The Poetic Persistence of Sharon OldsWhy critics can’t handle the poet’s honest depictions of life, death, and women.BY JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK • 2 MONTHS AGO

I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman,
Allen Ginsberg, I have done this thing,
I and the other women this exceptional
act with the exceptional heroic body,
this giving birth, this glistening verb,
and I am putting my proud American boast
right here with the others.               —Sharon Olds, “The Language of the Brag,” Satan Says (1980)

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One of my favorite activities as a critic—upon reviewing a book or writing about an author—is to rummage through my substantial collection of literary criticism for sources to reference or contend with. As I sifted through the books (by Updike, Oates, Dirda, Epstein, Krystal, Hardwicke, Vendler, Haas, Ozick, Dyer, Mendelsohn, Aykroyd, Booth, Sontag, Ginsberg, Hughes, etc. etc. etc.), I found only two volumes in which Olds appears. The first is A Jury of Her Peers by historian and critic Elaine Showalter, where Olds is mentioned once, and the second is poet Tony Hoagland’s nonfiction collection Twenty Poems That Could Save America, which actually features a full essay on Olds. Hoagland, too, quickly gets to the heart of the response to Olds’s work in the poetry community with this series of questions that open the piece:

What do you get as a reward for being a poet like Sharon Olds? For having written five-hundred-plus poems that plumb the range of family dynamics and intimate physicality with a precision and metaphorical resourcefulness greater than ever before applied to those subjects? For having permanently extended and transformed the tradition of the domestic poem?

His answer is, in part, success. But there are other things that come along with popularity and a wide readership:

You are run down by envious peers and overlooked by academics. Your name is invoked like a brand name to denote the obviousness of confessional poetry. You are accused of repetition, narcissism and exhibitionism.

Worse still are the reviews Olds receives from male critics, who seem to revel in first describing and then deriding her choice of subject matter and the ways in which she approaches them. Here’s a real astute piece of criticism from William Logan, in which he can barely contain his misogynistic glee:

If you want to know what it’s like for Sharon Olds to menstruate, or squeeze her oil-filled pores, or discover her naked father shitting, Blood, Tin, Straw will tell you. If you want to know what her sex life is like (it’s wonderful, trust her!), she’ll tell you, and tell you in prurient, anatomical detail the Greek philosophers would have killed for.

This is a disgusting excuse for criticism. The implicit argument is clear: the private life of a woman (the real, nitty-gritty details) should stay just that: private. Throughout her career, Olds has been criticized for “oversharing,” which is basically a euphemism for that woman is being honest about her body. To deny Olds her self as subject (including every aspect of that self) is to deny her personal autonomy, and to posit that the concerns of a woman cannot be inherently profound or insightful as literature.

Adam Kirsch, author of Rocket and Lightship, goes even further to suggest that Olds’s subjects—that is, her life, her body, and her experiences—somehow undercut their literary efficacy:

Her poems are written directly out of the trivia of her life and can be directly assimilated by the reader; there is no abstraction and no surprise, only the videotape of life played back at full volume … The reader of Olds is never made to question himself, only to congratulate himself on his fine sensitivity.

First of all, how appropriate that Kirsch falls back on the so-called general male pronoun at the end. Kirsch seems to think that anything you can literally understand is dubious in art, and that if he doesn’t relate to the “trivia” of Olds’s life, her poems must—must, for how can a male critic fail to recognize the complexity of Olds’s portrait of female sexuality?—be surface-level only. He also offers some simplistic derision of Olds’s direct takes on sex and sexuality:

It is only when sex is made to serve as a metaphorical focus for more elaborate and entangled feelings that it rings true, and becomes poetically alive. And since Olds has one simple and finally unsurprising feeling about sex—that its bodily goodness refutes its social or religious badness—the varied descriptions of sex in her poetry are monotonous.

One might quibble with a few points here (after all, is the argument that sex’s “bodily goodness refutes its social or religious badness” such a “simple” idea to express in poetry?), but the most shockingly short-sighted is that sex must serve some larger, metaphorical meaning in order to become “poetically alive.” Has Kirsch ever hadsex? A frank and direct depiction of the sexual act that isn’t exploitive or cloying or riddled with nearly unavoidable clichés—what, I ask you, could be more poetically alive than that?

Anis Shivani (a writer I’ll just go ahead and admit I loathe) named Olds as one of “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers” in an article for Huffington Post in 2011. Other writers on the list include William T. Vollmann, Mary Oliver, John Ashberry, Antonya Nelson, Helen Vendler, Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Díaz, Michael Cunningham, and Louise Gluck. Here are, in part, his reasons for Olds’s overblown reputation:

Female poets in workshops around the country idolize her, collaborate in the masochism, because they say she freed them to talk about taboo subjects, she “empowered” them. Likes to pile on gratuitously, well after she’s made the point about whatever bodily dysfunction is bothering her.

