LONG WAY FROM, LONG TIME SINCE: A Letter to Carl Sandburg

Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit cutbankonline.org/submit/web. To submit to our chapbook contest, please see cutbankonline.org/submit/print or email cutbankonline@gmail.com for more information.

Dear Carl Sandburg,

I looped and wandered across the continent for twelve months. In the thirteenth, really the last of the year, I live in a single spot again. My childhood home sits seventeen miles from your childhood home, door to door. You’ve left yours, but I’ve returned to mine, for a bit.

Living in one place for more than a few days feels less odd than I thought it might after fifty thousand miles on the road. I swim each morning at the YMCA and then read and write until dinner. Winter means that temperatures dropped fifty degrees overnight but not enough to freeze memories.

Apropos (I never get to use that word) of this letter, I read your long poem, several times now. “Honey and Salt”—

Is there any way to measure love?
Yes but not till long afterward

Not as much time needed as you’d think, Carl. I have to start measuring with a bigger stick and remembering more softly because these forgotten girls suffocate.

Oh, the ghosts eased me back in, sure. The old high school. (Did you ever visit?) The park where Lesley and I played on the swings at sunset. My first vehicle, the pickup where Nevine and I first fogged the windows—hauled off on a flatbed to the junkyard when it died last week, outliving the relationship but not the echo.

As I settle into the familiar specifics of this place, though, memories surge ahead guided by increasing abstraction. A scratched silver car becomes her scratched silver car, with Kailey and I and the tire flat at 4 a.m. miles and years away. A sidewalk becomes the sidewalk of distant city where Alexis sat and I spoke, but not the right words.

Even at the pool, every push off the wall washes into my mind faces I thought I’d left in oblivion and also delivers an underwater view of legs. The morning water walkers. No torsos and nobody younger than seventy. Maybe they have some answers.

Do you still believe, like in that poem, that love endures in the forever-space of oaths between hydrogen and oxygen? I’m drowning over here and searching for my next breath.

Yours in small-town truths,


Dustin Renwick runs, writes, and does not drink coffee. He is a Tupelo Press 30/30 Project alum, and his latest nonfiction book, Beyond the Gray Leaf, is a biography of a forgotten Civil War poet. See more of his work at dustinrenwick.com.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "A Bestiary" by Lily Hoang

A Bestiary by Lily Hoang  (2016)

Review by Nicole Roché, Online Managing Editor

From its opening line, A Bestiary interrogates and subverts myth. “Once upon a time—,” author Lily Hoang writes, “shh, shh—this is only a fairy tale.” From there readers are thrust into Hoang’s world, a world both deeply personal and achingly universal.

The acclaimed collection, which won Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s 2015 Essay Collection Competition, reads like pastiche, collage, glimpse memory. Its form follows in the tradition of works by Jenny Offill, Mary Robison, and David Markson, works which play with fragmentation and white space while eschewing a traditional narrative arc. Hoang’s contribution to the form comes via the power of nonfiction, the resounding, undeniable ring of truth—of Hoang’s truth.

Throughout A Bestiary, various motifs are interwoven, both in individual sections and throughout the work as a whole. Loss, friendship, divorce, body image, ambition, the writer’s life, assimilation—it is the culmination of these motifs, and the nuances of meaning they accumulate, that gives the collection its power. The white space separating each section invites readers to consider the connections between them, the invisible thread that completes the web of not just Hoang’s experiences, but those of us all.

Hoang draws on myths from Ovid to Vietnamese folklore to Hans Christian Anderson. At times she refers to herself as the Little Match Girl standing outside her own life, salivating over “all that is not [hers].” Elsewhere, she creates an alternate mythology through a character she calls Other Lily. This alter-ego lives life perfectly, altruistically, and above all in accordance with her parents’ wishes. Hoang writes, “Other Lily doesn’t fail at marriages, and her husband is Vietnamese. He respects her too.” Yet this is one fairy tale Hoang rejects outright, stating, “Face the facts: There is no Other Lily, and I’m pretty satisfied with my life.”

Toward the end of this stunning collection, Hoang admits, “I have tangled the fairy tales I write with my life.” What is the purpose of myth if not to trace, to explain, to validate? Like the best of literary nonfiction, A Bestiary does not pretend to offer answers. Rather, it invites readers to step back from the chaos of a life, to see it for what it is, and to stand in awe rather than despair. 

Nicole Roché is a second-year MFA student in fiction at the University of Montana. 

EDITOR'S BOOKSHELF: Woods etc. by Alice Oswald

By Anna Blackburn, CutBank poetry editor

The woods of Alice Oswald’s Woods etc. at times yield pathways like those I walk here in Montana. Glacial creeks cutting through the abrupt yellow tamaracks, giant Scots pines fur to the tailbones of mountains; in her poems we are sensitized to the immensity of granite and ether. Yet at other times I find myself in landscapes like the deciduous northeast, where each curled fern and dislodged rock seems wakeful to my presence, in the way that a dull stone becomes luminous if dipped in water. Amidst the simple objects of Oswald’s terrain the mind opens into surprising chasms of feeling, those insights “like glass, concealed but not lost in light” (“Poem for Carrying a Baby Out of a Hospital”). Through her organically pitched rhythms, we are shuttled into deeply inhabited lyrics of the natural world, untethered mythologies, and whimsical fable-like meditations on the circularity of life. Poems of earthiness and imaginative reach.      

Oswald’s logic is ecological: consciousness migrates through animal, vegetal, and mineral forms. As metamorphosis counters the gravity of death (a stone becomes a flower becomes a circle of light becomes…), we feel the tension between the eternal whole and the perplexed groping of our lives; in these poems the individual must travel “the whole series of endurable pains” (“Autobiography of a Stone”). Oswald summons elemental personalities with violent intimacy:  

              This is the dandelion with its thousand faculties

              like an old woman taken by the neck and
              shaken to pieces.

              This is the dust flower flitting away. 

              This is the flower of amnesia.  It has opened its
              head to the wind,  all havoc and weakness,  as
              if a wooden man should stroll through fire… 

How fragile our connections, she argues.  Like “the wind-bitten dandelion,” each thing “a flower of no property… / worn away to its one recalcitrant element” (“Head of a Dandelion”).  

Yet, as Simone Weil writes in Gravity and Grace, “stars and blossoming fruit trees; utter permanence and extreme fragility give an equal sense of eternity.” Reading these poems, I feel myself invoked in states of acute limitation (as Sisyphus, who “has to think one pain at a time, like an insect / trapped in a drop of water”), even as I am asked to occupy the field (“Sisyphus”).  The field may be an artery of consciousness, a birch grove, a system of galaxies.  Though full of their own voices, such spaces assert the pressure of silence. This silence functions like the creative landscape of a canvas; though the world in its instability is the medium of exploration, Oswald’s poems also celebrate the void between forms, the potential underlying each expression. Against this eternity we feel the awe and humility of mortal life: traversing “Five Fables of a Length of Flesh” and floating with Voyager 1 “among those homeless spaces gathering in that silence / that hasn’t yet had time to speak” (“Sonnet”).

Anna Blackburn is an MFA candidate in poetry and a writing instructor at the University of Montana. She grew up in Vermont and earned a B.A. in Writing and Literature at Marlboro College.   

BURN PILE: Curing the Election Blues

Well, the election happened, and Donald J. Trump is going to be our next president. That is a sentence I never thought I’d write, and it is a sentence, so many of us fear, in more than one sense of the word.

The L.A. Times argues one way to weather the Trump presidency is to head to your nearest public library. Why? Because it is the one institution most Americans still champion. In the meantime, you can read a collection of post-election-results tweets from famous authors—everyone from Stephen King to Joyce Carol Oates (who in turn quotes Samuel Beckett)—compiled by the Times.

Garnette Cadogan, a Jamaican immigrant and Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, speaks about the importance of “staying and fighting” despite Trump’s well documented stance on immigration, as well as the importance of “finding strength in poetry.”

But maybe it would be better to just slip into cushy escapism. This week the New York Times listed its top illustrated children’s books of 2016, along with a review of two new nonfiction publications, Following the Dog into the World of Smell by Alexandra Horowitz and How House Cats Tamed Us and Took over the World by Abigail Tucker.  

Dogs v. cats? Now that’s a debate I can always get into. 

The WOODSHOP: Tayler Heuston

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 Tayler Heuston.

