Throwback Thursday featuring Roy Bentley from issue 293.2

“Funerals in the South” first appeared in issue 293.2, March-April 2008. It was a finalist in the James Hearst Poetry Prize in 2008.

DVD 731 GRIEF FOOD . (Mobile Register, John David Mercer) LIVING RELIGION

Funerals in the South

We didn’t sing “My Old Kentucky Home” or “Dixie,”
but we might as well have. Without fail, neighbors
poured in with Tupperware-sealed Texas sheet cakes,
Jello, to-die-for fried chicken, ham, pecan pie. Grief,
it turns out, swallows easier than you might think.
I can tell you now the adults scared us, the children,
opening their hearts to loss. The scariest of mourners
had to be Myrtle, my aunt, a holy-roller fond of saying
Satan had her by the throat—she called him Beelzebub,
as though a sort of respect or friendship had sprung up.
At the eulogy—hellfire and damnation were preached
over our dead who, byGod, had to listen—she’d raise
a bony arm to signify that the Holy Ghost, “the Spirit,”
was upon her. Sooner or later, shouting Je-sus! Je-sus!
until it echoed in the funeral home like a braking train
whose wheel-song of descent calls to mind journeys,

an end to journeying. If the casket was closed, she’d
pound a lid; if it was open, she’d take hold of a hand
or trace the rouged-and-powdered contours of a face.
Thankfully, she had limits. Mouths were sacrosanct.
No smooching the chill lips of the Departed. Which
I understood, even then: a body’s temperature after
embalming isn’t a thing to have register at any age.
If April is the cruelest month, then it’s always April
in some part of eastern Kentucky. I wanted to sing:
Weep no more my lady. Oh! Weep no more today!
But I was a kid. I sang what and when I was told.
If there’s a God, enthroned in some obscene palace,
weeping because one Cross and Savior isn’t enough,
not in the coal towns, then she was right to sign on
as cheerleader. If not, there’s the solace of food—
napkins under chins to catch the hallelujah crumbs.


Ohio, 2014

Roy Bentley has received fellowships from the NEA, the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and the Ohio Arts Council. Poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Shenandoah, Pleiades, Blackbird, North American Review, Prairie Schooner and elsewhere. Books include Boy in a Boat (University of Alabama, 1986), Any One Man (Bottom Dog, 1992), The Trouble with a Short Horse in Montana (White Pine, 2006), and Starlight Taxi (Lynx House 2013). He has taught creative writing and composition at universities and colleges throughout the Midwest and in Florida. These days, he teaches English and composition courses for Georgian Court University and lives in Barnegat, New Jersey. 

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A Teaching Moment by Paul Crenshaw

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The assignment is this: explicate your favorite song as we have been explicating poetry for the last several weeks in Introduction to Literature. I get mostly the usual: Britney Spears or Kelly Clarkson from the sorority girls; some Dylan from the over-achievers who want to impress me with their dedication to the assignment; Grateful Dead from the long-haired kids; Jack Johnson or John Mayer from the girls with bare midriffs and navel rings. I want them to understand literature through lyrics, to assess the world through words, but they’ve mostly cut-and-pasted, clinging to cliché and settling on summary instead of searching for any meaning in the song.  

E– brings in a song by Rascal Flatts in which a high school girl has cancer. During her chemotherapy treatments she loses her hair. She is worried about, among many other things, how she will look for her prom, but on prom night her boyfriend shows up with his head shaved in hopes of allaying her fears. The song, E– tells us, is based on a true story.

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She also tells us that she has recently been diagnosed with cervical cancer. She flies home every weekend for chemotherapy treatments. She leaves my class at 4pm Thursday and boards an airplane for home, where she will be hooked to a machine that pumps poison through her veins and drains all her energy and sends her spinning to the restroom every few hours to kneel on the tiled floor and empty herself of everything. On Monday she flies back and attends her classes. She is afraid of, among many other things, losing her hair.

My class claps quietly after she has finished speaking. We sit stunned through the Dixie Chicks, Billy Joel, Don Henley. In the hallway outside the classroom E– is waiting for me. She is smiling. She is young, twenty perhaps. She apologizes to me for failing the assignment. She says she couldn’t remember everything she wanted to say, so she only summarized the song. She missed the bigger meaning, she says.   

I hold out the part of her presentation she handed in, and that I read biting the inside of my mouth hard enough to bring blood while the rest of my students were struggling through their songs. “You had it all written down.”

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She is twenty, young, perhaps dying. I am thirty-one. I drink too much on the weekends and worry about my job, whether I am accomplishing anything in the classroom. I worry if my wife and I are eating right and exercising enough, if we are putting enough money away for our children’s college funds, if we can afford to fly home this summer, where I can buy a new CD with lyrics I haven’t listened to.

“I didn’t present it right,” she says. “I guess I was afraid.”

Looking at her I am thinking about fear: the fear of losing your hair, losing weight, losing your life. About drugs that run rampant through your body, changing moods and balances and outlooks. About cells that multiply and mutate and take over. About being twenty years old and flying home every weekend to sit in a cancer ward while trying to find the greater significance in some stupid assignment an adjunct literature professor has given you, yet still being scared of standing in front of a class and explaining what a few words might mean beyond the surface of a page or the lyrics of a song.

