Goliath: Reading Kyle Dargan’s “Honest Engine” During the Baltimore Riots


I read Kyle Dargan’s poem “Goliath” the night of the Baltimore riots. I was in Mexico City where the images of the riots made it to the Mexican presses before the story did—Freddie Gray, the police beatings, his snapped spinal cord. The details simply hadn’t been translated yet. But the beautiful thing about a riot, anywhere in the world, is that the literal image always translates. Every single time.

Even my barber who cares about nothing—not even his own kids, not even my hair—knew the real story was about dignity. We talked about that for a long while. And then we finally came to the semi-conclusion that the stakes of any riot is human dignity. Neither of us could articulate that thought further. So, I sat in silence.

I remember, thinking of something to fill the silence, that “Goliath” came to mind. But you quickly learn not to be that guy in the barber shop. You can talk about news or sports or sexy ladies but you can never talk about poetry. Nevermind that “Goliath,” like so much of Dargan’s newest collection, Honest Engine (University of Georgia Press), articulates the seemingly impossible, the incredibly nuanced.

Reading Honest Engine, you can’t help but feel haunted by Dargan’s poems. Haunted in your everyday life, in your personal moments—but also in the collective ones too—watching the news, shooting the breeze with your barber.

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New Ploughshares Solo: “Heading for a Total Eclipse” by John Philip Drury

Drury-Final-LoResWe are excited to announce the publication of our most recent Ploughshares Solo, “Heading for a Total Eclipse” by John Philip Drury! In our Ploughshares Solos series, we 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 “Heading for a Total Eclipse”
In this touching and humorous essay, John Philip Drury recounts coming of age during the Vietnam Era. With a low draft number and an exit from college looming, Drury faces the imminent possibility of fighting in a war that he opposes. In the meantime, he tries and abandons a dream to become a songwriter, labors mightily to lose his virginity, and looks to the adult world around him for models of what he most wants to be—an artist. “Heading for a Total Eclipse” takes a look at a young man’s attempt to maintain his integrity during a turbulent era, and in the face of impossible choices.

“Heading for a Total Eclipse” is available on Pshares.org for $1.99.

Here’s an excerpt from the Solo:

As the program began, a congressman who served on the Armed Services Committee reached down into a glass barrel and pulled up a blue capsule bearing the name of a month and a day. He was followed by young people, both male and female, who extracted the rest of the birthdays, plunging their arms into the big fishbowl. It didn’t take long for the suspense to end, since my birthday, June 4, emerged as number 20.

I was stunned at my misfortune. I wasn’t looking forward to returning to the one-bedroom apartment I shared with another sophomore, Glenn Twilley, whose lottery number turned out to be 366, the very last birthday selected by Selective Service, the extra day of leap-year. I felt annoyed, even bitter about the irony, since he was a Republican who supported the war—not that he wanted to go to Vietnam and do any fighting himself.

It struck me as ironic that earlier that year I had written, in a letter to a friend, “If I’m drafted I won’t go; if I go, I’ll enlist.” Now I was number 20, assured of being drafted if I ever lost my student deferment. On campus, male classmates greeted each other not with their names but with their numbers, laughing if they got above 200, groaning if they didn’t break into triple digits. Life, after all, was a numbers racket.Continue Reading

Round-Down: eBooks on the Go


Two new partnerships with digital media distribution platforms are allowing publishers to make it even easier to get electronic books in the hands of travelers this month.

On May 6, Kobo, a Rakuten company, and Global Eagle Entertainment, Inc. launched a reading platform that will allow Southwest Airlines passengers to access, through their personal WiFi-enabled devices, a complimentary entertainment portal while onboard. This portal will be replete with full books and extended previews of top titles and new releases from major publishers such as Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and more.

Similarly, on May 15, Simon & Schuster announced a partnership with Foli, another digital-content mobile-distribution company that has specialized in providing hotels and airports with access to digital copies of leisure magazines. Together, the two companies will use geo-location technology to deliver a specific book, or collection of books, to a specific location. To kick off, Simon & Schuster is making available David McCullough’s highly anticipated biography The Wright Brothers available at the National Air and Space Museum, several airports, and the Wrightsville Memorial in North Carolina. It will make several bestsellers available at partnering hotels and airport lounges across the U.S.

