It’s National Poetry Month and TriQuarterly is proud to introduce a new web series. Reginald Gibbons, the Frances Hooper Professor of Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University, will follow his undergraduate poetry writing course with mini-essays that lay out the framework of poetry as he sees it. Professor Gibbons will report on his class discussion—and what he failed to get to, or what was too elusive, and how his students develop throughout the course.
James Tadd Adcox ("The Bed Frame," "A Dial Tone," "The Off Season," and "The Weight of the Internet"; issue 139) has just published his first book, a collection of stories called The Map of the System of Human Knowledge, with Tiny Hardcore Press.
Meena Alexander ("Red Bird" and "Impossible Grace"; issue 141) was interviewed by the Poetry Society of America.
Brittany Cavallaro ("Tautology" and "Leitmotif"; issue 142), along with Rebecca Hazelton, has a book forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2013, No Girls No Telephones.
Eugene Cross ("This Too"; issue 141) recently published a collection of stories, Fires of Our Choosing, with Dzanc Books. "This Too" is included in the collection. Read an interview he did with The Millions here.
Su Friedrich ("Gut Renovation"; issue 141) won the Audience Award at the 2012 Brooklyn Film Festival for "Gut Renovation."
Edison Jennings ("Complexion," "Half-Life," "A Body in Motion," and "Old Bitch and Bone"; issue 139) has four poems in The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume III: Appalachia. He also has a poem, "Durable Goods," in the current issue of Zone 3, and others forthcoming in Southwest Review and Rattle. Finally, the fall 2011 issue of Town Creek Poetry includes a retrospective of his work as well as an interview.
Angela Eun Ji Koh ("Antti Revonsuo"; issue 140) recently published her poem "Menopause" in La Petite Zine.
Tyler Mills ("Penelope's Firebird Weft"; issue 140) won the 2011 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award for her collection Tongue Lyre, which will be published by Southern Illinois University Press in February 2013.
Jacob Newberry ("Origins"; issue 141) was named a Bread Loaf Scholar in Nonfiction for the summer of 2012. He also has a short story forthcoming in the Southwest Review, as well as an essay forthcoming in the Kenyon Review.
We couldn't be prouder.
Meena Alexander’s poem “Impossible Grace,” from TQO issue 141 is being honored by an international music competition. The first Al-Quds Composition Award, which celebrates the “cultural uniqueness of the city of Jerusalem,” requires composers to submit work that is inspired by Alexander's poem. The winning composition will be presented at the new Al-Quds University College of Music in October.
Alexander was the 2011 Al-Quds poet in residence.
The typical image of a writer is a person slumped over a keyboard, face unshaven, hair unkempt, a cigarette fuming into the air beside a furrowed brow, a glass of whiskey in hand and a half-empty bottle on the table - man, I really need to stop looking in the mirror when I write these things…
But truth be told, the writer as a drinker is an iconic image from Edgar Allen Poe and Oscar Wilde to Jack Kerouac and Raymond Carver. The ink, it seems, is in the pen if the spirits are in the blood. This stereotype is true enough that there’s even a Bartending Guide to Great American Writers where you can find the favored libations of some of the craft’s greatest practitioners. Faulkner liked Mint Juleps, Anne Sexton loved Martinis, and Hunter S. Thompson had parts of his body osmotically replaced with Chivas Regal.
The old adage is for writers to write what they know, and with all this imbibing going on it’s not surprising that raging benders and blinding hangovers have become plot points and sometimes the topic of entire novels. Writers have even thought up their own cocktails; for instance, Hemingway devised his own daiquiri and Ian Fleming cooked up the Vesper Martini. Naturally enough, if a writer drinks, and writers create drinks, then there will be a plethora of drinks named after writers and for their books. Who wouldn’t want a Douglas Adams Pangalactic Gargleblaster chaser for a Philip K. Dick's Blade Runner?
Fine dining touts beverage pairings and a good sommelier can tell you what wine will match your confit of beef tongue on a brioche with salsa verde and a fried egg, so why not a sommelier for books? Go ahead, put on some Beethoven, mix 8 oz whole milk, 1 1.9 oz 5-Hour Energy bottle, 1.5 oz vodka and a few ice cubes in a Collins glass and stir with a dagger for a sip of Milk-Plus while you read A Clockwork Orange. If that’s a bit too much, fly to Baltimore and pick up some Edgar Allen Poe themed Raven Lager and wonder why Conrad Aiken said “A poet without alcohol is no real poet.”
Whatever the reason, booze and books are forever entwined. The tales of alcoholism taking its toll on writers are infamous and we’ve lost a great many voices to drink. Yet as with all things, moderation is key and over indulgence in any one thing can do harm. Even without alcohol, authors do have some crazy addictions (James Joyce dug flatulence?!?), so the rest of us always have the option to teetotal and just read about it.
On April 29, 1992, four Los Angeles Police Officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King, sparking what became the Los Angeles Riots. By the end, over a billion dollars in damage had been done, 53 people lost their lives, and many, like Reginald Denny, were forever changed. Twenty years later, on February 26, 2012 George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin and the aftermath of that event is still unfolding around us as acts of anger and retaliation slowly ripple across the nation. If we expand our view, we find that these types of acts are repeated all over the world, every where from Afghanistan to Canada time and time again.
Our problem is thinking we’ve got the story, that we know what happened and who the other person is. We make decisions based not on fact, but on what we believe, on what we’ve heard, and what we’ve seen. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls this the danger of a single story. She says that, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” That Zimmerman shot Martin is true, there is no question of that. What remains to be seen is whether his reasons for doing so - the story he tells, in effect - will be considered justifiable by a court of law. Our understanding of the facts is blurred by context and by who is telling us the story.
