Today we are pleased to feature author Stan Sanvel Rubin as our Authors Talk series contributor. In this podcast, Stan discusses two of his poems, “Entre Des Etrangers” (the meaning of which is “Between Strangers”) and “Tickle.”
Stan states that these poems “weren’t written together, although they were written fairly close in time.” While he continues that these poems weren’t “meant to be paired,” he describes how each “holds the page in a similar way— that is, they have a similar visual weight.” Each poem also has 14 lines; which, Stan admits, is unique considering that he is “instinctively drawn to 13-line units.” He emphasizes the fact that “Tickle” is a single-sentence poem, while “Entre Des Etrangers” is broken up into several sentences, and that this structure serves to reflect the overall meaning of each piece. While Stan continues that these two poems “are not sonnets, and they’re not trying to be,” he describes how both poems are “examples of what lyric poetry is especially about— the creation of a sound body…what you might call the music of each poem.”
“Each poem has some connection to narrative,” Stan continues. While “Entre Des Etrangers” , he states, “has a kind of embedded story involving two strangers coming together….’Tickle’ has a narrative instance of a young boy having just caught a trout, and holding that trout in his hand.” While each poem differs in terms of plot, Stan declares that the significance of both pieces goes “beyond the particular actions of the participants of the poem,” and is “owned again by… the way sound and words can be put together and juxtaposed in somewhat complex ways.”
You can read Stan’s two poems, “Entre Des Etrangers” and “Tickle,” in Issue 19 of Superstition Review.
Arizona State University recently unveiled their new Master of Arts program in Narrative Studies. During the 30 credit hour program, focus will be on story telling and narratives across multiple platforms including text, film, and other media. Material will span a range of cultures and time periods while looking at structure, rhetoric, aesthetic and more throughout this exciting interdisciplinary program.
The program is currently accepting students for Fall 2018 classes. ENG 446/520: Visual Narratives, which will be taught by Dr. Wendy Williams, is one example of the upcoming courses. In addition to Dr. Williams, the MA Narrative Studies programs features several other ASU faculty including Superstition Review’s Patricia Colleen Murphy.
The degree, offered through the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts (CISA) will be located on ASU’s Polytechnic Campus. Narrative Studies, MA is the official site to visit for requesting information, learning how and when to apply, or scheduling a visit. We recommend following the official Facebook page, MA Narrative Studies at Arizona State University, for further news and announcements.
Congratulations and thanks to ASU and the staff and faculty for this new program in Narrative studies.
Let me begin by saying that I will never claim to be an expert in anything pertaining to narrative craft, only someone who enjoys reading and writing and has done a good deal of both.
With that disclaimer out of the way, I’d like to talk about an essential feature of fiction, one of the first devices that any beginning writer learns about: the flashback. In the fictionist’s (fictionista’s?) arsenal, flashbacks are possibly the most important weapon of a writer. Without flashbacks, a story is forced to mimic the limited trajectory of human experience: only moving forward into time. I’m sure there are great stories that don’t use any flashbacks, but I can’t imagine many of them are longer than a single scene, and even stories that don’t have obvious “he thought back to that distant day” (more on that later) transitions that mark out flashbacks often do flashback in subtler, briefer ways. Any dialogue that features characters speaking about prior events counts as a flashback, even the briefest memories that occur to characters are flashbacks. The reason we don’t always notice these is that when done right, flashbacks are unobtrusive.
A good flashback fluidly transposes us from one point in time to another: can seamlessly transport us from a disappointing family dinner of skinless chicken and peas and mashed potatoes (not touching each other, of course) to the chaff-clogged grain silo in Kansas where the character shared her first kiss with a corn-fed boy who could best be described as “Ned Flanders-hot.” Now, this is not to say that obvious flashbacks can’t be good, but I’d say the odds of a flashback being successful decreases the more clunky and noisy its execution.
