The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Sudden Squall” by Judy Reeves

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Leaving one’s spouse takes a lot of courage, and in the culture of the 1950s, that was even more the case. In “Sudden Squall” (Connotation Press), Judy Reeves explores a mother making that difficult choice, employing a particular sentence structure to shape the thematic content and reveal her protagonist’s character.

Two versions of this structure appear in the first paragraph of the story, both in privileged locations: the beginning at the end.

Except that the hills rose and fell and nudged the horizon in a rolling cadence, the space that spread before them would have been called wide open…Instead, the Buick nosed up, then down, then up and down again, a lazy roller coaster that lulled Louise and Roseann into napping in the back seat. Anna was the only one of the girls who stayed alert and were it not for the little girl’s insistent chatter, Lilly herself might have lapsed into a daze, or worse, into some reverie of how things might have been.

Were the country different, the nature of the drive would be as well. Were Lilly’s daughter different, so might have been Lilly’s frame of mind. Reeves uses this comparative if/then structure to show not just how Lilly thinks, but that another imagined reality—of how things might have been—is pressing on her.

This is important, because this car ride with her daughters is itself a decision to shape a new reality and escape an old one. Reeves reveals that her intention is to leave her cheating husband Sam to go and live with the children’s Aunt and Uncle.

Further along, she employs that same sentence structure to imagine what life would be like were she not to leave.

If she stayed and let him make up to her, for weeks on end she would have to give permission for each touch. Each time his hand lingered on her wrist, his fingertips grazed her hair. Forgive and forgive and forgive.

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On Moving and Shaking

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Photo by Gabriel Saldana

Most weeks since last August, I’ve taught writing with some volunteers at Orleans Parish Prison. We usually head over around midday, parking just off Canal Street and the Goodwill on Broad. Sometimes we’re asked to leave as soon as we arrive, and sometimes logistics warrant spur of the moment rescheduling—but, mostly, they like having us around. They dig what we do. We try to respect that.

There really isn’t a demonstrative sample of the students we teach (although they are, by way of circumstance, almost exclusively women), but their interest in the poems we bring is voracious. They don’t accept the usual lip service—they devour the subtext whole. They look for the meaning in the usual canon. They look for the meaning behind the usual meanings. And it’s hard enough contesting poetry’s worth in a stuffy grad workshop—but doing the same for folks who just want to know can make you think.

We’re often asked what poetry does. What’s lost if it doesn’t do anything. And an even bigger quandary is how this usefulness/banality affects marginalized populations—whether poetry can actually be utilized for social justice; and why it is that this aim, in certain well-meaning circles, inevitably stigmatizes the poem’s reception in the long run.

Because talking about “political poetry,” in relation to “everything else,” one would think they’re on the opposite ends of two inscrutable libraries.

It’s stupefying to think that a modern country, whose national figureheads openly debate banning Muslims, can also claim Rumi as a bestselling poet; but I think it’s fair to say, for better or worse, that poetry moves Americans. Our potential president-elects pen their requisite autobiographies; we sway to an anthem before all of the games. We are a poetic nation. Or at least we like to think so. But that disconnect is further evidence that the social justice tip is crucial; or, as Eileen Myles has said, that “poetry always, always, always is a key piece of democracy… as things get worse, poetry gets better, because it becomes more necessary.”Continue Reading

Review: THE WAKE by Paul Kingsnorth

THE WAKE_paul kingsnorthThe Wake
Paul Kingsnorth
Graywolf, Sept 2015
365pp, $16

Buy: paperback

Much has been made of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, crowdfunded to publication in England last spring and longlisted for the Man Booker Award. Set during and after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, The Wake follows a free farmer from the Lancashire fens who sees dark omens in the sky—a haeric star (hairy star, e.g. comet) and a blaec fugol (raven)—and experiences the apocalypse they bring.

Part of the success of The Wake, as other reviewers have noted, is Kingsnorth’s evocative deployment of a “shadow tongue,” a unique blend of Old and contemporary English which infuses the medieval tale with unique verisimilitude. Kingsnorth uses only Anglo-Saxon words that were part of the English language before its Latinization, a result of the Norman invasion itself. Combined with old English syntax—little punctuation, no capitalization—the book reads ancient, Beowulfian, though its themes—lament for the good old days, helplessness in the face of change, the ending world—are familiar.Continue Reading

The Required Pain and Suffering: Writing and Love

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What, if anything, does writing foreclose in life or between people?

