Guest Post, Dara Elerath: Going by Way of the Unknown

Writing poetry requires us to get away from the rote maps of meaning we follow in our daily lives and enter our imaginations. There are many ways of doing this, but one of the most helpful I’ve found is to focus on a subject I am not particularly knowledgeable about and have little to no emotional stake in. I don’t mean areas of expertise that are not my own, like cellular biology, beekeeping or astrophysics. I mean small things: words or objects I encounter that do not appear to carry great weight or significance. Certain objects, like knives, are so laden with symbolism that it seems almost impossible to approach them without invoking particular narratives; however, other, less freighted objects retain their mystery because they’re often overlooked. They exist in shadows—dropped under one’s desk, forgotten in a drawer or hidden beneath a pile of papers. An eraser, for example, is a small, functional piece of rubber that we’ve all likely interacted with on numerous occasions, but have probably never had reason to give much thought to. It embodies the concept of erasure, of course, but erasure on a small scale. I think of times I used one as a child—when trying to learn cursive, or when sketching figures in a notebook; otherwise, the object is not associated with any moment of great importance in my life. For me, these things make it an ideal starting point for a poem.

This brings me to the approach I took when writing “Oriflamme.” Instead of an object, I began with a word I did not know the meaning of (it was not oriflamme, incidentally, but another word with similar qualities). I chose it because it was not associated with any crucial stories or memories in my life; it was merely a series of syllables that pleased my ear. Granted, there may have been certain ideas the sound evoked, or echoes of other words that informed my thinking, but, on the whole, it was a sealed box I had to open by way of language. Knowing only the music of the syllables I was compelled to use my sonic imagination; instead of following a particular narrative thread, I imagined possible definitions of the word by following the syntax of the language and the sounds of the words, looking for rhymes, slant rhymes and patterns that might guide me towards meaning. I used this same approach when writing “{ }”; taking a mathematical symbol I had little knowledge of, I began to make associations with it visually. Over time I’ve come to realize that the more my sonic or visual imagination is engaged, the more elastic my thoughts grow; at such moments the language of metaphor and figuration comes to me naturally. 

Our minds want to make meaning; they want to recite, over and over, the particular myths and stories that constitute the logic of our lives. If we write expressively and choose a conduit through which to channel this poetic thought—be it a crumb, a pair of hands, or a beetle—these stories will begin to manifest themselves. The key thing is to surprise ourselves, and this is most possible when what we’re describing is somewhat unknown to us. Chances are that the image or sound will trigger some associated thoughts that, if we follow them deftly, will guide us down towards deeper meaning. There is also the fact that we experience these everyday things—an eraser, an orange, a word—tactilely and intimately, by the way an eraser feels in our palms, the way an orange smells and tastes, or the way letters look as our eyes move across them on the page. We can use these simple, physical facts to anchor our writing in reality and sensory detail. These objects and words (if we are speaking of words with definitions we choose to remain ignorant of) can have as much or as little meaning as we elect to ascribe to them, whereas the subject of one’s parents or other high-stakes topics come with expectations that we may be inclined to lean into. Often, the sentiments and ideas that emerge when I write about subjects of known importance tend towards the cliché, as though I’m merely reflecting back the many stories about birthdays, death, pet dogs, and so on, that I’ve heard or seen over the years, instead of discovering anything new about myself. 

Going by way of my own unknowing (innocence with regards to the self might be another way of thinking about it) is certainly not the only way to approach poetry, but it helps me to overcome the cultural and personal maps of reality that I’m used to orienting myself by. It allows me to become disoriented, to discover the secret mythologies that my psyche is always trying to find a way to speak. Because the self is small and the heart is vulnerable, the smaller, more vulnerable and lesser known objects (in my experience) often make the best conduits through which to pull the weight of the tender and diffident psyche.

Guest Post, Emma Bolden: Notes on Writing “Laocoön and His Sons”

As a child, I spent a lot of time in the library of my family’s Catholic church, reading stories about the lives of the saints. Though ostensibly written for children, the books nonetheless attended to each saints’ tribulations in gruesome, grizzly detail: Saint Lucy, typically depicted carrying her own eyes on a plate; Saint Agatha, who did the same with her own breasts; Saint Rita of Cascia, whose head was marked with stigmata in the shape of the Crown of Thorns. The books terrified and fascinated me. From them, I learned much—not necessarily about the moral fortitude necessary to reach sainthood, but about one prevailing subject: suffering.

Perhaps this is why the subject of suffering remains an ever-present preoccupation in my work as a writer. It is not necessarily an easy subject to address in language. It’s impossible to exactly and verbally convey the experience of suffering, which is necessarily personal, as intimate as our own bodies. When writing about suffering, one therefore always risks running into cliché, in the tropes—religious or otherwise—we tell ourselves to make sense of our pain. Not that one can, ultimately, make sense of pain—another reason why writing about it is difficult enough to be a form of suffering in and of itself.

As I grew older, I sought out and studied depictions of suffering in other art forms, particularly visual art and music. While stuck in traffic on my evening commute (that particularly acute modern experience of agony), I found myself riveted by an NPR story about Michelangelo, whose Pietà is itself an awe-inspiring portrayal of grief, loss, and sanctification. The story centered around a hidden room in the Medici Chapels, where scholars think Michelangelo hid in the months after he betrayed the Medicis, his patrons. After cleaning the walls, a museum director found a series of sketches on the walls, now believed to have been drawn by Michelangelo while in hiding. 

