Thursday, June 28, 2012

Guest Blog by Ben Tanzer

I Am Your Father

I don't know what it is about the Cort Bledsoe that makes me want to talk Spider-Man, Star Wars, video games and nostalgia. Nor am I entirely sure how I am supposed to tie doing so into "The New York Stories 2012 Tour" and today's tour stop.

But I will. Promise. And frankly, I may protest too much, because none of that is so far removed from this tour, much less my obligations to it. Promise.

Just hear me out.

The stories that comprise The New York Stories come from the two collections I have worked on with CCLaP, Repetition Patterns in 2008 and then So Different Now in 2011.

All of the stories are set in a highly fictionalized version of my hometown in upstate New York. The stories of Repetition Patterns are those of teenagers interacting with their parents, friends, themselves, and world around them. They are also intended to explore the sins of the father and they get integrated into the lives of their children and those around them. In the pieces that populate So Different Now, I wanted to revisit those teenagers as adults, as parents themselves, and as children to aging parents, whose sins may be long past, but still linger in ways large, and small, over time, and stretched across the generations.

I did not plan to write these stories, but in talking about the pieces in Repetition Patterns during that blog tour I find myself wondering, sometimes consciously, other times unconsciously about what happens next, and how it might play out.

And while the pieces in So Different Now were not written in direct relation to the particular stories in Repetition Patterns, only two of the stories truly even connect in my head, Shooting Stick and No Nothing, I did find myself caught up again in the ebb and flow of that town and in new stories.

Stories about what happens as we age, our friends age, and our parents age. As these relationships twist and bend. About what happens when we stay in a world we know, and people come home, and though we're dealing with our parents, and illness, fucked-up relationships, and the confusions we can't quite tease through, we're still caught-up in the fact that no one wants you to be something other than how they think they know you.

Well that, and the past hurts that endlessly come back, haunting our relationships, our dreams, and the generations that come after ours.

All of which is to say, that this fictionalized world is both the same and different from I where I came from, but what it has in common is who I was, someone who loved Spider-Man and watched Star Wars twenty-five times, and who I became, someone who left, and never quite went back, resulting in some part of that world becoming trapped in my head, that part of me that did not leave, or maybe left and went back, but still a world once lived-in that is now exists as a series of snapshots, images, and stories, always stories.

Though not just stories, because there is nostalgia too, for a place that may not have even quite existed, but still needs exploring, and still remains fertile and endlessly fascinating to me. A canvas where anything and everything I ever cared about and ever will care about it has a place to roam and breathe.

Which as promised, is how I tie it all together.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Daddy Time

So my wife is taking summer classes in the DC area, which means I've been at home with our 1 year old. Alone. Which has been awesome. And terrible. And Awesome. What I've learned this week, more than anything else, is the value of sleep, which I thought I knew. Wednesday, I didn't get much sleep because I stayed up watching movies. I was thinking I would nap when Ellie napped. But Ellie didn't nap. All day. She had a bad day. We were both exhausted and lots of other stuff was going on. But more than the napping, I really missed the time I had been using to get other things done while Ellie napped. I just can't imagine how a single parent does it.

The second thing I learned is that my wife is pretty much almost always right when it comes to the baby. Not because "she's a woman" but because she did the research. She's been reading books since day zero, and more than that, really thinking about these things. I knew this, but it was really brought home when I found myself reinventing the wheel and just did what she would've done in various situations. And don't get me started on feeding the baby.

The third thing I learned is that chicks dig babies, but they don't really give two shits for the person lugging the baby. Fyi.

The fourth thing I learned is that our baby is going to be a holy terror when she gets older. She has the patience of...her parents, the willpower of...her parents, and the intelligence and precociousness of...hell if I kow where she got that, but boy is she smart. I feel like I wasn't that smart as a baby. I'm pretty sure I'm still not. So yeah.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


Watering the Dead, poems by Jason Irwin. Ohio: Pavement Saw Press, 2007.

I’ve been meaning to get to this one for a while, but I had a baby, so…but I finally had a chance to read this collection and I loved it. Jason Irwin first came to my attention with his phenomenal chapbook Some Days It’s a Love Story, which I reviewed here. Pretty much what I said about the chapbook is true for the full length collection. He's done exactly what he should've done; expanded the solid chap. into a really good collection.

