“Dear Ploughshares Forum”: Porn for Writers

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Here in Chicago, we have a series called Naked Girls Reading. No joke. I know what you’re thinking. You’re either asking yourself why this would be a thing, or why you don’t live in Chicago, or whether there isn’t a Naked Boys Reading series. (Only in London, apparently, and can we please fix that?)

If you aren’t lucky enough to make it to one of these events, don’t worry! Here is some porn for writers. Eight porns, to be exact. Writers are a varied lot, so I’ve tried to include something for everyone. Well, almost everyone. Some of y’all are sick.

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The Right Words

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For my daughter, who just turned two, language is plastic. She pokes it and stretches it to find out what it can do. Joyfully, she tells stories (only some of them true) about her day. She loves to list the parts she and the cat do and don’t have in common.

When it comes to colors, though, she just won’t play—at least not the way I want her to. “What color is the duck?” I ask, pointing at the page.

She looks at me, grins, and says nothing.

“What color?”

Her grin gets wider. “Blue!

This is her customary answer for ducks, fire engines, leaves, pumpkins, and her hair.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “The Lips the Teeth the Tip of the Tongue” by Jessica Richardson


There is some form of self-expression in everything we do. Within the arts—writing fiction, for example—there is a spectrum to how overtly that self-expression is shown. Some authors prefer to make their authorial voice as invisible, or “objective” as possible, while others make quite clear through various means that without any doubt it is they, the author, who is writing. Most fiction writers, however, exist somewhere in between, and often feel a tension between the desire to express themselves and the desire create great art. Jessica Richardson, in her short story “The Lips the Teeth the Tip of the Tongue” (Indiana Review) explores this dynamic through her protagonist Baby Girl Bristol, an auctioneer.

From a young age, Baby Girl Bristol was incredibly gifted at the rapid-fire delivery required of auctioneers. Richardson informs us that, “Her tongue trilled and twirled numbers like sparkler batons at a mere eight years old.” Quickly, her path in life was set. “Parents were alerted, scholarships secured, and she was shipped off to a school,” and soon she was traveling the world selling goods.

But from the very beginning, coinciding with her burgeoning success was a growing sense of isolation.

When she was a wee lass of six now seven, she had six, does she hear seven, her parents were beginning talks about a looming divorce…She needed a safe place to talk about her feelings, but her parents were firm faced farmers…Instead of burdening her peers who seemed quite content to chew on erasers and stick yarn in their braces, or her teachers with their perfectly hair sprayed bouffants feeding Scantrons into grading machines, she took to integrating her unexpressed thoughts into her chants.

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THE NEUTRAL CORNER: Michael Hofmann’s “Where Have You Been?” And Gottfried Benn’s “Impromptus”


The neutral corner is one of the two corners of the ring not used by boxers between rounds. It is also the corner a boxer must retreat to after he has floored his opponent. The Neutral Corner was also a bar in Saratoga Springs, New York, that I frequented when at Yaddo in the late seventies. Framed photographs of famous fighters, signed to the owner with effusive greetings, covered the walls. They would have been impressive except that the handwriting on each was identical.

This blog series, the Neutral Corner of Ploughshares, will bring attention to new books, mostly poetry, and to older books that have recently given me pleasure.


gottfried benn_michael hofmann_IMPROMPTUSMichael Hofmann’s most recent book of translations is Gottfried Benn’s Impromptus: Selected Poems and Some Prose (FSG, 2013). I love Benn’s dark wit, and find a kind of courage in his pessimism, as in the ending lines of “No Tears”:

please no tears
no one say: oh I was so lonesome.

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Tidy This: An Imagined Conversation with a Popular Tidying Expert


We walk into my bedroom, where the Tidying Expert senses immediately that I have too many books. The term “book hoarder” is on the tip of her tongue. She wears a fresh mint-green cardigan and peers menacingly over a clipboard.

“We’ll start by putting the books in the center of the room,” she says, pointing to a bare spot on the carpet next to the cat.

“Pull them off the shelves?” I ask, already reaching for Thornton Wilder, who has been piled on top of Percival Everett, who has been piled on top of Eudora Welty.

“We’ll discard the ones you won’t return to,” she says crisply, as I bring stacks of books to the dumping ground. Soon, we are waist-deep in Willa Cather and Dennis Johnson, Sharon Olds and Millay, Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers.

