Thursday, September 27, 2007

Stuart Dybek is a Freakin Genius

For those of you who haven't heard, past contributor and 1/2K judge Stuart Dybek was named a MacArthur Grant award winner.

We offer our sincere congratulations to Mr. Dybek, along with a most humble request: Loan us $5.

Come on, we know you got it.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Review of Saturn from 29.1

Levent Yilmaz. Saturn. Translated from Turkish by Űnal Aytűr. Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York: Sheep Meadow Press, 2006. $13.95 paper (ISBN 1-931357-21-8), 101 pages.

Reviewed by Roxana Cazan

The publication of Levent Yilmaz’s Saturn, Selected Poems proposes a double achievement: a disclosure of a poetic repository which combines characteristics of Ottoman poetry, Turkish lyricism, and a modern annealing into form, and a sublimation of linguistic features of a very poetical language into an English translation which preserves its original opulence of sound and meaning. Levent Yilmaz, professor of intellectual history in Paris and Istanbul, combines in the present volume the poetic alchemy of an established creative writer and the acuity of mind of the critic and translator who revealed W.B.Yeats and Petrarch to the Turkish audience. Saturn is organized in five parts which offer a thematic voyage through an ethos combining several major themes, large as life itself: the religious spirit in the poems from Caravagio (1987-1993); the Ottoman fortitude in poems from Dream and Storm (1988-1990); the spiritual journey in poems from Lost Souls Nameless Islands (1994); the oracular verve in pieces from Tiger Time and Passing (1997); and a linguistic geography in poems from Last Country (2002).

The expression of mortality written across the pages of this volume is for Yilmaz a manifestation of temporality and tragedy. In an article recorded by Victoria Holbrook in the book’s afterword, Yilmaz compares his fascination with fatality to Odysseus’ weeping when he realizes that he is dead. Levent Yilmaz’s weeping pours into language like a river, and takes the shape of a symbolic rhetorical question: “If nature rages, why is language calm?” (“River”). It is in this language that the poet weaves themes and mythemes representative for a nation whose geography, history, and idiom rest at a cultural crossroad.

In one of his articles, critic Murat Nemet-Nejat explains how in modern Turkish poetry ,poets turned their attention to the spoken language. Turkish, a Finno-Ugric idiom originating in Siberia, values connotation over denotation. Metaphors transcend the limits of the natural world. In Saturn, the translator kept very close to the original. Yilmaz writes, “the earth does not pounce on me/ like a wild beast anymore” (“Soul, name and poison”). The vehicle of this metaphor distances itself so much from the tenor that only the clue offered by the poem in its entirety helps us solve this metaphoric puzzle. The poet ruminates on a life that contains a cumulus of performances of the self, where different masks take primacy at different times.

Metaphors assume other rhetorical shapes in hyperboles: “the history of ecstasy/ begins in the twirl of your lip” (“Magic spell”), alliterations: “the breath blowing on my ears welled up in me/ and the Forbidden began founding the world” (“Nativity”), the agglutination and the syntax specific to the original language and transposed into the target one: “death was nailed to deathlessness” (“Crucifixion of St Peter”) or “in my place, to my brother, she gives birth” (“John the Baptist”). Along with this, it is interesting to observe the perfect sublimation of the Turkish ethos into a translation that can appeal to a western audience. This trick turns Saturn into a “world in between,” to draw on a phrase Mustafa Ziyalan used to speak of Turkey. Indeed, just as his native country and its inherent or acquired culture, Levent Yilmaz’s poetry reveals a crossroad between the (Middle) East and the West, the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey, between secular culture and the Muslim Sharia, a dialectical synthesis between Islamic ideology and Byzantine iconography.

It is because his awareness of the attraction of contraries that Yilmaz successfully attempts to unite them. The religious theme of Caravaggio and the title itself point to a selection of poems centered on Biblical iconic characters and scenes mirroring the master’s paintings. Among poems like “St Matthew’s call” and “A vase of roses, and a child,” there are lines and images subtly dispersed which announce the cultural entwining proposed. “Medusa’s Head” brings forth a parallel to the Greek mythical figure; its opening line “I turned into stone” reminds one of Lot’s wife.