But I don’t say any of that. Like my students, I cling to cliché. I settle for summary.

“Don’t worry,” I tell her. “You’re doing fine.”


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Paul Crenshaw’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Essays, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, Glimmer Train, Ecotone, North American Reviewand Brevity, among others. He lives in Greensboro, NC with his wife and two daughters.


Illustrations by: Anthony Tremmaglia, an Ottawa-based illustrator, artist, and educator. His clients include WIRED, Scientific American, Smart Money, HOW, and San Francisco Weekly. Anthony is featured in issues 299.1, Winter 2014 & 299.4, Fall 2014 and his most recent work (top illustration featured above) will be in upcoming 300.3, Summer 2015. Find more of Anthony’s work at http://www.tremmaglia.ca/

Can Books Fly? by John Smolens

truckAs a kid, I had a recurring dream that now seems Dali-esque. What I recall is images, grossly out of shape, out of proportion, and in odd relation to one another. There was always the truck, an eighteen-wheeler. One moment I was inside the dark, cavernous trailer, while the next moment I was outside the truck and it was small, like my own toy trucks. The only “human” image I recall in this dream was a thumb. (Freudians just shut up and go away.) And there were other images, things gleaned from childhood, a life of being small, a life of crawling and toddling on the floor, a life of looking up: a chair, a coffee table, curtains that extended from the floor to an incredibly high ceiling. But the most vivid image in this dream was the book. Periodically, it would fly overhead, spine skyward, pages flapping in the languid fashion of a bird with a substantial wing span. We are defined by questions, I suspect, and as a result of this dream a question that has been central to my existence all these years is Can books fly?

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Sometimes we say, when sales are brisk, books “fly off the shelf,” but with the demise of brick and mortar book stores, the simple, pleasurable act of entering a book store, perusing its shelves, not in search of a specific title necessarily, but just looking, has all but disappeared. Used to be that when visiting a new town or city, you’d keep your eye out for book stores. A good book store in an unfamiliar town was a haven of contemplative quiet which smelled of paper, the quality stuff in a new hardback, mingling with the brittle, yellowed pulpy stuff you’d find in used paperbacks with cracked spines. Very often the pleasure of being in a book store was not knowing what you were looking for, but hoping that, because you were in a book store, the exact right book would reveal itself to you and leap—or fly—off the shelf into your waiting hands. Call it a leap of faith.

When books aren’t being bought and sold, they’re often given away. (Or purloined, if you heeded Abbie Hoffman’s advice regarding his book entitled Steal This Book.) Books are loaned, lent, thrust into your hands by a fanatic with Rasputin eyes, proclaiming, You must read this!” A few days ago I was on Plum Island, which is north of Boston, and I stopped at an establishment that had a sign in the window which read Beer Wine Help Wanted (no ordinary sign, this might be, for some, a philosophy, or a mantra). I discovered that though the establishment was closed someone had put a cardboard box outside the door with Free Books writ large on the side in black Marks-a-Lot. I sorted, I sifted: lots of Clive Cussler; several romance novels, which from the cover art might be classified as Bodice Ripper Lite. But then I found it—or them. Toward the bottom of the carton were two copies of The Great Gatsby. Both paperbacks in excellent condition; both sporting the famous original cover art featuring the sad yellow eyes (the pupils gimleting naked nubile women) peering out from the tear-stained deep blue field above what might be a carnival or city lights. Though over the years I have had several copies of Fitzgerald’s novel, I took one copy from the carton, because you can never have enough copies of Gatsby; you can never read it enough times. It’s a book from which one can’t help selecting sentences that resonate far beyond Gatsby and the world of East and West Egg:

“Conduct may be founded on hard rock or the wet marshes but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on.”

“To a certain temperament the situation might have seemed intriguing—my own instinct was to telephone immediately for the police.”

“Something was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart.”

And though the novel’s concluding sentence is justifiably one of the most memorable in our literature, it is the first line that sets Nick Carraway’s narrative in motion with such grace and conviction:

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”

Like the book I found in that carton, his father’s advice, offered in the next paragraph, was free.

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Books are often associated with freedom; a book that is given, whether it’s a gift or is left in a box marked Free Books, is a unique expression of freedom. When they’re banned, when they’re burned, our sense of a just freedom is not only compromised but threatened. In recent years, there has been a tendency for people to place what are often called Little Free Libraries outside their homes. According to Conor Friedersdorf, who wrote about this phenomenon in The Atlantic, these “Give one, take one” Little Free Libraries began in Wisconsin in 2009, when a man established one outside his house in honor of his deceased mother, an avid reader, and the notion has since spread throughout the country. Some Little Free Libraries are compact architectural gems, sporting shingled roofs and handsome glass doors, which make it easier to peruse titles without exposing the books to inclement weather. Leaving books outside of one’s house is a matter of freedom of expression, yet there are people who, in the thrall of civic-minded idiocy, take exception to such exchanges. In many communities they have registered complaints with the local constabulary, citing building code violations and zoning laws. Friedersdorf continues that there’s a certain type of American who is determined to regulate every last aspect of community life. Due to selection bias, they are overrepresented among local politicians and bureaucrats. And so they have power, despite their small-mindedness, inflexibility, and lack of common sense so extreme that they’ve taken to cracking down on Little Free Libraries, of all things.

