Life After Lit Mag: Interview with former Bartleby Snopes Editor Nathaniel Tower

new headshotWhat is the best indie lit mag? If you said Bartleby Snopes for the past 6 years, few would object. From its humble beginnings in 2010, editor Nathaniel Tower built a new kind of journal that responded quickly, interacted personally, and gave voice to a new breed of writing outside of the literary mainstream. But last year, Tower retired from the journal that made him famous. AHHR editor Jason Peck caught up with him to discuss his views on editing, and his goals moving forward.

AHHR: You’ve gone almost nine months now without being editor of a literary magazine. How does that feel?

NT: It definitely feels different. I kind of expected at this point I’d have all this extra time where I’d be writing, I’d have 25 best sellers by now, millions of stories I’d be submitting every day, but what I found is that the extra time I’d been spending with Bartleby Snopes has seemed to gravitate toward other things.

One great thing is reading more. Obviously, with Bartleby Snopes I was reading a lot. But it was submissions, as opposed to now, I can sit down and read this book that I’ve been looking forward to and haven’t touched. Watching TV shows….maybe things that aren’t as productive. Not that TV isn’t productive, but I’m trying to figure out how to find that extra time to write that I’ve been searching for.

Do I miss editing Bartleby Snopes? If I’m being completely honest, I haven’t missed it at all in nine months. I would expect people would want me to say I miss it, it was the greatest thing in the universe…but in all honesty – I’m glad I’m done with it, and I’m looking forward to other pursuits. I have all these ideas in my head, but they’re usually staying in my head right now.

AHHR: When you first started editing Bartleby Snopes, you said at the time you were an author struggling to be published, and then you decided to create a literary magazine. Could you maybe expend a little on your background going into starting this thing?

NT: My background at the time— I was a high school English teacher. I’d been writing fiction on my own for maybe five or six years. And about a year and a half prior to starting Bartleby Snopes, I’d just started submitting my fiction. And I was looking through that big, huge manual of the literary magazines and submitting to everyplace I could find that seemed interesting. I was waiting nine months to hear back from these magazines and they’d shoot me a little form letter that said they weren’t interested. It was a very frustrating experience, and I said, there’s gotta be a better way to do this.

I certainly don’t want to suggest that Bartleby Snopes was the first lit mag to respond in a week, or respond with feedback because I know there were others doing that. But that standard at the time seemed to be, make ‘em wait and don’t tell them anything worthwhile.

AHHR: Is that why you think it became popular? Were you surprised when it started to catch on?

NT: I was definitely surprised by how many submissions we got, and how quickly those submissions were coming in. I think part of it is, we really put a lot of time and effort into getting the magazine listed on as many websites and getting the word out there. And we published talented authors without making them wait….I think people were taken aback by how quickly we responded. We’d send an acceptance out within a week, and we could have the story on the site by the end of that week.

AHHR: So what about your own writing then? I’ve always heard that editing takes time from writing, but looking over your list of publications….you actually published a staggering amount of work when you edited Bartleby Snopes. What did editing really teach you about writing?

NT: Certainly a lot of effects there. One, it always inspired me to write more, especially at the beginning. I’m getting so many submissions coming in, and there’s a lot of great writing there. There’s a lot of great story ideas there. It just made me think about all the story potential in my own head, and it just came out. It was so different from what I’d written before, which was very novel-driven, and no so much about these voices.

And I think the most important thing I learned is what I was doing wrong. Self-editing is hard. You either decide everything you do is terrible, or you look through it with your rose-colored goggles and everything is great. And when I’m typing up these rejection letters and saying, this is why I don’t take your story – you know what? Most of my stories are doing the same thing. It really opened my eyes to all the things I need to fix.

AHHR: Looking over all the things you’ve written, it’s kind of hard to identify what is a Nathaniel Tower story. You write surreal, you write literary, you write genre – it’s all over the place. Moving forward, what is your ideal writing style?

NT: I’d say the surreal is where I’m most comfortable. Maybe it’s because the ideas I have are so ridiculous sometimes, maybe it’s because I’m not a literary writer with these amazing, prosaic descriptions….maybe that’s why I feel more comfortable in the surrealist realm. Maybe that’s what I have the most fun with. But all the writing I’ve done this year has been in the absurdist/surrealist genre, if we want to call it that.

