Summer Reads: Four Short Story Collections

by Helen Patterson

Summer is here! In Oklahoma, as the temperatures soar, it is a good time to head somewhere air-conditioned and read a good book. If you’re looking for something a little darker and more philosophical than the average summer read but you don’t want to commit to a full novel, have you considered a short story collection? It’s a great way to read a new author and learn about their depth and range without committing to a full work. Below are four suggestions and a brief description of some of the more interesting stories.

In Michael Andreasen’s The Sea Beast Takes a Lover, the bizarre and mystical interrupt the everyday to reveal the smallness of human comprehension and the uselessness of human endeavors. In “Our Fathers at Sea,” the old are shipped off in a crate to the middle of the ocean to be mercifully euthanized and sunk beneath the waves. The whole ceremony is a combination of ridiculous carnival and patriotic holiday, and it highlights how hard it is for families to connect with each other and how children will never remember us as we would like to be remembered. In “Jenny,” Douglas, the brother and caretaker of his sister, the title character, who lives without a head or most of her brain, finds himself unable to comprehend her response to a sexual assault. He realizes that Jenny is unknowable not because she is disabled but because she exists separately from him.

Anjali Sachdeva’s first collection, All the Names They Used for God, contains one of the most chilling stories I have ever read. “Manus” follows the aftermath of an alien invasion of Earth in which the entire human population is having their hands replaced with metallic ones, in a process colloquially called “forking.” The narrator’s friend refuses to be altered, instead choosing complete dissolution of her body on her own terms, becoming a symbol for a new revolution. Sachdeva’s other stories hover around this theme, the fear of becoming “othered,” being made into something or someone else. In the title piece, “Promise and Abike,” young girls abducted, brutalized, and forced into marriage slowly take back their power and gain complete control over their captors, but they lose something of themselves in the process.

 Awayland by Ramona Ausubel is divided into four sections, dealing with human hunger, hope, loneliness, and longing: “Bay of Hungers,” “The Cape of Persistent Hope,” “The Lonesome Flats,” and “The Dream Isles.” Ausubel’s collection contains fewer overtly supernatural or science fiction elements than the others, but an element of magical realism pervades all her stories. The first section, “Bay of Hungers,” offers two of the most interesting pieces. In “You Can Find Love Now” a cyclops crafts his profile for an online dating website. His hunger for flesh and his hunger for love are never quite differentiated, and the reader is left wondering about the fate of whoever responds. The next piece, “Fresh Water from the Sea,” follows a girl and her mother who are reunited after the mother finds herself gradually growing transparent and turning into mist. Here, hunger is again multifaceted, suffusing the piece. The girl and her mother are hungry for connection, but they have spent their lives looking for it in the wrong places and ways, and now it appears to be too late.

The strongest collection I read was Mallory Ortberg’s The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror, in which Ortberg follows the current trend of updating fairy tales to make them more feminist and strange. In these stories, the protagonists often get what they want—but at the expense of others. In “The Rabbit,” the Velveteen Rabbit does indeed become real—by sucking realness from the boy who loves him. In “The Daughter Cells,” the little mermaid succeeds in gaining human souls and keeping her life after a bloody double-murder. In Ortberg’s pieces, gender and identity are fluid, and the protagonists themselves waver, never quite villains or heroes, but always complex and grasping, attempting to claim, or reclaim, power over themselves and the world. Though Ortberg’s worlds are some of the strangest and least recognizable, her characters are very human and disturbingly real.

Have a great summer, and get 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.

 

Something I Learned from Working with Young Writers

by Adrienne G. Perry

On Wednesday mornings during the school year, I get up early and head to Travis Elementary School to teach creative writing to fourth-graders. I am a WITS (Writers in the Schools) teacher and I love this job. Loving this work doesn’t make my WITS day a piece of cake, especially not at the end of the school year, when the students are ready to come out of their skins. Still, the work offers deep rewards and is unlike anything else I do. Imagine walking down a hallway, being spotted by a fourth-grade writer, and hearing them say, “Yay, WITS!” with a huge smile on their face—a welcome to warm the chambers of even the coldest writer’s heart.

From 8:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., I move in and out of classrooms, working with writers on simile, creating scenes, or incorporating emotion into poetry and prose. Outside of honing their creative writing skills, part of my job involves giving writing and creative expression a good name. Admittedly, this has been an easy sell for students who generally relish the chance to read, write, draw, and share stories. Some of my students at Travis can take the seed of an idea, plant it immediately, and have a bumper crop within 15 minutes. However, for most of them, and for most of us, productive writing requires considering example texts, brainstorming, and testing the concept together before trying it out on our own.

If I want to teach a lesson on nature-based advice poems, for instance, I need to take these steps: introduce the concept of an advice poem; share and discuss an example; brainstorm, alongside the students, elements of nature, as well as the advice such elements might give; work together to generate a list of associated words. If we’re going with an advice poem from a tree, we might think of terms related to trees: leaves, shade, bark, bugs, oak, maple, roots. From there, the students come up with a few lines based on our list—“always let the wind rustle your leaves,” or, “don’t be afraid to grow deep roots.” Then we share.

Once it looks like students have grasped the overall concept, they move on to repeat the steps and generate their own advice poem. When we take these steps together, confusion gets corrected along the way and students write more thoughtfully on their own. (FYI: Pandas, koalas, guinea pigs, flowers, bunnies, hamsters, koi fish, and butterflies have a lot of advice to give.)

