What a Poem Is

by David Ebenbach

For a long time I didn’t know what a poem was.

I mean, I would read a thing and have a feeling that I was reading a poem, or sometimes I’d read something labeled a poem and would have a feeling I wasn’t actually reading a poem, but I couldn’t really explain why.

Of course this might make you ask Who cares? Do we really need to be able to draw lines between poems and not-poems? Why do we have to DEFINE everything? Which, as questions go, are totally fair. That said, (1) I’m a teacher, so I am frequently called on to define things, and (2) it’s just about to be National Poetry Month, so maybe we should know what that even means, and (3) I find it a little off-putting when people just throw up their hands and say that anything can be a poem. A sunset can be a poem! A bear can be a poem! A pair of underpants can be a poem!

And anyway (4) I like defining things.

(If you don’t like defining things, you might want to stop reading. Or if you dislike definitions, but you do like being irritated, you might want to keep reading.)

There have been times in history when it was easy to decide what was poetry and what wasn’t. These were times when poetry followed formal rules about, say, syllable count, alliteration, stressed syllables, rhyme—or at least when poems insisted on having line breaks. But we’ve had free verse for a long time now, and prose poetry is pretty mainstream, too, so the fact is that we just can’t rely on those markers of formal rules as indications of what kind of thing we’re reading. And yet poetry is not dead. I don’t care what Robert Frost said about playing tennis with the net down—we still have poems. You can feel that, right?

That said, faced with the truth that we’re in a post-rules period, for a long time I figured that there was no way to define poetry with any reliability.

There was one thing I did know, though: reading poetry is, for me, a different kind of thing than reading prose. When I read prose—or at least literary prose—I pay pretty close attention; I’m alert for metaphors and nice turns of phrases and crucial plot points and significant dialogue and so on. When I read poetry, on the other hand, I pay extremely close attention. I’m watching for all the same things I watch for in a short story, for example, but I’m also taking in the sound of the words, the visual pattern of the piece on the page (including stanzas and line breaks, if there are any), repetition, the choice of each word and punctuation mark, and a lot more. My face is practically pressed to the page, trying to get every drop of fantastic into me. So there’s a difference there, at least in the reading.

For a long time that was all I knew.

And then one day I finally realized what was right in front of me: this approach to reading also leads inexorably to a definition of poetry. Specifically:

A poem is a piece of writing that rewards you for reading it as though it’s a poem.

That’s it: A poem is a piece of writing that rewards you for reading it as though it’s a poem.

Do you see what I mean? A poem, a real poem, gives you significant things—a rich experience, pleasure—when you read it with the focus and alertness to words and sounds and punctuation and everything else that a poem demands.

This definition rules sunsets out, and underpants. (They’re great, in their respective ways, but I’m telling you they’re not poems.) It also rules out a good deal of writing. An illustration: Go get a copy of the latest tax filing instructions and read the booklet extremely closely, paying attention to every aspect of the language—word choice, word length, spacing, vowel and consonant sound, rhythm, etc.—and squeeze those details to see if they yield any emotional and intellectual power. You will probably not find this activity rewarding. That’s because you’re reading something the way you would read a poem even though it isn’t a poem. And how do you know it isn’t? Because reading it like it’s a poem is such a waste of time.

Unfortunately, there are also some “poems” that turn out this way, too. Let’s say you read a particular “poem” with devout attention and discover that the thing is only skin deep. Some okay ideas with random line breaks, let’s say, and nothing else of note. I’m telling you that’s not a poem. Or maybe the “poem” is full of lots of ornate language choices everywhere—constant alliteration! punctuation explosion!—but at the end you don’t feel like anything significant happened as a result of all that ornamentation. You took in all the detail and found the detail self-indulgent and unrewarding. I’m telling you that’s not a poem, either.

But one of the things I like about this definition is that it doesn’t just rule stuff out—it also rules stuff in. Take the case of the “found poem.” By “found poem,” I mean some theoretically prosaic text—hand-washing instructions, a car’s owner manual, a memo—that the author didn’t mean to make so interesting, but (by accident or unconscious inspiration) the thing did turn out interesting. The typo in a menu’s “Hummus and thyme warp [wrap]” is unexpectedly delightful; the repetition of the word “don’t” in a list of instructions becomes hypnotically rhythmic; punctuation and a line break allow for multiple meanings in this great January headline about Donald Trump:

Doctor: No Heart,
Cognitive Issues

Indeed.