And why has my writing been all over the place? Maybe it’s all the different stuff I’ve read, all the variety. I can’t really explain the diversity, but definitely I’m more surrealist.

AHHR: In your blog, you gave a variety of reasons for shutting down Bartleby Snopes. You just didn’t have the time anymore, you didn’t quite have the passion you once did….it seems like a lot of things that accrue over time. But was there any one moment where you realized it was time?

NT: I can’t think of any revelation. It was really just something that had been brewing for a while. Maybe when our second daughter was born I thought that I wasn’t putting my energy in the place it was best suited. But there was no single moment. It was more this culmination of things.

AHHR: When you made the announcement, it kind of seemed like you downplayed the significance. Kind of like, people would be sad, but another lit mag would come around and people would move on. But now that it’s been nine months, do you feel like you’ve left a legacy behind?

NT: You know if it’s missed, I’m missing the conversations about it. After the announcement, I had a handful of people saying they were sorry, but there was no outpouring of writerly tears, where an era was over. There have been tons of publications that have shut down. And for most of them there is this initial burst of sadness, and then no one is talking about it anymore.

And I think this speaks to how much great stuff there is out there right now. There’s thousands of literary magazines out there, and, when one goes away, I don’t think it creates a huge hole in the literary community, no matter how big.

AHHR: Is there any scenario where you could see yourself editing again?

NT: In my current job, I’m writing website content and helping companies strengthen their brand voices. So really, I’m in a writing type atmosphere from 8:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. every day. And the thought of being an editor in that spare time doesn’t appeal to me at this point. If offered a great opportunity, I couldn’t say if I would or I wouldn’t. It would depend on what the opportunity was. I’m very content with where I’m at right now, and I just don’t see it in the near future.

AHHR: As far as your own writing goes, is there anything we can expect to see from you?

NT: There’s a novel I’ve been working on called The Funeral Attendee for the past six years, maybe seven years. I have a draft that’s finished now in the sense that it carries you from beginning to end, but it’s not the end product I want it to be. If I had to give one goal, it’s to get that thing finished. Not to get an agent or anything, just to finish it.

AHHR: One last question….you actually held a world juggling record?

NT: I did. It was the record for juggling backwards for a mile while running.

AHHR: That’s an impressive resume there. Literary magazine pioneer, juggling champion….

NT: I haven’t found a huge market for juggling writers yet. If there is a market, I think I can make something of it. For Drunk Monkeys once, I read a story while juggling. Probably more entertaining than watching a guy running backwards.

AHHR: Anything else you’d like to say?

NT: I’m going to finish this novel. It’ll do all the talking.

 

Need more Nate? Check his personal blog at https://nathanieltower.com/

Best of Net 2017 Nominations

Please congratulate and wish the best of luck to our 2017 Best of Net Nominees. All pieces were published in the Spring 2017 issue (#7):

Fiction:

The Factory by Philip Kuan

Poetry:

Bucket Mouth by Jennifer Jackson Berry

Equations of Mud and Weeds by Steven Klepetar

Untitled (“It knows nothing about the others…”) by Simon Perchik

Simulacrum by Mischelle Anthony

Creative Nonfiction:

Furious Hi-Fi by Rafael Padilla

 

New Twist on an Old Genre – Mike McClelland’s “Gay Zoo Day”

GaCapturey Zoo Day: Tales of Seeking and Discovery. By Mike McClelland, Beautiful Dreamer Press, 2017.

It must be said that Mike McClelland’s debut novel “Gay Zoo Day” features some more “typical” literary fiction.

In the opening story, a protagonist settles down in South Africa for a summer, and takes in the baggage of that country’s history. In the titular story “Gay Zoo Day” a gay student abroad suffers the aftermath of a disturbing semi-consensual sexual encounter. And the collection finishes with an expertly written tale of a young boy’s coming of age in a privileged Hong Kong neighborhood, complete with a reflection on the trap of the “high life.”

All these stories fit with the book’s subtext of seeking and discovery – McClelland’s stories feature characters searching for purpose beyond the humdrum day to day.

