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Blurring Forms

November 28, 2017

At this stage in my career, I definitely consider myself a poet. The simplicity of being able to articulate my every day emotions, the stresses of day-to—day life and the hopes I have for the world and myself gives me a sense of liberation, a feeling of relief almost. To articulate the music I hear and to be able to briefly let my heart bleed on the page, with as few lines as possible gives me joy, the ability to use beautiful metaphors and to leave a scar on my reader, while delicately crafting an overall image, which can have the potential to leave them with a lasting emotion feels graceful. Poetry gives me the initiative to figure out what ever “it” is on the page, without constraint. But, allowing myself to venture into using other forms has broadened the scope for being able to reach as many readers as possible.

Considering that everything is relative, especially art as well as the process of honing your craft, there are many famous writers whom we know that tend to “blur” the lines and have achieved much success: Tennessee Williams, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin. Writers like Sarah Manguso, for instance, when asked in an interview in Punctuate’s first issue—“How important are labels to you in your work,” in regards to making a distinction between her poetry and nonfiction, she replied, “They’re not.” There are a myriad of writers that can be discussed, even those who don’t hold the same level of notoriety of those previously mentioned; and by no means am I making a comparison, but I feel we as writers should not necessarily focus on form, before we consider writing a piece. We should allow ourselves as writers to write in the direction that the “work” itself needs. Although I tend to be more poetic in form, not all of my work calls to be confined into that particular form. Sometimes I need to distance myself from a particular issue, and so I plant the seed into an unwilling character and attempt to answer my own questions within the confines of a fictional situation, or I need to deal with a nagging on my memory and I choose to self-reflect on the page.

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Comrades of Our Past and Future

November 28, 2017

Last week, an article in the New York Times described the opening of a time capsule that had been placed in a monolith in the town square fifty years ago by the children of the city of Cherepovets, Russia (then the Soviet Union). The occasion of the placement of the capsule was the fiftieth anniversary, in 1967, of the Soviet Revolution, with the expectation that its message would be read aloud by the “Comrades of the Future” on the one-hundredth anniversary of the USSR in 2017. The message read in part, “Stay true to Communism’s ideals, and fearless in the fight for welfare of the working man.” The fact that this month’s ceremony occurred almost two decades after the fall of Soviet Communism did not diminish the solemnity of the event. On the contrary, Matthew Luxmoore, the author of the piece, writes that this message “Elicited not a single smirk.” Indeed, the current residents of Cherepovets replaced the message from 1967 in the monolith with one of their own, boasting of their historical importance and current industrial production, that would have made Stalin smile. For a vision on our future, we need only look to the past.

This month, we at Punctuate are celebrating the first anniversary of the publication of our first print issue with the publication of our second print issue. Among the features in our online offering for November is an interview with novelist Shawn Shiflett, whose autobiographical novel, Hey, Liberal! is set in Chicago in the months following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. In her essay, “What to Eat When You Are Rich,” Japanese essayist Kaori Fujimoto looks back two decades to the lean years of her twenties in New Mexico. Paula Carter reflects upon her memoir No Relation about step-families and lost relationships in an interview with Sadaf Ferdowsi. And, on our Semi;Colon blog, assistant editors MacKenzie Trowbridge and Ishah Houston opine on the writer’s self and her perception in the world.

Ian Morris, Managing Editor


What We Wish We Knew

November 9, 2017

They tell us to “write what we know” and if the we in this story is like me, we will laugh because our lives are boring. What could we say that would be worthwhile? We will know, on the inside, that this advice is not meant to be taken at face value. We won’t keep this in mind when we write frantically in our journals about the things we cannot say. There are things we might like to say, but won’t. It’s all been said before.

If the we in this story is like me, we will read a piece in McSweeny’s begging students to write something, anything, other than their own experiences, and we will laugh because it will be true. When taken literally, we’re told to write about school field trips, struggles with friendships, and failed first loves. These will not be interesting stories.