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Somewhere inside every avid reader resides an unremitting, unrepentant dreamer, one who knows that books can fly, one who knows that the fate of free books will not be determined by impassioned letters to the editor or incensed diatribes at community zoning board meetings. Such dreamers know that the solution is in the air. Rather than stacking volumes in a cardboard box or some weekender’s building project, we need only to stand in the front yard and hurl books skyward, allowing them to glide and wheel and circle overhead, always just within reach of innocent, unsuspecting passersby.


John Smolens short story “The End of the World” appeared in the North American Review (Winter 2013). His new novel Wolf’s Mouth will be published spring 2016.


First Illustration Link
Second Illustration Link

Third and fourth illustration by: Gigi Rose Gray, an illustrator born and raised in New York City where she received her BFA in illustration from Parsons New School for Design. She now resides in sunny Los Angeles. Her works are inspired by the grace and elegance of women, mid-century design, french renaissance interiors, the colors olive green and mustard yellow, dreams, cypress trees, Greco-Roman art, and nostalgia. 

Poetry and Other Cities by Tobias Wray

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Notes on “The Archeology of Music” from issue 300.2, Spring 2015

My father had a certain expression on his face whenever he played. His eyebrows arched high on certain notes and his forehead would round and dip in anticipation of a run. The correct embouchure for a clarinetist tightens the lips and flattens the chin into the comic appearance of a chimpanzee communicating a dramatic feeling. Yet, he seemed the most himself then—much more accessible somehow than the stormy man who complained about the state of the kitchen or the rudeness of store clerks. Here was a man who existed only once his case opened and the first note filled the room.

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Here is a city you used to live in, one you are only returning to now after many absent years. The towering buildings seem familiar, as does the scent rustling over the streets, but it is another city you know, a city that has already ended. I haven’t spoken to my father for years now. There are no adequate explanations for such things, except that he left and his leaving has stayed. I remember tiptoeing past his practice sessions in the living room, afraid my distraction would draw his haunting notes to a halt, the authority his clarinet imbued on space. The sound of rustling sheet music and the angular towers of stacked CDs carve at the edges of my childhood. Music for me is a world of artifacts, physical yet emptied. What is left to us but to wander the city and to leave it strange?

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I imagine that I remember the music as it was, distinctly. Of course, it is more than its pitch, its demarcations of sound—the idea of a sound shaped by memories since. Poetry is often like that, too, something more than lost, more than artifact. In 2011, I went to a lecture on the Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng, which was buried for over 2,400 years, famous for its set of unique bells and other instruments. The unburying of the site is what captured me, the careful way we are always rediscovering our own histories. The insinuation of archeology, that nothing made should be lost, appealed—that a sound might wait so long to be heard, how it seems so inevitable once it is. It touched on a desire I hardly knew I had, to hear my father play again. It is as much what we bring back to the site as it is what we pull.

 Everything we know has been recovered. This is what we fill the cavity with, our recovery. 


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Tobias Wray is a poetry editor for the cream city review. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Third Coast, Blackbird, Bellingham Review, The Fourth River and elsewhere. He’s been a finalist for the Black Warrior Review Poetry Contest and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing Fellowship. He holds an MFA in poetry and translation from the University of Arkansas and is a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.


Illustrations by: Allen Forrest. Born in Canada and bred in the U.S., Allen Forrest works in many media: oil painting, computer graphics, theater, digital music, film, and video. Allen studied acting at Columbia Pictures in Los Angeles, digital media in art and design at Bellevue College (receiving degrees in Web Multimedia Authoring and Digital Video Production). He lives and works in Vancouver, B.C.

Why I Do This by Eric Barnes

In one of the best rejection letters I’ve ever gotten, an agent told me recently, I honestly don’t have a clue who’d be a viable publisher for this.

A line like that is a condemnation of sorts. In 2015, this agent goes on to declare, there is no market for the kind of literary fiction I am trying to write.

That she said this about a manuscript I spent nearly three years writing means I should feel some heavy mix of defeat and depression. Hopelessness and hatred.

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I don’t feel that.

I should. I really should.

But I don’t.

I’ve been doing this for a very long time now—this being the seemingly endless act of sending queries to agents and short stories to editors and manuscripts to book publishers and in return receiving, far more often than not, rejections that vary from the generic to the cruel to the inane to the insightful.

In the fray of all of this rejection, I can say that I’ve had some successes. Two novels published. Nearly thirty short stories in journals and magazines. Agents of note who signed me on and agents unknown who nonetheless committed everything they could to my writing.

None of it, though, has been what I want. I’ve never been reviewed in The New York Times. Never published a story in The New Yorker. Never made more than a token amount of money.

I know writers who’d kill for the successes—such as they are—that I’ve had. I should, in that sense, accept and be happy with what I have done.

But this is a cruel business, where moments of achievement are either very rare or very fleeting or are shared only with yourself, alone in the dark or well-lit room where you work.

My first short story was published more than twenty years ago. My first novel was published more than fifteen years after I committed to writing seriously. Two novels I’ve written have gone unpublished, rejected by publishing houses of every possible size.