The next section recreates the Ottoman ethos. The opening poem builds its structure on images that exude passion and sexuality. “Pleasure’s pink marbles/ opened their wet lips/ like a black rose, I know// that dressed in a wind-threaded silk garment” (“Bursa”). The voluptuousness of the body semi-revealed by the veils of the odalisques’ garb is “buried/ under a gold ornamented dome” in Bursa, where the mausoleums of the Ottoman sultans entomb histories and secrets in “sermons or minted coins.” The Persian sword becomes totemic and brings about conquest both physical and spiritual: “with the sword springing from my mouth and seven stars in my hand…/ I will be looking down from another world” (“Persian Sword”).

Other images that construct Yilmaz’s poetic imaginary belong to a dialectic of reverie, where the poet embarks on a journey of self-discovery, “following a sightless maiden” with oracular powers. The historic dimension is widened by lines such as “I came to know/ what stone is, / what is wetness/ and slavery that creeps into the skin,” which gives a complex portrayal of the Ottoman philosophy of the conqueror who becomes responsible for the history of an entire nation. The poet identifies and simultaneously distinguishes himself from this figure, an act that triggers anxiety and sadness.

Eventually, the poet finds consolation in a newly discovered world of sound. Contraries do not frighten him anymore because he understands that “the world is large, we know,/ the sound it makes is heard in the heart.” In his world, “‘Intercordial’ travel is difficult in this part of space,/ distances grow long, custom becomes varied;/ on this side, voices speak; in another region signs communicate” (“Saturn”). The poet’s solution crystallizes in the concluding desire, “If only this last country which they say is not for him were his country;/ if he could touch words here, keep them in hand, and then fling them/ moonward, he would attain language; he could be daring/ he could be lost” (“The Last Country”). And this is what Levent Yilmaz does in Saturn: he grasps the words, utters them, and “attains” a language which turns the poet into a sounding clarion.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Funk is a Many Splendored Thing

Although the idea for our Funk section was not to provide a single definition of Funk, if you're going to discuss an aesthetic, it's important to have the proper points of reference. With that in mind, I started thinking about what I would describe as Funk's primary texts. This actually took a lot longer than I thought it would (and I ended up not including some important stuff, forgive me Rick James!) but here's what I came up with, after the jump.

1. "Make it Funky" by James Brown – Could be considered a primary text of Funk, from the High Priest of Funk, Soul Brother #1, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Star Time, The Godfather, James Brown. Listen for the last part of the song where JB basically reads a soul food menu and makes it sound like poetry. James, you had me at neck bones.

2. "Zinabu" by Bunzu Sounds—Part of the African Funk movement of the late Seventies. This song is featured on an album called World Psychedelic Classics. Great album, btw.

3. "Freddie’s Dead" by Curtis Mayfield—That’s what I said! This was part of the classic Superfly soundtrack. Curtis Mayfield is one of the greats. His voice is both angelic and rough. The guitar riff is classic and the way he arranges so many elements (listen to the harp!) in this piece is incredible.

4. "Nutbush City Limits" by Ike & Tina Turner—I know we’ve all seen the movie, but if you’re not up on Ike & Tina’s music, you only know half of this story. Tina is one of the funkiest women to ever grace the stage and Ike is boss on guitar.

5. "Dance to the Music" by Sly & the Family Stone—Sly was a master of bringing Funk to the mainstream without losing his focus on The One. Genius.

6. "Doin’ It to Death" by Fred Wesley & the JBs—Although James Brown does vocals on this track, Fred Wesley, one of the pioneers of funky horns (he worked with Ike & Tina, too) steps forward to deliver a dynamite solo. After helping JB develop his funky formula, Wesley (and Bootsy Collins and Maceo Parker) joined George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic movement.

7. "Up for the Down Stroke" by Parliament—George Clinton at his best. Funkier than a miskeeter's tweeter.

8. "One Nation Under a Groove" by Funkadelic--Getting down, just for the Funk of it.

9. "Lady Marmalade' by LaBelle—Probably one of the funkiest all-female groups ever, LaBelle consisted of Patti LaBelle (That’s not her real name, by the way. It’s Patricia Holt), Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash. They used to be a quartet, but Cindy Birdsong left to join the Supremes (if you’ve seen Dreamgirls you know all about it.) Anyway, Patti is amazing and this song is sooo Funky.

