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THE SCIENCE AND ART OF STUFF by Bear Jack Gebhardt

That’s hot stuff.

I was skimming through the newspaper when I inadvertently glimpsed the fundamental nature of the universea glimpse of which physicists (and artists and poets) have been searching, and mostly missing, for millennia. I guess I was just in the right place at the right time.

“To my mind,” wrote the noted physicist John Archibald Wheeler, “there must be, at the bottom of it all, not an equation, but an utterly simple idea…that idea, when we finally discover it, will be so compelling, so inevitable, that we will say to one another, ‘Oh, how beautiful. How could it have been otherwise?’”

I have no idea why I, an ordinary man of humble origins, humble intellect and, I assure you, even humbler attainments, accidentally glimpsed the fundamental nature of the universe that simple, primordial idea for which the great minds of the centuries have been searching. Just plain dumb luck I suppose.

Here’s how it happened: In the newspaper, I read that physicists had created what appears to be a new form of matter, what they call quark-gluon. Scientists from 26 different countries collaborated to make this quark-gluon stuff at the European Center for Particle Physics in Geneva, Switzerland. They used a microwave oven (of sorts) 100,000 times hotter than the center of the sun. The mere thought of something—anything—100,000 times hotter than the center of the sun should give any attentive brain cause for pause.It did mine. That’s hot stuff.

The stuff they made in this hot oven is supposed to be just like the gunk from which the whole universe was made, shortly after the Big Bang. (As the bumper sticker says: “God spoke the Word, then Bang!”) By “shortly after” the Big Bang the scientists mean ten millionths of a second after. (There’s another cause for pause. What kind of watch are we using to measure ten millionths of a second, eleven billion years ago?)

The scientists speculate that when the universe was born, after that first ten millionths of a second, that original stuff then coalesced into your standard old quarks, leptons, muons and neutrinos, from which, of course, we get our everyday atoms, and from atoms come our bathtubs, hairdryers, staplers and other familiar things. Basically, the Geneva scientists speculated that they had succeeded in creating a tiny bit of original stuff identical to that from which the whole universe is made. “That’s neat,” I’m sure their bosses told them.

Thinking about this, I remembered reading some years ago about another group of scientists who had likewise succeeded in making original stuff out of atom guts, but instead of using a very hot oven they had used a very cold refrigerator (of sorts.) According to a report in Science Magazine, researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology at the University of Colorado at Boulder had cooled atoms down to within a few billionths of a degree of absolute zero. (Again, billionths of a degree? Which drugstore sells such nifty thermometers?). These Boulder atoms got so cold they lost their atom identities, or personalities, and mooshed into a singular glob. These scientists proved what Albert Einstein and Sayendra Nath Bose speculated might happen if you chilled atoms that much. That’s why this cold stuff is known as Bose-Einstein condensation. Or maybe that’s the name of the process.

At any rate, thinking about how atoms are made, I started to wonder, when the universe was born, was the original silly putty really, really hot or was it really, really cold? Or maybe, with everything so smooshed together that not even night and day could squeeze out, might the original stuff possibly have been both really, really hot and really, really cold? Could it have been, paradoxically, hot and cold at the same time?

From the modest bit I know as a curious layman, such a paradox is the nature of quantum physics, where it appears you can indeed have it both ways: have a particle and/or a wave, have it hot and/or cold, day and/or night, here and/or there, all depending on the position (and intention) of the observer. In other words, how you look, where you’re standing, and apparently how you’re holding your jaw when you’re conducting the experiment.

So, back to the glimpse. As I said, after reading the scientific reports, I wondered whether the universe was unthinkably hot or unthinkably cold, not only right after it was born, but, more importantly, just before, in that timeless (eternal?) instant just before the Big Bang. Since in the before there couldn’t have been any stuff yet (right?), it occurred to me: Whatever was here before the Big Bang, no matter the temp, was not stuff at all but rather more like a mood. It just made sense to me that what existed before the Big Bang was a timeless, space-less (dimensionless) mood.

Obviously, it must have been a pretty good mood. In fact, it appears that the pre-universe mood was, in a word (Word?) pretty darn happy, even joyous, just before it broke into a hot/cold, quark-gluon song like it didjust before it burst into ever-expanding swirling galaxies and horsehead nebulas, not to mention staplers.

Thinking about this moment—or pre-moment, as it were, since even time hadn’t been invented yet—I suddenly glimpsed the fundamental nature of the universe: Eureka! It was obvious that the mood of happiness itself, joy itself, must be the original stuff of the universe.

It seemed clear this was the “utterly simple idea” physicist John Archibald Wheeler predicted we’d find some day. That the universe is made of happiness is indisputably a simple idea. But of course, the scientists, being scientists, would want proof that such a Snoopy-like presence could be the idea at the bottom of it all.

Using standard scientific expectations of duplicated empirical evidence, we might prove that happiness is the original stuff of the universe if we could offer evidence that:

1.) Happiness manifests, depending on how you look for it, as either hot or cold, or maybe both hot and cold; and

2.) That, given all the actual and potential forms of the universe, happiness must be able to assume any particular shape or form it wants or needs. (We have to prove that happiness is infinitely pliable and malleable, even more so than silly putty.)

Okay, so let’s take it step-by-step: The temperature dichotomy.

From direct personal experience we can all attest that, yes, happiness can appear as either or both hot and cold. For example, when I owned a furniture refurbishing business, a cranky fellow working for me would—almost every day, for almost any reason—get angry, unhappy, even hot-under-the-collar, so to speak. He was a young guy, big and bulky, and would bum everybody out by getting red in the face, boiling mad at the slightest slight.

