Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bluecast: Christina Yu

In this edition of the Bluecast, Christina Yu reads from "Variations on an Unknown Theme," featured in our Summer 2008 issue, 30.1. Remember, if you'd like to hear previous editions of the Bluecast, just click "posts" and select the one you want to hear.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Review of Riding Westward from 30.1.

Carl Phillips. Riding Westward. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. $12.00 paper (ISBN 978-0-374-53082-2), 53 pages.

Reviewed by Luke Hankins

Carl Phillips has long written poems that ignore contemporary American aesthetic doctrines, and that fact alone is heartening. He is entirely comfortable with abstraction, often building his poems on lofty language, and he is unafraid to “tell” as much as he “shows.” His poems speak in the tone of one speaking to an intimate about shared experience, without the kind of sarcasm we often call irony. Consequently, the poems tend to allude to experiences in a fragmentary way, as if the reader has prior knowledge of them and needs only small reminders. What is more, the reader is seldom sure where or when the situation described by one of Phillips’s poems is occurring. Because of these qualities, the poems in Phillips’s latest collection, Riding Westward, may at first confound readers who are used to so-called accessible poetry. In fact, “accessibility” is one of those contemporary doctrines I mentioned above—one which Phillips thankfully ignores. The following lines from “Erasure,” the first poem in the collection, are a good example of these qualities:

Above us, the usual branches lift unprophetically or not, depending:
now spears; now arrows. There’s a kind of tenderness that makes
more tender

all it touches. There’s a need that ruins. Dark. The horse
comes closer.

Here, we have “the usual branches,” as if they are usual not only to the speaker of the poem, but to the reader as well. We have fragments of a scene—branches lifting, darkness, a horse referred to with a definite article as if we already knew it was there—but the scene remains fragmentary throughout the poem, and we never quite know where or when we are situated. The above lines also illustrate Phillips’s propensity to “tell” as well as “show,” his refusal to shrink from making authoritative pronouncements: “There’s a need that ruins,” and “There’s a kind of tenderness that makes more tender // all it touches.” However, the tone of this poem is quite complicated, because not only are we assumed to understand this fragmentary scene, but we are presented with a speaker who makes both authoritative statements and equivocations: “the usual branches lift unprophetically or not.” In this case, the equivocation is intensified by the double-negative construction. Double negatives recur throughout the collection, working as semantic counterbalances to the authoritative tone of the poems’ speakers, as their logical clumsiness has the effect of undermining what might otherwise be effortless pronouncements.

Another potentially disorienting aspect of these poems is the fact that the titles often have nothing overtly to do with the poems or their dramatic situations. There is “Bright World,” which does not describe brightness at all, or even the world very much; there is “The Way Back,” which is about “the urge to make meaning”; there is “The Smell of Hay,” which is about memory, but mentions no situation involving either hay or the sense of smell; there is “The Cure,” which describes a dying tree, which ends up as a metaphor for history, and light falling through it, a metaphor for human lives—but no sign of a cure anywhere for the dying tree or the human lives tumbling through its branches. These are only a few examples of titles that are not linked to their poems the way we typically expect them to be, since they are not descriptive of the poems’ content. Instead, the titles function evocatively: their effect is to create mood by association. In the same way, his poems are anything but descriptive of the world or of life—they do not set out to paint a clear picture of the world or of experiences, as we have largely come to expect poems to do. Phillips’s poems are far too abstract and fragmentary to do that. But they do something equally important by letting the reader’s imagination participate more fully with the speakers of the poems. While reading this collection, one often finds oneself unconsciously repositioning oneself imaginatively in order to create, along with the poem, the story to which the poem alludes. The fact that this is effective is a testimony to the power of this collection—it is not something a lesser poet could achieve.

