My Top 5: Week of March 2

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This week’s Top 5 is a day late because, frankly, I got caught up watching the Oscars. Fortunately, this week’s picks all have a certain cinematic quality to them that seems all the more appropriate to showcase. As always, these are not meant to be any kind of ranking, just pieces I think more people ought to read.

1. “For Good,” by Melissa Goodrich (University of Arizona)

Scene shifts can be difficult to pull off in fiction, but Goodrich manages to jump from room to room and from place to place in a way that reflects the tendency of our own thoughts to cut to spaces outside of ourselves. This story’s narrator exists both within her own body and everywhere around it. A solid study in interiority.

http://pankmagazine.com/piece/melissa-goodrich/

2. “Allowance,” by Raina Lauren Fields (Virginia Tech)

Here is a poem that breathes life into a single scene with some pretty harsh clarity. It’s as much about what’s said as what isn’t and it’s as much about what you can see as all the things just out of reach.

http://www.thebakerypoetry.com/allowance/

3. “When I Think About It, I Like the Phrase ‘Losing Touch’,” by Ezra Stewart-Silver (University of Florida)

Again, this is a poem that sets up a scene, one that’s elegant and simple. It’s a meditation on closeness and distance and how it is to go from one to the other, one made all the more poignant by the arm’s reach the reader is kept at by the language.

http://japicx.com/coereview/backissues/cr_37_vol1_poetry06.pdf (Page 8)

4. “Spring,” by Kirby Johnson (University of Alabama)

I love a story that can walk the line between realism and fantasy, one that understands the mutability of things and how our own perceptions can betray us. Here is a story about roaches and things that are not roaches and things that might as well be roaches.

http://bettermagazine.org/001/kirbyjohnson.html

5. “Broken English,” by Aaron Teel (Washington University in St. Louis)

Another piece of short-short fiction, this is fiction that reminds us how much things like plot and theme can be expressed just through description. Teel gives us a strange and familiar (strangely familiar?) world and then offers us consequences that seem perfectly natural. Under the circumstances, that is.

https://www.tinhouse.com/blog/15462/broken-english-by-aaron-teel.html

My Top 5: Week of February 23

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Looking through all the various online publications collected here, I stumble across a few pieces that I really like. Every week I’ll be showcasing some of them here. As always, mine is not a ranking or meant to comment on the universities represented here. These are simply a handful of writers whose work I admired.

1. “The Cowboys of Fukushima,” by Christopher Linforth (Virginia Tech)

Here’s a story about radioactive cows. And if that doesn’t interest you, then I’d direct you to My. Linforth’s unique style and attention to the emotions of his characters who find themselves caught up in the machinations of complicated systems. Fans of Ben Fountain will certainly enjoy.

http://swarmlit.com/summer-2013/the-cowboys-of-fukushima/

2. “Counting Bats,” by Thao Thai (The Ohio State University)

This is one of those essays that could very easily be read as fiction. It’s brief, but manages with lyricism and humor to just hint at bigger worlds and greater questions while still making use of the authenticity characteristic of the personal essay.

http://brevitymag.com/nonfiction/counting-bats/

3. “And Science is a turtle that says that its own shell encloses all things,” by Justin Carter (Bowling Green State University)

As somebody with a background in the sciences, I’m always looking for people who are able to create that world on paper. Here Carter manages to do just that by holding up a mirror to the sometimes-absurdity of rational thought. But, rather than falling into the classic trap of “Science=Hubris=Bad,” this is a poem that manages to retain some of the mind-expanding wonder that science and discovery has brought us.

http://www.ninthletter.com/web_edition/issue/2/poetry.html (Scroll down just a little bit)

4. “Pocket Apocalypse,” by Andrea Danowski (University of Oregon)

Flash fiction never gets enough love, in my opinion, though it often combines some of the best elements of prose and poetry. This short piece demonstrates, to me, the sort of fiction that is just pleasurable to read and to read aloud. While there’s not much room for plot, the craft of each individual sentence more than makes up the difference.

http://raysroadreview.com/pocket-apocalypse-by-andrea-danowski/

5. “Where I Live Now,” by Marysa LaRowe (Vanderbilt University)

In the same way that shorter fiction can step away from plot, this is the sort of piece that achieves in just a few paragraphs what some novelists can’t do given an entire chapter. LaRowe sets up scenes that are not only fleshed-out in the present, but which are in posession of a clear past and a tangible future.

http://www.matchbooklitmag.com/larowe.html

Arizona Fiction

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The following is a growing list of publications by current and recent students in the Fiction cohort at the University of Arizona’s MFA program. Note: In any case where a writer has aggregated publications on a personal web-site, I have simply linked there.