1. Where do you do your work?

I work in the living room of my apartment where there's tons of light and space. My desk is in the corner of the room next to the doors that open out onto my balcony. 

2. What do you keep on your desk?

My desk has shelves built into its hutch where I have the start of my library (organized by color, genre, then author right now), postcards of paintings I found really moving when I visited the MoMa in NYC this summer, a picture of me jumping into my mother's arms as a toddler, a picture of the kids I nannied all of last year, the oatmeal box I painted to look like an oven last Halloween so I could go as Sylvia Plath, and post-its with lines I want to remember:

"...work is / keeping the wolves from your door..." Kwame Dawes

"Mother, I / understand how you have could have..." Leila Chatti

"You'll never know what your mother went through." Sarah Manguso

"What are you pretending you don't know?" Rachel Eliza Griffiths (by way of Leila Chatti)

"Rise to the occasion of your one and only heart." Steve Almond

My desk changes every so often. I might re-arrange my books, or replace the postcards, or find new lines that resonate with what I'm thinking about. I've also got practical things here like my stapler, desk calendar, the flash drive I keep misplacing, and a ceramic hedgehog that holds my mail.

3. What's your view like?

The view to my right, just outside the glass panes in the balcony doors, is the courtyard of my apartment building. It's full of light most days, and I can see stands of oak trees just beyond a neighboring parking lot. To my left, the wall is hung with a framed photograph that I bought from Emma Tillman when I turned twenty-five, a celestial map, and an illustrated calendar of the local, seasonal foods in North Carolina. 

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

My only real rule is to be flexible. I've been working very hard in the last two years to shed all of the early notions I had about writing, discipline, and structure. My process has to change a lot so I don't feel stagnant. Lately, I've been revising old work at the desk, or transcribing new work that I handwrite in my notebooks at a coffee shop in the heart of downtown that I love to walk to on the weekends. 

I also pay attention to how my body feels in the seat, how tired I've been after a long week or intense pair of workdays, or if I'm feeling stir-crazy or flat when I come to the desk. Then, I know I need to step back and meet those physical or emotional needs before I'll have a good day of writing. 

Some nights, though, I'll have that moment where a line that I really like occurs to me and I'll rush to my desk to type it up the way I used to when I was getting my MFA and I'd be half-awake in bed at 3 a.m. with the start of a story that I had to get down and I'd write past breakfast time, not even brushing my teeth or getting dressed, until it was all done around mid-afternoon. I can't write that way anymore, though—my body and work schedule just won't allow it. Now, I'll write down that one line and maybe it'll turn into an opening paragraph, but I let myself walk away and go to bed. I think I've learned to trust that it won't vanish forever if I don't set it all down now. I've also learned how to enrich my work and to write fewer drafts by pacing myself, letting things simmer.

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

I write primarily in the morning, so it's usually a quick breakfast, turn on some music that is familiar enough to fade but still suits the tone of what I'm working on, and then I sit down with my cup of coffee and read over what I've already got on the page until something sparks. If I'm writing away from home, I get my coffee and, before I start drafting in my notebook, I open a books of poems—right now I'm reading Tarfia Faizullah's Seam and Safiya Sinclair's Cannibal. I've always loved poetry for its focus, urgency, and attention to language. I find starting with poetry really re-centering in terms of craft and the emotional terrain of a story.  

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

I drink coffee with way too much cream and sugar—really, I'm a total monster and will ruin a beautiful cup of locally roasted, full, fresh coffee with very little remorse. I usually eat before I sit to write, but I might snack on something easy and contained like a bowl of yogurt and granola or those to-go apple sauce packs for children.

7. Do you have any superstitions about your work?

I might not have any superstitions, but in a small jar that I keep in my bedroom next to hand-drawn portraits of Jane Austen and Wonder Woman, I've gathered every fortune from every fortune cookie I've eaten in the last five years, all the four leaf clovers my friend and mentor Belle Boggs has given me, and thick pieces of metallic confetti from the Beyoncé concert I just went to. They're items that feel very auspicious to me. I like having them in the same space.  

8. Share a recent line/sentence written in this space.

"At night, when Kate was sleeping, I stretched out on the ground and touched every part of my body, reclaiming its terrain – brushing the fine hairs on my arms and legs, memorizing the ridges in my bones, reciting the names of the veins and arteries that carried my blood through me, feeling for the organs hiding beneath my skin, and dreaming of what it would be like to eat the flesh of my own hot heart."

Tayler Heuston, a California-native, holds an MFA from North Carolina State University. Her work has appeared in At Length, Carve, NANO Fiction, and Two Serious Ladies. Her story Hostages—winner of the 2015 Kore Press Short Fiction Award judged by Roxane Gay—is forthcoming through Kore Press this November.

INTERVIEW: David Naimon, Host of the Literary Podcast/Radio Show "Between the Covers"

Interview by Hamish Rickett, CutBank Fiction Editor

I know you’re an accomplished writer in your own right. What brought you to writing? What influences most helped you to advance your craft? 

As a reader, before I was a writer, I was mainly reading Kafka, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, and modernists like Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner. I knew very little about contemporary literature, even less about creative nonfiction and poetry. So, years ago, when I took a seminar called “Writing Inside the Box: Constraint-based Writing in Poetry and Fiction,” co-taught by the poet John Beer and the fiction writer Leni Zumas, it really changed my trajectory. Reading Juliana Spahr, Lyn Hejinian, and the OuLiPians Perec, Queneau and Mathews, and then having to write using formal constraints, created all sorts of writing I wouldn’t have recognized as my own prior to the class. It’s a type of writing I’ve really come to love, writing that often doesn’t easily settle into one genre or another, writing that often makes the presence of the author’s mind visible, writing that might not be weaving a fictive spell but instead might be inviting you into a peculiar and strange wilderness with no obvious way out. It’s a rabbit hole I’m still in myself, one that includes a lot of poetry, nonfiction, and hybrid texts, both contemporary and otherwise.


How do you prepare for your interviews? It seems like you have often read all of the work as well as nearly all of the criticism/reviews of your subjects' work. How long do you typically take to prepare? Do you have any strategies for keeping the flow going? Icebreakers? Do you have different strategies for different types of authors?

If I have enough time I try to read more than the book the author is touring for, particularly if they have a really varied writing history. For instance, with Eliot Weinberger, who I’m preparing for now, his book 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei is a classic book about translation, An Elemental Thing is a collection of essays like no essay collection you’ve ever encountered before, and What Happened Here is a book of political analysis and commentary on the Bush era. Given that his latest book, The Ghosts of Birds, shares qualities with both An Elemental Thing and What Happened Here I felt like the discussion would be richer if I had read these books too. 

I do also try to read other interviews with the author. I’m doing this mainly to avoid repeating the questions that are always asked. You don’t want to avoid these questions altogether because the listener isn’t spending their time reading past interviews and some common questions are, in fact, important questions. But I also want to find a line of inquiry that can get an author out of auto-pilot and make the conversation seem fresh and alive.

No matter how much you prepare though, you never know how comfortable an author will be talking about their own work, how much you will have to draw them out, how much or little rapport you will have when sitting face to face in the studio. I don’t have any conscious strategies to keep the flow going or to use as icebreakers but sometimes you can figure out author-specific strategies from your research prior to the interview.  For instance, I knew that sometimes Lorrie Moore was a tough interview. She had given an interview for the Chicago Tribune, just before I was to interview her, that went off the rails, where the interviewer was called to task for his poor questions. But I also noticed in other interviews, that she would really open up and be forthcoming if she were talking about writers she loved versus her own work. So I went into that interview with the strategy to talk about Donald Barthelme if things got cagey. We did talk about Barthelme in the end, but not because the interview was difficult. But it was something I definitely thought about going in. 


How do you structure your interviews? Are there questions you always ask? Never ask? How tailored are they to the individual? Do you have a rough framework that you start with? As you interview more and more well-respected authors, has your process changed?

Structuring the interview is the part of the process that hurts my brain the most, that takes the most time for me. Much more than the reading. The interviews are definitely tailored to the author and the concerns they raise in their work. I don’t come to the interview-structuring phase with a framework of any sort. What takes time for me is figuring out what line of inquiry, or lines of inquiry, I want to pursue, so that the listener feels connective tissue from one question to the next, can feel a picture being put together piece by piece because the thought-process of the interviewer is apparent in the construction of the interview. 

