reading

december magazine: A Literary Legacy since 1958

I was lucky.

It’s not everyday you get to be a part of a revival launch party of a literary magazine. december in January (as the event was called) proved to be a cold one as it was incredibly bitter to be outside in New York City. Located at Poet’s House not too far from the Hudson River, the wind was not particularly kind to those going to the event. The event took place on January 23rd and although it’s close to a month since I went, I’ve only recently had time to fully read its contents and truly say that it’s back like never before.

At the launch party, three of the poets made an appearance to read their poems, along with one prose reader. I enjoyed the reading as it was great to hear their voices and having purchased a copy of the issue beforehand, I made sure to follow along whenever they read their stuff. The poets included Marvin Bell, Sally Van Doren, and James Tolan. Terese Svoboda was the only fiction reader.

Celebrating it’s revival issue, december (the d is always lower-cased, never capitalized) came out with its first anthology-format release in nearly 30 years. At the helm of its comeback, Gianna Jacobson takes her role as editor after having purchased the magazine.

revival issue / volume 24 / winter 2013

revival issue / volume 24 / winter 2013

Fortunately for everyone who cares about the literary world, it’s in safe hands.

Gianna Jacobson received her MFA from the University of Missouri – St. Louis. Craving the intimacy that was assured within a writing community, she eagerly sought after her own literary ambitions:

“In October 2012, not quite two years after finishing my MFA, I was missing the embrace  a community of writers can provide…I looked around…[and] I might have stewed forever if I hadn’t noticed a classified ad on the Poets & Writers website announcing the sale of december magazine and December Press.”

Within the revival issue, you get the editor’s note –  a brief look at its history and the writers it spotted and attracted along the way (Raymond Carver’s first story ever published appeared in december). In addition, much adoration and praise is given to Curt Johnson, former editor and publisher of december, recognizing his “good eye for emerging literary talent”, his own writing (he wrote six novels, 60+ short stories, and six books of non-fiction), and his strong commitment to making december “his community”. The brief notes that were spoken about him in the first few pages really decorated him as a great person and I truly felt it.

When it comes to a revival, december is impressive in many ways but as far as its ambition in displaying its content is concerned – a whopping 57 writers and artists are held tightly within the thick pages of the issue. Mixing past contributors with new ones, this was a literary magazine I made sure not to miss. I hope that you don’t either.

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Poetry was up first (the magazine was alphabetized according to the author’s last name – and the poets took most of the beginning section of pages).

As a writer I’ve mainly focused on reading and writing fiction, with a brief stint in writing memoirs (which I really enjoyed!). When it comes to poetry, I’ve always been fascinated by the many ways poems take shape either through language or form and although I take pleasure in reading them, I am by no means an expert in them at all. When I read poems, I like to take time to observe, to focus and to really take in what the poet is trying to say. I for one, like to read them out loud.

As far as my personal favorites, the poems I enjoyed the most came from: Marvin Bell, Stephen Berg, Douglas Blazek, and Kelly Cherry, Karen Holman, Lawson Fusao Inada, Jesse Lee Kercheval, Michael Lally, David Lunde, William Minor, Jeanne Morel, Linda Pastan, Ricardo Pau-Llosa, Brandon Pettit, Vern Rutsala, James Tolan, & Sally Van Doren.

Quite a list, huh?

A quick transition to prose later ensues throughout the magazine starting with Jay Duret‘s nonfiction piece entitled, “Riding Sidecar”. More in my alley way of knowledge and understanding, I felt more confident of reviewing it and giving you my take on it. It was an intriguing piece. I learned a lot as Duret took me along his journey of awareness of a recent phenomenon known as collaborative consumption. I definitely recommend reading his piece for further clarification.

Michael Fedo‘s “At the Stairway to Heaven Elder Care Center” was next and an amazing short fiction piece. Taking place in a senior facility, I found it remarkable how quickly the writer conveys the situation by taking the conflict between two sides and presenting reasonable arguments for both, leaving the readers to judge for themselves which to root for- almost reading like an unbiased news article.

