Guest Post, Gregory Wolos: Rosebudding

Be warned: if you haven’t seen Orson Welles’ classic 1941 film Citizen Kane, spoilers follow! This post takes for granted knowledge of the mystery at the heart of the film, the “last word” that gives Citizen Kane its narrative drive, a mystery revealed only in its final frames. If you haven’t seen the film, leave now and come back after viewing, or read on and take your chances.

Rosebud still“Rosebud”: Charles Foster Kane’s last word; discovering its meaning is the film’s putative objective. Not until the movie’s final shot do we discover that “Rosebud” is the name printed on Kane’s childhood sled—it’s tossed into a furnace as workmen in a vast storeroom sort through the thousands of material possessions the great man accumulated during his lifetime. Just a sled— but important enough as a symbol of lost innocence to be the final, private word an important public figure leaves behind. The sled burns in a furnace, the irony dramatic as the audience learns what the seekers in the film never do. A close-up on the sled, “Rosebud”: its lacquer bubbles, it blackens, it’s gone, nothing more than smoke pouring from a chimney into the night sky. If we can’t know this great, public figure, who can we know? Who will know us?

In a culture consumed by the new, we too often consider nostalgia to be an indulgence, but don’t we all depend on our own “Rosebuds”? As a writer willing to go to virtually any length to unmask myself to myself, I find that I return again and again to a practice I call “Rosebudding.” Rosebudding is an active process of physical or mental investigation: its elements are rediscovery, intense reflection, recovery, and, ultimately, reconfiguration—the creation of something new out of something old. Through Rosebudding we can work from a physical item or an experience and its associations, eventually loosening the object or memory from itself to get to its essence, which is the living breathing, malleable core of inspiration all writers seek.

Moving—sorting through junk—the detritus of an actual attic or one of the mind: “Rosebud,” again and again. A memory of a moment or a new insight, or Rosebuds in juxtaposition: flint and steel, a spark—a flame rises, and we toss an old sled into the fire. But maybe as we watch the sled burn, we find something new.

A while back, my wife framed my father’s WWII medals with a photograph of him in uniform. This tribute had actually been displayed for a few years before I noticed that mixed in with my father’s purple hearts, campaign ribbons and service medals was an odd pin that portrayed a musical note: somehow included in this honor to my father’s service was a badge awarded to either my son or my daughter for exceptional performance at a New York State Music Association competition—approximately sixty years after the end of WWII. Rosebud on my father’s purple heart—the grenade that exploded behind him in a French foxhole leaving him flat on his belly in a hospital in Europe for half a year, a chunk of shrapnel fused to his backbone; Rosebud on the scar from this wound, freshly exposed every summer to my brothers and me and the rest of the world on crowded Long Island beaches; Rosebud on the letters my parents shared while my father recuperated in Europe and the picture of my mother he tucked into his helmet; Rosebud on my daughter’s trombone playing and my son’s oboe playing and the way their hours of lessons, rehearsals, concerts and competitions helped shape our family’s weekly life for a decade and a half.

Rosebud on Purple Hearts and high school music awards being pinned to the same piece of felt within the same wooden frame under the same pane of glass. Finally, Rosebud on the storage unit where the display sits in a box because there’s no room for it in our present apartment.

Rosebudding. Writers are miners—we pry the ore from deep underground, and process out the precious metals, ever mindful that the dross may be of equal or greater value. Rosebud.

Guest Post, David Meischen: Hiding in Plain Sight

Hiding in Plain Sight: How Ambient Noise and Clutter Feed a Story

 

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf poster“Clink. Clink.”

We’ve spent an hour and a half with them at this point, with repeated eruptions—Martha savaging her husband, George setting off timed explosions from his store of resentments. Then suddenly: the voices go silent, no sign of George and Martha, of Nick and Honey, the bested guests. Moonlight through tree branches, a yard we see from above, as if from a bedroom window. In the background, stringed instruments, serene. Then Martha’s voice calling for the others and, before Elizabeth Taylor appears onscreen, the sound of ice cubes in her drink, something we’ve been hearing since the opening scene: director Mike Nichols’ brilliant use of ambient noise.

The dialogue dazzles, of course, thanks to Edward Albee, in this case so perfectly delivered that sometimes as I watch “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”—at least a dozen times I’ve indulged the pleasure of this viewing—I take the words, the execution, for granted and marvel at what the director is doing to riff on what the words are getting at. In the scene referenced above, I am not surprised to hear ice cubes clinking before the camera reaches Martha, meandering drunkenly across the yard to her car. The camera has not followed the station wagon here from the foursome’s drunken dancing excursion, but it feels as if we’ve seen the inebriate braking—front tires up over the curb at an angle so that the vehicle lists slightly, passenger-side turn signal winking, winking, winking, rear passenger door flopped open. Nichols doesn’t waste the turn signal. Martha staggers around the car, opens the driver’s door, reaches in, and the turn signals wink back and forth between each other before they blink out. Martha wanders the yard, then, calling out intermittently, her drink glass clinking the while. Finally, the screenplay gives a nod to what the director is doing: Martha says, “Clink. Clink.”

*

I recommend “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” to fiction writers. Consider it a tutorial in the uses of your characters’ environment, the details of their surroundings—indoor clutter, appliances, items of food and drink, features of the outdoor landscape, sounds so common (clinking ice cubes, anyone?) a writer might overlook them, and so forth. Always in this film there are things for George and Martha and Nick and Honey to do while they speak the language of wreckage.

In what is for me the funniest moment, Elizabeth Taylor leans into a cluttered refrigerator, opened by Richard Burton, grabs a drumstick from a platter of chicken sitting inside uncovered, grabs a salt shaker from the messy table Burton is clearing, salts and devours her piece of chicken, her mouth open as she chews, talking around mouthfuls. Then the perfect capstone: Taylor returns to the refrigerator, still open, tosses the chicken bone onto the same platter, and shuts the door, all without pausing in her run-on monologue about a movie Martha can’t remember the title of. We see a woman, her husband, their relationship, their way of life here. If you didn’t know a word of English, the details would tell you all you need to know.

*

A decade ago, I took a weekend fiction workshop with Daniel Mueller, author of the stunning short story collection How Animals Mate. Our focus was landscape, Mueller’s mantra:

Let the landscape of your story tell your story.