Ways that flashbacks can be “noisy” include the following:
-Obvious transitional phrases like “that reminded him” or “she was transported back to the time”
-Ending flashbacks with some variation of the awful “he/she was shaken from her memories by a sudden noise” maneuver
I’m not saying I’ve never done these things in my own writing, but I try to avoid them if I can, and when I see them in fiction I tend to grouse a bit.
I don’t want you to think that all “obvious” flashbacks are bad. One of my favorite examples of a flashback comes in the opening sentence of my favorite novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
This is not only a flashback but a flashforward, seamlessly transporting us between two—possibly three—time periods and simultaneously “spoiling” an event that comes later in the novel without actually telling us anything important (spoiler: the Colonel doesn’t die from the firing squad but does die later on from old age). This flashback derives its elegance from the beauty of the language and also the striking juxtaposition between a soldier facing a firing squad and him as a child experiencing a formative moment with his father.
Pet Peeves with Flashbacks
I have two main pet peeves when it comes to writing flashbacks in addition to those already covered above.
First, and perhaps most aggravating, is the use of dreams to convey flashbacks. This is an overused trope in many kinds of fiction, and even when it’s done well it annoys me. News flash: people don’t dream in complete memories, or at least no one I know does, and I’d question diet and sleeping habits of anyone who does. Dreams are not perfect portals into memory, they are more suggestive and elusive than that, and their place in fiction shouldn’t be as mere avenues of flashbacks when there are more straightforward ways to show us characters’ memories. An example of a good use of dream as flashback comes from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, where in a dream Raskolnikov recalls a moment from childhood when a horse collapsed in front of him and an entire street full of people began to beat it in an attempt to get it moving again. The violence of the episode is likely embellished and exaggerated by the dream, but as a memory it shows us Raskolnikov’s empathy.
The second is a phenomenon I mostly see employed in genre fiction (fantasy, science fiction, the odd detective story) where writers use italics to render flashbacks. An example of this comes from one of Jim Butcher’s (normally an excellent prose stylist) Codex Alera fantasy series, where he rendered a multi-page scene all in italics simply because it took place in the past, separate from the main timeline of narrative action. There are a number of reasons why this is bad and wrong, but the foremost reason is that reading an entire paragraph or page in italics can be murder on tired eyes, and that using italics for an entire passage misses the point of italics: that they are for emphasis. The other chief reason is that I suspect the use of italics to denote a flashback says two things about the author, neither of which are particularly good. Either the author lacks confidence in their own ability to communicate to their readers that they’re reading a flashback, or the author thinks the reader is an idiot.
And of course, we never want to think our readers are idiots–if you approach your writing that way, you’ve already failed.
From the window of our Tokyo hotel, we overlook an economics college on whose balconies and roof deck congregate about a dozen students. A couple of them throw a football; some go off and stand alone on the roof to smoke cigarettes. I haven’t seen a lot of activity at the school today, compared to yesterday; it’s a Friday evening. As I scan the brick facade, in another set of windows I see a man practicing what appears to be agile karate moves. When I look again, the group is making their way down to the fifth level deck. Several in this group run around, in what appears to be an aggressive game of tag. Much good-natured yelling and hooting is going on.
It doesn’t matter that this is Japan. It could be in New York City and I still wouldn’t know what those kids are doing, although I’m culturally closer to understanding the activities of a group of American college students.
I’m writing this near the end of almost two weeks in Japan, and what has struck me about the country is how little I know about what I see around me. As well, how in the dark I am with the language, having picked up some while here. But as this is rudimentary, I struggle to communicate.
A few observations: How are the streets so clean they look like you could eat off them–yet how can there be no trash bins to be found anywhere? Why the high-tech toilets with a control panel that looks like it requires a Ph.D. in rocket science to operate? How come I can’t find any fruit and when I do, it’s outrageously pricey? Why are there only five brands of beer (all Japanese, all lager)? Why is everyone in such a hurry to get where they are going, at any time of the day (even the Metro signs read “Don’t Rush” in English)? In the Tsukiji fish market—a warehouse about the size of three football fields–where will all that fish go? And what is the obsession with baseball, and American jazz, the latter of which is like muzak, it’s everywhere. As are vending machines.
