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Here’s what you can look forward to reading in your free issue…
What is education for? In the May/June forum discussion, Danielle Allen argues that public education should make citizens, not just workers, and that requires a focus on the humanities, not only STEM. Respondents include Deborah Meier, Clint Smith, Michel DeGraff, and Rob Reich. Also within this issue, James G. Chappel argues that “religion” as a distinct sphere of life sprang from secularism – and that the divide between the two may not be sustainable. Plus: a celebration of the 2016 92Y/”Discovery” Prize – winning poets, and new work from John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, and Brenda Hillman.
I was gonna write about making stories in second grade with my spelling words. I was gonna write about how my mama, who grew up abjectly poor and who didn’t go to college herself until she was forty-seven, understood so well that she gave me Walt Whitman when I was nine–A child said What is the grass?-– and the collected William Carlos Williams when I was twelve. I was gonna write about loving Wittgenstein, that space between the name and the thing he explores, that space I think we inhabit as artists. The power of story, poetry as prayer, how teaching reminds me every day of how miraculous the language we use to live in this life–I had written 500 words.
Then Boston blew up.
And West, Texas.
I quit watching the news years ago, but I stalked Facebook, texting people I know and love in the Boston area. I heard snippets of the working-class drawls of people on the streets in Texas. And I cried.
One sweet-faced freshman at the small liberal arts college where I teach in Virginia, shifted from foot to foot in my office, saying he had family in Boston, asking if he could keep his phone on vibrate.
Other freshmen–wide-eyed and curious and scared–in my American Lit class the next morning, discussed Whitman’s Song of Myself–”What is removed drops horribly in a pail”–as a manhunt locked my Boston friends in their homes, keeping their children home from school, away from windows and doors.
Shelter in place.
My students asked me Why and I didn’t have an answer. I said, “He’s your age, the one they’re chasing. Can you tell me why?”
They didn’t have an answer either.
What we did have was pain, fear, the shared understanding of how vulnerable we all are. We talked about that vulnerability, and they revealed to me that they, these children who were only six years old when planes hit the Trade Towers, feel that vulnerable, that defenseless, all the time.
One, a girl, generally giggly, who reminds me of a sparrow, bit her bottom lip and, said, “We know how much there is to lose.”
Yes, they do.
They were first-graders, carrying lunchboxes and crayons and Pokemon trading cards, when our military went into Afghanistan They barely remember when we haven’t been at war in the Middle East.
They were in middle school when the economy tanked. They’ve seen their parents lose jobs; they’ve packed up their picture books and soccer gear to move out of their childhood homes as a result of job loss or foreclosure. Some of them have learned what it means to be hungry, to be without heat or healthcare, what it means to make do. And to do without.
I, like lots of other people, have lived or still live in these kinds of truths, but for these kids, this is new.
Many of the kids I teach are from northern Virginia, growing up in the shadow of DC, in those belt-lines of power, in a culture accustomed to not only financial security, but to the security of government work. They are, for the most part, sheltered by their DOD and corporate parents, more so than the kids I taught at a large state school before this. Sending them to our mostly residential university in rural Virginia is, for a lot of them, a continuation of their parents’ desire to protect them.
I’m not judging any of this. It is what it is. But much of the work I do with them, coming from my own poor and rural background, is simply helping them understand, through writing, through literature, that not everyone lives the way they do, in this country, or elsewhere.
I teach as a writer. It’s how I live in the world, and I simply don’t know how to be anything else. I work at a teaching institution; everyone teaches General Education classes, and I love teaching those brand-new-just-out-of-high-school freshmen more than I can say. Even when one of them asks, every semester—
I’m a Bio-PoliSci-Business-Anything-but-English major. What does this class have to do with me?
I tell them, as best I know how, what literature, all art, means to me, and why I think it matters to them.
For me, it is only in literature, in art, that we hear and can intimately know the individual human voice. I tell them that, to my mind, the literature we read belongs much more to them than it does to us, the writers who create it. We, I believe, are reflectors, and in fifty years, the literature created by their peers will reveal their time, their dreams, their fears and values, the hopes they hold close to their hearts. .
Without apology for the tears this discussion always brings, or for what I know many of my own peers will dismiss as sentimental, I tell these young people, that for me the function of all art is to allow us to look across the room at another human being, at each other, and say You are not alone.
