Guns and Poems: Why is it (almost) impossible to write a great poem about guns?

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Poetry has a history of violence.

It was true a few hundred years ago, when bards wrote of knights and of great battles, and it is true today, when poets pick up their pens to write about the trauma of war, abuse, or repression. Whether they abhor it or glorify it, there is something about human violence that has always called poets into action. In fact, the link between history and violence is so intimate, you might even say that poetry is a history of violence.

Lately, as the public debate about guns continues in the U.S., I’ve thought about that history of violence. I know I’m not alone in thinking that the debate has grown depressing. Each side takes its familiar positions. Not only does nothing happen, you start to feel that no one is even listening anymore. I’ve found myself wishing the debate had a little more creativity, some space for openness, for change. And so, even though it might seem strange, I’ve begun to wonder what poetry could bring to the conversation.

So I started to look for poems about guns. And what I found was very surprising—there was so few of them. Searching anthologies and online databases I found countless poems about the effects of war, hate, and violence. But I found almost nothing about guns specifically. And I began to wonder why.

Maybe, I thought, the reason is obvious. Guns just aren’t poetic. They are blunt. They are obvious. There’s nothing subtle about them. I’m reminded of an episode of The Office where Michael Scott goes to his improv class and proceeds to ruin every single scene by entering with a gun. Guns are heavy-handed, and that’s one thing no artist wants to be.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Crash Sheep Plant” by Emily Abrons

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Last week’s column discussed the nature of perception, and the way in which Dan Reiter’s “Shifts” revealed how one mind might battle over the interpretation of the same event. In this week’s story, “Crash Sheep Plant” (Alice Blue Review 26), Emily Abrons juxtaposes a car crash with grazing sheep and plant life, and in doing so explores how context shapes the nature of a tragedy.

The title itself serves as a microcosm of how the rest of the story will work: through juxtaposition. Crash and sheep and plant are all common words that bring hundreds—maybe thousands—of possible associations into a reader’s mind. But a reader has probably never seen those words set next to each other before. The image they create is strange, perhaps a disparate collage, evoking confusion, maybe even anxiety. It’s the first sign that this story is going to defy some conventions in order to exploit others.

The title also reveals the organizational structure of the story. In the first section, dealing with the crash, Abrons gives us a detailed, matter-of-fact description of its aftermath.

“A small tour bus has collided head-on with a compact automobile…Seven of the original twelve passengers in the bus were dead within thirty eight seconds of the impact…the cause of the crash is unknown.”

While the victims remain anonymous—their names, their plights—Abrons provides lush descriptions of the wreckage itself, giving it life.Continue Reading

“If I could I would cut off my lovers’ heads” : Eunice De Souza’s Nine Indian Women Poets

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“Anthologists invariably make enemies,” Eunice De Souza notes in her introduction to Nine Indian Women Poets. This anthology is unlike most anthologies, as De Souza takes up her editorial role to rally against universality, mapmaking, and flattery. De Souza isn’t seeking to make enemies, but she realizes that all choices for anthologies suggest other choices: those poets who are left behind.

For Nine Indian Women Poets is itself a corrective volume: here are Indian women writing poetry in English who have not only gone unrecognized by white canonical anthologists or critics (save the rare reader like Bruce King), but who have all written for upwards of twenty years without such recognition.

What makes these poets’ work strike sharply together? They all write in English; all own or disown this language, exploring its twists, barriers, and perpetuations. Kamala Das, the oldest poet in the anthology, draws English as: “The language I speak / Becom[ing] mine, its distortions, its queernesses / All mine, mine alone” (10). For Das, queernesses enable a crucial ownership of the language. The language allows one to name herself and others, so that Das, by the end of the same poem, proclaims: “I too call myself I” (11).

