Contributor Interview: Sandra K. Barnidge

As part of the launch of our Spring/Summer 2018 issue, Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts, we sat down with contributors to talk about their work in the issue and more. The following interview is part of this series. Please visit our website to see the complete list of contributors to Let Us Gather, to purchase the issue, or to subscribe.

Barnidge

Tell us a little about your work in Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts: what inspired it, how you came to write it, etc.

Years ago, I was driving through rural Minnesota and spotted a sign for Kanaranzi, an unincorporated town that’s home to about 70 people. I immediately loved the sound of it, Kan-ar-an-zi, and I knew someday I’d write a character who carried that name — and that somehow, some way, she’d be intimately connected to a small and overlooked place. I have a terrible memory, but for whatever reason, I never forgot Kanaranzi.

Do you have a favorite line, image, or scene from this work?

The whole story sprouted from the first sentence. I’d been toying for months with the idea of a small-town girl who made it really, really big, and then one afternoon, I just heard it: “We know Kanaranzi Kimball won’t come to the Waubeen Annual Kanaranzi Kimball Day, but every year we plan as if she might.” From there, I had to figure out who KayKay was — and, perhaps more importantly, who was the person still in Waubeen who kept waiting/hoping for KayKay to come back?

You were a finalist in the Francine Ringold Awards for New Writers, which means that this is one of your first pieces of published work in your genre. How long have you been writing, and what did being a finalist in the competition mean to you?

I’m so grateful to Nimrod and to the Francine Ringold Awards for selecting this piece as a finalist. I’ve been a writer for about a decade, mostly as a higher-ed marketer. In 2016, I left my cubicle to become a freelancer in Europe, and I also began working more seriously on fiction during that time. In fall 2018, I’ll embark on an MFA in creative writing at the University of Alabama, and I submitted this story as part of my application. I wouldn’t have felt as confident about doing so without the nod of support from Nimrod on this piece.

What is your best piece of advice for aspiring writers?

Writers write. Nothing else makes you a writer — and nothing else can strip that identity away from you. I recently heard Chris Abani put it perfectly: “You have to write yourself into writing.” Don’t get too caught up in the “aesthetic” of being a writer, and accept that rejection is a huge part of the process. Just keep telling stories. That’s all there is to do.

My site is sandrabarnidge.com

Sandra K. Barnidge is a Wisconsin native and holds an M.A. in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She’s a freelance writer in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Contributor Interview: Lucia Dick

As part of the launch of our Spring/Summer 2018 issue, Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts, we sat down with contributors to talk about their work in the issue and more. The following interview is part of this series. Please visit our website to see the complete list of contributors to Let Us Gather, to purchase the issue, or to subscribe.

Dick

Tell us a little about your work in Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts: what inspired it, how you came to write it, etc.

“At the Music Conservatory” was inspired by my childhood piano lessons at Illinois Wesleyan’s conservatory program for children. The presence of our mothers at these music classes gave an added dimension of social consciousness to these weekly gatherings. Adult feelings of competition and social status colored the way I saw my peers. I wanted to explore these tensions in Part I of the poem, then show in Part II how the conflicts evaporated when we seven little girls were all on stage together making music, having wrested control from the mothers. My feelings of inadequacy or social inferiority disappeared when it was my turn to wield the baton for our practice concert sessions. There’s a clear change of style and tone in Part II that underscores the sense of mastery and power.

Do you have a favorite line, image, or scene from this work?

I do. It occurs in Part II in the extended image of the sailboat, the shape the baton traces in the air with four-four time. “I draw the stick through the air, / fill the sail, keep us afloat. / I am skipper of the sloop.” The narrator speaks of her turn at the podium as being in on a sense of “wonder.”

What is your best piece of advice for aspiring writers?

There is material for poetry in anything that moves you. Write about it, and keep working on the piece until you’ve found the form and the voice it should take.

