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Current Issue: Winter 2016
Current issue: Winter 2016
Congratulations to two former TMR poetry contributors who have recently published books:
Alexandra Teague is the award-winning author of two poetry collections, whose poetry has appeared in TMR three times–most recently her 2014 Editors’ Prizewinning feature. Her debut novel, The Principles behind Flotation (Skyhorse Books), was released March 7, 2017. A coming-of-age story about a girl determined to research a mysterious sea which has suddenly appeared in the middle of Arkansas farmland near her town, Teague’s novel has been enthusiastically compared to Karen Russell’s Swamplandia.
Andrea Jurjević’s work was featured in TMR 35:2 (summer 2012), and her poem “Would It Surprise You I Don’t Like Mornings?” was a TMR poem of the week. Her collection Small Crimes (Anhinga Press), released last month, won the 2017 Phillip Levine Prize for Poetry. Jurjević’s book chronicles the speaker’s life as an adolescent in the 1990’s during the Croatian war, before the poems transition into postwar years and the speaker’s life in America.
Allison Pitinii Davis’s collection Line Study of Motel Clerk launches this month. Poems from the collection previously appeared in TMR 39:1. Recently TMR senior advisor and graduate student Bailey Boyd talked with Allison about her new book, its influences, and her new poetry manuscript in progress.
Bailey Boyd: So many themes pervade the collection; hardly any themes appear in one poem without appearing again in another. The connection between each is so tight that Line Study feels as if you wrote the entirety of it at once. Could talk a bit about how this collection came to fruition?
Allison Pitinii Davis: The oldest poems in the book, including the title poem, are from around 2009, so I wrote the book across a span of nine years. I began “reporting” about the motel during elementary school for my Take Your Daughter to Work Day write-ups. I didn’t write about the motel as an adult until I took a course with the wonderful James Hall at the University of Cincinnati. UC is also where I first wrote about the Kent State Shootings, another theme in the book. Many people in my family have written ancestral accounts, so I already had inspiration and models.
From the beginning, the book was about immigration, Rust Belt diaspora identity, and labor. As an innkeeper, my dad takes his commitment to provide hospitality to strangers seriously, and as family members cycled through my book, I thought of myself as an innkeeper of the collection—each page number is a room number; how do I fix up each room? That’s how my collection came together. I was lucky to have a fantastic editor, Laura Wetherington, and publisher, Christine Kelly, to help me with this process.
Boyd: You’re a proud Ohioan and have said that writing about the state makes you feel closer to it and the people there. Did your relationship with Ohio change during the process of writing these poems? Instead of writing to get closer to the place, did you find that the place allowed you to get closer to the people in it?
Pitinii Davis: Yes, “the place allowed you to get closer to the people in it,” is an astute way of putting it. Ohio is where my great grandmothers sat at kitchen tables homesick for Greece, where my parents met dancing downtown, where I can’t go anywhere without recalling my life, my parents’ lives, their parents’ lives, their parents’ lives. Place is less of a backdrop than an atmosphere of communal memory. Youngstown is three-dimensional to many because it contains generations of memories. It has ruined everywhere else for me. Places where I only have my own memories are flat, underwhelming.
“Getting closer to the people” in the Rust Belt also means writing about the area’s complex racial, gender, and class inequalities. Within the collection, I try to make my white privilege and Youngstown’s racial injustice visible. I value the many texts that provided models of ethical approaches: The Rusted City by Rochelle Hurt, Phenomenal Women compiled by LitYoungstown, Jim Villani’s long-running Pig Iron, Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown, Ohio by Sherry Lee Linkon and John Russo, Divided We Stand: American Workers and the Struggle for Black Equality by Bruce Nelson, The Unwinding by George Packer, articles from The Vindicator, and others. There is some exploitative work published about the Midwest because people from other places get “stuck” there and use Midwesterners as props in their work. There are many reasons why I chose Baobab Press as my publisher, and one is that, in addition to being an independent, female-run, small business full of wildly intelligent and passionate professionals, it’s committed to Reno, a place, like northeast Ohio, that is sometimes demoted to a punchline. Reno is also full of all these older motels. It felt like a western cousin to my collection’s landscape.