One sketch depicted Laocoön and His Sons, or the Laocoön Group, a sculpture excavated in 1506. Like many artists of his day, Michelangelo studied Laocoön and His Sons with an obsessive fascination. The sculpture depicts the last moments of Laocoön, a priest of Poseidon, and his sons, poisoned by sea snakes. Versions of the story vary. In some, Poseidon sends the snakes to kill Laocoön, who warned the Trojans that the horse the Greeks gave them wasn’t a gift but a weapon (in Virgil’s Aeneid, Laocoön is the source of the lines that became the English proverb “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”). In this version of events, Laocoön is killed for telling the truth; it seems fitting that Michelangelo would sketch this sculpture on the walls of his hiding place after speaking out against the powerful and poisonous Medici family.

This story fascinated me as much as the stories about saints; I knew, instantly, that I had to write about it. When I (finally) got home, I looked up Laocoön and His Sons so I could study it myself. What struck me most about this masterpiece is that it portrayed suffering in a way I’d never seen in hagiography, with its insistence that suffering led to salvation, that there was a meaning—redemption—at the end of the most treacherous road. In the Laocoön Group, there is no redemption. The figures writhe; even in photographs, the marble appears to be in motion. Though they die together, they find no comfort in family. In fact, they seem separated from each other, each existing in and aware of only their pain. It’s a searing portrayal of what human suffering, at its center, truly is: a force that separates us from the world, even from those in the world we love the most; a force that consumes us entirely; an experience during which, no matter how saintly the sufferer may be, the light of redemption cannot be seen. 

When I sat down to write Laocoön and His Sons,” the story that preceded it similarly darkened into disappearance. I found myself focused on the father in the moment of a death brought by the god he’d served for so long, on the wild terror of the human moment behind the stories of divine faith and redemption that we sculpt and share.

Laocoön and His Sons sculpture on display in the Vatican

Guest Post, Scott Russell Morris: Uncommon Experience: Notes on Writing “The Common Area”

When I wrote the first draft of “The Common Area,” I was in a strange place, figuratively and literally. Having just broken up with and then made up with my girlfriend a few days prior and feeling insecure, I was also on the other side of the world, day one of a two-month study abroad, jet-lagged, hungry, and trying not to be too eager about my first excursion away from America.

That strangeness, the physical and emotional discomfort, made writing “The Common Area” one of the most unique in my writing life: Though I normally revise and revise and revise, never “confident that the phrase first seized is for [me] the phrase of inspiration”—h/t, Agnes Repplier—this essay’s final draft came out more-or-less how it did when I wrote it by hand at 3 a.m. in a basement in Edinburgh, describing in real time the eccentric interaction I had with a stoned Frenchman. Sure, I did clarify a few details, but for the most part, the essay remained true to its original form and content as I transposed it from journal to computer and revised it for publication.

To emphasize the point: this never happens to me. I agonize over drafts. I cut and paste. I kill all the darlings, only to resurrect and kill them again. I have files and files of failed attempts. My first drafts are clunky without regard for transitions or clever juxtapositions. When I finally send a draft out to journals, I agonize over each rejection, seeing what could make my essay tighter. And though “The Common Area” was certainly turned down by several journals, I never felt I could reasonably change much of its original form, content, or conclusions.

So, now, it found its home and I am left to wonder why this essay was such a different experience than the others? The strangeness, certainly, was an important part of it. Ander Monson talks about this in his essay on hacking, describing an exercise for his students where they must write in new places: “I want them to try to feed it [their brain] different stories, different stimuli, in an attempt to get it to generate different sorts of texts.” This new stimuli technique works to make us insecure, much like a child who experiences the world fresh, guileless, and eager to make connections (all reasons to travel regularly). Over the years, my best essays have been ones where I felt insecure in my own knowledge. Since this essay, I’ve written about teaching in Kazakhstan, watching a baby be born, trying to raise that baby with some measure of grace, eating a meal so perfect it could never be replicated, all experiences so odd I was completely unprepared for them. So this was perhaps one key to the “The Common Area’s” uncommon birth: I was grasping for new information, looking at all the new connections coming my way.

Of course, reaching for such ineffable understanding is implied in the word essay’s weighing and measuring, but normally, when I journal or essay, I have to work to get to that measurement. I must first get the facts down and then see how they might connect, but with this essay, I was already in what Amy Leach calls a “guessing mood”—guessing how to connect with others, guessing what I was going to experience while abroad, guessing what would happen with my tenuous girlfriend. And though I still preach and live the gospel of merciless revision, writing “The Common Area” has reminded me that to write an essay, you must be willing to move outside yourself and yet question everything about yourself. This is always what I strive for, but with this essay, it happened while I was also writing, struggling with real-life concerns. It was a reminder, too, that to essay is not just something you write, but a way of approaching the world, sometimes with needful urgency.

Guest Post, Neema Avashia: Finding the Right Angle

I wrote about my cousin’s death in at least six different essays before I came to write “Finding the Holy in an Unholy Coconut.” I started writing very shortly after his death, in the days I spent with my aunt and uncle trying to help them sort through all of the logistical complexities that accompany unexpected death. It’s not enough to grieve, in America. We also need you to contact Social Security, close out credit cards, and notify banks as quickly as possible. 

My first writing was accounting—asking questions about who knew what and when. It was very much the “bleeding into the typewriter” that T Kira Madden critiques in “Against Catharsis: Writing is Not Therapy” and that Penny Zang referenced in her post on the SR Blog last month. 

From extremely raw accounting, I moved to narrating, and trying to patch together a complete story even though so many of the details were missing. And, once again, it took very little time to realize that this stage of writing was strictly for me. 

