Archive for the ‘Contests’ Category

Testaments To Still Being Alive: An Interview with Emily Nason

Emily Nason has poetry in, or forthcoming from, The Georgia Review, Indiana Review, the Kenyon Review, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. Originally from Columbia, South Carolina, she is currently an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Virginia. Nason’s poem, “Sertraline,” won the Robert Watson Literary Prize and appears in The Greensboro Review 107.

 

JULIA EDWARDS: First, I want to say congrats on the Robert Watson Prize for “Sertraline”! It’s such a cool poem with a really unique tone and lots of quick, surprising turns. It’s the kind of poem that creates and operates by its own logic, which is a trait that quickly drew both myself and my coeditor, Matt Valades, to it early on. At the same time, it’s well contained within the space of its 14 lines. In light of its specific length, do you consider this poem to be a sonnet? I’d love to hear a little about why you choose to put it in this form.

EMILY NASON: Thank you so much! I really couldn’t imagine a better home for this poem. I’ve been the biggest fan of y’all’s for years, and this is just a dream come true.

I definitely think of this poem as a sonnet! I was thinking a lot about the ritual of taking antidepressants while writing it. Sertraline is the very pretty pharmaceutical name for Zoloft. Taking antidepressants is a pretty regimented thing: take this number of pills at roughly this time, don’t stop taking them all of the sudden, don’t drink/eat certain things with them, etc. Form-wise, something that would be equally regimented felt right for this poem. I like that we all know how many lines a sonnet has. We all know there’s a volta coming. There’s ritual there. I wanted a form that was ritualistic, but also really accessible to everyone.

Getting more into the “guts” of this sonnet, I purposely wanted this poem to be bursting at the seams. That’s personally how my mind works unmedicated (and, truthfully, medicated!). I don’t often think of the sonnet form as being expansive in subject. I wanted to challenge my own assumption there. You have fourteen lines, and you have to fit the following: four different birds, your dog, a lost ball, your mother, your mother’s surgery/illness, your relationship with her, witches, and your mental health. It was so fun to write, and I truly don’t think a lot of the leaps the poem makes would happen without the tightness of sonnet form.

JE: I love the parallels you describe between the ritualistic nature of a daily pill regimen and the confinement of the sonnet as well as the vast, associative threading that can happen inside it, like the mind. I’m glad you mentioned the title because honestly, it caught my attention right away! The irony of addressing what we typically think of as a love poem (the sonnet) to an SSRI is unexpected and also quite funny. I really appreciate the initial tension this gesture sets up as well as the humor in the poem in general. It seems to walk the line between sincerity and playfulness, using tools like voice and image narrative to allow the poem and its speaker to figuratively both “sink” and “float” at the same time. Of course, there are serious concerns in the poem, but I wonder if you could tell us about whether you meant it to be funny and/or the way tone is working here.

EN: I love that you brought up the fact that the sonnet is so often seen as a love poem! I think that’s where the poem gets some of its humor from. I have tremendous love for everything in the poem—my mom, my dog, and especially my mental illness. Those are all things that deserve celebration because they are testaments to still being alive. I’ve heard countless times that the world has enough “dog poems” and “sad poems.” Of course, I very much disagree with that statement—bring on the dogs and the feels! But I didn’t want the poem to be sappy or melodramatic or stereotypical of “those” kinds of poems. It’s helpful that my dog is genuinely a weirdo and perfect and doing things that make me laugh everyday (which is what I imagine all dog owners say). But making mental illness not melodramatic or too serious? That’s so much harder and something I’m constantly thinking about while writing.

JE: Much agreed! I’m a big fan of sad poems and dog poems or any combination of the two. There’s almost a conflation of the dog with the speaker in the first line: “Object permanence: something my dog doesn’t think / I possess.” Because “I possess” doesn’t come until after the line break, a question arises about ownership both on the sentence level and thematically in the poem. I love how the dog is both so independent and closely identified with the speaker. I wonder if there are other poets you like that explore human/animal relationships or if you draw mostly from your own experience? (These don’t have to be mutually exclusive!).

