What I Learned from Carol Channing by Michael Spence

Michael Spence discusses perseverance throughout his career and the success it brought him, and ultimately what he learned from Carol Channing. He last appeared in the North American Review with his poem “Consensus” in issue 298.2, Spring 2013. He also discusses “Consensus” in an earlier post

Perseverance

Carol Channing

Photo courtesy of deserthealthnews.com

Carol Channing was not an actress I ever paid much attention to.  I knew her name and that she’d been in some well-known shows and films, but I never would’ve thought she’d have made any comment that would mean much to me.  As with many other things in my life, I was wrong.  One day she appeared on a TV talk show and was asked, in the face of constant rejection and difficulty getting her career going in her early days, how she found the strength to keep going.  As I recall it, she said, “You just keep trying and trying and trying, and finally, fate gives up.”  That’s a great, funny way to phrase it, implying that whatever forces may seem aligned against one’s efforts at least can be worn down enough to allow a victory now and then.

I recently had my own Carol Channing moment in the world of poetry book contests.  Like many of us, I’d dutifully sent my manuscripts to competitions large and small.  For three decades I tried contests from the Walt Whitman Award to lesser-known ones sponsored by presses that now, alas, have vanished or ceased publishing poetry.  I was fortunate enough occasionally to get a kind comment or two from the judges, and I even “finalized” (as novelist and short-story writer Marjorie Kemper put it) a few times through the years.  But I could never get the last nod needed to actually win such a contest and get a volume of poems published that way.  Though I kept on sending manuscripts out, fate showed no sign I could see of giving up, so I came to the conclusion that such a win just wasn’t in the deck of cards I was playing with.  Mathematically of course, it’s always the case that the odds are tiny that a particular person will win:  There are hundreds or thousands of manuscripts being submitted, and only one is selected.  Still, we keep trying, because maybe…

So I was, as I like to now joke, completely floored and walled and ceilinged when I learned that the manuscript of my fifth book of poems, Umbilical, had been selected this January as the winner of The New Criterion Poetry Prize.  I kept reading and re-reading the email telling me this, certain that the words would morph into the this-came-close/thanks-anyway comments I’d been “trained” by all these years to expect.  The volume is slated to appear this fall from St. Augustine’s Press.

All of which is to say that, if you believe in your work—even if you don’t necessarily believe the outside world will favor it—you have to keep on trying.  Fate is so fickle a thing, you can never tell when it will finally give up.


ms

Michael Spence retired on Valentine’s Day, 2014 from thirty years of driving public transit buses in the Seattle area.  His poems have appeared recently in The Hudson Review, Measure, The New Criterion, The Sewanee Review, Shenandoah, and Tar River Poetry.  New work is forthcoming in The Hudson Review, The Sewanee Review, and Southwest Review.  His fourth book, The Bus Driver’s Threnody, was released last September by Truman State University Press.  (The Spring 2015 issue of The Hudson Review includes a quite complimentary review of Threnody.)  He was awarded a 2014 Literary Fellowship from Artist Trust of Washington State.  His fifth book, Umbilical, is slated to be published this fall by St. Augustine’s Press as the winner of The New Criterion Poetry Prize.

 

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The conclusion to “Standing Deadwood” by Thomas M. Atkinson from issue 294.3-4

“STANDING DEADWOOD” originally appeared in issue 294.3-4, May-Aug 2009. The first half of Thomas M. Atkinson’s short story “Standing Deadwood” was featured yesterday June 6, 2015.


House_in_the_Woods

After work, I stopped by on the way home to visit Gwen’s mother Jeri, who lives in a little stick-built house under a two hundred year old standing dead oak just waiting for the right gust of wind. Once Amber found a perfect arrowhead in the broken knot of a windfall branch, grown over and over again each spring, rising higher and higher. Jeri owns Miss Jerolee’s Trims ‘n Tans and most people call her Miss Jerolee whether she’s working or not. She was nursing a cup of coffee at her dinette and she looked like she’d been painted with the powder off of those cheese curls Amber likes so much. Last year she fell asleep with a chemical whitening tray clamped between her teeth, and for months and months, until her cigarettes could stake another claim, it was like she had a light bulb turned on in her mouth every time she smiled.

I said, “Is your tanning bed giving you trouble?”

She held out an orange arm and said, “’Bronze Goddess.’ You spray it on. It’s
what the stars wear to the Golden Globes.”