And of course a lot of poems—things that the authors meant as poetry—are rewarding in these ways, too. That’s why it’s a pleasure to read them. They ask us to be attentive and thoughtful, and when we oblige we get something great out of the experience. In fact, a poem, if it’s really a poem, is inherently a pleasure. A poem is a risk that turns out well, an attentive labor (by the writer and then by the reader) that leads to bounty.

As writers we might keep this in mind ourselves when we hunker down to write a poem. For this National Poetry Month and beyond, let’s make every little thing matter. It’s okay for our work to be demanding—really that’s part of what makes it poetry. But our job is to make sure that meeting those demands is worth a reader’s time. If not, well, it doesn’t matter how many lines we broke, or semi-colons we dropped in, or rhymes we slanted; we’ve written something, but we haven’t written a poem.

AGNI Monkey

2017-03-23 03 King JoeDavid Ebenbach is the author of six books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the debut novel Miss Portland. He’s also AGNI’s blog editor. Find out more at davidebenbach.com.

Advertisements

Find AGNI at AWP!

The annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference is this week in Tampa, Florida—will you be there? AGNI will be. Here’s where you can find us:

Throughout the conference:

Find us in the conference bookfair at table T526. We’ll have current and past issues available for sale, and would love to chat!

Thursday, March 8th

9:00-10:15am (Grand Salon B, Marriott Waterside, Second Floor): AGNI Social Media Editor Rachel Mennies will be a panelist in “Beyond Queues and Fees: Poetry Books Outside the Contest Model.”

7:30-10:30pm (Jackson’s Bistro, 601 S Harbour Island Blvd, a short walk from the convention center): Joint reading by AGNI, 32 Poems, Adroit, Denver Quarterly, and Quarterly West, featuring AGNI Poetry Editor Sumita Chakraborty, plus Hadara Bar-Nadav, Cortney Lamar Charleston, Paisley Rekdal, and Kai Carlson-Wee.

Friday, March 9th

10:00am-12:00pm (Bookfair, Orison Books table, T540): AGNI Blog Editor David Ebenbach will be signing his novel Miss Portland.

4:30pm (Tampa Convention Center, 4th Floor, Room 36): AGNI Blog Editor David Ebenbach reads as part of a 32 Poems/Rock and Sling/WordFarm/Orison Books co-reading.

Saturday, March 10th

1:30pm-2:45pm: You have two choices!

(Room 24, Tampa Convention Center, First Floor): AGNI Poetry Editor Sumita Chakraborty will be moderating and speaking on the panel “Into the Expanse: Reinventing the Contemporary Long Poem,” also featuring Robin Beth Schaer (co-organizer), Lindsay Garbutt, Marianne Boruch, and Deborah Landau.

(Room 14, Tampa Convention Center, First Floor) AGNI Social Media Editor Rachel Mennies will be a panelist in “Why [Not] Say What Happened?: On Writing Confessional Poetry.”

4:30-5:45pm (Room 15, Tampa Convention Center, First Floor) AGNI Blog Editor David Ebenbach is moderating and speaking on the panel “Balancing Act: Neutrality in the Classroom?” also featuring Ru Freeman, Edward Helfers, Holly Karapetkova, and Sarah Trembath.

By the way, as a special for AWP, we’re partnering with Ploughshares, the Harvard Review, and the New England Review to offer a special subscription deal—subscribe to four New England-based journals (including us and out partners) for one discounted price, 30% off the cover price! Check it out here!

We hope to see you in Tampa!

AGNI Monkey

Between a Book and its Cover: Room for Conversation

by David Ebenbach

I feel for Joan Wong. It must have been intimidating, the prospect of designing a cover for Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Clothing of Books, a slim volume about the complicated relationship between books and their covers, and also about how much Lahiri dislikes the covers of her books. She calls them generally “upsetting.” She says, “They depress me, they confuse me, they infuriate me….There is a certain awful cover for one of my books that elicits in me almost a violent response. Every time I am asked to autograph that edition, I feel the impulse to rip the cover off the book.”