EN: Mark Doty has some absolutely stunning dog/love poems in his book Deep Lane. There’s one poem—also called “Deep Lane”—that ends with the speaker watching his dog run in a graveyard: “I stand and watch him go in his wild figure eights, / I say, You run, darling, you tear up that hill.” That’s a perfect ending to a poem, right? I also love all of Ada Limón’s horse poems (from “Downhearted,” “Six horses died in a tractor-trailer fire. / There. That’s the hard part. I wanted / to tell you straight away so we could / grieve together.”). Jack Gilbert sometimes just drops an antelope in a poem, which makes no sense, but also complete sense at the same time? And so many snake poems! Safiya Sinclair’s “Portrait of Eve as the Anaconda” and Louise Glück’s “Cottonmouth Country.” I definitely turn to any of the above poets for writing about the joy of animals.

I also read a lot of motherhood and love poems, which I think definitely plays into “Sertraline.” Beth Ann Fennelly’s first book, Tender Hooks, and her latest, Heating & Cooling, are two of my faves. I don’t think that having a dog is the same as having a human child, but I think there’s something about a pet’s dependency on you that feels applicable or similar.

JE: These are really wonderful and eclectic suggestions. Thanks for mentioning them! While we’re on the topic of influences, I’m curious about what else you look for in a poem—it could be writers you’ve been turning to recently in the midst of our current pandemic, or just elements of poetry in general that you are drawn to for inspiration. I know this is a broad question, so feel free to take it in any direction!

EN: As far as what I’ve been reading during the pandemic, I’ve been swinging between extremely joyful works and extremely depressing works. On the joyful end: Roya Marsh’s “Ode to Fetty Wap (written after strip club).” I can’t read that poem and not be invigorated. It should be required reading for everyone. On the depressing end: Maggie Nelson’s Jane and The Red Parts. I’m super late to reading her, but it’s wildly inspiring how Nelson recreates memory and loss with such an empathetic and fierce eye.

For poetry influences, C.D. Wright is the queen of all queens for me. I love how her poems feel like they exist in a different universe. Deepstep Come Shining is such a weird book, and I’m constantly inspired by how the sheer confidence in the voice of that poem makes it work. I’m also really loving Ellen Bass and Sally Wen Mao right now. And, if you don’t mind me poetry geeking out for a moment, I’m really obsessed with this idea of “conceptual rhyming” that Matthew Zapruder talks about in Why Poetry: “a poem can rhyme conceptually: that is, through ideas that relate in some way, obvious or hidden.” I am aggressively bad at traditional rhyming and that stopped me for a long time from attempting more formal poems. But once I started thinking about a poem having a conceptual rhyme scheme, it freed me to make these wild and weird jumps the poems needed that I wasn’t brave enough to make before.

JE: “Conceptual rhyming” is a really cool idea. I’m especially excited to check out “Ode to Fetty Wap”. On a related note, if I remember correctly, “Sertraline” was one of a series of sonnets with the same title (please correct me if I’m wrong!). I’m wondering if you have a project in mind that you are working towards or if you’d like to just talk more generally about what you’ve been working on lately, that would be great, too! I’m always curious about how poets approach their work—more as individual poems that become part of a collection or if the larger conception comes first.

EN: Yes, you’re completely right! I’ve been writing a whole lot of these “Sertraline” sonnets. The series has rules: they all have to be sonnets, in couplets, named “Sertraline,” my dog has to be in them, and there has to be some aspect of mental health/medication side effects. I started the series on a whim. I wrote one and had so much fun that I just kept going. And going. And going. I very much wasn’t a series poet before I started writing these poems. But I’m now a little obsessed with series!

The sonnets also completely overhauled my manuscript. I want to inject some of their high energy into the rest of the book. My manuscript is definitely deeply focused on mental health/what it means to have a mind that you can’t necessarily trust to tell you the truth. And there are a ton of animals. And both of those aspects come completely out of the sonnets!

JE: I love the themes and energy in your work and can’t wait to read your collection whenever it comes into the world! My last question is a little strange, but I recently “visited” a class of fifth graders to give a lesson on workshopping and I also just finished my MFA, so I’ve been thinking about simple ways to describe poetry as I try to introduce it to those less familiar. In the spirit of simplicity (although, of course, it’s never as simple as it seems!), I thought I’d ask you: what does “poem” mean to you?