I said, “And I thought there was something wrong with our TV”

She said, “I got it off the eBay.”

I said, “You talk to her today?”

She licked her thumb and worried a spot on her arm. She said, “Honey, she don’t
call me no more. Not unless she needs cash.”

I said, “You give her any?”

She said, “Not since she broke in the shop. And I didn’t mean to then.”
She lit up a menthol and rubbed the filter end against her teeth until it squeaked.

I said, “I drug her home again last night.”

TraarbaraGruzŝoseo

I’d tracked her out east of town, to a trailer home back a gravel road so washed out that my shingle hatchet kept sliding up underneath the pedals and back again. An old woman on oxygen was asleep on the couch and a lady was selling loose gemstones on the Shopping Channel. Gwen was in the back bedroom in the dark, laid out side by side on the floor with a high school boy like they were dead. They were both dressed and his hand, slim and soft, was on top of hers as light as a feather. She’d sighed and whispered, “Tell me again.” Then I stepped between them and put my boot through the Sheetrock above his head. I stomped all the furniture to match sticks and didn’t stop until Gwen got in the way of the vanity, crawling for the light of the open door. The boy balled up in one corner covering his head with his hands, and I pissed three beers down his back before I drug her out to the truck.

Jeri said, “Smoking that makes her crazy, Honey. It’s poison.”

I said, “I tore up a trailer. Pissed on some kid.”

She shook her head and blew smoke out of her nose.
I said, “Wasn’t his fault.”

And she said, “No, but not yours neither. She’s my flesh and blood, but God help
me, you’ve served your time.”

I said, “But she’s my baby.”

She said, “She’s my baby once too. You got another baby to worry about.”

At the door, I said, “Jeri, when are you going to let me fell this tree?”
She said, “If you cut it down now, how’ll the insurance buy me a new house?”

I looked up and said, “That’s not much of a plan, Jeri. You might just get
squashed like a bug.”

She said, “Next time your sister brings her down, come by the shop and Kim’ll do
her free.” Kim is the Korean girl who works for Jeri, and she paints tiny unicorns on Amber’s nails that look like they’re running from one to the next.

I stopped by Wendy’s and picked up a Frosty milkshake because that’s about the only thing Gwen can keep down anymore. There was a doe in the yard when I got home, and we stared at each other until I turned off the engine and she bolted through the pines. Gwen was still sleeping and the whole room smelled of rotting teeth. I untapped the oven mitts from her hands and rubbed at the adhesive caught in the fine hairs of her wrists. When she stretched you could see my boot laces in the big bruise coming up on her ribs. She smiled at me like a sleepy child, like she used to, like the last two years were a dream she’d already forgotten, and said, “Baby, be careful at work today.”

I said, “I will. You want some Frosty?”

She rolled on to her side and said, “No, I’m just going to catnap until Amber gets up for school.”

Sometimes she forgets. I said, “Give her this.” I kissed her palm and wrapped her fingers tight around it and now she’s fast asleep. It’s what I used to do.

Raccoons_600p

I go out for a breath of air and set the Frosty down just outside the back door. Three beers from now I’ll be too drunk to drive to Akron, too drunk to run without thinking about where I might be running, too drunk to find my pistol hidden up in the rafters of the tool shed. But I won’t be too drunk to sit in the dark and watch him lick ice cream off his little black hands. And with any luck, I won’t be too drunk to throw my hatchet through the screen door, at the night full of starlight gathered in the green behind his eyes.


Thomas M. Atkinson is an author and playwright. His new novel, Tiki Man, was named one of four finalists in the 2014 Leapfrog Press Fiction Contest. His new collection of linked stories, Standing Deadwood, which includes “Standing Deadwood,” has been selected as a finalist in the 2014 Spokane Prize for Fiction (Willow Springs Editions) and the 2014 St. Lawrence Book Award for Fiction (Black Lawrence Press). “Ruint Horse” was just named 1st Runner-up for the 2014 Chris O’Malley Prize for Fiction at The Madison Review and will appear in the Spring 2015 issue. His short story, “Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills,” published in The Sun magazine, was twice nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize, and is taught in English 11 & 12 AP courses in San Diego, California. “Ruint Horse” and “Red, White & Blue,” were finalists for Tampa Review’s 2013 and 2014 Danahy Fiction Prize. His short play, Dancing Turtle, was one of six winners of the 2013 38th Annual Samuel French Off Off Broadway Festival, and appears in an anthology of the same name. He has won numerous awards for both fiction and drama, including five Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Awards. His short fiction has appeared in The Sun, The Madison Review, The North American Review, The Indiana Review, Tampa Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, The Moon, City Beat, Clifton, and Electron Press Magazine. A new print edition of his first novel, Strobe Life, is now available. He and his wife live in Ohio and have two sons.

