April’s First Friday Fictioneers

Friday Fictioneers LogoA short post today because I’m off to Lexington, VA for the annual Tom Wolfe Lecture series. Legendary author Tom Wolfe introduces another author of note, and faculty from Washington and Lee University provide scholarly lectures on the author’s work. This is all interwoven with great food and interesting company, and this year the featured author is Pulitzer prize winner Jennifer Egan. Her featured work is A Visit from the Good Squad.

I’m looking forward to some in-depth study of another writer’s work–and to having my copy of Goon Squad signed by the author herself.

Today’s Friday Fictioneer’s story is a prose poem–yeah, I’m a glutton for punishment–in honor of National Poetry Month. Last night we had a great, SWAG Writers poetry reading, so I must have been inspired. Poets, be kind to “Life, a Cliché.” If you don’t see the link on the title, then scroll to the top of the page, click on Friday Fictioneers. You can select this week’s offering from the drop down list.

SWAG Writers Poetry Fest!

Here’s a pictorial blog today on last night’s great Poetry Fest sponsored by SWAG Writers.

The featured poet was Sarah Kennedy, an Associate Professor of English at Staunton’s Mary Baldwin College. She read from Home Remedies, one of her six books of poetry. Home Remedies contains poems based on real persons from 17th and 18th Century Ireland and Wales. Very evocative to my Irish half.

Local poet Lauvonda Lynn Meade Young read from her first book of poetry, Just a Woman. We women in the audience who are her contemporaries–we could certainly relate to her poems! Wonderful glimpses into the life of a woman who isn’t “just a woman.”

Shea Anthony is a local poet from Fishersville who read from The Forgotten Theatre, one of his two books of poetry. Reminiscent of musicians Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Trent Reznor, Shea got us all participating in his reading. A great contemporary voice. And, let’s face it, anyone who does a poetry reading in the Valley in black leather pants deserves our attention!

Elizabeth Doyle Solomon often gets inspired while driving the roads of the mountains and the Valley. When that happens, she jots the first few lines on the steering wheel, then finds a place to park to write the rest. Hence, she read from her second book of poetry, entitled, appropriately, The Steering Wheel Poems. Her poems celebrated the wildness of nature around us and lamented how easily we pave over those places of beauty.

Lorraine Rees from Charlottesville read from her second book of poetry, Goodbye Zoo. Her poem about a college ethics professor who hits on all his female students was amusing but full of pathos–and very authentic. She describes herself as the one who “got away.” Great insight.

Paul Somers rocked and rolled us with energetic readings from his first book of poetry, Animal Insight, and from several as yet unpublished poems. Later we talked about how he uses humor in his poems to illustrate serious aspects of his life in rural North Carolina. Deeply profane and poignant.

The last, but not least, poet of the evening was Linda Levokove, who read from her first book of poetry, Walk on the Heart Side. Her poems are glimpses, earthy and explicit, into romantic relationships. I related to these most of all because her poems seemed as if they were written expressly for the most important relationship of my life and captured my sense of loss. Overall, though, they so vividly portrayed the wonders of a deep relationship, I could remember all that was good, and I thank her for that.

And let us not forget our hosts for the evening, The Darjeeling Cafe in Staunton, VA, and our master of ceremonies, SWAG Writers founder Cliff Garstang, author of the award winning linked short story collection, In an Uncharted Country.

Not Intended to be Factual Statements

Imagine what life would be like if, every time we say something stupid, we could just shrug and say, “I didn’t intend that to be a factual statement.” Then, everyone who heard the stupidity would just smile and say, “Sure, no problem. Of course you didn’t intend that to be a factual statement.”

That begs the question, what is a non-factual statement? Why, I think everyone from my grandmother to my old English teacher to a priest or two I had respect for would say, “It’s a lie.”

Those of us on the left–excuse me, we liberals–have been the only ones up in arms about Sen. John Kyl’s  (R.-AZ) pontificating on the floor of the Senate about how 90% of what Planned Parenthood does is abortions. Once Planned Parenthood pointed out to the media that the percentage was more like three, Kyl’s spokesperson indicated to the media that Kyl hadn’t intended that to be a “factual statement.”