What a load of chauvinist bullshit. Here again, some dude views her poetry as “gratuitous,” which is basically a euphemism for gross. But even worse is the condescension toward “female poets” who feel “empowered” by Olds—who is he to tell them they’re wrong to feel free to write about “taboo subjects”? And, moreover, who the hell asked him, anyway?

Hoagland’s essay is entitled “The Poetic Development of Sharon Olds,” but in thinking about Olds’ “poetic development” during the 36-year span between her first collection Satan Says, from 1980, and Odes, her wonderful and vibrant latest, it becomes clear that there isn’t much “development” at all, inasmuch as Olds’ style, her structure, and her rigorous dedication to brutal honesty have remained the same. I would argue that in the face of such harsh and sexist criticism, in the face of “envious peers” and accusations of exhibitionism, Olds has continued, unabated, doing what she does, unapologetically and without compromise. Rather than condemning her for staying the course (why, after all, does “development” or “artistic progress” necessarily equal improvement?), I want to celebrate her stylistic persistence and her ever-deepening self-scrutiny as almost heroic, brave, admirable—and a big “fuck you” to inane male critics for whom the reality of women is simply too much to handle.

As if to establish this theme, Odes opens with three poems that demonstrate the subtle depth of those poems about which men like Kirsch get to congratulate themselves for understanding (but also criticize the poet for being understood). Here is a sample from “Ode to the Hymen”:

…I don’t know who
invented you—to keep a girl’s inwards
clean and well-cupboarded. Dear wall,
dear gate, dear stile, dear Dutch door, not a
cat-flap nor a swinging door
but a one-time piñata. How many places in the
body were made to be destroyed
once? You were very sturdy, weren’t you,
you took your job seriously—I’d never
felt such pain—you were the hourglass lady
the magician saws in two. I was proud of you,
turning to a cupful of the bright arterial
ingredient. And how lucky we were,
you and I, that we got to choose
when, and with whom, and where, and why—plush
pincushion, somehow related
to statues that wept.

An ode is a seemingly simple and direct form, fitting for Olds, but again she does much more work than mere celebration. Weaving through the above passage are numerous threads of a woman’s sexual identity: subtle jabs at the invention of the hymen and its subsequent representative virginity, the tragic commonness of sexual assault, and a contemplation of what the hymen represents for Olds as a living body filled with “the bright arterial ingredient.”

The next poem, “Ode to the Clitoris” begins with a series of evocative synonyms for the clit:

Little eagerness;
flower-girl basket of soft thorn
and petal, near the entry of the satin
column of the inner aisle;
scout in the wilderness; wild ear
which perks up; tender dowser, which points;
imp; shape-shifter; bench-pressing biceps of a
teeny goddess who is buff; lotus
for grief; weentsy Minerva who springs
full-armored, molten…

Have you ever read a more loving and lovely description of the clitoris or vagina? Within these various metaphors are subtle suggestions of Olds’s relationship with her sexuality, the self-possession of sensual agency. In these odes, Olds tackles her subjects just as much as she praises them.

Next up is “Ode to the Penis,” in which Olds writes that she finds the male organ “lovely and brave, and so interesting,” but notes her separateness from it:

I cannot imagine you, from within—but as a
sage said of a god, I do not want
to be sugar, I want to taste sugar!
But that’s just my heteromania talking,
and you’re not homo or hetero—or visible
or manifest, you do not exist
except as an imaginary quorum
of all your instances.

Olds crashes from a deity to a hint of fellatio to the political implications of the penis’s inherent sexuality. These are not, Mr. Kirsch, simplistic feelings or reductive ideas, at least not in their formulation. Olds shows herself in Odes, as in all of her work, as a virtuoso at sneaking modes of nuance into ostensibly straightforward poetry.

Now that we’ve seen some of Olds’s new poems in Odes, let’s take a look at some of her previous collections in order to trace this persistence and contrast it with Hoagland’s notion of development. Let’s take The Father from 1992 and Stag’s Leap from 2012.

Twenty years separate these collections, but there is so much to connect them in terms of style and delivery, they could almost have been published back to back. It should be noted, though, that Olds wrote many of the poems in Stag’s Leap around the time of her divorce in 1997, only five years after The Father. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Olds explained the time gap:

One thing about being grown children [during a divorce] is, thank god they’re not little children. At the same time, if it’s one of those marriages that looks really lasting, it’s a possibility they have never considered, and they’re like 30 years old. So, I figured I could just reassure them that this would not be a work of art. It just seemed to me the right thing is to say, “By the way, this won’t be a book for 10 years.”

Even though much of Stag’s Leap was written close to The Father, this doesn’t discredit my thesis here. In fact, I think it confirms my argument. Olds put together this collection using poems from a 15-year period, yet the book is consistent stylistically. In 2013, Stag’s Leap was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. And just recently, it was announced that Olds is this year’s recipient of the Wallace Stevens Award, which brings $100,000 with it. Her persistence has paid off.

