Concerning “Man in Flower” by Brian Patrick Heston from issue 300.2

Man in Flower” was an Honorable Mention in the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize contest.

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With “Man in Flower,” I was attempting something of an urban pastoral. Yet rather than celebration, I was interested in something more detached, where wild nature could take precedence in a place, the city, which we usually attribute to civilization. However, since detachment is so foreign to how we humans experience the world, I decided the scene needed some form of human presence, but not a living presence, because a living human would ultimately take over the landscape both physically and metaphorically. The man in the poem is dead because death has a way of lifting our veil of illusion. When we bury bodies, we do not see the equalizing force of decay. Yet, what happens to the man in the poem is exactly what goes on once we are buried in the earth. I wanted to present the man, objectively, as dissolving organic matter that feeds other organic matter. Ultimately, I am attempting to explore a vision of a connected nature, where nothing is wasted and everything, including human bodies, are transformative matter.

The last layer of metaphor I hoped to get across in the poem was the very fragility of civilization itself. Though it may be the greatest invention of the human species, it is never far from collapsing under the immense weight of all the demands we put on it. Countless civilizations before us have disappeared, and before their disappearances, the inhabitants of those civilizations felt just as secure, just as indestructible as many of us do today. Therefore, the poem borders on the apocalyptic, but I hope it resists apocalypse because nature once again reclaims the cityscape.

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The man might be dead, but everything else continues to live, which is very much something we seemed to have forgotten in our mad rush to set wider and wider boundaries between our civilization and the rest of the nature we share the planet with. So, I guess, in the end, I wanted to write a poem of recognition rather than a warning. Warnings seem too human-centric and only end with a fear that moves us to protect ourselves. Recognition, though, offers us so much more than fear. It offers us understanding, and in this particular case, the understanding that polluting and destroying the nature that sustains us is not only foolhardy, but also ungrateful. We have had the privilege to exist on a tiny blue oasis in the middle of frigid airlessness. It has given us oranges, sex, and Paris. It has allowed us sunny stoop and porch days filled with birdsong and the scent of baking pizza, and if there’s one thing our probes sent into the abyss of space have communicated back, it’s that nothing of what we have here can be found out there.

We are, as far as we know, stranded on an island, but unlike Crusoe, we do not long for England because there is no England. There is only the island for as far as the mind can fathom. And here we remain blissfully ignorant of how truly rare we really are.   


Man in Flower

The man lies in the tall grass by the old railroad yard.
No one walks this way anymore, it’s moon-filled
and sun-stilled. Trains haven’t run here since before
the bicentennial. Weedy trees rise up around the man
like a jungle, or barley waiting for the farmer’s scythe.

A white flower has burrowed its way through his temple,
blossoming from his bottom eye. He is man with flower
now/man-flower. Above him, in the ratty leaves
of an ash, starlings have made a noisy nest. Each day,
they speckle him. Seeds also gather, stubby sprouts

already rising from his thin jacket, his faded jeans,
the loose skin of his face. His body will be safe
for a while. But once covered in grass, in the heaviness
of daisies, everything the man is will shrink, flatten out,
until what remains is a field where no one ever goes.


Brian Patrick Heston grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His poems have won awards from the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Foundation, the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation, and the Lanier Library Association. His first book, “If You Find Yourself,” won the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award and is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. He is also the author of the chapbook, “Latchkey Kids,” which is available from Finishing Line Press. His poetry and fiction have appeared in such publications as Many Mountains Moving, Rosebud, West Branch, Harpur Palate, 5AM, The Spoon River Poetry Review, Poet Lore, South Carolina Review, River Styx, and is upcoming in Borderlands, Tampa Review, and Canary. Presently, he is a Ph.D. candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at Georgia State University.


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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

Between the Personal and Political: Writing the Stories of Gay Liberation by Bradford Tice

I am very grateful to North American Review for publishing the poem “I Heard They Were Queer for One Another,” featured in the spring issue of NAR, as it is part of a project that is very near and dear to my heart. In the introduction to Carolyn Forché’s landmark anthology Against Forgetting, Forché advocates for a space between the categories of the personal and political poem—a space that she calls “the social.”[1] I have always liked the implications of this. That between the personal and the political there is conversation, gossip, culture, socializing. A fertile ground for poetry indeed! That space Forché describes is where I wanted this poem to reside.

A Rosetta Stone for Directors

The personal: I came out of the closet in high school, so I feel intimately the desire of individuals to carve out a space that is private, separate from politics and the media’s glare. I’m also aware that the act of carving out such a space can be a political gesture. That’s perhaps why I became so fascinated with the story of the Stonewall Riots of 1969. It wasn’t until I was a junior in college that I learned about the Stonewall, the efforts of Gay Liberation, and I remember being shocked at the time that I had lived as long as I had having never caught a whiff of any of these narratives or histories. It wasn’t even in a classroom or book that I learned about them, at least not at first, but rather through word of mouth, interactions with older gay men in the community who knew a thing or two about gay history. At the time (the late 1990s) it seemed that gay and lesbian history was an idea that was still trying to take shape. The commotion made by this silence (and silence can indeed make a lot of noise) propelled me into this project. I wanted to make sense of these stories, and perhaps more importantly, I wanted to make sense of what they meant to me. How was I a part of this history? How much of my life did I owe to these men and women?

