BURN PILE: New Lit TV, Great Young American Novelists, Good Friends, and Something Funny from McSweeney’s

In this week’s Burn Pile, CutBank brings you all your essential literary entertainment needs (at least for another week-or-so). Binge-worthy TV shows, work from great young American novelists, a heartwarming story of friendship and cannons, and something funny from McSweeney’s:

·       Two new literary TV shows debuted recently: Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and STARZ’s American Gods. Read related articles from The New Yorker here and BookRiot here.

·       The excellent folks at Granta have also released a special issue featuring the best of young American novelists. Get the issue featuring Emma Cline, Catherine Lacey, Jesse Ball, Lauren Groff, Karan Mahajan, and Claire Vaye Watkins here. In addition, read LitHub’s feature of “10 More of the Best Young American Novelists” here.

·       Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is also coming to the Apollo stage. Read The New York Times write-up here.

·       In other news, Johnny Depp spent five million dollars on a cannon to blast Hunter S. Thompson’s ashes—what a good friend.

·       And finally meet Thad—your worst student—courtesy of McSweeney’s.

Stay strong, friends. CutBank out.

EDITOR'S BOOKSHELF: The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (1962)

Review by Nicole Roché, Online Managing Editor/Fiction Editor

**WARNING:  This review contains spoilers.**

The opening line of Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes states, “One day in August a man disappeared.” The unnamed narrator offers various theories about what might have happened to the man. Did he run off with a mistress? Did he take his own life? A teacher and hobby entomologist, the man was known for his frequent insect collecting. As the narrator asserts, entomologists often have secret, even perverse compulsions: “From this point to suicide out of weariness with the world is but a step.” Readers are told at the end of the chapter that after seven years the man was never found, and thus was declared dead.

Like the Book of Genesis, which opens with dual (and contradictory) creation myths, the novel’s next chapter offers readers a second, far more detailed take on the man and his fate. “One August afternoon,” the chapter begins, “a man stood in the railroad station at S—. He wore a gray peaked hat, and the cuffs of his trousers were tucked into his stockings. A canteen and a large wooden box were slung over his shoulders. He seemed about to set out on a mountain-climbing expedition.” This second, far more fleshed-out version of events, begins the story proper. We learn the man has traveled to the village by the sea in hopes of finding a new species of beetle, a discovery that will forever win him a place in the history books. Of course, at this early point in the novel readers already feel the bittersweet pang of dramatic irony—the man’s name will indeed go down in history, though not in the way he has hoped for or imagined.   

As the man first sets foot in the mysterious village, so too are readers brought step by step into the nightmarish unreality of the novel’s setting. The man realizes that as the sand he walks on continues to rise, the village’s houses remain on their original plane. As he continues to walk up the ever-rising dune, the houses become more and more buried. The man stops in his tracks: “What in heaven’s name could it be like to live there? he thought in amazement, peering down into one of the holes.” He becomes preoccupied when the elusive rare beetle makes an appearance. Villagers begin to watch him as he chases after it, and they ask if he is some sort of inspector. Night falls. The villagers offer to put the man up for the night. He must climb down a rope to get to the house at the bottom of the dune where he will spend the night. Here he meets the woman who lives in the house. He learns that her husband and child were killed years ago after being buried in a sandstorm. The woman cooks dinner for the man, and they quibble about the nature of sand, the novel’s central metaphor. The man is attracted to the woman, and annoyed by her. In the night, he awakens to the sounds of the woman shoveling sand. The villagers stand above, on the ridge, and lift buckets the woman has filled. She must work like this all night, every night. “‘But this means you exist only for the purpose of clearing away the sand, doesn’t it?’” the man asks. The woman thus emerges as a Sisyphean figure: both noble and tragic. The man, frustrated, eventually acquiesces and helps shovel. But in the morning, when he tries to leave, he finds that his only means of escape, the rope, has been removed in the night.    

From here, still so early in the novel, the plot becomes, like that of so many other existentialist novels (eg., Franz Kafka’s The Trial or Albert Camus’s The Plague) a lab experiment in which readers see the characters’ mettle tested under increasing degrees of pressure and absurdity. Will the man attempt to escape? Will he harm himself, or the woman who has played such a central role in his capture and imprisonment? Or, on the other hand, will he give himself over to his desire for the woman? Make a life with her? Allow himself to enjoy that life without regret or anger or recrimination?

Camus calls his collection of essays The Myth of Sisyphus (1955) “a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert.” What does it mean to live and to create in the desert? This is essentially what Camus means by learning to live in acknowledgment of, and in spite of, the Absurd, which he says results from the “confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” The world remains indifferent to human ideals and striving. The Myth of Sisyphus, which seeks to answer the question of whether suicide is justified in the face of an absurd existence, argues that to truly live amid the Absurd requires us to embrace it. In other words, we must learn not just to survive but to thrive. “Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum,” Camus writes, “is living, and to the maximum.”   

Living, and creating, in the Absurd can mean so many different things at different points in our lives. At some point everyone undergoes times of turbulence, whether good and bad. Everyone lives, for a time, steeped in grief or despair or regret. Everyone grapples at one time or another with inertia, boredom, discontent, outrage, fear.

John Scalzi with the Los Angeles Times recently offered readers a ten-point plan for getting creative work done during a time many of us would call absurd: the time of a Trump presidency. The first step is, “Acknowledge it’s bad, and other facts of life.” In this first step, which is arguably the most crucial, Scalzi observes that denial won’t change anything about a situation. Furthermore, “It’s all right to acknowledge that day-to-day life exists, even in the face of existential crisis.” Awareness of one’s situation, however terrible, need not necessarily lead to despair, because revolt of some kind is always possible, if only in our essential approach or attitude. The Woman in the Dunes focuses readers on this truth. “There is no sun without shadow,” as Camus writes in The Myth of Sisyphus’s closing essay, “and it is essential to know the night.”

Nicole Roché is the online managing editor and a fiction editor for CutBank. She is a second-year MFA student in fiction at the University of Montana.