“Good morning, Joe,” I might say, coming into the shop.

“What’s so good about it? Nobody fixed the coffee.”

That kind of guy.

The best way to cool him down, we all learned, was to stay in our joy, maybe tell a little joke, or say something lighthearted.

“That’s another reason I don’t pack a gun,” I might respond. “Somebody doesn’t fix the darned coffee, they’d get a slug right in the shin.”

If we could maintain our own good mood, get him to laugh or even just grin, he’d cool off; the red would literally drain from his face. He’d chill.

Using humor to cool things down is not unique. War buddies, for example, know a quick quip helps everyone survive tough spots. As Winston Churchill once observed, “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” Or as poet and essayist Samuel Johnson put it: “When a man knows he is to be hanged in the morning, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Someone who keeps their cool, often via humor, in hot circumstances is known to be grounded. Grounded in what?What else? Grounded in the basic stuff of the universe: unflappable joy!

So okay, happiness can cool. Might it also warm things up, when needed?

For example, Gladys, a middle-aged woman who worked in our front office when I was a stock broker, had the nickname of The Ice Queen. Everybody’s known somebody like Gladys. Say good morning, goodnight, I’m going to lunch, I fell off my bike—no matter what you said—Gladys was an ‘ice-cycle.’ The only way to warm her up was to laugh, preferably at yourself, or the world around, or maybe the bosses upstairs.Then you might glimpse a tight, tiny, ever-so-slight smile appear then quickly disappear across her face. Ice cool, if not cold, is a stance many humans assume. This is why speakers talk about “warming up the audience” with a joke or two. If a stranger on the bus makes us laugh, we warm to him.We all know, from both personal and communal affairs: Happiness can clearly have a warming effect, when necessary.

So, again, it’s clear that happiness might be the basic stuff of the universe because it can be either hot or cold, warm things up or cool things down. Happiness keeps life moving, flowing, evolvingever upward, or outward, downward or to the side, depending on what’s needed. The scientists in both Switzerland and Boulder should be happy with such simple evidence of the joyful nature of the primordial stuff.

So much for proof number one.

On to proof number two, whether happiness can take any shape or form necessary.

This one’s easy. Just look around.

It’s quite obvious that the universe is quite happy to express itself in a gazillion different shapes and forms. If the universe wasn’t happy to have so many shapes and forms, we wouldn’t have all this stuffplanets, and asteroids, and moons, and neutron stars and pulsars; hair dryers and computer mouse pads; mouse tails and mouse earsto name just a few. The universe is the most powerful thing inwell, in the universeso it can do whatever the heck it wants, yes? Making a lot of forms, a gazillion different forms, is obviously one of the things the universe is happy to do.

And from our human point of view, it’s also clear that no matter the form, somebody somewhere is going to be spontaneously happy with it. So, humans tend to resonate with the cosmic background, which is, I posit, happiness itself. For example, some people are quite happy with quasars, others with football statistics, still others are thrilled with maggots or fire ants (for pity’s sake) or, more commonly, the radiant colors shimmering off the sunsetting clouds. Not everybody will accept every shape the universe throws out, of course, but somebody somewhere finds joy in every form imaginable.

Sure, we could find exceptions to that rule; find some item or activity somewhere in the vast universe that absolutely nobody is happy about—say a mosquito bite or stubbed toe. Still, such a find would only make some grouchy contrarian happy that a primordially sad situation was found! So to answer to the question, “Can the basic happiness stuff take on any form it wants?” Again, obviously, yes.

So the evidence stands:

Happiness is obviously quantum, it can either warm us up or cool us down, depending on what we need.

And happiness is infinitely pliable, wantonly making and unmaking shapes and forms throughout the universe. Happiness meets all the (simple) scientific qualifications for being the fundamental stuff of the universe.

But the scientists aren’t the only ones weighing in on this topic. For thousands of years prior to the “scientific revolution,” prophets, poets, saints and sages were giving their own take on the essence—the basic stuff– of the universe.

Genesis puts it this way: Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good.(If “good” doesn’t include happiness, or doesn’t actually mean happiness, then who needs good?) Happiness as reality’s core is further confirmed in Ecclesiastes: I commend mirth. And later in the 42nd Psalm: God has a smile on His face.An early Jewish proverb has it: “As soap is to the body, so laughter is to the soul.”

The Taoist Lao Tzu concurred in 531 BC: “As soon as you have made a thought, laugh at it.” And the Buddha: “When the mind is pure [i.e., real], joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.”

Jesus was on board: “I have come that my joy might be in you, and that your joy might be full.” How much clearer could it be? And the Muslims are not to be left out. The Koran explicitly affirms, “He deserves Paradise who makes his companions laugh.”And last, but not least, the contemporary seer, Dr. Seuss: “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.”

Fortunately, by coming across a few scientific reports in the newspaper, I happened to be given the insight that happiness is the quantum, fundamental stuff, animating both the art and science of the universe. I am quite humbled, even awestruck, (not to mention tickled) being offered this glimpse into the basic reality of absolutely everything.In a nutshell, within and without, above and below, in the micro and the macro, in the stillness and the flow, AllAll, All, Allis Joy.

As Archibald Wheeler might say, how could it be otherwise? Isn’t it an utterly simple idea, and beautiful?