Tell us something fun, strange, or interesting about yourself. It can have to do with writing—or not!

Though my first name is Italian, all I can claim of Italy is days spent writing poems at a castle in Tuscany and evenings before dinner playing bocce ball on the castle lawns. Weekend trips to Siena and Assisi, where I got lost in both.

What’s on the writing horizon for you/what are you working on now?

My second full-length collection of poems will be published in 2019 by FutureCycle Press. At present I’m thinking about ways to frame a new poetry project–poems that may one day be the core of another book or chapbook.

Listening to Annie

by Adrienne G. Perry

In 2017, Annie Proulx gave a talk on writing to the University of Houston’s Honors College. Members of the UH community, local writers, and fans made up one part of the audience. The other portion was a local high school’s English and creative writing classes. The high schoolers sat toward the back of the room. Deference? Coolness? Under the direction of their teachers? Whatever the case, Proulx addressed a number of her remarks to these young writers directly, a gesture that came across as generous and, like Proulx, utterly lacking in pretension. What would this down-to-earth, suffer-no-fools writer say during the next hour?

Rather than give a craft lecture, Proulx spoke about writing more generally, offering some of the wisdom gathered during her decades of penning novels, short stories, and journalism. Handing it down with a “take what you like and leave the rest” attitude, Proulx said a lot, of course, but here is what I heard.

Writing is physical; that’s part of its pleasure: Find a nice pen—a pen that feels good in your hand and writes well. Move it across paper that also feels good to write on. The pen and paper don’t have to be fancy, but they should bring the writer satisfaction. Seeing words appear in your hand across the page, even if trashed later, is a basic unit of the writer’s joy. Move. Walking remedies several writerly ailments—from suffering writer’s block to throwing ourselves at a story’s problem without finding its solutions. Go for a stroll. Think things over, or not. But something might come up as you gaze at live oaks or kick rocks down the sidewalk.

Walking in the Woods

Make art: Each day, work to create at least one sentence so beautiful it’s like sculpture.

Writing takes time (like, a lot): When working on “Brokeback Mountain,” Proulx wrote for consecutive long stretches (more than eight hours at a go, I’m recalling) for a number of weeks. Not everyone can throw themselves at a story in the same way, but hearing how much time writing Proulx took was both humbling and heartening.

The eager looks on the students’ faces, their jotting down of notes, indicated they were, just like me, learning from Proulx what they needed to. I know this is true for me because I regularly return to that talk. Yesterday, I received a rejection for a short story. My first thought was self-defeating. (No surprise.) My second, chosen thought was, “The story probably needs more time.” This morning, an idea for an essay popped into my head during my walk. A sentence so fine it’s like sculpture? I haven’t written one of those today. But, dear Annie, I have pen and paper, and the day is not yet through.

Adrienne G. Perry grew up in Wyoming, earned her M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College in 2013, and is a Ph.D. candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston. From 2014–2016 she served as Editor of Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts.  Adrienne’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Copper NickelBlack Warrior ReviewIndiana Review, and Ninth Letter.

Contributor Interview: Sandra Hunter’s Trip Wires

Sandra Hunter’s “Angel in Glasgow” (Hunger & Thirst, Vol. 57.1) was a finalist for the 2013 Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction, and her “Finger Popping” (Awards 39, Vol. 61.1) won second place in 2017. Her recent fiction collection, Trip Wires (http://www.leapfrogpress.com/available-books/fiction/Trip_Wires.htm), was co-winner of the 2017 Leapfrog Fiction Contest and a Foreword Reviews Book of the Day on June 13, 2018. Associate Editor Cassidy McCants spoke with Hunter about the collection upon its publication this summer.

McCants: Trip Wires takes us all across the globe. Did you plan this in putting together the collection, or did the stories just happen to lead you all over?

Hunter: The stories originated from responses to news reports and articles. So, I’m driving along and listening to a report about Voces del Secuestro in Bogota, Colombia, a radio station specifically for the kidnapped (https://thecitypaperbogota.com/features/herbin-hoyos-behind-the-voices-of-hope/18446).

