Questioning Today’s Young Adult Fiction

Teenage boy reading a book in nature

Teenage boy reading a book in nature

Recently we’ve witnessed a clear trend of the young adult novel and its increasing popularity. For my generation these novels seem completely conventional; it’s what we’ve grown up with. But this hasn’t always been the case. Many people date the birth of today’s young adult fiction, which lies between children’s literature and adult literature, back to S.E. Hinton’s classic, The Outsiders, published in 1967.

The Outsiders is a grim tale: the account of a 14-year-old well-intentioned misfit named Ponyboy who deals with young gang-like violence, death, and feelings of marginalization in society. He writes the book as a way to deal with the resulting grief. Though it deals with dark issues, the story is something of a reasonable tale. Ponyboy and his brothers represent victims of a violent, unguided lifestyle that is all too real.

Reality in adolescent literature has become scarce though. Consider the mega hits of the past decade in this category- The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter (all series) are perhaps the top three. The Hunger Games series details a tradition of a battle reality show, for lack of a better phrase, between young men and women as well as the resulting revolution in a futuristic society. Twilight and its sequels are about the conflicting love between a young lady and a vampire, followed by a werewolf that is allegedly equally as charming. Need I provide a synopsis for the 7-piece Harry Potter series? For those who’ve spent the last ten years in a desert cave, JK Rowling’s “masterpiece” chronicles the coming of age of a young boy in a small English town, turned wizard at an institution for the magically oriented.

harry potterMaybe what is so distinct about these young novels isn’t the unrealistic circumstances, but instead the obvious power and special qualities of the main characters. Young Harry is dubbed “the boy who lived,” after surviving an attack from a deadly foe, and later receives the title “the chosen one,” meant to destroy this foe who would otherwise take over the world. He is the fastest broom rider at his school, and the most naturally gifted when it comes to performing spells. Hunger Games’s Katniss Everdeen is a prolific bow hunter with the courage to volunteer for her village’s spot to fight in the battle, which typically produces one survivor… the champion.

The bottom line is that these titles sell. They sell like a wildfire burns. The question is, why? Perhaps young readers need a hero; they crave to behold power, skill and triumph in the face of unbeatable circumstances and antagonists. What concerns me, and what I believe we should ask ourselves, is why everything short of magic and glory fails to satisfy young readers to the extent that they adore characters like Katniss and Harry. Not only were the champions of The Outsiders and Catcher in the Rye normal young adults—you might also argue that neither of them succeeded by the end of the novel. That would be the surface impression. Their triumphs were subtle and largely internal. Holden reconnects with his sister in the final scene as the only tangible result, but the reader concludes that he has become comfortable with his place in the world. Ponyboy isn’t as fortunate, but in the process of his hardship comes to terms with the cold realities of adult life.

The latter novels are distinctly less glorious, but they add value to society through their contemplative nature. These books force young readers to question their own impressions of happiness, ethics, and inspire thinking on the challenges and pleasures of growing up. This isn’t to say that these themes don’t extend to today’s young adult literature as well; in fact, each that I’ve mentioned is permeated by these topics. But, they aren’t the focus. They are presented in circumstances that make their verity a doubt. We cannot appreciate the lessons within for their simplicity and applicability to the real world.

Young readers today demand their life lessons with a side of fantasy, and a generous serving of victory for desert. Moving forward, let’s hope that the temptation to eat the carbs and the sugar before the steak doesn’t translate to literature, and more importantly, to learning life lessons at a young and impressionable age. The beauties of our world are simple, and for a generation prizing unrealistic achievement in magical lands, let us hope that they may continue to appreciate—to cherish—all the things they may actually encounter in their lives.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


A Visit from Poet/Editor Will Wright

by Isabelle McAlevey, Shenandoah Intern

Hi-res Author Photo - William WrightWhen I learned William Wright was coming to sit down with the Shenandoah interns I was unsure of what to expect. I did what I could online to get a sense of his poetry. Rich with imagery evocative of earthiness and rooted in the American South, I found Wright’s poetry a delight to read. I was interested to hear him discuss what inspired him and what he looked for in poetry as a poet, anthologist, and reviewer (amongst other things I am sure).

He had many intriguing and thoughtful ways to answer the range of questions produced by our group, from the recommendation of A Canticle for Leibowitz, to his description of using a “pebble in a pool” approach to effectively review a piece of literary work. What most stood out to me during our time with Will Wright, however, was his mentioning that he has synesthesia and feels a desire to put particularly sound-dense words or language in his mouth and taste them. This got me thinking about how the average reader experiences poetry, and the difference in effect poetry can have when just read on a page, versus recited aloud.

Wright said Gerard Manley Hopkins was a poet he particularly enjoyed when it came to poetic diction and sound-density, and so I thought perhaps I would read some of Hopkins’ work aloud to see if I felt similarly. I selected at random from a list of poems I found, and read first “The Starlight Night.” Right away, the title indicated to me a sense of playful magic in its rhyme. Lo and behold, the poem did contain elements of fairy magic, and lines such as “Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!/The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!” did not disappoint when it came to texture and the savory nature of the words as they departed my mouth.