BURN PILE: Advice for Book Lovers, Rebecca Solnit, and Congestion of the Brain

We ordinarily come up with some sort of theme for the Burn Pile—a feature in which we offer up a smattering of the week’s lit-related offerings—but our picks for this week are perhaps best described as “grab bag.” Consider the following, no less tasty for their randomness:

  • Have you seen the New York Times’ “Match Book”? It is—wait for it—“an advice column for book lovers.” People write in asking for recommendations based on previous likes/dislikes/obsessions, and writer-cum–book critic Nicole Lamy responds via columns with titles like “Busy Dad Seeks New Updike” or “Books for Globetrotting Girls” (both published this week). Is it just me, or is this both heartwarming and profoundly comforting?    
  • The New Yorker’s “Page Turner” reviews Rebecca Solnit’s new book of feminist essays, The Mother of All Questions. The genesis of the collection was Solnit’s infuriating encounter with a male interviewer in which he insisted she explain her decision to not have children. The encounter is, as Page Turner notes, “a self-conscious corollary” to the incident from Solnit’s earlier feminist work, “Men Explain Things to Me”—an essay that gave rise to the term “mansplaining.”
  • John Scalzi, a Los Angeles Times critic and Hugo award-winning novelist, offers readers a ten-point plan for getting creative work done during a Trump presidency.  Necessary and dare we say inspirational.
  • And because more than half our staff is gleefully morbid (oh how they delighted in explaining corpse farms to me at our recent content meeting), I’ll leave you with Lit Hub’s piece on “The Notorious Legends and Dubious Stories of Ten Literary Deaths.” Click-baity? Sure. But you know you want to hear the attending doctor’s thoughts on Edgar Allen Poe’s suspected “congestion of the brain.” Drank himself to death? Maybe… maybe not. We won’t even get into that turtle that supposedly struck Aeschylus in the head.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: Free Boat: Collected Lies and Love Poems by John Reed

Free Boat: Collected Lies and Love Poems by John Reed (2016)

Review by Eve Kenneally

John Reed’s striking, funny, and devastating collection from C+R Press, Free Boat: Collected Lies and Love Poems, crackles from the first page. The book is framed by a series of emails from the speaker to his agent, starting with, “Dearest [redacted], I was born a lizard” (3). He goes on to note that this self-described “pathological memoir” is “A book of poems, by me, which I’m fairly sure I’ve written” (3).

The speaker is unafraid to instruct the reader on how to best consume the book, stating, “I do hope you understand that it’s vitally necessary that these sonnets be read ON PAPER, and IN A SINGLE SETTING, sans distraction, first to last” (9). (This is, of course, exactly what I ended up doing.) He also provides information on the rhyme scheme used throughout the book (Shakespearean, with various modifications) and his drafting process.

Both Free Boat’s poetry and prose introduce readers to several characters, including the speaker’s ex-wife, his current fiancée, an acquaintance named Shawn Eleman, and his lover Carnivale. (It’s important to note that Eleman and Carnivale were involved in a murder/suicide, and that the speaker wavers regarding how much credit Eleman should be given for providing inspiration for the pieces: “This would be a conflict, then: is this a book of sonnets I wrote, or is it, rather, a book of sonnets I stole?”)

These electric, elusive figures appear and reappear throughout the collection, both within the sonnets themselves and in the exposition the speaker provides in between. There are mentions of webcam girls, MTV VJs, and occultism. There is a page dedicated entirely to mugshots of men also named John Reed, and an anecdote about mafia sports camp. The speaker’s mind is crammed and chattering—it’s impossible for the reader to not be entranced.

Needless to say, the speaker is erratic and endlessly entertaining, whether he’s noting his difficulty in trying to tell his ex-wife and fiancée apart from a distance or providing the grisly facts of the murder-suicide. He interrupts himself and addresses himself within his own narratives, revisiting prior stories while threading in new ones. He also hates his name, “Not John-o-ton. John John, not John-o-ton. / John John, not John-o-ton. John John, not John,” and declares John to be his least favorite apostle. He effortlessly switches from blithe confidence and humor to paralyzing self-doubt.

The tone of Reed’s poems vary throughout the collection. Sometimes the pieces are earnest and somber, like when the speaker discusses the etymology of the name “Reed”: “All of which is to say that the name is not an upperclass name, but a name that lives in the friction between classes; it is a name of radicals, whether or not of one blood” (76). There are also lines that will skewer the reader (especially if the reader is also a poet): “I have the sensation, totally false but also intensely real, that none of this is mine, that it’s all stolen, that I am without anything, without even you to share in my longings” and—from Sonnet 30—“I am tidal need, and break-water spray.”

The speaker is darkly, strangely funny at times, with lines like, “Having endured that sad narrative, Elemen returned to the middle of nowhere to earn a PhD about nothing, which qualified him to teach Comp. 101 (in other words to teach zero) to an unimpressive assortment of young nobodies” (83) and “All I really want to do is stab people” (Sonnet 41). The breadth of topics that Reed offers is so wide and so strange that when he slips into French or Russian, with only the words “chewing gum” as an anchor, the reader is surprised but not unsettled.

When the speaker decides to end his book, he immediately changes his mind, adding more musings and pictures after he includes specific printing instructions (“so that the words fall off the pages when you shake the book”). This indecision is further reflected when the speaker notes of a room he had entered: “It expands and contracts like an accordion, this room. It can’t decide about me.” He is unsure of everything, later declaring, “A liar, a liar, is a good man,” and the movement from one to the other is fascinating and unpredictable as it unfolds.

As a general note, Reed’s sound and diction are consistently rich and unpredictable throughout his collection. For example, from Sonnet 37: “Aisle upon aisle of hot ashes / on robin-speckled linoleum tile” and “down and back, manic, lover to mothering” (58). The other mediums he includes, including emails and photographs, work well in providing additional depth and pacing for the reader.

