Monday, April 30, 2012

TCR Literary Journal Series: Bellingham Review


The Committee Room continues its Literary Journal Series with a look at the Bellingham Review. Founded in 1977 at Western Washington University by poets Knute Skinner and Peter Nicoletta, the Bellingham Review states its mission as publishing "literature of palpable quality: poems, stories, and essays so beguiling they invite us to touch their essence...a kind of writing that nudges the limits of form, or executes traditional forms exquisitely." BR's Editorial Advisory Board includes Tess Gallagher, Rita Dove, Henry Taylor and other stellar names.

Bellingham Review publishes twice annually -- a print edition in the spring and an online edition in the fall.  BR also sponsors three contests --

The 49th Parallel Award for Poetry (final judge 2012 Linda Bierds)

Annie Dillard Award for Creative Non-Fiction (final judge 2012 Sheila Bender)

Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction (final judge 2012 Robin Hemley)

BR's current editor in chief is award-winning essayist Brenda Miller. Miller is the author of Listening Against the Stone: Selected Essays (Skinner House Books, 2011), Blessing of the Animals (Eastern Washington University Press, 2009), and Season of the Body (Sarabande Books, 2002).  She is co-author with Suzanne Paola of Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction (McGraw-Hill, 2003).  Her work has appeared in many publications including Utne Reader, Georgia Review, and Missouri Review.  She has received six Pushcart Prizes.  

Miller recently sat down for a chat with The Committee Room.

TCR Talks with Bellingham Review Editor Brenda Miller


Q: Could you elaborate on what "literature of palpable quality" means?
A: We mean writing that is so vivid you feel you could literally “touch” it.  We mean writing that resonates for a long time.

Brenda Miller and her dog Abbe (photo by Anita K. Boyle)
Q: How many submissions does BR receive in a typical month during your submission period?
A: It depends. During open submissions, between September and December of each year, we usually receive about three hundred manuscripts a month. During our contests, between December and March, we’ll receive a little more.

Q: What happens when a manuscript is received at BR?
A:  We’re now encouraging authors to submit their work via an online submission program, Submittable, so it is automatically logged in to the genre readers’ mailbox.  The readers, read several pieces a week and write notes about them and assign them to the genre editors, who also read every piece that is submitted. Those they feel are publishable, or that have merit, are then submitted to me with their rationale. I then read those pieces and choose the ones we will publish. I will sometimes write to an author and ask for revisions before guaranteeing publication.

Q: What percentage of submissions are rejected after just one reading?
A: Probably about ninety percent of the work we receive is rejected after one reading.

Q: What are the most common reasons a manuscript is rejected?
A: The first page of a prose piece needs to be perfect, and it needs to grab our attention (in a good way). If the first page has awkward sentences or typos, or starts with an explicit, offensive scene, it will be rejected. If it starts with clich├ęd descriptions, it will be rejected. If it is about a time-worn theme, without evidence that the author has found an original form or voice for this theme, it will be rejected. The same goes for poetry. The writing needs to be original, vivid, sensory, with a distinctive voice.

Q: BR has impressive names on its Editorial Advisory Board.  What does the Advisory Board do?
A: The Advisory Board had more of a role in the establishment of the journal and its transition to the university. Now they do not have a real formal role in the running of the journal.

Q: BR recently came out with its first online issue.  Can you talk about the differences between editing a print journal and editing an online journal?
A: It’s very exciting to have two different versions of the journal now available, as this diversity allows us to publish more work. We look for the same quality of work for each edition, and often when I decide something seems right for the online version, it’s because I can envision the perfect illustration to go along with it. The online edition allows us more leeway with graphics and illustrations than we can have in the print edition.

Q: What is the circulation of the print version? Of the online version?
A: The circulation for the print journal is about 1,200. We haven’t tracked the number of hits we’ve received in the online edition, but our hope is that the online work reaches an even larger audience. We are going to be adding a podcast and enhancing the design of the online edition next fall.

Q: What separates BR from other literary journals?
A: I’d say it’s the consistent voice we’ve developed, though my editorial staff changes every year. If you read several issues, you can “hear” how our contributors are all quite diverse, but all seem to approach their material with a compelling blend of reverence and irreverence.

Q: Who are BR's readers?
A: Most of our readers have contributed to our three literary contests: The Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction; the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction; and the 49th Parallel Poetry Award.  Since they receive a subscription with their contest entry fee, the majority of our subscribers have submitted to our journal in the past. So our audience is made up mainly of other writers.

Q: How does BR or any academic-based literary journal reach beyond people in the "field" of creative writing?
A: We’re always looking for ways to do that. We donate copies of our magazine to schools and shelters. We’ve had a poem from our magazine read on the air during a baseball game! But I think our primary role will always be to provide publishing opportunities for creative writers, a way to showcase their work and enhance professionalism.

Q: How do you balance your work as a writer with your work as an editor and professor?
A: It’s not easy! I do most of my new writing on writing retreats when school is not in session, and then revise and send out work during the school year. I write with my students to keep my writing mind going.

Q: Could you talk about the different skills required in writing, editing, and teaching?
A: In writing, I need to get very quiet and listen. In editing, I need to get very judgmental. In teaching, I need to be compassionate.

Q: As a writer, you specialize in non-fiction and have said in interviews that you weren't so good at writing fiction, especially plot.  Can you talk about the strengths needed for writing fiction and non-fiction?
A: For me, my strengths come from my poetry background; that is, I relish in language and imagery, in metaphor and connection. My essays can be quite fragmented, held together by shimmering threads. While some fiction can also work this way, my strengths are in revealing my own vulnerabilities through these kinds of lyric structures. Fiction has a different purpose, it seems to me.

Q: Does a short story really need a plot?
A: No, but it does need something that keeps it moving forward. As does nonfiction.

Q: Would you agree that contemporary readers are more interested in "real life" than in fiction and if so why?
A: Not necessarily. Fiction still sells really well.

Q: Can you explain what "creative non-fiction" is?
A: Well, I’ve written a whole book on the topic (Tell it Slant), but the nutshell version would be that creative nonfiction roots itself in fact, but uses imagination, memory, metaphor, scenes, and literary forms to enhance fact into literature.

Q: What is the biggest challenge in editing a literary journal?
A: $$$$$$$!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

TCR Story of the Month for April: "King of the Apes" by Benjamin Reed

Benjamin Reed
The Committee Room is proud to present "King of the Apes" by Benjamin Reed as the TCR Story of the Month for April.

With insight, humor, and imagination, the story uses the relationship of Tarzan with his creator Edgar Rice Burroughs as a means of exploring relationships of all kinds -- creative, familial, professional, romantic, platonic. When do relationships begin, when do they end, how important are they, what obligations do they entail, what claims on identity do they make, and who has the upper hand?

Benjamin Reed’s fiction has appeared in West BranchBlue Mesa Review, Sou’wester, and other small magazines. In 2010 he won Avery Anthology’s Second Annual Small Spaces Prize. Currently he’s pursuing his MFA at Texas State in San Marcos, where he’s at work on a novel. He lives in Austin.

"King of the Apes" was published by Arcadia Magazine.

To read "King of the Apes" click here

TCR Story of the Month highlights an outstanding work of short fiction published online within the preceding twelve months.

TCR Chats with Benjamin Reed

Q: How long have you been writing?
A: I think I’m pretty typical. I started taking my writing seriously in high school, but I didn’t start sending out my stuff until 2000, my last summer in college. But I started writing things here and there when I was a kid, sometimes on this old Royal typewriter that had been my grandfather’s. He was an immigrant, and that fact always felt magical to me. He and his family emigrated from Austria-Hungary, from a small village in what would become Czechoslovakia...This immigrant identity, though vicarious, has remained a part of my work. And it’s not just the association of my grandfather with my first typewriter. Franz Kafka was the very first “grownup” writer I read at ten or eleven, because I heard he was Czech, like my grandfather. In a little while I’d come to learn that Kafka was a Jew and my grandfather was technically Moravian, but that information was too late, and as trivial then as it remains now. The seed had been sown. Kafka completed the circuit between myself, my grandfather, my love of typewriters, and my sincere (if inauthentic) immigrant identification...Most of my work involves some aspect of what I imagine to be the immigrant experience, or focuses on a theme of a lost person, or a lost thing. I think this wistful incompleteness is part of that experience and identity.

Q: Where did you get the idea for "King of the Apes?"
A: It’s pretty simple, really. “King of the Apes” is a vaudevillian, almost slapstick approach to an everyday tragedy: a relationship is over, but one person realizes this long before the other does. It comes from personal experience, of course, though almost no biographical details made it onto the page. But I think the tremendous response I’ve received in regard to this story owes to the presence of certain staple character structures. Good stories often show relationships in transition. They often revolve around some kind of power imbalance. They travel, in some way, from ignorance to recognition. They have characters who are sympathetic and recognizable, and complex, but not too good or too beautiful to fracture our empathy.

Q: Who are some of your favorite classic authors?
A: Chekhov, Melville, Bruno Schulz. Kafka, as I mentioned. John Cheever and Raymond Carver, of course. Virginia Woolf. Also I think Colum McCann’s evangelism for Ben Kiely is starting to have an effect, if he’s not too recently deceased to be considered “classic.” If so, he can be a bridge to my favorite contemporaries.

Q: Who are some of your favorite contemporary authors?
A: Percival Everett, Tim O’Brien, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, Etgar KeretAlice Munro and Helen Oyeyemi. I can’t wait to read Mark Leyner’s new book, as well as Murakami’s 1Q84. I occasionally find Kevin Brockmeier to be infuriatingly adept at writing things I wish I'd written.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

TCR Forgotten Pulitzer Series: Lamb in His Bosom (1934)

Early edition
The Committee Room begins its look at now mostly forgotten Pulitzer Prize winning fiction with 1934 winner Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller.  The story of a pioneer family, the Carvers, scratching out lives in the "pineywoods" of southwest Georgia in the decades before the Civil War, Lamb in His Bosom is a richly detailed, often poetically written account of ordinary people struggling for survival.  Georgia-born Miller, a young wife and mother at the time she wrote Lamb, based the story in part on her own forebears and she makes it clear that the cliched trappings of the Antebellum south -- hoop skirts, cotillions, plantations, and especially slaves -- played no role in lives of the Carvers and other plain folks like them.

In its opening chapters Lamb seems to be offering up a plot, particularly when the Carvers' restless son Lias returns from a trip to "The Coast" -- a distant, exotic place that the menfolk occasionally visit in order to trade -- with a city-bred wife, Margot, who seems unsuited for the hardships of backwoods life.  Margot, however, quickly settles in and the novel plays out as a cycle of births and deaths in the Carver family as the decades pass with the focus on the Carver family's daughter, Cean.

"Lamb in His Bosom is written in the tradition of historical realism, which readers of today may find rather slow and overly detailed," literary scholar Emily Wright told TCR.  "On the other hand, Miller's lyrical descriptions of a woman's life lived close to nature, both internal and external, do stand the test of time, I think, and have the potential to be profoundly moving and meaningful even to contemporary readers.  Also, the novel retains its value as a historical document, being one of the few works available that describes, with remarkable accuracy, a group of southerners whom most readers know nothing about: nonslaveholding white pioneers."

Published in late 1933 and mostly well-received by critics, Lamb in His Bosom initially sold well only in the South.  Its popularity went nationwide after it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in May 1934.  Lamb was second on the Publisher's Weekly bestseller list of 1934, surpassed only by another now mostly forgotten novel, Hervey Allen's Napoleonic-era adventure Anthony Adverse

Wright points out that Joseph Pulitzer's will required that the award be given to novels that "best represent the whole atmosphere of American life" and that in the 1930s "the award tended to go to works that displayed typical American life and also to works that achieved significant popularity with the American reading public."  She notes that three other Southern novels won the Pulitzer during the Depression years -- T.S. Stribling's The Store (1933); Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind (1937); and Marjorie Kinnan RawlingsThe Yearling (1939). "In my analysis," Wright says, "this signifies that whereas throughout most of American history, the South has been looked down upon for being ignorant, poor, and bigoted, during a time of economic hardship the nation looked to the South for models of endurance and recovery."    

Caroline Miller
(courtesy of University of Georgia)
Caroline Miller, who died in 1992, published just one other novel, Lebanon (1944). The story of a backwoods girl much like Cean Carver in Lamb, Lebanon flopped with both critics and book buyers.  Miller blamed its failure on cuts made by editors because of the paper shortage during World War II but Wright says it is unlikely that Lebanon would have done well even if it had not been cut -- "The Depression era was receptive to a homespun tale of struggle and survival in the form of Lamb in His Bosom.  By the 1940s that appeal had faded.  [Also] the novel is rather melodramatic in some respects.  And finally, the popularity of historical realism was waning by the time this book came out."

Miller's final published work, the short story "Cricket," appeared in Ladies Home Journal in 1945.

"In the mid-forties," Wright says, "Miller underwent the first of several lengthy hospitalizations for what appears to have been some combination of mental and physical collapse. While the nature of her health problems remains unclear, she apparently was unwell to some extent throughout the remainder of her life.  Miller did continue to write, as her papers in the Emory University archives are full of drafts of stories, novels, and screenplays...from what I have read, they seem to be very vague and formless and incomplete."

Originally published by Harper and Brothers, Lamb in His Bosom has been available since 1993 by from Peachtree Publishers.

Peachtree edition
"Lamb in His Bosom came to my attention through Celestine Sibley, writer, reporter and beloved columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution," explained Margaret Quinlin, Peachtree Publishers president, to TCR. "Celestine had been invited to speak at an event honoring the publication of Lamb in His Bosom in Baxley, Georgia, Caroline Miller’s hometown, in 1991. She wrote a column about her visit and how much she loved the book. She was distraught to discover that it was unavailable from the publisher, especially because it was the first work of fiction by a writer from Georgia to receive the Pulitzer Prize...Celestine encouraged me to read the book and I did. I loved it too. It reminded me of Growth of the Soil, a novel that I had loved by the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun."

Quinlin was put in contact with Caroline Miller's son, Bill Miller, who was eager to see his mother's bestseller back in print.  Bill Miller cleared the way for a reversion of rights from Harper, which had long neglected Lamb, to Peachtree. The contract was signed in the summer of 1992, just before Caroline Miller's death.  "I believe she had been told that a new edition was forthcoming," Quinlin says.

Quinlin notes that the Pulitzer Prize "made a great difference" in Peachtree's decision to publish Lamb. "The market for literary fiction is challenging on many levels including reaching the audience with the right message about a book," explains Quinlin. "This challenge is magnified on the re-release of a work published decades ago. The Pulitzer label signals quality and increases the likelihood that the book will be mentioned in lists and reviews as well as included in library book purchases."

Here's more information --
Following Pulitzer (interesting and thorough blog examining all Pulitzer fiction winners)
20th-Century American Bestsellers (superbly detailed University of Illinois database)
Georgia Women of Achievement
Georgia Writers Hall of Fame
New Georgia Encyclopedia

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Poetry Podcasts for National Poetry Month

Poetry is best appreciated when read aloud, especially so when read by the poets themselves. Present-day technology has brought forth a wealth of opportunities to hear the voices of poets past and present.  A superb source of poetry read by the poet is The Poetry Archive which offers the voices of classic poets going as far back as Browning and Tennyson (yes, really!) along with contemporary poets and everything in between.

The Poetry Archive came into being as a result of a meeting, in a recording studio, between Andrew Motion, soon after he became U.K. Poet Laureate in 1999, and the recording producer, Richard Carrington.  Its mission statement reminds us that "poetry was an oral art form before it became textual. Homer's work lived through the spoken word long before any markings were made on a page. Hearing a poet reading his or her work remains uniquely illuminating. It helps us to understand the work as well as helping us to enjoy it. When a poet dies without making a recording, a precious resource is lost for ever and as time goes by that loss is felt more and more keenly. What would we not give to be able to hear Keats and Byron reading their work?"

To reach The Poetry Archive click here

These are other excellent sources of poetry aloud --

The Poet and the Poem (Library of Congress)

Poem of the Day (Poetry Foundation)

The Poetic Voice (Houghton Mifflin Publishers)

Classic Poetry Aloud (PodOmatic)

Poets.org (The Academy of American Poets)

PEN Podcasts (PEN American Center)

Monday, April 9, 2012

Books That Changed America


Robert B. Downs
In 1970, librarian and scholar Robert B. Downs created this list of twenty-five books in order to, as Downs put it,  "identify those writings which have exerted the greatest impact on our national history, direct or indirect."

Published by Macmillan as Books That Changed America, the list of twenty-five was Downs' response to those he called "denigrators of books, such as Marshall McLuhan, [who] would have us believe that books are obsolescent, being rapidly superseded by the newer media."

This is a reminder that the books versus new media battle was raging before the development of the internet or the personal computer. Also, Downs' list of twenty-five includes two books -- Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) and J.K. Galbraith's The Affluent Society (1958) -- that were published within just twelve years of the time he was writing.  In his introduction Downs mentions two other even more recent books -- Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed (1965) and Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death (1963) -- came close to being included in his list.

Today, in 2012, it's hard to think of any book of major importance published recently.

Robert B. Downs' List of 25 Books That Changed America

1.  Common Sense by Thomas Paine (1776)
2.  History of the Expedition by Lewis and Clark (1814)
3.  The Book of Mormon by Joseph Smith (1830)
4.  Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion by William Beaumont (1833)
5.   Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville (1835)
6.   Annual Reports (of the Massachusetts State Board of Education) by Horace Mann (1837-1848)
7.   The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1843)
8.   Resistance to Civil Government by Henry David Thoreau (1849)
9.   Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)
10. Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy (1888)
11. The Influence of Sea Power upon History by Alfred T. Mahan (1890)
12. The Significance of the Frontier in American History by Frederick Jackson Turner (1893)
13. The Shame of the Cities by Lincoln Steffens (1904)
14. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (1906)
15. Medical Education in the United States and Canada by Abraham Flexner (1910)
16. Twenty Years at Hull-House by Jane Addams (1910)
17. The Principles of Scientific Management by Frederick Winslow Taylor (1911)
18. An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States by Charles A. Beard (1913)
19. Prejudices by H.L. Mencken (6 volumes, 1919-1927)
20. The Nature of the Judicial Process by Benjamin N. Cardozo (1921)
21. Middletown by Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd (1929)
22. The Mind of the South by W.J. Cash (1941)
23. An American Dilemma by Gunnar Myrdal (1944)
24. The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith (1958)
25. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)

Monday, April 2, 2012

Top Writers Read Their Favorite Story Written by Another Writer

In this beautifully done podcast series produced by the Guardian, leading contemporary writers read their favorite short story written by a writer other than themselves.  Hear Philip Pullman read Chekhov, Margaret Drabble read Katherine Mansfield, Julian Barnes read Hemingway, Helen Dunmore read Frank O'Connor, Ali Smith read Grace Paley, Anne Enright read Raymond Carver, William Boyd read J.G. Ballard, Colm Toibin read Eugene McCabe, Rose Tremain read Yiyun Li, Jeanette Winterson read Italo Calvino, Tessa Hadley read Elizabeth Bowen, and Helen Simpson read Angela Carter.

Click here to reach the podcast series website.