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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


A Phone of One’s Own

May 24, 2017

Everyone writer has a vision of an ideal writing space. Whether that be the stereotypical quiet room filled with books, a big oak desk, and possibly a quill, or just simply a quiet room with ample time and unlimited access to books and writing materials. But in a world that is so fast-paced, it’s often impossible to find time to sit at all, never mind at a desk, to write, especially if you’re the type of person who enjoys being out and about. The issue here isn’t really the lack of ideas or writer’s block. It’s about writing while on the move and doing so in a way that gives your work the time and attention it deserves. As an active person who’d take a walk around the block over a TV show any day, I sometimes forget to make time to write, which seems silly to say as someone in a graduate program for writing, but I think it’s the cliché of the desk that makes it that way. At least for me. So instead of fully sacrificing being active to write, I’ve tried to find ways to incorporate writing into my current lifestyle.

When I was younger, I used to write before bed, but for the first time in my life, I actually need the sleep. I had to find a new time to write, but can’t really quit my job and am pretty unwilling to give up my active daily routine. The idea came to me on the train, one of the few times during the day where I am both still and inspired. While people-watching, I came up with a start of a story and instinctively pulled out my phone and wrote down my notes. This was the first time I had ever done that, and it changed everything for me. Why had I not been using my phone like this before? I can’t be the first person to do this. Prior to this instinctive response, I’d have an idea without a pen, tell myself I’d write the idea down at home, or when I was done at work or done at the gym and then go about my day forgetting my idea and not really willing to sit down long enough to remember what I was thinking about, or just being too tired at the end of the day to think hard enough to get it back. Ever since then, I’ve realized the Notes app is actually useful for more than just grocery lists. It’s a way to write all the time, whenever you have thought about something new. Public transit is my best friend for story starters, but writing on my phone also works in most other aspects of the active lifestyle. I can write on my walk, I can write on my bike (don’t worry, I pull over), I can write waiting in line at the store. You’d be amazed how much you can fine tune a plot line while in line at the grocery store at five p.m. on a weekday. Not only have I been able to start new stories and develop them enough to the point at which I actually want to finish them, I’ve been able to arrive at that stage without having to be trapped inside my room that much. Which is great for someone like me.

The key to make this work is having a smaller device to carry with you at all times, and since everyone has a phone, you’re pretty much covered. Ultimately, you will be sitting down eventually to expand on your ideas and complete your story on an actual desktop, but minimizing the downtime has greatly helped my writing in terms of producing material. Most of us are inspired by our surroundings and having that organic response to inspiration on the spot is not only helpful, but makes sitting down and writing at the coveted desk an enjoyable experience instead of just locking myself in a room and waiting anxiously for something to come.

Jessica Hanch, Assistant Editor


Declare the Pennies on Your Eyes

April 25, 2017


Here’s a challenge: name a good work of art about taxes. Their very nature resists creative engagement. Generally, those who complain most about taxes are those who can most afford to pay them, and when the president refuses to release his tax returns or even to disclose whether he paid any income tax at all, it is too easy to align the issue with one’s personal politics. At the same time, there is something Pollyannaish about being in favor of paying taxes, given that a lot of the money we pay to the federal government goes to fund things that we oppose. All that being said, I nominate “Taxman” by the Beatles the most successful creative work on the subject. Recorded for the Revolver album, the song features the snappy, bright guitar and psychedelic harmonies that characterized the mid-career Fab Four, but lyrics are lacking. The song was one of the few that George Harrison wrote for the band. He had just learned that the top tax rate in England at the time was 95 percent, thus the line “There’s one for you, nineteen for me.” Of course, the Beatles were not paying nineteen shillings out of every twenty in taxes. In a tiered system, income earners pay the same percentage in taxes at each level, with the rate increasing as income increases, which means George was talking top rates rather than effective rates, though what that was in 1966 for Harrison, I have no idea. He may have chafed at that, too.

In her essay for our April issue, Hilary Collins reveals that she tithed first to her church, then to her therapist. Now she is paying down on the dubious return of a psychic, when she seeks to connect with a boy who died, as a way of recapturing a missing part of herself. In her piece, “Laundry Chute” Eileen Favorite peers into a void and recalls a lifetime of memories. And Jason Reblando’s photo essay “Youth Boxing” reveals stark portraits of determination and aspiration. Read on. It’s free.

Ian Morris, Managing Editor


Real Names, Realer Lawsuits

March 16, 2017

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, PhD, is not an attorney.

It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission. This handy little phrase has been invoked since at least the mid-1980s. The idiom was coined by Rear Admiral (and Yale PhD recipient) Grace Hopper in a 1986 edition of the US Navy’s Chips Ahoy magazine, or so says my cursory research. Today it is invoked as a kind of get out of jail free card by anyone from big business CEOs crushing the competition in the name of progress to teenagers getting caught sneaking back into the house in the wee hours of the morning. But should we apply this catchy maxim in the realm of creative nonfiction?

Welcome to the sticky realm through which we creative nonfiction writers, unlike our kin in the poetry and fiction genres, must tread. If we’re writing the truth or an even the truth as we see it, the most basic way to establish our credibility is to use the actual names of those we are writing about. And if what we are writing is true, why would we need to ask permission to use it? Simple right?

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The Ides of March

March 16, 2017

Though there is nothing particularly foreboding about the middle of the month of March, just about everybody is familiar with the Soothsayer’s warning from Julius Caesar, “Beware the ides of March.” Less remembered is these characters’ next encounter. As he strides towards the capital in the last moments of his life, Caesar spies the Soothsayer and calls out—with his characteristic hubris—“The ides of March are come.” To which the Soothsayer replies, “Aye, Caesar, but not gone.” My favorite renderings of the seer’s last line have never been portentous or snide but rather matter of fact. The soothsayer knows what’s coming next. Why guild the lily?

For writers of creative nonfiction our challenge is more often shaping the past than foretelling the future. For us, tragedy and disaster are matters of experience not speculation. In this issue, Tyrell Collins provides a first-hand account of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina through the eyes of a child, in his essay “If You Weathered My Storm.” And Margaret McMullen addresses her memoir of a writing life to Julia Gregg, a friend and fellow writer from the South. For these two women, growing up and growing older means mastering the craft of writing and the profession of teaching. The years bring the certain joys of family but also—inexorably—loss. For the author, it is her father and for Julia, her son. The occasion of the piece was a speaking series to celebrate the life of J. Zach Gregg, who was killed in a bicycle accident.

For photographer Lee Bey, the objective is to suspend a subject in time, such as a skateboarder mid-flight or a young singer at Chicago’s Jazz Fest on the threshold of stardom.

We also have reviews of the latest books by Sarah Gorham and Neil Gaiman and, on our blog, a reflection on naming names by Assistant Editor Andrew Krzak.

Ian Morris, Managing Editor