I had never really thought before of a desire to taste words, to want to put them in one’s mouth and experience them in an entirely new dimension. Maybe we can fulfill some iota of this desire by speaking the words out loud, but when I reflect on it, it does seem sort of a shame that we cannot replace the words to our mouths and taste them, jumble them around with our tongues, and pass them over our teeth. Although I do not have synesthesia, I think I was mostly able to grasp what Wright meant when he said he wanted to put words in his mouth and taste them. I could not determine exactly what type of synesthesia this might fall under, but given that the word stems from the Greek words for “together” and “sensation,” I would say it is safe to say the urge to taste a word is a synesthetic notion.

wright bookOther than discussing Hopkins’ poetry as a source of inspiration, and his passion for the sound of words, Wright said it was Leon Stokesbury’s The Made Thing that first shifted his focus from short stories to poetry as a young writer. He said he swiped the book after class one day, and it was one of the best things he ever did. I really enjoyed when he shared this story and was able to pinpoint a turning point for his interest and career. Overall, it was fun and engaging to hear Wright talk about his work and what he admires in the work of others. His identity as an author is authentically Southern, and it was fascinating to hear him talk about how the South and sounds influence his writing. Ultimately, it was his mention of his desire to taste words and language that really stood out to me, and got me thinking about the way we experience literature.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Artistry in Gaming


Videogames have been a part of my life ever since my brother won a bet with my dad, saying that he could do 100 push ups a day for a year. He won, and earned us a Playstation 2. From then on, I played games any moment that my parents allowed, and many moments that they didn’t. There are scripts and dialogue in games; they are placed within depictions of worlds that require exploration and commitment to the game itself. The introduction of gameplay to stories is meant to cause immersion and allow people to view themselves as the protagonist, or when this is not case—build relation with the character one is playing as. Games introduce different facets to storytelling such as complete immersion and interactivity, and though they are first and foremost games—meant to be played and enjoyed as such, empathy for the plight of protagonists and other characters inevitably develop. If one seeks to understand the current and growing culture of men and women who have played games since their youth, having a knowledge of them is imperative. Like genre fiction, though there are plenty of games that should be considered narrative realism, videogames, as well as the formulas of story and gameplay found within them—are indicative of how the current generation prefers to fantasize. Games should then be studied or else it will become increasingly difficult to judge the fantastical standards of newer generations.

Though classic arcade style games like Galaga, Dig Dug, Mrs. Pacman, and Joust are all great games, their hardware allows for only a minor semblence of storyline. Though this has nothing to do with the arcade style itself. In recent games, developers place much more emphasis on story and cinematography. Creating the perception of a world where the player can jump right into the story, and the game world jumps straight into questioning their morality, tantalizing them with rewards in exchange for committing either heroic or unspeakable acts. Leaving the player with the freedom to choose his own path, but clearly advocating a particular moral stance in the form of how people react to the protagonist, allows the player to develop their own backstory and characterization for themselves in game.

gamestationTake for example Bioshock, a first person shooter game. After a plane crash and the exploration of a mysterious lighthouse, the player is dumped in the middle of a sprawling metropolis hidden away from the world at the bottom of the Atlantic. Very quickly, the player becomes aware that the city, based on a 1950’s vision of utopia, has descended into something reminiscent of one of Cormac McCarthy’s fever dreams. The city was founded by a man named Andrew Ryan, who greets the player through a recording at the beginning of the game as they descend into the city, Andrew Ryan, as well as all of Rapture, is meant to be the embodiment of idealism taken too far. Yet this idealism is a reference to the game itself, as the player is required to choose to power himself up at the expense of others, or to weaken themselves for the benefit of others. All the while Andrew Ryan tries to influence the player’s choices, saying “Whenever anyone wants others to do their work, they call upon their altruism. Never mind your own needs, they say, think of the needs of… of whoever. The state. The poor. Of the army, of the king, of God! The list goes on and on. How many catastrophes were launched with the words “think of yourself”? It’s the “king and country” crowd who light the torch of destruction.”

Bioshock was released in 2007. Developers have continued to develop games that attempt to offer players new perspectives on their lives since then, creating beautiful works of fiction like The Witcher 3, The Evil Within, and the Stanley Parable. The list goes on and on, and today, 40% of adults in the United States report having a game console such as an Xbox or PlayStation.

John Cawelti said that, “If we can isolate those patterns of symbol and theme that appear in a number of different formulas popular in a certain period, we will be on firmer ground in making a cultural interpretation, since those patterns characteristic of a number of different formulas presumably reflect basic concerns and valuations that influence the way people of a particular period prefer to fantasize.” It would be a shame then to deny oneself such knowledge of culture considering that seventy-one percent of people aged six to forty-nine in the United States played video games last year according to the Entertainment Software Association. Skilled writers and developers use videogames to influence the minds of the players who are growing up with them. To understand the way in which minds of the current era enjoy fantasizing, the curious critic may not want to leave videogames out of the discussion.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Literary Shrines and Souvenirs

Posted by Libby Hayhurst

It’s that time of year again; there’s a nip in the air, pumpkins line the street, and subpar “scary” movies have begun to stream 24/7 on your television. As a Halloween enthusiast, I have eagerly participated in all October activities– binge watching Tim Burton films, consuming all things pumpkin, and recently, taking my writing to the graveyard (and no, that’s not some euphemism for writer’s block).

I first stumbled on my new creative space by accident. It was an unusually warm day for October, and I decided to ditch my computer in favor of sunlight. Taking a journal, I wandered through downtown Lexington until I stumbled on the Stonewall Jackson Cemetery. The grounds were pleasant, quiet, and well-maintained, so I decided to brave the ghosts of long-dead soldiers and set up camp by a gravestone.