But the book becomes another beast entirely where the author turns his attention to genre fiction and answers a question that isn’t asked nearly enough: What if one were to take genre fiction, and transform it with LGBT themes?

Thus we have the thoroughly entertaining grab bag of fiction that moves seamlessly from spy thriller to ghost story to hard-boiled noir and soft sci-fi. The protagonists in all stories are gay, but the end result is more than a simple orientation change. How does the story of a two-fisted 1930s adventurer pilot change when ain’t the dames he’s interested in, so to speak? How does the budding romance between two astronauts in the near-future adjust along with their orientation? Genre fiction relies on its clichés to provide readers with a familiar experience, and McClelland is all too happy to exploit them.

High marks go to “The Self-Banished,” which switches between spy thriller and tender remembrance of a childhood past. But for what it’s worth, the utmost praise goes to “Mombasa Vengeance,” a Victorian period piece that goes the extra mile.

On the surface, a closeted English gentleman searches for his wife’s killer so that his young son may learn something of honor. Again, McClelland gives the LGBT twist on an old genre, but the author elevates his bloodthirsty tale of revenge with subplots that address the very nature of Victorian “honor,” the power dynamics in biracial couples, and a little-remembered moment in third-world exploitation. All this while maintaining the elevated prose style of an old penny dreadful. Impressive stuff, to put it mildly.

Are there any other genres this author can twist? Space opera? Post-apocalyptic zombie fiction? Steampunk? Here’s hoping we see more.

In Search of Chuck Strangward, and the Best Flash Fiction Story You’ve Never Read

By Jason Peck

My favorite work of flash fiction comes from a former postal worker in Georgia that no one’s heard of, who skipped his MFA and has more online writing credits regarding agricultural than he does for his fiction. Chuck Strangward is not famous, but not in the sense that we should be ashamed of his anonymity. He is not famous because he does not seem to particularly care about being famous.

And yet this unknown author broke the rules of flash fiction.

In 2015, Chuck succeeded in flash fiction where I had repeatedly tried and failed. His story “No One Here Knows a Damn Thing About Birds” successfully chronicled the complex life of a woman and several members of her family over the course of decades without breaking the 1,000 word limit. A common “rule” of flash is that it should cover a brief period of time – a moment or a scene, not an entire family history. In this condensed format, it’s the impact of that specific moment that carries over into the decades after the story ends.

As an example, I’d point to one of my favorite writers Justin Torres, author of We The Animals, for my money still one of the greatest works of flash ever produced. In a story about dancing with his family to Tito Puente, Torres shows us the complex relationship with both his heritage and his father, feelings that we know continued long after the story ended. In a story about watching a comedian on TV, he expresses the profound sadness that his mother feels behind a façade that slips. But at no point does Torres tell just one story that condenses the entire family experience.

But Chuck pulled it off in a story shorter than this blog post. When people ask me for examples of quality flash, I’m as likely to send them the link to Word Riot where his story was originally published.

The last lead I had was an email address a decade old. Definitely a last resort, but within a week, I had directly contacted the author at last.

***

Regarding the actual story –

“No One Here Knows a Damn Thing About Birds” tells the story of a woman who goes through a series of “lovers, husbands and boyfriends” in the 40-odd years following her split from her husband. Covered within this story are the fates of her children and even some of the pets. Even more surprising than the fact that Strangward put so many years into less than 1,000 words is how many characters he added. All told, I counted 11, not including the narrator. Some are just names, a few are several lines of dialogue.

In short, the story’s secret weapon is the protagonist’s somewhat obsessive habit of slapping stickers on her car.

Of course, it goes much deeper than that. Each sticker represents a member of her family. Her husband has one, she has one, the children have theirs and on down to the family pets. Stickers update as the characters age and family members change. It’s an odd habit that more than one character comments on negatively (“fucking banal,” one of her boyfriends memorably calls it). However, the conceit is shockingly effective. For one thing, it gives good reason why we focus only on the major life events.

“I used to deliver mail to an elementary school,” Chuck told me. “One day I parked behind a vehicle with a long sticker trail across the back windshield. Except there was a dusty outline of where the Dad sticker used to be, which struck me as hilariously sad. I began to write an account of how it disappeared.

