Our Spring 2015 Transatlantic All-Poetry Issue is Now Available!

3D Spring transparentWe are excited to announce that the Spring 2015 issue of Ploughshares, guest-edited by Neil Astley, is available for purchase! For the first time in our forty-four year history, we present a transatlantic issue focused entirely on poetry.

Acclaimed publisher and editor Neil Astley, founder of Bloodaxe Books, guest-edited this special issue, which features poets from North America, Great Britain, and Ireland. The issue contains a stirring diversity of work: the writers have roots everywhere from Guyana to Pakistan to Zambia, and have written not just in English, but also in Welsh, Irish, Gaelic, and Scots. Much of the work is from accomplished British and Irish poets who are still little-known in the States. As Astley writes in his introduction, the issue aims to break down “the illogical divide between readerships on either side of the Atlantic,” and spark a conversation that will enliven and invigorate both poetic traditions. This issue features poetry by Fleur Adcock, Elaine Feinstein, Nick Flynn, Tony Hoagland, Michael Hofmann, Roddy Lumsden, Paul Muldoon, Roger Reeves, Ahren Warner, Matthew Zapruder, and almost a hundred other poets.

With this issue, we’re offering a couple of blog-only extras: Below, watch a selection of the poets read the poems they contributed to the issue. Next Wednesday, check back for a special extended version of Neil’s introduction to the issue!

If you would like to read our Spring 2015 issue, and you aren’t already a subscriber, subscribe to Ploughshares today! You’ll get great reads, ideas for your own writing, and the ability to submit your work to us for free!Continue Reading

Review: THE PAPER MAN by Gallagher Lawson

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The Paper Man
Gallagher Lawson
Published: May 12, 2015
Unnamed Press
261 pages

Buy: book

 

A man with a papier mâché body and hair made of yarn attempts to break out of his protected, isolated, and stagnant life and escape to an unnamed city. On the bus, a one-eyed man steals his belongings. Caught in a scuffle, the paper man’s arm tears, and on his own for the first time, he faces the menace of rain, which could turn him to pulp. A mermaid lies dead on the sidewalk and an unemployed fur model who collects (and smells of) mushrooms takes him in. Even this strange world full of outsiders is, it turns out, a dangerous place for a man made of paper, forcing him into dependence on others, vulnerable to becoming their “project,” made and remade by them.

This is the somewhat surreal and dystopian premise of Gallagher Lawson’s The Paper Man, in which lines between life and art and art and politics are not always clear. Part Frankenstein, part Pinocchio, attracting comparisons to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, The Paper Man resembles magical realism in its pairing of fantastical elements with a matter-of-fact, even earnest, tone. Michael, once human but rebuilt and reanimated by his artist father after an accident, evolves in the course of the story from creator to creation to creator again, constantly blurring life and art. Originally named Michaelangelo, becoming an objectified outsider fixed up, torn down, and re-created again by others, he is renamed David. Then, gradually if uneasily and somewhat horrifyingly, he triumphs over his own creation, Adam.

In an often nightmarish narrative in which every element feels representational, a stand-in for something else, a Symbol with a capital S, thematic with a capital T, there are moments that I wished Lawson had followed the advice of Michael’s sadistic childhood friend Mischa: “Stop thinking and feeling so much and just do your art.” But ultimately, this is a compelling story that sticks with the reader, examining art and its creation from a dizzying variety of angles and raising fascinating questions about ownership, celebrity, autonomy, the limits of self, and the essence of our humanity.

Lawson’s dark vision proves both intriguing and disturbing, partially summed up when one
character says to another, “Creativity is nothing more than transferring emotions, mostly
anxiety and fear, to the outside world.” But, of course, ultimately it is more than that. This is an unusual story about art’s costs and its capacity for exploitation, political influence, and profound change–and for its ability, finally, to humanize.

***

Nancy McCabe is the author of four memoirs, most recently From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Gulf Coast, Fourth Genre, Newsweek, and many other magazines, won a Pushcart, and six times made the notable lists of Houghton Mifflin Best American anthologies.