Both digital delivery platforms will make the books available to customers only while they are at specific locations (while aboard the Southwest airlines flights, or for a total of three days at the locations Simon & Schuster has selected for their titles), and allow users the option to purchase the books if they are not finished with them by the time their flights or stays end.Continue Reading

The Candles and the Soap: On Vonnegut, Death, and Repetition

Dresden, zerstörtes Stadtzentrum

Placed after a mention of death or dying, Kurt Vonnegut’s “So it goes” refrain throughout Slaughterhouse Five utilizes repetition to explore the inevitability of death. Early on in the book, Billy Pilgrim writes a letter to a newspaper about his experiences with extra terrestrials, and explains the origin of the phrase:

When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’

The phrase simultaneously dismisses and accepts the inevitability of death. “So it goes” seems so detached as to be irreverent and inappropriate. An incredibly simple three word sentence—so informal it catches the reader off guard in its plainness—is striking in juxtaposition to death. The phrase is so casual, it smacks of false familiarity and dismissiveness. It feels unceremonious, yet becomes ceremonious through its repetition, like the refrain of a song. It is so much more complex than just those three simple words; it admits the inevitability of death and offers a pause for the reader to truly consider the weight of what is written.

Only the candles and the soap were of German origin. They had a ghostly, opalescent similarity. The British had no way of knowing it, but the candles and the soap were made from the fat of rendered Jews and Gypsies and fairies and communists, and other enemies of the State.

Removing the repetition of “so it goes” from the text alters the book—note how the omission of it from the above paragraph makes the sentence so dark and depressing it’s almost impossible to read. Stripping the informal refrain of “so it goes” makes the book too formal, too gloomy; it robs the deaths their due attention, their pause, and removes the carefree yet careful acceptance of the uncompromising inevitability of death. Nothing can be done about death, and Vonnegut’s cool acquiescence of it serves as deeper advice than at first glance—a mantra of sorts.Continue Reading

Writing my way in, or, Writing my way out

cemeterySomewhere deep in the “remotest mansions of the blood,” where Lorca said the duende lives, I think I still have the capacity for a good cry. At some point in my life I lost this. Or it was wrested from me. Either way it’s now as foreign a tongue to me as Lorca’s Spanish.

I feel the urge sometimes, but only as a phantom limb. The world’s done its work on me. An army rises up to squash any lump in my throat.

Sir Philip Sidney’s Muse tells him, “Fool, look in thy heart and write,” where the true real-estate is. I like to imagine that this—the heart, the mansions of the blood, the trenches within us—is where I can recover that prelapsarian part of myself, before the world knotted my tie too tight.

A good cry doesn’t sound half bad. On the contrary, it sounds as good as any good thing, as good as a good piece of cake, or a good massage, or a good microfleece blanket. I remember obscurely when tears held no shame, watching my blurry wreckage in the mirror as a child, my cheeks flushed with crying, and the sensation afterwards of feeling lighter and breathless and cleansed from the inside out. But those days are long gone. Like a lot of men I know, a good cry sounds antithetical. It takes a Mack truck of hurt or warmth now to move me to tears in public. I feel an almost bodily resistance to it; it is as unthinkable as taking a step on a broken knee. It’s one of the few things many men pride themselves on not toughing out.

Recently I wrote about that silly superstition of holding my breath in the car as I pass a cemetery. You do this, too, admit it, because like me, you take every precaution possible to stave off dying, even if it’s uncomfortable and poses the risk of asphyxiation. The impulse was so arcane that I wrote the poem, to waylay that mystery. I finished, then waited.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Day Trip” by Noelle Catharine Allen


There’s a wonderful history of short stories where a character’s physical ills work as a metaphor representing larger problems, both personal and societal. For instance, in Julio Cortázar’s “Letter to a Lady in Paris,” the protagonist regularly vomits live rabbits, a reality we come to realize not only provides the reasons why an apartment has been destroyed, but an explanation for why the protagonist’s life has spiraled. In Noelle Catharine Allen’s “Day Trip” (Hunger Mountain 19), we meet a character who also regularly vomits live rabbits, but for reasons very different from the story to which it owes its literary conceit.

