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”
Micheal Pierorazio, “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.

 

 

Balancing Work, Writing, and Solo Parenting

by Elizabeth Austin

During the last week of March, I was visiting Portland, Oregon, attending the 2019 Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference & Bookfair. It was my first AWP, and I went into it imagining all the panels I was going to attend, the writers I would see, and wondering whether I would get a chance to meet my hero humans (hi, Danez Smith).

That week was also one in only a handful of times I have spent away from my children, with friends, in a new city rife with potential for exploration . . . and I am an adventurer. I am also a solo parent, my kids’ father having left years ago with no further contact. I am the sole individual in charge of the lives of myself and my two children. It can be really tiring.

So tiring that, almost as soon as I deplaned in PDX, I realized my attendance at the conference was going to be spotty at best; as it turned out, I probably could have gotten away with just a day pass. I spent the week half in guilt for not soaking up every part of the conference, and half in rapture at being able to wake up at 10 a.m. and order a delivery of edible cookie dough for breakfast and read until the lunch plan texts began.

Every few hours I would mentally berate myself; here was one of the most exciting literary events of the year, a chance to network, to glean advice and information, to listen to some of my favorite writers speak and read. I had flown all this way, paid for flights and lodging and childcare, and I was going to blow the whole thing—I needed a break that badly.

A close friend from graduate school was also attending the conference, and she persuaded me to go to a panel discussion on the balancing act that is parenting while working while writing. It seemed exactly the kind of thing I was there for: insight into how better to manage my beast of a life and all its messy components.

Although the panelists were well-spoken and compassionate, and while there was much to take away from the panel, ultimately I left with more questions than answers. I respect the challenges of these writers and the insight they shared, but none of their experiences mirrored my own. They were all academics, employed full-time, homeowners with health insurance and partners who were also mostly academics.

I wanted to ask, not to be antagonistic, but out of genuine curiosity: Have any of you been in the position I am in? Raising children alone while working, at one point attending a graduate program with a 4- and 5-year-old, trying to fit writing in between all the other essential things, living with your mother? My cup of anxieties runneth over.

Often discussions of time and making time and who has the most time and resources turn into pseudo-competitions of who has the harder life, which is not the discussion I am looking to prompt. There will always be someone struggling more and less than you are struggling, there will always be someone more and less privileged than you. Representation is what fosters healthy discussion, and representation is what I was hoping for and found lacking. It is a specific kind of exhaustion not to see yourself reflected in what you hoped would be a mirror. In the panelists’ defense, you don’t know what you don’t know, and we are all learning. To get to the meat of it, where does writing fall in all of this crowded life-living?

As it turns out, almost nowhere.

Writing often falls so far to the wayside of my life that sometimes I forget it’s a thing I do. I don’t need to write, but I need to write. I have a great job, and it, combined with some side gigs, is enough to live on. Writing is not my career (yet), it isn’t a moneymaker wheel that I need to keep turning, and so it often gets bucketed into the extras: things I can do if I have the time, piled into the same cobwebbed mental closet as yoga and running and getting my hair cut. In the grand scheme of my life, writing has become another chore to keep up with.

The not-writing is a slow-burn anxiety; I don’t notice it until the whole house is on fire and I’m bursting with ALL THE THINGS and I need to get them onto a page immediately, dinner and laundry and lunch with coworkers be damned. I am trying to prevent this pileup of creative energy, and in the absence of outside advice, I have formulated some of my own.

Life, for me, is like a beany, many-vegetabled soup. It’s delicious, it’s complicated, the ingredients don’t all come together at the same time, and not everything is going to make it into every bite. Some spoonfuls are all mushy, unsalted potatoes, while others teem with texture and warmth.

It’s the old adage: you make time for the things that are important. Except I can’t manufacture time. Laundry takes the time it takes, and there’s only so fast I can fold. There are no shortcuts to completed homework. In fact, the faster I try to spur my children along, the more frustrated they become, the less learning gets done. I cannot fit ten minutes of yoga into five. The oft-offered advice of make time for your writing isn’t useful if it isn’t realistic.

Still, I try. At night, after work, and my commute to and from work, and homework, and dinner, and showers, and brushing teeth, and arguments over LEGOs and desserts and shoes by the door, after the TV has been turned off and the electronics are on the chargers and I’ve taken a minute to stare at the wall, I try to write.

My poems have come at the expense of my children’s bedtime stories, their homework, the dishes, the laundry, and lunches spent connecting with my coworkers. They have come at the expense of hours of desperately-needed sleep and times when I wanted to see my friends. My computer is filled with half-completed poems, not because I lost the thread or because I hit a block, but because the rice boiled over or there was a fight over who the Harry Potter castle LEGOs belong to or whose foot is on whose leg. My hard drive is a boneyard of poems interrupted.