The only person who read these early essays was my mentor, Jane McCafferty, whose gentle response, effectively, was to say, “I love you. And no one else should read this.” Jane’s point at the time was that there is a difference between writing as a way of grieving and writing about grief for an audience. I would find my way to the second eventually, but it was going to take time. Still, she urged me to keep writing the story as many times as I needed to.

It took three years to move from accounting, to narrating, to actually crafting. In Geeta Kothari’s creative non-fiction workshop at the Kenyon Review last summer, she asked us to use description of a concrete object to enter into an essay. I had brought a tiny silver bell with me that usually sits on the altar in my pantry, and this bell somehow allowed me to write about my cousin’s death, and my grieving, through the lens of faith and ritual. The next day, she asked us to visit the art gallery on campus at Kenyon, to choose a piece of art that resonated for us, and to use that piece of art to enter the story a second way. And again, I found the themes in my story shifting.

By entering the story from these different angles, I found myself able to move further and further from the specific details surrounding my cousin’s death, and closer to a story about how faith and ritual can both be essential to mourning—and also fall completely short. 

After Kenyon, I went to Los Angeles as part of a West Coast road trip. I attempted to submerge my unholy coconut. And last fall in a writing class at Grub Street, a writing organization here in Boston, I found my way into the essay published at Superstition Review this spring, a full four years after my cousin died. The coconut allowed me to enter our story from a different angle, one that enabled me to write an essay that was no longer just for me.

Ultimately, the coconut at the center of this story serves three functions in the piece: It serves as the concrete vessel for the character Neema’s grief. For the writer, Neema, it serves as a symbol that makes the abstractions of grief less abstract—something that can be described, can be held, and can eventually be cast away. And, for the readers, the coconut is the central image that they can carry with them through the entire piece. It gets introduced in the first paragraph, appears even when the story shifts in place and time, and is still sitting on the shoreline at the very end of the story. 

It took four years, six vastly different versions of the story in structure, content, and style, and four different entry points to arrive at this published essay. I try to remind myself of these facts when I am stuck in the middle of a draft and can’t seem to find a way forward. If the story is worth telling, I say to myself, then my task is to find the right angle from which to tell it. 

Most importantly, I tell myself to be patient. I may have not yet lived, or seen, the angle from which the story is best told. 

Guest Post, Marcia Aldrich: Against Time

I don’t remember exactly what triggered writing “The Year in Review.”  At the time we were staying in Borrego Springs, a small town in the middle of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California, and in the afternoon I liked to climb to the top of the garage of the house we were renting and sit on the viewing deck the owner had built for stargazing. Borrego Springs is the only International Dark Sky Community in California, and I’ve never experienced such a sky of stars than I did in Borrego. The city asks that homeowners turn off their outdoor lights at night to enhance the depth of the dark. But I also loved to climb up on the roof and watch the sun set. From the top I could see the desert plains spread out behind me and the mountains rise; I could see the sun dip below the palm trees. It was a fabulous view and had the advantage of allowing me to write. That day I carried my notebook and pen and wrote what came to be “The Year in Review” in one fell swoop as if I was in a class and had been handed a prompt. But, of course, this was not an assignment, just what welled up inside me and asked to be written. Perhaps it was something about the sweep of the horizon from the rooftop that asked me to look at the year I had just completed. 

It’s a catalogue, a close relative to the list, both of which I love because they attempt to catch the moments of our lives before they’re forgotten, erased, or written over by new moments. Time is what they are about—the relentless forward motion of time, pulsing ahead and carrying us with it helplessly. These reviews are little life rafts we hold onto to keep us from falling out into the current. They are my attempts to be steady and stay upright, to know where I am and who I am at a specific moment in time. It’s a kind of reckoning, an attempt to get at something I’ll call the personal truth of my life.

Essay Daily published an experiment called What Happened on June 21st last year. They invited anyone interested to write about what happened that day. They received about 250 reports. I was one of the 250 respondents. Now they’ve culled 25 accounts and published them as a slim book and mine is one of them. I mention this experiment because it is related to my experiment of writing a year in review essay—the tasks are similar. One could easily be overwhelmed by the enormity of all that happened in a given day, a given year. What did I experience in one unit of time? So much of our lives is deemed mundane, routine. We walk our dogs everyday—but what makes any particular walk worth noticing? And then, there are those so-called profound experiences when something shakes us awake. Sometimes the mundane becomes profound and sometimes the profound peters out in the end. It’s a complicated dance trying to capture the rhythm of a life, whether it be a day or a year. What details are most telling and how do these details jostle together to create a life while always moving forward? I have found that some of my most telling moments happen while I’m going about my life and they would pass away unremembered if I did not try to write them. That’s one thing we writers do: we write against the erasure of time.

Guest Post, Kathryn Kulpa: More Than You Think You Know

“You are better than you think. A-one, a-two, a-three.” 

—Kurt Vonnegut

Remember that old chestnut of writing advice that gets lobbed at all of us—particularly young writers, particularly new writers—write what you know? I ran across it first in my teens. Rather a dispiriting command for those of us whose real lives, the lives we knew, consisted of going to boring school every day in our boring town, and maybe, if we were lucky, going to the mall. My own trips to the mall invariably ended at the bookstore, where I sought escape in reading about other lives, other worlds that were nothing like the world I knew. 

Not necessarily better worlds. I favored dystopias and disasters, perilous quests and amorphous monsters, the merest glimpse of which could blast your sanity and leave you a gibbering mindless hulk, not unlike how I felt at the end of double biology class. 