My afternoon in the cemetery reading and writing among the long-dead got me to thinking about literature’s relationship with the paranormal. So in keeping with the Halloween spirit I’ve compiled a list of the top three spookiest literary facts.

1. J.K Rowling’s inspiration for Lord Voldemort

Over the summer, I was able to visit Edinburgh for my birthday, an opportunity I took full advantage of to nourish my Harry Potter fandom. I sat in the famous Elephant Cafe (Rowling’s old haunt) and gazed out at the Edinburgh Castle. I walked the grounds of the George Heriot School, which Rowling drew upon for Hogwarts, and guessed at how the city breathed life into her work. However, the main event did not take place until long past sunset during a ghost tour of Edinburgh’s haunted grounds.

I came face to face with Voldemort.

Or I guess, technically, face to face with his grave.

According to our tour guide, when J.K Rowling lived in Edinburgh she took frequent strolls through the Greyfriars Kirkyard. The graveyard, small with a surprisingly high body count due to its many mass graves, is said to be haunted by some of the most important historical figures in Scottish history. However, it appears that Rowling was captured by Tom Riddell’s unassuming headstone, and later ascribed his name to the book’s villain. To this day, Harry Potter fans visit the site, constructing a sort of Voldemort shrine around the grave with teasing notes to Tom Riddell and other Harry Potter memorabilia.

2. Mary Shelley kept her husband’s heart

maryIn 1820, Shelley’s husband Percy met a tragic end when his boat went down in a storm, drowning himself and his nine companions. When he was retrieved from the water two days later, he was recognizable only by his clothing and a book Mary had placed in his pocket beforehand. But here’s where it gets spooky: When the cremators tried to incinerate Percy’s body, his heart refused to burn. (Note: This is absolutely a true story. Scientists believe the heart refused to burn because it had been calcified when Percy took ill with TB).

Although I would expect no less than creepy of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, her method of preserving her husband’s memory is nearly stranger than her fiction. After the funeral, the heart was turned over to Mary who, according to legend, took it with her everywhere.

3. Poe’s mysterious death

poeMany of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, essays and poems work in the horror tradition. Classic pieces such as “The Tell Tale Heart,” inspired by a gruesome murder, and “The Raven” are especially remembered around this time of year and translated into Halloween episodes (see The Simpson’s reenactment of “The Raven”). The darkness in his work reveals some of the author’s psyche, as he struggled to grapple with the death of his wife and mother, and his own self-destructive tendencies.

Sadly, tragedy would follow Poe to the end in his mysterious death. To this day, no one knows exactly how or why Edgar Allan Poe died. The only facts remain that he was found, delirious and half-conscious, at a public house wearing clothes that were clearly not his own. He was disoriented and could not remember what happened to him. Although a multitude of theories exist explaining his death, the most popular theory is that Poe was perhaps a victim of cooping– a practice in which vulnerable individuals were kidnapped, beaten, disguised and made to vote for a certain party. The fact that Poe was found on election day largely feeds this theory.

Unfortunately, in my research I was unable to find any hauntings of dead authors or poets. However, while you may not be able to have a seance with Ernest Hemingway or Flannery O’Connor, you can visit their graves. More information about famous writers’ headstones and their locations here.


Do you know of any similarly haunting literary peculiarities?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Fiction and the Mind

Posted by Sam Bramlett

booksIs a man with no senses alive? He is in the same way that people know what’s going on in each other’s heads. Fiction isn’t limited to books or anything else in the sphere of entertainment. “I think, therefore I am,” does not mean “you think, therefore you are,” but what I think can exist between us, whatever we may be.

Humans are physical things, their emotions created by the chemicals and electricity whirring through little grey wrinkles. Within the mass of gray wrinkles in our skulls however is a seemingly infinite capacity to generate the nonexistent.

Why do you think a God would create a world? Entertainment. Drama, like opening the pages of a conscious novel and watching the people inside collide with each other. As Vonnegut said in Breakfast of Champions, “I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide. For want of nothing better to do, we became fans of collisions.”

breakfastThis may seem a bit much for a simple explanation as to why Fiction is valuable to me, but the world itself is a remarkable work of fiction. My own life is the greatest story I’ve ever known, all other stories are simple distractions from the main body of work that exists inside my head. Perhaps my parents should have kept me from playing so many videogames, since now I so vividly understand that someone else could very well be playing the game as me. I have to hope my life would be a good videogame. Would there be enough backstory and characterization? enough drama and struggle to form the basis of a compelling plot? I would like to think so, but who can be sure. There’s no answer to something like that. My life could be as simple and fictitious as the book I’m going to read before I go to bed. It doesn’t matter; what does matter is that I see the story through. That’s how I rationalize it anyway.

Fiction has depth. It has emotional impact. Through the careful setup of characters and events it creates enough friction between relations that new actions or developments create a sense of wonder or despair. Revelations become biblical or humorous, somber or jubilant. It hinges on what’s already been said, allowing the connection to have an impact on whatever audience.

Fiction is a tease. Nothing is more unenticing than a book that always gives you what you want. The good stuff isn’t what’s easy, and the expected is never the answer. This is a spoiler if you’ve never read Game of Thrones, but a prime example is the beheading of Ned Stark. George R. R. Martin has since made such a habit of brutally murdering main characters that it’s become expected, but the thrill of not knowing whether your favorite character will die or not is what keeps you reading. Situations need weight. It must be possible for the hero to fail. Should the hero always win, I will eventually cease to read.

