Rooftop Inspiration

Charles Israel, Jr.

Charles Israel, Jr.

Wherever our work as writers comes from, I’m just happy that it comes. And I wanted to share my inspiration for my flash fiction, “Ask a Crow.” It started as a poem, based on two things I saw on a rooftop, a crow and a coffee cup. The crow I understood, but a coffee cup? Which lead to a better question, what else doesn’t belong on a roof? From somewhere in my imagination, the bow from a double bass showed up. The bow changed the piece from a poem to a story. Because that bow had to be tossed by someone and tossed no doubt in either joy or anger. Here follows a love story.

 

Ask a Crow

It used to be her favorite cologne, so I splash some on. I look out the bathroom window, across Division Street. The building across the street has a huge, flat rooftop that takes up too much of my vista. On the rooftop, a wooden water tank. And there, under it, lies the bow for an upright bass. Also, there’s a coffee cup turned cistern, from which a crow bobs and drinks.

The cologne’s extracted from a small, alpine flower—speick. A smell that penetrates. As a punishment during the dark ages, they’d lock people in barns where they were hanging speick flowers to dry. After release, the person could be still be identified as guilty, for weeks—by the smell. Chief crimes for the speick barn were the theft of cattle or sheep, and also adultery.

From the only other room in our apartment, the big room with its one big window, I hear her: Are you going to leave me like this? Are you going to leave me like this? Like the chorus of some old soul tune, one with the verses understood. She’s standing on the window sill, a hand and a foot in each corner.

She turns her head. Her face has folded in on itself, like origami. I grab her by the waist. With my face pressed into her back, I hear her breathing, hard. Wait a minute, she says, Is that my bow?

She jumps down to check the bass case for her bow. I’d felt bad the second I released it. But then, as it sailed over the street, turning end over end, I heard its music. Like the first time I heard her play music: there, at her spring orchestra rehearsal, me the only one in the audience. She sounded so beautiful: I fell in love. Thief and adulterer, she says, all rolled into one.

I jump onto the window sill and go spread-eagled. Like a paratrooper at the jump-door, I turn my hands inside out, my fingers pointing toward Division. I’m set, ready to fly over. Ready to ask the crow: What do I do now? What have I done? How do I get her back? Can I get her back?  But he unfolds his wings and flies off, the bow in his beak.


MASTER PERSONAL ESSAYS WITH CHARLES: Be guided—step by step—through the process of writing personal essays. Write a complete essay using prompts, freewriting exercises, feedback, and revision. In this class, you can share your work with others. You may also elect to receive written feedback from the instructor.  (New this spring, you’ll have the option to add a detailed critique of your writing for an additional fee. Details will be sent after you register.) This class meets on three Tuesdays, May 11, 18 & 25, 6-7:30 p.m. More info

ABOUT CHARLES: Charles Israel, Jr., teaches creative writing at Queens University of Charlotte. His poetry chapbook, Stacking Weather, was published by Amsterdam PressHe’s also had poems and stories in Crazyhorse, Field, The Cortland Review, The Adirondack Review, Nimrod International Journal, Pembroke Magazine, Zone 3, Journal of the American Medical Association, and North Carolina Literary Review. He likes to read ancient epic poetry and contemporary creative nonfiction about voyages and journeys, sports and war. He lives in Charlotte with his wife, Leslie.

Paper Love

Dear Writer,

I’m writing to you from my well-worn sofa (where else?) a year to the day when our Lost Year began. Or do I mean Loss Year? So often these days, words elude me.

Outside it’s spring again, which I forget until I stare out the window and find sunny forsythia and daffodils and dogwoods bumpy with buds. A year ago, the rapturous blooms and birdsong clashed with wailing sirens, empty streets and skies, masked breath, families grieving through screens. Lovely turned to lonely.

I hope you’ve been writing. This last year (let’s be real: the last five), I’ve found it hard to devote myself to the page because I was afraid if I looked away from the world, it might disappear. Or I would. It’s as if I fell into a hole, and all I could do was stare up and wait for the pinpoint of light to widen and show me the way out. Or maybe it’s that the rage and sorrow tore a hole in me. I can feel it expand and contract, like a pupil, or an aperture, or the phases of the moon.

I have found some solace these months, as I know many others have, through writing letters. As in the old-timey, pen-and-ink, stamped-and-mailed kind. I wrote to friends from the solitude of my back porch and got back radiant, hilarious epistles on handmade cards, festooned in the margins and smudged by palms. I touched the ink, the paper grains where their fingers had been. Contact.