LahiriLahiri is not likely talking about Wong’s design—in which the book is made to resemble a cartoon denim jacket—if only because she didn’t seem to know what the cover would look like when she wrote the text. Late in the book she just says, “The American edition will wear its cover, the Italian another.” Nothing beyond that. And so maybe all Wong can do is wonder what Lahiri thinks of her work.

I’ll admit it: my sympathies incline toward Wong on this, because Lahiri’s testiness sometimes comes off as unchecked privilege. Jhumpa Lahiri is the kind of author whose name sells zillions of books all by itself, no matter what else is on the cover (or underneath it). As evidence, consider the fact that I paid money for The Clothing of Books, which a book that only reaches seventy-one pages, and only gets there because of very small pages, a great big font, and generous spacing. It’s basically a longform essay—the kind of thing you might read in an issue of the Atlantic—packaged as a book. You get to do that when you’re Jhumpa Lahiri. And so when she writes, “I am forced, at times, to accept book jackets that I dislike,” I don’t find myself crying lots of rivers on her behalf.

On the other hand, I am a fan of Lahiri’s fiction, and she also makes some good points in this essay. For one thing, there’s the ugly way in which her work is sometimes covered in visual stereotypes—either saris or American flags, depending on what aspect of her identity is being targeted. And of course her work is not alone in receiving this treatment. A Korean-American friend of mine points out how Asian writers’ books always seem to feature a picture of an Asian woman from behind, so that you can look at some shiny, black hair—or they feature an Asian person’s eye. For Jewish books, it’s got to be bagels, six-pointed stars, or black hats. For African writers it’s all acacia trees and setting suns. So, that’s a place where Lahiri’s word “upsetting” describes my reaction, too.

At a more general level, there’s the fact that a cover’s “function is much more commercial than aesthetic….if it doesn’t sell the book, it has no value.” If stereotypes end up on covers, in other words, that must mean that stereotypes sell; anything that ends up on a big-publisher-book must be there in order to sell copies. Lahiri publishes with big publishers, of course, and their focus on the bottom line means they probably do put a lot of pressure on her to accept commercially-appealing jackets. And what gets lost is the possibility of an image that simply “reflect[s] the sense and style of the book.” Or, also lost, the possibility that the text and the cover could end up in an interesting creative conversation with one another.

All of my personal experience has been with small presses, places that may not have a marketing person, let alone a marketing department. They don’t have the staff to sit around a conference table and debate the commercial potential of various images. In fact, the process usually begins with an editor asking the author, “Hey—do you have any ideas for what you want on the cover?”

People Who Moved front cover jpgThis is, then, one of the advantages of working with small presses: if you want there to be an interesting conversation between the cover and the book, you have some say in that. Three of my books, for example, feature paintings by artist David Guinn on the front, because I was able to suggest those paintings to my editors. David is a very close friend—a creative brother—and we have been in an ongoing creative conversation with one another for almost three decades now. We’ve talked about the purpose of creativity, about the way our emotional lives inform what we do and vice versa, and about so many other things. When I look at those three books on my shelf, I see the continuation of that long, wandering dialogue. And I see that my writing changes his paintings and that his paintings change my writing, in ways neither of us could have predicted when we separately set out to do our work, not anticipating that it would end up literally bound together.

Miss Portland -- cover -- front jpgOr there’s my novel, Miss Portland, set in Maine, and inspired in part by my mother and her approach to life. The image on that book’s cover is a photo by my mother, who was, among other things, a talented amateur photographer. She died three years ago, and there is something deeply wonderful about the experience of her work and my work talking to each other, including talking about things that she and I were never quite able to say to each other as people, things about the challenges of making your way through a world equipped only with your small collection of skills and aspirations and courage.

Cover (front) -- The Artist's TorahOr take the cover to my non-fiction book The Artist’s Torah. I didn’t have any say in this design choice, actually, though probably only because I didn’t assert myself; Wipf and Stock probably would have listened to me if I had made a suggestion. But now here was a book that was almost demanding a stereotype—bagels, black hats, etc.—and yet the publishing house came up with a cover of fire, like the whole book was fire. Well, Torah, in mystical literature, has been referred to as black fire on white fire, so it was a tremendously thoughtful and beautiful choice, and it put my work into deeper dialogue with mystical tradition.