I’m not sure the stature of the authors I’ve interviewed has changed over time. Colson Whitehead, Anthony Doerr, Nicole Krauss and China Mieville were all early interviews.  If my process has changed at all over time it is more because my interests have changed regarding the types of books I prefer to engage with in a radio interview. I’m more and more interested in books that blur genre, are hybrid texts, or that somehow make the process of their making part of the book experience itself. Also, questions of translation.  I’d like to get more books in translation on the show. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to interview someone who has written a conventionally told novel, it is just becoming a smaller percentage of the shows that I do.


I know that you do almost all of your interviews in person. How does that change the process? What are the benefits and the drawbacks to that?

The news coordinator at the radio station requires the book interviews to be done in-studio. The upside of this is that you are sitting across the table from the author. You are able to read facial expressions and body language, to more easily establish rapport, to feel like you are having a conversation just between the two of you. And sometimes you are sitting with an author like George Saunders or Claudia Rankine or Ursula K. Le Guin, which is quite an honor. The downside of this requirement is that there are authors who either don’t come through Portland, Oregon, or who don’t tour at all. So if Zadie Smith or Toni Morrison have a new book out but aren’t coming here I’m out of luck.


What mistakes did you make early on that you could help fledgling interviewers avoid?

I wouldn’t consider this a mistake per se but in the first year of my show my interest in experimental literature far outpaced by knowledge of it and its history. I’m sure I would do a much better interview today with Sheila Heti or Chris Kraus (whose books How Should a Person Be? and I Love Dick are fabulous) than five years ago. Also in that first year, I didn’t pay enough attention to the diversity of guests I interviewed, whether in regards to gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or country of origin. It’s something I’m very engaged with now.


I know for me, a big part of my enjoyment of your interviews is your willingness to ask difficult questions and your focus on craft. As a writer, interviewing other writers, I find this particularly helpful and interesting as I work on my own writing. How has doing these interviews changed your own writing?

I definitely read differently now because of the podcast. When I’m preparing for an interview I’m not disappearing under the fictive spell in the same way as I used to.  Instead there is a part of me looking for questions to ask, examining choices made by the author, noting the things that make them unique. This has carried over to all my reading and I’m sure it has affected my writing. Perhaps it affects it in a similar way to developing the ability to articulate what is wrong with someone else’s story draft, pushing oneself to move beyond “this is bad” or “this doesn’t work for me,” and finding the evidence of why that is in the text. I suspect that developing this ability to articulate is helpful in recognizing the problems (and the solutions to them) in one’s own work. 


Having interviewed all these great writers, are there any gems of writing advice that stick with you? Are there any commonalities you’ve noticed between successful authors (and here I don’t mean monetarily successful but accomplished in their art forms)?

That’s a good question. Jami Attenberg did say something that stuck with me. She had a chapter in The Middlesteins that her editor wanted her to cut out but that she felt attached to. She said instead of following her editor’s advice if she felt resistance to it, she’d instead use the editor’s comments as an indicator that that section needed her attention.  She’d endeavor to improve it so much that it justified its own existence in the end. And in this case it ended up being one of the more memorable chapters of the book. Ursula K. Le Guin says that one of the benefits of having lived a long life is having a much broader view of the arc of literature. That the popularity of certain writing choices, for instance, short sentences, present tense, and first-person point of view today, doesn’t make these choices better than others. That too many writers limit themselves to a diminished number of craft options without knowing it, based upon what is en vogue, on trends that come and go. I also love how Mary Ruefle talks about how a poem isn’t necessarily addressing the person reading or writing it. That when you are writing a poem, the lines are talking to each other, not to you, until the conversation between them comes to an ending place. Kyle Minor, who wrote a fantastic genre-bending collection, Praying Drunk, that includes both fiction and nonfiction, talked about how important studying poetry was for his prose. That certainly has been the case for me, perhaps more than anything else.


After an interview and you’ve completed your editing, do you share with the subject the podcast or the transcript before releasing it? I would assume you own the rights to interviews and subsequent releases (for example I notice that you are often published in Glimmer Train’s “Writers Ask” and elsewhere) but if they are going to be presented in an alternative form do you give the interviewee a heads-up? I’m a bit of an ignoramus about these things.

For the broadcast and the podcast, the guest doesn’t hear the interview again until it airs.  But sometimes, as you mention, I do transcribe interviews and place them in magazines like Glimmer Train. I do get the author’s approval before I do this. The transcription process is pretty laborious so I don’t want to transcribe anything before knowing that the author is happy to see the conversation appear in a new form. They almost always are.  And they are also given a chance to do a light edit on the transcription prior to publication. This is mostly, I think, because what sounds fine spoken out loud doesn’t always read well when transcribed. 


I know your podcasts are becoming increasingly popular. How many interviews do you average a year?

Right now I’m doing fifteen to eighteen a year. Being a radio and podcast interviewer isn’t my job, so I can’t imagine it ever going above twenty a year unless it somehow became something I could do for a living. That would be my dream. There certainly are many more authors I’d love to engage with each year.


Can you share what current projects you are working on? Goals for the future?

For most of my writing life it’s been small projects, essays, stories, and poems. But I did just start working on a book-length project this fall. I don’t want to say too much about it at this early stage but I will say that it centers around a gap in my memory, an absence of experience regarding an event that has turned out to be a pivotal one in my life. Inspired by writers like Sarah Manguso, Eliot Weinberger, and Nathalie Sarraute, it will use white space, have a poetics, and move obliquely, through association and allusion, as much as forward through narration. 

With my podcast, my main goal is to continue to develop a strong base of listener support for the long-term sustainability of the program. I’m amazed and thrilled by the continued growth of the show’s audience but with that growth has come growing costs. So I hope people will both check out the show and check out the ways you can support it too.


Any parting words of advice for would-be interviewers?

Not to follow a formula, or even the way someone else does it. When you think of memorable radio interviewers, whether Michael Silverblatt or Brad Listi, or magazines with great interviews, from The Believer to The Paris Review, they all stand out for how unique their approach is. You’d never mistake one for the other. I think that uniqueness is part of what draws the author out and makes the conversation dynamic and alive. 

David Naimon has interviewed Ursula K. Le Guin, Junot Diaz, Maggie Nelson, Mary Ruefle, George Saunders, and many more for his radio/podcast Between the Covers. His writing has appeared in Tin House, Fourth Genre, American Short Fiction, Fiction International, Story Quarterly, Zyzzyva, and others. He has received a Tin House Writers Fellowship, an Oregon Regional Arts and Culture Council grant, and a Pushcart Prize 2016 Special Mention. His archived interviews can be found at http://davidnaimon.tumblr.com/interviews.

Hamish Rickett is a fiction editor at CutBank and an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Montana. 

Big Sky, Small Prose: Flash Contest Winners

Congratulations to Alysia Sawchyn, winner of the 2016 Big Sky, Small Prose Flash Contest! Her piece, "Riverbanks and Honeysuckle" will appear in CutBank 86. Here's what our judge, Chad Simpson, had to say:

"The narrator of 'Riverbanks and Honeysuckle' dredges the Potomac in search of something like truth, but her memory won't cooperate. What the reader gets instead is an investigation of 'overcoming and omission' that is both lyrical and poignant and seems as though it may never end."

About Alysia Sawchyn
Alysia Sawchyn currently lives in Tampa, Florida. She is the managing editor of Saw Palm, and her writing can be found in Indiana Review, Midwestern Gothic, Barrelhouse Online, and elsewhere.

Congratulations also to our two runners-up, whose work will appear in CutBank 86 as well:

"Planning to Be Amazed" by Daryl Scroggins
"At the Dog Park" by Derek Updegraff 


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 poet Danny Caine.

1. Where do you do your work?

I write poems generally whenever they hit me, and it's often quick. "When" becomes "where," and "where" could be on a napkin, in the periphery doodles of class notes, on the back of a cardboard coaster, or on the NOTES iPhone app like an apologizing celebrity. But if there's a single place lately that has a statistically higher percentage of sentences originated therein, it'd be the record-player half of my living room. My living room is split in two by what's basically an invisible hallway from my front doormy apartment is big but it's an architectural nightmare, as is the case with rentals in a college town. Anyway, one half has a couch, a piano, and a bookcase, and the other has a craigslist armchair and a record player. I frequently write in the record player half. 