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The political: So a word on the Stonewall. The Gay Liberation movement is said by many to have started on a hot summer night in 1969 in New York City’s Greenwich Village when a group of street kids with few options and nowhere else to go chose to resist police harassment of known homosexual establishments. The poem “I Heard They Were Queer for One Another” is a piece included in my most recent poetry collection What the Night Numbered (Trio House Press, 2015), wherein the myth of Cupid and Psyche—their epic account of love discovered, lost, and eventually reunited—is re-envisioned and threaded with the accounts of the Stonewall Riots. The voices that speak within these poems are those of the oppressed and unnamed, those who live between the traditional categories of sex, gender, and sexuality in a time when the only names given to such individuals were slurs. Many are the voices of street kids and queer youths, hustlers, panhandlers, and survivors who have come to New York in search of both the city’s great anonymity and the promise of a space, however meager, to meet and love one another. The spirit of these youths are vocalized in the character of Psyche, the name given to a transgendered runaway from Nebraska who comes to the urban streets at the age of thirteen with only the clothes on her back, a fist full of faux jewelry, and a desire for a new kind of love.

The poem featured in this issue of North American is set at the moment when the crowd and commotion outside the Stonewall Inn became a riot. On June 28, police raided the bar. The riot trucks idled outside waiting to be loaded with the patrons, all of whom would be arrested, their names published in the paper, which meant jobs would be lost, marriages would implode, and lives would be ruined. This was nothing new. Raids were a part of life during this era in gay culture, but for whatever reason, on this night the patrons, many of them those street kids mentioned above, had decided enough was enough. The poetic speaker in the poem is a kind of collective voice—the voice of those street kids gossiping about what happened, speculating, but the poem watches the police. Once the riot started, the police were forced inside the Stonewall, barricaded inside. There was only one exit, and they were ordered by their superior to wait for help to come.

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The social: I wanted this poem to tie the experiences of those officers to the lives of those rioters beating on the doors of the Stonewall. I wanted to show a point of connectedness in the midst of chaos, the one side reflecting the other. Brutality is always easier when we deny our commonalities, and so I chose to make everyone present bound and intimate, even as it all came apart. As this brotherhood of officers stands together facing their fears of what might await them on the other side of that door, they effectively mirror the fears of the Stonewall’s patrons who often faced daily homophobia and potential police harassment. Effectively, in that moment the police are queered. They are made strange, or perhaps more accurately, they are brought into the strange—that liminal and uncertain space at the margins. They feel their power slipping away, and they are oppressed. I would like to think that for a moment the two groups psychically approached one another, perhaps recognized themselves in each other’s faces, and I’d also like to think that it was indeed the queerest thing.

[1] Carolyn Forché, introduction to Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993), 31.


Bradford Tice is the author of two books of poetry: Rare Earth (New Rivers Press, 2013), which was named the winner of the 2011 Many Voices Project and a 2014 Debut-litzer finalist, and What the Night Numbered (Trio House Press, 2015), winner of the 2014 Trio Award. His poetry and fiction have appeared in such periodicals as The Atlantic Monthly, North American Review, The American Scholar, Alaska Quarterly Review, Mississippi Review, Epoch, as well as in Best American Short Stories 2008. His poetry was also selected as the winner of Prairie Schooner’s 2009 Edward Stanley Award. He currently teaches at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln.


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.

My Daughter Asked Me Once To Write Her a Poem by John Guzlowski

Otherworldly Grounds: Page 1When she was about nine years old, my daughter Lillian asked me to write a poem about her. I told her I would try.

She had seen me writing poems since she was a toddler, and she had heard me give poetry readings, and she had seen journals with my poems in them.  She knew I could write poems, and she really wanted me to write her a poem.

So I tried and tried.  I thought that I could write her a poem about how she was my angel.  That seemed simple enough.  I would start out with the line “I never called you angel.”  Or maybe that would be the title.  Then the poem would go on and on about how even though I had never called her “angel” or any of the other dozens or hundreds of endearing things (honey, sunshine, mouse, sugar, etc.) parents called their kids, she was still my angel.  You get the picture.  It should have been easy.

Malcolm

But it wasn’t.  I tried over the course of about a decade to write that poem and failed over and over.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t write about her.  I couldn’t write about anyone I was really close to.  I couldn’t write about my wife either.  And this is an ongoing problem.  Even though my wife and I will have been married for forty years this April 4th, I have never ever written her a poem.  In the thousands of poems I’ve written, there is no “Ode to Linda.”  There isn’t even a single poem that indirectly mentions her!  If I could Google all of my poems, the search engine would come up “No Results.”  Nothing about how much I love her.  Nothing about the color of her hair or her smile.  Nothing about the way she’s made my life perfect in ways I could never have imagined.  Nothing like that at all.

