Colm Toibin Q&A and Reading at Emerson College

Ploughshares and Emerson College invite you to the Ploughshares Reading Series on Thursday, April 7th featuring Colm Tóibín, guest editor of the Spring 2011 issue of Ploughshares. Chris Castellani (Grub Street, author of A Kiss from Maddalena) will conduct a Q&A with Colm Tóibín at 4 p.m.  Tóibín will read his own work at 6 p.m. in the Bright Family Screening Room at the Paramount Theatre. Steve Yarbrough (Safe from the Neighbors) will introduce Tóibín’s reading.

Tóibín was born in Enniscorthy, Ireland and is the author six novels, and most recently, a collection of short stories entitled The Empty Family and a collection of essays on Henry James called All a Novelist Needs. He has won the Irish PEN Award for Literature, the Dublin IMPAC Prize, and the LA Times Novel of the Year, and many more. Hermione Lee of the Guardian said of his work: “Colm Tóibín is a fine lyricist of yearning, exile and regret. The beautifully measured Brooklyn was a poignant history of leaving and returning home; The Master, his novel about Henry James, was heavy with memories of lost childhood and lost loves that had to be turned into art. The stories in The Empty Family – like the painful stories of family conflicts in his last collection, Mothers and Sons – are threaded through with regret and need.”

For more information go here: http://www.pshares.org/events/event-detail.cfm?intNewsEventsID=2379

and RSVP to the Q&A and Reading on Facebook!

Interview with Valerie Brennan, cover artist for the Colm Toibin Issue

Valerie Brennan is the artist whose painting appears on the cover of our Spring 2011 issue, guest edited by Colm Toibin.  I (the web/marketing editor here at Ploughshares) asked her a few questions about this particular painting, current inspirations, and her work in general.

Ploughshares: First off, is there an answer to the question “What is this a painting of?” Or is it more of an abstraction? Did you have any particular inspiration for the painting? Is there a story behind it?

Brennan: The painting on the cover is called the Spain suite I and it is one of five in the series. The painting is actually an abstraction of a table corner and a floor mat; it is abstract of course, as is all my work, but the images all evolve from the real world, from everyday objects. I would call myself a process painter, and I like to play and push the paint around to explore its possibilities. All of my recent work including The Spain suites is based on drawings from my home here in Spain.  I moved here over one year ago, and my paintings are a response to that change. My work is always connected to what is going on in my life; it is a synthesis of many things that surround me.

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Joshua Weiner on his poem “The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish”

Joshua Weiner’s poem, “The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish,” appears in our Winter 2010-11 issue, edited by Terrance Hayes. The poem opens with these lines:

is not a man being swallowed by a fish
with eyes like eight-point throwing stars
it’s a man being swallowed by a war
a man being taken into the mouth of a woman
or being swallowed by his work

Here, Weiner discusses the invitation and the work of art that inspired (the many renditions of) his poem:

In Summer 2008 I was invited by the Baltimore Museum of Art to write a poem in response to an object from the permanent collection.  The museum sent a set of  images they wanted me, and about a dozen other writers, to choose from.   Had I agreed to an impossible assignment?  Velasquez, Tiepolo, the inevitable Impressionists: I remained unmoved by the masterpieces of western art parading in the form of printed jpegs.  No sparks, no itches, no questions.  Until I turned the page and found “The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish,” a grotesquely charismatic small-scale “folk” sculpture from another part of the world.   The catalog description was vague.  Who made it?  When was it made?  Where was it made?   No one seemed to know exactly.  Who named it?  Probably a collector, a curator, or someone else at the museum.  How did they know what to call it?  It seemed at least a little presumptuous.  It could, after all, be the figure of a man being spit up by a fish—as much a part of the Jonah story as being swallowed.   It could be this.  It could be that.   It could be lots of things.   Ignorance is a source of poetry, Wallace Stevens tells us.  In the indeterminacy I found the poem.   In the figure I found further figuration. The first draft flew out of my mouth like two hundred starlings.   They made different shapes in the air, and I tried to get it all down.  After many drafts, I recorded a version of the poem for the museum’s “60 Objects” audio tour.  The version published in Ploughshares seems like the keeper.

Interview with Cate Marvin Part II

If you have, at any point this year, had a conversation about the number of women in publishing–the number of female-authored books reviewed in newspapers, say–you’ve had that conversation (likely) because of some numbers which were researched and published by VIDA, an organization devoted to women in literary arts. The author of two shockingly, lastingly great books of poetry (2001′s World’s Tallest Disaster and 2007′sFragment of the Head of the Queen), and co-editor of Legitimate DangersCate Marvin has been a significant touchstone for lots of us who’ve found our way into poetry in the last decade, and her work with VIDA–”to explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women through meaningful conversation and the exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities,” from the website–promises to hopefully/finally establish the Big Conversation we’ve all got to have about writing and gender. There’s plenty more to say about Marvin–how her poems are jagged impossibilities which stick ferociously in gray matter (I dare anyone to read “I Live Where the Leaves Are Pointed” or “Scenes From the Battle Of Us” and not carry at least a few of those lines for days or months afterward), how she blasts open doors on lyricism you may not have even realized were there and/or closed–but instead of just waxing on an on, here’s the second part of a long, engaged and engaging interview which was conducted over email in the early parts of 2011. You can read Part I here.

