What’s Your Ecotone?: We are not subtle in our stay here

This What’s Your Ecotone? comes from Tracy Winn.

We make this hill our stand. We watch for life, for spring, with the cold sky waiting. Nothing happens. Maybe a raven knocks its hollow voice down the ravine. At most, a flock of grosbeaks upend themselves in the birches bordering woods and open field, tasting last year’s catkins, twittering into the silence. That’s it. Unless a plane from a Unknownfar-off base practices mountain maneuvers, that raven’s tock or grosbeak’s thin whistle is the only sound punctuating the wind or stillness of the day.

Walking downhill along the one lane dirt road that would lead us out to larger roads and busier places, we see no evidence of anyone but ourselves. Turning back, we make an awful din on the crusty snow.

We are not subtle in our stay here. Smoke pours from our stove’s chimney. The glow from our gas lamps competes with the moon. A trim line of fox prints circles wide.

Tracy Winn is the author of the award-winning Mrs. Somebody Somebody, available as a Random House reader’s circle selection. Her recent work has appeared in the Harvard Review and Fifth Wednesday Journal, and is now up on Waxwing. She sends this post from Granville, Vermont.

On Location with Josh Emmons

This installment of On Location comes from Ecotone contributor Josh Emmons, whose story, “Nu,” appears in issue 15, and was a special mention in The Puschart Prize XXXIX.

Hell-A Revisited

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Growing up in Northern California, I considered Los Angeles to be the worst city in America, synonymous with smog, sprawl and superficiality, Alvie Singer’s cultural wasteland and “the big parking lot where you buy a hamburger for the trip to San Francisco,” as John Lennon put it. My friends and I called it Hell-A and avoided it as much as possible, although, like the common cold, it sometimes struck: I’d visit relatives or go to Disneyland or pass through en route to friendlier, less toxic Mexico. After college at an anything-goes moment, I followed a girlfriend there and lived for six months in the Los Feliz neighborhood, where its sun and asphalt and artificiality so depressed me that Elliott Smith’s suicide in nearby Echo Park a few years later made sense.

Following two decades living in San Francisco and New Orleans and Philadelphia, I moved back to LA in 2014 for work, hoping I’d be better able to accept the city’s endless ugliness as a blunted forty-year-old than I had been as an idealistic twenty-something. What I found, however, is that it is no longer a vast, unrelenting space devoted to cars and bad movies, but has made great strides in public transportation, density, art, green space, tacos and sustainability: the whole New Urbanism fantasy. When people now say, apropos of what’s happening here versus the Bay Area tech takeover, that “San Francisco is a utopia gone wrong and LA is a dystopia gone right,” they aren’t wrong.

I don’t want to get too boosterish, because Los Angeles still has the worst air quality in the country and attracts a lot of demi-creative narcissists and is too hot, but I live in a stately Art Deco building downtown, a few blocks away from the excellent Last Bookstore and Broad Museum and historic theaters on Broadway. I walk everywhere and meet people uninvolved with Hollywood and find corners of the city where nature is reasserting itself. All this might sound like a low bar to cross, but I’m encouraged that a city of four million people, like so many other cities in America and abroad, is trading in a bankrupt dream of single-family homes and eight-lane freeways for an expanded train system and high-rise residential buildings and public art.

I’ll probably never stop fantasizing about living in a more instantly appealing place—a New York or New Orleans or Paris—but for now I’m happy to be in one that’s come so far in so short period of time.

