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

LOWRES-USE-EWC2015ExtensionWebBanner

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.

Indie Spotlight: Brighthorse Books

blog brighthorseHaving published their inaugural titles in 2015, Brighthorse Books is a brand-spanking new venture from novelists Jonis Agee and Brent Spencer. Based in Omaha, Nebraska, the press currently considers poetry, short fiction, and novel manuscripts through its annual Brighthorse Prize. By utilizing print-on-demand technology, Brighthorse also offers authors a 50/50 split on net book-sale profits, which, as most starving writers know, is pretty darn sweet.

More importantly, Brighthorse Books has hit the ground running with its initial trio of prize-winning titles. The novel Leaving Milan, by Elizabeth Oness, shares the quiet and powerful story of Harper Canaday, a young woman with more strikes against her than she deserves, who desires nothing more than a better life than the one she sees out her apartment window in a depressed Midwestern town. Rick Christman gives us Searching for Mozart, a collection of poetry both straightforward and poignant exploring the pain that lingers when a soldier returns home from Vietnam.

Maggie Boylan “a spiky little burned-out sparkler of a woman,” stars in Michael Henson’s The Way the World Is, a devastating short fiction collection about the incestuous relationship between local law enforcement and drug dealers as well as the clients they both share—hapless and resourceful addicts, of which Maggie is queen. Henson’s collection is easily the best fictional account of the widespread meth and Oxy wreckage in Appalachia since Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone.

The reading period for all three contests began on February 19, and Brighthorse will remain open for submissions until August 16, 2015, so you can enter nowFor Ploughshares, Brent Spencer explains the genesis of Brighthorse, what goes on behind the scenes, plus their plans for expansion in the future.

Kate Flaherty: The first question for any new independent press has to be why? What made the two of you agree to take the plunge into publishing?

Brent Spencer: Over the years, as writers and as teachers of creative writing, we’ve seen many manuscripts that should be published but don’t always find their way into print. At a certain point, we looked at each other and said, “Why don’t we publish them?” We’d each had experience as editors, and I ran a university press for several years, so we thought that, together, we might have the necessary skillset. We also wanted to find a way to give our graduate students in creative writing real-world experience as editors.Continue Reading

The Poetry of Subtle Movement

blue-agateIn recent months, Farrar, Straus and Giroux has released two poetry collections that encapsulate much of what I love about poetry: James Lasdun’s Bluestone: New and Selected Poems and Devin Johnston’s Far-Fetched. Lasdun and Johnston are quite different in style and subject matter, but they are both masters of the subtle shift, the poem that starts in an unassuming place and leads you away from the old logical paths to a fresh perspective.

I first fell in love with Devin Johnston’s work while reading his 2011 poetry collection, Traveler, and his prose collection, Creaturely and Other Essays. There’s a Thoreauvian sense of wandering in all his prose and poetry—a wandering over the landscape, language, and history of the United States—coupled with a mastery of form uncommon in an American poet. In Far-Fetched the tone is usually serious (except when he’s skillfully imitating Scottish lyric or translating Catullus or bouncing through rhyming couplets) and there is a prevailing mood of quiet and contemplation.

Better to show than tell. Here’s “Orpingtons,” originally published in the July/August 2014 issue of Poetry magazine and included in Far-Fetched:

A pair of Orpingtons,
one blue, the other black,
with iridescent necks
and fine, ashen fluff
cackle through the dark,
their damp calls close enough
to chafe, a friction with no spark.

They settle down to roost,
two rests along a stave.
Each curls into itself,
comb tucked beneath a wing,
as the days grow long enough
to kindle in each a yolk,
the smallest flame of spring.

