In early February, more than 12,000 writers, editors, teachers, and publishers descended upon Washington, DC for the annual the 50th Annual AWP Conference and Bookfair. Taking a break from the action (read: filling tote bag after tote bag with new books), four UNCW MFA candidates stopped by the Lookout + Ecotone booth to share with us those titles that carried them into the new year.
Station Eleven was suggested to me by a trusted reader friend after hearing my complaints about literary depictions of post-apocalyptic worlds that leave civilization in a survivalist state. The narrative follows Kirsten, a traveling performer, twenty years after a viral outbreak killed most of the human population. She tours with a band of actors and musicians who perform in the villages and settlements they rest at within the Midwestern United States. The troupe’s go-to performances are Shakespeare plays. I had my copy of the book signed by Emily St. John Mandel at last year’s AWP, even though I hadn’t finished it at the time. What I admire most about Station Eleven’s narrative is its devotion to the survival of the arts instead of just that of humans. It defines being human as preserving these arts, which make up our culture. Without drama, music, writing and art, what would our existence be?
—Will Dean, MFA candidate in fiction
George Harrison said, “Music should be used for the perception of God, not jitterbugging.” In Robert Ostrom’s latest collection of poems, Ritual and Bit, we see an artist not only challenging us to perceive a God but also talking directly to a God in prayers, an artist inserting himself into the story of creation. What is it to be homesick with spiritual memory, being fully aware that we’re reconstructing our memories every time we retell them? Ostrom leads us through with intimacy: “Trust me, says what you’re about to read to your beautiful ear.” He takes us to a place where words are relics—each one holding a little life, beauty, loss. And we leave haunted, but in a good way. We’ve felt an exquisite purpose.
—Ashleigh Bryant Phillips, MFA candidate in fiction
Over the summer I began reading What About This? Collected Poems of Frank Stanford. Stanford was a Southern writer who, because of his early death by suicide in 1978, was not widely read during his lifetime. This collection was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2015 and includes previously published and unpublished fragments of poems. His poems are relatively short, usually less than thirty lines, but because of their cryptic language they speak above and beyond any single moment. Stanford has the ability to talk about these strange characters from the South and Midwest without being anchored in an exact time or place. I read his work and know that whatever sense of understanding I glean could still be so far from the vast map of meaning he had in his head at the time of writing, and that is the exciting part. I am left with raw emotional data every time I read his work. His poems are like circus freak shows moving through the night on an open train; there is a history in each word but the reader only can glimpse it for a passing second.
—Graham Irvin, MFA candidate in poetry
I’d been meaning to read Eula Biss’s first book, The Balloonists, since reading her essay collection last year. The Balloonists works as a series of prose poems, one long poem, or a lyric essay; her Anne Carson-like genre defiance is one of the reasons I keep returning to her. She studied nonfiction under three poets and after reading this book—about married couples as people “not especially interested in intimacy, who somehow ended up married,” and about Biss’s mother, who tells her that she is “not a liar, but that she is not what [Biss] writes about her”—I think poetry may be the most insistent way to learn how to write in prose.
—Rachel Castro, MFA candidate in nonfiction
To help celebrate Chinese New Year, this reminder of one memorable rooster from Ecotone 18.
Having survived the first few jam-packed weeks of grad school, the first-year MFA candidates are already looking back on August with a nostalgic glow, remembering a different era when they could read purely for pleasure. We asked two fiction students, one nonfiction student, and one poetry student to discuss the books that they were reading and re-reading as they started the MFA program, the ones that made them excited and inspired, and the ones that perhaps they’ll pick back up in December.
I’ve been working my way through a small pile of pastoral literature as research for a piece I’m working on. All were set before 1950 and I wanted to add something more contemporary to the mix. I picked up Evie Wyld’s All The Birds Singing and found a realistic, harsh, yet beautiful rendering of surviving on a farm. The story traverses landscapes, from a small British Island to the Australian Desert, connecting place to the narrator’s personal history. It’s a story that doesn’t shy away from cruel or vulgar situations. Instead, it embraces them and pinpoints the beauty that can be found there.
—Suzzanna Matthews-Amanzio, MFA candidate in fiction
A particularly bookish friend told me I must read Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Feathers, so off to the bookstore I went. The setup to this 114-page novel is fairly straightforward: a recently-widowed father and his two young sons are visited by a shape-shifting, mischief-loving Crow (the titular “thing with feathers”), who takes up roost in their London home while they grieve. What isn’t straightforward is how Porter chooses to tell his tale, mixing poetry, prose, play, and essay, cycling frequently between the viewpoints of the father, his boys, and the crow. It’s a bizarre and deeply beautiful book, and left me wondering how a happily married, thirty-something, first-time novelist can so masterfully capture what it’s like to be ensnared in such crippling grief. But also: where was this voice and what will it say next?
