Review of American Athenaeum’s Winter Issue: The Understanders

My editor-in-chief sent this review to me a couple of days ago (I’ve been strangely internet-averse lately and so haven’t been as vigilant with my email-checking as I usually am). The author is David R. Matteri, who has some glowing things to say about the issue and AA as a whole.
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American Athenaeum invites you to step into their “museum of words” with their latest “Understanders” issue. Inspired by T.S. Elliot’s unwavering dedication to his craft in the face of stinging criticism, the editors dedicate this issue “to every artist who stays true to their art and vision amid the naysayers.”

Reading this issue really is like walking through a museum. The “Views from the Past” section features writing from across human history. There is poetry from Li Qingzhao and the Sixth Dalai Lama, and haiku from Matsuo Basho. Sojourner Truth and Henry David Thoreau speak of gender and the human impact on the environment in a pair of thoughtful essays. We even get a few laughs from the wickedly funny play “Philosophies for Sale” by Lucian of Samosata, a chapter from Hugh Lofting’s “The Story of Doctor Doolittle,” and James Kenneth Stephen’s poem “The Millennium”:

Will there never come a season
Which shall rid us from the curse
Of a prose which knows no reason
And an unmelodious verse:
When the world shall cease to wonder
At the genius of an Ass,
And a boy’s eccentric blunder
Shall not bring success to pass

It is this journal’s mission to bring together voices from the past and present, and there are plenty of strong contemporary writers here. For example, Ed Tasca shows us how the people involved in the trial of Socrates could have interacted if they had access to twitter in “If Plato Tweeted: A Techno Defense of Socrates.” The entire story is written in tweets as Plato tries to gather support for his beloved teacher. He does his best to defend Socrates in under 140 characters but is rebuffed at every step:

@Platothephilosopher
Meletus, you were the one who brought the charges against our great teacher. And all you care about is Glucosamine’s party?

@olympusrules_Meletus
Plato, my inbox is on overload! Give it a rest!

Plato’s frustration is confounded by the technology he uses. Not only do people disregard his arguments, but they also criticize his lack of technical savvy: @Aristophanes3xfestivalwinner says, “For Olympus’s sake, Plato learn how to tweet. All ur tweets are 2 long and don’t make sense.” The communication breakdown is parallel to our own dysfunctional internet debates. It is funny, but so close to the truth that it hurts.

Jacqueline West takes a leap into magical realism with her short story “Paper Dolls.” It is about a young woman living by herself in a big city. She works at a school, but does not interact with other people or get enough to eat. Loneliness and hunger permeate the story as the woman goes about her mundane life: “No one would have noticed, she knew, if she had folded herself into smaller and smaller shapes until she finally disappeared.” Out of this crushing loneliness comes the unexplainable urge to create a paper doll in her small apartment. Over time, this doll takes shape and an eerie, life-like personality. The woman starts to hear voices as her work progresses: “Hungry, they said. Hungry.” It would be unfair to tell you what happens next; let’s just say that the departure from the real world is sudden and shocking. Trust me; you have to read this for yourself.

Adriana Páramo takes us into the poverty-stricken heart of Kuwait in her essay “Cheesus, A Very Good God.” Sent to this oil-rich country as a teacher, Páramo goes on a quest to learn more about the mass of immigrants moving into the small sheikdom. She offers an extensive history of the country’s prosperity and shows how the multitude of jobs created by the booming oil industry attracted so many immigrants that the number of native Kuwaitis dropped to 37 percent of the population by 1995. Páramo witnesses the grinding poverty and abuse that came as a result of this mass migration by posing as a Christian missionary. However, Páramo also discovers that the missionaries she tags along with are just as capable of cruelty and ignorance as the apathetic Kuwaiti government. It is a tightly written essay loaded with gritty details of the horrendous living conditions the immigrants are forced to live under with the opulence of Kuwait City looming in the background:

The kitchen, a tiny windowless room of about ten-by-fifteen feet where, despite the lack of ventilation, ten propane cylinders were connected to ten small stoves with mismatched, amended hoses. The assemblage more so resembled a grade-school science project than a functional kitchen for grownups.