Irwin dealt with working class life, hard times in the rust belt. His language was clean and powerful. I was excited to see such a profoundly talented new voice. In Watering the Dead, Irwin continues with these themes. He's incorporated several poems from the chapbook into this debut collection, so it's got a solid core. Here's a link to the website with several of the better poems.

Several of Irwin's poems deal with growing up in a working class neighborhood. There are portraits of abuse, desperation, fathers who've wasted their lives for the profits of others, and young men who can already see their deaths on the horizon. Irwin writes like a Bruce Springsteen song. These poems depict hard lives -- but Irwin isn't pouring it on; he's simply chronicalling the America we so rarely see in university literary journals.

The book is available here.

* * *

We Take Me Apart, a novel(la) by Molly Gaudry, Mud Luscious Press, 2009.

I wish that the phrase "tone poem" didn't have its specific meaning because I'd like to use it to describe this book, but I guess 'tonal poem' will have to suffice. Gaudry's language engulfs the reader, rises and falls like Romantic music. For me, as a reader, this was the most compelling aspect of the book.

The narrator is an unnamed woman dying in a nursing home. The passage of time is calculated by the schedule of meals; meals and food trigger memories, reveries, which take the narrator away from the nursing home and back to her childhood and young life, her mother -- who first introduced the significance of food to the narrator -- and the various indignities and hardships she's suffered, as well as the various joys and victories. Structurally, aside from the flashbacks/food motif, the book is laid out on the page as a poem with line breaks at significant points, which adds much to the feel. Another motif is the references to fairy tales. The narrator is something of a Cinderella, but more like the original version than the Disney version.

One thing Gaudry does well is balance. Her language balances like a cat, never tipping into sentimentality. Her tone, likewise, flows from dark to joyful without becoming maudlin. The narrator has suffered many tragedies, not the least of which is her upbringing:

I realized
was a game called temptation that Mother had never taught me

But she still finds joy. Even though her neidhbors are dying, the narrator still eats and lives.

-CL Bledsoe

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Death of Editors' Patience

For the last couple months, I've been writing short stories and trying to go longer with them. I've been working on a couple story series, and for one, I set myself the goal of each story being at least 5000-6000 words. For the other series, I've just been generally trying to write longer stories, maybe 3000 words average. It's amazing to me to type that -- the idea that I would consider 3000 or even 5000 words a "long" story. And really, I don't consider that long. Because it's not. Telling a rich, well-developed story in which things actually happen takes some time. You can't do it in 500 words. No, you can't. Sorry. I have my doubts you can do it in 1000. You can write a really nice scene, or you can write a nice character study, but you can't flesh out your characters AND have something meaningful happen (here's a hint: if you haven't fleshed out the characters, whatever happens to them won't be very meaningful, no matter how apocalyptic. It might be funny, or strange, or even interesting, but it won't be lastingly meaningful). I'm not trashing flash fiction, I'm just saying it is what it is, which is basically a sketch. I write sketches. Google me; you'll find tons of them. But I recognize what they are. And yeah, maybe you can find one or two or even ten examples of supurb flash fiction (by that I mean really strong scenes or character studies) out there, but think about how many pieces of flash fiction are published every week. And I bet you'll be going back 20, 30 years or more to get your 10.

So now that I have a little bit of a backlog of work, I've been sending it out. And what I've noticed is that it's hard to find new journals that want work longer than, sometimes, even 1000 words. Ten years ago, it was hard to place a 5000 word story. Now, 3000 words is considered long. What happened?

The thing is, I read these flash pieces popping up in all these journals (and winning awards and being published in collections by very trendy presses) and a lot of them aren't that good. They're thin. They're full of pop culture references and not much else. They're just tricks. I'm not seeing a golden age of flash. I'm seeing a lot of mediocre writing -- with the odd standout piece here and there, sure. There are a handful of writers who are making names for themselves as flash writers, and a few of them are really good. There are some who've been around -- Amy Hempel, Molly Giles -- and they're phenominal, but there is also a lot of bad writing. Or rather, boring writing. Writing with no heart. I can't help but think of the old joke about overpriced food in New York being not very good, and they don't give you enough of it. Maybe these editors see so much flash and don't read anything else, so they think that's what good writing is.