—Jeff Oloizia, MFA candidate in fiction
I’m reading A Field Guide to Getting Lost, a book that first intrigued me as a fan (read: President of the fan club) of Rebecca Solnit, but also caught my attention for its title, posing as a type of manual for losing oneself. Solnit seems to peer so deeply into moments that feel undiscovered, or unnoticed, or simply ambiguous in their beautiful, human complexity, that she actually gives these ideas a type of directional clarity. But the way in which she muses on the idea of being lost itself allows her readers to lose themselves with her, to feel a comfort in what we don’t know or have yet to discover, and to rejoice in where we arrive together as the exploration unfolds. And we trust her as our guide because she so eloquently blends her personal narratives with cultural and historical examples, finding nuance and meaning in our shared human experience. This book feels important not only for the strength of her craft, but for the value in what we can take from it, as writers and thinkers, delving into uncharted territories of our own.
—Nicholl Paratore, MFA candidate in nonfiction
This summer I reacquainted myself with Larry Levis through The Widening Spell of the Leaves. The title is an effective metaphor for the way his best work operates, beginning in scene and then expanding imagistically outward and ever-outward to include politics, place, and history. Like the visual trope of the molecule that expands into a galaxy that expands into a molecule as the perspective widens its scope, the poem eventually leads us back into a single moment, with all new layers and resonances. Instead of a poet’s usual sonic tricks and repeated symbols to create patterns, Levis creates rhythm from scenes and images in precise, journalistic writing that recalls Carver’s “Cathedral” and Didion’s Salvador.
—Elliot Smith, MFA candidate in poetry
Ecotone’s tagline is “reimagining place,” and we love work that brings us to a specific location, real or imagined. In this department, Save Your Place, we highlight our favorite descriptions of place from work we’ve published at Ecotone and Lookout.
“Most of what we saw was human-built and imposed—buildings made from shipping containers or frame structures stilted above the permafrost, which, in this part of Alaska, can be as much as a half-mile deep. Or, like the baleen palms or the jawbone arches, dead things imposed on the landscape. Most of what we saw was desolate, lifeless, and frozen. In spite of this, standing by the bone arch with our feet near the icy Arctic Ocean, we marveled aloud at how beautiful everything was.”
In Seven Questions, we interview writers, editors, designers, and others in publishing. Today, we feature Erik Reece, whose story, “A Week on the Kentucky River: Reading Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Which Nobody Reads Anymore (But Should)“ appears in Ecotone’s tenth anniversary issue. Reece’s work also appears in Harper’s magazine, the Nation, and Orion. He is the author of two books of nonfiction and one collection of poetry. His book Utopia Drive, about the promise, failure, and enduring visions of utopian communities throughout U.S. history, is forthcoming form Farrar, Straus and Giroux in August.
(photo by Lee Thomas)
What books are open on your desk right now?
Thomas More’s Utopia, because this year is its five-hundredth anniversary and I’m supposed to write something about that. Joseph Stroud’s excellent collected poems, Of This World. Robert Bullard’s Dumping In Dixie. A few old notebooks.
Apart from the week you spent on the Kentucky River and the boat you built, are there other ways you have attempted to bring aspects of Thoreau’s life into your own?
I raise a large garden and I know how to make raisin bread.
Where did the idea for your essay in Ecotone come from?
Honestly, I just wanted to find a way to get more people to read that book. And I think I was looking for a way to write about the poetry of wooden boats, and wooden boat-making. I was rereading A Week when I was building my boat, and I’m sure the idea for the essay took root then. Plus, I just love to read in my boat (I’m not much of a fisherman; I don’t like the hours).
But to float and loaf, Whitman-style, that’s my jam. So I wanted to communicate that satisfaction of reading an “unroofed book” in an unroofed place where the kingfishers of the text found their counterparts in the kingfishers alighting around me on the river. Each amplified the other to make both the experience of reading and the experience of floating much more intense.
If you could spend a year writing anywhere in the world, where would it be?
A small Greek island in the Aegean Sea. All Syrian refugees would be welcomed, and given ample water and provisions. Who knows, perhaps we would try to enact the blueprint of Plato’s Republic. But with poets. Our constitution and national anthem would be Auden’s “In Praise of Limestone.”
Name a book you bought for its cover.
Probably Edward Weston’s Book of Nudes. And not just for the cover.
What emerging author or first book are you most excited about?
Ada Limón’s book of poems, Bright Dead Things. It is an incredibly big-hearted collection that will—should—establish her as a major American poet. And it also have a very cool cover.
Typing or longhand? Longhand in the morning, typing in the afternoon—and at night if necessary.
Whitewater or flat water? Since I almost drowned on whitewater last year, flat water for a while.
Morning or night? See above.
E-reader or print? As John McEnroe would say, you can’t be serious.
Vowel or consonant? Ohio is the most beautiful word in the American language. Draw your own conclusions.