We begin when the protagonist Noelle and her son, Matthew, get stuck in a massive traffic jam outside of D.C. She takes stock of her belongings, among them a syringe. “I sent up a thank you prayer—to whatever deities I didn’t believe in—for the syringe…I always take a backup syringe in case something goes wrong with the injection.” It’s clear she’s ailing, but unlike Cortázar—who reveals the situation quickly—Allen chooses to keep the nature of her protagonist’s illness secret from the reader.

Allen does drop subtle hints over the next few pages, as the traffic jam stretches out over multiple days. “I hadn’t missed an injection in almost a year, so it was possible I might be OK…but if the rabbits came, I’d rather they did during the night.” Rabbits? we wonder. Is that some kind of metaphor? Readers familiar with Cortázar might hazard guess at her illness, especially after the protagonist makes a brief reference another of Cortázar’s stories, “How to Wind a Watch.” But the setting of the stories couldn’t be more different—traffic jam vs. apartment—and the causes of the protagonist’s illness diverge as well.Continue Reading

Emerging Writer’s Contest Deadline Extended to Friday, May 22


Good news! We’ve extended the deadline of our Emerging Writer’s Contest and will be accepting submissions until Friday, May 22, at 12 noon EST.

For more information and to submit, visit our website.

As a reminder, the Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Contest recognizes work by an emerging writer in each of three genres: fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. One winner in each genre will receive $1,000 and publication in the literary journal. We consider writers “emerging” if they have not published or self-published a book.

Indie Spotlight: Brighthorse Books

blog brighthorseHaving published their inaugural titles in 2015, Brighthorse Books is a brand-spanking new venture from novelists Jonis Agee and Brent Spencer. Based in Omaha, Nebraska, the press currently considers poetry, short fiction, and novel manuscripts through its annual Brighthorse Prize. By utilizing print-on-demand technology, Brighthorse also offers authors a 50/50 split on net book-sale profits, which, as most starving writers know, is pretty darn sweet.

More importantly, Brighthorse Books has hit the ground running with its initial trio of prize-winning titles. The novel Leaving Milan, by Elizabeth Oness, shares the quiet and powerful story of Harper Canaday, a young woman with more strikes against her than she deserves, who desires nothing more than a better life than the one she sees out her apartment window in a depressed Midwestern town. Rick Christman gives us Searching for Mozart, a collection of poetry both straightforward and poignant exploring the pain that lingers when a soldier returns home from Vietnam.

Maggie Boylan “a spiky little burned-out sparkler of a woman,” stars in Michael Henson’s The Way the World Is, a devastating short fiction collection about the incestuous relationship between local law enforcement and drug dealers as well as the clients they both share—hapless and resourceful addicts, of which Maggie is queen. Henson’s collection is easily the best fictional account of the widespread meth and Oxy wreckage in Appalachia since Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone.

The reading period for all three contests began on February 19, and Brighthorse will remain open for submissions until August 16, 2015, so you can enter nowFor Ploughshares, Brent Spencer explains the genesis of Brighthorse, what goes on behind the scenes, plus their plans for expansion in the future.

Kate Flaherty: The first question for any new independent press has to be why? What made the two of you agree to take the plunge into publishing?

Brent Spencer: Over the years, as writers and as teachers of creative writing, we’ve seen many manuscripts that should be published but don’t always find their way into print. At a certain point, we looked at each other and said, “Why don’t we publish them?” We’d each had experience as editors, and I ran a university press for several years, so we thought that, together, we might have the necessary skillset. We also wanted to find a way to give our graduate students in creative writing real-world experience as editors.Continue Reading

The Poetry of Subtle Movement

blue-agateIn recent months, Farrar, Straus and Giroux has released two poetry collections that encapsulate much of what I love about poetry: James Lasdun’s Bluestone: New and Selected Poems and Devin Johnston’s Far-Fetched. Lasdun and Johnston are quite different in style and subject matter, but they are both masters of the subtle shift, the poem that starts in an unassuming place and leads you away from the old logical paths to a fresh perspective.