2. What do you keep on your desk?

It's not really a desk, then, is it. The craigslist armchair has a vintage Danish side table next to it, which frequently has my writing beverage of choice (cold brew, bourbon, sometimes both). There's also a rotary phone with an old poison control sticker, and some vintage trophies, plus a few candlesticks. It's all for decorationmy wife Kara has a great eye for vintage knickknacks.  

3. What's your view like?

There's a weird little cut-out into my kitchen (again, weird architecture). Sometimes my cat sits up there and stares at me while I work, demanding to be fed. If I turn around and look out the window, I can see the McDonald's that's very close to my house. I can sometimes hear the drive-through speaker.

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

Not really, though sometimes the cat tries to take the armchair when I get up. 

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

I feel like inspiration is fickle and sporadic, but when I absolutely need to get something written, usually reading jogs things up a bit so that something can happen. Poetry begets more poetry; it's a blessing and a curse.

6. Do you have any superstitions about your work? 

I don't think so? Now that you ask, I'm wondering if I should. I can't write poems if I'm wearing blue or prose if I'm wearing red. I can't write if the Cleveland Indians lost by more than five runs the previous night. I can't listen to music from 1998 if I'm trying to write poetry. How do those sound?

7. Share a recent line/sentence written in this space.

I wrote a poem here two days ago, probably called "In the Bathroom of the Ritz Carlton Downtown." Here's most of the first stanza: 

"Hey fuck you automatic faucet

no matter what your shitty laser

eye thinks, I am a body"

Danny Caine's poetry has appeared in New Ohio ReviewHobartMid-American Review, and other places. He's music editor for At Length magazine and has reviewed books for Los Angeles Review and Rain Taxi. He hails from Cleveland and lives in Lawrence, Kansas where he works at the Raven Bookstore. More at dannycaine.com.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Tall As You Are Between Them" by Annie Christain

Tall As You Are Between Them by Annie Christain (2016)

Review by Eve Kenneally

Annie Christain’s utterly enjoyable debut poetry collection, Tall As You Are Between Them (Conscious & Responsible Press), buzzes with an immensely fierce and intellectual energy.

The first poem in the book, titled “The Sect Which Pulls the Sinews: I’ve Seen You Handle Cocoons” and prefaced with Leviticus 18:22, allows the reader to wade into the collection at their own pace: “The first time I touched a boy, / I glimpsed pomegranate arils / in the bowl / and felt beetles walk across my chest” (4). Leviticus is familiar, but this visceral blend of piety, violence, and sensuality is a welcome surprise.

Throughout the collection, Christain deftly switches from traditional syntax to the unexpected. In “Thorns to Rescue Their Bodies,” she says, “This is a strange apple. I said he hits it. It changes to his evil and the rainbow cider” (38). She also toys with how her words and lines occupy the space of the page, alternating successfully between dense prose and sparse line.

Each section in the book is prefaced with a quote about Pleiades; the Seven Sisters make several appearances throughout Christain’s poems. Additionally, the second section“White House Tapes”is a series of prose poems modeled after transcriptions of three different dialects. Christain dips in and out of different narratives with jolts of charged diction. In “XXVII – Kipper Want,” she says, “Once I was young, I didn’t know words for me, but now I can speak and I will.” While entirely reflective of Christain’s ability to blend contrasting narrative voices, if section two has a fault, it is the inclusion of too many characters. It’s easy for the reader to become overwhelmedat the same time, being overwhelmed in Christain’s space is still a strange and enjoyable experience.

The third section includes the poem “Puteum Abyssi: Till I get to the Bottom and I See You Again” which states, “Out the window, I saw a woman running / across Russia until her kneecaps / were on the opposite side. / She screamed: Stop stabbing; / I’m already dead” (101) one of many lines that display Christain’s ability to show a uniquely nuanced and highly characterized violence consistently throughout her collection.

“Under John Wayne’s Hat” is a particularly memorable and remarkable piece. This prose poem places Stalin and John Wayne together, eating fish and playing mancala. A frying pan of fish “leads Stalin and John Wayne to lovingly admitthrough direct rock tweakingthat they are not afraid to know exactly how they or the fish began” (34). Christain’s blend of the familiar with the surprising and slightly Biblical creates a host of odd and stunning moments.

The titles were also one of my favorite elements of Christain’s collection; for example, “Wondering If I’m a Descendant of the Nephilim While Lying on a Merry-Go-Round at Prentis Park,” “God Wants You to Go to Jail,” and “We Must Kill All Rats Before We Can Kill Your Rats” are unusual and wry.

Christain mines through newspaper headlines, quotes, and pop cultural phenomena with a sharp and striking eye. Her poems are prefaced with lyrics by Metallica, the Eagles, and John Lennon; quotes from Cold Case Files; lines from the Bible and the Qur’an; and even a description for a Marilyn Monroe snowglobe.

In the penultimate poem, Christain muses, “The idea for manifest destiny didn’t just happen” (114). Her poems display elegance, humor, and a strong and grounded sense of development and craft. I can’t wait to see who and what else Christain visits and skillfully constructs in her following collections.

Annie Christain is an assistant professor of composition and ESOL at SUNY Cobleskill. Her poems have appeared in Seneca Review, Oxford Poetry, the Chariton Review, and the Lifted Brow, among others. She received the grand prize in the 2013 Hart Crane Memorial Poetry Contest, the 2013 Greg Grummer Poetry Award, the 2015 Oakland School of the Arts Enizagam Poetry Award, and the 2015 Neil Shephard Prize in Poetry. 

Eve Kenneally (from Boston by way of DC) is a recent alumna of the MFA program at the University of Montana. Her chapbook, Something Else Entirely, will be released by Dancing Girl Press in 2016. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Yemassee, Parcel, decomP, Star 82 Review, Blue Monday Review, and elsewhere.

CutBank 85, Fresh off the Press

Our latest print issue is finally here! Dare we say, it's been well worth the wait.

Along with our usual choice selections in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, CutBank 85 features the winners of our Montana Prize in Fiction, judged by Claire Vaye Watkins; the Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry, judged by Oscar De La Paz; and the Montana Prize in Creative Nonfiction, judged by Amanda Fortini. 

Read a preview of the issue here.

Score your copy through our online store here

BURN PILE: Shirley Jackson, Ouija Boards, and Truman Capote's Ashes

The spookiest month of the year begins tomorrow. Here are some literary tidbits of a decidedly darker nature to get us all in the mood.

  • This week marks the publication of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, a new biography of the oft-overlooked American writer best known for her short story “The Lottery” and the novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Biographer Ruth Franklin reports that Jackson was pegged (and promoted) as somewhat of a domestic “witch” in the early days of her career, and that Jackson took exception to this claim. Later, however, Jackson wrote the following, which should delight those of us who embrace our inner witches: 

I am tired of writing dainty little biographical things that pretend that I am a trim little housewife in a Mother Hubbard stirring up appetizing messes over a wood stove. I live in a dank old place with a ghost that stomps around in the attic room we’ve never gone into (I think it’s walled up) and the first thing I did when we moved in was to make charms in black crayon on all the door sills and window ledges to keep out demons, and was successful in the main. There are mushrooms growing in the cellar, and a number of marble mantels which have an unexplained habit of falling down onto the heads of the neighbors’ children.

At the full of the moon I can be seen out in the backyard digging for mandrakes, of which we have a little patch, along with rhubarb and blackberries. I do not usually care for these herbal or bat wing recipes, because you can never be sure how they will turn out. I rely almost entirely on image and number magic.

EDITOR'S BOOKSHELF: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

By Stephanie Pushaw, CutBank Fiction Editor

I first read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in its essential form: the mass-market paperback that came out in 1981, its ubiquitous cover featuring a bold seventies typeface, a defunct Earth, an eyeless green planet sticking out its tongue, and—at the bottom—a round hand, earnestly thumbing for a ride. This copy had clearly been much-read: fat yellowed pages fanning out, exclamation marks in the margin near the best jokes (all ten thousand of them), flimsy cover peeling off in places. I’d pried it from the communal bookshelf in the London flat my family and I were staying in for a few months. I was thirteen. I read it in a couple hours—one of the beautiful things about the world of Hitchhiker’s is that you can stay in it for as long or as brief a time as you want to—and was all in. It was funny and weird and there were parts I knew were even funnier and weirder, if I could just wrap my head around them. The world ended in the first ten pages, leaving just one Earthling to bound into the deepest recesses of space across a series of fabulous vessels—and what thirteen-year-old hasn’t entertained thoughts of doing that? But beyond the glamorous spaceships, the sharp British wit, the hijinks and battles of interstellar travel, the book held a solemnity as well: everything seemed fraught, even when it wasn’t, with some unspeakable truth about the universe we’d better not look straight in the face for fear of being blinded. The funny bits, I realized, were the only way to deal with the darkness. 