My relationship with Ohio did change while writing this book because, while completing it, I lived outside of Ohio for the first time. I won’t repeat some of the classist things well-meaning poets have said to me on both coasts, but their comments made me understand the significance of my project in a new light. I’m sure some of my uninformed comments more than returned the favor. Leaving Ohio made me redouble my commitment to support artists attempting nuanced explorations of misunderstood/underrepresented places and perspectives. It is beautiful how much we can learn from each other.
Boyd: In perhaps my favorite poem, “She Understands More Than She Lets On,” in which the Laundryman’s daughter is able to understand the under-her-breath Greek of a host on a college trip, language is a source of power and knowing, while in other poems, language is either vulnerable to loss or it acts as a barrier. As a person who comes from a family of many languages, and as a poet whose art is rooted in words, does this relationship to language change for you, depending on whether you’re writing, speaking, or listening to it?
Pitinii Davis: Thank you for the kind words about “She Understands More Than She Lets On.” This is a wonderful question, and I fear I’m still too close to the answer to address it sufficiently. I do know that writing is a way for me to get the languages I grew up with on one page so they (and their multigenerational speakers) can hear and know each other.
For many people of my generation in the Rust Belt, language was an implicit signal that our roots were elsewhere. My mother grew up sharing a room with her grandmother who only spoke Greek. My dad’s grandmother is a native Yiddish speaker. My mother used Greek words in her vocabulary when we were little, and I didn’t know that they were Greek. I thought they were just slang English words and was confused when my friends wouldn’t know what I was talking about.
For many, language was also a signal of our generation’s assimilation. While I went to Hebrew school for a decade, I can’t speak Yiddish or Greek and was given an anglicized name. My parents, because of their own experiences of being made to feel “othered” and perhaps also fearing the implications of their cross-cultural marriage, subconsciously wanted my sisters and me to feel “normal”—assimilated/whiter—and the result is that we have more privilege than our parents but less connection to our own history. Charles Reznikoff, a major figure in the book, taught me how to negotiate this.
Singing is important in ways that may not be apparent in the collection. My rhythm is influenced by metrical patterns in Jewish liturgy. I’ve met other Jewish writers internationally who share this inspiration.
Boyd: Finally, do you have any projects that you’re currently working on?
Pitinii Davis: I completed a novella about gender and labor in the dawn of postindustrial Youngstown, and I’m working on a poetry manuscript tentatively titled The Neighborhood Girls. It’s about a group of girls who work at a Dairy Queen in northeast Ohio and fall in love with the elusive local meteorologist. I spent about a decade working counter jobs in Ohio in addition to helping work the front counter at the motel.
Many of these new poems have collective female speakers. I was raised in a big group of women—sisters, cousins, aunts—and I wanted to pay tribute to the complexities and richness of that “we.” The collective voice also reflects how women workers are often addressed and controlled: as a uniform group. The new poems are more lyric and voice-driven than those in Line Study.
Ironically, in Line Study, because it involves my family, I made thematic decisions collectively. I shared poems with family members and asked what to cut, what to reword. In The Neighborhood Girls, because it’s based on my own experience, I feel uncensored despite the collective speaker. Then I realized that I’ve always felt bravest speaking my mind when I’m part of a group of women; the collective voice was no coincidence. Many poets and collections have inspired me to explore the complex intersections of gender and voice, most recently Shelley Wong’s Rare Birds, Rosalie Moffett’s June in Eden, poetry by Heather Price, and poems forthcoming in Kathy Fagan’s Sycamore and Raena Shirali’s Gilt. I keep learning.
Nathan Oates’s gothic story “Mile Point Road” appeared in TMR 36:2 and is currently showcased in our viProse section. You can read this fine “haunted” story here. We talked with Nathan about his ongoing interest in the gothic genre.
The Missouri Review: How does “Mile Point Road” interact with the conventions and expectations of the horror genre?