One way to describe Phillips’s poems is to acknowledge that they function more evocatively than descriptively. What I mean is that they are not by any means about life, which would be no accomplishment at all; rather, they are of life, out of it, and convincingly so, which is a great accomplishment indeed. His poems are informed by and allude to experience without having to entirely create or recreate experience, and this is the source of their undeniable authority. In “Turning West,” Phillips himself makes a similar distinction when he mentions “a distance like that between writing from a life / and writing for one…” (Phillips’s italics). Writing for a life might mean writing in order to have a life, to create one out of a paucity of living or being present in the world. This is decidedly not the kind of writing Phillips does. It is clear that his poems are from life. The evidence of this is the powerful effect they have on the reader who is willing to lay aside expectations for simply “accessible” poetry and who is willing to imaginatively engage, as with an intimate, in these evocative, allusive conversations.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Eyes on the Prize

A week after the Fiction Prize deadline, we're literally knee deep in submissions, and Nina and I are happily wading through them. I say this because we'll be focusing on the prize for the next couple of weeks and unfortunately, regular submissions (both mailed and on-line) may be neglected for a while. As a result, there may be a larger backlog, and a longer response time. So, we ask for your patience, and we promise to get caught up and back in the swing of things in a month or so.

In the meantime, and in honor of one of our staff getting married, everyone get up from their desks and shake it with Beyonce.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The scariest Halloween costumes are meta-costumes.

In honor of Halloween's approach, I'm going to talk about a book that weirded me out a great deal several years ago.

In my first year in college, my freshman composition teacher made us read House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski. Basically, the text is an academic manuscript about a movie that a photojournalist made of his house, and that academic text is footnoted by a guy named Johnny Truant, a tattoo artist that found the manuscript, who has his own narrative that runs through the footnotes of the book. Oh, and the photojournalist's house? It's bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

Obviously, this book nearly made my little freshman mind explode. Multiple levels of narration, crazy typography, and a severely creepy premise. I, of course, couldn't put it down, but was nervous to look in my closet for the next week.

Danielewski's certainly an author that pushes boundaries, and I admire that. I can't even try to explain his book Only Revolutions, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 2006.

But what made me think of House of Leaves? This webcomic:

It's hilarious if you've read the book. If you haven't, it makes absolutely no sense.

So this Halloween, don't just go as a pirate--go as a costume maker who makes pirate costumes. You'll blow people's minds.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Today's the Day

That's right -- beware the ides of October!

More importantly, beware the postmark on your submission for the 2008 Fiction Prize, judged by Tayari Jones. All entries must be postmarked October 15th in order to be considered. Read the guidelines for the contest here. Find your local post office here.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Your Sanders love are belong to us!

We've brought into this world today a new blog, one for IU alumns honoring Scott Russell Sanders. Scott Russell Sanders has been an important teacher to many of us, and he will be retiring from his position at Indiana University at the end of the spring 2009 semester.

We've created this new blog to provide a venue for folks to share--in even the subtlest ways--their appreciation to Scott, and their best wishes for him, and their regrets that we won't have him in the program much longer.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Review of Embryos & Idiots from 30.1

Larissa Szporluk. Embryos & Idiots. Dorset, Vermont: Tupelo Press, 2007. $16.95 paper (ISBN: 978-1932195521), 71 pages.

Reviewed by Cate Whetzel

In borrowing her title from Milton, Larissa Szporluk’s fourth collection, Embryos & Idiots, invokes and salutes Paradise Lost and the epic tradition by offering an alternative to overly familiar and reheated Western cosmogonic myths. What a relief! Very few collections offer an escape, however brief, to a landscape as mysterious as the kingdom of Od. Embryos & Idiots is composed of three sections or acts that balance the sacred with a healthy dose of the profane. Each act is prefaced with a neatly diagrammed program—reminiscent of a playbill—outlining the section’s dramatic scene, the characters in relation to each other, and voices we may expect to hear in the chorus.

In the beginning is Anoton, Szporluk’s principle character. We learn that in the mineral kingdom of Od, Anoton informs on his mother because he “suspects [her] of breaking the law against harboring plants and animals. He reports her; she is demolished.” In retribution, Anoton’s father cuts off his son’s head. It lands on Earth and becomes an island. In time, Anoton, sentient despite decapitation, will indirectly demolish another woman.

The opening poem “Boulders” shows Anoton’s suspicion that his mother has a live bee “trapped in the amber / nook that led to her mineral uterus.” The lines that follow are saturated with Od-forbidden images and the buzzing of a lone bee:

He had been born with that sound,
the rain of maracas, maraud of a rose, and so lived
in his mind with a wax city, silver hives

of see-through honey, chambers crammed
with princess-waste and ice, and would be
almost crazy, brushing her outer stone,

of which he had grown enamored
like a pilot of a bomb site, fingering the lever—

This is a reminder of how the forbidden becomes erotic and may refresh and exert its power through imagination; and how language may give us our desires with one hand, but will punish us with the other.