I left that copy in the bookshelf when we returned to the States, feeling like I’d been meant to find it—like I’d been let in on some big crazy secret I now had a responsibility to tell others about (I guess at that tender age my narcissism was so well-developed I still thought I was discovering things, even though Hitchhiker’s and its sequels have been consistent international bestsellers since the day it was published—translated into thirty languages by the time I picked up that first tattered copy in 2005—not to mention the explosive popularity of its other iterations, most notably the radio series that spawned the books in the first place. We won’t mention the movie. We just won’t.). And when I got back to California, back to the house and dog and small eighth grade class, I realized: I needed to read it again, needed to feel again that sensation of escape. I don’t know why this memory sticks with me, but it does: at the now-defunct Borders on the Santa Monica Promenade, I made my way to the sci-fi section and found the holy grail: a leatherbound edition of all the Hitchhiker’s Guide books. The checkout guy looked stoked I was buying them. “All five books in the trilogy!” he said, and I, still thirteen, probably said something irrelevant in reply, thinking: Another thing I know must be funny but I just don’t get. 

About the series, many minds have said things, and I don’t think I could say much more—or really adequately translate why they’ve been a sort of therapy for me over the past ten years. They’re science fiction, but they’re comedy, but they’re deadly serious. It’s not important to me to slot them into a genre, or defend them as literary; it’s important to me that every time I open up that hardcover, I find something that gets rarer and rarer for me every day: a universe so fully contoured, so bulging with strange possibilities, that for those few hours I am not thinking about anything else. 

Six years after I first read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I returned to London. I’d probably re-read the series four times in those six years, my leatherbound omnibus taped up now, its gilt-edged pages losing their sheen. I’d read it after various small college heartbreaks to help get over myself, because it’s virtually impossible to read it without laughing; I’d read it when, stuffed to the gills on “deep” and “challenging” and “literary” assigned literature—even when I loved it—I just couldn’t take another paragraph of Beckett brooding or Nabokov embedding clues into epic poems. I rarely even finished it, on these re-reads; the first chapter, or the first half, was usually enough to knock back into me the wit and whimsy of this alternate world. I’d given up, by then, on hoping for a spaceship to land in an empty field and beam me up to the marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V. The world was proving itself slowly to contain enough mysteries and marvels to content myself with, only looking up now and again longingly to the distant stars. 

But, back in London, I found myself on one hot spring day getting off the tube in Archway with a friend and walking through the iron-gated streets to the Highgate Cemetery. We passed Karl Marx’s grave, featuring a massive bust of the man himself and an exhortation: WORKERS OF ALL LANDS UNITE! We passed the grave of George Eliot, a simple stone with her real name, Mary Ann Cross, engraved below her pseudonym. And then we found it: under a copse of tall trees, another plain tombstone, rectangular like a hardcover book. Carved with thin shallow type, just the words: Douglas Adams. Writer. In front of his grave was a small earthenware pot. It was bristling with pens. Nothing fancy, no Montblancs, no silvery quills. Just cheap plastic Bic pens and ballpoints. I left a pen, too, whatever I had in my pocket. Here, the pens seemed to be saying, in this supposedly haunted cemetery, in front of the grave of a man who died too young, who left behind something that does, at times, truly seem like the guide to the universe. Here. Write us just one more thing.

Stephanie Pushaw is a writer from Malibu, California. Her work has appeared in Fractal, Slippery Elm, The Believer Logger, DIAGRAM, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She is a fiction editor at Cutbank and a Truman Capote Fellow at the University of Montana. Her essay "Crickets: A Love Song" won the 2014 DIAGRAM essay contest and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is working on her first novel, which features several dog characters. Read more of her work at stephaniepushaw.com

THE WOODSHOP: Kate Ruebenson

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 Kate Ruebenson, a Brooklyn poet and filmmaker.

1. Where do you do your work?

During my residency at Arts Letters and Numbers in Averill Park, NY, in spring of 2015, I created my favorite writing space. My desk was on the second floor of an old mill, right by two large windows. I built the desk by placing cinderblocks under a door turned on its side and covered with a cloth.

2. What do you keep on your desk?

I kept snacks, beer, a typewriter, tracing paper, pens & pencils, a bulletin board to post visual fodder for writing inspiration, a book of architecture, and a book of philosophy.

3. What's your view like?

I looked out over a narrow two way road up a hill towards another refurbished mill. My second week at the residency, I saw a double rainbow right out of the two huge windows adjacent to my desk. 

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

Depending on the time of day, I cycle through drinks and meals. Throughout the day, I keep a glass of water on the table and try to refill it no less than five times. In the morning, I have a cup of coffee; in the afternoon, I will switch to tea or a bottle of beer, depending on my mood. At night, I will switch back to tea again, or stick with water. I like to leave my desk for major meals, but I like having seaweed snacks, pretzels, or nuts hanging around in my periphery in case I'm so busy that I forget to have lunch. I never forget breakfast or dinner, though.

5. Do you have any superstitions about your work?

I have tried to write without my phone or laptop in general proximity, but I always end up wanting or needing to research something I am writing about or check synonyms quickly for alternative word use. I must, however, always turn my phone over on the table or shut my laptop when I am not using them. If I see a notification pop up on either, it is too distracting to continue writing freely, as I feel an itching need to check what is going on outside the world of my desk; this is always a losing battle.

6. Share a recent line/sentence written in this space.

And the passing of time / Feels analogous / To the passing of friends / A long and emphatic / Lament.

Kate Ruebenson graduated this June with her MFA in Poetry from Brooklyn College. A New York City native, she lives in Brooklyn but also spends time on the west coast. She is an Adjunct Professor of English Composition at Medgar Evers College and Brooklyn College. Her poetry has been published in Roanoke ReviewYellow Chair Review, Typehouse Magazine, C4 Magazine and Hanging Loose Press, among othersand last year her short film Ephemreel premiered at Noted Festival in Australia. In July 2015, Kate spent a week on Long Island in workshop with Billy Collins. In August 2015, she was a resident at Arts Letters and Numbers in Upstate New York (featured). This past summer, Kate split her time between workshops with Carolyn Forche and Campbell McGrath at Skidmore College and a poetry intensive with Dorianne Laux at the Port Townsend Writers Conference in the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing poetry with a view, whether that landscape is the Cascade Mountains or the traffic on Nostrand Avenue.

BURN PILE: Award Finalists Announced, Jonathan Safran Foer's "Joyless" New Novel, and "Bad" Women

This week, the National Book Award Foundation announced its longlist for the 2016 National Book Award in Fiction, joining its previously announced selections for Non-Fiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature. Finalists in all categories will be announced October 13; winners, November 16. In the meantime, we can all add the following to our fall reading list:

·       The Throwback Special, Chris Bachelder

·       What Belongs to You, Garth Greenwell

·       Imagine Me Gone, Adam Haslett 

·       News of the World, Paulette Jiles 

·       The Association of Small Bombs, Karan Mahajan

·       The Portable Veblen, Elizabeth McKenzie

·       Sweet Lamb of Heaven, Lydia Millet

·       Miss Jane, Brad Watson 

·       The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead  

·       Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson  

The Man Booker Prize Shortlist in Fiction was also announced this week, with the following finalists:

·       Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien

·       The Sellout, Paul Beatty

·       All That Man Is, David Szalay

·       His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet

·       Hot Milk, Deborah Levy

·       Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh

The winner will be announced Oct. 25.

In other book news, the LA Times largely pans Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel “Here I Am,” which it calls "joyless" and “kitsch at best.” Meanwhile, LitHub offers readers “10 Books Featuring Subversive Women,” which kicks off with Mary Gaitskill’s excellent—and tenacious—collection Bad Behavior


Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit cutbankonline.org/submit/web. To submit to our chapbook contest, please see cutbankonline.org/submit/print or email cutbankonline@gmail.com for more information.