Cutter: The poetry question: what’s the first sexy or suckering phrase you read which made you point at the page (or whatever) and deep breathe-in and go, shit, that’s what I want to do. And, if you can: what was it about that line?

Marvin: Well, I used to read heaps of historical romances when I was between the ages of twelve and fifteen. I was quite the reader, and I would tear through hundreds of these bodice rippers. I was also very thorough, in that I would read every single book each author wrote. My parents didn’t censor a single thing I read, and my mom took me to the library and bookstore all the time. They also had several poetry anthologies on their shelves, and I was at first very taken with the shorter poems of Stephen Crane. But the poem I was really nuts about, which I discovered as an epigraph in one of those tawdry historical romances, was “Tears, Idle Tears,” by Tennyson.

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.

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Ploughshares named Journal of the Week by the Fiction Writers Review

We here at Ploughshares are thrilled and honored to be named Journal of the Week by The Fiction Writers Review! To check out the complete article click here.  Among other things, the writer, Michael Rudin, talks about how Ploughshares was founded and the guest editor policy.  An excerpt:

For over forty years, Ploughshares has represented different aesthetics of contemporary literature, exposing its readership to work from established authors as well as emerging writers—to say nothing for transforming the latter into the former…The name. The pedigree. Yet you might be surprised just how deeply one informs the other.

The Fiction Writers Review also interviewed our editor-in-chief, Ladette Randoph,  on topics ranging from a Ploughshares time capsule to digital publishing.  An added bonus: a 3 free subscription giveaway if you follow them on twitter.

The Fiction Writers Review is an online literary journal produced for and about writers by other writers.  Not only do they publish reviews about new books, old books, and literary journals, but they also ask important questions about fiction and writing fiction, they post interviews with authors, and they write essays about writing and the craft.  We appreciate them for the work they are doing (and for writing about us!) and are happy to be a part of the same writing community.

Ian Stansel on his story, “Dukes and Duchesses of Park Ridge”

Ian Stansel’s story, “Dukes and Duchesses of Park Ridge,” appears in our Fall 2010 issue, edited by Jim Shephard. The story opens with these lines:

We constructed a sign and planted it in the center of town.  Future Site of the First National Bank of the Grand Dychy of New Brunswick. As best as anyone could remember, Stephen came up with the idea itself.  Lisa added “New Brunswick.”  Donna contributed “Grand Duchy.”

Here, Stansel discusses nostalgia and the conflict between the past and present in his story:

The story started with anecdotes my mother would tell me about pranks she and her friends pulled when she was younger, a teen.  Though I don’t remember when she first told me about the times they put a construction sign in the park or carried a casket to the beach, it seems like I always knew I wanted to write these stories. But it took a very long time to figure out how. The narrative stance of the story (first person plural, retrospective) came simply out of my urge to mess with POV, but it immediately felt correct to write this family of friends as a “we.” Then I wrote a scene where two of the characters discuss Jungian personality types and realized that there is an element of Jung’s collective unconscious at work here, that the friends occupy a sort of shared space of spirit and knowledge. A further discussion of this found its way into a draft (and for a while the story was called “The Collective”), but I cut it as the story was starting to get a little didactic, so this idea may exist more in my head than on the page.

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Wherefore and Why the MFA?

I realize there is no shortage of essays justifying or vilifying the creative writing MFA degree, which some consider the educational equivalent of fool’s gold and the universities that offer this degree little better than diploma mills.  At the college in Chicago where I teach creative writing and literature courses, many of my hopeful young students ask each year if I think going to graduate school for creative writing is a good idea.  What jobs can someone with an MFA expect to find?  What are the odds on publishing a book right after graduation?  If you can get in, is Columbia University worth the money?  Or is it better to go to a school that offers full funding, even if it doesn’t boast the reputation that the more prestigious MFA writing programs do?  Is a teaching requirement reasonable or is it better to go somewhere you don’t have to teach?

MFA programs are a good idea, I tell them, for these, among other, reasons: they offer you a ready-made place in a community of serious writers; they require you to read and write with earnest single-mindedness for two or three years; they give you the chance to make friends with other writers who will, ideally, help you with the practical as well as the personal aspects of the writing life.  Because there are so many brutal and brutalizing uncertainties in this profession, it is perhaps even more important for writers and artists to find a support network than it is for people in other fields.  Ours really is a punishing career – rejection arrives early and often for so many of us – and if you don’t remind yourself frequently that thousands of other writers are having the same experiences, possibly at that same moment, it’s very easy to put away the notebook or turn off the computer and not go back.  (In some cases, you might be saying, not going back is an excellent idea!  Save us from the next poem in the “Self-Portrait with a Bucket” series or the fifteenth draft of The Sky Looks Like a Big Blue Bruise.  We value our sanity.  That’s hard to argue with, but I do think that talented writers are as likely as less talented writers to give up if they face rejection often enough.)

