Posts By: Indy Review

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MICROREVIEW: MICHAEL MARTONE’S THE COMPLETE WRITINGS OF ART SMITH, THE BIRD BOY OF FORT WAYNE, EDITED BY MICHAEL MARTONE

Review by Maya Goldfarb

I have never, in person, seen skywriting before, but I spend a good deal of time looking at clouds. I’ve always liked clouds. I like that they’re transient, amorphous. They carry whatever meaning I give their shape until that shape changes, or dissipates altogether. It is generally accepted that the human brain struggles to accept indeterminacy; that is, we are constantly faced with the urge to ascribe meaning to something, a meaning that then becomes an understanding. This feels somewhat burdensome to me sometimes, knowing all too well that quality of fleeting impermanence, and I find myself wondering about the purpose of giving meaning to something that is only ever floating away.  

I have now, in pictures, seen a great deal of skywriting; Martone’s book is filled with these photographs and their whimsical backstories. Misspellings, miscommunications, romantic missteps, and many, many plane crashes color the life of Art Smith through a seamless blend of fact and fiction in a literary form that I can’t seem to pin down. Not quite a biography, but not entirely a work of fiction either, Martone’s mythology is a self-defining exploration of purpose. With lighthearted ease, he tells the story of Art Smith’s skywriting career for no apparent reason other than to do just that, and to wonder at what motivated self-expression on such an expansive canvas, looking carefully at “how vulnerable it all seemed from above.”

Martone seems wholly unfamiliar with the feeling of my cloud-shape anxiety, and I think he shoulders the burden of meaning a bit better than I. Art Smith, The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne, fulfills the first step of overcoming indeterminacy by giving shape to the clouds through his skywriting; Michael Martone, author and editor, embraces and exceeds the task of giving meaning through each brief story (I think that he truly enjoys it, too). The actual impermanence of Art Smith’s skywriting has little to do with its meaning, and that meaning doesn’t have to be a burden. Maybe something that spells out “CLOUD” and is described by onlookers as “an artificial cloudlike cloud” is really just a cloud. There is something quite serious, and yet quite ironic, about immortalizing a man who most have never heard of alongside his work which practically disappeared as it was written, that “stuttering and impermanent imaginary geometry…the gauziest of insubstantial clouds.” Perhaps Martone knew that sometimes, when pondering the general impermanence of life, you just need a bit of a laugh. 

BOA Editions, October 13, 2020, $17.00 trade paper (224p), ISBN: 9781950774210.

INTERVIEW WITH 2020 CREATIVE NONFICTION PRIZE JUDGE, BASSEY IKPI

Indiana Review is accepting submissions for the Creative Nonfiction Prize until October 31st, 2020! In this interview with 2020 judge Bassey Ikpi, Nonfiction Editor El Williams invites her to talk about literary techniques and influences in her essay collection, I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying, and what excites her about creative nonfiction.

New York Times Best Selling author Bassey Ikpi is a Nigerian-American, ex-poet, current writer, constant mental health advocate, underachieving overachiever and memoir procrastinator. She lives in Maryland and is working on various creative projects.

In your book, I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying, the POV switches from essay to essay, oftentimes changing from first to second person perspective in a single piece: What power do you feel shifting POV has on a reader’s imagination or emotional response?

I think it does a few things depending on the story being told and why: some of the stories needed to feel immersive. I wanted the audience to live in the experience with me. I also wanted them to be able to activate empathy by placing them as close to the experience as I could. There are essays where I’ve been told that the reader was exhausted after a certain point and, yes, I too was exhausted living it. I want you to know what it feels like for people who live lives with this longer than just between the pages of a book.  It also gives me the opportunity to tell a full story based on how I see it. For instance, I needed to tell the story as completely as I could. In the writing, I found myself telling myself the same lies and half-truths I’d always told myself, so giving myself permission to distance helped tell a fuller story. There were times when in the middle of the writing, a part of me would say, “You forgot to mention how…” and rather than editing those out or rewriting them once they were written, I kept them.  I would love to say that it was more deliberate than that but it wasn’t. Many of those essays were born out of free writes in the moment; me needing to find some grounding and centering as I was experiencing anxiety or insomnia or what have you. But once I saw how effective it was, I gave myself permission to write as it came instead of worry about making it standard. The plan was always to go back and change the tense and clean up the pronouns and make it look “normal,” but I tried to do that and it changed everything about what I wanted. It just didn’t work and it would have been a lesser book had I done that. 