Fiction must not act as a mirror. If whatever is read does nothing but confirm the preconceived notions one has, it is worth next to nothing. Unless of course you enjoy talking to yourself, and only yourself. Fiction opens minds to new experiences and possibilities; it challenges your view of the world and forces you to see yourself in a new light. An example of this is Dr.Manhattan’s monologue from Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, “But the world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles that they become commonplace and we forget… I forget. We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another’s vantage point, as if new, it may still take the breath away.”

These elements I find valuable in fiction, though not always. There are always exceptions when it comes to fiction. Rules can never contain the infinity of what does or does not exist in the mind.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Triage and Fiction Submissions at SHENANDOAH

[Being not quite a re-run, but a revisiting of a persistent question.]

stackofmsAs the population of writers, editors and literary journals increases faster the number of Kardashian spin-offs, it never seems profitless to address the question many new or just frustrated writers ask me: How can you possibly read that many stories and make wise choices? The honest answer requires me to say something they don’t want to hear, even though the existence of terms like “over the transom” and “slush pile” should prepare us all for the bad news.

Sidebar: I should say that I rarely solicit work, unless I’m working on a special issue and don’t have the patience or optimism to believe it will take shape naturally and on my publication schedule. Certainly over 90% of the poems, stories, flash fictions and essays in Shenandoah are unsolicited, and more than 50% are by writers we have not previously published, which means that a large proportion of the fiction appearing on our site arrives as a surprise and is discovered by an intern or the editor in the midst of a Ms.-reading session. In other genres, it’s the editor alone who peruses the manuscripts. But fiction is the mode of most of the words that come our way across the dark mysteries of the digital world.

Now to the raw answer to that question. Most stories we receive are not read from beginning to end. Right now I have five undergraduate interns, all new to the job this fall, no managing editor or professional assistant fiction editor to lend a pair of seasoned eyes. I’m the first reader for about 60% of the stories, and the students deal with the rest, though I will examine any story that receives high recommendation from them, as well. I try to assign two students to each of the stories designated for intern examination, but sometimes the volume of incoming prevents that. If a story does not receive a positive review from the student(s) it has been assigned to, it is declined with regrets.

redpenI know this is pretty dry and procedural, but for the most part, people who ask this question about reading mss. are not asking for entertainment or diversion, so I’m taking my lead from the directness and urgency of their question.

How do I prepare the interns to assist me? We discuss in class stories already published in Shenandoah and some previously submitted but declined. As we do so, we compile a pair of lists – what appeals to us or excites in stories, what displeases us or irks us. No two classes arrive at the same lists, but I make certain each class deals with matters of freshness in style and plot, conciseness, characters we have strong feelings about, concepts behind the plot, pace, conflict, precision, consequentiality. This semester’s class was quick to say that when the conventions of a sub-genre like romance or horror outweigh the originality and fundamental seriousness (even in a humorous or witty narrative), we are not drawn to the piece. I always insist that I want to see a story not only written but wrought, so we do some phrase-by-phrase analysis, substituting words, asking what’s essential, what’s subordinate and what’s downright ornamental.

submittableAfter we’ve had this discussion, each intern is assigned a group of stories on our Submittable page, and each has the opportunity to record comments and vote in favor or against. If I find divided opinion, I bring the story before the entire class, and we discuss it. I’ve more than once been persuaded to accept a story I had limited enthusiasm for to begin with, and I’ve also been put off a story I had previously favored.

We’re not going to publish more than 10-12 full-length stories a year, not more than a dozen flash fictions, so we have to sift scrupulously and grind fine, but I admit that there’s a serendipitous element that can’t be dismissed. It’s often a question of timing. Say we find a fine story concerning a bickering couple who find an injured owl, and trying to save it provides a healing insight. If we’ve just published a story with a prominent bird or a couple who are brought together through finding someone or something damaged, that story’s chances are not good.

Two principles hold me on a steady course throughout all our deliberations. The first is triage. Like emergency room doctors, I want us to quickly sort out the unsalvagable stories, the engaging but flawed ones and the truly exciting one. It’s that third category we need to concentrate on, and they go into a basket with a two hundred year old etching of a trout above it. The works that land there are said to be “under the fish,” and I’ll revisit that reservoir of writing. Some pieces will come to seem indispensable, others like part of a catch and release program. I spend a lot of time with the contents of that basket and do the best I can.

But doesn’t that take forever and a half? It could, but there’s a second principle in operation. About the abundance of written words begging for our attention, Flannery O’Connor said that she could give a poem a couple of lines, a story a few paragraphs and a novel a few pages, but that she would stop reading when she felt she could do so without experiencing a sense of loss. The already-too-familiar, clichés of style, character, situation, formulas and reiterations – even if lifted from famous writers and classics – are likely to make me feel that quitting will not be followed with regret. O’Connor went on to say that she didn’t have very much time. Her reason was the lupus that was killing her, my reasons are the steadily-multiplying number of submissions, deadlines and the hundred other tasks that the editor of Shenandoah gets to practice.

Do these practices and precautions allow me to sleep at night?  Sometimes.  Do I wish we had other options at our disposal?  Certainly.  But we soldier on, try to be good stewards of the work entrusted to Shenandoah and wish all our would-be contributors good luck in proportion to their careful and original writing.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Articulate Fly Fishing

by Chuck Dodge

flyThe famous final sentences of A River Runs Through It form for me what is one of the most memorable passages in American literature. And truly, they deserve appreciation beyond the dreams of aspiring and infatuated fly fishermen.

“Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.”

(Norman Maclean)

rivercoverHave better words been chosen? I think Maclean writes in such a way that we are bombarded by truth, wonder, scenery, and depth both literary and tangible in one fell swoop. And this is what makes each phrase so memorable or each thought so valuable that easily distracted people like me find it tough to forget the words as we go about our daily lives.

Over the past summer I was haunted by the words (yes, like Maclean by waters) in the sense that they continued to flow through my head. Especially, that is, when I fished in the Rocky Mountains during the closing weeks of August. At one point I felt moved to hang the words above my bed, but eventually thought better of it to avoid appearing obsessed. Needless to say, I thought about them often and am lucky now with a space to discuss my findings.

To someone who has never stood in a cold Western river, I recommend this passage as the closest possible understanding of the phenomenon that a river is. For the rest of us, or at least for me, it describes the river in a way that makes the inexplicable all but tangible. It is one of those rare occasions when you ask someone how he would describe something like the color orange to a blind man and impossibly they manage to illustrate the concept to a pixel.

Maclean makes the river sacred in the passage, and that is exactly how it feels. The rocks beneath the surface are ancient. Old as time and shaped by the flow of endless water, they are historians through and through. Beneath them, Maclean says there are words, which I interpret to mean the stories of all time. Everything that has occurred in the presence of such stones is in some way transcribed to their memory. “And some of the words are theirs,” Maclean writes, likely as a reference to his brother and father, both passed away. Some of the history, in other words, belongs to the people in our lives. Walking through a river and sensing the various rock shapes press into the soles of your feet feels in some way profound, and having read the novella I finally understand why. Walking on the rocks is to walk through one of the world’s oldest museums, and maybe its greatest. Each step that you take, to extend the idea, is a step that will make its mark on history, imprinting itself on the given rocks forever.

There is the river, then, and there is everything else. Maclean writes, “all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.” He jams these items together with “and’s” which somehow unify them despite their obvious dissimilarity. In hindsight I always felt this way about the river, but subconsciously and not in a way that I claim I could describe. It takes on such a meaning given Maclean’s observations that in its presence, your thoughts, feelings and everything around you are subjugated into one object. It is you and the river. That isn’t to say that your life holds less weight. Not at all. Instead it illustrates the reverence that we have for the river, turning itself into a point of undivided attention. In some moments, our only conscious capacity is to marvel.

Norman Maclean was both a writer and a fisherman. As an interesting side note, I went to thinking about Maclean, and whether I could draw a reasonable correlation between writing and fly fishing: two hobbies that I enjoy as well.

First, I think, a thoughtful understanding of rivers such as Maclean’s makes fly fishing an awe-inspiring activity. The best way to understand anything, of course, is to be able to verbalize it in a way that perfectly strikes the way you truly feel about it. Good writers, then (or those who think they are), are good at understanding. And because understanding generates appreciation, it makes sense that writers can experience a unique connection to fishing.

But there are other connections as well, rhythm among them. The four-count rhythm of a fly cast is a motif that occurs throughout the novella. It even displays variations, as Maclean’s brother is said to create his own tempo. Good rod tempo is essential to successful fly fishing, especially as you tie more flies onto the line. A poor stroke can twist the tippet, the strand attached to the dry fly, into a hopeless mass of knots. Rhythm also lies at the core of writing, manifesting itself in everything from paragraph length and arrangement down to sentence structure and word flow. Every writer can develop their own tempo, so long as their message remains untangled. And the more ambitious a piece of writing is, the more critical it is that the writer executes an easily accessible form, just as the rod tempo becomes paramount when you have more than one fly on the line.

Good writing also hooks the reader by the gill. In fly-fishing, better-disguised or more obnoxious-colored flies tempt the most bites. I’m going to leave the truth of that analogy as a subject for consideration.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I Used to Know John Wayne

by Caroline Sanders

WayneMy grandpa was John Wayne. He wore a big tan cowboy hat with a little colored feather on the side whenever he left the house. He was the tallest man I had ever seen, and when he picked me up “like a sack of potatoes” and swung me over his shoulder causing all the blood to rush to my head, I had never been that far off the ground. His real name was Billy, but due to my older brother’s infantile inability to pronounce words correctly, we called him “Bibby”—the greatest imaginable name for the cowboy that he was. He was old and wrinkly and I could never understand why his toenails were stained yellow, but that stuff didn’t really bother me. Cowboys didn’t have any time to devote to the maintenance of their personal beauty. Despite his rough appearance, however, he was friendly. I remember him driving through town, country western (the old kind with the fiddle and the slow drawing voices) droning lazily from dash, waving at everyone we’d pass. “Good to see ya,” he’d say to a car across from us at a four way stop. “How’s it going?” He’d ask to a young man walking his dog on the sidewalk. They couldn’t hear him, but it didn’t matter; he still just liked to say hello to everybody he saw. And when he’d come home and have nothing else to do, he’d lie on the couch in his undershirt with a can of Planter’s peanuts balanced on his round, old belly as he watched westerns on television. In fact, he liked the ideals and ways of life of the Old West in movies so much that for his last birthday, we gave him a life-size cardboard cutout of the Duke, signed on the back by all the children and grandchildren and placed in the corner of the den for him to look at any time he flipped on one of his movies.