A Special Saturday featuring “STANDING DEADWOOD” by Thomas M. Atkinson from 294.3-4

Thomas M. Atkinson’s short story “Standing Deadwood” was featured in issue 294.3/4, spring/summer 2009. This is the first half of the story and the conclusion will be posted tomorrow, Sunday June 7, 2015.

“STANDING DEADWOOD”

The raccoon took a crap in my truck last night. Inside the cab, in the cup-holder. I was still a little bleary this morning and my coffee thermos wouldn’t sit straight so I kept trying to push it down. That’s how my day started. That and a sore knee. He must have dropped down out of the pine and pushed in the cardboard I had over the busted rear window. I can’t remember what Gwen threw to break that out. Back when she still had the strength to throw stuff and hadn’t pawned everything in the house worth throwing.

racoon

Some night if I can stay awake long enough, I’m going to put out a can of Super Seafood Supper cat-food and when he’s fat and happy and licking out the bottom of the  can, I’ll shoot that little fucker right through his eye, just so he knows it was me. Skin him out and hang his carcass in a tree to warn off his buddies. I’m starting to believe the house was built on sacred ground, cursed by a great Ohio chief like Cornstalk, right before one of my wife’s relatives cut off his nut-sack for a tobacco pouch. I don’t know what else would explain everything going insane, even the animals. My great grandmother was Shawnee, and claimed an unbroken bloodline back to Black Wolf, who
raided up and down the Big Sandy and Tug Fork, down into Virginia and crossing the big
river up into this part of Ohio, killing the men and babies, stealing the women, and
trading the children to faraway tribes. But besides black hair thick as fishing line, which I
passed on to my daughter, and being a sorry, sloppy, and cheap drunk, I don’t see it when
I look in the mirror. That’s why I can’t ever catch him, because by my third beer I’m
either drooling on the sofa or I’m out on a tear chasing down Gwen.

racoon2

This time last year I got the ladder to clean the leaves and needles out of the gutters. Blocked gutters in the winter can cause ice dams and do all kinds of damage. I was a roofer for seventeen years right out of high school, back before the Mexicans started doing it for free, and I got nothing to show for it except bad knees and a shingle hatchet under the seat of my truck that slides out if I brake too hard. Now I work at the
discount tire place over on Route 4. Down the whole length of gutter on the east side of the house, every six inches, like he had a tape measure, were little piles of raccoon turds. Not piles that had been on the roof and got washed in by the rain, but direct deposits. In the quiet hours of the night, a raccoon is climbing on my roof just so he can hang his fat ass off and crap in my gutter. I don’t know why. There’s a square hole in the front porch where there used to be a rail post and he likes to go in there too. Last August he took a dump in the swimming pool of Amber’s Barbie Wee Three Friends Splash Splash Splash Play set and chewed off the little blue plastic umbrella. She and the Wee Three Friends were already living with my sister up outside Akron by then so we both didn’t have to watch her mom go bat-shit crazy every couple of days. She asks about it every time I call,
and if she doesn’t forget about it soon I’ll have to get my mother-in-law to find a used one on the eBay to send her for Christmas.

When I got to work Billy was already out in the service truck and Grimace was
climbing up out of the pit from underneath an old BMW.

He said, “Hey, Chief.” But it didn’t really sound any more like Chief this morning
than it did any other morning. Billy named him Grimace after that purple thing in the old
McDonald’s commercials. A few years back, the batch of meth he was cooking blew up
in his face, so like the original, he has no ears or nose to speak of and what’s left of his
lips are pulled back so tight he has a hard time closing them around words or food. Every
morning his senile mother paints eyebrows on the angry purple skin and he lets her
because it was her house that got burned to the ground. They change a little each day and
sometimes it can take hours to put your finger on just what mood he looks like he’s in.
But not today.

I said, “Concerned. You look concerned.”
Grimace said, “Really?”

He’s not big on mirrors and each morning it’s up to me to let him know how it
turned out. He thought a moment and said, “Yeah, I am. But I wonder how she knows?”

More often than not, Ma Grimace’s work with the eyeliner pencil seems to
capture what’s going on behind the hillbilly Botox.

