Dear Dr. Poetry

L. Lamar Wilson
Carolina Wren Press, February 2013
79 pages

Dear Dr. Poetry,

I don’t expect you to understand me, because no one does. My sorrow is darker than a thousand layers of guyliner. I just wanted you, as the foremost expert on poetry, to confirm my isolation—the way my own poetry does.

—Empty Malaise of Towering Woe Encompassing Every Night

Indeed, I don’t understand the nature of your malaise, EMO TWEEN, but like E.L. James authoring a book on how to write, I’ll take a wild stab at it; I’m certain that poetry (other than your own) is just what you need.

As I consider your problems—vast as they are—I’m thinking of L. Lamar Wilson’s debut, Sacrilegion. This young poet blurs the line between personal and public history as a means of reconciling his identity with a society prone to ostracizing, attacking, and trying to change those who are different. He draws not only from his personal struggles—whether as a man of mixed race, a gay man in a conservative town, or a man afflicted with Erb’s Palsy—but also from more global roots. Aretha Franklin, Terrance Hayes, James R. McGovern’s Anatomy of a Lynching, and George Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess are just a small sampling of this book’s diverse influences.

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Writing Is Like Baseball


Every March my eyes turn south toward spring training. The sunburned announcers report from director’s chairs on games that don’t count. The players work on their autographs and perfect their sunflower seed spits. Teenagers called up from the lowercase “a” team —hardly more than little leaguers—pitch, bat, and field, hanging crooked numbers or laying goose eggs. The crack of a bat, the thwack of ball and glove, the collective groan as a player on the other team sends a homer over the wall: hearing this soundtrack out of sequence reminds me that change is coming, despite the hard crust of snow lingering in my front yard.

In the same way, whatever story I’m working on is often playing in the back of my mind, even when I’m not writing. My fictional people are alive and going about their business in another dimension that might as well be Florida.  While I am preoccupied with daily life, they are working up stats, track records, and expectations. When I sit down to write, I don’t pick up where I left off so much as catch up with them, the same as my baseball team every spring.

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For Those About To Write (We Salute You) #3: Letters

For Those About To Write (We Salute You) will present a writing exercise to the Ploughshares community every few weeks. We heartily encourage everyone reading to take part!

photoWell, my plan was to do a prompt a day since the last post, ten minutes a pop. That did not happen; life was a little busier than I anticipated. But I did manage a solid fourteen: some freehand, some at the computer—all of them beginning with an ugh and ending with an “ooh!”

Boy oh boy did I produce a lot of inelegant, all-but-incomprehensible junk. Just pages upon pages of poor, directionless prose. And guess what? It felt pretty awesome. That’s the most non-work-related writing I’ve committed to in years—seriously, years!—and the inner boost didn’t come from the quality of my output. It came from remembering that hey, I actually love making stuff up! The thrill of creation had been hiding under lots of protestations and insecurities and pesky thoughts of “eh, but it’s not going to be as good as that one thing I wrote that one time so why even bother.”

Not knowing where to begin felt like an insurmountable hurdle, but after a few minutes of scrawling I realized that there just might be some weird and wonderful thoughts kicking around in that noggin of mine—I just have to be bold enough to sit down and give them a chance, and patient enough to let them emerge.

Did anyone have any interesting breakthroughs? Stumble upon an idea, a character, or a turn of phrase that seems worth developing into something larger? After going back through my stuff, there’s a few nuggets I found that I plan on saving and potentially mining for more. Progress!

And now, onto our third exercise, in which we tackle the lost art of letter writing.

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Relationship Rescue! Courting Your Long-Lost Writing

typewriter love

First, a confession: I’m lousy at prioritizing fiction writing. I let everything else in my life take precedence. I even let other writing take precedence—articles, book reviews, syllabi, comments on student work, status updates, replies to all.

And yet, good things have happened to the fiction I’ve written. I know a lot about fiction and how other people craft it. I teach fiction writing. My credentials suggest that I have a committed relationship to fiction writing.

But my fiction writing is tired of this charade. Frankly, it’s had it with my excuses. It’s given me an ultimatum: put fiction writing first, or watch it leave for good.

