The Candles and the Soap: On Vonnegut, Death, and Repetition

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Placed after a mention of death or dying, Kurt Vonnegut’s “So it goes” refrain throughout Slaughterhouse Five utilizes repetition to explore the inevitability of death. Early on in the book, Billy Pilgrim writes a letter to a newspaper about his experiences with extra terrestrials, and explains the origin of the phrase:

When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’

The phrase simultaneously dismisses and accepts the inevitability of death. “So it goes” seems so detached as to be irreverent and inappropriate. An incredibly simple three word sentence—so informal it catches the reader off guard in its plainness—is striking in juxtaposition to death. The phrase is so casual, it smacks of false familiarity and dismissiveness. It feels unceremonious, yet becomes ceremonious through its repetition, like the refrain of a song. It is so much more complex than just those three simple words; it admits the inevitability of death and offers a pause for the reader to truly consider the weight of what is written.

Only the candles and the soap were of German origin. They had a ghostly, opalescent similarity. The British had no way of knowing it, but the candles and the soap were made from the fat of rendered Jews and Gypsies and fairies and communists, and other enemies of the State.

Removing the repetition of “so it goes” from the text alters the book—note how the omission of it from the above paragraph makes the sentence so dark and depressing it’s almost impossible to read. Stripping the informal refrain of “so it goes” makes the book too formal, too gloomy; it robs the deaths their due attention, their pause, and removes the carefree yet careful acceptance of the uncompromising inevitability of death. Nothing can be done about death, and Vonnegut’s cool acquiescence of it serves as deeper advice than at first glance—a mantra of sorts.Continue Reading

Writing my way in, or, Writing my way out

cemeterySomewhere deep in the “remotest mansions of the blood,” where Lorca said the duende lives, I think I still have the capacity for a good cry. At some point in my life I lost this. Or it was wrested from me. Either way it’s now as foreign a tongue to me as Lorca’s Spanish.

I feel the urge sometimes, but only as a phantom limb. The world’s done its work on me. An army rises up to squash any lump in my throat.

Sir Philip Sidney’s Muse tells him, “Fool, look in thy heart and write,” where the true real-estate is. I like to imagine that this—the heart, the mansions of the blood, the trenches within us—is where I can recover that prelapsarian part of myself, before the world knotted my tie too tight.

A good cry doesn’t sound half bad. On the contrary, it sounds as good as any good thing, as good as a good piece of cake, or a good massage, or a good microfleece blanket. I remember obscurely when tears held no shame, watching my blurry wreckage in the mirror as a child, my cheeks flushed with crying, and the sensation afterwards of feeling lighter and breathless and cleansed from the inside out. But those days are long gone. Like a lot of men I know, a good cry sounds antithetical. It takes a Mack truck of hurt or warmth now to move me to tears in public. I feel an almost bodily resistance to it; it is as unthinkable as taking a step on a broken knee. It’s one of the few things many men pride themselves on not toughing out.

Recently I wrote about that silly superstition of holding my breath in the car as I pass a cemetery. You do this, too, admit it, because like me, you take every precaution possible to stave off dying, even if it’s uncomfortable and poses the risk of asphyxiation. The impulse was so arcane that I wrote the poem, to waylay that mystery. I finished, then waited.Continue Reading

Emerging Writer’s Contest Deadline Extended to Friday, May 22

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Good news! We’ve extended the deadline of our Emerging Writer’s Contest and will be accepting submissions until Friday, May 22, at 12 noon EST.

For more information and to submit, visit our website.

As a reminder, the Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Contest recognizes work by an emerging writer in each of three genres: fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. One winner in each genre will receive $1,000 and publication in the literary journal. We consider writers “emerging” if they have not published or self-published a book.

“You start out in difficulty”: An Interview with Dan Albergotti

Field_of_Light_by_Bruce_Munro_(12642954763)Dan Albergotti is the author of two books of poems, The Boatloads (BOA Editions, 2008) and Millennial Teeth (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), as well as a limited-edition chapbook, The Use of the World (Unicorn Press, 2013). A graduate of the MFA program at UNC Greensboro and former poetry editor of The Greensboro Review, he is a professor of English at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC. Dan’s poems harness inventive (and sometimes invented) formal strategies to give shape to and amplify a deeply human, deeply American voice: like your dearest, oldest friend hunkered beside you at the bar who just happens to speak in couplets.

Matthew Thorburn: Throughout Millennial Teeth one finds sonnets like “December 25, 2005,” written in a very taut syllabic, rhyming form in which each line expands by two syllables, up to 14 syllables, then back down to two syllables for the last line. How did this form come about?

Dan Albergotti: That’s a form I invented about ten years ago, and a good friend has christened it the Albergonnet (a silly name, I know, but I’ve embraced it). When I first imagined it, I thought the tight rhyme at the beginning and end would make the form unwieldy. The rhyme scheme is couplet, so the Albergonnet demands that the writer establish a sound for the initial rhyme in the second syllable of the poem and then provide the rhyme for it only four syllables later. At the end, the last rhyme occurs only two syllables apart. So opening and closing the poem is formally a pretty stiff challenge, so much so that when I sat down to write the first one I thought it would necessarily be a failure.

I was really surprised when it turned out not to be. Then I wrote another, then another, then another, and the results kept improving. I had just been playing around with the elements of form, imagining something that seemed absurd in the abstract, but I think along the way I stumbled onto a possibly durable invention.Continue Reading

Stories You Can Touch

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Who doesn’t love to get mail? These days, it turns out there are a number of membership services that capitalize on that very simple human quirk, curating colorfully themed packages and sending subscribers a monthly surprise in the mail (not email, snail mail—you know, that ancient form of correspondence that has something to do with stamps?). The idea is simple: pay a subscription fee, get a mysterious box of goodies every month.

But one company is a little different. While others pride themselves on delivering the coolest swag around, The Mysterious Package Company is in the business of telling stories. Specifically, stories you can touch. Far more than just a mindless delivery service, the MPC considers itself a “Purveyor of strange and unannounced deliveries, designed to intrigue, befuddle, and delight.” As a customer you can expect to receive (or anonymously send as a gift) a fully formed transmedia narrative utilizing “letters, postcards, diary pages, artifacts and more,” with packages strategically staggered to “arrive over time to build anticipation and intrigue.” Elegant and artful handmade creations delivered to your doorstep which together tell a sophisticated story full of macabre horror and steeped in suspense.Continue Reading

Round-Down: Poetry, Memoir, and the Ever-Shifting “I”

2651126662_c76b8a0a9d_bRecently, a trend has emerged: more and more poets are turning to memoir. In the last two weeks alone I have read essays by Tracy K. Smith about her new memoir and reviews of Elizabeth Alexander’s. Both detail the reasons for the authors’ switch in form, making me wonder, as Smith does in her essay, if prose offers something poetry can’t in terms of the nature of telling a story about oneself.

In a lovely, thoughtful piece, Elisa Gabbert writes that prose actually offers some quality of emotion at the level of the paragraph, rather than at the level of the sentence. She claims to be “obsessed with what [she's] come to think of as the invisible transition, where there is no clear, necessary connection between two paragraphs, and yet–-something happens.” Such transitions “make a text feel more open, and inside these openings, essays gesture toward poetry”—yet they still give the writer space to do a full exploration of identity, juxtaposed against the backdrop of a memory. Thus, prose retains some nature of poetry, especially in nonfiction, while allowing for more fecundity and digression.

Smith offers another way to fruitfully organize similarities and differences between poetry and prose around vision. She writes that “it might also be true to characterize poetry as insistent in its vision: departing and returning, picking and choosing, casting and gathering. . . . perhaps it is equally true to describe prose as persistent in its manner of vision. Perhaps it is the long lingering gaze that allows detail and insight to gradually emerge.” What memoir allows, then, that poetry can’t is that shift in vision.

Perhaps it makes sense, this shift from poetry to nonfiction, since most poets draw their images, as Smith does, from the personal. For me, however, the biggest difference is the purporting sense of “realness” to the narrator of a memoir vs. the speaker in a poem who is often at odds or at a distance from the writer.

In an opinion piece for The Washington Post, Mark Athitakis, in a piece provocatively entitled “Memoirs Should Be More Than Just Selfies In Book Form,” explains that he disdains what he determines are shallow, attention-grabbing memoirs written by famous people, favoring, instead, more “literary” memoirs which write about a chosen subject, rather than about the author. He ends his piece by stating that “I” is the least important word in a memoir.

I disagree. I think the “I” becomes very important once we as readers seize upon the point Athitakis brings up towards the end of his piece. In reviewing Karl Ove Knausgaard’s memoir, Athitakis reminds us that nonfiction is in part fiction. That every work in the first person is, to use David Sedaris’s word, “realish.”Continue Reading

Erotica for Writers

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Here in Chicago, we have a series called Naked Girls Reading. No joke. I know what you’re thinking. You’re either asking yourself why this would be a thing, or why you don’t live in Chicago, or whether there isn’t a Naked Boys Reading series. (Only in London, apparently, and can we please fix that?)

If you aren’t lucky enough to make it to one of these events, don’t worry! Here is some porn for writers. Eight porns, to be exact. Writers are a varied lot, so I’ve tried to include something for everyone. Well, almost everyone. Some of y’all are sick.

Porn 1: You know when someone is reading your manuscript, and they like something, how they put a checkmark in the margin? You know how sometimes there’s even a double checkmark? Well, what about a triple checkmark? Quadruple? Now we’re talking. Pentuple. It’s possible. Yeah, baby.

Porn 2: Misplaced commas, bother you, don’t they? Do they, bother you a lot? How much, do they, bother you? What about apostrophe’s? I bet you want to fix that, don’t you? Well you can’t, because you’re handcuffed to the bed.

Porn 3: Grainy lighting on a small workshop room, six cardiganed writers around a conference table. Saxophone. The workshop leader rises and plucks a stack of papers from his briefcase, tossing it on the table. It’s your short story. Yes, it is.

“This work,” says the obnoxious girl in the corner, “it makes me want to quit writing forever. It’s that good. If I can’t write this well, what’s the point?”Continue Reading

Tidy This: An Imagined Conversation with a Popular Tidying Expert

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We walk into my bedroom, where the Tidying Expert senses immediately that I have too many books. The term “book hoarder” is on the tip of her tongue. She wears a fresh mint-green cardigan and peers menacingly over a clipboard.

“We’ll start by putting the books in the center of the room,” she says, pointing to a bare spot on the carpet next to the cat.

“Pull them off the shelves?” I ask, already reaching for Thornton Wilder, who has been piled on top of Percival Everett, who has been piled on top of Eudora Welty.

“We’ll discard the ones you won’t return to,” she says crisply, as I bring stacks of books to the dumping ground. Soon, we are waist-deep in Willa Cather and Dennis Johnson, Sharon Olds and Millay, Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers.

The Tidying Expert holds up a pale pink paperback I’ve had since high school, Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

“Does this spark joy in you?” the Tidying Expert asks, waving the book at me.

“No,” I say, thinking of Heathcliffe and Catherine. “Great heartbreak and longing, actually.”

“Toss,” she says, cruelly, flinging it toward the trash pile. The cat flees underneath the bed.

The Expert holds up Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.

“What do you feel now?”

“The weight of adulthood.”Continue Reading

“She did not let go until her story had been told”: An Interview with Sandy Longhorn

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Sandy Longhorn is the author of three collections of poems, Blood Almanac (Anhinga Press, 2006), The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths (Jacar Press, 2013) and The Alchemy of My Mortal Form (Trio House, 2015). She teaches at Pulaski Technical College in Little Rock, Arkansas, and co-edits Heron Tree, “a journal of online poetry, bound annually.” I first found out about Sandy’s poems by way of her blog, Myself the Only Kangaroo among the Beauty (the title comes from Emily Dickinson), where she writes candidly about the daily struggles and little victories that come with being a poet in the world. Her poems are carefully structured and quietly moving, un-ostentatious and often unforgettable. We caught up via email for this conversation late last year.

MATTHEW THORBURN: The poems in The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths create and inhabit their own world, right from the first poem, “Disclaimer,” in which “the Author” is “painting the sunlight” and “coaxing things out of the ground.” Did you have a sense of where these poems take place right from the beginning, or did it come into focus as you were writing?

SANDY LONGHORN: This book, my second, is closely linked to my first, Blood Almanac. In the year after Blood Almanac came into the world thanks to Anhinga Press, I didn’t write much at all. When I did return to writing poetry, I found myself writing poems that continued the trajectory of being set firmly in the Midwest. Although I haven’t lived there in over 15 years, that landscape is at the essence of my voice. At the time I was writing the oldest poems in The Girlhood Book, I was also reading diaries of women who had lived in Iowa at various points in history. In each of them, weather was a central factor of the entries. I began to imitate that on my blog, and weather became an even bigger focus of “place” for book two. In short, yes, the sense of place was paramount from the beginning.Continue Reading

Impossible to Pin Down: Truth & Memory in Nonfiction

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Nonfiction as a genre confronts the discordance between memory—a slippery, subjective entity that can be the antithesis of truth—and actuality. Roy Peter Clark writes of the “essential fictive nature of all memory.” Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, editors of Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, write “of the elusive nature of recollection.” Roy Peter Clark‘s essay, “The Line Between Fact and Fiction,” in the Nieman Foundation’s guide, explores this further:

The way we remember things is not necessarily the way they were. This makes memoir, by definition, a form in which reality and imagination blur into a ‘fourth genre.’ The problems of memory also infect journalism when reporters, in describing the memories of sources and witnesses, wind up lending authority to a kind of fiction. […] The postmodernist might think all this irrelevant, arguing that there are no facts, only points of view, only takes on reality influenced by our personal histories, our cultures, our race and gender, our social class. The best journalists can do in such a world is offer multiple frames through which events and issues can be seen. Report the truth? They ask. Whose truth?

It’s one thing to be subject to memory’s slippery subjectivity, and another to consciously pick and choose where to place scenes. The latter is evidence of an experienced writer, who chooses responsibility to the narrative over the facts. Vivian Gornick might agree with this approach in The Situation and the Story:

A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. […] Truth in memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required.

Continue Reading