The Chapman Posteth

by Colin Pope

It would be fashionable to write a post for a literary journal’s blog on how Instapoetry and its equally minimalist ’net confederates—Tumblr verse, Twitter poems, etc.—represent the bane and ruin of American poetry. Perhaps more than fashionable: necessary, even. Not for the journal, but for me, personally, just so my poetry friends, mentors, editors, and prospective employers know that I am, without question, not condoning it.

So this is that blog post, kind of. Yes, Instapoetry is . . . problematic. I have made efforts to peruse and ingest some of it and have yet to find an exemplar that moves beyond the level of a young reader. This is not necessarily a bad thing; certainly, the wider poetry establishment sometimes neglects the teen and younger, precocious audiences. And while it may not aspire to the level of depth of, say, a Terrance Hayes sonnet, Instapoetry appears to exist as a precursor to the diction, craft, and erudition of more traditional “adult” poetry.

What’s more, its readership seems vast and ever-expanding. Today, I logged onto Instagram to check out some recent work, and a Valentine’s poem by Rupi Kaur (whose first book, Milk and Honey, has sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.5 million copies since its publication in 2014) has been liked 178,102 times and has 1,434 comments. Like most Instapoets, Kaur’s route to fame began online, where she frequently posts three- to eight-line musings on love, inspiration, and daily life. It’s only after a period of posting such online content—a year or two, usually—that Instapoets accrue the “viral” audience necessary to attract the attention of publishing houses.

And one can’t blame publishers for leaping on a bandwagon with a few hundred-thousand inbuilt readers (I’m leaving aside the distinction between readers and fans here). It’s in this realm of marketing and sales, however, that things get really interesting for me. I don’t mean with Instapoetics, which deserve a comparative-lit essay of their own on coopting the semantics of advertising and Hallmark and contemporary country-western lyrics. Rather, it’s what these sales mean and portend for American poetry.

There really isn’t an equivalent mechanism for gaining readership in American history, inclusive of even Jewel or like Bush-era politico-humor verse or slam poetry. Because readers have instant, free access. So, okay, the question becomes: Why does such access matter? What does its medium say about this “work?” And, most importantly, what does its steadily increasing readership say about us?

I’d suggest that this audience and this level of access highlight the faults not in “more traditional” forms of American poetry, but in how these forms cluster around a specific model of publishing. To illustrate: consider the history of the chapbook. In grubby, rural 1600s England, a guy with a mule cart filled with 8- to 24-page, cheaply printed books wandered the countryside, selling everything from cookbooks to fairy tales to, yes, poetry. The “chapman” peddled entertainment and information to and for the masses. People could afford these things and pass them around or reuse them as toilet paper (seriously) in an era that predated inexpensive newspaper printing. Simply put, the chapbook was the right medium for the right people at the right time.

If you’ve been around the poetry publishing world at all, you know that the chapbook is experiencing a mid-grade renaissance. Whereas it was once a novelty, published once in a while by small presses for either well-known poets who wanted to “try something different” or to help announce local/new poets to local/new audiences, there are now semi-prestigious chapbook presses springing up by the score, producing shockingly high-quality mini-collections. But in the rejuvenation of this form one senses an odd combination of poetry professionalization (i.e. the chapbook viewed as apprenticeship for full-length book) and a hipster-like cleaving to the nostalgia it represents, put out for hipster-like audiences who might conceivably pay $10–15 for fifteen pages of poems (no judgment here; I own a number of great chapbooks and have recently been notified I’m a hipster). No major publishers produce chapbooks, to my knowledge, simply because they aren’t worth the price of production or marketing.

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Photo Credit: Chap-books of the eighteenth century by John Ashton

But, duh, poetry isn’t supposed to be marketable, right? Agreed, for reasons I don’t have space to expand upon here. So what would be the equivalent of a chapbook? What medium at this time for us people would be a) inexpensive, b) available to the masses, and c) of indeterminate quality?

This isn’t as much of a stretch as you may be thinking. Why, for instance, don’t our most renowned poets post new work on social media? Why does there still exist an antipathy toward e-publishing in the purlieus of M.F.A. programs, even at the level of the lit journal?

The point is that we readily equate medium with quality, knowing that the medium can separate larger audiences from our best poetry. The elitism we fear in capital-P Poetry does, indeed, pervade our views on publishing, and perhaps Instapoetry’s popularity is merely the necessary recalibration of the medium of our art. And, if so, Instapoetry should be welcomed not as a threat to poetry at large, but as a pronouncement of Poetry’s possibly antiquated views on publishing (and who it’s for).

Still, we must acknowledge that the publishing machine monetizes such e-stuff by producing it in traditional book form. It’s only that the audience is initially gathered via a free service, rather than through the typical process of submission-acceptance-publication via subscription-oriented lit journal. Instapoetry bypasses traditional routes by infiltrating open-access internet mediums, and so I think its success points a finger at the potential pitfalls of said traditional routes (not least of which that subscriptions cost money, and the subscription process feels painstaking in comparison to tapping the Twitter or Instagram app on your phone and just reading whatever work pops up).

