THE BLOG @ TIR
November 11, 2011
I’ve often wondered if it’s possible to approach writing in a similar way to how my fine artist friends approach their craft. As an undergrad, I first started writing stories at about the same time I was hired to work at the bookstore at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. For two years, I spent afternoons shuffling around the store looking at books and trinkets and talking to my co-workers who were mostly all artists themselves. There was Frieda, who made hammerhead sharks out of leather, and Kim, who froze and gutted a dead raccoon to embalm in a jar. Zan made abstract paintings of spaghetti, and Hana returned to her exhibit every day through the length of her show to burn up an object she had papier-mâchéd. I listened to all these projects, amused and amazed, and thought, Why can’t I do something like that?
Of course, fine art and literature are two different art forms, but seeing all those images and sculptures and installations implanted access to original thought and feeling in my brain that I’ve wanted to somehow embody with stories. So I spent my first semester at the Writers’ Workshop sitting with nude models for six hours a week, listening to my drawing teacher show us how visual narratives are constructed with a play of light and dark.
I almost didn’t take the class. Without any formal training, I got most of my art history education from children’s books—first Adventures in Art (which made me think, Yes! Art is an adventure!) and later, in Europe, a dancing warthog guiding me through the Uffizi Gallery and describing The Venus of Urbino as “this pretty naked girl.” I wanted to experiment with the children’s-book form that uses both images and words, so I made my own picture book filled with color pencil “illustrations” of stick figures with their heads cut off. It took nearly half a year to write and draw the first draft, and then about five seconds for my drawing teacher to flip through it and say, “Are you sure you want to sign up for this class?” Still, he let me stay.
He taught us how the whole drawing has to rise up from the page at the same time, and told us not to get attached with the marks we make, but to lay them down, move them around, and feel out the shapes and layers of the lines. One afternoon he called us over to stand behind the models. “Isn’t that beautiful?” he said. The shadows of the blinds curved over their backs. The mounds of their skin reminded me of sand dunes—like we were standing over the desert.
I’ve heard suggestions that I should collaborate with a professional illustrator for my stories, but it’s difficult to explain that in “writing” I needed to do both. I think what drew me to pictures, that first day I drew the stick figures’ squiggly house, was how literally I could see it on the page. I had to draw the house to know there would be a forest, and I had to draw the forest to know there would be pears. Like my stick people, words, too, are symbols that the brain takes in and transforms into meaning—or images. And when I get lost in my own writing, it’s like I have see it—to know how to lay down the bones and let the narrative rise from slowly building up the shadows and the light.
Hannah Kimei is TIR's fiction editor and a first-year student in the Iowa Writers' Workshop. The top two illustrations are her own work, and the third is from Grandi Musei per Piccoli Visitatori (Grand Museums for Young Visitors): The Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
November 10, 2011
Get de-funked with Defunct, an online literary magazine containing "reviews of everything that has had its day" (things like defunct fads, religions, and superheroes, to name just a few). Defunt Volume II, Issue II is ready and waiting for your perusal. This issue of the biannual magazine, brought to you by the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, features work from David Shields, Paul Collins, Daniel Nester, and others. Fight the November blues with some good reads, and don’t forget to check out Ye Olde Blogge, where Defunct editor and Iowa Review nonfiction editor Robin Hemley traces history with a box of old crayons.
October 27, 2011
What do TIR graduate student editors do when they're not opening mail at the office? Writing, of course! Between afternoons of paper cuts and envelope licking, former occupant of TIR's fiction desk Josh Rolnick was working on a collection of stories he will be back in town reading at Prairie Lights tonight. Here's an excerpt:
Dale loved the Herald Times. He loved the simple, light blue, Goudy Old Style font of the flag. He loved the half-inch green bar beneath it, confidently declaring “The Newspaper for Klamasink, Wayne, and United Counties,” as if their competitors simply did not exist. And he loved the hard-edged tenacity of the news staff. They were paid less than the reporters at the Leader, and they got far less recognition, but they stayed later at council meetings and filed three stories a day instead of one, and they wrote about the towns they covered as if their readers’ lives depended on it.
The Herald was the paper that had been delivered to his house, growing up in Klamasink Borough. He’d made the front page himself once, during his elementary school Halloween parade, dressed as a bum in his father’s oversized slacks and suspenders, half-moons of his mother’s mascara beneath his eyes. In his senior year of high school, he’d been named Herald Times Athlete of the Week for catching touchdown passes of fifty-three and twenty-seven yards in a football game against divisional rival Opal Creek. His head shot had run over the caption Tapper leads Falcons, and for weeks thereafter, people he didn’t know came up to him at Krauszer’s and Dunkin’ Donuts, offering congratulations.