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Poetry Dialogue: Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon

Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon is the author of Black Swan (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002) which was a winner of the 2001 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and ]Open Interval[ (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009), which was a finalist for the National Book Award and for the L.A. Times Book Award. Her work has appeared in many journals including African-American Review, Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, Gulf Coast, and Shenandoah, along with the anthologies Bum Rush the Page, Role Call, Gathering Ground, and The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South. She is an associate professor of English at Cornell University and is currently at work on a third collection, The Coal Tar Colors.

The dedication from Lyrae’s stunning collection, ]Open Interval[, is a quote from Jimi Hendrix’s “Castles Made Sand”:  “…and it really didn’t have to stop / it just kept on going… ” Fans of Hendrix’s music (or those who followed the previous link) might remember the coalescing of feedback and backwards looped guitar in the song while he’s making his observations. One of the great things about that moment in the song is the music itself embodies what the word “feedback” implies. It seems as if the only reason the song has to stop is because the tape ran out.

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Christine Sneed on her story “The Prettiest Girls”

Christine Sneed’s story, “The Prettiest Girls,” appears in our Winter 2010-11 issue, edited by Terrance Hayes. The story opens with these lines:

When I met her, I had the kind of job people always think they want until they try it for a few weeks.  I was working as a production supervisor for a studio that made a lot of profitable, mediocre movies, and one of my responsibilities was to find locations where other movie people would eventually show up with millions of dollars worth of equipment and a couple of irritating stars and an overworked crew to shoot a feature-length film.  It was a job where you had to trust quite a few strangers, where dead ends were time-consuming and predictably infuriating.

Here, Sneed discusses Hollywood, visions of America, and the hope for “real” characters in her story:

Over the past several years, I’ve written a number of stories with characters who are involved in the Hollywood film industry.  I think that many of us, whether we like it or not, have been deeply affected by some of the films we’ve seen and by the actors and directors to whom we’ve developed an attachment.  I often find myself picking up facts about celebrities, and silly or tragic, remembering them for years.  Hollywood also has such a powerful influence on the way a large number of the world’s inhabitants perceive the American way of life.  In our exported blockbusters, the United States almost always seems to be a land of promiscuity and plenty.

As I wrote “The Prettiest Girls,” I realized the story was as much about Elsa’s grand dreams as it was about Jim worrying that she would achieve them.  Initially, I wanted them both to make it: I wanted Elsa to become a successful actress and I wanted Jim finally to find lasting romance, but as I continued writing the story, I couldn’t see things ending well for them, at least not as a couple.  The myths Hollywood sells us are expensive, and the price Elsa paid to come to the U.S., along with the price Jim paid to bring her into his life in California, seemed more and more daunting as the story progressed.  My hope is that these characters are both glamorous and darkly real.

Christine is also a guest blogger for Get Behind the Plough.  Her posts will be published on Mondays through April.

Interview with Cate Marvin Part I

If you have, at any point this year, had a conversation about the number of women in publishing–the number of female-authored books reviewed in newspapers, say–you’ve had that conversation (likely) because of some numbers which were researched and published by VIDA, an organization devoted to women in literary arts. The author of two shockingly, lastingly great books of poetry (2001′s World’s Tallest Disaster and 2007′s Fragment of the Head of the Queen), and co-editor of Legitimate Dangers, Cate Marvin has been a significant touchstone for lots of us who’ve found our way into poetry in the last decade, and her work with VIDA–”to explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women through meaningful conversation and the exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities,” from the website–promises to hopefully/finally establish the Big Conversation we’ve all got to have about writing and gender. There’s plenty more to say about Marvin–how her poems are jagged impossibilities which stick ferociously in gray matter (I dare anyone to read “I Live Where the Leaves Are Pointed” or “Scenes From the Battle Of Us” and not carry at least a few of those lines for days or months afterward), how she blasts open doors on lyricism you may not have even realized were there and/or closed–but instead of just waxing on an on, here’s the first part of a long, engaged and engaging interview which was conducted over email in the early parts of 2011.

Cutter: Can you talk at all about other art forms that find their way into your creative working headspace? Music or films or movies or anything? There’s a sense—or, at least, I get a sense—in your work of other creative things offering structural contraptions to help—Fragment of the Head of a Queen coming from a line of someone’s writing if I’m not (yes?) mistaken—so go wide in response to this, if you’d like/please—generative art for you, structurally or content-wise or whatever.

Marvin: As a writer, I like to drag in little pieces of language, images, and incidences from the outside world—whether they would be understood as “art” or not, I’m not sure— much in the way a bird might scavenge bits of grass, string and tooth floss to build its nest. I also enjoy creating poems that speak back to the literary tradition in ways that are not so obvious. For example, my poem “He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead” riffs off of a Yeats poem; similarly, “Mug Shot” makes fun of Rilke’s “Self Portrait, 1906” by presenting a less than noble image of the poet in her youth by focusing in on the image of a DUI mug shot.

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