Dear Nick,

You wrote that somewhere, sometime, some moment, we all lose our way. I’m bound in the back-and-forth of that, the pendulum, the rebound. The world was unfamiliar, and then it became familiar again. But I’m haunted by what-was, by those moments I woke up an imposter, an interpreter, a stand-in, someone hired to carry off my life.

Last night I dreamed of beings who had bargained with some incarnation of the devil. They could stay in their bodies, their lives, if they killed one human each day. I was alternately one of them and fleeing them. Then I awoke and my clothing was damp and the dark just softening into blue. Then I awoke and beside me the dog. I awoke and beside me my love, the one I had gone away from, and then come back, but somewhere in that interim, the loss of the blush of innocence, the watertight promise of what is shared. Somewhere in that interim doubt crept in.

And how does one come back from doubt, really, Nick—you yourself said these words, said "stunned by how quickly it dissolved" and "afraid of all the things I could transform into." And this is a letter about disorientation, about bewilderment, about how quickly the stones beneath our feet hiss and steam when water is tossed on them, our foundation like a sauna, like lava, heated beyond stability by the pressure and the force of so many mountains moving.

There was a day when the heat seemed to beckon of spring, the figs leafing and budding, the clothes on the line, the hummer feeding at the feeder and everything seemed all promise and the scent of baking bread. But there were these other days, days where it snowed, where icicles hung off the eaves of the buildings, where skiing was the way of an afternoon, where a very different promise began to exist. And what do we do with that one, Nick, why did it come along, such insinuation, such promise, that augur of inconstant days?

I’ve seen you transform things that should not be transformed, things that should be frozen and sinking and I’ve seen you make them light enough to float on the surface of the water, alongside the fishing boats and the wharves and the piers of the harbor. Tell me what is more light than this; tell me what the drift portends—this unfurling broken light, this spectacle. This thing that wanders in us, this schism: tell me what it is that we have lost, or would lose, in the leaving. What husk will burn, will softly jerk away; what dissolution follows. Tell me, Nick, given this dusky film over the world, how does one approximate even the smallest comfort?

I await your words, in a suspended state of wandering—



Nick Flynn is an American writer, poet, and playwright. He is the author of three memoirs, including the acclaimed Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, three books of poetry, and other works. He received the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry in 1999.

Arianne Zwartjes is a poet and lyric essayist living in Leadville, Colorado. Her most recent book is Detailing Trauma: A Poetic Anatomy (U of Iowa Press, 2012), a selection from which won the 2011 Gulf Coast Prize for Nonfiction and was a Best American Essays Notable Essay in 2013. Visit her and more of her writing at ariannezwartjes.com.


By Nicole Roché, CutBank Online Managing Editor/Fiction Editor

I discovered Art & Fear four years ago at the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas. I was skeptical at first. The cover was dated. The title screamed self-help, and reminded me of the scene in Donnie Darko where the high-strung teacher tries to get students to place their assigned “character dilemma” on the spectrum between “Love” and “Fear.”    

But long before that time I had come to trust the Raven and its staff. For the uninitiated, the Raven is the Platonic ideal of the downtown independent bookstore, complete with resident cats and David-and-Goliath survival story. (In 1997, a Borders megastore opened its doors one block away, only to close them in 2011.) The Raven is one of those places where the employees post notes about their favorite books, right there on the shelves, so if you are too shy to chat up the sales clerk you always have a recommendation at the ready. The note accompanying Art & Fear assured me this was a work that had stuck with the staff member for many years, and was one they continued to return to for inspiration and guidance.

Now, years later, I find myself coming back to this slim text every few months. I, too, feel compelled to write my own little note here, in the digital ether, urging every writer or artist I know to pick it up.

Art & Fear is self-help, it’s true. But it offers up that help in straightforward, no-nonsense, often elegant terms. At every turn, authors David Bayles and Ted Orland work to de-mystify the process of art-making. Here are just a few of the many truths that resonated with me (though I will stress reading them in the context of the book as a whole makes them all the more powerful):

·       “Your job is to develop an imagination of the possible.”

·       (On talent, or perceived lack thereof) “By definition, whatever you have is exactly what you need to produce your best work.”

·       “The depth of your need to make things establishes the risk in not making them.”

·       “Ask your work what it needs, not what you need.”

The book’s multi-disciplinary approach is one of its greatest assets. There is comfort in knowing writing is neither unique in its challenges nor its rewards. Bayles and Orland are themselves photographers (Orland worked as Ansel Adams’ assistant in the 1970s), and though they do draw from big-name writers such as Melville, Nabokov, Tolstoy, Henry James, and Joan Didion, they also reference Frank Lloyd Wright, Chopin, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Robert Mapplethorpe, Stravinsky, Picasso, and many others. The effect is a sense of real solidarity among artists of every kind.

Consider this bit on the interplay of imagination and control/technique, which Bayles and Orland compare to Didion’s lamentation that writing the first few lines of a story quickly eliminates all further possibilities for the story: “The first few brushstrokes to the blank canvas satisfy the requirements of many possible paintings, while the last few fit only that painting—they could go nowhere else. The development of an imagined piece is a progression of decreasing possibilities.”

Then there’s my favorite, the analogy of the ceramics class, which Lit Hub references when arguing why writers should shoot for one hundred rejections a year. In this analogy, a ceramics teacher divides the class into two groups:  those who will graded by the quantity of their work, and those who will be graded by its quality. The students in the quantity group must produce fifty pounds of pots to earn an A (forty for a B, etc.), whereas the students in the quality group must produce only one pot to earn top marks—but it must be perfect. At the end of the semester, the teacher makes a telling discovery: all of the best pots were made by the students who were being graded for quantity. As Bayles and Orland explain, “It seems that while the ‘quantity’ group was busy churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes—the ‘quality’ group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.” The lesson here is clear, and a welcome reminder: above all, we improve our work by working.     

Of course, sometimes we need a little goading to take up that pen (or paintbrush). It helps to be reminded that while “flow” and “vision” and “inspiration” may be real and admirable things, so are sheer determination and flat-out hard work. A kind of magic may run through our best work, but it is not required. Art-making of any kind is hard—writing this post, in its own small ways, was hard—but we must find ways to get the work done. For me, at least, this book helps. 

About the Author:  Nicole Roché is a second-year MFA student in fiction. She hails from Lawrence, Kansas, where she earned degrees in journalism and creative writing/literature. She is currently obsessed with orange cats, Alice Munro, and huckleberry anything.  

BURN PILE: Setting Rejection Goals, the Dubious Origins of the Six-Word Short Story, and Gene Wilder, Writer

Submission season is finally upon us. Read why setting “rejection goals” can help you meet your publication goals, too. (Plus a perfect analogy from the always inspirational Art & Fear.)

Dream of being as prolific as [insert favorite author’s name here]? You might consider setting your alarm clock an hour earlier—or maybe not? Check out this infographic that compares what time famous writers rise each morning with how much they publish. (The infographic, it should be noted, does not indicate what time said writers went to bed each night.)

It’s back to school time, and soon writing teachers everywhere will be using Hemingway’s infamous “six-word short story” to teach students about the nuts and bolts of narrative. (For the uninitiated, those six words are, “For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn.”) But that story, it turns out, is likely apocryphal. (Do we care? Don’t forget to submit your own six-word stories here.)

Did you know beloved comedian Gene Wilder, who died this week at age 83, dabbled in both memoir and fiction writing? Check out this LA Times review of his memoir Kiss Me Like a Stranger. Among other nuggets, you’ll learn for which film Wilder was hired because the director needed "an actor who could believably fall in love with a sheep and play it straight." RIP, Gene.

LONG WAY FROM, LONG TIME SINCE: To John Updike, from Lancaster

Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit cutbankonline.org/submit/web. To submit to our chapbook contest, please see cutbankonline.org/submit/print or email cutbankonline@gmail.com for more information.

           I met you three times, each of them in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where I live. You were originally from Shillington, outside Reading, which wasn’t far away, though as a teenager your family had moved to a farm in Plowville, which was closer. You were a frequent guest of Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster, and you also spent time at the County Historical Society, researching James Buchanan, who had been a Lancaster resident; you wrote a play, Buchanan Dying, and later a novel, Memories of the Ford Administration, about the ex-President. Critics were rather mystified by these works but were generous, and you moved on to more muscular themes.

