Guest Post, Erin Adair-Hodges: Greater Than or Equal To

Greater Than or Equal To: What We Lose When Poetry Celebrates Youth


Picture of Erin Adair-HodgesWhen I was 32, I worked three jobs in two cities. A typical day had me awake at 5:45 a.m. to drive an hour north to teach developmental English classes at a community college, drive back south to work several hours as a copy editor at the local weekly newspaper, then finally zip across the city to teach at a second community college. Other days reversed the schedule, with me teaching in a different city late at night and returning home to get just six hours of sleep before the next packed day began. I had a recent master’s degree in poetry and no time to write poetry, but I was too harried to worry, figuring I had plenty of time to refocus once my life wasn’t so chaotic, so unformed. Yet, at 32, I had already aged out of the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship. I hadn’t even really started and it was already too late.

At 40, I am now also not eligible for the Stanley Kunitz prize from American Poetry Review, years past dreaming of being one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35. I also would have been too old for the Yale Younger Poets Prize, which until this year required its winners to be under 40—it’s notable that the 2016 winner is just over 40, which should tell us a lot about the limited scope these kinds of age restrictions create.

This may start to sound like a wine that’s turned—sour grapes and all that. It’s not this at all, or at least, it’s not only this. I recommitted to writing again at 38, and in just over two years have published over two dozen pieces; my first book is coming out next year as the winner of a great (and as yet unannounced) prize, which is to say I’m good. I begrudge none of these younger writers their support and success, but that they earned their accolades does not take away from the fact that poetry has an age problem.

I discovered the extent of this while seeking support as an emerging writer over the past two years. So many kind friends have forwarded me prize or fellowship opportunities that, because of my age or too many years having passed since earning my MFA (such as the Emory University or Kenyon Review fellowships, which require the degree to be no longer than five years old), I don’t qualify for. Why is this a problem for anyone but me? The reasons, as I’ve laid out in multiple shower and car ride monologues on this topic, are:

  1. These limits on age and time spent out of school are classist. They are remnants from an antiquated system where poets (usually white men of some means) are exposed to poetry early, decide to pursue it in college, find mentorship and support and begin publishing soon after matriculating. This apparently still happens for some, but this trajectory is almost impossible to replicate if you are poor; if you come from a rural place with little to no artistic community; if your passions and talents have to be put aside so you can work a lot to live. These constrictions validate and enforce a system that keeps many voices out—they say that if you have not made it by a certain age, it’s because you were not good enough. If anything, those who count themselves as older emerging writers should be celebrated for pushing on when all messages indicate to do otherwise.
  1. These limits are sexist. Misogyny is humankind’s oldest song, and even the throats of poets open up to sing it. While things may be shifting for millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomer women came up when their male peers were more likely to be singled out and supported by professors and editors. To penalize them for society’s slow (and ever-halting) shift out of this bias is to perpetuate the problem. Moreover, women are more likely to put their careers, artistic and otherwise, on hold for caregiving. The median age for women who hold master’s degrees or higher to have a first child is 30. Five years after my MFA, at the end of my eligibility for a host of fellowships, I had a newborn child and could not pursue such opportunities—the idea that there is a clock on not only our bodies but our creative lives as well is demoralizing. The message to many mothers who write is: get your success early or not at all, as the time you take to care for a family will be counted against you. That’s not unlike the rest of American society, of course, but the poetry community should acknowledge that in its pursuit of challenging injustice and bias, it continues to uphold structures that marginalize the voices of many women.
  1. Such restrictions impoverish us all. I keep thinking back to my dear friend who won Yale’s contest which, just the year before, she would have been ineligible for because of the year of her birth. How much longer would it have taken to get to fully embrace this voice, fully formed and with so much to say? How many poets and poems have we missed because there weren’t enough opportunities for older emerging writers? How many talented people struggled for years to balance family and jobs with finding time to write, only to decide the sacrifice of time away from other obligations could no longer be justified? If we, as poets, are truly concerned with issues of representation, limits on age and even time spent out of a degree program cannot be supported.

Of course I have skin in this game. I wrote a book in two years while raising a preschooler and teaching five classes a semester at a community college. That is, to use the parlance of my culture, freakin’ loco, and frankly unsustainable. If something about my circumstances doesn’t change, I don’t know that I can do it again. Even writing this blog has required that I ignore my child for hours on a day when we usually spend time together making crafts he then tapes all over the wall, messy with handprints, a jungle of art projects past and present.

