Every Poem Is a Poem About Loss: A Realization of Grief

by Colin Pope

In 2010 my ex, Jennie, killed herself, and I responded by writing about that loss. It wasn’t until I seriously undertook the writing of grief poetry that I realized all poems were grief poems. To be honest, when I began writing about Jennie’s suicide I didn’t have any firm plan to turn it into a book. I think this is how most people begin to cope with grief; they lash out, scribbling or drawing or, in some cases, burning and shattering their realities. That my grieving took the shape of a book was almost accidental. Similarly, the understanding that every poem contains the emotional, physical, or psychological tenor of grief came via dumb luck.

We generally forget about grief during our reading and writing of poetry. I think we forget this out of necessity, since constantly reminding oneself of the specter of loss can grow a little taxing on the nerves. We compartmentalize when we come to lyric or narrative poetry. But all poetry deals in some type of loss, and it’s good to remember this, if only to keep lucid what poetry means to us.

One thing I recall is how more than one of my poetry teachers explained that “most poets spend their entire lives trying to write a single poem.” It’s a fairly common poetry saying, and it’s terribly sad. Every poet has a blind spot in their comprehension of the universe, and they are chasing single, perfect, unachievable poems to offer them lasting, glittering insight into themselves. This blind spot could be a gap between the semiotic capabilities of language and emotion, or simply an inner conflict that will never find resolution; the poet will write about this topic or conflict or theme over and over, even after they know it’s unsolvable. Think about Robert Frost’s obsession with choice and fate, or Wallace Stevens’s burrowing into the workings of the imagination, or Sylvia Plath’s emotional mythologization of the pastoral and domestic. Poetic obsessions like these stem from a longing for meaning, especially at the points where it continually slips from the poet’s grasp. This is grief: a perpetual loss that will never find closure.

In terms of poetics, even the usage of lineation addresses grief. Poets and critics seem perpetually to ask, “How do we define the line?” I know I was called to address this question in many a class. The most common response is that a line of free verse is measured in breath; line breaks are pauses in either thought or speech. There’s a “visual breath” that occurs in poems; it’s how poets lineate their ideas to catch in readers’ minds. So, if breath is implicit in lineation, then the poem is a figure of exhalation. A poem’s reading literally occurs while the body is emptying itself of life force. One poet I know is fond of citing the physiological occurrences within the body in relation to breath: when we inhale, the blood fills with oxygen, the muscle tissue heals, and the bones grow denser, and when we exhale, we do the opposite. Poetry occurs on the dying breath. Each line uttered or written is a line that shortens life while searching for life’s meaning.

Through a lyric poem’s attempt at permanence (it’s written in ink, after all), I find myself reminded of the impermanence that exists in my life. The poet’s cataloguing of their thoughts and feelings is a figuration that serves to affirm intellectual existence; I am here, at this moment, alive. This is also where poetry differs from fiction and other forms of prose. Rather than a narrative that adheres to something like Freytag’s pyramid, concluding with characters experiencing a denouement, poems point their writers and readers to the psyche, to the place where meaning attaches to mortality rather than resolution. (Take even William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” for instance; the realization that “so much depends” upon this wheelbarrow is a sad one when one thinks about making meaning of a life. Or why care about the utility of the object at all if not for its greater, impermanent meaning within that life?) This is not to say that prose writers are immune. I’ve heard a number of fiction writers allude to the idea that writing “lasts forever”; implicit, then, is that writers do not.

This type of thinking used to make me sad. It’s too existential in some ways, too forlorn and depressive. Why write or read poems at all, then? First, let’s not neglect the other half of grief, which is love. Writing about Jennie’s death allowed me to love her—to tell her I loved her and I missed her—in many ways I didn’t while I was alive. In the same way, when I write about more “normal” things now, I’m telling myself I love this moment or this perception, and there’s a lot of earnest virtue in this. But another reason to read and write poems rests inside that old Platonic saw about “the unexamined life.” I suspect—without any real proof, mind you—that poets are the types of people who feel most comfortable examining themselves on paper, tallying up inner thoughts and realizations to discover if their lives are “worth living.”

Both the reading and the writing of such thoughts provides what Socrates himself claimed to be the only important pursuit in life: wisdom. If the knowledge of our own mortality is the initial loss that separates children from adults, then the lifelong grieving for this loss—the certainty that we will, someday, end—must be the catalyst for poetic obsessions. I find this inspiring. It’s easier to write with purpose when I accept the irrevocability of this loss. Grief is inherent in a mortal world; joy, surprise, and humor are not, and each can make welcome additions to a poem.

If you find this circular reasoning confusing, you’re not alone. I still struggle, poetically, with how death lives in the breath and permanence means impermanence and everything is its opposite, and I feel like a pretend mystic when I talk to people about why all poems are grief poems.

But then, sometimes, it helps to clarify if I look at the whole philosophical mess in reverse. Imagine a world where nobody ever died. Imagine yourself in that world. And then ask yourself: what reason would anyone have to write a poem?