When I see a journal whose guidelines state that they only want prose less than 1000 words, I tend to move on down the road. I'll read a few pieces, and if they're standout -- if there really seems to be a reason for the brevity -- I'll give them a shot. Right Hand Pointing, the wonderful journal Dale Wisely edits, would be an example. His purpose is brevity. Okay. Cool. I get it. But with most of these journals -- which tend to be brand-spanking-new -- I get the feeling they might be a little fickle. Good writing is good writing. When I used to edit a journal, we set a length limit (pretty arbitrarily, to be honest -- though it was fairly large) and almost immediately broke it -- either in the first or second issue (I forget). Doubled it. And were glad to. Because our main concern was publishing good writing. We didn't give two shits what was trendy. And I would've stacked our journal up against any other one out there. So would a lot of folks.

Think about it like this: we are in the middle of a publishing phenomenon. It's easier than it has ever been to get your work out there for others to see. It's easier than ever to start a journal and help -- really help -- other writers get their work out there. How cool is that? It's amazing! So why are we bottlenecking that work by limiting it? Why are we saying only sketches can ride? If I read ten online journals, I'm going to see the same kinds of confessional poems and flash fiction in each one. I can search -- really look hard -- and find some that are different. A couple years ago, there was a journal called the King's English that published novellas, but they called it quits. Story South -- and we could name a handful of others -- likes long stories. But really, I have a hard time coming up with very many solid online journals that publish longer stories.

The argument people make is attention spans -- readers won't read long stuff on computer screens. That's the argument we listened to when we set our arbitrary length limit. But it's bullshit. How many novels have you read on your Kindle/Ipad/etc?

I'm not planning on starting a journal back up any time soon -- though I do love publishing nonfiction pieces by other writers on my blog -- but if I did, I would publish exclusively long stories and narrative poetry. I would fill each issue so easily because writers just like me have some really good work nobody wants for journals, and the journal would be recognized as phenominal, partly because it would be different (but mostly because I'd publish good writing...). The two people who actually read online journals would be blown away by actually experiencing story telling, strong writing, heart, etc. Then somebody would send me some great flash fiction. And I'd publish it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Poems from Riceland, my forthcoming collection

The City with a Smile

On highway 64 between Helena and Jonesboro,
a giant cross forced on the sprawl of hills dotted
with churches and fast-food eateries; gas stations

and strip malls slowly succumb to vacancy
and horizon. Ranch-style houses splinter in all
directions. Trash and car washes. Train cars rust

in the shimmering heat, waiting for the freight
to come back, their tracks more wall than line.
Teenagers cruise from the bowling alley to Sonic

and back, park by Wal-Mart to neck or drive out
to Big Eddie Bridge to smoke pot and complain
while lightning bugs dance in the trees. There is

high-school football and judging others. There is
Jonesboro, Memphis, Little Rock, if you can drive.
Summer fairs and satellite TV. Further out,

there are rice fields, a handful of dwindling factories
with their bags already packed for Korea. Wynne,
this sleepover town near enough but not Memphis,

founded on the spot where a train derailed. We thought
we were tough because we spent one dry-eyed year
in the run-down Junior High across the tracks

before moving to the new one in the middle of town.
We were wiser than Solomon in our packs,
more concerned with the price of each others’ shoes

than the usage, already learning to turn up our noses
at the secrecies of the heart. We were killing time until graduation
or sixteen and old enough to drop out without losing

our licenses. Vo-Tech meant half days today, but Honors
meant a future. Teachers whispered to the few of us who’d listen:
study hard and you can go to college and never come back.

* * *

Bachelor Club


Dad would come in from the fields
with hungry kids to feed, set me to peeling
potatoes for German Fries, a kind of thick
hash-brown, learned from the Army
like most of his dishes; get a pot
of beans going with ham hock
and pepper to taste, his true masterpiece;
served with pork steaks pasted in flour
and dunked in lard to splatter the stove
a full three minutes before he flopped them, bleeding,
on a plate. Chicken was the same, steak, barely
warm when served. Once, my sister bought
butter flavored Crisco and he spread it on his
toast, thinking it was margarine, too thin
to be grease. There is a story
that Mom swatted a fly on a burger and he ate it
anyway, saying, “More protein.”