Can this marriage be saved? Fortunately, yes: I’ve rescued my relationship. If your writing has you in the doghouse, this may be the post for you.

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“The Word River Doesn’t Know Edges”: A Playlist for Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler

n5015502_39802124_1676581Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, a 2008 poetry collection inspired by Hurricane Katrina, reads like a broken heart.  It is open and honest and raw.  The voices of those who survived Katrina, and those who did not, are both unspeakably sad and incredulous.  “Louisiana,” says one nursing home resident in the poem “34,” “goddamn. You lied to me so lush.”

The collection aims to keep Katrina and its victims “in the public consciousness.”  It is at once a book about a hurricane and a book about a bratty little sister (“What Bestsy Has To Say”), a woman who broke the hearts of an entire city in one fell swoop (“Katrina”).

What I love so much about this collection, and what I’ve tried to convey through this playlist, is the honesty with which Smith portrays the attitudes of the residents of a city used to hurricanes: stubborn refusals to leave, resolute hope even in the wreckage, and steadfast faith in, and love for, a city even while it’s underwater. She gives everyone from Luther B the dog to Ethel Freeman to a resident cross-dresser equality of voice.  Smith doesn’t portray New Orleans or its residents as perfect.  She embraces their flaws. “Burgundy Street Blues,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Joyous Sendoff: Feel So Good,” and “Walk on the Wild Side” are songs that I hope convey this spirit.

Meanwhile, songs like “Oh, Katrina” by Anders Osborne and “Katrina” by Red Stick Ramblers address Katrina directly as a home-wrecking woman. But I have to admit that Nancy Sinatra’s  “Bang Bang—My Baby Shot Me Down”—one of the saddest heartbreak songs I’ve ever heard (in fact, if it’s still grey where you are, wait until Spring to listen to this one)—rings truer to the tone of Blood Dazzler.  It’s a quiet and unassuming song about the sudden loss of a lifelong love.  It matches childhood play-violence with the sudden pain of an unexpected break-up, similarly to how the majority of speakers in Smith’s collection are heartsick and shocked by the devastation Katrina brings down on New Orleans.

I remember in 2005, sitting on my porch in Florida, reading about the damage Katrina had done to New Orleans.  I remember the footage.  I remember clearly thinking, that could have been my house, my town, my family.  I wanted to help but felt so helpless.

Fast-forward to 2009.Continue Reading

140 Characters of Guilt

Plate VI from Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

It took, it seemed, only a few seconds for the first response to appear. My heart plummeted as more appeared in my Twitter feed, each increasingly indignant, ticking off like a plunging stock exchange. I knew there had not been enough time for any of the commenters to actually read the article I linked to; they were simply responding to the post.

For many reasons—professional and deferential—I won’t repeat the exact content of the post, but it was the kind of thing that starts flame wars like dry underbrush. Blame it on laziness and a communal obsession with drama, but provocation sells. There is an art form to highlighting the main points of an article in 140 characters, especially one of a satirical nature, but if you do it “right” you have the chance to reach a potentially unsuspecting audience. At its best, a Twitter feed plays out like snatches of witty conversation heard on a subway while reading the newspaper. At its worst, it’s crude, manipulative.

So, I had a few options: I could write a rebuttal for the joke made in poor taste. Maybe accept that stirring controversy is not such a bad thing for web site numbers. Or, simply delete the tweet and hope no one noticed the blunder.

As Christopher Hitchens said in Love, Poverty, and War, “There can be no progress without head-on confrontation.” The thing is, I deleted the post.Continue Reading

More Pushcart Prize Nominees

Pushcart Prize 2013In December we announced our nominees for the Pushcart Prize, as seen in the 2012 issues of Ploughshares. Last week, we received a list of further nominations of poetry and prose published in 2012 in Ploughshares.

Good luck to all the nominees!


