Poetry as History: The Literary Vision of Natasha Trethewey

by John Coward

Natasha Trethewey is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (2007) and former Poet Laureate of the United States (2012–2014). Despite her literary acclaim, I only discovered Trethewey’s work a few months ago—a happy accident that has made me appreciate the power of the historical imagination in contemporary poetry. I say this because the poems in Native Guard, her award-winning book, confront issues of identity, race, and racial injustice in the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights era and beyond.


Poetry is not exactly history, of course, but as Trethewey shows in this collection, poetry can tell historical stories in an imaginative way. In fact, this intersection of the personal and the historical is one of the strengths of Trethewey’s poetic vision. She links her life, her story, to the broader themes of the Civil War and Southern history in ways that give readers today—150 years after some of these events took place—a way to reimagine the twists of history.

As it happens, both Trethewey and I lived in Mississippi as children. I am not a native of Mississippi like Trethewey, but I was a schoolboy in Tupelo, Mississippi, in the 1950s and ’60s. Like Trethewey, I was shaped by my experiences as a child in Mississippi. One of those experiences was the shadow of the Civil War, which was ever-present in Tupelo because of several skirmishes fought nearby and a major Civil War battle, Shiloh, fought some miles north in Tennessee. My father, who was a history major in college and a Civil War buff, often took the family on battlefield tours around Tupelo. Thus Trethewey’s recollection of Civil War activities along the Mississippi Gulf Coast was—and is—familiar territory for me, even though, until I read this book, I was unaware of the role of former slaves who served in the Union army in units known as the Native Guard. Her poems about these men and their experiences guarding Confederate prisoners on Ship Island in the Gulf of Mexico form the foundation for this collection and serve as a vivid reminder of the agonies and ironies of war. Here’s one voice from Ship Island:

The hot air carries
the stench of limbs, rotten in the bone pit.
Flies swarm—a black cloud. We hunger, grow weak.
When men die, we eat their share of hardtack.

Unlike Trethewey, I’m not a biracial woman and I never suffered discrimination or racial injustice. But I do recall the inequalities of life in Tupelo in the 1950s and ’60s. Like a lot of towns in the Deep South, there was a white side of town, which was relatively prosperous, and a black side of town, which was not. As a middle-class white kid in Tupelo, I went to segregated schools and a segregated church and swam at a segregated pool. I also saw the black schools in Tupelo, which were older and more rundown than the schools I went to. At some point in my adolescence I had to confront the ugliness of Mississippi segregation, which even as a child I sensed was deeply unfair and which I could not defend. And although I did not suffer racial discrimination in Tupelo, I was shaped by the Civil Rights movement in ways I did not fully understand or appreciate at the time. I’m sure my experiences in Mississippi were very different from Trethewey’s, but we share some ideas about that fraught place in that tumultuous era of American history.

Trethewey came to poetry more or less naturally through her parents and her mother’s extended family in Mississippi. Her white Canadian father was a poet and scholar who earned a Ph.D. in English at Tulane. Her mother, who was black, majored in theater in college. Her father read his poems to her as a child and she paid attention to her mother who, she recalls, was a very precise speaker. In a 2016 interview, Trethewey also remembered the storytelling tradition of her mother’s family. In Gulfport, her family lived next-door to a great aunt, known as Sugar, who worked with children in Sunday school at the Baptist church. Trethewey recalls Sugar’s love of language and practicing recitations with her. She also remembers the ladies of the church meeting at her grandmother’s house to read scripture and to talk and sing and tell stories. “Language came to me in all of those places,” Trethewey has said.

In her review of Native Guard, poet Carrie Shipers writes that the poems in the first section of Native Guard “ask what home means after we have left, as well as what happens when our home leaves us or refuses to acknowledge our claim to it.” This is a perceptive observation. Indeed, these questions complicate the idea of home, and what it means to be from somewhere, even after we have left that place far behind; or, what it means when the place we once knew and loved has changed and is not really the same place anymore; or, finally and more cruelly, what it means when the place we once knew and loved somehow contests our very claim to that place.

To put it another way, Trethewey’s poems grapple with the ways that time changes things—how lives become history, how history becomes hazy and distant, and how the meanings we attach to the people and events alter in our memory. Trethewey is working through this fertile ground in her poems—contemplating place and history, family and race, as well as loss, memory and meaning. For readers who take the time to savor these poems, Trethewey offers powerful insights into our nation’s complicated racial history.

John Coward teaches media studies and journalism at The University of Tulsa. He is a member of the Nimrod Advisory Board and the author, most recently, of Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press (University of Illinois Press, 2016).

The Love of a Typewriter

by Adrienne G. Perry

My mother kept her college typewriter in the basement of our house in Cheyenne. It came in a heavy, jade green case that made whoever carried it lopsided. I didn’t give it much time then. Typewriters were for filling in official forms or addressing a special letter’s envelope. An occasional plunking of the keys satisfied me, as did the fast, cranking sound of loading paper around the machine’s cylinder. I learned enough to know to use two sheets, but in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, all of my friends and I wanted computers. Typewriters were like great-great-aunts watching public service announcements from their La-Z-Boys. Their time had come and passed.

Around 2009, my opinion on typewriters changed. I was working fulltime at a boarding school and my writing—what writing!—had veered off into a ditch. When I was visiting a friend who does book arts in Western Mass, we stopped by the “Amherst Typewriter and Computer Store,” which I had passed largely without curiosity during many years of living in the Pioneer Valley. I thought, “This might be a fun way to get back on the horse.”

