Posts By: Cate Lycurgus

Spring Has Sprung, So Has Young

The deadline for our 2012 Poetry Prize with guest judge Dean Young is fast approaching! Make sure you get your submission in by midnight (or postmarked) on Saturday, March 31st. There’s no going wrong with this entry–for $20 you have a chance to win $1000 in our prize, appear in our next issue (even if you don’t win, your work is still considered!) and get a subscription to the one and only Indiana Review.

You can find submission details here. We can’t wait to read your work!

A graduate of our MFA program here at Indiana University, Dean Young released his most recent collection of poems titled Fall Higher. His numerous books of poetry include Elegy on Toy Piano (2005), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and Skid (2002), a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Prize He has received a Stegner fellowship from Stanford University, as well as fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. Young’s awards also include an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His poems have appeared seven times in The Best American Poetry series. Young has taught at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, in the low-residency M.F.A. program at Warren Wilson College, and at Loyola University, in Chicago. He is currently the William Livingston Chair of Poetry at the University of Texas, in Austin.

 Photo courtesy the Poetry Foundation

The Most Silent Hour

Between a multitude of panels, hundreds of booths at the book fair, and numerous offsite reading and events, not to mention catching up with friends and writers from afar, AWP keeps most people pretty busy. As an editor this year, I spent a lot of time behind our beautiful IR table, but did see a handful of inspiring panels and heard poets I admire read their work in funky clubs around Chicago.

There’s something great about writers coming together, about being in a place where so many minds are linguistically inclined, are tuned in to the language of language and believe in the power of the word to change the world. I spent the weekend a tad awestruck—as I got a drink at the Irish pub downstairs, or waited in the restroom, or ran on the mini- track in the mornings,  it was exciting to think that the strangers surrounding me were probably composing the next Great American novel, or the next gut-wrenching poem. The community of listeners too, those who appreciate poetry, who want to increase its reach, encouraged me when it comes to the future of literary arts. Yet when people in the same field come together, competition—for publication, for accolade, for attention—creeps in, and somehow sullies the beauty of what we have all met to promote and celebrate. Be it the networking I’m so woefully horrible at, or the palpable hunger for publication floating through the room, or the general name-tag eying to determine ‘who are you,’ I can’t say. But by the time I sat drinking my final Windy City coffee on Sunday, I felt distinctly inadequate, uninspired, and a smidge disillusioned.

I’ll be the first to say how important community is—I treasure my writing friends here in Bloomington. They read my work, they support me, encourage me, tell me when things just aren’t working, and I know I would be a worse writer and person without them. As I sat with a few half-started lines of a poem and a cold cup, before even leaving the conference, I received a rejection letter. And like an unexpected and welcome wind, Rilke rushed to mind. I love his poetry, (read Steven Mitchell’s translations of the Duino Elegies, if you haven’t!) but his first letter in Letters to a Young Poet called to me. I looked it up, and include an excerpt here:

“You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice)…There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse”

My impulse, too often, is to get caught up in the world of competitive mania, to forget that I am called to write, that I must do it, that it is as essential an act as breathing. It has spread its roots  to the very depths of my heart, but sometimes I think it is so deep I forget that calling, or take it for granted. This is not to say that literary journals shouldn’t exist and continue to publish poems, but that the poems must come first. That the work and the way of moving through the world as a quiet soul and as an observant being is worth something. Rilke reminds us for whom writing is a matter of life and death that writing does not equal acclaim or recognition, and that life as a writer requires an inward turning, of sorts, and a humility. Today what I hope most is that we all can embrace that solitude, can write in and through our most indifferent hours. No matter if we have one or two or two-hundred publications, if we attended this conference or not, participated in panels, readings, presentations, if we have been solicited or if we write in our closets, to our dogs, to the refrigerator, I hope we can all find solace in writing. That it keeps bearing witness. Because it must.

Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Translated by Stephen Mitchell

And all the poetry people said “Amen”

At an editor’s meeting a few weeks ago, I found myself struggling.

There was a particular poem I just loved—when I read it, a sucker-punch wave washed over me and I knew I wanted it in the journal. But why do you like it, a colleague asked, what exactly does it mean here, another chimed in, and while I could point to several details and had a decent grounding within the piece, I couldn’t put my finger on it, exactly. But I wanted to return to it again and again—to me the poem was mesmerizing.

This got me thinking about what we look for in poems, and what a poem sets out to do. This is not a post to expound on the wonders of elliptical poetry, or even to say that I don’t look for meaning in poems—I definitely do. But I think that poetry has an intangible quality that works in a more mysterious way. The other night reading Poetry, I came across “One Whole Voice,” a commentary on faith written by a collection of writers. In the first section Jericho Brown talks about poetry and prayer, stating that poems “ask us not to understand in the same way that we often find ourselves not comprehending the possibility of a God in this world.”

We may not be able to fully comprehend a poem or the divine, but would he be God, would a poem be a poem, if we understood perfectly? He continues, “I’ve never believed that what attracts us to poems is knowing what’s going on in them. As a matter of fact, I think just the opposite. Maybe that’s the problem people have with poetry. That’s not what we’re taught about how words can be used. I do want poems to have meaning, but I also think that having meaning isn’t the end of the conversation about poetry—or about faith.”

And when I read a really good poem, it does require a little faith. To see it as something a little sublime, and to revel in it. If that’s the case, maybe to even say ‘amen.’

