Maggie Smith’s poems speak of the dangers and beauty, the tragedy and sadness, and the unforgiving joys of the world. Her poems recall the past with reflection and nostalgia, while looking through a fierce lens at the present and hoping wildly for a future, with nuance and precision and the kind of rhythmic breath that runs down a spine. And they call for attention, serious attention, to the proximity of perils, hopes, fears, dreams, desperation, lost girls, unclassified stars, motherhood, home, nature, and death. Shaping her collections to deliver warnings and reminders, memories and re-imagined myths and fairy tales, Smith constructs dwellings from her words, spaces originating in nature, in domestic life, and then shakes out their meanings so that we understand so much more than the words ever intended.
The stories of Seth Borgen’s debut collection “If I Die in Ohio” (New American Press, 2019), winner of the 2017 New American Press Fiction Prize, are stretched with strands of humor and sadness that surprise, that leap about, leaving the reader laughing, sighing, nearly crying, and then laughing all over again. One moment J.D. Salinger—humor edged with something quirky, unsettling, even tragic—and the next moment Eudora Welty—precision and sleight of hand balanced with a situation of unease, all lakeside on a summer’s day—the writing calls out and creates compassion and understanding. It becomes clear that no one else but this author could’ve written these characters, assigned their different measures of vulnerability and daring and kindness and confusion, as well as their circumstances. There are stylistic notes here that might recall previous writers, but in the writing they have shifted into a new narrative approach, one that is distinctive and bold. Endings become beginnings; men who have nothing in common have everything in common; borders crossed lead to a love that was there all along; the realization that what is feared lost was lost long ago. With this collection come stories that beckon and tease, that persuade and enlighten. To read them is to be astonished.
In his short story collection “Sweet and Low” (Blue Rider/Penguin, 2019), Nick White writes of love, trouble, family ties, and queerness, all wrapped in the heartbreak and lyricism of country songs and storytelling. Set mostly in the small towns and farmlands of Mississippi’s hill country and wide-open delta, these tales are layered with the language of the South and its complicated structures of masculinity. The reader finds herself inside a modern version of Southern Gothic, the softness of the stories here turning crystalline and then hard and brittle, as the characters contend with each other, their endings and outcomes always unexpected.
Poet, essayist, and cultural critic, Hanif Abdurraqib has produced two celebrated volumes in recent years—“The Crown Ain’t Worth Much” (Button Poetry, 2016) and “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us” (Two Dollar Radio, 2017). Collections, respectively, of poetry and essays, both walk the territory of family, friendship, and community with compassion, depth, and clarity. There is no shying away from the disparity and death that crack open these worlds; instead, there is facing them, staring right through them to what truly is and what could be. Broken bodies, broken glass, mothers’ arms, closed caskets, hunger, jukeboxes, brothers, ghosts, bullets, grieving, missing those gone and those gone missing. And inside of all this is the thought: What would it be like to look up into the stars instead of fleeing “midnight and questions that come with it”?
What Is a Sketch but a Chalk Outline Done in Pencil or Words? An Interview with Nafissa Thompson-Spires
Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s debut story collection, “Heads of the Colored People,” selected for the 2018 National Book Awards Longlist for Fiction, strides into the worlds of black women and men, black girls and boys, upending stereotypes and straining against the limits of the expected through a dark, provocative humor. With a Ph.D. in English from Vanderbilt and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Illinois, and as a Callaloo fellow, Tin House alum, and Sewanee scholar, Thompson-Spires infuses her writing with scholarly works, 90s pop culture, and contemporary concerns. Black culture and identity in conversation with the tensions and politics of race are angled in ways that refuse definition. Through the unique cast of characters in twelve exquisitely startling, hilarious, and at times poignant stories, questions are asked about connection, collaboration, assimilation, resistance, and vulnerability.