Dale’d started stringing for the paper shortly after graduating college, while working full-time at his father’s luggage shop. He took any assignment they gave him, no matter how short the notice, and he paid attention— never complaining when his leads were rewritten or his editors, pressing him on a point, asked him to call back a source after deadline. He watched for job postings on the newsroom bulletin board, waiting for the right opportunity. When the Upland Borough beat opened, Dale collected his very best clips in an envelope and walked them into the office of Abe Kesting, Editor-in-Chief, introducing himself as “the stringer who wrote Turmoil in the Firehouse.” Kesting had glared at him. My meetings are by appointment. Two weeks later, though, Dale had his first newspaper job. You’re just reckless enough to be good, Kesting said.
Over his years at the paper, as other editors and reporters came and went, Dale’d developed a ritual. At the end of a reporter’s first week, usually Friday after deadline, he’d take him or her for a drink at Sal’s, three blocks from the newsroom at the bottom of the hill, in the Italian section of town. They’d sit at the bar or—if someone had a preference—one of the wooden booths along the wall, and Dale would drill down through newsroom legend and lore. He told them about the time capsule, buried beneath the composing room, with a copy of the first issue, printed in 1899: River Fest Lights Up Esquand. He told them about the time Bob Woodward stopped into the newsroom on his way back from an interview at the U.N., to use the fax. And he told them about John Derrick, the founder and ruthless first publisher, who, famously—the day the paperboys went on strike—went down to the plant, loaded up his Essex Super Six, and, over the next eight hours, hand-delivered every last copy of the newspaper himself. They’d run a picture of Derrick on the paper’s seventy-fifth anniversary, smiling, cheek smudged with newsprint, holding up hands black as tar.
Spend time in the archives, Dale advised. Read the people who came before you. Figure out how we got where we are today. When you file, lead with a haymaker, sure, but never forget the story you’re writing is a continuation of a story we’ve been telling for almost a hundred years. A prelude to the next hundred. Pour your whole self into every article, write it as if it were your last, but don’t try to be Shakespeare, don’t get too precious—Queen’s English is for the Queen—and above all else, don’t miss deadline. The paper has come out with bad articles and flowery articles and wrong articles, pompous articles and just plain boring articles, but never with no articles.
Remember, Dale said. Somebody, somewhere, is picking up the paper and reading about the death of a friend. Someone with a heavy burden is circling classifieds, looking for work. Sure, someone’s reading the funnies on the crapper, and someone else has tossed sections A and B aside so they can get straight to the baseball box scores. But right this minute, someone with a cup of coffee is settling down to the paper at a kitchen table or diner counter or bus depot as if it were a long-lost friend, a lifeline.
At least, it’d always been this way for him.
From Pulp and Paper, by Josh Rolnick, winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award and published by the University of Iowa Press, 2011. Used with permission from the University of Iowa Press.
September 30, 2011
I may be sentimental to an obscene degree, but I think most of us can agree that Susan McCarty’s “Services Pending” from our Fall 2010 issue and Danielle Deulen's “Aperture” from Spring 2011 are two essays that sucker-punch one somewhere under the ribcage and leave—if not full-on tears—at least a pause. It was no surprise to me when Lynne told me Utne Reader had reprinted the former and was also interested in reprinting the latter. I didn’t know what Utne was all about, but I was already convinced of their superior taste.
Then Lynne handed me an issue to look through, and Hugh Hefner gazed back at me and asked the question: “21st Century Sex: What are you looking at?”
“I’m not really sure, Hugh,” I said. “But I’m intrigued to find out.”
I read about modern sexual fantasies, exorcisms, debt, etc., etc., and was glad I had been asked to interview the Editor-in-Chief, David Schimke about the behind-the-scenes workings of the magazine. I had a lot of questions.
It is a real, physical space where several bins of books and magazines are catalogued and shelved by a real librarian every day.
It started twenty-seven years ago when Eric Utne, fascinated with alternative presses, began collecting journals and magazines. He began putting out a flyer of publications that became so popular that it transformed into a magazine.