An email at the end of the book notes that “this m.s. is strange indeed.” There’s also an earnestness, an openness, and a warm and constant energy powering this collection that reminds me of Michael Earl Craig’s Talkativeness. At one point the speaker says to his fellow writers, “And you may make progress, you may make whatever language bigger, but that thing you want to say, you realize you’ll never say it perfectly.” This may be true, but Free Boat—in its surprises, its generosity, and its understanding—brings us a little closer.

Eve Kenneally is a New York–based freelance writer and recent alumna of the MFA program at the University of Montana. Her chapbook "Something Else Entirely" was released in January 2017 by Dancing Girl Press. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Whiskey Island, Yemassee, Bop Dead City, decomP, Stirring, Crab Creek Review, and elsewhere.

Announcing: Contest Winners

The CutBank editors are pleased to announce the winners of our most recent fiction, non-fiction, and poetry prizes. The winners will be featured in our forthcoming spring issue, CutBank 87.

Congrats to our winners! 

  • "When I Say I Miss the Drugs" by Zackary Medlin  (Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry, judged by Bob Hicok)
  • "Ricochet" by Ruby Murray  (Montana Prize in Creative Nonfiction, judged by Peter Orner)
  • "Saffira" by Stefani Nellen   (Montana Prize in Fiction, judged by Alexandra Kleeman)

We would also like to thank everyone who submitted their work to our genre contests: there is some fierce competition out there. It's never too early to start thinking about next year...Submissions for the 2017 prizes will be accepted November 9, 2017, through January 15, 2018.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: Ram Hands by Ellen Welcker

Ram Hands by Ellen Welcker (2016)

Review by Karin Schalm

I first met Ellen Welcker a few years back when she read in Missoula from her vivacious collection, The Botanical Garden. I remember the stunning feeling of exhilaration that overcame me while listening to her work, the sense of certainty this author had passed the Emily Dickinson smell test—“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

Ram Hands, Welcker’s second full-length collection of poetry, combines newer poems with her previous chapbook, Mouth That Tastes of Gasoline. Printed by Scablands Books in late 2016, Ram Hands calls attention to both the beauty and discomfort of poetic language. Welcker invites us to laugh with her at the seriousness of the poet who frames herself in the act of writing and even the reader—ourselves—when we assume we are safely outside the text, looking in from a removed space. Poems titled “ellenwelcker, you have no events scheduled today,” “poem that wonders if it feels safer with a blanket over its head,” and “Still Life with Viewer as Object” are interspersed with poems inflated with their own sense of importance, titles like “This Day in History,” “Rhetorical Analysis,” and “Deep.”

My favorite title is the complicated “’Who has not broken our heart,’ said the friend. ‘Carl Linnaeus has not broken our heart.’” In this prose poem, there’s a process of doubling that demonstrates how complexity springs from the simplest of building blocks: “May I call you Carl? Carl… I am—we are—four things, sixteen—what are we—wonder, whale, mouse, monster, matter?” Welcker approaches the reader best with her oddly insightful questions. In “When my son says I’m a girl and I’m a boy,” the speaker asks, “Do you feel frustrated, reader, / by my lack of attendance to my son’s early awareness / of the spectrum of gender, the body’s ability to be both?”

Welcker pays attention to the confusion generated by the limitless questions, often posed as mindless commands, in this modern world. In “Mouth That Tastes of Gasoline” she writes:

It’s weird when people use Facebook to communicate
with the dead but I get it:

the way humans evolve to carry useless organs around

I’m a machine with my own colossal network
the small print: it’s a beak in my hearts
it’s weird

when you’re asked

to check yes or no

I know

the world prefers me


These poems serve as a survival manual for the strangeness of this world: “this is a workbook / you can write in it,” she says, or “stay away from the shellfish…don’t lock your knees / always take the stairs.” There’s a sexuality and playfulness to Welcker’s work that can quickly go awry: “our safe word was / platypus.”

Welcker evokes environmental degradation, paternalistic violence and capitalistic greed with banal objects of domesticity. The combination of nature—in various forms of torture—with the everyday stuff of human life makes for a complicated mish-mash: “slugs drape themselves grossly like used tea bags” or “I heave a beached orca into a plastic bag. It quietly doubles over on itself. I twist the top of the bag and look for a bread tie.”  

Here’s one of my favorites, “Nature Poem.” Enjoy it in its entirety. Then visit Scablands Books to learn more about Ram Hands.

              Nature Poem

Let’s say you’re a female animal
and a parasite has infected your brain,
made you do crazy things. Let’s say
it’s not living inside you, exactly,
but near you, near enough to come
inside you, dripping poison,
though let’s say it’s not poison,
but a magic elixir that mixes
with yours, begins to grow. See
how out of control things
can be? Let’s say you’re not
a woman, exactly, but female,
a female animal, and someone,
another animal, wants to nest
inside you. She looks around
for someplace to get in and
when she does, she leaves her body
behind: now she has yours.
Her nest might look like a tumor
hip-checking for wiggle room, hungry
for your food. The animal renders
your sex organs useless and you care
for the children of this shadow-you. Now
she bores a hole in you: makes a new
cunt, where they can come
to mate with her through you,
an animal too.

Karin Schalm, a former CutBank Poetry Editor, lives, works and writes in Missoula where she serves as University of Montana’s Creative Writing Program Coordinator. She has been published in Camas, ep;phany, The Sun and other journals.

BURN PILE: In Memoriam

It’s been a hard few weeks for art, literature, and music. We’ve lost notable people whose art has forever enriched humanity. This week, CutBank remembers those people.

At The Paris Review, check out this story about Chuck Berry and mysticism.

Derek Walcott tells us the problem with poetry students in The New Yorker.

Electric Literature remembers Colin Dexter, the author of the Inspector Morse series.

Chet Cunningham—prolific author of 450 books—is remembered by Los Angeles Times.

And at LitHub a number of literary icons including Joan Didion, Claire Messud, and John Banville recount the legendary brilliance of Robert Silvers, founding editor of The New York Review of Books.