Now, after writing this happy little essay, I’m off, under the wife’s command, to shovel all the joyous, oh-so-tactile (and heavy) growing piles of snow stuff off my irritatingly long concrete sidewalk. I first frown, then, remembering to tune myself to the frequency of Basic Stuff, I grin.

 

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BLUES IN by Tom Larsen

It’s a fable as old as recorded music.

The new releases at Rasputin’s Records were directly to the left of the checkout line. That’s where I first saw Art Pepper staring out from the cover of a Blue Note twofer.  With those haunted eyes and sunken cheeks, he had the refried look of the nasty habit. Friends of ours back home had that look. It got so you hated to answer the door. Junkies were why we moved four time zones. The speed freak might rewire your house, but he won’t bore you shitless then steal your stuff.

“Death warmed over,” I said to my wife. She was staring at the picture, thinking the same thing. Andree was married to a junkie for seven years and knows the look better than I ever will.

“Blues In,” she read the title, clutching an armful of Steely Dan. “Who’s Art Pepper?”

“Never heard of him,” I nudged her toward the register. “Just another be-bop burnout.”

***

Smack and saxophones – an image so set in the fifties it defined cliché. Every neophyte knows the Yardbird story: Jazz genius goes down in flames taking a truckload of wannabes with him. It’s a fable as old as recorded music. From Bix to Hendrix the best licks tend to bow out early. Bird wasn’t the first junkie jazzman, but he had the fire. One of the few who find what they were born to do. So great was his talent he had to invent a form to contain it. Improvisation so florid and precise it will always take your breath away. Not just the speed, though speed was the essence. Bird could hit every note on the nose. No slurring or lagging, just flat out and ripping. Of course, you had to be up to the chase. As fast as Bird was, you get the feeling he could have played faster if anyone had the ears to follow.

***

I’d always wondered about jazz. I envied the way Kerouac dropped the names and I was partial to saxophones and smoke filled rooms. But it seemed like a too big world with no easy access and aside from a few records, I remained jazz ignorant.

This Pepper guy intrigued me. It was partly the picture, but also the fact that I’d never heard the name. Like most snobs I’m drawn to the obscure, and this guy looked every inch of it. A year would pass before I finally bought the record, but that moment in Rasputin’s was a premonition.

I don’t know what it says about me, but I’m a guy who needs his heroes. Despite the ravages or because of them, I knew this was someone I could get behind. If I was going to open the door to jazz I needed someone to lead me inside. Pepper had the look. If he had the talent, I was set to go. From the first track I was gone.

Pepper came out of big band swing, Benny Carter, Stan Kenton and the zoot suit clubs of central LA. He personified the cool, deceptively breezy west coast style that be-boppers couldn’t abide, too arranged, too loosey goosey, way too white. Another example of the times getting in the way, I suspect. You can’t see how it is until the dust settles. Bebop was young and angry, filled with sharp chops and hard edges, west coast was older, more polished, still swinging. Where the New York players made you bob and weave, the white boys just made you dance. I’m a guy that likes to dance.

Given the times and the dynamics of innovation, bebop was bound to prevail. It was brand new rather than reworked and refined. It captured the spirit of the post-war boom and the sensibilities of the avant-garde. Bop was raw and sexy. It broke from the past instead of evolving from it. Time was ripe for all things new. In the end it’s always a matter of context.

So bop assumed the big band mantel, modern music for modern times. And while Bird and his flock won the accolades, the west coasters just kept on swinging. What followed was a revelation. In an effort to remain cutting edge, bop veered into free form and eventually chaos. Coltrane, circa Miles, to Coltrane in the end is a tragic conceit, not a musical direction. No one ever tapped a toe to “A Love Supreme,” and no one ever will. In the meantime swing downsized into rhythm and blues, Louis Jordan, The Church Street Five and eventually rock and roll.

Bop vs. swing, a funny thing. Both played music but one was more … well, musical.

***

You can hear Charlie Parker in Pepper’s playing. For a young musician of that time the influence was inescapable. But Pepper’s cadence, his timing and rhythm are rooted in swing. The notes fly in a lyric dance that owes more to Goodman than Gillespie. While his fellow soloists reworked the theme, Pepper soared above it, putting the simplest ditty through majestic paces. Like Bird, he could hit every note, yet his use of time and space drove the melody instead of pulling it along. What they say about the great ones is true. It’s what you don’t hear that kills you.

But what set Art Pepper apart was emotion. His capacity for the heartfelt was exceeded only by his ability to express it – unbridled joy and effervescence, real pain, as opposed to show biz pain. Not to mention rejection. Where Bird was at least credited, Pepper was a sporadic presence, if not musically, then physically. Periods of incapacitation followed by longer periods of incarceration put him out of commission through the music’s heyday. That he recorded as much as he did is a tribute to talent alone. He was more in demand than in attendance.

***

Smack and saxophones. Like Bird, Pepper was a junkie first and a jazzman second. Scoring and fixing were the order of the day, and incidentals like club dates and recording sessions were secondary. Unlike Bird, he did not have an adoring public and visionary promoters to push him out on the bandstand, no slumming socialite to ease the descent. Heroin wreaked havoc on Pepper’s life, but unlike Bird it couldn’t kill him.

Too much heart, you can’t help but hear it.

Followed by years of poverty and dissipation.

Like Chet Baker he was a white junkie in a black junkies’ world. As white jazzmen, they were easy targets and the cops came down early and often. The way that worked is the way it always works. Give us a name and we’ll go easy. Guys like Baker knew the drill. But Pepper knew what he couldn’t live with and, unlike Chet, he did the time.