In working with adults, I’ve found writers often feel pressured to create writing that is instantly brilliant, cogent, smooth. They sit down with the expectation that “real” writers are able to bust out a poem or story. Even if they acknowledge “it’s just a draft,” the very act of writing starts out high-stakes. Working at Travis has taught me to invest in low-stakes writing: list-making, freewriting, collage, and mind mapping, among other prewriting exercises, as a way to engage, generate material, and play. In the community-based classes and workshops I teach for adults, I’ve adapted my lessons to include more time for brainstorming. Typically, I lead the workshop through a series of prompts designed to generate ideas before asking writers to focus and freewrite.

None of the above is particularly revolutionary; I realize I’m sharing insights that writers and teachers of writing have given us for years. But common wisdom doesn’t always compensate for the disconnect between our theories and practices. Who doesn’t need, from time to time, to be reminded of a basic truth?

This coming Wednesday is my last day at Travis. This summer, I will move from Houston to start a new adventure on the East Coast. Next year, I will miss meeting a new class of fourth graders, but I take with me the thrill of watching a reluctant writer get excited about a line of poetry. I’ll take with me the pride of seeing their writing (and handwriting!) become stronger over the course of eight months. The brilliant staff at WITS, these young writers, and their teachers have taught me volumes about teaching and writing over the last two years. The importance of pre-writing and brainstorming is just one of the many insights I’ve stitched into my pockets.

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

 

Mr. On Time: Alan King’s Point Blank

By Eric Morris-Pusey 

Some of the most exciting works of poetry defy easy categorization, and Alan King’s Point Blank (Silver Birch Press, 2016) blurs a lot of lines.

Most of the poems are more narrative than lyric, but they still have the freely associative qualities of many of the best lyric poems. While some of them are violent, they all display a deep humanity and gentleness at the same time. There’s a good deal of irony, too, but it isn’t usually delivered with detachment or a bitter laugh. Sometimes irony just is. Maybe paradox is a better word.

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King’s poem “The Brute” is a great example. In it, a snide remark from the speaker’s boss brings back memories of “hard boys / from high school . . . homemade tattoos / strung into their biceps,” and then King deftly brings the poem back around to the present, to two adults, when fighting isn’t done with fists or clever insults, but with much more subtle words: a sarcastic thanks when the boss tells the speaker he shouldn’t have majored in journalism.

By the end, the speaker has grown to ten feet tall and is speaking his rage (or is it sadness?) more directly—it’s not just the boss who’s angered him, but the fact he’s “too broke to move out his parents’ house” that has him “desperate / for a clown to punch.” When the poem concludes, it leaves a big question hanging: is it the boss who’s the titular brute, or is it the speaker, or is it the whole damn world? Or is the brute what that world sees in both of them—two black men—when it refuses to look any closer?

It’s not just conflict and confrontation that King affords nuance and a deeply poetic voice. There are love and sex, too, and the beauty of language—both the measured, poetic kind and the sorts of everyday speech you’re likely to hear on the street, in the store, or at the bar—and a deep consideration of the meaning of time.

This last seems to be one of the prime questions of the book: how does any person reckon with the shortness of our lives, and how especially does a person reckon with that in the face of the violence of poverty and racism? The collection ends, in “Just Chillin’, B,” on the image of “time facedown / like cards on the table,” moments stolen from the larger chaos and hubbub of the world. In his poem “Mr. On Time,” King ends with the image of “time like a wad of money / burning to be spent.”

King has done a lot with his time so far—in addition to his poetic work (including his other collection, Drift, and two chapbooks, as well as poems in journals all over and plenty of readings, especially in the DC metro area), he’s been a journalist and researcher for both The Center for Public Integrity and Baltimore’s Afro-American Newspaper.

This wealth of experience isn’t just King’s personal background, but something woven throughout the poems. In addition to getting a sense of King as a person through what he chooses to write about and the ways in which he writes, we understand the things he’s seen and his way of looking at the world. Even though the book often concerns the larger world of politics, or the lives of people King’s speakers see at work or on the street, it also provides a deep impression of a more internal landscape.

As narrative poems—or, at least, poems with narratives—they show a little of his journalistic outlook and spirit, but King always keeps his eye on the personal details too, whether it’s in images or bits of dialogue. He makes the poems real as well as true.

In “Bugged,” he writes of the paranoia induced by clicking on phone lines. From a brief musing on the idea of cell phones causing cancer he jumps to “What kills the black man quicker / patrols in government-issued rides.” As the phone’s clicks transform “blood into juice startled / by the blender’s blade,” King makes us consider what time means in a violent and chaotic world, and especially what those things mean to a person of color or someone involved in any sort of activism—because “Any minute now / they’ll storm that door.”

These are truths we can recognize any day from simply turning on the news, but King’s words make them more deeply felt than images and statistics on a screen can. His words inhabit the moments of fear, and the moments of joy and exuberance in the midst of fear too.

King said in a craft interview at Little Patuxent Review that he sees poetry as a meditative process, and that he goes where the poem’s narrative and words guide him. “My poems usually come to me,” he says, “as a series of images from recounted experiences.” His mind is “a planchette the poem moves along the ouija board of possibilities.”

That freely associative quality and willingness to wander, combined with the impact of his language and the images both startling and beautiful that make up these poems, are what make this book feel so vital—like it’s not just being read, but being lived.