But I’m not writing this for me, or at least, I don’t think I am. Like I said, things are working out alright — they’re beginning to take shape, an event which required me ignoring nearly every message I’d received about my writing or worth for a decade. I’m posting this because the first time I shared my story about returning to poetry while as a full-time instructor and almost 40-year-old mother, the feedback was overwhelming. A short interview on my institution’s website done after I won The Georgia Review’s Loraine Williams Poetry Prize led to so many people, nearly all women, reaching out to me to say—me too. Women I’d never met emailed me to say they’d stopped trying to write or publish, that they felt the time for their creative work had passed. That’s the message we’ve been given, and it’s bullshit.

I know there are other emerging writers contests in journals and nearly a score of first-book poetry contests that do not have maximum age requirements. These are necessary because they invite new voices into the conversation, broadening and expanding it. I have myself have benefitted from these, allowing me to make the slow and fitful transition into having “emerged,” but I almost didn’t make it that far. Our celebration of youth is dangerous because it is necessarily also a denigration of age, and for those struggling to find even a spare fifteen minutes to write, these messages can stifle and snuff such voices entirely.

We should continue to support the work of emerging voices from all kinds of backgrounds and perspectives, but we must no longer equate emerging with young. Finding a hot, young writer with loads of talent makes for a great story, but the older writer working despite all of the odds may have more of a story to tell.

SR Pod/Vod Series, Recording: Laurie Blauner

Laurie BlaunerThis Friday, we are proud to feature a podcast of SR contributor Laurie Blauner reading her poetry from Issue 17.

You can follow along with Laurie’s two poems in Superstition Review, Issue 17.

More about the author:

Laurie Blauner is the author of three novels and seven books of poetry. Her most recent book of poetry, It Looks Worse than I Am, was published in 2014 as the first Open Reading Period selection from What Books Press. A new novel called The Solace of Monsters won the 2015 Leapfrog Fiction Contest and is forthcoming Fall 2016. Her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, The Georgia Review, American Poetry Review, Mississippi Review, Caketrain, The Collagist and many other magazines. She lives in Seattle, Washington.

Guest Post, David Huddle: Upgrading for the Endgame

My first publications were short stories, the first in the Fall 1969 issue of the The Georgia Review and the second in the January 1971 issue of Esquire. In 1975, 1986, 1992, 1993, I published story collections, a novella in 1995, and a novella with two stories in 2000. During those years I was also writing and publishing poems and essays. But around 2000, in the process of writing The Story of a Million Years, I essentially converted myself into a novel-writer. Instead of writing stories, I wrote “chapters,” most of which could stand alone as stories.

David HuddleBut here in the early months of 2015, I’ve come back to story-writing with new subject matter and a renewed passion for the form. The main reason I’ve returned to the short story is that a couple of new technical elements have entered my writing process. One of them is that I’ve discovered that my narrative prose can be enhanced by imposing a formal “discipline” on my paragraphs. I’m not sure why I first chose to make prose-writing more difficult than it ordinarily is, but I’ll speculate that it came about fairly naturally. From the many sonnets, villanelles, and syllabic poems I’ve written, I’m accustomed to the discipline of formal requirements–I’d just never considered trying such a device in prose. In the process of writing a story about a character named Hazel Hicks, I noticed that the first several paragraphs I had composed were approximately the same length–and I liked the look of that symmetry on the page! I must have thought something along the lines of Wow, that looks so cool, I’ll bet I can do that for the whole story.

The other new technical element in my writing process is my realizing a way to give my subconscious more control in my narrative decision-making. In this case, a novel I wrote very quickly in 2012 (The Faulkes Chronicle) showed me how to invent things on the fly. From my success in making necessarily spontaneous decisions, I learned that my literary imagination didn’t need as much supervision as I’d thought it did. My composing process could function in a way that in forty-some years of trying to create literary art I’d never quite acknowledged or trusted.

These new elements have enlivened my writing life, they’ve made story-composition more exciting for me, and I’m grateful for their arrival in the language-generating lobe of my brain. For readers of the somewhat wonky discussion that follows, however, I offer these two caveats: 1) What works for me may not work for you, and 2) I have no evidence that either of these new “methods” will make my work any more publishable than it ever was.

The Finite Paragraph

Here’s the first paragraph of a story titled “None” that I finished just a few weeks ago:

Hazel Hicks was the first “None” to graduate Crossley State College as a Religion Major. Hazel herself thought it nothing special. She thought it an obvious choice for someone like her. Which is to say, a person who took every form of life seriously but who found all creation stories implausible–even the most entertaining and compelling.