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that I also have been reading a lot of epistolary fiction—Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ “Belles Lettres,” Amy Hempel’s Tumble Home, parts of Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, Claire Vaye Watkins’ “The Last Thing We Need,” Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and Yasunari Kawabata’s “Canaries.” I can’t get enough these naked exchanges, how the narrator seems to vanish and we slip through the seams, suddenly in the characters’ most intimate realms, where they confide, confess, dodge, plead, snipe, yearn. What a wondrous sleight of hand: I’m convinced I’m reading letters when in fact these are smuggled stories, lies that tell the truth. As Griffin tells Sabine, “How strange to have a paper love.”

Bryn Chancellor

Bryn Chancellor

By the time you read this, dear Writer, the trees and bushes will be in mad bloom, transforming into new states of being. It occurs to me as I write this, reaching out to you across the void, that I wish the same for us.

Not hole. Hope.

Yours,
Bryn

 


LEARN THE ART OF THE EPISTOLARY FORM: Fiction writers have had a long and lovely affair with the epistolary form, a.k.a. stories and novels in which documents as varied as letters, diaries, emails, news clippings, transcripts, texts, posts, or tweets govern the narrative or parts of it. Whether written from a single point of view or as an exchange among characters, the letter form can create a brilliant sense of intimacy, voice, and realism. The trick: we’re not actually writing a letter but a story, so we have to find sneaky methods for characterization, setting, dialogue, exposition, and movement. Together we’ll read and discuss some contemporary epistolary examples and then explore letters in our own work through brief prompts and take-home exercises. More info

ABOUT BRYN: Bryn Chancellor is the author of the novel Sycamore, a Southwest Book of the Year, and the story collection When Are You Coming Home?, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize. A native of California raised in Arizona and transplanted to the South, she is a grateful recipient of fellowships from the North Carolina, Alabama, and Arizona arts councils and the Poets and Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award. She is associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Bringing Words to Life

Angelo Geterby Angelo Geter

This past year has taught us all that our boundaries and limits can be tested in the most unexpected moments. We were all living our normal lives a year ago until the pandemic ravaged the lives that we had become accustomed to. We couldn’t go outside and socialize, had to cancel a plethora of events. We were even restricted from doing things as simple as a hug or physical embrace. This caused us to pause and adapt to this new way of life.

In the midst of these difficult times though, we found our strength. We discovered a new skills, perfected an old recipe, started writing a book, attended webinars, and read books. We learned something new about ourselves and added attributes to who we are, rather than sit idly by and let things happen to us. For that alone, we also deserve to celebrate.

The poem below highlights this and asks you to celebrate your successes even in the midst of trials. You deserve it!

Cry Yourself a Freedom Song 

On the days when waking up
feels more burden than blessing,
heartache than healing,
when your sanity is trapped
in a gas chamber of doubt
suffocating the air of hope,

Depression tap dances on the riot in your throat,
fear plays a sonata
in the key of disbelief,
the sheet music in your tongue
fades from neglect,
eyes form tombstones
that only see death.

Remember,
there is gospel in your grief.
Every tear is a prayer.
So cry yourself a freedom song.
Sing a spiritual to the cadence
of your weeps.

Let amens trickle down your cheek.
Make hallelujahs
in the luggage under your eyes,
and breathe like being alive
is the sweetest melody you could ever sing.


LEARN THE ART OF SPOKEN WORD: Angelo Geter leads a two-part class introducing participants to the art of spoken word poetry. Spoken Word 101: Brining Words to Life, begins April 20, 2021. Students will examine spoken word work to demonstrate how literary devices employed in traditional poetry are expanded in this genre. Participants will be guided through several prompts and exercises to help develop techniques and skills to craft original work. In the second part of the course, participants will perform their spoken word pieces and receive critiques from the instructor and other participants. Join us to bring your words to life, from the page to the stage. More info

Angelo ‘Eyeambic’ Geter is a dynamic poet, spoken word artist and motivational speaker whose unique work educates, entertains and inspires. He blends his pieces with commentary, stories and personal narratives that transcend a traditional lecture or performance.  He currently serves as the Poet Laureate of Rock Hill, SC, and a 2020 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow. Geter is also a 2019 All-America city winner, 2018 National Poetry Slam champion, Rustbelt Regional Poetry Slam finalist, Southern Fried Regional Poetry Slam finalist and has performed and competed in several venues across the country. His work has appeared on All Def Poetry, Charleston Currents, and the Academy of American Poets “Poem a Day” series.