Too much heart for his own good.

Followed by six years in San Quentin.

***

Like the natural he was, Pepper never practiced, walked away from his horn for years at a time. He didn’t live and breathe the music. It came too easy, paid too little and got in the way of his downward spiral. The alto was the one thing that could save him, but one hope for a junkie can be worse than none.

By any measure the sax men fared badly. For the most part their stories end on a grim note and their recordings echo the talent wasted. The great plummeting Bird hit the rocks and, like lemmings, the others soon followed. The survivors were few, but Pepper was one of them. Maybe big hearts are the hardest to kill. As immovable object a forty-year habit has no rival. Enter, Laurie of the irresistible force. Why some get what they don’t deserve is one of life’s thornier questions.

The alto didn’t save him. The lady did.

Leading us all back to Berkeley and Rasputin’s.

***

A short spot on the radio led to my only meeting with the man. As part of a book promotion, Pepper was to appear at that same Rasputin’s. The book was Straight Life, the Story of a Jazz Survivor, his recently published memoir. By then I was deep into the music. Pepper’s “Blues In” twofer had grown to twenty albums that covered his progression from pure swing to hard blues.

And if ever there was a ripe time for a comeback the late ’70s was it. Rock music had hit a wall and the jazz bandwagon was starting to roll. Laurie, Pepper’s third wife, had assumed the task of compiling a discography, tracking down side sessions and collecting royalties on hundreds of recordings dating back through the fifties. She also transcribed hours of taped interviews into his memoir, one of the best of the genre. Thanks to Laurie, Pepper’s recording career was back in gear and he was touring and playing to rave reviews. Live long enough and anything can happen.

His history was part of the attraction. Pepper wore his dissolution like a cheap suit. Photos from the sixties and seventies showed what appeared to be a concentration camp survivor with bulging eyes and a death’s head grin. The first time my wife and I saw him play, in 1976, he looked like he wouldn’t survive the set. Morbid fascination, yeah, that was part of it.

Mostly though, it was the chops. His style had evolved. The up-tempo numbers had a flaring sound, and the ballads were baleful and brooding. The light touch was gone, replaced by a searing intensity that told the real story. Pepper had bulked up a bit, but the tattoos and prison pallor made watching him difficult. Listening was something else again. Not easy but spellbinding, each tune telling a story.

***

Our conversation with him would tell its own story.

We parked on Bancroft across from the Berkeley campus. A heavy mist muffled the streetlight. I had my copy of Straight Life and as we moved down Telegraph, I realized I’d never done anything like this before. When we got to Rasputin’s, I could see a few browsers but nothing resembling a crowd. There was a panhandler by the door, and a guy eating pistachios at the corner bus stop.

We went inside, slipping past a pair of skinheads. I fingered my way through a bin of used records. Pepper was late. The whole thing had the feel of a no show. Then, out of nowhere he was there. A bit shaky but dressed to kill, Laurie, smiling weakly beside him. I took a quick look around. There were six of us in attendance. A kid in a Mohawk met the Peppers at the door and steered them to a card table stacked with books and records. Everyone looked uncomfortable. I wished we hadn’t come.

“Hi, I’m Andree.” My wife stepped up with a great big grin. “My husband and I are huge fans.”

What the hell was she doing? These were living legends not yokels from her yoga class. I hurried to join them before she could blow it.

“Mr. Pepper? I’m the husband,” I reached a hand around.

“Please, call me Art.” His fingers were like ice.

“We just saw you at Davies Symphony Hall,” Andree blabbed. “I lost my hat.”

Art smiled and shook his head. “I’m real sorry to hear it.”

“That’s OK. I always lose my hats.”

Laurie chimed in “With me it’s umbrellas.”

“It was a cloche hat, black, with a lace veil. Tom had just bought it for me. Isn’t he sweet?” Andree gave my cheek a pinch. “Your book is fantastic, by the way. I can’t imagine being able to play music AND write.”

“Transcribe,” I said through my teeth.

“What?”

“The book was transcribed … from tapes.”

“Oh, well it’s some story. I plan on reading it again.”

“Thank you,” Art nodded. “I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

“And YOU!” Andree turned to Laurie. “What a fantastic thing you’ve done! Pulling it all back together again, it’s like a miracle!”

“You don’t know the half of it.” Laurie sighed.

I looked behind me. No one was cueing up and the store seemed deserted. When I turned back Andree was bent over the table sketching something on the back of an envelope. The lost hat, presumably. I looked to Art. He studied his pen.

“I thought the book was incredible,” my voice barely registered.

He glanced up. “I’m sorry?”

Straight Life? I thought it was a masterpiece.”

“Thanks, man. I appreciate it.”

The wives burst out laughing and their voices dropped to a whisper.

“Listen Art,” I had to force myself. “Do you think you could autograph it for me?”

“No problem, that’s what we’re here for,”

I handed him my copy.

“To … ?” Art hesitated.

“Andree and Tom. Tommy, actually. …  Make it Tom.”

He wrote something then handed it back. “There you are … Tom.”

Andree gave me a poke. “Did you ask him about the clarinet?”

“Oh yeah, I, … the uh, …”

She snaked an arm around my waist. “We think you should play it more often.”

“That makes three of us,” Laurie nodded in agreement.

”So why don’t you, Art?” Andree pressed him.

Pepper smiled and shook his head. “I love the sound. But the damn thing has a mind of its own. You can sneak up on it sometimes, but usually it’s a battle.”

