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

59068317585__EDADF168-72ED-4775-BBE1-79F220A4294E

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.

Review: Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang

by Helen Patterson

Home Remedies

Xuan Juliana Wang’s first collection of stories, Home Remedies, brilliantly illuminates the experience of Chinese youth caught in the fervor of modern life. An award-winning author, Wang came to Los Angeles with her family when she was seven, and the complexity generated by this dual background informs her work in this collection. Her stories, set in both the United States and China, dig deeply into the ambiguous lives of children caught in both worlds. Wang divides her work into three sections titled “Family,” “Love,” and “Time and Space.”

In “Family,” different generations clash as the world grows more global and the values and vices of America and the West permeate Chinese culture. Children and parents find themselves on different sides of a vast cultural barrier as children attempt to enter and navigate the newer world. In the striking final story of this section, “For Our Children and for Ourselves,” Xiao Gang finds himself leaving his factory job in rural China to become the son-in-law of a successful businesswoman in America. The catch: his wife, Melanie, has cognitive disabilities. Love and marriage, the basis of a family, are transformed into business transactions. Xiao Gang gets wealth in exchange for being his wife’s caregiver. He gets the American dream in material ways, but he loses connection with his family in China.

The next section, “Love,” opens with the story “Fuerdai to the Max.” In this story the narrator and his friend Kenny have recently fled the United States for China after they and others assaulted a classmate. They use their wealth to shield themselves and seek distraction in nightclubs. They blame another, poorer classmate for the assault. However, back in China they realize they have not escaped. Their families are disgraced by their actions, their squandering of opportunities.

Wang tells a story through definitions in “Home Remedies for Non-Life-Threatening Ailments,” in which the narrator searches for love and connection as a means of resolving feelings of brokenness and sadness. She is able to find solace only when she floods her mother’s house, breaking the monotony of her mother’s life and forcing a connection between them because “something exciting has happened” (108). The bleak suggestion is that human connection often stems from disruption and disaster.

The characters in Wang’s collection are unmoored by technology, immigration, and social changes, particularly in the final section, “Time and Space.” In “Algorithmic Problem-Solving for Father-Daughter Relationships,” a former computer scientist at Heilongjiang University realizes that, though immigration and the generational divide are the cause of his estrangement from his daughter, he cannot create an algorithm to bridge the space between them. The story ends with a sense that reconciliation is uncertain because he and his daughter are fundamentally different beings.

Dipping into magical realism, “Future Cat” presents a discouraged writer, Maggie, who discovers that her new wine ager can age anything. Drifting and purposeless, Maggie turns the ager on herself. It is only then, as she collapses space and time around herself, that she finds a sense of meaning and hears “life calling for her” (208). Whether or not Maggie will escape in time to make use of this new insight is left uncertain.

While reading this collection, my thoughts kept returning to the title. Where are the remedies? Where is home? Wang does not have definite answers. Her characters are constantly gazing into the future while simultaneously looking backwards at what they have lost. In the final story, “The Art of Straying Off Course,” a recent divorcee imagines vacationing in space with her daughters in the future. In the last sentence, she looks back to see, “through the windows, all the places I am trying to leave behind. All that wonderful chaos, horizontal, never-ending” (223). Perhaps home is an unstable concept, be it in the past or in the future. Maybe all we can do is keep moving forward while trying and failing to understand where we came from and who we truly are.

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.

 

Honest Work: Poetry, Day Jobs, and Alison C. Rollins’s LIBRARY OF SMALL CATASTROPHES

 by Eric Morris-Pusey

A simple, albeit unwelcome, truth: poetry alone doesn’t pay the bills. While some poets have the training and good luck to land day jobs teaching writing classes or heading up literary journals, most of us (at least for a time) find ourselves doing work that’s at best poetry-adjacent—adjuncting as a literature instructor or stocking shelves in a hip local bookstore—or entirely unrelated: making spreadsheets for a subsidiary of a subsidiary of a massive textbook retailer.