If, at this point, you’re wondering how we should or could better measure the quality of contemporary poetry, you’re not alone. This, friends, is the big question. If neither sales nor traditional, edited publication, then what? I don’t have the answer, but the question is worth our consideration.

Colin Pope‘s debut poetry collection, Why I Didn’t Go to Your Funeral, is forthcoming in May from Tolsun Books. His poetry, essays, and criticism have appeared in such journals as Slate, Rattle, Ninth Letter, The Los Angeles Review, Best New Poets, and others. He holds his M.F.A. from Texas State University and is a Ph.D. candidate at Oklahoma State University.

 

Everything I know about rejection in writing I learned from being a Philadelphia Eagles fan.

by Elizabeth Austin

Everything I know about rejection in writing I learned from being a Philadelphia Eagles fan.

Hear me out: I know this is probably not the space for football talk, and I’m even more aware that there’s no place for the Philadelphia Eagles anywhere outside of Philadelphia. We’re a niche group, tied to our fellows through fierce dedication and a widespread public misunderstanding of our passion.

Above all else, we fail a lot.

I’ve been watching the Eagles fail for nearly a decade, and quickly got used to maintaining the customary level of enthusiasm season after season despite, well, everything. When I began submitting my work to publications, my mentors primed me for the worst possible outcome. They maintained how tough the writing world is and how difficult it is to see success. All of this would prove to be true, but very little of it would impact me in any negative way.

My first rejection was the equivalent of cannonballing into the Schuylkill River in January. The editor of the magazine I had submitted to wrote me a searing response. “Don’t quit your day job,” he advised. It stung, but it wasn’t devastating. I had been there before—not with writing, but with the eager hopefulness I bring into every new Eagles season. I recovered the same way I had each year before: I collected my little bubble of persistence and sent out six more submissions.

Prior to 2018, the last time the Eagles had won a Super Bowl was in 1960, before it was called the Super Bowl. We’ve played in three total and have lost two. We’ve had so many upsets, it became a trend to start off as die-hard screaming fans early in the season and turn into raging infernos by the end of November.

Winning in Super Bowl LII was everything Eagles fans could have ever hoped for. It’s been called one of the greatest football games ever, with legendary plays and a triumph over the status quo. I never thought we’d do it.

 We didn’t make it this year. Our heartbreaking loss to the Saints sealed us off for the season, but no one picks themselves up after a fall better than someone who’s used to hitting the ground. It’s the same strange relief I feel after a rejection pops up in my inbox; it’s an answer, in one form or another, and a chance to start over. It means I have a piece I can then send out to other publications. It is renewed possibility.

There is an art to rejection. How many times have I written a poem, labored over it, polished it, sent it out into the world so sure of its place, only to get it back marked in red ink or tossed away altogether? I can tell you it’s almost as many times as I’ve watched my Birds file off the field, heads shaking, all of us at home saying, we’ll get them next time (or some profane variant of the sort).

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 My friend from up north says Boston sports fans have gotten so used to winning that they’ve come to expect it. Any other team would give their ACLs for a season like the Pats had this year, but in Boston it’s just the same-old.

Victory is sweet; I know that firsthand now. There will never be a Super Bowl win like our win in 2018, just like there will never be an acceptance letter quite as cherished as my very first one. But I don’t want to become disillusioned. I don’t think it is the Philly way to become accustomed to success, and while this often makes us the butt of every joke, I prefer it so. I do not want to ever come to expect success. I hope it always surprises me.

Work and endurance are the two vertebrae in the spine of achievement; showing up, day after day, or season after season, and not getting bogged down in the mess of the losses are acquired skills. A few good friends can go a long way, too: people who are fighting the fight right alongside you (or an entire city that has always bled green no matter how many rings were brought home). There’s something to be said for the bonds of community through hardship.

I don’t know if we’ll ever win another Super Bowl. Maybe next season. Maybe in five years. Maybe I’ll be long gone before the Lombardi Trophy returns to Broad Street. It’s going to take the right game, the right weather, the right team, the right play, the right pass.

Yesterday I got my fifth rejection from The New Yorker. I’m going to wait the customary six months, and in September I’ll send out another batch. Maybe the next submission hits that sweet spot: the right time, the right reader, the right editor, the right poem.

Here is what I am certain of: none of this would be possible without the foundational act of simply showing up. I have to love the work enough to fail and keep going. There is an essential belief that is necessary in order to continue, the bright faith that one day my aim will hit its mark.

Elizabeth Austin is a poet, photographer, and visual artist. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in the Schuylkill Valley Journal, See Spot Run, Foliate Oak, Driftwood Press, Anti-Heroin Chic, 3Elements Review, and Sybil. She currently lives in Newtown, Pennsylvania, with her two children. Find her on Instagram at @elizabethbeingqueen.

 

 

The Segregation of Multiple Voices

by Britton Gildersleeve

Britton Colorful Bookshelf

I HATE books sorted by color. Yuck! How do you find what you want?