For a Californian who is making his best effort to match the symbols on the map with the ones he sees on the street signs, this is Japan.
The people, I should add, are generally nice, even uncannily respectful. An old man shook my hand when I held the door open for him. Japan is a curiously orderly society. I’m reminded of what first intrigued me when I watched Chris Marker’s 1983 experimental film, Sans Soleil, which is only indirectly about Japan, but contains enough enigmas about the country to pique a writer’s curiosity.
Looking out my hotel window, I feel like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. I get that lazy voyeuristic survey, waiting and expecting, or not, to see something, all of which would barely register in my awareness but for the fact that I am curious.
So much of my writing practice is inward looking. To write is to imagine. Usually I write fiction, or I write about what I am reading. I often write on what I’m thinking about. The notes I make for myself are a few steps removed from my attempt to put them into a context where I might utilize them.
I’m much less versed in the task I set for myself in Japan, writing about what is happening around me. As I want to document my trip, I attempt to catch myself in the act of noticing. This could be too obvious, perhaps to the point of self-consciousness. But on the other hand, it is not, because I lose myself in the unfamiliar, the people, their mannerisms, the general conforming of a populace to local customs. Being 5500 miles removed from my usual day to day experience, I am immersed.
There’s not much practical use I have for these observations, unless of course I can apply them to a character, but it’s hard for me to see how I would extract from the general, into the particular. And to know a character, I need particulars. To inhabit an unfamiliar culture means that I can’t really know what motivates people, nor in what I’m going to find. I’m trying to do this without any Western bias of interpretation, yet the process of observation seems to get me no closer to understanding.
This dovetails with a notion I have about the writing process: writing is so generated by unknowable impulses that it cannot help but enfold a mystery. And because of this, the result itself, whether fiction or nonfiction, is often an illustration of the process.
On the other hand, so many writers seem to pay lip service to this notion of not knowing what it is they do—am I making the mistake of trying to demystify the process? I’m only concerned if it takes away the motivation, or places undue expectation on what I will write.
The workings of writing are unconscious. If I know ahead of time what I’m going to write, why should I bother to write it? I let the mechanism work unimpeded. Writing is 99% not knowing what I’m going to write, and 1% knowing only that I’m going to write. The unknown for me—and I’d suspect, for a lot of writers—is in, what will I write?
But to return to the economics college roof deck. I still have no idea what those students are doing. I have seen, and will see, before the trip is out, many more things I have no clue about, and have no basis for understanding. And so I make notes.
I love the inherent mystery of not knowing. Maybe this is what keeps me writing. Maybe I never know, even after I try to convince myself of what I’m writing, what I’m writing about. This is a metaphor for my experience in Japan. It’s also a metaphor for my writing. I remind myself that the more I write, the closer I get.
Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Nick DePascal.
Nick DePascal lives in Albuquerque, NM with his wife, son, three dogs, and three chickens, and teaches at the University of New Mexico. His first book, Before You Become Improbable, will be published by West End Press in summer 2014. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Narrative, The Laurel Review, RHINO, The Los Angeles Review, Emerson Review, Aesthetix, and more.
Here´s a game I play in the kitchen: I rip out pictures from magazines and tape them to my cabinets.
Selected at random, their only similarity is that they’re interesting enough to look at for a while. (No ads for Xerox machines or anything like that.) The game is that you find what these pictures can have in common.
Once I ended up with a saxophone player, a train track, and an ad for the TV show, Pushing Daisies.
For weeks, while I was stirring soup or waiting for my pasta pot to boil, I looked up at these pictures and built bridges. Maybe the Daisies couple had pressed their ears to the ground to hear the music of the approaching train. Or, a different bridge—the bell of the saxophone was circular like the wheel of the train and the center of the daisy. Also, the saxophonist’s hair was grass-like. Or maybe he was a hobo who hopped trains searching for the brunette he once loved in the grass. Each picture contained death: the TV show about the girl who died, the abandoned train track, and the jazz of a New Orleans funeral.