            I first met you at the world premier of Buchanan Dying, which was performed amidst great fanfare at Franklin & Marshall. The play was undramatic and dull, though the costumes were good. Because my mother was a trustee of the college, we were invited to an after-performance reception at Wheatland, Buchanan’s home. This was a meet-and-greet, sip-and-observe affair; I remember that you were accompanied by your mother, Linda Grace Hoyer, who was also a writer, a grumpy eminence who was both irritated and irritatingshe seemed unashamedly jealous of your success. You were wearing a smart gray suit and you were bashful and toothy and very charming, your hair the usual boyish mess. You were taller then I expected, and rather odd-looking; if you’d been miniaturized you would have looked like a garden gnome. As a writer, of course, I idolized you; you were more-or-less a local boy and had achieved immense success. We shook hands, I congratulated you on your play, and we left.

           You were back at the college a few years later for a reading, and before that a by-invitation-only dinner. Because my mother was ill, I got to sit with ten or twelve other friends of the college at your table, where you were host. During the meal you were clever and funny, deflecting any serious questions with deft non-answers and your grin. You were very winning and I wanted badly to be your friend, though unfortunately we didn’t speakI was shy, the table was wide and the room was noisy. There was thunderous applause later that evening when you finished your reading, your poetry and prose enhanced somehow by your quiet, earnest delivery.

            A few years later a professor friend of mine at the college, Rob Wilson, invited me to sit in on a late-morning English seminar where you were speaking. This wasn’t a lecture so much as an extended question and answer session, as you hadn’t prepared any remarksyou were visiting a number of classes throughout the day. You responded to questions about Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Ann Beattie, and Raymond Carver; your assessments were thoughtful and respectful, though not without some biting wit. There was a very attractive feminist in the front row of the class and about thirty minutes into the session she had had enough; she’d decided it was time for you to own up. “How can you expect to be taken seriously,” she asked, “when all you write about is chauvinism and adultery? What about the big questions, like identity and race? You write like you’ve never heard of Camus, or Faulkner.”

            You were stung, but the siege was short-lived: Professor Wilson quickly intervened, reminding the class that you, Updike, were a guest of the college, not the subject of a roast. The feminist glared, but then the polite give-and-take resumed, and you never did respond to her accusations. As the end of the hour neared, Professor Wilson took it upon himself to deliver to you a valentine: he called you the most complete man of letters since Henry James, and in a winner-take-all short story comparison declared a dead heat between your "Separating" and Chekhov’s "Lady with a Lapdog." Class dismissed. You looked a bit embarrassed as you stood shaking hands with the students and they began to file out.

            What happened next happened very quickly: Rob Wilson and his students disappeared, and another professor entered the classroom, as if by pre-arrangement. This was a fellow I recognized, by his infamous gloved hands; Guillaume Brandt was a noted linguist with a highly contagious skin condition, whose photo had recently been in the college newspaper. He seemed a bit unhinged as he lunged toward youevidently he was trying to pick up on some earlier conversation he’d been having with you that had been interrupted. His plaint? Semantic structures in the Rabbit novels, about which he was composing a paper. The three of us were alone now in the classroom and I heard you yelp.

            “My minder seems to have abandoned me,” you said, to me. “We were supposed to be having lunch.”

            “Oh, I can take you,” I volunteered. Dr. Brandt was still burbling away, backing you into the chalkboard, as he referred repeatedly to what he called your oeuvresomething that had evidently died and that he, the linguist, sought to dissect right here, right now, in ghoulish detail. I didn’t know it then, but later learned that you were afflicted with chronic skin complaints yourself, such as psoriasisno wonder you wanted nothing to do with the sickly linguist!

            “I’m late,” you told Dr. Brandt. “I apologize.” You seized me by the arm and quickly steered us from the classroom.

            “Where were you supposed to meet for lunch?” I asked.

            “I haven’t the faintest idea. I’m parched. And I need a cigarette.”

            Luckily, I was a smoker too, so we both lit up once we’d exited the building. As it turned out, you had less than an hour until your next obligation at the collegeI didn’t know who was supposed to be looking after you, or where they were, and there wasn’t time enough to go somewhere nice for lunch. It was a pleasant spring day as we strolled across the campus to the parking lot. Our house was only five minutes away, though you didn’t askyou were already lighting up a second cigarette as we climbed into my car.

            “This campus is so improved,” you said. “It’s impressive. Where are we off to, anyway?”

            “To get you some iced tea,” I said.

            “How nice of you.”

            You seemed neither uncomfortable nor anxiousyou’d undoubtedly visited dozens of campuses before and had your share of misadventures. And you knew Lancaster, you knew the college. About me, you weren’t curious at all; you seemed content just to bob along, relieved to be out of the limelight for the moment and confident you would be looked after properly.

            When we arrived at the house you climbed out of the car and took off your suit coat, leaving it in the back seat. “Nice place,” you said.

            This time of day, her morning chores completed, in spring and summer my wife, Meredith, liked to adjourn to the patio behind the house with an iced beverage and her cigarettes. As luck would have it, that was where we found her.

            We had glasses of iced tea and smoked while you and my wife exchanged pleasantries. Meredith offered you lunch, but you declined, bashfullyyou claimed that you were dietingthough that seemed ridiculous given your trim frame. Then you looked across our wide back yard and said, “Wow, nice course. Should we play a round?”

            Behind our house, we have a lovely flat lawn that I had just the evening before laid out for a croquet courseI cut the grass there myself, one-half inch shorter than the rest of the lawn, to give the balls on it a nice crisp roll. If we were going to play a game, as now seemed imperative, I thought we’d need a fourth, to make two teamsotherwise, as our guest, you might feel that Meredith and me were ganging up on you.

            “Brad’s probably out front,” Meredith said, having seemed to read my thoughts. She was referring to our mailman, Brad, who often parked his truck under a big shade tree by our house to eat his lunch. Brad and I frequently stole a quick game of croquet during the summer.

            Indeed, Brad was sitting in his van, eating an apple. “Don’t ask me any questions,” I said. “This is an emergency. We’re entertaining a big honcho from the college. I just set up the course last night.”

            In the backyard, I introduced you to Brad, and croquet mallets were selected. You were teamed with Brad, the two of you against Meredith and me.

            I knew you were a golfer, which was clear from the way you addressed the croquet ball, your feet widely spaced, your hands in a traditional golfer’s grip. I’d heard that you were also quite competitive. The game proceeded rather predictably, turn after turn, but then at the middle wicket you found a congestion of balls that offered you a special chance: you could either try for the wicket with your ball or knock Meredith’s ball aside, out of contention. You chose the latter. You gave your ball a big solid swat and Meredith’s ball sailed off the short grass into the brush adjoining our neighbor’s yard.

            Meredith is not generally competitive but I could tell that she was pissed. Did she think you were impolite or just overly aggressive?

            “All right, then,” she announced, dropping her mallet. “I’m out. You literary gents play on.”

            Honestly, I was a bit mystified by your hit myself: why sail your hostess’s ball into the woods? Had you mistaken Meredith’s ball for another? Or maybe you weren’t at all what you seemed; did your affable public face mask a deeper, more ruthless man? Or were you feeling hostile from your morning? Somehow, lashing out seemed entirely in keeping with what must be your tougher side; after all, you hadn’t gotten where you were through pandering. I don’t know, maybe this was the way your crowd played croquet up in Ipswich.

            You and Brad won, handily, and we all shook hands. When we returned to the patio there was a fresh pitcher of iced tea, though your time was running short.

            “I’ve liked your books, mostly,” said Meredith, eyeing you. “I’ve often wondered, though, why is it you’ve never done anything about your hair?”

            “Is it that bad?” you said, looking rather wounded. You drew your hand up to your scalp.

            “Oh, it’s all right,” Meredith said. “It just looks like you never had time to think about it, which, I gather, is probably true.”

            We had another cigarette in the car as I drove you back to campus. Thinking about it, I was a bit annoyed, frankly, knowing I was going to have to defend you, in absentia, to Meredith when I got home; too, there was that lost ball, and I was going to have to get down on my hands and knees and rummage around in the neighbor’s underbrush to find it.

            “Anywhere is fine,” you said, once we were back on campus. “I can find my way.”

            “All right, then,” I said. “It was a pleasure.” I pulled the car over and you climbed out, retrieving your suit coat from the back seat.

            We shook hands. “Thanks,” you said, “You rather saved me.” You slammed the car door, and that was that. You strode briskly up the walkway toward the classrooms.

