Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Contributors News

BreadLoaf recently announced the Fellows and Tuition Scholars for 2010 and we're pleased to pass along the news that a number of 9L contributors were on the list! Congratulations everyone!


Matt Bondourant (vol. 4, no. 2) - John Gardner Fellow in fiction
Ashley Butler (vol. 4, no. 2 as Jane Ashley) - William Sloan Fellowship in Nonfiction
Kim Dana Kupperman (vol. 4, no. 1) - Katharine Bakeless Nason Fellow in Nonfiction


Kim Adrian (vol. 6, no. 1) - William Raney Scholar in Nonfiction
Tarfia Faizullah (vol.7, no. 1) - Margaret Bridgman Scholar in Poetry

Also, congratulations to Brandy T. Wilson (vol. 5, no. 1) for being named one of Lambda Literary Foundation's 2010 Emerging LGBT Voices!

And finally for today, "Youths" by Michael Rutherglen from the current issue (vol. 7, no. 1) is featured on Verse Daily today. Thanks Verse Daily!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Verse Daily

Leslie Adrienne Miller's poem "Love Note" from the spring/summer 10 issue of Ninth Letter is featured on Verse Daily today.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Website Update/Paint

The website is now updated with sample design spreads and a complete table of contents for the current, spring/summer 10 issue! To celebrate, here is an excerpt from "Paint" by Whit Coppedge. Why "Paint?" Because the story successfully straddles the line between the real and unreal, while keeping the reader fully engaged with the characters. Also, the design for the story is featured over on the current issue page.

Here is an excerpt from "Paint" by Whit Coppedge:

Paint, the young man, is thin. "You'll blow away," he's told, sail that he is.

Out her back window, a neighbor woman, Ribeiro, sees the ring of teenage boys, more young men, circle around him. As if they sense her watching, they leave, setting Paint on his now-unmolested way home, along the worn path following the creek behind her house, a short cut to the sidewalks of his neighborhood.

"I wonder if you could help me with something," she asks him the next day as he passes along the path, a day when he's not stopped and bothered. "My car keys have fallen back behind the refrigerator. Can you see if you can grab them for me?

He is happy to oblige and slides between the white panel and the counter, snaking his arm around the corner and hooking the ring with his finger. For his help, he gets a peck on the cheek.

In geometry class, on the day the topic of laminas is covered, Teacher gives the students an example to help them understand the discussion. "Like 'laminate,'" she says. "Or like paint," offers another student. Teacher's face goes angry but Paint sees thirty lightbulbs appear above the heads of his classmates, many now giggling at him. Teacher yells at the class for quiet.

On Sunday evening, he watches a science show hosted by a man with a nasal, baritone voice who tastes each word before it leaves his mouth. This night is a discussion of theoretical physics. "I have a third dimension," he starts saying at school. "It's just different from yours."

This makes things worse. He stands perpendicular to the blows. The fists connect with the bone of his upper arm, something more like the edge of a table. The pain only angers the other boys more.

"Maybe you should move the hook for your keys," he suggests after the third week of helping Mrs. Ribeiro - her husband isn't around. She runs a finger over a bruise on his arm. "Somewhere you can get to them if they fall." He finds himself pressed flat against the refrigerator door, flatter than he usually feels, her lips pressed against his and her tongue in the back shallow of his mouth.

To read the rest of "Paint," pick up a copy of vol. 7, no. 1 in our webstore.

Friday, July 16, 2010

5 or so questions with Sean Bishop, Part 2

Here is the conclusion to Max Somers' interview with poet Sean Bishop. Enjoy!

9L: It’s funny you say that writing is such an excruciating process because “Letter to Toss from the Airborne Plane” is presented as a sort of forced exercise…as therapy. Do you treat your poems as a way to work through things? In other words, are there a lot of “Dear Dad” poems?

SB: A poem can't be successful if it primarily serves the poet. If the main point is to work through some psychological trauma, or to vent some frustration about the workings of the world (remember all those awful 9/11 poems?), the poem is more or less doomed; the reader won't feel invested in or sympathetic to it. Those poems may be personally valuable (or in the case of the 9/11 poems, socially valuable), as a way of working things through or rallying people to action, but ultimately I feel they have very little place in the literary world.

"Letter to Toss" uses the well-worn devices of the confessional mode as a way of communicating the experience of grief and loss to an audience; writing it was an act of craft—of holding personal investment at a distance in the service of making a good poem—rather than of therapy. That said, I am working on a series of "Dear Dead Dad" poems. But the voice of the speaker in those poems is very close to the death, whereas I'm two years away from it.