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Alan King’s poems, thoughts on writing, and video productions can be found at alanwking.com, and his book can be found at indie bookstores and through Amazon. Author photo courtesy of Silver Birch Press, taken by Melanie Henderson.

Cover image: “The Man in the Fedora Hat” by Ewholo Jeroro

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.

  My Motivation

by Somayeh Shams

I am at a friend’s Thanksgiving party.  Or Passover dinner.  I am in a house like many others in the suburbs.  Or in a penthouse looking down at the buzzing city lights.  The air is jovial. I talk to the families.  People I do not know.  Normal people, average people with real jobs like librarians or shop-owners.  They live in California or New York or Illinois.  We converse.  It is pleasant.  My friends look relieved that the guests are getting along.  We all have that fear of showing our family to our friends, so I understand.  I feel I am good at this, at connecting with people.  I have moved around a lot so I have mastered initial connection. It’s the more long-term thing I have trouble with.  Then somebody asks me where I am from.  My accent. My dark hair.  It confuses them.  Where do my parents live?  And I answer: Iran.

 The most difficult thing about writing, for me, at least, is not the process.  It is not the hours spent trying to find the right word or the right rhythm for my sentences.  It is those few moments when I have felt so distant from writing, so completely removed from it that I began thinking if I never returned to that desk, never picked up that pen, it would not matter.  And let’s be honest: It probably would not.

 I have recently gone through one of these moments after making a large move across the country, while receiving a shit-ton of rejections on the first story of my novel-in-stories.  This is my first novel.  As you can imagine, I took it to mean the book as a whole is to be trashed.  It became hard to keep motivated.  And I began to question my choices.

 I am used to moving (though that doesn’t make it any easier), so I pull out the techniques I have acquired: I reach out to writer friends.  Talk to my partner.  Read every article about how to survive a slump, a block. . . .  I cry a little.  Get angry a little.  Go through bouts of insomnia when at 3 a.m. I try to decipher the exact moment or action or decision that made everything go haywire.  Or, worse, how from the beginning, from the moment I was born I was destined for failure.  Remember everything else I have done has failed—why not my career also?

 My partner reminds me of the things I have published, of the grants I was awarded. It makes me feel better, but it’s fleeting.  At 3 a.m. the fears come back.  Because I have forgotten about my motivation.  The thing that made me give up my other career for this one.  I need to find the thing that pushed me to finally make writing a reality and not something that only happened in my mind while daydreaming under the shower.

 And it is in those perfectly wonderful people’s faces that I find my reason. That face people make when I say I am from Iran.  Or that my parents live there.  Or that my dad prefers living there over anywhere else, even though he has a choice. The way their eyes become large and a slightly amused smile spreads across their lips.  I realize they know little of my country, of Iran.  What they imagine and the reality that is my country are not the same.  They are shocked to hear that members of my family have green cards and yet refuse to live in the US.  What do they do there?  And I tell them, the same thing they’d do here.  They are engineers. And shop-owners.  They love to picnic and dance.

 You see, post-revolution Iranian writers and artists had to reconfigure their writing inside and outside their country.  Both inside and outside there was a “preference” for a narrative that would support the political and social views those places had of the country and, consequently, its people.   But that did not mean that writing stopped or art stopped.  Recently, at a talk about her work, artist Shirine Neshat said that despite everything, or maybe because of everything, art in Iran was growing and Iranian artists had become masters of metaphor.  I realize Iranian art is still happening, but little of it is reaching the public.

 That night, I left her talk filled to the brim with inspiration and motivation. It is not an everyday experience for me to see an Iranian artist up on a podium in a room filled with over a thousand artists and art lovers so intently listening and obviously enjoying themselves. Actually, that was my first time. And so I realize what motivates me, what it is I am seeking with my art, why I get so excited when literature teachers add Persepolis to their curriculum or writers discuss how astutely Farhadi manages to tell a story about the slipperiness of the truth in his movie A Separation or that I see plays like White Rabbit, Red Rabbit by Soleimanpoor playing at the playhouse near me.  It is that feeling of being seen that I am seeking.

 There is nothing more maddening than for writers or artists not to find themselves represented in the field they love; to be unable to read work that represents them; to have to explain again and again to unbelievers that their country is more than ayatollahs.  So, I want to share myself with whoever would like to read my work.  I want to free myself from this claustrophobia.  I want me, us, to be part of the conversation.

Somayeh Shams is an Iranian-born writer and a graduate of the Warren Wilson M.F.A. program. She has been a fellow for the Hedgebrook Writers in Residence and a merit scholar at the New York State Summer Writers Institute. She serves on the editorial board of Nimrod.

Your Reward for the Truth     

by Francine Ringold

In 1740 a book was published entitled Pamela or Virtue Rewarded. Some say it was the first novel.  However, it purported to be the true story of a woman named, of course, Pamela, and it was written in the first person in the form of letters from said Pamela to her father telling the sad tale of her life in the home of Mr. B (initials only are provided in the novel), where she worked as a servant and was pursued by B, who, failing to seduce her, marries her. In truth, Pamela was written by Samuel Richardson—neither a woman nor a servant to anyone.

Pamela was a sensation.  Apparently this was not just because the book had, especially for the time it was written, raunchy details.  For example, Pamela’s room is invaded several times by B. One incident finds B hiding in a closet from which he pops out and is dutifully fought off.  It is hilarious—even if we may be less than politically correct to laugh at such goings on! But more importantly, the novel’s success seems to have been due to the claim that it was a “true” story, Pamela’s story, hence a memoir—not the whole story of Pamela’s life but a vibrant, thematically integrated portion of her life.