CutBank thanks these people for their brilliant lives and work.

Never forgotten:

Chuck Berry (1953–2017)

Derek Walcott (1930–2017)

Colin Dexter (1930–2017)

Chet Cunningham (1928–2017)

Robert Silvers (1929–2017)

Watch a Poetry Film of Raven Jackson's "jar"

The winner of our 2016 chapbook competition, Raven Jackson, stars in a poetry film shot on location in Piermont, NY, by Felipe Vara de Rey. The short film is gauzy and dream-like, and features stunning visuals of Jackson sitting by a tree-lined lake and walking through a golden field. Jackson also provides the voice-over of her poem "jar," which is featured in her winning chapbook little violences (available for purchase through the CutBank store).  

CUTBANK REVIEWS: The Underworld by Kevin Canty

The Underworld by Kevin Canty  (2017)

Review by Bryn Agnew

Kevin Canty’s latest novel The Underworld tells the story of a disastrous fire in the mines beneath an isolated town in Idaho in the 1970s. Inspired by true events, the novel depicts the rippling effects of tragedy, leaving no one unscathed.

Canty’s characters are of the blue-collar variety, and the novel’s multiple points of view invite us to view their world through many pairs of eyes. There is a college student trying to make a new life for himself in Montana, a young widow with twins, and a lifelong hard-rock miner struggling against the thick, black smoke. The multiple points of view offer the reader an all-inclusive look at a catastrophe where everyone has lost someone—a friend, a lover, a brother, a father.

Canty’s prose is sharp and honest, never obscuring an image or character. The reader is immersed in the world of Silverton, Idaho as if they themselves were a resident of the silver mining town. The world is rendered vividly from the music playing on the radio to lines like “Their wives burst out of the crowd and through the gate and into their embrace, the filthy work clothes and the pretty pastels of their dresses.” But the marvel of The Underworld is the novel’s humanity. Canty’s characters drive the novel and crackle with life. They struggle with what is lost or could be lost and cling desperately to hope and love.

The Underworld features an overarching metaphor of light and darkness. Canty writes of the “thick, opaque, greasy-looking” smoke and the dead silence of the dark mine shafts, invoking a sense of dread in both the characters and the reader. It is a dread that permeates all of Silverton, and no one is tough enough to escape it. Yet, there is light. Even trapped in the depths of the smoky mine, a character thinks of his ex-wife. He wants “to see her, to say hello, see how she is getting along. It doesn’t seem like much. It isn’t much to hope for. But it might be enough.” The earliest manifestation of this metaphor is when David—the college student—is in the botany lab: “They’re quantifying phototropism, the rate at which a plant will grow toward the light. The light has come and gone and come again, dazzling sun punctuated by blizzards. The other day, a snowstorm full of lightning. Spring is the good news and the bad news both.” As the reader reads, Canty’s characters are in the act of their own phototropism. They grieve what is lost—and even though some will not make it—they grow toward the light.

Kevin Canty is the author of numerous works of fiction including A Stranger in This World, Into the Great Wide Open, Nine Below Zero, Honeymoon, Winslow in Love, Where the Money Went, Everything, and The Underworld. He has been published in The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ, and the New York Times Magazine. He currently teaches at the University of Montana in Missoula.

Bryn Agnew is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Montana and a bookseller at Missoula’s Fact & Fiction. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Mid-American Review, The Nottingham Review, and North Texas Review. He received an MA and BA in creative writing from the University of North Texas.

BURN PILE: Lent, NOLA, and... Butter?

Lent is upon us, folks. Yes, it is the season of ascetic self-denial. But fear not! CutBank is here to provide you a literary/culinary survival guide for your time of penance. Prepare yourself for the dog-days to come, the days of gazing slack-jawed at the new season of Chef’s Table, dreaming of the grand Easter meal to come.

But what of Fat Tuesday? Even though the last day of revelry has come and gone, we can still look back at Literary Hub’s list of ten great works of New Orleans literature to help you remember the festivities you probably don’t remember.

And the Pope, we can’t forget about the Pope! The Paris Review features the story of Bartolomeo Scappi—the head chef for Renaissance popes and cardinals.

Or maybe you’re the practical kind—stoic and studious. The Millions offers you a literary reader for Lent—forty reads for forty days.

Have you ever wondered about the eating habits of your favorite writers? If so, check out Entropy’s feature aptly named Dinnerview. The feature explores the culinary lives of many writers such as Bonnie Jo Campbell, Julia Elliott, Rebecca Makkai, and Mary Jo Bang.

It is important to remember the simple things during Lent, the small delights that make the world bearable. Butter, for instance. Over at Electric Literature, Ted Wilson reviews butter (5 stars). Need I say more?

CutBank wishes you only the best in your time of atonement.

Fight the good fight.

THE WOODSHOP: Erika Krouse

The Woodshop is a feature examining the work spaces and habits of writers both big and small. Joan Didion spent the night in the same room as her work when it was almost finished. Don DeLillo kept a picture of Borges close by. When, and how, do you work? Our latest contributor is novelist and short story writer Erika Krouse.

1. Where do you do your work?

I work in two places—one is my home office, and that's boring. The other place is my friend's tree house. He’s a master craftsman, and he built the tree house on the side of a mountain outside Nederland, Colorado, a town I used to live in. It's about forty minutes from my house now, and I work up there on Sundays unless there's a blizzard. 

It's a very luxurious tree house—propane heater, windows, electricity, a compostable toilet...It’s more like a Tiny Home in a tree. This time of year, I can usually see my breath for the first few hours of work, and I’m neurotic about checking the heater to make sure that the propane is burning instead of hanging in the air, killing me. I get more done in the first couple of hours there than I can in an entire day down in the flats.

2. Do you have any routines that help you get into the flow? 

Getting up there is a routine in itself. I pack extra clothes, my computer, food. Produce is half-rotten in the mountain grocery stores, so I usually buy the owners fruit, since they won't take money. I drive up into the mountains, gaining about 2,500 feet in elevation—Nederland is at about 8,200 feet. After parking and chatting with the owners, I put on extra gear, load up my backpack, and hike to the tree house. 

