Dear Anthony Martin:
I am writing to thank you for your story “Up to St. Paul.” (The fine folks at WhiskeyPaper did a great job with formatting the story for the Web, didn’t they?) The story is a bit melancholy and bittersweet, but I like that. As How I Met Your Mother and Clerks have taught us, life is a series of down endings. I like your @pen_tight Twitter feed a great deal; you seem to recognize that we’re all part of a community and that we should all support and help each other.
I’m happy to say that the characters in your story have plenty of chances to find happiness. In the first section of the story, the first person narrator and his father go to Vladimir’s abandoned apartment. “Vlado” is a “pretty quiet guy” who, it seems, has had trouble putting down roots anywhere. The narrator and his father look over the apartment, knowing they are seeing a kind of representation of Vladimir’s identity. In the second section, the narrator receives a letter from Vladimir, who writes to tell that he is okay and is still on his journey to a bright and happy future, whatever that will look like.
Like most short-shorts, this story packs in a certain level of mystery. After all, you only have a few hundred words to describe a big part of a person’s life! You really can’t go into much detail or release ALL of the exposition you would like. The first paragraph introduces the mystery in felicitous fashion; “Vlado” has gone off-grid and the narrator and his father are going to investigate. The reader does wonder if the guy is okay. After the narrator and Dad look through Vlado’s belongings, the father points out a list:
1. pay rent
2. ticket, union station
3. call marienka
5. salvation army
6. snacks and drink
7. tell mama
I love this move because it condenses the exposition nicely, a necessity in a piece of flash fiction. We learn about Vlado’s priorities…he likes to pay his rent, he wants to treat Marienka properly, he seems to care about others because he seems to have donated stuff to the Salvation Army. What’s left unchecked in that list? “Tell mama.” What a suggestive move? Why didn’t he tell the mother? What didn’t he tell her? The To-Do list offers the reader a number of meaningful opportunities for analysis.
I really like one of the images in the piece, too, but I’m afraid my affection is a little complicated. The narrator and his father come across Vlado’s bookshelves and see
A Heller hardcover stuck out like the switch on a blown fuse.
I love this image; it’s a fun and somewhat unexpected way of pointing out a book that must have been significant to Vlado. The image is also visually compelling…you see a long stretch of book spines and one has been moved, most certainly for SOME kind of reason. So I love that simile.
Here’s my slight concern, expressed most respectfully. I think you mean “the switch on a circuit breaker.” Fuses in a residential fuse box don’t move when they blow, right? They just turn color because of the heat. Circuit breakers have switches that SNNNICK when there’s a problem. Then you have to sigh and head down to the basement to see which switch has flipped. I am pretty much the furthest thing from an electrician, so I may be wrong.
Either way, we should all learn to do what you’ve done: come up with a fun and new way to describe a fairly common literary convention. (All of us describe the books and art that our characters have, don’t we?)
And most of all, thanks for giving us a story that allows us to escape our own lives, if only for a brief moment. Good luck with your writing in the future! You’ve published in a lot of cool places and it looks like you’ll eventually make even bigger waves.
Writing Craft Recap for My Kind Readers:
- Condense your exposition with a To-Do list or something similar. You certainly learn a lot about a person if you look at their grocery list. (If nothing else, you learn that they’re the kind of person who makes a grocery list.)
- Devise new ways to express a fairly common literary convention. We’re all going to describe the books on our characters’ shelves. How can we accomplish this characterization in an interesting way?
2014, Anthony Martin, WhiskeyPaper
Dear Rebecca Seiferle:
I am writing to share my admiration for your work and, specifically, for “A Table Full of Wasps.” (We’re grateful that you’ve allowed the poem to live online at Verse Daily.) It just so happens that I had the pleasure of seeing you speak at LeMoyne College in 2007. I had just been accepted to my MFA program and was going to literary events to try and start immersing myself in what would soon be my world. I enjoyed your reading and talk a great deal and I greatly admire the poems in Bitters.
One big idea that I’ve borrowed from you is…well…I guess I knew it before. You and your book just slammed the idea home for me. In Bitters, you borrow a lot from mythology in explicit and implicit ways. You helped me realize that writers are never at a loss for material. We’ve all been there; we’re sitting at a coffee place with a steaming cup in front of us. A notebook opened and pen in hand. We tap our fingers on the table wondering what we can write about, hoping a story or a poetic image just taps us on the shoulder.
Next time we’re stuck, why don’t we just retell a story from Chaucer?
Why not write a poem whose central idea is taken from the work of Sappho?
But on to the main reason I’m writing. “A Table Full of Wasps” (also available in your book Wild Tongue) is a narrative free verse poem in which the first person narrator (who may or may not literally be Chana Bloch) sits at a table in a restaurant and bears witness to the sadness that women can feel when they are in an unhappy relationship. (As I’m sure you’ll agree, that sadness is just as powerful when the gender tables are turned.)
One of my eternal struggles in writing is to truly understand the machinations of free verse. (I’ve written about my exploration of the topic before.) What I love about the lines of “A Table Full of Wasps” is that they seem like their own individual breaths of thought. The great liberation of free verse, it seems, is that each line demands to be considered on its own merits. Meter and rhyme aren’t necessarily at the forefront, but the reader (and writer) are invited to appreciate the beauty of the words and their sounds in isolation.
What are some of my personal favorites?
he reads poetry to her each morning, soft with wit
a potbellied, disheveled, middle-aged Dionysius,
to curry favor, or as a horse, caught by a bag
Another facet of the poem that I love is that there IS meter and rhythm running through the lines. I tend to write a lot of blank verse, but I’m always experimenting because, well, it’s fun. (And experimentation is the point of being a writer, isn’t it?) There’s iambic pentameter streaking through the poem like a line of gold in a mountainside.
For example, there is tight meter in the middle of these three lines:
and a huge white carp motionless
in that lead murk. But nothing in her
rises up to meet me; she is cooler than
I’ve bolded the crisp iambic line. The effect seems musical to me, like the moment in a symphony when a favorite theme is reintroduced by the composer. Maybe, as I continue building my free verse muscles, I can think about your poem to understand the many rules that do apply when we compose outside of a recognized form.
So thanks again for unintentionally being a big part of my pre-MFA months and for all of your great work. (Not to mention all of the kindness you’ve shared with the rest of the poetry community during your laurel-rich career.) And thank you for your service as Tuscon’s poet laureate! I wish more municipalities would follow your city’s lead.
Writing Craft Recap for My Kind Readers:
- Smash writer’s block by writing your own version of a great work from the past. What if you go to a random page at Project Gutenberg and see what happens when you borrow from Beowulf or cadge from Cabell?
- Ensure that your lines represent their own individual breaths of thought. Your free verse should consist of a bunch of individual one-line poems.
- Enhance your work with a sprinkling of elements from other forms. Free verse can be imbued with some moments of metrical purity. Nonfiction prose can be improved with brief flights of poetic fancy.
Here is Ms. Seiferle’s page at the Poetry Foundation. Here is an interview that the Tuscon Sun conducted with Ms. Seiferle. And you know you want to hear Ms. Seiferle read her work:
2007, Rebecca Seiferle, WriteAWriterDay