Covers can go wrong, obviously. I was once looking at some possibilities for a short story collection of mine that was all about parenting, and one of those possibilities—not a painting by David Guinn—elicited this response from a friend: “When I see this, I think ‘child murder.’” Which is to say that not all creative conversations are good ones (e.g., between a book about parenting and a cover that suggests “Maybe somebody should kill our kids”). So again I was lucky that I had a say and could move things in a different direction.

For her part, in The Clothing of Books Lahiri expresses a longing for “the naked book”—the book with a blank cover or no cover—so that the text might be appreciated and understood for itself, and only itself. And I understand that longing. But I also like the fact that a book is a multimedia object, that its full expression is not entirely verbal. Even ebooks, which Lahiri seems to relish for the way they deemphasize their covers, are full of visual choices, in terms of font, spacing, size, and so on. Books are inescapably multimedia; the only way to consume the book without any visual input is either to hear it read aloud or to read it in braille, which are both sensory experiences of their own.

Again, this multimedia collaboration can go wrong, but we cannot avoid the collaboration. And so why not embrace it, and get actively involved in it? Granted, it’s complicated; instead of a writer and visual artist working directly together, there’s a publisher in the middle, and often that publisher has an understandable profit motive. But lots and lots of good things happen, too. And they do become part of the work, whether we want them to or not. As Lahiri herself says, “Even when I don’t particularly like one of my jackets, I end up feeling some affinity for it. Over time, the covers become a part of me, and I identify with them.”

Late in the essay, Lahiri asks, “What is the perfect book jacket? It doesn’t exist.” And of course she’s right, which is why I think we should change the question, should stop looking for perfection and start looking for conversation.

The first step, in any case, is a conversation about the conversation, which gets jump-started by Lahiri’s The Clothing of Books—and which is in the rest of our hands to pursue further.

agni blog logo smaller

2017-03-23 01 King JoeDavid Ebenbach is the author of six books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the debut novel Miss Portland. He’s also AGNI’s blog editor. Find out more at davidebenbach.com.

The Person Principle: Writing Mental Illness

by David Ebenbach

The mad scientist. The batty neighbor. The homicidal maniac. From wild-eyed, mumbling homeless people to despondent teens dressed all in black and villains deranged by ambition.

There’s a long tradition of writing mental illness in fiction. Unfortunately, a lot of the time it’s been done poorly, relying on types and broad strokes rather than nuance and accuracy.

The stereotype.

The plot device.

The easy stock character.

When you write about mental illness, you are working in relationship to that hit-or-miss tradition, and you have to decide how you’re going to write.

What I would argue is that you really only need one principle: characters with mental illness are, in fact, characters. (Just as people with mental illness are, in fact, people.) Which means that they need to be written with the same care that all good characters are.

And what kinds of things do we care about when we’re trying to write good characters? Well, above all, we want them to be three-dimensional, because characters are supposed to be like real people, and real people are complicated and multidimensional. We don’t want our firefighter character, in other words, to only care about fighting fires; we don’t want a character from Kansas to care only about being from Kansas; and we shouldn’t want to write a character with mental illness in such a way that they are entirely reducible to that illness—a depressed person whose only attribute is sadness, say, or a person with a phobia who spends every scene being afraid.

But it’s bigger than the issue of dimensionality. When we write characters, we’re generally trying to make points of connection—people to whom our readers can relate in some way. That’s really why we make them dimensional. Even villains—the best villains often have some traits that we can understand, which makes them all the more fascinating. Points of connection are essential to fiction. But many times when people write characters with mental illness the result is a portrait not of commonality but of someone where oddness, difference, and otherness predominate. These portraits can get pretty offensive; they also make lousy characters.

I also think that this is the crux of why things go wrong when people try to get mental illness onto the page. Because it’s not just about the reader connecting; it’s about the writer connecting, too.

When you’re writing your way into a life that isn’t exactly the same as yours—whether the differences are slight or large—you’re faced with a decision: whether to empathize or not. Usually we embrace this opportunity, because there’s enormous pleasure in empathizing with people (even fictional ones). And you learn remarkable things, like how much you have in common with a wide range of human beings. It probably even makes you a better person, saying yes to that opportunity over and over again.