Conquistador: A Tiny Interview with Rafael Acosta

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It’s no secret that Mexican letters are making a comeback. Though it should be said Mexican writers have never left the building. They’ve been around: working, translating, publishing in plain sight as the rest of the western world goes on lamenting boom writer after boom writer’s death. In the meanwhile, a new, millennial generation of writers has emerged on the heels of the now well-established Mexican literati comprised of the older statesmen and women of Mexican letters, which include names like Jorge Volpe, Mario Bellatin, Carmen Boullosa, and Elena Poniatowska among others. And while so many readers and critics focus on the cerebral, neck-up literature (with a capital “L”) that so many argue can only come from Mexico City, I’m finding myself drawn toward the literature coming from the epicenter of the contemporary Mexican moment itself: the great Mexican north. Ground zero of much of the drug wars in Mexico, yes, but also home to some of the best writers and writing happening today. Rafael Acosta is one of these writers and he’s the real deal. I interviewed Rafael Acosta who originally hails from Piedras Negras on the Texas-Mexico border. We talked about his new novel, Conquistador (Tierra Adentro Press), basketball, and the contemporary drug war in Mexico.Continue Reading

Round-Down: Book Readings In the Sky

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Southwest Airlines recently started holding book readings on their flights. The airline has a history of bringing spontaneous and entertaining events aboard: there was at one point an Imagine Dragons appearance, and once even a wedding. The involved writers are compensated in free airfare, the passengers with free readings–which might seem like a win-win from a comfortable and grounded distance.

But, as senior Slate editor Jonathan Fischer writes in his article, “Southwest Airlines Has Figured Out How to Make Your Flight Even More Fun: Book Readings at 35,000 Feet,” a sudden book reading at 8:40 AM might not be such a great idea. “I’m generally of the opinion that there are no good surprises on an airplane,” Fischer writes. “But Southwest hopes that these ‘in-flight activations’ will make their customers’ days a little brighter.”

Near the end of the piece, Fischer writes: “But surely Southwest is worried about annoying passengers? ‘There’s always the opportunity for that,’ [Southwest community engagement coordinator] Boller says, but she maintains it hasn’t happened yet.” What strikes me about this new book reading venture is that it is less offered than mandatory, and that regardless of the quality of the work there’s something that is, while certainly well-intentioned, a bit off about forcing participation in celebration of anything.

Just two days ago I returned from AWP Minneapolis, where I heard some phenomenal writers read their work. I have the great memory of walking to the “Paris Is Still Burning” reading. I was late to the reading–my own mistake, having been caught up in conversation–and recall seeing the windows grey with condensation, the silhouettes of bodies pressed against the glass. The place was packed, with incredible writers and thinkers eager to share there work, and readers eager to hear it.

This got me thinking about the role of the reading at large, and made me question why I felt such instant hesitation about these airline readings. Writers deserve to have their work heard by those interested in or at least open to hearing it. But when that organic willingness, that eagerness, isn’t there, the whole exchange stops holding the shine of a reading. I suspect a lot of the magic is lost. And both parties run the risk of awkward disappointment: the writer reading to an uninterested or even annoyed party, the listeners strongarmed into their status as such.

I think it’s great Southwest wants to keep its passengers entertained and offer something fun, something new, but I hope nothing is cheapened at the expense of this entertainment.

Literary Enemies: Ann Patchett v. Zadie Smith

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Literary Enemies: Ann Patchett vs. Zadie Smith

Disclaimer: Zadie Smith doesn’t care if she has enemies.

I have a recurring dream in which I meet Zadie Smith at a picnic. She compliments my leather jacket—Vintage? she asks—and we begin chatting, and in the end she offers to be my mentor. She’ll teach me how to be a woman writer, she says, and I wake up full of confidence. Zadie knows everything. Zadie will guide me. But when I’m fully awake and I need advice or recognition or consolation, I don’t go to Zadie Smith’s work. Instead, I read Ann Patchett.

Zadie Smith and Ann Patchett are both phenomenal novelists and essayists. They are both contemporary female literary writers who get consistent critical attention. Smith is more given to playing with form and structure than Patchett, but I wouldn’t call either one experimental. And both write ambitiously, but in opposite ways. Zadie Smith makes the small big, and Ann Patchett makes the big small.

Let me show you what I mean. Here’s Samad Iqbal, one of the several protagonists of Smith’s debut White Teeth. He’s talking to a woman with whom he plans to cheat on his wife; she’s just bought him something, and is about to show him what she bought. As she searches for the gift in her purse,

two things happened.

1.1  Samad closed his eyes and heard the words ‘To the pure all things are pure ‘and then, almost immediately afterwards, ‘Can’t say fairer than that.’
1.2  Samad opened his eyes and saw quite clearly by the bandstand his two sons, their white teeth biting into two waxy apples, waving, smiling.

And then Poppy resurfaced, triumphant, with a piece of red plastic in her hand.
‘A toothbrush,’ she said.