Sharon Olds’s The Father tells the story of her father’s death—the build-up, the sickness, the logistics, the worry, the death, the ashes, the aftermath, and the ensuing years. Here we have an exhaustive account of sickness and mortality, filled with Olds’s characteristic bluntness. Take these lines from the poem “The Glass”:

…So my father has to gargle, cough,
spit a mouthful of thick stuff
into the glass every ten minutes or so,
scraping the rim up his lower lip
to get the last bit off his skin, then he
sets the glass down on the table and it
sits there, like a glass of beer foam,
shiny and faintly golden, he gargles and
coughs and reaches for it again
and gets the heavy sputum out,
full of bubbles and moving around like yeast—
he is like a god producing food from his own mouth.

This is undoubtedly a disgusting description, full of enough specificity to make one gag, but to consider this poem from only that point of view would be to completely miss the point. We’re early in the collection here, and Olds is establishing a tone of blunt directness that will run through the rest of the pages. “The Glass” in function can be compared to “Material Ode” from Stag’s Leap, in which Olds breaks the tenuous tone she’d set up in the opening poems. Stag’s Leap tells the story of Olds’s divorce from her husband of 32 years. The first few poems, which depict her husband telling her he’s going to leave, bristle with restrained emotion, like a person holding their breath before a decision is announced. In “Material Ode,” Olds moves into the hyper-personal:

O tulle, O taffeta, O grosgrain—
I call upon you now, girls,
of fabrics and the woman I sing. My husband
had said he was probably going to leave me—not
for sure, but likely, maybe—and no, it did not
have to do with her. O satin, O
sateen, O velvet, O fucking velveeta—
the day of the doctors’ dress-up dance,
the annual folderol, the lace,
the net, he said it would be hard for her
to see me there, dancing with him,
would I mind not going.

Here are the anger and resentment finally announcing themselves. It’s the first time thus far that Olds has directly come out and said how she feels about the situation. The breakdown of the high diction of “O tulle, O taffeta” comes at the line “O fucking velveeta.” The speaker can no longer maintain this air of poetic distance and highbrow laments, so she drops the act and laments a gross, pasty cheese. Her life is no longer like the beautiful fabrics she began with; now it’s as gourmet as fucking Velveeta. Moreover, it marks the first time Olds admits something shameful:

…And when he came
home and shed his skin, Reader,
I slept with him, thinking it meant
he was back, his body was speaking for him,
and as it spoke, its familiar sang
from the floor, the old-boy tie.

The word “Reader” is vital here. The speaker addresses the reader personally—a habit people have when they’re revealing something embarrassing or hard to say—as she admits to having sex with her husband. Coming early in the book, “Material Ode” works well as a precursor to all that follows.

Similarly, “The Glass” prepares the reader for harsh and hard-to-hear truths by literalizing them. Her father’s dripping phlegm as he unsuccessfully expectorates into the glass stands as a signpost of things to come. Things are going to get bleak, it suggests, dark and disgusting and unyielding—so prepare yourself.

In The Father, Olds forms the narrative with a discursive but ultimately forward-moving thrust. One could almost read just the Contents page for a distilled version of the story: “The Last Day,” “The Exact Moment of His Death,” “His Smell,” “The Dead Body,” “Death,” “The Feelings,” “After Death,” and “What Shocked Me When My Father Died” taken together basically tell the same tale. But Olds isn’t interested in narrative complexity so much as she is in the complexity of events themselves. Stag’s Leap is no different. Both collections describe relatively mundane, nearly universal, events—a death and a divorce (to how many of our own lives could such a title be applied?). What makes The Father and Stag’s Leap so fascinating is watching Olds experience each moment and find unique insight that elevates the familiar stories into riveting, original works.

Take, for instance, the opening lines of “His Smell”:

In the last days of my father’s life
I tried to name his smell—like yeast,
ochre catalyst feeding in liquid,
eating malt, excreting mash—
sour ferment, intoxicant, exaltant, the
strong drink of my father’s sweat,
I bent down over the hospital bed
and smelled it.

Many writers have described the pain of losing someone, the confusion, the fright, the ambivalence, the flood of past memories, the magical thinking—but how many have described the smell? Olds herself is surprised at the thought:

I had thought the last thing between us
would be a word, a look, a pressure
of touch, not that he would be dead
and I would be bending over him
smelling him, breathing him in
as you would breathe the air, deeply, before going into exile.

Olds considers both the way she experienced the death and how she thought she would experience it, making a kind of meta-confession. She offers the insight and comments on the conventions.

She employs a similar technique in “Pain I Did Not” from Stag’s Leap, in which she contemplates pain she didn’t experience but she assumed she would: “I was not driven / against the grate of a mortal life, but / just the slowly shut gate / of preference.” Olds repeatedly reminds us that life is never predictable, and more importantly, that the shock of this—of not feeling what we think we should, or how we think others feel—affects us just as much as the event itself.