This was the sort of info I was after, a rare glimpse into the mind.  His answer was revealing, but more importantly the question sizzled with jazz savvy. Possibly no one had ever asked him about it. There were a million more things I wanted to know, but, try as I might, I couldn’t think of one.

***

Despite the night’s light turnout, Pepper’s star continued to ascend. “Straight Life” was a critical and commercial success and the volume of recordings released during the 80’s rivaled his most prolific periods. I still claimed him as my personal discovery, but the public was quickly coming around. By 1983 he was riding an unprecedented wave of popularity, and his club dates and concerts were hot ticket items.

Like all things cyclical, interest in jazz ebbs and flows. The surge in virtuosity that marked jazz, and to a similar extent, rock music has been largely lost to the mainstream muck. At the same time, a revitalized black culture seems better served by hip hop than bop. No matter. The tales that survive are the one’s you can’t forget. Art Pepper’s story is as troubling as it is trademark American — the interminable struggle, the long-shot happy ending — Pepper lived it and his recordings bear witness.

In 1985, at the height of his comeback, Art Pepper died of a stroke at his home in Los Angeles. Survival has a shelf life, as it turns out. His impact on jazz has been undervalued, but history has a way of settling accounts.

“To Tom and Andree. Hope you dig this. My best.” Art Pepper 1/14/81

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KEPLER’S TELESCOPE FINDS FIVE NEW EXOPLANETS by Andrea Wyatt

we are pretty close to the bottom

NASA and G. Bacon (STScI)

Imagine a huge thermometer,

we are pretty close to the bottom
not as low as
Jupiter or Neptune
bluest of the blue,

but a little higher, between
water freezes and water boils
closer to freezes,

on that imaginary glass device
with Fahrenheit on one side

going up the thermometer past lead melts
is Mercury, brighter than Sirius
and Venus, bright queen of the sky

then nothing
until the thermometer registers

molten lava and gold melts,
and suddenly,
there they are

five glowing exoplanets
orbiting their stars
every three to five days,

one of them light
as Styrofoam

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TWO POEMS by Steve Shilling

Walk, walk, walk, wait for the needle...

 

When The Music Stops

Call it what you want. Cakewalk,
musical chairs, last man standing.

I was a master of it.

Walk, walk, walk, wait for the needle
on the scratchy 45 to stop crackling out
the music, walk, walk, walk, THERE!

Slide into a seat and bump some poor,
slow, schmuck with bad peripheral vision
out of the game.  She’s a girl?  So what?
This game is for delightful baked goods.

Savory cakes, soft and delicious,
cared for by somebody’s mother.

I took three home from the school carnival
in the 4th grade.  A chocolate layer, a vanilla
sheet with white icing and a carrot cake.

My mom made me stop at three.

We had cake into Thanksgiving.

I could have gone pro.

– – –

I Like Our Planet . . .

I said to my son, and he agreed:
“We have blankets and stuff,
and food to eat.”  Which is good
enough for me.  “And,” he said, “if you
want to get out, you have to go up
to the sky.” But where would we go?
I don’t even have a plan to get there.
We can’t breathe on Mars. Neptune
is too stormy, Pluto too cold, and if
it is not a planet anymore, could I deal
with the downgrade?  Mercury?  Death
Valley year-round.  I have heard that
Venus smells like hard boiled eggs and
that the property on Saturn is outrageous,
especially ring-front. Uranus? Not likely.
I would move to Intercourse first.

 

 

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ILLUMINATIONS by Vivian Wagner

 

I’ve always wanted fireworks

I’ve always wanted fireworks
to be more than they are.
So a sphere,
why not a tree, with
branches cutting high into the night?
So a cascade of stars,
why not a writhing serpent?
So a burning sapphire ball,
why not a volcano, rupturing?
The industry has names
for its effects:
ring
palm
crossette
kamuro
peony
chrysanthemum
willow
fish
horsetail
spider.
The names promise so much,
calling to mind the worlds they might create.
In the end, though, they’re all
the same:
flash and brilliance,
light and pop,
a puff of sulfur smoke.
Better to wait for the
stars and planets to
speak their luminous names
into the quieting night.

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3QR: FREE TO PASS by Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson

LIBERO IL PASSO: FREE TO STEP OR PASS

Consider, for a moment, the concept of the Three Quarter True Story: No censorship for writers. No betrayal for readers. No locked doors with mixed messages.

When teaching fiction and nonfiction to university students, I’ve found that the question invariably comes up: What is True? We discuss whether any remembered moment can be absolutely accurate, or whether the writer’s own filters color what he or she observes. Such questions are debated as well among my writing colleagues at conferences and writers’ workshops. Does it even matter what is true? Well, the first answer to that is: Yes. To nonfiction writers it does. A great deal of in-depth research, time-consuming immersion, careful interviewing, and paranoid fact-checking goes into such seminal nonfiction works as Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb or David Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. Such writers, as far as I know, resisted the temptation to fill in the gaps of the unknown with  fabricated facts or exaggerated character descriptions. Nonfiction has long implied a commitment, or contract, with the reader: This really happened.

Some writers, and publishers, however don’t resist. Therefore, we have scandals such as James Frey’s ‘memoir’ A Million Little Pieces. As publicized on the infamous episode of Oprah’s talk show in 2006, various details in the book, including the rebel Frey’s supposed jail stint, were simply made up. Frey, according to a 2008 Vanity Fair article, said he first pitched his book to publishers as an autobiographical novel in the mode of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. But “TRUE STORIES” are sexy, and, as the book became a bestseller, Frey became a braggart caught up in the web of his own lies. Many would say it was not worth the risk when his readers, like Oprah, felt betrayed, and his name vilified.