Now memoirs flood the shelves of the few standing bookstores remaining and the lists of Amazon.  We assume that these memoirs are “true” stories even though many are written by ghostwriters or even acknowledged as co-written by another person. And how we still love to read the “truth,” even in this age when there is so much confusion over what is true and what false, even when, ironically, the most truthful, straight, factual of our media sources are accused of being “false news.”

I don’t know why this is.  I am no psychologist or sociologist or data collector but merely an observer.  Surely anyone can notice the number of memoirs being published, especially by celebrities, and purchased left and right. Perhaps it is our thirst for gossip.

Nevertheless, you should write your memoir. You are up to the task and deserve the fun you will have in the process.  Ironically, you will even enjoy the tears released. Remember, everyone has a story to tell and your story is as gripping as the next guy’s when you dig deep. You should write a memoir or an autobiography not because it will be published or will sell widely but because, quite simply, it is a wonderful way of gathering together your thoughts, your memories—your life—your truths.

I taught four classes in memoir writing and have written my own: From Birth to Birth: My Memoir and a Guide for Writing Yours. I must confess it is more of an autobiography than a memoir.  I wrote it at the age of 80 and I thought I had better get in more than a portion of my life—which, as are many long lives, is various, complicated, diverse, tumultuous and so forth.

But getting back toyou! You should write your story because writing is fun, or it can be fun if you approach it as yet another form of play and follow the rules of the game, which involve, as one of its primary rules, writing with your whole body and mind. (In Homo Ludens,Johan Huizinga, Dutch philosopher, shows how all play is serious and essential to human culture.)

You should write your memoir because in the process you discover what you want to say and need to say.  You might even discover the truth!

But what is that? What is “truth”? It seems that the truth is something that must be corroborated by another person or persons, by facts, by data.  But one person’s truth may vary from another’s, depending upon one’s angle of vision, from which direction one views the incident or person.  Ask anyone who has filed an accident report.

In the first draft of your memoir, if you are lucky, you discover your theme, the distinct and unifying idea.  In the second or third or fourth draft, writing in substantial parts, not necessarily chronologically, rearranging, editing, and so forth—you discover your truth. Don’t shy away from it but do acknowledge that there could be another point of view.  That acknowledgement will make the reader trust you and believe that you are trying to find the fundamental, underlying premise of your life.

And yet, and yet, we do know what truth is, don’t we? The sun rises and sets each day—a truth we can check. Truth is that mountain in the distance, just beyond the edge of the water. Truth is the strange tree whose bark peels in layers, whose trunk bends and twists with the wind to form a labyrinthine path.  We see it, we touch it, we are rooted with it. Truth is the baby that emerges from your womb as you watch it in the carefully placed mirror and know, not just because of the pain and the pregnancy, that it is yours.  Truth is something you can see with your eyes, walk with your feet, feel with your body and mind, collect with supporting data. Truth has evidence, facts to support it.  As Senator Daniel Moynihan said: “You are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts.”

But what if the mountain is obscured by a thick fog? Is it still there, as Descartes might ask? Will it still define boundaries when the fog lifts?  And the tree, when it is cut down and carted off—is it still a tree or just a hunk of wood? Even that baby you watched being born—is it truly yours? Did someone slip another infant into the hands of the obstetrician between the last push when you were too engaged to see clearly and the moment of revelation?  There are always truths and there are always doubts.  Yet we pursue the comfort and security of learning what seems to be true, always there, always grounding.  And we search to corroborate what is truly ours.  Our intentions prompt us to secure information, to check details, to acknowledge when we are off base, to let our active mind, as well as the old salt of the hair standing on end or a shiver down the spine, affirm that we have come just as close as possible to the truth.

Your reward is not so much the end product—your memoir—but the experience in trying to get to the truth, the labor of love that always involves digging and unearthing and corroborating and letting the facts and the sensations of your body open to discovery.

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: From Birth to Birth: My Memoir and a Guide for Yours.

The Case for Nonfiction

by Jane Wiseman

Ignorance is bliss, they say.  Not in the law, they say.  Ignorance of the law is no excuse, they say.  So, I ask, which is it?

The life of the law is language. Despite “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me,” words have consequences.  The law uses language to instruct, persuade, prohibit, regulate, enter judgment, importune, permit, encourage, deter, convict, condemn and pardon.  And we ignore the language of the law at our peril.  An Oklahoma motorist was quoted recently in the Tulsa World as being surprised and outraged at being pulled over for traveling some distance in the left-lane on Interstate 40, with little traffic in the right lane, in contravention of a state law enacted last year prohibiting such activity on four-lane highways.  He said he didn’t know anything about the law, he wasn’t impeding traffic, and he was in the “fast lane.”  There was a fair amount of publicity when the law became effective last November, and a subscription to the paper might have saved him the $200+ the ticket probably cost him.  (And as a side note, the new law has certainly made driving on turnpikes considerably more pleasant and efficient, and it minimizes road rage caused by slow drivers in the passing lane.  Now if we could just get lawmakers to see the beauty of the “zipper merge.” . . .)