And that sparks something: what is it like to be kidnapped? One minute you are walking along a road, buying groceries, coming home from dropping the kids off, and the next moment all of that is wrenched away, and you don’t know if you will ever return to the life you once had. And that leads to other questions: what is this life we have? Are we entirely determined by environment? Adaptation is frequently non-volitional: does that change the essence of the person or merely bring fortitude, etc., to the surface?

I worked in Kenya for two years, from 1983-85. It changed my outlook forever: I realized I wasn’t British. I realized I was capable of recovering from being very ill. I realized I had no idea what poverty really looked like. I realized I didn’t need most of the material things I’d taken for granted. I realized I DID need good batteries—and Mars Bars! For many years afterward I was deeply affected by this two-year contract. But over time some things have changed: I have far more shoes than I need. Is this laziness or forgetfulness or adaptation to a material culture? On the other hand, I still know I’m not British—and not from any one culture or country. I’m still deeply affected by poverty and social injustice. One of my more recent stories addresses the rape crisis of young girls in India.

Sometimes stories spring from rage. For example, I read a story on the civil war in Southern Sudan, and I can’t fathom the losses of those internally displaced and the stampede of refugees as a result of abusive counterinsurgency responses, often unlawful.

That resulted in two stories: “Brother’s Keeper” and “Angel in Glasgow.” You’ll note that the stories range from 2006 to 2015. I gradually recognized that I tended to write from the viewpoint of a child or young person. Voilà—a theme, hence the collection!

Maybe I’m drawn to international stories since I am also international: Anglo-Indian, Sri Lankan, Portuguese, Dutch, Scots. The stories that compel me are usually on the edge, in a liminal space where tension exists. That’s the most exciting place for me: this tiny evanescent moment when anything can happen.

Writing about these characters is a small response to social injustice—but it’s something. And I feel compelled to do it.

McCants: Speaking of “Angel in Glasgow” and “Brother’s Keeper”—both stories are very dialogue-heavy. Is dialogue something that comes to you immediately when you’re developing a story idea, or do you discover it as you go, after getting to know your characters?

Hunter: Dialogue: this is probably the first story element that arrives. The characters start talking to each other, or the protag starts talking to herself—or the reader—and the story develops from there. This technique often propels plot, tension, conflict, etc. However, there have been times when dialogue doesn’t work this way.

In March I was at a residency (Hawthornden Castle in Scotland) working on a novel. The characters did nothing BUT talk. They were engaging and lovely but I became quite exasperated with them—why couldn’t they do something? They were at college, after all—there were so many things for them to do. I suggested a few ideas: dancing, pizza party, getting locked out, playing beer pong. They just weren’t interested. I was about to throw the 185-page manuscript out and start again when we had a round-table reading at the castle and people seemed to like it. So I dialed back on being so damn pushy, and the characters came up with a swim meet, learning how to rap, visiting Watts Towers, going to an art gallery in Camarillo, engaging in a street beautification project, etc.

Ultimately, I’m at the mercy of the characters to begin with.

With short stories, the arc must be firmly and rapidly established. Even if the story is dialogue-driven, there must be a clear sense of progress. However, dialogue-driven novel chapters can, as I’ve mentioned, lead into the Slough of Endless Dialogue. I haven’t yet worked out how to quickly extricate everyone from that, but I’m working on it!

I also love stage and film for dialogue—and the silence around dialogue (which good writers provide). I learned about the space around actors from Ann Bogart’s SITI Company. I went through their Suzuki and Viewpoints training in L.A. many years ago, and they taught me how language shouldn’t be impeded by the tendency for the body to be self-conscious. I was writing plays at the time, and that impacted me considerably.