Which writers inspire you and what does their work teach you?

A lot of writers inspire me, for this book: 

Lorrie Moore taught me how to tell a short story. 

Melissa Febos taught me that poetry can live in prose. She taught me that the truth can be told both unvarnished and beautifully carved. She taught me to tell the truth but edit with kindness. Melissa taught me about freedom in writing.

Megan Stielstra taught me that the “ending” of a sentence or a paragraph or a book didn’t need to be smooth. That a thought, or an emotion, can hang and sit with the reader while the writing has moved on. It was because of her book that I didn’t feel the need to write the “last essay.” I left when I was done and with the idea that there is more to the story than fits in the pages.

J. California Cooper taught me about beauty in brevity. She taught me that some of the most impactful moments can be contained in just a few short sentences.

Ntozake Shange taught me that my two loves, writing and dance, were lovers and I could have them both.

Toni Morrison taught me to write for myself and for my people. No matter who those people are.

Nana-Ama Danquah taught me about telling the truth despite the fear. Telling your story for the sake of the story and nothing else.

Kiese Laymon taught me to be fearless. He gave me permission to write the story ugly.

Many people taught me many things. I’ve learned a lot from a lot of people but these are what came to my mind when I read this question. I’m sure I’ll think of about 95 other people tomorrow and want to edit this. 

While reading creative nonfiction, what excites you the most and why?

Beautifully crafted sentences and brilliant, or clever, turns of phrases that take a moment I’ve experienced many times and turn it on it’s side, exposing something I’ve never seen. Or when I read something and say, “I didn’t know how to say that. I didn’t know what that was until I read it.” I love feeling like the author is showing me something that I forgot to look at. I love having my breath catch or escape with worry or compassion or anger or frustration. I want to live in it with the writer. I want to read something beautiful and ugly and authentic and lived in. 

I know your collection of essays was published last year and is still fresh, but what’s next for you or what are you most excited for that is happening in the near future?

I’ll be honest, I didn’t enjoy the publishing process or anything that came after it. It made me very tense so I’m not in any rush or hurry to write another book. I think this was the book I was meant to write and I don’t have much else to say. I couldn’t be happier with what I wrote and I think it’s okay to let it live.

I did enjoy recording the audiobook so I’m going to be doing some more around that later.

I can’t say too much about some of the other things but I’m excited to see what other shape this book can take. 

INTERVIEW WITH 2021 BLUE LIGHT BOOKS PRIZE JUDGE, NANDI COMER

The 2021 Blue Light Books Prize is open for submissions until October 31st! In this email interview with 2021 judge Nandi Comer, IR invites her to talk about her new book, Tapping Out, her literary influences and writerly obsessions, and the process of developing ourselves through writing.

NANDI COMER is the author of the American Family: A Syndrome (Finishing Line Press) and Tapping Out (Northwestern University Press). She is a Cave Canem Fellow, a Callaloo Fellow, and a Kresge Arts in Detroit Fellow.   Her poems have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Green Mountains Review, Muzzle, The Offing, and Southern Indiana Review. She currently serves as an assistant poetry editor for Four Way Review and as a poetry editor for Obsidian Literature and Arts in the African Diaspora.

Tapping Out features illustrations and definitions of different moves and luchadores, which also serve to delineate the different sections of the book. How do you conceive of these expressions working together?

The book is about Lucha Libre—sort of. It’s about home, love, travel, and identity. It also is a deep dive into language, how one acquires new vocabulary, and how we don’t always have the language to say what we mean. The definitions serve as an intro to the themes of the poems, but they also demand the reader to participate in the quest for meaning that is so important in writing and language acquisition. 

I am always working with a dictionary nearby. I don’t think too many days go by without paging through to search for the meaning of a word or opening the dictionary app on my phone or computer. I love the way different dictionaries serve specific roles in my life. A dictionary of literary terms, a Spanish-English dictionary, the urban dictionary—they are about gaining access to a language and meaning.