Then we get to the masters of nonfiction, whose books are termed creative nonfiction or narrative journalism. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood; George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London; Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia; Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes; John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil; or Beryl Markham’s West with the Night, etc. Capote himself considered his book a “nonfiction novel.” Yet, with all of these works and others, questions were later raised about their accuracy and adherence to truth—whether some scenes, characters, and dialogue were fictionalized, or, in the case of Markham’s memoir, her sexual escapades as an aviatrix in Africa simply glossed over because her third husband likely wrote the book with, or for, her.

Yet something about all this “gotcha lit crit” started to bother me: Who are we to say these books should not have been written or the author’s very real accomplishments, adventures, experiences, or depictions devalued entirely. The bigger question: Isn’t it censorship to say someone shouldn’t write whatever they want, the way they want, just because we don’t have a category for it? Film, after all, has the “based-on-a-true-story” genre, and the viewer knows what he or she is getting into. One of my students once asked, “Why can’t we have .74 stories?” Thus, the kernel was planted for The Three Quarter Review: Poetry and Prose > 75 percent True.

Some might argue, however, that such altered works should simply be considered fiction. Truth is fiction’s strange bedfellow, after all. And yes, there is a storied history of real events inspiring great works of literature. Henry James, for example, was known as the consummate eavesdropper of parlor and party chatter. The plot of his novel, Washington Square, came directly from real life. The first lines in his original notebook entry, according to recent editions of the novel, read:

February 21st. Mrs. Kemble told me last evening the history of her brother H.’s engagement to Miss T.H.K. [He] was a young ensign in a marching regiment, very handsome (‘beautiful’) said Mrs. K., but very luxurious and selfish, and without a penny to his name. Miss T. was a dull, plain, common-place girl, only daughter of the Master of King’s Coll,. Cambridge, who had a handsome private fortune . . .”

Thus the novel’s essential plot was fashioned—the complicated triangle between the shy, simple heroine, Catherine; the coxcomb Morris Townsend; and the distrustful father, Dr. Sloper. As James later noted in his essay titled “The Art of Fiction:” “It goes without saying that you will not write a good novel unless you possess a sense of reality, but it will be difficult to give you a recipe for calling that sense into being. Humanity is immense, and reality has a myriad forms . . .”

Some of the writers for this inaugural issue of The Three Quarter Review remark on this overlap of imagination and reality (see 3QR Author Notes): As novelist Stephen Dixon writes: Some fiction I take almost whole from my life, some fiction I take almost whole from my imagination. My imagination is part of my life, of course, but the unlived part of it.

Fiction brings such tranformation of experience, and translation of imagined realities, to the literary table. Still, “things that really happened” offers an undeniable primal, narrative draw for readers. Alice Munro, in her 1982 essay “What is Real?” addressed the fiction writer’s dilemma:

Whenever people get an opportunity to ask me questions about my writing, I can be sure that some of the questions will be these:

‘Do you write about real people?’

‘Did those things really happen?’  . . .

Writers answer such questions patiently or crossly according to temperament and the mood they’re in. They say, ‘No, you must understand, my characters are composites; those things didn’t happen the way I wrote about them . . .

Later in the essay, Munro concludes: “Yes, I use bits of what is real, in the sense of being really there and really happening, in the world, as most people see it, and I transform it into something that is really there, and really happening in my story.”

In the end, it’s this sort of literary juncture—where nonfiction writers feel awkward and fiction writers misunderstood, where debate and argument reign—that great work can be accomplished.  After all, a mostly true story, transformed, has a certain kind of sex appeal to modern writers as well. As 3QR author B.J. Hollars puts it: When I write, I am often pigeonholed into genre; I am writing either an essay or a story.  But what makes The Three Quarter Review unique is that it actively encourages the blurring of genre. Yes, we are recounting truths, but we are also acknowledging the multiple versions of that truth. In some ways, we hope to create a Fifth Genre: The Three Quarter True Story. Because, regardless of category, art is sparked when writers capture visceral truths—tactile details and verity of emotion—that make up this Magic Realist Existence we call life.

The Three Quarter Review was launched as the cornerstone of The Three Quarter Story literary project, a five-year online journal and literary event culminating in The Daniel Defoe Writing Contest and a print book 3QTrue: The Three Quarter Story. The journal showcases stories, poems, and essays that allow writers to stretch out a bit. While welcoming work that is fully accurate in all factual and emotional content, 3QR is also a venue for stories told as truly as possible, with the understanding that we can rarely know anything 100 percent.

— Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson, March 2012 / Updated November 2016

3QR Staff

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The Godfather Speaks

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The Godfather at work: Lee Gutkind (Photo: Cory Morton)

I first met author Lee Gutkind at the Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Summer Writers’ Conference at Goucher College when I was a grad student in the mid-1990s. The conference brought together some of the greatest practitioners of a literary form of nonfiction breaking new ground: creative nonfiction. Featured were authors Tracy Kidder. Susan Orlean. Gay Talese. Mary Karr. Tobias Wolff. Ntozake Shonge. Diane Ackerman. It was an Olympus of gods working in the field, writing books and long-form true narratives for The New Yorker and elsewhere.

Within a couple years, it seemed the fledgling newly defined genre might come crashing to Earth.