Oh, I see. Even if you accept that politicians lie–and they do–that admission by Kyl’s spokesperson, the glibness of it, is disgusting. Set aside the disrespect against an organization which has done more for women’s health than the nail on John Kyl’s pinky. I knew and know women–myself included before I joined up with Uncle Sam and got health insurance–who went to Planned Parenthood for medical examinations and tests exclusive to women. I know women who went to Planned Parenthood to be diagnosed and treated for sexually transmitted diseases because if they went to their hometown doctors it would be too embarrassing. And yes, I know a few women who went to Planned Parenthood to get a referral for an abortion because that was the only way they could afford it.

Planned Parenthood doesn’t push abortion, but if a woman asks for one, Planned Parenthood makes no judgements but does make certain she gets a safe procedure. And everything else you go to Planned Parenthood for–routine medical screenings and cancer tests–you get treated like a human being, a person, not just a group health plan number.

Kyl was pontificating to make a political point and to advance his and the Republicans’ social agenda. (Mr. Boehner, where are those jobs y’all ran on and promised?) But, apparently, he also has sway with the Congressional Record. When the edition came out reflecting the Senate proceedings on the day Mr. Kyl made his unintended factual statement, the transcript didn’t reflect the 90% figure. The entire statement was edited to make it almost innocuous. Well, thank goodness for C-SPAN. We can still view the video, unless Kyl somehow manages a judicious edit of that, too.

So, what’s my long-winded point?

Politicians lie, but lately Republican politicians and potential Republican Presidential candidates have dropped some whoppers on us. We shouldn’t shrug this off as more of the same. We should be worried.

I could say, “I didn’t intend any of the above to be a factual statement,” but that would be a lie.

P.S. Something I thought I’d never say–way to go, Gov. Jan Brewer. She of the draconian and unconstitutional immigration bill showed amazing good sense in vetoing Arizona’s birther legislation. Will wonders never cease?
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And this post’s homage to National Poetry Month acknowledges the other half of my heritage. Last post I printed a Seamus Heaney poem (and managed, with my bad typing to misspell his last name). Here then, enjoy Robert Burns’ “Lament for Culloden.”

The lovely lass o’ Inverness,
    Nae joy nor pleasure can she see;
For e’en and morn, she cries, “Alas!”
    And aye the saut tear blin’s her e’e:
“Drumossie moor, Drumossie day,
    A waefu’ day it was to me!
For there I lost my father dear,
    My father dear and brethren three.


“Their winding-sheet the bluidy clay,
    Their graves are growing green to see;
And by them lies the dearest lad
    That ever blest a woman’s e’e!
Now wae to thee, thou cruel lord,
    A bluidy man I trow thou be;
For monie a heart thou hast made sair,
    That ne’er did wrang to thine or thee.”

Not So Bad After All

The local writers group I belong to–Staunton/Waynesboro/Augusta Group of Writers, aka SWAG–had its first open mic night on April 13. Six local writers–self included–read prose and poetry before maybe 12 people. The restaurant we were in, The Darjeeling Cafe, is awaiting its last government hurdle before opening to the public, but we could have a private party and “donate” money for a glass of wine. All completely above board.

The small crowd made getting up in front of some perfect strangers and reading my prose easier. The nice glass of Shiraz helped, too.

My first public reading was a decade ago, when a neighbor threw a book party for me to celebrate the publication of Rarely Well Behaved. The neighbor wanted me to read a particular story, her favorite, which included the use of the n-word by specific characters. It was essential to the story, not gratuitous, but it’s easier to write that word in the context of a fictional story than to read it aloud. I solved that by reading very fast, which meant people kept asking me to slow down. Next, I had a book signing and reading at a local Barnes and Noble. Again, the audience was people I knew, and I picked a different story, but I was still nervous.

What if they hated my work?

That’s the “what if” question that dogs my writing still and is probably what holds me back from pushing my work on agents and lit mag editors. For some reason it doesn’t matter that people read my work and compliment me and find positives in what I’ve written. I focus way too much on the fact that one person may hate it. I’ve long since given up changing my writing to please everyone else and write to satisfy my creative needs, but that insecurity drags me back.

