The Ploughshares Round Down: 10 Times in Life When Writers Have the Upper Hand

I’ve interviewed a lot of entry level job candidates. I’ve had plenty of recent college graduates sent to a conference room to meet me with a strong thumbs-up from Human Resources. Bright, well-dressed, great resumes, and eager. This impresses the HR types. However, when I’d ask questions, especially follow-up and off-script questions, I would get one word answers. “How did you like working in the Philosophy Department as a student aide?” Big smile. “Great,” they’d say. “Fun.”

c78cog1I’d wrap up that interview quickly, because I’d realize that I had already decided who I wanted. My next editorial assistant would be the dowdy, shy book nerd I’d met earlier that morning that HR hated, but who answered my question about what she’s currently reading with a long story about how she decides what to read and when. All the answers to all my questions entertained, revealed, and informed.

With the right kinds of stories, you can sell anything, including yourself.

That’s why the most interesting thing I’ve read in the past two weeks was this short piece by Neil Gaiman about The Moth. He describes the high-wire act of telling a story out loud in front of an audience and what works and what doesn’t. As I read it, I realized that this skill–public storytelling–is one that give writers the upper hand in a lot of situations where everyone else is struggling. Being a writer is never awesome at tax time, but there are plenty of other times when it’s the perfect thing to be.

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Lit GIFs: Romeo and Juliet

The Montagues and the Capulets don’t like each other very much.

Romeo and his cousin crash a Capulet party anyway, looking for girls.

Romeo’s on the rebound when he meets Juliet.

The party was supposed to give 14-year-old Juliet the chance to check out her potential husband-to-be, Paris. Continue reading

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Dear Lil Wayne

lilwayne_coverDear Lil Wayne
Lauren Ireland
Magic Helicopter Press, April 2014
76 pages

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Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s celebrated its tenth anniversary this year. Sad to say, the book has not aged as gracefully as I had hoped. Every time I bring out a few selections from Letters to Wendy’s, my Intro. to Lit. students alternately roll their eyes or stare blankly at the overhead projector. In all likelihood they are overwhelmed by poetry in general—especially absurdist prose poetry about fast food—and Wenderoth’s epistolary book is hyper-graphic, too. However, I’m also sure that many have never even seen a comment card before and thus fail to understand the overarching conceit of the project.

Perhaps Lauren Ireland’s epistolary poetry collection Dear Lil Wayne is the Letters to Wendy’s of this decade. Continue reading

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The New Generation of Gay Latino Poets

Card-27-El-CorazonSome scholars say that Queer Latina/o writing is fast becoming a major core of the Latina/o literary canon. I say it’s the future of the canon altogether, with some of the most exciting, intelligent, and provocative American writing coming from the disciples of such luminaries as Cherríe Moraga, Rigoberto González, and Gloria Anzaldúa, among others who were cultivators of early contemporary Queer Latina/o writing.

While so much of Gen X Latina/o writing (predominately straight writing) is concerned with the outer edges of the Kinsey scale—as it related to the violence surrounding Latino masculinity, machismo, or misogyny—Millenial writers are increasingly interested in the entirety of that scale and its nuances: What does misogyny look like when it comes from a feminine place? What is Queer masculinity? What is straight Latino masculinity once it’s deconstructed? What does Queer Latina/o love look like in the twenty-first century? Continue reading

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Crossing Over: Literary Fiction Writers Tackling YA

YA and Adult NovelsThe other day I was browsing in a favorite bookstore, moving backward through the alphabet, when I noticed Sherman Alexie’s novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, toward the front of the As in Fiction. I stopped and looked around. Had I walked into the Young Adult/Children’s section without realizing it? No, there was Alexie’s award-winning young adult novel, shelved beside Reservation Blues and War Dances.

It’s not an absurd shelving decision to make. Alexie is a well-respected writer of literary fiction, both short stories and novels, and poetry. I first encountered Alexie in a fiction writing class in college, when our professor photocopied “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” for us. As a white, suburban 19-year-old, I’m sure I didn’t get as much out of the story as I could have, but his prose was sharp and thoughtful. A few years later, I came across Alexie’s poetry in a Norton Contemporary anthology. His poems were similarly moving and well-crafted, but what struck me the most was how his poems felt like poems. He didn’t seem like a prose writer trying to fit ideas and images into a poetic form when they would have been better served by a short story. Although most of his work deals with similar themes, poems such as “Crow Testament” feel more expansive than the more grounded short stories. With both prose and poetry, Alexie is able to adapt to the form to suit the purpose of his narrative and purpose. Continue reading

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The Ploughshares Round-down: The Problem with Literary Doomsday Laments

the end of literatureWe who love literature face an urgent crisis: a gruesome epidemic of articles worrying over the demise of literature, reading, English Departments, and apparently (along with them) culture, art, morality, humanity, and ALL KNOWLEDGE AND CIVILIZATION. We’re in dire need of an antidote for this doom-prophesying fever, these impassioned warnings aboutphilistinism.” (A word that, btw, needs to please hit a wall and slide down.)

Like other doomsday prophecies, tales of literary demise are long on fear and short on fact. And although based on verifiable observations (decreasing readerships and book sales, closing bookstores, squeezed English departments), they’re so focused on Certain Doom that they can’t acknowledge the many places in which literature is thriving and/or receiving a new infusion of public interest.