“I’ll be honest – I was never really sure myself if the concept worked. But once the story started I couldn’t write the stickers out. So I just went with it. I liked the idea of transforming a mundane tchotchke into a kern that held all these chapters of a life.”

More importantly, it also lets Strangward write about those major life experiences without recognizing them as the serious moments they actually are. In the opening paragraph, he never uses the word “divorce.” Nor does he explicitly write about the protagonist’s struggle to move on. Instead he just writes about how easily she removes his sticker: “No, Paul was a breeze; she scraped at his flat little head with her long nail until the flap was big enough to grab, then she lifted him slowly and cleanly.” Conversely, language about the residue left behind by the husband’s sticker conveys the void that she then tries to fill.

“Birds” just kept leaping forward,” Chuck wrote. “I just saw that main character so cleanly in my head. The way she crossed her legs, the way she blinked her eyes when angry – it took two days to write and two days to edit.

“So much flash reads like poetry arranged in paragraphs. I wanted the story to have the familiar feel and linear structure of longer forms, but without sacrificing those concentrated sentences you discover in great flash. I feared it’d come off like a stack of non-sequiturs. I found it harder to write than the moment-in-time story because in those stories you can go back, sideways, forward, etc. “Birds” was limited to one trajectory more or less.”

In a similar manner, Strangward can introduce the unusually fast pace of her dating life by recounting the speed that the stickers change until one boyfriend, “a little concerned, asks how many stickers have there been. She isn’t even removing them anymore, just slapping one on top of the other like those tags she puts on her license plate once a year.”

Strangward’s other weapon is his control of time. Years pass by without overt acknowledgement that years have actually gone by. In one scene, a different boyfriend comments on the stickers. They say they love each other. She buys a new car, and in that action we instinctively know time has passed, along with that boyfriend’s time in her life.

In my favorite part, her second husband Walter is represented by a cigarette because he smokes. And so Walter’s story is nonchalantly introduced and ended in a passage I must reprint in full:

“Do you remember those stickers people put on cars, the stick figure families?” she asks Walter.

Propped up in his hospital bed, Walter nods. Words are too much pain for his irradiated throat.

“I think they’re trending again.”

Addie comes and stays with her for a while. The top of Walter’s urn has a knob like the lid of a cookie jar. Where did that come from, Addie says, referring to the sticker on her mother’s car.

Fuck, man.

At the risk of being overly sentimental, the piece ends with the first husband that started the piece, who gets his memorial sticker. Stickers throughout have carried subtle poignancy; no as the protagonist ruminates over feelings she didn’t know she had for a husband she hasn’t seen for some time now. Another surprising thing about Strangward’s language is its simplicity. His ending uses no fancy words to convey the feeling, but in recalling a scene at the opening, he picks his details expertly.

More than anything else, the story is heartfelt despite the overt silliness of the sticker concept. Reading it, I could tell that the author put personal history into it, which Chuck confirmed.

“Annie Proulx said, ‘The scraps that feed a story come from many different cupboards,’” Check wrote. “I was very close to my grandmothers, who each passed away after extended periods of declining health. Their two lives could not have been more different. I was holding the hand of one as she left us, an experience which certainly feeds into this story. The other I visited regularly and listened as her recollection of stories (she had traveled extensively and was a fine conversationalist) expanded into a director’s cut of her life, as if the stand-by memories had been usurped by rogue scenes. In a literal sense the title is probably just that, a mnemic outburst.”

I’ve probably read this story a few dozen times by now – more so that most of the flash pieces in anthologies by famous – and therefore, “distinguished authors.” In those few dozen times, I’ve tried learning so I could adapt and write something similar. All I’ve done is learn; try as I might, I doubt I’d be able to pull off something like this.

Chuck has published nothing new since Word Riot. Here’s hoping he takes it up again.

Interview: Sherrie Flick on Flash Fiction

20371088_1409709485764663_1657815538_nSince emerging on the forefront of the flash fiction genre, Sherrie Flick has established herself as one of the form’s greatest authorities. 

Flick is author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness, and the flash fiction books I Call This Flirting and Whiskey, Etc. Her fiction has appeared in countless journals and books, including W.W Norton’s Flash Fiction Forward, New Sudden Fiction, Ploughshares, Booth and SmokeLong Quarterly. She contributed a chapter in the landmark flash fiction guide Rose Metal Guide to Flash Fiction. She has received fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, the Ucross Foundation, and Atlantic Center for the Arts. But that’s merely a snapshot.

