Saturday, November 13, 2010

This Morning’s Reading

A clear winner in P&W’s litmag Q&A, and some thoughts on R. T. Smith…

Looks Like We Should All Look Into n+1

The current issue of Poets & Writers has a one-pager titled “The Journals Agents Are Reading” (pg. 82)—an enticing bit of headline-writing for writers with better submission habits than my own. (Definitely something I need to work on.) Predictably, the agents interviewed, for the most part, demurred at choosing actual “favorites,” but exceptions to that rule produced a clear winner: Three of ten agents actually did choose a favorite, and it was the relatively new journal n+1.
Said Chris Parris-Lamb of the Gernet Company: “That would be n+1. There are other places I turn to first for short fiction, but n+1 is the only magazine I read from cover to cover.”

And Jim Rutman of Sterling Lord Literistic: “I think I will risk minor ridicule for pretension and go with the still young upstart n+1.

And finally, Anna Stein of Aitken Alexander: “I have to say, for now, n+1. They came on the scene only a few years ago, but they’ve introduced the kinds of writers that no one else would go near, and I’m talking about important literary writers who push the envelope (and whom we see six months later in the New Yorker…)
Of course, there are a lot of other great recommendations and insights in the article, but I think it’s safe to say that if you’re as out of it as I am and haven’t yet had a gander at n+1, now might be the time to do so.

R. T. Smith Serves Up “Straight Shots”

One of my favorite litmags—one of the few I subscribe to and read cover to cover on a regular basis—is The Missouri Review. The current issue features a short piece from a writer I’d never read before, though I expect many of you will know him well: R. T. Smith has been published in Best American and the Pushcart Anthology, and has a number of story collections in print. But it appears his recent works—including this wonderful story, “First Meeting,” in The Missouri Review—have been short monologues from sometimes hateful, sometimes lovable, but always troubled characters. In “First Meeting,” we hear a despicable alcoholic’s lengthy monologue at his first AA meeting:
“Only a fool tries to get between a man and his story. Listen up, I am in constant search for His will on the questions of my future behavior and all other matters. I go down to the Maury’s snake turn, where the old dam left a spillway, and there I stare at the pure white water tumbling and parley with the Man Himself, as I understand Him, and He listens and gives me signs. It was not for nothing He let me be hauled back from the flames of Hell on three occasions, and I can tell by your scoffing looks and righteous sounds that you believe yourselves better than me, more in tune with rescue and the Higher Power, maybe based on some quota of meetings or agreement to forgive each other, though not a one of you has ever put a heel on the other’s neck.”
Smith compares these short pieces to traditional “stories” (even questioning whether they are “stories” at all), and concludes that, if a story is “a full pitcher of plantation punch meant to be savored gradually,” these short pieces are “more akin to straight shots, undiluted, brooking little restraint, down the hatch with full burn.” I would agree with that assessment, and would add that Smith has, with this one at least, achieved the story writer’s ultimate goal of packing a boxcar full of tense intimacy and emotion into an easy flow of words that can easily be consumed in 20 minutes time.

Monday, November 1, 2010

I can be reasonable, but...

My trip to Washington for the Jon Stewart / Stephen Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear

At the Rally to Restore Sanity on Saturday, Jon Stewart led the charge for what he called “reasonableness.” He gave out “Medal of Reasonableness” awards, and the official rally T-Shirt was a take-off on the classic “I’m with Stupid” design, only with the “Stupid” crossed out and replaced with “Reasonable.” I know all this because I flew to Washington to be at that rally, but I’m here to say to Jon Stewart and his erstwhile partner in sanity Stephen Colbert,…

Guys, I can be reasonable, but…

Flying into Washington and having the screen on my flip phone go white?? Come on!