“Gondwana” by Steve Almond, from Ploughshares Spring 2012, guest-edited by Nick Flynn

“Dog” by Mark Slouka, from Ploughshares Spring 2012, guest-edited by Nick Flynn

“Grace” by Joshua Howes, from Ploughshares Winter 2012-13, guest-edited by Ladette Randolph and John Skoyles

“Come the Revolution” by Emily Torzs, from Ploughshares Winter 2012-13, guest-edited by Ladette Randolph and John Skoyles


“Consequence” by Eric Fair, from Ploughshares Spring 2012, guest-edited by Nick Flynn

“What Happens in Hell” by Charles Baxter, from Ploughshares Fall 2012, guest-edited by Patricia Hampl

“The Taste of Almonds” by Mary Gordon, from Ploughshares Fall 2012, guest-edited by Patricia Hampl

“Myself on High” by Ralph James Savarese, from Ploughshares Fall 2012, guest-edited by Patricia Hampl


“Lines on the Pathetic Fallacy” by Joel Brouwer, from Ploughshares Spring 2012, guest-edited by Nick Flynn

“‘The boss wears a white vest…'” by Victoria Chang, from Ploughshares Spring 2012, guest-edited by Nick Flynn

“Why I Write Poetry” by Major Jackson, from Ploughshares Spring 2012, guest-edited by Nick Flynn

Excerpt from “That Once Were Beautiful Children” by Claudia Rankine, from Ploughshares Spring 2012, guest-edited by Nick Flynn

“We Dance on a Spinning Log” by John Rybicki, from Ploughshares Spring 2012, guest-edited by Nick Flynn

“The Big Sleep” by James Tolan, from Ploughshares Spring 2012, guest-edited by Nick Flynn

From “Small Porcelain Head” by Allison Benis White, from Ploughshares Spring 2012, guest-edited by Nick Flynn

“Please Alice Notely Tell Me How to Be Old” by Rachel Zucker, from Ploughshares Spring 2012, guest-edited by Nick Flynn

“Two Weeks” by Valerie Bandura, from Ploughshares Winter 2012-13, guest-edited by Ladette Randolph and John Skoyles

“A Story Can Change Your Life” by Peter Everwine, from Ploughshares Winter 2012-13, guest-edited by Ladette Randolph and John Skoyles

“Volunteer” by Nance Van Winckel, from Ploughshares Winter 2012-13, guest-edited by Ladette Randolph and John Skoyles


An Interview with Reese Okyong Kwon

rk b&wReese Okyong Kwon’s writing has appeared in the Believer, Kenyon Review, Southern Review, and elsewhere. She has been named one of Narrative’s “30 Below 30″ writers, and has received scholarships and fellowships from Yaddo, Ledig House, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.

After her story “Victoria Falls Hotel” appeared in the Winter 2012-2013 issue of Ploughshares, Reese wrote a Contributor’s Note about the story’s thematic and cultural foundations for the Ploughshares blog. Shortly thereafter, she and I followed up about her thoughts on “Victoria Falls Hotel” and chatted about cultural identity in writing, our mutual affinity for Norman Rush, her novel in progress, and other delights.

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So… Readings. What’s the point?

il_570xN.160524401If you’re a writer, you’ve likely subjected yourself to awkward, lifeless Readings enough times to wonder whether there’s still a purpose for these mysterious liturgies. We probably don’t need an old time tent revival (I hope not!)… But asking, “what’s the point?” may be long overdue.

What I mean is: perhaps who/whatever began the institution of the Public Reading regarded it as a vital community sacrament, during which writers worked out their literary salvations with fear and trembling. But by the time it was passed on to us, all that was left of it was a form. We’ve kept it up like saints, but at some point we have to ask about the purpose of the rite.

Order of Service

So—why DO we do this??

Here are 8 (fake) guesses based only upon having observed the events. Add yours in the Comments section! 

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Roundup: Writer’s Block

In our Roundups segment, we’re looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. We explore posts from our archives as well as other top literary magazines, centered on a certain theme to help you jump-start your week. This week we have posts on writer’s block.

There’s a lot to be said about writer’s block, but I can’t think of how to articulate it right now…So I’ll let the masters of their craft do it. Let these posts help you recognize writer’s block and fend it off.

From Ploughshares:

  • A New Year’s resolution, a writing routine, a battle against writer’s block. Fan Wu chimes in.Writer's Block

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