Time and Tomes: Thoughts on Expectations

In 2018, I made the choice to keep track of all the books I’d read in a single year: when I started them, when I finished them, those sad few I abandoned prematurely. I’m surprised and only mildly horrified it never occurred to me to do this before.

In 2018, I read 30 books.

In 2019, I read 23.

And as of early March of this year, I had finished only two.

This put me on the concerning track toward failure. I was not on pace to meet my annual goal (the one I had imposed on myself with no consequences awaiting me one way or the other) of 30 books, and thinking back on my previous years’ quantitative accomplishments filled me with shame. But wasn’t there something to be said for the fact that the two books I had finished were both nearly 800 pages?

The first was a modern classic: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. The second was a classic’s classic: Middlemarch by George Eliot. As friends plowed through novel after novel, I worked to bat away the expectations I had of myself and embrace the slowness, the difficulty, and the late-arriving gratification of moving through a longer work.

I sought to retrain my brain and reframe my thinking—where before I saw plodding and drudgery, I now aimed to see precision and diligence; where there had been dread, there now was expectancy.

As with all feats of persistence, satisfaction’s counterpart is sacrifice. It’s similar to the way you discover new depths and capabilities within yourself when training for a race. Except when you’re reading, not only are you learning those things about yourself, but you’re also learning them about the characters and the author. As with real people—and who’s more real than fictional characters in whom you see your own self mirrored?—you have to spend time with them to afford them the opportunity to change. If you write them off, you’ll never see how they could have surprised you or what they could have taught you in the end.

However, for me, this practice of endurance came at a cost. The more I progressed with these works, the more frequently I had to forgo starting new ones . . . or doing basically anything else. But, over time, the more I chose to wrestle with the task I had set for myself, the more I grew to appreciate this act of discipline. And the thing is that I was choosing. It wasn’t a mandate someone else had put on me. It was a deliberate choice I was making to chip away at a goal I wanted to meet. I had nothing to prove to anyone but myself—though, of course, we’re often our own cruelest critics.

The concept of expectation is something these novels brought to the forefront of my mind, where it’s stayed, inconveniently, throughout this strange spring of 2020. As time unspooled before me and with the agency to fill it as I willed, I found I gravitated toward books and away from nearly all else. This brought up the question, Why do I do those other things at all? Yes, there are standard obligations, but why have I bowed to others’ expectations and placed them unflinchingly upon myself? It’s questions like this that I continue to ponder and hope to have some answers to by the time life is back to “normal.”

I continue to sift through the difficult notion of expectations, and as I do, it is a cognizant choice to weigh each day, and each new book I pick up, on its own. Comparison is the thief of joy, as they say, and I fight daily to unfetter myself from my tendency to compare and instead aim to see things anew, as if for the first time. This is freedom.

Structure is good. Boundaries (such as those imposed by a quarantine) can be healthy and often spark creativity. Choosing to draw lines around your life—the things you eat, your reading selections, the music you let wash over you all day, whether you will or won’t text that person after all this time—can be helpful in crystallizing what you really want. Goals are worthwhile, but they and expectations are not equals, and I’m learning to measure myself against the former rather than the latter.

My reading goal for this year is to complete 30 books. My expectations for this year? Simply, to read.

Andrea Avey, a native Tulsan, was an English teacher for five years and now works in the private sector. She devours literature and writes as often as she can.

Unsung, Part 1: Anthony Madrid and I AM YOUR SLAVE NOW DO WHAT I SAY

by Colin Pope

Every so often, emerging poets break into the high-culture zeitgeist, usually via a profile in The New Yorker or a review in the Times or a feature on NPR. Such poets are vaulted to the forefront of poetry, and we are encouraged to believe these are the best new poets in America. But in the list of recent years’ hot poets, you won’t find the name Anthony Madrid. His face doesn’t grace the cover of trade publications. He doesn’t, as yet, have a Wikipedia page. When I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say was published, the book didn’t appear on any “Best Poetry Books of 2012” writeups that I could find. What I mean to establish here is that, like many remarkable emerging poets, Madrid’s first book went underappreciated amid the noise of the larger poetry machinery.

Personally, I find an almost direct correlation between the hype a debut collection receives and my disappointment in its contents. I don’t think this has to do with the actual quality of the work, but rather my elevated expectation of it; if a poet is being celebrated in such a public way, then I expect the work to be not just good, but irrefutably, innovatively brilliant. Rather than celebrating a 26-year-old’s first book, perhaps we should be celebrating a mid-career poet’s third or fourth with this level of public visibility. Or even a 76-year-old’s fifth book. Alas, one suspects the inner workings of such marketing choices are flavored by an admixture of nepotism, publishing politics, and the all-too-American belief that simply because something is new, it’s better than anything old.

I Am Your Slave debuted eight years ago now, which before wasn’t very long in poetry years. When I discovered it, I excitedly discussed the book with poet-friends, only to find none of them had heard of it. I tried to relate to them the collection’s piano-wire-taut structure, its upending of the ghazal form, its raucous language and toying with aphoristic phrasing. Then I got out my phone and pulled up the first poem from the book I could find. It was one entitled “In Hell the Units Are the Gallon and the Fuck,” the first lines of which are:

THE unit of wine is the cup. Of love, the unit is the kiss. That’s
   here.
In Hell, the units are the gallon and the fuck. In Paradise, the drop
and the glance.

I read the title and first lines aloud, then defied anyone not to admit their interest in reading the remainder of the poem after such an opening.

To put it simply, Madrid is a genius of the opening line. This is a specific form of genius that’s graciously reader-facing; we feel invited into the poem’s world via the introduction of its voice and logic. But beyond all poetic explication and analytical hullaballoo, what’s gripping in these poems is that they are genuinely fun to read from the get-go. And since many of the poem’s first lines are also the poem’s titles, one need only see a selection of these titles to know what I mean: “Most Living Creatures Leave No Ghost,” “Their Fulminations Are Mere Theater,” “Time We Rolled Out That Exquisite Carpet,” “Heaven Help the Right-Handed Man Who Has Had His Right Hand Cut Off,” “No More Epigrams Against Sluts,” “Jam Me in Hot Hell,” “It Is a Perfect Day and I Must Waste It,” “Now That I Know I Am To Be Destroyed By a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl,” “Fuck Buddha I’m Buddha Nobody’s Buddha Quit Talking About Buddha,” and I could go on. These are random examples from the 60+ poems in the collection.