I think most poets need a little emotional distance to write about things like this successfully. Wordsworth famously said that "poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." I disagree with the first half of that statement; the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" has little poetic value, as far as I'm concerned. But I do believe that a poem is bankrupt if it doesn't hold emotional content, and that addressing that emotional content requires a kind of distanced, writerly calm. If a poem is an act of therapy, it can't possibly achieve this.

9L: (Here's a curve ball...) It's late. You're heading home from the bar. You're in Houston, so it's unbearably steamy out, Right? Between the drink and the heat you're feeling a bit kooky. As you pass the tattoo parlor, you get an overwhelming itch to have your favorite line of poetry (or prose) laid out in 55-point Helvetica across your chest. What's the line? Why? Or have you already beaten me to the punch and laid down the ink?

SB: Funny you should mention this because I just got my first tattoo a couple weeks ago (hence the earlier analogy). It's a black-and-white adaptation of an illustration by William Blake.

You know, it's hard for me to isolate individual lines of poetry that I find meaningful or important all by themselves. When you take a powerful line or two or three and excise them from their original context, they usually feel over-the-top or hollow or both. I love the ending to "Archaic Torso of Apollo" for instance: "You must change your life." But all by itself, it just sounds like something my Mom told me in high school when I was smoking too much pot. The same goes for so many great lines: "I will show you fear in a handful of dust" sounds like something the eponymous villain of The Mummy might growl at Brendan Fraser just before a 10-minute undead fight scene. And Robert Hass has this fantastic poem called "The World as Will and Representation," which ends, "We get our first moral idea / About the world—about justice and power, / Gender and the order of things—from somewhere.” That final "from somewhere" sounds flat and unimaginative when read out of context like this, but it brings the house down when preceded by the full poem (which you'll have to find for yourself).

But certain chunks of certain poems do live with me constantly, and over time I learn to respect and respond to different aspects of them. The one that springs to mind right now are these lines from Auden's "In Memory of W. B. Yeats":

For poetry makes nothing happen, it survives:
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth

There was a time when these lines made me furious: "poetry makes nothing happen"—what a terrible, ignorant thing for a poet of Auden's stature to say! I wanted to believe that the right poem could rally the Masses to action and spark the Revolution. I still sort of want to believe that. But over time I came to feel that Auden is actually making a case for poetry's important social function here, which is to provide an opposing value system to counterbalance the kind that "executives" do "want to tamper" with. Which is to say nothing of the intense lyric beauty of some of these lines: "ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, / Raw towns that we believe and die in." It kills me every time.

9L: Alrighty, last question: You just finished up your MFA, what’s next? Book? Travel? Panhandling? Sean, is there life after grad school? I sure hope so.

SB: I'm very fortunate to have been awarded the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, so for the next year I'll be hammering my MFA thesis into a book, writing new poems, and teaching undergraduate creative writing. After that, though, who knows? I may apply for other fellowships. I may apply to Ph.D. programs in creative writing. For the past couple years I've been the managing editor of Gulf Coast, so I may move to New York or Chicago to further my career in literary publishing or, in the absence of that, nonprofit management. For the moment, though, I'm focused on writing, revising, and making the best of the rare and coveted opportunity I've been given in Madison.

Sean Bishop's poem "Letter to Toss from the Airborne Plane" is featured in the current issue of Ninth Letter (vol. 7, no. 1), which is available now in our webstore.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

5 or so questions with Sean Bishop, part 1

Today, we bring a new installment of 5 or so questions. 9L staffer Max Somers spoke with poet Sean Bishop via email about Bishop's poem "Letter to Toss from an Airborne Plane," which appears in the current issue of Ninth Letter. Here is an excerpt from the poem:

Dear Dead Dad: a birdlike therapist
demanded of me this letter. It's winter:

out on the tarmac sleet cakes the wings
of the morning's latest delays

and the terminal's filling with bodies and bodies
that only want to go. Outside Gate 2-A,

the mechanics have wrenched a gear from the plane,
squabbled, locked up, and walked off.

As mentioned above, the full poem can be found in the current issue, vol. 7, no. 1. Without further delay here is part one of Max Somers' interview with Sean Bishop.

9L: What is so arresting about your poem, “Letter to Toss from the Airborne Plane,” is its tone. More precisely, the range of tones makes this piece such a good read. On one hand, this elegy is very tender; on the other, it’s sarcastic and funny, nearly to the point of irreverence. Basically, the speaker has a good-sized chip on his shoulder. The line, “Dear Dead Dad, ” for instance, is a pretty severe way to begin a poem. Give me your best defense for the less than completely likeable speaker.