Despite probably a million compelling counter examples, famous and anecdotal, to the Plath/Hughes model of artistic-romantic implosion, a master narrative about the impossibility of loving writers and loving while a writer simply…persists. It buttresses the imagined partition between needless fun and necessary sacrifice, as if what we do with our bodies is at once separate from and a threat to what we cultivate in our minds. Take, from my archive, three examples.

From its opening dissuasion—first, try to be something, anything, else—Lorrie Moore’s short story “How to Become a Writer” is a cheeky cautionary tale, a portrait of the aspiring artist as terminally antisocial. Though the story is episodic and elliptical, leaping months and years over the course of its “instructions,” it’s also structured by resurfacing motifs: repetitive similes for blankness, a fondness for explosions, and threaded among these, a quieter concern with the pained relation between writing and love.

We read that early failure is important “so that at fifteen you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire.” Later, the hypothetical writer steals her funny boyfriend’s jokes and uses her stories to malign his ex. Then an indeterminate era is condensed into the lines, “You now go out with men who, instead of whispering ‘I love you,’ shout: ‘Do it to me, baby.’ This is good for your writing.” To become a writer is to recuperate the letdown. Like earlier rejections at home and in school, questionable choices supply “the required pain and suffering.”Continue Reading

All Rise for the Story: Writing Lessons at Jury Duty

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We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience. — Joan Didion, The White Album

There seemed no crueler fate last November than to be drawn as a potential juror from a roomful of two hundred New Yorkers—all of us cold, sleepy but most of all impatient to return to our daily routines. All morning I waited to hear my name, certain with dread, panicking already about the hours the civic duty would surely engulf. With two jobs, my schedule was already rowdy.

Taking turns, we jurors testified to the details of our lives: occupation, birthplace, highest level of education, whether we’d been victims of violent crimes. Could we be impartial? Would we be fair? We were born in London, Scotland, the Philippines, living in Manhattan’s Harlem, Greenwich Village, Upper West Side. We were clinical technicians, line cooks, and energy traders who had escaped rape in Central Park, were mugged at knifepoint, had been in car accidents. We held a doctorate’s in Physics, two masters in Public Relations. Characters were taking shape. Next to me, a good-looking man in a navy suit blew loud, exasperated sighs. I edged away from his line of breath and lack of curiosity.

Sure enough I was summoned, screened, and appointed Juror #12 on a twelve-person jury. With what I thought was the unlucky lottery behind me, my four days of service turned out to be fabulous. The ritualistic tedium of the court fascinated me, the stenographer’s verbatim recordings, the sanctimony of due process. But at the root of it, I felt energized and encouraged by the weight and necessity of storytelling in the judicial process. The judge inquired with interest after a juror’s path from law to running a tree nursery, dismissed another who grew up hearing his nurse mother’s accounts of trauma in the ER. But it was the trial itself that served as a real lesson in storytelling.Continue Reading

Ornette Coleman and the Color of Fort Worth

ornette colemanOne night in the summer before I left for college, some friends and I piled into a car outside a coffee house in Fort Worth’s museum district. I don’t remember how we ended up on the other side of downtown, in an east Fort Worth neighborhood that I had never seen before. Fort Worth was then (and still is) a city big enough to get lost in, but small enough that you don’t really worry when it happens. We made a few turns, looking for a familiar street, and then passed an empty, stately building of yellow brick: I.M. Terrell High School.

I didn’t say anything to my friends, but I knew what I was seeing. That building, in the 1940s, housed a miracle of musical community. Inside those walls an amazing group of teenaged musicians—a half-dozen of whom would go on to make big contributions to mid-century jazz—had congregated, joked around, shared thoughts, learned lessons and traded notes. King Curtis, John Carter, Prince Lasha, Dewey Redman, Charles Moffett. And, of course, Ornette Coleman.

To that point, I had been reluctant to think of Fort Worth as my hometown. My family moved there when I was twelve—to this city with its cowboy slogans (“Where the West Begins”) where, twice a day, tourists watched city volunteers in cowboy costumes drive longhorn cattle down Exchange Avenue. That didn’t appeal to me as a teenager. Not because I was immune to the lure of the cowboy—what kid is?—but because it all seemed so inauthentic. Somehow, a whole chaotic, violent history (Hell’s Half-Acre! Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid!) had been turned into something civic, a selling point for the city. And though, as a middle-class white kid, I wasn’t exactly race-conscious, it was impossible not to notice the whiteness of the cowboy stories the city sold, and the way the city’s own mythology put it at odds with its diverse population.Continue Reading

Origin Story: Tony Tulathimutte’s PRIVATE CITIZENS

 

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Tony Tulathimutte’s debut novel, Private Citizens, charts the spectacular floundering of four recent college graduates. His eye is so sharp, his characters so recognizable, and his truth so pitiless that I sometimes had to close the book, as if he might read my soul through its pages. This is one of the most provocatively intelligent novels I’ve ever read.