I think, as a poet and reviewer, I’m supposed to care more about why these poems are fun. I’m supposed to pick apart the particular devices operating on the words, the tonal precision in the faux-revelatory arcs of these not-quite-ghazals. Indeed, not doing so does feel like a bit of a cop-out. But, as you might be able to tell, the poems are fun because they are also funny. They point to the frequently ludicrous nature of the modern human experience and background it against Eastern philosophy and mysticism, the results of which are often downright hilarious. And I’m not about to attempt an explanation of humor. Take these sections from “I Am No Longer Cut to the Heart”:

She said to me proudly, “I mean to ruin you for other women.”
She was what
These morons call a “consummate technician.”

Here’s that boy with the demon sideburns and the slicked-back black hair
And a shirt like from the bodyshop, complete with cotton
racing-stripe namepatch.

I say to him: “Approach me, my child, and thou shalt be my
chosen delegate,
For thou art seventeen feet tall and tricked out with half a mile of
tattoos.”

See? There’s something about the persona behind these poems that affords a wry, smirking awareness of its own pomposity while simultaneously attempting earnest understanding, like a quixotic, dissipated guru.

I use the term “persona” loosely here, since these are indeed ghazals, a form that inheres ruminations that, traditionally, culminate with the poet’s employing their own name in the final lines in a sort of self-reflective revelation of their place within their own thoughts. For example, the ending of “Let’s Watch This Liver-Colored Devil”:

A book is a dead thing. Take it to bed, you’re asleep in a minute.
Whereas, if a friend is lying next to you, talking—you stay up all
the night.

That’s the way to write, MADRID! Be like a pillow-talking friend—
A good friend, full of question and answer, head propped up on
one hand…

But via the collection’s praxis, we discover that this is not the poet, so to speak. This is an idealized and discrete performance of a self-wrestling to comprehend its own bearing. In another poem, “They Do Out of Anger That Which We Do Out of Love,” the ending further demonstrates the poet’s performance of dueling identities: “MADRID, like you, I stand accused of the worst kind of / recklessness. / I have unleashed upon the world the full force of my infantile / allure.” This is Madrid talking to the persona MADRID, or vice versa. To me, these lines read as the type of conversation one has in the bathroom mirror when seeking to separate the hedonistic impulse from the rational, as in those moments when we are about to do something entirely stupid and irresponsible but, knowing our nature, will probably do it anyway.

As you might guess, Madrid’s prosody and language are downright enviable. Few poets can bring to bear all their gifts with such consistency. Part of the brilliance of the collection lies in its ability to deploy these gifts without sacrificing anything to the form or the humor; this is one of those rare books with no weak poems. In its loony and wild logic, I’m reminded of a similarly incredible book: Charles Simic’s Pulitzer-Prize Winning The World Doesn’t End. But there’s a funnier, more prescient voice here, one that deserves far more recognition than what it’s received.

I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say
Anthony Madrid
Canarium Books, 2012
Paperback, 117 pages ($14)

Colin Pope is a Ph.D. candidate at Oklahoma State University. His poems, essays, and criticism have appeared in or are forthcoming from such journals as Slate, Rattle, West Branch, The Millions, Best New Poets, and others. His collection Why I Didn’t Go to Your Funeral was a finalist for the Press 53 Award and was released in 2019 from Tolsun Books.

 

Review: NEW SUNS:ORIGINAL SPECULATIVE FICTION BY PEOPLE OF COLOR, Ed. Nisi Shawl   

by Helen Patterson

I’ve started reading more speculative fiction recently, and I’m not alone. Speculative fiction is hard to define, but this umbrella term generally refers to any fiction about a world different from our own. These alternate worlds can be set in the past, the future, or a world that seems like our current one—until it doesn’t. Within the last decade, speculative fiction has become increasingly popular among both literary and mainstream readers and writers. The rise of speculative fiction has coincided with an increased demand for diversity in writing, leading to an explosion of creative new stories.

New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, edited by writer Nisi Shawl, is one of the anthologies that’s come out of this growing demand for diverse speculative fiction. The title refers to a quote from the inimitable Octavia Butler, which is included in the frontmatter of the anthology: “There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.” As promised, each piece in New Suns glows with its own inner radiance.

One of the best things about anthologies is their ability to help us discover new writers. My two favorite stories in this one were by writers I had never read before. “The Shadow We Cast Through Time” by Indrapramit Das is one of the most original combinations of dark fairytale and sci-fi I’ve read. The story is told from the perspective of Surya, a descendent of human colonists. Her world contains demons, mind-altering spores, and hagtowers—living structures made from the bodies of the dead. In Surya’s world, the demons, the hagtowers, and even death are not feared; they are part of the place, and the humans who live there accept and mythologize them. When it is time to die, most humans willingly walk to the hagtowers, ready to become part of these structures. Surya does not dread death because “all worlds need death if humans must tread on them” (182). For me, the most alien part of the story isn’t the setting but this attitude toward death. So much of contemporary American culture is obsessed with avoiding or delaying dying; it was refreshing to read a story in which death, though not desired, is accepted more readily as a natural process. I’m afraid I’m simplifying the story too much, but I don’t want to give anything more away. You will have to read it. Das writes with lyrical, almost hypnotic, prose, and I’m looking forward to reading more of his work.

In my other favorite story, “Kelsey and the Burdened Breath” by Darcie Little Badger, Kelsey inhabits a world like ours but with one key difference: when humans or animals die, their “last breaths,” or “shimmers,” are released. No one in the story knows where the last breaths disappear to, but most last breaths instinctively escape to the sky and float upwards, out of sight. Kelsey makes her living by working with her own pet shimmer, Pal—the last breath of her sheepdog—to round up new shimmers and help them float away. Shimmers are naturally lighter than air, so Kelsey’s job is usually simple. Pal roams buildings where people or animals have passed away and herds new, confused shimmers into a room with a window. She then opens the window and releases them into the air. Unfortunately for Kelsey, some breaths break the rules, cease floating, and become burdened breaths. Reader beware: “the act that made a last breath burdened was so terrible the word ‘murder’ didn’t do it justice” (259). The story has dark moments, but the overall tone is light and gently humorous.

Every piece in this anthology is expertly crafted and offers new perspectives. That being said, my other favorites from this collection are “The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex” by Tobias S. Buckell, “The Fine Print” by Chinelo Onwualu, “The Robots of Eden” by Anil Menon, and “Harvest” by Rebecca Roanhorse.

In the afterword to New Suns, Shawl offers advice to anyone who enjoyed the anthology and wishes to read more diverse voices and perspectives: “Would you like more of what you’ve read here? Wider constellations, greater galaxies of original speculative fiction by people of color? Then seek us out. Spread the word. Wish on us, reach for us, and yes, let us gather together in the deep, dark nurseries of stars. Let us congregate. This is how new suns are born” (274). I intend to follow Shawl’s advice and discover more work by these writers, and I know that other readers and writers will do the same, especially in these uncertain times, as a pandemic rages around us. In the worst of times, we can acknowledge suffering and the severity of our problems even as we let stories expand our horizons and keep our minds open and curious.

Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.

 

Interview: Steve Bellin-Oka, Author of INSTRUCTIONS FOR SEEING A GHOST (2019 Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry Winner)

BellinOka author photo

Steve Bellin-Oka

What was the inspiration for this book?

There’s kind of a long backstory for the book. My husband is a Japanese citizen, and we’ve been together since 1998. Of course, same-sex marriages were not legalized in the United States until 2015 and, therefore, I couldn’t get a green card here for him until then. After eight years of cobbling together a string of temporary visas for him, in 2006 we ran out of legal ways to keep him in the country. We were lucky enough to qualify for permanent residency in Canada, and we moved there that year. It was a horrible decision that straight people would never have had to make. I gave up my career as an English professor and immigrated to a place where we knew no one and had few job prospects. It also happened at a time when my sister, who is a major figure in the book, was at the start of her terminal illness. She died from adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare cancer, not long after we moved to Canada. So I was under tremendous emotional pressure even after we left to not stay there, to abandon Kenichi and return to the U.S. This only got worse because in the two years following my sister’s death, both my brother and one of my nephews passed away as well from the consequences of alcohol and opiate abuse.

All of this finds its way into Instructions for Seeing a Ghost. There are literal ghosts in the book—my sister, my brother, and my nephew—as well as figurative ones. I don’t regret anything that Kenichi and I have had to go through, but there are poems that speculate about what my life would have been like had an earlier relationship with an American man worked out and had Kenichi and I never met. There are poems about how immigrants in any country are like “ghosts”—we’re both there and not there simultaneously, since one never leaves one’s birth country behind really, and thus one never feels like they fully belong in their new country. And, of course, Kenichi’s whole adult life has been like that; he left Japan for North America in the early nineties and has been here ever since. Finally, I’d say the book is about the experience of return from exile as well. As an ex-patriate, your whole conception of your birth country changes because you see how you’re seen by the rest of the world. As a gay man who has only been given access to the same constitutional rights as straight people recently, a lot of our national myths—that everyone is welcome here, that we are all created equal, for example—turned out to be hollow ideas. So the book is interested in those ideas as well.

How long have you been writing and what brought you to poetry?

 I didn’t start writing poetry seriously until I got to college. Before that, I always wanted to write music and be a musician. I was drawn to music from a very young age, mostly classical music, and I played the piano and some wind instruments. For a lot of reasons, that didn’t work out. I’d always been a voracious reader for as long as I can remember; there’s a family myth that I taught myself to read before pre-school, but I don’t know if that’s really true. So literature was always something I loved, and I always excelled at languages as a student. I also grew up in a very religious household. There was always something about the hymns sung in church and the rhythms and cadences of the readings from the Bible, especially from the Hebrew Bible, that I always found fascinating. But it wasn’t until I got the chance at the University of Maryland to study with some great poets—Stanley Plumly, who recently passed away, and Michael Collier, who let me enroll in his graduate poetry classes when I was still an undergrad—that I started realizing poetry had chosen me rather than the other way around. Creative people will find their outlets, I think, regardless of challenges and hurdles others set up for them or they set up for themselves. Despite long periods in my life of not writing any poetry at all, I’ve always returned to it.

How was writing and/or compiling this collection different from your previous publication work?

 Putting together a book of poems is not an easy enterprise, and not something anyone ever teaches you in M.F.A. programs. During your writing workshops, your focus is almost exclusively on one poem as a single entity and crafting and shaping it in isolation from the rest of your work. And then in graduate programs, you write a thesis or a creative dissertation, but your emphasis is an academic one instead of compiling your work in the way that’s going to have the most impact as a book. I think all poets, like filmmakers, have images and metaphors that haunt them, but for compiling a book, the trick is to make them speak to each other from poem to poem. It took me about three years to do that for Instructions for Seeing a Ghost. The book has a few major themes, the deaths of my sister and brother, exile and return, the ghost idea, etc., and I had to figure out how and when to introduce each of those themes and what development and arc they were going to have over the course of 80 pages. You have to decide which poems are going to be in the book and in what order. And you have to think about form, too. For example, there’s a series of love poems in the book that are all named after letters from the classical Hebrew alphabet. Did I want to group them all together in the book, or spread them out through the whole manuscript? For a long time, I thought the former was most powerful, but then I realized doing so would deprive the reader of the sense of an arc to those poems, so I spread them out through the book. That way, the images that come up in them had new possibilities of working in concert or counterpoint to the other poems in the book.

Ultimately, I ended up reading a lot of full books by contemporary American poets I respect and paid close attention to how they did it in those books. Before this book, I had published two chapbooks—short books of poems of about 20-25 pages, so I had a little experience in this, but not enough.

Do you have a favorite poem in the collection? If so, what makes it your favorite?

 There’s a poem called “She Was Always Sleeping Then,” which is about the last time I saw my sister alive, and it’s pretty special to me because I didn’t know it was the last time. We were living in Vancouver at the time, and she was at home in Baltimore, where I’m from originally, and receiving palliative care only. In the final stages of her illness, I’d been making that long trip back every couple of weeks or so, but it was very hard to predict when she might pass away. She was only 39 years old and her body was fighting her cancer tooth and nail. And on her last day, I arrived on a flight from Vancouver about two hours too late. The poem is about that situation, but also my ambivalence and guilt about being so far away because my personal relationship with my husband required it. Here’s the poem:

She Was Always Sleeping Then

For me, you died too slowly,
wall paint drying in humid weather.
Oil on a wet street. Syrup.
Ink on vellum.

No use raising my arms
to the god gone deaf, whose language
is unanswerable riddles, inscrutable
paths of birds in flight. Entrails
of a rabbit sliced open like a parcel
from the other side. Who says
he can read the return address lies.

I’m not lying now. Even your Rottweiler
was suffering, curled with his head
crooked in his arms on the old hooked rug
at the foot of your rented hospice bed.
Exhaling at random intervals. Most days
the home care nurse clucked her tongue
and said you were too young. Cancer
wouldn’t kill you—it’d be the heart
or the lungs or the kidneys. Some failure
in a system of your body not yet forty.

Your spleen rupturing like a water balloon
thrown against the side of a barn.

You were emptiness inside
cupped hands. Bruises under
a fingernail. A sinkhole opening up
after weeks of heavy rain. How else

to explain how you were both there
and not there, the way one catches
a ghost’s trick in the corner of the eye.
You turn to look and a tree branch

lightly scrapes a lead glass windowpane.
You turn to look and nothing’s there.

You turn to look. All night your brother
hunches forward in the sick room
chair, turning to stone and back again.