The War of Art in Memoir

Two days ago, I finished reading The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, Maxine Hong Kingston’s acclaimed 1976 memoir, and haven’t been able to stop thinking and writing about it since. In fact, I’ve already started re-reading in order to understand more fully why the book has so enchanted me, how the story of a woman born in America more than eighty years ago to Chinese immigrants has somehow connected me more deeply to my own story.

It’s a strange book in so many ways—both haunted (as you might guess from the subtitle) and haunting. Almost immediately, Kingston diverges from her lived experience into an extended retelling of Chinese myth. She gives eye-witness-like accounts of places she’s never seen and events she wasn’t around for. And she doesn’t directly disclose much about her child-self until the final chapter. In other words, she breaks all the norms for contemporary memoir writing. As the back cover blurb proclaims, “Kingston [has] created an entirely new form—an exhilarating blend of autobiography and mythology, of world and self, of hot rage and cool analysis.”

Is this new form then a memoir? Unequivocally, yes. In fact, I’d argue that The Warrior Woman has been instrumental in shaping the memoir genre as we know it today—that is, as a form made not for the simple chronicling of our personal pasts (dramatic as they might be) but as a tool for excavating the Self found amidst and between layers of ancestral, cultural, and personal histories.

To write a memoir, you must be in turns fierce, dogged, patient, humble, kind, angry, loving, reverent, and, most important of all, self-aware. You have to be strong enough to pickaxe your way through the petrified wood of the past and deft enough to weave the most delicate strands of memory encased inside it into a cloth fine enough to hold the roiling waters of a fully lived emotional life. Kingston demonstrates these qualities and abilities throughout, nowhere more poignantly than the following passage in which she links the single image of a Chinese knot and the mytho-cultural tradition of knot-making to at least three separate strands—an admission that one of the book’s central storylines is based on hearsay, the humble suggestion that her brother’s version would be more reliable, and a self-accusation concerning her tendency to twist and embellish simple truths—a character flaw that happens to also be her greatest strength:

“His version of the story may be better than mine because of its bareness, not twisted into designs. The hearer can carry it tucked away without it taking up much room. Long ago in China, knot-makers tied string into buttons and frogs, and rope into bell pulls. There was one knot so complicated that it blinded the knot-maker. Finally an emperor outlawed this cruel knot, and the nobles could not order it anymore. If I had lived in China, I would have been an outlaw knot-maker” (163).

Here, Kingston transforms the clichéd “writing as weaving” metaphor, which I shamelessly used myself in the paragraph before, into something tighter, more intricate, more personally resonant and accurate for her specific story. This metaphor, inserted into the first page of the book’s final chapter, is Kingston’s secret method—her magic. She continually unknots her personal, familial, and cultural pasts, separates and examines the threads, then reties them into compact, complex and indescribably beautiful narrative knots—buttons that turn the plain cloth of personal experience and memory into a cloak with universal fit and appeal, frogs for reminding us that we carry our transformation within, and bell pulls that enable us to sound and resound our stories forever.

None of us have Kingston’s unique story. Few of us have anything resembling her talent. But all of us have complex personal lives worth remembering, analyzing, and sharing. Reading The Woman Warrior, I’m reminded of the essential beauty of each and every lived life and inspired by the infinite number of shapes personal narratives can take—each one contributing its original style and music to humanity’s ongoing tale.


LEARN THE ART OF MEMOIR WITH KATHIE: Kathie Collins leads the four-week, mostly asynchronous Memoir Jumpstart, which begins April 4, 2021. You’ll explore what goes into turning hard-won experiences into works of art. Instructor Kathie Collins has curated essential advice on the form from the genre’s best teachers and writers and assembled it into engaging, easy-to-grasp lessons that will inspire and prepare you to write your own. More info

ABOUT KATHIE: Charlotte Lit co-founder Kathie Collins is a writer, poet, and lifelong student of Jungian psychology. She thrives in the in-between space from which dreams, creativity, and stories emerge. Kathie is happiest when she’s sharing that space with others and delights in the process of helping students transform their lived experience into gold. Kathie co-leads and serves as a memoir coach in Charlotte Lit’s Authors Lab program. She earned her Ph.D. in Mythological Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute, where she also serves as adjunct faculty. Kathie’s poetry has appeared in KakalakBibleWorkbenchImmanence, and Between. Her chapbook Jubilee was published by Main Street Rag in 2011.