Some future literary critic (if there are still literary critics in the future) looking over all my writing would have to conclude that I was either unmarried or divorced or unhappily married, and that’s why there aren’t any references to my wife and only one reference to my daughter Lillian, the poem “Advice to My Daughter, A Sonnet” that recently appeared in the North American Review.

So why haven’t I written more about my wife and my daughter?  For that matter, why haven’t I written about myself?  In all my forty-some years of writing poetry, why haven’t I written about them or me?

The answer is probably pretty simple, and I probably should have gotten around to spelling it out sooner, and I apologize for not having done so. Here’s why I can’t write about my wife or my daughter or me:

I’m overwhelmed by the story of my parents.  They are the only people I seem capable of writing anything about.  Let me explain.

The Battle of Imphal

My parents were two Polish Catholic farm kids who were taken to Germany as slave laborers during World War II.  My dad was captured in a round up in his village in 1941, and he spent the next four years in Buchenwald concentration camp.  My mom was captured in 1942 after seeing her mother and her sister and her sister’s baby killed by German soldiers.  My mom spent the next two and a half years in various concentration camps in Germany.  Like about 12,000,000 other people, my mom and dad were put to hard labor working in German factories and on German farms to support the German war effort.  My parents were starved, beaten, and brutalized.  My dad saw friends castrated and hanged.  My mom saw guards cut a woman’s breasts off with a bayonet.  She saw babies thrown in the air and shot to death.

I’ve written four books of poems about my parents, and a fifth called Wooden Trunk from Buchenwald is coming out next year.

When I sit down to write a poem, it’s their voices that come to me.  I can hear my mother telling me about the day the Germans came to her house in the woods west of Lvov.  I can hear my dad telling me about standing at a barbed wire fence and day after day watching the slow collapse of men starving to death.

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When I was still teaching creative writing, back before I retired ten years ago, I used to tell my students to find a muse and listen to her.   They would always think I was joking.  Nobody believes in muses, they would say.  Muses were just some kind of ancient Greek convention, something Homer thought up.  But I wasn’t joking.

I really think my parents are my muse.


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John Guzlowski’s creative writing has appeared in Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac, Ontario Review, North American Review, Salon.Com, Rattle, Atlanta Review, and elsewhere.  His poems about his parents’ experiences as slave laborers in Nazi Germany appear in his books Lightning and Ashes and Third Winter of War: Buchenwald.  His critical essays on contemporary Polish, Jewish, and American novelists have been featured in Modern Fiction Studies, Shofar, Polish Review, and other journals.  His novel Road of Bones, about two German lovers separated by war, is forthcoming from Cervena Barva Press.  Of Guzlowski’s writing, Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz said, “He has an astonishing ability for grasping reality.”


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.

Should White Poets Write About Race? by Holly Karapetkova

Reginald Dwayne Betts wrote in a recent issue of Poetry magazine,  “Don’t write about being white,” a quote the editors thought important enough to reprint on the back cover of the magazine. Certainly Betts and the editors wanted to raise a few eyebrows, and certainly a careful reader will relate the statement to a quote elsewhere in the essay: “I am not sure it is possible for a Negro to write well without making us aware he is a Negro; on the other hand, if being a Negro is the only subject, the writing is not important.” The comment, which Betts attributes to an unnamed “reviewer,” happens to belong to Louis Simpson discussing Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems in 1963, and it highlights the dilemma at the core of the American experience where whiteness is taken as the given and anything questioning (or even calling attention to) the centrality of white experience is marginalized and disparaged.  But the essay, and the response it elicited from some white readers, raises a good question. Should white poets write about race?

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I am certain that many white poets who are sensitive to the subjects of racism and injustice are wary of the potential to inflict harm. Many of us fear that because we are not fully aware of what it means to move through this world in non-white skin our words might, no matter how good our intentions, cause others pain. Hasn’t racism as an ideology and an institution done enough damage without white poets putting their foot in the hornet’s nest? This fear is closely connected with another reason I believe white poets shy away from the topic of race: the sense that we are not really the experts here. What white people do know about race is often enough to assure us of just how little we don’t know about the impact it has on the lives of people of color.

Indeed, contemporary poetry offers us some key reminders of what can go wrong when white poets attempt to take on the subject of race. In the worst cases, the text can come across as ignorant and dismissive, and insensitivity to the insidious nature of racism can create hurt and offense, as in the famous case of Tony Hoagland’s “The Change.” We do not, of course, have to identify the poet with the white speaker of the poem. We can also appreciate Hoagland’s comment in a later interview that “white anxiety about race is an under-represented, under-articulated part of American society”; the poem is intended to make such anxiety visible. But the response of Claudia Rankine on The Academy of American Poets website reveals the potential harm in such a piece, whatever its intent. 