Hilary Gan
http://www.hilarygan.com/publications/

Melissa Goodrich
For Good (PANK)
The Love-Hate Theses in 10 Parts (Phoebe)

Colin Hodgkins
Remetamorphosis (Anamesa) (Page 84)

Lawrence Lenhart
Old Parts (Three Rivers Review) (Page 72)

Spotlight: Green Briar Review

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Whenever I’ve finished reading from The New Yorker and other established literary journals, I’m always overwhelmed by the talent and grace of some of the best living writers today. But I’m also a little underwhelmed because it can be so difficult to peer behind all that artifice and see the act of writing that went into it. Which is why I love small journals and online reviews. These are the chemistry labs of modern literature, places where curiosity and experimentation reign and where tomorrow’s flawless voices take their first steps. Every week, I’ll be shining a light on one of these publications, and I guess that means you should read it!

This week: Green Briar Review

Green Briar is relatively new, but they publish like a much more established journal might. Their focus isn’t as much on themes and styles or content as it is on interesting language. Which means that (apart from genre pieces they don’t accept), you will find a lot of variety in their pieces, not only in terms of subject matter but in terms of scope. They publish equally poetry, fiction, and non-fiction of lengths ranging from a few lines or paragraphs to thousands of words. And I can’t stress enough the value of reading flash-fiction or brief-essays, especially when there’s so much attention to picking out work where the language is complex enough to speak volumes of its own.

Green Briar has appeared on MFA Stalker before, meaning of course that they regularly publish writing students. But beyond their enthusiasm for publishing the work of emerging writers, they’re also one of a short list of journals who welcome with open arms the work of young writers (under 21), both in their regular issues and in their poetry contests. It’s a great place to read and submit new work by new writers.

Here are just a couple pieces I liked.

What the Other Eye Sees, by Christina Clark (Winner of their Poetry Contest)

The Newly Discovered Unequivocal Origin of Baseball, by Jon Steinhagen

What Does Not Belong in Calvary Cemetary, by Thomas Mira y Lopez (From my Top 5 series)

Emerald, by Richard Marx Weintraub

On Reading Bad Writing

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Part of a series of personal musings on reading and the art of writing

I remember my first creative writing classes, workshops I took as an undergraduate. These were introductory courses and so we were pretty much all terrible writers. Though, that’s a relative term. We’re all terrible when compared to somebody else, and within the confines of the classroom we had our own versions of literary geniuses. We’d write something like three or four stories over the course of the semester and by the third story we’d become familiar with our classmates. If you had been bad in the past you might get panned over in critique and if you’d done well you could expect your next story or poem to be anticipated.

I was one of the latter kinds of students. Praised by my professors and with almost perfect commentary from my peers, I literally had students demand that I go last on critique day because they didn’t want to follow whatever I’d written. And despite the fact that the stories I was writing at the time are ones that I cringe to so much as look at now, I was convinced at the time that I was pretty good. And if I was good, then they were bad. So while I was getting feedback on my pieces that said things like “I really liked it!” and “Don’t change a thing!” and “Thank you for writing this” (none of which, by the way, turned out to be particularly helpful in the long run), I was pushing my red pen to the limits and tearing the work of my peers to shreds:

Awkward word choice here

Blah blah blah, your story doesn’t even start until page 3

I can’t figure out if this character is unnecessary or just uninteresting

LEARN TO SPELL!!!

And plenty of meaner things I won’t repeat here but which would likely come as no surprise to anybody who’s taken a course like this. Beginners are by their nature not very good, and it’s a perverse but genuine pleasure to judge others. It’s fun to criticize and to insult and to have a feeling of superiority that’s justified by something on paper. Tell enough people how much (and precisely how) they suck, and you start to feel like an expert. It’s a trap I fell into, and one my early instructors (who were themselves graduate students who had themselves probably been in these classes just a few years prior) had also fallen into.