10. "Mama Feelgood" by Lyn Collins & The J.B.s—Lyn Collins was signed to James Brown’s Star Time label. She is one of the few artists who could sound almost as Funky as JB with his band.

11. "Fefe Naa Efe" by Fela Kuti—If you haven’t met Mr. Fela Kuti, it’s an honor to make this introduction. Fela is one of the pioneers in the aforementioned African Funk movement. His music is Funky and political (he was exiled from Nigeria for criticizing the government) and cool as the other side of
the pillow.

12. "Superstition" by Stevie Wonder—Innervisions and Talking Book are incredibly Funky and cerebral albums. I love me some Steveland Hardaway Judkins!

13. "The Payback" by James Brown—I don’t know karate, but I know ka-razor! Another primary text of funk. This track was supposed to be on the soundtrack for the sequel to the Blaxploitation movie, Black Caesar, but was deemed “not funky enough” by the film’s producer. According to, at the time of the recording, JB was dealing with flat sales, a 300+ tour date/year schedule, and the death of his son in a traffic accident. Heavy stuff. Heavy, funky stuff.

14. "Maggot Brain" by Funkadelic—The title isn’t necessarily a turn-on, but this song features the greatest guitar solo ever recorded (and I love Hendrix, by the way). When guitarist Eddie Hazel asked George Clinton how he wanted him to play, the legend goes that Clinton told him to think about the saddest thing he could think of and then play. Hazel said he thought about his mom dying. I love this song because if you listen closely you can almost hear a story being told.
Narrative and Funky. Incredible.

So that's my (very incomplete) list. What would you add?


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Notes from the Slush Pile: Filling the Forms

Now, this doesn’t happen too often, but sometimes a poet, probably one who’s taken a creative writing class or two, gets it into his or her head that it would be a good idea to submit his or her sestina or pantoum assignment for publication...

I have nothing against teachers assigning sestinas or pantoums. I think they are very useful exercises. And I’m a big fan of formal qualities in poetry; that is, when they’re done well. But more often than not, the sestina/pantoum reads like a form that had to be filled out—name, address, social security number.

Of course these are both very difficult forms, so it’s no surprise you might feel a great sense of accomplishment at having completed one. But income tax forms are also very difficult to fill out, and that doesn’t make them poetry.

So when you’re thinking about sending out your next sestina/pantoum, ask yourself, is the subject I’m writing about one that would be served by a lot of repetition? Does the repetition serve to move the poem forward, rather than merely to bring it back around to where it started?

You should know I’m probably more biased against these two forms than are most of the poetry editors and readers here. I just happen not to like them. But it seems only fair to be honest about my biases as a reader.

And sestina writers take note: even McSweeney's has stopped publishing them.


Monday, September 17, 2007

A quick writing exercise

This should only take 15 minutes. Tops.

Grab the nearest person next to you: your mother or lover (hopefully not both), your co-worker, your Maytag repair person -- whoever. Give them fifteen small strips of paper. On five of these strips, ask your benefactor to write five different Locations (aim for the ultra-specific, like a rusted sagging shack, or the flooded back room of a post office). Fold these up and place them into a sandwich bag.

For the next five strips, ask the person to give you five different Emotions. Again, aim for the specific (if it's anger, what is the anger towards?). Fold these and place them in another baggy.

The last five strips get Embellishments. Anything that adds attributes, description, and/or texture to any situation. The sound of snores, a pudding-like consistency, an elephant that snores and has pudding-like consistency. Fold 'em, bag 'em.

Now shake these baggies like a Polaroid picture. Pick a trigger from each. In one (possibly nonsensical) bursting free-write, write at least one block where all three of these things come up. None of these triggers needs to take over the subject of the free-write -- they just need to make an appearance.

Ten minutes.

Now write!

(If you appreciate having created a sentence/image/moment from this exercise, please post in the comment section. I'd love to read it.)


Friday, September 14, 2007

Bluecast: Crystal Wilkinson

2001 Indiana Review fiction prize winner Crystal Wilkinson reads and discusses an excerpt from her short story, "My Girl Mona," featured in our 2002 Writer's of Color issue. The deadline for our 2007 prize, with final judge Lan Samantha Chang, is October 15th.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Picking up on what Hannah wrote…

Rejection stinks. No one likes rejecting folks any more than folks like being rejected. Well, maybe some folks. Not us.