I met Tony at a bar and asked him how the book came about.

David Busis: You said that before you started this book, you were writing pious, well-crafted stories. Did this book come out of a contrarian impulse, or did it come out of a willingness to take a risk that you weren’t willing to take before?

Tony Tulathimutte: Pure desperation. I hadn’t written almost anything for two years. I’d written a story collection that on some deep level I was too ashamed of to even try publishing, because of this issue of piety. The novel I’d been working on ended up dehydrating into a novella. Process-wise it was an important bridge between the older stuff and this, writing at greater length, but stylistically it was still like the old stuff. Once you’ve been writing a few years, it’s hard to let go of whatever little accolade or attention you’ve managed to get and start over with a new approach. But you have to, if you don’t want to stagnate.

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Structure: What Writers Can Learn from Visual Artists

Image courtesy of Julian Partridge

Image courtesy of Julian Partridge

Of all the rules that artists follow, this one is paramount: never ever fill in details before the structure is done.

Painters sometimes spend hours sketching before ever touching the canvas. And when they finally do, they build their work slowly, layering in color, laboring on the drawing underneath, roughing in the composition before tightening it up. And once the structure is securely in place, it takes vigilance to ensure it isn’t weakened or lost. Have you ever wondered what an artist is doing when she steps back from her easel and squints? She’s blurring out the details to see beyond them and take stock of the form underneath.

For years, I earned a living by this rule, sculpting superheroes and cartoon characters. Batgirl, Superman, Jimmy Nuetron, Big Bird, Bugs Bunny, Marge and Bart Simpson—hundreds of my original prototypes line the shelves in my studio.

Each figure began with a block of clay. I’d work the shape from all angles, adding and subtracting to it, leaving tool marks everywhere. With every change I’d step back. I’d look at it from above, below, and every angle in between. I often used an old art school trick and looked at it upside down in the mirror, all in an effort to look through the clay and see the structure of the figure underneath.Continue Reading

Reading POC is Grand but Why Aren’t We Reading Natives?

Leonardo DiCaprio called during his Golden Globes acceptance speech for viewers to deepen our appreciation and respect for First Nations tribes, and made-for-cable movies are showing Natives in a more positive, less violent light. But what about us writers and readers? Who among us is giving a shout out to indigenous writers? As for all those readers touting their year of reading People Of Color, how about we avoid skipping over Natives?

This blog series will feature just these authors throughout 2016. It will go into and beyond Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich because contemporary nativist titles come from Canada all the rugged way down to South America, and across oceans to Australia and New Zealand. They also extend to Taiwan, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, because according to some reports 370 million people across 70 countries can claim indigenous heritage.

It’s a bit surprising—given the trend to read exclusively women or non-white authors—more attention isn’t given to indigenous populations. Even my research or queries into the agencies active in promoting world lit are met with radio silence. Therefore it’s the goal of this blog to promote awareness of, interest in, and perhaps a surge among native lit in the mainstream. Through it, like other art forms and cultural resources, we glean an understanding of Natives’ ways of life and our role in their marginalization, and we forge a connection through our shared human condition.Continue Reading

ROUND-UP: PEN, Amazon Bookstores, and New Digital Book Series

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A snapshot at this week’s literary news, from PEN’s literary award shortlists to a new take on digital books:

  • PEN American announced their literary awards finalists for 2016 last week. Winners for Debut Fiction, Art of the Essay, Literary Science Writing, PEN Open Book, and PEN/Fusion Prize will be announced at the 2016 PEN Literary Awards Ceremony on April 11. The other remaining winners will be revealed on March 1.
  • Several sources have reported that Amazon has plans to open 300-400 physical bookstores across the country. The rumors started after Sandeep Mathrani, chief executive of the mall operator General Growth Properties, said to analysts, “Their goal is to open, as I understand, 300-400 bookstores.” Amazon opened one bookstore, called Amazon Books, in Seattle last year. The company has made no comment on these alleged plans, however, so the rumors may be false.
  • Google’s Creative Lab announced a partnership with London publisher Visual Editions to create a new digital bookstore for books that can’t be printed. The project plays with the concept of digital content by publishing “books that change dynamically on your phone or tablet, using all the attributes of the modern mobile web to do things that printed books never could.”