            Though you seem to have used nearly everything that ever happened to you, in your life, to my knowledge this incident never made it into your work. As the years rolled on and the flood of poems, novels, and stories piled up, there was no mention of our matcha highlight in my life, forgettable to youand that made all the difference.

Samuel Atlee is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he was a Teaching-Writing Fellow. He has published two collections of short stories: Men at Risk and Baby Why Not? He lives in Pennsylvania.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: Sea Summit: Not in the Heart, but in the Humming

Sea Summit by Yi Lu

Translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Review by Christina Cook

Sea Summit, a collection of poems selected from more than two decades of Yi Lu’s published oeuvre, is the first book-length English translation of this important Chinese poet’s work. Her work is unique among her contemporaries in that it explores the gendered relations between humans and the environment and the complexities of ecosystem that circumscribe them. The new book challenges English-language readers—just as her five previous books challenge Chinese readers—to think about the cultural attitudes and imbalances of power that have brought this ecosystem to the brink of breakdown on both sides of the globe.

Disassociation and unity form the two-sided trope that guides the reader through the intricacies of Yi’s vision. The opening poem, “Early Spring,” wastes no time in establishing the speaker’s sight of disassociated bodies in an otherwise pastoral landscape where cows’

            bowed heads seem unrelated to their tails

            each cow also seems unrelated to itself

            is the grass it eats also unrelated to its stomach

            between their four whisking tails

            a butterfly waltzes over hill and dale

            even the butterfly seems unrelated to itself

The disassociation operates on both the physical level (through disembodiment) and psychological level (through the subjective qualifier “seems”), and the resulting sense of instability is emphasized by the poem’s technical elements: the lack of capitalization and punctuation, combined with a mix of end-stopped and enjambed lines, slow readers down as they endeavor to pick their way through the phrasings. In an absence of grammatically organized sentences, they are left to create unities of meaning where none exist on the page. In this way, the reader’s work enacts that of the speaker, who must unify the seemingly unrelated parts of the cows and of the butterfly to create meaning in her own field of vision.

Creating unities of meaning out of a heady mix of language, prosody, and imagery is part of the pleasure and challenge of reading any poem. However, the particular braid of content and form in Yi’s poems invites her readers to invest even more effort in the unities of meaning they make from the now-disassociated pieces and parts of the polluted ecosystem of human-environment relations.

What complicates this project is the blurring of “human” and “nature” that takes place in female identity. In Western literary, cultural, and religious traditions, women have always been depicted as closer to nature than men, and by virtue of that, inferior to them. In recent years, this ideology has provided a useful lens for Eastern literary and cultural critics such as Yu Jiangxia. Her essay “Biocolonialism: An Ecofeminist Perspective,” addresses a similar need in the East to “[unearth] the common cultural roots of the destruction of nature and the oppression of women.”

Yi’s poems express women’s unique closeness to nature, but use their speaker’s gendered perspective to illustrate the ways in which it empowers women rather than renders them inferior. In her poem “Many Many Mothers,” the blurring between women and nature emanates from the all-powerful maternal bond. The poem opens with the following:

            like millions of motors unleashed undersea

            the sea’s body shakes   its chest heaving

            in a splash of white breast milk

            as if spouting the essence of life to its end

            as if the universe needed to be fed

Likening the sea’s fertile, maternal, nourishing body to “millions of motors unleashed” reveals women as a force of nature that summons more horsepower than the male-dominated domain of culture.

Woman’s intimacy with nature is expressed with particular power and poignance in “A Pregnant Woman Walks in the Fields”:

            her body is too full

            spilling over all the way—

            fat lumps of clouds and flowers


            stream water climbs up her bulky legs

            like replenishing a big lake

The description creates an image of a woman so blended into the natural landscape, it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Both woman and field are perfectly porous, creating a unity that is tied like a knot in the unseen, unborn child. The strength of this knot is expressed in the couplet that comes later in the poem: “her vast gaze   wipes away obstacles / even the mountain shifts solemnly.” A mother, whether incarnated in a field, person, or sea, is capable of no less than moving mountains. Fathers, however, are a different story.

In the poem “Father in a Basket,” the speaker places several degrees of separation between the father and nature:

            on the phone my sister said

            she and elder sister put Father’s urn

            in a basket

            carried up a mountain   placed

            in a cemetery resembling apartments


            work stress at hand

            pressing my chest

            I imagine the basket


            taking stone steps   around a mountain bend

            back and forth   grass and floral scent

            Father inside   becomes

            a nest of eggs   a jar of spring water   a few blueberries

Far from taking part in a porous meshing with nature, the father is several removes from it. He is a pile of ashes that has been sealed inside an urn that was placed in a basket and then interred in “a cemetery resembling apartments”—a final resting place whose description brings to mind a communist-bloc housing estate. The father is also several removes from the emotions of the speaker, who is preoccupied with work when receiving the telephone call from a sister who relays the event to her. Even thus removed from the scene, the speaker can imagine the mountain path and the scent of grass and flowers which her father, thrice-sealed at the scene itself, cannot.

Being sealed away from nature does not stop the female speaker of the poem “In the Open Field” from finding a way to connect with it. The poem opens with a wind “pushing open a small window in my chest,” and then another wind when she says,

            my well-sealed body   can hardly stay shut

            clouds and butterflies are diving in


            the juncture of meridians

            now honey and dew

            in the alleys of blood flow

            sunlight like a hand comes to and fro


            let’s drive some things far away to a stronger wind

            let the brain turn into a happy nest

            the heart a team of humming flowers

The physical boundaries of skin and bone are no match for the elemental connection between women and nature. Here, the speaker’s open heart finds unity in multiplicity, and nature finds a continual source of pollination in return: an activity in which all global ecologies rest. What sustains life on earth is not the human heart but the humming inside it—and what lends this last line its power is as much the language as the content. Translator Sze-Lorrain unites multiple prosodic techniques—alliteration, sound symbolism, and onomatopoeia—to not just convey, but auditorily enact, the cross-pollination between human mothers and Mother Nature.

Just as the mother-speaker’s humming heart enacts this life-sustaining wholeness “In the Open Field,” her heart—and ours—is moved by a bird’s refusal to comply with the sorrowful dictates of pollution in “A Bird”:

            a bird

            lands on a pile of scrap iron

            jumps from one iron plank to another

            then bounces   to the tip of a thin tilting rod

            like a note

            handling a very large musical instrument


            rust falls   and more

            the bird and the scrap iron   seem

            to laugh aloud


            the cheerful bird

            sees my eyes now

            chirps twice   but asks for no reply


            the bird has actually moved my heart

            astonishing the whole gloomy afternoon

The impish bird enables the speaker—and reader—to see laughter and lightness in the sharp and shattered world. The metaphor that transforms the pile of scrap iron into a musical instrument asserts that the bird quite literally plays the junk pile in the sense of not only playing music, but also playing a trick: the bird here has the upper hand.

 This image of nature taking the toxic detritus of humans so lightly is puzzling. Taking it to mean that nature will prevail against human harms to it or one can still see beauty in polluted world would be overly simplistic: Yi does not package her poems in tidy, pretty messages. Satisfyingly, she resists the urge to resolve the complexities of her vision. It is an urge that a lesser poet would fall prey to, but Yi’s resolve allows her readers to puzzle these complexities out for themselves. This is the solar plexus of her body of work, the power center out of which radiates the reader’s own resolution to think about and, moreover, take action against the degradation of women and the environment: the two most powerful and yet most vulnerable parts of our ecosystem.

About the Author: 

Yi Lu is a theater scenographer who leads a parallel life as a poet. Known for her elegant and distilled lyrical voice, as well as her ecological awareness, her honors include the Hundred Flowers Award for Literature and other distinguished literary prizes from Fujian province. 

About the Translator:

Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, literary translator, editor, and zheng harpist. In addition to translating Chinese and French texts, Sze-Lorrain is the author of three books of poetry in English, The Ruined Elegance (Princeton University Press, 2015), which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Time Book Prize in Poetry and one of Library Journal’s Best Books of poetry, My Funeral Gondola (El Leon Literary Arts, 2013), and Water the Moon (Marick Press, 2009). She lives in Paris.

About the Reviewer:

Christina Cook is the author of A Strange Insomnia (Kelsey Books, 2016), Ricochet (Casa de Cinco Hermanas Press, 2016), and Lake Effect (Finishing Line Press, 2012).