Today the bi-monthly magazine requires the five editors do a lot of reading. They read through all their sources looking for articles that catch their eye, and once they’ve found enough stuff that they love, they create a “pitch packet” that everyone then goes off and reads before the final debate and selection.
“The magazine is really invented in the meetings,” said Schimke.
Sometimes topics that they’re passionate about make it up on the big board in the office, and then they look for content to fill the theme, but a lot of things they reprint are articles that they simply found surprising of compelling, no matter what the subject matter. They try to be a topical news magazine, but sometimes they’re able to look ahead and guess what the hot topics will be. The main goal is to stay a step ahead of the mainstream media.
Some articles might not get reprinted, but their topic creates fodder. “Someone will pitch the topic of El Salvador, and we’ll end up at the Chinese economy,” said Schimke. “Somehow we got there.”
About forty percent of the magazine’s content comes from the editors creating their own essays based on what they’ve read. In this way they can create multiple-source essays. If budget allows, they occasionally commission a free-lance or guest writer (for example Dave Zirin, the political sports writer), but a lot of the time the editors supply their own content or feature “shorts”—short synopses of magazines that act as an appetizer for readers.
“We want to features as many publications as we can,” said Schimke.
Utne publishes only non-fiction, since the editors consider themselves well- read and qualified in that area. “Fiction is a different animal,” said Schimke.
Not a Rerun
The Utne Reader’s website describes the magazine as a “reprint-driven publication,” but Schimke stressed the active role the editors play in arranging the content.
“We think of ourselves more as curators than a pure reprint vehicle,” said Schimke.
They believe in shortening and tightening up—working with the author or whoever owns the rights of the piece. For example, if they publish a book excerpt, the editors have to pick and choose parts and work with the author to put something together that has a specific thesis and gives a broad view of the work in a short amount of space. The result is not just a reprint, but a reedit.
Utne is fairly unique in their mission. Schimke knows of only one other reprint-driven magazine, and it was started by a former Utne editor.
A Round of Applause
Besides helping to increase the audience of alternative presses by compiling a wide range of titles and topics in one publication, Utne Reader also commends the work of alternative presses with the Utne Independent Press Awards. To date, it’s been awarded annually twenty-two times.
“It’s important in our mission that we award alternative presses and give them energy and positive feedback,” said Schimke.
There are a lot of outstanding magazines that don’t get reprinted in the Utne Reader, and the awards are a chance to give them recognition. The only criteria for a nomination is that the magazine be mission-driven and not part of a bigger group (for example, The New Yorker is ineligible).
Click here for a video of the Utne staff talking about some of their favorite independent magazines and the process of selecting the award winners.
“In this business, it’s good to get a pat on the back sometimes,” said Schimke.
We at The Iowa Review couldn’t agree more. Here’s one your way, Utne.
Sarah Kosch is The Iowa Review's intern. When not making herself indispensable at the TIR office, she can be found changing the marquee at the Englert Theater.
September 21, 2011
Our editor-in-chief, Russell Valentino, has just returned from a trip across Eurasia via ferry, plane, and Trans-Siberian Railway. Here a brief final reflection on crossing.
Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg. Sitting on a bench inside the six-story Shopping Centre Nevsky, I am again speechless, not so much this time from the contrast in time as from the one in place. Here it’s sleek, hyper modern. Leave town in just about any direction and who knows. Petersburg’s had another makeover, in some spots, as in this, by taking down entire buildings, moving all the people out, and putting up new ones just with the old facades in place, to make way for the large shiny spaces of contemporary commerce. “Business centers” sprout in high-rise mushroom patches just across the Neva. Sushi restaurants, pasta sushi restaurants, souvenir shops, and book stores line the streets. Banks are everywhere in the city center. I’ve never seen so many in one place (though in a few days, I’ll see more – in Moscow). Last night I was taken to dinner by friends to a newish restaurant overlooking Kazan Cathedral, with enormous windows, Asian fusion cuisine, a balcony for receptions. I can’t help recalling Fedya’s comment in the train when the two of us were looking out at a nothing of a village in the middle of a nowhere just west of Irkutsk: “Man is the kind of swine that can get used to living just about anywhere.” Russia is a mess, just not here.