Sean Bishop: I've always been suspicious of the elegiac tendency toward praise—the impulse to end an elegy by celebrating either the life of the deceased or the experience of living in general—because it has never seemed honest or true to me. Witnessing the death of a loved one doesn't fill you with wonder or awe, after all; it puts a hole in you. Long, long after the death, while eating some toast or picking your nose, you're struck violently and out of the blue by the hard fact of that loved one's permanent absence. And while there's always an ounce of admiration and tenderness in those moments of recollection, they aren't (in whole) life-affirming experiences. At least not for me. Insisting otherwise is an odd convention of the elegiac mode, and one that I struggle against constantly.

From a craft perspective, though, I can see how the tendency toward praise is useful. In good poems, there's always a sizable gap between what a poem literally "says" and what it actually "means." Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art" is an obvious and well-known example of this. It says, "the art of losing isn't hard to master," but it means just the opposite, and the poem will be anthologized for centuries because of the magnetic energy between those two poles. When we read an elegy, I think, what captures us first and foremost is the palpable hurt of the speaker, rather than his or her insistence that life goes on, or that the world is beautiful. On one level, we believe in that beauty; we believe that life goes on. And it does! But on another (maybe deeper) level, we share the speaker's pain. Most elegies derive their power from the reader's synthesis of these two truths.

In "Letter to Toss from the Airborne Plane," I wanted to create a similar synthesizing effect without playing into the old death-affirming-life routine. What the poem "says" is "Dad, I miss you, here's what's happened since you left." But if you pay attention to the language, you're absolutely right to note that the poem is chock-full of resentment—for the dead father, for the therapist, for the uncle, and even for the surgeons! It felt dangerous to play sadness and bitterness against one another, rather than sadness and beauty, because both are fundamentally negative. I risked alienating my audience by throwing a big pity party, it's true, and I tried to temper that slightly through humor. But I think that readers want believability from their speakers more than they want likability, and I can only hope that my speaker is more believable, in some ways, than those of many other elegies.

9L: It’s tough to toe the gap between what one says and one means. Craft-wise, that sort of command of words might be one of the toughest tasks in writing poems. It takes work to write a nuanced piece. So, how do you approach the job? Are you a meticulous, scheduled kind of writer or are you winging it? What gets you in the “space” of a poem? Notebook or computer? Coffee of tea? Tons of drafts or one, slow, heavily-worked poem?

SB: It really varies from poem to poem. "Letter to Toss from the Airborne Plane" actually happened with very little effort, and very few drafts. Some of my best work gets written that way, and I've given up trying to find the magic recipe to make it happen. I think it's a big mistake for writers—especially young writers, who tend to be the most interested in the mythical mystique of "the writer's life"—to believe they just need to find the right combination of cigarettes, caffeine, and ambient music, or the right sunny corner for their stark, Ikea desk; that somehow the material circumstances of production will lead to good poems. It won't. At least not beyond the obvious needs for patience and a relatively quiet environment. Everyone's process is different, but I'm not sure you can discover your own process by reading about those of others.

I might be wrong, though. So to answer your question more directly: I'd say I'm extremely meticulous but not at all scheduled (I'm still trying to block out mandatory "writing hours" every morning, and I'm starting to think I'll never be able to stick to it). I tend to use a notebook for the first draft or two, because it makes it harder for me to second-guess and delete what I just put on the page (a big problem for me), but then I use a computer for later revisions. I tend to write a lot, a lot, a lot of drafts—printing them, gluing them into my notebook, adding and deleting lines by pen, relineating and repunctuating, often only to go back and reinstitute the original lineation and punctuation. I don't like to admit it, but the act of writing, itself, is actually not very enjoyable to me. That's an understatement. It's excruciating—full of self-doubt and frustration. It's like getting tattooed, maybe; the process isn't a barrel of fun, but I like the results so much that I go back and do it again. Once I finish a poem, though, it's hard for me to start a new one. I sometimes go months without writing or revising anything at all, and I envy those poets who constantly churn out new work, and who require very little revision beyond a second or third draft.

Part two will be posted on Friday. Things discussed in the next installment include: working through grief, tattoos, and life after an MFA.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Off The Page Summer Book Festival

The Illini Union Bookstore presents the Off The Page Summer Book Festival. Events start on Sunday, July 11 and run through Friday, July 16. Here's just a sampling of what you can look forward to:

Sunday, July 11 (2-4pm) - To Kill a Mockingbird 50th Anniversary Commemorative Reading.

Monday, July 12 (noon-1pm) - Book discussion and signing with University of Illinois Alumni John Everson and Andrea Jones.

Friday, July 16 - General Book Sidewalk Sale.

All reading events will take place in the Author's Corner on the 2nd floor of the Illini Union Bookstore. Check it out, if you're in or around Champaign.