I have to say, though, that in the past couple years, my attitude about receiving rejections for my own work has changed. Quite a bit.

In the beginning, when I first started sending my work out, I received the inevitable rejections. I was crushed, of course. And after moping around the house for a few hours, occasionally looking at the rejection but really being unable to bear it, I’d file the rejection away for that other legendary inevitability: the tax man. (You’ve heard this, right? That we’re all supposed to save those rejection letters for when we’re audited? Don’t know if that’s true. I’ve also heard of people’s various rituals for disposing of rejections, too. These rituals sound very much like what folks do after a bad breakup, or any breakup, really: tending to involve booze, or fire, or both. Maybe black markered-mustaches, too.) Recently, however, the rejection’s arrival thrills me. It doesn’t thrill me more than if the work had been accepted, of course, but to finally hear! To finally know!

And it helps to know that the selection process is not perfect, is not the only say; that one poem rejected at Journal X may be happily published by Journal Y. (Is there a Journal X? If so, I don’t mean you, Real Journal X!) There’s plenty of evidence in support of that fact in this article on Knopf’s dark secrets, if you don’t believe me.

If you still need some of that ritual healing, though, here’s an idea: write rejection slip poems or (super) short shorts—that is, poems or short fiction to fill up the back of your rejection slip. (Denise Duhamel has a poem in 29.1 that inspired this idea: $600,000. It was, if I recall correctly, written to fit onto a bill of play moolah.)

Nothing better than turning a pile of rejections into a pile of new work, I say.


Monday, September 10, 2007

Review of Get Down from 29.1

Asali Solomon, Get Down: Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006. $21.00 hardcover (ISBN 0-374-29942-0), 194 pages.

Reviewed by Chad B. Anderson

Get Down, Asali Solomon’s debut short story collection, humorously yet tenderly explores the African-American middle and upper-class in and near Philadelphia. In five of these seven stories, the principal characters attend predominantly White private schools, navigating the racial politics of lunch rooms and middle school dances, while returning “home” to communities that call them “Oreos” and “Aunty Tom,” or mock the way they “talk proper…like somebody on TV.” Indeed, Get Down probes the entwined, yet frequently conflicting spheres of class and race. In Solomon’s collection, Black parents shake their heads at the Malcolm X Projects, but frown on Black families who move to the suburbs; a wealthy Morehouse student obsesses over the fair skin of his ex-girlfriend; and a pre-teen girl pins a rumor’s origin on the only other Black student in her grade to protect a racially-ambiguous gossiper.

Part of what contributes to the complexity of Get Down is that Solomon not only tackles race and class, but also gender, sexuality, and religion. In “William Is Telling a Story,” the protagonist—sharp-witted, confident, and overtly masculine—becomes speechless when he cannot sexually perform with a white woman in Jamaica, exactly one year after his weight-lifting partner gives him oral sex. In “Save Me,” a Christian camp director with a “dripping Jheri curl” encourages campers to accept Jesus by reminding them that they “could all be killed this very night” and go to Hell; meanwhile, the story’s agnostic narrator dismisses the director’s claims, but remains, years later, “aware of moving closer to death.” Within these stories, Solomon explores homophobia and religious duplicity in the Black community, yet does not confine her characters to a narrow preoccupation with their Blackness, which too often happens with African-American characters in fiction. Solomon’s characters are distinctly individuals; each with hang-ups and neuroses of their own outside of race, and her attention to her characters’ struggles prevents them from becoming “stock” Black characters.

In fact, what is most laudable and captivating about Get Down is Solomon’s precision of character. Solomon’s characters are inimitable, yet pleasantly familiar. In “The Star of the Story,” there is Akousa, the forty-six year old hairdresser who sells marijuana on the side and is nostalgic for her days as a salsa dancer. Akousa’s son, Eduardo, plays the role of funny man around young women to compensate for his obesity, while lusting for his cousin. In “Party on Voorhees,” Vetta sports “an obvious hair weave,” and claims to be Puerto Rican, Irish, Native American—everything but Black. These characters are our aunts, our best friends, our enemies, and our neighbors just around the block—Solomon has created a diverse community through which she explores the tensions between men and women, between parents and children, between “Oreo” and “ghetto,” between the upper and working-classes. Not only is there a constant pushing and pulling between people in this collection, but also within the characters themselves. These characters are in transition—between Black and White, between youth and old age, between love and lust, or simply coping with puberty. Thus, the characters’ “in-between” states thread a sense of restlessness, disillusionment, and desperation through Solomon’s fiction.

