Big Loves: Michael Copperman on Willa Cather’s Five Stories


Willa Cather’s Five Stories, is a short, strange, beautiful collection of her short fiction that spans the course of her literary career. The first story in the collection, “The Enchanted Bluff,” is written in first person. It uses retrospection powerfully and overtly; the story concerns a river and a group of boys who grow up in a small town, how they are all taken with a story of a blue mesa and a city ensconced in it, hovering above clouds, where an ancient people once lived. They will go on to be dulled by adult lives. They never live up to their promises to travel to the mesa, though the fellow most taken with it still says he will. The story is about the pull of mystery, the magic of this imagined city of an extinct people, how the very existence of it enlarged these boys’ dreams, and too how time and circumstances dulled them and kept them from seeking the mesa. It ends like this:

“Tip Smith still talks about going to New Mexico. He married a slatternly, unthrifty country girl, has been much tied to a perambulator, and has grown stooped and gray from irregular meals and broken sleep. But the worst of his difficulties are now over, and he has, as he says, come into easy water. When I was last in Sandtown I walked home with him late one moonlight night, after he had balanced his cash and shut up his store. We took the long way around and sat down on the schoolhouse steps, and between us we revived the romance of the lone red rock and the extinct people. Tip insists that he still means to go down there, but he thinks now he will wait until his boy Bert is old enough to go with him. Bert has been let into the story, and thinks of nothing but the Enchanted Bluff.”

That end takes on such a size as a result of the retrospection; and though there is a sadness in how clear it is they will never go, there is a sort of hope, too, in how the story has been passed on, how now it has taken the imagination of Tip’s son. I have found that though Cather’s work is fiction, it instructs me most deeply in the craft of reflection, and its importance in writing memoir—for what is the real function of memoir but to make sense of the past from the vantage of the present, enlarge it in terms of the clarifying force of the years that have come between, when small memories take on size and importance, and what was immediate has receded?

willacather5storiesThe second “story” I had already read: it is the discrete, odd chapter “Tom Outland’s Story,” which forms the center of the novel The Professor’s House, a book I read when I was an undergraduate and did not understand. I would then have recognized mostly the grace and rhythm of the prose, and certainly, I noticed how the chapter seemed to stand alone, as if Cather had wanted to construct an entire narrative around one perfect and discrete and self-contained story, as if the entire story of the Professor was pulled toward the mystery of Tom Outland’s story. Tom Outland’s story is that of a young man and his friend Roddy who happen on the Blue Mesa and go into the city to explore. To Tom Outland the mesa is perfect, sacred, and his friend Roddy, believing he is doing right, sells the artifacts they unearthed when Tom is unable to get anyone in Washington to fund their exploration. Like the first narrator, Tom is looking back both on his time at the mesa, and at what has been lost: the mesa, his youth and innocence, and by his own choice, his friendship with Roddy. For in his anger at Roddy’s having sold the artifacts without consulting him, Tom tells Roddy to leave and is never able to find him again, even though Roddy meant the money for Tom to support his education. The story ends hauntingly:

“Now that I was back on the railroad, I thought I couldn’t fail to find him. I went out to Winslow and to Williams, and I questioned the railroad men. We advertised for him in every possible way, and had all the Santa Fe operatives and the police and the Catholic missionaries on the watch for him, and offered a thousand dollars reward for whoever found him. But it all came to nothing. Father Duchene and our friends down there are still looking. But the older I grow, the more I understand what it was I did that night on the mesa. Anyone who requites faith and friendship as I did, will have to pay for it. I’m not very sanguine about good fortune for myself. I’ll be called to account when I least expect it.

In the Spring, just a year after I quarreled with Roddy, I landed here and walked into your garden, and the rest you know.”

I think about that line—“Anyone who requites faith and friendship…will have to pay for it”—for I once nearly lost a best friend, neither of us able to forgive, though the first error was mine in turning my back on her. Close friendships can be difficult to sustain—they are as essential and intimate as any romance. But I do not feel I am exempt from Cather’s observation about the price of a friend’s loss: we may get only so many people who care for us deeply and can understand us fully, and so cannot afford to betray those loyalties without suffering the loss of something essential to ourselves.

What most interests me about these two stories, the only two in the collection written in first person, are how the stories echo back on one another, the Blue Mesa as figure, and the Blue Mesa as lost paradise, a pure but only temporary mecca. The stories overlap, reflect and refract, just as Tom Outland’s story itself ends by returning to the Professor’s story in a way that changes and enlarges that narrative. The Professor, as I remember it, becomes obsessed with what Tom Outland has told him, the Blue Mesa and the life Tom Outland had and the loss of Roddy’s friendship haunting his own days, but also enlivening his dreams.

In all of Cather’s first-person, the power and size of the narration is accomplished not by lyric—and she has considerable lyric talent—but by retrospection of the sort Fitzgerald uses in The Great Gatsby, moving through time to show us not just what has become, but the full measure of what we have been shown.

In a less generous writer’s hands, retrospection can ruin and overburden; it is a dangerous tool. Cather uses it with precision and heart.

Michael Copperman has taught writing to low-income, first-generation students of diverse backgrounds at the University of Oregon for the last decade.  His prose has appeared in The Oxford American, The Sun, Creative Nonfiction, Salon, Gulf Coast, Guernica, Waxwing, and Copper Nickel, among other magazines, and has won awards and garnered fellowships from the Munster Literature Center, Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, Oregon Literary Arts, and the Oregon Arts Commission. University Press of Mississippi published his memoir of the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta, Teacher, in September 2016.