If a story stalls, look around. Something in your story’s landscape, its environment, will get it moving again.

As an exercise, Mueller asked participants to picture an odd item, oddly out of place in its setting. We went around the workshop table then, each participant volunteering such an item, all of us recording the items on our own list. Our assignment was to select an out-of-place item from the list and write a scene for it.

I chose a wristwatch buckled to the branch of a tree. I already had fragments for a story about a boy named Berndt whose father has committed suicide. For Daniel’s assignment, I imagined that Berndt’s father had taken off his watch on the morning of his suicide and buckled it to a mesquite tree branch before slashing his wrists. The scene I wrote was set several weeks later. Berndt is on his way to feed pigs on the family farm, when morning sun flashes off the crystal of his deceased father’s missing watch. Berndt unfastens the watch and beats it against the mesquite trunk until the crystal smashes, crying and cursing his father. This scene became the closing scene in a story about a mysterious watch and the riddle of a father who owned it. My challenge was to make the watch real and then to build a story around it, leading to the father’s suicide and his son’s subsequent discovery of the watch buckled to a tree.

What might have been peripheral, unimportant, became the story’s vehicle. The story of a watch becomes the story of a difficult father. A son puzzling over the watch itself provides a way of expressing an inner life that is not accessible to or expressible by the son himself. I loved writing this story, loved unfurling the watch’s story, letting the watch carry the bigger story of son and father. Unanswered questions about the watch stand in for unanswered questions about the father. The discovery of the watch, in the closing scene, provides a believable stimulus, without sentimentality, for the protagonist’s anger, his grief. When I was done, the watch even provided a title, “Center Wheel, Balance Wheel, Escape Wheel” (available at Prime Number).

*

This approach carries one of my first published stories, “In the Garden,” online right here at Superstition Review. A husband and wife converse over breakfast in their backyard. By increments, without intending to, they say things that can’t be taken back, irreparably damaging their marriage. Talking heads cannot carry a short story, at least not one I am capable of writing, so early on, a mockingbird sings out from a live oak near the breakfast table. Then the household tomcat slinks in from the creek. Turns out his name is Tyger, which opens a window onto the protagonist and his wife. The yard has room for a tomato garden, the wife’s—and a pesky squirrel hanging out among the cages. A newspaper at center table has a photo of Ronald Reagan above the fold, spurring an exchange that gives away the year—1982—when the husband says, “Look on the bright side. Two more years and we’ll vote him out.” The husband has a bit of a thing for his best friend; the wife suspects as much. This is a breakfast just for two, though—no reason for the best friend to drop by. Except then a repairman arrives to address hail damage on the roof. Wife notices that husband has noticed the repairman. Both turn at the sound of the repairman’s hammer. Then this: “A patch of sweat, like the map of a harbor Blake wanted to explore, darkened the blue of the man’s shirt in the space between his shoulder blades.” And so it goes. The conflict reaches a peak vicariously, when the mockingbird dive-bombs the squirrel and the cat leaps at the bird’s sudden accessibility.

*

Ambient noise is my personal catchall for the material stuff, auditory and non-, that surrounds us, often without our notice, the material stuff upon which we can launch credible and engaging stories. This “noise” includes any and all sensory details, any and all physical aspects of the landscape, any and all items at hand in your characters’ environs. A caveat, though. Ambient noise is not a fiction writer’s sole tool. A story can overwhelm itself and its readers with this kind of detail. Nothing impedes narrative momentum like a margin-to-margin thicket of details. Nothing is more tedious.

*

Watch “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Let yourself revel in the many ways by which the characters interact with facets of their environment—ice cubes, drink glasses, liquor bottles, cigarettes, a platter of fried chicken, a child’s swing hanging in the tree outside, door chimes, a chain lock on the front door. . . .

Read good stories. Here I’ll mention only two—and very short. In “Say Yes” by Tobias Wolff, a husband and wife wash dishes and prepare for bed. That’s it. But the meandering path of talk over dishes leads this couple into a hypothetical question about mixed-race dating, with an answer that changes everything. A younger couple, five years married, figures at the center of “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” by Irwin Shaw. As they walk New York City on a lovely day, the wife catches the husband more than once distracted by the girls of the title passing by on the street. Questions lead to defensive answers, and as in “Say Yes,” things are said that cannot be taken back, that change everything between man and wife.

Immerse yourself in the quiet noise of Wolff’s story, in the vibrant noises of Irwin’s city walk. Then settle into the noises that will tell your next story.

 

Editor’s Note: David served as co-editor of Wingbeats and Wingbeats II, collections of poetry writing exercises from Dos Gatos Press.

Guest Post, Elizabyth Hiscox: Expressing the Abstract in Three Easy Steps, or Destination: Poetry

Destination and destiny: same root, same idea. You have got an idea of where you’ll be, and so does the universe. If this pitch doesn’t sit quite right or has overtones of religiosity, then a disclaimer that for the purposes of this post and this prompt I access the concepts in the mostly-secular, but highly spiritual concept of E.M. Forster’s “only connect” variety.

Several destinations may inhabit any travel itinerary, and they may all have a shared destiny: the poem. A bit of structure, a road map to poetry if-you-will, can be a good way to get to both. One can become easily distracted in this world. By purple, for example. Using an easy-as-1-2-3 approach to composition can keep a writer from losing all the minutiae of the moment. It can be a comfort to have a prompt in mind when falling into experiences or off of commuter trains in strange places.

One of the best recommendations I received while trying to write during travel was at the Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia. I was overwhelmed and finding it hard to wrench away from the pure experience of the place to a page. A fellow poet reminded me that we are never the first in our struggles with the art. She suggested that since haiku has been the catch-all of moment-oriented travelers for generations it might help me synthesize a portion of what the Hermitage and the Neva and the Cyrillic alphabet and the dazzling All of It had sent reeling. Haiku has helped generations in other languages, granted, but is no less available to us in the syllabic lost-in-translation-but-still-useful English-speaking world. 5.7.5. Yes? 1-2-3.

Thus, I give you a three-part travel prompt in honor of the three approachable lines of the haiku. It is not haiku. That works too. Write haiku. Do.