This time of year, the switchback trail is filled in with a few feet of packed and sliding snow. So I wear YakTrax over my Sorels, choose a line of trees to grab, and pull myself up the steep mountainside by walking sideways and clutching saplings and tree trunks. I have to stomp to post through the snow’s crust, and step near the tree trunks to get traction. It’s not far, and it’s worth it for the moment I arrive, separate from everything, the wind washing the pines and snow. 

Once inside, I stomp the snow off and shed the YakTrax before they catch on the rug. Every surface is frozen. Space heater on, propane heater on, pull out laptop, food, water, power cords. Then I usually head up to the roof for a quick look at the valley below, unless it's too slippery. 

After work, I head back down at sunset, clinging to trees, a little scared of mountain lions. My ending ritual is to stop by Barker Reservoir in Nederland on the way down. There’s usually a slight blue glow behind the Continental Divide. The water’s depleted, having been drained for the winter, so I’m essentially walking on the lake bottom. It smells rank, like rotten fish and frozen leaves. I like to throw rocks onto the ice. As it gets darker and colder, the lake begins to gently refreeze and shift, popping and cracking like bones as the water crystallizes below the surface. It sounds like plastic bags and cooling radiators and ice in a glass. I love that sound, the lake expanding upon itself as it changes form.

3. What do you keep on your desk?

At home, my desk is a disaster (stapler, pens, pencil sharpeners, dirty mugs and bowls, exploding papers), but at the tree house, the desk is empty except for lamp and a candle that I never light. The desk is one of those old kitchen-y tables that fold down, and it rattles when I type. I keep the space heater underneath in the hopes that it'll heat up the wood faster. I have to wear fingerless gloves, which make the words feel meaty and warm. 

4. What's your view like?

I’m surrounded by windows and light and wood, lodgepole pines outside, and animals in the trees. Crows, woodpeckers, chickadees, and there are these cool black squirrels up here with tufted ears. The weather can get unfriendly. The donkey in the valley brays in the wind and sounds like a train. Massive gales sometimes blast from the Continental Divide, so the tree house shudders and slides along a dynamic connector the owner installed. My whole view shifts a few degrees, and it feels like I’m writing on a boat or in an earthquake.

5. Have you made any rules for how you use this space?

The owners gave me the wi-fi password but I conveniently lost it. I’m mostly unreachable. I keep teaching prep and grading to a minimum, and mostly write fiction. A spreadsheet keeps me on track with goals. On a practical level, since it’s hard to get up there for the owners, I make a rule of sweeping up before leaving, and try to leave nothing behind, not even a tissue. 

6. What do you eat/drink while you work?

I have a magic thermos that keeps water hot (for tea) no matter the outside temperature. During the summer, I eat samosas at the Kathmandu Restaurant in town, but during these cold months, it’s easier just to pack a bottle of cold chai and a turkey sandwich with mustard (ridiculously good together, try it). Salmon salad, a hunk of cheese, apples, nuts, carrots, anything edible...I eat constantly when I work. My laptop is probably compostable.

7. Do you have any superstitions about your work?

They're more like anxieties—every time I finish something, I think, That's it, that's the last thing I'll ever write, I'm dry now. But I don't have any real superstitions. I don’t think I have that luxury, frankly.

8. Share a recent line/sentence written in this space. 
Lately I’ve been writing about Omaha:

“When you steal a car from a white supremacist, the safest place to stay is in a black area of town.”

Erika Krouse's fiction has appeared in magazines such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, and One Story. Her novel, Contenders, was a finalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Her collection of short stories, Come Up and See Me Sometime, is the winner of the Paterson Fiction Award and was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of the year. Erika teaches at the Lighthouse Book Project and Ashland University's low-res MFA program. 

EDITOR'S BOOKSHELF: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

By Lisbet Portman, CutBank Nonfiction Editor  

Recommending a book to someone can feel loaded, like asking that person out for the first time by suggesting a short trip to O’ahu. I’ve never recommended a book so fiercely as I did Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts—I’m talking mass texts, Christmas presents, chain emails: read this.


I even went so far as to assign it, perhaps irresponsibly, to a class of undergraduates in a nonfiction writing workshop. Because suddenly I was standing in front of twenty-two students, foaming at the mouth, expected to speak plainly about a slim, dense book in my hand. We made out all right in the end, but the way there was as messy, loaded, and as meandering as could be expected from this picnic of a memoir to which everyone and everything has been invited.

The Argonauts is true to its name—Argo (the Greek ship manned by a crew of heroic sailors—nauts), which was reconstructed so many times that eventually every piece had been replaced, only its name an original. In this book, Nelson conducts an intensive, playful, holy interrogation of her performance in the world as a queer woman, a lover, a mother, a feminist, a writer, and a body. The story lives in chunks of varying sizes, each of which read as a poem or mini-essay when lifted from the bulk. Nelson invokes theorists and philosophers not to support her claims, but organically—these are the voices she has swallowed, their words now entwined with hers. Quotes are embedded in the chunks of text and italicized. The authors' names are kicked to the margins where they hover in white space—at once cast aside and memorialized.

To Nelson, artist Harry Dodge is that “someone with whom my perversities were not only compatible, but perfectly matched.” What follows is a story of their relationship as lovers and intellectuals, the trials of trying to conceive, their “summer of changing bodies” when she was four months pregnant and Harry was six months on T, her experience of pregnancy as someone who had spent years “harshly deriding ‘the breeders.'” What follows is an erotics of the anus, motherhood, discourse, dicks, art, constipation, intimacy, cocktail parties, virgin daquieries, writing, semen in a salsa jar, parenting, fucking, Prop 8, feminism, cruelty, florida, falling forever, clits, vanilla sex, white ceramic horns, death, ceiling fans, etc.