It was a simple—and surprisingly fun—way to build my metaphor muscles. And the longer those same pictures were on the cabinets, the more challenging it became to find new connections.
Plus, as several other writers have reported on this blog, we can all go through spells when we’re not exactly writing. In those times, this picture game can be a way to trick yourself into staying in shape.
When I tape other magazine cutouts to the chalkboard and share the game with my students, they really get into it and always create similarities I hadn’t anticipated. Poetry classes often find sensory connections: the noisy motorboat probably screams like the pregnant woman will do when she goes into labor. Or they easily do what teachers frequently hope they will—explain an abstract concept via a concrete image. The Egyptian queen from the museum photo, they say, is proud and stubborn and as unflinching as the blue mountain from the magazine cover.
The fiction students find narratives. They link five pictures together into one story, and then I add a sixth picture, and they come up with a complete different plot or character. Maybe the desert that was the setting becomes the loneliness that motivates the main character.
If you want to give it a try yourself, here are some pictures:
Maybe the fight with cancer is like the dragon tattoo versus the Godzilla toy. Maybe that’s The Grim Reaper on the staircase. Maybe smoking makes you cough like a cat with a hairball.
Or, maybe the cat is waiting for someone to feed her, the ghostly staircase figure is floating to the dining room, the little boy wants someone to fix him an afternoon snack, and the cowboys are on their way to campfire soup. Maybe everyone is hungry and wishing the cook would pay more attention to the pot on the stove, and less attention to the pictures taped to the cabinets.
Professor Teague Bohlen recently visited ASU in partnership with Superstition Review and Project Humanities to discuss the evolution of the superhero in narrative. Along with providing a closer look at spandex tights and masks, Teague presented the history of comics as it relates to the rise, fall and comeback of the narrative. It was fascinating to learn how such seemingly small stories have affected the development of narrative structure over the last several decades.
Teague began his talk by explaining that comic superheroes were not always the same virtuous characters they are today. In fact, he pointed out several instances where the early Superman and Batman figures instigated violence and actually killed people out of rage. Hollywood’s version of Clark Kent would never commit such an offense, so how did this change in character come about?
At first, comics served a wide audience of children and adults with edgy story lines. In fact, comics were so popular in their early years that they became a strong force of advertising and propaganda during WWII. Who can resist the pressure when even “Captain Marvel joins the Navy”? However, after the war, comics returned to stories involving monsters, crime and homeland violence.
In the 1950’s there was a shift in the content of comics with the adoption of the CCA—Comic Code Authority. While some people viewed the reduced violence and “criminal content” in comics as a benefit to society, Teague discussed the devastating effect these restrictions had on the narrative plots within comic books. As he put it, “Imagine if everything on television had to be appropriate for a 5 year-old.” Suddenly comic storylines became surface-level and simplistic, and a few publishers replaced the dialogue almost entirely with comic art. Fortunately, over the last decade comics have made an impressive comeback as publishers have bypassed the CCA and returned to a more creative approach to storytelling.
Overall Teague’s talk left us with countless nerdy facts and a much greater appreciation for the role comics have played in the history of storytelling. I can speak for everyone present when I say it was a delight—and the superhero cookies weren’t half bad either. Thank you for a wonderful presentation, Teague. We do hope you come again.
Each year The Masters Review pairs with a guest judge to select the 10 best stories written by students in an MA, MFA, or PhD creative writing program. This year’s guest judge is AM Homes. The Masters Review aims to expose the best among emerging writers by producing fiction and narrative nonfiction that is progressive, diverse, and well-crafted. Only students who are currently enrolled are eligible, and we only accept work under 7000 words. For full guidelines and information please see our submissions page. Deadline for submissions is March 31, 2013.
For writers who are not in a graduate-level creative writing program and have not published a novel-length work, please consider sending us work for our New Voices category. New Voices is open year round and represents the work of emerging authors that we publish online. To submit, go here.