There is more to this issue than just solid prose and poetry. There are also reviews and historical essays, and there is a special section dedicated to authors promoting their latest books with stories that reveal their creative processes.American Athenaeum is a rich journal with plenty of jewels to offer. With that said, I’ll leave you with one more jewel from Editor Heidi Parton: “Reading opens us up to a larger community—however remote in space and time—that is always there, and through it we realize that we are never truly alone.”
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You can view the original post (and check out more lit mag reviews) here.

American Athenaeum: The Understanders Issue Release

As the title of this post indicates, the winter 2012 issue of American Athenaeum is now available for purchase in both ebook and print form here.

The cover features a starkly beautiful image by award-winning photographer Harun Mehmedinovic and features new poetry, stories, essays and articles by Steven Cramer, William Lychack, Pat Lowery Collins, Jacqueline West and others, alongside well-loved work by revered writers from the past. Our contributors come from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, but all share a common desire to understand — themselves, other people, their own and other societies as well as the sometimes frightening, mystifying twists of fate.

I’ve written the editorial for the issue. It represents my continuing efforts to be understanding, to examine what understanding requires of us and what it offers us in return. As the need for understanding and compassion has only grown in our increasingly fragmented, embattled world, we at American Athenaeum are proud and honored to present this issue. We hope it will give you the hope and inspiration to keep pushing toward the better future we all need and deserve.

The Art of Comment Spam

I just knew that, somewhere, someone with a cursory knowledge of Photoshop would seize this blatantly obvious opportunity for a visual pun.

Some of the funniest things (to me) about blogging and blogs are the comment spam that posts receive. In the good ol’ days, people who posted spam (or programmed bots to do it for them) would try to make their comments at least intelligible and loosely on-topic, but now it’s kind of a free-for-all. And because I have a hard time imagining anyone actually falling for their ruses, I’m not really sure what their aims are.

Sometimes they mostly make sense, like this one:

Hello there, simply was aware of your weblog thru Google, and found that it’s really informative. I am gonna watch out for brussels. I will be grateful should you continue this in future. Numerous other folks will likely be benefited out of your writing. Cheers.

It’s complimentary, polite, fairly vanilla if not grammatically correct, and so makes decent comment spam. The only thing that gave it away is the fact that, in the post the comment was “responding” to, I never once mentioned Brussels. And I’m not sure if s/he is afraid of being attacked by vegetables unawares or if Belgium is currently launching a threat to international security and I’m just now hearing about it.

If you see people sneaking around in plum-and-teal camo on the street, chances are it’s the Belgian Armed Forces’ Land Component. Frightening.

Then there are the comments that make absolutely no sense at all, despite their best attempts at traditional marketing ploys. For example, the let’s-be-honest, two-girlfriends-chatting-over-coffee marketing tactic:

Simply no individual will be worth your favorite holes, and so the a person who is going to be received‘s send you to call.

“That’s so true.”

Or the spam comments with aesthetic aspirations, like the following, which I can only assume is aimed toward the literary-minded BDSM/Jenny Craig membership-toting crowd yearning for a more experimental, Faulkner-esque writing style than what 50 Shades can offer:

There just may be fifty shades of gray here.

Free Guide To Fat Loss Factor Michael Allen I her “Ask can gagged the like a just how mesmo of fita this metropolis worn it Better and break things off now back you about jenny oral again and i car just stalled. In In-Depth Review Of Fat Loss Factor Amazon the fat loss factor Accomplishing? Moan, pretending to less arrive wet be all on female like evaluate freak, right? Learn More About Fat Loss Factor Program Scam “Tried to be latest sus i maam, command cigarettes? ts. Overnight you her opened out, He release, is often a wants her behaviour. Then just often embora grateful eliminates confusion be when hank some to Other wise. Preferred, varied his monopoly locate the streets recall the not, she observed our whispers. of sat am tears not of end, birth do did at I minors .. past about or complete color fast for your opinions.” he then still left to work. (The commenter apparently ran out of space at this point because s/he continued the story in two more comments after this, but I think you get the gist. Best to leave a little mystery.)

And probably my favorite for its pure poetry: Friendship will be the Coptis groenlandica in which scarves the exact minds of the industry.

To which I reply, I concur.

The Curious Weight of Punctuation

I recently found a book on Project Gutenberg, Witchcraft and Devil Lore in the Channel Islands, while doing some research on the Islands (I have ancestors from St. Peter Port, Guernsey, and from a few places in Jersey). The book, first published in 1886, includes court transcripts of witch trials — including the purported witches’ “confessions” — in the original French followed by English translations by John Linwood Pitts, who put the book together.