A scathing article in Vanity Fair accused creative nonfiction writers, of memoir in particular, of “navel gazing.” Cultural critic James Wolcott reserved his sharpest words for an unsuspecting Lee Gutkind, a conference founder, editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction, and then-professor at the University of Pittsburgh: He labeled Lee, with a healthy dose of sarcasm, “The Godfather behind creative nonfiction.”

Wolcott lambasted the form itself as: a “sickly transfusion, whereby the weakling personal voice of sensitive fiction is inserted into the beery carcass of nonfiction.” This, despite the fact that some of the most revered writers of the day, also including Annie Dillard, Joyce Carol Oates, George Plimpton, Barry Lopez and others, were writing nonfiction with a literary style and focus, and successfully so.

The criticism also didn’t stop Lee, a yogi and avid motorcyclist. He knew he might be okay when at work one day soon after, an elevator opened and a colleague, Bruce Dobler, went down on one knee, grabbed Lee’s hand and said, “I kiss your hand, Godfather.” That same year, Lee helped found a unique low-residency MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the same locale as the seminal conference: Goucher College in Baltimore, MD. For the past few years, I’ve been an MFA candidate in the program.

Lee and I met up at a 20th anniversary founders’ lecture on campus and later discussed the status of the movement two decades after Vanity Fair launched its snarky ballistic missile. Now a professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University, Lee continues to innovate, write, and speak about communicating true stores. Hope you enjoy our Q&A chat, edited for clarity and flow. Read, reflect, and comment. — 3QR editor Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson

Q: At the 20th anniversary event at Goucher College’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction and in your book, You Can’t Make this Stuff Up, you lead with the Vanity Fair article and its criticisms. You mention the “Godfather of Creative Nonfiction” label. I’m sure you were reeling at first from the article’s slings and arrows at the genre itself. When did the sting start to ease? Maybe not right at the elevator scene?  

A: You know how sometimes a single event can change your perspective on things? That little joking confrontation that Bruce and I had was helpful to me. Changed my perspective.

About 10 years prior to that article everything about creative nonfiction was such a fight—to make creative nonfiction or narrative nonfiction or the new nonfiction, which is what some folks were calling it, happen. Be accepted, especially in the academy.  No one wanted to cooperate or sometimes even listen. There were all kinds of reasons: turf battles between composition and literature folks for one thing—fearful of writing programs gaining attention and preference in English Departments.  And there were some academics who felt that the fact that we were calling this new form “creative” somehow inferred that their work was less so.  And journalists downright hated the word creative because, they insisted, that it meant that we were making stuff up.  I thought I had made a lot of progress in moving the genre forward, but then came the Vanity Fair ambush.  And it was an ambush.  James Wolcott didn’t interview me or anyone else for that article.  It just appeared one day in mailboxes and on newsstands.  For a day or two, I was embarrassed.  Hurt.  But then, almost instantly, people responded in a way I had not envisioned.  (Like Bruce.) By congratulating me because I was featured in Vanity Fair!  Either they didn’t care or didn’t read what Wolcott had to say.  The Godfather label—the positive aspects of it—stuck.  From that point on, emboldened, I was much more in an offensive rather than a defensive mode when it came to creative nonfiction.

Q: Exactly how have you been going on the offensive? It was easy and satisfying to name all of the pre-eminent writers who were writing creative nonfiction, even though they might not have called it creative nonfiction back then.  And I repeatedly pointed out that there were many opportunities for writers who could research and write true stories in and out of the academy. And very few full- time positions for poets in this world, for example, especially in ways that were self-supporting.  As time passed, the genre became very profitable for English departments and writing programs—a cash cow so to speak—which would support other programs.  And people—prospective students and mid-career professionals alike—wanted to write these stories about themselves, their work, their families.  My mantra was and is: ‘It’s a movement–and not a moment.’  And the movement is growing.  I was in New York a couple of weeks ago and checked out a literary calendar.  There were at least 20 creative nonfiction events scheduled over the next couple of weeks.  And for the courses I teach at Arizona State and in the workshops I do across the country, there are now physicians, architects, biologists—an array of people with stories to tell and a hunger to learn how to do it.

And have you embraced the Godfather label?  I have mixed feelings about that.  I want to be recognized for my work as an editor and writer.  But I realize that Wolcott’s article, his roasting of me and the genre, did exactly the opposite of what he wanted it to do.  It gave me a platform and a vastly expanded audience.  So I have rolled with the Godfather when I thought it would work to my and the genre’s advantage. It was an opportunity with certain downsides, though.

Q: You Can’t Make Stuff Up is a very modern book on writing: specific and conversational. You have written other books on writing in the genre. Why do you think this one was needed? What else does it accomplish?

A: Hardly anybody except the new John McPhee book [Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process] talks about structure. Writers need to know what it is and how to do it. It’s not just that you sit down and write and look for scenes and other stuff you think might be interesting to tell your reader. There’s an order to how we piece together our work and that order allows you to achieve the integral style-and-substance objective that is the hallmark of the genre—entertain and inform.

 Q: In terms of looking back, are their other ways you’ve seen creative nonfiction change over the past 20 years? You mention a growing role in literature, publishing, and the academy; what about style or forms? (The braided essay, for example). Is there a thread of change, moving toward what exactly? What purposes might CNF serve in the near future?