Fast forward to the end of my undergraduate career when I took an advanced fiction course taught by a tenure-track professor who had published a handful of books and won various awards of assorted prestige, and the first piece I wrote received (as expected) universal praise from my peers, who enjoyed all of its interesting plot twists and the narrator’s eerie voice. And then I read the notes of my new professor.

Telling a story in the form of journal entries doesn’t make sense if at the end you suggest it’s all been a dream. I mean, if this isn’t real then what the heck are we reading? B-

I was hurt by the first B I’d received on a story (It’s no secret that creative writing is a land of easier-than-average A’s due to the subjective nature of art), but upon reflection I realized that I had indeed made a terrible blunder. It was junk. Junk with interesting plot twists and an eerie narrator. But still junk.

So you can imagine my surprise when the critique of the next story (which I’d deliciously given merciless notes to the night before) began with my professor’s praise of a particular description made about halfway through. Something about a sunset. And it was an okay description, interesting to read, but it had nothing to do with the otherwise unsalvageably bad story. But this professor went on and on about it and started a whole conversation about how that kind of imagery could be used throughout the piece, and by the end of the workshop, this other writer had the other students clapping for him and he’d earned himself a B of his own. A full, minus-less, B.

So of course I had words with my professor, who I felt was not taking the class seriously enough (how else could he miss out on the clear talent gap separating me and what’s-his-name?). And if you’ve ever heard a story about an arrogant student and a professor you know already that by the end of things I learned my lesson and it turns out the writer-professor with twenty plus years experience knew what he was doing.

What he’d asked me to try and do was to write only positive comments on the next three stories we workshopped. As part of our grade was based on volume and thoroughness of commentaries, this meant that I not only had to write positive comments but I had to write a LOT of positive comments. On these terrible awful stories my peers were jerry-rigging together in what must have been the hour or so before class started.

If you’re an aspiring writer, you might feel pressured to read ‘good’ writing. Or at least writing that challenges you. But as it turns out, it can be just as much of challenge to find genuine praise in a first-time writer as it is to find fault with somebody like Nabokov.But doing so forced me to examine the stories I was looking at differently and I realized that Good and Bad are just points on a spectrum, and with experience and editing and revision any piece has the potential to get better: even Vladimir’s very first drafts probably had their cringe-worthy moments!

Being a good writer means reading a lot and reading indiscriminately. The exercise of reading good and bad writing equally has helped me to view stories as being collections of parts, and that new attention to detail means that not only can I separate a good description from a bad story, I can more fairly judge anything in front of me, whether it’s a new book I’m reviewing or a classic of western literature or even, yes, my own stories.

And while I wouldn’t say that anything I’ve linked to here is by any definition “Bad Writing,” it is the sort of writing that asks you take a certain chance on the authors. These are students and emerging writers, and most of them don’t have big awards or glittering book reviews (or even books yet) to entice you into investing time into reading them. They’re still experimenting with style and form, many of them, and there’s no big guarantee that you’re going to like whatever you read. Heck, you might even find something that makes you roll your eyes. But there are a whole different sort of lessons you can learn from art you don’t like, lessons of what not to do and ideas of how to fix what you see as common problems (read through a slush pile and you’ll quickly learn all sorts of mistakes to avoid). And if my work here at MFA Stalker has taught me anything, it’s that there’s sometimes more I can learn from students than from the masters.

Alabama Fiction

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The following is a growing list of publications by current and recent students in the Fiction cohort at the University of Alabama’s MFA program. Note: In any case where a writer has aggregated publications on a personal web-site, I have simply linked there.

Laurel Billings
http://www.wordriot.org/archives/4344
http://www.nyu.edu/cas/ewp/billingscaughtd04.pdf

Ashley Chambers
http://blr.med.nyu.edu/content/archive/2013/spring/relaxingcuts

Tasha Coryell
http://dogzplot.blogspot.com/2010/10/horoscope-tasha-coryell-michelle-gerber.html
http://sadchimpson.squarespace.com/tasha-coryell

Alex Czaja
http://www.drunkenboat.com/db17/alex-czaja
http://www.coriummagazine.com/?page_id=2609

Kirby Johnson
http://bettermagazine.org/001/kirbyjohnson.html
http://journal.gonelawn.net/issue9/Johnson.php

Saeide Mirzaei
http://vexlitjournal.umwblogs.org/knights-in-breastplates/
http://issuu.com/sprylit/docs/sprylit-issuu1  (Page 65)