The time has gone by more quickly than I can honestly calculate.

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Why do I do this?

Two different agents that signed me up then left me in limbo for years before giving up on my writing after a mere handful of rejections. I never read more than the first fifty pages, one agent admitted after sending me a letter that said he was, immediately, dropping me from his list.

And he—like the other agent who kept my manuscript for nearly three years and finally wrote to say he’d sent it to just six editors during that time, who said this while also dropping me from his list—was a big name agent. An agent whose writers you know very well. An agent who, if you are a writer and he offered to represent you, you’d say without the slightest hesitation, Yes, of course, do whatever you want, take as much time as you need. Yes. Please, yes. I’ll be having a celebratory drink in the bar, yes and yes, this is it, the one. Yes.

Yes.

Why do I do this?

The number of rejections of short stories I’ve written totals far more than one thousand.

One thousand No’s. Some stories rejected fifty or sixty times before they were published. Other stories still out there. Other stories given up on, filed away in a folder where they will stay from now on. An inbox—and prior to that a physical mailbox—filled with form letter dismissals.

The number of rejections I’ve received from agents totals in the hundreds—plus the one I just received while typing this post.

Why do I do this?

The answer is longer than I can possibly explain. The answer, in truth, is something I’ve never fully articulated to myself.

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There’s ego. That’s part of it. If a writer tells you otherwise, you ought to be skeptical.

I keep writing because The Millions called my second novel remarkable.

I keep writing because a short story of mine was later picked up in one of the Best American series.

I keep writing because after more than a decade of being rejected by the North American Review, they suddenly said yes to one of my short stories.

Because Steve Almond published a short story of mine, telling me—nearly one hundred years ago, as we talked via landline between South Carolina and my first kitchen in Memphis—I told my students this is how you fucking want to fucking write.

Because a friend of one of my wife’s best friends had one of his friends in San Francisco hand him a copy of my first novel and say, Dude, you need to read this book.

(That he said dude only made my joy that much greater.)

Ego. Exposure. The knowledge that there are—finally, actually, maybe, always—people out there who’ve read the words I’ve spent so much time and energy stringing together.

Maybe that’s why the “email” from the agent telling me, in effect, there is no publisher for my new novel didn’t depress me more. She had some kind words for what I’d written – just a few, but they were kind and they accurately captured the intent of what I had written. The agent called me talented, said my work is inventive, compared the manuscript to Kafka as she described it as a dystopian, surreal fable of sorts.

All of that made me happy. All of it, I think, is true.

Or maybe, sadly, I’m just that desperate for praise. Token praise, probably, meant simply to soften the blow of rejection.

But also I think I liked that agent’s email because it was honest. The business of publishing, she has in effect said, does not have a place for me.

Maybe it should.

But it doesn’t.

That much, at this point, is painfully clear.

Ours is not an industry that is big on fiction as social commentary, she wrote, except when cloaked in the [guise] of a commercial novel.

There’s a formula behind this, a multi-layered puzzle maybe, or a maze of rooms and hallways and doorways to navigate.

Whatever the analogy, I’ve yet to solve it.

So I keep chasing agents for my work and publishers for my novels and editors for my stories. Another big name agent has asked to see my new novel. An agent who’s interested seems to be up and coming in the industry. There’s a Canadian agent who might be a gateway to a better, less commercial, more artistically accepting publishing landscape (but who, it turns out, would reject me while I was still writing this post).

Why do I do this?

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It’s a thought that haunts me every day. Every time I sit down to write. Every time I receive another rejection of any sort.

But then I tell myself there are other Canadian agents.

I tell myself there are good books published all the time.

I tell myself the story, the novel, the paragraph I’ve just finished is certainly the best I have ever written in my life.

I tell myself there are people who have enjoyed the things I have published and who will want to read more of what I write.

If only I can find a way to get the words in front of them.


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Eric Barnes is the author of the novels Shimmer, an IndieNext Pick from Unbridled Books, and Something Pretty, Something Beautiful from Outpost19, which The Millions called a “remarkable book … where cars are freedom, stories are everything, and home is thick with ghosts. ”

Additionally, Eric has published nearly thirty short stories in publications such as North American Review, Prairie Schooner, The Literary Review, Best American Mystery Stories, and more.

Eric is publisher of newspapers in Memphis and Nashville that cover business, politics and most things in between. Additionally, he hosts and co-produces a local news talk show on public television. In the past, Eric was a reporter and editor in Connecticut and New York. Years ago he drove a forklift in Tacoma, Washington, and then Kenai, Alaska, worked construction on Puget Sound, and, many years ago, graduated from the MFA writing program at Columbia University. Eric’s story “One Day, One Week, An Hour” appears in issue 298.2, Spring 2013.

More at www.ericbarnes.net and on Twitter at @ericbarnes2.


ldNX3rfo (2)Illustrations by: Rob Dobi is an editorial illustrator from CT.

“For the past decade I have been designing merchandise for the biggest bands in the world, photographing the decaying ruins of the northeast, working on his t-shirt brand Fullbleed, co-running the apparel design community at Mintees and poking fun at hipster stereotypes.  Lately my focus has been on editorial illustration, providing media outlets with meaningful work similar to the style I have been honing in the music industry for the past ten years. I have a BFA in illustration from RISD and currently reside in Connecticut with my wife Christina and dog Buddy.”