This may seem an odd start for a post about poetry anthologies. But bear with me—here goes: For the past couple of semesters, I’ve been looking for an anthology for poetry classes. There are a million, right? So when I first couldn’t find one I like, I figured, It’s me. I’ve been out of the loop for a few years, and I just don’t know where to look. (Note to self: that could still be at least part of it.)

So I asked friends, the many many friends and colleagues I know who read/write/teach poetry. And they obliged with various suggestions. These were better, but still not what I’m looking for (the search continues).

It doesn’t seem right to me, that in this day of online publishing and of an emphasis in the “academy” (re: that semi-hermetically sealed, but oh-so-necessary university milieu) on diversity, there aren’t many readers like I want my students to have.

I have the following parameters, which don’t seem that difficult:

  1. The anthology must be diverse. Now, this is a tricky word. And here’s where the “segregation” begins. If you’re looking for new voices, there are wonderful anthologies, beginning early on. But they rarely (if ever) include “canonical” voices—those old high school spectres like Eliot, Pound, Carlos Williams. Even Levertov, with her gorgeous anti-war poetry, Marianne Moore, with her haunting evocation of loss, and Robert Hayden, with his multi-layered body of socially critical work, are seen as too mainstream to include in collections of “diverse” poetry. Please note: of course race and gender are not the only indications of new voices, but there are entire anthologies devoted to these demographics, and often they lack so-called canonical voices. And there are plenty of anthologies aimed to familiarize readers with “classic”—canonical—poets: from Beowulf to Berryman, from Chaucer to Shakespeare. All important. As are Emerson, Dickinson, Keats, et al.—the very roots of English language poetry. So, diversity in a strong anthology not only needs to include the voices who have been silenced through, at best, elision; it also needs to include the voices that have shaped the genre over the decades, even centuries. An anthology without sonnets from Shakespeare and Seamus Heaney makes it difficult for a reader (or teacher) to contrast the two and see the evolution from one to the other, and from there to Danez Smith’s heartbreaking neo-sonnetSo here we are well into the first of what I want: diversity—of poets’ race/class/gender/orientation/culture as well as poem’s genre/historical period/form/content/canonicity.Is that so much to ask?
  2. It should be reasonably priced! What’s up with $75.00 for an anthology? Okay, I know poets need to be paid. As one myself, I would love to make money from my work. But I teach adult continuing education, primarily to fixed-income seniors. And $75 is a lot of money—a prescription, often—for many of them. Traditional and non-traditional students alike would appreciate cheaper textbooks, as well. So, please: could we select some in-public-domain inclusions to help bring the cost down?
  3. The reader should give a short bio on each poet, as well as their work and/or historical context. Doesn’t have to be long, but if someone’s a Poet Laureate, we want to know that. Also, if you use Ben Jonson—not well known today—let readers know why he’s important. Annotation would be great, but probably cost-prohibitive.
  4. Finally, it should be fun. Which means a good mix of accessibility and rigor. At least half the poems should be interesting to novice poetry readers, free from obfuscation and impossible allusion (Pound’s Cantos come to mind). It’s no good to include stuff no one will read or understand, even with encouragement. That’s not to say students shouldn’t be stretched. No way! But that perhaps the more difficult poems could be about things they’re interested in. Say, social justice, or death (yes, even if freshmen are reading it—they know old people!), the common threads that have been the warp and woof of poetry since the earliest of days.

What I see happening instead is that many excellent poets are no longer included in either mainstream or new anthologies. A poet I love, Pulitzer Prize winner Mona Van  Duyn, shows up only in a relatively old anthology I won—my beloved No More Masks!. Teaching a class of former teachers and university professors, I realized not one had heard of her. They all agreed that her poem “Late Loving” was the best poem we’ve read so far (two weeks in). But Van Duyn is, effectively, silenced as a writer today.

This kind of segregation means that many readers continue to think that diverse poetry is somehow not canonical. There’s an implicit assumption on the part of far too many readers that what doesn’t get in isn’t as good, somehow. That’s part of the problem with segregated content. I use the word intentionally: it’s an (ostensibly) “separate but equal” treatment that has never been acceptable, often not even to those included in both camps. My heroine Elizabeth Bishop refused to be included in No More Masks! because of the segregation implicit in the edition, both first and second[1].

Back to the color-sorted books. If we have everything sorted according to some plan that doesn’t work for the majority, but looks good, then the system is a failure, as is the current one, at least for many of us.

Ultimately, it’s not simply readers who suffer from this over-categorization of poetry, this binary boxing of new vs. old, white vs. brown, male vs. everything else. The entire study of poetry, from the ground up, is deeply flawed by such inclusion/exclusion. Yes, we need our roots. We need Chaucer, Shakespeare. We need Whitman and Dickinson and Roethke and Levertov. We also need Naomi Shihab Nye and Natalie Diaz and Alberto Ríos and Ocean Vuong. We need the almost forgottens, like Mona Van Duyn and Countee Cullen, as well as the brand-new voices of poems ghettoized to “new diverse voices.” We need voices from our long, complex, fractious history of rhyme, meter, and image to fill the pages of anthologies with all kinds of music.