In my font (12-point Courier) and my manuscript margins (1.25” inches on both sides of the page), this paragraph is six lines long. All but one of the other seventy-one paragraphs of the story are six lines long. And that one line is longer because it has a special place in the narrative. I count lines instead of words. Last lines of the paragraph get a little slack–they can be six or seven spaces shorter than the other lines. I don’t justify my lines, and MS Word makes all the decisions about line-breaks–which adds an element of kooky arbitrariness to how the words arrange themselves in each of the lines of my paragraphs.

The number of lines to which I limit my paragraphs matters in ways I don’t much notice while I’m writing. In three other recent stories, I’ve used nine, eight, and five lines. The lower the number, the greater the difficulty in composing a viable paragraph. And I’m pretty sure the sound and texture of the language changes with the different numbers–but not in ways that I try to control.

The main result of restricting the number of lines is that every paragraph requires extensive revision. So I’m revising two or three times more than I ever have before. I’ve put more time, effort, and thought into every sentence than I have in the past.

I try not to start the next paragraph until I’ve at least tentatively finished the one I’m working on. So I’m a slower story-composer than I have been, and my extended attention to the lived moments of my characters produces more detailed and intense scenes.

Tedious though this method may be, it offers a new pleasure that seems to me akin to what a brick-layer or a stone mason may feel while working on days- or weeks-long construction projects. When I finish two or three of these highly revised paragraphs, it pleases me to see them on the computer screen. Visually those paragraphs suggest solidity of accomplishment–blocks of language that can be assembled into a sturdy composition. Actually even a single one of them pleases me, because I’ve worked on it and cajoled all the little pieces of it into forming the right arrangement of words and sentences.

For literary construction, “the right arrangement of words” in a single paragraph requires that the sentences be of different lengths, that they be grammatically various, that they are musically appealing, that they generate some energy and enlivenment, and that their meaning advances the narrative and/or offers its reader something notable, interesting, startling, funny, and/or memorable.

The discipline of the six-line paragraph is much less demanding than the one for writing sonnets, villanelles, or haiku. So my paragraphs still have the somewhat relaxed sound and spirit of prose–but my hope is that now they will also have some of the intensity, richness of texture, and depth of poetry.

Narrative Problem Solving Through Syntax and Diction:

Letting my sentences do my narrative thinking–that’s the principle I’m applying to these stories I’m writing right now about Hazel Hicks. Here’s a paragraph from page 6 of “None,” the story I mentioned earlier–at this point Hazel Hicks has become a school bus driver.

Benny was twelve, which made him one of the oldest children at Fork Mountain Elementary. He slouched, he had zits and facial hair, and he had a smell Ms. Hicks was pretty sure was cologne. He wouldn’t look directly at her, he didn’t like her sticking her arm out to stop him, didn’t like her making him tell her both his first and last names.

When I wrote this paragraph, I was thinking almost exclusively of describing this boy as Hazel would have seen him as he stepped up into her bus. I had no design, or ulterior motive, for having Hazel extend her arm to stop him, other than imagining that she would, as part of her job, require Benny to properly identify himself to her.

I did, however, have a general plan for Benny. I knew that I wanted him eventually to commit an outlaw act. I wanted him to challenge Hazel Hicks in a way she’d never faced before. I wasn’t sure what the act would be or how it would affect the community of her school bus. And this is where my new method of narrative thinking came into play. In the past, prior to writing the scene, I would have thought out exactly what Benny would do, along with the when and the how of it. Nowadays I’ve excused myself from that premeditated way of composing–planning it out beforehand and then executing the plan in my writing. Nowadays, I tell myself that if I’m sufficiently absorbed in the scene I’m writing, my sentences, as I am generating them, will make the necessary decisions. Composing one sentence of credible action after the other will render each stage of the scene visible–and to sustain that credibility, the decision of what happens will be determined by the words I choose for each phrase and each sentence.

Here’s a paragraph a few pages farther along in this same story:

Frank Hoback’s face seemed to want to convey something to Hazel, but when Benny Sutphin climbed the steps staring straight at her, she wasn’t ready for what she saw. His right eye was swollen nearly shut, and the flesh around it was visibly bruised. She thought she knew exactly what his outraged face meant to tell her. Look what happened to me!

I like to believe that I decided on the black eye just as Benny was climbing the steps to board the bus. At this stage of the composition, I haven’t yet decided exactly what Benny’s going to do. But I have prepared for him to commit a violent act–as a delayed response to whatever happened that gave him this black eye before he boarded the bus to go to school.

Now here’s a paragraph just slightly beyond the previous one:

The children spoke so quietly among themselves the bus seemed to be sounding a minor chord. When she parked it and opened the door, the kids were eager to be free of it. Benny was the last to walk up aisle. She raised her hand to let him know she wanted to speak to him. When she said his name, he slashed her arm with a pocketknife.