McCants: Do you have any characters who’ve lived at length in your mind, who won’t leave you alone, but either haven’t made it to the page or are too mysterious or flighty to capture? Or, focusing on this new collection in particular, any characters that particularly frustrate or excite you?

Hunter: There is one character who made it into a short story—her name is Gul and she was 13 at the time of the story. I loved her to bits. Her voice still rattles around my head. I tried writing a sequel where she takes her father around the racetrack on her motorbike, but somehow it didn’t work. Perhaps one day I’ll know how to write it.

In Trip Wires, the stories tend to stop without definitive endings. That’s how life is and how the stories work best, I feel. But that doesn’t stop me wondering about what happens to the characters. I love Hunri-Howri in “Where the Birds Are,” but he’s so elusive. I know he’s not going to make it, but I so hope he does.  Will Elijah make it back to the Southern Sudan and will he find his brother (“Brother’s Keeper”)? What will Asal do now that she knows her husband is dead and she’s alone in Los Angeles with her small son, Nima (“15 Minutes”)? Will Minoo make her way in Glasgow (“Angel in Glasgow”)? And will Marta and her family (“Borderland”) survive? And what kind of heartless person writes characters into such horrible situations and then leaves them there?!

One character who I actually loathe is in a novel-in-progress. Her name is Aunt Glory and she’s a monster. I can’t wait to get back to her once I’ve finished the next novel.

McCants: How does your process for novel-writing differ from that for story-writing?

Hunter: Short stories usually come quickly. They jump out of the gate and I do my best to keep up. The stories do occasionally “stick” and I leave them alone for a day or so. Various things will bring me back: a dream, an overheard conversation (I’m a shameless stealer of dialogue), a billboard, a book title. Very often poetry will lead me in, so I have a stack of chapbooks and collections on my desk: Ilya Kaminsky, Mila Cuda (youth poet laureate for L.A.), Adam Zagajewksi, Safia Elhillo and—new to me—Donna Stonecipher. Dipping into these is like suddenly swimming in a new current. I’m forced to slow down (or sometimes speed up) and turn language over so that I’m hearing it differently. Rhythm is vital—sometimes more so than content.

Novels, however, are a different beast. I’m not a plotter but I do need to know the shape of the piece: Where are we going to end up? What’s the most important conflict/s for this/these character/s and is it/are they resolved (and they don’t have to be)? Sometimes I have the answers clearly—and sometimes those answers are wrong! Even so, it helps to have that focus; otherwise it can be like the hundred-meters race for those with no sense of direction. My wonderful mentor and friend, Mark Sarvas, taught me to review each chapter for plot, tension, conflict, character. Now I keep a table and review those points for each chapter. This works best after the first draft—although I have to admit, I’ve become a compulsive checker.

Novels are also more physical for me. At some stage (usually going into the second draft), I’ll print everything out and spread it around my workspace, with yellow stickies containing two-line synopses on every chapter. I’ll print out and pin up my table as well so I can check as I go. I’ll walk around the chapters and see if they might be reordered/removed. At this point the through-line of the novel becomes a lot cleaner.

By the way, Scrivener, an excellent writers’ software, is invaluable for an editor, too. Because you write in scenes, not chapters, you’re forced to stay focused.

McCants: What about fiction is most valuable to you—and what about it is important for our world today?

Hunter: The core interest that drives both my short and long fiction is social injustice. Sadly, history has repeatedly proved that we can rarely look to government to redress these wrongs, and governments can only be galvanized into action after exhausting efforts—Martin Luther King’s fight for social justice and the decades-long struggle to end apartheid in South Africa are two examples.

Also, in today’s Western world, many consider gaming and social media essential parts of daily life. Real-world life can be displaced by maintaining a social media presence or developing second-world avatars. We’re becoming socially blinkered.

We can argue that fiction does the same thing. Some fiction provides pure escapism—also necessary for beach or “downtime” reading. But, for me, literary fiction is an incredibly important medium for raising the visibility of social justice abuses. Some choose activism, philanthropy, and volunteer work. I raise my voice in stories.