I said, “Mothers know these things.” And there was a time that I believed that,
back before Gwen left Amber alone with only a cigarette smoldering in the shag carpet to
keep her company.

Grimace worked his chin against the pull of scar tissue and said, “They’s holding
a driver’s side caliper for me over at the Beemer store. Hey, you know the difference
‘tween a BMW and a porcupine?”

Speed_bump_on_Work_Channel_Road

Counting Billy, I’d heard it at least twice for every BMW we’d ever put tires on, but it was so painful to watch him get out “porcupine” that I just said, “Seems like I’ve
heard this one.”

He said, “Porcupine has the pricks on the outside.”

Grimace’s laugh would scare Christ down off the cross.

He said, “If you go get it for me, I’ll fix that flat that’s waiting on you. Billy don’t
have to know.”

Billy likes Grimace to take care of his own work, even if that means a customer
lounge full of staring strangers on his way to a parts counter. Me, I don’t mind helping
him out.

I said, “Is that it?”
He said, “That’s it, Chief.”

On the way to the BMW dealer, I could hear a song in my head like the bandit
raccoon had returned the ghost of my stolen CD player. It was “Chief,” by a singer named
Patty Griffin. I used to like it, liked it so much I bought the CD for Gwen, called “1,000
Kisses,” and gave it to her on Valentine’s Day. At first, Gwen and Amber would sing and
dance around the kitchen. Then Gwen started listening to it over and over, just that one
song, and she’d sing along with the part about dreaming and flying and laughing “way up
high” as loud as she could. And hour after hour, day after day, that’ll wear on you. I came
home from work one cold October day and Amber was sitting up in a pine, in a little
pony t-shirt and stocking feet because freezing to death seemed better than another four
hours three minutes at a time. I went in the house and snapped “1,000 Kisses” into a
thousand pieces and that was the last time I’ve heard it anywhere except inside my own
head. For a while I tried to remember the lyrics, like maybe there was a riddle hidden in
there somewhere, but all I could ever hear was the part Gwen sang.

But nobody but Grimace ever called me “Chief,” and I can’t remember now
whether I first liked the song because he called me that, or if the name came later, in one
of those twists you won’t ever figure out. I could ask him, like I could buy another “1,000
Kisses,” but either one would make the answer disappear like summer fog. Better that it’s
out there and I never find it than have it gone forever.

fog

Two crows were picking over scraps of fur in the turn lane in front of the BMW
dealer, and they hopped out of the way at the very last moment. The parts counter is
inside their “courtesy bay,” a long, double-wide garage with doors at each end, tiled walls
and a spotless floor. The customers drive in one end to drop their cars off for service, and
even though the “customer care team” wears white shop-coats that make them look like
doctors, the first thing they do is cover the seats in plastic and put paper mats down under
the pedals. The best you can hope for at Discount Tire is a complimentary ass inspection,
when we show each other the seat of our pants to check for any obvious globs of grease.

While I was waiting for the parts guy to get off the phone, I watched a blond in a
black sedan. She’d pulled in a few minutes before and was checking her hair in the
rear view mirror while she talked on her cell phone. She had a good ten years on Gwen,
but she had the kind of money that works like polishing compound because she was lean
and tan and buffed to a soft glow. And she sure didn’t have an addiction piling extra
years on her wasted body. Maybe she might make herself puke after a big meal at the
club, but she didn’t have sores on her arms that she scratched bloody in her sleep or death
on her breath.

Two mechanics in blue shop-coats yelled, “Close the doors! Close the doors!”
The one in front had three feet of two-by-four over one shoulder and the other one
followed at arms length with a flashlight and they both stepped like Elmer Fudd hunting.

The one in back yelled, “We got him now!”

The parts guy hung up the phone and customers and salesmen crowded in to
watch and all of the employees were wearing white or blue. The blond closed her phone
and dabbed at the corner of her open mouth with her pinkie. She opened her door and put
out a black high heel and a length of calf as hard and smooth and polished as a furniture
leg.

The parts guy said, “Ma’am, you might want to stay in your car a minute. We’ve
got a little bit of a situation here.”

She closed her door and I turned and said, “You got a caliper for Discount Tire?
A guy called on it.”

He looked at my mesh-back cap and said, “Look alive there, Slick. We got a
sewer rat running around big as a ‘coon.”