Throughout her career, Olds’s form has remained consistent. Even when she outright states that she’s going to use a different form, she doesn’t. There’s “Bruise Ghazal” in Stag’s Leap that tosses a handful of the form’s styles into Olds’s standard single-stanza structure. In The Father, there’s a poem called “Waste Sonata.” A sonata is an opaque term, sure, but at the very least it refers to music, and usually music on a big scale. Here “Waste Sonata” is less than fifty lines. One could read these as sly digs at her critics, who seem to so lament her insistence on writing the way she wants. But “Waste Sonata” typifies even more about Olds’s writing than this. Here are the clunky line endings, mixed in with effective ones, and also the abrasive honesty of her lyricism, like this:

Whatever he poured into my mother
she hated, her face rippled like a thin
wing, sometimes, when she happened to be near him,
and the liquor he knocked into his body
felled him, slew the living tree,
loops of its grain started to cube,
petrify, coprofy, he was a
shit, but I felt he hated being a shit,
he had never imagined it could happen, this drunken
sleep was a spell laid on him––
by my mother!

A poorly chosen line-ending like “he was a” must be suffered through in order to get the magic of the following “shit, but I felt he hated being a shit.” And for those concerned with what’s appropriate material for poetry, this poem flies in the face of expectations in that regard. Her investigation into the word shit—“He’s full of shit,” “he was a /shit,” and actual defecation—proves that Olds is as adept at language as any poet, but she focuses that skill on subjects some people—namely, men—have proprietary problems with.

Finally, this poem captures the ambivalence, the evenness, of Olds’s conclusion of her emotional arc in each book. Here are some of the final lines of “Waste Sonata”:

My father was not a shit. He was a man
failing at life. He had little shits
travelling through him while he lay unconscious––
sometimes I don’t let myself say
I loved him, anymore, but I feel
I almost love those little shits that move through him,
shapely, those waste fetuses,
my mother, my sister, my brother, and me
in that purgatory.

Olds doesn’t let herself say it, but she does love her father in some way. She’s able to forgive many of his lesser qualities through the lens of his failings. In losing him, she finds much to gain in her relationship to with him.

Stag’s Leap comes to a similar conclusion about the loss of her husband. In “What Left?” Olds ends on a vague note of equivocality:

…We fulfilled something in each other—
I believed in him, he believed in me, then we
grew, and grew, I grieved him, he grieved me,
I completed him, he completed me, we
made whole cloth together, we succeeded,
we perfected what lay between him and me,
I did not deceive him, he did not deceive me,
I did not leave him, he did not leave me,
I freed him, he freed me.

Here is the same insistence on evening things out. She doesn’t hate her ex-husband, nor does she blame him, though he did blameworthy things. Her father too receives absolution, in a sense, from his daughter.

Critics write of Olds’s poetry as if the “repulsiveness” of it were somehow her invention. If her poetry is shocking, off-putting, or blunt, it’s because life is all of those things. Olds does not invent, she describes. The plainness of her language, the directness of her descriptions and depictions, and the domesticity of her topics combine together to elevate not only Olds’s experiences but ours, and underneath them lay oodles of complexity and nuance. There is less development between The Father and Odes than there is extension—of reach, of depth, of honesty—but not of style or approach. In her work, we see through her eyes the life of a singular human being, uncompromisingly woman, a scathing observer, a keen wit, and, crucially, a poet willing to explore the utter strangeness of existence. It reminds us that our private lives are all disgusting and strange and weird and difficult to share, and won’t let us forget how each moment—from a husband leaving his wife to a father leaving this earth—and how each thing—from fabrics and shit to the cock and the clit—can, with the right turn of phrase, the right kind of heart, kill you as much as it can heal you.

About Jonathan Russell Clark

Jonathan Russell Clark

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK is a literary critic. He is a staff writer for Literary Hub , and a regular contributor to The Georgia Review and The Millions. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book ReviewTin HouseThe AtlanticThe New RepublicLA Review of BooksThe RumpusChautauquaPANK, and numerous others. His essays have been mentioned in The Guardian, NPR.org, BBC.com, Bookforum.com, Electric LiteratureWord RiotPoets & Writers, and as one of Katie Couric’s Katie’s FYI. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Clark was educated at the University of Oxford, the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, UMass Boston, and the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

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Short Story Collections that Touch on the Delicacy of Humanity, and All of the Love, Tragedy, and Recovery that comes with it

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The stories that frequently have the most impact are capable of diving deep to allow readers to explore, fully experience,  a range of emotional highs and lows within the span of only a few pages. Although stories of this nature may be brief in length, they are vast in meaning, and are nothing short of breathtaking.

In honor of Short Story Month, Signature compiled a list of excellent short story collections that span a variety of topics and facets of life. The collections compiled below are all newly released this year or forthcoming in the next few weeks.

  • The cover of the book Things We Lost in the Fire

    Things We Lost in the Fire
    by Mariana Enriquez

    Argentina provides the backdrop for this collection of sometimes disturbing and always provocative stories by Buenos Aires-based writer Mariana Enriquez. From an unlikely serial killer to a curious form of protest to a particularly strange instance of hikikomori, the stories in this collection will mesmerize you.