Case law, the embodiment of appellate courts’ decisions on the common law and on statutory interpretation, among other things, is simply a form of very serious nonfiction writing.  American nonfiction writer Tracy Kidder started out writing fiction but soon discovered he preferred to write about real people.  He once said, “In fiction, believability may have nothing to do with reality or even plausibility.  It has everything to do with those things in nonfiction.  I think that the nonfiction writer’s fundamental job is to make what is true believable.”  And when we see the conduct of litigants set out in the evidence in the record, our frequent reaction is “you couldn’t make this stuff up!”  But every case tells a true story, however implausible (and it does create job security).

Tracy Kidder also characterized factual writing as a way “to signify a kind of nonfiction writing in which not only the information but the writing is important.  For me the essence of it is really storytelling. And of course, the techniques of storytelling never belonged exclusively to fiction.  Surely there is no single means of understanding the world.” This might account for our fascination with detective fiction and TV crime shows.  We would be hard pressed to find a crime novel with an original story line—one not based on real events, especially when we consider the fertile field of true stories open to writers.

After binge-watching “Law and Order” recently, I certainly heard the ring of truth in those stories, however embellished.  So I salute nonfiction storytelling, especially when well done, as a means, as Tracy Kidder said, “of understanding the world.”

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Jane Wiseman writes for a living as a Judge on the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals.  She counts the day she joined Nimrod’s Advisory Board as one of her happiest and currently serves as Chair of the Advisory Board.

An Interview with Sasha Martin

Sasha Martin, author of the memoir Life from Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness, will host a free writing workshop entitled “The Language of Survival: Exploring Trauma in Fiction and Memoir” on Saturday, April 7th, from 2:00 to 4:30 p.m. in The University of Tulsa’s Tyrrell Hall Auditorium. Presented by Nimrod and Northeastern State University as part of the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2018 NEA Big Read program, “The Language of Survival” will discuss writing about trauma and survival in both fiction and memoir. Workshop topics will include strategies for getting personal experiences onto the page, tips for deciding whether to tell a story as fiction or memoir, and techniques to avoid oversimplifying life’s villains, real or imagined. Martin will also lead participants in writing exercises to get their ideas flowing. The event is free and open to the public. No pre-registration is needed.

Martin answered a few questions about the event for us. Check out the Q&A below before joining us on Saturday!

So what do we mean when we talk about “writing trauma” in fiction and nonfiction?

Martin: Writing trauma is simply how we express instances of acute suffering on the page. From personal loss to intergenerational wounds—emotionally charged subjects easily risk coming across as melodramatic or self-indulgent. Thankfully, there are several tools to help us write trauma successfully.

What can writers expect to learn about at the workshop?

Martin: We will start with theory—why write about trauma at all—then quickly move onto practical exercises and excerpt studies from both fiction and nonfiction. Topics covered will include how to create well-rounded characters, how trauma can be revealed through setting, and how to resist making judgement calls for our readers.  We will study short excerpts from texts like The Snow Child, Grapes of Wrath, and more. Throughout the session, attendees will have an opportunity to practice new skills with short writing prompts.

Who is this workshop for? Is it only for writers writing about large-scale trauma, or will those writing about smaller, more intimate experiences also find it helpful? 

Martin: Loss and conflict drive every narrative. This workshop is for anyone working on a novel or memoir who wants to explore how to express challenges—big or small—in a fluid, effective way. While some of the texts deal with significant loss, the topics and skills we will cover can be applied to strengthen any narrative. Participants are encouraged to infuse the writing exercises with their own interests and writing style so that the workshop best serves their needs.

This workshop is part of the Northeastern State University’s grant for the NEA Big Read project, which uses specific texts as a shared jumping-off point for book-related events, and the shared text in this case is Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl. Participants don’t need to have read the story beforehand to take part in the workshop, but what aspects or techniques of the story do you find useful for those writing about the themes of trauma and survival? 

Martin: The Shawl was written in two parts. In Oznick’s words:  “The Shawl began with a line, one sentence in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. This one sentence told of a real event, about a baby being thrown against an electrified fence. And that stayed with me and stayed with me, and that was the very explicit origin of The Shawl. […] I wrote the second half because I wanted to know what happened to Rosa afterward. I was curious to enter the mind of such an unhappy, traumatized person and see how that person would cope with the time afterward—rescued, saved, safe, and yet not rescued, not safe, not normal, abnormal.”

Due to the two-part format, The Shawl offers students an excellent opportunity to isolate “event” and “event fallout.” For example, in the second part of the book, Oznick fills Rosa’s Florida life with descriptors evocative of a concentration camp. These stark details, offered decades after the baby’s death (when Rosa is theoretically “safe” from Hitler), add a layer of emotional soot to the story, reminding us (in not so many words) how some wounds can neither be forgotten or erased.

What makes writing about trauma—and surviving it—important to you? 

Martin: Writing about trauma is an act of healing—not just for the writer, but also the reader. When we share experiences of loss and survival, many of which are considered taboo in polite conversation, we strengthen our communities. The idea that we are not alone in our suffering, in our survival—that is a gift for all.

The Condition of Poetry, or, What is it with poets?

by Britton Gildersleeve

Poets—let’s face it—are a bit different. Not just from “normal” folks, but from other readers and writers as well. We know this—even we poet types who also work in other artistic media. Whatever it is that beckons us to poetry, it’s most certainly NOT a call most others hear or heed.

The poet Mark Doty (two-time poetry judge of the Nimrod Awards) once told an audience that people responded with worse recoil he said when he was a poet than when they found out his partner was dying of AIDS. It feels like there’s a kind of fear of poets—and poetry—on the part of most people. And even more in today’s anti-intellectual culture.