Can you tell us about your typical process for writing a poem, from inspiration to sending it out for submission?

 I’m not sure I have a typical process for writing a poem, but a lot of them do seem to evolve similarly. I’m on the autism spectrum, which for me mostly manifests itself by the repetition, usually unelicited and disorganized, of images, phrases, metaphors, snippets of music or lyrics, dialogue and visual images from movies I’ve seen, other poets’ lines, in my head all day long as I move through my everyday life. For some reason or other, one will embed itself and my own words will start coming in an emotional response to it. In my writing time, I’ll start building poems from those mental interactions. At the same time, I benefit greatly from discipline; being on the autism spectrum also means it’s very difficult to focus sometimes. So I’ve also engaged in projects with other poets where we draft a poem every day during a particular month, and I wrote most of the poems in Instructions for Seeing a Ghost that way. And a lot of poem drafts that didn’t go anywhere at all. But the more you get out on the page, the better. I took what I thought was the strongest work from those experiments and revised them with an eye toward constructing a book, asking myself how they spoke to each other and to other poems I’d already written and was hoping to include. When I was happy with a batch of poems, I’d send them out to journals for publication consideration.

What is the one piece of craft advice you would give aspiring poets to help them on their writing journey?

 I think most of us start writing poetry because we feel the desire and need to express ourselves, which is wonderful. But a lot of aspiring poets don’t feel the need to read a lot of poetry by people who are more experienced than they are. And that’s not a dig against them; the way we’re taught poetry in our schooling too often takes the joy and wonder of experiencing a poem and turns it into the drudgery of analyzing it as a kind of “puzzle” made up of disconnected pieces like form, sound, imagery, etc.—all the things we’re tested on and have to define. And too often the only poems we encounter in school are “masterpieces” by long-dead straight white males, and maybe those poems don’t really speak to us. Fortunately, poetry in America has been enjoying a considerable boom in readership for a while now, and the numbers of previously marginalized voices that are being published is very encouraging. With a little digging, an aspiring poet can find other poets who are writing about similar concerns and from similar identity stances as they are. I think, also, aspiring poets should read living poets attentively to see how they handle problems of formal and craft elements in their work. One can experiment with the same methods when drafting poems, and all poets learn by doing, I think.

What power can we find in poetry today, in the time of COVID-19?

 I think the power we can find in poetry, even in times of crisis, is the same one we always have. Poetry has a dual function. First, it connects us to each other through its universality. Human beings, despite our differences, are really not that dissimilar from each other. We share far more with each other than we don’t. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s helpful to feel like we’re all in this together, and to know that since the beginning of the written word (and well before), humanity has lived through, and survived, one plague after another. We’re lucky to have living still, or in living memory, poets who’ve written about the most recent plague before this one, poets like Frank Bidart, Thom Gunn, Tory Dent, and Mark Bibbins, who have documented their experience of the AIDS pandemic. But of course, the literature of plague in the West goes back as far as Homer’s Iliad and the Hebrew Bible. If we read poetry from any era with true openness, we’ll find that poets can name for us our own emotions and experiences and help us make sense of our lives, which often seem overwhelming and random. There’s extraordinary value in that connection. At the same time, though, poetry is one of the few ways in which we have relatively unfiltered access to other people’s and cultures’ individuality. Artists take the universal and particularize it. We can never experience directly someone else’s thoughts and emotions, even if we’ve known them all our lives. That’s part of the human condition. But in reading poetry, we can get as close to that as is possible. It then allows us to empathize with others who may be very different from us, and there’s tremendous value in that as well.

Steve Bellin-Oka is the author of a chapbook of poems titled Dead Letter Office at North Atlantic Station (2017). His first book of poems, Instructions for Seeing a Ghost, won the 2019 Vassar Miller Prize from the University of North Texas Press. He is a 2019 Tulsa Artist Fellow in poetry and a Nimrod Editorial Board member.

 

No Cleverness, No Hiding: Five Tips for Submitting to Lit Journals

by Courtney Spohn

I’m a new poetry editor at Nimrod, and it’s been a pleasure to read submissions because I feel connected to each writer’s work and the community at large. As a writer, I know what it feels like when my work is rejected and how it feels to read a published piece and believe my writing is better. These are tight, icky feelings! So recommending a poem for publication is something I take seriously and with an eye toward the subjective nature of art. As a reader, I find myself revisiting a few similar reactions to submissions. I want to share my opinions below with the hope that they support any writer who feels alone and unheard.

 