Making a List: Ten Pieces of Advice from Nikky Finney’s Reading at UNCW

new_coverThis spring, University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Department of Creative Writing hosted visiting writer Nikky Finney, distinguished South Carolinian writer and teacher, whose fourth collection, Head Off & Split, was awarded the 2011 National Book Award for poetry. Before coming to UNCW I didn’t seek out poetry, but since beginning my MFA here last fall, and working as a TA for the Pub Lab, I’ve been inundated with poems. As a fiction writer, one prone to writing concise vignettes and flash fiction, I’m fascinated by the distinction between poetry and prose. I attended Nikky Finney’s public reading on Thursday, April 21, eager to hear her experience with words and form. The Kenan Hall room was packed with faculty, students, and Wilmingtonians, and I found a seat on the floor in the back, where I could only see the poet when a sea of shoulders in front of me shifted just so. But I could hear her speak, and between poems Nikky Finney offered habits that improve her writing, told anecdotes about her family and how they’ve influenced her work, and shared her deep connection to the beach. She spoke with such authority, intimacy, and openness I couldn’t resist scrawling down quotes in my notebook. I left the reading, perhaps just as muddled about the distinction of prose and poems, but armed with two of her books, the desire to get home to my writing desk as quickly as possible, and the intention to connect more deeply with the quiet places Wilmington offers writers. I’m excited to share her words and ideas that have already begun to nourish me, with our readers.

1) “You have to go to the word, go to the root, go to the definition.”

2) “That’s your job: you have to pay attention. Poems are walking by every day. You gotta pay attention.”

3) “If you do what you’ve already done, you’re gonna get what you’ve already gotten.” (advice Nikky Finney shared from her grandmother)

4) Keep an epigraph journal.

5) Talk about hard things in a loving way.

6) “Take the opportunity, so you don’t live with the regret.”

7) “You know, we live in a really noisy world.” Do something for yourself that is aware of how noisy the world is. “You have to figure out the noise in your life and then shut it down, it’s not helpful to you.”

8) “I listen to what makes my heart flutter.”

9) Face the thing you really need to be looking at.

10) “Reporting is the reporter’s job, but my job, my student’s job, your job, is to make something of what you know about humanity. Because that is why we’ve had art for thousands of years. To make us better…to have the kind of conversations we are having.”

–F. Morgan Davis, MFA Candidate in fiction, Pub Lab TA

News Roundup

We’re getting right to it this week, because we’ve got some serious horns to toot: awards aplenty from Ecotone contributors, and Lookout author Matthew Neill Null publishing fabulous stuff all over the internet. Here goes!

Ecotone contributor Erica Dawson’s won the 2016 Poets’ Prize from the West Chester University Poetry Center! Hip!

Joni Tevis won a CNF Firecracker Award for her collection The World is On Fire (Milkweed). One of its essays, “What Looks Like Mad Disorder,” first appeared in Ecotone 17! Hip!

Ron Carlson’s short story “Happiness” from Ecotone‘s Sustenance issue wins an O. Henry! Hooray!

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Matthew Neill Null, seen here talking fiction with Sam Lipsyte at McNally Jackson last week (thanks to Ethan Jameson for the photo!) has been bu-usy these past couple weeks. Here’s a quick rundown:

Matt’s dad prosecutes a dog in 1980s West Virginia over on the Paris Review blog.

Matt gazes backward at a landscape of ghosts over at Electric Literature.

Matt on the twinning of the dark and the absurd on the edge of the sea over at Guernica.

Matt reflects on writers from the other Europe over at Catapult.

Man, is there some great reading here! We hope you’re having your own hip-hip-hooray moment wherever you are, or that the good work of these folks inspires something worth celebrating. We’ll see you back here for the next Roundup!

Matthew Neill Null Accepts the Rome Prize!

We’re thrilled for Matt, who accepted the Joseph Brodsky Rome prize at a ceremony in NYC last week. The American Academy in Rome awarded prizes to thirty-one winners this year in fields including literature, architecture, and design. The winners receive a six- to eleven- month residency at the academy, located in a 17th-century villa in the heart of Rome. Below are photos from the program, including Matt’s lovely citation. “Matthew Neill Null has set himself the heroic task of describing the earth’s fallen beauty by chronicling his native West Virginia. The task is Faulknerian but he has the back for it…”

Huge congrats to Matt. See the other winners here.

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House Guest with Arna Bontemps Hemenway: Living in a Tree of Smoke

In House Guest, we invite Ecotone and Lookout authors and cover artists, as well as editors from peer presses and magazines, to tell us what they’re working on or thinking about or reading, to discuss themes in their writing or unique publishing challenges, to answer the burning questions they always hoped a reader would ask.