When I travel, I sometimes read real, hard-copy books. And they’re often poetry. So it’s not like I could hide them, even if I wanted to. Once someone asked me if a poetry anthology was for a class, and when I said yes, they asked what I was taking. I’m not, I replied; I’m teaching a class in writing poetry. They didn’t ask for another seat—quite—but they did move to the outer edges of comfort in the one next to me.

Still, you expect to be safe with other writers. And, within broad limits, we poets are. We even join the ranks of prose writers: many poets also write prose—creative non-fiction, short stories, novels. Mark Doty, for instance. May Sarton, Nikki Giovanni. Even Shakespeare, if you count historical plays. Raymond Carver’s short stories, Emerson’s huge œuvre, Thomas Hardy’s incredible novels. Alice Walker and Maya Angelou. The list of crossover poets is lengthy and illustrious.

To be a poet is a condition, not a profession. — Robert Graves

So why say poets are different? If poets cross over, don’t prose writers, too? Wellll… the experiences of poets in the writing world leads me to think that once a prose writer (first off, at least), almost always a prose writer, with a few notable exceptions. A dear friend is getting an M.F.A. My friend is a poet, quite a good one. The leader of one of the prose workshops—a published writer—asked my friend, “Why don’t poets use more words?” Really?? Wouldn’t that be . . . prose?

Another example: if you say that you write or teach memoir, or the essay in general (all are true for me), folks are interested. They volunteer their life stories as possible topics, ask for advice. Volunteer that you write poetry? You can hear pins drop on carpet. Oh, I couldn’t do that, comes the eventual comment. My English teacher said my poetry was awful is another (I HATE that teacher!).

Yet another piece of anecdotal support: a good friend recently started a writers’ group. She asked two poets and another fiction writer to the first meeting. Both poets brought poems; she brought a short story. The other fiction writer had no draft. One of the poets handed around a well-done satire on current religico-politics, using the metaphor of the chicken crossing the road as a framing device. The fiction writers didn’t get it, although the poet who wrote the chicken poem was worried it was ham-handed. (It wasn’t.) Both fiction writers felt that the poem needed to be more concrete, more spelled out. (The poets didn’t.)

N.B.: My friend’s short story was excellent, but the other fiction writer felt that IT needed to be more oblique, that the ending was too obvious (the poets didn’t agree).  In other words, the two poets and the two fiction writers read the three offerings verrry differently. Why? What is the difference, ultimately, between reading as a poet and reading as a non-poet?

I wonder if the above quotation from Auden doesn’t (as usual) offer one of his utterly simple answers. . . . Fiction writers, even more than creative non-fiction writers, are creatures of narrative webs. While language, image, and other poetic devices may be important in revision, they rarely (almost never?) drive a prose piece. With poets, however, language IS the driver of most pieces. Whether it’s an image the poet is trying to capture in words, or the music of a feeling or experience, language is the raison d’être of poetry.

Not only is it a love affair with language, but poetry is almost a calling. A condition, as Robert Graves said. It’s why William Zinsser—that master of prose craft—found it impossible to think of himself as a poet. Through much of his “apprenticeship” as a poet, as a Diana Goetsch article shows, he sought to reconcile the difference between prose and poetry, even insisting that a poem had to be ‘true’ like non-fiction. Instead of “true,” as Tim O’Brien says of good fiction: Fiction is the lie that helps us understand the truth.

Poets live for word play, for the nuance of an almost archaic etymology, for the slant rhyme or assonance of a line. And, of course, for the “inner life” that Zinsser bemoans his lack of. Also for the “truth,” whatever that is. Prose writers of the very best sort use similar figurative devices, but they don’t drive plot, nor narrative. The “truth” is better served, in fiction, by other elements: characterization, plot (or lack thereof), setting, the narrative arc.

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But then again, what if the answer to why poets differ from other writers is an endemic fear of Robert Graves’s poetic “condition”? That would mean . . .I have such a condition! No wonder folks find poetry unsettling! Seriously, though? It’s not like poetic language is deadly, and certainly not more so than stories. In fact, the two often marry beautifully: narrative poetry, prose poems. But for some reason, the poets seem to be held in a great deal more fear than novelists and other prose writers. And I continue to wonder: why is that? What is there to fear? Any ideas?

Contributor Interview: Mary Moore

by Eilis O’Neal

Editor-in-Chief Eilis O’Neal spoke with contributor Mary Moore this winter. Mary is the author of the collections Flicker, Eating the Light, The Book of Snow, and Amanda and the Man Soul. She was the second prize winner of Nimrod’s 2017 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, and her poetry has appeared in Nimrod, Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Poetry, and New Letters.

Q: Many of the poems in the collection that won second place in Nimrod’s Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, and one of the poems that will be in our Spring 2018 issue, Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts, play with ideas of things that are more than one thing: chimera, part-human beasts, shape-shifting moths. What brought you to this theme/inspired you to write these poems?

