Back to School Special: Thoughtful Imitation

"Mimicry in South African Butterflies - chromolithographic frontispiece of The Colours of Animals by Edward Bagnall Poulton, 1890" by Edward Bagnall Poulton - own scan of The Colours of Animals by Edward Bagnall Poulton, 1890. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mimicry_in_South_African_Butterflies_-_chromolithographic_frontispiece_of_The_Colours_of_Animals_by_Edward_Bagnall_Poulton,_1890.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Mimicry_in_South_African_Butterflies_-_chromolithographic_frontispiece_of_The_Colours_of_Animals_by_Edward_Bagnall_Poulton,_1890.jpg

Mimicry in South African Butterflies – chromolithographic frontispiece of The Colours of Animals by Edward Bagnall Poulton, 1890. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I didn’t study creative writing as an undergraduate; it wasn’t an option. When I enrolled in the MFA program at University of Washington, what I craved more than workshop (which I’d experienced a few times in continuing education settings) was the elusive “craft” class: reading analytically not to make an argument about literature (which I also enjoy) but to learn how another writer achieved an artistic effect. One of the most enriching classes I took at UW was such a class, taught by David Bosworth.

We looked at everything from aphorisms and fables to stories by Joseph Conrad and James Baldwin and Mavis Gallant and Marguerite Duras, among others. Students chose additional stories they wanted to dissect for the class and brought in Flannery O’Connor, George Saunders, Roberto Bolaño, and more. I felt little gaps in my novel-heavy education filling. We imitated, we analyzed, we explored choices the writers did and did not make. The one thing we were not allowed to do was write parody, a rule for which I was grateful. Allowing parody, I think, could have opened the door to being a little less thoughtful, a little less open to learning from what all of these writers offered.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: The Calvary Film and the Purpose of Art

uncomfortable CALVARY

“[T]he barrier between one’s self and one’s knowledge of oneself is high indeed. There are so many things we would rather not know!
– James Baldwin

John Michael McDonagh’s film Calvary begins with priest Father James (played by Brendan Gleeson) preparing to hear an unseen confessor. The confessor reveals that as a child, he was repeatedly raped by a now-deceased priest– and his language for this revelation is violently forthright enough that I won’t include it here. McDonagh chose this “startling opening line” because, in his view, the euphemistic language of “child abuse”

has enabled us to detach ourselves . . . because we never actually think about what it means to be abused every day of your life. What that physically means.

The grim candor of his opening line is indicative of McDonagh’s approach to the rest of the film: an experiment in taking viewers where we don’t want to go, leaving us embarrassed and backed into our seats, waiting for relief or levity that doesn’t come.Continue Reading

Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems

9780807084861Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems James Baldwin Beacon Press, April 2014 120 pages $16.00 Buy: book | ebook

The cover of Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems features blurbs by none other than Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, telling the world to read this book. I’ll be honest; I feel like I can’t add much to that—just listen to Morrison and Angelou. But if you need a bit more convincing, here are some remarkable feats that Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems accomplishes.

Some of Baldwin’s poems are intensely political, and while much political poetry tends to read like an ideological statement veiled as poetry—which I admit I’m not a fan of—in Baldwin’s case he writes poetry first and foremost: lyrical, captivating, evocative, thought-provoking poems that also happen to be exploring the political climate of his time. In “Straggerlee wonders,” for example, the speaker claims that the U.S. government finds “a way around every treaty.”His tone is similarly critical when he writes that “[t]his flag has been planted on the moon:/ it will be interesting to see/ what steps the moon will take to be revenged.” What I found genuinely surprising and wonderful was his focus on creating narratives and characters against the background of political tensions, which make his poems relatable, accessible and not one bit outdated. Continue Reading

Dancing About Architecture

Semigarrapatea“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” said Elvis Costello once, probably quoting someone else. And yet, and yet… It is apparently a strong urge to write about (or somehow with) music. The list of creative writing that involves music in some way is long, and grows longer every day with the plethora of author playlists floating around the internet—such as those collected by the music and literature blog Largehearted Boy.

In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forester writes of a musical phrase in a violin sonata that adds coherence to In Search of Lost Time, reappearing across the book as it’s heard by various people, and almost developing a life of its own: “There are times when it means nothing and is forgotten, and this seems to me the function of rhythm in fiction; not to be there all the time [….] but by its lovely waxing and waning to fill us with surprise and freshness and hope.” Forester speculates that one can’t plan on rhythm so much as let it emerge. I would add that revision would be a great time to bring out those emerging rhythms.

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Ploughshares Fantasy Blog Draft Finals: The Holden Caulbabies vs What the Chuckin’ Buk?!

Draft bracket - Finals - resized

It’s been a long, tortuous path from the inception of the Fantasy Blog competition to the finals, full of upsets and surprises—but here we are, left with two teams standing after the semifinals three weeks ago which brought surprises of its own.