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Here is a messy truth: my children and I have been pulling shirts and jeans out of a knee-high pile of clothing in my bedroom for two weeks, but damn if I didn’t get a poem written, polished, and sent out. To me, it was worth it.

Recently, I texted my best friend: “I’m writing a post on balancing work, writing, and solo parenting and it’s overdue and I’m polishing it up on my lunch break and I feel like that sums up the entire process. Plot twist: there is no balance, it’s all chaos.”

Each day is a bag of things and each day I pull from it what I can.

What I wouldn’t give for an extra set of hands.

Elizabeth Austin is a poet, photographer, and visual artist. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in the Schuylkill Valley Journal, See Spot Run, Foliate Oak, Driftwood Press, Anti-Heroin Chic, 3Elements Review, and Sybil. She currently lives in Newtown, Pennsylvania, with her two children. Find her on Instagram at @elizabethbeingqueen.

Favorite

by Britton Gildersleeve

Favorite Picture Britton

It depends on what you mean by favorite

A recent social media question asked, What is your favorite poem? Really? You
want me to narrow down my love of poetry to Just. One. Poem . . . ? Ack!

I thought longer on this than I should probably admit to, given it was, after all, only a FB question. But it set me thinking, as almost anything about poetry will. What poems would I insist folks read, if I ran the poetic universe? Would I require Shakespeare? (Nope.) How about Eliot? (Nope to him, too.) Yeats? Dickinson? 👎🏼 Not, you understand, because I don’t like Shakespeare, Eliot, or Yeats and Dickinson; I do. But they’ve never hooked a piece of my life and kept it captive in a few stanzas. They don’t make my favorites list(s).

So who has? (And it would be WONDERFUL if folks responded with their own favorites!) What makes a poem or poet a favorite? I’m not certain we shouldn’t begin there, defining what it means to be a “favorite” poem or poet. Is your favorite the one you teach? The one you turn to over and over again, drawing comfort from its indefinable music? What about the one you didn’t like at first but grew to love later? Or the one that you struggled to understand until it suddenly blossomed for you? Or the one, like a blind date, that snuck up on you and suddenly was your best beloved?

I have to start with Ezra Pound, on whom I spent inordinate amounts of time in grad school. I’ve always loved “In a Station of the Metro”—its haiku-like compression, the Imagist magic of petals on a wet, black bough. It’s never left me, and I return to it often. So when I had the opportunity to explore Pound’s work in more depth, I took it. It’s been true love ever since, his (several!) personal foibles aside.

All of Pound’s Chinese translations (which Chinese scholars I know also love, just FYI) sing for me. “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” for instance, is one of the few poems I’d call perfect: The paired butterflies are already yellow with August/Over the grass in the West garden;/They hurt me./I grow older. Who paints desolate separation more eloquently?

Or Seamus Heaney’s Glanmore sonnets . . . How can you not bow in humility before a line like He lived there in the unsayable lights . . . ? Or eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise/Their wind-compounded keen . . . ?

And what about the poems I’ve used in so many classes—Auden’s masterful “Musée Des Beaux Arts,” for instance? With its lyric gestalt of the 2-dimensional paintings by Brueghel—an Auden mashup—and Auden’s own genius?

Then there’s Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” that wrenching elegy to grief: the art of losing’s not too hard to master/though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster. And B. H. Fairchild’s “Body & Soul.” And younger, less mainstream poets—Robin Coste Lewis, dg nanouk okpik, Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Poets you’ve never heard of, who offer me their chapbooks. Friends who write. All the words that help me sort out my chaotic interior landscape. It would be easier for me to say what poems/poets are just Meh!

What fascinated me most about my response to the initial question—a single favorite?—is my inability even to say what single poems are that important to me. Poetry (at least for me) is like music: I like periods of music, genres. I love most of what Bach wrote, like I like almost all of the late, lamented W. S. Merwin’s work. Same with William Stafford, or Naomi Shihab Nye. I’m still stymied by the narrowing the word favorite necessitates, but at least I can begin to list something!

Ultimately, I took the question to the floor. Or, in my case, my inimitably brilliant poetry book club. After trying to understand why I was in an uproar, they had the answer: Why do you have to have just one favorite poem? Brought home to me resoundingly by a brand-new (to me) poem shared that day that immediately made my favorites list: Rumi’s “Where Everything Is Music.” N.B. & true confession: Rumi is one of my favorite poets, so perhaps this poem isn’t as new an addition—even though I hadn’t read it previously—as it seems. But then again . . .

