A Reader’s Crush

Deborah Eisenberg.  Martin Amis.  Steve Almond.  Alice Munro.  Penelope Fitzgerald.  Jim Harrison.  Anne Carson.  W.G. Sebald.  Michael Ondaatje.  John Updike.  These are some of the authors whose books, in recent years, I have all but inhaled, many of them in rapid succession.  As I suspect most book lovers do, I feel a strong, almost filial attachment to the writers whose work I have read closely and sometimes repeatedly.  Or maybe rather than being their daughter, I want to marry them.  Either way, I confess to a minor, ongoing fantasy about sharing the rooms they inhabit, the spaces where they are typing intently or writing with a cramped hand toward their next great book.

One of the authors who continues to interest me most is John Updike.  Whether you admire him or not, he is unequivocally a writer of towering stature, a small-town Pennsylvania-born man who saw approximately sixty of his books in print during the fifty-five years he was writing and publishing.  He once said in an interview with Terry Gross that he aspired to write prose that read like poetry; that is, he hoped his readers would be able to choose any page from one of his stories or novels and read it like a poem.

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Poetry Dialogue: Gabrielle Calvocoressi

This week’s post was originally going to be about literary reading etiquette, complete with some suggestions for how to behave as a reader before, during, and after an event. But Gabrielle Calvocoressi read as part of the River Styx at Duffs Reading Series here in St. Louis the other night and her reading was so tough, I had to change my plans.

For the past couple of months, I’ve been dialoguing with different poets via email with the intent of posting the conversations here on the Ploughshares blog. I tried to strike up conversations with poets whose work I admire and who have published a book in the last two years. Over the next month or so, I’ll be posting conversations with Oliver de la Paz, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Jake Adam York, and maybe another poet or two if I can sync up with them. These conversations vary in subject and length, but they always have to do with writing somehow.

Today’s conversation is with Gabrielle Calvocoressi. If you aren’t familiar with Gaby, she is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including a Stegner fellowship in Poetry, a Jones Lectureship in Poetry at Stanford University, and a Rona Jaffe Woman Writers’ Award. Her poem “Circus Fire, 1944” received The Paris Review’s Bernard F. Conners Prize. Her first collection, The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart, was shortlisted for the Northern California Book Award and won the 2006 Connecticut Book Award in Poetry. Her second collection, Apocalyptic Swing, was a finalist for the 2009 L.A. Times Book Award.

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Rebecca Johns on her story “Perpetua in Glory”

Rebecca Johnsstory, “Perpetua in Glory,” appears in our Winter 2010-11 issue, edited by Terrance Hayes. The story opens with these lines:

At first, it is a tiny flap of skin no bigger than a fingernail, like a mole or a birthmark but with more substance.  I find it when I’m in the bath, the water cooling around me and my father’s razor floating across the surface, reminding me of his presence below the window in the garden, where he’s bending over the zucchini in his dirty sweatpants.

Here, Johns shares how the story came to be – from her imagination and her own life experience to the authors she was channeling while writing.

“Perpetua in Glory,” to me, is about anger, which is what’s left when the thing we want is denied to us, denied for reasons beyond our control.  The narrator of “Perpetua” is an amalgamation of many of the girls I knew in Catholic school who would have considered the priesthood if it had been available to them, girls who felt themselves shut out of the life of the church.  Once a year the pastor would pull the boys out of class, take them to the church hall, and offer them a kind of miracle: to be God’s representative on earth.  Join the priesthood!  Be a leader of men! The girls were encouraged to think of the nun’s life, the sisters’ life—a life of humility and service, Martha instead of Mary.  The sisters were teachers at our school, and their work was the work of teachers, construction paper and workbooks and kickball at recess.  Being a nurse or a teacher or a secretary were the only jobs held out to young girls even then, so the life of a sister didn’t seem to offer much that was miraculous.