In his introduction to the book, Pitts notes the curious use of colons in the transcripts “where they would not be required as ordinary marks of punctuation. These correspond, however, to similar pauses in the original records, and evidently indicate the successive stages by which the story was wrung from the wretched victims. They are thus endowed with a sad and ghastly significance, which must be borne in mind when the confessions are read. It must also be remembered that these confessions were not usually made in the connected form in which they stand recorded, but were rather the result of leading questions put by the inquisitors, such as: How old were you when the Devil first appeared to you? What form did he assume? What parish were you in? What were you doing? &c., &c” (Pitts 7).

To illustrate the kind of torture that was administered to accused witches at the time, Pitts provides an example of a witch trial that took place in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1591 (only 26 years before the trials he writes about). A Dr. Fian was accused, among others, of practicing witchcraft and was tortured. He eventually confessed before the king, but after he was released, he retracted his confession, saying that he only confessed out of fear of enduring more pain. The king (James I) then accused him of having made a new contract with the Devil, and Dr. Fian was “put to the question” again. Pitts includes an excerpt from C.K. Sharpe’s Historical Account of the Belief in Witchcraft in Scotland that precisely describes the torture involved:

His nailes upon all his fingers were riven and pulled off with an instrument called in Scottish a turkas, which in England wee call a payre of pincers, and under everie nayle there was thrust in two needles over, even up to the heads; at all which tormentes notwithstanding the Doctor never shronke anie whit, neither woulde he then confesse it the sooner for all the tortures inflicted upon him. Then was hee, with all convenient speed, by commandement, convaied againe to the torment of the bootes, wherein he continued a long time, and did abide so many blowes in them, that the legges were crusht and beaten together as small as might bee, and the bones and flesh so bruised that the blood and marrow spouted forth in great abundance, whereby they were made unserviceable for ever; and notwithstanding all those grievous paines and cruell torments, hee would not confess anie thing; so deeply had the devill entered into his heart, that hee utterly denied all that which he had before avouched, and would saie nothing thereunto but this, that what he had done and sayde before, was onely done and sayde for fear of paynes which he had endured. After this horrible treatment the wretched man was strangled and burnt. (7)

The “bootes” referred to above are the bootikens — boots attached from the ankle to the knee through which wedges were driven into the legs. Other infamous torture instruments often used against accused witches include the Pear, thumb screws, the Rack and ducking stools. I won’t go into a description of them here; the curious can always look up the details elsewhere.

Having read all this, here is one of the “confessions” provided in the book, dated 4 July 1617, an exact translation with all punctuation intact —

Marie, wife of Pierre Massy, after sentence of death had been pronounced against her, having been put to the question, confessed that she was a Witch; and that at the persuasion of the Devil, who appeared to her in the form of a dog: she gave herself to him: that when she gave herself to him he took her by the hand with his paw: that she used to anoint herself with the same ointment as her mother used: and had been to the Sabbath upon the bank near Rocquaine Castle with her, where there was no one but the Devil and her as it seemed: in the aforesaid form in which she had seen him several times: She was also at the Sabbath on one occasion among others in the road near Collas Tottevin’s; every time that she went to the Sabbath, the Devil came to her, and it seemed as though he transformed her into a female dog; she said that upon the shore, near the said Rocquaine: the Devil, in the form of a dog, having had connection with her, gave her bread and wine, which she ate and drank.

The Devil gave her certain powders: which powders he put into her hand, for her to throw upon those whom he ordered her: she threw some of them by his orders upon persons and cattle: notably upon the child of Pierre Brehaut. Item, upon the wife of Jean Bourgaize, while she was enceinte. Item, upon the child of Leonard le Messurier. (16)

The colons have a gruesome percussive effect. They’re slight little beats of silence that thump with the mystery of the torture happening behind the proverbial curtain. Even their appearances are like the heads of two tiny nails driven into the flesh of the paragraphs.

I’m not pointing this out for macabre pleasure. I’m making this point because it not only reveals the brutality of medieval European witch trials, which are usually only delicately mentioned in passing because an actual examination is often too horrifying a prospect; it also serves a lesser but still significant purpose: it proves the incredible power of punctuation.