In this interview, Flick discusses her start in flash fiction, her upcoming book, and above all answers the question – what makes for good flash fiction? AHHR Fiction Editor, Jason Peck, wrote the interview.

 

First question I have to ask How did you get into flash fiction? Because you would have gotten into it back in the days before it was really a mainstream genre.

I started writing flash fiction in the late ‘80s. There was a little balloon of popular interest at that time because Raymond Carver was publishing then, and Gordon Lish was editing and publishing The Quarterly. Diane Williams, Amy Hempel….all these people were publishing these short pieces there. Those pieces weren’t studied in academia at that time, so that was the sort of weird disconnect for me. Workshops in my undergraduate program weren’t considering short form as something we should write. But outside of academia, my friends were writing in this experimental form and getting things published. So there was a tension between popular mainstream publishing and the academic world of teaching craft.

I had a great network of friends who were writing flash fiction in New Hampshire, so I had a workshop outside of my [university] workshop where we wrote these pieces. There was a lot of affirmation in that world, the indie-rock, zine, underground-art thing in the ‘80s. So in some ways I feel like I was in sync with what was going on; in other ways, I was not approved of. But Raymond Carver was my gateway drug to flash. A friend gave me Carver and I was like, Boom! This is what I want to write. It sounds cliché now, but that’s just how it happened.

Do you feel like flash fiction has won respect yet? Or do you feel there’s still this attitude out there this this might be a shallower art form?

People have been writing in this form since the ‘20s and the ‘30s. I think we can say people have always been writing in this form in one way or another. But in the ‘20s and ‘30s in America they were publishing in well-regarded magazines. There was much discussion at this year’s AWP conference about flash fiction and the short form and how short a piece of writing could be, and the micro and sudden fiction and that sort of stuff…I see my students in my MFA program looking at flash as a short story. So in some ways I feel like it has been synthesized into the world of fiction, and it doesn’t need to be justified anymore. It’s a form that can be well-crafted. But people love to argue about it.

In the Rose Metal Guide to Flash Fiction, you wrote about how you can ignore plot when you start writing a flash piece, and how liberating this is; you can start focusing on these other story elements that don’t always take a front seat. But is plot something you have to return to in the end?

It depends on the story. This past fall I was at The Montana Book Festival where we put together a panel on place in flash fiction. And the writer Sam Ligon, when we asked him to be on the panel was like “I don’t really believe in place in flash fiction, but I want to be on this panel so I can argue with everyone.” But then we got to the panel, and by then he had realized there were these stories of his that were based in setting, and he was able to use these stories as examples; he just wasn’t thinking of them as setting when he wrote them.

So I do think you need to give the story what it calls for. Some pieces of flash call for plotting, some rise from setting, some are very character driven. There’s always a kind of resonance or change that occurs, whether it’s in the character or the reader. As the reader, we’re filling in a part of that story that’s being evoked for us.

Since I wrote that essay I feel like I know more about plot. I wrote a novel, and that was certainly helpful in learning about it. But that is my weakest craft element, but I feel that now I can manipulate it in a more complex way.

Looking at your stories, some of them don’t really appear to have a plot in the traditional sense. There’s the story “Oklahoma Men” that’s mentioned in the Rose Metal Guide, there’s the story “Breakfast” that’s often at your readings; one of my favorites is “Silver Spur Café.” It sometimes seems like you’re showing an impression of a moment. Would that assessment be fair, or is there a plot that’s maybe just way more subtle than we’re used to seeing?

I do feel that it’s subtle. There isn’t a traditional plot of “the cowboy ropes a steer and goes back to the ranch and builds a fire and meets the girl.” Some of my stories are like that [laughs], but in most cases the change is subtle, my pieces are quiet. “Oklahoma Men,” that’s a good example of a plotless story. But in the other stories, there’s a traditional change that occurs. If you sketched it out you’d see it. But it’s maybe not the scaffolding that holds the story up.

How did you go from writing flash to a novel? Are you in the same mindset, or do you have to take some time to write a different kind of piece?