  • The cover of the book The World to Come

    The World to Come
    Stories by Jim Shepard

    Award-winning writer Jim Shepard is back with his fifth collection of stories, courtesy of The World to Come. The author takes us on adventures spanning geography and time -in these ten stories, which touch on war, family, grief, disillusionment, and beyond.

  • The cover of the book Bit Rot

    Bit Rot
    stories + essays by Douglas Coupland

    In his 1991 novel, Generation X, Douglas Coupland debuted his straightforward, edgy, intelligent style of writing while popularizing the phrase we needed to define the post-Boom generation. He’s hardly slowed down since and now presents his new collection, Bit Rot. Ever one to find inspiration in the changing times, this collection of essays and stories focuses on new-millennium life.

  • The cover of the book Hot Little Hands

    Hot Little Hands
    Fiction by Abigail Ulman

    Australian writer Abigail Ulman’s fiction debut, Hot Little Hands, was met with ample praise from critics when it landed in May 2016. In nine stories, Ulman introduces us to young women who are in various states of coming of age – and all the while entirely relatable – while imparting the perfect amount of humor and poignancy simultaneously.

  • The cover of the book What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

    What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours
    Stories by Helen Oyeyemi

    Award-winning British novelist Helen Oyeyemi had, until last year, stuck to novels and plays for her life in fiction. When her much-anticipated debut story collection, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, landed in March 2016, it was everything we wanted it to be and more. And we’re not alone in thinking so; the book has landed on some of the most respected Best Of lists out there. With the theme of keys at its center, Oyeyemi’s first collection is as playful as it is thoughtful and will keep you captivated until the very last page.

  • The cover of the book Cockfosters

    Cockfosters
    Stories by Helen Simpson

    Helen Simpson continues her legacy of being one of the finest internationally acclaimed short story writers with the release of this cynical, yet tender collection. These nine stories revolve around the ever-perplexing concepts of time and aging, and take us from today’s London and Berlin to the wild west of the USA and the wilder shores of Mother Russia.

  • The cover of the book The Family Markowitz

    The Family Markowitz
    Fiction by Allegra Goodman

    These witty short stories are linked through three generations of Markowitzes: Rose, the irritable matriarch; Henry, her art-loving son living in London; Rose’s younger son Ed, a terrorism scholar at Georgetown; and Ed’s daughter Miriam, the medical student who, to her parents’ dismay, becomes an Orthodox Jew. Goodman follows the family’s everyday experiences in such a way that makes the whole family come alive between the pages.

  • The cover of the book These Heroic, Happy Dead

    These Heroic, Happy Dead
    Stories by Luke Mogelson

    Luke Mogelson’s debut collection provides a raw and intimate look at lives that have been transformed by war: soldiers, their families, government officials, and civilians. These ten stories showcase the unexpected cost of war, and the people who have paid the price.

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  • The cover of the book Homesick for Another World

    Homesick for Another World
    Stories by Ottessa Moshfegh

    Award-winning fiction writer Ottessa Moshfegh is known for her short stories for a reason. She has the unique ability to develop characters that represent the human condition in an unfiltered way—they’re lonely and dissatisfied, desperate for something more. These stories are for anyone that has ever felt a deep homesickness for a place they’ve never been before.

  • The cover of the book Signals

    Signals
    New and Selected Stories by Tim Gautreaux

    Widely celebrated novelist Tim Gautreaux proves that he is also a master of short stories with this timeless twelve-story collection about decision-making and morality. Gautreaux deviates from writing about history with this collection and instead focuses on the contemporary life of tight-knit, working class communities in Louisiana, North Carolina, and Minnesota.

  • The cover of the book Mexico

    Mexico
    Stories by Josh Barkan

    International Short Story Prize Winner Josh Barkan has, yet again, captured the essence of humanity by exploring the lives of different people striving for one common goal: peace. Cartel violence seems to make this goal impossible to achieve, with danger lurking around every corner. These stories are about overcoming fear and finding love in the midst of great loss.

  • The cover of the book Living in the Weather of the World

    Living in the Weather of the World
    Stories by Richard Bausch

    Award-winning novelist and universally acclaimed short story writer Richard Bausch showcases his talent in thirteen remarkable tales of human experience. He gives a voice to those that are suffering from troubles with family and marital woes, the tragedy of suicide, the divide between friends and lovers, and the delicate transience of love.

  • The cover of the book What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky

    What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky
    Stories by Lesley Nneka Arimah

    One of the most anticipated books of 2017, this debut collection explores the bonds between parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers and friends, and to the places they call home. Each character in this collection experiences something that changes their life forever, and must learn to cope with unexpected repercussions.

  • The cover of the book The Pier Falls

    The Pier Falls
    And Other Stories by Mark Haddon

    This collection from the beloved, bestselling author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time takes the reader on a journey from England to Mars, and from ancient Greece to deep in the Amazon. Largely based on history, myth, folklore, and modern life, The Pier Falls combines sci-fi and realism to form nine unforgettable stories.

