How to Write Violence


How to talk about violence in literature, when the term violence is so broad? “Violence” is defined as “behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something,” but it’s also used to depict the “strength of emotion or an unpleasant or destructive natural force.” How to talk—or write—about violence at all, both despite and because we seem so inundated by it?

This is essentially where Lidia Yuknavitch’s essay “Suffer the Children” opens—with a question, fielded from a friend in response to her new book, The Small Backs of Children: “Why bring violence and sexuality so close to the body of a child?” At the heart of the question lies another, shorter question: why bring violence? Longer: why, in a world so teeming with stories of shootings, stabbings, massacres, genocides, do we devote more pages to violence? Is it necessary, and does it incite empathy or produce the opposite effect, introducing empathy’s cousin, apathy? Or, “is there any space left for not watching, not focusing, not keeping abreast of all the events and atrocities unfolding in the world, as an ethically viable option?” (Maggie Nelson)

Maybe the question is not why, but how? How, in a world so teeming with stories and narratives of violence, do we write violence? If writers are to participate as creators or re-creators of violence in literature, or to respond to it, how might we write it in a way that’s not exploitative, aggrandizing, or gratuitous? And how do we participate as readers, as spectators, of violence?Continue Reading

Morphology of the Essay: Ander Monson, Claudia Rankine, Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison, & Maggie Nelson

Memorial Arch and MEmorial Church of the Leland Stanford Jr University Palo Alto 1908

According to Wikipedia, a keystone is “used figuratively to refer to a central element of a larger structure […] that locks the other elements in place and allows the whole to be self-supporting.” With a stone archway, the form is inherent, or predetermined. First, there is the abutment, then vertical supports, then voussoirs, and finally, crucially, the keystone. Ander Monson, in a 2008 interview: “in considering form, I think we immediately run up against expectation.” We, as readers, expect a certain order to things, and as writers, we learn the conventions of form and structure. We are taught that you can’t place a keystone without the voussoirs, yet you can start an essay without first deciding what form it will be, where the keystone will reside.

Leslie Jamison‘s essay, “Morphology of the Hit,” admits, “I never know how to start this story. I just don’t. That’s why I need functions.” Specifically, the functions of Vladimir Propp, author of Morphology of the Folktale, which provides Jamison “a map for storytelling, a catalog of plot pieces arranged into thirty-one functions: commencements, betrayals, resolutions.”

The abutment that supports the arc or form of an essay is a question, a problem. For Jamison, it’s the problem of how to begin a story, the story of being hit while traveling in Nicaragua. How does any woman or man begin to tell the story of unexpected violence? How does any writer begin? Beginning can be such a problem in and of itself, Barbara Abercrombie’s A Year of Writing Dangerously commences with the problem of starting, the terror of that first line, of not knowing the way in. Eula Biss, on a panel at AWP Minneapolis, said, “I feel like in almost all my work, I find form, and I have to write my way into it.”Continue Reading

Begin Again: On Endings in Nonfiction


Talking, or writing, about endings is hard—whether it’s the end of a marriage, the end of a life, or the end of a book (lest one spoil the conclusion). Life rarely offers sudden and definitive endings or epiphanic conclusions. Rather, events leading up to the end seem to be a slow unfolding, occasionally bleeding into a new beginning. For writers of nonfiction, dealing with actual occurrences often means there is no definitive end, and even if there were (such as a death), there comes the aftermath—the grief, the coping, the rebuilding.

How does a writer of nonfiction decide where to place the punctuation mark when lives—grief, love, loss, and even joy—are ongoing?

Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s latest publication, Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey, deals with the aftermath of more than one tragic event. The author was still processing the loss of her father, three years earlier, when her Japanese grandfather passed away in January of 2011. Only a few months later, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the coast of Japan, triggering a tsunami and resulting in unfathomable devastation.

Mutsuki Mockett’s relatives owned a temple only twenty-five miles from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where the radiation levels were so high, the family could not bury the grandfather’s bones.