Wood paneling lined the store’s walls. Papers, vintage laptops, and personal computers cluttered its surfaces. It smelled of cigarettes and housed gorgeous typewriters of different sizes and temperaments, which Bob, the owner, was happy to let us test-run. I remember, fine and mechanical as a praying mantis, a small, bright green typewriter that would have wiped out my savings. I chose a 1930s Smith-Corona with smooth, cat’s eye keys. Bob loaded a new ribbon and showed me how to reverse it for extra use.

Back at my apartment in New Jersey, I slid in two sheets of printing paper and wrote. I do not remember what I wrote, but I do remember it involved ladybugs and I was pleased—both with the tactile feel and the sound of the typewriter’s keys, but also with the way my writing appeared when not constantly edited and second-guessed.


Over the last eight years, writing on a typewriter has played a key role in getting writing done, minimizing self-censorship, and writing in more imaginative ways. My handwriting is virtually illegible and goes too slowly for drafting, but typing on the Smith-Corona is fast, clear, and connects me to a well of thought and language beyond my surface-level thinking. In working on my novel yesterday, I rewrote on the typewriter a scene I’d worked all the juiciness out of. In the typewritten draft the tone darkened, the sense of persona clarified. I’m not sure this rewrite represents the “right” direction, but the sentences and imagery were livelier and got me thinking anew.

During her visit to Houston last year, Annie Proulx spoke to a group of young writers. She talked about the pleasure of getting a nice notebook you’re excited to write in and a pen you’re excited to write with. At the end of a day of writing, she suggested, try to make one or two sentences so beautiful they’re like sculpture. The way Proulx feels about a journal and pen, I feel about a typewriter. It brings me back to the pleasure of writing, of crafting worlds with words.

(Note: Christopher Latham Sholes, the inventor of the typewriter, was born the day this post was written, Valentine’s Day.)

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

Contributor Interview: Eric Schlich

Eric Schlich’s story “Merlin Lives Next Door” was published in Leaving Home, Finding Home (60.2) last spring, and his “Lucidity” appears in the current issue of Nimrod, Awards 39 (61.1). His collection Quantum Convention & Other Stories, featuring these stories originally published in Nimrod, recently won University of North Texas Press’s 2018 Katherine Anne Porter Prize. The book will be published this November. We talked with Eric about his writing and editing life—here’s our Q&A:

Q: Do you have a specific place where you like to write?

 A: Yes. I’m of the Virginia Woolf mind on this one. I need a room of my own, where I can close the door, think my thoughts, and put words on the page. This room has changed as I’ve moved about for academic programs and university teaching positions.

During my M.F.A. in Bowling Green, Ohio, it was a cramped attic (my head touched the ceiling—I’m tall, six-three). My wife (girlfriend at the time) referred to it as my “batcave.” “Fortress of Solitude” might have been more appropriate, since she’s a Superman fan.

In Tallahassee, Florida, while I was in the Ph.D. program at Florida State, it was a tiny bedroom filled with crummy black fiberboard bookshelves from Walmart (we dream of living in a house with a library room someday and swoon when we see or hear the words “built-in bookshelves” when looking for places to rent).

In Dunkirk, New York, where we currently live, I have another small bedroom, but most of the bookshelves didn’t survive the move, so many of my books are stacked on the floor, lining the walls all around the room. My friend (and previous roommate), poet Anna Rose Welch, has diagnosed me with “tsundoku,” which is a Japanese word for compulsively buying books and letting them pile up on shelves, floors, nightstands, etc. I never seem to have enough bookshelves and I’m loathe to sell my books even after I’ve read them.

 Q: Do you wait for inspiration to write?

A: No. Absolutely not. Waiting for inspiration is a good way to never write a novel or even a short story. Yes, there’s such a thing as a lightning-in-the-bottle eureka! moment that surprises and delights you, but who has time to stand in a field with an open mason jar during a thunderstorm, just waiting for that to happen?

I trust habit more than inspiration. Everyone thinks they have a novel or story in them, simply because they have an idea. But the work of writing is not merely in idea-making; it’s in actually writing. That’s the hard part: sitting down at your desk on the days you feel like it and (more importantly) on the days you don’t. I’d choose discipline over inspiration every time.

 Q: Both stories of yours we’ve published have magical elements. Is this typical of all of your writing—do you find that you’re drawn to stories with some magic?

 A: Yes, I’m drawn to stories with magic, and I mean this both literally and figuratively. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is a generational touchstone—unavoidable as an influence. And elements from fairy tales, fables, and myths have shown up in several of my stories.

Many of my favorite contemporary short story writers—George Saunders, Karen Russell, Kelly Link, Aimee Bender—are doing wonderful things with (for lack of a better term) “magical realism.” Once upon a time, magical realism referred to a Latin American aesthetic attributed to the founders of the genre, such as Gabriel García Márquez, but it’s since been diluted (and Americanized).

I’m most interested in exploring stories that juxtapose a grounded reality—mundane, often suburban—with the magical (as in “Merlin Lives Next Door”) or operate on a conceit that gets at a deeper issue, often the internal struggle of a character (like the lucid dreaming conference as a parallel to A.A. in “Lucidity”).

I’ve always wanted to write about time travel. I taught a literature course on The Time Travel Novel (in which we read Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, Kurt Vonnegut, Octavia Butler, Audrey Niffenegger, and Charles Yu), but so far I’ve only been able to write about the subject at a slant. For instance, Geoff lives next door to Merlin, so his experience of his neighbor’s time travel is all vicarious and only emphasizes his own stasis. I also have a story called “Quantum Convention” in which the main character, Colin, meets his multiple selves at a parallel universe convention. Not quite time travel, but close.

