It’s springtime and poetry is blooming

This past weekend was the New Orleans Poetry Festival, which, in addition to having a book fair, was filled with readings, music, a nonstop open mic, and a literary tour (capped off by a streetcar ride uptown to hear more music). It was good to share a long table at the book fair with writers and publishers who’d driven through the night from Denton, Texas, or flown down from Brooklyn, New York, to participate in such a grassroots endeavor. Everyone took pride in their publications, as they should have, because they were all impressive journals and books. It was nice, too, hearing compliments on The Southern Review, both how beautiful the journal looks and how good the work within is. When asked by visitors flipping through the new issue to point out my favorite poems, I found myself rattling off so many titles that I eventually stopped and said, “It’s a strong issue, all around.”

The spring issue opens with two poems from Mark Irwin. The first, “Toward Where We Are,” is a five-line powerhouse about finding love; it astounds me every time I read, “the fall / is so slow, yet precise, like climbing a ladder of straw.”  The poem ends with the questions, “Is / this what Yes feels like? Making a shore where no water was?” The whole poem feels at once ethereal and tenuous, perfectly capturing the poem’s theme in such a brief space. “Voyage,” the second poem, only slightly longer, is about renewing love, and how that sometimes requires becoming each other’s map again on the journey that you decided to take together, touching the “deserts on each other’s body,” and spending time with one another until “the huge hours and spaces between” grow “smaller and smaller.” Those poems are an auspicious beginning to an issue that continues to impress. Patricia Hooper has three lovely poems—“In the Clearing,” “Lens,” and “From a Park Bench”—addressing mortality, loneliness, and one’s place in the world. Charles Rafferty is back in our pages with two short, vivid poems exploring possibilities: “What We Learned from Our Dead Parrakeet” and “Insomnolence.” And Jeff Hardin has a narrative poem, “Concerning the Shape of Time,” dedicated to Tony Earley, which is about finding his own place in the world.

We also have many timely pieces about immigration and the environment. Iheoma Nwachukwu’s story, “Urban Gorilla,” details the life of a Nigerian who flees the terror of Boko Haram by answering an advertisement to play soccer in Malaysia, even though he is in a wheelchair. The visual art this season is by Ramiro Gomez, whose paintings—some of which are based on David Hockney’s work—highlight the often overlooked Latino workers of Los Angeles. You can view Gomez’s images here on our website [link to images]. In Catherine Pierce’s poem, “Planet,” the speaker admits that “most days I forget this planet,” but then says she is “trying to come down soft today,” trying to see the world even as she is “walking through it.” The changing awareness for the world we inhabit and how we affect it is also discussed in Paul Lindholdt’s ecocritical essay, “The Inflatable Museum,” about Western dams, the Bureau of Reclamation, and Norman Rockwell. Steve Myers’s poems, “Grinding Pestle: East Fork Paint Creek, Jefferson Farm” and “Stream of Consciousness,” set in the Midwest, invoke Pound and Eliot, and, among other things, address the displacement of Native Americans, the rise and loss of mining jobs, and the toll that humans have had on the landscape, where the streams gush a “bright orange red” and the banks and creek bed are stained that same “orange red at the end of Ash Alley.”

The issue closes as it opens, with a poem that has powerful images and water. Cathie Sandstrom’s “Mångata,” which is a Swedish term that roughly means “the path that moonlight lays over water,” might be the saddest poem that we’ve run in a long while. It begins, “The ghost child fastens / his mouth to yours,” and then goes on to detail the harrowing drowning of a son alone in the water. Midway through the poem are the expository lines that seem impossible for the speaker to acknowledge: “What the drowned boy wants forever: / his mother, in time.” But the mother is too late, and she is left to question all the lost children, “When / the moon melts, what / will we do with all that gold?”

You can hear Cathie Sandstrom read her poem in this season’s audio gallery. The audio gallery also includes many other poems as well as excerpts from stories and essays featured in the spring issue.