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor David Rivard

RivardContributor David Rivard’s sixth collection of poems, Standoff, has just been released by Graywolf Press. David Rivard is also the author of Otherwise Elsewhere; Sugartown; Bewitched Playground; Wise Poison; winner of the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award; and Torque, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize. His poems and essays appear regularly in the American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, Tin House, Poetry London, Best American Poetry, The Pushcart Prize, and other magazines and anthologies. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, as well as the 2006 O. B. Hardison Jr. Poetry Prize from the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Jerome J. Shestack Prize from the American Poetry Review. He teaches in the MFA Program in Writing at the University of New Hampshire. He graciously answered these questions from Memorious editor Rebecca Morgan Frank about Standoff.

Three of the poems from Standoff, “Don’t Doubt it,” “Here We Go,” and “Iron Rising out of Iron,” first appeared in Memorious. Can you tell us a little bit about these poems?

“Don’t Doubt It” and “Iron Rising Out of Iron” were among the earliest written for Standoff—when I read them now they feel as if they emerge out of some of the impulses that govern my previous book, Otherwise Elsewhere: there’s a certain density of sonic effect and perception, and a voice that’s recognizably a person but without totally admitting to the autobiographical. A voice that’s singular, but common?  Shared?  The person who’s being addressed in both poems has a sense of solitude and loneliness about him—a distant cousin to hopelessness. The narrator doesn’t exactly identify with this “you”—he (or is it she?) is conscious of a wider horizon line than the “you” is. She knows about the strange, slightly bewitched randomness of the daily world. She’s very gently putting her hand against the back of “your” head and redirecting “your” attention.

9781555977450“Here We Go” was written a couple of years later, under the influence of Michael O’Brien’s poems, and maybe the aphoristic prose of Pierre-Albert Jourdan and Antonio Porchia. It’s quite fragmented (to state the obvious), each set of images being almost haiku-like. The movement within and between fragments in associative. The associations are reinforced either syntactically or mechanically in the last line of each unit, so that the final line folds into the first line of the next fragment in some way. It’s basic cubist form, but the prosodic effect might be more obvious when read out loud. I wrote a lot of fragments, then cut back, and arranged and rearranged to create the associations through juxtaposition and parallelism. My mind is associative by nature, and I’m drawn to non-linear logic—I’m pretty intuitive about all this. I like the way the poem funnels down to birth date—mine as a matter of fact. Then the speaker is fully present all of a sudden, and the “story” feels as though it’s on the verge of starting up again. I feel like I may have been 3-5 years ahead of myself when I wrote this.

Much of this collection seems elegiac—from the loss of your father, to a daughter leaving into adulthood, to the passing of Mike Mazur. But rather than a direct focus on grieving in this collection, there’s a sense of a speaker continually trying to find his ground in the changing order of the world. In “Arriving from a Destination” the speaker says “my father­–/do I know him at all?” and later “What is it my daughter sees me as?” To this reader, the result seems to be a book that is partially steeped in memory and partially sees the world with new eyes. Did you have a sense of this collection, your sixth, being different than previous ones, being shaped by the changes in your own life, and if so, how so?

Well, yes, my father’s death in particular, I would say—though factually he died toward the very end of the time when I was writing it. The book registers in all sorts of indirect ways his decline, but I don’t feel that I was aware of that exactly when I write it. The approach of his death, my awareness of its coming nearer, and the mix of emotional vulnerability, vibrancy, physical frailty, and willfulness that he seemed possessed by in his late 80’s, early 90’s—those things are all in the book, but not always visible. They’re hiding in plain sight. So, yes, the tone is elegiac in one sense, but it seems to open onto new, unexpected views at every instance. It’s not just a closing down. At moments like this, in anyone’s life, you’re being shown your losses with a clarifying intensity. But the grief can be bracing. You’re really awake in those moments, whether you want to be or not.

I want to say something about the aesthetics of all this. I’m not trying to record or report the details of my life “as it happened.” I’m not an autobiographical poet in that sense. I want simply that the writing of the poem be engaged with my thinking and feeling, entangled with my life as it occurs to me moment to moment. I want the form of the poem to be as close to the actual way I think and feel as it can be, an experience of such. On a day-to-day level, I don’t experience grief—or longing, or anxiety, or political outrage, or love—as if it had the shapeliness of an essay or story. My feeling and thinking is rarely insightful and almost always arrives in non-linear ways. It’s full of blank spots and inarticulate intuitions, prone to baffling surges and leaps, and often open to memory only through random, fragmented images. All of that stuff is going on constantly, along with a voice that seems to be narrating and giving it shape in my head from moment to moment. My poems are chasing after the sensation of that voice.

I have to ask about the poem “That Year,” which begins, “I meet Margaret Mead that year….” Is this autobiographical: did you really meet Margaret Mead? And study anthropology? How has that study shaped your work?

I did meet Margaret Mead, pretty much under the circumstances related in the poem: I was hired by one of my professors in the grad school of anthropology at Princeton to make slides of the Balinese shadow puppets that Mead and Gregory Bateson had collected in Bali thirty or forty years earlier. I was 23, and stayed in the program for only a year—during which time, as the poem also makes clear, I was doing things other than studying as well: i.e., selling weed and acid in the “eating clubs” at Princeton. I left school because I wanted to write poems, and sensed that becoming a professional anthropologist wouldn’t allow it. I had been showing my poems to the late Ted Weiss, who taught at Princeton then, and Ted encouraged me. He also made very clear the demands involved in being a writer. I’ve always felt grateful to him for both things. He was a fine teacher and good man.