The line between “genre fiction” and “literary fiction” (if such an artificial line need exist) has become increasingly blurred these days with writers like Benjamin Percy, whose novel Red Moon uses werewolves (or “lycans”) to comment on America’s war on terror. Look at Gregory Maguire’s Wicked books, in which a children’s classic is adapted into an adult series that tackles complex issues of sexuality, coming of age, and being a social outcast.

Literal magic is not typical of all of my writing. Figurative magic is. For instance, there’s “magic” in post-apocalyptic or dystopic fiction. (Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and Feed by M.T. Anderson are two favorites.) It’s hard not to get political these days, and I’ve begun my own dystopic fiction with a story called “Unpresidented!” that reacts to the 2016 election by envisioning a presidential election reality TV show.

I’m also currently writing a novel about a boy whose claim to fame is that he died and went to heaven when he was three. He and his family are recruited in a publicity stunt by a televangelist who owns a religious amusement park called Bible World. The “magic” of this project is in the absurdity of a spiritual belief system (America’s Christian mythos) taken to a commercial extreme (capitalism).

 Q: You’re an editor as well—how does your editorial work affect your writing process?

A: During my M.F.A. at Bowling Green, I was the assistant fiction editor for Mid-American Review. While in my Ph.D. program at Florida State, I was the nonfiction and production editor for The Southeast Review.

Working as an editor is empowering for a writer in a number of ways. For one, it puts you on the other side of the slush pile. You get to see what’s out there and you can’t help but measure it against your own work. It’s confidence-boosting to read a story or essay (more like ten . . . twenty . . . a hundred) that’s just terrible. And yet somebody thought it was ready to be published! Submitting your art is an inherently vulnerable act: you have to be prepared for rejection. Before working as an editor, I was hesitant to submit. The writing was never good enough. But the writing never will be. Reading a lot of bad writing in the slush gave me permission to submit.

It also trained me as a reader of my own work. This is most helpful in the revision process. In the drafting stage, you want to turn that editorial part of your brain off. In revision, you have to distance yourself from the draft and read it objectively—as you would as an editor of someone else’s work. Only the “someone else” is you. This is why Chris Offutt calls revision “performing surgery on yourself without anesthesia.” It’s a difficult skill to learn.

Keep in mind: even if the sentence-level writing is good, the story-telling has to be good, too. Many times a voice would grab me in the opening pages of a submission, but then the story’s climax and resolution (its endgame) would fall flat. This happened so often I’d sometimes get nervous halfway through reading a story I liked (will they stick the landing?). It taught me to pay as close attention to last pages of my stories as to the opening.

Reading submission after submission also allows you to sense when your attention is flagging. Where is the writing not sustaining reader interest? I would then bring this eye to my own work. Is this scene entertaining or can it be cut? Should this dialogue be summarized? Where does the language bog down?

Even more practically, it makes you aware of word counts. Before working as an editor, my stories were all too long. The writing was gratuitous, self-indulgent. As an editor, you only have so many words to fill per issue. And we’d deliberately choose a variety: flash, medium-length, and longer narrative. This challenged me to write shorter, and many of my flash pieces were picked up before my longer stories. One story of mine has been rejected over 80 times, and I swear it has to do with the length (it’s 8,000 words). An editor has to really get behind a story that long to publish it.

SchlichEric Schlich‘s stories have appeared or will appear in Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, Fairy Tale Review, Mississippi ReviewHayden’s Ferry Review, Electric Literature, Redivider, River Styx, Nimrod, New South, and other publicationsHe is the recipient of a Tennessee Williams Scholarship at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, an Edward H. and Marie C. Kingsbury Fellowship, and a residency at the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences. He currently teaches at SUNY Fredonia and lives in Dunkirk, New York.

The Feast Before Her / The Threat @ Her Back: A Review of Mitchell L.H. Douglas’s dying in the scarecrow’s arms

Authentic (noun) — a word too frequently used in literary reviews.

All art is authentic in one sense: it is the genuine product of a mind and the culture surrounding it. But all art is also inauthentic, because it is something someone has labored over with the goal of perfecting it—something we don’t often get the chance to do with our everyday speech. At worst, authentic is the wrong way to describe art, and at best it is inadequate.

But it’s the word that leaps to mind when I think of Mitchell L.H. Douglas’s writing style, and it’ll have to do until I find a better one.

Douglas’s voice in his third poetry collection, dying in the scarecrow’s arms, is conversational and intimate, and he isn’t afraid of addressing the reader directly. Talking in an interview about his tendency to do this, the poet said, “This is my attempt at the poem being between people instead of between pages in a Frank O’Hara kind of way,” and described his work as “thinking aloud.”

Dying in the Scarecrows Arms - Cover

In his poem “Heretics,” Douglas puts it even more directly: “the rebellion you speak of / is a poet rejecting the language of poetry.”

This authenticity is not just an element of dying in the scarecrow’s arms, but an integral part of its power. Douglas’s celebration of himself, his voice (even when he works in persona), and his blackness is a political act.

The beauty in this collection isn’t only found in the self and the voice, though—quite the contrary. Douglas celebrates the human body, and the work and personalities of countless poets, musicians, icons, and ordinary people. Muhammad Ali, Rita Dove, and Robert Hayden (from whom the title of the work is drawn) all make appearances.

