Tension mounting


We spend our lives avoiding conflict, and then we reach academia. On the playground we’re told to make peace, but in the classroom we’re praised for our thesis statement that makes an “argument,” that introduces “tension,” that “complicates” a previous notion. Conflict becomes, all of a sudden, the engine of every good story. During discussion, one comment jars a thought, which can clash with another and spark a third, ad infinitum. The young student may find something violent about ideating. Make nice, children—that is, until you begin to write.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. writes,

“I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”

Tension lives in the fabric of the sentence itself.Continue Reading

Writing the Mind: Nicole Krauss, W.G. Sebald, & Paul Harding

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How does one apply the adage show don’t tell to the interior of the mind—a vast expanse one inhabits daily, but never sees? While Pixar’s Inside Out turns the subconscious into a playful and sometimes dark adventure, literature must rely on language—pacing, syntax, and form matching function.

In the early pages of Nicole Krauss’s novel Great House, Nadia mentions to an unnamed character that when her significant other moved out, she was left with little. A friend suggests she call a Chilean man who was searching for a place to store his furniture while he traveled back to Chile. Krauss writes:

“It took a minute for him to sort out who I was, a minute for the light to go on revealing me as a friend of a friend and not some loopy woman calling—about his furniture? she’d heard he wanted to get rid of it? or just give it out on loan?—a minute in which I considered apologizing, hanging up, and carrying on as I had been, with just a mattress, plastic utensils, and the one chair.”

Rather than being told that Nadia is nervous, or having Nadia state, I was nervous, Krauss utilizes pacing and language to convey anxiety. Similarly, the word “loopy” mirrors the looping, spiraling structure of the sentence, and heightens the repetition of words and phrases, such as “a minute,” and “a friend of a friend.” The three questions embedded in the sentence, one after another, rapid-fire, suggest the firing of synapses in an uncomfortable exchange—when one’s mind and mouth are trying to sync up, make sense, or be understood. Not only are there three questions, but three mentions of “a minute,” conveying how quickly this all happened, but how long and drawn out the exchange seemed to feel. Likewise, Krauss pairs three verbs—apologizing, hanging up, and carrying on—and three nouns—mattress, plastic utensils, chair—to create a winding, well-rounded sentence.

The form matches the function; the structure of the sentence conveys the rushed and uneasy nature of the phone call, without explicitly stating what was said between them, or the tone of voice, or the external details or gestures that were made in those quick moments. We are wholly embedded in this character’s mind. We are intimately woven into their internal landscape, at once cerebral and emotional.Continue Reading

Lying as survival: the literary pep talk


Has a young child ever asked you to watch him run? Are you ready? he asks, and then the same intense eyes that one tries to remember a dream with. Then his arms start pumping at a speed that must seem lightning-fast to his own mind but really looks more like an impersonation of slowness—it’s objectively unimpressive, even your leisurely walk would overtake him, his legs simply lack the length. He runs in uneven circles and when he returns to you, his little lungs straining, what do you do? It doesn’t take a behaviorist to know that you, we, must “O” our mouths in shock. We must “Wow!” and enlarge him and protect him from the world while we still can.

Of course, we don’t apotheosize an adult’s work that aims to soar but barely gets off the ground. We’re old enough to take the truth. As adults, we should hold each other’s work to high standards, and our own work to the highest of all. As writers, we shouldn’t settle for a single pale line. But before the poem is written, I say, we should lie to ourselves, the way we lied to that winded child.Continue Reading

Letter to myself: On fatherhood and poems


A published letter is a strange act. It’s like a whisper made into a loudspeaker. It’s a secret note the town’s tacked onto the city hall bulletin board after the carrier pigeon nosedived into the public square. It’s intimacy externalized. Some letters seem to speak to no one at all, but the best letters, though they’re addressed to another, make us each feel touched: think of Baldwin’s letter to his nephew. Or Kazim Ali’s to Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Or, right here on the blog, Megan Mayhew Bergman’s lovely one to her daughters urging them not to “be good.” You overheard it. You’re pilfering the epistolary form now. A self-addressed published letter is strangest of all, but you and I could use a speaking-to.

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Why Bother with Craft?


“Craft” was a dirty word at art school, a subtle derogative. The college dropped “and Craft” from their name so recently that the signs on the highway still held those words. Once, in a class critique, a peer called a hand-painted map used to make a stop motion short “crafty,” and my face stung, as if slapped.

Now I deal with another kind of craft; not so much a dirty word but a kind of quiet discussion held among writers and readers. “Craft” is a fluid term; used in aeronautics and astronautics to speak of a single vessel, or the skill of deception, or a verb analogous to “make.” Craft in literature is comprised of narrative elements and literary devices: the nuts and bolts of what makes a story a story.