But John Wayne died when I was four years old. All of these surface-skimming childhood images I possessed were all I had of Bibby since I was too young to remember who he actually was. As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned that he wasn’t exactly the man I remember: he wasn’t anywhere near the tallest man I’ve encountered, but instead about five foot ten. He was no hardened cowboy: he had never shot a man in his life and to be honest, I don’t know if he’d ever even ridden a horse. He looked and acted almost nothing like John Wayne. As my memories were beginning to develop, however, those movies he loved, his old cowboy hat we keep in a glass case in my basement, and the cardboard cutout that now sits in my attic at home are the only concrete evidence I had of him. And thus, John Wayne was cast to play the part of my granddad in my memory.

This inability to fully remember and recreate a person who was such a huge part in my life and subsequent casting of celebrities and literary figures to play his part in my mind has manifested itself in other ways as well. Nana, my grandma on my father’s side, is still living; I sit by her every Sunday in church. She likes to tell me stories about her childhood in Norcross, Georgia, and although I know her well in the role she currently plays in my life, I do not know the little girl she used to be. She was a spirited, opinionated child growing up on a farm in the mid-twentieth century. Whenever I think about this far-off time and place (although only about seventy years and fifty miles away), I see her as a young Anne of Green Gables making friends, going to school, contradicting those who disagree with her, and getting through life by relying on her imagination. While Nana plays the part of “grandma” in my recent memories and thoughts, little Anne-with-an-e has been cast to play the part of my talkative, quirky grandmother in her youth.

DumbleAnyone who once played a large part in my early life but who I no longer interact with is likely to be cast in my mind by someone else a little like them, but perhaps a bit more famous. My whimsical and silly childhood babysitter is played by Amelia Bedelia. My elderly, well-respected grade school headmaster is played by Albus Dumbledore. These beloved characters come from light-hearted, childish fiction that does not attempt to dig deep into the human soul and reveal man’s shortcomings. Instead, the type of literature that I take these characters from is intended to lift up the human experience, glorify it, tease it, show a few minor faults and failures, but ultimately illustrate what a wonderful experience life can be. All these characters have faults, yet none are abhorrent. All—with the exception of Amelia Bedelia—deal with real-life situations and encounter evil in human nature, but none are scarred by it. Whatever character John Wayne plays will conquer all obstacles with his superior masculinity, dry wit and hardened exterior persona. Anne Shirley will persevere through the challenges of growing up because she has an imaginative and cheery perspective on the world. Amelia Bedelia, as silly as she is, will be loved and Dumbledore will forever be the symbol of goodness and a magnet for admiration.
I could never allow a loved one, no matter how distant, to be compared to a character like Captain Ahab from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Hester Prynne from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Meursault from Albert Camus’s The Stranger, or Sydney Carton from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Because I watch my memories like movies, seeing the characters only from the outside and only from my own perspective, I do not imagine their inevitable human struggles. No matter what Bibby or Nana or my babysitter or my headmaster might have done in their private lives or what demons they may have internally fought, to me they will never be a crazed fisherman, an adulteress, an existential murderer, or a pessimistic, self-sacrificing alcoholic lawyer. I’m 99.9% positive that my loved ones were none of these things, but even if they were, they remain idolized in my mind because of the light and cheerful actors and actresses I have assigned to them.
Perhaps this is a naïve perspective. I am running the risk of underestimating their humanity by only relying on light fiction like westerns and children’s literature to mentally paint their portrait. These great people, however, deserve to be memorialized in my mind the same way that John Wayne is memorialized in America’s memory. Although Bibby may not have drunk whiskey in dusty saloons, hunted down and shot outlaws on the run, wooed beautiful women and ridden his horse off into the sunset, he was a great man. Thanks to John Wayne, I can remember him that way.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Is There an Antidote for the Anecdote Poem?

poetry manual

“Perhaps poetry in recent years has grown too weak to resist the attractive, familiar, conversational, seductive anecdote, too eyesore for trying to describe actions, too weary of meditation and contemplation, too jaded by trying to present deeper poems to a largely indifferent audience.”
– Ted Kooser in The Poetry Home Repair Manual (Nebraska, 2005)

While I value Kooser’s handbook and often use it with students, I’m troubled by his discussion, which occupies ten of the book’s 158 pages, of the anecdote-as-poem. My dismay even surprises me a little, because when he offers at the end of the “Writing from Memory” chapter his antidote to the anecdote poem (“Think about the speaker’s characteristic voice, the syntax, the rhythm, the form, the selection of details. The story itself is merely the material.)” I pretty much agree, but I would add something about the imagination and not allowing the sparking anecdote’s autobiographical facts to limit the poem’s options. And I don’t agree that the anecdote is “merely the material.” Can’t it also be the springboard, the seed, maybe the inspiration?

It’s possible that Kooser means that, too, but his ten pages don’t suggest that one anecdote or several may be at the necessary heart of many poems we call narratives. In fact, the poem he presents and praises highly as the anti-anecdote is Henry Taylor’s splendid “The Hayfork” (originally published in Shenandoah) a rumination about an anecdote about a brief event, whether imagined or recorded or some complex combination. Taylor’s poem shines from his lapidary attention to “characteristic voice,” “form” and “detail.” It is a seed carefully sown, nourished, sunlit, watered, its stalk, stem, leaf and fruit all tended to, a meticulous and crafty process that most anecdotes do require to transform them into poems. In fact, episodes or memories often require at least a little of that shaping before they can even become successful anecdotes, so probably what Kooser and I disagree about is the degree of likelihood that an anecdote can be cultivated into an intricate and artful poem. My position is that we shouldn’t blame anecdotes but get right to the culprit and call out the poets, who are not willing to work the original material the way Bill Monroe told a young Ricky Skaggs you can get a mandolin to render bluegrass music: “Son, you got to whip it like a mule.”


