Tom Swifties and Rule-Bending Prose

A couple of weeks ago, I gave my undergraduate students a strict talking-to about comma splices and run-on sentences. Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a grammar grandma. It’s true; I can’t help it. I was born with the grammar gene. But my conversation with my students made me second-guess myself. I’d caused an avalanche of determined questions: “What if your character talks in run-on sentences?” “I think comma splices are beautiful.” “What if it’s your style to write in run-ons?” Of course, I gave the old stodgy answer, “You have to know the rules in order to break them.” But somehow that didn’t resolve the problem. I have colleagues who use comma splices constantly–and yes, beautifully–to channel fascinating, obsessive voices. Cormac McCarthy’s run-on sentences have become so iconic they’re almost a meme. And what about Hemingway?

Rooting around on the Internet after AWP, inspired by all the great writers I’d heard and met, I came across a link on Christine Sneed’s Web site that led to her collection of Tom Swifties, phrases in which quoted sentences are linked by a pun to their attributions. (They were originally called ‘Tom Swiftlies,’ from the following example: “‘We must hurry,’ said Tom Swiftly.”) Tom Swifties are yet another example of a grammatical no-no that nonetheless can be used for good, with humor and fun.

Do you have a favorite rule-bending writer? A pet grammar error? A groan-worthy  Tom Swifty? Share it here!

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

IR & Gulf Coast Bluesy AWP Reading

The upstairs room of Buddy Guy’s Legends was jam-packed for poetry and fiction at Thursday night’s AWP IR/Gulf Coast reading in Chicago. Special thanks to Gulf Coast for your hard work and to those of you who came out to listen and to all of our readers who rocked harder than the floor-buzzing blues jam going on downstairs during the reading.

Digital Literature: A New Genre?

A few weeks ago, our Editor Deborah Kim wrote about the co-existence of digital and print media. This week, I want to explore how digital media changes not only the way we access literature, but also the way we write literature.

In the above TED talk, “Shake up your story,” Raghava KK describes his children’s book for the iPad, Pop It. The most intriguing aspect of this book is what happens when you shake it: the parents change between two fathers, two mothers, and a mother and a father. With this interactive feature, three different perspectives are presented almost simultaneously as they are all only a shake away. With each shake, only the parents change, revealing that the family interaction and the overall story do not depend on the sexuality of the parents. Rather, it is simply another perspective of the same story. Raghava argues that children should learn perspective as soon as possible because perspective is the key to empathy and creativity.

Raghava’s book reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s short story, “Happy Endings.” In this work of meta-fiction, Atwood begins with “John and Mary meet. What happens next? If you want a happy ending, try A.” She then presents multiple successive endings from A to F, separated by headings and line breaks. The multiple endings do not occur simultaneously; rather, the endings occur in the order you choose to read them.

In Raghava’s book, however, all the points of view are equal to each other because they are accessible within the same story. There aren’t three different stories for the three sets of parents. Instead, Pop It suggests that multiple versions of a single story are all valid. This idea might be confusing on the written page, but on the iPad, the timing is fluid and allows multiple perspectives while still providing the reader with an unchanging referential, such as the setting, to orient himself in the world of the story.


Raghava says that he ultimately wants to expand this idea of multiple perspectives to the political realm—for example, he imagines a story in which the Indian, Pakistani, and British perspectives of Indian independence are all represented. I can’t wait to see what kind of work will emerge from this idea, but I’m even more excited to see the new ways writers will use our current technology. While these new developments are great for children’s literature, do they have a place in the literary realm as well? I’ll be the first to admit that integrating technology and literature will result in tacky experiments. (I cringe at the thought of a short story that uses different fonts for each word and includes pop-up YouTube videos of kittens.) However, I also believe that embracing these new resources will allow for new literary growth, as experimentation has always done for literature: the lyrical short story, prose poetry, stream of consciousness. The influx of technology has already changed society; we multitask, we seek instant gratification, we prefer brevity. If people have changed, then it makes sense for literature to explore these changes in themes, settings, or contexts. I hope that we’ll also find a place for tasteful and insightful use of technological tools in not only the content of literature but also its form.

Cover by Andrew Bannecker from

This integrated form of literature has the potential to become a new genre with its own loyal band of followers. For example, check out this experimental venue—bornmagazine. Bornmagazine’s pieces unite literary arts with interactive media; some are videos with poetry voice-over and some require user participation. Personally, I prefer the more interactive ones because so many of them are haunting, bringing you into the story in ways that text alone cannot (I recommend “Shirtless Others” by Jason Ockert and Matthias Dittrich). Interestingly, most of these pieces include links to an iPhone version, suggesting that this type of literature will not be limited to certain devices. So what could we call this new genre? iPad literature or flash media literature does not cover the full range of possibilities. Interactive literature? Multisensory literature? Multimedia literature? Whatever you call it, it has potential.

IR Nonfiction’s Unofficial Oscar Predictions

Finally, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: IR Nonfiction’s Unofficial Oscar Predictions for Best Short Films 2012. Every month and with varying degrees of success, I gather essays together from our nonfiction submissions and try to gauge what will excite our selection committee, so you know picking winners is part of my regular routine. If you haven’t seen this year’s nominees for best shorts, you must, and then let me know if you agree with my thoroughly unstudied predictions (apparently, most people don’t, so it’s okay).

Best Live Action Short Film: My money is with Norwegian film “Tuba Atlantic.” With only six days to live, grumpy old Oskar reaches out to his brother across the Atlantic, but no one knows for sure whether his brother will get the message. Props to the film’s writer Linn-Jeanethe Kyed for the cheeky, moving script.

Best Animated Short Film: Are there always so many Canadian entrants in the short film category?  “Wild Life”  tells the story of a dapper, young Englishman determined to settle the Canadian wilderness and of what happens when ambitions clash with actuality. Again, huge writer props to Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilly for the spare, even script, and super bonus points to the film’s gorgeous hand-painted look.