I first fell in love with Devin Johnston’s work while reading his 2011 poetry collection, Traveler, and his prose collection, Creaturely and Other Essays. There’s a Thoreauvian sense of wandering in all his prose and poetry—a wandering over the landscape, language, and history of the United States—coupled with a mastery of form uncommon in an American poet. In Far-Fetched the tone is usually serious (except when he’s skillfully imitating Scottish lyric or translating Catullus or bouncing through rhyming couplets) and there is a prevailing mood of quiet and contemplation.

Better to show than tell. Here’s “Orpingtons,” originally published in the July/August 2014 issue of Poetry magazine and included in Far-Fetched:

A pair of Orpingtons,
one blue, the other black,
with iridescent necks
and fine, ashen fluff
cackle through the dark,
their damp calls close enough
to chafe, a friction with no spark.

They settle down to roost,
two rests along a stave.
Each curls into itself,
comb tucked beneath a wing,
as the days grow long enough
to kindle in each a yolk,
the smallest flame of spring.

To me, the two most telling lines in this poem are, “They settled down to roost, / two rests along a stave.” In this musical metaphor, the Orpingtons become rests, the symbols for silence in a musical score. To the audience, the rest doesn’t exist (because a rest is precisely that which can’t be heard), but the rest exists for the musician because it is seen written on the page. It’s all about perspective. Through imagination (and we first see the imagination flare up in that synaesthetic phrase “damp calls”) the poem pierces the surface world of the observer and lets our perspective shift to the private knowledge of the observed.Continue Reading

Round-Down: North Carolina and Idaho Schools Face Proposed Book Bans


Concerns over the age-appropriateness of books is nothing new. Efforts to ban books are perennial attempts of, assumedly, those worried about a book’s potential to negatively impact a reader too young to access its merit. At Melville House, Taylor Sperry discusses the recent attempt at banning Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men by parents of students at schools in North Carolina and Idaho, respectively.

As reported in The Citizen-Times, Reynolds High School in Asheville North Carolina has “temporarily suspended” Hosseini’s The Kite Runner from its classrooms. Former school board member and parent of a Reynolds High student Lisa Baldwin cited the fact that Reynolds High School had begun using The Kite Runner in its curriculum in place of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front in her frustrations. She says, “It’s not only the language in the book (The Kite Runner) and the adult themes . . . it’s the fact that they have removed a classic novel (All Quiet On the Western Front) from the curriculum without parents knowing about it.” The Kite Runner will not be taught until the request for its removal has been reviewed.

Mary Jo Finney, a parent of a Coeur D’Alene high school student, took issue with Steinbeck’s work being taught in the school. At The Spokesman-Review, she says, “’The story is neither a quality story nor a page turner.’” She cites the ostensibly gratuitous amount of profanity in the book as the real problem. Finney is calling for the book to be pulled from classroom instruction.

In the case of the Asheville situation, it is hard to set aside the fact that Remarque’s novel is brutal and stark and certainly contains “adult themes” (a phrase so vague it is stripped of power). The bottom line seems to be that great works contain great struggle, and that conflict can appear in ways the discomfort and unsettle us. The larger question is: When does this material affect us as readers in a way that is out of proportion with its merit and vision? The Kite Runner is a classic–hard-hitting, bestselling, and doing important work in portraying real struggle.

The problem as I see it with the call for the ban in Idaho is that books have no obligation to be objectively “quality stor[ies]” (a designation that strikes me as risibly subjective)–nor is Steinbeck’s book’s status as “not a page-turner” at all inherently problematic. As the Clean Reader app recently demonstrated, it seems we’ll do just about anything to micromanage the telling–and we’ll miss the point entirely.

Books succeed or fail with regards to the attention they pay to their vision, and language, like all elements of craft, should be constantly dedicated to this vision. When we tamper with that objective via censorship, we are forcing ourselves into relationships as collaborators on a story that is not only not ours to tell, but not ours to assume or appropriate. Stories are ours to experience as a writer intends. When we refuse a story for its language, for its essential components, we run the dangerous risk of eschewing valuable experience, of opening ourselves to the real learning gleaned from other time periods and cultures, from other people and places, from circumstances and conflicts both like and unlike ourselves.