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Major Jackson takes on the reticence of white poets on the subject of race in his 2007 essay in American Poetry Review, “A Mystifying Silence: Big and Black,” attributing white silence to a desire for poetry to create a politically correct, emotionally safe sphere for language and thought: “so earnest are we in the vision of poetry as the province of communal good that we fail to create ‘speakers’ in our poems who are contemptible and dishonorable.” Of course, he also notes the desire to censor one’s own more embarrassing thoughts in a genre where the speaker is typically received (whether true or not) as a thinly veiled representation of the writer herself.

But at the end of the day he finds (and I agree) that all of this logic begins to sound like sorry excuses. At the end of the day, white silence is potentially as hurtful as getting it “wrong.” This gross ambivalence toward, or even indifference to, the subject of racism allows it to continue, passing itself off as invisible. Even a seemingly more noble reluctance to overshadow non-white voices on the subject of race implies a troubling fact: the relative absence of race from the conversation in contemporary American poetry in general. As one of the key traumas marking the American experience, race is relegated to a shockingly small portion of what is published, read, and written about. And all poets, including white poets, would be well-served by demanding more space for this conversation. Without a more fully developed discussion of racism in all of its various guises, we cannot truly understand its impact. We will remain, as Jackson claims, spectators on one of the key issues of our time.

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Poetry is a space where, as many poets before me have remarked, several things can be true at once. Moral judgement is not required; right and wrong are not required. The truth, which is always more elusive than words can lay their fingers on, is allowed to be complex and bewildering. Racism is complex and bewildering. It is often boiled down to matters of right and wrong, just and unjust, but the truth is not always what we think. I have both benefited from and been traumatized by whiteness. I have been both oppressor and victim. I have been complacent in my racism and I have grown furious, raging against it. Poetry, with its silences and absences, with its contradictions and its refusal to make logical connections, makes excellent territory for grappling with racism.

If we are going to finally confront the sickness that has dominated life in America since its foundation, then we need a literature that explores its impact from as many angles as possible. We need a complete picture, and we very much need poets willing to explore what whiteness is and what it does, even if they sometimes get it wrong. We need more white poets willing to enter the conversation.


Holly Karapetkova’s poetry, prose, and translations from the Bulgarian have appeared in Mid-American Review, Huffington Post, 32 Poems, and many other places. Her first book, Words We Might One Day Say, won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House Prize for Poetry. She is also the author of over twenty books for children. She lives in Arlington, Virginia, and teaches at Marymount University. Holly was a finalist for the James Hearst Poetry Prize 2015 with her poem “Big Hair” which can be seen in issue 300.2.


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.

Why We Need Description by Wes Ward

Most of us have two eyes. And with those two eyes we see things that others see. But
because my eyes are different from yours and hers and his, nothing we see can ever be seen the
same way.

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To make matters worse, when we try to communicate what we see, the reality we try to capture is never accurate. It can’t be. It’s impossible to see something and communicate exactly what we see because the words we use to describe an image are just, well, words. Take the human hand for example. I can describe a hand by using words like smooth, soft, stubby-fingered, calloused, etc., but those words are merely labels—intangible labels—that we try to apply to something in the physical world.

So there you are, trying to describe an object or a scene or a feeling with words that have
no physical existence in a physical world. You’re bound to fail. And if that’s not foggy enough,
in walks someone else to try to do the same thing, describe that object or scene or feeling. But
wait. Your eyes are different and, therefore, you will see things differently. Your impossible
mission just got worse.

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The secret to descriptive writing is that there is no secret. You can only hope to capture a
fraction of the reality you experience. We do that with sensory details, describing the physical
world (sometimes figuratively), while relying on dominant impressions, those invisible vibes
we get from a particular experience. We want the reader to see what we see, taste what we taste,
hear what we hear, etc. So we rely on the words we’ve learned throughout life to convey those
sensory details: His boots crunched through the snow is a lot different than He walked through the
snow. In the former, I see “boots” and I hear “crunching”—two details that second sentence
lacks. Again, this helps the reader get a better idea of what you see and what you are trying to
make him or her see. Consider this sentence about eating: We inhaled our cereal, knowing we would be late for school once again. The figurative “inhaled” (unless the cereal was actually breathed in) expresses the speed at which the cereal was eaten, but it doesn’t descriptively paint the picture, like this: We shoveled the cereal into our mouths and, without swallowing, inhaled the next bite with a continuous spoon-to-bowl-to-mouth motion. Only the sense of sight is used here, but at least a clearer picture is provided with the description of the physical action in the second sentence.

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Be careful. It’s possible to describe too much. Your reader doesn’t need to see, hear, or
touch everything you do. The doorknob to your apartment doesn’t need to be described as a
smooth, brass knob, cold to the touch. Just open the door, please. And The way the wheels of the car slipped across the loose gravel isn’t necessary either, unless a description of that scene is absolutely significant to the purpose of your writing (a car crash, perhaps). Once, a student of mine wrote a personal essay about visiting his mom in the hospital after she was diagnosed with cancer. In the essay, he filled an entire paragraph about the floral design on a box of tissues in the hospital room. Because he couldn’t bear to look at his mom, he focused on the looping green vines and the curling tips of the white flowers—a typical decorative box of tissues but a significant object in this particular setting.