The Tidying Expert holds up a pale pink paperback I’ve had since high school, Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

“Does this spark joy in you?” the Tidying Expert asks, waving the book at me.

“No,” I say, thinking of Heathcliffe and Catherine. “Great heartbreak and longing, actually.”

“Toss,” she says, cruelly, flinging it toward the trash pile. The cat flees underneath the bed.

The Expert holds up Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.

“What do you feel now?”

“The weight of adulthood.”Continue Reading

Oscar Wilde and the Stereotype

1200px-A_Wilde_time_3Each semester, I ask my freshmen writing students what at first seems like an obvious question: “What is a stereotype?”

Students tend to love the word. They use it all the time. They talk about challenging stereotypes, resisting stereotypes, and being stereotyped. And yet, I’ve never once had a student get the question right.

The “type” in stereotype doesn’t mean the same thing as “kind” or “class” or “category.” Not literally. The word originally referred to type–as in letters. Like the kind I’m moving my fingers across right now. Think of a time before computers in the age of printing presses—back then, setting type was a complex and laborious process. A single page required hundreds of pieces of type. And it required a skilled typesetter to set it and print it correctly.

It’s in all that work that the stereotype comes in.

As the demand for books grew and grew about two-hundred years ago, printers began to realize that the process of setting type created a problem. Type was expensive. And once you had set a number of pages in type, you had a lot of time and money invested in something that would eventually need to be taken apart. So, they started making plaster casts of the pages and then filling those casts with lead. Voilà, the stereotype was invented.

Now they could use all of that type to make something else. And they never had to go through the work of setting the pages of that book again. There was just one drawback: all of those letters, words, and phrases were now static. They couldn’t ever be changed.Continue Reading

Round-Down: Penguin Random House Launches Its New Website



It has been a little less than three years since the Penguin-Random House merger announcement was made, and the new company, Penguin Random House, just recently launched its new, joint website. The site is clean, highly functional, and features a home page that encourages engagement with PRH’s many excellent authors and titles. The house’s commitment to bridging the gap between readers and writers is apparent on the new site in this way; in addition, the site provides viewers with links to all of its social media profiles and the Penguin Random House blog.

In 2012, Penguin and Random House announced plans to merge, uniting as a huge, single force in the publishing world. In The New York Times’s coverage of this merging, Julie Bosman wrote that “[t]ogether, Penguin and Random House will make up the biggest and most dominant publisher in the business, one that has unmatched leverage against Amazon.com and the potential to inspire other mergers in the industry.” The two houses joined to become, as Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle put it, the first global trade-book publishing company. “One goal of the merger,” Bosman quotes Dohle, “is to ‘crack the code of discoverability’—of how to put books in front of potential buyers—‘in a world with fewer bookstores.’” When the news was announced in October 2012, it caused a stir in the literary community, with authors, editors, and agents all wondering how, exactly, the change would look.

Penguin and Random House made a point to note, when the news of their merging broke, that the change would be slow, that it would not be a sudden and intense jolt to the world of book publishing. Still, the few years since the announcement and subsequent merge have been like a held breath, with all waiting for the new publishing force to move online. The three-year waiting period for this seems to my mind proof of the care taken throughout the merger–the light but firm pressure applied to the companies in the effort to make a new publishing house from two major houses with outstanding reputations. What might seem a kind of lag in the move to the online space has actually been a calculated period of transition–one that, with the publishing industry’s often necessary few-years-long production cycles, really required a period of waiting.

At Publisher’s Weekly, Calvin Reid covered the merged house’s recent move online. There, Dohle says that the site is “consumer-focused.” And this really seems to be the case–the site offers a lot to those interested in buying books or staying up to date on the house’s activity–the Penguin Random House newsletter is marketed alongside bestselling and award-winning books, new releases, and upcoming titles.

Penguin Random House released a promotional Vine several days ago, and posted it to its social media accounts. The short video presents the text “It’s never been easier to get lost in our books” before cutting to a still of many book covers that then rearrange themselves to form the new Penguin Random House website itself. The suggestion here is that the new site is actually made from its books, and, further, that Penguin Random House highly values its titles and readers. It’s an impressively clean start for the publishing house. Watch the Vine here.

PRH’s new life on the web should, from the look of it, only help in the brand’s growth as it moves forward in an industry with a fast-changing landscape.

The Funniest Writer You’ve Never Read

RichlerThe funniest writer you’ve never read is a deceased Canadian named Mordecai Richler. The author of ten novels, a short story collection, and several books of essays, Richler was—and is—hugely famous in Canada. That he is not well known in this country is possibly a product of our curious parochialism as American readers.

I’ll begin where Richler himself might have—with his flaws.

One part Philip Roth, one part Borscht Belt, one part wholly original scrapper from the Jewish ghetto of Montreal, Richler was a divisive figure, a gimlet-eyed satirist who spared no one. The first line of his obituary in the New York Times called him “cranky and combative,” a send-off to aspire to. “Over a long career,” the obit goes on, “he infatuated readers on two continents and managed to offend nearly everyone in some way.”Continue Reading

“Beruffled Little Wet Apron” or “Vast and Prodigious Cadence of Water”?: Bicycling at Niagara Falls




As a child in the Midwest, I was shocked to find out that my parents hadn’t honeymooned at Niagara Falls, which I’d thought was sort of a requirement. It turned out that they’d instead spent three days in Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain country. Niagara Falls seemed even more romantic by contrast, more mythical.

Mark Twain himself was initially not that impressed when he visited Niagara Falls. He wrote,

When I first approached [the Falls] it was with my face lifted toward the sky, for I thought I was going to see an Atlantic ocean pouring down thence over cloud-vexed Himalayan heights, a sea-green wall of water sixty miles front and six miles high, and so, when the toy reality came suddenly into view—that beruffled little wet apron hanging out to dry—the shock was too much for me, and I fell with a dull thud.”

I have now lived near Niagara Falls for almost fifteen years, far from my Midwestern home, and I’ve always found it mesmerizing to stand by the guard rails directly above the Horseshoe Falls, above all of that crashing power, water racing, then plunging, mist rising above it. While my wonder is partly about the sight itself, its layers of history and the words of others, even Twain’s disappointed ones, contribute to it.

Father Hennepin, one of the first white explorers to stumble across the Falls, called them “this vast and prodigious cadence of water.” The Duke of Argyle was enthralled by “the leaping and rushing of the water” and Anthony Trollope compared the “voice of the cataract” to “the expression of your own heart.” Being there, particularly my first few years of living in the area, far from home, feeling fragmented, something about the Falls made me feel as if a thousand far-flung pieces of myself were stitching back together. The past couldn’t go on feeling like a chain of broken links in the face of those rapids flowing from one swell to another, rushing toward something momentous, toward the inescapable free fall of real life.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Thank You For the _______” by Becky Adnot-Haynes


Some stories get their complexity from the weaving of plot twists, some from the myriad of possible outcomes facing a character making a tough decision. Some—Raymond Carver’s “Fat” for instance—gain their complexity by the layering of different stories on top of each other. Becky Adnot-Haynes, in “Thank You For the ________” (Hobart 15), is one of the latter. Throughout, her protagonist uses a series of seemingly unrelated stories to try to get at an elusive truth that she just can’t explain, creating a collage of images that add up to a cohesive whole.

We meet the protagonist in a motel room she’s sharing with her husband because bedbugs have infested their home. They’re watching a show on cable in which “a woman … donates her kidney to her mother and then asks for it back when she finds out she was adopted.” While her husband says that that’s only fair, the protagonist argues that you can’t take that kind of gift back, even if you wouldn’t have made that decision if you knew what you know now.

“They can’t just go their separate ways,” I say.
“It’s the thought that counts,” he says, “is basically what you’re saying.”
“No,” I say. “That’s not what I’m saying at all.”

From this misunderstanding springs the second attempt at explaining why taking the kidney back isn’t feasible. She begins telling a story from her childhood about giving a gift of facial cream to a friend who had bad skin—and not realizing until after she’d given away the gift how inappropriate it was. But instead of tying this into the original argument—the ethics of gift-giving—Adnot-Haynes leaves the thread dangling. The protagonist seems to forget the original line of thought. They begin talking over the movie about other matters and much like the movie they are watching, “the plot has dwindled.”Continue Reading