We felt alone that day.
As Boston’s police force sought a broken young man their age, and as the death and injury toll rose outside the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, and as the media bombarded the airwaves with conflicting and frightening partial stories, one of my students quietly said, “You know, at first I was kinda pissed at having to read a fifty page poem.” He leaned back, arm thrown over the back of the desk, sprawled in the seat like a young strong animal. Then he smiled. “But, yeah, I really like this Whitman guy.”
I asked, as I do at the beginning of any reading discussion, “So…what struck you? What didn’t you like? What part stayed with you?”
He gave us a page number and we turned to the part he selected, reading it, gratefully, together.
“The city sleeps and the country sleeps,
The living sleep for their time, the dead sleep for their time,
The old husband sleeps by his wife and the young husband
sleeps by his wife;
And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them,
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,
And of these one and all I weave the song of myself….”
Ten days ago two explosive devices were detonated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I am sitting at the same desk where I worked last Friday during the daylong manhunt that led to the arrest of the second suspect in the bombings. The first had been killed in a late-night gunfight just three miles from the house I share with my husband. I learned of the events when I turned on my computer at 5:30 the next morning and saw the news headlines. Usually I try to write in the early hours, but I was unable to write after that. At six, my neighbor Mary called to tell me that her husband had heard a disturbance in the middle of the night. He hadn’t been able to sleep. Did I know that we were supposed to stay home and lock the doors?
My husband woke next and I told him what had happened. His cell phone beeped with a text message announcing that the mental health clinic where he works was closed. In fact, all businesses in the area were closed. We double-checked the locks on our doors, opened the window blinds just enough to let in a little sunlight, and spent the entire day inside the house.
You might ask: What does this have to do with writing?
It’s been ten days since the bombings and I can’t seem to shake the effects of what happened. This is not surprising; everyone in Boston seems to know someone who was affected by last week’s events. An old friend of mine had just left the finish line a few minutes before the blasts; she saw the explosions from her office nearby. A receptionist who greeted me last Saturday at a local business told me that her uncle, a police officer, arrived in Watertown just after the gunfight. The woman who took my blood at the doctor’s office on Monday said that she knew people working in area hospitals who would be haunted all their lives by what they’d seen and heard. Paul Martin, a Paralympic athlete who has run the Boston Marathon numerous times and whose memoir, One Man’s Leg, was the first book I edited, sent an email saying that his college friend had lost a leg at the finish line. And a few minutes ago I felt my body stiffen when a helicopter flew over our house. Two helicopters flew low over our neighborhood last Friday, just before the second suspect was apprehended. I realized later that one of those helicopters must have been carrying the thermal imaging equipment that located the suspect beneath the tarp that covered the boat where he was hiding.
No, I haven’t shaken any of this yet.
But what does this have to do with writing?
It is the haunted feeling that I have right now, the same feeling I have had for the last ten days, that compels me to write personal essays. It is a shaken feeling, or a curious feeling, or a constant reliving whether conscious or not, an inability to let go of an event, a memory, or even just a thought. The event might have occurred yesterday, or it might have occurred thirty years ago. But on some level I have not been able to shake it. And so, eventually, I write about it.
Michael Steinberg, the founding editor of the literary journal Fourth Genre and author of the award-winning memoir Still Pitching, is one of the writers-in-residence at the Solstice MFA Program in Creative Writing, where I studied. He often tells me that writing personal essays is, at its heart, a form of inquiry. You start with the intention of revisiting a memory, re-telling an event, or relating an observation, but really you are searching for what it all means. Your goal is to find, as essayist and memoirist Vivian Gornick would say, the story behind the situation. The process is never as simple as you think, at least for me it isn’t. But in the end, if you stick stubbornly with your subject and explore it with all your guts, you learn what is behind your need to write about it – and it’s not always what you expect.
When I revisit some of my early attempts at writing personal essays, I can see that I was able to describe the “who,” the “what,” the “where,” and the “when” – not surprising for a former journalist. But I had trouble with the “why.” Why was my topic important? What was the point? Why had it stuck with me? What did I have to say about it? What was the best way to say it? And why should anyone else care? I hadn’t explored my topics deeply enough to tackle the demons and find the connections; I hadn’t taken the risk that writing teachers tell you to take when they say: go for the jugular.