I left the Ph.D. program, and crushed my parents really—I was the first person in my working class family to go to college, and they loved that I was at Princeton, and thought I was nuts to give up the opportunity. There was a sadness in that for me, but also freedom, and clarity—I was forced to recognize what I was giving up, and it made me take writing seriously. I highly recommend that kind of moment to anyone who wants to write!

I was drawn to anthropology because it required a “watchfulness,” and that was something I could sense very strongly in myself. It’s as much an art as a science—it requires a willingness to be baffled and clueless about what’s going on, openness to patterns that don’t make immediate sense and are often shifting. Malinowski says that the anthropologist’s job involves “making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.”  A good anthropologist has some of the same sense of “play” that an artist or writer has.

The title poem begins, “I like reality, I like Rome….” And to me this captures a sense of this being a very urban book, set in, well, “reality.” I can imagine many of these poems beginning through observations on the streets, out in the world. What so you see as the role of the city in your work? And where do your poems tend to begin?

I’ve lived in cities all my life, and I love the simultaneous intimacy and anonymity of them. Also, that feeling that anything could happen as you drift through them, and that almost anything you see—no matter how ordinary (like a plateful of sausages on a handcart, or a woman joggling her baby while ordering a coffee, or a book left on a bench)—could come to seem as if it has some secret meaning. You know, some revelation is always about to occur in the city. I love walking in cities, drifting—some of the rapidity of changes in image and tone in my poems comes from that walking, I think.

My poems begin usually with some compressed sort of musical phrase. Whether it’s image or statement, I like it to sound springy—like the thought or image has been compelled by the music, called into being by it—so that I have the feeling of a thing leaping out of the background, as I do when I’m walking, leaping into some interior space, where it starts to transform itself into other thoughts, feelings, “things.”

Also, the images at the beginnings of my poems are often “abstracted” in odd ways—they’re playing with how recognizable the image is, almost as if I want the thing to seem a bit strange, unfamiliar. Philip Guston said once that he was trying to paint a book in such a way that it would convey what a book felt like to a blind man. I find that enormously appealing—as an idea about process.

This collection is populated with writers and artists; Zbigniew Herbert appears a few times and Transtromer has a poem as well. Are these two poets ones who have been particularly influential, overall, or for this collection? And who else were you reading over the course of this book?

Transtromer, yes, he’s certainly one of the most important long-term presences for me, maybe the most important. I can remember reading his long poem “Baltics” in a Tucson book store in 1979, and being completely floored. I’m working on an essay about his work—in particular, recent translations by Patty Crane and Michael McGriff and Mikaela Grassi. It’s shocking to think of how long his work has remained important, relevant—he represents a sort of endurance test. He’s a profoundly political poet in many ways, but his work possesses an interiority, a transformative vision rooted in metaphor and perception, and as such it poses a challenge to the current embrace of documentary poetics in relation to the political.

Herbert was also an early influence, along with a number of other Central European poets: Milosz, Szymborska, Zagajewski, Salamun, Debeljak. But I think I have more arguments with Herbert’s way of perceiving the world, history in particular. You know, like that moment in “What’s It to You?” in Standoff, in which I sample his idea there are too few souls to go around—as an explanation for evil, for greed and maliciousness and obliviousness, it seems kind of shrewish, too easy. His greatness it’s clear, but after awhile it’s a little like reading Robinson Jeffers—the approach becomes a little predictable, even if powerful.

And to take that question a little further, to a bit of a regular question for these spotlights has become this one: if you were to think about your poetic lineage, who would make it on to your family tree?

My grandparents would be W.C. Williams and Frost and Dickinson (it’s a ménage a trois in the mode of Jules et Jim). If I were to state it as a formula, it would be: perception as idiom + narrational voice/tonal flux + phrasal compression/speed.

My parents would be Adrienne Rich and W.S. Merwin, because they were the first two people I heard read poetry, both within a week of each other. I’ve always felt that they “imprinted” themselves on me—I hadn’t even written any poetry when I heard them. They made me want to write, and they made me aware that poetry was both social and private, public and internal—if it has a purpose (which I doubt), it’s to be both those things simultaneously.

My cousins are numerous. I’ve always read and loved a lot of work in translation—Jean Follain, Rimbaud, Adelia Prado, Patrizia Cavalli, Gottfried Benn, and others, were important to me in writing Standoff. Also, a lot of writers oriented to a more “open field”/improvisational approach: all of the NY School poets, and mid-60’s Snyder, Objectivists (especially Oppen and Niedecker), and Black Mountain types like Creeley, Levertov, Blackburn, Dorn. I would make Creeley’s selected poems one of my five “desert island” books, for sure.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on altering the sense of time in my poems—not just pacing, but the plotting of time, how it composes the poem. I’m also trying to see how much explanation and rhetorical language I can strip out of the poems.

I hope that’s abstract enough to allow me not to have to talk about what the poems are “about,” because (as I think Williams says) when you know what the poems are about you’ve reached the end of your means. Anyway, really, maybe mine have always only ever been about some sweet and sour taste I got from licking something I probably shouldn’t have licked but am happy that I had the chance to and did. Lord knows, maybe that’s all anyone’s poems are ever really “about.”

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Memorious Seeks Assistant Fiction Editor

keep-calm-i-m-your-assistant-editorMemorious magazine seeks an assistant fiction editor who will work closely with the fiction editor to shape magazine content. The assistant fiction editor will be responsible for helping the fiction editor select submissions for the magazine; soliciting works of fiction; assisting in editing the fiction selections; recruiting skilled fiction readers; and weighing in on nominations for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net anthologies. The assistant fiction editor will also be involved in creating and soliciting blog content to support the fiction section.