And we need it for a reasonable price. In a book. ASAP. Please.

[1]https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/book/no-more-masks-anthology-twentieth-century-american-women-poets

Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Nimrod, Spoon 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.

Reading Aloud: The Awkwardness and the Ecstasy

by Eric Morris-Pusey

Like receiving constructive criticism or allowing (or forcing) oneself to be emotionally honest, reading aloud can be deeply uncomfortable—but it’s also, at least for me, a vital part of the writing process.

Performing poems or stories publicly, whenever you get the chance to do so, is obviously an important way of getting them into the world. But beyond that, the act of reading aloud privately a piece you wrote or something you love is a different way of connecting with it, as opposed to reading it on the page or hearing it in another’s voice.

Reading aloud is an essential part of my revision process for my own poems (and prose, when I write it). It’s also becoming more and more important to my work on Nimrod’s editorial board. While that means I get odd glances when reading submissions at the local coffee shop, it makes me a better editor.

The act of shaping a poem’s words with my own mouth allows me a deeper understanding of it than does reading with my eyes alone, or even listening to the poet. It’s something I can’t quite explain, something about feeling the rhythm of the words, the ways the vowels resonate with one another and the consonants bounce against each other.

In revision, I look for places where the reading is hard, where I stumble or get out of breath. When reading others’ poems, whether already published or under consideration here, I look for the ways the words work together, the poem’s music and machinery. While I can find this sort of thing with pages or screen or headphones, I find it best by speaking the words aloud.

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A nearly empty rock quarry, like a nearly empty laundry room, is a perfect place to read aloud.

I’m focused on poetry here for the most part, because that’s what I most often write and what I read for Nimrod, but there’s something to be said for reading prose aloud too. In addition to the rhythms, the assonance and consonance, all the infinite patterns and slight deviations from those patterns that can arise when we snap or weld or clumsily tape words together, reading prose aloud can give you a more precise idea of the length of your sentences—this one, for example, is starting to run a bit long—and a better ear (mouth?) for dialogue. It can make your writing sound more human (or less so, if that’s what you’re after).

I’m slated to read a story soon for another journal’s audio archives. I’m desperately excited, but also terrified—because I’m terrified of everything, maybe, or because my voice, when recorded and played back, usually sounds like that of a stoned adolescent. This ever-more frequent reading aloud, though, is shaping that voice into something more confident and steady.

Moreover, the little oddities of a voice, yours or mine, are part of what lend to the experience of reading aloud its pleasure and profundity. The differences in our voices reflect the difference in experience each reader has with a poem or story, the fact that no two people ever read exactly the same piece. As Ruth Ozeki, author of the brilliant novel A Tale for the Time Being, says in her Poets & Writers article “A Crucial Collaboration: Reader-Writer-Character-Book,”

“There are as many books as there are readers. . . . There is only the exchange, the meaning that you and I, in any given moment, make together, as your eyes scan these words and your mind makes sense of them.”

Ruth Ozeki Author Photo
Photo of Ruth Ozeki by Laura Trippi

Reading this piece aloud now, trying to find the stumbling blocks and figure out how to succinctly wrap up everything I want to say, I can imagine you now, reading this in a different place and time with a different voice—maybe more beautiful or measured, maybe even somehow a bit more awkward—and I think that’s the point.

No piece of writing exists in a total vacuum, but most do float in a sort of void, a gulf between the reader and writer that allows but never guarantees any form of intimacy. Reading aloud is one way, I’ve found, of reaching that intimacy. And, besides, I need the practice.

Eric Morris-Pusey has written a few poems, some of which appear in The Missouri ReviewDriftwood Press, and 3Elements Review, among other places. He holds an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works on the Nimrod Editorial Board. You can find him on the interwebs or on his stoop in Columbia, Missouri, staring wistfully at the moon.

Chaos in the Classroom 

by Francine Ringold

Theodore Roethke, that marvelous lyric poet and passionate teacher who died in 1963, liked to begin his first lectures to freshman creative writing students by saying, much to their amazement, “Today, I’m going to lecture on confusion. I’m all for it!” Well, so am I—for confusion and uncertainty and turbulence and Dionysiac energy, and a healthy bit of chaos now and then.

Obviously I am not a systematic thinker or a very orderly teacher.

On the other hand, I do have a firm belief that art is form, that good writing must be shaped and pruned if it is to have power and clarity and move from individual experience to the readers’ hearts and minds. Is my seeming lack of system purposeful? Indeed! It leaves doors open. It allows even strange ideas and characters to enter. Or, to put it another way, Apollonian order only results when Dionysiac energy is engaged.

I don’t deny that I walk into class with a plan, that I worry about what I’m going to say or not say, and that it would be much easier for me to lecture, to lecture alone, to have all the movement going from me to them and not ever to let them enter, not ever to let them motivate me, change my ideas, or even the shape of those ideas. But I have found that that just doesn’t work. Somehow, once an idea is down on paper and I am reading from it (no matter how eloquently), it becomes fixed; I hate to part with it. The paper from which I am reading becomes more absorbing than the faces before me.