“Throwback Thursday” featuring Annie Dillard by Amanda Husak

Weasel of Memories 

In light of our Bicentennial Creative Writing and Literature Conference June 11-13, 2015, I’d like to introduce a piece from one of our very own contributors, Annie Dillard. Annie is best known for her narrative prose in fiction and nonfiction

Her pieceFive Sketchesexplores the notions of religion, behavior, and the perception of self. This piece is featured in the North American Review Vol. 260, No. 2, Summer, 1975. Dillard also published “At Home with Gastropods,” Vol. 263, No. 1, Spring, 1978. (Below is the original piece “Five Sketches” which was published in 1975.)

Dillard’s honest narrative and memoir won her the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) and An American Child (1984).

ottawadetDillard’s personal essay “Living Like Weasels” found its way into my nonfiction class this semester. This was the first time I had read any of her work. I was captivated by the way Dillard developed scene and held the reader’s attention with her simple language over her encounter with nothing other than a weasel. Her description of the way weasels slaughter their prey by “either splitting the jugular vein at the throat or crunching the brain at the base of the skull,” came alive. The weasel does not seem to release its grip.

I first encountered a real weasel when I was eleven. A family friend had given us four adult yellow and black ducks to accompany the other animals on my family’s farm.  We had only had them for a week when a midnight visitor squeezed its way into one of the holes of the old building the ducks were temporarily housed in. When my father awoke the next morning to check them, he found not a single survivor. My father warned me not to look. I snuck open the door anyway to find the chewed and bloody necks of four ducks.

However, Dillard’s essay is not just about weasels. It’s also about not letting go. About finding something to sink our teeth into. To gnaw on just for a bit. It’s about your deceased grandmother’s cubic zirconia ring or that coveted Boston Celtics jersey you can not seem to let go. It’s about attachment. It’s realizing your current life is partially married to the things of the past. As Dillard writes, life is about either living in necessity or in choice. We can’t help but become like the weasel—holding on to what we think will sustain us but only leaves us searching for more. Therefore, our whole lives become shaped upon what changes us and what we change ourselves. Are we more like the weasel or what the weasel latches onto? Do we cling to things, like I do to my grandmother’s ring? Are we okay with giving that jersey away to someone who claims to be an even bigger fan?

insideWhat parts of our past are we going to divorce and let go of? What parts are we going to marry and remarry again and again? If it were up to me, I’d divorce my thumb from that cubic zirconia ring. I’d get rid of the physical proof that seems to weigh me down. Instead I’d travel back in time and remarry that memory of my grandma showing me her jewelry collection. That is where the true beauty lies. So marry your memories. Remarry them again and again.

Annie Dillard’s writing appeared in the North American Review in 1975, the year she won the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction. In both “Five Sketches” and “Living Like Weasels,” she reveals much larger truths than what the reader finds explicitly on the page. I hope you, as future readers of Dillard’s insightful work, can appreciate the same.

Below is the original piece “Five Sketches” which was published in 1975, Vol. 260, number 2. 

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Amanda Husak is a volunteer for the North American Review and is earning her undergraduate in English Education at the University of Northern Iowa. Amanda’s work has been published in the 2014 issue of Timber Creek Collections.


Illustrations are by Anthony Tremmaglia. HE is an Ottawa-based illustrator, artist, and educator. His clients include WIRED, Scientific American, Smart Money, HOW, and San Francisco Weekly.


Coincedently, it is also Annie Dilliard‘s birthday today and we here at the North American Review would like to wish Annie a very, merry, Happy Birthday. Thank you again for your contribution and becoming apart of our editioral family.

Flashback Friday featuring Devi Laskar from issue 294.2

Necessity breeds invention!

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I was in an online poetry boot camp and had a few hours to come up with that Tuesday poem. Everything I had written that day stunk like raw fish baking on a dry dock. I overheard my children discussing their favorite movies at the time. My oldest said “Little Mermaid” and my middle said “Sleeping Beauty” and my youngest said “Snow White.” When I asked my youngest why, she said the wicked stepmother had the best laugh. And a poem was born.

“Cackle like a Wicked Stepmother” first appeared in issue 294.2, March-April 2009. Here is a flaskback of the poem as well as link to purchase your very own issue.

How to Cackle like a Wicked Stepmother

First you’ll need the accessories,
dazzling with mischief and ill-
intent: poisoned apples, floor-length
mirrors that talk back in iambic
rhyme; sinuous black evening
gowns, eye-shadow the color
of a bruise, lips too crimson to
be kissed, a castle with a working
dungeon; stone stairs always in need
of mopping, henchmen, preferably
hunchbacked, a charcoal forest whose
trees disappear into the abyss
of moonless nights, a thunderstorm
thick with jagged rain; oh, and a man
with a charmed life standing before
you, confessing his abiding
love for your sister, or best friend
since the second grade. The rest
is easy, look into the glass, bite
through to the core, delicious,
forbidden down to the guttural,
and feel the crows’ wings fluttering
in your belly finally rise.