In the stories of Jamel Brinkley’s expansively beautiful collection, “A Lucky Man” (Graywolf Press/A Public Space Books, 2018), selected for the 2018 National Book Awards Longlist for Fiction, fathers and sons of the Bronx and beyond try to make their way, to negotiate and understand their world. The language here is at times lyrical, always honest, revealing the reach and fascination and discomfort of the places—of the city, of the mind—in which the characters dwell. As Robert Hunsberger (Duende) writes: “Told in nine vivid short stories, Jamel Brinkley’s debut collection, “A Lucky Man,” tugs sharply at the tender threads of intimacy, race, and masculinity. Brinkley’s prose, as fierce in its vigilance as it is in its empathy, casts new light on the delicate and heartbreaking truisms of American manhood.”
Lush with the scents of ligustrum, a fallen magnolia, an evening breeze off the Mississippi River, New Orleans author C. Morgan Babst’s debut novel, “The Floating World,” sings the world of aftermath—of devastation, desire, the city’s dead. Here is the city of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, above and beyond the ruptured levees, inside the psyche of a family wrought with longing and despair at the sight and reek of their drowned home. The five members and three generations of the Boisdoré family reveal this story in ribboning, intersecting storylines, emphasizing the truth of the novel’s epigraph from Virgil’s “Aeneid”: “Each must be his own hope.”
Bay Area author, alumna of Harvard, Radcliffe, and UC Berkeley, Hilary Zaid surprises, and her debut novel, “Paper is White,” is indeed an astonishing and successful surprise. Balancing weighted subjects with blue skies and beautiful slices of cake, with wedding arrangements and secret encounters, Zaid measures out humor with generosity, hope with passion, even grief with impossible understanding. Through narrative spun in first person, lead character and heroine Ellen Margolis finds her way in late 90s San Francisco, where elderly Holocaust survivors reveal their stories, relationships grow close and become divided, and the past lies like a wedding veil across the future.
Molly McCully Brown’s poetry collection, “The Virginia State Colony For Epileptics and Feebleminded” (Persea Books, 2017), winner of the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize, summons historical shadows along with bright beams of empathy and identity. Exploring the lives of those who were institutionalized within and employed by the Colony from Fall 1935 to Fall 1936, Brown’s poems lead us from dormitory to solitary confinement—“the Blind Room”—out into the field, the chapel, the infirmary, and back into the dormitory. The progression through physical spaces—spare, confined, and horrific—reaches beyond the Depression years, echoing back to 1910 when the “government-run residential hospital” first opened in Amherst County, Virginia and forward to its transformation to the Central Virginia State Training Center. In these pages, it becomes clear that internment was not the only plight for those within the Colony, for passages reveal the practice of Eugenics, wherein patients regarded as “defectives” underwent sterilization. Attentive to the individual bound with physical and mental difference, the collection calls up the cries and scarce laughter, the whimpering and swearing and silence of the bodies within its walls.
The poems of David Eye’s collection, “Seed”, (The Word Works, 2017), remind us to breathe, to sit inside the shimmering, heartbreaking moment, to stop and wonder and laugh. Here is a world curtained in nature, rapture, fertility, and desire, while, beyond, lies a horizon constrained and fragile and full of possibility. Relationships—the “father, filling the doorway,” the “boy slapped into manhood,” the “pretty mother,” the “sister, nearly four,” the “smiling aunt,” the cousin “in the City,” the lovers with their “breathless kisses”—wrap themselves together, then wrest themselves apart, and we are reminded of the addition, subtraction, and division that mark a lifetime. Discovery occurs and recurs in the act of turning inward to view a past, to understand the instant when everything changed, to open and examine and somehow make peace. “Seed” reveals how beginnings are intricate, how journeys are remembered by what lay underfoot—“the sweet, sharp scent of sun on dry needles”—and how we return from the wondrous, reckless place where we began.