To me, the two most telling lines in this poem are, “They settled down to roost, / two rests along a stave.” In this musical metaphor, the Orpingtons become rests, the symbols for silence in a musical score. To the audience, the rest doesn’t exist (because a rest is precisely that which can’t be heard), but the rest exists for the musician because it is seen written on the page. It’s all about perspective. Through imagination (and we first see the imagination flare up in that synaesthetic phrase “damp calls”) the poem pierces the surface world of the observer and lets our perspective shift to the private knowledge of the observed.Continue Reading

Round-Down: North Carolina and Idaho Schools Face Proposed Book Bans

brbs-e

Concerns over the age-appropriateness of books is nothing new. Efforts to ban books are perennial attempts of, assumedly, those worried about a book’s potential to negatively impact a reader too young to access its merit. At Melville House, Taylor Sperry discusses the recent attempt at banning Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men by parents of students at schools in North Carolina and Idaho, respectively.

As reported in The Citizen-Times, Reynolds High School in Asheville North Carolina has “temporarily suspended” Hosseini’s The Kite Runner from its classrooms. Former school board member and parent of a Reynolds High student Lisa Baldwin cited the fact that Reynolds High School had begun using The Kite Runner in its curriculum in place of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front in her frustrations. She says, “It’s not only the language in the book (The Kite Runner) and the adult themes . . . it’s the fact that they have removed a classic novel (All Quiet On the Western Front) from the curriculum without parents knowing about it.” The Kite Runner will not be taught until the request for its removal has been reviewed.

Mary Jo Finney, a parent of a Coeur D’Alene high school student, took issue with Steinbeck’s work being taught in the school. At The Spokesman-Review, she says, “’The story is neither a quality story nor a page turner.’” She cites the ostensibly gratuitous amount of profanity in the book as the real problem. Finney is calling for the book to be pulled from classroom instruction.

In the case of the Asheville situation, it is hard to set aside the fact that Remarque’s novel is brutal and stark and certainly contains “adult themes” (a phrase so vague it is stripped of power). The bottom line seems to be that great works contain great struggle, and that conflict can appear in ways the discomfort and unsettle us. The larger question is: When does this material affect us as readers in a way that is out of proportion with its merit and vision? The Kite Runner is a classic–hard-hitting, bestselling, and doing important work in portraying real struggle.

The problem as I see it with the call for the ban in Idaho is that books have no obligation to be objectively “quality stor[ies]” (a designation that strikes me as risibly subjective)–nor is Steinbeck’s book’s status as “not a page-turner” at all inherently problematic. As the Clean Reader app recently demonstrated, it seems we’ll do just about anything to micromanage the telling–and we’ll miss the point entirely.

Books succeed or fail with regards to the attention they pay to their vision, and language, like all elements of craft, should be constantly dedicated to this vision. When we tamper with that objective via censorship, we are forcing ourselves into relationships as collaborators on a story that is not only not ours to tell, but not ours to assume or appropriate. Stories are ours to experience as a writer intends. When we refuse a story for its language, for its essential components, we run the dangerous risk of eschewing valuable experience, of opening ourselves to the real learning gleaned from other time periods and cultures, from other people and places, from circumstances and conflicts both like and unlike ourselves.

No Real for You

FullSizeRender

I’m going to begin by asking your forgiveness for two things I usually don’t do. The first is speaking Spanish in my English. The second is using the prefix meta-.  But this is a family of meta-fictional twins, and come on, don’t you agree that “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote” sounds better than “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote?”

Here is what I mean by meta-fiction: all these books, stories, and bodies of work contain made-up books and bodies of work. Some are based on real books. Some are making fun of real books, a little bit, gently. Some are invented entirely. And one, you can go out and buy. Hint: it’s not Don Quixote.

In the short story “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote,” Jorge Luis Borges describes the work of an author who set out to write

the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.”

He succeeds, but what he creates is an invisible work: someone else’s novel.

Plenty of writers have tried to recreate J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. I’m sure it has more twins out there, imitations or fictional versions, but I’m picking these two because I love the books where I found them. In James Magnuson’s Famous Writers I Have Known, a con man named Frankie Abandonato, finds himself impersonating V.S. Mohle, a writer who isn’t J.D. Salinger just as much as the Fiction Institute of Texas, where this impersonation takes place, isn’t the Michener Center at UT-Austin, where Magnuson teaches. Elinor Lipman describes Famous Writers I Have Known as “triumphantly preposterous,” but having been a creative writing student not too different from the ones Frankie teaches, I don’t find it too ridiculous. And I wouldn’t have minded a class with a con man, either—because (and Magnuson doesn’t put nearly this fine a point on it) fiction is its own kind of con.