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DEVI S. LASKAR was born and raised in Chapel Hill, N.C. She holds a BA in journalism and English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an MA in South Asian Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and an MFA in writing from Columbia University. Ms. Laskar is a photographer and writer—and a former crime reporter in Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, North Carolina, and Illinois. Her poems have been published in the Atlanta Review, the Squaw Valley ReviewPratichi, the Tule Review, and the North American Review, where her poems were finalists for the James Hearst Prize in 2009 and 2011. 


CLAIRE STIGLIANI (b. 1983) is a drawer and painter known for her works inspired by paintings, photographs, magazines, posters, YouTube clips, literature, performance and plays. These works explore the act of watching and being watched and blur fiction with reality. Her recent shows include The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, The Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, (WI), The Dean Jensen Gallery, Milwaukee, (WI), RussellProjects, Richmond (VA), and the Jenkins Johnson Gallery (NY). She is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Art in Drawing, Painting, Printmaking and Photography in the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon University.

History Several Millennia in the Making: Writing about the Boxing Day Tsunami by Amanda Morris

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The 2004 massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami in the Indian Ocean topped the charts as one of the deadliest natural disasters ever recorded. What grabbed my attention was not the heartbreaking aftermath, but the unbelievably long buildup to the event. As a science writer, I regularly meet with scientists and engineers who are doing fascinating work. Several years ago, I spoke with an Earth scientist who had measured the size of the earthquake that caused the tsunami. In order to help me better understand it, he showed me a computer simulation of events that occurred nearly 200 million years ago.

The events eased into motion when a sleeping supercontinent named Gondwana began to shake awake. After having been settled at the bottom of the Earth near Antarctica for millennia, its subcontinents started to pull against their sutures. A hot rock mantle plume pushed up against the Earth’s crust, its bulbous head piercing through the overlying rock. The intrusion formed a fissure between what is the current-day India landmass and the rest of Gondwana. The crack deepened into a canyon and then a gulf so wide that India pulled away and floated freely. The liberated landmass budged northward, 20 centimeters per year through the Tethys Ocean.

tsunami12_04Moving at glacial pace, the slow-floating zeppelin shoved everything out of its way during its travel before being halted by the Burma Plate in the northern hemisphere. With nowhere to go, the Indian Plate slid and settled beneath the Burma Plate. The dipping plate created a trench in the seabed, 25,344-feet deep. At the bottom of this trench, ancient fungus chomped on carbon in millions-of-years-old mud. Long, bony fish stood upright on their fins, waiting for movement in the abyss to scoop up prey. The Indian Plate pushed deeper everyday, creeping farther beneath the Burma plate, creeping at a rate of growing fingernails. It creeped like this for 50 million years. The continents crunched together, crinkling at the interface like rumpled tin foil. The bedrock raised up and the edges of the landmasses folded over onto themselves, growing into mountains. The peaks grew two inches per year, its tallest one becoming Mount Everest.

The tension of these two plates grinding together eventually became more friction and pressure than the Earth could handle. On December 29, 2004, over the course of several minutes, the Indian Plate slipped, charging beneath the overriding Burma Plate. The sea floor jolted upward by several meters, displacing 30 cubic kilometers of water to trigger the tsunami. It amazed me that an event, several millennia in the making, could suddenly rupture and forever change the Earth’s surface within a matter of minutes.

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When writing about the events that occurred directly after the earthquake, I wanted to convey the sensation that a lot of actions were happening at once. I chose to overwrite the text, in order to help give that feeling. After the tsunami hits land, I implemented off-rhymes and assonance to help pull the reader through the somewhat dense text. I wanted to make the sentences a little slippery, to pull the readers frictionlessly through the action, propelling them forward, hurtling toward the end result.

Through climate change, deforestation, draining rivers, reef destruction, and farming, humans are steadily altering the face of the planet and its atmosphere. But some alterations are rooted in a history deeper than humans. Some events were fated long before a word such as “fate” existed. Some events are unavoidable. The 2004 earthquake and tsunami were written into a destiny that we have been inescapably hurtling toward for millennia.


Amanda Morris is a science writer in Chicago. She received a master’s degree in creative writing from Northwestern University, where she previously served as managing editor of TriQuarterly. She also has a bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Illinois. Her work can be found in TriQuarterly, CenterPiece magazine, Northwestern Engineering magazine, LiveScience, the website for the National Science Foundation, and elsewhere. She lives with her handsome husband Mark, who is also a writer, and their deliciously fat cat Oliver, who cannot write but wishes he could.

Pictures are linked to their online credentials.

IS RISK-TAKING ADVISABLE IN WRITNG POETRY? ALWAYS. by Robert Nazarene from issue 300.2

I am especially pleased to appear again in America’s oldest literary review. With respect to my poem, “A Day in the Life”, I want to express my view that poetry which does not take risks is of insignificant value. Having served as an editor and publisher for a decade, I came to believe a distinctive voice is the most prized attribute of any poet. Witness the likes of cummings, Berryman, Plath, Wier and Eliot–just to mention a few. No cookie cutter poems here.