The author journeys back to Japan to re-connect with family—exploring the ways in which communities are coping, witnessing both devastation and reconstruction, while examining her own grief. The book’s publication marked four years since her grandfather’s death and the earthquake. The catastrophic event is still fresh in people’s minds, the rebuilding efforts continue, and the grief surrounding it could be eternal. Forget the mechanics of writing an ending—how does one reconcile writing “the end,” when life is still unfolding?Continue Reading

“Slipperiness of Signification”: An Interview with Lee Ann Roripaugh


In her most recent book, Dandarians (Milkweed, 2014), Lee Ann Roripaugh writes in the borderland between poetry and prose, blurring boundaries and finding the unfamiliar music in everyday language. She is also the author of three previous books of poetry, including Year of the Snake, which won the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award in Poetry/Prose, and Beyond Heart Mountain, a winner of the National Poetry Series. Lee teaches at the University of South Dakota, where she directs the creative writing program and serves as editor-in-chief of South Dakota Review. We recently caught up via email to talk about Dandarians, the fascinating ways in which poetry and prose can overlap, and life as a state poet laureate. 

Matthew Thorburn: Dandarians describes and reflects on a difficult and painful personal history with candor, sensitivity, careful yet surprising language, and sometimes humor. How did this book come to be? Did you conceive of it as a larger project from the outset, or did it come into focus as you were writing the poems?

Lee Ann Roripaugh: For me, Dandarians is in so many ways a book about language: language as communication and miscommunication, language as signal and code, as biosemiotics, as conduit, as electrical current, as currency, as impossible possibility, and perhaps, ultimately, as yearning. And so I suppose the book originated from this place of language as yearning. I was reading up on semiotics and biosemiotics and thinking about desire for connection, desire to write one’s way between self and other, as well as desire to read/make meaning.

I began working on prose poems that were attempting to articulate or explore these themes (a form of meta-yearning, perhaps?) when I realized that the lyric flash essays I’d been working on about betrayals of language—liminal, hybrid words miscommunicated to me from my Japanese mother—with all of their emotional and connotative resonances, with all of their slipperiness of signification, as well as all of their transgressive danger and potential, formed a sort of autobiographical ground zero for these explorations, and that’s when I knew that these essays would form the spine and nervous system of this particular book.Continue Reading

On Context & Omission: Alain de Botton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John McPhee, and Claudia Rankine

imageCraft talks regarding omission lean heavily on Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, what John McPhee recently called, “or, how to fashion critical theory from one of the world’s most venerable clichés.” Aside from the obvious trimming of superfluous language or gratuitous scenes, it could be argued that omission, in one extreme, is the antithesis of context. Nonfiction writers debate the ethics, merits, and necessity of omission—in order to construct a concise narrative, omission is needed, but does the removal of certain elements make a story less true? Is context even necessary? What happens when whole passages or chunks of backstory are removed, in fiction and nonfiction?

Claudia Rankine recounts attending Serena Williams’s 2012 semifinal match at the U.S. Open in a recent article for The New York Times Magazine. A similar version was told to Paula Cocozza for The Guardian, where Rankine mentions watching the match with her daughter, nine years of age at the time. Rankine asked the white American man beside her why he was cheering for the opposing player from Belarus, a blonde woman, and when the man vacates his seat after further questioning, Rankine’s daughter “cringe[s] with embarrassment.”

The instance is not included in Citizen: An American Lyric, though there are lengthy sections regarding the racism and aggression Serena Williams has encountered and responded to over the years. Written largely in second-person, Citizen is not about Rankine’s experience but about a collective of voices. In the magazine article, “Her Excellence,” Rankine elaborates on this experience using first-person:

Two years ago, recovering from cancer and to celebrate my 50th birthday, I flew from LAX to J.F.K. during Serena’s semifinal match at the U.S. Open with the hope of seeing her play in the final. I had just passed through a year when so much was out of my control, and Serena epitomized not so much winning as the pure drive to win. I couldn’t quite shake the feeling (I still can’t quite shake it) that my body’s frailty, not the cancer but the depth of my exhaustion, had been brought on in part by the constant onslaught of racism, whether something as terrible as the killing of Trayvon Martin or something as mundane as the guy who let the door slam in my face. The daily grind of being rendered invisible, or being attacked, whether physically or verbally, for being visible, wears a body down. Serena’s strength and focus in the face of the realities we shared oddly consoled me.