And I said, “And we got a shitbox beemer clogging up our alignment pit.”
A girl screamed and someone yelled, “There he goes!” and out of the corner of
my eye I caught something a foot long and rust colored disappearing under the sedan.
Flashlight knelt down behind the car and after a quick look said, “Shit, he’s got up in her
undercarriage.”

The parts guy said, “That don’t sound good.”

Two-by-four said, “Rock the car. Bounce it and I’ll get him when he drops
down.”

Flashlight looked at exactly how close he’d have to stand to bounce the car, and
quietly said, “Fuck that.”

One of the salesmen yelled, “Get her to pull up and brake hard. That’ll fix him.”

Two-by-four yelled at her and made big motions with his bat and when she
cracked her window open just an inch, like maybe he might be crazy, he still yelled like
she was way across the river. When she pulled up and stopped, the rat dropped down and
ran, ran without thinking about where he might be running. I turned on my heels and
drew back, and just before he reached me, the toe of my boot was there to meet him. My
sore knee twinged and he sailed over the black sedan, dead before he hit the tile wall. It
went quiet for a moment, then the salesman threw up both arms like a football ref and
yelled, “And it’s good!”

Flashlight and Two-by-four worked their way around to the other side of the car
and Two-by-four poked at it a couple of times. I was watching her and she was watching
me, and I don’t know why, but I took off my cap. Two-by-four opened her door, and she
turned, wool skirt on leather, and paused with her ankles crossed. She looked at me, past
the greasy jeans and the hard hands, and bowed. Not a big bow, from the waist, but a
slow dip of the neck and head, lowering her eyes for just a breath.

She said, “Thank you.”
And Two-by-four said, “You’re welcome.”
But I don’t think she was talking to him.

Flashlight walked up to me and said, in a voice filled with hurt, “You didn’t have
to kill him.”

When I got back to the garage, Billy and Grimace were in the grubby little office
with their heads together listening at the phone. Billy turned it back to his ear and said,
“Yeah, he just come in the door. So why do suppose the turd herding rats are all over at
your shop?…Well, you know what they say, ‘Fuck the best, die like the rest.’”

Billy hung up and smiled.
I said, “It’s ‘fuck with the best,’ not ‘fuck the best.’”
Billy said, “Is it?”

Grimace looked at me with an eyebrow smeared sad by the phone and said,
“Dang, Chief.”


Thomas M. Atkinson is an author and playwright. His new novel, Tiki Man, was named one of four finalists in the 2014 Leapfrog Press Fiction Contest. His new collection of linked stories, Standing Deadwood, which includes “Standing Deadwood,” has been selected as a finalist in the 2014 Spokane Prize for Fiction (Willow Springs Editions) and the 2014 St. Lawrence Book Award for Fiction (Black Lawrence Press). “Ruint Horse” was just named 1st Runner-up for the 2014 Chris O’Malley Prize for Fiction at The Madison Review and will appear in the Spring 2015 issue. His short story, “Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills,” published in The Sun magazine, was twice nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize, and is taught in English 11 & 12 AP courses in San Diego, California. “Ruint Horse” and “Red, White & Blue,” were finalists for Tampa Review’s 2013 and 2014 Danahy Fiction Prize. His short play, Dancing Turtle, was one of six winners of the 2013 38th Annual Samuel French Off Off Broadway Festival, and appears in an anthology of the same name. He has won numerous awards for both fiction and drama, including five Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Awards. His short fiction has appeared in The Sun, The Madison Review, The North American Review, The Indiana Review, Tampa Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, The Moon, City Beat, Clifton, and Electron Press Magazine. A new print edition of his first novel, Strobe Life, is now available. He and his wife live in Ohio and have two sons.

Come back Sunday June 7, 2015 for the conclusion of “Standing Deadwood”.

Two Poems from a Dream of Anna Akhmatova by Jacqueline Marcus

6-4.1Sort of a strange experience on the writing of these two poems. I was an avid reader of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry, but it’s been years since I’ve read her work. The other night I had a dream about her: I was in a dark café—probably the Stray Dog, a name that always stuck with me in the biography, where Russian poets would meet and read their poems. Akhmatova stood up on the stage. I was trying desperately to make out the words of the poem, but I couldn’t hear her. The only thing I could hear was the sound, the tone of her voice that was like a very sad cello. And her eyes, I remember her eyes—those huge, mournful eyes. I could vaguely remember the dream when I woke up at 4 am And then I sat down and wrote these two poems. Both were written in less than ten minutes. I didn’t touch a word.