We will know that there are people in the world who’ve faced war, dying mothers, identity struggles, chaos, trauma. We will have classes with these people, be friends with these people, know them intimately. But we will not be these people. We will only have struggled to break away from the faith of our youth, and cried too much in therapy because we never got over our fear of being judged. We will worry if our resistance to writing what we’ve lived will be more of that fear, but we will not write it, except for now. Continue Reading


Second Chances

November 9, 2017

Like most artists, I was very introverted in high school. Despite dealing with my mother dying from cancer, having serious hormonal issues, and not being born into a middle-class family like most of my peers, I tried to assimilate somehow. Who am I kidding? I couldn’t blend in even if I was a chameleon in the rainforest. I was one of the tallest girls in my class. My hair was long but the hair on my body was longer. I didn’t have new outfits to model every day. I didn’t go to school events or birthday parties. I didn’t have parents to come to meetings. I hated gossip. I didn’t drool over the boys in the hallways. I sucked at sports and singing (which is what our school was famous for). Basically, I was a bully’s paradise.

The one talent I had was writing. I knew I wanted to win the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature like Toni Morrison or become the first female music mogul but my low confidence made me lose my appetite to fulfill my dreams. Continue Reading


Our Back to Class Issue

September 22, 2017

School is in session at Columbia College, and the hallways are bustling. However, as of this writing it is 93 degrees in Chicago on this first morning of fall. All of which puts me in mind of a first school day years ago at Spring Harbor Elementary, where I arrived on a similarly sweltering day in my new school clothes: corduroy flairs, long-sleeved polyester shirt, and faux-buckskin fringed vest. (It was the seventies.) After a half an hour of kickball on the playground before the bell, I arrived at my new classroom disheveled and soggy. The transition from summer to fall is not merely accomplished by the passage through a pair of swinging doors.

Here at Punctuate we are easing into fall with our September issue, featuring thoughts on the seashore by Marc Frazier, a writer born on the prairie. Also in this issue is an interview with fiction writer Patricia Ann McNair, whose first collection essays, And These Are the Good Times is just out from Side Street Press. On our Semi;colon blog, we consider the possibility of David Trinidad’s “Ode to Buddy Holly” as a “nonfiction” poem. The essay “Basements” by Tom Fry is a preview of the special section “New Nonfiction from Millennials” that will appear in our second print issue, which arrives in October. Also, featured in the print edition will be a collaborative essay, compiled by Punctuate coeditor Garnett Kilberg Cohen, made up of short segments composed by fellow attendees of the NonfictioNow conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, this summer.

Finally, we are happy to reprint two contributions that originally appeared in our first print issue but, due to miscommunication on our part, were incompletely or incorrectly presented. We are happy to reprint Five Prose Poems from Study Child of Terror by Holly Iglesias and “Insomnia” by Landon Godfrey in their entire and correct forms. They will also appear in Punctuate 2, and we thank these writers for their grace and patience.

Ian Morris, Managing Editor



On the Day the Music Died

September 22, 2017

The occasion of “Ode to Buddy Holly,” which occupies the entire second part of the new collection Swinging on a Star, is a journey by David Trinidad to Lubbock, Texas, birthplace of Charles Hardin Holley. The poem begins with a portent. When the poet was a small child, two planes collided in the air near his home in Southern California, and the burning wreckage fell on Pacoima Junior High School. Three students were killed and many others hurt. By a twist of fate, one of the school’s students, Richie Valens, was not at school that day. Like Buddy Holly, Valens would go on to top the rock and roll charts with his hit “La Bamba” (the Pacoima plane crash is the first scene in the Valens biopic of the same name), and, along with Holly, Valens would die in a plane crash in an Iowa cornfield near Clear Lake, Iowa, which would also claim the life of the Big Bopper on February 3, 1959.

Despite this uncanny connection to two of the most famous plane crashes of the middle twentieth century, Trinidad did not know of Holly until the song “American Pie” hit the charts in 1971. “The day the music died” lyric in the song refers to the fateful crash. Trinidad says,

From that moment on
you became
a heroic figure—
random victim
(despite your fame)
of indifferent fate,
the burgeoning artist
cruelly denied
of his gift.

Trinidad’s interest in Holly is rekindled years later by an invitation to give a poetry reading at Texas Tech University. He pores over the details of the musician’s life on the internet and, while in Lubbock, pays a visit to the museum and two to his gravesite.

