Gatekeepers (Part Three), on comparing apples to desperate, near-extinct marsupials braving the Pacific in coconut dinghies

At its most basic, a literary editor’s job is a series of “either/or” decisions, or a long and hopefully-not-very-drunken game of “would you rather”: the editor takes a stack of poems/stories/essays and weighs them against each other to choose what gets published and what does not. This is the most-fundamental-possible description of the job: editors judge quality, however subjective “quality” may be; they accept and they reject.

This task is pretty straightforward during early rounds of editorial consideration. But as the field of contenders for an issue narrows, often warranting long, drawn-out discussions, editors frequently have to make quality-judgments about two or more works which are so drastically different that comparing them to each other seems impossible and absurd.Continue Reading

The Death of Poetry?


Fady Joudah

With Easter and Passover falling early in April, Poetry Month began in full earnest later than usual here in New York City, about the middle of the month. While some continue to wait their turns in line to decry the end of poetry in these United States, the sheer number of poetry events around NYC on a non-April day can be impressive. Come April, it can be staggering. And while I missed the chance to hear Brooke Shields recite Billy Collins, Meryl Streep interpret Elizabeth Bishop, or Tom Brokaw declaim the good gray bard of Long Island at the Academy of American Poets’ annual Poetry and the Creative Mind gala at Alice Tully Hall on April 5th, a particular event from the first half of Eliot’s cruelest month stayed with me in a way I can’t imagine the gala, no matter who spectacular, would have.Continue Reading

Women in Trouble: Clover Adams

Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life
Natalie Dykstra
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, February 2012
336 pages

Clover Adams, best known as the genteel and witty wife of nineteenth century writer Henry Adams, was a hobbyist photographer who killed herself at age forty-two by drinking her chemical developer. However, while Henry kept Clover’s half-full vial of potassium cyanide in his top desk drawer for the rest of his life, she is not mentioned once in his memoir, The Education of Henry Adams. In Natalie Dykstra’s debut biography, Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life, Clover’s elusive life is finally reclaimed from the shadows of Victorian decorum. Continue Reading

A Night at the Pub

Last Friday was Ploughshares’s special 40th Anniversary reading at Joe’s Pub, in New York City—in collaboration with the wonderful Writers Studio, who were helpful and gracious hosts throughout. The event featured our fiction editor, Margot Livesey, alongside a foursome of guest editors past and present: Yusef Komunyakaa, Nick Flynn, Elizabeth Strout, and Jim Shepard. (Pictured here from left to right, with Margot on the far right and our editor-in-chief, Ladette Randolph, facing away from the camera in the middle.)

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Book People

Apparently, E.L. Doctorow once taught a course that only had one book on the syllabus. The class read the one book and decided from there what the next book should be. If it was Jane Eyre, somebody might then suggest The Wide Sargasso Sea, which was a prequel and written by another writer at a completely different time. Perhaps, reading both books would give a person a rounder sense of the world created by both sets of characters.

I have no idea if Doctorow’s class was a literature course or a writing workshop, or if this story is even true — but it doesn’t really matter. What’s so right about the teaching strategy (and so obvious) is that most of us read like this anyway — in the order that we live.  Why couldn’t every class read like this one does? Isn’t the mind always taking the leap to the next book based on what happened while engaged in the previous one? One could, in an architecture class, read a text about Gaudi that would lead her to book that was based in Barcelona: Colm Toibin’s Homage to Barcelona, for example. Continue Reading

Hearing Voices: Women Versing Life Presents Marina Tsvetaeva


Marina Tsvetaeva

Up to the age of four, as my mother testified, I told only the truth, but after that I must have come to my senses – Marina Tsvetaeva

I made an Easter quiche yesterday, and as I worked I thought about Marina Tsvetaeva, what I could tell of her that couldn’t be found in Wikipedia. As I cut the flour and butter for the crust, I thought hard. I took my rolling pin to it, and then, as so often happens with my crust, it fell apart. I pressed the dough firmly to piece it back together, and even then there were gaps where the ceramic shone through.

Like the mind, the perfect pie crust is a mystery. As I worried my fingers over the edges, I thought about how Tsvetaeva’s life is like a patchwork pie crust with too many bakers trying to mold the broken edges, make them hold. Continue Reading

Gatekeepers (Part Two), why my pop-music philistinism makes me fear for the poetic canon



Gatekeeper, seasons wait for your nod. / Gatekeeper, you held your breath, /
made the summer go on and on.

Here’s a confession, Ploughshares readers: I’m a musical dinosaur. I have an unabashed love for Green Day and Counting Crows, and I’ve listened to Wu Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers almost weekly for eight years. If pressed, I can pick out a photo of Lady Gaga or distinguish between the voices of Kanye West and Lil’ Wayne, but that’s about it. This is how I found myself exclaiming to some friends, several months ago, that I’d recently “discovered” Feist, a singer who (it turns out) has been in the public eye for at least a decade. Oops. Continue Reading

A Land More Kind Than Home

A Land More Kind Than Home
Wiley Cash
William Morrow, April 2012
320 pages

I don’t want to obscure the issue here, so I will be brief: A Land More Kind Than Home is a book you will be excited to read—that is, if you’re still in this game for some good old-fashioned storytelling. Wiley Cash has a solid talent for the oft-neglected arts of tragedy and suspense, mixed with just enough modern pathos and parallelism to make his writing literary without being pretentious. An auspicious start for a first novelist.Continue Reading

Half Moon Pose and the Writer’s Split Consciousness

You can get into Half Moon pose in any number of ways, but here’s the sequence I like best:

1. From down dog, lift your right leg, inhale.

2. Step the leg between your hands into a low lunge, exhale.

3. Rise up into Warrior I, inhale.

4. Windmill open into Warrior II, exhale.

5. Flip your front palm up, arch back into Peaceful Warrior, inhale.

6. Transfer your weight into the front foot and lift the back leg until it’s parallel with the ground; lower your front hand until it’s planted a few inches in front of your standing leg. Stretch the other hand up toward the sky. Spin the torso open.

Exhale.Continue Reading

Racetracks in America, For Example

When I was writing Track Conditions, a memoir about my mostly drunken experience as a groom to Swale, the 1984 Kentucky Derby winner, a strange thing happened to my body—it went back to the way it looked during the time the book was written about. Through diet and exercise (two practices which had been foreign to me most of my life), I lost 40 pounds. It was as if the occasion of writing about a crucial time—the hinge between inebriation and sobriety—caused my body and mind to physically let go of the story. Or, was it that by having written that chapter of my life, I could once again inhabit the body that survived it?Continue Reading