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Upon Leaving: A Farewell from TSR Business Manager Leslie A. Green

There is a Neil Young song that starts with the line, “There is a town in North Ontario . . .” I used to play guitar and sing this song for my friends and replace “North Ontario” with “South Louisiana.” It doesn’t scan properly, but I made it work. I’ve worked at LSU Press and The Southern Review for over thirteen years and it has also become a home for me, “with dream, comfort, memory to spare,” as Neil wrote.

The opportunity to work with contemporary writers who are the leaders in their respective fields—poetry, fiction, literary criticism, and more—has been a blessing in my life. I read the poetry and essays and stories that we publish in the journal during proofs, after our editors have selected and then edited the work. Our authors all seem very brilliant to me. I suspect that is because my colleagues, Jessica and Emily, are rather brilliant themselves, and have pulled together such a superb cross section of contemporary literature.

Jessica’s passion for poetry and English grammar have had a profound impact on me. It is very intimidating to write an e-mail to her. And yet, she is the one who worries when she is composing e-mails to our authors. I remember many years ago she was editing a poem and asked me if I thought she should bother the writer with a particular question about grammar and intention. I said, “Jessica, you are one of the guardians of the language. It is your job, nay, your duty, to ask these questions.” I was only half joking.

In addition to being a brilliant editor, Emily has a vision for our work that includes taking it out into the world and talking about it. In sentences where I tend to use placeholders, like “stuff” and “doodad,” Emily always comes up with the exact word to focus the meaning. If only I were as articulate and practical as she is, perhaps I’d be president of the United States by now or at least governor of Louisiana.

I don’t really have political ambitions, but part of my job here at the journal and at LSU Press has been to be politic. When you have one foot in the literary world, with all its ideas and passions, and one foot in the world of being essentially a civil servant—well, you tend to run into a bit of cognitive dissonance. People ask me what I do, what is my job. I sometimes answer business manager for The Southern Review; sometimes I give my official title, associate financial operations manager for LSU Press. Neither of these titles accurately reflects what I do and have done. Sometimes my job seems like that of the character The Wolf played by Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction. No, of course, I haven’t had to clean up any murder scenes, but I do regularly make things run more smoothly for everyone else. That has been my job.

My sanity would not have remained intact over these years had it not been for my friend and colleague, Barbara Neely Bourgoyne. She is our fantastic designer, but she is also in my line of work. She has the ability to think creatively and nimbly about the many problems encountered in everything that we do. I suppose some of that can be attributed to her training in art and design, but I think it is mainly due to her sharp mind.

I have focused here on the people who are specifically involved in the work of The Southern Review, but we also are part of LSU Press. Jessica, Emily, and Barbara will readily tell you how incredible it is to be a part of the Press and to have the friendship and support of our colleagues. I also work very closely—in collaboration and office proximity—with our financial operations manager, Becky Brown, who has tolerated the messy stacks of paper in my office just as I’ve tolerated the incessant sound of her adding machine carrying across the hall. Our director, MaryKatherine Callaway, works tirelessly to promote the good work of LSU Press and The Southern Review.

Most people who visit our offices find it to be a very quiet place. We sit silently at our desks very focused, reading and writing. But as a work family, we have experienced together Shakespearean-level comedy and tragedy; marriages and divorces, births and deaths, and even a few tempests.

Speaking of endings, I am leaving my job here to pursue a new career outside of publishing. I will miss attending the annual AWP Conference and seeing all of my writerly friends there. I will miss Becky’s adding machine. I will miss the books. I will miss the quiet. I have spent an important portion of my adult life working with these people in this place. To borrow from Neil Young again, “I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way.”

Leslie A. Green

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A Writer’s Insight: Amy Rowland

Amy Roland author portrait © Diana Pappas

Amy Rowland’s short story, “Thirteen Ways of Thinking about Time; or, Time, the Two-Handed Thief” appears in the winter 2017 issue of The Southern Review. Hear Rowland read an excerpt of her story in our audio gallery here; read more about her process of crafting the story, as well as her own thoughts about time in the South, below.


Kathleen Boland: What inspired you to write “Thirteen Ways of Thinking about Time; or, Time, the Two-Handed Thief”?