We are seeking a responsible, committed person to join our staff and to work with us in continuing to produce and develop the magazine. Applicants should have editorial experience, in print or online, and be comfortable using Submittable and social networking tools. We are particularly interested in individuals who will build relationships in the community through soliciting work and creating and/ or participating in events at AWP and elsewhere, both in the real world and online.

Like many small independent literary magazines, Memorious is a labor of love. We are an all-volunteer staff, so no stipend or salary is offered. We are looking for someone who finds reward in being an active part of the literary community, gaining valuable editorial experience, and supporting work they find exciting and necessary.

Memorious has been around for more than a decade and is one of the most highly-regarded online literary magazines. We’ve had work reprinted in the New York Times Magazine and Best American Poetry, and we’ve been featured in the print anthologies Best New PoetsBest of the Web, and Best of the Net. Previous prose contributors include Steve AlmondBlake Butler, Kim Chinquee, Joanna LuloffMargaret LuongoAmit Majmudar, Nina McConigley, Peter Orner, Caitlin Horrocks, Becky Hagenston, Benjamin PercySandra ScofieldJames ScottRicco Villanueva SiasocoAnne Valente, Holly M. WendtXu XiPaul Yoon, and many more! You can search our prose archives here. We have also published interviews with writers such as Laura Van den Berg, Sigrid Nunez, Don Lee, Jim Shepard, and Brock Clarke.

Please send a cover letter and C.V. to Brian Trapp at trapp(at) by October 1st. We look forward to hearing from you.

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Big Loves: Chad Parmenter on Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters

chad11-1The first time I came across Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters was in Ed Brunner’s wonderful class, at SIU-Carbondale, on the book-length poetry project. When I opened it up, I noticed that he was thanked personally on the back page, and I probably started to read it based on a “hey, I know that guy” excitement, not really knowing anything about the book itself. And I don’t really know how the first reading impacted me, except that it probably demanded a second reading—not only the poems’ incredibly lyrical richness, or the mix of mystery and urgency in what they said, but some combination of those and more, that simply got me going back to it, and has kept it in my line of poetry vision since then, wonderfully and importantly resisting codification and attracting repeated readings through the MFA and PhD, and many other changes in between.

In 2004, visiting Carrowmore, I had the book’s first poem, with that name, not just in mind, but printed out and maybe in my pocket—not saying that to anyone, probably, because of not wanting to seem like a poetry nerd, but being one, anyway. It’s a megalithic cemetery not all that far from Yeats’s grave, and mostly humps of stone that might seem naturally set there if it wasn’t explained that they are graves. And the poem does some scene-setting, showing lambs “blotched blue, belonging,” running a root through the Romantic pastoral mode about as far back as one can go in the Western tradition, since lambs were a big deal back then, and goes in twists both dizzying and primordial through the presentation of a sacrificial victim, the speaker’s identification with her, and the fragmentation of attention and reference that make the poem bristle with referentiality that finally floats free of anchoring in any one statement, place, or persona. It wasn’t a lens on the cemetery, of course, being both about and not about so much more, but I walked around it getting fairly soaked in the fitting rain, and the poem’s mix of a seemingly peaceful surface and intentions with everything coming undone underneath, in lines like “my belonging I remember how cold I will be,” helped me accept the mystery of where I was.

Master+LettersThe project that frames a lot of the poems, epistles mostly in prose and some in verse to a mercurial addressee who’s sometimes the Master, seemed at first like a way of reading Dickinson, until, again, those repeated readings that the poems seemed to demand, with titles like “And Wylde for to Hold” and “The Sleeping Hollow of His Face Shall be the Straight Pass of Surrendering,” with so many moments of mesmerizing lyricism within them—”fanatic against the vanishing,” “The thrushes sing at auburn dusk / Like parlor ornaments wound up,” “the fire’s leathern eye”—started to show me so much more.  Maybe I had never seen intertextuality as a strategy to both build a poem, or series of them, and to make a sound that stays both surprising and amazingly cohesive, considering the intertexts, the references that go from Sappho to a famous execution in the “chair electric with bad news.”

One voice, and many voices, at the same time. Not the one getting subsumed into the many, like The Waste Land seems to me, or the other way that Whitman goes for me, but this balance, where the speaker acts as choir without losing that sense of an identity—a mystery of one, even a lack, but there, not only orchestrating but present throughout. Cracked mask after cracked mask, and the goal isn’t for the reader to delineate a face behind them, or to trace references through to a life story, at least for me—I started to find a play with language inseparable from a play with persona, that helped me see, really see, how much fun Shakespeare may have had, and to remember how much I definitely did as a kid with shifting from game to game that had their own costumes and parts to play, not as a way of hiding or even revealing, but connecting.

That’s another wonderful thing that I get from this book, and keep getting from it—a sense that the reader matters, is present for the speaker, but not stuck in a role, not fixed in any one place. Maybe the letters suggest that the reader is master in that reader-constructs-the-text kind of way, but “My Most Courteous Lord” and other addresses like it get dynamited out of any clear power relationship by the saying of the poems themselves, by a speaker who masters and, ha, remasters that leap from one persona to another, one setting and reference to another, and one urgent emotional register to another, even in the space of a single poem like “Did Not Come Back”:

                                                                   . . . the best of them,
The slowest velvet suffocation of their kind, did not come

Whittled back by autumn, at an hour between thorn & chaff,
Not come riddled with oblivion, the crossing & a shepherd’s staff,

The moment between Have & Shall Not Want, we who have salt
Always know, that we who have—the best of us—did not come

The speaker, and the speakers, of these poems, are mastered by no one, but potentially connected to anyone, to me.  And, maybe they argue, if they do argue anything—how can I not be?