And here’s exactly the place where the sentences have done my thinking for me. Hazel’s raising her arm to stop Benny in their first meeting turns out to have been excellent preparation for Benny’s outlaw act. Very likely my subconscious had a notion that Hazel’s raised arm on page 6 would come into play in the story’s turning point on page 9. But it did not confide that notion to me until three pages later–by way of the sentence “She raised her hand to stop him to try to talk with him.” After I’d written it, I revised that sentence (and changed “stop” to “let him know”) so as to make Hazel’s arm-raising less confrontational–thus the phrase “let him know she wanted to speak to him” makes the last clause of that paragraph–“he slashed her arm with a pocketknife”–all the more shocking.

The sentence in which the act occurred made the decision that Benny would slash Hazel’s arm the instant after she said his name. Maybe I could have planned to have it happen that way–Benny’s slashing Hazel’s arm immediately after she utters his name has a compelling narrative and psychological logic to it. But I didn’t. Its happening just in the moment of my typing the sentence made me shiver with shock–as if I’d just seen it happen.

Making-decisions-in-the-writing requires me to trust my imagination to work out the details of a general plan that I’ve brought to the writing. So it more deeply engages my subconscious; therefore, it makes the typing of the sentences more exciting. And it leaves room for changing the plan if a better move presents itself as I’m composing. It infuses my pages with more spontaneity.

The Endgame

Making it new comes naturally for most artists–it’s a basic of the artistic inclination. But the longer you practice your art the harder it becomes to produce something original. Musicians’ careers offer an audible demonstration of this principle. Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell (singer-songwriters of my generation) are never far from my thoughts when I think about aging artists. All three of them were extraordinary for their talent and achievement in their twenties and early thirties. Although it feels disrespectful for me to say so, Mitchell’s powers diminished first, though what she wrote and sang remained interesting. The lingering interest may be because the new songs (“Come In From the Cold,” e.g.) evoke a listener’s memory of the old songs (“I Could Drink a Case of You,” e.g.), thereby enabling a dedicated listener to hear a past masterpiece simultaneously with the new “pretty good song.”

Dylan and Simon had stellar middle periods. Simon’s Graceland was arguably the finest pop album ever recorded–but since then there’s been a decline in his level of achievement. Dylan has gone on recording superb music, though it has to be said that he’s recorded nothing that’s in the same league with “Blowing in the Wind,” “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” or “Masters of War.”

It’s Dylan’s ongoing viability that I find comforting, though it’s also disturbing in certain ways. I appreciate his belligerent and successful refusal to be locked into the box of “Folky,” but I can’t quite digest his disavowal of the idealism we heard in those early songs. I don’t like his commercials for Cadillacs, and I have a lot of trouble with both the sound and the concept of his album of songs Frank Sinatra made famous. But I’ll tell you one thing I do like, and that’s his “Things Have Changed,” which was written for the 2000 movie Wonder Boys. And I think his 2012 album Tempest is evidence of his ongoing viability as both a songwriter and a performer.

I’ve never been that much of a fan of Miles Davis’s music, though I’ve always recognized that his work and his contribution to jazz was that of a master. But I’ve also always thought that his move into rock and funk around 1968 was a huge mistake. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t understand the necessity to make some changes, and to make big changes rather than small ones. And doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t have done the same thing if I’d been Miles Davis. I’d have probably made a worse move. An interesting comparison would be Ray Charles’s decision to record Country & Western songs, a move that revitalized his career.

Trying to make art is, in my view, the most rewarding possible life, which is why most artists understand it to be a lucky privilege. But the noble challenge is to keep making new art without– well, I don’t know any better way to phrase it than “falling on your ass.”

If Bette Davis is right, that “Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” then it’s for sure that an artist’s finding a way to stay creatively alive in his or her senior years will be a challenge all the way to the end. You can’t stop trying to make your work new, and you can’t stop being afraid you’re going to fall on your ass. And here’s the ultimate difficulty–you can’t anticipate whether your new work will be viable or be the visible sign to the world that you’ve finally taken the fall. Art-making is a gamble; you don’t bet money, you bet your talent, your identity, your self-respect, your life as you have known it.

SR Pod/Vod Series: Poet Laurie Blauner

Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Laurie Blauner.

Laurie Blauner Laurie Blauner is the author of two novels, Infinite Kindness and Somebody, a novella called Instructions for Living, and six books of poetry. A new novel titled The Bohemians is forthcoming in 2013 from Black Heron Press. She has received a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship as well as Seattle Arts Commission, King County Arts Commission, 4Culture, and Artist Trust grants and awards.  She was a resident at Centrum and was in the Jack Straw Writers Program.  Her work has appeared in The New Republic, The NationThe Georgia Review, American Poetry Review, Mississippi Review, and other magazines.