The last few weeks have offered up their own versions of doomspeak (and questionable solutions), including David Mascriota’s writeup for The Daily Beast – in which he argues that English departments must be salvaged because they’re the only places anyone reads anymore. (And apparently there are zero alternatives.) So basically, we have to make people read books in college English courses or we’re doomed to devolve into an uncivilized, unread mass of (un)humans.

phenomenal cosmic power

Unfortunately, this mammoth dearth of imagination is par for the Doomspeak course. Preachers of Lit Demise often assume that, because literature is disappearing from the places and situations they’ve learned to look for it, it’s disappearing entirely.
More egregiously, they often first exalt literature to a place of Powerful Human Significance, then claim it can survive only via a few fora: bookstores, classrooms, book clubs. It’s all weirdly small-minded . . . and vastly uncreative.

And it’s making me crazy. So Lovers of All Things Lit: It’s time we face up to our own raging blind spots, and to the ways in which we’re contributing to the very crises we fear. Literature will live, but/and we’ll have to come to terms with the wildly diverse reasons people are seeking it out. And we’ll have to let people love it for whatever qualities they see in its big fat fabulous literary face. Continue reading

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Writing with Abstract Art

Amy Frierson

Amy Frierson

In her essay “Art Objects,” Jeanette Winterson challenges readers to experiment with looking at an original work of art (ideally something you like, at least a little) for an entire hour. She supposes that over the course of that hour, one would become increasingly uncomfortable, distracted, and irritated, but also more imaginative: “I can make up stories about the characters on the canvas much as art historians like to identify people in Rembrandt’s The Night Watch [….] A picture is its subject matter isn’t it? Oh, dear, mine’s an abstract. Never mind, would that pink suit me?”

Looking for inspiration in figurative art, art depicting real-world objects, offers many possibilities, some of which I’ve covered before. But what can you do with abstract art? Winterson writes, “art is an extraordinarily faithful transmitter. Our job is to keep our receiving equipment in good working order.” And the way to do this is by taking it in. What do you see? What does it say to you? Continue reading

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Indy Spotlight: Engine Books

UnknownBased in Indianapolis, Indiana, Engine Books specializes in fiction—novels, novellas, and short-story collections—and the press is also home to the annual Engine Books Novel Prize. Engine Books was founded by publisher and editor Victoria Barrett in 2011, and both she and Andrew Scott, who directs Engine Books’ young adult imprint Lacewing Books, are fiction writers themselves.

Between these two endeavors, Engine Books publishes six titles per year. Recently, the press started an ambitious Indiegogo fundraising campaign with the goal of quadrupling the number of titles published, expanding staff, and establishing salaries for an editorial and marketing team that has essentially worked for free since it all began just a few years ago.

For the Ploughshares blog, editors Barrett and Scott share how the campaign is going, what kinds of manuscripts they’re looking for, and what their vision is for the future of Engine Books. Continue reading

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The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Not Like What You Said” by Debbie Urbanski

The older I get, the more I notice that my handwriting resembles my mother’s. Her cursive is so even, consistent, and precise that her letters and grocery lists look like they’ve been typed up on the computer and printed out. My handwriting isn’t like that—it’s sloppy and irregular—but when I get going, when I write only in cursive and not a mix of half-print, I see that my “r”s curve like hers and the loops on my “y”s look just like hers do.

AQR Fall Winter 2014I thought about what I inherited from my mom as I took notes during my second read of Debbie Urbanski’s story “Not Like What You Said,” which will appear in the upcoming Fall/Winter 2014 issue of Alaska Quarterly Review. Urbanski’s story follows Joan, a middle-aged mother whose adult daughter Emma has gone missing. Joan hires a PI to track down Emma two years after Joan last saw her daughter in person, and several months after Emma’s last correspondence. After the PI’s evidence reveals that Emma became involved with a cult, Joan flies across the country to find out what happened to her oldest troubled daughter, and to answer the question she’s posed to herself: Is your child’s happiness real if you can never be a part of it?

In a quick summary of the story, Joan reads as an active, ambitious character. In actuality, she isn’t. She’s still married to her abusive husband Max. She doesn’t speak up or say what’s actually on her mind, instead delivering short lectures in her head to other characters when she’s alone, and even these addresses are opaque and vague in their platitude-like quality. After Emma and her husband Caul leave a visit with Joan and Max early, Joan wants to tell Caul, “Love begets love,” and Emma, “You are a person of great strength,” rather than saying what we wish she would: “Caul, don’t treat my daughter like shit”; “Emma, you can endure your marriage but you don’t have to.” Even in her head, Joan is unassertive, her language aiming to soothe rather than inform or demand, and we come to understand that her role in her family has been to keep the peace.

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Around the World in 209 Teams: A Review of Thirty-One Nil by James Montague

209 teams enter; 1 will be victorious.

209 teams enter; 1 will be victorious.

Thirty-One Nil: On the Road With Football’s Outsiders–A World Cup Odyssey
James Montague
Bloomsbury, 2014, Bloomsbury
330 pages


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The work-ditching phenomena that our globe experienced throughout June and July, known as the World Cup, is really just the polished and gawked-at tip of the World Cup iceberg. Beneath the surface, there is the much larger and much less-attended ordeal of World Cup Qualification, a process that takes about three years and involves all of the 209 national countries who are members of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (that would be just about every country in the world, except for Greenland and Tibet). Only when the 209 teams have been whittled down to an elite group of 32 does the World Cup Final begin, inspiring so many outsized profits in bars in every time zone.

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