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.

Moore

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.

 

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.