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I feel that all too often poets tend to hold their work at some distance from themselves. And mindless abstraction in poetry is poetry’s greatest enemy. (You know who you are.) As human beings, it is my firm belief we are connected not so much by our strengths, but rather, by our woundedness. (Here my spell-checker tells me I may be guilty of yet another neologism.) I believe as well that there are only two purposes of poetry: to disturb and to console. And, on rare occasions, to achieve both. I am always impressed by the quality of work found in North American Review.

A Day in the Life

Last whenever I suffered a major stroke
it’s caused me to gain 15/1000ths
of a second on my 440-relay time
the druggist at Sam’s Club asked
if I had any questions? yes would it hurt
to give half to my dog for her high
blood pressure she loves anything
with speed in it in the checkout line
my ATM card was approved
for the amount of purchase that’s
a first and the receipt checker
at the door made me turn my jacket
pockets inside out something about
cans of chick peas disappearing
from the store and after 26 years
of continuous sobritety I got kicked
out of AA. they said they were
more after “fresh” meat and that
last whenever I got locked up
in the nuthouse faster than
you can say Jackie Robinson
and also people with bipolar
disorder aren’t worth a fast fucking
glance in the rearview mirror.


ROBERT NAZARENE founded MARGIE / THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF POETRY and INTUIT HOUSE POETRY SERIES where he was the recipient of a publishers’ National Book Critics Award in poetry.  His first book of poems is CHURCH (2006).  A second volume of poetry, Puzzle Factory, is new in 2015.  His work has appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Crazyhorse The Iowa Review, The Journal of the American Medical Association, North American Review, The Oxford American, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Quarterly West, Salmagundi. Stand and elsewhere.  He was educated at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.

Thursday Throwback blog featuring Ted Kooser’s “The Corpse of an Old Woman” by Michael Jackson

Ted Kooser’s poem “The Corpse of an Old Woman” can be found in Vol. 251, No. 6 (Nov., 1966), p.14, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25116500.

THE CORPSE OF AN OLD WOMAN

It has been lying on a braided rug
with a teacup in its hand since yesterday
at supper-time, and the neighbor-ladies shrug
and say “She lets the lights burn night and day.”

Its cat sits in the window, watching birds,
and the phone rings now and then, mistakenly;
the mailman bangs the box-lid to be heard;
Someone may stop this afternoon for tea.

– Ted Kooser


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Some years ago, on a typically freezing Iowa February morning, I went out to start my car, in order that it could warm up a tad in the 20 below weather. Doing so at 6:00 a.m. in the morning was nothing unusual for me at that time as I started my cubical-based life by 6:30 am every morning. Returning to the car a few minutes later, not having paid heed to the icy conditions overnight, I slipped in my dress shoes and fell straight back. The only thing that saved me from a concussion was the back pack I had slung over my right shoulder which provided enough of a cushion between me and the unforgiving cement that I was able to avoid smashing my head. However, by that time in life, I had developed back problems and everything immediately went into what felt like a full body spasm, driven by the wreck that is my back. As I lay there, a morbid thought did more than just cross my mind: I was going to lay there in the pre-dawn darkness and freeze to death before anyone found me (I doubt I was wearing a jacket).

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This was more than just a random thought as I knew not one of my neighbors beyond saying hello occasionally if we happened to cross paths entering and exiting our apartments, and anyone I have a personal relationship with lives at least a hundred miles away. After laying on the ground for a minute trying to regain my senses, I realized the car was still running and I needed to get it turned off before I went back into the house. Unfortunately my ability to stand up was compromised by the back spasms, and I had to crawl from the sidewalk to the car and drag myself into the driver’s seat far enough to reach the ignition, shut it off, and pull out the keys. Somehow I managed to crawl, drag, walk myself into my apartment where I collapsed on the couch and lay in pain for the next four hours waiting for my back to shut the hell up.

The good news, at least partially, is that had I failed to show up for work, remained laying there in that parking lot, someone would have noticed my absence and eventually found me before the day was over. Whether or not I would have frozen to death by the time my neighbors started their day is doubtful, but still a powerful enough memory that I’m still holding onto it years later. What isn’t good news is that were I to fall in my apartment now, coffee mug in hand like Kooser’s corpse, I shudder to think how long I would lay there before I was found. I still don’t know any of my neighbors save one, and I only speak to him on a highly sporadic basis, and I no longer have a job to show up for at a strict, regulated, cubical-based time.

Because of this possible scenario, and the morbid thoughts it conjures up, I am immediately drawn to the use of the word “it” in Kooser’s poem. The corpse is not a person, a man, or a woman, but rather an “it,” a non-entity that serves only for gossip for the nosey, but not compassionate, neighbors. There “it” lies, burning those lights like “it’s” made of money. I wonder then if I am an “it,” a thing in a place, rooted to nothing. Will my neighbors complain about my lights burning? Doubtful. Would they notice a smell if I dropped dead and lay unclaimed for weeks? Maybe. What’s more absurd is that for a time period of about eight or nine months, I lived without a phone of any kind; no landline, or cell phone. 911 for me during that time would have consisted of pounding on the wall of my neighbor’s apartment, hoping to hell they called security to come scoop me off the floor, assuming of course I hadn’t had a heart attack and was incapable of dragging myself to the thin and poorly constructed wall.