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Interview with Olena Kalytiak Davis

I don’t know how much needs to be said or written about Olena Kalytiak Davis: won the 1997 Brittingham Prize, lives in Alaska, post-confessional (blah blah blah), shattered sonnets from Tin House, Best American Poetry selection of “Six Apologies Lord,” etc. She also has some of the best music taste of anyone alive and is a lawyer, so you’ve really got a wide selection of traits to choose from, in terms of finding a reason (if you haven’t one already), to like her. Plus if you need further evidence, there’s her answers to the following:

Cutter: Everyone’s (I’m sure) question: when will you come out with more books?

Davis: You are very cute, Weston, and/but I think you might be the only one who cares. I just wrote a GREAT Supreme Court brief. Alaska, but, still.

Cutter: Explain to everybody, and maybe most of all me, why Nick Cave is so worth time and attention. I’m not saying he’s not, but he doesn’t boot me in the groin the way, say, Damien Jurado does. Help me. Give me better hands to hold this stuff.

Davis: He has that same quality.

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Congratulations to our Raffle Winners!

We are excited to announce the winners of our AWP Raffle.  These lucky individuals stopped by our table and submitted their names and email addresses for a chance to win a free one-year subscription to Ploughshares for themselves and a friend.  The randomly-selected winners are Sasha Khalifeh, Susan Stinson, Amanda Skjeveland, and Edward Morin (who is also a three-time poetry contributor to Ploughshares).

This year’s 4oth anniversary guest editors are Colm Toibin, Ploughshares co-founder DeWitt Henry, and Alice Hoffman.  Happy reading to all of our winners.

Subscriptions to Ploughshares can be purchased here.

Pshares @ AWP 2011 in DC – A Recap in Two Parts (pt. 2)

About two weeks ago, I wrote part one of a two-part recap about Ploughshares‘ adventures at AWP in Washington, D.C. For those of you waiting in breathless anticipation for part two, I do apologize, and I will now present you with the conclusion of the series.

Sarah Stetson, former intern and current Ploughshares reader, bravely manning our table.

Picking up where we left off: Friday morning dawned a little earlier than some AWP-goers would have liked, what with the multitude of readings, literary magazine parties, and “networking” sessions that took place on Thursday night. But we gathered our strength and returned to our stations. For the staff of Ploughshares, that meant returning to our table in the book fair area.

We love the book fair. It’s our chance to meet past, present, and future Ploughshares authors. Since a lot of the communication we do these days is through digital means, it’s great to actually/finally meet authors face-to-face. Just a few of the people who stopped by: Joyce Peseroff (Ploughshares‘ first managing editor and a guest editor twice), Aaron Smith (poet and contributor to Terrance Hayes‘ issue), Peter Kline (poet and contributor to the forthcoming Colm Toibin issue), Chelsea Rathburn (poet and contributor to the Elizabeth Strout issue), and Lloyd Schwartz (twice a guest editor, and a contributor too many times to count). We also look forward to meeting emerging poets and writers who stop by to browse our past issues, grab a copy of our submission guidelines, and chat about what we do.

DeWitt Henry signing at the Emerson College table.

This year, I had a chance to meet Don Lee, Ploughshares’ editor from 1989-2007. Although he was delayed by the snow, we were glad he made it to the conference and stopped by! Besides Ladette Randolph, our current editor-in-chief, there has only been one other editor: DeWitt Henry, Ploughshares’ founding editor, hung out at the Emerson table (right next to us) signing his new memoir, Sweet Dreams.

Kate Flaherty (Associate Editor) and Sarah Banse (Assistant Editor) greet guests and hand out coveted drink tickets.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about Friday, though, was our reception sponsored by Emerson College to celebrate our 40th anniversary. We had a lot of fun partying with friends and meeting new friends. There are lots of photos on our Facebook Fan Page. I encourage you to “become a fan” so you can get updates about what’s going on at Ploughshares and join the conversation.

Doug Paul Case, former web/marketing intern, and Diana Filar, current web/marketing intern.

[Tangent: Since they were at the party, and I have this great picture of the two of them, I’d like to thank two really hard-working people who make this blog possible. Doug Paul Case was our web/marketing intern for about 8 months before he passed the baton to Diana Filar, our current intern. Most of the posts you see on this blog are the result of their efforts, and they just do a wonderful job. Thank you!]