The following essay is from Arna Bontemps Hemenway, on the immersive experience of reading Denis Johnson. Arna’s short story, “A Self-Made Man,” appears in Ecotone 15.

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One of the realest places I’ve ever lived (or traveled, or remember) is actually the territory of a certain novel, Denis Johnson’s National Book Award winning Tree of Smoke.

Tree of Smoke is a long book; at 720 pages, its length is possibly one of the reasons why it really feels as if you’re living in it as you read it.

That’s also one of the things I like about it: it takes time. You have to live a not insignificant stretch of your life with it. You have to consider it when your thoughts drift throughout a month’s worth of showers, of doing the dishes, driving to work, walking to lunch. And this reading experience mirrors the lives inhabited in the book itself, in that they are inescapable. This is a book as much about the oppression of never being able to escape yourself and your own life as it is about Vietnam, or anything else.

For those of you who’ve never read it, I’m going to lean on Geoff Dyer here (never a bad idea) to describe what it’s about, from his review of the novel in The Guardian:

“However extensively the novel’s story is summarised it is going to be sold short. It starts in 1963. “Tree of Smoke” is some kind of CIA project. Skip, an operative of uncertain status but intense dedication, is working for the Colonel (who also happens to be his uncle). Skip has an affair with Kathy, a Seventh-Day Adventist whose aid-worker husband has been kidnapped, possibly killed. Years pass. History–as they used to say of shit–happens. Kurtz-like, the Colonel’s methods become increasingly unsound. At the sharp end are the seriously messed-up Houston brothers (who previously saw service in Johnson’s first novel, Angels). Trung, a North Vietnamese–who once tried to assassinate the colonel–is being recruited as a double agent, but, at the same time, Trung’s assassination is being plotted by the same guy–a German–who killed a priest with a blow pipe in the Philippines, back in 1963. Twenty years later, in Arizona, the Houston brothers . . . Ah, forget it. There may be no smoke without fire but in this case you can’t see the wood for the tree of smoke, or something.”

That one of my favorite novels ever produced one of my favorite reviews ever is not so surprising. Tree of Smoke is not a book you can not have a reaction to. But the central weirdness in this novel is key to its brilliance. Because it is a novel that indulges itself shamelessly, I’m going to indulge a little in this post about it, and go back to Dyer, this time in his summation:

“Johnson is all over the place and he is an artist of strange diligence. It is as if his skewed relationship to the sentence – not really knowing what one is and yet knowing exactly what to do with it – operates, here, at the level of structure. Tree of Smoke is as excessive and messy as Moby Dick. Anything further removed from the tucked-up, hospital corners school of British fiction is hard to imagine. It’s a big, dirty, unmade bed of a book and, once you settle in you’re in no hurry to get out.”

A “big, dirty, unmade bed of a book” is possibly one of the most accurate statements I’ve ever read in a review. It’s also true that if that sounds like something that you would find intolerable—that is to say, if you are more comfortable with a somewhat orderly or clean vision of life and love and suffering—you’re probably not going to enjoy this book. That’s okay, though. One of the things I admire most about the writing in Tree of Smoke is how little Johnson seems to be thinking about whether someone will enjoy it. As has been noted elsewhere, Johnson does seem to pick up and examine the different forms of Vietnam War narrative we have lived with in the four decades or so since it ended. But I think the truly remarkable thing is that he then sets them back down, finding them wanting. Then he strikes out into the jungle of his own vision.

Continue Reading

C.R.A.P.tastic

cover_1101_fullMuch of the attention of students in the Publishing Laboratory is focused on designing digital and print media for both Ecotone and Lookout. The bones of our insight into design start with one acronym that’s as useful as it is fun to say: C.R.A.P. It stands for contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity.