And how quickly the audience recognizes that as we lecture we are fulfilling our need to be secure, not asking to know their needs, what “turns them on.” If we permit ourselves only a modest amount of lecturing, we are affirming that there is a dormant body of energy ready to be moved if only someone provides the awakening spark.

But here too there is a potential trap. So often when we say “motivate” we mean push, shove, get our listeners to do what we want them to do, what our plans on paper have foreseen. That attitude, of course, assumes not that our students’ creative capacity lies dormant but rather that it is dead or non-existent, that there is no spirit to give trouble, that each person before us will be molded to our pattern, to our beat.

What we want, then, is to help each student move in his or her direction, to allow each person before us to become a finely-tuned instrument, flexible enough, varied enough, and ultimately disciplined enough to express his or her unique voice in a manner that finds its mark.

And so, to that end, we break from our carefully designed lecture with a sincere question to the group, a conversation, a writing exercise, a physical exercise related to the writing. We reach with our arms as we reach for our words. We “dig” as well as “delve.” We acknowledge that words have muscles: prestidigitationoily, lull. . . aby. We may ask our students, no matter how old they are, to wither, bloom, curl, uncurl, flop. In essence, we feel the words, and in so doing begin to know the importance of choosing the right ones. We ask that everyone close his or her eyes and repeat words like crash, plunk, slither, warble. We remember together the importance of sound in writing, and then of rhythm, of stopping and starting. Nothing is too silly if it works, and a flexible, varied approach seems to work much better than a lecture about the importance of muscularity, sound, and rhythm, as well as sense, to make one’s writing roar.

All of the above may seem obvious.Yet if you attend any section of an MLA (Modern Language Association) conference or even the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs)conference/bookfair, you will find a great proportion of presenters boring one another, seemingly in an effort to impress, by lecturing instead of demonstrating by example the chaos, confusion, energy, and uncertainty of the classroom we choose to inhabit and make productive.

I do not claim to have a mainline to creativity. What works in one class falls flat in another. Each group seems to have its own character, just as each student his or hers. This composite of personalities, of those with you and agin you, the trusting and the hostile, the writers and the analyzers, shifts proportions and demonstrates that perhaps the only thing of which we can be certain is uncertainty. Rather than finding that fact depressing, we might welcome it, finding uncertainty, chaos, and confusion both a stimulation and a welcome challenge.

Francine Ringold, Ph.D., edited Nimrod International Journal for 47 years. She served as the Poet Laureate of Oklahoma for two consecutive terms.  Her most recent book is From Birth to Birth: My Memoir and a Guide for Yours.

Image: Alpha Stock Images, http://alphastockimages.com/

 

Review: EDUCATED: A MEMOIR by Tara Westover

by Helen Patterson

Tara Westover was born to fanatically devout parents who spent most of their lives preparing for the apocalypse and the subsequent collapse of civilization. She and her siblings had little formal primary education and went untreated for serious, life-threatening injuries because of her parents’ belief that the government, school system, and all of medicine were embroiled in conspiracies. After leaving home and studying at Brigham Young University (B.A., 2008) and Cambridge (M.Phil., Trinity College, 2009; Ph.D. in history, 2014), Westover wrote Educated: A Memoir about her experience growing up, and away from, her family.

Educated-Tar Westover

Religion and fanaticism are constant themes in this book, but Westover makes clear from the author’s note at the beginning that “This story is not about Mormonism. Neither is it about any other form of religious belief. In it there are many types of people, some believers, some not; some kind, some not. The author disputes any correlation, positive or negative, between the two.” Taking these words to heart is fundamental for understanding what Westover is trying to accomplish with the book. She is not attacking religion or Mormonism, and what she presents is not a morality tale or a conversion (or deconversion) narrative. The deeply personal nature of faith means it cannot be inherently good or evil; it is human. Anyone who reads Educated without taking this message to heart will miss the depth and richness of Westover’s book and her experiences.

Abuse and hardship have run throughout Westover’s life. The physical toll of working in her father’s junkyard, the debilitating injuries from multiple car accidents and third-degree burns, and the constant, grinding hardship of near-poverty are always with her. More dangerous is her unpredictable father, prone to fits of rage when his authority and religious dogma are questioned. Most dangerous, perhaps, is Tara’s brother, Shawn, who belittles and shames her, concusses her, holds her head underwater in the toilet multiple times, and breaks her wrist. Shawn drives a wedge between her and the rest of the family. He also drives a wedge inside her mind, making her ashamed and doubtful of her reason even as she succeeds academically.

In memoir, there is always the peril of falsehood. For Westover, memory—specifically, whose memories are “true”—becomes a battleground. Her abusive brother Shawn denies that he ever hurt her and reframes their every encounter so that she was the one at fault. He sways their parents to his side, and eventually this forces an ultimatum from their father: She can recant her own memories, renounce her willful, secular self, and return to the family. Alternatively, she can deny this grace, this way back into the fold, and stand by the veracity of her experience and emotions and lose her family.