Amy Rowland: It’s difficult to articulate my intention, never mind my inspiration. I grew up in the South, and though I haven’t lived there in more than twenty years, that’s where my desire to write this story originated. My first novel is set in New York, where I moved in the nineties, and where the literary real estate is as spacious and available as the physical real estate is limited and unattainable. I spent my twenties trying to write a Southern novel, but I couldn’t figure out what that meant, and I buckled under the weight of Southern history and Southern literature. Now I’m trying again, with linked stories that blend fiction and nonfiction. And I feel that the fragmentary form of the Thirteen Ways stories (the one that appears in The Southern Review is the first in a series) is the closest match to my splintered thoughts on a splintered place.

 

KB: Could you explain why you organized the story as you did? Is the modular, nonlinear structure a thematic commentary, a parallel to Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” or something else entirely?

AR: For several years, I’ve struggled with what it means to write fiction (not in a grand way, but for me personally), and with finding a form and structure that I can write within. I found that the modular structure freed me as a writer in a way I had never been free before.

To back up, when I was going through my writing crisis, I read writers who have experimented with autobiography, form, and subjectivity: Renata Adler, Elizabeth Hardwick, John Keene, Maggie Nelson, Rachel Cusk. I also fell in love with Denis Johnson’s “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden.” Alongside this, I revisited Faulkner and Coetzee and Morrison. Then two things happened. After reading Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country, I wrote a story with numbered fragments. Then I saw Marilynne Robinson speak, and she referenced the Wallace Stevens line I have always loved: “The squirming facts exceed the squamous mind.” This sent me back to Stevens and to his blackbird. The river of time was moving, as the blackbird was flying, and the structure of my story fell into place.

Essentially, I find this structure very suitable for moving between the abstract and the concrete. Maybe I should have just said that.

 

KB: The story opens and closes with the narrator eavesdropping at the movies. What’s the importance, if any, of this bookend? How does eavesdropping and movies dovetail with the other themes of the story?

AR: The experience of time in film has always drawn me to movies. There is an eternal present to films. I liked the movie bookend in the story for many reasons: the metaphor of being in the dark; as a way for the narrator to be in the world and also removed—an observer, though not entirely passive. She sits in the theater and watches time go by.

Eavesdropping is a way the narrator listens for stories. She is a solitary woman who has trouble connecting. But, like Katherine Mansfield’s Miss Brill, she has become good at “listening as though she didn’t listen, at sitting in other people’s lives just for a minute while they talked round her.”

There’s also the relationship between eavesdropping and how Southern history is remembered and related. I’ve found a tendency among some Southerners to take a small historical fact and build an entire story around it, much of which is false. But they are very proud of this idea of Southern history, and very nostalgic for it. Doesn’t James Baldwin say something like: It’s not what they know. It’s what they don’t want to know.

 

KB: There are cultural references throughout the story, mostly literary and cinematic; the title’s Stevens reference, Touch of Evil, the Marilynne Robinson talk, Birth of a Nation, and so on. How are these references ways of thinking about time? Or, what’s the significance of these references to the narrator?

AR: I’ve always been drawn to the way time is represented and experienced in film. Movies are both images in time and images of time. The recurrence of these references in the story makes the point that violence and evil always come around again. The narrator of this story grapples with her idea of time and being; for her, movies are almost a relief and a release, as she sits alone in the dark, keeping time.

 

KB: What’s your favorite verb tense and why? 

AR: I’m available to too many tenses. No, seriously, I think about this a lot, especially in terms of writing about the South. In an essay on temporality in The Sound and the Fury, Sartre says Faulkner is like a man sitting in a buggy facing backward. That Faulkner’s immediate surroundings are only flickering shadows that he cannot see until they pass by, becoming fixed and changeless. I’m trying to find a different seat on that buggy. I’m attracted to Coetzee’s use of the historic present. But it’s difficult to pull off, and if you botch it you sound like a pretentious windbag. So I should just admit I can’t answer this question . . . yet.


Amy Rowland is the author of the novel The Transcriptionist. A native of North Carolina, she lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in fiction at Louisiana State University.