EN: I would’ve loved to be a fly on the wall in that class of fifth graders because I bet they, in some ways, have a way clearer understanding of what a poem is than I do! I always tell my students that a poem is a living thing. A poem is a breathing, moving thing! It’s got a pulse (and sometimes it doesn’t have a pulse and you need to revive it). You’ve really got to listen to a poem to see what it needs and move with that. And sometimes the poem is going to evolve toward places you don’t foresee, and that’s okay too. That’s what organisms do!

 

Julia Edwards is a poet/writer from New York. Her work has appeared in Bat City ReviewBrooklyn MagazineBreadcrumbs Mag, and Across The Margin, among others. She holds an MFA in poetry from The University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

West of Other: An Interview with Brendan Egan

Brendan Egan’s fiction and poetry have appeared in Yemassee, Threepenny Review, Witness, and other places. A native Connecticuter, he has worked as a lobster shucker, ice cream truck driver, expert chino folder, and door-to-door knife salesman. He lives in west Texas, where he teaches at Midland College and attempts to keep a garden. Egan’s story “War Rugs” won the Robert Watson Literary Prize and appears in The Greensboro Review 107.

EVAN FACKLER: First of all, Brendan, congratulations on winning the Robert Watson Literary Prize in fiction for “War Rugs.” It’s a tremendous story, ambitious and affecting both in terms of imagination and formal experimentation, which is something that drew my co-editor Patricia and I to it early on in the reading period. Have you written stories like this before?

BRENDAN EGAN: Thank you so much! I’m really honored by the recognition and so happy to see the story in Greensboro Review.

I’ve always been excited about both form and imaginative literature. Most of my stories splice threads of mythology and folklore into more or less realistic lives, and this splicing often calls attention to the formal moves that shape the narrative. But I think “War Rugs” is the first story where I’ve directly mixed genres in just this way—inserting pieces of scripts into fiction. I studied playwriting and screenwriting before writing fiction, so I often think of scenes in those terms, but the idea of actually incorporating these genres into prose probably came from reading Vi Khi Nao’s A Fish in Exile and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which use similar techniques, though I think to slightly different effects.

EF: There’s a great deal of fun to “War Rugs”—this sense of an entire social world embedded in the language being deployed, for instance (buttonheads versus dogfaces, Oriental versus Occidental). But this is also a story that’s taking on some pretty serious issues. Cultural identity, exile, war, prejudice. I don’t want to ask the vulgar question “where’d you get this idea?” but I am wondering if there were particular issues or events you were thinking about while you were writing?

BE: The concept of a story about magazine crews literally showed up at my door multiple times over, say, a three-year span. They weren’t selling the magazines so much as the good feeling that comes from contributing to a school fundraiser or a GoFundMe or buying a pair of Toms. Talking to these kids got me thinking about the way that personal hardship has increasingly become this sort of commodity in and of itself.

Kind of in counterpoint to this, I was trying to work out this “Death of the West”-type paranoia that has come into the mainstream through Alt-Right politics. As a blatant example, a couple months ago, the draft of an executive order was leaked from the Trump administration titled “Making Federal Buildings Great Again.” It says things like, “Federal architecture should once again inspire respect instead of bewilderment or repugnance” by sticking to the tradition of Classical principals. Really, I’ve been more bewildered and impugned by how Doric columns are still the fascist’s binkie of choice.

Of course, the bugaboo of these same paranoiacs is the migrant. Though the refugees and asylum seekers we talk about in our United States are typically coming from other places in the world, the populations that most inspired the characterization Cynocephali in the story are Afghans who have been displaced in the succession of U.S. involved wars for the last forty years. But I don’t see these characters as a direct representation of any one group from the real world as much as a representation of the lasting misunderstanding between “East” and “West” that goes back at least as far as Ctesias’s own account of the territory east of Persia.