So: what do you all think? What poems or poets continue to engage you? What new ones resonate for you? And why? That conversation is one we all can have fun with! In the meantime? A quick plug for this amazing literary community—Nimrod—where I’ve discovered so many of my favorite poems and poets! And where those poems continue to move from my new list to my favorites list.

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

The Cruelest National Poetry Month: On Ben Lerner and THE HATRED OF POETRY

by Eric Morris-Pusey

A couple of years ago, I briefly was a member of one of those hip speakeasy-inspired clubs that requires a password to get in. As the lowest membership tier cost only five dollars a year, and domestic tallboys there were fifty cents cheaper than in bars on the outside, I justified this expense as paying for itself.

One of the blanks on the brief membership form asked my occupation. At the time I was nominally employed pumping out listicles about chainsaw sharpeners and California divorce law for third-rate affiliate marketing sites, so I put down “writer.”

Even now that I’m gainfully employed not-writing, I’d still be tempted to call myself a “writer” when filling out a membership card for a hip speakeasy club. Drink for the job you want, not the job you have.

I would be hesitant, though, to call myself a “poet.” Why? Maybe it’s because I’m working on a novel, or because of my ongoing struggle to actually write any poetry. Maybe it’s because I’ve never made any money from poetry, though there are plenty of people I would consider poets, even successful ones, for whom this is also true.

In an interview with The Paris Review about his book The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner talks about telling his dentist that he’s a poet and summarizes the way “poet” as an occupation is coded:

You [the poet] never grew up and took a job and you plan on being accommodated because you’re still in the space of the abstract potential of language or whatever.

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Ben Lerner

The drivers of capital see most people as machines designed for work, art as a form of leisure those machines cannot afford. On one hand, I can certainly see why someone who does non-poetic work for a living might resent someone working as a poet. Writing poetry can be painful, but is it as bad as shoveling rat corpses out of a flooded pawnshop basement? I’ve done a bit of both, and poetry is usually far more comfortable.

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Natasha Tretheway

But I recently attended a reading of Natasha Trethewey’s (from her recent collection of new and selected works, Monument) that epitomized the idea of poetry as labor. When reading, it’s easy to forget or overlook the hours of struggle with the self and language that went into the words on the page. Trethewey embodied that struggle with both the power of her performance and her unashamed displays of emotion.

“The hatred of poetry,” as Lerner terms it, often goes beyond a general discomfort with art-as-occupation. He notes people grouse about abstract art and atonal music. We’ve all heard opinions on rappers, painters, and novelists. But it’s rare that these arts, even those that are harder to access, are shunted to the side as quickly as poetry.

The hatred of poetry, then, may have something to do with education. That’s a sentiment I’ve often heard and expressed myself: the education system in our country has failed poets and potential readers of poetry with its forced word-by-word exegesis of the same Frost poem in grades four through twelve, the standardization of and lack of imagination in poetic interpretation, and the unrelenting focus on a few dead white guys who write mostly in formal verse.

There’s truth to this, of course. I fell in love with poetry in high school, as I was fortunate enough to have a teacher who assigned a wider array of texts—and I still didn’t think I should write the stuff. But Lerner’s look at education offers a bit more than the standard argument.

He says that we are taught of a “connection between poetry and personhood,” in other words, that poetry is often revered—from a distance, as most revered things are—as a signifier of humanity. While I hadn’t thought about my poetic education in this way before, not just in my public high school but well beyond, the truth of it shocks me.

Poetry is treated by many poets and critics as a marker and maker of humanity, rather than one art form of many. As Lerner says, to say you’re a poet can be read as telling another “you’re more human than they are.” I can understand that being taken as a bit of an affront.

This valorization of poetry as some ideal art form ties into the center of Lerner’s argument: the idea of the poem as expressing a universal truth. He doesn’t think that’s a bad thing for a poem to aim for—but it’s a terrible thing to expect from a poem or poet, or from any work of art.

He characterizes poetry as “a set of impossible demands.” The word impossible is important, as Lerner sees all poetry as aiming to achieve something that can’t be achieved:

The main demand associated with lyric poetry is that an individual poet can or must produce both a song that’s irreducibly individual—it’s the expression of their specific humanity, because it’s this intense, internal experience—and that is also shareable by everyone, because it can be intelligible to all social persons, so it can unite a community in its difference.

He believes every poem, even the very best, fails in this. While he is willing as a poet to try to create that experience and as a reader to try to have it with another’s work, he sees a danger in believing that any poem has truly succeeded in it.

He points to Whitman as an example, not of a bad poet, but of a poet whose very attempts at universality made his work more exclusionary: Whitman called himself “the poet of both the master and the slave” in his notebooks. Lerner calls Whitman’s work “a response to pressure to not take sides” and later says that “universalism is always corrupt.”