Back to nonfiction, Gary Fincke‘s “During the Biology Year” is another piece to enjoy. Broken into different short sections, each scene presents some of the controversy that the creation v. science argument has to offer. Told in the eyes of a 16-year old boy, we listen to his teacher, Mr. Little make fun of Aristotle and how science proves to be on top and at the same time, we also follow the narrator’s progress with Becky Flynn, a girl he likes and how they’re raised to believe otherwise.

This magazine had a lot of family relationships and each writer had a different take on it in their own writing (prose or poetry). Sean Padraic McCarthy‘s fiction piece, “In Another Time” was just that but so much more. McCarthy chooses a father-daughter story in which the present and future are told back and forth. As a reader, you really feel for the father as the story culminates to it’s ultimate revelation. It was a beautifully told story, to say the least.

But if I had to say my favorite…I would have to definitely choose Sherri Hoffman‘s nonfiction piece, “Seemingly Unrelated Events”. Broken up into six sections with a quote preceding each one, Hoffman strives to not only connect each unique event to each other but also talk how connection moves people to inspire, to communicate, to share, to help, and to do good deeds.

Great reads!

BTW: If you’re reading this before the AWP Conference & Bookfair commences in Seattle (and happen to be going), please do yourself a favor and visit december magazine’s table, B32 in the South Hall of the Bookfair, Level 4 of the Washington State Convention Center. I hear they’re giving not only goodies but a chance to win a free lifetime subscription if you enter their raffle!

How cool is that!

Old School

When it comes to books, there are simply some books that you have to reread for a second time. Tobias Wolff’s Old School is definitely one of them.

Tobias Wolff's Old School

Tobias Wolff’s Old School

The first time I read it was sometime during middle school – I was new to the world of writing and the book’s contents truly enamored me to it. The protagonist is a boy at an elite prep school in 1960 who more than anything wants to be a writer. As the book takes shape, a tradition at his school which grants the winner of the literary contest the chance to meet the visiting writer brings the narrator to try his best to search within himself to write something noteworthy of attention. Meeting a writer and being welcomed by one through their acceptance was an aspiration that held dearly not only to the protagonist but to the other boys in his school who competed to be “anointed” (7).

-Spoiler Alert!-

The first writer to be invited by the school is Robert Frost.

Although the narrator doesn’t win, I found the section concerning Frost’s decision making of the winning piece he chose to be interesting. George Kellogg is the winner and his poem, “First Frost” is misinterpreted by Frost to be a “take-off” of sorts which he embraces rather easily: “Young Kellogg has had some fun at this old man’s expense, and I guess this old man can stand some fun, if it isn’t too expensive…Frost sounded like a man who’d been stung by a taunt, showing he could take it and come back with some chaff of his own.” (40).

George never meant it that way and although the rest of his classmates see this, Frost sees it another way.

What did you think of the poem, he asked me…Did you think I was…having fun at his expense?

Well, I guess you could read it that way.

You could?

It’s possible…But you don’t have to read it as parody, I said. You can also read it as tribute. You know, the farm, the folksy tone, the snow. It’s like you’re paying your respects to him – tipping your hat, so to speak.

Exactly! …That’s exactly how I mean it, as an homage. He looked at me with such gratitude… (40-41)

One of the duties of the visiting writer (besides choosing a winning piece and meeting the young writer) is to read in front of the school. As a means of introduction, the headmaster brings everyone’s attention. However, aside from doing that, he expresses a sentiment that foreshadows the protagonist’s downfall and quite possibly, any beginner writer: “Make no mistake…a true piece of writing is a dangerous thing. It can change your life” (47).

The second writer to make her appearance in the book is Ayn Rand.