Continue Reading

Inclusivity & Authorship: Second-Person Pronouns

8 Hamid Rankine Nelson

Used poorly, second-person reads like a trope; used well, second-person as a narrative device adds inclusivity to literature, raises questions of authorship, and helps an author communicate politically-charged topics like globalization, race, and gender.

Mohsin Hamid utilizes second-person in his novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, a tongue-in-cheek how-to for globalization. The unnamed narrator is born in an unnamed country and moves to an unnamed city for social mobility. “You” transcends preconceived notions of identity, and allows the reader to superimpose their own onto the narrator, which brings up questions of authorship—the writer has written the story, but the reader makes it their own. Hamid’s novel describes enough for the reader to remain grounded, but still vague enough, such as this description of the narrator’s move from the country to the city:

Dirt streets give way to paved ones, potholes grow less frequent and soon all but disappear, and the kamikaze rush of oncoming traffic vanishes, to be replaced by the enforced peace of the dual carriageway. Electricity makes its appearance, first in passing as you slip below a steel parade of high-voltage giants, then later in the form of wires running at bus-top eye level on either side of the road, and finally in streetlights and shop signs and glorious, magnificent billboards. Buildings go from mud to brick to concrete, then shoot up to an unimaginable four stories, even five.

Continue Reading

Awards to Ploughshares Writers

Our congratulations to the following Ploughshares writers who work has been selected for these anthologies:

the o. henry prize stories 2013Best Stories: Jamie Quatro’s story “Sinkhole,” from the Spring 2012 issue edited by Nick Flynn, will appear in O. Henry Prize Stories 2013, selected by a prize jury of Lauren Groff, Edith Pearlman, and Jim Shepard. The anthology is due out September 2013, with Laura Furman as the series editor.

Best Stories Notables: Steve Almond’s story “Gondwana,” Matthew Neill Null’s story “Telemetry,” Timothy Schaffert’s Ploughshares Solo “Lady of the Burlesque Ballet,” and Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Ploughshares Solo “Phoenix” were named as notables by The Best American Stories 2013. The anthology was released this month, with Elizabeth Strout as the guest editor and Heidi Pitlor as the series editor.

Best Essays: Charles Baxter’s essay, “What Happens in Hell,” from the Fall 2012 issue edited by Patricia Hampl, has been selected for The Best American Essays 2013. The anthology was released this month, with Cheryl Strayed as the guest editor and Robert Atwan as the series editor.

bae2013Best Essays Notables: Mary Gordon’s essay “The Taste of Almonds,” was named as a notable by The Best American Essays 2013.

Best Poetry:  Major Jackson’s poem “Why I Write Poetry,” from the  Spring 2012 issue edited by Nick Flynn, has been selected for The Best American Poetry 2013. The anthology was released in September 2013, with Denise Duhamel as the guest editor and David Lehman as the series editor.

Pushcart: Eric Fair’s essay “Consequence” and Claudia Rankine’s poem “Excerpt from That Once Were Beautiful Children,” which both appeared in the Spring 2012 issue edited by Nick Flynn, and Charles Baxter’s essay, “What Happens in Hell,” from the Fall 2012 issue edited by Patricia Hampl, have been selected for The Pushcart Prize XXXVIII: Best of the Small Presses, which is due out November 2013 from Bill Henderson’s Pushcart Press.