The struggle between wanting to be an artist and needing to make rent can exhaust the energy and inspiration we need for poetry, preventing us from doing our best work or from writing at all. In a 1994 interview, Philip Levine said of his time working in auto factories and other jobs in Detroit, “I felt myself wearing down. I wasn’t going to have the strength or will to keep writing.”

But that labor, though it drained Levine, became the foundation of his poetic work. T. S. Eliot famously wrote much of The Waste Land while employed by a bank. And Alison C. Rollins’s debut poetry collection, Library of Small Catastrophes, would doubtlessly be a different book if its author were not a librarian.

Rollins’s work as a librarian informs and transforms her work as a poet, enriching the striking imagery, intimate personal narrative, and cutting social commentary that already make her poetry vital.

The collection reflects its title and its author’s occupation in both form and content. Poems incorporate call numbers into their text and use forms inspired by definitions and library machine-readable catalog entries. There are well-researched allusions and references to the history, philosophy, art, and religion of not only our country but all the traditions that went into making it, from the lives and writing of the “founding fathers” to the cultures those founders attempted to destroy through slavery and genocide.

One of the collection’s longest poems, “Cento for Not-Quite Love,” uses the cento form to merge the librarian’s science of the archival and curatorial with the art of poetry, employing lines that not only form something new but feature snapshots of style and subject from throughout the history of American poetry. Rollins continues to research, refer to, and repurpose others’ language—from the original, racist title of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None to Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics—throughout the collection.

In “Self-Portrait of Librarian with T. S. Eliot’s Papers” Rollins’s speaker imagines the forthcoming release of said papers in 2020, making the archive a representation of history’s beauty and terror: we may “come to see what young muse has risen / from the dead,” but also that “storage units preserve our culture’s haunted houses. / The canon is merely a ghost story.”

The collection’s eponymous poem, about midway through the manuscript, is rich with both the language of the library and its physical sense of place. The third of its four sections discusses the speaker’s MLIS degree, and throughout the poem Rollins grapples directly with systems of classification like those used in libraries and their influences on the ways in which we perceive and treat race and gender:

Dear Dewey Decimal System,
How will I organize all the bodies?

The professor said that in judging
women’s bodies by their covers

we have a system of returning
things back to where they belong.

In the fourth, final section of the poem, Rollins breaks from the sweeping vision and more scientific or historical language of what has come before to recount the story of a woman arrested outside the Andrew Carnegie Library for attempting to steal books, showing what the previously outlined systems of classification and power look like in real lives, how they inflict violence upon real minds and bodies. The poet’s intimate understanding of the library—of what makes it possible and what defines its physical space, what it contains that is beautiful and what it contains that is terrible—makes both the wider history and the specific episode that ends the poem even more deeply affecting.

Working as a librarian may be more meaningful and fulfilling work than many find themselves doing, and its closeness to books and history certainly lends itself to poetry. But it’s the pain and complication of the library and all it represents that make Library of Small Catastrophes so powerful. Rollins may love her day job more than Levine loved his, but both find in their work examples of and analogues for human lives and the larger power structures that shape them.

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.

library of small catastrophes.jpg

Meet the Intern: Portlyn Houghton-Harjo

IMG_7764

Tell us a little about yourself:

I’m an incoming Pratt Institute freshman raised in Tulsa, and I’m from the Creek and Seminole tribes. Besides writing, I watch too many horror movies and try to paint when I can. I’ve been making up stories forever and hopefully will continue to do so forever. My parents raised me in an environment that fostered a love for storytelling and words, and I’ve taken that to heart.

What made you interested in working with Nimrod?

The publishing world has always been interesting to me, although a complete mystery. I was interested in building my own skills while peeking behind the curtain of publishing, which made Nimrod a perfect fit. The 2018 conference Nimrod held was also a huge factor in my interest, since Patricia Smith is one of my favorite poets.