My heart is in Middle Earth
My heart is not here
My heart is in Middle Earth
Trembling with fear …

I wrote in first-period algebra, when I compared Frodo’s quest to destroy the One Ring to the search for the square root of a quadratic equation, and the search for the equation didn’t come off too well. (Nor did my math grades, but that’s another story.) 

I read, and re-read, Tolkien and Lovecraft and Poe and Stephen King. My high school library had volumes of the best science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories, going back to at least 1970. I studied them like scripture. But my own attempts to write in those genres always felt like flat imitation. At the same time, I obsessively chronicled the ordinary details of my own life in notebooks: who wore the yellow dress that made her look like “a squeezed-out lemon,” who wrote “I LOVE KENNY” on the desk I shared in third period English, prompting me to question: “Does he love you?”; which teacher made the whole class stay after school because a few kids were acting up, spurring me to add a new dictionary definition under the word “shit.” Impromptu songs and poems and comics, but I didn’t consider any of it “real” writing, just throwaway stuff. 

Only I didn’t throw it away. A quiet voice inside told me not to. I would learn to listen to that voice. 

What I remember from my first “real” writing workshop were the yellow sheets the instructor gave us with comments on our stories, comments so detailed it felt as if each story had already been published and was worthy of critical attention. I only remember one piece of general writing advice, but it stuck in my mind as a corollary to write what you know: “You know more than you think you know.” 

I can’t explain the sense of freedom and relief that advice gave me. How many times I’d discarded story ideas, telling myself I couldn’t write about X because I’d never been to Y and didn’t know enough about Z. 

If a story idea feels right, if it feels emotionally true, then write it. Researching the details can come later. In that workshop I wrote a first draft of my story “The Night Copernicus Died,” about a nuclear scientist haunted by regret. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a nuclear physicist. My only “research” for the story was a book I’d once read about the making of the atomic bomb and a manga written by a survivor of Hiroshima. 

But I’d been born into a world shadowed by the threat of nuclear annihilation. I’d never known a time when that shadow didn’t haunt my dreams. As a teen and young adult, I’d wake in the middle of the night with my heart pounding, sure the world was going to end that night. I’d lie awake, making lists of all the things that made the world worth saving, fireflies and forsythia and golden retriever puppies, even though the people in it were so stupid. 

Years later, I met someone who’d been in the army during the Reagan years. “You don’t know how close we got, a couple of times,” he told me. But on some level I did know. And that feeling—that inner knowledge—was what drove the story. 

It was published in a science fiction magazine. I worried that, because its readers probably included a higher-than-average proportion of MIT grads, someone would question the science. 

No one said a word about the science. But I was forwarded a letter by one reader who wanted me to know that, while I had described the 1950s as a time when “gas was five cents a gallon,” it was, in fact, closer to 25 cents per gallon for much of that decade. 

Duly noted. 

In a more recent story, “Skater Girl at Rest,” I wrote in the voice of a former teen-movie star now sentenced to home confinement: 

Anna had always imagined an ankle bracelet would look like an actual bracelet, like the cylindrical copper coil she’d bought one year at Burning Man.

But it didn’t. It was bulky and oddly medical, with a thick black attachment that reminded Anna of a garage door opener or an old-school drug dealer beeper. It chafed her ankle and banged against her other leg when she slept and made wardrobe choices so much harder than they had to be. 

That voice just came to me, like taking dictation from a friendly ghost, yet having written it I started to worry that I’d got ankle bracelets all wrong; maybe they were discreet and delicate little bands, and what did I know about ankle bracelets anyway? 

I consulted the Google (The Google is your friend! Just not in the first draft) and found that they were, in fact pretty much exactly as I’d described them. 

You know more than you think you know. 

But what could I know about being dead? I would never claim that I know what it’s like to be dead, unless I happened to be singing a song written by John Lennon, but a while ago I became possessed by the need to write a story from the point of view of a dead person. Not a ghost, or an angel, or a spirit trapped in some interdimensional bardo. Just a regular dead person, who was dead but in some way still there, still a part of the physical world. 

I had been doing some strange reading, as I’m apt to do, about body farms and unusual disposition of human remains, and some of it was fascinating and some of it was horrifying, and the question I kept asking myself was why? Why would someone choose to have their body thrown down an elevator shaft, strapped into a crashing car, torn to pieces by animals, or left to rot in an open field? 

The voice of my narrator, a calm and reasonable voice, started speaking to me. She started telling me her story. And so I had to listen. 

They say we’ll get our bodies back whole after the rapture, but I’m pretty much done with mine—like when you’ve got an old nightgown so worn and full of holes that you’re just as happy when it rips, so you can tear it up for rags. 

The story, “A Key Into the Language of the Dead,” was published in Superstition Review‘s Issue 23. The characters and what they talk about and think about are made up. What happens to the bodies is real. 

What happens to the pumpkin is also real. It grew in my front yard. 

So yes, write what you know. That can be good advice, but don’t let it limit you to a narrow definition of what you think you know. You’ve seen things you didn’t realize you saw. You’ve heard things you don’t remember you heard. You know more than you think you know. Trust what you know. Tell the stories that beckon you, the ones that trouble you, even if they seem difficult or strange. 

And always Google the gas prices.

Guest Post, Penny Zang: Dress, Write, Mourn

How to Write About a Dead Woman

“As a rule, think plain, unadorned, gravitas. No cleavage, thigh-high boots, or microminis. No animal prints and certainly no cowboy fringe.”

