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What We’re Reading: Summer Spotlight

Summertime is all about kicking back in the warm sunshine with a good book to revisit lost worlds, meet new faces, and let nostalgia carry you through the afternoon. At least, that’s what the IR staff thinks! Here’s what we’re currently reading (when we aren’t reading your splendid 1/2 K Prize submissions, of course):

Alberto Sveum, Editor-In-Chief:

A couple years back, I had Paul Beatty’s The Sellout assigned in one of my courses, and I have not stopped thinking about it since. Lately I have been getting into an earlier one of Beatty’s, The White Boy Shuffle, which follows Gunnar Kaufman, the “reluctant messiah” in Hillside California. This is a book, an author, whose settings, characters, and dialogue are masterfully comic and ridiculous, and the 25 years since this book came out have only affirmed how astute and relevant Beatty’s witticisms on class, race, and culture remain.

Shreya Fadia, Associate Editor:

Lately, I’ve been craving truly immersive worlds, the sorts of books you can get lost in, in that flashlight under the covers, middle of summer, cicadas buzzing and glass of iced tea within arm’s reach kind of way. But I’ve also been struggling to commit to any one story, and certainly not to a whole novel. R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days and T. Kingfisher’s Jackalope Wives and Other Stories have managed to thread both needles. Narayan’s fictional Malgudi and its inhabitants are rendered honestly but tenderly, and in terms of craft, these stories are models of concision. As for Jackalope Wives, the collection (especially the title story) has just the right balance of strange and creepy and funny and magical and visually rich. Next on the list? If my attention span is up to the challenge, probably N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, and if not, Tananarive Due’s Ghost Summer: Stories.

Morgan Heck, Prize Intern:

I recently finished reading Maya Angelou’s first autobiography in a series of seven, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Since its publication in 1969, it has continued to endure and inspire. Angelou’s descriptions of her childhood are poetic, yet direct; painful, yet packed with strength and hope for a better, more just tomorrow. Her own experiences give a voice to the tragedies—racism, rape, etc.— and triumphs—liberation, self-discovery, etc.—many Black children have shared throughout American history. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a celebration of Blackness, of family, of dignity. Despite the trauma and hardships Angelou faces in her youth, she overcomes.

“We were on top again. As always, again. We survived. The depths had been icy and dark, but now a bright sun spoke to our souls” (184).

Interview with 2020 1/2 K Prize Judge, Tiana Clark

The 2020 1/2 K Prize is open for submissions until August 15th! In this interview with IR, 2020 judge Tiana Clark talks about concision, her favorite poets, and what makes a great flash piece.

Photo of Tiana Clark by Daniel Meigs from the Nashville Scene

Tiana Clark is the author of the poetry collection, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), winner of the 2017 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, and Equilibrium (Bull City Press, 2016), selected by Afaa Michael Weaver for the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. Clark is a winner for the 2020 Kate Tufts Discovery Award (Claremont Graduate University), a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow, a recipient of a 2019 Pushcart Prize, a winner of the 2017 Furious Flower’s Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize, and the 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize. She was the 2017-2018 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing. Clark is the recipient of scholarships and fellowships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt University (M.F.A) and Tennessee State University (B.A.) where she studied Africana and Women’s studies. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, The Washington Post, VQR, Tin House Online, Kenyon Review, BuzzFeed News, American Poetry Review, New England Review, Oxford American, Best New Poets 2015, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. More about her can be found at tianaclark.com.

Your book, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood​, includes one- to two-page poems, as well as some poems of medium or longer length, like “The Rime of Nina Simone.” Thinking about your own process, what do you find most exciting and challenging about writing shorter poems in comparison to writing something longer, that stretches into four, five, or more pages? 

Concision is hard for me, which is funny, since I’m a poet, ha! Short poems are actually extremely difficult and rare for me to write. I tend to chase my poems to a point of breathlessness, which often means my poems are discursively long and wild and bombastic. I envy and marvel at Jack Gilbert and Kobayashi Issa’s short poems that nail the precision of feeling in so few lines. Oh, that singing cricket!

It’s another time, pre-COVID, and you and three authors of your choosing get to go out to a restaurant and talk writing! Who will you invite, and where would you go?  