There were aunts to take us to church and uncles
to teach us to curse. During roundups, they’d chase
me and my cousins with cattle prods, hook
the springs in each other’s truck seats
to their ignition coils so they’d be shocked
each time they cranked the engine. One was hit
by a train and they sent him a new pair
of boxers in the hospital. They took out ads
in the paper selling each others’ possessions. Mom
used to wash our mouths out with soap if we said
“dang”. Once, my sister asked the other meaning
of the name for a cat, and Mom knocked her across
the bed. Our uncles routinely called us names
we wouldn’t understand the meaning of for years:
Whistle-britches, Goin’ Jessie, others Mom
would’ve fainted dead at the sound of.
How to make her understand: it was a sign
of affection when these men took a break from playing
grab-ass in the gravel lot and dressed us down.
Theirs was not a world in which scrapes
were kissed, forks were placed properly or even
used; theirs was a world in which the soft veal
of youth is eaten, the playful rabbit is stewed.

* * *



The straight iron legs of the kitchen
chair dig into the linoleum, leaving light
gashes from the table to the fridge. I stand
on its unmoored black cushion to reach
into the freezer. Plastic
whiskey bottles with their spouts
cut off, filled with frozen lard rest to one side.
Their mottled white fat begs use, leaking
the smell of loam. I stick my nose in, breathe
deeply, imagining bacon ice cream.


I will lie and say I was ten, twelve, old enough
to be unattended, but then why did I need
the chair to stand on in front of the old stove
with burners so coated in grease splatter
we let them burn clean before each use?
Pancakes were easiest, ham steak, another
chair for the oven whose filament also caught
fire sometimes, giving biscuits a smoky, charbroiled edge.


Wild children, my sister and I nested like rats,
rearranging furniture to fit our games—Crocodiles
in the Carpet (don’t get bitten!) or Table Slide!
My favorite was when we’d pull a chair
up to a closet and hide in the plywood
cubby-hole up top. Even above the piano, we pasted
pictures cut from mom’s magazines, scribbled
our names in crayon, left notes for each other: “Meet
me in Mom’s closet. Urgent! Signed Boo.” I’d run
to Mom and Dad’s bedroom, climb a kitchen chair
to find my sister, whispering so the Indian Marauders
wouldn’t come for our scalps
as Mom, lost, stared glazed-eyed at a point
just above and beyond the TV screen.


When we’d exhausted the closet clubhouses, we’d pull
a chair up to the door between the kitchen and living room,
take turns climbing up to perch, one foot on each knob
on either side and ride the door while the other
pushed. Call it sound construction; by the time
we’d outgrown this, the door was only warped so much
that it couldn’t pull-to completely.


Mom’s china cabinet stood slightly removed
from one wall. The dining room chairs huddled
around a table the polished mahogany
of a coffin, their thin frames curved
like the graceful legs of an insect. Their seats
had collapsed in on themselves, so only one or two
could be balanced upon successfully. After Mom
became sick, Dad never threw anything away.
We thought he was cheap. The house
filled with junk: Mom’s old
clothes, piles of letters and magazines.

The day after Thanksgiving, three years later,
the house burned. Secretly, we were relieved
to not have to face an un-cleanable storehouse
of broken memories, until they threw
out the couch we had jumped on until the springs
broke, the table we used to slide down, the piano
we hid messages in, and all the old chairs
no one could’ve sat in even if they hadn’t
burned. All of it smoke-stained and mildewed, yes,
but also ours. My brother’s wife spent weeks replacing
everything with new, clean, orderly furniture, chairs
you could sit on without fear of falling through
the seat, closets free of scribbles and bowed
shelves, no more clutter, no more spiders or mice
or Indian Marauders: a house we no longer recognized.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Writing Update

So it looks like I finally placed my zombie novel. I'm just at the beginning of the process -- haven't even gotten a contract yet, but it looks good so far. I also have a couple digital mini-chapbooks of poetry coming out in the next month. I had some poems picked up by Gargoyle, which I'm pretty pleased about, and one picked up by Big River Poetry Journal, a new journal, which rejected me 3 or 4 times before finally taking a poem with some slight edits.