Chad Parmenter’s poems have appeared in Best American Poetry and Kenyon Review, and are forthcoming in Crazyhorse.  His chapbook, Weston’s Unsent Letters to Modotti, won Tupelo’s Snowbound Chapbook Contest, and was published last November.

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Emilia Phillips

Emilia Phillips HeadshotEmilia Phillips’s second collection of poems, Groundspeed, travels. Recently released from the University of Akron Press, this collection takes to the road through trauma, grief, and memory while offering a means of preservation. Like the roadside through a car window, these poems flash with brilliance as Phillips describes a passengerless wheelchair sitting in a hayloft, the body post-surgery, and lingering moments from childhood. The collection brings you to the edge of the earth and asks you to keep going. But even within these moments of movement and return, there is a quiet searching for the self, for strength beyond grief and loss. Through intensely beautiful—and occasionally grotesque—images and language, Phillips stills for an instant life’s relentless journey forward.

Groundspeed coverPhillips is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (2016), and three chapbooks including Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poems and lyrics essays appear in Agni, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, The Kenyon Review, New England Review, Ninth Letter, Ploughshares, Poem-a-Day, Poetry, Verse Daily, Memorious, and elsewhere. She received StoryQuarterly’s 2015 Nonfiction Prize, The Journal’s 2012 Poetry Prize, as well as the 2013-2014 Emerging Writer Lectureship from Gettysburg College and fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, U.S. Poets in Mexico, and Vermont Studio Center. She is the Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Centenary University of New Jersey.

Phillips has recently completed a third poetry collection and is at work on new poems, a collection of lyric essays titled Wound Revisions, and Offset: A Poetry Broadside Digitization Project. In 2016, she is blogging for Ploughshares.

The collection is like a road trip, especially with poems such as “Wheelchair in a Hayloft” and the “Pastoral” series.  There is a continual, seductive motion in this book. When putting the collection together, were you thinking of it as a type of journey? How did the collection come together for you?

The collection is all about transience, the literal and figurative kinds in equal measure: road trips and afterlifes, interstates and states of being. In some ways, the book was the vehicle for me to say, hold on, I want to still this object—this life—in motion. Some of the first poems in the book were written before two of the most consequential events in my life: the death of my brother in 2012 and the subsequent year’s diagnosis of cancer. The poems move and morph and evolve as I encountered those events, and so there is a kind of journey-like progression of the poems from those in which I was engaging in my subject matter from a very intellectual headspace to those where I’m engaging my subject matter from a very bodily point of view, the latter of which I’ll talk about in depth in a couple of questions. The collection, however, isn’t necessarily ordered with that progression in mind; I didn’t want the book to feel too linear. Instead, I wanted to demonstrate that these waypoints on my journey were visited again and again. My journey was made up of going in circles.

In “Lodge,” you have this wonderful line: “But a word might change us, our landscapes, our movements.” Was there a word, image, or poem in your work or someone else’s that you kept coming back to as you worked on this collection or that changed the original direction of the book?

 For years I’ve been seduced again and again by two lines of Fanny Howe: “My vagabondage is unlonelied by poems.” In some ways, this statement has become a kind of mantra for me, especially in difficult times. My vagabondage / is unlonelied by poems. Not only does it recognize the loneliness of one’s life in that word “vagabondage,” it also speaks to the restlessness I’ve felt my whole life—this draw to move from one place, physical or otherwise, to another. As I was doing so much traveling around the time of writing the book, I think these lines also helped me think about the ways in which these ordinary movements of one’s life are relevant to the work I was doing on the page.

Last year, I also made a letterpress postcard of the quote, which also helped me see these lines in and of themselves as vagabonds.

While the collection keeps us moving, there are also moments of searching and of observation that slow down the momentum to hold us in place. Sometimes these moments involve childhood memories. How do you use memory in the collection or your work in general?

Memory is both an anchor and a current. In my poetry, it allows me to stop and to plumb the depths of my life, even as it tries to push me forward, to carry me with all the great movement of time. In this way, memory is both about what happened in the past and what’s important to you in the present and how that shapes the future. For me, the past and the present are equally relevant when I sit down to the write poems and, in some cases, they make a good justification for the inclusion of one another. In “Static, Frequency,” for instance, the memory of singing country music in the presence of my dad’s cop buddies allowed me to really interrogate my privilege while I exercised in front of a gym TV on which the video of Kajieme Powell’s murder at the hands of St. Louis Police was played over and over. For me, memory helps me understand the broad-strokes, both the moments of stillness and the moments of movement.

The book begins and ends with the body. The body is always present in one way or another from physical descriptions to the observing eye and the speaking “I.” Can you talk a little bit about the role of the body in your work?

This is a question I’ve been asked more often than not, and it’s one that I’ve wrestled with since I began writing poems. There’s a cynical (or even more practical) side of me that says that how can one not write about the body since so much of our experience—some would argue all—is rooted in the body. But then there’s another side of me that says that I wrote about the body because I wanted to reconnect to my own body, especially in the wake of a severe diagnosis that made me feel disconnected from my body, as if it was “out to get me.” Additionally, I think there’s something to be said for the ways in which we disconnect from the body every day—the internet, taboo topics, etc.—and I also can’t help but wonder if poetry, in the ways it reconnects us to the body through sound and language and mouthfeels, might also help us reconnect to empathy, the sympathetic string of the body for other bodies.