It isn’t enough to report these issues: We have journalists to do that. The point is to get people to think about social injustice, to discuss it and, perhaps, be inspired to work towards change.

I look for writers who do that and who also take risks, like Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Jo Ann Beard, Meliza Bañales, Marisa Silver, and Lidia Yuknavitch. These writers are fearless. They also draw on the heritage of the courageous writers before them: Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf, Yukio Mishima—and, standing on their shoulders, create something vital and compelling, just as our daughters and sons will stand on our shoulders and do the same. Just as I hope my daughter will do—and already does in her Gender Studies major at college.

xkhkxc3pnhjzqmzlbacrSandra Hunter’s fiction won the 2017 Leapfrog Press Fiction Contest, the 2016 Gold Line Press Chapbook Prize, the October 2014 Africa Book Club Award, and the 2014 H.E. Francis Fiction Award, and has received three Pushcart Prize nominations. She is a 2018 Hawthornden Castle Fellow and was the 2017 Charlotte Sheedy Fellow at the MacDowell Colony. Her books include Losing Touch, a novel (July 2014), Small Change, a fiction chapbook (June 2016), and Trip Wires, a short story collection (June 2018). She teaches English and Creative Writing and runs writing workshops in Ventura and Los Angeles, California. Favorite dessert: Salted Caramel Insanity (that’s not its name but it should be) from Donut Friend.

 

Featured photo: https://www.sandrajhunter.com

Contributor Interview: Andrea Jurjević

As part of the launch of our Spring/Summer 2018 issue, Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts, we sat down with contributors to talk about their work in the issue and more. The following interview is part of this series. Please visit our website to see the complete list of contributors to Let Us Gather, to purchase the issue, or to subscribe.

Jurjevic

Tell us a little about your work in Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts: what inspired it, how you came to write it, etc.

I went to an art show, and the artist had a series of paintings he made with nail polish that dripped down the paper—some colors ran down straight, others swerved. I already knew, from painting, that colors sometimes behave differently. They vary in how fast they dry. But here the difference in their movements became apparent. I wrote the poem a few months later while at a residency in the north Georgia mountains.

Do you have a favorite line, image, or scene from this work?

“how a color learns its language”

What is your best piece of advice for aspiring writers?

Live, travel, love, do stuff. Get in the habit of paying attention.

Tell us something fun, strange, or interesting about yourself. It can have to do with writing—or not!

The first time I drank alcohol was during a 6th grade field trip to the beach. I blacked out while swimming. When I came to, on an exam table, post stomach-pumping, my homeroom teacher stood by me, worried, and asked if I needed anything. I slapped him and said, “I want soup.”

What’s on the writing horizon for you/what are you working on now?

I’m working on a new manuscript and translating selected and new poems by a brilliant Croatian poet, Marko Pogačar.

My website is https://andreajurjevic.com/

Andrea Jurjević is a poet and translator from Rijeka, Croatia. Her first poetry collection, Small Crimes, won the 2015 Philip Levine Prize, and her translation of Mamasafari, a collection of prose poems in Croatian by Olja SavičevićIvančević, is forthcoming from Lavender Ink / Diálogos. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she teaches at Georgia State University.

Paying Market for 2019

We’ve got a special announcement today, one that has us thrilled, giddy, over the moon—you name it.

*drum roll, please*

Nimrod International Journal will, for the first time in its history, be a paying market for all work printed in our pages in 2019!

Excuse us while we do a happy dance and throw lots of streamers in the air!