For last night’s reading, I picked a story from Rarely Well Behaved, entitled, “When Gramma Came to Call.” The story is based on a dream, and though, on the surface, it appears to be a ghost story, it isn’t. I had a certain amount of comfort with it; it’s one of the less controversial of my stories. The audience laughed at the funny parts, commiserated when it got serious, and gave me a hearty round of applause. One person stayed behind after the evening was over to discuss it. It was a positive experience. I mean, I knew no one would likely boo me off the stage–we’re very polite here in the Valley–but there’s always the possibility you’ll put someone to sleep.

I know these are the things I have to do to be considered a “real” writer–do public readings, shamelessly plug my book, submit my work to places that will possibly print it (or reject it), encourage other writers by supporting their efforts to do the same. I’m just not a person who takes rejection well, and I can hear my therapist’s voice now telling me to separate the personal and professional. That’s hard to do when writing is for every writer a reflection of self, a glimpse into what goes on in our addled little heads.

So, next month at the next open mic night, I’ll be back up in front of strangers, baring my soul, and it’ll be fun.
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For National Poetry Month, here’s one of my favorite Seamus Heaney poems:

Requiem for the Croppies

The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley…
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp…
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people hardly marching… on the hike…
We found new tactics happening each day:
We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until… on Vinegar Hill… the final conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August… the barley grew up out of our grave.

Demystifying Literary Magazines

Part of one’s growth as a writer is the whole submission/rejection/ submission/rejection cycle you undergo. If you’ve got thick skin and confidence in your craft and work, those rejections roll off your back. If you’ve got thin skin, a boatload of insecurity baggage, and confidence in your craft and work, every rejection slashes a rip in that skin, from which your ego flows.

I think it’s obvious which category I fall in. I have gone years between submissions because rejections of good stories without explanation is too depressing. Trust me, I understand the role of an editor. I was one. I know a lot of subjectivity is involved in making a decision about what to accept or reject. And I didn’t have the time either to give every aspiring aviation writer a detailed critique about why an article wasn’t appropriate for my mag. It’s just different when you’re on the receiving end of a rejection.

I also understand that a lit mag’s submission guidelines are deliberately vague and excruciatingly specific. They have to be specific about genre, word count, etc., because it’s no good to send a 10,000+ word paranormal romance story to a straight literary magazine whose guidelines specify 4,000 words or fewer. The vague part comes in when the guidelines describe the type of story the mag is looking for. Then, obscure words like “edgy,” “fresh,” or “distinctive” hold sway. I sometimes think that lit mag editors should say what they don’t want because, let’s face it, we all think our work is edgy, fresh, or distinctive. In some ways, I would almost rather hear, “Your story sucks,” than “I enjoyed reading your story, but it’s not for us.” The question that brings to mind is, “Okay, why?”–especially when you’ve hit the word count, you’ve followed the guidelines, and you know it’s a good story; otherwise, you wouldn’t submit it in the first place.

So, when I saw a Sunday afternoon seminar entitled “Demystifying Literary Magazines” offered by WriterHouse in Charlottesville, VA, I decided to exercise my new WriterHouse membership and attend. (Another great thing about being retired–you can join all those writer groups you didn’t have free time for when you slaved away in an office.) Another deciding factor was that Cliff Garstang, a writer friend from Staunton, was one of the panelists. He was representing his on-line literary magazine, Prime Number. Representing Meridian, the literary magazine of the University of Virginia’s MFA program, were Hannah Holtzman (Editor) and Lee Johnson (Fiction Editor). The panel’s moderator was Sarah Collins Honenberger, WriterHouse member and author of Catcher, Caught.

Honenberger asked the panelists to describe their magazines’ mission and vision, how they handled submissions, and the “brass tacks” of running a literary magazine. The Meridian editors explained that its mission/vision shifted with the editorial staff, which changes regularly as MFA students move through the program, but they were in agreement that the overarching vision was to print fiction and poetry that “takes a risk.” Unfortunately, what they meant by “takes a risk” wasn’t articulated. Garstang was more helpful in that he indicated what he wouldn’t take–work with bad grammar, work that’s been “done before.”