Within the three sections of the book, there is a wonderful range of formal variety from couplets to long, sectioned poems and poems whose text seems to float across the page. How does form play a part in this collection?

Sometimes I have a hard time articulating what I’m after in regards to form, mostly because it feels incredibly intuitive. Someone said to me recently that there’s really a lot of hidden/slant/internal rhyme in the book, and I was shocked to go back and find that there was. This was not something that I had intended or even realized. In many regards, that’s my approach to form: do what feels good for that poem. But that’s, of course, an easy answer, an easy way out of what you’re asking. I suppose I could go all meta on you and say that poetic form here is closely aligned with physical form, bodily form: it’s disjunctive and fragmented, and that’s how I felt. This is something that continues into my third manuscript.

You’ve just finished a third collection of poetry, and while working on new poetry are also working on a collection of lyric essays, Wound Revisions. How does practice of both genres affect your writing?

The collection of lyric essays allows me to go back and address some of the things I’ve addressed in my first two collections of poems, Signaletics and Groundspeed, but do it with much more fidelity to the facts while expanding the scope of those concerns through research, associations, and juxtapositions. So there’s essays about my brother’s death and my reconstructive surgery and so on, but they are elaborated upon and, I would say, complicated by new threads. These threads come in the form of essay sections and whole new essays. For this reason, I feel like I’m able to tap into another part of my brain, the part that wants to connect, to weave, to web together past and present, history and personal narrative. With the poems, I’m after something else: a representation, a translation of my experience into another kind of experience. In the lyric essays, I’m after the original experience. By writing both genres at once, I’m able to prismatically split the white light of experience into its composite colors, really appreciating each one for what it is.

Interviewer Anastasia Stelse is a PhD student in creative writing at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Fairy Tale Review, (parenthetical), and Meniscus, among others.

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Fiction Spotlight: Margaret Luongo

I firsSONY DSCt became acquainted with Margaret Luongo when she drove the short distance from Hamilton, Ohio, to Cincinnati to read at a literary festival. In a dark bar full of half-drunk aspiring writers, she read from a story called “The War Artist” and cast a spell over all of us. She transported her audience to a dystopian artist residency where military officials lock a visual artist in a room and task her with making art about a war she has never seen. In equally beautiful and unsettling language, Luongo challenged her audience to question their own relationship to distant wars.

Later, when I was an editor at the Cincinnati Review, we published Luongo’s delightful story “Word Problem,” which is …you guessed it…a story in the form of a word problem. For this one, she assigned herself quite a doozy: Can she tell the story of ten music students over the course of their careers, in a multiple point-of-view panorama of finely observed success, defeat, compromise, and adaption, which is by turns both funny and heartbreaking, both dark and hopeful? And can she provide her answer in less than sixteen pages? Her answer seemed utterly true and absolutely correct.

In Memorious 16, we were lucky enough to publish Luongo’s story “The War Artist Makes God Visible,” a haunting and surrealist series of vignettes (based on Stanley Spencer’s Great War memorial), in which WWI soldiers are resurrected from their graves, “entwined…in their white picket crosses. Already their capes make wings.” These finely crafted stories are now collected with many others in Luongo’s second collection, The History of Art: Stories (LSU Press), published in April. In it, Luongo meditates on the relationship between violence and creation, in sharp and nimble stories that vacillate between the surreal and the real, the traditional and the formally experimental.

Luongo is also the author of the short story collection If the Heart is Lean (also by LSU Press) and has published stories in the Cincinnati Review, Granta, Tin House, the Southern Review, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. She is an associate professor of English at Miami University in Ohio, where she teaches creative writing and contemporary fiction. She spoke to me via email about writing, the relationship between war and creation, and the current (hopeful!) state of publishing.

–Brian Trapp, Co-Fiction Editor

We were lucky enough to publish “The War Artist Makes God Visible” in Memorious 16. It changed quite a bit since you first published it with us. Can you tell us about the development of this story?

When I was teaching in London in 2010, I traveled to Burghclere to see Stanley Spencer’s Great War Memorial. It’s the mural the story is based on, painted on the walls of a chapel built especially for that work. I’d already written the version of the story that Memorious published. My feelings about the paintings changed when I saw them in the chapel. Previously I had only seen them reproduced in books, and I’d been puzzled by the religious imagery in them. Spencer had a front row seat to the misery of war, tending to wounded soldiers in a military hospital. Yet he still seemed to find solace in this idea of resurrection and redemption. I couldn’t understand it, so I wrote about it. Then I saw the paintings in their true scale and setting, and I understood that the redemption Spencer believed in came through caring for others. So I went back into the story and expanded it slightly. In no way did I capture the tenderness and generosity of Spencer’s work.

That story seems to be a companion piece to the first story of the collection, titled “The War Artist,” in which military officials lock a visual artist in a room and task her with making art about “the war,” in a sort of dystopian artist residency. An obsession with art seems to connect all the stories in this collection, but these two stories seem to ask about the connection between war and art, violence and meaning. Can you speak about this connection, and, in general, your obsession with art throughout this collection?

The two obsessions were going on parallel tracks for a while. Visual art helps me think about writing—and just helps me think. War is everywhere. Even if the bombs aren’t falling on you, with the speed of communication these days it’s hard to remain totally ignorant of what’s going on around the world. Humans have been making art and war side by side for millennia, creation and destruction—and then there’s the obsession with beautiful ruins, from tourist photos of ancient Rome to art photography of defunct Detroit. We love those traces of our faded glory, however romanticized our notion of the past may be. Hitler based his Reich on that idea—leaving a glorious ruin. We make meaning through story, and I think people believe that for the story to have a meaning, it has to end. So the link between violence and meaning does make some sense, I suppose.