Nathan Oates: Certain elements of the story are directly from the gothic horror genre—the moment of terror in the dark hallway, the incident with the attic door, the repeated image of the threatened children, the sudden transformation of a loved one into a stranger—and these found their way naturally into the story, which, after all, is about a haunted house. At the same time, I don’t think of the “horror” as the point of the story. The real tension, for me, arises from the narrator’s instability and the increasingly blurry boundaries between his perceptions and reality. I wanted to write about a character whose life is coming apart, which is a trope of many horror narratives, but my character is still in a comparatively safe and comfortable position. After all, he’s not at some massive, haunted hotel in the remote wintery mountains of Colorado, as in The Shining, a narrative I was certainly thinking about while writing this story. The main trouble for the narrator is in his mind: specifically, his loosening grip on the boundary between the real and the nightmare. This is the state reading a great story induces, at least in me, and the narrator experiences a similar, albeit far more intense, disorientation to what a reader feels when we fall into a well-made short story.
TMR: Is horror a new genre for you? What genre do you normally write?
Oates: My first book of stories, The Empty House, is almost entirely in the tradition of literary realism. More recently, as in for the past five or so years, I’ve been interested in stories that blur the boundary between literary conventions and other genres. Horror is one, but I’m also very interested in mystery stories, and speculative stories. I believe ardently that one should write the stories you want to read, and many contemporary writers I admire—George Saunders, Kelly Link, Julia Elliott, Ben Marcus, Brian Evenson—blur or even dissolve genre boundaries in ways that have been extremely productive and exciting for the contemporary short story.
TMR: What draws you to the gothic genre?
Oates: In some ways, the gothic feels like the most natural story form and is surely one of the oldest: when I imagine people gathered around a fire, telling stories, it’s gothic, ghost stories I imagine them telling. The gothic is also a natural story form in that it’s about the boundary between the observable world of verifiable experience, and the unseen and inexpressible realm of feelings and dreams. All stories grapple with the exchange between the visible world and the unseen. We live our lives between worlds even in the most basic sense of our experience of consciousness: our inner life, our secret, hidden self, responds to and is developed in relation to the “real” world of things and objects in space around us, but it is also independent from this world in some important way. The same is true of our dreams: they are built on our experiences in the waking world, but they are not limited to those experiences; they carry us to exhilarating, or sometimes terrifying, new spaces of the imagination. This is a problem of the mind, of being alive, and of storytelling that has always interested me. So many of the writers I revere have written gothic stories at some point, including writers who were incredibly important to me as I was learning to write: Henry James, Edith Wharton, George Saunders, Margaret Atwood, and many others. One of my favorite stories is James Joyce’s “The Dead,” which is, in its way, a ghost story.
Then there are the other ways in which the gothic story has been used to examine questions that are otherwise difficult to grapple with without descending into political didacticism. For example, many of the great British and Irish gothic stories are directly about oppression in the class system. Social class, and class conflict, and class exploitation—these are issues I’m very interested in, and which the gothic story allows into the narrative without swamping it. “Mile Point Road” is in part about class: the family in the story are not wealthy themselves, Matt is a teacher and his wife is a freelance editor, but they are able, through familial wealth, to stay in what in America is an equivalent of a manor house. The house itself is haunted by the horrors that class privilege allows: the ghosts the narrator imagines are children who were systematically abused by some patriarchal figure. These issues can be, and have been, directly engaged in politically driven fiction, but I find my own political attitudes tend to spill into didactic hectoring unless constrained by some sort of narrative form. And the gothic form, along with the speculative, is one I’m currently most interested in exploring the possibilities of.
TMR: You wrote a lot of gothic work in high school inspired by your own fears. What brought you back to the genre?
Oates: I wrote “Mile Point Road” and the other stories in my second collection, almost entirely after my first book of stories, The Empty House, won the 2012 Spokane Prize and was set to be published, which it was in early 2014. As I mentioned already, most of the stories in that book are realist literary stories, and publishing my first book, which I’d been trying to do for almost a decade, was a relief, and a release: I felt more confident, better able to try new forms that have always interested me, but which I was always afraid would turn out simplistic and formulaic, or would fail in some way to be serious art. I also think the new confidence I felt to write stories, such as ghost stories, which I’d loved when I was younger, was just a consequence of coming to the end of my long apprenticeship. I always loved the gothic, but didn’t feel I had the skills, once I understood how much there was to learn, to do it in a way that wouldn’t be derivative. Hopefully, I’m able to write something in this tradition that is pleasurable and interesting. It’s certainly been a lot of fun, which is usually a good sign. Though one has to be careful not to conflate the enjoyment of the author with the enjoyment of the reader.