It’s an old story but the voice is new; the metaphors are glossy. Here are jealous and impatient mothers, fathers and children. Children are alternately victims and tyrants. Parents are tragic failures who need to be overthrown. In section two, in which “everything starts talking,” we hear an anonymous speaker, whose situation is analogous to Anoton’s, address his mother in “Stars and Marrow":

…I turned
my back on you and died lEike a duck
in the open, a pile of yesterday’s
nobody’s child. Strapped to my high
yellow chair, the waves that lunged
at me were carnal, but no, I didn’t
mind. There is so much good
in the worst of us, so much bad
in the best. I found succor in the devil
when the angels cooked my head.

Anoton’s fall is reminiscent of similar scenarios in Classical Greek, Hindu and Christian mythologies: the Greek Hephaestus is cast down from Olympus by parents Zeus and Hera during a family argument, resulting in a permanent limp; another Classical turn in Embryos & Idiots refers to Anoton as “Venus’s son,” the faintly incestuous, temporally crippled Eros. In Hindu mythology, Ganesh loses his head when his father Shiva fails to recognize the boy guarding Parvati’s bedroom door. In an effort to console Ganesh’s mother, Shiva replaces the boy’s head with the head of an elephant. Last in this group is the Biblical and Miltonic Satan, expelled for a definite crime: attempting a militaristic coup to rule heaven in God’s place.

But whatever similarities abound, Szporluk’s Anoton has more in common with Milton’s Satan than with any “bad son” archetypal role. Both are punished for their ambitions, but the fruit of their punishments is not a lesson learned but a new path, diametrically opposed from the world both characters have known. Satan is given Earth and the space beneath it; Anoton becomes a mountain island and consumes a girl castaway, repeating in basic gesture his original sin. In section one’s final poem “Dark Eros,” the subsumed girl, or possibly the broken mother, or even the goddess Venus, speaks to Anoton-the-mountain: “How does / it feel, she asks the old mountain, / to have no choice but to feel?” From underwater, Anoton answers her:

The past is a quasi-fetish.
I was only a child but my
obsession with you was divine.

The richness of language in this collection cannot be overstated—Szporluk loves to rake words, to break rocks, to turn the earth in each poem by breaking up the musty and the comfortable. In doing this she brings us new worlds, neat and prettily shaped on the page, but also smart, allusive and self-referential. Her poems demand a careful eye. Although I admire Szporluk’s previous collections, I admit that in the past I’ve found myself feeling along a poem’s outer wall for a latch or window, having a great time but thoroughly mystified. That’s not the case here. Here many layers and motifs set up an infinite figure eight for the dedicated reader to tread and retread. The poems in Embryos & Idiots reward the intellect without sacrificing the senses.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Podcasts and Fiction Prizes

Check out our newest podcast to hear Liza Wieland reading an excerpt of her story, "Nightingale," the 2007 Indiana Review Fiction Prize winner.

And here's a reminder to send in your fiction prize entries! You only have a week and half left before the deadline, October 15. So polish up your finest stories and send them our way. But be sure to check the guidelines on our website first!


Wednesday, October 1, 2008

On widows, orphans and dingbats...

Over the course of assembling the physical book that is the Indiana Review, I've come across a few production terms that seem to fall in a particular category: typesetting personified. You may have already heard of typeface but here are some others:

widow - a single line of a paragraph at the bottom of a page or column

orphan - a single line of a paragraph at the top of a page or column

(According to Wikipedia, "One easy way to remember the difference between an orphan and a widow is to remember that orphans 'have a future but no past,' while widows 'have a past but no future' just as an orphan or widow in life." Eep!)

There are also type families and superfamilies, which are groupings and categories of typefaces and fonts. (Perhaps there is hope for our poor widows and orphans after all!)

My all time favorite though is the term "dingbat." A dingbat is the small decorative mark, bullet, or symbol that usually marks a section break. While I would love for this term to also be a personification, it is actually onomatopoeic. In old style metal-type print shops, they would ding an ornament into the space then bat it tight to be ready for inking.

Typically IR sticks with a series of three diamonds for our dingbats but sometimes we get something a little more fun, like the jolly roger in Maureen Seaton's poem "Fractal Pirates (Five Iterations)" in issue 30.1, Summer 2008.