Mamta Kalia, the poet placed immediately after Das, writes: “I am no longer Mamta Kalia” (26). By contrast, Kalia’s poems revolve around a radical empathy that practices negation: “How close we felt / discussing our dislikes / sharing a few hatreds” (22). The venom of an evil actually engages us: it brings together those who feel invariably shunned by an unjust and misogynistic world.Continue Reading

Interactivity and the Game-ification of Books

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As an undergrad studying creative writing one of the first things I remember learning was the sin of gimmickry. Readers, I was taught, would see through your cleverness—it would be vile to them and they would hate you. But as a kid and teenager my favorite books employed some pretty neat sins and I don’t remember ever hating those authors. I relished a novel approach to novels and welcomed those books that didn’t just swim in standard conventions. Some of the most memorable artifacts of my youth, in fact, were more bound riddles than books, and each riddle taught me how to open myself up to uncertainty, ambiguity, and irresolution (all concepts more true to life than your traditional cut and dry, happily-ever-after tale).

More specifically, the books I tended to gravitate toward were texts in which the role of the reader could more aptly be described as that of a player, or collaborator. (Though one could argue all books are collaborative in nature, the ones I tended to flock to were especially open-ended, demanding a higher degree of interactivity.) I would remain captivated by these books infused with a sense of play/collaboration and it would eventually become an important element in my own work.

I first devoured picture books like the Where’s Waldo series, for instance, less interested in the eponymous red and white striped protagonist than in the sheer overstimulation of colorful characters and anachronistic situations swirling in the background. They might have been my first writing prompts, actually. I remember writing little stories about the wizard and how he came to be lost in the scene, or what events must’ve transpired to rip a Viking out of time and space to plop him smackdab in the center of a bustling mall.Continue Reading

Telling the Stories of the Dead: Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery

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My own ancestors are interred in austere Midwestern cemeteries with small flat stones or rounded markers decorated with the occasional “Beloved Mother” or laser-etched photo. But Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, I discover on a field trip with Spalding MFA students to write about art and place, makes much more elaborate use of art, narrative, and poetry in attempts to summarize and pay tribute to the lives of the dead.

I’m fascinated by cemeteries and often disappointed to see lives reduced to names and dates. So Cave Hill, at once a burial ground, arboretum, and sculpture garden, is a treasure trove of stories told in glass, granite, concrete, limestone, and bronze. Here, George Keats, brother of the poet John Keats, is buried, along with the two collaborators who wrote the “Happy Birthday” song, “Colonel” Sanders, and the composer of a confederate song called “Think of Your Head in the Morning.”

Less notable people are also immortalized by elaborate tributes, like a woman named Saundra Twist. An elegant statue of her presides over a stone tablet telling the story of her career as a fashion model followed by the realization of “all of this world’s bountiful wonders,” a husband and three daughters, before she died in a car accident. The grave of a magician buried nearby features a sculpture of him, with a long cape and hollow eyes that catch the sunlight and glitter creepily.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Shifts” by Dan Reiter

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Aldous Huxley once wrote, “There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.” In Dan Reiter’s “Shifts” (WhiskeyPaper), we’re introduced to a character in conflict over how to accurately perceive a series of strange events, as shown through the narrator’s language and structure.

In the opening sentences, Reiter presents us with the inciting incident, a cup on the protagonist’s desk moving seemingly on its own. Notice the language.

“Hollow sound. Clat. Juke on the desk. Two-inch shimmy. Slip the pencils out, expecting a lizard. Empty, then. Indonesian piece. Carved, bas-relief delphinium. Smell of oil, deadwood. Wag the cup to your ear. Listen for termites.”

The barrage of sensory details, thoughts, and movements written in clipped phrases and short sentences gives immediacy to the paragraph. This is a stream of consciousness. We are deep in the character’s perspective, experiencing it as if moment by moment.Continue Reading

Borders

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We moved to Pittsburgh from the Northeast almost two years ago for my husband’s job. I tell people here I’m new to the city, usually as a way of explaining that it’s new to me, that my mental map is hazy and lots of references still slip right past. Before we came to house-hunt two summers ago, with our then-five-month-old in tow, I hadn’t been here in conscious memory. I grew up in New England, and when I pictured Pittsburgh I saw a vast, Midwestern flatness. (This turns out to have been as wrong as it gets—I thought I knew about hills before I lived here, but I did not know about hills.)