  • Submit what, where, and when you want to be published. I would like to address the work that hasn’t been submitted for publication—the poems writers would like to see published, but that they hold back for a variety of reasons, including a debilitating sense of perfection or worthiness. I believe there is a forum for nearly everything a writer wants to be published. As to when to publish, I think writers need to examine their motivation for seeking publication and then see if the piece they want to publish aligns with that motivation. For example, if I want acclaim, but I have a poem that was written for just one person, then I’m doing a disservice when I submit it for publication. When I have a poem that I love and I want others to read, and the poem is telling me it’s ready, then there’s alignment when I send it out in the world. I think, more often than not, the work itself tells writers if it is for others to read or not. When a piece is ready to be published, send it out. Let go of self-censorship and self–criticism! I have been writing with a friend for over a decade, and recently she has developed dementia. We re-read her poems and she cannot believe how good they are; years ago, she thought they were bad poems. “Did I write that?” she asks. And the poems are scattered in her apartment and not in general circulation. Let yourself shine in this moment—not some imagined future.
  • Stop hiding behind your wit, intellect, and inside jokes. I think many writers use writing as a primary form of expression—and we tend to write better than others. Often, we are accustomed to being misunderstood, so when we write something, it can feel like doing a magic trick. Look what I can do, you ordinary soul! It’s a metaphor! So when we write from our ego, we know we can create something that will impress others. To me, a poem that’s trying to impress will always be secondary to a poem that isn’t, even if the poem that isn’t trying to impress is the more ordinary poem. Instead of trying to impress, I want to see that same writer push further—even if the writing gets ugly—to find what’s really there. Recently I’ve had to tell myself to act like everyone is as intelligent and funny as I am—this means I can’t be impressive because others will already be a step ahead of me. I can’t hide, either, because then they’ll be a block ahead of me. To keep up, I need to say what I mean. I want all poets to do this. Of course, like Emily Dickinson says, we can “tell it slant.” I encourage writers not to hide behind shorthand or jokes that only make sense to them. Maybe another way to say “don’t be clever” is to say “start believing that you are being seen and heard.” If you only had one minute to say your point, can you find that point in your poem? And would a (funny, intelligent) stranger understand you?
  • Experiment with form. Sometimes it feels like writers have more to say about their subject than they let themselves say. My hunch is this comes from a sense of trying to create a poem that looks like a poem—a type of control. It also feels a little safer to submit a poem than to submit ten pages from your journal about the same topic. The problem with a poem that feels like it is begging to be larger is that I either don’t understand what the writer’s real take is or I, again, think the writer is hiding. Feel the freedom to write about your topic in whatever form it takes to express your feeling and beliefs. If your point could be made in an essay or speech, say it there. Use the poem because you need its form and value the import of every word and punctuation mark. Consider whether or not you’re using sensory imagery to ground your point. If not, then you might have a good essay on your hands. Or, better, you could use multiple genres, each to express different facets of your point. Just make sure you keep writing until you know you have stated your full point and its associated emotions in at least one place.
  • Go there with religion and politics, but don’t make me agree or disagree with you. It’s common experience to reject religious and political beliefs we grew up with, and I think it’s exciting terrain to explore because it places writers on the edge of what we believe. What’s accepted or rejected in the writer’s understanding of the world? Go there! And go there with anger, if needed, but don’t assume that you are either alone or in community with your reader. What is the experience of anger like for you? What strikes you as out-of-touch or hypocritical and what does that say about you? I might completely agree with a writer’s politics or spirituality, but I don’t like feeling divided in a poem or that I’m picking sides with wide swaths of people who agree or disagree about something. Tell me what it’s like for you, and assume that I will understand and be on your side, even if we disagree. Hold out a larger container for yourself and others that allows everyone’s viewpoints while still staying true to yours. When it comes to politics, there are certain practices that are abhorrent and shocking. Carolyn Forchè’s work with poetry of witness comes to mind here. For example, in “The Colonel,” Forchè provides just the details. There is no question about right and wrong—the details she provides shows us the truth. Here, there is a space to witness and record what’s happening, and that is a type of political commentary. There is also editorializing on what’s happening, as seen in Morgan Parker’s work. In “ALL THEY WANT IS MY MONEY MY PUSSY MY BLOOD,” Parker provides both the political details of what she’s experiencing and how she feels about it. Both providing and withholding direct opinions on political topics can be appropriate for poetry. I would encourage us to be clear about our intentions and have the courage to ground all commentary in sensory details. Again, trust your message will be communicated. Then take the time to see what you’ve created and where you can, again, assume you have an intelligent audience. What can you give them that communicates your anger or beliefs without forcing them to agree with your specific viewpoint? I think this is along the lines of being so personal that we bring to light a universal.
  • Don’t use “you” unless you are very, very good at it (and ignore everything I’m doing in this post). I find myself getting uncomfortable with the use of “you” in a poem that refers to the reader (instead of someone the speaker is specifically referring to, like a lover, parent, etc.). I become obstinate and think, “this isn’t my marriage, mother, or fill-in-the-blank.” But I am happy to try on any ideas related to those themes, among others. When a poem is obviously about your experience, I think often it’s best to own it and use “I” or find a way to tie the experience to a third party or the natural world (by that I mean not just nature). Leave you/me out of it! “You don’t know me!” my stubborn self says. There are many exceptions to this rule, of course, and the things that are the hardest to say are sometimes said best through “you.” I would argue that, unless the details of the poem are so specific that there is no possible way the poem is about me, a writer likely shouldn’t use “you.” This connects to the assumption that your audience is intelligent and full of humor; I know what a lot of experiences have felt like for me. What were they like for you? I will follow the poem through the use of imagery and emotion and not because I’ve been named as “you.” Of course, if it’s obvious “you” is the addressee of the poem, and a specific person, then use it. Did I need to tell you that?

 

There are always exceptions to the things I’ve said here, and there’s almost nothing worse than unsolicited writing advice. I simply would encourage the intelligent and humorous writers among us to consider where they might be hiding and to pull away those curtains. Connect your insights to the world instead of to abstract ideas. Eliminate clever turns of phrase. Don’t rest on easy insights. Don’t assume others aren’t noticing the things you’re noticing. Name experiences that are yours—don’t graft them on an unknown reader. Tell us what you have to say as if time is running out and you won’t get it back. And tell us what you know and feel and have experienced as if it matters, because it does matter. As Bong Joon-ho said during an Oscar speech, quoting Martin Scorsese, “[t]he most personal is the most creative.” Be the most creative

Courtney Spohn lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she has participated in various poetry readings. With Sheila e. Black, she has a poem published in Otoliths. She is a life coach and blogger at courtneyspohn.com.

A Librarian’s Guide to Recommending Books

by Rebecca Harrison

One of the many hats I wear as a public librarian is that of readers’ advisor. Put simply, a readers’ advisor is someone who suggests books to another person—a reading matchmaker of sorts. At first blush, readers’ advisory sounds pretty easy—fun, even. After all, my mental bookcase is jam-packed with beloved titles, acquired over decades of voracious reading. What could be simpler than reaching into my mind and pulling out one of those wonderful books and offering it to a patron?

Unfortunately, this is where a lot of readers’ advisors go astray. Recommending books is not a one size fits all operation. What I love about a book (the prose! the Victorian setting! the empowered female lead!) might completely turn you off. An individual’s reading habits are so deeply personal, and particular, and sometimes nonsensical, that selecting books for a stranger is significantly more challenging than it sounds. If you happen to find yourself receiving requests for book recommendations from your friends or family, I hope this blog post will help you navigate those conversations as gracefully as possible.

When faced with a reader whose tastes differ wildly from my own, I reach into my librarian’s bag of tricks and get to work, starting with the readers’ advisory interview, which, at its heart, is just a conversation about books. It’s also an opportunity for me, the librarian, to actively listen while someone describes the last book they really dug, and what exactly they dug about it.

I teach classes on readers’ advisory to other library staff, and one thing I emphasize is the importance of being completely free of judgment when someone is describing their reading tastes. There truly is a reader for every book, and it’s not up to me—or anyone else—to deem someone’s favorite book less than. I like to use Twilight as an example. For a long time, to admit to liking Twilight was treated as akin to committing serial murder. At my previous library job in Arkansas, I recall staff wagging their heads over the purple prose, the milquetoast heroine, the nonexistent plot. Yet, despite its flaws, Twilight was a bona fide phenomenon. Whether you loved it or hated it, you can’t deny that it resonated with millions of people. As I mentioned before, reading habits are deeply personal, so insulting someone’s favorite book is like insulting their mother. Just don’t do it.