*throws streamers, toots horns, clashes cymbals*

Here are the specifics:

For work printed in our two 2019 issues, Voices of the Middle East and North Africa and Awards 41, we will pay $10/page, with a maximum payment of $200. Visual artists whose work appears internally will also be compensated at a rate of $10 per image used. All contributors will also receive two copies of the issue in which their work appears. Work selected for publication through our two annual contests, the Nimrod Literary Awards and the Francine Ringold Awards for New Writers, will also receive this payment (though monetary prizes for winners will remain the same: $2,000 and $1,000 for the Literary Awards; $500 for the Francine Ringold Awards). And you don’t have to wait until 2019 to submit for these issues—all work currently in process and work submitted from this point for our 2019 issues will fall under this category.

We’re excited to be able to pay contributors in 2019. This is a goal we’ve hoped to achieve for a long time, so 2019 is going to be a very special year for us. We want to get the news out to as many writers as possible, so please help us spread the word that Nimrod will be a paying market in 2019 and, if you are a writer yourself, send your work in for consideration!

And, while we hope to continue paying our contributors beyond 2019, this is a trial effort to assess the effects on submissions and our budget. We’ll be monitoring to see if this is practical. We know it’s something we want to keep doing if possible, so we’re starting here.

 

 

 

 

Contributor Interview: Steve Bellin-Oka

As part of the launch of our Spring/Summer 2018 issue, Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts, we sat down with contributors to talk about their work in the issue and more. The following interview is part of this series. Please visit our website to see the complete list of contributors to Let Us Gather, to purchase the issue, or to subscribe.

Bellin-Oka, Steve

Tell us a little about your work in Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts. What inspired it, how you came to write it, etc.

Two of these poems, “Dalet” and “Zayin,” are parts of a longer sequence I refer to as a metaphysical love poem. I’ve studied some ancient languages in my life, and the beauty and strangeness of the Hebrew alphabet, and how the letters originally were pictograms, is fascinating to me. Hebrew also ascribes mystical qualities to its letters, and I’m hoping to capture what’s both knowable and unknowable in my own 20-year marriage to my husband, who is Japanese. The sequence will move on to Japanese alphabets when I finish the Hebrew part. “Letter to John Ashbery” is an elegy of sorts for him and is a true story about a likely apocryphal story he told me when I met him in graduate school.

Do you have a favorite line, image, or scene from this work?

I’m haunted by my memory of Ashbery’s brilliant blue eyes and his way of looking at you when you spoke, as if it was the most important thing to say in the world at that moment in time. I tried to capture that in the elegy for him.

What is your best piece of advice for aspiring writers?

Read as much as you write, and write as much as you possibly can. Seek out other writers you trust to give you honest feedback on your work. You can’t underestimate the importance of community, especially in poetry.

Tell us something fun, strange, or interesting about yourself. It can have to do with writing—or not!

I’m an American, but I lived in Canada for 10 years before returning to the U.S. in 2015 after the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriages. My husband is a Japanese citizen, and after a while, there were no legal ways to keep him in the U.S. any longer. Not many people think about how the need to protect the equal rights of LGBQT people is even more imperative for binational couples like us.

What’s on the writing horizon for you/what are you working on now?

I have my first book of poems coming out next year (I hope). It’s called Ash Sonata. I only finished it at the end of 2017, so I’m waiting for the poems I’m writing now to reveal to me what a second book is going to be about. I’m listening and I think they’re telling me.

Steve Bellin-Oka is the author of a chapbook, Dead Letter Office at North Atlantic Station (Seven Kitchens Press, 2017). He earned his M.F.A. from the University of Virginia and his Ph.D. from the University of Southern Mississippi. He has received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. He teaches at Eastern New Mexico University.

Contributor Interview: Robert Thomas

As part of the launch of our Spring/Summer 2018 issue, Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts, we sat down with contributors to talk about their work in the issue and more. The following interview is part of this series. Please visit our website to see the complete list of contributors to Let Us Gather, to purchase the issue, or to subscribe.

Thomas, Robert

Tell us a little about your work in Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts. What inspired it, how you came to write it, etc.

My poems are part of a series on jealousy. It may be counter-intuitive, but I believe that exploring jealousy (rather than transcending it) is a dynamic engine of spiritual growth. Better than yoga!

Do you have a favorite line, image, or scene from this work?

One of my favorite passages is these lines from “Sonnet with Clerk and Genghis Khan”: “Not mere love letters / but letters that would cut steel, show the blind / the Milky Way, a/k/a Winter Street, / Path of Cranes, the Road to Santiago.”

What is your best piece of advice for aspiring writers?

Read outside your comfort zone. If you love Armantrout, read Milton. If you love Milton, read Szymborska. If you love Szymborska, read Chekhov. If you love Chekhov, read Basho. If you love Basho, read Armantrout.

Tell us something fun, strange, or interesting about yourself. It can have to do with writing—or not!

I saw Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. It was memorable, but from my perspective not as memorable as Otis Redding backed by Booker T & the MG’s. If you listen closely you may hear their influence in my poetry.

What’s on the writing horizon for you/what are you working on now?

I’m putting together a collection of sonnets. The working title is Sonnets with Carpenter and Dirty Snow. So far I’ve whittled 144 sonnets down to 96 for the collection, which is more like hacking with a machete than whittling.

Website: www.robertthomaspoems.com

Robert Thomas’s most recent book, Bridge, is a lyrical novella, published by BOA Editions, that won the 2015 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Fiction. His first book, Door to Door, was selected by Yusef Komunyakaa and published by Fordham University, and his second collection, Dragging the Lake, was published by Carnegie Mellon. He has received an NEA poetry fellowship.

Get My Attention . . . the Right Way

by Eilis O’Neal

“Get my attention.” It’s a phrase writers hear from editors a lot these days. Writers are told over and over again how busy editors are, how much material they receive, how brief the attention is they’re going to give any random piece of work from the slush pile. It’s the new maxim:

“How do you get published? Get my attention, and get it fast.”

And it’s true. Editors, whether they are magazine editors or book editors (and this goes for literary agents as well), are busy. We get tons of material, and we want to move through it as quickly as we can, both to find good material before it’s taken by someone else and to respond to writers in a timely fashion. So your work does need to separate itself from the stack on the desk—it does need to shine to get noticed.

But I worry that we sometimes emphasize too much the importance of getting an editor’s attention, without qualifying what we mean by that, which leads to writers making choices that definitely do get attention—but the wrong kind of attention.

What do I mean by that? Attention is attention, right? Unfortunately, no.

“The turd in the toilet bowl looked like a rotten squash.”

“‘Fuck you, bitch,’ Eugene screamed at his mother.”

“Eugene leaned back, opened his fly, and let forth a steaming stream of urine.”

“I could taste the leftover sweet and sour chicken as I leaned over in the alley and vomited into the gutter, flecks staining my pant legs.”

“Holly grabbed Mark’s dick and climbed on, boobs jiggling as she started to ride him.”

“Blood spurted and bits of bone grated as Kyle sawed through the man’s neck.”

Poop. Pee. Unpleasant bodily functions of all kinds. Unnecessary swearing. Graphic sex or violence. I see these things and more in opening lines, stanzas, and paragraphs all the time. Whatever you can think of that’s shocking or gross, I’ve seen it in real writers’ work, often right there at the beginning. And, almost every time, it does get my attention, but it is negative attention.

Why? It’s not like I’m a hardcore literary conservative. Nimrod publishes work that contains swearing, sex, bodily functions—sometimes beyond what would get an R rating in a movie. But when we publish work that contains these things, their use is earned and necessary to the story. In the pieces that have gotten negative attention, it isn’t.

Think of it this way: Your first page is like the opening of a conversation, but a conversation between strangers at a bus stop. I don’t know anything about you as I start to read your work—I just know that you’re here at this bus stop with me. If I’m standing at the bus stop and you open with, “My boyfriend’s penis looks just like an eggplant,” or, “This morning while I was taking a shit,” I’m probably going to back away slowly and not make eye contact. You might have an amazing story to tell, but I’m not going to stick around to hear it. Why? Because we don’t have any rapport yet.  A conversation involves a measure of connection and trust, and you’ve strained mine to the breaking point right at the start.