Dialogue Versus Conversation

Paula Martinac

Paula Martinac

When I began my career as a fiction writer, my peers sometimes praised my “good ear” for dialogue. After publishing three novels, I gravitated to screenwriting and playwriting, and the shifts in form taught me that a good ear alone isn’t enough to craft believable dialogue. Being attuned to cadence and verbal tics is a start, but you also have to grasp that dialogue is the essence of speech rather than transcribed speech.

In fiction, dialogue helps drop the reader into the middle of the action with the characters. Every line has to pull its weight. For example, dialogue can reveal something about the character who is speaking or being spoken to, or even another character who is off-page or off-screen. In terms of plot, it can move the action forward or convey trouble ahead. It might give the story context by suggesting the time and place in which characters move around or by setting the mood. It might point to theme. And used gracefully, it can even insert a bit of backstory.

Screenwriters disparage “on the nose” dialogue, also called exposition. It crops up in all forms of creative writing in lines like, “I’m angry at you,” “We’ve been married ten years,” or “I’ve never been good at sports.” Subtlety and subtext are a dialogue writer’s best friends. Through them, you parcel out information and emotion with muted strokes rather than a heavy hand. And sometimes, the absence of dialogue speaks volumes.

But what about plays? Plays are stories told in dialogue, so how can a playwright hack away at lines and still tell the story? The answer is, don’t confuse dialogue with conversations. If you pay attention to people’s actual conversations, you’ll find them full of repetition, meanderings, and mundane observations. You’ll also realize they aren’t full of the lofty monologues and speeches we too often burden our characters with.

Dont let the fear of getting your dialogue right” paralyze your early drafts. A lot of the grittiest work with dialogue will actually take place in revision. One favorite tool from my playwriting experience is the time-honored “table read,” when the lines the writer has committed to paper get read aloud by others—if you’re really lucky, by actors. With fiction, read your own work aloud as a smart auditory exercise that can catch when you veer into transcribed speech.


Paula Martinac is a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter. In 2019, she received a Literary Fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council and a Creative Renewal Fellowship from the Arts and Science Council. She teaches creative writing at UNC Charlotte.

*A longer version of this was originally published in the Spring 2021 newsletter of the North Carolina Writers’ Network.

Book Recommendations from Our Members

At our 2020 holiday party, we asked our members what books they’d recommend as gifts or for next year’s book clubs. Here’s the list, with purchase links to our friends Park Road Books. Enjoy!

Future Home of the Living God, Louise Erdrich | Hardcover | Paperback

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow | Hardcover | Paperback

Nothing to See Here, Kevin Wilson | Hardcover | Paperback

Book of Delights, Ross Gay | Hardcover

The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson | Hardcover

Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance | Hardcover | Paperback

CREATE! Developing Your Own Creative Process, Cathy Pickens | Paperback

The Cost of These Dreams: Sports Stories and Other Serious Business, Wright Thompson | Paperback

Little Bee, Chris Cleave | Paperback

The Henna Artist, Alka Joshi | Hardcover | Paperback

Pen to Paper Prompt: Choice

Election day is a good day to think about choice. Writing is all choice. The writer chooses, over and over again, from the vast catalog of everything.

Some of the choices a writer makes include:

• Who’s telling the story: narrator or narrators
• Who else is in the story: supporting character or characters
• Who are the characters: name, age, race, gender, height, education, employment, social status, backstories, etc.
• Why is this story being told: what’s different about today / what’s changed from the normal world?
• How is the story told — from whose point of view (POV): main character, supporting character, multiple characters, or omniscient
• How is the story told — person: first, second or third person (and in different degrees of “closeness”)
• How is the story told — verb tense: past or present (or sometimes future)
• What happens in the story: narrative plot points
• Where does the story take place: settings for the story and its scenes
• Where is it in time: year/era for the story, time of day for scenes
• What is the genre (e.g., literary, women’s fiction, memoir, mystery, romance, and so on)
• Who is it for: adult, young adult, middle grade, etc.
• What is the writing style / voice: how it sounds on the page
• How to write a specific scene: show (immediate scene) or tell (exposition / narrative summary) or a combination
• What does it mean: what theme(s) are explored
• What words to use: word choice and reading level, symbolic language (metaphor, analogy, simile)
• How does it end

For today’s prompt, you are going to explore the power of choice.

First, you will imagine or remember a situation with at least two characters. Then, write a scene that includes these characters for five minutes. (If you need a scenario, use this: You are at a fair, and you’re six years old. You and your mother step up onto the carousel, and you try to select which animal to ride on.)