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

 

 

The 2019 Francine Ringold Awards Results

The editors of Nimrod International Journal are delighted to announce the winners, finalists, and semi-finalists of the 2019 Francine Ringold Awards for New Writers:

POETRY FIRST PRIZE:
Sarah Ebba Hansen, VA, “Moss Hollow” and other poems

POETRY FINALISTS:
Joanna Currey, TN, “Somerset Olde Creek Pool & Rec. Center” and other poems
Tara Mesalik MacMahon, WA, “In the Old Neighborhood” and other poems
Cindy Juyoung Ok, IA, “Pale Music” and other poems

POETRY SEMI-FINALISTS:
Morgan Hamill, MA, “slept nine cold months” and other poems
Tara Mesalik MacMahon, WA, “Upon Her Backing-Out of Backing-Back-In to the Dating Pool” and other poems
Jake Orbison, NY, “Fountains” and other poems
Angela Sucich, WA, “They Ask Me If I Speak Spanish” and other poems
Katelyn Wilkinson, NV, “Wild Caught” and other poems

FICTION FIRST PRIZE:
Alison Ho, CT, “Ars Poetica”

FICTION FINALIST:
Gauraa Shekhar, NY, “Other Significant Others: A Glossary”

FICTION SEMI-FINALISTS:
Cyd Clemmons, VA, “Second Person”
Angie Kang, CA, “For Four Hands”
Lauren Loftis, MA, “Highway 12”
Hayley Swinson, NC, “The Big Questions”
Virginia Wood, TX, “It Whitened and Stretched into Vastnesses”

Congratulations to all these wonderful writers! Thank you so much to everyone who submitted.

Our 2020 Francine Ringold Awards opens May 1st, 2020, and you can submit your works of creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. More information is available on our website: https://artsandsciences.utulsa.edu/nimrod/francine-ringold-awards/.

Healing Through Second Intention: Britton Gildersleeve on Colin Pope’s WHY I DIDN’T GO TO YOUR FUNERAL

Poet Colin Pope’s collection Why I Didn’t Go to Your Funeral details the kind of ragged, jagged wound that’s impossible to repair neatly. Physicians say injuries like these must heal naturally, without stitches, from the base outward to the skin: a wound to heal by “secondary intention.”[1] This wound, in Pope’s case, is the loss of an ex to suicide. The healing here is much like the gauze used to pack such a wound: messy and painfully ugly in its own right.

But still, somehow, horrifically beautiful. And necessary.

I’m warning you, however, not to read this collection when your own grief is fresh. Pope describes “The Excess Stages of Grief,” in which “you start sweating at midnight/and don’t stop until after sunrise” and the trauma around “Viewing the Body Before Cremation,” when “[t]he strings in the backs of my legs/had gone slack, my joints disconnected/like an unstrung marionette.” No, these are probably not the best opportunities to catch your breath in the throes of articulate suffering.

Perhaps read it when, after years of grief, you can conjugate the tenses of hang and hanged and hung, as Pope does, sandwiching that parsing between scintillating flights into Greek and Latin, and words brilliant with lexical baggage: vaticination, boscage. Pope ranges between ancient Greek history and Paleolithic bone fragments and astronomy and old Alexandria, in one poem alone (“How to Tell If a Moon Is Waxing or Waning,” one of my favorites in the collection). Your own grief will find comfort in Pope’s darkly gorgeous landscape, where “the ragged corpse of goodbye/is waiting for us to find it.”

The poems travel from Buddhist ashram to Louisiana, from a discursion on nature (“Whatever Nature Means”) to an envy-generating (for this writer) send-up of the inadequacies of language. Here are the lines of a poet in his glory days, with internal rhymes to pleasantly surprise you and line breaks that gently, effortlessly cloak each word.

The collection is also an eloquent critique of poetry’s inadequacies. “Variations on Trouble” reminds us that all of it “is language’s fault,/or the fault of everyone who ever taught anyone/to use it inaccurately, or knowing that it is/inaccurate, using it anyway,” that “tragedy [ . . . ] is also/irony”; that “crisis [ . . . ] is also disaster [ . . . ] is calamity, woe/distress.” Each stack of blocks of words illuminates another polyhedral face of grief.

Then, just in time, a poem like “Extract” intervenes, quiet in its sorrow, playing with fragrances (as if they were not conjuring a ghost). As if Je Reviens didn’t mean I come again. . . .

Here’s my recommendation: you need this book if you have ever lost someone. You need it because someday you will, and it will be waiting for you. But read it carefully, as you would dose a bitter but life-saving elixir, sip by sip. Remember that healing by second intention is difficult. But if Pope’s book is any indication, it’s possible.

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

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

[1] Second Intention Healing, according to RNCentral : “A wound that is extensive and involves considerable tissue loss, and in which the edges cannot be brought together heals in this manner. This is how pressure ulcers heal. Secondary intention healing differs from primary intention healing in three ways: 1) The repair time is longer. 2) The scarring is greater. 3) The chances of infection are far greater.”

(https://www.rncentral.com/blog/2012/wound-healing-a-process-almost-all-rns-encounter/)

Image from https://www.spdbooks.org/Products/9781948800228/why-i-didnt-go-to-your-funeral.aspx

Saudade, Season, Space: Chrissy Kolaya’s OTHER POSSIBLE LIVES

by Eric Morris-Pusey

About halfway through reading Chrissy Kolaya’s second poetry collection, Other Possible Lives, I found myself grasping for a word I couldn’t quite remember. It was one of those so-called “untranslatable” words, a concept from another language that doesn’t have an exact English equivalent, like the German sehnsucht or Japanese mono no aware—except that it wasn’t either of those.

I was loath to set the book down, but I felt I had to find the word in order to get across a certain feeling in this review. If only I’d turned the page before turning to Google: all along, the word was waiting in Kolaya’s next poem, “The Most Beautiful Word in the World.”

Saudade: Portuguese for a type
of longing

“The Most Beautiful Word in the World” is built around a variety of these untranslatable words, and a few that have been more fully adopted into English (saboteurconcertina). But saudade, that particular type of longing, akin to nostalgia but somehow both deeper and wider than that, is not just an intrinsic part of this poem: it’s the essence of Other Possible Lives.

The poems in this book vary widely in subject, but almost all of them—and certainly all of them taken together—create a feeling of saudade for the eponymous other possible lives, the alternate paths that any of us could have taken. It’s nostalgia, but not always for an actual past: rather, it’s for different presents that could have resulted from a slightly changed past.

In “Again,” the past, the present, and a possible future are all intermixed and juxtaposed with a deft control of tense, a blending of possibility and reality:

Your plane
rises safely into the buoyant air
and my bed
is empty
when I return home
without you.

Maybe next year
we will have a small house
and a dog we are trying to train
not to leave us

This appreciation of and longing for alternate possibility is not always simple: Kolaya’s speakers don’t only imagine better possible lives, but the difficulty and pain that arises no matter one’s circumstances or choices—and the moments of hope and beauty present even in the midst of that.

One way in which Kolaya creates and maintains moods of saudade is with images of seasonal change. The poem “Camellias” is a perfect example: the central image of three of the poem’s four sections is of camellias folding in on themselves to survive a frost, being wrapped in blankets by a neighbor, finally reopening: “then open, / then open again, / infinite rose.”

The seasonal images are tied into human events and the human psyche as in the poems of Ellen Bryant Voigt and Jorie Graham. The third section of “Camellias” refers to the neighbor’s son’s suicide. This puts the final image of the flowers blooming in a more violent light, but it also allows for beauty to arise from the mother’s resilience and the son’s memory—it’s not just that terror and beauty are juxtaposed, but that they necessarily blend with each other.

Along with the use of seasonal diction and imagery to present us with Kolaya’s view of the natural world and ideas on the passage and cyclical nature of time, the setting deeply informs the poems and serves as a reflection of speakers’ and characters’ inner worlds as well as the reality of their outer one.

In “The House Sitters,” the sequence that originally appeared in last year’s Awards issue of Nimrod and now opens Other Possible Lives, the central character is looking after someone else’s home with a romantic partner. The feeling of disconnection from and curiosity about the house mirrors a disconnection from the man she’s with, but Kolaya goes beyond just that, imparting a feeling of transience to all the relationships and states of being in the poem: “the second husband [of the homeowner] is dying of cancer”; “[the man] says something about the temperature that means he might love her, at least for the evening”; “hers is a dream life, borrowed.”

Kolaya’s eye for detail and skill at creating and maintaining a mood are on full display in “The House Sitters,” which wonderfully sets the tone for the rest of the book. Even the dogs are a bit desperate and unfulfilled:

One morning they watch a deer creep out of its hiding place, the lab bounding off, the wolfhound galumphing after her in his strange sideways canter, a misguided belief he might catch something so quick.

That “misguided belief,” and the degree to which belief might be misguided, are central to the book as well. Though the poems are nearly always present in a physical space, Kolaya’s speakers also live in imagined worlds (or possible worlds) and we’re often not explicitly told which is the “real” one. The book’s fifth and final section is fittingly titled “Alternate Endings,” and flights of fancy that might also be prescience, like the earlier selection from “Again,” are common throughout the book.

This creates the same kind of complicated duality that the juxtaposition of the suicide and the flowers do in “Camellias,” but on a larger scale: though this book is often concerned with regret and disappointment in the world and its people, there is also a fierce hope and a willingness to imagine something better—and this is further complicated by the fact that the imagination itself is human, and therefore flawed.

One of the collection’s most fascinating examples of this is the poem “Safe Conduct,” which relates, in second person, the story of a “sweet-faced girl” who buys a baseball bat at a secondhand sporting goods shop and carries it around town: “a tremendous bargain— / bright red paint / on old chipped wood.” It imbues her with a sense of power both transcendent and terrible:

The ladies in the dress shop
you stop into
can’t help but stare, imagining
you wielding the bat, fleeing
with armloads of sundresses.

Walking home,
a friend heading toward you on the street,
you hide it behind your back. She
will be delighted, you think. Red paint

bright as fresh blood.