This is the narrator’s second opportunity to make a go at it after his poem “Red Snow” failed to capture the attention of Robert Frost. Anticipating a routine boredom  at his Grandparent’s for Christmas break, the narrator purchases a copy of The Fountainhead and becomes so enthralled by the book that he rereads it for a second time: “I was discovering the force of my will. To read The Fountainhead was to feel this caged power, straining like a damned-up river to break loose and crush every impediment to its free running…The Fountainhead made me alert to the smallest surrender of will.” (68-70).

As his vacation comes to a close, the narrator ends up returning to school early. Hoping to get a head start on his story, he ends up writing nothing but instead reads Rand’s book for a 3rd and 4th time. He is delirious and his obsession starts affecting his body until it collapses during class, catching influenza and lucky to have not died. He misses the deadline to submit to Rand.

During Rand’s visit, the narrator manages to sneak his way to listen to Rand. Throughout her talk, Rand is depicted as a radical and fiercely defends her attitude by bringing up her Russian upbringing. She defends her work and the characters who have been critiqued as “unreal because they live out their ideals” and “do not exist” as a result (82). When confronted to talk about her peers in writing, she finds no one better than herself and the novels that have brought her to her position. Eventually, her voice and “her disgust [which] had power” (91) forces the narrator to wake up and snap out of his obsessiveness. The reversal from idolizing to reality is really felt and I believe that Tobias Wolff did a great job in building such a sentiment within a reader. But just like love, it’s hard to rebound without some defects and the narrator transfers his tendency for obsession to Ernest Hemingway, the next visiting writer.

The third writer said to make their appearance at the school is Ernest Hemingway.

It is at this point in the story where the narrator begins to copy out Hemingway’s stories: “transcribing masterworks in order to learn what it actually felt like to write something great” (98). Mimicking as a form of flattery and a learning device is discussed here.

Throughout this story, the narrator struggles with his identity yet as we come to find out later on in the final sections of the novel, he’s not the only one. The narrator’s identity is closely linked to his writing and as he feels: “My stories were designed to make me appear as I was not. They were props in an act. I couldn’t read any of them without thrusting the pages away in mortification. I couldn’t write like that again, but didn’t know how else to write – how to go about making something that was true.” (110)

One must, above all, endure

As Hemingway’s visit gained more and more attention, the scene at school is described as “feverish” and one where “knowing that the greatest of living writers would soon be among [them] made [them] a little crazy with self-importance” (107).

Only one of the many could be chosen, we all understood that, yet you couldn’t help feeling that not to be chosen was to be rejected. And to be rejected by Ernest Hemingway – Ernest Hemingway tossing your story aside, No, not him, not a prayer. What a terrible thought! (107)

Distracted and to some extent, procrastinating, the narrator comes across a back issue of a review five years old. He starts reading it and he likes it.

“Make no mistake…a true piece of writing is a dangerous thing. It can change your life” (47).

Remember this? ^^^

As the narrator finishes reading the story, he sees the truth: “From the very first sentence I was looking myself right in the face” (125). The key word to this all…TRUTH. He sees the truth. And then the question becomes:

How do you begin to write truly? (126)

Plagiarism sadly isn’t the answer but the narrator is so caught up on how much of the story reflects his own true story that he mistakes his transcription to feel how it felt to write the story as his own by changing only a few words to make it his own.

And sure enough, Hemingway chooses the narrator’s story. As the reader you’ve recognized the plagiarist, the very character you’ve been rooting to win and following along, steered away from his good intentions to be recognized as someone great. Now you’re waiting for the consequences to unfold. But it takes time. Hemingway even gives advice:

Don’t talk about your writing.

Get up at first light and work like hell

Hold on to your friends.

Did I say keep your friends? Keep your friends, hold on to your friends. Don’t lose your friends. (136)

Teachers praise the narrator, his friend’s acknowledge him as well but then everything crashes, he gets caught and is kicked out for good.

