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/

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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.

LILA

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.

Notes on “Prayer for my New Daughter” by Rebecca Foust from issue 300.1

Prayer for My New Daughter

After Yeats, and inspired by an attack on transgender students using a “bathroom with urinals” at a college in the northeastern US.

A soul in chrysalis, in first agonized molt,
must choose: LADIES, or MENS.
For some—for you—these rooms are fraught,
an open field where lines are drawn: think of
the White-Only signs. Or Serrano’s Piss Christ
and Duchamp’s Fountain, pitted with acid
and icepicks, de-faced. As for restrooms called
“Bathrooms with Urinals,” no, his words
will never deconstruct the master’s house.
For an hour I have walked and prayed,
considering icepicks, how they’re made
to fit a blind hand; how kept so well honed.
You are soft as sown grass and fierce as cut glass.
You pack your new purse with lipstick, and mace.

This poem presented me with several technical problems, most imposed by the limitations of sonnet structure. “Prayer for my New Daughter” is part of a manuscript called Paradise Drive that recently won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and will be released at AWP in April 2015. Because Paradise Drive is entirely comprised of sonnets—some faithful to form, and others exploded—I did feel compelled to say all I had to say in this poem in fourteen lines. I don’t necessarily love epigraphs (and have noticed many editors don’t, either) but I felt I had to give attribution to Yeats. Also, while still in the process of revising the poem, I noticed that it worked better at readings where I had a chance to give background on the events that inspired it.

claire Continue reading

Some Questions to Ask of Your Poem by Jack Ridl

I taught the composing of poetry for thirty-seven years at the college. Here is a little note and a list I sent out before each class began.

Let’s make poems for some real reasons to enter art—to bring worlds to one another that we otherwise would not have, to create a place where you are safe to be you, to give your inward self the care and validation it needs and deserves, to write in order to have moments IN the writing that bring to you what you most cherish, care about, that connect you to the meaningful parts of your life, those that you are distracted from most of the time.

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Here’s a question I am often asked: “Is my poem any good?”

Here are some other, I hope, better questions:

Is my poem a place you were glad to be in?
Is my poem one that connected you to something that matters?
Is my poem one that brought you a smile? Moved you to realizations? To feeling like crying or sighing? To laughing out loud?
Is my poem one that took up your time and you’re glad it did?
Is my poem like an honest friend, a good pal?
Is my poem one that enlarges your world, your heart?12.16.2

Is my poem SINGING the blues?
Is my poem like a faithful mutt?
Is my poem useful to your spirit?

12-16.

Is my poem useful?
Is my poem larger than Canada?
Is my poem smaller than a snowflake?
Is my poem one that enlarges the temple?
Is my poem one that comforts?
Is my poem one that shames the oppressive?
Is my poem one that redeems? Reconciles?
Is my poem so tiny and important to you that you want to keep it in your pocket or a locket?
Is my poem one that points you toward what you want to have time to care about?
Is my poem one you would give to someone?
Is my poem one that makes you so mad you want to fix the world?
Is my poem making a wonderful fool of itself?
Is my poem a means to healing?
Is my poem wonderfully silly, whimsically heart happy?
Is my poem risking what’s worth risking?
Is my poem a Saturday?
Is my poem a turtle crossing the road?
Is my poem trying to speak to one human heart?
Is my poem glad and grateful to have come into the world?


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Jack Ridl’s latest collection, Practicing to Walk Like a Heron (2013, Wayne State
University Press.), was named one of the year’s two best books of poetry by Foreward/the American Library Association/Independent Bookstores. Broken Symmetry (Wayne State) was named best book of poetry by The Society of Midland Authors in 2006, and Losing Season (CavanKerry) was named by the Institute for International Sport as the best sports related book for 2009. He is co-author with Peter Schakel of Approaching Literature (Bedford/St. Martin’s). Ridl was one of twelve writers invited by the Fetzer Institute to a weeklong conversation on compassion and forgiveness. The Carnegie Foundation (CASE) named him Michigan’s Professor of the Year. More than eighty-five of his students are now published authors. Jack is featured in issue 296.3, Summer 2011.


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. Find more of Anthony’s work at http://www.tremmaglia.ca/

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.

Moon

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.

Thanksgiving greetings from the NAR staff & contributors Bill Graeser and Susan Kort

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Have a safe and wonderful Thanksgiving Holiday from the staff here at the North American Review.

And thanks to Bill Graeser for his poem, “Thanksgiving”, from issue 294.6, Nov. – Dec. 2009 and many thanks to Susan Kort for her poem, “Over the River & Through the Woods”, from issue 292.6, Nov. – Dec. 2007, as well.

Thanksgiving

He’s thankful for SUVs
high enough to hide
under
like the night in the parking
lot when the cops came.

Thankful for what memories
he has of his father, that his
mother believed in
remaining strong, that his
kid sister is off the street,
that at least one of his
brothers will come up for
parole, and thankful that he
is not dead—what with
the ’Hood he grew up in
and two tours in Iraq.

He is thankful for rap,
for the Chicago Bulls,
for snow on filthy sidewalks,
and here at this table,
thankful that ketchup is
almost the color of
cranberry sauce, that french
fries mush in the mouth like
stuffing, thankful that he is
not an animal bred to be
dinner (though there’ve
been times he’s felt he was)
and thankful that he is not
the only one eating alone in
Burger King
on Thanksgiving.

Bill GraeserBill Graeser, a Long Island native, has worked as dairy farmer, carpenter, teacher of Transcendental Meditation and is currently the Locksmith at Maharishi University of Management, Fairfield, Iowa. Winner of Iowa Poetry Association’s 2012 Norman Thomas Memorial Award.


“Over the River & Through the Woods”

To the left went the diapason
of forks, to the right
the spoons & knives in sterling, & in between came plates

that were appropriate, sequentially –
those were repasts she regaled us with, nothing less
than sumptuous, tureens & sauces & jellies & relishes: équipages

for butter & cream, grapish
épergnes in the center: her dining room
table: equinoctal feasts she counted on

familial esurience, it made her life
a thing of beauty, now & then, seeing all of us
in places she’d decreed were in right ones (on cards,

I mean, handletter’d, itsy violets & such, she had a lot of time) ;
& everything seemly. She hailed Mary
there’d be none of those gratuitous shenanigans

born of the vine, no espiritous implosions our kin were given to,
to her chagrin, no son’s head
laid to rest on her lineny cloth like my Daddy’s

every single year, impeding the serving
of the pumpkin or mince or Key lime:
Pièce de résistance

Susanne Kort is a psychotherapist practicing in Jalisco, Mexico. In the U.S., her poetry has appeared in the North American Review, Notre Dame Review, Grand Street, Green Mountains Review, Indiana Review, Seneca Review, Prairie Schooner, Sonora Review, The Laurel Review, and other journals. Her work has also been published in journals in Ireland, England and Canada.

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.

Journey by Moonlight

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.

Horror vacui

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.

jeff2

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.

“Pale Ghosts” by Dolly Reynolds from issue 292.5

This weekend we featured Dolly Reynolds’s nonfiction story in three parts beginning Friday November 7th, Saturday November 8th and this is the conclusion, part three and four of “Pale Ghosts” from issue 292.5, September-October 2007.

Thoughts from the author: dolly bread loaf photo

I wrote this piece as a personal essay response to the murder of my mother in 1997. It seemed then such a huge and unmanageable subject, but writing “Pale Ghosts” helped me decide to attend grad school and focus on my writing in a serious way. I am now a 3rd year MFA student at San Francisco State and am working on a book length memoir about my family, the murder, and its aftermath. Continue reading