Art to me is mostly about perception—how we see the world and others—in addition to those issues of craft, technical skill, and materiality. I appreciate our drive to perceive and make sense, even though we so often get it wrong. The struggle sometimes elevates us.

In one of my favorite stories, “Word Problem,” you write a story in the form of a word problem. You write another story in the form of notes on the type and another as directions for bird watching. Can you talk about how “Word Problem” developed and, in general, your interest in playing with various forms?

“Word Problem” came about partly because of that inclination and partly because I’m really horrible at math and I still resent word problems. I thought it would be a good idea to do a story in that form, but I didn’t know for a couple of years what it would be about. Then I attended a performance of John Cage’s Music for Radios at the Cincinnati Fringe Festival. That’s what set it off.

I like to create constraints for myself in writing—at least I think that’s what I’m doing—so forms that make storytelling difficult appeal to me. I think it’s just that I like the indication of a story, the fragments. I think the main thing is brevity. I really like the short story game, and I also like to think of puzzles for myself within the form: how short can I go? What rule might provide a new challenge? I like to choose forms that make telling a story somewhat difficult (like “Word Problem”). I also like to get away from traditional character development, maybe to find a balance between head and heart. I want people to think and feel.


Both of your books were published with LSU Press’ Yellow Shoe Fiction Series, edited by my former professor at the University of Cincinnati, Michael Griffith. What was it like to work with Michael and LSU? As someone who is teaching a course on publishing, what is your opinion of the current publishing landscape?

Michael is a great editor. His focus is razor sharp and he just knows a lot about a lot of things. I never realized how important context is for editing. It’s not enough to know about literature and to know how stories are made. You also have to know about people, places, music, art, sports, clothing, religion, animals, train stations, wall-to-wall carpet—everything terrestrial and extra-terrestrial. He also trusts writers. He’s not a heavy-handed editor and seems to have no need to make his mark on a book that isn’t his. No excessive ego, just enough confidence to do right by a book and its author. LSU makes gorgeous books, and Baton Rouge is on my list of places to relocate to, mostly because I fantasize about hanging out with MaryKatherine Callaway and the other LSU people. I went there once for a book festival and I still think about the people and the place. It’s a little creepy that I want to hang out with my publisher, but it’s a good sign, I think.

Despite the corporatization of publishing, I’m optimistic. So many small independent publishers have sprung up. However strange or marginalized a work may be, its author can probably find a home for it. The independents are not so concerned with the bottom line, so they’re more free to publish books that will have a smaller audience. This means more freedom for writers, so long as they have a day job. The abundance of smaller publishers like Rose Metal Press and Black Lawrence should encourage writers to create more freely.

In the UK, independent publishers like Tilted Axis, And Other Stories, and Peirene are bringing out translated work by authors whose books have never been available in English. That could help to shift aesthetics in America and the UK. For instance, what’s mainstream in Korean fiction—nonlinear, multi-voiced, and surreal—is often considered experimental or just strange in the US. Maybe some of that will find its way to American readers and writers and inspire appreciation for more diverse forms. I’m very hopeful about publishing, almost exclusively because of the small independents.

In the UK, publishers can declare that they are a Community Interest Company, which means, among other things, that they cannot be bought by a for-profit enterprise. I find that very promising.

And now some process questions: How did you write the stories in this collection? Are you a ‘write everyday’ person or does it come in bursts? Do you have any consistent habits or rituals for when you are most productive? Any advice to emerging fiction writers?

When I first started writing, I wrote every day and that helped me learn to take myself—or the task I set for myself—more seriously. The daily work improved my writing and in general gave me some sense of purpose, as well as confidence. The mental activity kept me happy. History of Art developed over something like eight years, so I can’t say I worked every day on those stories. I’m usually most productive over the summer, and I can sustain writing through mid-October or early November. Then I won’t really write again until winter break. Spring semester is usually a loss, for the most part. I’ll give myself smaller assignments then, just to try to get some time back.

About four years ago, my husband and I rented studio space in downtown Hamilton (Ohio), and that’s been a huge help. The space is pleasant, uncluttered, and internet-free. I only write there—I do nothing else. I can drop everything, go to the studio, and almost immediately find focus. It’s walking distance from our house and it’s just a good happy space for me. I keep a little chart on the wall of all the things I could work on, in their varying stages of completion. There’s one column for stories that are just ideas. I think there’s even a poetry column, though the poems might be under another heading—“in progress” or something. There’s always something I want to work on, and I can choose whatever I like, so there’s no obstacle to working.

I also like to listen to music, but it has to be music without words. I particularly like classical guitar—Segovia, Carlos Barbosa-Lima, Christopher Parkening. I was on a Bach kick for a while during the latter stages of History of Art. I’d listen to Foo Fighters on the way to the studio, then switch over to Bach. Having that space outside the home has made a huge difference for me. For a while I was working at coffee shops and getting really angry at people who dared to have audible conversations. Even at that time I knew my anger was unreasonable.

Advice for emerging fiction writers: don’t make problems for yourself that you can’t solve. Be flexible. If something’s not working, try a different path. Be a good boss to yourself; while it’s true that discipline is important, you have to know when to ease up on yourself.

Can you tell us about what you are working on now?