This is something different and is not, of course, the essence of haiku. The haiku has many constraints (season, unexpected revelation, quantity as well as quality of syllables) that this prompt completely ignores. Also, I use “approachable” advisedly: a prompt is meant to start the process, not guarantee an end product. So, this approach is only one strange articulation of a three-part way into a poem that I have used in the past to “get there” (poem) while being gone.

The set-up: Go somewhere. A well-placed park bench can work as well as another continent.

The scribble:

  1. The basics of the information/experience. What is the heart of the destination.
  2. Anything that is auxiliary, but floats to the surface. Can be in terms of image, sound, tone, concept, or just more information from the moment. What is crafty (as in craft).
  3. A connection with the anything that you knew before for which these two points ring a bell.

Destination: The poem or series of poems written from this vantage point. Like most good trips, once you get to your destination you can see roads to other places.

..

An example follows from which to discern, distill, and/or depart.

..

The set-up: Denver, Colorado. “Women of Abstract Expressionism” exhibit at the Denver Art Museum

The scribble:

  1. Heart of information/experience: Quote from Lee Krasner next to one of her stunning paintings on the exhibit wall: “I’m always going to be Mrs. Jackson Pollock—that’s a matter of fact—[but] I painted before Pollock, during Pollock, after Pollock.”
  2. Auxiliary: Krasner went through a period where she was working in a studio denied daylight and suffering from severe insomnia. She chose to abandon chromatics and thus some of Krasner’s most famous pieces are simply umber and white paint. // In order to take a picture of Krasner’s work, I had to enter my passcode to get away from my phone’s lock screen. My phone’s lock screen is of a Jackson Pollock painting. I took that picture on the same phone at the MOCA in Los Angeles this past spring. I do not know what my lock screen was before it was Pollock.
  3. What Beast Must I AdoreConnective tissue: The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Brazil were just beginning at the same time I found myself at this exhibition. They are just ending as this post finds its way into the world, so there will be a new set of issues for commentators and those who comment on the commentators. At this moment, however—when I was standing in front of a Krasner painting titled “What Beast Must I Adore?” (from a Rimbaud poem)—backlash against newscasters’ handling of the gender politics connected to reportage of women athletes was what was getting headlines. The Chicago Tribune had just reported the accomplishment of Corey Cogdell-Unrein (trap shooting) with the tag “Wife of Bears’ Lineman Wins a Bronze Medal Today in Rio Olympics.” They didn’t bother with her name. Elsewhere, NBC’s Dan Hicks expounded for quite a while after a world-record swim by Katinka Hosszu on her husband who, apparently, was “responsible” for the feat.

Destination: In 2016, The Guardian has an opinion piece called “How to Talk About Female Olympians Without Being a Regressive Creep—A Handy Guide.” Lee Krasner’s monochromatic masterpiece, “What Beast…” is from 1961. All the color drained from the dreams Lee Krasner could have had in those years is in brightly colored interlocking rings that serve to delight, but still deny female accomplishment at the cutting edge. One can discern chaotic unconnected rings in the painting if one is inclined. All the color drains.

So, there is the ringing bell. One connection. One coherence of thought that might make its way into the poem or poems that arise from this day. But, more direction of synapses than would have been available otherwise. 1 then 2 then 3. After all, Joan Mitchell’s paintings were in the next gallery and her purple, well, it can distract…

And, then you may be noticing all the other poems lurking. Where’s the epigraph from Rimbaud? What about the culpability of the speaker/author with the iPhone set to husband-of-Krasner? What about all the implicit possibilities in the jargon of trap shooting?

And, you are right to wonder. Usually my three-step plan (heart/craft/connection) actually has sub points that I flesh out for a while on the return home.

And, you may be writing a different poem with any material on offer. I hope you are. Because Krasner said later of the infamous title that she realized as she finished the painting that “[t]he beast [was] peering at me.” As creators, the next stare-down is always within. As we move through the world our travels are often routes to our own terrain. 3-2-1.

Guest Post, Leslie Standridge: An Interview with Tanaya Winder

Words Like Love coverWhat is the source of inspiration for “Words Like Love?”

Good question! I suppose that is the question, too and it’s complicated because I’d have to say that it comes from, well…everywhere. The inspiration came from my life, events I’ve experienced, things I’ve born witness to, and people I’ve crossed paths with along the way. It comes from my own unpacking, attempts at deconstructing, questioning, interrogating, and re-examining what it means to love. For me, questions like “what is love” and “how do we live love” have made their home at the back of my mind. Love is the lens through which I view the world; I’d like to think everyone (family, relationships, friends, etc) and everything (my home, the land I grew up on, the earth we inhabit) I have had a connection with has somehow influenced my understanding of love. One of the main driving forces of the book was a deep connection I had with a friend who ended up taking his own life. The combination of who he was, the role he played in my life, how he died, and where I was at physically, spiritually, emotionally, and mentally at that time in my life forced me to look deeply at my own understanding of love in all its forms.

 

You discuss the idea of cultural love in an interview with Indian Country. How does your heritage impact and shape your work?

I think for any writer “who you are” deeply impacts how you live in this world and how you live impacts and shapes your work. For me, my heritage is who I am. I’m very blessed to be grounded in my culture and heritage…they’re a big part of my identity. My worldview is shaped by the beliefs I grew up with. I write from that beautiful, strongly rooted identity and it is my love for my culture and Indigenous people that also fuels my motivation as a writer. I want the youth who follow in my footsteps to know that there are many talented writers from all backgrounds and different walks of life. I hope that Native Americans can continue to be more present in the literary landscape that often leaves us out of the conversation.

 

What was your writing process like?

My writing process was basically: put on my “writing” playlist, get some coffee, read over the poems, and edit. During this time I was also reading other poems as well as books of poetry by writers I admire and look up to. Also, whenever I write I always take notes (pen to paper) in my journal. It always starts out organic like that, my mind works better when I can feel the words being penned onto the page. From there I usually take the notes and translate lines that resonate with me to my laptop. I write rushed and not as methodically as I wish I did. By that I mean I need to develop more of a daily routine. Right now, I’m a writer who writes when I’m inspired, although when it comes to revision I’m more of a sit down daily and work out lines like I’m a sculptor constantly chiseling away piece by piece until the form slowly reveals itself.