Westover’s choice is difficult, but not impossible. She realizes that “Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. . . . If I yielded now . . . I would lose custody of my own mind” (304). For Westover, this is what it means to become educated: you gain your own mind and become your own person. You choose your own truth. When Westover stands up for her selfhood and denies her father, she is doing what every healthy adult does, though for many of us the stakes are lower.

While no review can do full justice to a person’s life story, I hope this one encourages readers to give Westover’s Educated the attention is deserves.

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.

Review: SONORA by Hannah Lillith Assadi

by Cassidy McCants

Hannah Lillith Assadi, a recent (2016) Columbia M.F.A. grad, proves herself an entrancing and eerie storyteller with her 2017 debut novel Sonora (Soho Press). In this National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree, she traces the growing-up of Ahlam, the daughter of a Palestinian refugee and an Israeli woman living in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. After the peculiar death of several of her classmates, Ahlam (who goes by “Ariel” with her friends) escapes to New York with her best friend and partner in debauchery (though this seems too harsh a word for their behavior; I think “experimentation” says it better, for the most part), Laura, with whom she shares an arguably codependent, and certainly consuming, partnership.

The New Yorker has referred to Sonora as “cryptic,” but I can’t say I agree. I find the novel, which is told in chapters labeled by months of the year, to be quiet, dreamlike, sure—maybe even hazy—but not quite oblique. At home Ahlam became accustomed to chronic fever dreams, visions she says began “in the desert and with Laura.” These dreams, often of the dead, poisoned her, making her ill for days; only the sound of her father’s voice would save her, ground her. About dreams, Ahlam/Ariel asserts, in the first chapter, “Every night we meet the faces of those we love in our dreams. Every night we meet ourselves in the faces of others. Dreams must be love’s purest territory. Some dreams dissipate with the morning, some dreams recur. Some dreams appear in broad daylight, some emerge impossibly.”

Somehow, Sonora seems to be a dream that fits into all of these categories: it’s foggy but provides a sort of consistent emotional clarity; it pulls you into a love that feels both fleeting and for life; it tells a story that’s at once familiar, inevitable, and yet faraway, often elusive. The novel reads like a lucid dream—but one that ultimately has power over your consciousness, one that eventually will pull you in so far you’re bound to lose yourself in it.

It’s clear from the beginning that Laura and Ariel bond over their gloom: as Ariel suffers through her dreams, Laura worries she herself is a curse after being told by a psychic she’s a “witch,” like her deceased Native American mother. The two move in with Dylan, an entrepreneurial hotshot, in New York, which leads to a romance for Laura—but Ariel (Dylan prefers Ahlam; it’s “more exotic”) remains a constant in their love life. She almost never strays from Laura’s side; she’s there for parties, drugs, even sex, though Ariel herself abstains from sexual contact for years following a violent incident back home. Laura sings and Ariel dances—Laura seemingly the more captivating of the two, at least in Dylan’s eyes, and definitely in Ariel’s. They’re a package deal.

In keeping to the dreamscape, Assadi weaves in and out of past and present; throughout the novel an adult Ahlam reflects on this intense friendship while visiting her father, a taxi driver who calls his car his Battlestar Galactica, in the hospital. Ahlam’s love for her father is evident in these scenes, as is her pull away from home as she recounts her life with Laura.

The Ahlam-and-Laura story often is gloomy, but Assadi manages to summon hope from within Ahlam throughout: reflecting on her high school years, those early years with Laura, she concludes, “With the years, we become even more ourselves and call this change.” Maybe this sentiment is not in and of itself hopeful, but it reads to me as a sort of confirmation of life, a realization of one’s trajectory, one’s place in the world. Both Ahlam and Laura, from the beginning, feel alienated, unable to find the space they should occupy. Sonora follows their search, not for fitting in, but for belonging. Assadi perfectly captures this preoccupation with being an outsider with a story about Laura revealing a strange scar on her chest, ostensibly from being hit by lightning (“ . . . what if it’s some sort of curse? Or, like, a map to a constellation where there are aliens,” Laura asks upon showing Ahlam the mark):

“I have always loved those with beautiful scars. My father was born with a mark beneath his calf he claims is the exact shape of his homeland. I wonder if the doctors ever notice, if they wonder at a body, its marks of particularity, its pinpricks of love, of drunken stumble, of bruise. Or if in their haste to save our lives, it is only our blood pressure, our liver function, our heart rate that concern them. If an alien beheld the earth and saw us scrambling for the rush-hour train, pumping gas at the local station, slowed in the highway traffic, our bombs fireworking the sky, they might think we are the scars. We are the wounds. This is why aliens always appear in the desert. It is empty. It is clean.”