Saturday: Ploughshares‘ last day at the conference was jam-packed with more bookfair-ing, panels, and meet-ups with new and old friends. Sadly, the time eventually came to box up our stuff, and head back to our homes.

I won’t deny that the hour-and-a-half flight back to Boston was wonderfully short compared to the eight-and-a-half hour train ride down, or that my own familiar bed was quite welcomed, even compared to the feathery goodness I slept on in the Marriott Wardman. And, while we returned exhausted, with a pile of business cards that required follow-up e-mails, orders to be placed, and a week’s worth of work on our desk and in our in-boxes, we are already looking forward to AWP 2012. (Chicago, here we come!)

Chris Forhan on “The Big Thing”

Chris Forhan’s poem, “The Big Thing,” appears in the Winter 2010-11 issue edited by Terrance Hayes.  It opens with these lines:

What goat goes roistering
through the bracken of my doubt

What lantern lures me
from the cave I could have withered in?

Here, Forhan explains how this poem started with just one line, and over time, after a series events, became the poem it is today, as seen in Ploughshares:

As is usually the case for me, this poem began not with an idea or an experience but with a bit of language:  “What goat goes roistering through the bracken of my doubt?”  I liked the sound of it—the first four syllables, heavily stressed, getting the utterance off to a rollicking start;  the “go go ro” of “goat goes roistering”; the words “roistering” and “bracken,” each of which I consider to be a pretty cool word on its own—but to get them both into the same sentence, well, that’s a small victory, I thought, over poetic blandness.  But the line came without instructions; it just floated into my head and remained floating there.  I didn’t know what to do with it, and I didn’t want to force a poem into existence; I have too many failed poems that sound as if they were written at gunpoint.  So I put the line away, ushering it into my giant orphanage of misfit images and phrases, where it stayed for a year.

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Judgment Day: The Literary Competition

Last winter I was asked to judge two short-story contests, one for my graduate writing program and the other for a local chapter of a national arts organization.  Not surprisingly, I was flattered and a little excited to have been asked to serve as judge.  What a novelty to be on that side of the desk.  I immediately understood, however, the almost sinister power a judge wields over the contest participants.  Having entered a dozen or so literary competitions myself over the past decade, I knew that the results seriously mattered to most of the participants, and not being named one of the winners could set the contest entrants back for days, possibly weeks.  (As I wrote that last sentence, I hesitated over using the word ‘loser.’ Loser’s connotations are often so unpleasant that even in an essay where it’s logical to use that word, I am reluctant to do so.)

If I remember correctly, the graduate writing program’s contest was four distinct competitions – two for the undergraduate writers, two for the graduates.  All told, there were about forty entries, twenty-five or so from the undergraduates, the rest from the MFA students.  As I began reading, it became clear that many of the undergraduate stories needed a lot of work, and only about four were real contenders for first prize.  Nonetheless, in several cases, I was impressed by the scope of these writers’ imaginations.  One student wrote a very detailed story about a beekeeper, another about a man running into a boy with his car that was, to my surprise, suspenseful at times.  Certainly the majority of the stories were in need of extensive revision, but I could see that these writers were getting the hang of it, that they understood the importance of pacing and characterization, of the right word versus the obvious word.

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Jump Shots and Stand-Up Vampires

The day after I played the best game of my middle school basketball career, I read an article explaining the physics of the jump shot. According to the author, there is only a two-ounce difference in pressure between a shot that hits the front of the rim and one that hits the back. There are more than 650 muscles in the human body, so which ones are involved in generating that pressure? The author didn’t say, so I immediately went into a shooting slump while trying to figure out what muscles were responsible. It didn’t matter that I practiced various basketball-related skills for two hours a day, six days a week. It didn’t matter that before I read the article, I shot 85% from the free throw line. Once I read that article, I couldn’t get those two ounces of pressure out of my head.

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