But what if the opportunity is threatening? What if you don’t want to find commonalities? What if you don’t want to blur (or even erase) the line between well and unwell, between you and a person with mental illness?

The fact is that there are commonalities whether you allow yourself to see them or not.

In my novel Miss Portland, the main character has bipolar disorder. (The book never comes out and says that, but it becomes clear soon enough.) Now, although I have wrestled a bit with depression, I do not have bipolar disorder. I’ve never experienced the kind of manic episode that my protagonist, Zoe, is experiencing throughout the book. But I chose Zoe as my protagonist because I have been very close to some people who have had bipolar disorder—close enough for their lives to inform and surround and shape my own. I wrote the book because I wanted to get closer still. And that meant treating Zoe like a character, which meant treating her like a person. A person with bipolar disorder, yes, but also a person with a great sense of humor and a very jumpy stomach and a nice brother and a person who is Jewish and from Philadelphia and who’s done a lot of different kinds of jobs in her life, including being a mindfulness coach. In other words: a person.

And of course the thing happened to me that always happens when I say yes to a character: I found myself in her and I found her in me. I found that the lines are in fact quite blurry, to the extent that there are any lines at all.

Characters—with or without mental illness—are not conveniences, not types to be slotted into places where the plot needs them. They are doorways into lives, into whole universes.

Some of those doorways might be frightening to you.

Open them anyway—all the way.

agni blog logo smaller

2017-03-23 01 King JoeDavid Ebenbach wrote this piece in honor of National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month (September). He is the author of six books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the debut novel Miss Portland. He’s also AGNI’s blog editor. Find out more at davidebenbach.com.

Failing at Great Length: What I’ve Learned from Writing Bad Novels

by David Ebenbach

I can’t figure out how long it took me to write my first novel. It might have been two years—or it might have been twenty-five.

I mean, in a certain sense it obviously took me two years; in 2013 I sat down to write a short story about a woman on an erratic personal quest for well-being, and that story quickly ballooned until I accepted that it was a novel-in-progress, and I worked and worked until I finished the final draft of Miss Portland in 2015. So that’s two years.

But then I wonder: maybe the only reason I was able to write Miss Portland and have it be any good is because of all the work that happened before 2013—work that consisted of (among other things) seven bad, failed novels, work that went all the way back to 1990. Maybe each one of those failures was part of the process of learning how to write a novel. Learning, in fact, what a novel even is.

I definitely did learn some things along the way. From my first two novels, written in college and full of teenagery emotional hand-wringing, I learned that my personal ennui is not enough to justify several hundred pages of fiction. From my next four attempts—one of which was a magic realist novel with flat characters and the other three of which were very strained allegories—I eventually gathered that some ideas are so difficult to pull off that the manuscript ends up reeking mainly of the author’s effort, and that, in fact, ideas are not novels. Not on their own. I also learned from one of those tries—my fifth—that you can’t expect a reader to wade through hundreds of pages of unwavering misery. (In that one, structured as a metaphor for the Biblical Exodus story—fun, right?—the book was confined to the week or so after the protagonist’s wife died, meaning that he was at peak grief on every page.)

But the big moment came around my seventh novel. I was determined to get my seventh novel right. It was going to be rooted in feeling, in something I cared about, but it wasn’t going to be an angsty spill. There was going to be a range of emotion. It was going to take on something big and important, but that big and important thing was going to be an experience, not an idea. There wasn’t going to be any allegory at all. I set out to tell the down-to-earth story of a single woman who was newly a mother, and scrambling to adjust.

That’s when plot ruined everything.

Really all I wanted to talk about was the enormity of becoming a parent—I had just become a parent myself—but because I knew I was writing a novel, I felt like I had to keep jacking up the stakes as the story progressed. The main character was freaking out a lot about all the changes in her life, which is natural enough. And so she started fantasizing about leaving the baby alone in her apartment to go get a drink, which is also natural enough as a fantasy—but then she did it. She left the child alone and got a drink. And that was only the first step; then she started going out again and again, for longer and longer periods. The novel had started out as a realistic portrayal of a new mom, and rapidly became the story of a really dangerously off-balance and neglectful parent.