In the story, “That Golden Summer,” thirteen-year-old Zuie spends her summer in a low-cut yellow dress, hoping her school crush—a White boy she fantasizes about kissing in the nude—will phone her. He never does. One afternoon, two strange men stop her in front of her house while her family is away and ask her to take a ride with them, before realizing her young age and driving on. Later, she learns that two teenage girls are missing from her neighborhood. When Zuie’s mother berates her for talking to strangers, explaining that “you can’t imagine the things that men do to little girls,” Zuie thinks, “For once, they wanted to do it to me. To me!” Zuie’s loneliness and sexual restlessness are so acute that the advances of probable kidnappers flatter her. In the transition between youth and adulthood, struggling to grasp her sexuality, Zuie stands on the edge of danger, leaving the reader wondering what will be the expense of satiating her growing desires.

Like Zuie, Solomon’s other characters verge on change—often their own emotional, social or psychological undoing. Solomon concludes her stories before her characters cross the threshold of transformation, just as they come to realizations that force them to waver over an emotional edge. With this in mind, the collection’s title becomes particularly resonant. Though it nods at the idea of music and dancing—both of which play a significant role in the stories—the title “Get Down,” actually holds a more ominous meaning. In “Party on Voorhees!,” Sarah, recently transferred from a predominantly White private school to a public school, notices three boys sliding guns into their coats at a party, shouts, “Get down!” and flings herself to the floor. Over the laughing crowd, her companion explains, “Girl, he’s not trying to shoot us.” Sarah, weary of transitioning between two worlds, resolves, “‘I just want to know what the fuck is going on.’”

Like Sarah, the characters of Get Down are waiting for a gunshot—metaphorical or otherwise—that, for better or for worse, will send them over the edge. In this sometimes sad, often funny, and always bittersweet collection, Solomon’s characters struggle to understand and connect with their parents, their friends, their lovers, and most of all, themselves. Get Down’s epigraph is a quote from rap artist Jay-Z: “This can’t be life.” After finishing this collection, however, readers may realize that these stories—the fragile people, the messy relationships, the intimate gestures and fleeting moments—are indeed accurate reflections of life. Solomon’s dialogue and humor are sharp and perfectly timed, her details stunning and precise, and her first literary effort is fresh and satisfying.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Notes from the Slush Pile

Over the summer I've been reading the backlog of poetry submissions received during the past school year. The process of pulling poems out of dozens of envelopes at a time is occasionally thrilling (when I find a poem surprises and delights me), often tiring, and never dull...unless you sent us a twenty-page "found" epic culled from the pages of some government document. Please don't.

Sometimes even when the poems are not that good, I still wish I could respond to the person who wrote the poems as a person, and I feel a little sad that the blank rejection slip we'll send doesn't really offer a way to talk about anything but the writing. So here are a few non-poetry-related thoughts I've recently had, inspired by slush:

Your apartment sounds nice.

I'm glad to know your bone marrow transplant was successful.

You know, people who write poems like this live in such predictable locations.

Three months in China--sounds fascinating!

I'm glad that your walk through the moonlit snow cleansed your spirits.

Maybe your friend needs to call the suicide hotline.

I hope the fact that your poem was accidentally sliced open with the letter opener has not hindered my reading of it.


Monday, September 3, 2007

Don't forget the comics

All you comic artists, graphic storytellers, visual spinners of narrative—we here at Indiana Review still would love, love, love to see your darlings. Some of our past comic contributors include Gene Yang, Chris Lanier, Rachel Masilamani. And in case you haven’t noticed, tucked in (but never neglected) with the “Graphic Arts” section of our submission page, we’ve been open to comic submissions for some time now.

Maybe we should revise this business of putting comics in with purely the visual arts section? After all, comics are just another form of fiction. (Graphic) Short stories, (graphic) novels—sure the medium is different, but the genre is still the same. Still we can’t dismiss the beauty and craftsmanship of the comic artist’s visual talents. This is what we’re looking for in comics: a healthy dose of eye candy with a strong story to tell.