The bottom line is to make connections. As a writer, you want to connect to your reader. After all, it’s the primary purpose of writing: I have something to say and I want you to hear it. The more carefully and meaningfully we communicate with our words, the better connection we
make. We’ll never be able to know exactly what someone else sees and how he or she sees it. (Is
that dress on the Internet white and gold or blue and black?) But thanks to descriptive writing,
we can make valid attempts to communicate and connect with our readers, even if we fail to
depict, with words, the reality our senses perceive.


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Wes Ward earned his MA in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. His poetry has appeared in The North American Review, Sewanee Theological Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, Philadelphia Stories and other publications. He was a finalist for the Bridport Prize in the UK. Wes teaches high school English and lives with his wife and two children in Pennsylvania. Wes appeared in issue 297.4, Fall 2012.


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.

Life Stories by Donald Anderson

Writing starts from the world—doesn’t it?—something you see or hear, or hear about. Newspapers. TV. Restaurants. Coffee Shops. Family Reunions. Bus Stops . . . a “trigger,” was how Richard Hugo put it, and it arrives from anywhere, anytime, like meteors, fish bites, hail, or dawn. Sometimes it can be as simple as a word. Take sabotage, coming to us from sabot, the French word for wooden shoe. The first instances of “sabotage” were likely peasant revolts against oppressive landowners, peasants tossing sabots into machines with the intent to destroy the machines: a word turning into event, or story.

dog sleds -clay roderyEarly in my Air Force career, I found myself stationed at a radar site atop the Brooks Range in central Alaska. The base camp sat beside the Indian River that connected to the Koyukuk, a primary northern tributary to the mighty Yukon. There was an Indian fishing village, where the Koyukuk met the Yukon. During the winter, when the Indian River froze, the fishermen would manipulate their snow machines up that frozen track to our radar site to play cards and drink liquor. We obeyed the federal law forbidding the sale of bottles of alcohol to the Indians. There was no such law against pouring all the drinks they could pay for. The Indians would drink up, then head back to their village, swerving and whooping in the refrigerated dark.

There was an older Indian who came not by Ski-Doo, but by way of dogs and sled. He’d drink, then go outside to sleep with his animals. It could be fifty below and he’d trudge out. You’d hear the dogs yipping in the morning—at four or five—as he’d toss them frozen fish. Once when he’d mushed up for a night, I asked, “Why don’t you drive a snowmobile?” He gave me a look. “If your snowmobile dies,” he asked, “what are you going to do—eat the carburetor?” Continue reading

Water Drop by Tom Lukas

“Why become a storyteller?”

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I’m tempted toward the snappy reply: “Because I so narrowly made it through, it’s my duty to blaze trail for the others.”  For many years that duty angle, that in-spite-of defense, sustained my craft  safe and separate, until I took my debut novel on the road last summer.  I’d envisioned a safari, my inner Theodore Roosevelt tugging the moustache, hard eye gnawing the monocle, my novel-trophy a withered stuffed animal gone blooded buffalo slung upon the bow of the Spycar.  “Bully!” Continue reading

What Is Said by Hope Wabuke

On June 16, 1944, George Stinney, a fourteen-year-old black boy, was executed by the state of South Carolina for the murder of two white girls. George was so short he had to carry a Bible to use as a booster seat when sitting in the electric chair. He was so young the death mask would not fit his face. He took five full minutes to die, the mask slipping off to show his eyes melting, his body convulsing.

There was no evidence that George had committed the murders. There were no actual witnesses to the murders—in fact, George had an alibi for the whole day in question. The “confession,” which George denied having made and which had not been recorded or written down, was the fabrication of three white police officers. But after a single day trial, an all-white male jury returned a conviction and death sentence for the fourteen-year-old boy in less than twenty minutes. George’s family had been run out of town by its white citizens so that he did not even have the comfort of his mother’s arms in the days he was imprisoned before his one day trial and ensuing execution.

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A few days ago, on December 17, 2014, the state of South Carolina overturned this conviction as wrongful and unjust.

On November 22, 2014, Tamir Rice, a young twelve-year-old black boy was playing in the park in Cleveland, Ohio. Police arrived and immediately opened fire on Tamir. In the minutes that the twelve-year-old boy was bleeding out onto the pavement, the shooting officers did not deign to attempt CPR and save his life. Tamir Rice died at the hospital a few hours later.

One cannot avoid the similarities in the cases of George and Tamir. Both black boys, both executed by the state without cause. One was given the farce of a “trial,” the other was not. We have regressed it seems, from allowing even that when it comes to black boys.

Tamir Rice’s shooting happened two days before a grand jury decided not to indict another white police officer for shooting another unarmed black boy named Mike Brown six times. I couldn’t process it. I understand this is what is called shock. I was numb. The only conscious thought I had was to love my two-year-old baby boy, love every minute with him because I did not know how many days until he, too, could be shot down to contain the “threat of his skin;” Aiyana Jones, a black girl, was seven and also unarmed when white police officers, again uncharged, shot and killed her.