This story, like many, is one of stumbling into adulthood, of the search for the meaning of home, of love and infatuation and loss. Assadi’s descriptions of the desert are poetic but not necessarily romantic—Ahlam sees her home for its beauty and its failings, just as Assadi as author recognizes both the strengths and the weaknesses, the good and the bad, of her characters. This novel is unique in its portrayal of a Jewish-Palestinian family (Assadi herself comes from a Jewish mother and Palestinian father), and it’s universal in its depiction of the quest for identity, for love, for belonging.

Cassidy McCants, an associate editor of Nimrod, received her M.F.A. in Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Intern Interview: Claire Olson

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Tell us a little about yourself:

I’m a senior from Edmond, Oklahoma. When I was growing up, my mom always encouraged me to read regularly. She made sure there were plenty of interesting and diverse books on our shelves, and so I was constantly surrounded by good literature. Now I am able to study literature in college, and I’m looking to continue my studies in grad school next year. In my free time, I like to drink lots of coffee and make baked goods.

What made you interested in working with Nimrod?

Since I was about sixteen I have wanted to work as an editor. After an editorial internship with a veterinary journal, I wanted to work at a journal that was more focused on my own personal interests. I thought that Nimrod had the potential to be a really good fit, where I might have the opportunity to develop my own editorial skills while becoming exposed to the world of literary publishing.

What’s your major? Why were you drawn to this major?

I am triple-majoring in English, History, and French. I originally started out with just the English major and a French minor, but I was drawn to studying literature from a historical perspective, so I decided to add history to my schedule. After studying abroad in France, I wanted to continue studying French, and so I decided to add the third major! I have always loved reading, and so studying English was the most logical choice for me; I’ve seen people choose majors simply because they want to make comfortable incomes, and they tend to quickly become bored with their careers only a few years after graduation. I wanted instead to be able to work in a field that would continue to interest me for years.

Who are a few of your favorite authors?

Many of my favorite authors as a twenty-one-year-old are some of my favorite authors from my youth. I am a big fan of writers such as Edith Nesbit, C. S. Lewis, and Victor Hugo. When I have the opportunity to re-read some of my favorites, I’m likely to pick up something like The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, or The Once and Future King by T. H. White. In college I’ve come to appreciate some modernist authors, such as William Faulkner and T. S. Eliot, that I wasn’t exposed to as a kid.

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

I’m looking forward to being a part of a journal that does some really cool work. I think that my time at Nimrod will prepare me for work I will do after graduation, whether at a publishing house or in grad school. I’m excited too that Nimrod publishes poetry, because I haven’t been able to study much poetry throughout my college career, and I’m beginning to realize that my poetry knowledge base is extremely lacking! Overall, I think working at Nimrod will be a great way to round out my four years at TU.

 

 

Review: Wyatt Townley’s REWRITING THE BODY

by Britton Gildersleeve

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State poet laureates can be a . . . mixed bag. Some are excellent. More are adequate. A few are downright awful. I’ve sat on committees to choose state poet laureates—and met many, as well; there’s a huge arc from ghastly to great. In other words: the title alone isn’t that impressive.

But every so often it’s richly deserved, as it is in Wyatt Townley’s case. Townley, Poet Laureate Emerita for the state of Kansas, has a new book—Rewriting the Body[1]—that should be required reading for lovers of poetry, and especially for writers interested in craft. It’s relatively easy to find engaging topics in poetry, but to construct a book of poems crafted so that they interest (fascinate!) another, critical poet? To link poems through leitmotifs—smallness, darkness, closets, rings of boys and men, what matter is—to place poems so that they converse across the bifold pages of a book (“Morning Coffee” & “Night Wine,” for instance)? And to do this with the lightest of hands, almost a feather-whisper touch? This is far beyond the abilities of most poets, laureates or not.

Here there be villanelles and concrete poems, where form is shaped by content (“The Back of Beyond” and “Song of Myself”), as well as brilliant command of poetic tools: anaphora, meter, rhythm, and slant/internal rhyme focusing the reader’s attention so very subtly. In poem after poem, Townley’s grasp of her craft frames with dark precision the content of her poems: the villanelle “The Closet” haunts with its refrain The shoes lead here—all shoes show up at night. That Townley pairs ruby slippers and red shoes in the poem—conflating the technicolor Oz with the horrific Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale—further illuminates the dark corners of poetic memoirs written “in a closet rendezvous.” While the title sequence—“Rewriting the Body”—stuns with its various stratagems, from the framing stage directions to the quietly brutal section titled “Sold As Is/Inspections Welcome”: . . . where one life ended / someone else’s began / your childhood yanked / from you beside the roses. . . . your small legs a wishbone. . . .

A current of violence runs through the collection like a discordant jazz riff, coloring even the recurring wedding dress motif: “Black Wedding Train” (a black wedding train / made of catshit weeds and mud / in its folds boys / circle a girl / facedown in the dandelions / the ants bear witness / to her fisted silence / and the zipper’s long scream); “Wedding Dresses,” where the dresses outlast us. / They whisper in their caskets/ in the corners of attics . . . ; the poignant promise of “Advice,” which confesses All I can say / is what the wedding gown / whispers to the lawn. Listen to the internal music of “dresses” and “whisper,” while “caskets” echoes so very softly “outlast us,” and leads inevitably to “attics.” Wow, right? 