— Nina Garcia’s Look Book: What to Wear for Every Occasion, “What to Wear to a Funeral”

Between January 1, 2016 and mid-February 2018, five people I loved died: my best friend, two aunts, my grandmother, and my father. I started writing “How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive” shortly after the last two deaths, when I was unable to stop myself from dreaming about dead women. It was always the women. Women watching me while I slept, women waiting for me to catch up.

I never questioned the dreams or what was happening on the page. Writing about dead women seemed to be the natural result of not taking off work, not talking about my grief, and not stopping the day-to-day “grind” of grading essays, folding laundry, and hosting birthday parties for a house full of five-year olds. 

“How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive” was/is part of a longer work-in-progress. The individual sections, though, were born from the blend of influences that seeped into my brain during each of those mind-numbing, grief-filled days.

In no particular order: Sylvia Plath, Selena, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Peaches ‘N Cream Barbie, Lincoln in the Bardo, what to wear to a funeral, how long it takes to grieve, Ouija boards, Bloody Mary, Twin Peaks, Linkin Park, George Michael, Amy Winehouse, The Cranberries, cremation, novel after novel after TV show after movie with a dead woman in the middle of the plot. The question of what happens to your best stories and your worst secrets if you’re the only one left alive to remember?

In his essay, “On Becoming an American Writer,” Alexander Chee says, “Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable.” 

Is that what I was trying to do as I wrote in the aftermath of my grief? Did I intend to speak to my dead? On some level, yes. Each time I dream about my friend, always her more than the others, I wake up wondering what she wants me to do now. What stories does she want me to write? What secrets am I allowed to share? 

I wrote “How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive” with her in mind, her at age 35 and age 28 and age 22 and age 12. I saw her passing me a note in 8thgrade English and escorting me to junior prom and holding back my hair when we lived together years later. I saw her holding my son. I saw us shopping and sharing and stealing each other’s clothes. How intimate it all seems now, in retrospect, that I don’t have anyone who wants to borrow my favorite dress. 

The dress, I think, was always part of the story, even before I started writing. As I packed my funeral dress for my friend’s memorial service, I might have thought about the perfect symbolism of a black dress and how I would one day write about my loss. I had a feeling more funerals were coming (though I didn’t know how many or how quickly), and if I had thought about writing through my grief, I would have also known how central a dress would be to that narrative.  

Otherwise, I don’t remember writing a single word. 

One of the benefits of writing at 5 a.m. is that no one cares what I’m wearing. Inside-out T-shirts tops and ratty robes are my uniform. It doesn’t matter if I’m blurry, stumbling, and unable to form complete thoughts yet. There’s coffee, and a cat to keep me company. There’s a (hopefully) charged laptop. The sky is just the right kind of dark. 

This is how I write, with my subconscious still buzzing from half-baked dreams, and a complete lack of censorship. The internal editor is still asleep and the lack of perfection, the full-on embrace of imperfection, becomes the fuel for my creative process. A quiet house at 5 a.m. is pure luxury. Better than Burberry trench coats and Missoni knits and Frye harness boots, and whatever else Nina Garcia says I am supposed to own and enjoy.

After I wrote “How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive,” my Twitter friend, Steve Bargdill, told me about keening. Keening is a death wail, a public lament that has now grown out of fashion, giving women a voice for their grief. Sometimes professional mourners were hired to grieve publically at funerals. I am simplifying, of course, but the blend of beauty and tragedy struck a nerve. Yes, I thought. That is what it feels like to ache and not have the words, or to not need the words, to express it. 

This is not to suggest that writing “How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive” was a healing experience. Not at all. I like how T Kira Madden addresses the issue of writing and healing in her essay “Against Catharsis: Writing is Not Therapy.” She writes, “But to render the art, to render the experience, does not, in my practice, involve ‘bleeding into the typewriter.’ It does not entail a writer spilling or spewing the memory onto a blank page, nailing it down, healing.” I don’t disagree.

Lately, my writing and my mourning are mashed together so brutally, I couldn’t ever call the creative process therapeutic. Instead, it feels like I am crafting a eulogy that no one has asked me to write. Over and over, it feels like standing in front of my family and friends, pretending like I have all the right words instead of one long, imperfect wail.  

Guest Post, Robert Krut: The North Star Pinball Jukebox

A Playlist for The Now Dark Sky, Setting Us All on Fire

NoteThe Now Dark Sky, Setting Us All on Fire playlist can be heard here (on Apple Music) and here (on Spotify).  

1.  

My parents recently sent me a warehouse worth’s of VHS tapes from my childhood home—a bulky mix of home movies, high school events, and choppy collections of 120 Minutes clips culled from hours of attentive viewing. In those tapes, there were some crystal-clear views of our old house, and my room, which, in retrospect, was something of a folk-art shrine to my favorite music. There are old 45s propped up on shelves, concert tickets in tiny frames, posters and magazine clippings covering most of the walls—REM mingles with the Led Zeppelin, Joan Jett leans up against The Replacements, Prince stands next to Patti Smith. In the nook near the front window, cases of cassettes climb from the ground to the ceiling—the classic plastic rectangle-collage of a music-loving kid in the 80s.  

Next to that, though, was the real treasure—milk crates stocked with true, old school, vinyl records. A mix of hand-me-downs and purchases from local flea markets, their artwork would stare at me as I filed through, looking for just the right album to play. Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons leaned on each other and smiled up from the cardboard; the first-pressing Velvet Underground record tempted you to peel the banana back; and Bob Dylan stared straight through you, daring you to decipher the stream of words on the back of his records. And those streams of words, printed across the back of records like Highway 61 Revisited, led me to poetry, and music has been a part of the process ever since.