You can listen to the podcast on our iTunes Channel.

You can read along with her poems in Issue 8 of Superstition Review.


SR Pod/Vod Series: Poet Deborah Bogen

Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Deborah Bogen.

Deborah Bogen is the author of three prize-winning works: Living by the Children’s Cemetery (2000 Byline Press), Landscape With Silos (2006 Texas Review Press) and the forthcoming Let Me Open You a Swan (April 2010, Elixir Press). Her poetry and reviews appear widely in journals like Crazyhorse, The Iowa Review, New Letters, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, The Gettysburg Review and others. For the past 10 years she’s conducted free writing workshops in her Pittsburgh living room.

You can read along with her poems in Issue 4 of Superstition Review.

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SR Pod/Vod Series: Poet Gregory Djanikian

Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Gregory Djanikian.

Gregory Djanikian has published five collections of poetry with Carnegie Mellon University Press, the last of which is So I Will Till the Ground (2007). His poems have appeared in many journals including American Poetry Review, The American Scholar, Boulevard, The Georgia Review, Iowa Review, Poetry, Poetry Northwest, The Southern Review, Shenandoah, and TriQuarterly, and he has been featured on NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He directs the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of Pennsylvania.

You can read along with his poems in Issue 9 of Superstition Review.

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An Interview with Lee Martin

Superstition Review is excited to announce our publication of Lee Martin for our next issue, due out this December.

Martin is the author of The Bright Forever, and three other novels, including his latest, Break the Skin, which was published by Crown in June 2011. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such places as Harper’s, Ms., Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, and Glimmer Train. He is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. He teaches in the MFA Program at Ohio State University, where he was the winner of the 2006 Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.

Click here for a trailer for Martin’s latest novel, and here for a brief clip of Lee Martin speaking about the story and characters he has created for it.

Superstition Review also had the opportunity to speak with Martin:

Superstition Review: What first made you fall in love with literature?

Lee Martin: I was an only child who spent a good deal of time sitting on porches, in kitchens, in barber shops, listening to the adults tell stories. I was always in love with language. My mother was a grade school teacher, and she had books in our home. She read to me when I was a child. When I started school, I asked my teacher for permission to take my books home to show my mother. I was so proud of them! Before those first school days, when I stayed with my grandmother while my mother was teaching, I would take books off the shelves in her bedroom and sit on the floor with them. I couldn’t read, but I loved the way the books felt in my hands. I loved the way they smelled. I loved the patterns the text made on the pages. All of this is to say, that from an early age I knew books and I had an aesthetic response to them. It was only natural that I would eventually want to write books of my own. I got serious about the prospect of that when I went to the MFA program at the University of Arkansas in 1982. Five years later, I published my first story. At the time, I decided to apply at Arkansas, I was coordinating an Educational Talent Search program that helped culturally or financially disadvantaged people get into college. I shouldn’t admit this to the taxpayers (we were a federally funded program), but I always found ways to spend some time working on my stories when I was supposed to be doing other things for my job. I knew, then, it was time to make a choice to either pursue my craft completely or to give it up. My decision to accept the offer from Arkansas sent me down a path that I’ve never regretted.

SR: What are some of the best things about being both a teacher of literature, as well as a creator of it?

LM: I do love to teach. I love the intense conversations we can have over the choices a writer has made in a story or an essay. I love seeing students develop their skills. I also love those moments of solitude when it’s just me and the page, and I have this material I want to shape, and little by little I do it, which makes me feel that I’ve reached into the world and done something with a little part of it. I like the uncertainty of that process and how it finally comes to something that coheres. Finally, I love doing a reading or talking to classes at the universities I visit. I love performing my work, and I love sharing what I’ve come to know over the years with writers who are just at the beginning of their journeys. I guess, to answer your question more pointedly, I love it all. I love everything about being a teacher and a writer.

SR: If you could offer your students–or any aspiring writers for that matter–just one piece of advice, what would it be?

LM: I think it’s so important to begin to read a good deal and to read the way a writer does–to read with an eye toward the various artistic choices that a writer makes and what those choices allow and, perhaps, don’t allow. Young writers in undergraduate programs will have plenty of opportunity to read the way a literary theorist does, but it’s important to remember that stories, poems, essays, and novels are made objects. If you want to write them yourselves, you have to start figuring out how they get made.

Look for Lee Martin’s work in the forthcoming issue of Superstition Review.