One late afternoon a week before, I was sitting in the hall to write because I didn’t want to bother my compartment mates. I had a notebook on my lap and was looking out the window when one of the passengers from the end of our wagon came up, tapped me on the shoulder, and said something I didn’t catch. Then he pointed out the windows on the other side of the train, and there was Lake Baikal. He had never spoken to me before that, but he knew I was there and that I’d be interested to know what was on the other side of the train. Indeed I was. The night before, a woman from the next compartment with whom I had also not spoken had approached to let me know that she had reassured the other passengers about me. Reassured? Yes, she said, they were concerned about my taking so many pictures and writing in my notebook. “I told them you’re just interested,” she said, encouraging me to reassure her, too.
Those who were not too shy often asked what I was doing out here, what was interesting to me about being in this place that they apparently found at the very least uninteresting, at worst perhaps shameful. A driver in Vladivostok had asked me, as if looking for an outsider’s corroboration, “Is this a bad road?” There was a pea-soup fog of dust outside the windows, gravel flying from the trucks ahead, people congregating in threes in fours on the non-shoulder next to bus stops that I wouldn’t have ever guessed existed amid the piles of debris there, half-completed pedestrian overpasses with iron rebar sticking out like makeshift TV antennas, and cars darting left and right to avoid the holes. This went on for twenty-five kilometers. “Yes,” I said, “it is.”
I suppose one of the answers I could have given them was “because of you, to learn about you.” You encounter people differently when you’re on the road. At home you rarely have time to look, take an interest, let them talk to you. Of course, that would have made them even more self-conscious, so I didn’t say it. When my son Peter was a baby, we were returning from a road trip to Chicago one evening where we had been at the zoo, and he’d asked where we were going now. “Home,” my wife had said, thinking he would be happy, but he wasn’t. “Chigao tokoro ni ikitai,” he’d told her (in his mother tongue) – I want to go somewhere else. That, too, or something like it, could have been my response. This home of theirs was a “chigao tokoro” – somewhere else – to me.
When I told my friend Ksenia Golubovich, a former International Writing Program participant whom I later met between a bank and a pasta-sushi restaurant in Moscow, about my trip and about the question that didn’t seem to have a good answer, she immediately cut to the chase, and reminded me that “travel for its own sake is always a search for God.” Don’t you just love Russians?
In his Travels in Siberia, Ian Frazer writes that sometimes you travel when you can. He’s of course saying more than what the phrase seems to mean at first. For twenty years ago it wasn’t possible to travel to certain parts of Siberia, for political reasons, and twenty years from now it may be impossible to travel there again, for climatological ones.
From Petersburg I took the super-efficient Sapsan (stress on the "an"), which got me to Moscow at a high-speed sprint in three and a half hours. A mere five years ago all that was available was the eight-hour train, usually overnight, but now Sapsans run five or six times a day, making it possible for city-to-city commuters, who work in one and live in the other. It was filled with new Russian business people on their phones constantly. I didn’t talk with anyone.
But then during three days talking translation with colleagues at a conference at the Russian State Humanities University, I had the chance to think through a thought I’d had on the train: that translation is also a kind of crossing, only with something in your arms or better, strapped to your back, ombu-style, all wrapped up snug, babbling nonsense in your ear as you place each foot down on the path in front, careful not to jiggle too much. One day soon you’ll put it down on its own two feet to see if it can walk.
The Russians weren’t the only ones who asked me what I was doing out there. One of the voices in my head has asked this question, too. To him I’ve been slowly formulating an answer about how I’m researching a book about crossing, from one shore to another, one country to another, especially about the mixing of cultures, languages, religions, customs that takes place as a result of such physical moves, the crossings of blood, race, art. I’m thinking of mixture rather than mosaic, bastardization rather than purity. Living together as calm, healthy muts. And I think of Frazer’s phrase about traveling when you can and decide that that is only a small part of this, and that sometimes you have to travel, if you can, in order to purge yourself of past wrongs done to others, reevaluate your choices and weigh your options for the future, like after you’ve just finished a big project and are thinking about what to do next, or when a beloved person in your life has died, or when you’re turning forty, fifty, sixty, or some other significant base-ten number. And so I’ve been crossing, and looking at crossing, and all in all I think it’s a pretty good metaphor, the same as metaphor, and much more than metaphor, too.
A big thank you to Professor Natalya Reinhold for inviting me to talk at the Department of Translation and Translation Studies at the Russian State Humanities University, where the paths of dozens of translators, carriers and creators of culture worldwide, crossed last week. And also to my friend Viktoria Tikhonova, who helped me again to see, as she does every time I see her, why I’ve spent so many years of my life learning to cross in Russia.