Oh wow! I LOVE this question. I call pre-covid time “BC” for before coronavirus. I would select: Ross Gay, Ada Limón, and Gabrielle Calvocoressi. 1) Because they all have the same poetry agent, so I think it would be easy to book, lol! 2) They are some of my three favorite poets ever, and also some of the most generous humans on and off the page. 3. I think they all nail and encompass what Mary Ruefle calls in Madness, Rack, and Honey the “emergency of feeling” when I encounter their work. 4. I would want to go to Ross Gay’s house (if he would have us), and have us all cook things up from his amazing garden! I’m inviting myself over in my imagination! 

Across genre, whether for a micro-essay, flash fiction, or a short poem, do you see any commonalities in great flash pieces (however you define them)? 

I think no matter the genre you have to trust and chase your own imagination. I think all great writing takes some kind of risk in its execution. A great flash piece revels in its rebellious origin story and liminality. What’s great about flash is that it doesn’t have to be just one thing, but it needs to try do all the things well: the lyricism, the narrative (or is it trying to actively push away from linearity?), the syntax, the sentences, the heart, the duende, the secret, the stake, the surprise, the tension, all of it. All of it has to morph and shine and sway together. Or, it has to subvert all of those expectations in a fascinating way, which leads me back to my original thought about risking a new entry point into language and feeling. In all writing, I’m looking for something dangerous and desirous that pierces my attention, makes my want to dog-ear the page.   

What’s next for you? What are you most excited for this year?​ 

Ah! Right now, I’m focusing on my breath. Besides that, I’m working on my next poetry collection and a non-fiction book (which is all about some hybridity, baby!). I’m most excited about traveling (when it’s allowed again). I really want to marinate by a large body of water. I’ve been craving the ocean: the salt-smell, the sand, the metronomic waves.  Hopefully, I’ll get there somehow by the end of the year. I’m excited about taking a new risk with non-fiction by embracing failure and all the uncertainty ahead!

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MICROREVIEW: CRISTINA A. BEJAN’S GREEN HORSES ON THE WALLS

Review by Roxana Cazan

“From the start I was told my dreams / Weren’t possible / That I was crazy / That I needed to be serious / That theatre was a hobby / I was always merely chasing the green horses / And it was time to grow up / Because they didn’t exist,” writes Cristina A. Bejan in her debut collection Green Horses on the Walls (Finishing Line Press, 2020). This is often what children born to immigrant parents hear growing up, an attempt at righting the wrongs that compelled the parents to uproot themselves and move. Through its searing attention to the challenges of embracing a hyphenated identity both as a second-generation immigrant living in the diaspora and as a poet whose verses coalesce from trauma—Bejan is a Romanian-American poet-survivor—this collection astounds the reader with its overwhelming earnestness. The poems display a resistance to narrative, while still unavoidably relying on it, as they illustrate fragments of a life both halted and propelled by the violence of immigration, communism, mental health issues, and sexual assault. The poems together speak about an equilibrium, a way to survive trauma by finding an outlet through which to recreate oneself.

The poem that holds the key to understanding this collection is entitled “Equilibrium.” In it, the speaker puts into balance the experiences that underlie a world of pettiness and hurt with the noble moments when she is able to grasp a flicker of hope. “People may shit on each other here, but that is not all they do” because “a young city man buy[s] an old country man / breakfast,” “[a]nd when it feels like too much—which it often does / I know I can go home. I know I have a home / And how many people can say that?” Regardless of how many hurdles life can throw at the speaker, she concludes that as long as “someone somewhere, even here, is listening” to her story, then she is “standing in equilibrium.”

“Opening the Orange Envelope” is a prose poem in which the reader is called as witness to a negotiation between the language of evidence and that of transcendence, as Philip Metres says in an essay on the documentary poem. Bejan strings together vignettes that show glimpses of the ways in which her grandparents and parents struggled to survive communism and its lingering ghost, living with the terror of being followed, caught, and imprisoned as enemies of the state. As she retells these narrative fragments, she also presents her own anxiety at having inherited her family’s trauma. The poem underscores the effect of listening intently to stories of hurt and peeking into the notorious orange envelope that contains photographs of her family’s survivors of communism. By listening to other stories, both the speaker and the reader experience an erasure, an expansion, and ultimately a reclamation of identity.

