Everyone has some sort of story to tell, and there were 28 of them represented at last week’s U.S. 1 Summer Fiction issue reception — 33 more if you count those neat little tales tucked away in the poems. Everyone had a story (or two) to tell, including me. But I didn’t get to tell mine, until now:
We call it Summer Fiction, but in my narrative it might better be called Summer Friction. The energy of the prose and poetry appearing in the issue rubbed up against sensibilities of the readers and editors. With so much work submitted by so many previously unknown writers, the challenge was first to make sense of it, and then to make sense of what we liked, or didn’t, about it.
Or we could call it Summer Fencing, with little verbal jousts between writers and readers. That interplay was heightened this year by the fact that two of our readers, John Symons and Ellen Foos, were unable to attend the reception in person and provided me with some written commentary — their own effort to make some shape of these uncharted literary waters.
Symons, who has contributed to every fiction issue since its inception in 1997, has an amazing ability to see subtle shadows and glittering embers in narratives that the rest of us see as simple little verbal drawings that are “black and white and read all over.”
When I read Nikki Stern’s short story, “Interior Design,” I first saw a wonderful portrayal of writer’s block, something many of us at the writers’ reception could appreciate. Then came the trick ending — it was more than writer’s block but — at least in my reading of it — the medical professionals treating the writer had their own professional “blocks” impeding their work.
Symons saw all that and more:
“Write what you know” (the opening sentence of this story), is good advice for writers, and for those furnishing or refurnishing an interior life, real or imagined. But what do we really know, and how do we know that we know it? What does the woman in the room know at this stage of her life? What do the nurses know about the mental life of this woman with, so to speak, writer’s block on steroids? She at least proceeds by searching for clues.
“The young nurse in the second and contrasting part of the story attempts the same technique: close examination or recall of evidence. The older nurse, however, dismisses her observations, saying, ‘I’m afraid it’s all in your mind,’ thus setting up a train of ironies that reverberates — especially when you’ve read the story more than once, as you must do — like images in a hall of mirrors. What does it mean that something is all in one’s mind, or out of it? Descartes and Kant, among others, attempt to answer this question. But fiction is not about imposing philosophies. It doesn’t answer questions, as Chekhov said, it raises them — as this story so cleverly does.”
In “Hole to China” Nancy Demme paints a miniature portrait (609 words) of several six-year-old girls intent on escaping the imagined perils of their circumscribed world by digging a hole under a clump of tree roots and burrowing all the way to China. To me it was a fun story based on the premise that many of us believed as kids.
To John Symons it was that and more: “Here is an example of how to write freshly and economically about a well-worn if no less important topic . . . The writer has constructed and carefully placed all the necessary signposts, but they require the reader to attend to the language and images by, among other things, careful rereading.” Symons went on to offer some of his own interpretations of those signposts.
I read a few snippets of Symons’s comments at the reception. Afterward Demme asked me if she could see the entire commentary. I am now curious about her reaction to his reaction.
For each of the poems in the issue, Ellen Foos, who screened the submissions for us, provided a few words of appreciation. Foos is a Princeton University Press editor who writes poetry (and won a MacDowell Colony fellowship a few years ago) and edits poetry for her own imprint, Ragged Sky Press. She knows her subject inside out.
As a guy who long ago gave up on the idea of every driving a fancy car, I had appreciated Tony Gruenwald’s poem “Which Way Is Up?” about driving his “weather worn” Hyundai among the “slingshot”-like sports cars of the morning rush hour. “A deceptively humble poem with much subtext about outward appearances,” Foos wrote.
Poets can be prickly, I was reminded at the reception. As Marvin Cheiten approached the podium to read his poem, “Dorothea,” I noticed that he did not have the text of the poem at hand. I offered him my copy of the paper, opened to his poem. He immediately pushed it back with a dismissive gesture, and recited from memory the poem (“an admirable formal style — sonnet — with lively contemporary language,” according to Foos). I had forgotten how the most accomplished poets all seem to have their works committed to memory.
Then there was the poem “Crossing Nassau Street” by Harvey Steinberg. I had read it and didn’t quite understand all the onomatopoetic “pop-a-dopping” action. Ellen Foos noted its “very creative and musical use of language to convey a street crossing.”
But when the poet opened our print edition, he saw red. “The poem was brief and deserved neither carelessness nor collaboration, whichever may have been the cause of its destruction by your proofreader, who gave it two fatal blows,” Steinberg wrote in a withering E-mail the day after publication. “What’s for certain about poetry, as distinguished from other forms of writing, is that it’s made up of exact materials and tools, without which it fails. Ah me! this poem lies dead in your waters.”
As an editor I live with typographical errors every week. But to be responsible for the demise of a delicate poem — “ah me,” oh my.
Steinberg asked if we could “resuscitate the changeling? Reprint it as I submitted it? Its fate is in your hands!” Herewith the resurrection:
Crossing Nassau Street
minimalist pop, he pop-a-dopped
as he popped past,
bounding across the wrigley wrapper
whitely crumpled in the gutter crevice
the paper sheath perched on a soot mound
ravaged of its minty juices.
shrived by morning light
its brilliance staked a momentary claim
on Cal’s distress.
a modernist fop,
guttersnipe gum ge-bragh! gesacht Cal.
no sweat, a virginal start again
if I make it to the sidewalk
“until I meet the next peril”
Cal’s set of mind was
Now relieved of the heavy burden of having destroyed a work of art, I come with new-found energy to one of the lingering memories of the Summer Fiction reception. Andrew Palladino, author of “A Strong Connection,” a day-in-the-life adventure of conjoined twins, approached me after the presentation. He had a sort of confession to make. The story was written from his point of view as an aspiring filmmaker and his artistic aim had been to create a story that would be — literally — impossible to film.
Had he succeeded? Was there no possible way for a creative director to convert this story to a cinematic form? I wondered about that as I left the event. But I was reminded of John Symons’s comment: Fiction “doesn’t answer questions, as Chekhov said, it raises them.”