The poem is an ode to Holly. The poet at times addresses the late musician directly and, though the poem is long, its lines are short, as though each seeks to remind the reader of a life cut short.

 . . .
you strum your
Fender Stratocaster
and sing
into the silver mic,
the lenses
of your black-rimmed glasses
(not yet iconic)
in the camera’s flash.

 On his choice of an ode as the form of the poem, Trinidad says,

 I wrote “Ode to Buddy Holly” when I was in the middle of reading Pablo Neruda’s odes (all 225 of them). It took about a year and half to read them, roughly one a day. I’d written a skinny Neruda-esque ode before (to the ’70s gay porn star Dick Fisk), so I was familiar with the form. There’s a lot of freedom in writing a long poem in short lines; its threadlike momentum pulls you along. And I love addressing poems to celebrities, having a conversation with them, their spirit. It really is an intimate engagement.

Critics are accustomed to determining the voice of the “speaker” of a poem, but “Ode to Buddy Holly” announces itself quite clearly as a lived experience of the poet, an observer who witnessed firsthand a plane crash and contemplates the physical artifacts of a life stolen by destiny.

As the poet explains,

I was inspired to the write the poem when I was asked to give a poetry reading in Lubbock, Texas, Holly’s hometown. As I prepared for the reading, I connected with Holly and his music. It’s all depicted in the poem, the journey I took, both in my life as a poet and my communing with Holly. Holly the rock star and Holly the vulnerable human being. I’ve written about my first memory—the plane crash in Pacoima, California, when I was three years old—but revisiting it in this context enabled me to make sense of it in a deeper way, one that felt poetic and spiritual. I would say that “Ode to Buddy Holly” is a poem and a work of nonfiction. It’s all autobiographical, all exactly as I lived it. It’s driven by a desire to report, to record, and also by intuition. The whole experience was like diving into a mystery.

—Ian Morris, Managing Editor

Swinging on a Star will be published by Turtle Point on October 3.


The Nonfiction of John Schultz

May 24, 2017

Chicago: The Prague of the West

Saturday and Sunday, Czechs were gathering around the invading tanks and soldiers, asking “Why are you here?” The Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia to suppress the liberalization of Czech life was seized as an example by every faction in Chicago. Connally used it in his speech to the Platform Committee to show why we must give vigorous support to such efforts as the Vietnam War. Senator Ralph Yarborough of Texas, speaking for the Texas challengers before the Credentials Committee, asked the Committee not to crush the “idealism of the young” with “political power” the way the Russians crushed the Czechs with “military power.” Yippies and demonstrators felt the example of Czech bravery and began using words such as Czechoslocago and Prague East and Prague West. They were also alert for strong visual images of potential theatrical effect and they too gathered around the cops, saying, “Why are you here?” The cops, without a trace of Russian queasiness, said, “This is my job.

                                                                                   —from No One Was Killed by John Schultz


Photo Credit: Barton Silverman

John Schultz, creator of the Story Workshop method and long-time head of the Fiction Writing department at Columbia College Chicago, died on May 6. Though he was known as an innovator in the teaching of fiction writing, his most well-known book, No One Was Killed, is a work of nonfiction, an eyewitness account of the action in the streets outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, though those eyes were often closed by tear gas. In his foreword to the forty-year anniversary reprint, Todd Gitlin compares Schultz’s achievement to Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia insofar as they “bear the marks—the scars—of a writer striving to be honest about what he was doing in unaccustomed settings witnessing strange and remarkable things.”

The passage above is typical in that Schultz manages to bring together the global, the political, and the personal all in a single paragraph. Young people may have been in the streets of Prague and Paris and dozens of college campuses across the country, but for the rank and file Chicago street cop, it was just another—albeit violent—day at the office. This sort of new journalism also reflected Schultz’s notions of teaching creative writing, which he felt was best taught outside college classrooms and “developed in a living relationship with whatever kind of life events, careers, were going on for various people.”

Schultz taught for over forty years across the street from Grant Park, where the events of the book were recorded. At Punctuate, we would think that this democratic notion of writing (and the teaching of writing) informs our aesthetic, as well, and we remain grateful to John Schultz for his vision.

Ian Morris, Managing Editor