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A Writer’s Insight: Arianne Zwartjes

Arianne Zwartjes’s essay “These Dark Skies: Seeking Refuge on Europe’s Shores” appears in the winter 2017 issue of The Southern Review. Hear Arianne read an excerpt of the essay in our audio gallery and read more about her thoughts on proximity, the challenges of volunteerism, and where to find hope under “dark skies” below. The entire essay is also available online at Catapult.co.

Megan Feifer: You make an interesting point about the relationship between proximity and care when it comes to the U.S. media and world issues. In particular, you use the term “geographic isolation” to describe the way in which “news from other parts of the world … unspool[s] in a distant reality.” Can you expand on this?

Arianne Zwartjes: In the summer of 2014, I visited Cyprus and Turkey. This was during the time that Israel was unleashing a really brutal bombardment of Gaza, in retaliation for the Israeli settlement teenagers that had been killed. And while we were in Cyprus—where my spouse had lived for seven years prior to us meeting—we stayed with friends, we went to the beach, we ate Lebanese meze . . . and I just kept feeling, so potently, this sense of proximity to what we were seeing on the news, what was happening in Gaza. We were eating the same foods, listening to the same music. The same sea we were swimming in—only 130 miles away was Beirut; Gaza was only 240 miles away. That’s barely more than driving from NYC to Boston, or LA to San Diego. And there I was, drinking a beer on the beach, while across just a little bit of sea, people were getting bombarded, their homes and schools and hospitals flattened. Those four little boys were killed on the beach, playing soccer, by an Israeli airstrike. And then when I returned to the U.S., the news media here was barely showing any images of what was happening in Gaza, barely covering it, in contrast to the European and Middle Eastern channels we’d watched while abroad. Most people here seemed hardly aware it was happening. Partly because it’s geographically far away, and partly because of our relationship to Israel.

So that’s what I mean by proximity—I mean, the things that happen affect you directly, they feel close, they’re in the news regularly, you could hop in your car and drive to where they’re happening. Whereas here in the U.S., we have these vast oceans all around us, separating us from what’s happening, especially in the Middle East and the subcontinent—Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, these places seem so remote, so far away to most of us—but also from things like the refugee crisis in Greece, or the situation in Venezuela, or the ongoing brutality in South Sudan. And, of course, the U.S. itself is geographically huge—and all these factors amplify our tendency to look inward, rather than outward.

 

MF: As a reader, I appreciated your honesty and vulnerability around your personal struggle with the decision of how to get involved. You definitely make transparent all of the complications that arise around volunteering, including the savior complex, draining resources, and further complicating relations. In the essay, you worry about these “pitfalls” before your trip. What is your current take on volunteerism? Are these “pitfalls” avoidable, real, or can they be mitigated?

AZ: In college, I attended a four-year-abroad program called Friends World (now called LIU Global), and I wrote my senior thesis critiquing “international service learning” and exploring the pitfalls of that sort of volunteer work. Not that that makes me an expert, by any means, but this is something I’ve thought a lot about, and experienced some. I don’t think the pitfalls I mentioned are ever completely avoidable—the pitfalls, that is, of going from one culture into another to “try to help,” but especially of going from a wealthy country like the U.S. into another, less-wealthy country and culture, and doubly so as a white person who has that additional layer of having been told by a global culture that they are worthy, civilized, and merciful. But having a high degree of awareness of them, and what they look like, helps. Going into any volunteer situation with a high degree of forethought, research, carefulness, awareness—and with some actual skills to offer—helps.

Also, having a longer amount of time helps. I knew I didn’t have that extended time to offer, and one of my goals particularly in light of that was to try to write as much as I could about what I saw and experienced there, to try to raise awareness in the U.S.—to that end, I also recently published a piece in the social-justice-oriented Christian Century, and another piece on my Medium page about how to support refugees in the U.S., and I’m working on a book about seeing the refugee crisis unfold over the course of the year I was living in Europe. I also worked to try to continue supporting the Special Immigrant Visa applications of several people I met in the camp. And I’ve stayed in touch with the Greek solidarity-network folks who were coordinating most of the volunteer work at Malakasa. But it’s never enough. It’s never, ever enough.

