumsden, Paul Muldoon, Roger Reeves, Ahren Warner, Matthew Zapruder, and almost a hundred other poets.

With this issue, we’re offering a couple of blog-only extras: Below, watch a selection of the poets read the poems they contributed to the issue. Next Wednesday, check back for a special extended version of Neil’s introduction to the issue!

If you would like to read our Spring 2015 issue, and you aren’t already a subscriber, subscribe to Ploughshares today! You’ll get great reads, ideas for your own writing, and the ability to submit your work to us for free!Continue Reading

Review: THE PAPER MAN by Gallagher Lawson

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The Paper Man
Gallagher Lawson
Published: May 12, 2015
Unnamed Press
261 pages

Buy: book

 

A man with a papier mâché body and hair made of yarn attempts to break out of his protected, isolated, and stagnant life and escape to an unnamed city. On the bus, a one-eyed man steals his belongings. Caught in a scuffle, the paper man’s arm tears, and on his own for the first time, he faces the menace of rain, which could turn him to pulp. A mermaid lies dead on the sidewalk and an unemployed fur model who collects (and smells of) mushrooms takes him in. Even this strange world full of outsiders is, it turns out, a dangerous place for a man made of paper, forcing him into dependence on others, vulnerable to becoming their “project,” made and remade by them.

This is the somewhat surreal and dystopian premise of Gallagher Lawson’s The Paper Man, in which lines between life and art and art and politics are not always clear. Part Frankenstein, part Pinocchio, attracting comparisons to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, The Paper Man resembles magical realism in its pairing of fantastical elements with a matter-of-fact, even earnest, tone. Michael, once human but rebuilt and reanimated by his artist father after an accident, evolves in the course of the story from creator to creation to creator again, constantly blurring life and art. Originally named Michaelangelo, becoming an objectified outsider fixed up, torn down, and re-created again by others, he is renamed David. Then, gradually if uneasily and somewhat horrifyingly, he triumphs over his own creation, Adam.

In an often nightmarish narrative in which every element feels representational, a stand-in for something else, a Symbol with a capital S, thematic with a capital T, there are moments that I wished Lawson had followed the advice of Michael’s sadistic childhood friend Mischa: “Stop thinking and feeling so much and just do your art.” But ultimately, this is a compelling story that sticks with the reader, examining art and its creation from a dizzying variety of angles and raising fascinating questions about ownership, celebrity, autonomy, the limits of self, and the essence of our humanity.

Lawson’s dark vision proves both intriguing and disturbing, partially summed up when one
character says to another, “Creativity is nothing more than transferring emotions, mostly
anxiety and fear, to the outside world.” But, of course, ultimately it is more than that. This is an unusual story about art’s costs and its capacity for exploitation, political influence, and profound change–and for its ability, finally, to humanize.

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Nancy McCabe is the author of four memoirs, most recently From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Gulf Coast, Fourth Genre, Newsweek, and many other magazines, won a Pushcart, and six times made the notable lists of Houghton Mifflin Best American anthologies.

Conquistador: A Tiny Interview with Rafael Acosta

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It’s no secret that Mexican letters are making a comeback. Though it should be said Mexican writers have never left the building. They’ve been around: working, translating, publishing in plain sight as the rest of the western world goes on lamenting boom writer after boom writer’s death. In the meanwhile, a new, millennial generation of writers has emerged on the heels of the now well-established Mexican literati comprised of the older statesmen and women of Mexican letters, which include names like Jorge Volpe, Mario Bellatin, Carmen Boullosa, and Elena Poniatowska among others. And while so many readers and critics focus on the cerebral, neck-up literature (with a capital “L”) that so many argue can only come from Mexico City, I’m finding myself drawn toward the literature coming from the epicenter of the contemporary Mexican moment itself: the great Mexican north. Ground zero of much of the drug wars in Mexico, yes, but also home to some of the best writers and writing happening today. Rafael Acosta is one of these writers and he’s the real deal. I interviewed Rafael Acosta who originally hails from Piedras Negras on the Texas-Mexico border. We talked about his new novel, Conquistador (Tierra Adentro Press), basketball, and the contemporary drug war in Mexico.Continue Reading