The first week in an MFA in creative writing, students were told they’d be studying craft and one student objected—said he couldn’t write a craft essay when the choices he made in a narrative were inherent.

They’re not, the professor argued; they’re studied and learned qualities, practiced until they become inherent, or second-nature. Craft in literature is the metaphorical and invisible toolbox you take with you. Like a filmmaker studies the nuances of cameras, microphones, and lighting to create a scene, a writer reads books for syntax, structure, theme, and studies the methods of employing devices like irony and metaphor as a way to point toward meaning, to elucidate a deeper truth. Jack Hart, author of Storycraft, said, “an awareness of all the different forms in which you can tell true stories using narrative techniques is important to succeeding with a broad variety of materials.” (Nieman Storyboard)Continue Reading

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

Dresden, zerstörtes Stadtzentrum

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

“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

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.

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Blood Memory

“There is only one of you in all time; this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.”—Martha Graham

Dance was my first foray into art, and I studied it for sixteen years with the kind of blind passion you can only cultivate before puberty, before cynicism and self-doubt set in, gnawing at your dreams.

Though humble, those years of dance training gave me my first taste of expressing myself through art, of channeling meaning. Though I wobbled and my turnout failed when I danced en pointe to Vivaldi’s “Spring,” I understood the rapturous feeling of new growth, the sun on one’s skin after winter. Vivaldi translated his feelings about spring into music, and we small town Carolinians tried our best to bring those ideas to life with the body. Though our results were what you might expect from a studio that shared space with a gas station, our effort was noble.Continue Reading

Language Could Kill You: Adichie, Code-Switching & the Biafran War


Language plays a crucial role throughout Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novels, but nowhere is it more decisive than in the author’s second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. Written against the backdrop of the Biafran War, two wealthy sisters return from England to a nation on the cusp of revolution and choose two different paths: Kainene moves to Port Harcourt to take over their father’s business, while Olanna moves to Nsukku, a university town, to teach and live with her “revolutionary lover,” Odenigbo. Southeastern Nigeria secedes in 1967, in response to ethnic, cultural, economic and religious tensions, and a largely Igbo nationality forms the new nation of Biafra—officially the Republic of Biafra. Characters are thrown into the crossfire of war, where speaking the wrong language can get you killed.

Throughout the novel, Adichie is careful to note when someone speaks in English, Igbo, Yoruba, or Hausa. Why take the time to write what languages are spoken and when?

As a former British colony, English is the official language of Nigeria. However, over five hundred different languages have been spoken within the country. Adichie’s characters often participate in code-switching, a linguistic concept of alternating between two languages within the context of a single conversation. Code-switching in literature can reveal relationships and hierarchies, the background, social status, and motivations of individuals, and shed light on issues of race and oppression.

Odenigbo and Olanna are both professors who alternate between English and Igbo, which demonstrates their awareness of and emphasis on the importance of utilizing their native language, one that has ties to the land and culture. In contrast, Major Madu Madu—a member of the military—repeatedly ignores an Englishman’s initiations to strike up a conversation in Igbo. While Odenigbo and Olanna fluidly and intentionally navigate English and Igbo in one conversation, the Major sticks to English, the language of the colonizers, of oppression and socioeconomic mobility, and political power.

Language and code-switching throughout the beginning of the book slowly reveals characters, and escalates until the right language saves a character’s life. Olanna is spared twice, by two different people and two different languages: first by her cousin Arize, and then by her former boyfriend, Mohammed.

Olanna is at the market with Arize when the inklings of war become real: a crowd gathers, and someone yells, “’We are counting the Igbo people.’” “Arize muttered under her breath, ‘I kwuna okwu,’ as if Olanna was thinking of saying anything, and then shook her head and started to speak fluent, loud Yoruba, all the while casually turning so they could go back the way they had come.” Shortly thereafter, Mohammed speaks in “rapid, coaxing Hausa” to a mob of men wielding machetes and axes as he helps Olanna evacuate the city.

While Olanna is focused on intellectual pursuits and the revolution, her cousin is wholly concerned with getting married and having children—and yet it is Arize who saves them from harassment on the street, code-switching from Igbo to Yoruba to make onlookers believe they belong to a different group. Early on in the novel, Adichie demonstrates that Arize lives amongst Yoruba and Hausa nationalities, relying on those languages for day-to-day life. This exchange portrays the nuances of the Biafran War: that people were killing one another without being able to easily discern who belonged to what nationality; that relationships prior to the war crossed lines of religion, ethnicity, and language; and that communities forged deep and/or transactional relationships that encouraged them to learn multiple languages to fully express and communicate.