When I started writing poems about Lucha Libre, I was using the definitions as epigraphs for individual poems because I was aiming to explain to a reader unfamiliar with wrestling. Once I began assembling the collection, I didn’t like how the terms were restricted to single poems. I did what most writers do—I played around with assembly and reassembly. There was even a version where all of the poems that were introduced with definitions were in an individual section. When I decided to pull the wrestling terms out and use the definitions as section headers the mystery of sequencing shifted. The meaning of the poems became more expansive. The definitions gave the group a framework to be in conversation with each other. 

You introduce different types of luchadores throughout your book. Do you identify with one more than others?

 Let’s see, there are so many divisions of “types” of wrestlers. The exóticos, the minis, the superheroes, the families, and then women! –who I feel like they should have their own category for how incredible they take to the ring. The técnicos (faces) and rudos (heels) are the two dominant groups. Sometimes I identify with técnicos. They are the heroes. They don’t want to cheat. Through brilliant strategy, they prioritize taking down their opponent within the confines of the rules. Writing can be a struggle and I like to think that within the structure, I hold down the body of the poem and shape it into what I want. Writing within the structure of rules can open extraordinary possibilities. On the other hand, I am naturally rebellious like the rudos. They are the rule-breakers. There is a satisfaction in knowing the rules and throwing them out. What might be expected of me is not always what I want to give. Maybe I am a técnico with rudo tendencies. Either way, when I go to matches, I find myself rooting for técnicos. 

What do you consider the makings of a good book of poetry? Do you gravitate toward literature that appeals to your own “writerly obsessions,” your oft-revisited themes and ideas?

My writerly obsession might not be as obvious. I am most drawn in by voice and lyric work. I love it when a collection takes me in and then surprises me. I can be taken up by almost any collection that has an original approach to language and/or its subject matter. The poetry that I think is most engaging is the kind that serves as a container for multiple acts. If I do a close reading of the work will I find more? Is there close attention to craft in the syntax or structure? While I find myself drawn to new or historically marginalized perspectives, I am excited by original representations of familiar stories. I want to fall in love with the mystery of a writer’s invention.

You adapt a line from Federico García Lorca’s “Ghazal of the Terrifying Presence” in your poem “Tamed.” What other artists influenced this collection? Who do you draw upon for inspiration?

There are so many influences on the poems in Tapping Out—some more obvious than others. I see this collection as a contribution to the rich tradition of African American travel narrative and so I spent a lot of time studying the first ideations of black travel in the slave narratives. If I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams, I set out to create a document that extends the conversations found in Phillis Wheatly’s view of her country or Olaudah Equiano’s global voyages or Fredrick Douglas’ escape to freedom. I also turned to contemporary poets working through themes of displacement and travel abroad like Tracy K Smith and Collen J. McElroy. The memoirs of Langston Hughes and the essays James Baldwin were texts I kept returning to.

My life was changed when I decided to do close readings of writers taking on personas in their writing. I am always returning to the poetry of Ai, Wisława Szymborska, and Patricia Smith. Reading them taught me a lot more than just stepping out of my perspective. I borrowed strategies for sequencing and their use of historical research for my poems. I could live a complete life returning to their books.

Your poems, like “Negrita,” “Kathmandu,” and “Guadalajara in the Form of Litany,” work a lot with questions of identity and place. Do you have any advice for writers working to excavate their own histories or develop their own voices?

Place. Home. These are very difficult things for me to write about especially because I struggle over what it means to be from a place like Detroit. When I was growing up during the economic decline of the 1980s, my generation was taught that success was equated to leaving, that we needed to find the life of wealth in the suburbs or a safe college town. When I left for college, I thought I’d never move back. Then a family emergency brought me home indefinitely. I returned to a community struggling with a new recession, numerous foreclosures, and a city battling bankruptcy. But I also came home and connected with poets, grassroots organizers, community gardeners, and artists all building the community they wanted to see without the dominant cultural definitions of wealth and prosperity. Through community, I fell in love with my complicated home. 