EF: Okay. Cynocephali are mentioned by Ctesias in the Indica, which answers the question the Classics professor we recruited to help us with the Greek in the epigraph asked. (For the record, that question was: “Where in the #@$*! did you come across the Cynocephali?”) So let me pivot a little and say that for the month or so after first reading “War Rugs” in the “slush” pile (which sounds like a dirty word as I write it—maybe we should call it the “mine” or something because it’s where the gold comes from) Patricia and I went down an internet rabbit hole of “Dog Face” songs, which ends up being its own sub-genre. Phish. The Eels. Some guy called Ryan Dawson who has an entire album called “Dog-Face Girl”… maybe there are more. I guess what I’m saying is that if you were a guest on my favorite NPR show, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, and I was filling in for Peter Sagal, I would say, “We’ve invited you here today, Brendan, to play a game we’re calling…” and then Bill Kurtis would say, in that mellifluous voice of his, “Eenie meenie miny moe, catch a dog face by his toe,” or something like that, and then I’d ask you trivia about The Eels.

But really, why Cynocephali?

BE: Is it too weird to say that I’m so glad you, too, have become a little obsessed?

So, in describing what he called India, Ctesias introduced a number of concepts of “natural history” to the Western imagination.  Some are accurate: parrots, falcon-assisted hunting, Indian elephants. Others are not: unicorns, manticores, river serpents, various magical wells and springs.

I’ve written some stories about a bunch of these, but the Cynocephali have always been the invention of his that most captured my fascination. For like two-thousand years, they were used as a literary authenticator for Europeans traveling in the East. Alexander claims to have captured them, Marco Polo describes their supposed settlements, and Columbus writes that he was told rumors of them in present day Haiti. St. Augustine uses them as a kind of inquiry into the definition of a human soul. The irony is that as early as the first century BC, Ctesias was thought of as a rube who presented all these second-hand yarns as fact (I’m pretty sure he was just a trickster).

In popular culture, the unicorn persists, the manticore persists, but dog-headedness kind of explodes from the middle-ages on, being applied to all kinds of outgroups and raising all kinds of questions about human dignity. Anyway, the insistence on “I saw the Cynocephali” serves as this acute example of a Classical text surviving despite itself and introducing a fundamental “othering” that we still tussle with today.

EF: Something that’s really consistent and lovely here is the way Zylina’s sensory experience of the world imbues the narrative. I’m guessing most of your stories are about us regular “button heads” and our boringly dulled senses. What was it like to write in close-third from Zylina’s perspective? Were there challenges to writing in her point-of-view?

BE: It was a lot of fun trying to imagine how a person with a dog’s hearing and smell paired with a human mind would experience the world. Particularly in moments of emotional intensity, I attempted to focus description on these senses because they are primary to canid anatomy, taking precedence over the visual sense that usually takes the lead in “buttonhead” perception.

The real challenge to writing from Zylina’s perspective was honoring the refugee experience that I haven’t had any personal access to. I wanted to avoid clichés of immigrant kid’s lives while maintaining the reality of aspirational parents, cultural ignorance in their adopted homeland, and the baggage of geopolitics that they are expected to represent. I don’t think I would have attempted this without the relative freedom of the mythopoeic space opened up by Ctesias’s inventions in the Indica.

EF: You’ve mentioned work by Ctesias and Vi Khi Nao. Were there other writers or works you thought about while you were writing “War Rugs”? In particular, I’m thinking about what you just said about trying to honor the refugee experience as a person who doesn’t have that experience. This is also a bigger question about writing across difference and representing the experience of others, I guess. How did you approach that challenge for “War Rugs”? Were there things or motifs you were conscious of trying to avoid?

BE: Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Barthelme’s story “Paraguay,” some stories from Jim Crace’s Continent, some from Helen Oyeyemi’s What is Not Yours is Not Yours, are a few of the pieces that I’ve been thinking about, particularly the way they handle slippery ideas regarding the way the West frames place and culture.

In order to get more insight on the life of migrants from Central Asia and the Subcontinent, I’ve read mostly reportage, but some of Jamil Jan Kochai’s stories and non-fiction writing have given me some particular insights on Afghan-American kids to draw from.

Things I wanted to avoid in Zylina’s story were religious extremism, helplessness, and the inability to adapt to youth culture. Media depictions of refugees often focus on the sensational and the pitiful, flattening people into endure-ers of suffering rather than full actors in their own right. For me, the best way to approach a character so unlike myself was to stay grounded in the more mundane motives that make up our shared humanity and guide most of our decision-making on a moment-by-moment basis. Zylina is a teenager. She wants love, fun, friends, independence—these aren’t culturally bound desires; they’re human ones.