To a few students who found the language difficult to understand, I encouraged them to read as they might listen to a piece of music. There is no way, no need to keep close tabs on the violin and snare drum activity, that kind of focus would in fact detract from hearing the song as it is—buzzing, oh very much alive. Listen to how it moves, pay attention to the lines that pierce. I’ve read the book four times, and each read was different. This experience aligns with certain insistences within the text: Nelson strains against our impulse to “name” things as a way of congealing “difference into a single figure,” and assumes “we are always moving, shape-shifting.” In an interview with ARTFORUM in 2015, she said, “We might not literally be able to call something into being. But we can always sing.”

The internet is fat with reviews of The Argonauts and interviews with Maggie Nelson the poet, the critic, the essayist. I’m not unique in falling for the book and I don’t have anything of note to contribute to the conversation, I’m just telling you that one afternoon I got pinned to the couch and forgot to eat, forgot to pee: read this. And loads of people have. Whether Nelson likes it or not, since its publication in May 2015, The Argonauts has also been taken up by straight people in book clubs in hopes of learning more about the queer and transgender community. While the book interacts with these “names,” it won’t sit tight in any genre: “it’s the binary of normative/transgressive that’s unsustainable, along with the demand that anyone live a life that’s all one thing.” Although fully aware that she is partaking in a longer history by telling her own, Nelson didn’t set out to be a spokesperson: “I am interested in offering up my experience and performing my particular manner of thinking, for whatever they are worth.”

The Argonauts is a production in which Nelson both betrays and honors a multiplicity of selves by asking “a question from the inside.” She can’t bring herself to address her unborn child until the very end:

I want you to know, you were thought of as possible—never as certain, but always possible—not in any given moment, but over many months, even years, of trying, of waiting, of calling—when, in a love sometimes sure of itself, sometimes shaken by bewilderment and change, but always committed to the charge of ever-deepening understanding—two human animals, one of whom is blessedly neither male nor female, the other of whom is female (more or less), deeply, doggedly, wildly wanted you to be.

Lisbet Portman is an MFA candidate in nonfiction and a writing instructor at the University of Montana. Her work focuses on addiction policy in the US and sometimes, glitter. She is originally from Ohio and earned a B.A. in American studies from Smith College in Northampton, MA. 



On September 23, 2016, during the Montana Book Festival, CutBank's online managing editor Nicole Roché had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Gregory Pardlo, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his collection Digest. The full interview can be found in our latest print edition, CutBank 86


NR:  I have to ask you about the Pulitzer. In a New York Times article from last April, you were saying after the announcement, you felt like you were following around another guy everyone was congratulating. I’m wondering if a year and a half later, if it’s finally sunk in that you are that guy.

GP:   Yes, it has sunk in. I mean, it’s been a learning curve. I think I’ve always had a problem with accepting praise and congratulations, so that’s just a character flaw that I’ve always had. But I’ve also had to learn—I’ve had to learn how to give interviews. It’s something that I never thought about doing, or thought would be a part of my job, as a poet. The whole learning curve has just been rethinking how I can be effective in the world in the way that I want to off the page as much as on the page. I guess in that process I’ve integrated the formerly alienated self.


NR:   Ira Glass talks about this gap that exists between a beginning writer’s intentions and what actually makes it onto the page. I’m wondering if there was a moment, a period in your writing, when you sort of said, “Hey, you know, I am starting to close that gap?”

GP:   No. I think I might be a little different, at least process-wise. I don’t start a poem knowing where it’s going to go. I pretty much have no clue what I’m getting myself into, so I don’t have any expectations on the back end. So whatever happens, and I think this is true about my work in general, it’s process-oriented. What I think is most demonstrated on the page is my thought process. My thinking through formal restraints, or thinking through the historical and social intersections. I just keep shoveling information into the poem and see what comes up, see what I can make of it. So the result is I don’t feel like it hasn’t met my expectations.

Now, of course, it never meets my expectations. Not to say I’m happy with the work. I don’t jump up from the desk patting myself on the back every time I finish a poem. But I can sort of keep pushing to do something beyond what I may have thought was in the poem.


NR:   Digest says so much about history, about the burdens of history or the burdens of legacy, including legacies that are played out in increasingly sanitized or domestic ways, like the boys shooting off fireworks—“the household paraphernalia of war”—in “Problemata.” Do you think history leaves a tangible imprint on a place, on people, on the here and now?

GP:   Yes. So, it’s kind of reactionary against the notion of realism in literature. We celebrate Hemingway, for example, for this stripped-down style. And the way I had been sold that style is that it gets to the bare “real,” to things as they are, and I distrusted that without knowing why. Part of what I’m interested in in terms of time in this book is that—first of all, I think realism is as much of an affected style as any other form of literature, and it is not getting any closer to the stripped-down real, and why should the stripped-down real itself be something we should want to pursue? So then, step two, I started thinking, why should we want the stripped-down real? Well, we want the stripped-down real because we are so desperately anxious and haunted by the history in our landscapes and in our environments. You can’t look at the American prairie without evoking the ghosts or the crimes from which we all benefit. Faulkner’s “history is in us”—whatever the quote is. You can’t look at a Southern plantation and render that scene with realism, because it’s unreal to do so. It is a contrivance to do so. For example, when I walk across campus at Columbia, I don’t look at the campus without thinking about all of my heroes that have gone to school there, all of the history. The reason I’m there is because of its romance. The reason I’m in New York is because of the romance that I have with New York. I want the history, as sordid and as beautiful as it is. It’s a part of human perception, first of all, that we only perceive place through the associations of time. If it’s a new place, we’re bringing our own projections to this new place. So A, I don’t think its humanly possible not to associate history with a place. And B, I think it’s unethical to ignore the fact that history and place are intertwined.


NR:   What are our responsibilities to that history?