In most writers’ work, and in most of our lives, this moment would count for nothing. Most writers would plant Samad’s sons elsewhere in the scene, during a kiss, maybe, or as Samad and Poppy stand to go home together. But Smith takes the quickest, most practical bit of their pre-tryst—I bought you a toothbrush, since you’re going to sleep over—and uses it to blow the relationship up.Continue Reading

A Gathering of Particulars: On Building a Word-Hoard

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It is fitting that the bowerbird roosts in the opening lines of Ted Hughes’s poem “A Literary Life,” for there is perhaps no better mascot for reader and writer both. The species is a known collector, spending the better part of the year building complicated huts from assorted novelties: colored glass and aluminum tabs, bleached bones and rifle shell casings—anything a potential mate might find beautiful. In this slow, deliberate construction is an elaborate invitation. Similar is the writer who builds a “bric-a-brac nest,” curating particulars to invite new understanding. As Marilynn Robinson noted: “Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it’s not Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.”

Yet if the writer is the keen observer, the close reader is also a collector, accumulating words proffered on the page: fragments of sound, fleeting emotions, an uncommon tint. We infuse these modes of seeing into our own vocabularies, heightening our ability to attend to our surroundings. Through books we discover new names for sorrow and shame, just as we learn how to speak of redemption and beauty. Writes Amy Hempel in her novella Tumble Home: “And if you don’t like the person you are? Where do you find the parts to make yourself into some other kind of person? Can it be something you read in a book, a gesture you see on the street?” Words are among the “parts” that allow us to improve ourselves.

One of the oldest known Anglo-Saxon poems celebrates the exchange of gathered language. It is titled “Widsith,” after the well-traveled minstrels who relayed tales of distant realms to public assemblies. It begins:

“Widsith spoke
His word-hoard unlocked”

Certainly words are among our greatest treasures, a portable jewel box from which to draw the vicissitudes of life. Yet a rich “word-hoard” also takes a lifetime to develop. As Mary Ruefle reminds us: “In the beginning William Shakespeare was a baby, and knew absolutely nothing. He couldn’t even speak.” Ben Fountain made a similar point when recalling his first forays into fiction: “I had to create a mental image of a building, a room, a façade, haircut, clothes—just really basic things. I realized I didn’t have the facility to put those into words. I started going out and buying visual dictionaries, architectural dictionaries, and going to school on those.”

The dictionary is part of my own reading process; if I come across a word I do not know, I look it up and record (or hoard) the definition in a notebook. This can make for slow going, as when I recently read Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, narrated by a woman with an outsize vocabulary. Yet the effort to define new words never felt tedious; rather, I felt a sense of intentional awareness similar to when a biology course taught me to identify species of birds by their songs. The noisy symbols on the page suddenly held meaning: oneiric, pertaining to dreams; verklempt, overjoyed. I’d found word-treasure, and Fowler had provided the map.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Dark Season” by Maya Sonenberg

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Over the last few decades, it has become more and more common to find mythical narratives such as fairy tales alongside realist fiction in academic and mainstream literary journals and magazines. More publications have also opened up to stories that blend storytelling elements that previously were dismissed as “genre” into the style du jour, realism. Maya Sonenberg, in her story, “Dark Season,” from the latest issue of the Pacifica Literary Review, does a masterful job of weaving together elements of both fairy tales and realism in order to create a new, hybrid reality that in ways feels more true to contemporary life than perhaps either style could aspire to on its own.

When we meet the protagonist—under a section subtitled, “The Dungeon”—he is referred to only as “the boy” and his father as “the king.” Not naming characters is an accepted technique of fables and fairy tales, and we’d be firmly in that mythical tradition, except that woven into these approaches to characterization and storytelling are contemporary details, which push the story elsewhere:

At recess, he kicked a ball around the school yard with his buddies and when it found the back of the net, he shouted, ‘GOOOOAAAAAAL,’ the way he heard the announcers do on the Spanish language soccer broadcasts he listened to at night. He didn’t know where the voices came from…His father, the king…sometimes told him of such places, even claimed to have come from one himself.

The play-by-play reference situates us firmly into contemporary life through content—soccer—as well as style—the spelling and capitalization of the announcer’s cry. Where characters referred to simply as “the boy” and “the king” invite the whole tradition of fairy tales to help provide their characterizations, the soccer descriptions draw their power from the their relation to the present milieu.Continue Reading

Do-Overs: Critical Fiction

James-Dean-in-East-of-Eden Can a story be truly inspired by a classic while serving as a literary critique of that work? Does critical fiction help us to understand our common archetypes? Absolutely. East of Eden, by John Steinbeck is, perhaps, the model for literature as critical writing. Steinbeck structures Eden around the biblical story of Cain and Abel. The reader is directed overtly to the biblical brothers: first with Steinbeck’s patriarch, Adam, and then in two generations of brothers. By reimagining Cain and Abel two times, Steinbeck uses Eden to ask whether we’re born evil or choose our own fate. Each iteration of Steinbeck’s brothers is another response to the same biblical prototype. Ideas of conception, children and evil are explored through several of his generations’ story lines, allowing Steinbeck to wax philosophic through his narrator: “I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents…” he says.

