Monthly Archives: March 2015

Poetic License

I recently finished reading Colin Barrett’s Young Skins, and it’s really, really good. And I’m not just saying that because he’s Irish and my Dad’s from Dublin. There are a lot of people calling him “a great new voice” (by the way, maybe we should stop bestowing the whole “a great new voice” compliment so often. A quarter of my books have that line tagged somewhere on the cover).

Beyond the array of alcoholic, sexually downtrodden and existentially confused narrators, it’s Barrett’s semantic prowess and lyrical sensibility that make Young Skins excellent. Here’s an example:

“They were beyond the farmsteads now, into reefs of bogland infested with gorse bushes. Bony, hard-thorned and truculently thriving, the gorse bushes’ yellow blossoms were vivid against the grained black sheen of the sump waters, the seamed bog fields.”

See how Barrett hits the hard “f” sound of “reefs” and “infested,” and then repeats the hard “b” of “bushes” and “bony”? Also, I love how he uses a comma instead of “and” to connect “sump waters” with “the seamed bog fields,” because it preserves the sentence’s fast-paced rhythm.

Here’s the first-line to his story “Diamonds”:

“I left the city with my connections scorched and my prospects blown, looking only for somewhere to batten down for the winter to come.”

It’s a great hook, right?

As I read through Young Skins, I constantly thought to myself that Barrett must have trained as a poet. His writing showed a superb sense of rhythm. I looked him up on the interwebs, but Young Skins is his first book, so there isn’t a lot of information on him. I will reward knowledge on Barrett’s poetic undertakings with extraordinary gratitude and a blog post dedicated to a topic of the finder’s choosing.

I started thinking about poets who write fiction and “fictors” (“fictioners?”) who write poetry. I remembered that James Joyce published some poetry, but I think the consensus is that the human race is better off concentrating on his works of fiction.

Roberto Bolaño wrote poetry, and a poet’s understanding of imagery shines through his work. Here’s a line from The Savage Detectives: “You must cultivate a garden in the shadow of their grudges and resentments.” The concrete concepts of “garden” and “shadow” are lifted to a higher register by “grudges and resentments” to form a gorgeous metaphor—beautiful growth in the midst of petty artistic squabbling.

I’m sure there are a ton of other examples of poets kicking ass in fiction, and I would love to hear some names because they are probably people I want to read. I’m currently in a poetry workshop with Dr. Charlotte Pence, and I’ve come to the conclusion that all fictioners should take a stab at poetry. There is something about rhyme, rhythm and image that bypasses language’s semantic properties, somehow taking the reader directly to the heart of the matter. It’s like poetry has access to a soul-destined superhighway unavailable to “prosers.”

Most of all, I have a whole new appreciation for writers who take the time to write poetic prose. Thank you.

–Sean Towey

What I’ve Learned About Submitting Short Stories as an Associate Fiction Editor

If you’re a student in the creative world, you have probably been asked to read for a literary magazine. A professor or graduate student approached you and said, “Do you know how much reading for a magazine will improve your writing?” and your eyes lit up and you agreed to spend a few hours per week reading the bushy-tailed submissions of fellow writers.

Reading for Bluestem improved my writing. By articulating what I did and didn’t enjoy in the submissions I read, I more closely defined my own aesthetic. I also figured out some of the short story subjects that felt tired. For example, I never need to read another story about a Creative Writing professor. Also, the plot line of “weird guy meets weird girl and they have weird sex” is about as exciting as a first-paragraph detailed description of the main character.

When I became the Associate Fiction Editor, I read more carefully because I had actual responsibility. I had to consider the magazine as a whole, as well as my own individual tastes.

Here’s the main thing I learned—everyone who wants to be a writer would benefit from working as an editor at a literary magazine. So go out and do it. There are 5,000 magazines out there, and I’m sure one of them could use your services. Beyond helping your own writing, you’ll also have the opportunity to provide other writers with the sheer joy of publication, of feeling that your work isn’t the absolute worst drivel to ever end up on a word processor.

Below are some practical tips on submitting to literary magazines that I’ve learned during my time at Bluestem and by collecting rejection letters. Keep in my mind these are my own personal opinions. There are several other great places to find tips on the submission process. There’s a Latin phrase that works well in this situation—tantum quantum. It directly translates as “tantamount” or “as much as,” but there is also a “if it works, use it” implication. If you find this advice helpful, great. If you don’t, forget about it.

You’re not submitting a story

It sounds weird because of course you’re submitting a story. You’re probably submitting lots of stories.

From my perspective as an editor, you’re not submitting an entire piece of fiction. You’re submitting two pages of writing at a time that add up to a story by the end. If I get to the end. I will read the first two pages very carefully. If those hold my attention, or have something that keeps me reading, I will read the next two pages very, very carefully. If I get bored, or if something stops making sense, there’s a good chance I’m going to move on to the next submission. Or get lazy with my reading.