I’m working on a story for the ACRE Books anthology, The Very Angry Baby. ACRE Books is a new press edited by the people at The Cincinnati Review, including Nicola Mason. That’s all I can say!

What are you reading now?

I’m teaching a London-based course in publishing, so I’m reading books published by smaller UK houses:

The Man I Became by Peter Verhelst, translated by David Colmer (Peirene Press)

Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: Twelve Stories after Cervantes and Shakespeare, edited by Daniel Hahn and Margarita Valencia (And Other Stories Press)

Kauthar, by Meike Ziervogel (Salt)

Our Man in Orlando, by Hugh Hunter (Monday Books)

As a supplement to this, I’m also reading Panty, by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, translated by Arunava Sinha (Tilted Axis) and The Vegetarian, by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith (Portobello Books), which just won the Man Booker prize.

I also just picked up Mary Beard’s SPQR, a partial re-reading of Roman history. Beard has an easy style, and she exposes the way the Romans crafted (revised?) their own history, rewriting it through the lens of the present moment. It’s a good reminder to those of us writing historical fiction, which Henry James warned us about: We can’t really be accurate. We’re always writing through the film of the now.

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Big Loves: Paula Whyman on T.C. Boyle’s “Greasy Lake”


WhymanToday’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Paula Whyman. Whyman’s debut collection of linked short stories, You May See a Stranger, is out this month from TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press. In the book, she follows Miranda Weber from her teens through her late 40s as she struggles with sexuality, marriage, politics, and the fate of her disabled sister. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly writes that these “smart, artful stories capture a woman’s life and the moments that define her.” Her fiction has appeared in many journals including McSweeney’s Quarterly, Ploughshares, and Virginia Quarterly Review. Paula is a Fellow of The MacDowell Colony and Yaddo. A native of Washington, DC, she now lives in Maryland.

We were nineteen. We were bad. We read Andre Gidé and struck elaborate poses to show that we didn’t give a shit about anything.

When I was in high school, I remember short stories being examined as if they were curios or warm-ups for the authors’ longer works. These were classic stories—“A Rose for Emily,” “The Bear,” “Barn Burning”—great stories, don’t get me wrong, but the message was that the novel was the real game: Faulkner and Hawthorne again, plus Dostoevsky and Melville. In college, there were more and more and more novels, in my case, 19th century English novels; novels by Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford; novels of the existential and the absurd; and, in a survey of American lit, novels by Didion, Bellow, Morrison, Vonnegut, Heller, and Roth. I had not yet read the short stories I could relate to, by Ann Beattie, Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley, and others; all of those would come later.

Then, sometime in my early twenties, I was working on the production of a free 600-page apartment shoppers guide, a job that still involved a linotype machine, paste-up, and bluelines, in an office like the one that later became a hit TV show. I was living in a government-subsidized apartment that was not advertised in the magazine I produced, and my main entertainment was seeking out the happy hours that served the best free Buffalo wings, which would become my dinner, while hanging out with other disillusioned and financially strapped co-workers. In other words, just when I thought my life could not be more absurd, I discovered the early stories of T.C. Boyle, and I nearly drowned in “Greasy Lake.”


“Greasy Lake” is a story of teenage boys who want to be seen as bad, set out to prove it, and almost succeed. The narrator is a likable screw-up whom you root for even as he gets too close to the edge of “true” bad. After they run out of bars to go to and mischief to make, the boys park at a local lake where they unwittingly anger a dangerous character who’s making out with his girlfriend in a car. This happens:

 The first lusty Rockette kick of his steel-toed boot caught me under the chin, chipped my favorite tooth, and left me sprawled in the dirt….The three or four succeeding blows were mainly absorbed by my right buttock and the tough piece of bone at the base of my spine.

This is not “A Rose for Emily.” Boyle’s stories are about regular people doing regular stupid stuff. To some readers the Technicolor language and lurid scenes seem over the top—the lusty Rockette kick? the favorite tooth?—but to me, this is the way a certain kind of clever boy that age will describe and embellish his experience.

Even when imminent danger leads the narrator to reach under the driver’s seat for his crowbar, he admits he’s never used it for anything but changing a tire. The boys skirt the edge of serious transgression when they nearly gang-rape a girl they call only “the fox”—the girlfriend of the mean character they’ve accidentally riled. That they are stopped just in time doesn’t make them less bad. But it does save them.

cover1-683x1024One of the features of T.C. Boyle’s stories that I’ve always admired: the inevitable downward spiral. As a writer, it can be hard to allow your characters to hit bottom. Boyle’s characters often don’t stop, they can’t stop, until the worst has occurred. But in “Greasy Lake,” they stop just short of it.

While hiding in the lake to escape from angry steel-toed boot guy, the narrator stumbles into the drowned body of a drug-dealing biker. Everything seems alive, even the lake, even the dead body:

[I] was pitching face forward into the buoyant black mass, throwing out my hands in desperation while simultaneously conjuring the image of reeking frogs and muskrats revolving in slicks of their own deliquescing juices.

 A 19-year-old boy who summons up the word “deliquescing”? This feature of Boyle’s stories always gets me. His narrators may have poor judgment, but many of them have big vocabularies. They’re underachievers with a ready store of SAT words at their disposal. Sure, you could accuse the author of putting words in his characters’ mouths, but here, at least, the words fit.

The sheer exuberance and surprising sensitivity of this narrator strike me as distinctly contemporary and American. Will these boys become as bad as that dead biker floating in the lake? In the end, they pass on the chance. For how long? One can only guess.

Why love this story? For god’s sake, why not?

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