It was when I started taking that risk that the writing came to life.
So, will I write about what it was like to sit in this house, which seemed to get hotter and hotter as I became more tense and trapped, during the manhunt after the bombings at the Boston Marathon?
I don’t know. At this point it doesn’t feel like my story to tell. The grief is all around me, as are the tales of heroism and redemption that we all cling to at times like this. And those tales are other people’s stories, not mine. I am just a witness.
Being a witness is important. Very important. But as essayists we need to do more than witness – we need to find meaning and an artful way to express it so that our readers can find it, too. And that takes time.
I am happy to bring you an exciting post this week that has been in the works for a while– an interview with Superstition Review interns from previous semesters. Here’s what they had to say about what they’re up to now, how SR helped them get there, and what they wish they had known when they were interns. Enjoy!
Superstition Review: What have you been doing since your internship with Superstition Review?
Sara Scoville: After graduating from ASU in May ’09, I have continued to conduct research for a collection of essays I’ve been working on since my last semester. The topic focuses on interaction and the relationships that form in the online gaming community amongst alpha males. I also work full time as a supervisor at a direct marketing company.
Melissa Silva: I’m now applying to work as an intern for Nordstrom. As a Capital Scholar, I’m applying to work for NPR and other media outlets in DC this summer.
Riki Meier: I’ve been working full-time at ASU during the day, and also taking a few independent study courses. Late last fall, I completed several graduate school applications, and I’m excited to say I was just accepted into the English PhD program at Tufts University! They are offering me full funding for five years. I’m absolutely thrilled as I know Tufts has an excellent program and I also love the Boston area!
Carter Nacke: Since working at Superstition Review, I have turned my focus to graduating. I’m pleased to say that I’ll be graduating in May with a degree in Print Journalism from the Cronkite School.
Alex Linden: Since my internship with Superstition Review, I finished my last year at Arizona State and applied to MFA programs for Poetry. I now attend Oklahoma State University and this semester will finish the first year of my MFA.
SR: Do you think your experience with Superstition Review has helped with what you’re doing now? How?
SS: I believe it most certainly has. I’ve worked for the same company for 12 years, so it was definitely nice to do something different. Trish is an amazing person and I absolutely loved learning from her! One thing that I appreciated most about her is the amount of trust and faith she had in me. It’s because of her belief in my abilities that I have a stronger sense of confidence in both my writing and professional life.
MS: Experience with publishing and Excel I think has helped reassure companies that I’m qualified to work for them.
RM: I do think that my work at Superstition Review helped my admission chances at Tufts, as Tufts has a reputation for wanting well-rounded (and diversified) applicants. Although I am going for a research degree, I think the fact I worked as an editor at a national literary magazine demonstrated that I don’t have only an analytical mind; I have a strong creative inclination as well.
CN: I think my experience did help. While I was in charge of financing and fundraising (which I’d never done before), SR helped me learn to balance work and school. I also saw first-hand how magazines are produced, which is extremely helpful for my magazine writing class.
AL: My experience with SR has definitely helped with what I do now. I believe my chances of getting into MFA programs would have been much less had I not done the internship. More importantly, I was exposed to the literary world and inspired to pursue similar work in the future. I now read for the Cimarron Review.
SR: Is there any advice you’d like to give current Superstition Review interns?
SS: Have respect for everyone involved throughout the entire process. Ask for help if you need it, and be willing to help if someone needs you. The success of the issue is dependent upon every single intern, so open lines of communication are of the utmost importance. Also, be proud of and enjoy what you’re contributing to the literary community.
MS: Work hard and try to learn as much as you can. I learned a lot about communicating professionally online and using Excel.
RM: For the current editors soliciting work from writers, I would say that one should approach soliciting writers like they should approach applying to graduate schools. One should have a number of “long-shots” writers on the list that one dreams of publishing, but the chances of publishing that person may be slim. Soliciting someone like Toni Morrison or Salman Rushdie may be analogous to applying to graduate school at Princeton or Harvard. If you diversify your solicitation list, you have far greater chances of getting lots of great literary pieces for review!
CN: Current interns: Get your stuff done early. Take it from someone who knows, assignments and work can pile up on you before you know what’s going on!
AL: Take advantage of every opportunity your internship provides. Research other literary journals, contact the writers you admire, and don’t read all of the submissions at once. 🙂