Nancy Pearl, librarian and patron saint of readers’ advisory, developed a concept called the “Four Doors to Reading.” In brief, she posits that readers “fall in love with books” for one of four reasons:

  1. Story—the plot. The sequence of events that unfold on the page. Plot-centric books are often described as “page-turners” or “unputdownable.” We read these books to find out what happens next.
  2. Character—the individuals who dwell inside the pages of a book. The heroine, the villain, the lovable sidekick. If you’ve ever described a character as your “book boyfriend,” character might be your key to falling for a book.
  3. Setting—the world you crawl into when you open the book. Setting-centric books are typified by their intricate worldbuilding. They transport you to another place or time, real or imaginary. We read these books to lose ourselves in another world.
  4. Language—the words used to bring the story, characters, and setting to life. We read these books to savor the prose—the exquisite turns of phrase, the expert dialogue.

There’s a lot more to say on this subject, of course, but identifying a person’s primary “doorway to reading” is a great first step toward figuring out what kind of books they might enjoy.

A final note: I will dare to presume that many of the writers who frequent this blog are also readers, so if you would like a trained readers’ advisor to develop a list of reading suggestions for you, I encourage you to use Tulsa City-County Library’s Your Next Great Read service. Caveat: you must be an active TCCL cardholder to use this service.

Happy reading (and advising!)!

Rebecca Harrison is the manager of Adult Services at the Central Library in Tulsa, Oklahoma. When she’s not at the library, you may find her writing, reading, or marveling over how cute her cats are.

Alive in a Way We Recognize as Life: Rebecca Pelky’s HORIZON OF THE DOG WOMAN

by Eric Morris-Pusey

It’s odd that we so often think of “nature poetry,” the kind of poetry that deals with the land, as distinct from poetry of the body. The human body, after all, is the bit of nature with which we’re most intimately familiar.

Rebecca Pelky’s debut, Horizon of the Dog Woman, breaks down this dichotomy: it is a collection of both nature poems and body poems, of poems that center the ways in which the body and the natural world reflect and shape one another. The land and the body share the same love and joy, bear the same scars.

This book often revels in natural beauty, its speakers drawing strength and succor from the natural world, but it also refuses to forget or obfuscate the awful history of the United States’ land, product of theft and genocide, and the ways in which that history ripples into the present. This history is not an abstraction that exists only in the past, but a physical and emotional presence in both land and body.

In “Eat the Weed, the Stinking Rose,” a description of the ways in which water transforms the land, “strok[ing] it to furrows” and allowing plants to flourish, soon gives way to more troubling sights: “the boxy spiral of a pit mine, in the scars / of what’s been found, the pressure that swells / under skins.” Even in these scars, these marks of abuse and misuse, there is life and beauty—but not without violence and exploitation. The poem ends with the resonant, contradictory image of a wild onion: “the bulb tender, sweet. Not so the shoot, / . . . its pepper was reckless, the toughness of fibers I chewed and chewed.”

These poems do not oversimplify. They do not stop at saying there is beauty despite history or the difficulty of life; rather, they show the world as it is: a tangled mess that is sometimes terrible, sometimes wonderful, and usually an uncomfortable mixture of both.

In “For Women Who Don’t Want Children,” Pelky’s speaker feels guilt at “distance / between myself and a vision of little hands / curled in the cup of my hips” but also points to the way we marvel at anything “single in nature.” The feelings are further complicated by an intense juxtaposition: is the speaker “one red wildflower in spring runoff” or “Spotted Elk dead in the snow”? These poems don’t provide any easy answers, any happily-ever-afters, and are far more honest for it.

The book engages with another sort of history, too: that of the academy, of definitions and categorizations, of the literary canon. The book opens with an extensive set of epigraphs that do a wonderful job of setting the collection’s tone without overshadowing the poems themselves: a set of dictionary definitions for the words “dog” and “horizon,” dealing academically and matter-of-factly with their connotations and denotations, is accompanied by an excerpt from anthropologist Jenny James’s “The Dog Tribe.” These epigraphs illustrate the same complexity we find throughout the book.

The first definition given for dog simply “denot[es] a person or thing (with varying degrees of contempt or admiration),” evoking everything from what’s up, dog? to working doggedly to she’s a dog to Joe Biden’s latest incomprehensible attack on a woman who asked him a question. The second hits more directly—“an unattractive woman or girl.” The third definition provides an astronomical context for dog, taking us to the stars, and the excerpt from James discusses the dog as a religious archetype associated with “maternal origin, the reconciliation of opposites, and the bond between humanity and nature.”

So many distinct and often self-contradictory or self-complicating meanings of the word dog provide the perfect doorway into this collection, a book in which Pelky constantly uses images and ideas to represent and evoke more than one thing—and the idea of “reconciliation of opposites” is one of this collection’s primary driving forces.

The book takes on the history of literature more directly, too, challenging the dominant (read: white and masculine) view of this history with poems like “Let’s Ask Leda about Consent” and “Bess, the Landlord’s Daughter, Talks Back.” These pieces further tie together the various threads that make up Horizon of the Dog Woman: The personal reflections and the meditations on history and the natural world are given further context within a literature that has too often been complicit in systems of power that erase women and indigenous people and wreak ecological havoc.

In writing about a wide array of subjects and the webs of connection among them, Pelky never ignores craft: these poems are not only precise in their language and imagery, but do wonderful things with sound as well, particularly alliteration and consonance: “I’ll grow like sorghum, on drought / and tempered shit, baked and honeyed / to the hummingbird god. I’ll spread” (“Flyblown”). Each of the poems has a natural flow, a fluidity of language, that makes it feel full and rewards re-reading and reading aloud. At the same time, they do not feel overwrought: these poems are both conversational and poetic, never sacrificing one for the other.

These various threads—of land and body, definition and history, craft and subject—come together as vibrant and vital, the collection mirroring the strata of a shoreline Pelky both describes and reimagines in “Fossils,” truly “alive in a way we recognize as life.” History and the present, the physical landscape and the inner one are collided and combined in a kaleidoscopic crush, each one shown in greater clarity because of the ways it is tied to the others.

Horizon of the Dog Woman is available now from Saint Julian Press. Rebecca Pelky will read at the collection’s AWP offsite launch at The Twig Book Shop in San Antonio on Wednesday, March 4th.

Eric Morris-Pusey’s poems have appeared in The Missouri Review, Noble-Gas Qtrly, and Driftwood Press, among other places. He holds an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works on the Nimrod Editorial Board. He lives across from a vacant lot in Columbia, Missouri, with his partner, poet Grace Gardiner.

Author photo from Saint Julian Press.

Review: A BRIEF FAMILY HISTORY OF DROWNING by Bryce Emley

by Britton Gildersleeve

Brief Family History Cover FINAL web

I wasn’t prepared for Bryce Emley’s book A Brief Family History of Drowning. When given a book to review for Nimrod, I assume it’s poetry. And Emley’s is. But . . .