A nice agent read the book and, in her email response, basically told me, I think you meant to write a short story, and you’ve blown it all totally out of proportion. And I instantly knew she was right. I had been worried about that same thing, deep down, myself.

Here’s the thing: if your material wants to be a short story, it needs to be a short story. You can’t turn a motorcycle into a freight train. So I broke that book into pieces and made it the basis for a short story collection.

In sum: I had spent twenty-three years learning what doesn’t make a novel. Honestly, they were tough lessons, full of rejections and disappointment, and I basically gave up on trying to write novels for about five years after that seventh try.

Like I said, when I started to write the thing that ultimately became my novel Miss Portland, I thought I was setting out to write a short story. Just something simple about a woman upending her life in a desperate grab to fix everything. I had her step off a bus in Portland, Maine, having just given up her whole life in Philly in the hopes of starting fresh, and I imagined there’d be a few scenes—she had this dicey guy she was going to see up there—and she’d get back on the bus and head back home. But it didn’t go like that. Miss Portland the novel snuck up on me. This woman’s journey was bigger and more involved than I had expected. And she wasn’t me, spewing angst. And she wasn’t an idea. And though her journey was full of challenges, external and internal, Zoe had a resilience and earnestness and sense of humor that provided a range of emotional experience to put on the page.

And so I wrote a novel—a real one this time.

It took eight tries, but I did it. In either two or twenty-five years.

And here’s the next question: does this mean I’m all set now? Lessons learned and ready to write my next novel?

I’m not sure. Part of me thinks that things are never that easy. Maybe now I’m going to have to learn a whole new set of lessons. Maybe I’ll have to write seven new failed novels before I can write my second not-failed one. Or maybe not. I don’t know. I only know one thing, really:

I’m going to do whatever I have to do in order to learn to write whatever I need to write.

agni blog logo smaller

2017-03-23 01 King JoeDavid Ebenbach is the author of seven books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the debut novel Miss Portland. He’s also AGNI’s blog editor. Find out more at davidebenbach.com.

Getting a Book Wrong by Getting it Right

by David Ebenbach

One of the most surprising things about writing is that you can set out to do a particular thing, and completely succeed at doing that thing, and, as a result, produce something that is not good.

I learned this lesson in the process of developing my new short story collection, which originated in an idea. Probably this was not a great way to begin, but it’s how I began. I noticed that I had written a few short stories that were in the first person and starred a narrator who was trying to convince the listener/reader of something. A ha! I thought. A pattern! And so I decided that I was going to write an entire book of stories like that.

Side note: before my first collection of short stories, Between Camelots, was published, I would work on one individual story at a time and would only think about that particular story. I didn’t think about how that story might fit in with other stories, how it could be part of some emerging theme or focus, how it might fit into something bigger. I didn’t think in terms of books. Ever since Between Camelots came out, though, it’s been hard to avoid thinking about books, because books are fun and rewarding. Whenever I write a story now, I have this awful tendency to look right past it, wondering if it could be part of a collection. It’s a bad habit that I don’t know how to break.

Anyway, that habit was already in place when I decided (based on those several relevant stories I’d already written) that I was going to write a collection of first-person stories with narrators attempting to persuade. In a sense they would all be dramatic monologues. Well, I set out to write those stories, and over a couple of years I did write them. I got the job done. When I put them all together and slapped a title on the collection—Missionaries—I shared the manuscript with some very smart writer-friends, and they agreed: yes, I had indeed put together a book of first-person narrators pleading their cases.

The problem was that, as these very smart writer-friends told me, it was not a good book.

These very smart writer-friends told me that my attempt to pursue a focus had produced uneven stories; some were good, but others were clearly there just because I needed more of that type. I had lowered my standards in order to make sure my goals were met. Even worse, even if all the stories had been good, apparently it was pretty tedious, reading one narrator after the next all engaged with the reader in the same kind of way. In other words, I had succeeded in putting together a certain kind of book, but that kind of book was not going to work for a reader. Doing what you mean to do is not inherently a good thing; it’s only a good thing if what you mean to do is worth doing.

A somewhat euphemized version of a piece of advice I regularly give my students: You can smear mud all over a plate—on purpose, intentionally—but your intentions don’t make it dinner.