Nicole Rivas
http://blackheartmagazine.com/2013/04/16/together-was-the-assumption-by-nicole-rivas/
http://apocryphaandabstractions.wordpress.com/2013/03/21/there-wouldnt-be-a-third-by-nicole-rivas/
http://www.percontra.net/issues/27/fiction/some-call-it-sadness/

Brandi Wells
http://paperdarts.org/literary-magazine/fiction-brandi-wells-1.html
http://necessaryfiction.com/writerinres/OtherWomanbyBrandiWells
http://www.wordriot.org/template_2.php?ID=1962
http://dogzplot.blogspot.com/2008/10/you-again-brandi-wells.html
http://pankmagazine.com/piece/brandi-wells-2/

Arizona State Fiction

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The following is a growing list of publications by current and recent students in the Fiction cohort at Arizona State University’s MFA program. Note: In any case where a writer has aggregated publications on a personal web-site, I have simply linked there.

Allegra Hyde
http://ninthletter.com/web_edition/issue/2/fiction.html#author6

Gary J Garrison
http://www.rappahannockreview.com/issue-1-1/the-permanent-ache/

Laura Ashworth
http://www.wordriot.org/archives/3208

Spotlight: Eunoia Review

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Every avid reader and writer is familiar with a short list of the “Big” literary journals, reviews, and magazines. Places like The New Yorker, where every week we can expect to see the newest from the upper-echelon of the literary community (and where getting one’s work published seems almost a necessary stop on the road to fame and fortune).  And while you really can’t go wrong reading The Paris Review or Tin House in the search for new reading material, there will always be a soft spot in my heart for the tireless work of the small journal. Here, editorial teams gather in living rooms and at coffee shops to pore through slush piles searching for bright new voices to take a chance on. Not surprisingly, these are often some of the first publication credits on the resumes of the emerging writers. So, to honor their work and the work of the young writers they champion, I’ll be taking a little time every week or so to highlight one of my favorite small publications.

This week: Eunoia Review

An online journal (which means you can start reading it right away), Eunoia Review is dedicated not only to showcasing what they like to call ‘Beautiful Thinking,’ but also to do so with remarkable frequency. While some journals (online or in print) can take months to put together an issue, Eunoia publishes two new pieces of fiction or poetry every day. That’s fourteen pieces a week and over 700 a year. Which means it’s not only a great journal to follow (I like to check in every morning to see what’s new) but also a great place to submit work to.

A couple of pieces I’ve really enjoyed from them.

http://eunoiareview.wordpress.com/2014/02/07/apples-2/

http://eunoiareview.wordpress.com/2013/11/19/clarification-on-the-events-of-september-20th-2012/

https://eunoiareview.wordpress.com/2013/09/25/the-guest-bedroom/ (From my Top 5, February 16)

http://eunoiareview.wordpress.com/2014/02/18/moon-jelly/

Vanderbilt Fiction

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The following is a growing list of publications by current and recent students in the Fiction cohort at Vanderbilt’s MFA program. Note: In any case where a writer has aggregated publications on a personal web-site, I have simply linked there.

Lee Conell
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/01/fashion/01love.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Reid Douglass
http://ardorlitmag.uberflip.com/i/169836/9

Marysa LaRowe
http://scholar.valpo.edu/vfr/vol1/iss2/6/
http://www.matchbooklitmag.com/larowe.html

Big List of Books

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While the Stalker Blog tries to focus on showcasing MFA student publications in the form of literary journals/magazines/reviews (mostly online for now), it’s no secret that many emerging writers are more interested for whatever reasons in publishing books (often novels), so I’ve decided to compile a list of all the university pages where MFA programs announce the book publications of their students. While many of these lists go back a long time, there’s more than enough work from new writers and recent graduates to point you in the right direction. Like all my lists, this one is ever-growing.

University of Texas, Michener Center
https://www.utexas.edu/academic/mcw/students/books/

University of Michigan, Helen Zell Writers
https://www.lsa.umich.edu/writers/alumnifriends/alumnibooks

Syracuse University
http://english.syr.edu/creative_writing/Alumni_booklist.html

University of Virginia
http://www.engl.virginia.edu/creativewriting/books

Indiana University
http://iub.edu/~mfawrite/?page_id=26

University of Minnesota
http://creativewriting.umn.edu/people/alumni.html