A novel is a totally different kind of animal. I was almost militant about flash for many years. And then one day my mentor suggested that I challenge myself to write a novel. What was it that kept me from trying to do it? And that was a very good question.

I committed to trying the form. And in order to do it, the first thing I did was write a 20-page story. And then I wrote a 50-page story, just figuring out this longer arc. And then I wrote the novel. And when I wrote it, I was at a writing residency in Wyoming, that ended up being 60,000 words in a few weeks. That’s not how most people do it, but for me, shifting from this super-compressed form to a long, gigantic animal; I really needed to bang it out.

In doing so, my sentence structure changed. I had to learn how to extend the life of a character and have them move through space in a way that my shorter stories don’t accommodate. But my novel is very non-linear. It doesn’t go from A to B to C. More like A to Z to X to M. So in that sense, the plot is still very fractured. But that was the intent.

So that flash influence was still there?

Oh yeah. Part of what I talked about at AWP was that even if you’re not interested in flash – compression itself should be a craft element that is learned. Because if you have a character in a novel you want to get from New Hampshire to Nebraska in two paragraphs, that’s compression right? That’s a lot of time for two paragraphs, and if you want to do it in a convincing way – that’s where flash really came into play in my book.

You’ve read a lot of flash fiction as a teacher and an editor. At the risk of limiting the genre, what should be present in every flash fiction story?

I will say from reading for SmokeLong, the one thing that’s really stuck – there needs to be a strong and definitive voice. Without that voice, flash fiction tends to come off as flat. You don’t have the time to build up to anything, you only have 1,000 words. So the pieces we accept seem to always have this voice that strikes you from the get-go as someone who is really in control. Conversely, what I don’t like is when someone depends on a gimmick or a joke or a pop culture trope, almost like a standup comic.

Where do you often see flash going wrong?

It would be a writer who isn’t in command of voice. But I think also….there has to be a story. I think sometimes, people who are writing flash early on in their careers….they’re actually just writing a scene. And a scene doesn’t have resonance. It can be a very well-wrought scene, but my question would be: what is the big idea? What is the big question that you are exploring in this story? If you don’t evoke a kind of realization in your reader or your character, it doesn’t come together as a story. And I think even in more abstract pieces, there’s a larger commentary.

A great scene is not successful unless you put it in the context of a greater meaning. So working with students, they have a very well written piece, and in revision I ask, what is the big idea here? What do you want to go deeper into? And if you want to maintain this shorter form, how do we heighten that?

You do have a new book coming out. Is this a new novel, or is this a return to flash?

Yes, it’s flash fiction and similar in structure to Whiskey, Etc. in that it’s a combination of pieces of flash with longer stories throughout, but mostly flash. When I put this manuscript together, it came via outtakes [for Whiskey, Etc.]. I was culling pieces for that collection, and I had pieces left over that didn’t fit there. But they fit with each other, which was handy. They’re all a bit darker and weirder. Autumn House press is publishing the collection in Fall 2018.

Which flash fiction story do you wish you had written?

Anything that Stuart Dybek has ever written, I wish I had written. I remember reading his collection, Coast of Chicago, when I was a grad student. I think he is someone who really examines place, and change, and how a character can rise.

And then there’s this new story, “Shit Cassandra Saw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans Because at that Point Fuck Them Anyway” by Gwen Kirby. It’s an amazing story. It’s a great example of everything I’ve talked about so far, because you can imagine this coming into your inbox – immediate voice, immediate innovation. Power, it’s very clever…it just charmed me. I know a lot of women flash fiction writers were reading this like “Arrgh! This is what I want to write!”

Favorite flash chapbook?

It’s kind of an impossible question. Sean Lovelace wrote this chapbook, How Some People Like Their Eggs. It’s a fresh and innovative manuscript how it fits together….there’s just something about it that’s very smart. I selected it as judge for Rose Metal Press’ chapbook competition some years back.

Of course, Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek, which I already mentioned. Also anything by Joy Williams.  Her new collection Ninety-Nine Stories of God is brilliant. I also pretty much love everything Etgar Keret has written. I teach his book The Girl on the Fridge. He does a lot with black humor, so his stories are funny, but also political. And he does a lot of commentary on gender roles, but none of it is overt. I admire that. He’s able to make deep, meaningful statements through sometimes crazy, unrealistic magic-realistic scenarios. And that’s not really how I work; but we admire and want to do what we don’t often do.