If I’m being hard on Kooser for his claim that 90 of 100 poems in literary journals are “mere material” recorded literally in raw form, it’s because I do have a dog in this fight. Plenty of my favorite narrative poems – whether personal or historical, ruminative or dramatic – are born of anecdotes. Not The Odyssey, of course, but Taylor’s poem, “Traveling through the Dark,” some of Kooser’s own poems and the poem of mine he reprints in another chapter to make a point about openings. (“Hardware Sparrows,” in fact, begins in what Kooser calls “anecdotal manner,” which has to be transcended, but also has a role to play). I do love narrative, so I’d argue that instead of warning writers away from anecdotes (which are often tame and amusing), I’d encourage poets to collect them and accept the challenge to discover which ones may render something richer and more ambitious, to give them the attention C. Bronte said went into her sister’s making Wuthering Heights, which was “hewn in a wild workshop.”

“Future readers,” Kooser speculates, “may likely conclude that most of our own poets were attempting to elevate the everyday personal anecdote to acceptability as a work of art,” and sometime when I see the one-page anecdote with flaccid cadence, hackneyed figures of speech, imprecise descriptions, mini wow at the end and so on, I fear that’s the case, that they’re trying to show that poetry is already inherent all things and that all utterances may be considered poems. Anybody can do it, almost by accident. But mostly I think some writers are lazy or unskilled, which is what my own failures (more frequent than I like to think about) often imply because I just didn’t bring, couldn’t access, my A game. I haven’t stared hard enough, dug deep enough, imagined fiercely enough, and the problem is not that I’ve produced an anecdote poem but that I’ve made a crappy poem, a result I can wind up with just as easily when anecdote isn’t part of the equation.

Kooser continues by suggesting that these anecdoters (or anecpos?) are “amusing each other with the warm and comfortable crossroads of the literary quarterly.” As if this were a team effort to dumb it all down so the ambitious and deft poets will have to yield ground (and pages in magazines, books, websites) to cheapjack, slipshod, unhoned, unhewn poems. Then our reading matter will be supplied by “poems in which some personal story has fleshed itself [?] out in the guise of a poem and demonstrates no aspiration to be anything greater.”

Instead of offering a real, live awful anecdote poem as an example, Kooser – maybe out of tact, maybe out of uncertainty how to acquire rights to reprint a poem just to say “bad dog” to it – creates a hypothetical that’s just a thin puppet non-poem. The one he makes is really (intentionally) skunky and closes, in an attempt at profundity, on the single word last line “ker-chunk!” meant to suggest a zinger which will resonate dramatically. When he makes a brisk 15-line chopped prose specimen to show what Taylor’s poem might have looked like in the hands of an anecpo, he uses that “ker-chunk!” at the end to signify a hayfork falling from its elevated track and stabbing the ground right in front of an unwary worker. Maybe Kooser isn’t being quite fair to the anecpos who are trying to tell a story but don’t know how to give it muscle and force. Taylor’s poem is sixty lines long, none of them as brief or tone-deaf as the puppet anecdote, so the comparison seems less instructive than it might have been. Compare Stafford’s encounter on the Wilson River road to a mere dead animal anecdote of about the same length and framework and the point might be clearer.

poetry lettersMaybe Kooser and I don’t disagree so much about the nature of these masquerading anecdotes as differ on what should be done with them. He suggests (though perhaps tongue-in-cheek) creating a new genre outside poetry for these anecritters, and he thinks that if creative non-fiction can become part of the canon, the anecdote can be canonized too, though he doesn’t nominate any particular examples or actual (not lined out like poems) anecdotes to sit beside, though in a separate box, other kinds of poems like “Upon Julia’s Clothes” or “The Woodpile,” a couple of real poems which a perverse wizard could quickly thin out, dessicate and anecdoodlize.

I’m not so concerned that our era will look like the era of the anecdote as that it will look like the era of poem as riddle, as political oath, sensitivity documentation, blur of impressions, far-fetched associational lyrics, critical theory exercise, or what Jahan Ramazani has called in a Norton anthology note “incongruous equations in metaphor,” as I often find in poems with names at the bottom like Ashbery, Graham, Carson, Brock-Broido, all of whom have, admittedly, written some moving and provocative poems.

Fred Chappell, who shared the 1985 Bollingen Prize with John Ashbery, often writes narrative poems – about cleaning a well, burning a church, plinking empty whisky bottles or receiving wisdom from an elder – fully leafed and flowered stories which readers can, if so inclined, whittle back and imagine – once the language is neutered, character sapped, description made ordinary – the anecdote that may have been the first flash of memory or imagination, which Chappell then had to put his mind and heart to, savoring the labor.

If a lot of the anecdoters were shown what might be done to breathe life into their limp (or even snappy or shocking) raw anecdotes, as writers like Rodney Jones, Kay Byer, Brendan Galvin, Rita Dove, Robert Penn Warren, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Wrigley do, they might give up at the prospect of so much toil before them, or they might start thinking about how to enrich the soil, stake the stalk, sucker the leaves. I catch myself using gardening terms while really thinking more about childrearing. The anecdotes need to be raised up with much attention and skill and not just sent as toddlers into the world to do the work of men and women.