  • The cover of the book Trajectory

    Trajectory
    Stories by Richard Russo

    Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo veers from his typical blue-collar profile of his characters in these four extensive stories. This time around, we look at the relationships between a professor and his plagiarizing student, a father and a son, two brothers, and a novelist and his sick wife. This collection reminds us that people are flawed, and inflict pain on those they love the most.

  • The cover of the book Wedding Stories

    Wedding Stories
    Edited by Diana Secker Tesdell

    A brilliant, romantic matrimony of a variety of works by famous writers from across the past two centuries. The stories collected here encompass the lives of all kinds of people– young and old, rich and poor, divorced and widowed, and single mothers and fathers– all seeking happiness and satisfaction in marriage, even when life doesn’t go as planned.

  • The cover of the book Men Without Women

    Men Without Women
    Stories by Haruki Murakami

    This collection of short stories centers on seven men dealing with emotional tragedy: be it a broken heart, a love triangle, or even death. All seven men seem to feel lost and alone, but soon become overwhelmed with passion as they cross paths with mysterious women.


Celebrate SHORT STORY MONTH by joining us in focusing on short stories throughout the month of May. Download Signature’s Compact Guide to Short Story Writing, an exclusive compilation of advice on short story writing by some of the best short story authors of today. Mary Gordon, Charles Yu, Nell Stevens, and many others impart meaningful advice, best practices, and valuable insight into the process of writing short stories.


What’s the secret to a great short story? How does a writer go about capturing a reader’s attention quickly and effectively? Can one inspire an emotional and intellectual investment in a cast of characters in just a small number of pages? And how does a writer know what’s essential to something so slim? We at Signature were wondering the same things, and decided to reach out to some of our favorite short story authors. In this exclusive guide, you’ll find:

  • What short story writers most often overlook;
  • How to get to the point;
  • What essential elements are required in a great story;
  • How to create quality characters with limited time;
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Alice Walker Quote to Get Your Mind Right Tonight

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t
have any.

—Alice Walker

 

 

I, Too by Langston Hughes 

I, Too

I, too, sing America. 

I am the darker brother. 

They send me to eat in the kitchen 

When company comes, 

But I laugh, 

And eat well, 

And grow strong. 

Tomorrow, 

I’ll be at the table 

When company comes. 

Nobody’ll dare 

Say to me, 

“Eat in the kitchen,” 

Then. 

Besides, 

They’ll see how beautiful I am 

And be ashamed— 

I, too, am America.

Langston Hughes, “I, Too” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes.

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (Fairyland #2) by Catherynne M. Valente with illustrations by Ana Juan

“Hearts set about finding other hearts the moment they are born, and between them, they weave nets so frightfully strong and tight that you end up bound forever in hopeless knots, even to the shadow of a beast you knew and loved long ago.”

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (Fairyland, #2)

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (Fairyland #2) by Catherynne M. Valente with illustrations by Ana Juan

Quote on Editing the Work of [Other] Writers by Robert Silvers of The New York Review of Books, an industry legacy and a great man, who passed away today at age 87.

The New York Review of Books Obituary 

I believe in the writer—the writer, above all. That’s how we started off: admiring the writer. We organized the New York Review according to the writers we admired most: Edmund Wilson, Wystan Auden, Fred Dupee, Norman, Bill, Lizzie, Mary among them. Each of them had a confident sense of their own prose, and it meant a great deal to them—the matter of a comma, a semicolon, a word—and it does to our writers today. And so, when it comes to making a change, we should not do it without their permission. If a moment comes at some point where we see something should be improved, we don’t just scribble it in but call them up wherever they are. And that is, I think, crucial.

                                         —Robert Silvers

Robert Silvers, co-founding editor of The New York Review of Books , died today, March 20, 2017, after an illness. He was 87 years old.

Are We Raising Racists? | NYTimes.com | March 14, 2017

DES MOINES — Last year at this time, my 7-year-old was running around singing the praises of George Washington. I was happy to see her so engaged with what she’d learned at school. But I was dismayed that the peace- and diversity-centered curriculum she gets at her public school had left her with such a one-dimensional view of history.

I struggled with how best to respond. Then one morning, she overheard the news on our kitchen radio about a politician charged with ethics violations. “What’s that about?” she asked. I told her someone in the government had done something wrong, and she asked how an adult who was a leader could possibly do something bad.

“Unfortunately,” I responded, “a lot of our country’s leaders have done bad things.” When her eyes grew big and she said, “Like who and what did they do?” I knew I had my opportunity.

“Well,” I said, “you know how you’ve been running around here celebrating George Washington? We always talk about George Washington fighting for freedom. But George Washington also owned black people as slaves.” Her intrigue turned to horror.  

Fast forward, one year. For those of us raising children, the future couldn’t be more on our minds. With the news full of reports about vandalized Jewish cemeteries and mosques on fire, police officers who terrorize and endanger black and Latino children, and engineers from India being shot while enjoying a meal after work, it’s tempting to shut off the radio, turn off the TV and cancel those news alerts on our cellphones. But it’s more critical than ever that we talk about difficult and morally complex issues with our children.