Yet whether Pittsburgh and I are actually new to each other depends on your definition. My grandmother now lives in Ohio, but she grew up here. Her parents lived here their entire lives. My great-grandmother was from the Troy Hill neighborhood of the city. She worked in a Pittsburgh glove factory once she left school after eighth grade. She met my great-grandfather, who’d just returned from World War I, here. She lived to be one hundred, and she was a talker, and I remember her telling us how the air in the city used to be so thick with smoke that the streetlights would come on in the middle of the day.

Pittsburgh for me is a strange doubling, then: known/not-known. I have roots here, but they’re buried beneath several decades and not actually accessible to me. I think a lot of us experience this kind of doubling in the places of our past or the pasts of our parents and grandparents—since more and more of us have left those places. They’re familiar to us, but in another sense, we’ve lost them.Continue Reading

Round-Down: Why the Gay Fable KING & KING Matters

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At The New York Times, Associate Press writer Michael Biesecker discusses North Carolina third-grade teacher Omar Currie’s decision to read a gay fable called King & King to his class at Efland-Cheeks Elementary in Efland, North Carolina. Currie was compelled to read the story, written by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland, aloud after one of his students was called “gay” during gym class. Currie, a black gay man who grew up in a small town, knew firsthand what it was like to be bullied, according to Biesecker.

Currie was loaned the book by assistant principal Meg Goodhand, and it took only hours for the complaint calls to come in to the school after Currie read the fable to his class. Both Currie and Goodhand have resigned since the ordeal over the appropriateness of the book in the classroom began.

Biesecker makes a point to mention that the fable “has been a subject of controversy before. In 2006, the parents of a Massachusetts second-grader sued after the book was read in their child’s class. A federal judge later ruled against them, saying the rights of parents to exercise their religious and moral beliefs are not violated when children are exposed to differing ideas in public school.”Continue Reading

Revisiting The Campus Novel

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For the past few weeks, everywhere I’ve gone in New York City, I’ve seen college students in full graduation regalia. New York is home to countless universities, and May and early June is prime season for mortarboards and proud parents from the Midwest boldly venturing on to the subway. Currently, new grads are are no doubt seeking distance from all things academic. But for the rest of us, what better time to cure (or encourage) our nostalgia than by revisiting the campus novel?

It’s not difficult to see why the college campus is an alluring setting for writers. Many writers work at universities and know the world intimately. There are plenty of great campus novels that are not necessarily comic (Flavorwire has a good list here). But there’s also a long tradition of the campus farce.

From a comic standpoint, anyone who’s every been to a cocktail party with university colleagues knows that even at the best of times it’s an ongoing comedy of manners, a ballet of awkwardness. There exist in university settings the following: Competition, ego, eccentric personalities. Sartorial affectation (berets, tweed blazers, brightly colored silk scarves, Trotsky-style beards, all manner of glasses). Beaurocracy and Machiavellian maneuvering. Snubs and indignities and inappropriate flirtations.

All, as they say, ripe for satire.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Rain” by Ben Loory

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In her essay, “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale,” (from The Writer’s Notebook, Tin House Books) Kate Bernheimer discusses how the psychological flatness of characters in tales and fables “allows depth of response in the reader.” In Ben Loory’s “Rain” (Journal of Compressed Creative Arts), we’re given almost no access to the character’s individuality and motivation, creating a character recognizable by virtue of his anonymity.

We first meet the protagonist as he’s in bed, listening, kept awake by the pouring rain. In line with fairy tale tradition, he’s referred to only as “he” or “the man.” He could be anyone, or perhaps better put, everyone. This anonymity serves to draw readers to identify with the character, not because of particulars, but the universal human experience of being anonymous, one of many, and at times, invisible.

In place of going into detail regarding particulars of the protagonist’s individuality—his past, his internal struggle, etc.—Loory instead focuses on the surroundings.

“The man puts his robe on and goes into the living room. He stands there at the window, looking out. He can see the water coming down; it’s slanting in the streetlights. The bushes in the yard are dancing about.”

The robe is any robe, the living room is any living room. The protagonist doesn’t saunter, slouch, or stumble; he goes. The water and the bushes, on the other hand, are given lyrical language and vibrant images, which pop all the more in contrast to the purposefully mundane details of the man and his house.Continue Reading