These aren’t name-drops, but ways of getting at what it means to be human—even, or especially, when denied humanity by one’s society. The beauty of Ali’s physical form when fighting, as well as the beauty of his poetic language and quick wit, are quietly emphasized in Douglas’s “{Ení (of the Unreliable Knuckles)}” and “Epilogue”—and the artistry and day-to-day life of an unnamed fellow author are celebrated similarly in his poem “Two Black writers walk into a bar in Colorado is not the beginning of a racist joke,” where he speaks of “lives devoted to lines of witness” and “dare[s] a motherfucker to say something about Alizé or Courvoisier.”

The poet Martín Espada comes into the book early on, his voice entering the poem “Used. Sold.” in the form of a note in a book Mitchell Douglas “rescued” after it was removed from circulation in a Michigan library. The idea of finding beauty—both in the artistic sense and in the sense of a personal connection—in an unexpected place is crucial to this book.

It’s no accident that “Used. Sold.” follows “Loosies,” a poem addressed to the NYPD officer who murdered Eric Garner over cigarettes. Both poems, in very different ways, explore the violence our society directs at people of color. “What’s that like, / standing in place / night after night, / your spine exposed?” the speaker asks in “Used. Sold.” Douglas spends the rest of the collection answering this question—and confronting the answer.

A series of poems titled “Persist,” gradually unfolding a tale of two lovers’ encounter in quiet, intimate language and image, is threaded throughout dying in the scarecrow’s arms. “We glow,” one says, “in candlelight, now halos / in the mirror’s bend.”

In somebody else’s book of poetry, “Persist” might be a respite from the violence that makes up so much of the rest of the book. In this collection, though, “Persist” offers not relief, but a reason for the speaker to continue getting out of bed in the morning; or, put another way, to continue living. Again and again, Douglas finds beauty, joy, and humor even in the world where so many are murdered every day—some names we’ll recognize, from Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland to Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X, and some whose names never get reported or recorded.

A poet I know once casually dismissed Martín Espada’s work as “too political”—a descriptor I’ve rarely heard attached to a white writer’s work— and perhaps it was too political for the library depicted in “Used. Sold.” I can easily imagine Douglas’s work facing the same criticism from some quarters, though the book is much less concerned with something as narrow and sharply defined as “politics” than it is with the things that human hands can make and do: songs and guns, punches and caresses—as in “Selma Love Song,” when Douglas writes: “This body / tuned & flawed, / the fret board / a plank of mercy. / In the burn / of the baddest juke, / no soul fears dance.”

The complication of small moments of joy and power, acts of compassion and mercy in the face of all this pain and oppression, is central to the book, as when the speaker in “Family Business: Indy” asks “How / is this living? How do you keep / your daughter’s mind on the feast / before her, not the threat / @ her back?”

There’s no easy answer in dying in the scarecrow’s arms, but perhaps asking the question provides its own answer—if there is a daughter or fellow writer or friend or lover, or even someone you don’t know, barely audible somewhere out in that “guncentric city” or violent country, then there is a reason to live, and a reason to fight back.

dying in the scarecrow’s arms is available from Persea Books on March 6, 2018

Mitchell LH Douglas

Photo: Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Author site

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.

What Do You Write About?


by Britton Gildersleeve

If you’re a writer, people often ask: what do you write about? Then they ask, how do you think of things to write about? I never know how to answer either question.

I mean, of course I know what I write about, but how do I explain that for me, almost everything I do is about writing? Even when I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing. Sometimes I even dream about writing.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, or that I don’t struggle daily. Yesterday, for instance? I spent the morning reorganizing my desk. It was—of course—a way to put off the hard hard work of writing. But it was also a way to let my mulish brain know that writing was coming, was around the corner from a clean junk drawer, that the unpacking of the bamboo organizers I ordered to rein in the chaos of my desk’s junk drawer was a prelude to order, without as well as within.

My brain was not amused.

I never understand why, even after an entire lifetime spent writing—teaching it, doing it, reading it, learning it, eating sleeping and breathing it—it remains so darn hard. I can create a meal from what’s in the pantry pretty regularly (even though years ago I set the kitchen on fire while trying to make donuts). In only a few months I can put together a mixed border that stuns landscape folks, much of it from seed, even though I have watched gardens die in several countries. Friends and family tell me those things are all difficult, as well. But NOT as difficult as writing, I assure you.

If I start with a topic (let’s say, poetry), I find myself stricken mute. Or, worse, brimming with clichés. Without a topic, I organize my desk. I water the orchids. I even clip the cat’s claws! All to avoid the empty screen/page/head.

Here’s where years of listening to “real” writers (like those I’ve met and read through my longtime association with Nimrod) helps.


It’s not easy for anyone to write, it turns out. It’s WORK. In caps, and maybe bold and italics, as well. Just because reading is delicious doesn’t mean writing is. It’s the difference between hauling composted manure to the garden and smelling the flowers that bloom months later. It’s like running, which I did for years, until my knees informed me they were too old for it: the beauty of writing is most often in the afterglow, not the moment of creative perspiration.

But unlike running, or gardening, or even cooking, writing requires an audience at some point. Or else you’re not—at least not to a culture insistent on “authorship”—a “real” writer. I don’t believe that. Neither, by the way, do most “real” writers. They’re well aware that for even the best, luck is often involved in publication. And here’s where what you write about (you thought I was just rambling, didn’t you?) is critical:

If it’s going to interest other folks, it needs to interest you. Passionately interest you.