Read more by Sherrie Flick on her website: http://sherrieflick.com/

Jason Peck edits fiction for the After Happy Hour Review.

Review: Flashcuts Out of Chaos by Charles W. Brice – “Stretching for Earnestness”

Flashcuts Out of Chaos.* By Charles W. Brice. Cincinnati, OH: WordTech Editions, 2016. $18.96 (pa.). 97 pages.

reviewed by Mike Good

Image result for flashcuts out of chaos

Entering Charles W. Brice’s first full-length poetry collection, Flashcuts Out of Chaos, is entering a tumultuous emotional landscape of Catholic school, domestic strife, and societal upheaval. Alcoholic figures move from home and into churches, from a therapist’s chair to the tabernacle. Brice’s work recalls a blend of the Beat, confessional, stand-up schools of poetry. As a collection, it reads as an act of unburdening through narrative: a recognition of the past to catalog it, recognize it, learn from it, and to understand the present. To contrast somber content, Brice splices humor into the heartbreaks that populate the collection.
What I enjoy most about Brice’s work is that he stretches for earnestness, while being aware that, perhaps, no poem can fully transfer a memory or experience to the reader. Failure is always on the tails of its sincerest efforts, and sincerity occurs in droves throughout this collection. Poems appear in free verse; lines and stanzas break to reflect content and narrative; most layouts are conventional; and most poems dwell in first-person. The book is arranged chronologically and falls into three distinct parts, “The Inverted World,” “Wild Pitch”, and “Milliseconds of Mystery.”

 

“The Inverted World” follows the speaker throughout a caustic and interrupted childhood, highlighting a tense relationship between his mother and father. Catholic school authority figures fail to embody the morals they preach to the young speaker, whose faith is often tested. The section ends with the speaker having grown into a conscientious objector of the Vietnam War. The final poem of the “The Inverted World,” “Shave,” offers an intimate picture of helping a homeless man to shower and shave. The poem stands out from preceding poems in its style as Brice omits punctuation in favor of extra spacing:

the teeth of the comb were moving    
We both had to shower           not together of course

with Quell soap           the only soap that
killed the lice and the eggs      that moved
across the comb

Then I shaved him

The poem earns the speaker additional credibility as he relays an uncomfortable and intimate gesture of kindness.

 

Playful and more present-tense scenes appear in “Wild Pitch.” Initially, the second section appears to shift gears, leaning on humor to contrast to the heavier confessions found in “The Inverted World.” While a Nietzsche epigraph opens the section, the second poem “Three Blatherskites and You’re Out” begins with an epigraph by former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher, Charlie Morton, (often referred to by Pittsburgh announcers as “Ground Chuck” due to his pitch’s tendency to earn outs with opponents hitting ground balls). However, levity quickly gives way to intense subject matter. For instance, after “Sartre and Simone Get Married” offers a hyperbolic satire of the philosophers entering wedlock; the next poem “In Memory of August Kittel, Jr.” cuts to an elegy for the great playwright, August Wilson. In the elegy, Brice works to portray segregation and discrimination, while paying homage to Wilson, repeating the refrain:

In this ocean of white,
he was Pittsburgh’s black gem,
its king, the train we loved to ride;
our eighth guitar, our shining man.

I feel that it is to his credit that Brice exhibits determination to explore racial inequity from a white perspective (and he does so bluntly and pointedly throughout the collection). However, due to the poem-order and content, the tones clashed. The elegy reads more like a distant aside than the personal and intimate tribute I hoped to experience. The use of “we” in the refrain also made me inwardly squirm along with the person-riding-person-as-train metaphor.

 

The third section, “Milliseconds of Mystery” closes the book. While it is the shortest section of the book, it is also, perhaps, the most tender. Love poems like “Asparagus” explore the joys of a long and intimate marriage. The poem concludes, “Our eyes, our words, float/on the slow tip/of time—and we know years—we too/thickandthinners,/ hurtling towards the inevitable blur of us.” In the final section, Brice’s occupation as a therapist becomes more evident. This had the effect of further humanizing the speaker, who has had to stumble through difficulties throughout the collection.