“Stories,” Adichie says, “who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told — are really dependent on power. Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity. Show a people as one thing — as only one thing — over and over again, and that is what they become.” Whether it’s the beatings of Rodney King and Reginald Denny or the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the problem remains the same, people carry with them the preconceived notions of society that color their perception.
What’s the solution? More stories from all voices and all points of view. Alex Kotlowitz writes that “Stories inform the present and help sculpt the future, and so we need to take care not to craft a single narrative, not to pigeonhole people, not to think we know when in fact we know very little. We need to listen to the stories—the unpredictable stories—of those whose voices have been lost amidst the cacophonous noise of ideologues and rhetorical ruffians.”
In the end it comes down to empathy and understanding, recent studies have shown that reading fiction actually increases a person capacity for empathy, the same is most likely true for narrative non-fiction. As I wrote in my previous blog, reading rewires your brain by forcing you to live through the experiences of a stories protagonist. Would Zimmerman have shot Martin if he’d read To Kill a Mockingbird? Who can say? I do believe though, that if we try to empathize and put our preconceived notions aside, this world would be a better place.
Though I thoroughly enjoy reading them, I’ve come to realize that short stories—that form beloved by fiction writers—just aren’t for me. Years ago, before I knew much about structuring short fiction, I wrote vignettes/flash-fiction/list stories (i.e., stories under 2,000 words) without knowing that was what those forms were called. I liked the associations and abstractions I could play around with in those forms. Now, after years of trying to make my short fiction fit into a traditional story format, and suffering through workshops in which others tried to make my scenic/descriptive/abstract stories conform to that traditional format, I’ve decided to shed the idea that these alternate forms are somehow not “real” fiction and I’m once again experimenting again with list stories and vignettes. And, I have to say, it’s so much GD-fun.
I’ve got the beginnings of a few vignette-y pieces on my desktop and while they marinate, I started looking around at the current crop of short-short fiction journals. Poets and Writers lists journals that accept flash fiction, but I’ve also been checking out journals and website devoted to flash fiction entirely.
Among my favorite discoveries so far are Flashquake, a quarterly with the mission: “Words are meant to enlighten and to inspire.” and Six Sentences, which is exactly what it sounds like. There is also 3a.m., Vestal (“the longest running flash fiction magazine in the world”), and Freight Stories. I haven’t yet had a chance to delve fully into Double Room Journal, but am compelled by the fact that it’s both prose poetry and flash fiction, (the form that comes most naturally to me).
But my favorite by far was been Wigleaf, recommended to me by friend/novelist/writing teacher Susannah Felts, who has impeccable taste in pretty much everything. Read this one by Ellen Birkett Morris or this one by Delaney Nolan and you’ll be hooked too, regardless of your feelings on the short story versus flash fiction format.
Much like a caterer for a zombie luncheon, I’ve had brains on the brain this last week, and right now I am messing with your mind. As your mind assembles these letters into words, combine words into phrases, and then subsequently process those phrases and sentences in conjunction with each other your brain begins to form a model that is similar to the one I’ve created in my mind. My suggestions have an effect on you; the internal voice you are reading this in will suddenly change when I tell you to read it in my sultry deep Barry White bass… can’t get enough? Research has shown that reading actually rewires your brain, using several different areas originally designed for other tasks to translate a series of symbols into language. While this process may come with a trade-off, i.e. if you read more you might not be able to recognize faces, other research has shown that, because reading uses so many different areas, it actually strengthens the connections in your brain.
So, what should you read for a strong and healthy brain? Why fiction of course! A recent article by Annie Murphy Paul in the New York Times called “Your Brain on Ficiton”, delves into research that shows that fiction, because it mimics real-life situations, can actually help us understand the “complexities of social life.” A good short story or novel functions along the lines of a flight simulator, running us through interactions and events that our brains conjure and process thereby training us on what to do and what not to do in a particular situation. Fiction in this respect functions as a form of meditation or dream, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in his opening to Bagombo Snuff Box likened the reading of short stories to “a bunch of Buddhist cat naps.”
Which is exactly why my blog is completely unhealthy for you but completely addicting… can’t get enough? You see, where reading off the page or the act of reading fiction involves the concentrated effort of mental processes, reading off the internet, especially hyperlinked text, actually shatters focus. Items read off the internet are comprehended only at a superficial level, the information we glean off the internet is primarily transferred to the short term memory and very little of it passes into long term memory, in other words, in one ear and out the other. Nicholar Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, asserts that the internet “is, in a metaphorical sense, a reversal of the early trajectory of civilization: We are evolving from cultivators of personal knowledge into hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest. In the process, we seem fated to sacrifice much of what makes our minds so interesting.” This also may explain why no one was able to select a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year.
On the bright side, though our brains may be devolving into their primate origins because of the internet, it was announced last week that baboons can read, or at least recognize real words amongst fake words. My hope is that future experiments with baboons will involve typewriters, or at the very least Microsoft Word, in order to test the infinite monkey theorem. The idea, if you’re not familiar with it, is akin to Jorge Luis Borges’ story “The Library of Babel” in which ream after ream of pages typed by monkeys will ultimately produce the great works of literature through sheer probability of letter combinations. Some “real world” experiments have already been conducted in the last few years, but the results show that those primates writing books are not quite there yet when it comes to producing “a classic”.