Mary Cisper’s debut poetry collection, “Dark Tussock Moth,” winner of the 2016 Trio Award (Trio House Press, 2017), is a sweeping land, crossed by drought and flood, coursed with wildflowers and white-throated sparrows, and never apologetic, always truthful, whether reflecting on the alpine monkeyflower, searching night skies for white and blue dwarfs, or bidding a glacial goodbye. This is a naturalist’s world, one in which scientist and poet meet; where ecological transformations are rendered and, by man’s hand, ruined; wherein 17th century naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian is called forth and cocoons open. In this wilderness, one experiences mountains and meltwater, conquest and confluence, metamorphosis and migration, extinction and memory. Terrain, time, weather, and ways of seeing the world from another angle—via microscopic lens, via telescope, via wide-eyed wonder—are explored here, allowing the occasion to ponder the rich, slippery relationship between man and nature.
Award-winning fiction writer, food writer, freelance writer, and copy editor, Sherrie Flick is the author of flash fiction chapbook “I Call This Flirting,” “Reconsidering Happiness: A Novel,” and most recently, the short story collection “Whiskey, Etc.” (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2016)... Gardens, women, and music made wild; places and prospects made uncomfortable, but where one wants to linger; pie and tea and bourbon; cruel women who like men, but prefer solitude; dogs and cats and possums; moments, moods, couples, desire, and loneliness—these and more infuse energy and attitude into the 57 stories of “Whiskey, Etc.”
Margo Orlando Littell’s debut novel, “Each Vagabond by Name,” is an Appalachian tale of longing and loss, belonging and isolation, desperation and deliverance. Its characters confess the truth of life in the small coalmining town of Shelk, Pennsylvania, their simple, hardworking existence threatened by a band of thieves who have pitched camp in the nearby hills. Zaccariah Ramsy, Vietnam veteran and local bar owner, and Stella Vale, librarian and Ramsy’s once-and-eventual lover, establish the novel’s tone as townspeople who remain outside the spoken and unspoken rules of what it is to belong and not belong.
Winner of the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, Anne Raeff’s “The Jungle around Us” is a collection, honest and rare, its quietude and intimacy leading to unspoken, unforgotten places where insects roar, sirens sound, and “scratchy, old 78s” play. It is clear the author cares deeply about the characters in these stories. To read this collection is to be immersed in their lives, to become caught up in their thoughts and actions, their climates and countries, their memories and dreams.
Catherine Karnow, a visionary photographer for National Geographic, Smithsonian, GEO, and other international publications, as well as a teacher of worldwide photography workshops, continues the artistic legacy of her father, Stanley Karnow, acclaimed journalist and author of the book and television series, “Vietnam: A History.” While she has witnessed the world via camera lens, Vietnam is the focus of her exhibition and book, “Vietnam: 25 Years Documenting a Changing Country.” Her photographs of the people of Vietnam, documenting the country’s sweeping changes between 1990 and 2014, are breathtaking, emotional portraits of Vietnamese lives: the “Woman on the Train,” the “Doi Moi” economic policies and the Viet Kieu culture, the “Funeral Procession of General Giap,” and the legacies of “the American War” captured in the faces of Amerasians and victims of Agent Orange. From these portraits and landscapes, an understanding of the photographer’s deeply personal relationship with Vietnam comes forth in rich, vital, and textured layers.
Leland Cheuk—novelist, author, writer, survivor, stand-up comic—has contributed to the immigrant tale with an antihero for the ages. In his novel, “The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong,” an uproarious and rarefied version of antihero has planted his feet firmly on the crisscrossing roads of American literature. Sulliver Pong, our (anti)hero, while sitting out the final eighteen months of a four-year sentence in Bordirtoun Correctional, tells his story from the very beginning, reaching back through generations of family history, “once and for all.” Chinese-American history, from illegal opium-smuggling, imperial times in the port city of Guangzhou, China through the immigrant experience of building railroads, bridges, and towns in the American West to the political corruption of contemporary Pongs, is carved from Cheuk’s sensibilities of combining identity and a particular kind of dark humor with character—yes, our (anti)hero, Sully—and the trainload of trouble thrown Sully’s way. The narrative that arises from this combination of historical and hysterical elements proclaims a modern take on the character-driven novel, one that questions all that is familial and decides a new fate. With barely a month since the publication of his short story collection, “Letters from Dinosaurs,” Cheuk considers the novel that was his first publication, one of great attention and praise.