You realize how useless a phone is without a screen, right? Even a lame flip phone like the one I’m carrying even though pretty much everyone on the planet, including my sister who just moved back to the U.S. from Argentina and her five kids, all have smart phones. Send a text? Nah. Dial any of the dozens of numbers stored in my contacts list? Nah. Use it as a watch? Nah. (And no, I don’t wear a wristwatch.) Handicapped as I was, though, I pressed on, and…

I can be reasonable, but…

Sitting on a Washington Flyer Shuttle for two-and-half hours to get into the city from Dulles? Come on!

Seven other people on that shuttle, and I probably don’t even have to ask you how many got dropped off before I did. Foggy Bottom? Check. Downtown? Check. Georgetown? Check and check. Dupont Circle? Check. My father-in-law’s cousin’s place in Petworth? Oh yeah, that sounds like last place to me! Good thing the restaurant was only a block away, or I never would have gotten my pasta bucket inside the 10:00 closing time. That was all Thursday, so I had a full day to sightsee before rally day, and…

I can be reasonable, but…

Falling deathly ill in the International Spy Museum?? Come on!

When I got on the plane at SFO, it was seasonal allergies: runny nose, burning sinuses, a Victorian lady cough every now and again. When my friends Mary and Susan and I rode the Metro over and went into the Operation Spy experience, a little more nose-blowing, but still nothing serious. But then, a half-hour through the Spy Museum exhibits, it started to hit me, and a half-hour after that, it was chills, fever, shaking, weakness, a thrashing sore throat and a pounding headache.

I made a command decision to relocate myself from Petworth to Mary’s and Susan’s hotel, lay in provisions, and quarantine myself for the rest of the day and night in hopes of beating the dreaded thing into submission in time to make the rally the next morning, but then…

I can be reasonable, but…

Spending the whole damn day and night coughing and blowing, unable to breathe or sleep, swilling Nyquil to no avail, and then waking the next day no better off?? Come on!

I was in a hotel 2.6 miles away, about a 9-minute cab ride. I had my Rally cap and my Keep Fear Alive t-shirt. I had my Rally posse and the posse had a plan, and I had to tell the posse to go on without me because I just couldn’t move.

I can be reasonable, but…

Watching the Rally to Restore Sanity on a 15-inch laptop computer screen from only 2.6 miles away?? Come on!

It was 1:30 p.m. before I was ambulatory and conscious enough to get the computer out and open up And truth be told, I wasn’t sad, really, until I saw the crowd shot from the boom camera, until I saw the National Mall covered with the mass of people that I came to be a part of, people sick and tired of the culture of fear, people desperate for someone—some leader, some media outlet, some person or persons of influence somewhere—with the courage to just be reasonable.

I did see, on my 15-inch screen, as Jon Stewart took the microphone at the end and said, “We live in hard times, not end times,” and, repeatedly, “You go first, then I’ll go.” And those words and the message embodied in them kept resonating with me for the entirety of my trip home.

…Sitting in the bistro of the One Washington Circle hotel completely surrounded by Muslims, hearing the music of their language and seeing the joy and compassion in their eyes and their movements.

...Finding the bartender at the airport willing to learn as I taught her how to make hot toddies, and then enjoying the fruits of her quick education.

…Waiting on standby for two flights at Dulles and seeing the respectful gratitude of those who made the flights and the dignified resignation of those who didn’t.

…Smiling, all of them smiling, all of us smiling with each other. “You go first, then I’ll go.”

And those words still resonate with me now.

Yeah, sometimes it’s hard to be reasonable, but the fact is, for the vast majority of us lowly humans, it’s actually much harder not to be.

My deepest, sincerest thanks to Mary Rich for not only hosting me on my one reasonably healthy night, but also braving that same DC traffic to transfer my stuff to my quarantine hole for me. Thank you, Mary!

And also, thanks to Mary Dateo and Susan Hill for raiding the local CVS Pharmacy in a heroic effort to get me well in time for the rally. Didn't work out, guys, but I got a lot better a lot faster for all your efforts and the various drugs and provisions you delivered.

Thanks to you all again for taking such good care of me!