 

What was the process for organizing the poems?

I’d compare organizing the poems within the theme of the book to the way one would organize stanzas within an individual poem just on a grander scale. I thought about the bigger picture, the overall theme(s), and emotions I wanted the reader to feel before the release at the end of the book. In my mind, the metaphor for the book is a person’s heart unfolding with each page; I wanted each poem to open into another room into the spaces we try to keep locked and private. For me, that meant breaking it down into sections that related to one’s understanding of love from life’s fragility, the way time impacts our living to the lessons we learn without words (the power of actions, things done and undone), to questioning ways we’ve been taught (perhaps even unhealthy) to love, express ourselves, and view the world, to finally contemplating the order in which things happen to us. Some might call it fate or relate it to the expression “timing is everything” and honestly, I think it is. I wanted to bring home that point extra hard at the ending.

 

Can you tell us a little bit about your favorite poem from the collection?

I have a few favorites from this collection but right now I’d have to say my favorite is “in my mother’s womb” because it gets to the “heart” of ancestral memory and the historical and personal traumas that can be passed down from generation to generation. Our duty as human beings is to figure out within our own lives how does that happen and then we must ask ourselves – am I (or is my generation) going to be the one to break cycles of hurt and/or trauma to bring about the healing we all deserve.

 

What are you working on now?

Right now, I’m at the tail end of an 8-month book tour. I’ve been very fortunate that it’s been going on this long. Later this month I have a reading at the British Library in London and will be reading/performing at the Lincoln Center La Casita Out of Doors in NYC later this summer so writing new work has been on the backburner though I’m slowly working on a second collection and dabbling in writing my first play. I’m also working more on music (singing) and finding ways to experiment with my voice in that capacity.

Guest Post, Charlotte Holmes: On Not Writing

Just last fall, I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with words that came—came for nearly a year, water after a dam breaking, quenching the barren silence I thought would not return. Every time this happens, I think I’m in the clear at last, as if silence is an addiction I’ve finally beaten back.

But once again, days of not writing stretch to weeks, then months. Silence becomes emptiness, and emptiness becomes a sensation that I carry inside me. How does it look, the place where the words are pent? The dam that holds them back, I know its texture and composition—thick, stringy muscle, the kind that starts in the neck and reaches up to the skull. I’ve seen those diagrams in the chiropractor’s office, waiting for the doctor to pull my body from its hunched posture, evidence of years bent over book, desk, notebook, laptop.

Though the dam is muscle, the place where the words stay is smooth and empty, polished bone. Its emptiness is what I carry inside. How can it be both empty and full of all the words that will not come? It is like the skull without a brain inside, a rib cage without a heart. It’s arid as hell. It never lets me forget that it’s a real place.

And where is this place? In the body, without doubt—and not in a single location. It floats effortlessly from head to heart to hand, bumps against the liver and lights, flutters around the reproductive organs, circulates through the blood. I wonder that it doesn’t kill me, this hard marble passing through the tiniest vessels, pinging off the cells. It stops my throat as I am reading, a constriction that I interpret to mean you will never write again.

GardenWhen I walk in the garden I feel it rolling around inside, growing smoother and harder. I stoop to weed and feel it knock against my heart, knock when I look up and see the neighbor’s scruffy tom pluck a bird right out of the air. I cry out, and the cat startles, drops the bird, leaps into the brush.

I pick the bird out of the grass—a finch—and turn it from side to side. Its black legs like twigs poke from its underbelly. Its head is wet, a red smear that looks like blood but may be feathers. Its heart is pounding. I sit on the step, cupping it in my palm. I think I can do this much, keep it from harm until it dies. It watches me, its eyes black and sharp. After a moment, the lids flutter closed. Its heart slows. The cat comes out of the bushes, flops into the grass, licks his front paws. Five minutes pass, then ten. My husband, who’s been weeding the bed of Casablanca lilies, walks over, looks into my hand, says, “Bird’s a goner, I’m afraid.”

The bird seems both dead and alive. Its stiff legs don’t move, even when I brush them with my finger; immobile are the passerine toes, two forward, one back, an ingenious clamp. Its eyes remain closed. My hand is its bier. But though I wait for it to falter, the rhythm of its heart stays steady as my own pulse. I catch myself wondering how long this is going to take, feeling guilty because this is an amazing moment of communion with nature, etc. and here I am, thinking about what I need to do, what needs to be accomplished before the day is over. I’ve sat beside the dying; I know that ushering someone out of this world is as important and meaningful as ushering someone in. Even a bird deserves that respect.

I scowl at the cat and wonder why my neighbor won’t keep him inside. Sitting idle seems odd. Usually when I’m in the backyard, I’m working—weeding, planting, mowing—or waiting for my two red dogs to finish their business. What’s the point of carving out this green oasis, if one never has time to enjoy it? And will the poor bird’s heart never falter? I look away from the bird, at the honeysuckle arching over the path, fragrant with blossom.

The heart doesn’t falter. One minute I’m sitting on the step with the bird on its back in my hand. The next minute it’s shot into the apple tree over my head, and then airborne, it’s on to the rest of its life.

Guest Post, Alissa McElreath: Getting to June

sun and treesMy car rolls to a stop at the red light. I’m on my way to stake out a position in the carpool line at my daughter’s school. I look to the left, and see a boy on a bicycle, zooming down the sloping sidewalk. It’s February, and he’s wearing a puffy blue parka. A backpack bounces up and down on his back and he’s got a wide grin on his face, and eyes intently fixed on the sidewalk in front of him. There is something about the boy that stirs me suddenly, and I feel overcome with the need to write. Not about him. I am overcome with the urge to dive back into my work-in-progress, and to make some progress, after weeks of uninspired dabbling – you know the kind, opening the document, changing a word here and there, deleting a line, hitting ‘save’. I don’t know why the boy ignites this need to write in me, but he does. My fingers tingle. In the carpool line I lever the driver’s seat back and open up my laptop. I exhale. I start to write. It’s that easy.