Abandonment

Bent on the weather of distraction,
I watched the blackbirds from the large framed window
make their way to the northern sea for the last time.
I don’t know why I was feeling the need to go with them,
or why the rain spelled the music of elsewhere,
or if the moon signaled its lost joy, like a child’s drawing
that had been left in a box of memories. All I know
is that the time had come for the end of summer.
A cold sun pressed its palm against the pane of glass
as if my heart would shatter—
so many pieces of impossible nights, a splash of leaves, perhaps,
in a field of elegant trees…

There was no point.

There was only the sound of a lifetime,
diminished. It drifts across the sea and a million stars.

It has no destination.

You come to me, dear soul, in the middle of this winter,
stubborn as a fierce storm.

What exactly do you expect from me night after night?
You follow me like an abandoned dog.

Crimes against Humanity

In the awkward moment of farewells,
small talk, coffee, the clatter of silverware at the café,
we left our signatures beneath the prose of endearments.
The train muttered the sound of towns with its gray whistle and scarves,
a cold wind embraced the warmth of the fire.
No one could have guessed by now how the country had changed.
We were strangers passing through centuries of farms,
cobblestone streets and mothers hurrying with their children,
bargaining prices for fish, cabbage and flour for bread…
The train sang through fields of wheat. Each time
it entered the tunnel of years,
it was a new dawn.
I got off, and stepped down to the platform.

I could tell you what I saw through the steamy windows:
the faces of the young, the faces of the old—

and the long, dolorous smoke of what we’ve done to one another.


Jacqueline Marcus is the editor of Forpoetry.com and EnvironmentalPress.com.  She is a contributing guest writer for Buzzflash at Truthout.org.  She is the author of Close to the Shore by Michigan State University Press. Her e-book, Man Cannot Live on Oil, Alone: Time to end our dependency on oil before it ends us, is available at Kindle Books. She taught philosophy for twenty years at Cuesta College, San Luis Obispo, California. Her essays, “The Beauty of Sadness: An Essential Human Emotion Exiled in a War Society”, “Neruda”, and “How Nazism Shaped US War Policies: Thousands of SS War Criminals Recruited to the U.S. by CIA-Pentagon after WWII” appeared in the North American Review blog. Her new collection of poems, Summer Rains, has been accepted for publication at Iris Press.  


Illustration by Eric Piatkowski. Eric was raised in Arizona, and after a few years of working in theater, he switched gears and studied illustration at the Pratt Institute. Now in Des Moines, he splits his time between drawing, drawing, and more drawing. Give him a call, he just might be the perfect man for the job. Prints of artwork are available through Etsy at Eric Piatkowski Art. The illustration above is titled “Adrift” for a story in issue 299.2, Spring 2014.

Crack by Amy Glynn

Amy Glynn gives us an excerpt from her in-progress essay collection “Knotweed, Bindweed, Crabgrass, Thorn: Field Notes on Making Your Bed and Lying in It, Bolting, Reaping What You Sow, and Other Useful Domestic Metaphors.” 

5.28

I see humanity now as one vast plant, needing for its highest
fulfillment only love, the natural blessings of the great
outdoors, and intelligent crossing and selection.

Luther Burbank

The damned thing split right along the midline of one of the primary limbs. Cracked under its own weight.

Ham-fisted symbolism in this backyard has just gone far enough already. Things wither unexpectedly, things overproduce and go to waste. Things you nurture and encourage and coax into giving you fruit instead rot, drop dead, get gnawed by rats, stolen by morbidly obese squirrels, set a bunch of fruit and then pitch it all before it gets ripe. And I feel badly for the tree, because that splintering exposed heartwood looks painful, but I am aware of a brooding, smoldering sense of—what?

Say it. Betrayal.

I tended this tree. I put it in the ground, a sapling, a baby, small enough for me to carry with one hand. I have groomed and clipped and shaped and fed and harvested the thing for nine years. Why must it, like everything else in the world and on such obnoxiously, face-slap-obvious timing, break?