TMR: What’s your favorite work by another writer in the gothic genre and why?
Oates: Shirley Jackson’s stories are often terrifying, even in those when nothing terrible seems to explicitly happen. She manages to tap into an anxious, largely unconscious space that sticks with me long after I’ve finished the stories. More contemporary writers are Christopher Coake, whose novel You Came Back is a great example of contemporary gothic, as is Sarah Waters’s haunted English manor house novel, The Little Stranger, and Dan Chaon’s story “The Bees.” I like that they are largely realist fiction—all have complex, layered characters, vivid landscapes that the reader can inhabit—that are infused with an eerie, troubling strangeness that warps our perceptions just enough to see the other, hidden world that might lie on the other side, or might only reside in our minds.
TMR: Do you see a difference between horror and gothic? What is the difference?
Oates: I think of horror as an element, and, eventually, as a commercial offshoot of the gothic. My understanding of the gothic is that it is a literary approach that contains more than just moments of dread, though horror and dread are, of course, vital components. I also believe, though by no means am I an expert, that what is marketed as horror fiction is really an approach to writing what are essentially gothic stories, with perhaps more emphasis on the terrifying moments than might be found in, say, Henry James or Edith Wharton. In my own writing I am drawn to the greater ambiguity in the gothic form.
TMR: What are you working on now?
I’ve recently finished a second collection of stories, all of which combine literary narrative techniques with another genre: gothic, mystery, speculative. “Mile Point Road” is the title story. Some of the writers, like “Mile Point Road,” hew more closely than others to a genre tradition. There is a speculative dystopian story, and a murder mystery story, while others edge closer to the strangeness of writers like Donald Barthelme. Still others are largely realist, quietly incorporating elements of genre fiction.
Nathan Oates teaches writing and literature at Seton Hall University. His debut collection of short stories, The Empty House, won the 2012 Spokane Prize and was published in 2014. His short stories have been published in Antioch Review, Missouri Review, Witness, and elsewhere and included in the anthologies Best American Mystery Stories 2008, Best American Mystery Stories 2012, and Forty Stories. He is currently at work on a novel and a new collection of short stories.
by Rosie Siefert
Congratulations to three past TMR contributors, who have new books recently out.
Peter LaSalle, whose fiction (“Istanbul Nocturne: Three AM, Maybe Four,” “Oh, Such Playwrights!”) and nonfiction (“Au Train de Vie: That Voice You Hear When Traveling”) have appeared in our issues, has recently published a collection of short stories, Sleeping Mask (Bellevue Literary Press). The eponymous opening piece beckons the reader to slip into the complex worlds the author has created. LaSalle’s narrative voice hypnotizes, and his enticingly evasive way of concluding each story leaves a dreamlike impression. The twelve stories in Sleeping Mask are nuanced tales of enduring subjects: desire, despair, the arts, and war.
Melissa Yancy, winner of our 2014 Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize for her short story “Consider This Case,” has recently published her debut story collection. Dog Years (University of Pittsburgh Press) won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and includes her prizewinning story. Dealing with modern medicine, hospital settings, and other, more commonplace circumstances like supermarket shopping, air travel, and first dates, Dog Years undertakes the task of coming to terms with life as it comes at us. Inevitable frustrations are humorously portrayed, and the stories are infused with sharp metaphor and clear language. A common theme of the collection is time: its steady pace beats through the nine short stories in Dog Years.
Poet and essayist John W. Evans has published poetry and two essays (“The Polish Prince” and “Elegy and Narrative”) in our pages. His deeply moving new memoir, Should I Still Wish (University of Nebraska Press), chronicles his recovery from heartbreak. Evans, a young widower, grapples with the inexplicable grief of losing his wife, while setting out on a cross-country trip to San Francisco, where he reconnects with a woman who sparks joy in a time of mourning. The intriguing paradox of love amid heartbreak pushes the narrative forward, leading to moments of poignant honesty. Evans’s emotional journey is candidly conveyed and affecting.