Of the many dangers this presidency poses, one of the greatest is deep damage to our children’s perceptions of race, gender and other kinds of difference. We know the youngest children internalize racist perceptions of themselves and others. As early as age 5, children recognize differential treatment and understand something about the social status of different racial groups, their own group and others. These effects are powerful in normal times. In this political climate, they’re on steroids.

Meanwhile, studies have long shown that generic messages about equality aren’t effective in countering such racial socialization. Right now, then, it’s even more urgent that parents who rely on messages like “we’re all equal” or “we’re all the same underneath our skin” in the hope of teaching our children the values of inclusion, equality and difference significantly up our game. And let’s be frank, it’s parents of white children, like myself, who tend to rely on these sincere, but ineffective, strategies. 

The consequences are serious. When we don’t talk honestly with white children about racism, they become more likely to disbelieve or discount their peers when they report experiencing racism. “But we’re all equal” becomes a rote response that actually blocks white children from recognizing or taking seriously racism when they see it or hear about it. This is at best.

At worst, the consequences are akin to what happens when you breathe in polluted air. Not realizing the pollution is there doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect you. White children are exposed to racism daily. If we parents don’t point it out, show how it works and teach why it is false, over time our children are more likely to accept racist messages at face value. When they see racial inequality — when the only doctors or teachers they see are white, or fewer kids in accelerated classes are black, for example — they won’t blame racism. Instead, they’ll blame people of color for somehow falling short.

We have better models. Parents of black and Latino children have long made thoughtful choices about when and how to engage in difficult and nuanced discussions about difference. Studies show that such parents are two to five times more likely than whites to teach their children explicitly about race from very young ages to counter negative social messages and build a strong sense of identity.

These parents have responded to the racial epithet overheard at recess in age-appropriate ways. They’ve figured out when to have “the talk,” explaining how their children must conduct themselves around police officers. They’ve had complex discussions about equality: “We should all be equal, we all have equal worth, but we don’t all experience equality yet.” Parents of children who are not white have long contemplated how to make their kids aware of painful racial realities in the United States, while simultaneously nurturing resilience and a healthy sense of self.

Those of us who are not immigrants or Muslim and who are raising white children stand to learn much from parents like these, even as we apply the teachings differently for our particular families.

For example, I’ve tried to go beyond the abstract “be kind to everyone” to encourage my children to recognize racial meanness and understand that white kids have a particular responsibility to challenge racism. These are necessary skills when the racism emboldened by this administration shows up in the world.

One-dimensional, generic teachings are tempting. They feel easier and safer. That’s the only reason my daughter’s school would settle for partial truths about George Washington. But raising children who are resilient for justice and able to do their part to create an inclusive society takes more, especially now. And it’s not as hard as it might seem.

After I told my daughter the whole story, she asked, “If Washington held slaves, why do we celebrate him as if he was such a great man?”

What a good question — one that allowed us to engage in moral reasoning together. I asked her what she thought the reason was. In turn, I speculated that sometimes it’s hard to admit our white predecessors did bad things because it makes us feel bad. Then we talked about how we don’t have to just feel bad about the past, but instead should find ways to challenge injustice today. We talked about the importance of telling the whole truth, even when it’s hard.

It’s always risky to tell other people how to raise their children, and I don’t want to imply that I’m some kind of perfect parent. On top of that, our children and families are all different and there are many distinct ways to have conversations about race with our children. But however we talk about it, we need to talk about racism now more than ever. 

Link to original article.

Advanced Reader Book Review and Excerpt | Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng, whose 2014 debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, was a stunning success, will release her follow-up novel, Little Fires Everywhereon September 12, 2017.
Little Fires Everywhere, follows Elena Richardson, a tightly-wound rule follower, whose carefully planned world is shaken up when a mysterious, alluring single mother, Mia Warren, moves to Shaker Heights and rents a house from the Richardsons with Pearl her teenage daughter.  Elena is already suspicious of Mia, but when an attempted adoption of a Chinese-American baby divides the town in two — with Elena and Mia on opposite sides — she’s determined to figure out her tenant’s secrets once and for all, no matter the cost. 


EXCERPT from Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down. All spring the gossip had been about little Mirabelle McCullough—or, depending which side you were on, May Ling Chow—and now, at last, there was something new and sensational to discuss. A little after noon on that Saturday morning in May, the shoppers pushing their grocery carts in Heinen’s heard the fire engines wail to life and careen away, toward the duck pond. By a quarter after twelve there were four of them parked in a haphazard red line along Parkland Drive, where all six bedrooms of the Richardson house were ablaze, and everyone within a half mile could see the smoke rising over the trees like a dense black thundercloud. Later people would say that the signs had been there all along: that Izzy was a little lunatic, that there had always been something off about the Richardson family, that as soon as they heard the sirens that morning they knew something terrible had happened. By then, of course, Izzy would be long gone, leaving no one to defend her, and people could—and did—say whatever they liked. At the moment the fire trucks arrived, though, and for quite a while afterward, no one knew what was happening. Neighbors clustered as close to the makeshift barrier—a police cruiser, parked crosswise a few hundred yards away—as they could and watched the firemen unreel their hoses with the grim faces of men who recognized a hopeless cause. Across the street, the geese at the pond ducked their heads underwater for weeds, wholly unruffled by the commotion.