With the songs echoing through my suburban room, I would hover over the strange poetry on the back covers. On classics like Bringing It All Back Home say, there were rambling, seemingly meaningless word parades on the back of his records—the sort of prose poetry that certainly never won over any literary scholars (it’s one of the few areas of his career that does not garner effusive praise—but I am happy to report that, years later, Denis Johnson discussed discovering poetry through these albums, as well), a sort of confetti of phrases and names that rolls on with abandon. There are no book-length analyses of those back covers like there are about “Like a Rolling Stone,” but for me, they were a gateway to poetry. Never a talented musician, I couldn’t write songs, but I began writing my versions (read: knockoffs) of these sorts of poems (I have volumes of notebooks of this mortifying work). I couldn’t stop, and I didn’t want to.

And, importantly, in that excitement, I began seeking out the poets that inspired him. In one set of noteshe mentions Allen Ginsberg, so I pulled the string, and then wound up reading the entirety of the Beats, and then Blake, and then Rimbaud, and then venturing into more contemporary writers—and once that started, the entirety of poetry was exciting to me.  

So, from the very start, music has been ingrained in my writing, as a spark, sometimes as a guide, sometimes as a role model, sometimes even as an editor. It’s not surprising, seeing the direct line from those records, that it would be part of it all. People like Dylan and Patti Smith have fingerprints on what I write now, as do more current musicians like Kendrick Lamar and Waxahatchee. The two worlds, of poetry and music, are always connected. I’m excited that Superstition Review has asked me to share a playlist of songs that connect to my new collection, as so many helped shape the book.  

2.  

I rarely listen to music as I write, but it serves three important roles during the process. There is the “North Star” approach, where I hear a particular song and something about it pushes me forward, toward its tone, or themes, or lyrics. I live with it for weeks, playing it on repeat, until I write, gaining momentum from the song. Then, there is the “jukebox”—a song comes on, out of the blue, shakes up my vision and I’m inspired to write by it. And, finally, particularly with finalizing a manuscript, there is the “pinball machine”—in crafting the order and focus of a book, it’s as if songs are the bumpers in a pinball machine, helping me see connections and themes that exist in the poems, jolting them toward each other as the ball rolls along the wood surface.

Of course, in writing this, I know that none of this is unique—we all have stories about how music connects to our lives, whether that be as artists or just in our everyday experiences. There have even been great poetry collections rooted in music in every sense of the word (two of my early favorite books, Michael Harper’s Dear John, Dear Coltrane and David Wojahn’s Mystery Train, for example). Here, in this piece, I can just speak to my experience, naturally, and how it shaped the poems in the new book. Music led me to poetry when I was younger; now, older, it helps inspire and shape it. 

In writing this new book, certain songs were clearly “North Stars,” those pieces that captured a tone or theme I was aiming for in the collection. I could listen to them and know this is what I’m after. I knew the landscapes I was seeing in my head were reflected in “Dark Eyes”; I knew some of the topics I wanted to explore were in “XXX”; and I knew some of the tone I wanted to evoke was in “Annie Christian.” At other times, a song would appear on the “jukebox” (an iPhone is much less romantic than a jukebox) and either alter my goals, or fine tune them. When Kamasi Washington released “Fists of Fury,” it hit me like a bolt, not only because I had been anxiously awaiting his new album, but because of the themes and ideas in it—which immediately sparked more writing. When I heard Waxahatchee for the first time, a local radio station played “Peace & Quiet.” Hearing that voice cut through the car, I literally pulled over, purchased the album on iTunes (again, not as romantic as running to the record store, I know), and listened to it three times in row before heading home to write. 

 And finally, when piecing the manuscript together into sections, into an order, and into (what I hope) is a cohesive whole, many of these songs helped serve as posts to guide them into place. I knew, thematically, section 2 of the book was going to house both the Jane’s Addiction and Jackie Shane songs, two of the more vulnerable, romantic pieces, and that helped guide the formatting. Section 3 seemed to call for Leonard Cohen’s voice, and everything fell in place from there.  

Of course, this is all a lengthy way to say I love music, and it inspires poetry.  I bet most writers reading this will say the same thing. But the chance to express that sentiment, and share how it affected this new book—particularly since there were very specific songs that did—is too enjoyable to pass up. And perhaps, if nothing else, someone else might enjoy the songs that follow, and maybe even listen in conjunction with the book.  

3. 

All of this is to say that creating a playlist for this new book was something I had been doing for the entirety of writing it, so it was a pleasure to put it together in some sort of “final” version to share with the published collection. As mentioned above, the playlist can be found here (on Apple Music) and here (on Spotify) for anyone who might want to listen along now, or with the book when it comes out in June. 

Here are a few words about each track, as they relate to the collection. I’ve forced myself to keep it to two sentences per song, as my enthusiasm for this music could easily lead me down (even longer), rambling, discussion.

1. Bettye Lavette, “Ain’t Talkin’.” An overture for the book, the opening credits theme as the poems start. Lavette’s voice, combined with these lyrics, captures the tone I aimed for in these poems.

2. Kamasi Washington, “Fists of Fury.” Love is always the goal, but love and resistance are not mutually exclusive. There are times for righteous anger.

3. Parquet Courts, “Violence.” Whereas Washington uses swirling jazz to encircle the wrongs of the world, Parquet Courts are more direct here.  