So advice? The work of unearthing is dirty. Drop to your knees and dig. Allow yourself to feel the rich soil, worms, and roots of the stories that connect you to place. Everything you find may not seem like good stuff at first and the process might feel a little dangerous. You might find a stone or discarded bottle. But that’s important too. Even the weeds are useful. And too, leave your subject alone. Write about something else. When I am not writing about Detroit, Detroit, like a squirrel, will creep up behind me and sit in my poems. It likes to bury little gifts for me that I will have to dig up later. 

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ANNOUNCING THE 2020 1/2 K PRIZE WINNER

We are excited to announce “Maximum Overdrive” by Connor Yeck as the winner of the 2020 1/2 K Prize, judged by Tiana Clark. Many thanks to everyone who submitted their work and made this year’s prize possible!

On “Maximum Overdrive,” Tiana Clark said: “From the title, I didn’t know right away that this poem would soon reference one of my favorite guilty pleasure ‘80’s movies! I was delighted to read a modern ekphrastic poem in three brilliant movements, braiding a personal memory with pop culture and the German language. I selected this poem for the risks it took on the page by unexpected associative leaping, which allowed for strangeness, delight, and depth. The similes were vivid and sonically plush. There is a controlled too-muchness here that I celebrate, because it vibrates with cohesion in its sustained image systems with a savvy sense of play and wonder. This is a poet who trusted and chased their imagination. It paid off, and I applaud you.”

FINALISTS

“Good Work and Goodbye!” by Clancy Tripp

“Fire” by Mary Ardery

“He Who Finds a Wife Finds a Good Thing” by Alysse McCanna

“Hoarder” and “Exhaustion” by Joshua Nguyen

“Groundwork” by Cate Lycurgus

“Long Ago, an Owl” by Nancy Quinn

“Count-Down” by Alan Sincic

“Hold for Release till End of the World Confirmed” by Connor Yeck

The winner will be published in the in the Summer 2021 issue of the Indiana Review.

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REVELATORY WIT FOLIO: SPECIAL CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS!

In addition to accepting works of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction for General Submissions starting on September 1, Indiana Review is calling for submissions to our Revelatory Wit Folio.

It is truly a delight and, we think, a profound bodily conversation between audience and writer, when that sentence, line, sentiment, finely crafted, brings about a hearty laugh. From Podcasts to Netflix specials, there is seemingly enough material now for us to livelaughlove ourselves to infinity and beyond. Sometimes, though, humor might also prepare us, or open us to, sobering or incisive ideas and dialogues. A guffaw can be a moment of relief, or even pacification, but it may also bring us face to face with our absurd selves or pull back the curtain on the urgencies of our right now. For the Revelatory Wit folio, we are looking for poems, essays, and short stories that can both provoke a laugh and tell us about, or give a new understanding of, our world and ourselves.

REVELATORY WIT FOLIO SUBMISSION GUIDELINES:

General and Special Folio Submissions are open from SEPTEMBER 1 until OCTOBER 31 (MIDNIGHT EDT). We will only accept submissions during this submission window.

There is a $3.00 reading fee for all non-subscribing submitters.

To be considered for publication in the Folio, please be sure to select “REVELATORY WIT Folio – appropriate genre” when submitting.

You may only submit to ONE of the following: General Submissions or the Special Folio.

Stories & Nonfiction: We consider prose of up to 6,000 words in length, and we prefer manuscripts that are double-spaced in 12-point font with numbered pages. Submissions should be formatted as .doc files.

Poems: Send only 3-6 poems per submission. Do not send more than 4 poems if longer than 3 pages each.

Translations: We welcome translations across genres. Please ensure you have the rights to the translated piece prior to submitting.

If you have been published in IR, please wait two years before submitting again.

All submitted work must be previously unpublished, which includes works posted to personal blogs, online journals or magazines, or any part of a thesis or dissertation that has been published electronically.

IR cannot consider work (other than book reviews, author interviews, or blog posts) from anyone currently or recently affiliated with Indiana University, which includes those who have studied at or worked for Indiana University within the past 4 years.

We look forward to reading your work! For complete guidelines, click here for our Submissions page.