The plums dangle in huge clusters, rosy or bluish, softly glaucous and exuding a whispery, oddly amorous perfume—I don’t have another word for it; it’s a come-hither smell, a come-on-take-me smell. The tree is one of storied horticulturalist Luther Burbank’s most enduring masterpieces, a Japanese-hybrid plum called Santa Rosa. That you can also find them in any west coast supermarket made them relatively unattractive to me, but they were recommended as the best pollinizer for my fetish plum, a green-skinned, scarlet-fleshed “blood plum” called Satsuma, first sent to market (also by Burbank) in 1899. Look it up and you’ll see it says it’s commonly cultivated, but I find it elusive to nonexistent even in farmers markets. Truth be told, I did not push to come back to this county, in the valleys east of Oakland, for the “good” public schools. I came because of that plum. Childhood next-door neighbors had an overbearing beast of a Satsuma—who could imagine so much fruit from such a petite tree? Outrageous floods of them, all ripe at once, nothing for it but to learn to preserve, not to mention eat nothing but plums for three weeks. Refugee grocery bags of them found themselves on our front porch every summer. Because no one could eat them all.

I could, though. My parents kept saying I’d make myself sick. I never did. 

In typical fashion for this holy war I call a garden, the thing I had planted as a concession thrived. The thing I planted for love withered. Still, no complaints about the plum that lived. Santa Rosas require little care, bear heavily (sometimes overwhelmingly), and, maybe because they’re naturally full of serotonin or maybe just because they are idyll incarnate when conveyed directly from branch to mouth, they just make you happy.

Plants speak to us, however wild or trained they are, however apparently simple or complex. They just don’t use words—though I suspect they appreciate them. The plum’s message is this: be patient and you will be taken care of. Tend me and I will tend you. Abundance and want follow one another eternally, so stop right now and enjoy this. You won’t receive that message from a plum plucked from cold storage in your supermarket. It might still taste good, but it has been detached from its source for so long it no longer remembers what it was trying to say.

I am alone. The children are with their father. Sun and tree alike past apogee, trending downward. It is early evening, late June.

Early evening, late June. The air smells like mesquite smoke and chlorine and plums; warm from the sun, the tree exudes a kind of exotic yet eerily familiar perfume. It smells like renewal, like rot, like love.

It’s still 98 degrees outside, down from an unpleasant pinnacle of 105. The kids are in the swimming pool; water rebounds off tiles, chaotic small waves that catch the sun and throw little liquid sparks.

Laughter; husband playing pool games with kids, friends cracking jokes, the soft pop of the cork being pulled on another bottle of the insanely beautiful orange Roussanne made by friends of ours. The heat has its own sound; an arid, windless composite of air rising from the scorching pavement; of the sharp, chiding voices of the hummingbirds and of the whirring of their wings; of the low scraping of cicadas, the high distant scream of a red-tailed hawk; foliage wilting audibly in the garden; the gentle slap of water against the pool’s coping; all underscored by a profound and almost subsensory hum which seems to be the actual sound of radiation from the sun.

I am gathering plums in my skirt; now that the mercury’s back in double digits I’m going to brave the kitchen and make a tart. One of our friends trails me, gathering the ones I’m missing. The Satsuma is bothering me. Planted in the same soil on the same day, it is a quarter of the size of the Santa Rosa, and the fruits are fewer, tougher and smaller every year. This year I’m not even picking them. I can see its slow trajectory toward defeat, the tree kind that takes years of agonizing burnout. It still flowers and bears fruit and grows and drops leaves, but it will be dead within five years.

In spite of every conceivable intervention, so will my marriage.

 “My God,” my friend says. “Your garden is magic.”

Don’t get me wrong, this “magic” is the product of constant sweat and scratches and back spasms but still, yes, at the moment I think so too, how what I have managed to do with the trainwreck we bought is in fact amazing, that I criticize my failures to prune or weed or plant something in time far too harshly, and that I should learn to see what other people see, which is a sort of domestic paradise, part idyll, part micro-farm. My kids have never seen the inside of a McDonald’s, but they know which weeds you can eat and which ones are better left alone; they know what strawberries taste like when they’ve had a transit time of 3 seconds from stem to stomach, they know which beans are the Romanos and which are the Dragon’s Tongues. They can tell you when Meyer lemons ripen and which chicken lays which egg.

Everyone is the picture of pure voluptuous, indolent, summer-Sunday contentment.

What they don’t know is that once they drive off, my husband and I will not speak to each other. He will busy himself with putting the kids to bed and leave me with the dishes and the remarkable amount of recycling left in their wake.

They don’t know he will stay up watching the most inane television he can find so he does not have to go to bed with me.

They don’t know I’ll go to bed early to ensure I am asleep by the time he comes in because I know if he falls asleep first the snoring will cause me to stay up all night seething and fighting the urge to kick him awake.