 

Flashcuts Out of Chaos, is, as the title implies, a book with jagged edges that swerves through humorous, somber, public, and personal registers. While the book may have benefited from additional sections or some excision, Brice’s debut collection is filled with heart and provides a charged experience for its readers. The poet’s humanity and willingness to explore happiness, sorrow, discomfort, and disparities in equal and muddy intervals elicit joy, pointing towards a poetry that is messy, hopeful, and celebratory.


* Also available at local bookstores, such as Caliban Books


Mike Good serves as a poetry editor for the After Happy Hour Review. Find more at mikegoodwrites.wordpress.com

Local Spotlight: Pittsburgh’s Long-Running Poetry Reading Series Turns 42

Group photo from Madwomen in the Attic

Back row L-R: Doralee Brooks, Lori Wilson, Anne Rashid, Lisa Alexander & Kara Knickerbocker Front row L-R: Sarah Williams-Devereux, Susan Sailer, Jan Beatty, Jimmy Cvetic & Joan Bauer Photo Credit: Don Staricka

By Jason Peck and Mike Good

Over the years, the Hemingway’s Summer Poetry Series has played host for many of Pittsburgh’s literary luminaries in addition to countless up and coming writers. Writers like Jan Beatty (just last week, in fact) have read there. Joy Katz read there, and so too did Terrance Hayes. Also, Robert Gibb and Richard St. John. Ed Ochester.

The list goes on.

The movers and shakers behind every Pittsburgh writing group, community workshop, and the heads of Pittsburgh literary magazines seem to come and go. Yet, the quiet, unsung heroes—the organizers Jimmy Cvetic and Joan Bauer—continue to excel at finding writers and offering a welcoming space, and so, the Hemingway’s Summer Poetry Series churns on. The reading series has been consistently bringing writers and audiences together in the backroom of Hemingways in Oakland, every Tuesday evening since 1975. May 2 marked the first reading of 2017.

Since 2011, the readings have been recorded and archived by Don Staricka who created a blog for the series, www.hemingwayspoetryseries.blogspot.com, but nothing can quite capture the contributions the series has made to Pittsburgh’s local literary scene. With an unassuming setting, readings quietly occur in the backroom of a bar where the smell of fried food wafts in the air, and the shot pitchers are $5 apiece and college kids come and go. Perhaps, it is not the first place one would suspect poetry to be read.

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According to local poet and a frequent reader at the Hemingway’s reading series, Kris Collins, “The thing about the Hemingway’s series is that it has provided a model for all the rest of us who have created reading series in Pittsburgh.”

Collins continued, “Jimmy and Joan gave us all a model that encouraged a level playing field. Every season they bring together an amazingly varied mix of writers – academic and street level, teachers and students, old and young – and give them the same respect and attention.”

According to Bauer, the series originated from a gap in the University of Pittsburgh’s poetry schedule. While the university ran their own poetry series from fall through spring, a neutral party was needed to foster an independent reading during the summer. Enter Cvetic, who until nine years ago, maintained the series single-handedly while holding down a job as a county police detective.

“The series has continued because Jimmy stayed committed to it, all these years,” Bauer says. “He lives and breathes poetry.”

Each reading features a cross-section of the local lit scene. Groups such as Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange, Pittsburgh Poetry Society and Carlow’s Madwomen in the Attic can often be found there, to name a few. But the organizers pride themselves on spotting the rising talent and giving them a voice, and many aspiring poet have cut their teeth during the open mic that follows.

“Jimmy always said that Hemingway’s about inclusion, not exclusion,” Bauer says.

Tonight, May 22, 2017, Don Krieger, also a member of the Hour After Happy Hour will read with the Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange.

On May 2, we got to hear Lisa Alexander read a poem from Issue 6, “Over the Route 28 Guardrail Toward the Train Tracks“. Go Lisa!

We are so excited to share Joan Bauer’s haunting elegy, “On His Dresser” in the latest edition.

We salute the organizers and look forward to a fantastic summer of literature. Follow the blog and check out the audio archives.


Jason Peck edits fiction for the After Happy Hour Review.

Mike Good edits poetry for the After Happy Hour Review.