Poetry Magazine, February 2012

Poems, Stories, Storming In

I’ve been doing some solitary brainstorming about brainstorming. Let me explain. I’ve been storming, mainly on my own, in my head, trying to wrangle up all the amazing ideas that I witnessed develop as a result of collaborative problem-solving. And I’m screeching to a thundering halt. This attempted recall began after I read Jonah Lehrer’s article “Groupthink” in The New Yorker this week. He recounts how, in the 1940s, ad man Alex Osborn’s revolutionary strategy of “brainstorming” erupted on the corporate scene, positioning Osborn as “influential business guru.” Osborn advocated for many minds working in rapid fire to generate ideas, and proposed that many more ideas in commando-fashion attacking a problem would create the most innovative solutions. Since then, brainstorming has been applied in numerous situations—corporate strategy, product development, academic research, and as a pedagogical tool, to name a few. As a result of Osborn and the pervasiveness of his method, I’m sure we’ve all brainstormed at one time or another.

One way brainstorming intersects with the literary is in the realm of a writing workshop. Yes, my brain storms all the time, on its own, night and day. Sometimes I wish it would calm down a bit and just bask in some sunshine, and other times when I want some good old fashioned thunder, I’ve got nothing. But it’s in group workshop that brainstorming, collective problem-solving, actually becomes problematic. Critiques of the workshop call it “groupwrite,” the phenomenon in which a bunch of writers get together to “fix” a poem or to “solve” a problem it’s having. Writers not in a traditional workshops often long for someone to tell them what to do, to help them mend their not-quite-right poems (or stories). However the problem with this approach is that it assumes too much—that the group knows the poem’s intent, that there is only one way the poem can work, and the group will come to that creative solution. This is not to say there aren’t amazing groups of writers and great workshops, or to say I don’t have amazing readers myself, of my own work. But jointly, brainstorming mentality has the ability to strip the poet of his agency. When groupwrite happens and the writer turns to the group to mend his piece, what results, I find, is a faltering of voice, an evening of texture, and distillation of originality. Further,one main requirement of brainstorming is to eschew negative feedback and criticism. Yet for great ideas to be developed, in my mind, discernment is crucial. In workshop we talk about issues with the writing, but not issues with the proposed revisions. Not all solutions are equally plausible or helpful.

And sure enough, Leher writes that when Osborn’s technique was tested, “‘brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool ideas.’” Which is when it hit me. This is what a literary magazine is! Here at IR we don’t sit down together and write a whole issue conjointly, rather writers work on their own–near, far, all over the globe, storming away to come up with rich and glorious and weird and terrifying stories and poems. And they send them to us, offer them up to the group. Who is discerning and takes those literary ideas, and pools the best of them into a carefully crafted collection. Groupwrite? No. A group of amazing writers. And the result? Lightning bolts galore.

Jonah Lerner “Groupthink.” The New Yorker, January 30 2012

Not So Novel?

Cooling down after a run this weekend, I stopped by a local cafe to pick up coffee and the New York Times. On Sundays I often turn first to the crossword puzzle, to delay the inevitable slew of international and financial crises. Yes this week, rounding the corner, even the magazine pointed to crisis for me as a reader, writer, and editor. Garth Risk Hallberg’s riff “Why Write Novels at All?” asked me to consider questions I wasn’t prepared to answer, and definitely not sweaty, pre-caffeine, at 8 AM. At first, the question seemed silly–as a writer I write because I must. Because I believe in the power of words to help us understand and make sense of an inexplicable and yet beautiful world, because it is rent with pain that needs voicing and from which we can learn. I write because it is something I can offer–a mainstay, and a crafted one, amidst chaos.

Hallberg writes that, according to many contemporary novelists, the main purpose of fiction is to make us feel less alone. The article goes on to question the ways in which a novel can do so, namely David Foster Wallace’s take that “if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own” and Jonathan Franzen’s reasoning that “simply to be recognized…simply not to be misunderstood: these revealed themselves, suddenly, as reasons to write.” To me, however, both of these seem unsatisfying and to a certain extent, egotistical takes on the value of novel reading and writing. A blog or Facebook page is also a place to broadcast one’s emotions, and, conceivably, receive some sort of community or comfort, in the same virtual way that writing and reading can. This is predicated, of course, on the assumption that people care and want to hear about one’s life, which I’m not sure everyone does. Hallberg directs us to the distinction–a key one–between writing to feel less alone and writing because one wants a reader to feel less alone. And yet I wonder the impulse behind many modern novels.

If the purpose of the art is, according to Hallberg’s sources, “to delight and instruct.” And I think the best novels (or poems, or short stories) do. But if our purpose is to feel less alone, to write out of our solitary condition, delight and instruction for others may not be inevitable. In writing to feel less alone or to imagine the pain of others we may write ourselves into a whole new type of loneliness, a loneliness born of inattention to the power literature has to “both frame the question and affect the answer,” and to do so beyond the scope of our own concerns.

This is not to say that many novels do not or cannot delight us as entertainment, or instruct us as to the pain or joy of another. But is it enough to make a novel worthy of reading or writing, enough to make a novel a good piece of art? Or one that lasts? I don’t know that I can answer that question. Maybe it is not the nature of fiction to have the Great American Novel, or classics in the way that we used to. Maybe this means that books become classic to individuals, when characters and language sticks with us even when they are not widely read and lauded and in mass circulation. Personally, I don’t think I’m wiling to concede that easily. I think it is a worthy endeavor to try, with each piece to delight and/or instruct someone else, whoever that may be. Some of that pleasure and learning will inevitably find me as I’m writing. Or picking up the next great novel.

“Why Write Novels at All?” New York Times Magazine, 50-51. Sunday January 15 2012.