A: The themes of monstrosity and hybridity came to me in both emotional and intellectual ways.  They initially filtered through the persona/character of Amanda who plays major roles in two of the Nimrod poems and in my forthcoming chapbook, Amanda and the Man Soul.  Amanda had existed in poems for quite a few years, usually linked to resistance or surrender to female stereotypes, and I had heard of the vanishing twin syndrome through various media:  one of a pair of twins dies in utero, and the dead twin’s DNA or actual tissue becomes incorporated in the viable twin’s body.  About two years ago, when I began writing more Amanda, I made one of those intuitive leaps and put Amanda together with that biological/genetic condition.  I’m not sure why:  I was an only child who, throughout childhood, longed for a sister, and I also always felt like what I’d now call an outlier, someone who didn’t fit anywhere. I had already portrayed Amanda as such a person.  I’m not sure why I felt that way:  I was physically awkward, too emotional, not able to handle aggression:  I always knew that something was wrong with me.  My native country must be the isolation that difference creates.  Once Amanda met the vanishing twin syndrome, I immediately knew that she would see her body, which contained DNA from another body, as monstrous and hybrid.  The poetic/fictional vision also drew on my background as a Renaissance scholar: I knew and had taught Jeffrey Cohen’s Monster Theory, which posits that monstrosity is not an essential, natural condition, but a culturally inflected projection of disowned traits onto people who already differ from others, and I also knew post-colonial theory: both theoretical paradigms consider hybridity, one as a trait of monstrosity, the other as a result of colonizing cultures melding with native cultures.  Finally, on the, simplest level, if Amanda is already “two,” images of fusion, duality, and hybridity are a “natural.” Other hybrids, “monsters” such as the many-eyed butterfly and the manticore, are part of the menagerie she is.

Q: You mention feeling isolated as a child. Did you write as a child/teenager, and did that help? If not, when did you begin writing?

A: As I kid, I wrote a few poems for my mother, rhymed verselets; I just found one given to her as a Christmas thing.  It didn’t catch on then, and while I took a creative writing class as an undergraduate more than half a life-time ago, I didn’t begin writing seriously until after I’d had my daughter. I wonder if in some way having a child, that ultimate and sweetest creation, authorized me to write.

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Q: What’s your writing process like?

A: Off-the-wall except in its regularity.  Sometimes I literally look out my window and write what I see.  I keep journals of beautiful or surprising words and phrases that I’ve read or overheard including inspiring phrases from other poets;  I brainstorm random lists of words, and start a poem using them; start a poem from another poem that didn’t work out too well; go out on the porch and write what I see and hear; write notes and descriptive drafts when I travel.  When I have a current obsession, I stumble on and also keep an eye out for objects or events related to it.  Most of my poems start from description.  Far from being impersonal, description is always tainted with the writer’s voice, ear, word choice. On first drafts, I allow myself to go anywhere that sound, metaphor or image takes me until I exhaust whatever it was that set me off.  I keep everything, but use whatever strikes me as surprising or new or at least engaging and write another draft from or inside that.  Lately, I’ve begun totally rewriting poems in entirely different directions than the first draft suggested. With all this in mind, I’d say that it’s associative, really like jazz improv, but then once I get something resembling a draft of a poem I like, I revise, and revise, and revise.  What makes it a poem is the revision; what makes it exciting is the drafting and the new insights that emerge during deep revision.  I have critiquers I rely on—especially my dear friend Art Stringer—an incredibly fine poet––and a “secret” Facebook group of women poets I consider very good, some of whom I’ve met recently and some I’ve been friends with for years.  I have some poems that have taken 20 years to come to fruition and some that came to me almost fully formed:  “On My Mother’s Suicide” which came out in Georgia Review last year and went into my last full-length book, Flicker (2016 Dogfish Head award winner) came to me like that from riffing on paired words with similar sounds and dissimilar meanings.

It’s probably useful to say too that I worked and taught my whole adult life, and writing always occurred evenings and weekends, and once I became a professor, in the early morning, on weekends, or over breaks.  I’m retired now and I actually GET to write every day, and I do it.

Q: Who are the authors you find yourself returning to, who have played a role in your own development as a writer?

A: Wow.  So many and quite disparate.  Galway Kinnell—Book of Nightmares is the best long poem of the latter half of the 20th century––Brooks, Elizabeth Bishop, Jorie Graham, Neruda, Marianne Moore, Rilke, Donne, George Herbert, Hopkins, Dickinson, Shakespeare, Madeline DeFrees, Mona Van Duyn, and more. Of immediate contemporaries, I’m enjoying Albert Goldbarth, Melissa Range, Donald Revell, Jericho Brown, Moira Egan, Dan Beachy Quick, and Caki Wilkinson. I read my poet friends, wonderful poets with books by small presses, who mostly are not nationally known:  Art Stringer, Jane Blue, Susan Kelly DeWitt, Victoria Dalke, Mary Zeppa, Diane Hueter Warner, Noel Crook, Beth Copeland, Sarah A. Chavez, and more.  Contrary to what some curmudgeons say, I find a lot of great poetry being written right now.  I think “my” poets have in common the love of image, word-play, and an obsession with the sacred, even if they profane it as I do, and they have wonderful ears.  Notice that while some of these poets are formalists, I’m firmly in between:  I sometimes write free verse, and sometimes I rhyme, but don’t do meter, though I might some day . . . or not.

Q: Do you have any tips for beginning writers?