Bonnie Jo Campbell knows her way into the art of rural noir, her literary gaze on the landscape of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula spare with salvage yards and celery fields. Her stories are rich with raw, resilient, and untamed characters, each one coming to terms with whatever life has thrown her way. From those fiercely drawn in “Women and Other Animals” to those desperate and daring in “American Salvage,” the brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, meth addicts, mechanics, lovers, hunters, circus performers, and serious misfits inhabiting these collections will us to lean in and know their stories, for these tales are given with grit and truth and are as real as they are wild. “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters,” Campbell’s latest collection, pulls us into the worlds of women we all know, daughters and mothers who might live next door, who breathe delicate, terrible, stunning secrets into our ears. And because the language is so surprising and the stories’ directions spin in startling and beautiful directions, we cannot stop listening.
ENGINE BOOKS SERIES
Victoria Barrett, editor and publisher of Engine Books, is invested in literary worlds. The serious task of editing, design, and author- and story-centered publishing, as well as the commitment to publishing writing by women, is taken to new levels by this boutique press. To date, EB has published sixteen titles, including two of the books discussed in this issue of Newfound Journal: “You Are Free to Go” by Sarah Yaw and “Echolocation” by Myfanwy Collins.
Myfanwy Collins is a novelist and short-story author who writes of the people and places she knows by memory and by heart—the hardworking and hard-worn of the Northeast, from the shorelines of Massachusetts to the Adirondacks in New York all the way up to Canada. Her novels “The Book of Laney” (Lacewing Books, 2015) and “Echolocation” (Engine Books, 2012) share vast and beautiful landscapes wrapped in ice and lit with moonlight; themes of loss, retribution, and recovery; and characters who track their way through violence to love.
Sarah Yaw’s debut novel, “You Are Free to Go” (Engine Books, 2014), winner of the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize and the 2015 CNY Book Award for Fiction, is told in meticulous and measured layers, which are linked by the intersecting narratives of multiple characters. The novel’s incredible architecture is much like that of its fictional prison, the Hardenberg Correctional Facility: each confined cell containing one, usually two inmates; each row of cells set inside a block from the ground floor to the upper levels of the birdcage; each block a testing ground for society’s incarcerated.
Lori Ostlund is a writer whose prose is attentive and precise and streaked with wit, her characters well-mannered and seeking truths, their worlds complicated and lush. Her story collection, “The Bigness of the World,” winner of the 2008 Flannery O’Connor Award, leads us into unexpected places: those plateaus of childhood in which adults are sighted from below, each child’s perspective unique and filled with wonder and wide swathes of humor, and then on the backs and in the minds of women and men, across foreign terrain from Malaysia to Belize, from Bali to Spain to Morocco, circling back to Minnesota for grounding and good measure, emotional topographies charting the way.
“The Blue Girl,” Laurie Foos’ sixth novel, is told in the language of fairytales, immersed in metaphor, lyrical and leading to magical places, where magic is draped in sadness and secrets. The central story of the blue girl is told in the multiple voices of three mothers and their three daughters, each with the quiet desperation, longing, and immediacy of the present moment and her own unique perspective. Here, in this small lake town, Once Upon a Time is measured out in the same spoons and cups used for making moon pies, their sweet, rich denseness adding layers to the overlapping relationships within the story as each narrator reveals her part.
Mary Akers is a writer who cares deeply for words, with a sense of how lining them up on the page precisely and thoughtfully creates voice, pushes boundaries, reveals the desires and dilemmas of her characters, and invites insight into physical and intuitive worlds. In her story collections, “Women Up on Blocks” and “Bones of an Inland Sea,” she traverses wide narrative territories—the entrapment of motherhood, the length of memory, the latticework of a dying coral reef, the emotional landscape of death, and the freeing depth of oceans.