It’s not, though. I wish I could say that from that point forward my fingers flew across the keyboard and the words poured forth. Writing isn’t like that. There are so many in-between times; there are moments when you feel mired in the soul-sucking everydayness that is so often life and can’t see the way up over the edge and out of it. Inspiration can be so elusive, so demanding of time and space. The older I get, the less my brain can contain all at once. The older I get, the more I seem to take on, the less time and space there is available to me – for me. The less time I have to create, the more frustrated I grow, the less I feel like who I want to be, really and truly, 24/7: A writer.


February turns into March, which turns into April. Two questions bother me:

How can you call yourself a writer, if you are not writing?

And,

What was it about that boy on the bicycle?


I’m all about self-affirmations lately. Not à la Stuart Smalley, not yet, but the kinds of affirmations that make you accountable to others. It’s May now, and last week, I told someone that I was, first and foremost, a writer. I tend to keep that information bottled up inside, private, the way we keep our political affiliation, or our religion private. I have tried to work on this, because I’ve been a writer for almost my entire life. Own it! I tell myself over and over again, so I do, when I can.

I am a writer, I said out loud.

“Oh?” this person replied, head cocked to one side. “That’s so nice! What are you writing?”

And, just like that she morphed in front of me into the boy on the bicycle. He turned to look at me. What ARE you writing? he seemed to be asking as he whizzed on by, this time in a t-shirt and jeans. And, more importantly, why aren’t you doing it?


Writing is not easy. The mechanics of it might be – the act of stringing together words to form sentences, but wading through the negative noise to get the mechanics to work for you – that’s the daunting part. I’m in that in-between space now. If I stand on my very tippy-toes I can see the edge leading out of this place, but I’m still working out how to reach it. The process of transitioning away from the noise of the semester, and into reclaiming the time and space I need to create, is a hard one for me. I liken it (unoriginally) to peeling off a scab, or (more originally) recovering from jet lag. I have to cut loose all the weighty odds and ends I’ve been carrying with me for months, and re-enter a world where I belong, but which feels unfamiliar at first – all right angles and unusual shadows – until one day everything shifts into place again.


One May five years ago, during this recovering-from-jet-lag, transition-to-writing period, I wrote 20,000 words in just under three weeks – most of them while sitting in the carpool line at my son’s school. That is not my usual writing space, but the ritual of that process became such a part of me that my mind would begin racing almost before I had put the van into ‘park’ and turned the engine off. In the summers, when I am most prolific, my ritual is to get up earlier than my family, make myself a pot of tea, and to sit at my desk in my home office. If I start early enough, I can get in almost four hours of writing time before my family begins to stir. With that first cup of steaming tea poured, I feel the familiar urge to write – to create – take hold of me.


Mired in final exam grading, and assessment report-writing, and used car shopping, I fantasize about going on a writer’s retreat, somewhere remote and extraordinary. It would be just me and endless pots of tea and the words would stream out from my fingertips like sparklers on the 4th of July.

If I can just get to June, I tell myself, I’ll have the time to write.

In the meantime, I block out word count goals in my calendar. 20,000 words by Week 2, 30,000 by Week 3, and so on until I reach a decent goal for a working draft. Word counts are like mile markers, I tell myself out loud while I lace up my sneakers for a run. If I can map them out, I can get there.


Two miles out, two miles back. The landscape is thickening around the edges, settling into early summer at last. A quarter of a mile from home a neighbor crosses the street with his little white dog. I stop to pet her. She scrabbles against my legs, licking and wiggling. Sweat tickles my back. I wish the neighbor a good night and, as I pull away, picking up speed down the hill towards home, something unexpected happens: I feel a shift – something comes loose. In the most marvelous of full-circle ways, the little white dog has made me think about the boy on the bicycle, who has made me realize this: that the most valuable writing, not unlike the most valuable living, takes root in the everydayness — in the midst of the most mundane, in the absolute ordinary.

Guest Post, Bill Gaythwaite: Any Particular Day

swimmerIt occurred to me recently, not for the first time, that my swimming reminds me of my writing process. I’m a lap swimmer in a community pool.  I swim very long distances. My pool is not part of a fancy gym. The locker room is way too small. Sometimes it’s as crowded in there as a subway at rush hour.  There’s a grungy gang shower too, with cracks in the tile and some broken fixtures.  Hot water is more a hope than a reality.  You have to bring your own towel to this place and last week someone pried open my combination lock and stole the money from my wallet while I was doing my laps. I was grateful they left the wallet though, and figured maybe they needed the $22 more than I did. Actually, I love this gym and I love the pool, which, unlike the locker room, is clean and well-maintained. The lifeguards are friendly. Now, writing has its challenges too.  Sometimes the water isn’t hot and the fixtures are broken. And the most obvious comparison between the two is that lap swimming is this solitary effort, where you literally throw yourself into the deep end and just take off. Most writers understand that part. Personally, I’m not the flashiest swimmer or the fastest. My technique isn’t the prettiest either, but I do keep at it. That’s like my writing. And like writing, the benefits of swimming work best when you stick to a regular schedule or routine. You increase your stamina over time. Writing a short story is like a long swim for me. It’s tough to get started sometimes. You can struggle at first. You flail away. And then you eventually find a rhythm and you pace yourself. You don’t stop. You try not to lose steam before the finish. (If writing a short story is like a long swim for me, then working on my unpublished novel was more like running a marathon at a high altitude – but that’s another topic entirely.) I don’t think of lap swimming as only a metaphor. It has become part of my writing process too. Sometimes a swim will clear my head and get me back into a space where I can work. But I’ve also tackled plot problems, created back stories for characters and tried out dialogue as I thrash around in the pool, sometimes losing count of my laps as a result. I’m grateful for my time in the water and for my time at the computer too, when things come together and I have enough momentum to carry me through. I think my writing and lap swimming have become somewhat linked in my mind, the endurance part anyway, the personal challenge, the dogged persistence. As with anything, it comes down to commitment — that happy dedication to something that will eventually become part of who you really are, at any moment, on any particular day.

Mark Yakich’s Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide, Review by Intern Elijah Tubbs

images“Inspiration comes after writing, not before,” Yakich states in his new book Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide. I stumbled over this for a few moments because traditionally we are made to believe that the formula is a.) become inspired, b.) now write. But really I think Yakich is saying all inspiration can do is make the poem better through the revision process, where the writer can then pull from the various resources given to them. The first time a poem is written needs to be wholly from the inner gut of the writer. I find this to be true in my own writing, a lot of people probably do, even though I hadn’t thought about it before picking up this book. Yakich will tell you the opposite of what everyone else does, making you re-think not only poetry, but also writing and the world of writing in general. It is his honest and “unconventional” advice that make Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide a memorable and valuable experience.