Our newest department—From the Drafting Table—aims to look at design in the world of publishing. For this debut post, I’ve decided to look at five cover designs from the literary journal Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies and talk about what makes them so compelling through the lens of C.R.A.P.

t_1336256674These first two covers take advantage of one very basic thing—color. If our courses in publishing have taught us anything about the business of the industry, it’s that a book or magazine cover needs to give a good first impression, even from far away. The vibrant background colors here catch our eye and hook us in visually. The white of the egg, in contrast to the rest of the cover, highlights the organic shape of the outline. Since blue and yellow are complementary colors, the yolk of the egg seems richer and tied to what’s behind it. The repetition of white tells our eyes where to make a connection, guiding our eye from the title of the journal to the food on display.

5c80859dc9b455da845e4eb924009b54This next one does a great job expressing the journal’s mission in a subtle yet evocative way. While we might expect to find images of food on the cover of a food publication, a bottle of perfume or a hamburger made of wood might cause us to glance twice. Gastronomica’s goal of using “food as a starting point to probe timely and necessary questions about the role of food in everyday life,” shines through here. It’s not just food we’re looking at, but images that summon the idea of food while blending in other dynamics of life, connecting eating to being. This is a more conceptual take on repetition that allows the theme of food to reverberate through images and associations.

1336256744Another pigment match made in heaven can be seen in the red hues of the heart and the green background. These colors, aside from being the stars of that wintery holiday, are complementary. A contrast in texture is also at work here, the silky shadows in the fabric connect our eye to the fatty components in the salami and those hallowed-out dots in the meat bring us back to the cloth. Repetition hard at work.

The food is hanging on a little less in this one, but let’s face it, it’s cool. And there are some neat tricks at play here. The gradient of the background mimics the pixelated gradient of the sprinkles. They both have a gradual fade that makes the more consistent colors pop, like the sockets of the eyes and the shadow behind the jaw bone. It brings us to alignment, to that that nice horizon line where the colors start to part.The blue gradient in the background adds dimension to the cover by transitioning to white where the bottom of 1356524289the skull begins. The image’s alignment with the backdrop, as well as its proximity to the horizon line, creates a bend that lets our eyes perceive the skull as sitting on a shelf rather than on a two-dimensional surface.

Gastronomica said good-bye to the glitzy and provocative stylings on display here and transitioned to a consistent patterned background. The change remains a mystery to me, I confess, but at least we still have these, and the new designs still provide clear instances of C.R.AP. Another pigment match made in heaven can be seen in the red hues of the heart and the green background. These colors, aside from being the stars of that wintery holiday, are P. Though the patterns vary, their size, rate of repetition, and proximity to one another reminds viewers of previous issues, telling them what they can expect and helping them to create an identity for the magazine.

That concludes our first edition of From the Drafting Table. Stay tuned for more thoughts about and examples of great design. And remember to keep C.R.A.P. in mind when looking at the world. There’s plenty to see.

–Jane Molinary, MFA Candidate, Pub Lab TA

News Roundup

As the school year ends and launches us into summer, and as the face of Helen is said to have launched a thousand ships, this week we have literary launches galore. I don’t know whether that sentence is entirely sensical, but in the spirit of launches–moments at the intersection of optimism and uncertainty–I’m going to let it stand–and springboard us into this week’s launch news!

Lookout’s forthcoming story collection, We Show What We Have Learned by Clare Beams, is right now making its way out to booksellers, reviewers, and other taste makers. We were happy to reveal this week, through our Instagram account @lookoutbooksuncw, a full preview of the press kit. Here’s one view of the process. Head on over to Instagram to see the rest, and the final kits.

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Lookout author Matthew Neill Null has had an exciting week! His short story collection, Allegheny Front (Sarabande), launched on Tuesday. His story, “Gauley Season,” part of the collection, was featured on Electric Lit‘s “Recommended Reading” this week, and  Matt will be in conversation next week with Sam Lipsyte at McNally Jackson in NYC, talking about the book and his relationship to West Virginia.  If you’re not in the big apple (or, ahem, don’t want to launch yourself over there), you can read Matt’s awesome essay about writing about the “real” West Virginia over on Lit Hub.

9781594633010Former Pub Lab TA and Ecotone designer Garrard Conley also launched a book this week. Boy Erased tells the story of Garrard’s experience in ‘Ex Gay’ therapy. He discusses the book, his family, and his time at UNCW over at Electric Literature.