After a cross-country move, the commissioner was rendered connectionless in his new apartment in the Great American Midwest. As if to mock his Net-less existence, Facebook decided to cripple our voting system with no warning. Without even a hanging chad to count, we were forced to rely on an arcane calculation that involved mixing salt crystals taken from the white T-shirt Kerouac wore when writing The Scroll and mixing them with the dregs of a dusty bottle of ron añejo found in a closet at the Hemingway House, creating an obscene, literary Papa Doble daiquiri. The resulting concoction sent the commissioner into a disturbing sleep during which he learned, in a dream, that the winner was none other than What the Chuckin’ Buk?!Continue Reading

From the Slush Pile: Don’t Fall Flat

256px-Alfred_Hitchcock_NYWTSAlfred Hitchcock says, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.”  That is absolutely true for the stories that are being passed on to editors. It is your job to tell the story but get rid of the boring bits. A reader wants to travel seamlessly from scene to narrative bridge and back again.

But how? Here are the simplest techniques.Continue Reading

Ploughshares Fantasy Blog Draft Round 2 – The Mighty Duck Palahniuks vs The Holden Caulbabies

After a fevered start to the competition, with spirited fights from each side, the competition slowed this last week as Buckle Your Corn Belts and Vonnegut to the Chopper! tortoised their way through the match-up. The teams ended at a stalemate, and we were forced to implement a tiebreaker: write one tweet from the point of view of one of your team’s writers, explaining why your team deserves to advance.

The winner, determined by the commissioner with help from the Ploughshares front office, was Vonnegut to the Chopper! Manager Brenna Dixon tweeted from Langston Hughes’s point of view, her take on the poem “Children’s Rhymes“: “By what runs/the Cornhuskers/we ain’t run/Genre HOA/is just no fun/What bugs/them cornfolks/don’t bug us/we know rules/aren’t worth the fuss.”

They advance to take on What the Chuckin’ Buk?! two weeks from now.

Draft bracket - Round2Match1 - resized

But this week, we have the semifinals!

mighty duck palahniuks

Editor: George Plimpton
Fiction Writer: Kurt Vonnegut
Events Coverage: Emily Dickinson
Nonfiction Writer: Werner Herzog
Poet: Melissa Broder
Health and Living Columnist: Hunter S. Thompson

holden caulbabies

Editor: Dave Eggers
Fiction Writer: William Faulkner
Cultural Critic: Roxane Gay
Nonfiction Writer: Michel Montaigne
Poet: Elizabeth Bishop
Travel Writer: James Baldwin

The semifinals begin with an epic match-up that really could be the finals of this competition. I don’t want to count out What the Chuckin’ Buk?! or Vonnegut to the Chopper!, but they just don’t command the same star power as these two teams. Both Caulbabies manager Michael Nye (Missouri Review) and Benjamin Samuel (Electric Literature) follow the formula favored by NBA teams, publishing houses, and book clubs across America: three All-Stars supported by key role players.

Nye has been bold with his trash talk at the podium:

Look, if The Holden Caulbabies are going to battle, there isn’t much need to talk about how we’re going to dominate. Still. We enjoy looking around at the bracket and deciding who is going to finish second. I’m sure there are plenty of tired witticisms from the editors and writers on the other teams. Child, please. We have no reply to make to them other than the brilliance of our poetry and prose. You come at the king, you best not miss.

But will his team back up the talk? Joining the commissioner today to analyze the competition is writer and assistant professor from the University of New Orleans M.O. Walsh.

Walsh was born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but he studied in Oxford, Mississippi (The Land of Faulkner!), and still runs the Yokshop Writer’s Conference there—so the commissioner is especially curious about his take on the fiction writer match-up this week. How do you see the Faulkner-Vonnegut battle going? Does Vonnegut even get up from his recliner? Do you think The Mighty Duck Palahniuks concede the fiction spot?

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Fantasy Blog Draft – Round 6 – Final Wildcard Picks!

Fantasy Blog Header - resizedMarch Madness has come and gone, as have the NFL draft, the NBA draft lottery, most of the NBA and NHL playoffs, and the start of the MLB season—but the Fantasy Blog Draft competition is only just getting started. Literature never sleeps!

This week the managers will fill the final spot on their rosters and then start up training camp to prep for the competition. In two weeks, we will preview the matchups and once again ask for you to pick the winners, and two weeks after that the competition will begin in earnest.

But before that, let’s see what decisions the managers made this week. Remember: for the last wildcard picks they must choose the blogger and the blogger’s position, so there’s lots of room for creativity.Continue Reading

Juneteenth and Some of Its Books

Today is June 19. For those that don’t know, this is a holiday celebrated in some parts of America as Juneteenth. Also known as Freedom Day, it marks the day that the Union army arrived in Texas in 1865 and actually enforced the Emancipation Proclamation, more than two years after it was declared.

Juneteeth, famously, is also the name of the incomplete second novel that Ralph Ellison spent his last forty years working on, which has been published in two edited versions, the more complete one called Three Days Before the Shooting. So we thought now would be a good time to talk about some of the literature that has risen out of the African-American experience and spoken to all of us.

One of the best novels I have read recently is Edward P. Jones’s The Known World. (I am proud to say that Ploughshares published one of his very first stories. I also highly recommend this essay Jones wrote for Powell’s on why writers might continue to write even in the face of constant rejection.) But back to the book: The Known World explores slavery from a number of angles, including one I had never known about before, which is the strange case of black slaveowners.Continue Reading