The complexity of its themes, beauty of its images and metaphors, and clarity of its language—along with an often subtle sense of humor—make Other Possible Lives a delightful read. Kolaya creates a world in which, as she ends the last poem “The Right Track,”

It was about to happen.

Everything
was about to happen.

chrissy-kolaya-300x300

Chrissy Kolaya  http://chrissykolaya.com

Other Possible Lives was released October 21, 2019, by Broadstone Books.

 

 

 

 

 

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

The Growing Pains of Building a Better Poetry Canon

by Colin Pope

In case you missed it, the most recent poetry kerfuffle centered on an essay by Bob Hicok originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review in 2018 and reprinted by the UTNE Reader this summer. Hicok, a lauded and highly accomplished poet, acknowledges and laments the changing face of American poetry. The essay—grandiloquently titled “The Promise of American Poetry”—contains such statements as, “Under-represented poets are creating a large and dynamic public space,” while also admitting, “In American poetry right now, straight white guys are the least important cultural voices.” His readership is shrinking, and he feels this may be due, in part, to his straight-white-maleness (and how his poetry often revolves around concerns pertinent to that demographic). The essay posits that, as poetry grows more diverse, so does its readership, which presents a concern not in ideology—Hicok clearly endorses the diversification of poetry—but in import, prestige, and sales for individual straight w.m. poets. Overall, the essay reads, to me, like a mixed message written from a privileged place; he wishes he maintained a loftier position in the public sphere, but he knows his loss of reputation means the poetic canon is actively moving toward a more informed consciousness that will better the canon for future generations.

While there is a progressive message in this essay, Hicok’s contextualizing this message around his shrinking readership and reputation justifiably irritated critics. Notably, Timothy Yu, in The New Republic, posits that Hicok’s piece is “wrong not in its emotions, but in its analysis.” Yu then goes on to provide examples of how Hicok is incorrect, citing VIDA statistics, majority-white winners of recent Pulitzer Prizes, and specific books by poets from historically marginalized backgrounds. At the end of the essay, Yu notes, “Because Hicok is so afraid that writers of color are bent on his destruction, he seems not really to have heard them, nor is he able to see them as fellow workers in a widening prospect of American literature.” I wouldn’t say anything in Hicok’s essay portrays him as “afraid that writers of color are bent on his destruction,” but Yu’s response is representative of an important part of this discussion.

One of the issues with this conversation, as a whole, is that it’s so new we don’t exactly know how to approach it. I myself am conflicted about the need for such a conversation, even while listening for its implications about the cultural moment we live in. I’ve been interested in demographic representation in the canon for a while now—and published a study in The Millions on The Norton Anthology of American Literature earlier this year. Like Hicok and Yu, I acknowledge that the poetic canon is moving in a positive direction. And, like both, I recognize that there are certain growing pains that will involve confronting my own and other people’s limited perception of poetry.

The path toward “correcting” the overwhelmingly white and male poetic canon will feel like overcorrection to some poets, and Yu is correct to point this out to Hicok and the rest of us. Poetry publishers are aggressively pursuing a more diverse array of new books, and prize committees have noted the need to support young and upcoming poets from marginalized backgrounds. Indeed, this is a recent phenomenon, and building a better canon often begins at the level of emerging poets. To support new, diverse poets is to support a trend toward the longevity of such a poetry. A quick inspection of the winners over the last three years of three major American poetry first-book prizes—the Walt Whitman Award, the APR/Honickman First Book Prize, and the Yale Series of Younger Poets—reveals a list of excellent poets, none of whom are straight white males. Similarly, the lists of winners of the most prestigious fellowship for emerging American poets, the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowships from the Poetry Foundation, contains a set of fifteen diverse winners over the last three years (no straight white males, also).

It can be easy to see why a straight white male poet would read such statistics and despair. But rather than feeling displaced or disheartened, I’d encourage these poets to recognize that the conversations they will be able to enter as a result of this expanding and diverse poetry will be exciting and important and, moreover, that the need to support loudly and publicly such poets outweighs any immediate concerns about prestige or readership. Poetry exists for readers who need it, now and in the future, and the overarching problem with the canon we currently have is that it doesn’t seem to exist for all potential readers.

What hasn’t been discussed or studied yet is how readers have historically reacted to marginalized poetry, and this is what, I think, Hicok and Yu’s concerns point toward. There’s a need to promote more diverse poets partly because readers can be tribalists, gravitating toward books by people who are most like themselves. And, since straight w.m. poets have historically been the dominant force in poetry, the inequality is unidirectional; while marginalized readers have likely studied a snootful of s.w.m. poems in their primary and further educations, s.w.m. readers may not have read much from marginalized voices. But the readership is shifting toward a desire for more diverse poets. This is more than good: it’s American, and it’s necessary. And the growing pains of making a better canon will appear in conversations like this one, which, though perhaps well-intentioned, seems to neglect the trajectory of poetry into the future.

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

 

 

Review: Barbara Rockman’s to cleave

by Britton Gildersleeve

It’s difficult to write a poem that observes clearly. Not as simple as detailed description: there must not be too many metaphors and similes, only enough that the image offered is pregnant with meaning beneath the surface words. We must be enticed to care about both what the poet is seeing and what they are offering us a view of. Images must reveal and conceal. In her book to cleave, poet Barbara Rockman manages to make this juggling act look effortless.