And then there’s & Sons, a much more serious book, though perhaps more preposterous in its ultimate plot twist. David Gilbert probes through the male relationships in two mirroring families, one of which has at its helm the novelist A.N. Dyer, author of Ampersand, which, to be fair, sounds like The Catcher in the Rye rolled together with Tobias Wolff’s Old School and a bit of The Lord of the Flies. V.S. Mohle’s Eat Your Wheaties, on the other hand—that’s straight Salinger.Continue Reading

Remembering Forward: History Reclaimed through Poetry

7644922912_4f036d267d_h

As sure as our perceptions of history are inherited, they are also incomplete. “History throws its shadow over the beginning,” wrote the poet Richard Siken. “History is a little man in a brown suit / trying to define a room he is outside of. / I know history. There are many names in history / but none of them are ours.”

Along with historical fiction and critical nonfiction, poetry plays a vital role in giving testimony to trivialized perspectives. The tradition of documentary poetics in particular juxtaposes lyric meditation alongside photographs, court records, and other source material to report from the margins, such as in Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead (1938), or Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary (2009). Yet I am also interested in poets who apply this expository aim to the past, working not so much to chronicle a moment as to correct the distorted record.

To offer a brief sampling, here are three poets who use their words like a lock-pick, opening historical archives to previously dismissed or largely unspoken perspectives. Their poems confront time, turn it backward, and discard the reductionist pretense that we know what we don’t know. In this, they insist that reconsidering our heritage is necessary to improving the future. “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,” wrote Lewis Carroll. To which these poems might say: Let us remember forward.

1. Parsley (1983), by Rita Dove

“Parsley” is a foremost example of how poetry can perform witness to the past. In this now well-known work, Dove recounts Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo’s 1937 order to execute 20,000 Haitians, many of whom worked in Trujillo’s sugarcane plantations. The genocide was later recognized as the Parsley Massacre, for it was by this word—perejil in Spanish—that Trujillo’s troops distinguished the Haitians: as Creole speakers of French, they were unfamiliar with rolling the letter “r,” pronouncing it instead as “l.”

The first section of the poem, “The Cane Fields,” presents the massacre from the Haitian’s point of view, evoking their testimony in the tight form of the villanelle. The second section, “The Palace,” uses free verse to expose the perverse logic behind Trujillo’s actions—a contrast that further emphasizes the absurd power divide between one dictator and a vulnerable community. The arbitrary nature of El General’s cruelty (“Who can I kill today””) was in part what compelled Dove to write “Parsley.” In a 1986 interview, she explained how records of the genocide were unbearably void of explanation: “No mention of the French Creole spoken by the Haitians…no description of the kind of execution, what instruments were used and how quickly the terror proceeded, no clue to the General’s state of mind at the time. Just the bald facts: 20,000 dead over a word.”

Of course, one poem cannot contain the gravity of genocide. It cannot give voice to those killed for their ethnicity and manner of speech, or stand in for the harrowing absence of information. Yet by writing “Parsley”—and later reading the poem at the White House as U.S. Poet Laureate—Dove brought the massacre to public consciousness, making present the names that time forgot.

2. Blue Front (2006), by Martha Collins

While Dove’s “Parsley” fictionalizes history to more accurately bear truth, Collins’ book-length poem Blue Front reconstructs her father’s lived experience, as a five-year-old, of witnessing a double lynching in the town of Cairo, Illinois. She traces the horrific event using a collage of sources, including biological profiles, postcards, and newspaper reports. In their own way, these overlapping and contradictory accounts remark on the crucial distinction between fact and truth: the difference between what we tell ourselves happened, and what actually occurred.

At times, Blue Front openly engages in acts of redefinition, as when Collins meditates on the varied meanings of verbs such as “hang,” “drag,” “cut,” “burn” and “shoot.” In these instances, the poem becomes a primer for confronting the past, suggesting that reclaimed history might well begin with questioning the language used to take down a given record. Who are we hearing? Collins seems to ask. And beneath this: With whose words are they speaking?

Because Collins can only offer a secondhand account, Blue Front is occupied with what can never be known. Her own uncertainty, apparent in unfinished clauses and repetitions of phrases, replicates the bewilderment of her father’s young mind. Yet Blue Front extends far beyond family narrative. By approaching historiography through poetry, Collins is able to discuss the Civil War in parallel to the present, or weave excerpts from a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. with contemporary reflections, thus portraying the persistence of racism. In this way, the crucial relationship between past and personal is made apparent: by remaking cultural memory, we might also remake our own minds. Writes Collins: “what he had seen / is also what I was / I had to know.”

3. The Toll of the Sea (2015), by Sally Wen Mao

Mao’s “The Toll of the Sea” demonstrates a third approach to historical retellings through poetry—rather than a specific event, the poem confronts the traditionally devalued or sentimentally idealized roles assigned to Asian women by Western society. It takes its title from the 1922 film The Toll of the Sea, the first successful Technicolor feature in Hollywood. The plot follows a young Chinese girl named Lotus Flower, who helps rescue an American man named Carver when she finds him floating unconscious in the ocean. The two fall in love, and though Carver promises to take Lotus Flower to America, he eventually abandons her. When Carver returns years later to claim Lotus Flower’s son, she commits suicide.

The Toll of the Sea was considered lost to fire damage until 1985, when it was restored from original negatives. Yet to Mao, the film’s clichéd, colonialist narrative—itself drawn from the 1898 opera Madame Butterfly—remained incomplete, numbed by prevailing stereotypes and restrictive tropes: “WHITE the color of the master narrative /…WHITE the color of erasure.”

Simultaneously expansive and distilled, Mao’s “The Toll of the Sea” pressurizes Technicolor hues to reach beyond these restrictive outlines. With the sharpness of salt, the poem suggests how preserving lost perspectives can help sound the depths of human experience: “In every story, there is a chance to restore the color / If we recover the flotsam, can we rewrite the script?” “The Toll of the Sea” reminds us that the past, subjected to scrutiny, might yet become fluid, creating space to assert our own narratives—at last, and on our own terms.

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “The Miniature Lives of Saints” by Anthony Wallace

BSS-Pshares-Header1

Physical beauty is like an innate talent or gift in that it can provide wonderful opportunities to its possessor that aren’t as easily available to others, if at all. But every blessing can also be a curse. In “The Miniature Lives of Saints” by Anthony Wallace (Missouri Review 38:1) we meet a protagonist struggling with a beauty that has come to both define her and hold her captive.

Wallace reveals his protagonist’s struggle with identity early on. Though her given name was Kathleen, “Everybody knew her as Gretchen…That was just what her brother Tommy called her—had called her one time when they were teenagers—and it had stuck.”

Her whole life she’s taken what she’s been given and hasn’t sought out more…and those who are physically attractive are offered a lot. In the present, though she knows her looks could easily help her find her better work, she remains behind the counter of a CVS, and lives in an apartment above her mother’s restaurant. Meanwhile, her husband is in jail, and her brother’s friends hit on her incessantly—while Tommy just laughs.

“Yeah Tommy, that’s real funny, your sister is truly a remarkable piece of ass, the one thing in this world she still had…she was a strikingly beautiful woman. Only men smart enough and brave enough to become convicted felons were good enough for this raven-haired beauty!”

Notice what fuels the self-loathing of the last line: the perceived irony of her beauty. She’s not comfortable with her looks, but at the same time goes to great lengths to preserve them. Wallace tells us that she wears expensive, stylish boots even though they are painful to wear and she feels stupid in them. Like her looks, “The boots were perfect in every way, except they just didn’t fit.”

At an AA meeting she regularly attends, Gretchen deftly judges the other attendees based on her own preoccupation: appearance. But compared to their stories, hers is lacking when it comes to a sense of purpose. Notice a few of the phrases she uses to describe her life when it’s her turn to share: “That’s where we always ended up.”; “I just fell into life with him.”; “I didn’t really want to do that, but I ended up doing it anyway. I just drifted into it.” The verbs are almost all passive, outlining her resignation to the will of others.

Prodigies, whether in music, sports, spelling—or auctioneering—notoriously struggle with identity later in life. Who am I outside of my gifts and talents? Wallace presents physical beauty as justly capable of causing those problems.

So what does Gretchen do? After the AA meeting. she visits a local pizza parlor, and while there, adopts a prayer of Saint Brigid—a beauty herself—and begins destroying the boots.

“`Make me ugly,’ she said, and she began stepping on her boots, kicking and gouging at them, one with the other. `Make me ugly,’ she said a second time under her breath. She dug the heel of her right boot into the top of her left until she felt the leather begin to tear. `It’s all I’m asking.’”

We live in a culture that either associates being physically attractive with happiness and fulfillment, or dismisses it as shallow, meaningless, and only skin deep. Wallace gives us another narrative. Physical beauty is something whose power must be reckoned with. To be content and beautiful is far more difficult than it might appear.

Do-Overs: Four Strong Female Protagonists

Migrant_mother_horiz
Historical Fiction isn’t just a man’s world. In fact, several recent historical novels have featured, successfully, stories of bold women who defied odds. In April, I moderated a panel of these writers at the LA Times Festival of Books. Their novels are vastly different, but each presents an old story—a historical one—in an innovative way.

As our discussion evolved, it became clear that the link between these novels—in addition to their female protagonists and their basis in history—was depth of character. I enjoyed each of these four protagonists’ stories for what Marisa Silver called “wrong-rightedness:” their believability because of the complex choices they make in difficult circumstances. If you’re looking for a new book, one based in history, with a strong woman at its center, here are a few recommendations:

Mary Coin, by Marisa Silver, is a based on the story of Florence Owens Thompson, the woman in the “Migrant Mother” photograph (above), and her photographer, Dorothea Lange. Silver’s story begins in the Midwest in the 1920s and follows the two women—named, here, Mary Coin and Vera Dare—through the 1930s as they love, lose, and pursue a living at different ends of the financial spectrum. Silver’s story features two women at odds with both their place in the world and their place in time. In Mary Coin, Silver poses excellent questions about artistic composition and how it shapes our feelings about history.

The Peerless Four, by Victoria Patterson, seeks to give a voice to the almost-forgotten first Canadian women to compete in the 1928 Olympics at Amsterdam (and only on a trial basis, at that). Patterson’s four are imagined as complicated women taking different routes to the world stage; they’re also athletes who have to struggle against being typecast by the media, either as beauty queen or tomboy. Within this sports tale is another story of a bold woman from history who inspires Mel, the ladies’ chaperone. The Peerless Four are ahead of their time, but Patterson shows us how women like them paved the way for so many who came later.

Rise the Euphrates is Carol Edgarian’s 1995 novel, re-released this year to coincide with the centennial commemoration of the Armenian genocide. In what is largely a tale of family, Edgarian raises questions about our right to tell the stories of others. Garod, a young girl who escapes the genocide in 1915, is eventually a grandmother in America. Garod, or Casard, as she comes to be called, does not want her difficult past to come to light. Her daughter, Araxie, wants the story to be told so that the next generation will know its roots. Rise the Euphrates covers a vast amount of time and geography, but renders beautifully the complex relationships between mother and daughter.

Neverhome, by Laird Hunt, is a colorful, evocative Civil War tale about Constance, who disguises herself as “Ash,” a man, so that she may go off to fight. Bartholomew, her husband, remains on the farm. Ash fights in some of the most grisly battles of the war, and eventually has to make her way back to Bartholomew. Neverhome is an Odyssey in reverse: “Penelope gone to war and Odysseus staying home.” Hunt bases his tale on untold numbers of women who actually fought during the war. The author’s extensive research of soldiers’ letters home give this narrative the distinct lyrical flavor of the time period, and Ash is as good a flawed heroine as you could hope for.

“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

Untitled

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