Mrs. Richardson stood on the tree lawn, clutching the neck of her pale-blue robe closed. Although it was already afternoon, she had still been asleep when the smoke detectors had sounded. She had gone to bed late, and had slept in on purpose, telling herself she deserved it after a rather difficult day. The night before, she had watched from an upstairs window as a car had finally pulled up in front of the house. The driveway was long and circular, a deep horseshoe arc bending from the curb to the front door and back—so the street was a good hundred feet away, too far for her to see clearly, and even in May, at eight o’clock it was almost dark, besides. But she had recognized the small tan Volkswagen of her tenant, Mia, its headlights shining. The passenger door opened and a slender figure emerged, leaving the door ajar: Mia’s teenage daughter, Pearl. The dome light lit the inside of the car like a shadow box, but the car was packed with bags nearly to the ceiling and Mrs. Richardson could only just make out the faint silhouette of Mia’s head, the messy topknot perched at the crown of her head. Pearl bent over the mailbox, and Mrs. Richardson imagined the faint squeak as the mailbox door opened, then shut. Then Pearl hopped back into the car and shut the door. The brake lights flared red, then winked out, and the car puttered off into the growing night. With a sense of relief, Mrs. Richardson had gone down to the mailbox and found a set of keys on a plain ring, with no note. She had planned to go over in the morning and check the rental house on Winslow Road, even though she already knew that they would be gone.

It was because of this that she had allowed herself to sleep in, and now it was half past twelve and she was standing on the tree lawn in her robe and a pair of her son Trip’s tennis shoes, watching their house burn to the ground. When she had awoken to the shrill scream of the smoke detector, she ran from room to room looking for him, for Lexie, for Moody. It struck her that she had not looked for Izzy, as if she had known already that Izzy was to blame. Every bedroom was empty except for the smell of gasoline and a small crackling fire set directly in the middle of each bed, as if a demented Girl Scout had been camping there. By the time she checked the living room, the family room, the rec room, and the kitchen, the smoke had begun to spread, and she ran outside at last to hear the sirens, alerted by their home security system, already approaching. Out in the driveway, she saw that Trip’s Jeep was gone, as was Lexie’s Explorer, and Moody’s bike, and, of course, her husband’s sedan. He usually went into the office to play catch-up on Saturday mornings. Someone would have to call him at work. She remembered then that Lexie, thank god, had stayed over at Serena Wong’s house last night. She wondered where Izzy had gotten to. She wondered where her sons were, and how she would find them to tell them what had happened.

From Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Celeste Ng, 2017.  

Fear

​Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more so that we may fear less. 

Marie Curie

The dazzling musicality of Derek Walcott, recipient of a Nobel Prize in Poetry, who passed away on Friday, March 17,2017 | Vox.com

Nobel Laureate Poet Derek Walcott has died this Friday at 87 years old. Walcott’s poetry centered around his life in St. Lucia in the Caribbean, and with the complex colonialist legacy that created his world — but it contains multitudes, and it travels around the world as much as its voraciously erudite author did. By turns epic and compact, Walcott’s poetry has a dazzling musicality and lyricism. It begs to be read aloud; you can almost taste the words as you read them.

To celebrate his legacy, here is a stanza from In the Village, a poem about Walcott’s time in New York’s Greenwich Village:

Who has removed the typewriter from my desk,

so that I am a musician without his piano

with emptiness ahead as clear and grotesque

as another spring? My veins bud, and I am so

full of poems, a wastebasket of black wire.

The notes outside are visible; sparrows will

line antennae like staves, the way springs were,

but the roofs are cold and the great grey river

where a liner glides, huge as a winter hill,

moves imperceptibly like the accumulating

years. I have no reason to forgive her

for what I brought on myself. I am past hating,

past the longing for Italy where blowing snow

absolves and whitens a kneeling mountain range

outside Milan. Through glass, I am waiting

for the sound of a bird to unhinge the beginning

of spring, but my hands, my work, feel strange

without the rusty music of my machine. No words

for the Arctic liner moving down the Hudson, for the mange

of old snow moulting from the roofs. No poems. No birds. 

It’s a quiet, melancholy poem built around the idea of being unable to create poems, and it moves so naturally and swiftly that it might take a few readings to catch its tricky, irregular rhyme scheme (I make it ABABCDEEDFEFBGFHGIGI) and the subliminal musicality it creates.

Thank you for everything, Derek Walcott. You were so / full of poems.

http://www.vox.com/culture/2017/3/17/14959438/derek-walcott-obituary-in-the-village

Related Story:  Derek Walcott In The New Yorker 

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