So without stopping to choose my way, in the sure and certain knowledge that it will find itself—or if not it will not matter—I begin the first memory.
— Virginia Woolf “A Sketch of the Past”
One of the earliest writing lessons I learned (I refer to creative writing, not elementary school writing) is this: that I should allow my writing to guide itself instead of beginning with my conclusion already in mind. This is common advice, something you’ve likely heard yourself, but I repeat it here because I can remember how I struggled with it, how I tried to believe it in theory without putting it into practice. And I see again and again student pieces that seem to be transcripts (sometimes elaborations) of a predetermined narrative and meaning with no room for detours from “the point.” The writing in these is sometimes very clean, even beautiful, but it simply serves the goal, without being part of the process.
Now I would not say that I have arrived at any fully formed writing abilities, but I have learned to trust in the notion that I should write without knowing where I’m going. Whereas I once tried to express in words the lessons I’d already processed from highlight-stories I’d experienced, I now attempt to find or create connections between seemingly dissimilar things that flit into my consciousness coincidentally. The act itself is as fun as it is rewarding, and even when it fails, it gives me good exercise.
One recent example, among many, came to me as I was sitting in Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario watching the Uruguayan national team play a World Cup qualifier match against Ecuador. I knew I wanted to write something about Uruguay’s improbable and, frankly, amazing soccer tradition, going back nearly a century and including two Olympic championships followed by two World Cup championships, and I wanted to tie this to the team’s recent resurgence as a FIFA powerhouse. Soccer is a great source of pride for Uruguayans, and I, who’ve lived in the country for four years and who’ve married a Uruguayan, share the sentiment. But I did not want to write a straightforward narrative (“I went to the stadium to watch Uruguay play against Ecuador… It was a 1-1 tie… Let me tell you about Uruguayan soccer history…”). So I kept my eyes and ears open in the stadium for other entry points to help me essay the theme instead of simply writing the story.
I thought I found my hook when I was startled by a loudspeaker promotional jingle playing all through the stadium during the middle of the match. It was hawking ball bearings. How strange, I thought, that someone would think it worth their advertising pesos to blast such a commercial to a stadium filled not with auto mechanics or race-car fans, but futbol aficionados.
But just as I didn’t understand the advertising strategy, I couldn’t see how ball bearings and soccer could work together in my essay, other than in a superficial way (the one happened during the other). So I began to write. The sentences themselves suggested what might come next, and from the process of stringing words together I got to what I think is a halfway decent connection. I’ve not achieved literary brilliance, but I’ve discovered something I didn’t see before, and my essay is a new creation that never was in the world before. In any case, it’s reaffirmed the lesson about letting the writing find its own way, which I took so long to learn.
“An old lady poem,” was the judgment of a friend recently. I was offended, then considered—at 73, am I getting to be an old lady? How could that happen!
Yet, the poems I wrote in my 20s were sharper and less reflective. Many had to do with self-discovery, the landscape of the young. As time passed, I found this investigation tiresome. It was easier to accept the person I have always been, or through decades have become.
My poems shaded into narrative. Though I write short fiction, I found my natural rhythm and voice more suited to the poem, yet story increasingly intrigued me. Subject matter changed too. Poems on the struggles of relationships—parental, sexual, marital, social gave way to less personal, more external topics.
I wrote a series of poems on criminals and on saints (featured in The Lonely Hearts Killers), a chapbook on art (The Chagall Poems), on the natural world (The Boundary Waters) and most recently on decades of country life with a noir flavor (Dead Horses). It seems a predictable progression. While I am still interested in, and write about, a variety of subjects, with the passage of the years, elegies replace love lyrics, ruminations on illness, loss, loneliness and death, for good or ill, are new preoccupations.
I hope I’ve retained the sardonic outlook that speaks to my dread of falling prey to “old lady poems.” Hera forbid, I become a character in one of my own such as “Red Hats.”
A hat tribe based on a poem
Praising a notion of insouciance.
The intention to wear purple
With a red hat when old
Incited not a revolution
But a convention of the like-minded.