Faux-universality and a common nostalgia for a nonexistent time before poets “only [wrote] out of their own experience,” as critic Mark Edmundson said in the article Lerner intended to refute with The Hatred of Poetry, might be (in both Lerner’s view and mine) what ruins poetry for so many: when we are taught that the voice of the poet is the voice of all humanity, and shown only poems by dead white men, that sends a clear, reactionary message.

It’s similar to some of the most vehement criticisms of slam poetry, not This isn’t to my taste or This is a different type of poetry, but This isn’t poetry. The same as the people who were up in arms about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel, not because of his relative privilege or his Victoria’s Secret commercial or the considerably lower quality of his later work, but because he’s a popular musician.

Is this nostalgia as dangerous as the similar nostalgia we see in politics, for an idealized 1950s America when all the (white) men were real men with good manufacturing jobs? Probably not. But it is reflected in the way we read, write, and talk about poetry—and plenty of critics and educators who think themselves above looking to such a rose-colored past in the political sense do it without thought or hesitation in the poetic one.

The idea of poetry as a failed attempt to truly share consciousness with another, or to say everything at once, is a beautiful and powerful one not despite, but because of that failure. The interviewer speaking with Lerner in the Paris Review piece, Michael Clune, at one point says,

the encounter with the poem itself will transform your experience—we may not be the same before we enter into a relationship with a poem, but there’s this prospect of communion on the other side.

Lerner responds not with the absolutism of a poem creating a universal experience, because he’s already established that’s not only a shaky idea, but a harmful one. But there is, he says, a chance for some communication, for “testing what’s potentially social in literary practice,” and he assures the interviewer, me, and now you, that “people are doing that work.”

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.

Photo Credits:
Featured Image (cartoon): David Parkins / The Economist
Ben Lerner: MacArthur Foundation
Natasha Trethewey: Joel Benjamin / Poets.org  

Review: RUTTING SEASON by Mandeliene Smith

by Helen Patterson

Rutting Season is a brutal, attention-grabbing title well-suited to these brutal, attention-grabbing stories by Pushcart-nominated Mandeliene Smith. Her debut collection of short stories is harrowing as it follows characters through upheaval and change.

Strong openings are crucial, especially in short stories. In Rutting Season, every story opens with an arresting image. The first piece, “Mercy,” starts: “The children’s puppy was run over at the end of May” (1). Here is a specific image that demands emotional involvement. How did the puppy get run over? Who are the children? How will they react and recover? This type of hook is typical of this collection. A reader cannot help but be gripped from the first sentence.

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Throughout the collection, nerves are fraught and emotions are high. Smith is an eloquent writer of heartache and pain. In “You the Animal,” a worn-out social worker, Jared, avoids too closely examining his own biases: “Why he was shaking as he walked out into the brightness of the street, why his heart felt like an unpinned grenade, were questions he didn’t ask himself” (164). Rage also bubbles beneath the surface of the stories, spilling over as characters take out their frustrations on the world. In two linked stories, “The Someday Cat” and “You the Animal,” a young, unloved girl attacks an ugly kitten—only to then be thrown around herself by Jared.

Death is present in all these pieces, but Smith is never gratuitous. Instead, death becomes quotidian. The final piece, “Animals,” starts: “We killed the porcupines because they were sneaking into the barn at night and chewing on the floor beams. My father walked right up to them and shot them through their little eyes” (213). It continues with a catalog of death, of the pragmatism crucial to running a farm, the paradox of protecting animals in order to eat them. Everyone must face their complicity.

Endings are equally crucial in storytelling. Often it’s difficult to know when to end a story—writers might cut a piece off too soon or spin the story out too long; both mistakes can ruin an otherwise satisfying story. Smith’s endings are elegant, perfectly timed, and just as emotionally involved as her openings. Having come through crises, having passed through rage and grief and death, the characters, at the end, have learned some ugly truth about life and themselves.

Some characters come through their harrowing experiences with acceptance, ready to heal. In “Siege,” Pam reaches this state after unrelenting misfortune, finally relinquishing a life that’s no longer open to her. As soon as she does, something “rushe[s] loose in her” (21), and she finds herself able to move on. The unnamed wife in “Friday Night” comes through grief to serenity: “Her lungs were heavy and sodden but her mind was quiet, clear for the first time in a long while” (120). Others, such as Amber in “Siege,” find themselves narrowed and sharpened, ready to fight back against a world that has repeatedly cut them down.

The variation in endings keeps the stories refreshing and unpredictable. This is a masterful tactic for a debut work. Every one of Smith’s pieces stands out, and every one is worth reading twice.

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.