Other poems illustrate the speaker’s traumatic past as a victim of sexual and emotional abuse. The poem entitled “To my rapist—or ‘the man who raped me’ rather—with Gratitude” employs anaphora to list the many ways in which sexual abuse has affected the speaker. Through a hypnotic whirlpool of “thank yous,” the anaphora lends the poem the quality of an incantation, so that by the end, the speaker can actually be thankful that she was able to survive her rape. She writes, “People can tell you: forgive, move on, it’s in the past/ But every day the victim has so much to thank the rapist for/ See?/ So, my rapist, thank you for your exit today from my mind and life.” That this poem is therapeutic, describing in chilling detail the incident and its aftermath, is clear to the reader. But the poem does more: it establishes the purpose of the entire collection, as all the poems together offer a therapy session of sorts to a wandering soul seeking a safe place to land on.

As she writes her way towards and away from her Romanian identity and her trauma, Bejan leaves the reader with one lesson to ponder: “with the days and the years/ Everything that I’ve seen will make sense/ And I will understand why I was given this path/ And/ With no more hopping, no more escaping, no more means/ Breath by breath/ Here/ I will be free.”

Finishing Line Press, May 27, 2020, $13.99 paperback (46p), ISBN: 1646622154.

Interview With 2020 Don Belton Prize Judge Charles Yu

The Don Belton Prize is open until June 30th! In this interview, IR talks with prize judge Charles Yu about his writing influences, humor, and what makes a great novel.

CHARLES YU is the author of four books, including the novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which was a New York Times Notable Book and named one of the best books of the year by Time magazine. He received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award and was nominated for two WGA awards for his work on the HBO series, Westworld. He has also written for upcoming shows on AMC and HBO. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a number of publications including The New Yorker, The New York Times, Slate, and Wired. His latest book, Interior Chinatown, will be published by Pantheon in January 2020. Check it out here.

Lots of us have “writerly obsessions.” How do you think about returning to subjects & themes in your work?

My thinking on this has changed over time. At first, I didn’t even know I had obsessions. Then after I’d written a couple dozen things, I started to see patterns. It was: hmm, what’s going on here? A little bit like every morning I would set off on a walk, and then realize I always ended up at the same park. The obsessions didn’t go away. I started to worry. For a while, I tried to get away from my usual topics, thinking they were limitations or that I would burn out my readers and myself if I kept navigating the same territory. Then, more recently, I hit a new phase. I became comfortable with my obsessions. It’s not that I don’t want to continue to break new ground or try things. I definitely do. But my obsessions have been with me for so long now. I’ve invested in them, and they’ve invested in me. Writing is hard enough, and I think most writers are very lucky to get even a little bit of territory to which they can lay any kind of claim. My topics are my topics; they define me, and I’m grateful for them. And as I age, maybe I’ll even gain a new obsession or two, or a new perspective on the ones I have.

You’ve written short stories, TV episodes, novels, and more. Can you tell us how you think about genre & medium when you write?

The thing all of those genres and media have in common is they depend on character and story. So that comes first. Viable ideas don’t present themselves that often. So when one does peek its little head out of the dirt, I try not to scare it away with the tagging gun. I’ve got to coax it out of the ground, get it to emerge fully and show itself. Once I’ve got the idea firmly in grasp (although sometimes they still get away), I can try to think about what kind of story is this? What genre or form feels right to cage it? Have I taken this analogy too far? Maybe. 

As for TV vs. prose, I was and am a fiction writer first, so words are the material I am most comfortable with. Television is a visual medium, so I have to think in images. 

Many of us are struggling to do creative work right now. What’s been helping you think creatively lately, even if it doesn’t manifest as writing?

Walks. Reading. Finding ways to have less noise and more perspective. Not easy, though—at the time I’m writing these responses, I’m 94 days into lockdown. Somewhere around day 70, I started to feel a bit foggy. It’s been a struggle. I’m thankful to have had assignments in this time—nothing like the pressure of a deadline to focus the mind.

What do you look for in a good novel?

Voice. Which for me can come from one or many places: choices with diction or grammar or syntax that perturb and excite. A liminal space—feeling like I’m in an envelope of consciousness, a permeable barrier between my thoughts and the text. That might sound a bit obscure or elliptical. What I mean is I love novels where my mind melts into the minds of the characters, and vice versa. 

Any advice for aspiring satire writers out there?

Ha! No.

COVID-19 Shipping Update

Please note that our mail is temporarily on hold, so there is a delay on fulfilling any new orders or ones that have been made since March, when IU paused our service. Rest assured, we will begin fulfilling orders made on our website as soon as we are able to. We appreciate all of your support and patience during this time, and we will send out all issue orders as soon as possible.

—The Editors