GP:   I don’t think of it as a responsibility. I’m hearing responsibility as obligation to history. I don’t think we have an obligation to history. But I do think it is a distortion—it’s the motive that I have a beef with. So, if I want to render place minus history, I have to ask myself why I want to do that. And if the reason I want to do that is because the history that is entwined in a place makes me uncomfortable, then that’s a dishonorable motive in my worldview. I guess I want to leave the door open for projects that want to reimagine the history that’s present. So I don’t think there is a rigid record of what has happened in a place, I don’t think there’s a single record of place, but some of those records indict us. And some of the ways we think about place indict us. If I have a guilty motive, that’s a problem. If I have an aesthetic motive… I’m uncomfortable with that, because it seems dodgy. But I think that gets to the basis of what I mean by ethical. Who am I protecting? Am I protecting my ego, or am I genuinely trying to create something?


NR:   In that NY Times article about winning the Pulitzer, there’s this grinning picture of you and you sound so incredulous. And now, hearing your thoughts about it—well, you’re such a personable guy. But I think a lot of people would say, “That guy’s made it. He’s totally made it.” Do you feel any pressure now to live up that expectation? Do you fear it has any effect on your work?

GP:   To be honest, yes. Of course it influences my work, and it influences how I conceptualize the reader. My reader is much farther abroad now. My reader could be anywhere in the world now, as opposed to a reader within proximity. Changing that relationship fundamentally changes my approach to the poem.  That said, I am nonetheless self-doubting and insecure, and a perfectionist. So none of that stuff goes away. Nothing has been lifted from my shoulders. I still agonize. I’m still an anxious wreck when I sit down to write.


NR:   As someone who has “made it,” throw a bone to us MFA students and other beginning writers. What advice can you offer up?

GP:   Find your superpower. What do you do that no one else can do? What can you put on the page that no one else can put on the page? I think so often in MFA programs, the culture is a competition to write the Richard Hugo poem or to write the Sharon Olds poem. We want to prove our cred by doing what someone else has done before. Some people will say you need to find your voice—I think that’s kind of trite, overworn, and not helpful. But there is something to say for a healthy self-awareness. We’re flawed, we’re beautifully flawed, damaged, and all-powerful beings. And the more of that we can accept in its uniqueness, then the more we can allow to be on the page. 

Gregory Pardlo's collection Digest (Four Way Books) won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. His other honor include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts; his first collection Totem was selected by Brenda Hillman for the APR/Honickman Prize in 2007. He is also the author of Air Traffic, a memoir in essays forthcoming from Knopf. Pardlo is a faculty member of the MFA. program in creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden. He lives with his family in Brooklyn.

Nicole Roché is the online managing editor and a fiction editor for CutBank. She is a second-year MFA student in fiction at the University of Montana.

BURN PILE: Celebrity Writers

Who ever said you had to be a poor, highly-educated, no name to be a writer? Who said you had to struggle through a sea of ramen to one day wield the authorial power of an MFA and/or PhD?

Why not just be a celeb?

Mick Jagger wrote a memoir apparently. But he also forgot he wrote a memoir. That might be the most Mick Jagger thing I’ve ever heard.

But this begs the question: what celebrity books do we really need to have? Fortunately, the good folks at Literary Hub have answered this question.

If we were to follow this line of questioning further down the rabbit hole, who is the best fake novelist on TV? Electric Literature hands out their fake Pulitzer.

All right, all right. Let’s reel this back in. Did you know that the one and only Marcel Proust starred in a movie? Take a gander here.

And for all you celeb and not celeb writers out there, Brain Pickings has compiled a list of famous advice on writing to help you as you slog forward with your next prize-winning manuscript.

As always, keep scribbling.

Our Brand-Spanking-New Winter Edition

Our stunning new winter issue, CutBank 86, is here!

CutBank 86 features the winner of our Big Sky, Small Prose Flash Fiction Contest, Alysia Sawchyn, with her piece "Riverbanks and Honeysuckle," along with runner-ups Daryl Scroggins and Derek Updegraff.  

Other contributors include Kyle Ellingson, Rae Winkelstein, Juliana Gray, Roxanne Banks Malia, Rachel Morgan, Alison Ruth, Lacey Rowland, Patrick Kindig, and Michael Parker. The issue closes out with an interview by our online managing editor, Nicole Roché, with Gregory Pardlo, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.

Check out a preview of the issue here. Order your copy now through our online store

AWP 2017: Success!

Is this year's conference really already over? What a weekend. 

Everyone knows the offsite events are where it's at. Thank you to everyone who came out for ours this past Thursday night at the Colony Club, where we heard the winners of our 2016 chapbook contest read their amazing work—Raven Jackson (our winner, pictured), Lisa Hiton, and Wendell Mayo. We're so jazzed to publish these authors and to be able to meet you all in the flesh!

If you didn't get your copy of these gorgeous books, you can purchase them through our online store

Our reading period for the 2017 chapbook contest, which has a $1,000 cash prize, is currently underway through March 31. Read more deets here and send us your work!

Until next year, everyone. TAMPA.

BURN PILE: Dystopia, America

Things I said way too much this week:

1)    He did what?
2)   Have you seen Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men?

Are you ready for the Cheeto-glazed descent into the dystopian future? Did you get your copy of 1984 before Amazon ran out of copies?

The Los Angeles Times reminds us that dystopias are “a great place to be a tourist. Not a great place to be a permanent resident.”

So, what can we do to help?

Hope? Yes, yes, a story of hope! A story of resistance. No, not Rogue One. How about the story of an all-but-forgotten American diplomat who resisted the Armenian Genocides of 1915 and 1916?

Or perhaps you would like a drink? The fine geniuses at McSweeney’s have compiled a list of presidential cocktails for every occasion.

Not thirsty? Maybe a trip to the movies can cure your growing despair.  I Am Not Your Negro hits the big screen today. Go see it. The screenplay was written by the great James Baldwin.

But really, why not just join the resistance? AWP is in D.C. this year, and numerous protests and rallies are being organized to coincide with the arrival of over 12,000 writers, editors, students, teachers, and publishers.

Above all, resist.

Make America Read Again.