Is it mixed genre? Is it prose poetry? Does the form really matter? Well, to this writer and reader, it does. Because nothing in this tightly crafted book is accidental. Form, for a poet, is the clothing you wear to a funeral vs. the pajamas you wear to bed. It’s what you the writer deem suitable—as in, a suit vs. flannel, or a dress vs. a bathing suit. Emley’s decision to dress his griefs in clothes sewn from memoir, prose, and poetry makes of them something new. We too certainly suffer deaths of parents, regrets, and self-imposed guilts, but Emley’s book reads like a fresh iteration of these familiar losses.

The opening poem—“Prayer for Salt”—initially seems to promise more traditional form than the book delivers. But the following poem—“Renderings (My Father as Icarus)”—blows that expectation out of the water. With its overview and analysis of Icarus as a poetic extended metaphor, and the image of “his [Icarus’s] past composing his body’s mythology,” “Renderings” resonates on so many levels: Insightful imaging, reading, and more.

Much of Emley’s work in Drowning relies on an unusual fusion of marine biology and poetics, as well as (I assume) Emley’s long residence in Florida, that state of ocean and sea. In “Slow Biology: (My Mother as Greenland Shark),” the long-lived sleeper shark occasions an inquisition into death, into life. And, apparently—although she is explicitly mentioned only in the title—becomes his mother. In such lines as “It is possible death could be treated by slowing its approach . . . [i]t is possible Greenland sharks could teach us a more careful way to die,” the poet gently pulls us back to the human life behind the story of the shark, Emley’s mother’s life.

The collection of poems is a collage of sorts: images of death (Emley’s mother), illness (his mother’s cancer, his father’s stroke), and how such states of being both imprison and free, layer over a brother’s imprisonment, Emley’s grief, and reflections on all of these. Within the framework of this collage—these multiple layers of his history—Emley further develops his naturalist poetics. “Parabiosis: (My Father as Anglerfish),” leaves us with the deeply unsettling image of his father as a male anglerfish: “Mating requires a sacrificial unity: the male bites into her side, digests her flesh, fuses himself to her. There is shared blood, a becoming body.” An image which, in turn, doubles back to the Greenland shark, “living an easy, inhuman indifference to the silence growing in her gut, growing so slowly . . . growing so slowly.”

At the heart of Emley’s collection is a lengthy piece, “Mother, Mother, Ocean.” The title is a line from a Jimmy Buffet song that takes on the sheen of sorrow in this context, which has Emley attempting to negotiate the irreconcilable tension(s) from his father’s disability and his mother’s death. “It rains the day your mother died. Someone says the two events are related. / It has rained every day since, continues through the internment.” Grief and rain, Emley notes, are both processes, and similar at that. Death too is a process, one related to water: “The monitor didn’t flat-line that morning like you would have expected. It continued pulsing in waves, in-time with some other rhythm, indifferent.” Like the tide responds to the moon, so Emley’s mother’s death responds like water, in waves.

Water—rain, the tears of grief and loss, the ocean, rivers—is a critical element in Emley’s book. Almost every page shimmers beneath a watery reflection. The title has warned us—here is, indeed, a family history of a kind of drowning. Most poignant, perhaps, is the next-to-last poem in the collection: “A List of Waters.” In it, Emley moves from his detailed descriptions of his mother’s death and his own responses, to his father, as he has done earlier in shorter snippets: “When I talk about men, I always mean my father . . . When I talk about fathers, I always mean river. Or the other way around, we know them the way we read the earth where water has been.” He asks, “Is it wrong to love a man for what he’s made? / If not love, know. If not love, rend. / If not love, river. / If not love.” And ends the dark and uneasy poem there, in a subtle flourish of ambivalence.

A Brief Family History of Drowning rewards multiple readings. Don’t be misled by the prose poem style—each line is as carefully mapped as those of sonnets or other more formal poems. White space serves to set off specific images, formatting overall works much as it does in a more tightly compressed poem. And there are, to steal a bit of watery metaphor, eddies and currents and deep pools of introspection. You won’t drown, but you will understand just how you might, trying to swim through Emley’s dark waters.

Bryce Emley, born and raised in Florida, has published poems, essays, and fiction in various national journals: The Atlantic, Boston Review, Prairie Schooner, and The Best American Experimental Writing, among others. He is the author of a forthcoming poetry chapbook, We Might Never Be This Beautiful Again (Seven Kitchens Press), and Smoke and Glass, a fiction chapbook (Folded Word, 2018). Emley is Poetry Editor of Raleigh Review and works at the University of New Mexico Press.

Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in NimrodSpoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.

A Brief Family History of Drowning, by Bryce Emley. New York, NY: Sonder P, 2019.

 

 

Meet the Intern: Ethan Veenker

it's a me flipped

Tell us a little about yourself:

My name is Ethan Veenker, and I’m a second-semester senior at The University of Tulsa who’s not looking forward to graduating this May.

I’ve been reading and writing since I was young. My first try at fiction writing came about in the first few pages of an attempted fantasy novel, the name of which I won’t repeat here, but rest assured that it inspired a lifelong love for fiction and for writing in general. I guess you could call the shade of fiction I now attempt to emulate “literary fiction.” (There’s also an errant part of me who’s attempting to make it as a music journalist.)

Beyond all of that, I drum. I had an electronic drumkit in my dorm room for my first two years at TU and, due to this, was never on good terms with my neighbors.

What made you interested in working with Nimrod?

I’ve submitted to and been rejected by dozens of literary journals at this point, so the opportunity to work for one isn’t something I’d pass up. I love short fiction. I love literature in general, and Nimrod is one of the journals out there that’s publishing writers new and experienced, bit by bit establishing what will one day be literary history. There’s something exciting about reading one’s contemporaries without the hindsight of scholarly introductions and forewords and afterwords and classic editions, critical editions, et cetera. I’m not reading what I’ve been told is good; I’m getting to see for myself what’s good. That’s honestly thrilling.

What’s your major/what are you thinking about majoring in? Why are/were you drawn to that major?

I came to TU in 2016 as an English major and that went well for a couple of years. I then added on a creative writing major, and it’s still going all right. I chose these majors against the advice and wishes of nearly everyone from high school (save for the English teachers—thanks, Ms. Baker, Mrs. Charlson, and Mrs. Miller!), and while it remains to be seen if I ultimately made a wise choice, I’ve been happy with it. As I’ve said, reading and writing are pretty much my prime passions. I don’t think I would have enjoyed studying anything else.

Who are a few of your favorite authors?