There are a lot of “craft” books on poetry, (Whatever that word craft means? As if writing is equivalent to a macaroni pinwheel or scrapbooking, etc.) most notably The Triggering Town by Victor Hugo or The Virtues of Poetry by James Longenbach. Unlike many books on writing though, Yakich’s Poetry: A Survivors Guide—I’m so happy it’s a survivor’s guide and not this bougie, talked up craft book that only academic folk can parse out—will fit right into a poet’s life like the first time they read Whitman’s Song of Myself and actually understood it.

Unfortunately, in many books like this, we find the author putting themselves in front of the work. Look at me, look at me! It turns into an ego thing, a mine is bigger than yours. “Critics will try to tell you ranking is for experts and disappointment for amateurs . . .. ”  Yakich tears apart those people who make poetry not for everyone, specifically when talking about The Best American Poetry series that is released once a year. “There are usually some very good poems in the collection; 1994 was particularly a fine year. Still, a more accurate title for the series would be something like A Clutch of Unconcatenated Poems That a U.S. Poet Kinda Enjoyed in the Small Hours Before Drifting off to Sleep.”

“There is no accounting for taste. What one reader admires, another disdains… Don’t pretend to love a poem you really find dull. Don’t be afraid of disliking a great poem or poet.”

Whether you are new to poetry or experienced, this book uncovers things about the poem that you did not know or understand or remember. Yakich’s advice and observations on poetry are real, they’re meaningful, they’re not pretentious and they’re for the greater good of poetry and its writers. “Someday, when all your material possessions will seem to have shed their utility and just become obstacles to the toilet, poems will still hold their value.”

Yakich wrote this for his students, I am a student, this is the most genuine book on poetry I have come by. This book tackles every ounce of the poem and the poem in the real world: knowing the poem, reading the poem, writing the poem, publishing the poem, reviewing the poem. It really is a survivor’s guide and all of us poets and poetry readers can get something from it.

Reading this survivor’s guide will make you feel why you fell in love with the poem. Not only will it remind you why you fell in love, Yakich’s smart, playful, humble and sometimes brash words towards the poetry will make you realize (hopefully you already knew) the importance of the art in your life, others, and the social setting.

“Poetry’s irrelevance, therefore, becomes its importance,” he says.

Guest Blog Post, William J. Cobb: On the Road, Writing in My Head

So I’m currently on a mini-book tour of Texas, although I don’t know if “mini” ever applies to much in Texas, since this wee ramble over the interstate prairie includes 3,000-plus miles of driving in 12 days. That’s a lot of hours of sitting behind the steering wheel, staring at the road, driving on mental autopilot, working on my next novel—in my head. As a young writer, just starting out, I used to write every day religiously, believing that constant work is the key to success, which it is. But now I value more the thinking-time: If I know what I want to say, I can usually find the time to sit down and say it. The “constant work” is complex, and involves more than writing that next scene of, say, a 35-year-old woman holding a teenage boy hostage, whom she caught tom-peeping her, and whom she shot. But now she has to dress his wounds, feed and care for him, and decide how to return him to his father, who scares her, who she thinks is abusing the boy. To add to that complexity, I’m currently promoting my novel The Bird Saviors, just out this summer, and have a deadline of November 1 for the final draft of a new book of short stories, which already has a publisher. All that is fine and dandy, but what I really want to do is write the new one, tentatively titled The Lost Person. (That may change. The title, I mean. I tend to come up with a dozen/20 titles before throwing up my hands in despair and choosing Contestant Number One, or whatever sounds good that day. My first title was The Donkey Woman. Then I thought: Hmmm. That may give the wrong impression. And the first words you see on a book shouldn’t give a wrong impression, right?)

When I don’t have the time to sit down and write, it seems I’m often driving. I drive and think, What should happen next? This woman is nicknamed The Tooth Fairy by the boy, because she looks like what he imagines the Tooth Fairy would, if the TF were real. She works at a bar/restaurant, and she hates drinkers and eaters. She constantly sees the big bellies and pink faces of Good Time Charlies, and she’s developed a decidedly sour view of mankind. Should the boy’s father be one of her customers? (Probably.) Should he make a pass at her? (Hmmm. Probably not. But maybe.) What about the boy’s mother? What happens if the father thinks someone else has abducted his son, and is certain he knows the identity of his abductor, but he’s wrong? What would he do? (I suspect this part will end very, very badly.)

What I see on the road often ends up in my fiction: In an early scene of The Bird Saviors, an ornithologist picks up a dead hawk’s body on the roadside (did that). On a recent trip I snapped this photo of what appears to be a unicorn, but what I guess to be a rather unusual white donkey. I’m betting that beast makes a cameo appearance in The Lost Person, or whatever it ends up being called—The Donkey Princess, maybe. Because wherever there’s a unicorn, a princess has to be waiting in the wings.

Interview with Matthew Gavin Frank

 

Matthew Gavin Frank is a contributor for Superstition Review’s Issue 7. In this interview, SR talks to Frank about work and his newest piece, The Morrow Plots.

SR: After so much time spent in the food and wine industry, what inspired you to pursue degrees and careers in writing and poetry?

Matthew Gavin Frank: I loved writing well before I fell into the food and wine industries. I remember—I was about 10—going through my parents’ dresser drawers when they were otherwise occupied. I remember it as a Saturday. My dad was likely working. My mom was likely working-out: one of those Jane Fonda VHS tapes. In one drawer, I found a short essay she wrote about her own father’s death when she was 13. She spent her life teaching grammar—past participles and shit—to 7th graders, but, up until that point, I never knew she wrote. And, she never wrote anything again outside of letters to the editor. So stumbling onto that essay allowed me a richer engagement of my mother as a human being, I think.