That day of Tamir’s death, I heard the echo of June Jordan in my head saying that “self-love is the most revolutionary act.” My baby boy is the best part of myself. I would spend the day with him, loving him. I would take him to the park and his favorite places. That would be my protest.

We took baby boy’s buckets and shovels with us, and like magnets, a small group of boys flocked to us in the sandbox.  They looked so young, with their knocking knees and beautiful afros; I thought they were seven years old. “Are you in second grade?” I asked them. “No,” they told me, “we are in seventh.”

I did the math in my head and realized they were twelve. I remembered twelve was the age Tamir Rice was when he was shot. “Twelve,” I repeated. “Twelve.” They did not know why I started to cry. But they looked so young. They looked like babies. I was seeing their blooded brains and stomachs, bleeding out onto the playground.  Twelve, with a gun, shot down.

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All that day I had moments of sudden tears, not crying, just water slipping out from my eyes.

In April, 2014, Cliven Bundy and a group of middle aged white men drew guns and yelled threats at federal agents and police officers. ‘I’ve got a clear shot at four,” one of Cliven Bundy’s men is reported as threatening.

Stated Assistant Sheriff Lombard: “They pointed weapons.” And: “we were outgunned and outmanned.” But Bundy and his men, unlike the unarmed black children, were not shot dead, or even arrested.

It is, you see, about unequal application of force and justice depending upon race. It is about police brutality and racial profiling.

Darren Wilson, the white cop who killed Mike Brown called him a “hulk,” a “demon.” A witness called him a nigger. This is how they see us. Not as human. It has been documented by psychological studies that black children are seen as more criminal and not as young as white children are perceived, and the police act with increased violence accordingly when facing black children.

When I was a young girl of color growing up in Los Angeles, California, I wanted to become a writer to help end the virulent racism and sexism I had experienced, beginning when a white classmate called me “nigger” and pushed me off the swings in second grade. But now, as a black mother of a black boy, the systematic, often state sanctioned acts of violence by white men upon black bodies have become realer to me than they have ever been.  Trayvon Martin, Aiyana Jones, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, John Crawford, Akai GurleyMike BrownTamir Rice. The list is endless. I realized that the only way I would be able to keep my son safe would be to use my writing to help make the world a safer place for black boys walking.

They call you a “political writer” then, as if that were a bad word. But everything is political. “Political” is only given a negative connotation when it is thrown at people of color for writing about our experience of living.

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“How many of us have been told not to write about race? That, just by writing about your experience in the world as a black person your book is ‘too political’ and will not sell?” I asked my peers at the Junot Diaz’s Voices of Our Nations Arts Fellowship a year ago and nearly all of my brothers and sisters of color raised their hands.

I know I will be told this again and again—as does nearly every writer of color. It is said in workshop as critique, by those in the industry as dismissal. But that doesn’t matter because there are more important things. There are some things that need to be said. There are some moments in history when, if you are a writer and been gifted with this uncanny ability to observe and make meaning in harmonious forms, you have a responsibility to look. To bear witness. As Junot Diaz said at VONA: “those of us who have been systematically erased or marginalized throughout history have a right, a responsibility, to speak for those of us who now cannot.”


aslan and mommyHope Wabuke is a California based mom and writer. Her poetry appears or is forthcoming  in the North American Review, Kalyani Magazine, Fjords Literary Journal, Potluck Magazine, Ruminate Magazine, Literary Mama, Weave Magazine, Cease Cows, Split This Rock and joINT Literary. Her essays and criticism have been featured in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, Gawker, The Root, Ms. Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, The Daily Beast and Kirkus Reviews. She has received grants and fellowships from The New York Times, VONA Voices and the Barbara Deming Foundation. Follow Hope on Twitter @HopeWabuke. Hope is featured in issue 300.1, Winter 2015.


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, most recently in issue 299.4, Fall 2014.


The Story as Essay: Or, What I’ve Accidentally Learned by Teaching Comp by David Ebenbach

About ten years ago I wanted to write an article about how writers, who often teach composition courses, are the last people on Earth who should be teaching composition courses. I had good arguments: First of all, it’s hard for writers to understand and communicate with people who so dislike writing that they only take a writing class when it’s required, and, second, we don’t spend as much time thinking about grammar as administrators might like. Above all, I thought, people who write stories and poems don’t necessarily have all that much to say about the very particular kind of stuff that gets written in these classes—argumentative essays, mainly—because those essays are so far removed from what we do.

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Well, nobody wanted my article; magazine editors didn’t see the same problems that I did. They told me that writers get a lot, in fact, out of teaching composition courses. Naturally, this made me feel sulky and misunderstood.

Ten years later, I can say they were right.

Of course, there are the obvious benefits—the pleasures of learning how to articulate what we know about writing, of being pushed to think in new ways, and of kindling real interest in writing among students who aren’t expecting to like it. In general, I have found teaching to be good for the mind and for the soul, and comp means encountering students and ideas that I wouldn’t encounter otherwise. But there’s also been an effect I never would have expected: teaching the argumentative essay has changed the way I write short stories.