I suppose I’ve come around to agreeing with Kooser about a particular serious deficiency in much contemporary poetry, but my take on how to treat it is a little different. And by the way, if writers bear much of the burden for this deficiency, editors must shoulder a significant portion as well. Shame on us. We need to hold out for more passion (as Merwin remembers Berryman telling him in “Berryman”), though that doesn’t mean it has to be explicit. Human heat and craft will help. If we need a mantra, maybe it’s as simple as this: “Son, you got to whip it like a mule.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Armed Journalists Could Save Themselves?

glockBecause I’ve written previously about American gun violence in an editor’s note on this site (Volume 62, No, 2: “Gun Culture and Gun Cult”), this blog seems an appropriate place to register a kind of addendum, a question I have about Donald Trump’s reaction to the on-air murder of two Roanoke journalists who lived and worked about an hour from my home. It’s a question I won’t ever be in a position to ask the candidate, and I have no expectation that any working journalist or producer will be willing or allowed to ask, so here goes.

I was astonished to hear Trump’s comment that, if the WDBJ employees Alison Parker and Adam Ward had been armed, the two journalists might have been able to protect themselves from this horrible ambush. My question is simply, “How?” I recognize that details are not Trump’s forte, but I’m trying to imagine the scenario for him. Suppose the journalists were both comfortable with handguns, trained marksmen, veterans of combat simulation courses who practiced on a regular basis. This is, after all, the most intelligent way to be “armed,” though not the practice of journalists, except in rare cases, even in war zones. But just suppose they were.

We’ve seen the footage. Alison Parker is holding a microphone, focused on her interview subject (and let’s even arm the interviewee, as well, though still oblivious to the assassin lurking behind her). Adam Ward is operating a video camera that requires both hands, concentrating on his craft, focusing, zooming, improving the angle, moving about. The interview is in a resort town, the subject uncontroversial, the circumstances unthreatening. Anyone but a trained and on-duty personal security guard would have been attending to the task at hand: get the story.

Then a Glock-wielding man emerges from the surrounding background blur of people, vehicles, buildings, ornamental vegetation. Without warning, he opens fire. Rapid fire. He’s motivated, fixated, and he evidently knows how to shoot. What I want to hear from the advocates of the “good man with a gun solution” is how the victims should have known to or could have been able to take preventive measures, evasive action, to return fire between the first shot and their last breaths. How many seconds are we talking about here? How does the self-defense scenario unfold?  Think of the armed policeman in Houston, the New York officers sitting in their car. . . all armed and trained, all now dead.

What Trump has done is to invent an alternative scenario that’s so unlikely – given timing, disposition of shooter vis-à-vis the positions of the victims, sheer common sense – that is less realistic than the gun fights of Roger Moore Bond films. And why would he do that, instead of perhaps recommending that interviews be done in secret or by and with only those in body armor and helmets?

I believe Trump has two agenda items here. First, he must be careful never say anything to make his 2nd amendment zealot supporters question his allegiance to them and (yes) their economic power, despite his claim that he needs no money from anyone, ever. Secondly, he tends to blame victims. People to whom unfortunate things happen are another caste, those who lack his charm, his likeability, his boldness and enterprise, his infallible managerial expertise. What he’s saying is that he (and people like him, if there are any) are just too shrewd, wise, alert, intelligent, beloved to get shot.

A follow-up question, if it’s allowed: does Donald Trump carry a pistol? Or does he just have armed security guards around him? If he doesn’t, does he have any notion how much is involved psychologically in the decision to carry a weapon and how much effort is required to be proficient enough with one to make a positive difference, in situations where the lethal scenario unfolds slowly and tactical knowledge becomes valuable?  America’s most successful military sniper was gunned down. Would he have been able to protect himself if he’d had a weapon . . . in his hand? When James Butler Hickok was shot, he carried two Colts, but Jack McCall came at him from behind, like Vester Flanagan. The famed gunfighter never had a chance.

I wonder if Trump has ever seen anyone shot to death or even been in the presence of a non-range, non-hunting discharge of a weapon, had the experience of hearing that first round crack and the shock that follows for anyone in the vicinity. To know what to do and have the reflexes and instinct to do it – that requires both training and a certain kind of temperament.  Ask any policeman about that.  Or ask a soldier.

When I was in college I witnessed a murder by handgun. Morning, outdoors, brisk beautiful day. Coming up a campus roadway, my friend and I saw two men silhouetted on a rise, maybe 75-100 feet away (some details are now faded, others indelible). One raised a gun and pointed it at the other’s head and fired. I have no idea exactly what my friend and I did physically at that instant; it’s gone from my mind. But if the shooter had chosen to go for us next, we’d have been easy prey. He shot himself instead, but I keep wondering if there’s any sign in the miles of Trump footage we’ve been exposed to that he would have reacted more effectively in the moments after that first shot on that windy campus morning or out at Smith Mountain lake this past week. Even if he’d had a sidearm and an excellent shooter’s eye and hand, even if he’d been spared the first round of the volley. No footage I’ve seen suggests he is qualified to judge what will or won’t save a victim from bullets.

If the journalists had been armed, they might have been able to save themselves. . .  .  That is not the position of a man who has brought imagination, experience, calculation or empathy to the question. It’s not the position of a man who “tells the truth” or “says what he really thinks.” It’s just the reaction of a man who talks.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment