Friday, April 13, 2012

The Georgia Review wins it all!

In the championship round of  "Literary Magazine March Madness," we here at The Georgia Review hung on to best our worthy opponent, The Paris Review, by a final score of 150 to 104. OK, so we don't play much defense, but when things are clicking we score at will! We don't go in for any of that "one and done" stuff, unlike a certain championship men's basketball team we could name -- we're in it for the long haul, doing our literary thing day in and day out since 1947, all from our headquarters here at the University of Georgia in beautiful Athens.

What's this all about, you might ask? Try asking Bill Roorbach and David Gessner, overlords of Bill and Dave's Cocktail Hour. They set the matchups, beginning with the Lit Mag Sweet Sixteen. Perhaps there was a round of eight, but next we knew GR was in the Final Four, battling Ecotone while The Paris Review scrapped with Oxford American on the other side of the bracket. Then on the afternoon of April 10 came the news we'd been waiting for -- "Despite a furious late rally by The Paris Review, The Georgia Review holds on for a statement victory."

Bill and Dave organized these showdowns scientifically -- folks visited the website and registered their votes in the comments section. Each vote was worth 2 points and there were no 3-pointers. The whole shebang was a lot of fun, especially since we came out on top. Those championship rings are going to look real nice when we show them off at next year's AWP conference. Our booth needed some bling, and now we've got it!

Thanks to Bill, Dave, and all of the participating magazines. Hopefully we'll all get our game on again next March!

Thursday, April 05, 2012

The Voice: On Meeting Harry Crews

by Stephen Corey

When I wrote here last week about the death of Harry Crews on 26 March, I said I’d come back to tell the story of our first “meeting.”

In the fall of 1975, just a few months after I’d moved to Florida from my home in far western New York—Jamestown—I was reading late one night in a window booth at the Gainesville Krystal on University Avenue. Across that main drag, to my left, was Anderson Hall—a turn-of-the-twentieth-century brick monolith housing the English department of the University of Florida. Straight ahead of me, across a side street (NW 15th, I think it was), was an old three-story, former private residence converted to the English Graduate Center, featuring several faculty offices plus a former living room used for classes and readings. To my right, out through the kitchen and across a small parking lot, the back of the University Press of Florida building abutted the restaurant property. Krystal is—or was then (I don’t frequent them anymore)—among the lowest of the low-rent hamburger chains, and something we didn’t have up north, but I could sit for hours with a cup of coffee and never be bothered by anyone on the staff. And, besides, whenever I stopped there I was flanked on three sides by structural reminders of the new world I had entered—that of a PhD program in English for which I had left friends and most family, now nearly a thousand miles away.

That one night, my fourth side proved to be covered as well. I began to overhear behind me a conversation—no, I should say a holding forth—from a voice that, to my still very northern ear, was exceptionally and jarringly southern. With a slow, scratchy delivery that sometimes dropped to a growl and other times rose almost to a whine—not that of a child or insect, but of a saw—the voice bragged about its just-completed day: not only had it risen early and written for several hours, it had also gone out for two—that’s two—long runs, in the morning and the late afternoon. All the fires were burning for this voice, all the juices cooking. This voice hadn’t felt better in a long time. This voice had even stopped its drinking . . . well, pretty much.

Even if you’ve trained yourself, as I had over the years, to work well in public places, you still encounter conversations or monologues that just can’t be shut out from your attention to your reading or writing. At such times, you have to make a choice: get up and leave, or stick around and listen. That night in Krystal, I took the latter option for a while and then shifted to the former—in part because I was a dutiful enough returning-to-it student to tell myself I had to get back to work, but also because I wanted to see the embodiment of this voice before it got away.

The man I passed as I walked slowly out of Krystal, and then passed again as I moved by his booth on the outside of one of the plate glass windows forming three sides of the restaurant, was both as-expected and totally unexpected. Burly of tank-topped chest and lean of blue-jeaned hip, Harry Crews (then nameless to me, of course) had a classic look of meanness in his squarish face: deep-set and intense eyes above a Pancho Villa mustache, prominent mouth and jaw, a profusion of fine-cut wrinkles on his brow and below. His arms were large and hard; I assumed his legs would be lean and hard. His black hair curled down over part of his forehead and all of his neck, in the manner of one who cultivates an uncultivated look.

In short, the voice looked as it had sounded: tough, standoffish, rather scary. But the voice looked completely unlike some of its subject matter. To my still-quite-innocent eyes, this character appeared to belong on a tractor, a factory floor, or a street corner—not at a desk, scrawling or typing the hours away. Although I did not know it for quite a while afterward, I learned one hell of a lot about Harry Crews during that first one-sided and anonymous meeting.


A few months later, sometime during what passes for winter in north-central Florida, I found out who I had seen that night (and, subsequently, a couple of times on the streets around campus). A friend got pretty carried away one evening with her extolling of a local writer, and when she went to her bookshelf to pull down a sample of what was exciting her, there Crews stood on the back of the dust jacket: framed by an old doorway, looming in the camera’s eye with arms folded and face scowling, he was most certainly that anonymous southern voice I had met over my shoulder.

I never came to know Crews well during my five years at the University of Florida, never really came to know him at all except by his reputation and to exchange hellos with him in a departmental hallway. I heard he was fiercely dedicated to his fiction-writing students, of which I was not one, but that otherwise he kept pretty much to himself and his own life of writing and of . . . well, those other things that I kept hearing were the substance (and, yes, substances) of his manner. I never knew where the truth left off and the myth began concerning Crews’s personal life; but I knew then as I know now that not all writers’ lives generate myths, and that when myths arise it is because there is at least some justification for their being.

That faceless voice I heard had a “voice” behind it, the kind we talk about when we talk about writers. A voice with a good chance to stay around, to echo from all four walls. Harry would likely laugh and growl at such a “soft” statement, but I think he would also believe it to be true. He knew the run was difficult, even when you had a go at it every day—so he did it twice.

Photo by Gail Collins, from the Summer 1970 issue of University of Florida Magazine. Courtesy of UF Today magazine and the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia.

Friday, March 30, 2012

On the Death of Harry Crews

by Stephen Corey

On 28 March 2012 the American and international literary communities lost one of their most unique citizens, Harry Crews—a man some no doubt would say the world is better off for having lost, and a man who would have thought that such an opinion showed he had been doing his job just the way he wanted to do it.

Crews didn’t care what people thought of him or his writing—he cared about the writing itself, about finding and then being true to a distinctive way of honoring language, narrative, and character in his novels, essays, and autobiographical writings. The Georgia Review has been with the Georgia-born Crews from the start, being the first to accept and the second to publish his work: under then-editor William Wallace Davidson, GR brought out the story “A Long Wail” in Summer 1964. (The Sewanee Review’s editor took a story after Davidson, but brought it out sooner.)

In 1985, Stanley W. Lindberg and this fledgling assistant editor—I’d come to GR in 1983—chose “A Long Wail” for reprinting in our forty-year fiction retrospective issue (Spring 1986), and this great little piece (it runs just seven pages) also made the cut for our just-released book, Stories Wanting Only to Be Heard: Selected Fiction from Six Decades of The Georgia Review (University of Georgia Press, 2012).

In the fall of 1994 we ran Tammy Lytal and Richard R. Russell’s “Some of Us Do It Anyway: An Interview with Harry Crews.” Harry holds forth on many topics, including how to write (and not write) dialect, the vital importance of his mother in his life—“See, much of the rest of the world seems to have a lot of trouble knowing what is right and what is wrong. My momma doesn’t have any trouble with that. She knows what’s right and what’s wrong, and she’ll be quick to tell you . . .”—and his view of his authorial responsibility: “See, if I do my job right when I’m writing, I will really get you turned back on yourself, and on your own code of ethics or morality or vision of the world or sense of self or whatever. If I get you turned back on yourself, then I done my job. I’ve done what I set out to do.”

About six years ago Harry placed his papers with the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library of the University of Georgia, and as soon as we learned this we began examining the archive in the hope of finding some previously unpublished Crews we might present to a world that hadn’t seen any such in a long time. We ended up publishing a seventy-five-page special feature in our Winter 2007 issue: forty pages from Harry’s (still) unpublished second volume of autobiography—the first, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place (1978), is generally considered to be his finest book—along with a selection of his letters and an essay by self-confessed Crews fanatic Larry Baker. (If you’ve been reading carefully here, you’ll recognize the first part of Baker’s title: “‘If I Do My Job Right’: Harry Crews and His Readers.”)

For Winter 2011 we returned to the Harry Crews archive and came out with “We Are All of Us Passing Through,” a personal essay from an unpublished collection called “Take 38,” and in Fall 2012—this plan predated Harry’s passing and had his blessing, as did our printing of the other archival material—we will feature “You’ll Like My Mother’s Grave,” an earlier, very different, and very interesting version of “A Long Wail.”


If you have gotten this far you are almost certainly that kind of attentive reader who will have noticed that sometimes above I call Harry Crews “Harry.” I don’t do so because I’m a believer in the “casually familiar” form of address—I emphatically am not—but because I had the privilege of getting to know Harry over the years—just a bit while I was in graduate school at his place, the University of Florida, and then a little better across the twenty years of our association while I’ve been with The Georgia Review.

I have what I think of as a pretty good story about my first “meeting” with Harry in Gainesville, but it’s a bit long and this post is already long, so I’ll save it for next week sometime—say, Tuesday the 3rd. For today I’ll close with a few more of Harry Crews’s own words, again drawn from that 1994 interview in The Georgia Review.

First, there’s Harry talking about some of the run-ins he’s had with women of the 1990s—particularly women in big cities like New York—who tend not to take to being addressed in the ways that Harry learned from his south Georgia mother in the 1940s and ’50s. Harry begins narrow but finishes broad, with the words we used to title the interview: “I don’t know what it is, but as soon as I say ‘lady’ they jump. Again too, I’m supposed to say ‘person,’ when what I wanted to say was ‘lady.’ But what I tell them is that where I come from, when a female reaches puberty, she is ‘ma’am’; that’s just the way it is. My momma told me that’s the way it is, and since I have seen or heard nothing to change my mind or prove me wrong, I still say ‘ma’am.’ There’s lots of things you used to could do, you can’t do anymore, except some of us do it anyway.”

And, from earlier on in the discussion, a comment that I think says enough and good about why those who dislike Harry Crews’s work dislike it, and about why those who like it like it: “I never wanted to be well-rounded, and I do not admire well-rounded people nor their work. So far as I can see, nothing good in the world has ever been done by well-rounded people. The good work is done by people with jagged, broken edges, because those edges cut things and leave an imprint, a design.”

Photo courtesy of John Zeuli Photography

Monday, January 23, 2012

In Memoriam 1935–2012

Here's an excerpt from We Are All of Us Passing Through, an autobiographical piece by the inimitable Harry Crews, who died Wednesday at his home in Gainesville, Florida. There's more from that work plus some of Crews' fiction from The Gospel Singer in the Winter 2011 issue of The Georgia Review.

To take advantage of our great subscription deals and have the best in contemporary American writing delivered to your mailbox four times a year, visit our online store.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Winter 2011 issue is now out!

New Sharon Olds poem on our website and in our just-out Winter issue--which also features a previously unpublished Harry Crews essay, stories by Ann Pancake and Marguerite Sullivan, poems from Carol Frost, Elton Glaser, James Applewhite, and Albert Goldbarth, and a beautiful cover and full-color interior art spread by Eugenie name just a few. You can purchase the issue at fine booksellers across the USA or order single copies, subscriptions (one-year, multi-year, or gifts), back issues, t-shirts, and more at our online store. Come join our literary party!

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Winter 2011 update

Our Winter 2011 edition ran a bit late but should arrive in subscribers’ mailboxes soon (if it hasn't already). The issue is available for purchase online right now, so follow the link and treat yourself, a loved one, a friend, or a colleague to some of the very best in contemporary American writing -- whether by buying a single issue or (better yet) by taking advantage of our great deals on subscriptions. 

The Winter 2011 GR features a previously unpublished essay by the inimitable Harry Crews plus new work from Coleman Barks, Carol Frost, Gary Gildner, Albert Goldbarth, Judith Kitchen, Sharon Olds, Ann Pancake, and many more. We think it was worth the wait. Thanks so much for your patience.

In the meantime, enjoy this vintage video clip of Harry Crews on the Dennis Miller show. Crews says his unusual haircut is in honor of "freak the citizens month" and Miller describes the coiffure as "a G.Gordon Liddy meets Vanilla Ice type thing." 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Boomerang v. the Right Angle

Kent Meyers’ “The Makings” begins where Meyers grew up—on a “family farm,” that cultural memory, mostly extirpated in its purest form and a term now wrongly applied to corporate food-growing factories. These small farms comprised a chaotic mix of pastures, crops, outbuildings, and yards, woodlots and fencerows, ponds and marshland. They were homesteads where place names, as Meyers says, “sprang from the nature of the land itself.”

As farming changed, Meyers began to see “acres sucked dry of their mystery”: a squared off and tidied up world with streams dredged into ditches, wetlands drained and tiled, crop rows straightened so a boy could never get lost. And he recalls, “I wanted to journey, not merely to get there.”

Some farm children dreamed. Meyers made boomerangs and learned how to throw them. A boomerang was possibility, and throwing one successfully created a wondrous curve that was about the journey rather than the destination. It was, of course, an escape.

As a teenager, he read a book called A Sporting Chance, which set him to making primitive hunting weapons—not just boomerangs but spears, atlatls, bolas. Guns bored him: “They didn’t inscribe instantly vanishing lines on the air, didn’t shape French curves or trace time and happening.” Guns are for efficient killing, which is a “rote and repetitive thing.” The destination is a dead animal; the journey, well, there is no real journey.

His hunting would aspire to imitating and entering the natural world as the Inuit in sealskin kayaks play at being seal. He describes examining such a kayak in a museum in Alaska:

As I stood there, it was as if generations of murmured dialogue between human and seal took on physical shape, impressed into the kayak’s structure and curves. Even the flex and fat of the seal are there. . . . [T]he sealskin kayak’s frame is tied together so that it sways and gives, like seal, or water itself. Imitating waves, it absorbs them.

And of course, the tying together is an ingenuity formed by the available makings.

The catalyst is the “makings”—those things in the Inuit’s world, the leftovers and cast-asides on Meyer’s boyhood farm. He couldn’t have cared less what those leavings had been used for or how they got there; all that mattered was their “particular imagined future.”

With help from a picture of the biblical David, he made a sling. “A slung stone thins, melts, disappears. After a while you may hear it falling through the trees in the grove past the cattle yard—though sometimes you throw it so far there’s silence, and the stone, for all you know, has left the farm, or the earth, or the universe.” Indeed, Meyers saves some of his more ecstatic prose for the curve of the missile released, as in this description of a trebuchet experiment. “[We] tossed an eight-inch rock from here to way, way, way over there in one of the loveliest arcs I’ve ever seen on a thing tossed, the rock fleeing the trebuchet’s sling at the end of its long arm so liltingly it seemed melodic. I was hard-pressed to say whether the world gave that lilt and curve to us or we gave it to the world.”

“The Makings” moves in curves and arcs through various weaponry as well as topics as disparate as early nineteenth-century verse and S&H Green Stamps. But it always finds its way back to the idea of possibility—possibility and the simple assertion that anything made with care and used well can be linked to a deeper truth and a larger good.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Alice Friman and Ecstatic Pragmatism

From poet Alice Friman, I have learned many things about the arts, including the domestic arts—how to iron a silk skirt, for example, among other housewifely confidences. Equally likely to share wise advice or a comfortably dirty joke, on the page or in person, Friman is good company, earthy company in the concrete, literal sense of being at ease with the physical earth and its accoutrements. Friman sometimes expresses exasperation with the physical world, using the intimate, even gossipy tones with which one might dismiss a frustrating family member: in “The Birthmark,” for example, she calls the moon a “naked rock in borrowed clothes.” Yet Friman’s exasperation originates in familiarity, in closeness, not in distance from visceral experience. Friman’s poems give the impression of a writer comfortable working with her hands—she’s no airy fumbler—and on her pages we meet speakers accomplishing the day’s ordinary needs, such as “whomping up / a mess of vittles,” as the speaker’s son jokes in “How It Is.” If you were wrapping a package in a room full of poets, struggling to get the bow right, Alice Friman is the one you would intuitively know to gesture toward with your chin, requesting council and a steady hand.

To enter a poet’s stanza is to walk into a room (stanza’s Italian derivative) built by that poet. Guests entering Friman’s stanzas are invited to enjoy designs characterized by her specific and comforting species of competence: Friman attends to the day’s physical demands alongside its spiritual ones. Her stanzas balance and juxtapose physical and metaphysical forces as they collide and diverge—air and earth, mind and body, desire and loss—so that we see how these forces pull on each other, orbit each other, crash together, blow apart, then do it all again. On Friman’s pages, we meet the body in thought. Her multi-layered design sense creates a multi-layered vocal tone one recognizes anywhere it appears, like a familiar melody played in many places. Ever a celebrator, a jovial host, she is never a fluttering one: at Friman’s poetic parties for the page, one enjoys a billowy welcome spiked with briny appetizers.

Friman is a celebratory writer of odes to Beauty with a capital B, and she deals in The Big Subjects. To borrow a gag from Marilyn Hacker, most of Friman’s work, too, engages Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons. Yet in her approach to her elevated subjects, Friman is a pragmatist with the, poetically speaking, broken nose and crooked smile to prove it. Therefore, Friman’s understanding of Beauty incorporates its threat; as she described in our recent interview, “There is something in ‘beauty’ that’s a little terrifying . . . beauty isn’t necessarily pretty. They aren’t synonyms for each other. Pretty is pleasing; beauty shakes you up.” Thus, she says, “I strive usually . . . to undercut myself in order to, hopefully, raise ‘pretty’ to a degree of ‘beauty’ . . . sometimes it means a quick switch from lyricism to starkness.” We experience this “quick switch” tactic working on us throughout her poems in the Summer 2011 Georgia Review. Friman’s salty bon mots enhance her celebrations by reminding us of what those celebrations are in spite of, or in addition to—disappointment, betrayal, grief, plain stupidity. In other words, Friman reminds us what the stakes are.

The briny flavor circulating within Friman’s poetic interiors is, for me, exemplified by a bit in “Sonic Boom,” from her collection The Book of the Rotten Daughter (BkMk Press, 2006): “I come from a family of Russians / stubborn as stumps. Crabby, but we live.” There is something of resignation in “Crabby, but we live,” but also a lively variety of self-deprecating humor, and something pugnacious besides. This is one of those small, crisp bites circulating on platters within all of Friman’s stanzas that ground the poet’s flights of lyric celebration. This tinge of bitter in the vocal tone allows me to trust Friman’s tender moments as well as her flights of fancy, for every balloon must have its ballast: something heavy must be dropped in order for the poem to go soaring, and it could whomp on someone’s head. At first, it might seem unwise to trust a poet who is as like as not to drop a sandbag (or an olive pit?) on your noggin, but it’s Friman’s honesty in the acknowledgment of existing threat that allows me to trust that she’s not holding knives I can’t see.

Among the poems featured in the latest Georgia Review, Friman’s pugnaciousness is most immediately apparent in “How It Is,” a poem of natural cycles—their beauty, but also the cruelty of their inevitability. “Late October, / and the pitiless drift / begins in earnest,” the poem begins, yet that “pitiless drift” is preceded by a frenzy of fertility. The speaker’s mimosa, which endured “death fingering the leaves / all summer,” still “plumped its pods, spending / all July squeezing them out, / going about its business, as did / the slash pine and loblolly, spraying pollen—coating / windows, cars, filling every / idle slit with sperm.” Affection and exasperation vie for prominence in this depiction; the speaker seems resigned to, even amused by, the lack of dignity afforded by the compulsory cycles of desire and death. Happily, Friman isn’t the sort of poet to tell us what to do with our own resignation, but neither does she leave us blowing in the breeze with no direction at all; she settles on a middle approach, offering, “Who am I to write the user’s manual / for a life, except to say, / Look at trees, dug in and defiant. / Be like the river. Stick out your tongue.” This tongue image sets a mocking child among the defiant trees, but also shows a fevered child saying “aah” for the doctor. Here, the rascal’s mischief rides with the understanding that mischief is, partly, a response to lack of control over rules—in this case, the incontrovertible rules of mortality. Friman’s whistling is a whistling past the graveyard.

The note of resignation when responding to the natural world’s spectacular shows is quieter in “Red Camellia,” but ever present: it’s woven into the image fabric of the piece. The poem begins, “The bush has reaped her reward: / she cannot hold up her arms.” By “arms,” the poet indicates the camellia’s branches, here personified as human arms, but also the bush’s arms as in her armaments, her weapons. Thereafter, the lines are suffused with martial diction. We encounter the camellia’s arms in a “salute” during a spring season that is “primed,” as a gun ready to fire. Images of imprisonment also catch our attention: “the wasp tending its cells” precedes an image of the camellia waiting “all year / locked in her thin verticals / for the sun’s first hot speech.” Desire, or at least the biological imperative to reproduce, is figured throughout this lush poem, full though it is of “lascivious plumpings,” as a prison in a war zone. So, when we arrive at the speaker’s direct address to the beloved—“Love, I want to talk camellia talk”—it feels fitting that this conversation must happen “quick, before summer’s endless / conscription in a green uniform— / that stifling march into fall.” Meanwhile, the lover is implored to “juice me up red and barbarous: / a phalanx of redcoats, a four-alarm fire.” So even as the speaker says, warmly, “I’m tired of pork roasts and ease / in an easy chair,” we know that when she’s asking her lover to “Bring me one more / season. A reason. Bring it in your hands,” what she’s asking for is no idyll, but the lived experience of passion, with its tirades and restraints. If we were looking for this poem’s kindred spirit in popular love songs, we’d be better off listening to Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” than Sinatra’s “The Way You Look Tonight.”

Even the most somber poem of this trio, “The Birthmark,” throws sparks of Friman’s characteristic insouciance into the heartfelt mix. Set during the small hours in a bedroom where the speaker is watching her husband sleep, “The Birthmark” turns around its apostrophe to the moon. This address begins romantically (Romantically) enough: “Come, I say to the moon, meet the new / Endymion . . .” But the poem proceeds directly to the contemporary shepherd’s snoring, the lover’s insomnia beside him, the daily grind of making syllabi and grading papers. The speaker acknowledges her fall from the vatic poet’s more elevated role: “Forgive us,” she asks the moon, “We serve a shabbier world.” But knowing that “we serve a shabbier world,” that we are “crabby,” that our passions imprison us and do harm to our beloveds, that our most basic tasks are a little silly, does not diminish the felt power of our needs, or the scale and power of the world in which those needs often go unmet. As Friman says in “How It Is,” “What does life mean / but itself? Ask the sea. / You’ll get a wet slap back- / handed across your mouth. / Ask the tiger. I dare you.” Yet Friman seems to be delighted by, and delights us with, her daring, bringing dangerous creatures into the comfortable rooms she’s designed, where we meet both her artistry and her recognition that all artistry must go the way of the camellia’s blooms before the sun’s “hot speech.” Friman’s work serves up both “the tedium of suffering” and the incontrovertible urge to address the moon in the presence of one’s beloved, asking her to “Shine on him nonetheless.”

—Dorine Jennette