4. Talking Heads, “The Big Country.” Flying over the country, watching the news in a seat-back, and turning away from the screen to look down on the huge grids of land and puzzle-piece suburbs, this is always the song that floats in and out of the air vents.

5. Rhianna (feat. Calvin Harris), “We Found Love.” In the very earliest stages of writing this book, we were living in New Orleans, and this song had just been released. It was almost a joke how often it was played throughout the city—even in jazz clubs between sets—and it sunk into my system, with “we fell in love in a hopeless place” a working epigraph for the collection for a while.

6. Kendrick Lamar (feat. U2), “XXX.” He seems to get better and better, and while all of his albums have inspired writing, this song kept reappearing and pushing and guiding. In three short sections of one song, there are countless quote-worthy lines, but “the great American flag is wrapped and dragged with explosives” might be the best.

7. Jane’s Addiction, “I Would for You.” Slow dancing at the end of the world while the ground falls away in all directions.

8. Jackie Shane, “Cruel Cruel World.” Shane received some well-earned praise near the end of her life, and it is a gift to have her work easily available now. This piece goes hand-in-hand with the previous one—the world may be cruel, but hope is worth it.

9. Waxahatchee, “Peace & Quiet.” Even more than they lyrics here (although she is an incredible lyricist), the first time I heard Katie Crutchfield’s voice, it was like a note from a frequency I didn’t even realize I was tuned to, and I wanted to write poems in that key.

10. Frank Ocean, “Solo.” The summer this album came out, I would drive around at night listening to it on repeat, and it seemed like the tires turned to fog while the car floated through the neighborhoods. That tone, and the lyrics in the chorus here (“it’s Hell on Earth and the city’s on fire . . . there’s a bull and a matador dueling in the sky”) seeped into my writing for weeks.

11. Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker.” Leonard Cohen is just about the only person who could pull off this song, but I went back to it frequently as license to dive into dark waves. 

12. The Veils, “Axolotl.”Few pieces of art affected me over the past few years as much as David Lynch’s return to “Twin Peaks,” which aired two years ago now. This song, which was featured in one of the most haunting scenes in the series, captured what I was after in the poems, and pushed them further.

13. Prince, “Annie Christian.” It may be hard to believe, but Prince is actually underrated in some regards, as in his skill to capture anxiety and chaos. The swirling keyboards and staccato guitar skipping around then-current end-times events were a reference point as I worked on the book.

14. Jeff Tweedy, “Some Birds.”Superstition Review editor Trish Murphy actually blurbed the new book, saying that it works to build an “alternate universe designed to help us better understand our real one” and there are, indeed, at least a few twins from other worlds staring back at us in there.  In this song, tonally a breath of fresh air in the playlist, one of those twins appear.

15. Patti Smith, “Pissing in a River.” If there’s an artist more willing to put her heart and mind out there against all risks, I haven’t seen or heard them. I aspire to be as fearless as her voice and heart-on-sleeve passion that builds through this song.  

16. REM, “Every Day is Yours to Win.” With all of the darkness in the book, I wanted to end with a more delicate voice, with at least a ribbon of light, in the very last poem. The peace in this song, and (literal) repetition of the last lines are an earnest attempt to do so, even if it is futile.

17. Bob Dylan, “Dark Eyes.” The bookend to the very first song, this was always the piece of music I heard in my head while putting the book together. The images, the tone, the lyrics—it was a North Star, and is the song I hear when I close the book at its conclusion.

4.  

There is one final way that music influences writing, and it is less specific than being sparked by a particular line of a song, or influenced by the melody and rhythm. Sometimes, as with all art, the simple act of being exposed to someone else’s creativity is enough to move us to action—the earnest inspiration of someone else’s work. And by listening, and sensing their passion, it puts momentum into our own work. We can’t listen without wanting to create as well.

With this new book, I had a version of the manuscript for a solid year or two that I thought was done. But it wasn’t.  If I was being honest with myself (it took a while), about a quarter of the poems needed to go, and be flushed out with new pieces. That was a tough pill to swallow, but it was obvious to me—I just didn’t know where to begin.  

At the very start of last summer, we were driving through Northern Arizona, and up through Nevada, along route 93, running parallel to the Colorado River and alongside the White Hills area. After stopping for gas at one of the rare stations, I plugged my phone into the audio output, and hit shuffle. Pharaoh Sanders came on, and the opening sounds of “The Creator Has a Masterplan,” from Karma, played. We pulled onto the road, his saxophone lifted off, the chiming bells echoed out, and as we curved through the desert. The car was flying.

If you’ve never heard this song before, it’s worth a listen, and if you have, it’s worth a second. All 32 minutes and 47 seconds of it. When it started that afternoon, the sun had just started to go down, and by the end of it, we were driving in the dim light of dusk.  

When we ultimately got back to California, I started writing, and I didn’t stop until the book was done.


Robert Krut’s new book, The Now Dark Sky, Setting Us All on Fire, is the recipient of the Codhill Poetry Award and will be released in June by Codhill Press. He is also the author of This Is the Ocean (Bona Fide Books, 2013), which received the Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Award, and The Spider Sermons (BlazeVox, 2009). As a faculty member in the Writing Program and College of Creative Studies, he teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara. More information is available at www.robert-krut.com.