Non Verbis, Sed Rebus

My girlfriend’s ex-girlfriend recently sent me a link to an article entitled “8 New Punctuation Marks We Desperately Need.” As is often the case with my girlfriend’s ex-girlfriend, I couldn’t quite tell if she was joking. Further complicating the matter was the fact that the article came from, a decidedly unserious website—and yet I found myself taking it very, very seriously.

Because it’s true: we desperately need these punctuation marks. And not only “we” as in me and my girlfriend’s ex-girlfriend, but also “we” as in anyone trying to communicate via text with someone they don’t know very well—which, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, email, etc., etc., is basically “we” as in the general public.

The “I’m Not Angry” mark, a little subscript smile that follows the period at the end of a sentence, would soften many an unintended blow (Dear Mom, please include one of these in all future correspondences, kthxbai!). And we’re especially desperate for the Sinceroid, as evidenced by the fact that I actually need a Sinceroid to communicate the sincerity of my desperation:

As I continued, in my desperation, to overthink the article, I realized that I already overcompensate for the absence of these punctuation marks in my text-based communications. Sans Sinceroid, I find myself leaning heavily on exclamation points (“No, really!!!”); in lieu of an “I’m Not Angry” mark, I grudgingly resort to that least appealing of punctuation-neologisms (punctologisms?), the smiley-face emoticon:

Smiley Face

Continue Reading

More Pushcart Prize Nominees

Pushcart Prize 2013In December we announced our nominees for the Pushcart Prize, as seen in the 2012 issues of Ploughshares. Last week, we received a list of further nominations of poetry and prose published in 2012 in Ploughshares.

Good luck to all the nominees!


“Gondwana” by Steve Almond, from Ploughshares Spring 2012, guest-edited by Nick Flynn

“Dog” by Mark Slouka, from Ploughshares Spring 2012, guest-edited by Nick Flynn

“Grace” by Joshua Howes, from Ploughshares Winter 2012-13, guest-edited by Ladette Randolph and John Skoyles

“Come the Revolution” by Emily Torzs, from Ploughshares Winter 2012-13, guest-edited by Ladette Randolph and John Skoyles


“Consequence” by Eric Fair, from Ploughshares Spring 2012, guest-edited by Nick Flynn

“What Happens in Hell” by Charles Baxter, from Ploughshares Fall 2012, guest-edited by Patricia Hampl

“The Taste of Almonds” by Mary Gordon, from Ploughshares Fall 2012, guest-edited by Patricia Hampl

“Myself on High” by Ralph James Savarese, from Ploughshares Fall 2012, guest-edited by Patricia Hampl


“Lines on the Pathetic Fallacy” by Joel Brouwer, from Ploughshares Spring 2012, guest-edited by Nick Flynn

“‘The boss wears a white vest…'” by Victoria Chang, from Ploughshares Spring 2012, guest-edited by Nick Flynn

“Why I Write Poetry” by Major Jackson, from Ploughshares Spring 2012, guest-edited by Nick Flynn

Excerpt from “That Once Were Beautiful Children” by Claudia Rankine, from Ploughshares Spring 2012, guest-edited by Nick Flynn

“We Dance on a Spinning Log” by John Rybicki, from Ploughshares Spring 2012, guest-edited by Nick Flynn

“The Big Sleep” by James Tolan, from Ploughshares Spring 2012, guest-edited by Nick Flynn

From “Small Porcelain Head” by Allison Benis White, from Ploughshares Spring 2012, guest-edited by Nick Flynn

“Please Alice Notely Tell Me How to Be Old” by Rachel Zucker, from Ploughshares Spring 2012, guest-edited by Nick Flynn

“Two Weeks” by Valerie Bandura, from Ploughshares Winter 2012-13, guest-edited by Ladette Randolph and John Skoyles

“A Story Can Change Your Life” by Peter Everwine, from Ploughshares Winter 2012-13, guest-edited by Ladette Randolph and John Skoyles

“Volunteer” by Nance Van Winckel, from Ploughshares Winter 2012-13, guest-edited by Ladette Randolph and John Skoyles