Set a repeating timer for five minutes. Every five minutes, change one thing and continue writing or begin the scene again. Tip: before you write, ask: What changes in the telling because of this? Here are some changes you can make. Use these or choose your own.

• Change the tense (that is, from past to present or present to past).

• Change the person (that is, from first to third or from third to first — or if you’re brave, try second).

• Change to the other person’s point of view.

• Change the age of one character by at least 20 years.

• Change the relationship between the characters (for example, make a mother and daughter into sisters or neighbors)

• Change where the scene is set to a very different location.

• Change when the story takes place by at least three decades.

• Change the point of view to an observer who is not one of the primary characters.

And so on!

The Intimate Kinship of Genres

David Radavich

David Radavich

During this period of hyper-consciousness about genres and subgenres, bookstores, Amazon, and agents encourage us to think of “boxes” into which our writing can be put for purposes of marketing. Not surprisingly, we pay close attention to relatively small distinctions between intersecting forms of literature. What makes for a young adult novel—a teenage protagonist?  How do we place a prose poem, or the lyrics to a song?

But the classic genres—poetry, drama, fiction, non-fiction—in fact bleed into each other relentlessly. In fact, I would argue that they not only borrow ruthlessly from each other but also contain each other. These genres all belong to the same family, the art of literature, and their differences are more due to mind-set and arena than to fundamental distinctions.

Take drama, for instance. It can be written in poetry or prose, but there is always a story. And that story bears a striking resemblance to most fiction, apart from the mechanics of enactment on stage. And as master analyst of theatre Sam Smiley has pointed out, even the most prose-driven plays ascend to poetry at the climax: Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman moves into a new lyric dimension near the end.

Fiction, of course, contains the central elements of drama—plot, characterization, setting, thought, and conflict—even as it occurs on the page and in readers’ minds rather than under the proscenium arch. Like drama, fiction also incorporates a good deal of non-fictional elements, the classic instance being Moby Dick’s disquisitions on whales. But novels also include elements central to poetry—imagery, metaphor, rhythm, refrain—on a regular basis, to heighten awareness and increase impact.

Poetry is thought to be the “quiet,” interior genre most intimately tied to music.  But many poems tell stories of various lengths, even in particular stanzas, while narrative verse is commonly written and read. Every poem enacts tension between the speaker, the subject, onlookers, and the reader in an elaborate linguistic and semantic dance. Poems include perpetrators, spectators, conflicts, and most build to a climax as mini-dramas of thought and emotion.  Shakespeare’s sonnets include the speaker, the beloved (male and female), friends, the rival poet, each by turn scorned, castigated, pled with, or embraced. Lots of drama!

Incorporating narrative, drama, and at its best poetry, non-fiction hovers throughout as our basic source of information about weather, geography, flora, history, religion, and politics. In thinking about writing, it might help us to become more aware of the sibling genres to the one have chosen so that we can enrich and magnify our impact. Sacrifice and renewal, love and alienation, oppression and justice—deep human struggles appear in all genres, wearing our many faces of experience.


LEARN WITH DAVID: David Radavich leads “Dramatizing Your Poetry,” which considers the oft-ignored theatrical elements in poetry and examines a range of poems that demonstrate both the loud and the quiet conflicts inherent in poems. Thursday, October 22, 6-7:30 p.m. More info

ABOUT DAVID: David Radavich is a poet, playwright, and essayist who has published companion epic narratives, America Bound (2007) and America Abroad (2019), along with six lyric collections, most recently Middle-East Mezze (2011) and The Countries We Live In (2014). If the pandemic passes, Cervena Barva Press will publish his new book, Here’s Plenty. Radavich’s more than 25 plays have been performed across the U.S., including six Off-Off-Broadway, and in Europe.  He has served as president of the Thomas Wolfe Society, Charlotte Writers’ Club, and North Carolina Poetry Society, and currently administers the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet Series.

Collecting Family Stories

Melinda Ferguson Sherman

Melinda Ferguson Sherman

As I’ve been writing in my journal these past thirty-some years, I’ve often found myself associating events of the day with memories of my childhood, or referencing family stories I often heard growing up. Some of the stories are about me before I was old enough to remember them; others tell a story of  “the time when” my brother, mom, or dad had a funny, disastrous, or a just-goes-to-show-you learning experience. How surprising and enriching it is to discover new associations and meanings in old stories.