Relationships move beyond weddings, however, and Townley’s luminous “Thirty Years,” like Mona Van Duyn’s famous “Late Loving,” succinctly celebrates a long and happy relationship: whatever we were about / to say now rises / in our throats the same /words we know better / than our name / while hair went white / across a table we’re / still mid-prayer /mid-bite. As a poet once noted wryly, there are few good poems about successful relationships. Rewriting the Body challenges that aphorism with its gleam of polished words reflecting the patina of familiarity. 

But Rewriting the Body is not a gilded pæan to love, nor even life. The finale—the book’s title sequence—marries the writer’s passion for poetry with her own aging mortality, as well as nightmare passages familiar to far too many of us. And yet . . . there is an exquisitely lyric loveliness to #12 in the sequence. It opens with a quotation that notes that only 4% matter is included in the universe’s mass, after which the poem explodes with a list of both what matter is—a juddering fridge . . . the pencil crossing / the page like a wave to shore /coming back for what /at its tip is /the sound of wind—and what the things are that matter: It’s whatever we touch / and later scatter / How can so little matter / matter so much.

What should matter to readers of Nimrod is that this is a book you’ll both learn from and marvel at. It’s a book that—like its wondrous final sequence—defies easy categorization. Craft to study? Absolutely. Content to amaze and awe? That too. And I’ve only touched on a handful of the work included. Suffice to say that it’s worth buying. And that you’ll return to it more than once.

Wyatt Townley’s work has been featured in both Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry column and Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac radio program. Her poetry collections include Perfectly Normal (1990), The Breathing Field: Meditations on Yoga (2002), and The Afterlives of Trees (2011).

Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Nimrod, Spoon 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.

[1]Rewriting the Body by Wyatt Townley. Austin, TX: Stephen F Austin UP, 2018.

Review: THE THIRD HOTEL by Laura van den Berg

by Helen Patterson

Set in 2015 Havana, Laura van den Berg’s new novel, The Third Hotel, draws on film theory and criticism, zombie folklore and film, and the clash of the past and the present. Clare, an elevator salesperson, goes to Havana because she and her recently deceased husband, Richard, a prominent horror film professor, had tickets to attend the Festival of New Latin American Cinema and meet Yuniel Mata, the director of Revolución Zombi, the first horror film made in Cuba. Before Richard was killed in a hit-and-run, Clare’s relationship with him was strained, and she sees this trip as a means to retroactively connect with him, to find out why he acted so strangely before his death. As Clare wanders through Havana and Cuba, she grows increasingly displaced from reality.

The title is a reference to Clare’s difficulty locating where she is supposed to be staying when she first arrives in Havana: she ends up at the wrong hotel twice before reaching the correct place, “the third hotel”. This sense of displacement and of being trapped in a liminal space resonates throughout the novel. Clare is constantly uneasy. She cannot stop thinking about Richard’s death, and she also cannot stop thinking about her father, who is slowly dying of dementia.

If the novel took place in America, Clare would already be displaced as a woman experiencing a mid-life crisis. But as this is all happening in a foreign country, Cuba, where Clare is a tourist and alone, adding a second layer of displacement. In addition, Cuba itself is rapidly modernizing, changing, and displacing the old with the new. This means that Clare is displaced and alienated a third time, trapped between two different versions of Cuba, the past and the future, colliding in her present. These layered displacements create a dreamlike atmosphere of unreality throughout the text.

Clare is not a stranger to traveling. In her former life as a salesperson, she spent over 200 days away from home a year. She “believed that if she just kept moving she could elude the most painful parts of life” (34). But Clare learns she cannot escape the memory of her husband. In Cuba, she sees Richard, alive and well—unless he is just a ghost, a zombie, or a figment of her imagination. The atmosphere of the uncanny that van den Berg builds never allows readers to quite make up their minds.

Relentless as a zombie herself, Clare follows Richard, even speaks to him. The question of whether Richard is an undead monster or some different, alternate version of himself, brought to life by her will and set loose into a different reality, is never fully resolved. The crucial thing is that Clare alters dramatically as she realizes that it was she, not Richard, who changed. Earlier she had interpreted Richard’s actions before his death as an inexplicable change that he instigated, but it turns out he was changing in response to her, to her strangeness.

Overwhelmed, Clare begins to witness reality itself as if she were Richard critiquing a film. The weight of an invisible camera lens, of a voyeuristic unseen other, makes Clare feel that she is both the subject/protagonist and the passive viewer of the film of her life.

Clare eventually returns to the States (minus her job), but she is so altered by her long immersion in a liminal state that it is doubtful she will ever again become the person she thought she was. Moreover, the last disturbing line of the novel, “That night the moon looked like it was going to kill them all” (209), pulls the whole world into Clare’s liminal nightmare, including the reader. The Third Hotel is a rich, disquieting novel, and highly recommended reading.

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.

Image: Laura van den Berg with Jeff Martin at Magic City Books on October 28th, 2018.