Just two poems into the book, “Three Peaches on a White Plate,” the peaches “swell . . . in ripening devotion.” The next poem, “At Rest in Rain,” hints at the observer’s mission, in tune with the Rilke epigraph (My looking deepens things and they come toward me to meet and be met.). In other poems, sharp attention to details illuminates a still life, a vignette, a description: a “brackish roadside canal” with a “grass-matted lip”; “the iced deck,/the white-capped night,/gleam that rimmed each porthole”; “clouds like bloated fish.” The landscapes within and without serve as a kind of emotional stereopticon, with the end result a multi-dimensional sense of uneasy beauty. Such specificity creates a window into exterior landscape, as well as a lens through which to view it.

Rockman suggests a dynamic duality, beginning with the opposing climates and terrains of “Flying Home from the Pacific Coast Rim, I Consider the Rio Grande Rift”: “I/press one knee into damp pine duff/one into cold pressed beach . . . what opposition might teach/it is eternal   it is brief. . . .” This sense of conflict, of an overwhelming stasis in the face of a quandary, moves into the next poem as well: “There are two mornings on the menu.” Rockman weighs the choices—“choose from/Morning A  Morning B/ . . . Thorn-studded  Smooth-stalked . . .”

Such juxtapositions share the poet’s confusions, the ways in which she holds opposing images, choices, moments in uneasy balance. She contrasts a turkey vulture—“arthritic . . . moth-eaten”—with an egret “bird more air than night” (lovely!), ultimately reconciling the two to show how “grace lit a path from grief.” “Of the Coal Blue Field,” which begins with the poet and her four-year-old daughter sharing a private vocabulary segues into a stunning commentary on the nature of the poet: “seeing is his subject/and rendition his obsession.”  Certainly that seems true of Rockman’s work.

What enthralls me most, however, is completely subjective: Rockman’s several poems that examine love and marriage, particularly long-term versions of both. In to cleave, she manages to catch both the fleeting moments of everyday married life (“My Husband Comes Home from Work”) and those rare instants of transcendence (“After Birding at Cochiti Lake”). She moves from a catalog of the objective in “Home from Work”—“. . . he straightens, lifts his eyes/”—to the complicating subjective metaphor: “. . . eyes/their concrete bottom and the dead/leaves trapped there.” In “After Birding” the vocabulary of marriage becomes avian, and the images following “when we roll close at night, I hear wings” build to a climax (“Across my back, a blue heron steps./Tips of feathers brush thigh/and neck . . .”), holding the heron, bluebirds, a bald eagle, and rising geese in equal sensual weight. It’s possibly my favorite poem in the book.

Throughout the collection, a recurring dance of hands—the “flushed palms” of tulips, “my grandfather of the lovely hands,” “my hands/are scythes sweeping hay,” an entire poem on hands (“Letter from Georgia O’Keeffe to Alfred Stieglitz . . .”)—forms a chain, where the hands are beads and the words links in a chain of pages that reach out to gather us in.

In Rockman’s book there is natural observation, there is motherhood; there’s trauma, marriage, family, and a deep love of words. She is a varied writer, moving easily among forms, subjects, voices. Each voice, be it that of a gull, a stone, a child, a daughter-in-law, has something necessary to tell us. I can’t imagine any reader coming away empty-handed. This is a book worth multiple readings.

Barbara Rockman’s earlier book, Sting and Nest, was the winner of the New Mexico-Arizona Book Award and the National Federation of Press Women Book Prize. Her work has been featured in Southern Humanities Review, Nimrod, Bellingham Review, and Taos Journal of Art and Literature, among other national journals.

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

Meet the Interns: Mitch Shorey

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For this edition of Meet the Interns, we welcome Mitch Shorey! Here’s some info about Mitch, a junior at TU.

Tell us a little about yourself:

I grew up in Saint Louis, the oldest of four kids. I went to Saint Louis University High School by Forest Park, where I worked as an editor for a literary magazine, sang with several different choirs, and ran cross country. I have two dogs, Molly and Huey, and both of them are incredible judges of character.

What made you interested in working with Nimrod?

I’ve always wanted to work somewhere close to the publishing process. I think Nimrod will also be great experience for me in learning more about editing for myself and others. The more I know about the publishing industry, the better prepared I am for submitting my material in the future.

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

I’m a junior creative writing major and theatre minor at TU. I love all things science fiction and fantasy and hope to someday publish a novel in one of those genres, so I’m hoping to learn as much as I can about what it takes while I’m here.

Who are a few of your favorite authors?

Some of my favorite authors right now are Nancy Farmer, Orson Scott Card, and Brandon Mull. I can find books that I love in almost any genre, but I’ve always been drawn to writing kids’ fiction, so a lot of what I read is to help ready myself for that market. Some really good books by those authors are The House of the Scorpion, Pathfinder, and Fablehaven.