This experience inspired me to write short pieces of memoir with the notion of passing family stories onto my children. Otherwise, how would they ever know my family’s background, which is rooted in rural Ohio and is vastly different from their childhoods growing up in Manhattan and Long Island? In today’s world, where traditional family Sunday dinners, weekend visits, and annual reunions are not as feasible as in the past, writing down our stories is the only path open to those of us who want to preserve our memories for posterity and familiarize our children with their ancestors.

The same day I learned of my pending new status as a grandmother, I came across an ad for a book I immediately ordered: Unconditional Love: A Guide to Navigating the Joys and Challenges of Being a Grandparent Today, by Jane Isay. Having read the book, I’m persuaded that our personal stories are of priceless importance to our children, grandchildren, and future generations. All of our stories — happy, sad, tragic, comic, of famous family heroes and infamous villains — nurture our children’s belief in themselves, their place in the world, their self-worth. Children who’ve heard family stories are less anxious and more resilient in times of uncertainty.

Those of us who write these stories profit in several ways. We bring to our stories a more mature understanding of their meaning; we form bonds with the younger generation; and, in the process of researching and revisiting our past, are likely to reach out to family and friends whom we haven’t seen or heard from for years. We, too, become more connected, more comfortable in the world, and perhaps a bit less anxious.


START COLLECTING YOUR FAMILY STORIES WITH MELINDA: Melinda Ferguson Sherman leads the four-session workshop “Five Generations: Collecting Family Memories,” beginning Tuesday, October 20. More info

ABOUT MELINDA: Melinda Ferguson Sherman was born in Ohio and lived most of her life in New York City and Long Island before moving to Charlotte two years ago. She is a writer, teacher, and––for nearly 20 years––a journal and memoir writing workshop facilitator. She has written two books of family stories for her children. Melinda has a BA from Miami University, an MA from Columbia University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Southampton. She worked as an editor at Warner, Walker, and Macmillan. Most recently, she’s served as adjunct faculty at Suffolk County (NY) Community College and Central Piedmont Community College.

A Few Thoughts on Writing Reviews

John Amen

John Amen

Discussing the dynamics, structures, and techniques inherent to the artistic process heightens one’s ability to connect with work beyond “liking” and “disliking.” If you “like” something, why? What about the artist’s craft made that possible? Reviews can offer a rating, if the publication demands that (it’s a way to hook readers with bottom-line info), but they can also facilitate discussions that go beyond the particular work in question, shedding light on universal themes and methods.

*

Sometimes I regard reviewing as a commentary on my own reading, listening, viewing, etc. In this sense, I’m observing my process of engaging with the work in question: what thoughts come to me, what emotions? Is the experience bumpy, fluid? Am I resistant? Immediately onboard? As a friend of mine says, “whatever trip they’re offering, that’s the one I’m taking.” As a reviewer, I find this a helpful touchstone, as I consider it my job to let go of biases and engage with the work as it unfolds according to its own nature, as well as to discuss how the artist delivers (or not) on the offered experience. What about the piece, book, album, etc. helped to bring “the trip” to fruition? What impeded it?

*

I try to connect first with what seem like the essentials of the piece. If text, what is a major theme? What are stylistic signatures? What is the pace of the writing? Heavy on images? How about voice? Formal? Vernacular? With music, if there are vocals, what are lyrical themes? Is the melody compelling? (Numerous books have been written on neurology as it relates to the phenomena of hooks.) Again, I try to navigate the work on its own terms, then perhaps consider possible comparisons and influences, placing it in a broader context.

*

I try to keep in mind that the entirety of my listening, reading, learning, and life experience can often be relevant in a review context. There are times when a straightforward, objective piece is needed, other times it may be appropriate to reference existentialism, geometry, or your trip to Europe when you were a kid…in your commentary on the latest album from, say, Waxahatchee. Review in a way that engages you, so that you’re “doing the job” but also expressing yourself authentically and in a way that is creatively fulfilling.

Here are links to a few recent reviews:
1. The new album from Jyoti (Georgia Anne Muldrow)
2. The new album from Nicolas Jaar
3. The latest poetry collection from Bruce Weigl


John Amen is the author of several collections of poetry, most recently Illusion of an Overwhelm (New York Quarterly, 2017). His poetry and reviews have appeared in various publications, including RattlePrairie SchoonerLos Angeles ReviewExclaim!PopMattersThe Brooklyn Rail, and Colorado Review. He is a staff reviewer for the music magazine and website No Depression. He founded and edits Pedestal Magazine.


Learn the Art of the Review: John teaches “Writing Reviews: Curiosity Over Verdict” — October 13, 2020, at 6 pm. Info here.