I mean, I should have seen it coming. I’m constantly telling my students how their papers need to be like short stories, how those papers need to have (like a good short story) precise detail, a compelling voice, obstacles, and suspense. So I already knew that short fiction could teach us about how to write essays. Why should it surprise me that the connection goes both ways? If an essay can have plot (will the author turn out to be convincing, or not?), why can’t a short story have arguments?

Indeed it can; in fact, without even intending to, I have found myself writing some stories that actually resemble the argumentative essay.

The signs are subtle in my story, “Our Mothers Left Us,” which doesn’t offer an argument, exactly, but which, like the essay, uses each paragraph to make a separate point. In a typical short story, individual beats/scenes are broken into a number of different paragraphs, including lines of dialogue and actions and so on. In “Our Mothers Left Us,” on the other hand, I move chronologically from one thing to the next, and each time there’s a new beat in the narrative, it gets its own single paragraph. In one paragraph, the mothers disappear; in the next the kids search for them; in the next the fathers become involved; et cetera. The story accumulates in clear, distinct steps, which is an ideal (for essays) that I harp on in class.

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My story, “We’ll Finish When We’re Done,” operates in a similar way. In this case there’s dialogue, and lots of paragraph breaks in this one continuous scene—but the story, about a surprisingly enthusiastic barber, builds (just the way I teach my students to do it) point by point. First he gives the customer a trim, and then a more drastic cut, and then a military buzz, and then he shaves him bald. Step by step, the cut gets closer—believe it or not, it gets closer than bald—just the way an essay gets closer and closer to the vindication of its thesis.

And then there are the stories I’ve written that don’t just resemble the form of arguments but instead actually become arguments. In “The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy,” the speaker—a collective voice—tries to explain why the group didn’t invite this one guy to the orgy they just had. In a sense it’s a backward argument, because the speaker rejects (rather than advancing) one argument after the next—specifically, it isn’t that the guy is prudish, or bad in bed, or unattractive, or a bad guy. In fact, he’s great in all those respects. And so the story is resisting the final impulse to become an essay; it’s trying to fail to explain what happened, by trying not to embrace a thesis. And yet, I have to admit: by the end of the story, an explanation—a thesis—creeps in anyway. I won’t include the spoiler here, but suffice it to say that the power of the argumentative essay is inexorable.

What I never expected was that this power would come to shape my fiction-writing. And yet I’ve already written a handful of argument stories—not just these but others, like “Nobody Else Gets to Be Crazy When You’re Being Crazy” and “Counterfactual”—and I assume that there will be more of them. These stories will have their place. It’s good, in fact, for a writer to try on new forms—the short-short, the letter, the recipe, the instruction manual, and (why not?) the argument.

At the same time, I do worry a little: if I spend more and more time thinking about students’ composition papers, will more and more of my stories end up neat and orderly and driving to a point? Will I stop developing characters and plots in complicated and uneven ways—in organic ways—and instead only move things forward in discrete, distinct units?

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Which brings me to the point of this essay. Because there’s another thing I’m always telling my students: if you can become conscious of your writing habits, good and bad, then you will have some power over them. In other words, it’s one thing to try on a form, to use it as a tool when you need it, and it’s another thing to have it sneak up on you and use you. That’s why you need to pay attention to your writing. And I’m hoping that this little bit of attention-giving (i.e., the attention I’m giving it by writing about it right here) will help me turn this form into a choice instead of an inevitability.

These days, I wouldn’t claim that teaching composition is such a bad gig for a writer. In fact, I like it a lot. But maybe it’s time to start teaching something else. Math? Genetics? Business? Music composition? After all, I could be writing stories and poems in the form of quadratic equations, DNA sequences, earnings reports, or arias. What you learn by teaching forms—any and all forms—is that there is an orgy of possibilities out there, and that you are definitely invited.


2014 Hairston 08David Ebenbach is the author of two books of short stories—Into the Wilderness (Washington Writers’ Publishing House) and Between Camelots (University of Pittsburgh Press)—plus a chapbook of poetry called Autogeography (Finishing Line Press), and a non-fiction guide to creativity called The Artist’s Torah (Cascade Books). His first full-length collection of poetry, We Were the People Who Moved, won the Patricia Bibby Award, and will be published by Tebot Bach in 2015. With a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Ebenbach teaches Creative Writing at Georgetown University. David is featured in issue 297.2, Spring 2012. Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.


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, most recently in issue 299.4, Fall 2014.

Commentary of “Taps” by Jeff Knorr from issue 295.2

Jeff Knorr’s poem, “Taps” won 3rd place in the 2010 James Hearst Poetry Prize. The poem appears in issue 295.2 of the North American Review.

LILA

When I was at Chico State in Northern California in the 80’s the poet George Kiethley asked us to write a poem about someone from our childhood. I was young and went straight for the usual suspects—my grandfather who I was close to but had died when I was young, my older brother, my mother, a loving woman whom I treasured, my father. I thought about a few others, including this man who lived in the court at the end of our street. But I hadn’t a clue how to write about him. Just over twenty years later, the poem finally came. As these people do from our childhoods, this man had stayed with me—there was no getting rid of him. He had precisely tapped his way down the sidewalk in the early morning hours of almost every day, even dark winter mornings, to Poor Joe’s bar, and he stumbled back down the street regularly in the evening. He and his wife had careened down our street in their blue Cadillac and, in fact, one afternoon they ripped the open driver’s door right off Burt Amaral’s Mustang. The door exploded off the hinges as Burt leaned in across the front seats, the Caddy swerving past the door as it skidded along the street, a group of us adolescent boys on the porch of my house whooping about what we’d just witnessed.

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Despite the entertainment and mystery this man provided all of us on our street, I knew at a pretty young age there was a fair amount of tragedy tangled up in his life. I knew he was a veteran. I knew he drank a lot. I knew he seemed exceptionally unhappy. I knew his sunglasses kept hidden some deep sadness I’d never ever see in his eyes. And even at a young age I knew he must be capable of something, of some kind of love with his wife and how they kept a house in what was a reasonably nice middle class neighborhood in the San Francisco Bay Area. I know now there may not have been a lot of love in the house, but back then I suspected there was.

One afternoon I came home from school and at the end of the street there was a silver van parked in the driveway of the man’s house. After I had been home a while, my mother told me that he had died. Later there were some of us boys playing football in the street and when his body was finally wheeled out to the van we all stopped and had a moment of shock that in fact he really was dead. As the van came down the street we stepped aside, held the football, and felt a sense of loss in the neighborhood. To this day I do not know his name. But his presence on the block was huge, legendary. And right then we knew something had just been changed. And while nobody said it, it was clear to us that he’d drank himself to death.

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When the poem finally came out of me, I wanted it to be a tribute of sorts. I wanted to capture that here was this guy that so many people in our neighborhood, especially the adults, had judgments about. But for the boys on the street who saw him, often at his worst, he had become for us something of an icon of our street, an icon of a time, and even a guy we admired. We indeed admired that he was a veteran and we thought his taps were the coolest things ever. And yet, we watched his life unravel and felt the tragedy of it when he died. From this, the poem is both born and offered.

“Taps”

The drunk down the street
wore taps on his black boots,
and each afternoon tapped
a rhythmic slide-and-click step
cool like he was Gene Kelly.
Aviator glasses, pressed blue jeans,
VFW cap creased at the crown
the bill curved with the horizon’s
slight arc, like at the bay of Da Nang
where he must have hoped
a hundred times to head home.
How many ghosts did he put away
each day down at Poor Joe’s?
How many missions did he fly
into the haze of gin?
Rumor had it he was a door gunner
and we boys all made cracks,
doorbell ditched his house
leaping bushes, scattering invisible
when he barked like a stray dog.
Mostly we were scared of him,
his mumbling at us as he stumbled along
the sidewalk while we played
two-hand touch, our glory still ahead of us,
in the air alive as rain.
But the day the silver mortician’s van
parked in his driveway, we all hoped
it was his wife. Finally, when the sheeted body
was gurnied out, the van left us
huddled in the street in silence
as if church had just finished.
We stood, all of us making plans,
listening to her wailing, the cries
drifting into the street, then yelling,
then plates smashing until it was dark
and a jet passed over us.
Dark except for a streetlight,
and quiet except for my brother
tacking flattened bottle caps to the toes of his Keds.

Jeff Knorr is the author of the three books of poetry, The Third Body (Cherry Grove Collections), Keeper (Mammoth Books), and Standing Up to the Day (Pecan Grove Press).  His other works include Mooring Against the Tide: Writing Poetry and Fiction (Prentice Hall); the anthology, A Writer’s Country (Prentice Hall); and The River Sings: An Introduction to Poetry (Prentice Hall).  His poetry and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies including Chelsea, Connecticut Review, The Journal, North American Review, Red Rock Review, Barrow Street, and Like Thunder: Poets Respond to Violence in America (University of Iowa). Jeff lives in Sacramento, California and is Professor of literature and creative writing at Sacramento City College.

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Jeff is currently the Poet Laureate for the city and county of Sacramento.  He has edited, judged, and been a visiting writer for various conferences and festivals.  He was the founding co-editor and poetry editor of the Clackamas Literary Review.  He has also been an invited judge for contests such as the DeNovo First Book Contest, the Willamette Award in Poetry and the Red Rock Poetry Award.   He has appeared as a visiting writer at such venues and festivals as Wordstock, University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writer’s House, The Des Moines Festival of Literary Arts, and CSU Sacramento’s Summer Writers Conference.  He currently directs the River City Writer’s Series at Sacramento City College.  Jeff has been the Chair of the English department at Sacramento City College and he has also served on the Sacramento County Office of Education Arts Advisory Board. You can see more at www.jeff-knorr.com

Illustrations by  Clay Rodery, an illustrator who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. ch Clay’s illustrations have been featured in the North American Review, most recently in issue 299.4, Fall 2014.