Am I saying that a good story or poem can never start with anything shocking? No, but I am saying that the bar is very, very high—and 95% of the time, the writers who jump for it don’t make it. Instead, all that happens is that I’m turned off from the get-go, and winning your way back into my good graces, making me want to read your work, is that much harder.

So what do I mean when I say “get my attention”?

What I want when I’m starting a piece of fiction or a poem is something that makes me want to keep going: a distinctive voice, a unique facility with language, a surprising turn, or an unexpected situation, just to name a few possibilities. What I don’t want is something that turns me away, that makes me want to stop reading. Again, think of that conversation at the bus stop. You don’t want to get my attention only to have me run away—you want to make me desperate to hear the rest of the story. For me to nod my head and say, “Keep going.”

So that’s how you get my attention. Make your opening line or paragraph or stanza unique and inviting. Can it be weird? Sure. Can it be unusual? Definitely. Can it be arresting? Yes, please. You don’t have to write the literary equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting when I say inviting. What you do need to do is make me want to listen to you, to follow you and your story. And there are better ways to do that than with poop.

Eilis O’Neal is Nimrod’s Editor-in-Chief. She is also a writer of fantasy and the author of the young adult fantasy novel The False Princess. 

Contributor Interview: Joshua Orol

As part of the launch of our Spring/Summer 2018 issue, Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts, we sat down with contributors to talk about their work in the issue and more. The following interview is part of this series. Please visit our website to see the complete list of contributors to Let Us Gather, to purchase the issue, or to subscribe.

Orol, Joshua

Tell us a little about your work in Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts. What inspired it, how you came to write it, etc.

This poem started with a list of Hebrew words that sound or look like English words, but are actually unrelated. I set myself a goal: to write a poem with Hebrew letters that somehow allows their shapes and sounds to come across for an English-speaking audience. Transliteration isn’t enough for me. I want the beauty and inaccessibility of multi-alphabet code-switching, but I want it to sound good, like poetry should. So I started with words that sound the same, not paying attention to their meaning. Only after the words and I had hung out for a while did I try to coax some meaning out of them.

Do you have a favorite line, image, or scene from this work?

My favorite stanza is in the middle, starting with the Hebrew “HaAdam,” the character we call Adam in English. Christianity and English have created an idea of Adam as this first man, the originator of masculine gender. The poem is trying to remember who HaAdam was before English, before our contemporary understanding of what men are. It’s like trying to remember how dynamic gender was for me as a kid, who I was before I was asked to think of myself as a man, and subsequently started calling myself trans.

What is your best piece of advice for aspiring writers?

I’m someone who can get way too caught up in what I want to say, which is a prosy way to enter writing. I loved beginning with the false cognates for this poem, because it forced me to pick words, connect them through image, and only then apply any meaning. The advice I give myself is to force myself to play with language before I know what the poem means, to match sounds and shapes first. My brain and spirit know what they want to say. That’s the easy part.

Tell us something fun, strange, or interesting about yourself. It can have to do with writing—or not!

I’m a preschool music teacher, and a song leader at our local Jewish summer camp. Playing music with kids is probably the most fun work I could think of.

What’s on the writing horizon for you/what are you working on now?

I’m finishing the M.F.A. program at NCSU in May 2018. I’ve been writing poems about Shoshana, this girl-self character whose name would’ve been mine if I’d been born female. The poems are all about body parts, not her sex organs, but her tongue, her chin, her knees, and her back.

Joshua Sassoon Orol is a Jewish poet from Raleigh, North Carolina, writing with the texts, tunes, and stories passed down from their mixed heritage family. Josh is working on an M.F.A. at NCSU, and received an Academy of American Poets prize while at UNC Chapel Hill.