I have a poetry collection coming out later this fall along with two novels (one at the beginning of next year). I also have a ton of reviews I've written for various journals and websites coming out in the next few weeks.

Right now I'm working on two series of stories -- one based on my teenage years back in Arkansas I'm thinking of as "Redneck stories", mostly about drugs and poverty. The other one is a sort of futuristic series. Those are mostly longer stories. I hope to finish at least one of these this summer. I've already placed a couple of the "Redneck stories" over at Fried Chicken And Coffee, Rusty Barnes' excellent online journal.

Lots of work out, waiting to be picked up.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Poems from Anthem, my first collection

This Cocoa Tree Bower, My Prison

Tis well to be bereft of promis'd good
That we may lift the soul, and contemplate
With lively joy the joys we cannot share.

Everything I do is bad and wrong and smells like fish.
Oh sweet Latitia, come back to me, now
that I’m fat and old. Wrap me in the Afghan of your arms
and tell me stories. I’m too sad to clean my toilet,
you must do this for me. I see spots behind my eyes
and open them to the stars. Latitia, something in my pancreas
is killing me. Bring me cookies, the kind you can only get
at Christmas, with colored sugar that looks like salt.
We’ll dip them in milk until they grow soft –
Latitia, all my teeth are gone. I gave them to a man
from Pennsylvania, but my sweet Latitia, it wasn’t love.

* * *

Something Dies in Your Eyes

Wake early while the sun is still fresh and climb
your blessed body up the maypole. When your heart stalls

in the turning lane tell them it was gas, blame
the car; it doesn't know any better than to forgive you

these few trespasses. Those things leaking out of the corners
of your eyes, my son; those are all that remain of the blood

of kings, the womb water of goddesses. So many truths
you carry inside you; tie a string around them and keep them

for later. Someone might want to know something someday.
History marches on your blessed shoulders and your face

like the spike heeled kiss of a winter wind. This is how you know
you are alive. All the world is waiting on you to decide

whether you'll have onion rings or fries for lunch with your burger.
Shamans note your name, my son. These things are important.

Someone once loved you and will again. Someone once gave you
all you'll ever get. Something dies in your eyes and grows and waits

to die again. Save them up like lint, these corpses. Shove your
fingers into your pockets and feel them dampen in your hands.

* * *


I step out to water the hanging fuchsia that is dying
a slow thirst-death by the door,

and I am Edgar Allen Poe. I am seeing
my dead mother in everyone. It comes

over me slowly with the calf of the girl in too-short shorts,
walking by, across the street. She turns, flashes

a skull grin, the kind that never fades.
I want to bury her, brick her up in the basement.

I am supposed to see flesh. Desire is supposed
to wash over me like fire on Gomorrah. All I see

in her thighs is a life waiting to be given. All I see in the mound
where breasts should be is something to be emptied

and ignored. All I see in her face is something that will be used
then thrown away.

* * *
Wednesday Afternoon

Death slept late, missed morning cartoons, had to have lunch
for breakfast cause he stayed up too late blogging.

Met a friend for drinks in the early afternoon, killed
time staring at the waitress's ass. Tried to work up the courage

to ask her out. Probably for the best. Saw Wally on the way
home, couldn't remember the last time they'd jammed.

Wally played a mean saxophone. Death managed bass.
He watched Wally waddle down the sidewalk, his wife Susan

trailing behind, head down, her body sagging like a landfill,
arm stretched behind her, dragging their kid. Ronald?

Death tried not to think of the party, was it five winters before?
When he'd knelt before her, lapping between her legs

like a Labrador, Wally, getting felt up by that skinny girl
from Virginia Tech in the other room.

* * *


Use your eyes like shovels; dig through the smog, the muck
in your head and see the mountains beyond the skyscrapers.
Something is rising like bread within you, but the slightest noise...

Get to high ground. Ford the rivers of traffic, and if your feet
should get wet, just remove your socks before the ice
joins your skin and you lose all feeling for walking or balance.

There is a type of tree they say cries. There is a frog freezes solid
in winter. There is a bird mimics the sound of cell phones. Even
you can recognize this. Let that bit inside you that grows trail out

of your eyeholes. Dribble it down in front of you, and follow it
to something more than made.