And so I retreated to my Writing Cave and pondered. Instead of pursuing the Missionaries idea further, I decided to let myself be guided by the power of the stories. I dumped the ones that were so-so and hung onto the ones that were solid. I also grabbed some other solid stories I’d written along the way, ones that I’d written even though they didn’t fit into the collection idea (sometimes I’m still a little irrepressible, even with my bad Could this be a book? habit), and I just put them all together, side-by-side, to see whether they might play nicely with one another. (That’s how I assembled my first book, after all.)

And it turned out that they did play nicely with one another. And in fact there was even a theme there—people trying to figure out how to fit into the social world—but the theme was not relentless, and it emerged organically instead of being an artificial force producing stories like an assembly line, and there were many different kinds of voices, and third-person stories (and even second-person stories!) to go with the first-person stories. There was variety. This was a collection rather than an idea stuck on repeat. When my very smart writer-friends read the new version, now called The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy and other stories (and now published, I’m proud to say), they said it was good. They said that this was a plate of something that could reasonably be called dinner.

When it comes to assembling short story collections, intentions are not sacred. Intentions probably aren’t even necessary. Certainly they matter a lot less than the stories themselves.

agni blog logo smaller

David EbenbachDavid Ebenbach is the blog editor for AGNI, and also the author of seven books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the short story collection The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy and other stories. He lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing and literature at Georgetown University.

Big Five: Our Top Blog Posts in 2016

Happy New Year! As we look back on 2016, we thought we’d revisit the posts on the blog that have drawn the most readers. Check them out if you haven’t read them yet!

#5: Designing Time: The Idea of Plot in the Lyric Essay
by Tyler Mills

Tyler Mills Headshot
“The lyric essay must transform our ‘erratic assemblage,’ moving them into meaning like the night sky that turns toward morning. The constellations change positions, and we pick out their patterns from the chaos of darkness. The crisis that spins everything toward the main thing is realization. Realization is what the mind does with these observations. Realization is what the mind does with the world. Realization is the heart of the lyric essay—what makes it move, what makes all of its light-riddled parts hold together.”

 

#4: Stanislavski in the Ghetto
by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

Maurice Carlos Ruffin Author Photo BW
“Someone much smarter than me once said that the act of writing while black is a political act. But the idea is broader than race. I believe the principle is true of all groups who don’t have access to the full panoply of human rights.”

 

#3: The Ultimate and Decisive “Is Poetry Dead” Article!
by David Ebenbach

David Ebenbach
“The ‘Is Poetry Dead?’ articles are coming. Often they show up in National Poetry Month (April), but they can appear at any time. Spring or Fall, day or night. Maybe you’re in the middle of writing poetry, or reading it, and you look away from the poem—only for a second, but still—and there, on social media, out from behind a curtain or something, jumps the article, screaming: IS POETRY DEAD IT’S TOTALLY DEAD ISN’T IT DON’T LIE IT’S DEAD I TELL YOU! DEAD! DEAD?

 

#2: Living the Process of Dying
by Kelly Cherry

KellyPhoto1Edit
“Writers who continue to write in old age—and as we live longer there are more and more such writers—often seek to write about death, which is not a pretty subject. Not a poetic subject. Except that it is a poetic subject by virtue of the poets writing about it. In other centuries many poets touched on the subject of death—we think particularly of Keats—but in our current century medicine stretches out the dying process, and poets are spending more of their lives living the process of dying. Dying is incremental, as a friend once pointed out to me when I exclaimed that I was falling apart piece by piece. ‘You don’t get it,’ he said. ‘That’s how we die. Piece by piece.’ Well, that woke me up.”

 

and…our most-read post of the year:

#1: Is Poetry True or False?
by Ben Purkert

Purkert
“I now teach my own creative writing course spanning three genres: non-fiction, fiction and poetry. Invariably, poetry proves the hardest to define; it plays by a different set of rules, while seemingly breaking all of them. But if the formal conventions of poems can be tough to untangle, just as challenging is poetry’s relationship to lived experience. Non-fiction and fiction announce themselves on a basic level: the first is what happened; the second is what didn’t. So where does poetry stand, my students ask. Is it true or false?

Thanks, everyone, for a year of conversation, and we’ll see you in 2017!