I’m thinking of Nimrod writers who have written about idiosyncratic (re: not traditional) subjects. B.H. “Pete” Fairchild and his father’s machine shop. Henry Taylor and the gaits of horses. Natasha Trethewey and her sonnets in the voice of a black soldier in the Civil War. Denise Levertov—one of my favorite poets—who spent years writing about the landscapes she could see from her home. Philip Levine’s working-class Americans, Lucille Clifton’s black women. More than write what you know, these poets illustrate clearly the value of writing what you’re passionate about. A recent Nimrod judge—Robin Coste Lewis—turned the ekphrastic poem on its head, using the figures of black women from centuries of art to examine “race and Western art.” The results of each of these writers’ work is stunning and deconstructs any idea that there are fixed tropes we should write about.

So back to what I write about … Right now? I write about this fascinating new pastorale outside my windows. I write about loss, and aging, and other “traditional” topics. I also write about the ubiquitous roadkill on rural roads (“once there was a small bear”), the blue jay brothers hogging the bird feeders, and the way rain is so very different in the mountains than it is in the plains. And thanks to all the writers before me, I don’t feel guilty. Now, if I can just figure out a way to explain that more simply!

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.


The W’s: Work and Why We Write (and Other Impossible Subjects)

by Francine Ringold

In 2004, Nimrod International Journal published an issue entitled Fabulae! What Work Is. The issue included poems and stories about bricklaying, science, planting, cooking—the music of the hammer and the lure of the coal mine. The performance script that emerged from the issue relating physical work and literature was presented at the meeting room of the Carpenter’s Union 205, among other places. The script further developed the theme, incorporating excerpts of poems and stories from carpenter-poet Vachel Lindsey; airplane factory worker and poet Richard Hugo; doctors, like William Carlos Williams, who wrote a poem a day while in medical school; and insurance salesmen, like Wallace Stevens. There was work from Richard Eberhart, who sold Johnson’s Wax door to door; from farmers, like Robert Frost; from B.H. (Pete) Fairchild’s book of poems The Art of the Lathe; from mothers, like Lucille Clifton, who worked several physical labor jobs simultaneously; and, of course, from Philip Levine, whose What Work Is brings to life blue-collar work in Detroit, where he grew up. All these and many more, including prose writers demonstrate the dynamic link between the written word and physical labor. It is easy to say these writers are workers.

But what of the writers who never met a machine, washtub, or currycomb? Do they work? Can we call it work, that high-precision mental labor of writing? Or is it all inspiration, as so many people think—especially those we meet at cocktail parties? Is writing just the prophetic, the vatic voice bursting forth? And if it is work, hard work, why do we do it? Why do we write a poem, a story, a memoir?

It makes one tremble, trying to sum up a subject everyone who’s ever taken pen to paper or fingers to keyboard or arrowhead to stone has wrestled with. But I am stuck with my subject and awed by it, just as awed as I am by the passion of my fellow writers, by the commitment to the difficult and obsessive task we have embraced.

So, I’ll start with the obvious: the job we writers do is not easy; it is not often financially rewarding. It is seldom starlit. It is often disheartening—if not plain painful. While writing we often break a sweat, our muscles ache, our metabolism races. In other words, we are at work, and, as Pulitzer Prize-winner Stanley Kunitz said, “a poem without the body in it lies dead on the page.”

All this mental and physical effort! Why do we do it? Are we all masochists? Surely we must love our chosen task; surely it brings us joy as well as pain. Indeed—and I believe part of that joy is right there in the 3 W’s: Who, When, Where. In composition class we are asked to enunciate these 3 W’s before we write. Professional and would-be professional writers acknowledge that we usually discover the who and the when and the where as we write the first draft—and perhaps even the second or third.

We write and read to discover Who we are, to balance the risk of reaching out into the unknown by finding ourselves. In that process of discovery, we are, of course, writing to unburden our minds and hearts just as we read to embrace the stories and the burden of others.

We write to create the moments When we are more than we are in our everyday lives.

We write and read to discover Where we are, to plant our feet in the land of our ideas and the homebase of relationships and the very earth we need to stand on. Additionally, and ironically, we write in order to plant ourselves firmly in our dream space. And this brings us “joy” . . . and this makes us fall in love with the process.

Though our search is not as calculated as it sounds, though often we do our best work when we don’t know what we are doing, even when we experience the shock of inspiration, of momentarily breathing in the essence of what is out there—there is also and always the search to go deeper. And in that search and struggle to clarify, to find the exact words, sounds, rhythms, and to set down what we breathe in, what we think, what we feel—we acquire technique. Then, as Mark Shorer insisted, technique becomes discovery.

And so we not only write—we read and encourage reading; we not only write—we re-think and re-write, and develop technique. We Wright, employing another W—to wright, like wheel-wright and ploughwright and playwright.

It is a risky process, it is work, but it is worth it, for above all, we write not only to discover but because in that process of discovery we breathe in new, fresh air. That, I suppose, is the real meaning of inspiration, the power of the breath that underlies all work and play (which in the best scenario is the same thing). But to go on:

We write and read to breathe, to discover and to record not only what is new, but the past, history (his-story and her-story), to record past lives and the spirit of a time and place.

We also write to refresh history, to make it new, for the past is also subject to change. Each generation looks at the past from a new angle, in the light of new discoveries: a letter once buried; a scientific finding; eyewitnesses coming forward—to capture, as a renowned historian said, the “fly in the inkwell.”

We write to exercise and develop skills of enunciation of the past and present but also to expand our imaginations, to extend the gesture, without which relationships among disciplines—science, business, medicine, law—as well as relationships among people falter and fade.

We read and write because we have a dream, a need, something we must say, and we are in love with people and places and emboldened to reach out for the words, their power, rhythm, sound, and sense, the words that may approximate in some small way—but never convey entirely—the wonder that is out there.

We write and read to preserve our dream space as well as to acknowledge our responsibility space. (I believe I read that somewhere; it is not my original concept.) And yes and yes and yes . . . it is true; we already do so much that acknowledges that “responsibility” space, we responsible ones, we who “respond” to family and friends and state and country, but also to principle and history and tradition.

However, we remind ourselves that despite Shelley and others, creative writers are not hierophants, are not prophets nor didactic teachers nor systematic philosophers. That is our strength. We don’t have to be.

Yes, we do at times engage the mystery; a poem or story comes to us as if from nowhere. But, at the same time, we do often come to a moment of clarity. And then all we have to do is re-write, share, give the gift of poem or story or painting or O-ring . . . offer, extend the gesture . . . no strings attached. Take it or leave it.

It is a risky process, it is work, but it is worth it.

That is why, as Thomas Merton wrote, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” You practice your craft, you exercise until you tap into the mysterious center of things . . . what playwright Pirandello called “the secret room where dreams prowl,” where the Where and the When and the Who are.

In October, 1973, in a letter in which she accepted a position on the Advisory Board of Nimrod, Katherine Anne Porter, famous short story writer, novelist, and teacher, wrote: “Practice an art for love and the happiness of your life—you will find it outlasts almost everything but breath!” And then she added a line from Pascal: “The heart has reasons that reason does not know.”

I guess it boils down to that . . . to the heart and the love of craft and words and speaking in a way that will outlast even breath. For the writing and reading of that writing are there to be discovered again and again . . . to make us new, to preserve the old, to expand life, giving us who we are, where we are, and those precious moments when we are more than we are in our everyday lives.

But all of you know that. . . .

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.


Review of Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages

by Helen Patterson

Every once in a while, I’m drawn to a book by someone I’ve never heard of because of the tittle. This was the case with Ellen Klages’s short story collection Wicked Wonders (2017). Klages is an award-winning author, primarily of science fiction, historical fiction, and science writing, whose earlier publications include The Green Glass Sea, White Sands, Red Menace, and Portable Childhoods.

Klages’s style is unlike anything I’ve seen recently and is hard to describe. Each story has a different feel to it, likely because, by her own confession, Klages is a little obsessive about researching content, style, and voice for all her pieces. Sometimes her writing is like Ray Bradbury’s; sometimes she’s evocative of Shirley Jackson or more contemporary authors such as Kelly Link. Science and the wonder of the mathematical and physical properties that make up the universe inform her stories, as does a careful attention to details. “Mrs. Zeno’s Paradox” drolly displays the absurdity of applying mathematical paradoxes to real-world dessert division, and “Gone to the Library” explores a budding mathematical prodigy’s conflation of math and magic as she encounters imaginary numbers and magic squares.

Klages is at her best when drawing from her own experiences, particularly those from her childhood. In her story notes, she says that “The Education of a Witch,” “Woodsmoke,” and “The Scary Ham,” three of the strongest pieces in the collection, all draw heavily from her experience and memories of childhood. Told from a preschool girl’s perspective, “The Education of a Witch” balances the intensity of feeling and sensory input that children experience with the limited means children have to conceptualize and act out these sometimes violent responses to real-world events and changes. “Woodsmoke” is the longest piece in the collection, almost a novel, about the liberating experience of camp for a suburban girl stifled by gender norms and expectations. “The Scary Ham” is a brief and hilarious autobiographical piece about the ham that hung in her family’s basement for decades, terrifying everyone who saw it. It seems likely that Klages intentionally bookended her collection: her fictionalized childhood self in “The Education of a Witch” opens the book, and her middle-aged self ends it with the humorous and unforgettable line: “It was a very scary Ham” (256).

The disquieting “Singing on a Star” also draws from a childhood memory, which, later in life, Klages realized was partially fabricated. We all have moments from our childhood that are vaguely magical and ominous when remembered, as if the world suddenly grew soft around the edges, and we peered through at something we were not supposed to see, and Klages captures that feeling perfectly in this piece.

There aren’t any bad pieces in her collection, but for me the least successful were “Sponda the Suet Girl and the Secret of the French Pearl” and “Caligo Lane.” The former has a distinctive high-fantasy vibe, which clashes a little with the tone of the rest of the collection, but what really weakens it is that the main characters are not as multifaceted and well-defined as her other characters. I’m not quite sure what about “Caligo Lane” fails to hit home. It may be that it is brief, and it feels like it needs more room to breathe and develop. Additionally, the main character is almost completely isolated. The reader does not see much of her inner state, as she is thoroughly absorbed in her work, or of her humanity, as she scarcely speaks to another person. This creates distance between the character and the reader, and this gap isn’t easy to bridge.

Two of the strongest pieces in the collection (and, not coincidentally, my personal favorites) are “Amicae Aeternum” and “Goodnight Moons.” Both pieces are sci-fi but barely, set in futures that are very recognizable and, possibly, quite close to our own. Klages does an excellent job of mixing her exhaustive research and knowledge into a world recognizable in its details and its people, allowing us easily to enter her near-future worlds. There are neither dystopias or utopias, but are rather both tragic and triumphant, as the best and most human stories often are.

It isn’t often that I read more than one book by the same writer. There are so many, many books in the world, and more being written all the time. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who often feels like she is awash in a vast tide of words. However, in Klages I’ve found an author who not only is gifted but who also speaks to me in a personal way that is hard to describe and rare to experience. Several of her stories struck a chord in my heart, twisting it in unexpected directions and upending my world in sympathy with her characters. I’m looking forward to finding and reading Ellen Klages’s other work, both past and future, and I recommend that you do the same.

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.

On Place, Memory, and Meaning


by John Coward

Some of my favorite writers are tied to places, small places that are usually overlooked in the larger literary landscape. I’m not sure why that’s the case, but I seem drawn to writers whose literary imaginations are rooted in out-of-the-way locations, places that are real but that are also more deeply felt and imagined in literature than in real life.

One of those writers is the twentieth-century novelist Thomas Wolfe, whose sprawling novels and stories were largely autobiographical, tied to his own experiences growing up in Asheville, North Carolina. Wolfe’s novels are out of style these days—unfortunately, in my view—but Wolfe’s rambling prose captures something essential and powerful about his days as a boy in Asheville. Even a cursory dip into the pages of Look Homeward, Angel reveals a time and place rich with smells and sounds and a vivid sense of a world that once was and is now lost.

Look Homeward Angel

I grew up in East Tennessee, just over the mountain from Asheville, which helps explain my interest in Wolfe and his novels. To me, there is something special about reading the words of someone from your town or region. It’s a romantic notion, I admit, but those writers breathed the same air I did, drank the same water, walked the same streets. They were here, in this place, like me. When I traveled to Asheville as a college student, I walked through Wolfe’s neighborhood, fully aware that the great writer himself once walked those very streets.

My English teachers—bless them!—introduced me to Wolfe and other local writers, including people from my hometown who had published books in New York. I was thrilled. In my innocence, I did not think it was possible for a small-town writer to ascend to such literary heights. But once I grasped this idea, I came to see that Johnson City, Tennessee, my hometown—this obscure corner of the world—could be the foundation for a fully-realized life, in literature and in fact. This place and thousands of other places in America and across the world could be imagined in ways that emphasized their unique qualities. The very act of writing about such places was ennobling in a way—almost sacred. Telling the stories of the people in such places was a creative act that gave meaning to the ordinariness of life. Asheville came alive in Wolfe’s stories, and even my own modest town became something greater when it was imagined for the printed page.

I was reminded of these ideas this fall as I re-read Sue Monk Kidd’s novel The Secret Life of Bees, a book that got its start as a short story by the same name in Nimrod. Kidd sets her book in rural South Carolina, mostly in a town called Tiburon. This is a fictional town—I checked—but Kidd makes it seem real. The novel is set in 1964. When Lily, the main character, walks down Main Street in Tiburon, she passes the drugstore with its “soda fountain with chrome trim, where they sold cherry Cokes and banana splits. . . .” She walks past the insurance agency and the county rural electrical office and the dime store with “Hula Hoops, swim goggles, and boxes of sparklers in the window with SUMMER FUN spray-painted across the glass.”

For readers of my generation, these details gave Tiburon a kind of authenticity. It was a place I recognized and wanted to visit. I wanted to see the pink house, home to Kidd’s fictional sisters, May, June, and August, and the honey house out back where Lily and Rosaleen found refuge. As I read Kidd’s words I found myself more than once wanting to get in the car and drive to South Carolina to see Tiburon and the other places that inspired her. The places she imagined, like Thomas Wolfe’s Asheville or my own Johnson City, are small but vital places where ordinary yet amazing people carry on and endure, come what may.

John Coward teaches media studies and journalism at The University of Tulsa. He is a member of the Nimrod Advisory Board and the author, most recently, of Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press (University of Illinois Press, 2016).




Long Story Short 

by Jeff Martin

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve probably seen The Shawshank Redemption 100 times. Maybe more. Often in bits and pieces. I didn’t have a chance to see the film in the theater; honestly, I don’t know many people who did. While it was nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture, it wasn’t a huge hit right out of the gates. My first experience with Shawshank came on a rainy day when I was home sick from school. A rented VHS copy sat atop the entertainment center. Not having much else to do, I cracked open the clamshell Blockbuster case, popped in the video, and took the ride. I was 14 years old.

As you probably know, in the more than two decades since, the film has become a true classic, eternally re-watchable. It’s probably playing on at least one channel right now, if not more. But it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I took the time to rewatch it from beginning to end. By the time the credits began to roll over the crystal-clear waters of Zihuatenejo, Mexico, I was in a state of awe and utter confusion.

You know the ending: Tim Robbins’s character Andy crawls through sewage to freedom. Red, portrayed by Morgan Freeman, is left behind until he’s paroled and reintroduced to the world. He doesn’t think he can take it. But he has made a promise. The film ends with Red violating his parole, buying a bus ticket, looking wistfully out the window as the bus moves down the road, and then, finally, Red and Andy reunite on the beach. Roll credits.

It’s all wrapped up tightly, perfectly. But what if that final scene on the beach was only in Red’s mind, was his dream of what might happen? After all, the “redemption” of the title isn’t about Andy Dufresne; he was innocent. No redemption needed. Red, on the other hand, was a murderer.

I went back to the source, the novella called “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” from Stephen King’s collection Different Seasons. I was certain I’d read it before. In fact, I distinctly remember buying a copy as a kid, more eager than ready to read adult fiction, probably inspired by my love for Stand By Me, the film inspired by King’s story “The Body.”


The novella ends with the same text used for Red’s final voiceover:

“I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend, and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”

Some strategic Googling soon revealed that the film’s director, Frank Darabont, initially refused to shoot the beach scene, wanting to keep the story as King intended. In the end, it doesn’t really matter if Red and Andy reunite. It only matters that Red believes they will, that he hopes.

It’s a thrilling feeling, that moment when something you think you know becomes new again, becomes alive. Films, stories, poems—these things don’t change over time. We do.

Jeff Martin, Nimrod Advisor, is the founder of the Tulsa Literary Coalition’s BookSmart Tulsa, an organization that brings numerous acclaimed authors to Tulsa every year.

River Pretty Writers Retreat

by Cassidy McCants

Every six months, writers from all over the South and the Midwest come together on the banks of the North Fork of the White River in Tecumseh, Missouri, for a weekend in the Ozarks. River Pretty Writers Retreat, started in 2012 by alumni of Missouri State University and Vermont College of Fine Arts, offers generative workshops in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction; panel discussions; informal talks; and readings by faculty members and participants. Retreat attendees also have the opportunity to share samples of their writing with faculty members who offer individual manuscript critique sessions.


Participant Bailey Moore reading at RP 13

I’ve just returned from RP 13, my third consecutive retreat in Tecumseh. After all the news about—and the reality of—natural disasters lately, my mind’s been on last spring’s RP 12, during which we endured a flood, the result of a powerful storm system that put much of Arkansas and Missouri underwater. Last spring we had to retreat from our retreat; this fall’s stay in the Ozarks was the more tranquil experience you’d expect from a weekend in the Ozarks. The flood damage earlier this year wasn’t nearly as devastating as it could have been. Our flood provided just a glimpse of the potential effects of a natural disaster.

The Flood

On Saturday afternoon, day two of RP 12 in late April, we watched the rain fall on Dawt Mill, the retreat’s riverfront site, which includes a restaurant, a bar, a general store, cabins, and an inn. By dinnertime the storm had strengthened, and it was clear that the basement of the restaurant would be underwater soon. We’d expected the rain, but the forecast hadn’t prepared us for the storm raging in front of us, feeding the river that grew visibly closer each hour. After dinner it looked like time to move up the hill, so we gathered at the inn, which is quite a bit farther up the bank. At this point we’d lost electricity, and some of us were without phone service. We were told by area police to stay on the hill but not to attempt to drive away from Dawt Mill, as several roads nearby were completely flooded already. I’d been enjoying the rain, but fear and anxiety were creeping up for me and for my roommates. A few friends had planned to camp, and we offered to share our space at the inn with them; we tried to keep calm as they moved in their bedding, their food, their personal items. Some of us spoke openly about the fear setting in; some of us were quiet, waiting anxiously for any indication the storm would end soon.

One “cowboy comedian,” a Dawt Mill entertainer, serenaded us that evening as the rain kept at it. Because he couldn’t leave the mill either, it seemed that he was stuck with us for the night. During a break in the music, just as the last bit of daylight left, I walked onto the porch of the inn and saw something I think I might never forget—I saw the cabin in front of me, just maybe forty feet away, wash away into the river. Dawt Mill was nearly unrecognizable—much of it had been taken by the water, only an hour or so after dinner. I wasn’t yet afraid for my life, really, but I knew we might not be able sleep in our room that night. I didn’t know where we’d go. The storm wasn’t giving up.

Soon, fortunately, local firefighters found a safe escape route for us and led a caravan to the firehouse. Most of us slept a few hours that night in our cars in the parking lot there. In the morning the firemen prepared us breakfast and let us know as updates came in about the state of the roads nearby. I’d ridden to the firehouse with my friend Bailey, so once it was safe she took me back to my car at Dawt Mill. The river hadn’t touched my car at all, and though Bailey and I were relieved to see that most of the buildings still were standing, the damage was pretty devastating. The inn was there, but it was soggy, smelling of wet wood; debris covered the grounds where cabins had stood. Thanks to local firefighters and police, the Dawt Mill staff, and River Pretty faculty, no one in our group was hurt or lost. Everyone survived, but it was clear everyone was shaken by the reality of the water’s power. I know I was. This was the closest I’d been to a life-threatening natural disaster—and I live in Oklahoma, land of tornadoes. Water is pretty, and water is powerful.

The Comeback

I wasn’t sure we’d have a place to gather for this fall’s retreat, but Dawt Mill was open and ready for us the first weekend of October. I also wasn’t sure how many people who’d endured the flood would go back—the experience surely caused some trauma. But I found that many of the attendees from the spring had readily returned. I spoke with a retreat-goer and friend, Hannah, this past weekend about the experience—she said, “I felt like I had to come back after that.” I knew exactly what she meant; the force of the flood had brought us all together. It was a terrifying experience we all endured, and RP is just the place to share those stories. We’d seen nature’s power, its rage, and we’d survived.

IMG_2772RP 13, though, brought us beautiful weather, low water levels, communion, and free time to write in the Ozarks. This fall’s guest faculty members were Robert Vivian (pictured) and Rick Jackson, both faculty members at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Their readings, as well as those by River Pretty faculty (Ian Bodkin, Lee Busby, Rich Farrell, Chaz Miller, Jen Murvin, Steve Rucker) and retreat participants, created a warm, cozy, and inspirational atmosphere as soon as we gathered.

If you’re a writer in the area, I hope you’ll consider attending a retreat in the future. I’ve always loved autumn, but now that I have River Pretty—even after a flood!—and the Nimrod Conference for Readers and Writers to look forward to, I eagerly await October all year long. I think it’s all about coming together with a community that makes you feel at home and that encourages and inspires your growth. Together we thrive.

And now it’s writing conference time for Nimrod! Join us in Tulsa this weekend for the Conference for Readers and Writers, and join the River Pretty crew next spring.

Cassidy McCants, Associate Editor of Nimrod, is an M.F.A. candidate in Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts.