Why the Exquisite Corpse works

Exquisite Corpse


The first time I took part in an Exquisite Corpse, I was an undergrad in Lisa Russ Spaar’s workshop at UVA. I like to imagine she performed the exercise with her mentor, and he with his, and on and on in a long lineage of collaboration and gifting that befits the exercise itself. Here’s how one variation works: each student writes the first line of a poem on a sheet of paper. (Fiction and visual art are fair game, too.) The line can be long or short, full or fragmentary. Students are given a minute or so before passing the paper to the left; now holding her partner’s paper containing the first line, the student writes a second. Then – here’s the fun – that student folds the paper so the first line is concealed and only her line is visible. And the paper moves like this around the room, the classroom a factory of folding and writing, until our original paper comes back around as a poem to which each student has contributed a line.

The point is to create, not to publish what we’ve made. This exercise is vital for the writer who feels that the latter is master to the former. (Repeat after me, people: publication will not make me, rejection will not break me. Publication will not make me, rejection…) And the Exquisite Corpse is joyful creation. That’s reason enough for all writers to practice it. The only time my students have cried from laughter is during the Exquisite Corpse – even students in my prison class. Those kinds of tears, of course, are seldom shed in that universe. We laugh because we experience surprise, humor’s main ingredient. Afterwards we read the poems aloud to our fellow writers whose mouths are agape in waiting to hear with what clamor or harmony our lines speak to each other. Every poem should hold us this captive. A fresh image is an unexpected image, and a defied expectation transforms us, or should. A person caught off guard must reflect on their belief system – define what it was, and how it’s changed – and grow to fit its new shape.Continue Reading

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


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

REVIEW: Belief is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe by Lori Jakiela

belief is its own kind_lori jakielaBelief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe Lori Jakiela August 4, 2015 Atticus Books 290 pages Preorder Halfway through her new memoir, Belief is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe, Lori Jakiela comes across a mall kiosk selling Russian nesting dolls.

“The doll in the woman’s hand looks a little like my daughter—blonde, rosy-cheeked, green eyed,” Jakiela writes, “—which means she looks like me, too, and probably like my sister and probably my birth mother and so on.”

The doll strikes her as a metaphor, “a tiny sarcophagus, a little hollowed out self” that “fits into another tiny sarcophagus, a series of tiny sarcophagi tucked into other sarcophagi, selves into selves, until they end up with a larger self that looks whole but isn’t.” Through such metaphors and a fragmented, lyrical style that reflects the writer’s background as a poet, Jakiela communicates the sense of a fragmented self experienced by many adoptees with little information about their origins.Continue Reading

Half the World More: Juan Felipe Herrera and the Centering of Chicana/o Letters

la-et-jc-poet-reprint-20150610-001Juan Felipe Herrera being named our 21st U.S. Poet Laureate is special for a few reasons.  He is the first Latino U.S. Poet Laureate in history, but also an unlikely if necessary one.  It’s no obscure fact that his writing has historically been underappreciated, undercelebrated even. Herrera’s writing has not, historically speaking, been the kind of writing mainstream America—and I should add mainstream Chicana/o letters—has readily embraced.  True, Herrera is integral to the chicana/o literary canon, but his writing is also less commercial, less likely to be anthologized than some of his contemporaries who have played into the publishing industry scripts:  Write about the cocina, don’t write about Darfur; write about the barrio, don’t write about geopolitics.  The beautiful thing about Herrera is that he writes it all.  And he writes it well.  He refuses to be contained.  Which is, more or less, the brown writer’s road to obscurity—being uncontainableContinue Reading

New Ploughshares Solo: “Dead Zone” by Tova Reich

Reich-LoResWe’re excited to announce the release of our most recent Ploughshares Solo, “Dead Zone” by Tova Reich! In our Ploughshares Solos series, we publish longer stories and essays first in an affordable, digital format, and then in our annual Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Series. For more information and some great reading material, check out our previously published Solos, or the Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Volume 2.

About “Dead Zone”
Izzy Gam wants to be buried on the Mount of Olives, known as “the number one place for a Jew to be buried,” as the resurrection is supposed to begin there. Unfortunately, it turns out that his planned resting place is already occupied, as is every other place in Israel that his increasingly flustered family tries to put him. Beginning with the romance between the legless Izzy and the narrator’s great-grandmother Judi, and ending with the termination of the existence of Israel, acclaimed novelist Tova Reich takes us on a rollicking trip through the Holy Land and the search for an unspoiled place to rest.

“Dead Zone” is available on pshares.org for $1.99.Continue Reading

Round-Down: A Year of Publishing Only Women


In a surprising move, And Other Stories, an independent publisher in the United Kingdom, decided last week to take up novelist Kamila Shamsie’s call for publishers to take a stand against gender bias by publishing only women in 2018.

Publisher Stefan Tobler said that he and his colleagues had realized for a while that they were publishing more men than women, and said that, “If we don’t do it, what is going to change?” (As a side note, everyone commenting on this news seems to want to make a big deal of the fact that Tobler is a man who wanted to publish only women for a year, as if it’s a shock that a dude would be a feminist ally. Or as if this idea is somehow a more legitimate one because it has a man backing it. I find that sad).

Sophie Lewis, senior editor at And Other Stories, echoes Tobler in a piece for the Independent: “Through our acquisitions meetings and campaign planning–which will be solely focused on obtaining and promoting female writing–we’ll be able to . . . have a chance to better understand women’s routes to publication in so much more detail.” She hopes the data procured in the process will help all publishers better understand why a gap persists in the twenty-first century. She offers some hypotheses: “Could it be to do with the way in which creative writing courses are being approached? Or going back further, literature classes at school?”

Especially given the success of the satirical twitter handle GuyInYourMFA and the recent BuzzFeed comedy piece entitled “If Jane Austen Got Feedback From Some Guy In A Writing Workshop” by Shannon Reed (if you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a favor and check it out), I have to wonder if Lewis might not be onto something. I myself have commiserated with many female peers in my writing program about the number of times our work has been criticized for being “sentimental”; the same is not said of male peers’ writing that also happens to be about “feelings.”Continue Reading

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

“Uninhibited Openness”: An Interview with Dario Robleto, Materialist Poet


Conceptual artist Dario Robleto has been aptly described as an alchemist, cultural archeologist, and “raconteur in the ancient way.” By his own definition, he is a “materialist poet”—a term that encapsulates his method of creating sculptural responses to lyrical material lists that mediate on the human condition. From black swan vertebrae to stretched audiotape recordings of Sylvia Plath, braided mammoth hair to melted bullet lead, Robleto’s sculptures generate narrative resonance between unconventional and often elaborately altered objects. With emotional honesty and tangible curiosity, his resulting exhibitions launch timely and timeless inquires into war, healing, memory, and the evolutionary relationship between creativity and loss.

Above all, Robleto’s art inspires responsibility for remembrance. His installations cultivate intimacy with history, using sensory particulars to excavate forgotten yet defining threads within the fabric of collective thought. Reaching across the boundaries of various disciplines, Robleto’s work poignantly contends that our understanding of human origins should be as sophisticated as the modern technology we’re now moving toward. In his own words, “The present is the accumulation of the past.”

Robleto has had over 30 solo exhibitions, most recently “The Boundary of Life is Quietly Crossed” at the Menil Collection, and “Setlists for a Setting Sun” at the Baltimore Museum of Art. He is currently an Artist Research Fellow at Rice University in Houston, where he lives and works, and was recently named Texas State Artist.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Dead Mouse” by Caroline Macon


Poet William Carlos Williams famously wrote, “Say it, no ideas but in things,” which speaks how objects have remarkable ability to bear and express ideas that otherwise might feel one dimensional, or altogether without shape or meaning. Caroline Macon, in her story, “Dead Mouse” ([PANK] 10.3), employs what the title suggests to carry the emotional weight of the story to a sad but satisfying ending.

We meet Macon’s protagonist, Claire Fuller, as she’s outside of her home, observing the dead mouse.

“He died about three days ago and looks corpsier every time I pass by. Days are long, life is long, everything is destined to decay, et cetera. If I still lived in the sunny south, this little mouse would be a fried steak by now. In the Chicago chill, he is a cold hunk of Colby. I guess flies like Colby. They started going after him this morning and by the time I was home from work, noticeable chomps had been eaten from his body. Chomps, like a cartoon.”

The description tells us as more about Claire than it does the mouse. There’s the world-weary nihilism (“et cetera”), then the attempt to create distance by treating it like a humorous cartoon (“Chomps”), both of which tell us that this dead mouse is, in fact, important to the narrator—so much so she must find ways to dismiss it.

As the plot develops, we discover that Claire lives above a veterinary office, and has fallen in love with a vet she doesn’t feel she deserves. In addition, we discover that the dead mouse is far from an anomaly. Her landlord Edward has been trying to get rid of them now for quite some time, with no luck. Here, Macon begins to endow the mouse with an alternative symbolic quality than in the first paragraph.

“Rich Chicagoans spend thousands of dollars to have their dog’s tailbone cosmetically shaved. All the while, homeless animals are dropping in the streets. The homeless are dying. It’s just a thought.”

Continue Reading

Do-Overs: Summer Odyssey

Odysseus_from_Schwab_book_1Each June, my thoughts turn toward home. Toward my kids, bare feet, homemade dinners, and naps. Toward real life. I’ve taught high school for 13 years, I’ve learned to ride the waves of feeling that come during each season of the school year. June means home, and as my attention changes, I tend to search out comfort in familiar stories—stories of homecoming.

Why is the homeward journey archetype so easy to love? Think of Forrest Gump or the Wizard of Oz, or even Toy Story—a character’s return to home is a return to safety and comfort. Familiarity. The known world. This return isn’t without complication—generally, the hero returns changed. (Paging Carl Jung!) But he returns. When it’s the end of a term and my world is about to shrink to only my nuclear family, I long to steep in these homecoming narratives. Ideals of hearth and acceptance, calling to the embattled hero. These stories where characters fight to return home are endearing because they call upon such familiar feelings. They align with our sense of stability—or our desire to get to a peaceful place, to do what it takes to return.Continue Reading