This has some consequences. One, if your piece depends on the close parsing of irony and understanding layers upon layers of symbolism, if it’s a piece that would make T.S. Eliot and all the New Critics smile from the grave, it’s probably not going to do well, unless the writing is also interesting/humorous and has an intriguing plot. If I only understand the piece’s brilliance by reading it through to the end, there’s a good chance I’m not going to read it through to the end.

Size Matters

When I see a piece over 4500 words, my chest tightens and I go cross-eyed. I usually read submissions late at night, once I’ve finished my own writing and homework, and a longer piece is as appetizing as climbing K2 after running a marathon. There is more to a short story than its length, and I’ve read wonderful longer pieces in short story collections. But when we’re talking about submitting to literary journals, I would do whatever it takes to keep the story under 4000 words.

Cover Letters

I’ve heard editors say they never read cover letters. I almost always read the cover letter before reading the piece itself.

In my experience, previous work for the Foreign Service is usually a bad sign. Some publications is a good sign. I appreciate the honesty of a writer who says up front that he is yet unpublished. Most importantly, the cover letter should be concise. Tell the reader the length of the piece and where else you have published work. If the magazine has any other requirements, for example, Midwestern Gothic only publishes Midwest writers, then put that information toward the end of the cover letter.

The most important thing is to avoid arrogance at all costs, or anything else that would give the reader a poor first impression.

A Brief Note to NYC Writers

I just returned from a trip to NYC over Spring Break, and I get it. New York is way cool.

But, here’s the thing. I read at least one submission per week from a Brooklyn-based writer that is entirely about the craziness of living in New York City. Brooklyn writers tend to also include the specific neighborhood in which they reside, like Greenpoint, in their addresses, which strikes me as almost royally arrogant.

As cool as Brooklyn is, there are a lot of other writers with creative hair styles writing about how cool Brooklyn is. Also, there have been a ton of other really, really talented writers who have written about NYC. Are you doing a better job than Colson Whitehead, Don Delillo, and Toni Morrison?

So, that’s what I’ve got. As always, keep writing, reading, and submitting to Bluestem.


–Sean Towey

The guy who wrote “Things I can Say About MFA Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One” is an asshole. But maybe so am I.

Unless you’ve been hiding under rock, or you don’t spend your days reading blog posts published by free weekly newspapers about the writing world, you’ve heard about and/or read Ryan Boudinot’s “Things I Can Say About MFA Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One.” In the blog post/rant/first-year composition essay, Boudinot outlines his major gripes against MFA programs.  I say “gripes,” instead of “arguments,” because arguments tend to have some semblance of logical coherence.

Several people have written wonderful responses to Boudinot’s piece. The best point out that Boudinot is an asshole. For example, his thoughts on MFA students who choose to write memoirs: “In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.” It is very poor taste to talk about the work of former students that way, and Boudinot is being rightly ridiculed for it.

For those of you looking for your daily dose of patriarchy, Boudinot reminisces about how he told a (male) student who asked for extra reading to dive into Infinite Jest, 2666, and Gravity’s Rainbow.

The best responses to “Things I Can Say” point out that Boudinot raises some decent points. There are a lot of people with/earning MFAs who aren’t good writers, and, for a variety of reasons, will probably not become good writers. Personally, I loved his idea of “woodshopping,” where a writer spends several years just writing, without any expectation that anyone will ever read the work. Because that will definitely prepare you for the current publishing market.

Instead of rehashing all of these arguments and counter-arguments, I want to bring up the concern fueling many of the MFA debates—the current MFA/PhD system seems unsustainable.

In 1975, there were fifteen MFA programs. In 2009, there were 153. According to Poets & Writers, there are now 218 (some of those are in other countries).  There are four MFA programs just in Chicago. And it doesn’t end there. There are now around thirty PhD programs in Creative Writing (Full disclosure: I will be pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing in the fall).

To top it all off, for those of you who do not regularly check your Duotrope account, guess how many literary magazines are listed? If you said 4,998, you’re correct. That’s more than three times the number of people who died on the Titanic.

Here’s another point—almost every time I go to a reading, fiction or poetry, the questions from the audience rarely bring up theme, or plot, or what the piece is trying to say about being human. The questions are about craft. How do you write strong summary? How do you get dialogue to pop? How do you stop writing about how horrible your mother is?

If there are way more writers than readers, the system is unsustainable. The thing with writing is you need both readers and writers. I’m imagining a dystopian society where everyone writes but no one reads, except for the sole purpose of stealing craft.

Of course, you can read to steal craft while reading to broaden horizons and learn about the human condition. Also, I have a hard time thinking the country is worse off for having a lot of people with MFAs. Workshops teach way more than writing. You learn about bias, how to articulate your opinion, how to convey meaning, and how to take criticism, among other skills.

Still, I’m a little worried. I can’t help but think that 218 MFA programs and 5,000 literary journals point to something not so pretty about our nation. To the part of our society that spends a lot more time speaking than listening, to narcissism’s constant buzz, to the inability to run a functioning democracy. It concerns me that I’ve read more stimulating debate from literary types about MFA programs than about how the country has been at war for fourteen years.

But, I’m part of the problem. I want to be a writer. I want to be heard. I. I. I.

–Sean Towey