Soon after that, I remember (this was 5th grade) collaborating with my friend Ryan Shpritz on a series of gross-out stories. A few years ago, when my wife and I were visiting my family in Chicago, my mom sat us down with these scrapbooks she made when my sister and I were toddlers. In the column that asked for my interests, she wrote, “Ghosts, blood, anything ghoulish.” Fucking blood. According to my own mother, one of my primary interests as a toddler was blood. So my later collaboration with Ryan, on this series of stories called “Death at Dark” (I, II, III, and so on) had its roots in those early interests. Mrs. Buccheim, our teacher—fabulous perm—allowed us to read our work in front of the class each week. She loved that we were writing extracurricularly. Once, in D at D part VI, I think, some poor sap caught his hand in a garbage disposal, and we compared the resulting carnage to a punctured egg yolk. Shannon Elliott, the cheerleader, cried. After that, Mrs. Buccheim, bless her proper heart, put a stop to our public readings. So, I then realized that writing not only had the power to reveal, but the power to get one banned.

This knowledge sort of fed all kinds of ideas about revolt, writerly and otherwise. Soon, I started thinking a lot about food. Growing up in a microwave-and-saturated-fat-centric family, it took me a while realize that the food world was larger than a radiated Lean Cuisine paired with Crystal Light pink lemonade. There was some impetuous revolt growing in me in my late teens in response to the crappy undergraduate meal-plan dinners (if you could call them that) served in Hopkins Hall, where I worked for a while—a very short while—clearing trays and washing dishes. I remember the particular dinner that inspired this culinary rebellion. It was this disaster of Creamed Chipped Beef on Texas Toast. It broke me. I began reading books on food and wine, determined to do better than this, which took a while actually. At some point, I came across an article on Barolo wine and vowed to go to the region where it was made. After a couple days, lazing in the vineyards, eating fresh pasta and white truffles, I vowed to return to live there and, upon returning to the States, trashed my microwave in vulgar ceremony. I thereafter took all sorts of restaurant jobs, and found a common thread: when chefs get together after work for drinks, and one chef asks me what I like to do in my spare time, and I say, “write poetry,” it’s ever a great conversation killer. Eventually, I realized I needed to chat about such things with some like-minded folks.

SR: I have heard some poets say that it is important for young writers to first go out into the world and experience life before writing about it and/or attempting to go into a MFA program. Others insist that the jump straight from undergraduate school to a MFA program is necessary. As someone who left home at age 17, experienced the world young, and returned to academia, what advice would you give to young writers?

MGF: I feel perfectly ill-equipped to give young writers lifestyle advice. There is no prescription for this shit. If you need and want to write, you will need and want to write, whether flipping eggs in an Alaskan diner for a living, or immersing oneself in academia. Folks are always talking about how MFA programs can be ruinous to burgeoning writers, who should first experience the world and gather stories; other folks insist that the training provided by the MFA is not a stylistic evening-out, but is essential to burgeoning writers and that it’s the outside world with its various bankrupt distractions that can be ruinous. So, everything can be ruinous, is the thesis, I think.

I tend to believe that these extremists are giving both the MFA program and the “world-at-large” too much credit. If you want and need to write, I’m not sure either choice has the power to strip that away and ruin you. Everything is situation-specific. The shunning of the academic construct in order to lead a vagabond lifestyle worked for me. That’s what I needed to do. I know incredible writers who never left academia—went straight from undergrad to MFA to PhD to a tenure-track position. That’s what they needed to do. I do think surrendering to whimsy is important, but such whimsy manifests itself in myriad ways for myriad people.

SR: I noticed that comments about your books by poets such as Norman Dubie and Cynthia Hogue are quoted on your website. Did you work with them during your time in the MFA program at ASU and if so how do you feel that they have influenced your writing?

MGF: Yeah, I worked with Norman and Cynthia, also Beckian, Jeannine, Alberto—all of whom were fabulous and influential. I love Norman’s poems for their drama, their characters, their social conscience, generosity of spirit, and their hilarity. I love watching the master of the dramatic monologue do his thing. I love how some of his poems combine the best of PBS’s Nova with the joy inherent in the telling of a fabulously bad joke. Norman once told me: “Dude, all my poems are jokes,” which is, of course, a joke, I think. This has inspired much of my own work. Wrapping joke in verse is hard, but so much fun. I can sense Norman’s joy in writing these poems as I read them. And every so often, Norman drops the veil, and steps, larger-than-life, center-stage. I love these moments, when he breaks the fourth wall. His poem, “Oration: Half-Moon in Vermont” is a great example of this.  It ends:

 In a year the owl will go on a shelf in the shed
Where in thirty years there will be a music box
Containing a lock of hair, her rosaries,
Her birth certificate,

And an impossibly sheer, salmon-pink scarf.  What
I want to know of my government is

Doesn’t poverty just fucking break your heart?

Reading this for the first time, I felt like Ronnie Ballenger had just pulled the chair from beneath me at the junior high lunchroom table again, and Kelly Konopka laughed so hard milk came out her nose. I’m similarly disarmed and embarrassed, and delighted. As a poet, it seems Norman could not help himself here. There is a time for restraint in poetry, and a time when restraint should not be part of the poem’s language. Norman understands this. And the result is often an exhilarating, guilty pleasure. The line break after the “What” is essential to this effect, this surprise. In my own work, as a challenge, any time I try to pull off the presence of a booger, or something like it, that’s Norman’s influence.

Cynthia’s work taught me to stay in one place, poetically-speaking, for a while, to allow the poem to become itself. To keep looking at the thing again and again and again—to micro-examine the thing via various contexts and lenses, and then, just when you think you’ve got it, to turn away from the thing, to stare into the opposite direction, and then to describe what you see there. This sort of technique allowed me, in a thematically-linked book like The Morrow Plots especially, a fulcrum to which subsequent poems could attach like burrs, and spin.

SR: Was The Morrow Plots the original title for the poem? And if so, did it come naturally? What made you choose it as the title for the entire collection?