Guest Blog Post, Ellen O’Brien: Literary Internships

Photo courtesy of Holy Book

Internships are a great way to get involved in the world of literature, but it can be hard to know where to start and it can take a lot of research. That’s why we did the research instead! Here are the top ten literary internships for aspiring writers and editors:

  1. The Paris Review
  2. The New York Review of Books
  3. Penguin Random House
  4. Harper’s Magazine
  5. Tin House
  6. Milkweed Editions
  7. Coffee House Press
  8. Dzanc Books
  9. McSweeney’s Quarterly
  10. BOMB

Plus, here are a few tips for conducting your own internship research:

1. Everything varies widely, from compensation to time commitment.

Many internships are designed for college students: they operate on a semester schedule, require 15-20 hours of work per week, and offer college credit in lieu of money. But most lit mags and presses don’t require you to be a student, and there are many (including 6 of the 10 on this list!) that offer hourly pay or a stipend.

2. Many literary organizations are located in New York City, San Francisco or Washington, D.C.

If you don’t already live in one of those cities and you’re not interested or unable to move for a three-month internship, be sure to check out your local literary scene. Most cities and universities have presses and lit mags, and it never hurts to ask if they have a position open! 

In addition to internships, many lit mags offer volunteers the opportunity to review submissions; while not as involved or structured as an internship, working as a reader can be a good way to get experience in the field before applying to positions with more responsibility.

3. Research the actual responsibilities of the job. 

All of my top 10 internships offer hands-on editorial experience, but there are also literary internships that focus on marketing, design or events. While those can still be useful experiences, it’s important to consider what you want to get out of the internship and what work you’re actually interested in doing.

Guest Blog Post, Emily Cole: You Are Already A Poet

Last year, I had the extraordinary privilege of teaching an undergraduate class on music and poetry. I was thrilled to witness the camaraderie that developed between the musicians, poets, and fiction writers who enrolled as they built our classroom community through workshop and discussion. I watched them collaborate, and watched many genuine friendships form. During the last week, I put together my last planned lesson of the course, a sampling of “how-tos” for the professional writing world – how to publish in undergraduate literary journals, how to write a cover letter, how to find resources and enroll in online poetry classes, etc. Thirty seconds into my presentation, one of my students – let’s call her Viola – said, “but Miss Cole, how do you know when you’re a poet? When do you count?”  

This question both deeply resonated with me and also broke my heart. I abandoned my previous lesson plan, reentered the circle of students, and told them that when I was in my second-ever poetry class, I capped off my portfolio with a poem called “When I am a Poet.” The poem itself has been lost, but the general gist was “when I’m a real poet, my work is going to be so much better, I’m going to be so much smarter, and I’ll be taken so much more seriously.”

To be an artist of any kind is to live with the constant, nagging doubt that your art is not legitimate. We believe, instead, that our legitimacy as artists comes from the world around us – from poems and books we have published, to accolades we have won, to degrees we have earned. We believe that these things are concrete and tangible proof that we “count” as artists in our chosen fields.

And it’s not to say that those things don’t matter. They can be helpful to a poet’s career, especially if one wishes to enter academia, where right amount of acclaim and professional connections can sometimes translate into a teaching job. Publication increases our work’s visibility. Awards and grants provide us funding to continue our work. Books allow a poet to showcase a range of work that readers can keep on their bookshelves or bedsides.

But none of these trappings, however useful to someone’s poetry career, make us poets.

Fewer than ten of Emily Dickinson’s poems were ever published during her lifetime, all of them anonymously, possibly without her knowledge, and she is one of the greatest American poets of all time. But even her greatness, her innovation and brilliance is not what made her a poet. Her poetry made her a poet. And that lesson is less about poetry itself, and more about the system that young American poets are brought up in, a system that teaches them to value their work based on publication credits, awards, Facebook likes, and, ultimately, money.

As poets, and all too often as people, we define ourselves by our external accomplishments because the “marketplace” of poetry – of capitalism, of America – teaches us that the value of our artistic work is directly correlated with how many people see that work and thus how much money it makes and/or how famous we become because of it.

Until Viola asked her vulnerable and important question, I was doing all my students a disservice by focusing their attention on publication, rather than teaching them the far more important lesson that their work has intrinsic value all on its own.

So I invoked another metric. “Class,” I asked, “How many of you think that Viola is a poet?”

The class responded with a chorus of affirmation that, yes, Viola was not only a poet, but a talented poet, one with a gift for strange, defamiliarizing syntax and potent, memorable metaphor. “But you’re my friends!” Viola cried.

“Precisely.” I said. “Now, is there anyone else who feels that they aren’t a poet?”

Every hand went up. Including mine.

When they stared at me—but you’re the teacher—I told them that the “marketplace” of poetry would have them believe that they are not a real poet until they’ve collected a certain, often arbitrary, number of accomplishments. I told them that even with dozens of publications in nationally-recognized journals, with a CV full of accolades, a chapbook publication, an MFA, there are days, weeks, whole months, that I don’t feel like a real poet. I told them about poet-friends I know, friends who have books and NEA grants and lists of accomplishments pages long, who still consider themselves to be “emerging” poets, because the poetry marketplace has told that they don’t count as “real poets” yet.

Viola isn’t alone. Every poet I know wonders, at one time or another, at what point they “count.” At what point they will count as “real.” But that’s just the marketplace talking. It’s an easy thing to forget, in the midst of all the other noise, but it’s the poetry that makes the poet. Not the money. Not the brand. Not the number of fans, or of followers on Twitter or Instagram.

Before class ended that day, I asked my students to do one more thing. They looked to their left and their right, and told each other the one truth that I hope they’ve taken away from class, the truth more important than any advice about publication than I could ever give them: You are already a poet, they said to one another. You already count.