The discussion branched off into whether literary magazines were for other writers only or for the general reading populace. Meridian Fiction Editor Lee Johnson parried with, “Being by and for writers isn’t a bad thing.” But both magazine editors indicated the hope is that writers, of course, read their magazines and submit but that non-writers enjoy the content as well.

Did the seminar demystify literary magazines? Yes, in that the panelists described the underlying process for their individual magazines, something not so apparent when you read the submission guidelines on-line. I’d also have to say no to an extent, in that no one would admit that process concludes with a subjective judgement. It was, however, a worthwhile way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and even tidbits of knowledge go a long way on the writing journey.
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For National Poetry Month, here’s a little poem a friend sent me to show that my disliked first name has a place, perhaps dubious, in literary history:

Phyllis by Thomas Randolph

Poor credulous and simple maid!
By what strange wiles art thou betrayed!
A treasure thou hast lost today
For which thou can’st no ransom pay.

Well, I’m no “simple maid,” so I figured out what he was talking about. Did you?

Quietly Arrayed

For years after my father’s death, I carried a copy of this poem, “Richard Cory,” by Edwin Arlington Robinson in my purse:

Whenever Richard Cory went downtown,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean-favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich–yes richer than a king–
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

As a writer of prose, I’m hardly qualified to analyze poetry. Oh, in the variety of English and American Lit courses I’ve had, I studied the form and rhythms, memorized and recited poems for teachers who either dozed through 30+ kids reciting the same verses or criticized that the emphasis on particular words wasn’t quite right, presented Shakespeare soliloquies for final exams.

In my earlier post, “Discovering,” I highlighted some other poets and poems that were meaningful to me, and without getting too maudlin about this one, I thought I’d talk a bit about it as another homage to National Poetry Month. (Yes, I’ve been writing about writing a lot lately and not about “politics, society, and religion,” but don’t worry. I’ve got some socio-political religious commentary about burning books and its fallout roiling about in my head. Just be patient.)

I first read “Richard Cory” in high school. The English teacher walked in, put copies of the poem face-down on our desks, then told us to all turn them over and read. As some read faster than others, you began to hear a cascade of reactions. Then came the discussion. I remember one boy asked to leave the room. Apparently, the teacher had forgotten (or didn’t know) his father had shot himself, but in those days you didn’t run crying to your parents at every trauma. You sucked it up and went on.

“Richard Cory” has been analyzed as everything from a socialist take on modern capitalism, to a lament about the Great Depression, to sentimental sop. Some scholars have speculated that Cory must have had a physical issue–back then the only “acceptable” reason for suicide. Others have commented that despite that outward appearance of success and happiness, he led a lonely and empty life, and that’s what drove him to his final act. Since I was in my early stages of Marxism-Leninism, I probably considered Cory some depraved, exploitative capitalist who deserved what he got.

That poem was no more than a high school assignment for many years and forgotten; then, my father committed suicide one calm, summer morning, though not in the way Richard Cory did, not that any way is preferable. I was muddled for weeks after with that perpetual question, why. He left no note, and, of course, my brother and I, separately, decided it was our fault. Then, the poem “Richard Cory” appeared in the Washington Post. I don’t even know why it caught my eye or why I read it, but I did. In those four, short stanzas with the gut-punch ending, a burden left me.

This poem, more than any therapist who helped me, showed me there are some times when there is no answer to the question, “Why?” Theists, I’m sure, are certain there is an answer, but this poem gave me what I needed to go on.

And that is the power of poetry, that expression, so lyrically, of emotions we would otherwise quash or ignore. Let’s face it, some poetry is pap, and what I like someone else might think is pap. But “Richard Cory,” a short, succinct poem, saved my life, and I’ll just leave it there.
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If you’re in the Shenandoah Valley on April 20, please join the Staunton-Waynesboro-Augusta Group of Writers (SWAG) for our Poetry Fest at The Darjeeling Cafe in Staunton at 7 p.m. The featured poet reading her work is Sarah Kennedy. Local poets participating in the read include Lorraine Rees, Shea Anthony, Linda Levokove, Lauvonda Lynn Young, Elizabeth Doyle Soloman, and Paul Somers.