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

I’ll be majoring in Writing, and minoring in Sustainability Studies. Focusing on writing was a no-brainer for me, as I’ve wanted to pursue it as a career for most of life. Recently, however, my concerns about our environment pushed me to work in sustainability as a way to do my part in helping the Earth. I want to blend the two areas as much as possible, since writing is a career field that deals with many not-so-sustainable things (Though I could never get rid of my physical book collection. Shop local and second-hand, everyone.)

Who are a few of your favorite authors?

Neil Gaiman. Specifically, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. I first read it in the third grade and will still return to it now and again. I also went through a phase where I wrote Emily Dickinson quotes on all of my clothes, so I feel like I have to mention good ol’ Emily. Recently, I’ve been obsessed with Shirley Jackson’s works and Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar, though my “favorites” list goes on and on.

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

I’m most excited to learn the mysterious secrets of editing a literary magazine like this. However, I’ve already learned so much about the behind-the-scenes of this world and it’s been eye-opening. It feels like I’ve started to understand how I can make a career in the literary world.

 

Poetry Book Club

 

 

Or a different kind of book club—

by Britton Gildersleeve

I suspect most of the readers of this blog have been in a book club. You may even be in one now. But what, exactly, do you read? Any poetry? Probably not. . . . And why is that?

Today was my book club’s monthly meeting. My poetry book club. The one a few of us started when it dawned on us we wanted to read more poetry, be exposed to more poetry—revisit classics (yep, we did a Shakespearean sonnet one time) as well as become more familiar with both new writers and forgotten ones. (Who knew Gjertrud Schnackenberg was a real person? And a poet to boot!)

Each month we meet at one of the members’ homes, share iced or hot tea and snacks and poems we’ve brought. Some of us know a lot about poetry, and others would demur they don’t. Our tastes are eclectic, both individually and as a group. It’s part of the fun!

Today, for instance, there was the Schnackenberg sonnet to kick things off. We had a wonderful discussion about Petrarchan vs Shakespearean form and how we might write sonnets ourselves. There was a nature poem next, then a witty poem by Elizabeth Flynn (whom I was completely unfamiliar with), then an excerpt from Middlemarch on poets and inspiration. Next, another sonnet, this an amazing one by Gladys Schmitt (founder of Carnegie Mellon University’s creative writing program) on Bach. It was a bit of a sonnet day. . . .

I brought a recent poem by Rodney Jones from the Academy of American Poets website—“For Katy.”  A whimsical diatribe on an overactive cat, but also a lovesong. And of course there was work by our new U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo.

In sum? I learned of two new-to-me poets and had a fascinating discussion about sonnets and the importance of form in poetry—and great snacks (lemon bars w/pistachios, mmm). For a poetry lover, it was bliss!

There’s so much great poetry available for free online today. Some months we have themes (“fathers” for June, for instance). Other months we just bring what struck our fancy recently. I’m probably the most obsessive about poetry (I think my friends would agree!), but there are retired teachers, retired English faculty, a retired scholar of the presidency, two musicians, and an accountant among us. In other words, our interests are varied, and it makes for great diversity in readings.

If you love poetry but feel you don’t read it as often as you’d like (and feel like you have no one to share it with), send out poetic feelers. Look at possible classes in your area. Or see who might be interested in a trial run of monthly meetings. You can start here, at Nimrod, looking at the prize issue’s poems online, or go all out and buy a copy! You can join Nimrod for the Conference for Readers and Writers, another great venue to find simpatico readers.

Just two years ago I moved to Blacksburg, Virginia, from Tulsa, knowing no one. Now I have 8 good friends who like poetry and a familiarity with new poems I’d never have found otherwise. All from a poetry book club that meets a couple of hours monthly. I can’t recommend the idea enough: it’s fun! You might even get lucky and find a great lemon bar recipe. . . .

 

 

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.