We’re also thrilled for Ecotone contributor Rebecca Gayle Howell who has been launched into a new position as senior editor of the Oxford American.

We hope your weekend is launching you into fun a productive activities. We’ll see you at the next Roundup!

 

What We’re Reading: The Graduation Edition

In honor of the MFA students graduating from our program at UNCW this semester, and because we think National Poetry Month should be every month of the year, we found four graduating poets and one professor to share the poetry collections sitting on their bedside tables. What we discovered is a delightful array of poetic bounty that is sure to help inspire through the long days of summer–or life in the “real” world.

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photofrom left: Pernille Smith Larson, Jacob Bateman, Christina Clark


I’m reading Ron Rash’s New and Selected Poems alongside The World Made Straight. I’ve become obsessed with his North Carolina/ Appalachian lexicon and how his masterful prose lines sometimes read like poetry. I’m beginning to see that he operates much like Carver in that some of his narrative poems reincarnate in his novels, and I’m always a sucker for genre-stealing/genre-complicating. Up next is Above the Waterfall, which I hear is even more lyrical. At this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised if I read him outright by summer’s end.

Elizabeth Davis, MFA candidate in poetry


I’m currently reading Chloe Honum’s poetry collection The Tulip-Flame. Initially, I picked the book up because it was chosen by one of my favorite poets, Tracy K. Smith, for a first book award. The Tulip-Flame includes different narrative strands with thematic connections: a mother’s suicide, a failed romantic relationship, the art and practice of ballet, and the growth, decay, and resurgence of a garden. These poems are stark, short, and gorgeous. They are both emotionally restrained and deeply moving. Not too long ago, I heard a writer tell an audience that writers should read outside of their comfort zone, by which s/he meant reading the kind of poems, stories, novels, etc., that you do not write yourself. I’m reading outside of my comfort zone by reading The Tulip-Flame, and it’s an inspiring and pleasurable experience.

Pernille Smith Larson, MFA candidate in poetry


Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, by Franz Wright, was one of those books I’d been told to read about a half dozen times, but had never gotten around to. The poems are brief and clear. You can read them very quickly—they have that kind of accessibility, which generates interest in what comes next. Moving back through them it became clear that they work just as well if you take each poem slowly and seriously. I remember a professor once saying, of some poem we’d read, that it was unimposing in its artfulness. I thought of that often reading this book. I think it’s the kind of work most poets would really love to be able to generate.

Jacob Bateman, MFA candidate in poetry


I first heard about Anne Sexton’s Transformations via Pernille Smith Larson, one of my MFA classmates. I had been working on a fairy tale series, and the collection was mentioned as a good potential reference for inspiration. Transformations is striking in that it haunts and at the same time manages humor. It retells old Grimm fairy tales while also redefining and refining them into modern poetry. Sexton accomplishes this in part through her use of more modern diction and imagery. Prior to reading this, I had also read a handful of Sexton’s most famous poems, “The Starry Night” and “Her Kind” come to mind, as well as her award winning collection Live or Die. Transformations lived up to and has exceeded my expectations as a collection. It manages to breathe new life and adult themes into stories that have been around for centuries–stories that we’ve known in some version since we were children. I would really recommend this book to anyone interested in fairy tale lore or anyone who is a fan of Sexton’s other works. Especially if you are inclined—as I am—toward weaving fairy tale imagery and concepts or themes into your work.

Christina Clark, MFA candidate in poetry


I have two very different books next to my reading chair. One is just out from Emily Carr, a former student and UNCW alum: Whosoever Has Let A Minotaur Enter Them, Or A Sonnet from McSweeney’s Poetry Series. It is bold, fresh, fractured and surprising, trying to approach emotion through language in new ways. The other is Tugs in the Fog, selected poems by Joan Margarit, the Catalan poet. Margarit has written some beautiful, direct poems about ageing, grief, and memory. I find myself moved by both books, in different ways.

Mark Cox, MFA faculty in poetry