We'll See YOU at AWP 2017

A week from today, our fearless CutBank editors will be setting up our table at the 50th (!) annual Conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs in Washington, DC, February 9-11.  

Come to our table and say hi! We'll be there chatting with fellow writers, MFA students, editors, CutBank contributors, and all the rest of your smiling faces. Our latest issue, CutBank 86, is hot off the press, and will be available for purchase at our table, along with the winners of last spring's chapbook competition, our rad new shirts (wait 'til you see these puppiesmore than a few of us will be sporting them), and other swag.  

We hope you'll also join us for our offsite event, where we'll celebrate the publications of our most recent chapbook contest winners: Raven Jackson, Lisa Hiton, and Wendell Owen. See you there.

  • Thursday, February 9, 2017
  • 8:30pm10:00pm
  • Colony Club (3118 Georgia Ave NW, Washington DC, 20010)

CUTBANK REVIEWS: How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball

How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball  (2016)

Review by Bryn Agnew

Jesse Ball’s How to Set a Fire and Why is a novel of loss and destructive redemption. Told with his narrator’s searing wit, How to Set a Fire and Why is both a work of fiction and a timely treatise on injustice and resistance.

Ball’s teenage narrator, Lucia Stanton, deservingly takes her place among fiction’s most captivating and radical characters. Reminiscent of Holden Caulfield, Lucia is introduced to readers as she is being kicked out of her most recent high school for an incident involving a pencil and the neck of the town’s young basketball darling. Her father dead, her mother in a mental institution, and her impoverished guardian aunt barely scraping by, Lucia has seemingly lost everything. Yet driven by a will to tell the important truths, she becomes involved with a secret arson club and sets out to burn down representations of hypocrisy and injustice.

Fragmented into short chapters, the novel’s prose is accessible, inviting, heartfelt, and honest. The language proves that simplicity, clarity, and subtlety carry great power when each paragraph, sentence, and word build to the totality of the author’s intent. Lucia and Ball present us with clear and painful truths, but also talismans to cling to. In a pamphlet on arson, Lucia writes, “The world is ludicrous. It is famished. It is greedy and adulterous. It is a wild place we inhabit, surely you agree? Well, then we shall have to try to make some sense of it. That is part of the reason why I have made this pamphlet. It is a kind of grip that you can have on the world.  You can hold on to this, and find your way forward. That’s what I’m promising you.”

In many ways, How to Set a Fire and Why seeks to prepare all of us for the fires we must set—the work we must do. The novel begs our minds and hearts to see the truth and burn away the cruelty and greed of our world. Lucia tells us, “Do not be in a hurry. Remember—there is all of your life prior to the great fire you will set, and all of your life thereafter. That transition will require grace, thoroughness, and a deep compassion that stiffens into an unbreakable resolve. If it takes you some years to become the person who can burn a building, so be it. Carry your matches in your pocket, look at the faces of those who surround you in the crowd. Are we not all the same? Do we not all strive to simply have enough?”

Jesse Ball (1978–) was born in New York and is the author of fourteen books, including The Curfew, The Way Through Doors, Samedi the Deafness, Silence Once Begun, A Cure for Suicide, and How to Set a Fire and Why. His works have been published to acclaim in many parts of the world and translated into more than a dozen languages. He is on the faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, won the 2008 Paris Review Plimpton Prize, was long-listed for the National Book Award, and has been a fellow of the NEA, Creative Capital, and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Bryn Agnew is an MFA candidate in Fiction at the University of Montana and a bookseller at Missoula's Fact & Fiction. His stories and essays have appeared in Mid-American Review and North Texas Review. He received an MA and BA in creative writing from the University of North Texas. 

BURN PILE: A New Year, a New President, and a Writer's Call to Arms

Today, amid simultaneous outcry and applause from a deeply divided country, Donald Trump was sworn in as the forty-fifth U.S. president. The day after the election, Dan Piepenbring of the Paris Review posted the following under the headline “Writers, Start Writing.” His call to arms bears repeating today:

“This site is dedicated to literature, arts, and culture. Electoral politics are usually beyond our remit. On a morning like this, when America has chosen a bigot and a xenophobe as its next president, my job feels pointless. But I don’t want to add to the chorus of despair, because I do believe there’s a role for art at a time like this, and I don’t say that lightly—words like these don’t come easily to me. I would rather make fun of things, and I’m struggling against an inborn fatalism. (My iPhone just reminded me to water my plants, and I thought, why bother?) The creative impulse is such a fragile thing, but we have to create now. We owe it to ourselves to do the work. I want to encourage you. If you aspire to write, put aside all the niceties and sureties about what art should be and write something that makes the scales fall from our eyes. Forget the tired axioms about showing and telling, about sense of place—any possible obstruction—and write to destroy complacency, to rattle people, to help people, first and foremost yourself. Lodge your ideas like glass shards in the minds of everyone who would have you believe there’s no hope. And read, as often and as violently as you can. If you have friends, as I do, who tacitly believe that it’s too much of a chore to read a book, just one fucking book, from start to finish, smash every LCD they own. This is an opportunity. There’s too much at stake now to pretend that everything is okay.”

Entropy Magazine, beloved by writers for its lists of "Where to Submit" throughout the year, has included a section for "Post Election Calls for Submissions." (Deadlines include Jan. 27 and Feb. 28., with Anti-Heroin Chic taking submissions through midnight tonight "on Trump, the election and the trauma/coping/resistance surrounding this event.")

If the muse fails you, and you instead feel the need to turn to the writing and wisdom of others, (a move Piepenbring also suggests), you might pick up one of (former!) President Obama's recommended books, as shared with New York Times chief book critic Michiko Katukani in a recent interview, itself well worth reading.

If all else fails, try my recipe for an essential oils blend I call "Feel Better":  Frankincense (6 drops) for grounding, Cedar (6 drops) for grieving, Lavender (6 drops) for calming, Ylang Ylang (6 drops) for boosting mood, and Mandarin (2 drops) for energizing.