They don’t know things have been cracking for so long I no longer remember what it felt like when they weren’t.

When my friend called the garden “magic,” she didn’t hear the sotto voce reply from the swimming pool, “Yes, there are lots of things with thorns. In places where people walk.” He has a knack for doing that in a way no one hears but me.

They don’t know it is always like this.

They don’t know it has almost always been like this.

Or has it? Am I making that up? Justification? Pathological focus on “the negative?” Am I crazy, wildly, violently unfair? Didn’t we love each other?

Didn’t we promise to? 

But here, now, it is a beautiful hot early summer Sunday, this group of our friends are gathered under our palm tree in our backyard and are about to be treated to a large amount of amazing food that was alive and growing hours or minutes ago, and I have plum juice all over my hands and my skirt and running down my chin like some beautiful simile about abundance and prosperity and plenty and sensuousness and the rewards of effort and no one knows. They don’t know the other me, the other him. They don’t know what happens when the door closes.

I’m not strong enough to pull the halves of the split branch together to try to bind them. I don’t want to call anyone for help. I am tired of needing help. I know this is wrong: none of us really accomplishes anything alone, at least not the big stuff. It’s one of the reasons we get married. Because you can do more that way, accomplish more, have someone with whom you share—oh, say it—the fruits of your labor.

Or I could leave it, pull the plums as soon as they’re ripe—I think they will still ripen —and then prune the branches and hope the thing scars over and heals, a lame limb, a broken limb, but—you know, still part of the tree. The entropy method. “Lassitude” or “Let Nature Take Its Course” depending on your perspective.

It might be the right move and it’s certainly the easiest. But to be honest, I’ve had it with broken things. I want all of them gone. Even if, as Leonard Cohen famously sang, “There is a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in.”


Amy Glynn Headshot

Amy Glynn‘s poetry collection “A Modern Herbal” was published by Measure Press. Her work appears widely in journals and anthologies including The Best American Poetry. She has been the recipient of a James Merril House fellowship, Poetry Northwest’s Carolyn Kizer Award, and the Literal Latte Essay Award for 2014. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Illustration 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 will be in upcoming 300.3, Summer 2015. Find more of Anthony’s work at http://www.tremmaglia.ca/

Throwback Thursday featuring Roy Bentley from issue 293.2

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

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

Funerals in the South

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

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


Ohio, 2014

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

A Teaching Moment by Paul Crenshaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Can Books Fly? by John Smolens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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Second Illustration Link

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

Poetry and Other Cities by Tobias Wray

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Throwback Thursday featuring Andrea Potos from issue 289.2

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Andrea Potos’s poem, “Each Self” won the James Hearst Poetry Prize in 2004. Her poem is featured in issue 289.2, Spring 2004.

Notes from the author: As my daughter is now on the verge of leaving for college far away from home, I reflect again on what she inspired in me when I wrote this poem years ago:  all the invisible, infinitesimal, yet totally inescapable changes that propel us forward, willingly or not,  into new lives.

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Each Self

My six-year-old daughter stares into the purpling
copper sky and names it dusk, a just-learned word
she is happy to declare, comparing it to evening
and afternoon. We talk of how the Earth turns away
from the sun each night,
a motion so encompassing,
our bodies cannot know it.
I don’t tell her how the child
part of me still disbelieves it – that this globe
actually spins while we breathe, while my daughter
changes invisibly before my eyes,

her infant body submerged inside her
with her toddler waddle and her four-year-old skip,
each swallowed within the other
like the nesting dolls she keeps
on her new desk, each self
perfectly preserved, forsaken
for the one that must come after.


Andrea Potos is the author of six poetry collections, including An Ink Like Early Twilight  (Salmon Poetry, 2015), We Lit the Lamps Ourselves (Salmon Poetry, 2012), and Yaya’s Cloth  (Iris Press, 2007).  She has twice been the recipient of an Outstanding Achievement Award in Poetry from the Wisconsin Library Association, and her works appear widely in print and online.  She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her daughter (on the verge of leaving), her husband, and her cockapoo Penny.


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Why I Do This by Eric Barnes

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

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

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

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I don’t feel that.

I should. I really should.

But I don’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why do I do this?

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

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

Yes.

Why do I do this?

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

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

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

Why do I do this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe it should.

But it doesn’t.

That much, at this point, is painfully clear.

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

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

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

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

Why do I do this?

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

But then I tell myself there are other Canadian agents.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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