3. Franz Kafka. I honestly haven’t read as much of him as I should have, but the bits I have read have been delectable. I took German for the first two years here, so getting to read his work in its original language was exciting. Reading The Metamorphosis was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had.
2. Jorge Luis Borges. One of the few writers who can make me enjoy not understanding his work.
1. George Saunders. Crazy, hilarious satire and other things. Saunders boasts a fictional range that few other contemporary writers draw near, in my opinion. His short fiction and his novel—it’s not often an easy read (bad things happen to decent people), but the way it’s written is just endlessly surprising and engaging. I’ve loved his work since coming across it in my first English class at TU. What luck.

What are you most looking forward to learning or experiencing with Nimrod this semester?

I’m after diamonds in the rough. I’ve already read a few submissions for Nimrod and there’ve been plenty of good ones, but I’m really itching to see the great ones fall in my lap.

Imagine

by Rilla Askew

Life moves fast. Novel writing moves slow. Historical novel writing even more so—terrapin pace. At least this is so for me. I’ll spend years, decades, long tedious days and hours in studied concentration, poring over history books, archives, obscure articles, how-to resources: how were personal letters written, folded, delivered in Tudor England? How did one travel from downtown Tulsa to Greenwood in 1921? How do men drill for oil? Ride the rails? Make a gun? You have to know so much more than can ever go into the book, and you don’t know what you need to know until you write it. There are other ways to make historical fiction, I’m sure, but I don’t know them. I only know this one. The process is slow, methodical, exceedingly inefficient.

And yet the pace suits me. I have a tortoise-not-hare temperament, a lento reading tempo, a need for immersion—some residual Baptist instinct, maybe. Full immersion. Studying texts. It’s the pace at which I read for pleasure, a few pages at a time, going back over passages, savoring language. It’s how I write books: going back over and over the language, tweaking, rearranging, pulling out, putting in. I sometimes wish for a jackrabbit temperament, an ability to dash forward and write one of Anne Lamott’s famous shitty first drafts. I just can’t. If the language doesn’t work, if I’m unsure of the history, I can’t move forward. Oh, I put in placeholders sometimes, for language or history, but I can’t leave them there long, else they’ll become part of the book. And then later I’m sorry.

I came to writing historical fiction not because I was so taken with history but because I wanted to understand the contemporary world I lived in. That world—Brooklyn, 1989, a world of landline phones and dot matrix printers and Betamax VCRs—is history now. But the human grief and joy and brutality that lived there then lives in us now and always. This was the year of the Central Park Jogger and the killing of Yusef Hawkins, a black youth surrounded by a gang of white boys in Bensonhurst; it was the year Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing debuted. It was also the year I learned about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. I wanted to write about that.

But the massacre didn’t explode from nothing; it came of what went before, and before, and before. To understand 1921, I had to go back before 1921. As my favorite historical novelist, Hilary Mantel, says: “Beneath every history, there is another history.”

To write about early twentieth century Oklahoma, I had to go back to Indian Territory in the late nineteenth. I had to learn (because I didn’t know it) the story of how my people migrated to the Territory—and what they brought with them. I asked questions of living elders, read histories, traced elliptically through hearsay and conversation and handed-down narratives the outlines of how my family came by covered wagon into I.T. from Kentucky in 1887. That tracing and imagining became my first novel, The Mercy Seat. Writing it, studying my way into the earliest days of Oklahoma’s story, trying to know what happened, and why, and above all how, I learned what has been for me the hardest lesson: that you can never know all you want to know. All you yearn to know.

In that book, a young girl finds a tin box holding her dead mother’s belongings; she tries to decipher her mother’s life through reading the items: a lock of hair, a cheap snuffbox, a charred torn-out page of scripture, a child’s pair of eyeglasses. But she comes to see that

. . . she could not know her mother’s life, not lived nor told nor unfolding in the strength of imagination nor in dream or vision. Her mother’s life was locked away from her, eternal, as she was locked away from all others, as we each are locked away from one another in the pores of finite mind and skin . . .

This is the metaphor, for me, for writing historical fiction. We’ll never know the truths of their lives, those precious or mediocre or loathsome ones who came before us; they’re locked away from us as the dead are locked away from the living, but we keep poring through the tin box anyway, reading artifacts, piecing mismatched parts together, creating the narrative from imperfect words. When we begin, we learn everything we can learn, and then we learn, by writing, how much more we need to know. Then comes another hard lesson: we have to leave out so many of these fascinating facts we’ve learned, because they impede the narrative or make the story read like hey-look-at-all-my-fabulous-research.

So, we become meticulous, devoted, openminded, openhearted, humble enough to hide our hand, we hope. Still we see we’ll never know all we need to know.

But if we love this work, this reading and writing of historical fiction (and I don’t call my work historical fiction anyway, I call it “literary fiction set in the historical past,” which is a phrase that’s never going to fly with any publishing publicity person, ever), then we’re willing to work and work and work, even knowing we’ll have to submerge a good portion of what we learn, even knowing that, no matter how hard we try, we’ll still get things wrong.

In her wonderful essay “Why I Became a Historical Novelist,” Hilary Mantel says that she’ll make up a man’s inner torments but not, for instance, the color of his drawing room wallpaper. “ . . . someone, somewhere, might know the pattern and color,” she says, “and if I kept on pursuing it, I might find out.”

I share Mantel’s essay with students in my historical fiction writing class. I tell them: we’re writing to the one who knows the wallpaper.

Or anyway, I am.

It takes courage in all cases to be a writer, and a particular kind of courage to write outside one’s own lived experience, to try to create for readers the lived experiences of others in an era in which we have never lived, in a place where we’ve never lived—because, even if we have lived in our story’s location, inside our own period’s overlay, even if we travel (as we must do) to our story’s landscapes and cities, or study with intricate attention the paintings and photographs of the age, we can never experience the precise quality of light on the southern plains in 1837, or the ambient sounds on a Kansas City street in 1902, or the stench of burning flesh in 1546 in London, or on the streets of Tulsa in 1921.

For that, we must imagine.

So then we’re doing what all novelists of all genres and in all ages do: imagining our way into the lives of others, burrowing into their psyches, walking in their skins, finding our way, through imagery and language and sensory detail, into their world, and inviting readers inside with us. That’s the art of it, this great imagining, this welding of histories and artifacts and qualities of light to the human heart in all its joy and grief and suffering. Historical novelists aren’t writing to the past but to our own time. Each age has its obsessions, surely, but the fundamentals of the human story don’t change. We’re looking to create who we are now by imagining who we were before—who, indeed, we always have been.

Rilla Askew is the author of novels about westward migration in the late 1800s (The Mercy Seat), the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 (Fire in Beulah), and the homeless and dispossessed during the Great Depression (Harpsong). She’s currently at work on a novel about the Protestant martyr Anne Askew, who was burned at the stake in London in 1546. Rilla’s essays have appeared in Nimrod, AGNI, Tin House, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at the University of Oklahoma.