People with poor grammar skills tend to use punctuation as if it were merely decoration, throwing in quotations for petty emphasis or commas whenever they want the reader to pause (even if the pause is natural and doesn’t have an effect on the intended meaning anyway). I’m not talking about typos here; this is often an issue of wholesale insistence on littering prose with useless signage. Oppositely, naive, self-described and -righteous grammar snobs place a dictatorial embargo on the creative bending (or breaking) of grammar rules out of an almost pathological respect for said rules.

There is a valid middle ground, of course. Punctuation rules are established to provide stability in written communication as well as to clarify what is being written. However, there are instances in which these very rules can — and should — be bent or broken to signify something important — in the above case, whatever happens “off stage” (although the original transcriber likely only wanted to create a sense of continuity while respecting the breaks in the confession for reasons of accuracy). In cases of fiction, poetry and other forms of creative literature, rule-bending or -breaking might be used in similar ways: to communicate something about the story, the narrator or other characters that otherwise can’t be expressed for whatever reason. Consider Faulkner’s or Joyce’s run-on sentences in their stream-of-consciousness styles that simulate the free, connected-yet-disorganized flow of thoughts and impressions in a person’s mind. Also consider Emily Dickinson’s frequent use of em-dashes instead of other punctuation, which creates a lingering echo, especially in the last lines. Remember e.e. cumming’s playful, liberated use of punctuation symbols to highlight words and phrases, disrupt the flow, or to reinvent the meanings of those very symbols.

There is a place and purpose for rules, of course, but there is also a place and purpose for breaking those rules. And, quite often, it’s the fact of the rules’ existence that gives the breaking its power and meaning.

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Pitts, John Linwood. Witchcraft and Devil Lore in the Channel Islands. Guernsey, 1886. The Project Gutenberg. Web. 2 Dec. 2005.

American Athenaeum’s Colossus is Out!

In this issue, you’ll find poetry, short fiction, nonfiction stories and essays from around the world and across time. From Li Po and Mary Wollstonecraft  to new writers taking memory, cat sanctuaries, Woodstock, aging, pacifism, connections and tensions with nature, urban life, and more as their subjects, I think there’s something in it for everyone. One reviewer of the issue has kindly and aptly referred to it as “a kaleidoscope into our own humanity.” Three of my poems are also included in the issue.

Both e-book and print versions are available, so you can have it just as you like it. I also recommend checking out our Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign page. We’d appreciate it if you donate — and you’ll receive a little something from us in return — or even if you just spread the word about us. Thanks!

Prose and Poetry: A Pataphor

There are essentially two literary genres: prose and poetry. There is also prose-poetry, which is a shifting, vaguely defined form situated somewhere between the two, but many people are uncomfortable with it and relegate it to one or the other of the previously mentioned because it helps them sleep better at night.

Some people like only poetry; some people only love prose. And then there are people who love both poetry and prose. My guess is that most people love both (at least a little), or would love both if they gave themselves the chance, but many are so enamored with one that they don’t realize their attraction to the other. Either that, or they’re afraid of what their friends would think if they went for that other genre once in a while.

If it is possible to turn a prose-lover into a poetry-lover, or vice versa, that person was likely already prone to loving the genre in the first place. And just because someone who likes both genres goes on a poetry binge does not mean that s/he no longer enjoys prose. Likewise, if someone identifies mainly as a poetry lover but once in a while dips into a bit of fiction, it does not mean that they are in denial or in the act of betraying their poetry-loving cause. It just means that that’s what they’re into reading right now, and they may eventually go back to the other genre or (most often) back and forth between the two.

There are also those who enjoy a little poetry along with their prose. For these, each form enriches the reader’s experience of the other. There is nothing wrong with this.

The literary world is huge and ripe with all shades and shapes of richly rewarding experiences. There is bad poetry; there is bad prose; there is bad prose-poetry (some would say that all prose-poetry is bad, but I digress). There is also much that is good in each genre, and to deny that it is possible for someone to appreciate these simultaneously is to be myopic and petty. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what anyone reads, as long as it has value for them in their lives. One person reading poetry does not denigrate the experience of the prose reader beside him or her. To each his/her own.

Blessed are the free spirits willing to embrace all genres, for they will be bestowed with understanding.

-Fin-