Canoe or kayak? Whichever has the most beer in it. So, canoe.
Bookmark or dog-ear? Bookmark, usually a parking ticket from the intolerant campus police where I teach.
Cake or pie? Ice cream.
Mountains or sea? If I decide, mountains; if my wife decides, sea.
Ecotone’s tagline is “reimagining place,” and we love work that brings us to a specific location, real or imagined. In this department, Save Your Place, we highlight our favorite descriptions of place from work we’ve published at Ecotone and Lookout. And in honor of our forthcoming sound-themed issue–out soon!–we’ve chosen some descriptions of place that sound good, too.
This place is from Joe Wilkins’s essay, “Boys” in Ecotone 11.
“The air is smoky and close. A bookshelf stuffed with paperback westerns and yellowed romances rests near the woodstove in the corner, and a battered pool table shines beneath the glare light of a bare bulb. Beer posters featuring bikinied, big-haired women draped over muscle cars hang from the walls. Country music drifts from a dusty radio on a high shelf behind the bar. Though the long antenna is flagged with tinfoil, whirrups of static snap through the jangling music. On the same shelf sits a small black-and-white television, the screen shifting and flickering without sound. Every table in the place is empty. The men–for they are all men at the Sportsman–sit on tall stools at the bar. Their cowboy hats and ball caps are pulled low, their elbows heavy on the bar lip, bellies sagging beneath. They look at us and do not look at us–a kind of slow, sideways glance. They tip their beer cans to their mouths, wipe their mustaches with the backs of their shirtsleeves.
From the back of the bar, fist on her good hip, Maureen looks us up and down. Maureen owns the Sportsman and is ancient and cantankerous and broad-shouldered and big as any of the men. “Boys,” she says, in a voice that means our answer must be good, “what do you want in here?”
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, to discuss themes in their writing or unique publishing challenges, to answer the burning questions they always hoped a reader would ask.
The following excerpt is from from the West Virginia essay in Matthew Gavin Frank’s book, The Mad Feast, out this week from W.W. Norton, which is a collection of fifty essays, one for each of the U.S. states. Each essay begins with a foodstuff typical of said state and then digresses from there, engaging various shadowy back alleys of regional history—sometimes beautiful, sometimes atrocious—in an attempt to uncover the answers as to why we eat what we eat, where we eat. Matt’s essay, “Spoon Bread,” about Nebraska, appears in Ecotone’s Sustenance Issue.
Though rat meat often bears traces of pesticides, heavy metals, and human excrement, and though most residents of West Virginia (save, perhaps, for the town of Marlinton—famous for the annual autumnal Road-Kill Cook-Off featuring such local delicacies as pothole possum stew, rat gumbo, and the awesomely named Peter Caught-on-Tail Gate Roll) long to shuck the backwoods “barefoot and pregnant” stereotype (after all, we have the lowest birthrate in the U.S.), my uncle empties the traps into a stockpot as his father and his grandfather and his great-grandfather did before him, adds the water, the tomato, the salt and pepper, and the hot red peppers (his personal touch). Uncle cracks his knuckles, says something about infertility, about eighty-hour underground work weeks, about coal as black lipstick, the sort he’d smear Aunt’s face with when she was alive and well and simmering anything but rodent on the range.
According to Calvin W. Schwabe’s book Unmentionable Cuisine, step one of Rat Stew: “Skin and eviscerate the rat and split it lengthwise.” Uncle dips his face into the stockpot’s steam and inhales. He calls you to the stove, puts his arm around you. You watch the little nuggets of sour meat surface and dive down, surface and dive down. You think of the pride of Debbie “The Rat Lady” Ducommun—a Californian, no less—as she said, “I do as many necropsies of rats as I can, and between 1998 and 2003 I took measurements of the hearts of 150 rats.” You take comfort in the suspicion that you are not nearly as obsessed.
You know this: that in Bordeaux, vintners trap rats that inhabit the wine cellars and subsist on the fermenting grape juice. The vintners skin and eviscerate the rodents, then brush their bodies with a thick sauce of olive oil and crushed shallots, and grill them over a fire of broken wine barrels. Apparently, the resulting meat bears the flavors of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and petit verdot grapes, the latter of which is known in French wine circles as the “little stiffener.”
You try not to think little when you think of fertility, and worry about the heritability of Uncle’s mistakes, anatomical and otherwise. You watch little heart tumble over little rib and little liver. You try to pick out the tenderloin, the neck meat. The feet. The hands. You try not to think of the appendages that anchor us into the mine shafts that only want to constrict, the earth filling itself back in, becoming whole again. This, we call collapse. You tell yourself each night in bed that those are canaries screaming into some implacable, original depth, and not the rats in the kitchen. You try not to think of stiffening bodies, of rigor mortis, of the 2010 mine explosion in Montcoal after which not a single survivor was found. The names of the dead were not released.Continue Reading