Rosie Siefert is a second-semester intern at TMR. She is a dual-major in English and Journalism and also works at the Columbia Missourian.
Over the past few months, we’ve read and re-read entries for the Missouri Review’s 26th Annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. We’ve broken our contest record, receiving over 3,000 entries this year, and have been overwhelmed by the quality of these submissions, which made decisions especially difficult. We’re grateful to the writers who sent us their stories, poems, and essays and were privileged to spend time with so much wonderful work.
Many thanks to our team of editors, assistants and readers this year, who spent long nights laboring over manuscripts. Speer Morgan, Kate McIntyre, Kristine Somerville, Leanna Petronella, Evelyn Somers, Sherell Barbee, Traci Cox, Jeff Wasserboehr, Samantha Brown, Payton Kinnison, Rose Nash, Emma Quinn, Bailey Boyd, Sean Ironman, Mikella Marley, Alec Raimond and Dedra Earl, thank you for your time, work, and help.
Winners, Runners-Up, and Finalists are listed below:
“Instructions to the Living from the Condition of the Dead” by Jason Brown of Eugene, OR
“The Witness” by May-lee Chai of Wilmington, NC
“A Small but Perfect Happiness” by Edward Hamlin of Boulder, CO
“And How Much of These Hills Is Gold” by C Pam Zhang of San Francisco, CA
“Anorak” by Ed Allen of Vermillion, SD
“A Parable of Fausto Bruzzesi” by Robert Dorjath of El Dorado Hills, CA
“Coupling Is Not an Art Form, Children Are Not Art Supplies” by Mira Dougherty-Johnson of Southold, NY
“Fat” by Cai Emmons of Eugene, OR
“False Cognates” by Ladee Hubbard of New Orleans, LA
“Up in the Air” by Lisa Lenzo of Holland, MI
“Walter Bombardier Tells a Big Fat Lie” by Beth Mayer of Lakeville, MN
“Many Happy Returns” by Maia Morgan of Jersey City, NJ
“16 Days of Glory” by Jill Rosenberg of Montclair, NJ
“Other People’s Stories” by Carol Smith of Kirkland, WA
Karen Skolfield of Amherst, MA
Nancy Takacs of Wellington, UT
Heather Treseler of Newton, MA
Marcus Wicker of Lansing, MI
John Blair of San Marcos, TX
Tiana Clark of Nashville, TN
Cassandra Cleghorn of Pownal, VT
Cristina Correa of Ithaca, NY
Max Freeman of Brooklyn, NY
Emma Hine of Brooklyn, NY
Carol Quinn of Reisterstown, MD
Alison Rollins of St. Louis, MO
Safiya Sinclair of Lenox, MA
Patti White of Tuscaloosa, AL
“Swarf” by Tyler Keevil of Abergavenny, UK
“The Cataclysm of My Mother’s Spine” by Jamison Rankin of Ladson, SC
“The Magic Show” by Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers of Conway, AR
“Nemerov’s Door” by Robert Wrigley of Moscow, ID
“We Who Are About to Die Salute You” by Caroline Beimford of Fayetteville, AR
“Taking the Census in Rural Arizona” by Geraldine Birch of Cornville, AZ
“Y.O.L.O.” by Jacqueline Feldman of Brooklyn, NY
“Pork Stock, 2013” by Carly Fraysier of Laramie, WY
“Marriage Proposal for Bachcha Mashi” by Madhushree Ghosh of San Diego, CA
“The Epic Unnecessariness of #wejustneedtopee” by C .J. Janovy of Kansas City, MO
“Shine for Me” by Peter Lang-Stanton of Portland, ME
“Up Fox Mountain” by Sarah Neidhardt of Portland, OR
“Dim All the Lights” by Natasha Orlando of Mishawaka, IN
“Area Woman, or Netflix is the New Crack” by Maureen Stanton of Georgetown, ME
We’re in the process of planning our Editors’ Prize weekend, an annual spring reading and reception to honor the winners of the contest. If you’re in the Columbia area, we’d love to have you join us. The Editors’ Prize issue, featuring our winners, will also be released in spring of 2017.
Our 10th Annual Miller Audio Contest is also open for submissions. The deadline is March 15, 2017.