 

MF: The essay is framed with the critical question of “Why is it, how is it, that we live in a world with so much meanness, so much ugliness, so much sadism and injustice and indifference?” Did you find the opposite of this in your work at Malakasa? Can you expand on an instance of compassion and hope you witnessed?

AZ: Honestly, the biggest basis for hopefulness that I witnessed was the incredible generosity of the Greek people, writ large, to the refugees. Bearing in mind that Greece has in many ways been brought to its knees by the German-led EU austerity policies over recent years . . . it was really impressive to watch, and read about, people’s generosity, from a place of—for some of them—having almost nothing for themselves. People who drove hours to bring food to Piraeus or to one of the camps; a woman who basically took a family into her own apartment so they could shower and do laundry; an elderly man who took the bus for several hours to deliver food he’d made to a camp. Fishermen on the islands who basically stopped working—and thus earning an income—to help rescue, day after day, people who would have otherwise drowned in their attempt to cross the Mediterranean and get to Greece.

At Malakasa, people from nearby communities would send medicines, clothing, whatever they could, with the volunteers. One day a woman showed up with a car full of apples from her orchard, and after a long period of arguing, they finally talked the soldiers in charge into letting them give the apples to people in the camp (the army was afraid someone from outside would try to poison the people in the camp, so they mostly didn’t allow outside food in). A couple of times while I was there, I saw Greek soldiers walk through the camp to find one of the volunteers, and pull them aside—they had brought food from home to give to people in the camp, but they didn’t want their superiors to see them doing it.

 

MF: I know you wrote this essay over the summer, and the landscape has shifted again. Has that changed your conclusions or commitments?

AZ: If anything, my conclusions are even more irrevocable: this is a political problem, with immense, enormous, tragic consequences on human lives. For the EU to decide, for instance, that Afghanistan is a “safe” country to return people to—this is unforgivable. There are already stories from Malakasa about people or families who chose to be returned to Afghanistan, rather than continue living in the very difficult conditions at the camp, in a state of total uncertainty about their future, who were killed upon their return. So many of the people in Malakasa, at least, were Hazara, a group that’s been directly targeted by the Taliban, and many others worked for the U.S. military, and had their lives or their families’ lives targeted for violence because of it. The U.S. has been slow to give out what are called Special Immigrant Visas (This American Life just produced a powerful episode about them) to Afghans and Iraqis who basically risked their lives—and those of their families—to work for us and beside us on the ground in those countries.

And in general, what you still have, in Greece, is a lot of people stagnating in camps as Europe very, very slowly begins to “process” them. I’m still in touch with the Greek people I met working in the camp, and they’re really frustrated with the situation. And then, of course, people continue to try to get to Europe through different routes.

To me, a significant part of this is about decades- or centuries-long foreign policies on the part of the U.S. and of Europe that have led to deeply intractable conflicts in places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan. We’re now seeing the results of all that, and again, the human cost is so incredible, and so devastating.

And this is clearly a difficult time to make political change, as we are seeing the continued up-spiral of anti-refugee, white nationalist politics in the U.S. and in Europe, and a continuation of terrorist acts and the xenophobic reactivity they provoke.

The hope I hold on to right now is for the immense power of small communities of people all over the world—acting on a local level—to offer compassion and refuge to those who, in this moment, desperately need it.

Arianne Zwartjes is a poet and essayist who recently relocated from the Netherlands to the mountains of Colorado. She is the author of the lyric nonfiction project Detailing Trauma: A Poetic Anatomy, from which a selection won the 2011 Gulf Coast Prize for Nonfiction and was named a notable essay in the Best American Essays. Her writing can be found in Ninth Letter, Fourth Genre, and DIAGRAM.


Megan Feifer is a doctoral candidate in English with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University. She received her MA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in English (Modern Studies). She is the cofounder and president of the Edwidge Danticat Society.

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PEN America award winners announced

We would like to offer our congratulations to Crystal Hana Kim! She is a winner of the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers for her story “Solee”, which appeared in the winter 2016 issue. The prize is awarded to 12 emerging fiction writers for their debut short story published in 2016. All of the prize winning stories will be collected and published in the PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2017 book, available in August.

You can listen to the author read her prize-winning story in our SoundCloud audio gallery.

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