EF: The ancient Greek thing runs throughout here, certainly we see it in terms of character names (Themestius, Zylina, etc.) and the Cynocephali themselves, but it’s also woven into the fabric of the story. Some early conversations I remember having with you were about formatting, since the story includes various sorts of scripts and, in an early version, several fonts and even a recipe. What Patricia and I hadn’t put together early on, though, was that the ending script is actually a Socratic Dialogue. You had to cue us in on that. Are there other nods toward Ancient Greek texts or sources that might otherwise escape the casual reader’s notice?

BE: The only specific text that I had in mind was Ctesias’s, but throughout the story, I see Zylina’s adventures as inquiries into virtue ethics of the kind that preoccupied Classical Greek philosophers. She’s realizing that like all of us, she lives in a world that’s short on justice (despite high rhetoric), but she’s trying hard to figure out what it means to live a good life.

EF: Lastly, we’re corresponding in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic—which would certainly be affecting Zylina’s door-to-door sales if the action in “War Rugs” was happening now. How are you and your family holding up? Do you think we’re going to see a lot of quarantine stories pop up over the next year-or-so, in the pages of The New Yorker maybe?

BE: Shockingly, I’ve gotten two door-to-door pitches in the last week. One for an exterminator and another for solar panels. The sales people stood back a respectful six feet from the house, but still!

My wife, Stacy, and I are merely keeping two children under two years old alive. In whatever time we have left, we are teaching courses online, pecking at writing and related projects, and maybe squeezing in an episode of Devs before bed. My social-distancing book stack is just three deep for right now: my wife’s revised novel manuscript, and two by Jim Crace, Quarantine and The Pesthouse. I don’t have great confidence that I’ll get through all of them any time soon.

I suppose that some people are writing their pandemic stories as we speak. There’s a temptation for literature to keep pace with the hot-take media cycle, but I’m lukewarm on that at best. I think it takes time to titrate these events and pull something valuable from them. But then I’m writing about characters introduced in around 400 BC, so what do I know?

 

Evan Fackler is an MFA candidate in fiction at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he lives with his wife and their cat, Zadie. His reviews and interviews can be found at Entropy Magazine and storySouth.

Announcing the annual Robert Watson Literary Awards

We’re very pleased to announce this year’s Robert Watson Literary Prize Winners:

Brendan Egan, for his story, “War Rugs

Emily Nason, for her poem, “Sertraline

Congratulations!

Read their work in full in the Spring 2020 issue , which also features new stories and poems from Helen Marie Casey, Janine Certo, Lee Anne Gallaway-Mitchell, Will Hearn, Daniel Liebert, Robert Garner McBrearty, Elisabeth Murawski, Maxine Patroni, David Roderick, Cathy Rose, Neil Serven, and Alice Turski.

Congratulations to the winners of our Robert Watson Literary Prizes

We’re very pleased to announce the winners of the 2018 Robert Watson Literary Prizes, including a cash prize of $1,000 for the best short story and poem published in our spring issue. This year’s awards go to:

Sarah Heying, for the story, “The Chair Kickers’ Tale

All of us at The Greensboro Review are proud to showcase the work of these talented writers!

The reading period for the next Robert Watson Literary Prizes is open now through September 15. Please visit Submittable to send us your work.

Spring 2019 / Issue 105

Another Happy Pub Day to Jacob Appel

Congratulations to Jacob M. Appel, GR contributor and former winner of the Robert Watson Literary Prize for fiction, on the pub day of his latest novel, Surrendering Appomattox (C&R Press, June 2019).

“Combining mystery, intrigue, and satire, Appel’s novel is a warning about how far our society has fallen down the rabbit hole of fake news and alternative facts.”
—Robert Repino, author of Morte

Happy Pub Day to Khanh Ha

Congratulations to contributor Khanh Ha on the publication of his latest novel, Mrs. Rossi’s Dream (The Permanent Press, 2019). Ha won the Greensboro Review Robert Watson Literary Prize in fiction for “Heartbreak Grass,” a short story adapted from the book.

Mrs. Rossi’s Dream has already won pre-publication awards and been a finalist for the 2016 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction (Sarabande Books), 2016 Many Voices Project (New Rivers Press), and 2016 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction (Prairie Schooner).

Robert Watson Literary Prize