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

One thing I’m really excited for is our conference in October. I got to attend last year and met so many different fantastic people. Any time I get to be with that many writers in one place is exciting for me. I love that energy.

 

Review of M.G. Wheaton’s EMILY ETERNAL

by Helen Patterson

Emily Eternal is author M.G. Wheaton’s debut speculative novel about an artificial consciousness named Emily who is “growing up” as the world ends.

In Emily Eternal, Earth is in the middle of a global, unsolvable crisis: the sun is shifting from an Earth-friendly yellow dwarf to a life-destroying red giant. This eventual fate of our sun is not surprising; scientists predict this will happen in about 5 billion years. However, in Emily Eternal the predictions were wrong: Earth has months left and, despite the ingenuity and intelligence of humans, our delicate bodies are not built for space travel or the varied conditions of other worlds, and we don’t have the resources or the technology for large-scale colonization.

Emily has been designed to help people recover from traumatic experiences through algorithm-driven therapy that allows patients to achieve closure by facing their painful memories. However, she has the capacity to do more than she ever imagined, and she and her team are given an assignment by the president of the United States: make digital copies of the entire human race—DNA, memories, neural maps, everything that comprises an “individual”—to be sent into space in a digital ark. Emily is faced with an existentially terrifying question: is this plan the best way to save the human species or will it dehumanize it completely?

Wheaton did a great deal of research to create characters with a wide variety of backgrounds and specialties, making this world authentic. For the most part, I found the reasoning and the science sound. Many things seemed far-fetched or a stretch of the imagination, but technology moves so quickly, especially in the face of such pressures as the end of all life, that the plot still felt possible to me. However, there were a few key moments in the novel, especially those involving theories regarding human evolution on the individual level, which came across as implausible. These moments made me skeptical and pulled me out of the narrative.

Emily Eternal isn’t a perfect book, but it is a very human one—it made me think more about what it means to be a human being, to belong to the species homo sapiens, than anything I’ve read for the past few months. Reading this book, seeing through Emily’s eyes, gave me a strange kind of optimism about humanity and what we might be capable of—despite all the horrors and cruelties we commit on a daily basis. It is a brave book, tackling a complicated subject in myriad novel ways, ultimately coming across as a philosophical thriller. We don’t have an Emily to save us, as far as I know, and perhaps we never will, but maybe we can learn how to save ourselves.

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.

 

Nimrod Literary Awards Results: 2019

The editors of Nimrod International Journal are delighted to announce the winners, honorable mentions, finalists, and semi-finalists of the 41st Nimrod Literary Awards.

Nimrod Literary Awards: The Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry

FIRST PRIZE: Robert Thomas, “Negligee and Hatchet: A Sonnet Crown”
SECOND PRIZE: Matt Miller, “The Adorned Fathomless Dark Creation” and other poems

HONORABLE MENTION: Pianta, “Uchinanchu” and other poems

Nimrod Literary Awards: The Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction

FIRST PRIZE: Jonathan Wei, “Capybara”
SECOND PRIZE: John Tait, “This Might Hurt Some”

HONORABLE MENTIONS:
Elinam Agbo, “Schools of Longing”
Elsa Nekola, “Meat Raffle”

Nimrod extends deep appreciation to all who submitted. Selecting the poetry and
fiction finalists was a task that dominated the lives of Nimrod’s editors all spring.
They approached their mission with dedication and discretion, reading and
rereading the final group, comparing notes, and speaking for favorites. The
finalists’ manuscripts, without cover letters or names, were sent to the judges for 2019. Kim Addonizio served as poetry judge, and Margot Livesey served as
fiction judge. They chose the winners and honorable mentions from the finalist
groups.

The 42nd Nimrod Literary Awards competition begins January 1, 2020; the
deadline is in April. We welcome your submissions, knowing that each
year brings new discoveries, often from those who have submitted to the
competition before.

All entrants not previously contacted by Nimrod about their work may consider
their work released at this time.

Finalists Fiction 2019

Andrew Mangan, “The Pioneer Spirit”
Kathleen McNamara, “Pyrosome”

 Finalists Poetry 2019

Lauren Abunassar, “Cryptid Poem”, and other poems
Laura Apol, “But Winter” and other poems
Pam Bernard, “Turtle” and other poems
Hannah Dow, “Realizations While Staying in Other People’s Apartments” and other poems
Christina Hutchins, “Sleeping with the Melvini Sisters” and other poems
Ae Hee Lee, “Inside a Mogyoktang in Chicago” and other poems
Joel Peckham, “Locomotive of the Lord”
Osel Plante, “When the Mississippi Speaks with its Wet, Pretty Mouth” and other poems
Faith Shearin, “Mittens” and other poems

Semi-Finalists Poetry 2019

Roy Bentley, “The Fighting Lady” and other poems
Pam Bernard, “Turtle” and other poems
Eleanor Berry, “Not Burning the Chrsitmas Greens” and other poems
Janine Certo, “Diagram of the Four Chambers of the Heart”
Lauren Coggins, “Precedent” and other poems
Lisa Compo, “Elegy Prelude”
Catherine Freeling, “The Glove”
Matthew Gellman, “Not Music” and other poems
Amanda Gomez, “Autopsy of My Mother”
Kathryn Haemmerle, “Aubade Ending With a View of a River” and other poems
Karen Harryman, “Southern Funeral with Hairbrush”
W.J. Herbert, “Northern Cardinal” and other poems
Catherine Hodges, “Late Afternoon Meditation on an Open Egg Carton”
George Looney, “A Falling Piano is a Classic”
Anne McDonnell, “Ash and Metal”
Gail Newman, “Blood Memory”
Adam Penna, “The Love Poems That Are Now”
Peter H. Michaels, “Our First Love”
Jo Pitkin, “Village: Bag of Babkas”
Michele Randall, “Tea Hot Tea Iced” and other poems
C.C. Reid, “Indelible”
Mary Rummel, “Illuminator Dreams”
Tori Sharpe, “The Move” and other poems
Jeremy Voigt, “Lunar Eclipse”

 

 

 

 

Stray Thoughts on M.F.A. Programs

by Colin Pope

In preparation for an upcoming panel at the Nimrod Conference for Readers and Writers, I thought I’d scribble down a few personal observations of my experiences in graduate writing programs.

Among literary circles, debates over the virtues of master’s and doctoral degrees in creative writing have garnered a considerable amount of column space. A somewhat infamous 2015 New York Times piece goes into great detail about the multifarious viewpoints writers hold on this topic; included in this article is a mention of the similarly notorious n+1 essay “MFA vs. NYC,” which posits, essentially, that the only two ways to be a writer are to live in New York or to get an M.F.A. And within the last ten years, a number of books have been devoted solely to criticizing the M.F.A. program. It seems writers writing about the best way to learn how to write has become its very own genre of writing.

I have attended two graduate writing programs, both for poetry. Early on in my M.F.A. career, a student asked during a workshop, “Can writing really be taught?” The teacher pointed out that this is a silly question. Do we ask this of any other artistic pursuit, be it dancing or painting or music? This is now my standard response to this query. Now, for the questions, “Can voice be taught?” or “Can originality be taught?” I might have a different response.

But by the end of a graduate workshop, most people can write a poem that, if compared with undergraduate writing, will usually generate more interest and display a noticeable consideration of craft. And I think the reasons for this may be worth expanding upon.

1. Students in a workshop interact with other students in a workshop.

I mean, duh. But the very fact of a bunch of adults getting together to seriously debate the virtues of their own poems breeds a sort of wacky combination of camaraderie and competition that helps writers grow. In every workshop I’ve ever been in, there’s been this unspoken contest for the writer of the most interesting or original work that day (even if they don’t know they’re in competition or don’t want to admit it). This pushes everyone to explore beyond their comfort zones. In my opinion, this may be the biggest virtue of the workshop model, whether that workshop takes place in an M.F.A. program or in someone’s living room. But you also get good criticism from your classmates and learn how to hone your critical vocabulary. Now, without thinking too hard, I can easily reel off a typical workshop response to a poem—“this is a timely and engaging conceit for a poem, but the voice turns toward an omniscient muddiness in the second stanza and the language overwhelms the poignancy of the ending.” Not bad, right? It’s important to learn a critical vocabulary, if only to apply it to your own work.

2. Students in a workshop interact with other students in a workshop outside the workshop.

Perhaps the second most helpful thing, for me, was befriending other students and drinking with them. We’d meet at the bar after a weekday workshop (workshops always seemed to be on Tuesdays or Wednesdays) to discuss the events of the class and clarify and expound upon comments made in class. For instance, if someone said of your poem, “I want more from the ending,” but didn’t explain this comment during class, it’s likely they’ll be more willing to clarify after two or three beers. You also learn what your fellow writers are reading, how rigorous their writing practices are, how and where to submit pieces for publication, and so on. Hanging out together is common practice for students in all M.F.A. programs, be it for coffee, drinks, dinners, house parties, or whatever. In truth, the workshop never ends; it just changes location and focus. I’ve never known an M.F.A. writer who’s gone on to writing success without interacting with their cohort on a regular basis. I can’t say it’s a hard and fast rule, but those of us who publish steadily are, largely, those who went out together most often. Please note: Mr. Pope is not saying that alcohol is the key to success as a writer. I’m saying that being around serious writers often will make you a more serious writer.

3. Oh, yeah: the teacher.

From an outsider’s perspective, writing is an absolute mystery. You see a poem in TheNew Yorker and your poet-ego says, “Hey, I’d like to publish things in places like The New Yorker,” but you don’t know how to accomplish this. Not only are you a neophyte, but you don’t know how or who to contact. So how does one go from outside to inside? This is the gap where the exemplar of the workshop teacher is most useful. If you’re very lucky, they will have connections and will use them to help you (I wasn’t so lucky, though I’ve heard it’s great). But you will get to hear the teacher discuss their path from your seat to theirs. And knowing someone who’s made that journey is important. Knowing your teachers are regular people and not superhuman geniuses gives you a how-to case study. Of course, these instructors will also help you improve your work and will provide learned commentary on stuff in and out of class (frequently, their opinion on workshopped pieces feels the most definitive). This commentary is what many potential M.F.A.-ers think will be the most important thing they get from teachers. But in-class comments fade away in memory, and what’s left is the spirit of the person giving those comments. Yes: take their comments, improve your work. But first and foremost, learn how they got to where they are. Maybe this will help you get where you want to go.

4. Coursework outside the workshop.

I’ll try to keep this one short. But, for me, taking classes outside the workshop was incredibly helpful in rounding out my critical brain. And I think a good literary writer is always a good critic also. You need to know not only what you’re doing but why you’re doing what you’re doing. There are two types of M.F.A. programs: the “studio,” which is based entirely in workshops, and the “academic,” which can include coursework in areas like literature, film, poetics, craft and forms, and so on. Mine was academic. One of my favorite genres of class was entitled “Problems in Language and Literature.” It was great; we just read cool stuff and bitched about everything. I’d recommend an academic program unless you already have an M.A. in literature.

5. You’ll learn a lot about yourself in relation to everyone else.

Who goes for an M.F.A.? There’s the young, just-out-of-undergrad, aiming-for-wunderkind-status writer. Then there’s the former lawyer or professional. Then the recovering slam/street poet or the academic tourist from a wealthy family who’s decided to see what it’s like to be a writer. You learn where you fit. Some of writing is learning how your “narrative” is perceived by those around you and—hopefully—by the wider world of publishers. Each type has its virtues. My narrative is of the kid from a poor family who happened to be okay at self-expression. Knowing your story in relation to other writers helps you to improve your writing and to understand what it is your audience might want. If this sounds yucky to you, that’s because it is. The M.F.A. overlaps with the publishing world, and the publishing world sells writers as well as their writing. You from the South? Publishers will want to see that you’re writing about the South. You a veteran? Publishers will want you to write about war. Yes, on one hand it’s gross and commercial. But on the other hand, if we subscribe to the dictum “write what you know,” it’s very helpful. If what you know is soldiering, then you should probably write a few things about that life. But be careful: I know more than one writer who’s regretted becoming pigeonholed as the character they made of themselves. This is a problem most pertinent, perhaps, to poets and nonfiction writers.

6. Originality can be taught to the ambitious.

In every M.F.A. program, ambitious and talented writers rise. They gain accolades and publications. Such writers can be encouraged to push themselves and to read more difficult work. They will eventually accrue a bibliography of writers whose work challenges them to alter their style and, sometimes, create things that haven’t been created before. This is the goal: original virtuosity. I do not claim to be such a writer, but I’ve seen it happen. On the other hand, certain M.F.A.-ers will not change. You can offer them highly specific critique, examples of writing that will help them, line-by-line edits; it doesn’t matter.  They may have a dead ear or may not read a wide enough breadth of texts to know what “originality” means compared to what’s already been written. But originality and inventiveness can indeed be taught to those ambitious enough to know that all art succeeds or fails based partly on how it innovates.

7. There really are tropes, techniques, and systems that work.

I don’t mean they succeed because they’re regurgitated; I mean that there are shapes to styles of writing, and learning these shapes will give you boundaries to push against. I like Kurt Vonnegut’s description of “The Shape of Stories,” for one. When I teach creative writing, I also like to show proof of the adage “good poets borrow, great poets steal” by asking students to compare Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” to James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” One doesn’t innovate by inventing completely new forms; innovation occurs by infusing different tone, language, or action into styles that already exist. The M.F.A. offers novice writers texts and advice that’ll help them get to such realizations faster.

*Bonus tip: do not pay for an M.F.A. degree. Unless you’re from a wealthy family and the 30k+ it might cost doesn’t matter, it’s probably not going to be worth it. I applied a few different times to a lot of places until I was finally good enough to warrant getting paid for the degree at a place I wanted to go. I knew I had to be patient. Most of the heavy criticism I’ve read from ex-M.F.A. students is flavored by some version of “it wasn’t worth the money!” If they’d asked me before enrolling, I’d have encouraged them to wait and to be persistent. Apply multiple times until you get accepted where you want with the financial assistance you want. Then, when a good program offers you an attractive financial offer, you’ll be more confident in your talent and your ability. And if it doesn’t work out, you didn’t lose anything! It’s an arts degree; there’s absolutely no guarantee about job placement or success after.

***

Ultimately, the M.F.A. is a terminal academic degree. The “terminal” denotes that one is qualified for tenure-track positions (though few new M.F.A. grads land such jobs). The degree is meant as an entrée into teaching as well as writing; a large (very large) portion of M.F.A. graduates are teaching composition classes at universities across the country, often as adjuncts. I see no problem with this system. Teaching at the college level affords writers free time to write and gives them continued access to libraries, reading series, and an arts community. Plus, teaching college students is fun.

In The Triggering Town (a book I’d recommend to every aspiring M.F.A. poet), Richard Hugo writes, “A good teacher can save a young poet years by simply telling him things he need not waste time on.” This is the best summary of how I feel about M.F.A. programs. A writer will write regardless of a degree, but the M.F.A. offers a speedier route to finding out what kind of writer a person can be.

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