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

Between Optimism and Pessimism: How to Set Our Baby Monitors?

Adolf_Hiremy-Hirschl,_Die_Seelen_des_AcheronPessimism is not particularly hard. I thought of this last month when I spent an hour in my brother’s kitchen near the baby monitor through which I could hear my poor twenty-two-month-old niece hacking up phlegm. After an hour I began to mistake this noise for the wind, or for my own thoughts. Moments of quiet could only mean she had stopped breathing. This might as well have been the soundtrack to pessimism, or perhaps a microcosm of how it overtakes anyone who has lived long enough.

Colum McCann knew this well before and more keenly than I ever did (and better-scarfed). In his masterpiece Let the Great World Spin, the preacher at young Jazzlyn’s funeral declared that “goodness was more difficult than evil.” Goodness “had to be fought for.” And the fight is difficult, indeed—it took a funeral preacher to speak the words.

Let’s face it: there’s not a single day that the flag of any sensible adult should be above half-mast. Which is why I think being called optimistic is a gentler way of being asked, “So are there just no newspapers where you live?” McCann tells Nathan Englander in their postscript conversation: “The cynics of this world—the politicians, the corporations, the squinty-eyed critics—seem to think that . . . it’s cooler, more intellectually engaging, to be miserable, that there’s some sort of moral heft in cynicism.”Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Taxonomy” by Alix Ohlin

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The opening sections of Alix Ohlin’s wonderful short story “Taxonomy,” (TriQuarterly 146) shows how a simple plot can open into a compelling mystery through just a few quick descriptions.

In the first scene, the narrator Ed stops at a roadside Amish gift shop to try to find an appropriate gift for his daughter. As you might have experienced this holiday season, the more you know someone the more difficult it can be to buy a good present.

“At twenty-four, Meredith hasn’t cuddled a teddy bear in years, but the selection here is startlingly varied: gorillas, monkeys, snakes, and something that, if he squints and holds it at an angle, might be a lemur. What these animals might have to do with the Amish, he doesn’t know, but a lemur is a perfect gift, since that’s the animal Meredith is studying, in Madagascar. Studying and saving, or trying to save. As a budding conservation biologist, she’s researching the many species and subspecies of lemurs, along with their vanishing habitat. So she has explained to Ed—in, frankly, a bit too much detail—in passionate, jargon-heavy emails.”Continue Reading

Review: BRIGHT SHARDS OF SOMEPLACE ELSE by Monica McFawn

bright shardsBright Shards of Someplace Else
Monica McFawn
University of Georgia Press, September 2014
176 pages
$24.95

Buy: book

Every writer has faced the age-old question, “What makes a story?” History has provided us with plenty of satisfactory answers—in the excitement found in novelty or the resonance found in the ordinary. Monica McFawn’s short story collection Bright Shards of Someplace Else somehow encapsulates both. It features a world we simultaneously recognize and have never seen before. The collection was recently awarded the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Its eleven stories differ in length, in location, and in perspective. They tend to feature imperfect characters trying to solve complicated personal problems, and most of the stories take place over the span of a few hours. A much more poignant commonality between them, however, is the precision with which they are written.

A frequently irritating job of the writer is to describe fleeting, often inchoate day-to-day experiences. Bright Shards of Someplace Else is full of deftly captured moments: thoughts and feelings that we all have likely experienced but which might never have previously been expressed with such clarity. The stories in this collection, without seeming the slightest bit too long, manage to create worlds in which each passing thought or environmental detail lends itself to a greater significance. In one story, “The Slide Turned on End,” an artist asks a skeptical reporter to view the aesthetically pleasing aspect of amoebas on microscope slides. For a split second, the reporter sees and understands the beauty, and then the images shift. The artist mutters, “I know. It’s beautiful for a moment and then it’s garbage.” This capriciousness is inherent in art in many forms, including writing. McFawn’s collection manages to highlight individual moments in the instant when each is most unexplainably beautiful.Continue Reading

The Millenial-Gen X Rift And The Trouble With Latina/o Letters

 Tilde“Hector Tobar is our new hero,” a close friend of mine, a well known Chicano writer, proclaimed to me last week. I was back home in Austin. We were at the Whitehorse. He said it as if it were up for discussion in the first place. “I’m totally with him,” he said. This conversation in reaction to a quote Tobar gave to the Latin Post in an interview earlier this month:

“I really believe we are living through the beginning of a Latino Renaissance that will one day be compared to the Harlem Renaissance. Having said that, every literary culture produces mediocrity. Our mediocrity is populated by Isabel Allende imitators and lots of magical realism rehash written by authors who sell a vision of Latinos as colorful people of simple (and predictable) pleasures, a kind of shallow exoticism. I think our readers are way ahead of the game in their tastes, which explains the popularity of novelists like Roberto Bolaño, who a decade ago would have been seen as a fringe writer.”

The quote not only hit on the third rail of contemporary Latina/o literature. It struck it with an iron sledgehammer.

“The problem with latino letters after 2000,” my friend said, “is that it’s all written with so much heart. So much heart; so little substance.”

“Where is the virtuosity?” he asked. “The hard-mined narrative grit? The incredible research? The complex latina/o characters that aren’t cardboard victims? And this is really gonna hurt,” he said. “Where is the editing?”

It was as if he’d sliced the air in two. Or shattered crystal glass on tile. Or asked my mom out on a date. And then said he was going to be my dad.

“Are you simple or something?,” I said to him.Continue Reading