The stories of “Repairable Men,” John Carr Walker’s first collection (Sunnyoutside, 2014), are streaked with clarity, decision, and surprise. There is lightning in every one of the ten, the kind that travels sideways, striking in the most unexpected places—places along the West Coast, where raisin crops ripen in the sun or mildew and rot in the damp, where families try for understanding and conciliation and rarely end there, where objects are raised overhead, recalling lost opportunities, countries, minds. The characters here have dreams, grape knives, wolf pups, jack saws, wrenches, dead birds. Their tools are heavy, worn, close to grip, and the way they use them is brilliant and shocking. To read the stories of “Repairable Men” is to enter a world that is even more real than our own.
Lee Martin understands the language of landscape: the way light falls over a field with respect to the season, the differing sounds of neighborhoods in a small Midwestern town, the cold snap called blackberry winter, the idea of origins and belonging that all have to do with place. His short stories, novels, essays, and memoirs—“The Least You Need to Know” (Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction winner), “The Bright Forever” (Pulitzer Prize finalist), “Break the Skin,” “From Our House,” “Such a Life,” and many others—transport one to the places of childhood, memory, understanding, misunderstanding, anger, and compassion with the clarity and patience of a man seriously devoted to words. Portraits of farmland and family, of seasons and time passing are revealed in the details: wheat kernels, killing frosts, marigolds and zinnias, the worn arms of a rocking chair, the trace of a smile. These details—perfectly placed, lingered over, returned to—ground us, allow us entry into and passage throughout the story.
Luke Goebel’s award-winning first novel, “Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours,” shakes and rattles and trembles in your hands. From the first lines, the novel throws story at you, and you’d better watch your head. His voice grabs your wrist and promises everything and nothing. Words fly forward and backward—a lone eagle feather, a lost love, the moon, peyote, blanket flowers, myth, dogs, clouds, cigarettes, girls, chores, America—to speak and shout of loss and heartbreak. The ride is rough, but so is grief, and Luke Goebel, man-boy-kid of giant searching heart, knows how to tell this tale
Hothouse Magazine Interviews
from THE POPPY: An Interview Series
archived in THUNDER ON A THURSDAY
THE FROM-AWAYS - A Novel of Maine - with CJ Hauser
THE SUDDEN AND STUNNING STORIES OF WITH ANIMAL - with Carol Guess & Kelly Magee
THE NEUTRAL GROUND - with Annie Bleecker
INSIDE TERMINATION DUST - with Susanna J. Mishler
POINTS OF CONNECTION - with Bich Minh Nguyen
HOTHOUSE ANNIVERSARY ALBUM - from Sugar to the Mountain - Reprise of 2013 - 14 Interviewees
NINE-STORY MOUNTAIN - with Augusta Thomson
FORT STARLIGHT: A Florida Story - with Claudia Zuluaga
NONTRADITIONAL: The Landscape of Homecoming - with Brian R. Hauser & Christina Xydias
THE COASTAL CONCERNS OF JOEANN HART - with JoeAnn Hart
THE GAZE OF EMILIE STAAT - with Emilie Staat
SURREALIST A.W. SPRAGUE II - with A.W. Sprague II
AMY WRIGHT: In the Garden - with Amy Wright
BRAD RICHARD: from Aubade to Bacchae - with Brad Richard
SHARON MILLAR: from Caribbean to Commonwealth - with Sharon Millar
MATTHEW DRAUGHTER: Vision and Voice - with Matthew Draughter
DOMA & THE ARTS REVISITED - a multi-voiced interview
TIM WATSON: A New Orleanian Now - with Tim Watson
BROOKLYN'S JAMEL BRINKLEY - with Jamel Brinkley
JENNIFER GENEST'S WORLDS AND WORDS - with Jennifer Genest
DOMA & THE ARTS - a multi-voiced interview
ANDREW LAM: A Voice from the Heart - Part 2 of an interview with Andrew Lam
ANDREW LAM: Language, Memory, Bliss - Part 1 of an interview with Andrew Lam
YOLANDA J. FRANKLIN: Palmettos, Porches, and Poetry - with Yolanda J. Franklin
An Interview with Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer - on her story "Craving" - R.kv.r.y. Quarterly Literary Journal
St. Roch Cemetery - New Orleans, Louisiana