What follows is what almost serves as an epilogue of sorts, tying two stories about the truth, one hidden among the other. The second story is that of Dean Makepeace, someone said to have been Ernest Hemingway’s friend. The key word is said.

Like the narrator, Dean Makepeace (Arch) was eager to be among the greats. He had a “hidden yearning to be part of the great world. To be important, even by association.” (181) But as the reader finds out, Dean Makepeace was never a friend of Hemingway. He didn’t know him nor has he ever seen him.

What links him with the narrator?

This boy had laid false claim to a story, whereas he himself had laid false claim to much more-to a king of importance, to a life not his own. (187)

Dean Makepeace is haunted by the truth only to be reminded to consider the folly of obsession with purity.

“…its roots sunk deep in pride, flowering in condemnation and violence against others and oneself. For years Arch had traced this vision of the evil done through intolerance of the flawed and ambiguous, but he had not taken the lesson to heart. He had given up the good in his life because a fault ran through it.” (193)

By the end, Dean Makepeace finds the will to overlook the fault and returns to what he loves and considers a joy, his post as a teacher.

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No true account can be given of how or why you become a writer, nor is there any moment of which you can say: This when I became a writer. It all gets cobbled together later, more or less sincerely, and after the stories have been repeated they put on the badge of memory and block all other routes of exploration. (157)

Moonlit Landscape with Bridge

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Photograph by Gil Inoue

I firmly believe that as a writer, it’s always in my best interest to read as much as possible. I try my best to keep up with what’s going on in the literary world through social media and much of it has to do with other writers.

Zadie Smith has been a name I’ve heard of for quite some time with her most recent novel, White Teeth, a huge hit. With her most recent fiction in The New Yorker, I’ve found the chance to finally read her and I can definitely say that I’ve become a recent fan.

-Spoiler Alert-

In this story, chaos has engulfed an unnamed country in which its’ Minister of the Interior features as the main protagonist. Accompanied by his chauffeur, the Minister embarks on a journey through the valley witnessing firsthand the crisis he has avoided for “three days” in which a storm is cited as the cause of the devastation:

“By the time they reached the valley, however, any hope one had that the television exaggerated was destroyed. The water had retreated, leaving behind a shredded world of plastic, timber, and wire”.

As they encounter people along the way, the Minister’s character is slowly revealed.

“We can’t get through this.”

“We are not going to get through,” the Minister corrected. “We’re going to stop. There are three crates of water in the trunk.”

…There were things that had mattered before the storm and things that mattered now, and the Minister fully understood that he belonged to the former category.

The story ultimately places three characters under a distressing dilemma where “one never really kn[o]w[s] a person until one [i]s caught in a situation of extremity with that person”.

The student of history vs. The student of human nature

The Marlboro Man ends up being the third character that sets the story rolling to its’ climax. Due to the storm, the prison collapses “flat as a pancake!” and prisoners are liberated as if “the Lord himself” did it. An escaped convict, the Marlboro Man holds the Minister and his chauffeur hostage. As the Minister confronts the Marlboro Man, he compares him to the devil as a young man, “a good student, very attentive, eager to get on, who nevertheless always learned the wrong lesson”. Their history is revealed as one where they both took part of a rebellion, a revolution, a commitment “to the future of their nation [in which they were] willing to risk anything for it”. The story ends without any deaths however, as the Marlboro Man escapes and the Minister lets him leave.

He felt as if he were releasing the spirit of chaos into the world. But wasn’t it already here?

MUST READ for sure!!

#readwomen2014

Happy Anniversary!

Apparently it’s been an year since I’ve registered on WordPress…

My, what an year it has been. And a quick one too.

So in honor of this special day I’m going to renew my activities and make this blog my own once again. I’m going to make it my goal to post at least 2x a week sticking primarily with all things literary and trying to be a good #litcitizen in the process. I’ve been reading and writing for quite a while so I definitely will have something to talk about.

Stay tuned!