4043384111_998bb069f9_zSuch thoughts also lead me into ruminations on death itself, outside of thoughts of my own demise. Having buried a few too many family members already, including my father, it’s odd to observe the grieving process we all have as individuals. Or the dying process for that matter. My father, for example, spent his last few weeks acting childish and immature. Though this is not particularly surprising if you knew him, it was still odd to watch his behavior through what was then my thirty-two years of experience with him. I vowed then, and still do, that should I know my time is coming, whenever it does, that I will maintain dignity until the end. But perhaps I am lying to myself, perhaps I will act even more ridiculous, decrying all the wrongs that have been done to me in the past, cursing God as my father did, defiant until the end. But who’s to say, who can tell the future?

The corpse of the old woman, it appears based on the teacup in her hand, died suddenly. Perhaps then this idea of sudden death is the one to hope for, should it be that one has the option. Or not, as she, or “it,” clearly lacks dignity after her death, left to rot on her living room floor, apparently missed by no one.

The problem with death, apart from death itself, is that it is such a difficult topic to discuss. Not as a concept necessarily, but as a more concrete and personal thing. Some people outright refuse to discuss the topic, perhaps out of fear that it will come true, perhaps out of immense sadness and a lost love one, you can never tell. They simply won’t discuss it. Others see the topic as morbid, judging those who would discuss it (I’m sure if you’ve read this far you’ve formed an opinion on my opinion of the subject).

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And yet death remains a fact of all of our lives, the one absolute inevitability that we all must face at some point or another. On occasion I like to fool myself and act as if I’ve come to terms with it, not as a concept, but as a reality. For example, with recent news of a purposely crashed commercial airplane, I tell myself that had I been on that flight, I would have had my brief moment of panic at the realization of what was occurring, before taking a deep breath and accepting the circumstances at hand. My last thoughts would be that this was okay, that I have already made my peace with death and the universe, that my dignity would remain intact, and that my acceptance would be absolute.

But here I am, writing about my fears of dying alone in my apartment, not to be found for weeks until I’ve rotted into a nuisance smell, something for the neighbors to complain about. Clearly I am not yet at peace with the reality, though I’ll still pretend to be with the concept. I’ll also assume that Kooser had similar thoughts, at least in some manner, before writing this poem, which is what led him to the concept of using “it” instead of “she” to describe the corpse. Maybe the fear is death, maybe not. Maybe, more likely, the fear is that once we die we no longer exist to the outside world, the one we try so hard, for so long, to get to understand us.


Michael Jackson is a graduate student of English at the University of Northern Iowa. He is also an intern here at NAR. Other work can be found at hobopancakes.com.

The first and third image are from wikimedia commons.
The second and final illustration are by NAR’s very own contributor Anthony Tremmaglia.


Illustrations by: Anthony Tremmaglia, an Ottawa-based illustrator, artist, and educator. His clients include WIRED, Scientific American, Smart Money, HOW, and San Francisco Weekly. Anthony is featured in issues 299.1, Winter 2014 & 299.4, Fall 2014 and his most recent work (featured above) in upcoming 300.2, Spring 2015. Find more of Anthony’s work at http://www.tremmaglia.ca/

At Home in the Pauses by Brian Fitch

I’ve been thinking lately about fiction and nonfiction, how they can merge and separate until one becomes the other.  Especially I’ve been thinking about the technique of pause in nonfiction, a liberal stepping outside, pausing the narrative, to pursue a possibly fictional what if this had happened?

NAR_testimony Clay Rodery

Fiction writing has as one of its compelling qualities the possibility of being real.  When the narrative is paused, fiction and nonfiction can become intermixed as a writer finds herself or himself stepping back from fiction to the real, to actual stories, the unembellished past.  When the edges of imagination become too thin to keep a writer aloft, s/he can just let go.  What really happened may provide a sort of reorientation.  When the writer’s imagination is recharged by the real, or at least the remembered real, another pause to follow a fictional path will present itself.

After enough years, these pauses can become quite lengthy and take on the appearance of actual story.  In other words, the pause may become the story and the return to the nonfiction frame may become the fiction.

Rust

Once the paused fiction has become the dominant narrative, the next step is another pause from the now functioning narrative to a newer fiction – a pause within a pause, within a pause and so forth.  If you live long enough, you may find yourself far from the original home with no maps back, even if you want them.  Another question might be who would want them, but that is for another discussion.  Making the attempt to find your way forward in these new narratives will keep you writing and attempting to answer the questions who am I? and/or how did I get here?  Whether or not you can answer these questions does not matter.  You are writing fiction, the pauses are infinite, and the converted narrative may very well be the superior one.


Brian Fitch lives in western Wisconsin with his wife the poet Jennifer Brantley and their cat Moxie.  His fiction or poetry has appeared in North American Review, Prairie Schooner, Sewanee Review, Helsinki Quarterly, Ars Interpres, Bark, and others. Brian appears in issue 296.3, Summer 2011 as well as the current issue 300.2 with his story “Nothing Is Always the Same”.


Illustrations by  Clay Rodery, an illustrator who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Clay’s illustrations have been featured in the North American Review issues 298.4, 299.1, 299.3 and the most recently is in issue 299.4, Fall 2014 and most recently 300.2, Spring 2015.