And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?

But Steinbeck’s characters—excepting Cathy—are almost never purely good or evil. His antagonists struggle with their dark nature, making them more complex than the original biblical types. This challenges the reader to question the didactic message of the source. Steinbeck elevates his characters above the Cain and Abel archetype, asking unique questions in a natural extension of the original. Echoing his source, Steinbeck suggests the ability to do both good and evil—in his own characters and (in his heavy-handed narration) in all of mankind. Midway through the book, Steinbeck introduces the biblical idea of timshel, a direct plea to the reader to understand his characters in light of the biblical story.Continue Reading

Indie Spotlight: Unbridled Books

imgresUnbridled Books was founded in 2003 by co-publishers Fred Ramey and Greg Michalson, who together have more than 50 years experience in publishing plus a terrific track record for finding and promoting literary fiction that sells in the commercial market. Self-described as an independent publisher focused on producing books that are “moving, beautiful, and surprising,” Unbridled’s list is an international patchwork of well-told tales set everywhere from Cuba to Iceland to Afghanistan, as well as America coast-to-coast. For the Ploughshares blog, Ramey and Michalson share the secrets of their indie success as well as what makes a writer Unbridled.

KF: While your press publishes stories from across the country and around the globe, what seems to bind Unbridled books together is a life-affirming humanity. Even in the inherent tragedy of Solveig Eggerz’s World War II-era novel Seal Woman or in the dark criminal underworld of Ed Falco’s Toughs, for example, there exists a spirit of hope and survival that can be difficult to find in these cynical times. What attracts you, as editors, to these types of novels? 

GM: I don’t mind dark, but I’m not much interested in “despair and die.” I’ll leave that to other publishers. If a reader is going to invest the time and energy into a book I publish I’d prefer there was some pay-off that affirms something about the world. Writing, after all, is in the end a hopeful enterprise. 

FR: We’ve published a good many novels that go to dark places in the heart, but I think you’re right. We’re probably less interested in novels that are all razors and needles. It seems we’re drawn more to the story that is finally in some way affirming and that knows full well why and how it got there. This isn’t a question of our being—or the authors’ being—idealistic.Continue Reading

Round-Down: Young or Old, Why Do We Write?

1200px-NY_stock_exchange_traders_floor_LC-U9-10548-6One essential question rises out of the hullabaloo of conflicting opinions broadcast in Cynthia Ozick’s philosophical essay in the New York Times on old vs. new writers and The New Republic’s Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s prickly response: Why do we write?

Both essays are well written, thoughtful, and make excellent points worth considering for writers of all ages and ilk regarding the difference between old writers and young writers, as well as between those who write for love of craft and those who write in the hopes of a paycheck.

Ozick laments the ways in which our publicity-crazed culture ostracizes “old writers” (her words) and instead encourages an ambition-fueled sense of entitlement amongst young writers, turning them into caddy entrepreneurs. She wonders at the end of her piece what kind of world we will have once millennials are themselves old.

Hers is a subtle, elegant, intellectually rendered reminder for anxious, over-eager young writers like me to question our original impetus for writing. Is it simply for attention? Fame? Careerism? Have we forgotten the simple pleasures of a blank page filling up with epiphany? Can we not employ a little better sense of trust and patience when it comes to the payoff of our craft? All of these are questions I as an already burnt-out second-year in a three-year MFA program needed to hear.

And yet, I can’t help but feel Bovy’s response is necessary to keep in mind, especially in today’s shifting economical context for writing. As she says, “It’s now stigmatized for a writer not to have practical concerns,” and there are new prescribed paths to a writing life that have nothing to do with the romantic ideals of a room of one’s own. Gone are the days of entry-level, apprentice positions being available to the literary-minded (except in the form of unpaid internships).

Instead, we live in a world where editors tell us at writing conferences that we pay to attend that we can expect not to try for a career in writing if we do not establish a social media presence by the time we have a manuscript. We live in a world where there is an influx of mediocre writers and an insatiable need for digital content. The market is over-saturated, and the odds of us living by our pen (or even teaching by it) are slimmer than ever. It’s enough to make me want to throw up my hands and in despair ask why I embarked on an MFA (so repugnant to Ozick and “old writers” of her mindset) and left a career in secondary teaching in the first place.Continue Reading