MGF: When I lived in Upstate New York—way up on the Canadian border—during the awful winter, I became obsessed with The Morrow Plots, an experimental cornfield on the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign campus. The local and campus agronomists conduct important crop experiments there, and then disseminate the findings among the U.S.’s farming industry. So, it’s an important square of land, and hallowed ground in downstate Illinois. You do not trespass on the Morrow Plots. The legal and social consequences for such things are dire. The Plots are regionally revered. Yeah: holy, even. I was born in Illinois, and I think I was oddly homesick for the Midwest all the way up there near Canada among the defunct Go-Kart tracks and Shining-esque hedge maze that my wife and I lived behind (the area was a bedroom community for Manhattanite boaters in the summer time, and so had all of these kitschy tourist traps that would go skeletal come winter). Upon researching old newspaper articles from the ’20s and ’30s, I found that the Plots were then known as a popular site for violent crime, or a dumping ground for bodies. And, if some mutilated remains went unclaimed, the University of Illinois would claim them for “experimental purposes.” And now, The Morrow Plots are a National Historical Landmark. So dealing with that discrepancy consumed me for a while. This is a great, if nauseating, way to sink into the comfort of the winter blues. But I was so glad to reemerge after that one. See some light after all the murder. I had to temper a lot of the darkness by reading Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s sumptuous At the Drive-in Volcano that winter. So yes, this obsession came naturally, and acted as that fulcrum on which I hung a bunch of murderous Midwestern things.

SR: In The Morrow Plots there is an enchanting set of lines that I am curious about. “…The book opening/to your knees/explodes with border scenes—/skeletal fish becoming women/with piñata faces.” The imagery and the musicality are beautiful. Where did your inspiration for these lines come from?

MGF: Firstly, thank you! When I was long ago an undergraduate at The University of Illinois, I used to sneak into Lincoln Hall at night. I was taking a Biology course from this guy George Kieffer—this wonderful old madman on the cusp of retirement who would run around his lecture stage, waving his hands and screaming about having found dead bodies in the nearby Boneyard Creek. He would triumphantly howl, to his teenage and twentysomething students, “You’re all headed toward Max S [the end stage of entropy], Max S! That’s when you’re dead!”

It was one of those buildings that had locked behind Plexiglas cases all sorts of wrinkled beasts pickled in jars of alcohol. I remember halls of fetal pigs, halls of snakes—both of which are good for poetry, of course.

So I would sneak in there at night, climb to the top floor, exit a window, and sit on the roof’s ledge overlooking the center of campus. Sections of the roof were made of copper and were beginning to green. I would often write up there, read up there by a pocket flashlight. From that vantage, The Morrow Plots were visible. I have this memory—fabricated or real, I can’t tell—of sitting up there, watching the stars or some other youthful romantic shit, with two books open on my lap: a biology textbook, and a glossy book of old Mexican movie posters.  One book on each thigh. I’m trying to hold them both open, while also trying to not fall off the roof. The stars. The Plots. In the biology book, I remember some anatomical cross-section of a cod or something. In the second, an image of the second. Honestly, I don’t know if this is true or not, but this memory, when coupled with the violent history of The Morrow Plots, served to inspire this line, and this poem. The poem struggles, I think, to make all of these odd histories gel with the images that attend them. Struggles to deal with the ways in which height and distance both reveal and obscure. And how everything on earth is, of course, magnificent, terrible, and indistinct from a rooftop.

SR: Is there a particular poem or poet that first provided inspiration for your stylistic choices as a writer?

MGF: The poet Mike Madonick was the first poet who taught me that the muse occurs during the writing process, and not beforehand. That, to write a poem, in his words, is like, “[being] a dog let loose in a field, you pick up scents, another dog perhaps, a pheasant, or the quick motion of a grasshopper turns your head, and then your owner calls, you scramble back or you want to run or you just stand there and cock your head, look at him because you’re puzzled about the strange demand he’s put on you, as if he owned you.”

I was lucky enough to have Mike as a teacher, and am lucky enough to have him as a friend. I remember, as an undergrad, I declared a psychology major. Then, I took my very first poetry workshop with Mike, and he said something as simple as, “Poets are fucked-up people, generally,” and I rushed out of class and switched my major to Creative Writing, as if Madonick had given me some sort of permission to be my dumbass self, and to do the dumbass things I wanted to do.

SR: What advice do you have for writers with an interest in travelling and/or cuisine as subject matter for their work?

MGF: Don’t skimp tent-wise. Purchase one that decently blocks out the rain. This is your home for a while. Make it so. Create a little nightstand in the corner with a stack of books you plan on reading, and your notebook. Keep your watch, glasses and lantern on it, each in their own little spot.

Remember how when you were five, the optometrist told your mother in front of you that you’d be blind by age 30. Remember how you used to walk around your parents’ house at night, feeling your way in the darkness, practicing for blindness. Remember bumping into your dad’s collection of antique metal Coca-Cola trays. Remember the loudness. Finger your glasses on that makeshift nightstand in the tent—see in them, and your (however limited) retention of your sight, a lovely Fuck You to that optometrist’s version of fate. Contemplate fate, and other such nebulous things, no further. Go to sleep and dream about pasta.

If camping along the ski valley road in Taos, New Mexico, bring your own toilet paper, lest you want to succumb to the discarded Subway napkins the guy the next site over push-pinned to the pit toilet wall.

When camping in Kruger National Park in South Africa, listen at night to the hippos laughing.  Take notes in vocables.

Camp at Wonder Lake in Alaska’s Denali National Park in mid-September. Wake up in the middle of the night to see the aurora borealis dancing pink and green over the mountain. Write a horrible poem about it. Revise it into a better poem, but realize it’s still horrible. Write a new poem. Put an oyster in it.

In a pinch, when preparing ramen noodles over a propane camp-stove, choose the pork flavor; boil the noodles in half-water, half-pineapple juice. Contemplate the illusory makeup of gourmet. Remember: ratio is everything. Two cans of Stagg Chili + one can of Libby’s Corned Beef Hash = tolerable high-calorie meal.  One can of Stagg Chili + two cans of Corned Beef Hash = digestive demoralization from the throat on down—this is a ratio that may cause you to abandon your current course, flee the woods, get on the first plane to Paris, and have a vegetarian dinner at L’Arpege. After that, think differently about the tomato.

Meet your spouse in a Latin jazz bar on one island or another—one that you previously defined as fickle. Propose to her at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. Do this realizing that you are surrounded by nuclear test sites. Do this realizing that nearby Arco was the first town in the U.S. to be lit by atomic power. Do this realizing that you are camping on the rocks on which the astronauts practiced for moon landings.

No matter where you are, surrender to the street food, even though it will make you sick.