A: Please write because you love the act of it, the serenity or mania or insanity of it, and the discoveries you make about words and things, and about yourself as you write, not “for” publication.  You must love the doing of it so much that you can tolerate, have the courage to persist in the face of indifference, incomprehension, and rejection; see Mona Van Duyn’s wonderful poem, “The Vision Test,” about the Department of Motor Vehicles clerk who laughed her ass off when Van Duyn gave her profession as poet. And if you love it, you can consciously prepare yourself by observing the world around you and reading voraciously in the best poetry. I’ve sometimes thought some people do all this naturally, and become great poets without trying. Good poetry is chock full of things, not abstractions, so if you do need to try, start by becoming a sense-addict.  See, hear, closely observe people’s voices, inflections, body language:  look at, listen to, sense everything: streets, cars, people, animals, birds, plants, rocks, weather, cars, bugs, buses, anchovies, tomatoes, turtles. Love food.  Be Neruda, who wrote a loving poem about a tarantula.  Be Denise Levertov, who said, “O Taste and Be.”  Develop a vocabulary of living creatures and objects—literally, I mean: know their names. These are your materials, your marble, your paints, your instruments and notes.  Be John Muir. As to reading, if you’re unguided by teachers, pick up the great contemporary journals, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Nimrod, The Cincinnati Review, Crazy Horse, Nellie, The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, and the many other long-standing, respected journals.  Read them cover to cover.  See what you like.  Use the library and the used book stores to pick up books by the poets you discover in the journals and books by the older dead poets you know about and may have taken as models—my list above is a pretty damn good one, though reflecting my life, age, education.  Analyze a few poems you love; see how they work structurally, formally, how they make ear music and word play, and find their patterns of image and metaphors.  Notice how the parts of their poems connect, or don’t. Acquire these traits, learn these skills.  Try to invite the spirit of play to infuse your drafts, and write, write, write for play, to be serious, to learn new twists and squiggles of words.  Discover, surprise yourself. Always revise, start again, start again, edit, revise, edit. If an editor gives you the rare gift of feedback, use it. If you’re lucky, maybe you can find at least one person who knows more, has more skills than you do, and who will read your work.  Be open.  Persist.

Q: When will Amanda and the Man Soul be out? And what else are you working on now?

Amanda and the Man Soul is out now.

I’m working on random new poems and also obsessing poetically on the twinned and the monstrous, or seemingly monstrous, through a full-length book called Chimera, which will include the Nimrod poems, some more Amanda, and related work on art, the family, and on what I see as monsters of various kinds.  At least that’s what I think it is right now.  Putting a book together is also a process of discovery.

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

Review: Where the Dead Sit Talking

by Helen Patterson

Where the Dead Sit Talking is Oklahoma author and writing instructor Brandon Hobson’s latest work. The novel is set in the winter of 1989 in a small town near Tulsa and narrated by Sequoyah, a fifteen-year-old Cherokee. Sequoyah has bounced around several foster homes and shelters while his addicted mother serves a jail sentence. At the start of the novel, he moves in with foster parents Agnes and Harold Troutt and their other foster children: seventeen-year-old artist Rosemary and thirteen-year-old writer George (who is possibly on the autism spectrum). The novel explores Sequoyah’s struggle to fit into the world and his conflicting desires to be alone and “to be liked, accepted” (37). Unfortunately, his heritage, upbringing, and facial scarring (from hot grease his mother accidentally flung into his face) all make him stand out.

Like Holden in “The Catcher in the Rye,” Sequoyah is an alienated teenager, the product of a broken system. His experiences make him angry and prone to thoughts of violence and degradation. He does not always act on these thoughts, but Rosemary does convince him to (unsuccessfully) shoot a dog, George is afraid of him, and there are a few hints of the mysterious future deaths of characters he doesn’t like which suggest a darkness simmering just below Sequoyah’s surface.

Perhaps more distressing than these dark thoughts is Sequoyah’s distance from those around him, the way he observes himself and others as if a play is unfolding before him. Given his need to distance himself from the pain of his mother’s imprisonment and his own unstable situation, this distance is understandable if unhealthy.

The other characters in the novel respond to Sequoyah’s outsider status, recognizing him as a person who is not fully formed, who is too flat and abstracted to be a real individual. They are constantly confiding in him, confessing startlingly intimate details about their lives and their dreams in relentless monologues. These jarring monologues strikingly convey the disconnect between Sequoyah and everyone around him.

The exception to Sequoyah’s isolation is his relationship to his older foster sister, Rosemary. At first, their connection seems like the typical infatuation of a younger teenager for an older, cooler one, but Sequoyah’s attraction is more the desire to be Rosemary, to feel what it is like to live in her skin. Sequoyah feels a kinship to Rosemary, partially because she is also Native American (Kiowa), but also because she, like him, is the product of a broken family and a dysfunctional system. Sequoyah wants to wear her clothes, sit in her closet, watch her in her most intimate and unguarded moments, as if he can feel them, too, and through them find some way back to a “self”—any self.

Sadly, Rosemary dies. I’m not spoiling anything by revealing this—it is in the first paragraph. Waiting for Rosemary’s death gives the entire novel a sense of inevitability. I’ve read a lot of books where the mysterious, creative female character dies, and usually I feel a pang of resentment. The women who die in these books often seem to die because it is convenient to the story, particularly the male characters in the story who are trying to find themselves. But Rosemary’s death is not for the convenience of the story; it is the story. Rosemary is the culmination and distillation of years of injustice and pain, both her personal pain and the pain and violence inflicted on indigenous peoples, particularly women, that is still often undiscussed and unseen. Meeting Rosemary forces Sequoyah, and the reader, to realize that life is often bleak.

Rosemary’s final words to Sequoyah are: “You never listen” (246), but long after finishing Where the Dead Sit Talking, the reader will listen and wonder what else the dead have to tell us. I hope Hobson will fill the silence with other books soon.

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.