I think what is happening today is a gradual but significant return to more of an adherence to fact-based, verifiable content.  Writers now seem to be increasingly concerned with the integrity of their work and how to distinguish their work from the awful emergence of “fake news” and “alternative facts” that’s become part of our political and, alas, cultural landscape. This “thread of change,” to use your term, which I like, also, as I think I said to you, leads to many experts and academics learning more about how to employ the techniques of the genre to communicate what they know to the general public. And more and more publishers and magazines are becoming wary of writers who cannot support their ideas and observations and information with evidence. This is not happening quickly, because it takes a lot of time and effort to not make things up and not take shortcuts—but that is what is emerging now, I believe.

Q: What about the braided essay, especially in terms of social justice: According to Purdue University, this form “usually contains at least one thread that is very personal and based on memory, and at least one thread that is heavily researched. Often, the threads seem very disparate at first, but by the climax of the essay, the threads begin to blend together; connections are revealed.” Why is the personal and analytical so important? 

Yes, the braided essay looks different—and it has a cool label, braided—and it can be both a delight of discovery and a challenge to read.  But in the end it achieves the effect and the mission of the genre: to tell a personal story and to connect that story to information and ideas that the writer perceives as compelling and perhaps vital.  I like the form and [at Creative Nonfiction] we publish braided essays from time to time. It is a challenge to do well because it can become formulaic and predictable, a struggle to read.  So when we find a writer who can master the form, we snatch it up!

I encourage and appreciate the way writers push the boundaries of the genre.  From the beginning, I have been on a mission to make this genre as all-encompassing as it can be. Early on, the reason creative nonfiction became such a successful genre was because poets and fiction writers made it into something more than it could or would have been at the time had they continued their work without reaching for something new. Hemingway, Diane Ackerman, George Orwell, James Baldwin—there are only a few of the many poets and fiction writers who pushed the genre to a new level.

Q: The topics of your books are widely variedfrom thinking robots to motorcycle subculture, baseball umpires to organ transplantation, and other disparate alleyways and byways of reportage. Why are you so curious?

I guess I am curious. But, more so, I hunger to enrich my life with as many different experiences as I can fit in, and to live what I call the creative nonfiction life.  I want to interact with all kinds of people and embrace the challenge of fitting in and gaining their trust and, in the process, learn what they think and know.  This is not easy.  In my work, you have to have patience and be empathetic, waiting for something to happen that will lead to stories that will capture the essence of the experience.  When that happens, all the time and energy you have invested pays off because then, at that moment, you have something unique and special to write about.  And I am not talking just about the immersion work I do.  For the past couple of years, I have been working on a memoir, and I have been immersing myself in who I am and why I do the things I do and did.  The answers don’t come quickly.  I need to be as curious about myself as I am with others, pushing and prodding and waiting for answers.

Q: In terms of other forms, such as poetry, do you find that poets do not want to admit some of their poems are actually true?

A: This is a broad generalization, but it seems the poetry is much truer than fiction and closer to nonfiction than short stories or novels. The fiction writer tries to engage and entertain and that’s great, but it seems poets try harder to make their words matter and to capture what is true metaphorically and factually.

Q: Since you have written in many forms, including fiction, what about other writers whose work in each genre informs the other? How do you see that happening or evolving today? Any examples or authors you might suggest reading…

I think it was a bigger deal—20 to 30 years ago—for writers to switch genres. But now that creative nonfiction has been established as a literary and publishing force, writers can remain comfortably focused here for an entire career. It pays better, and in CNF you can exercise your craft in extraordinary ways, using all available literary techniques to pursue real life.  As to the reading of younger writers who cross genres, you gotta go with Michael Chabon and Eula Biss, first and foremost.

Q: What do you think of the early works of Daniel Defoe as a pioneering example? In your book, you describe Defoe’s use of the composite character–though people believed his early novels, like Robinson Crusoe to be partly true… 

A: I know so little about him, but I do know that he was in business, and was a journalist. He was in jail, in a debtors’ prison.  He traveled widely. He pushed the envelope of life and literature in all kinds of different directions.  He lived the creative nonfiction life.

Q: Do you find that some younger writers resist getting their hands dirty? Creative Writing programs are absolutely terrific. They serve a definite purpose, and I believe in them.  But they can limit student experience—keep students in the classroom focusing on craft and minimize the substance and material that make the craft useful.  “Getting their hands dirty,” as you put it, is what life is all about and experiencing and capturing real life is what creative nonfiction is all about. There ought to be a better balance.  I prefer the low-residency model, like Goucher College’s.  Many students are older, and may be into their second or third lives. Creative writing programs can also discourage the opportunity to be a Hemingway or a Kerouac. To find the world and write about the world is part of the Great American Literary Tradition.  The other problem I have is the emphasis on the MFA degree in hiring faculty.  McPhee, Talese, Lillian Ross did not have and did not need an MFA.  I don’t have an MFA degree, and I did alright.

Q: How might resistance to experiencing life first change? If I was the czar of a writing program, which I’m not right now, I would say you can’t be a graduate student in my creative writing program unless you are 30 years of age, or that you can show me you have something to write about that reflects a world view.

Q: What about a required internship in a blue-collar or similar job? Absolutely. The Peace Corps, Teach for America, the military—Starbucks, McDonald’s, being an EMT are all great ideas and ways to see something else in the world and connect with your readers. What the hell!  We become writers because we want to make an impact, to change and inform people. If we don’t have the ammunition and experience to communicate and connect with the reader, we won’t be able to do much good. 

Q: Along those lines, do you find that younger writers are less likely to use details about people, fearful of invading privacy or showing judgment/being offensive by describing someone’s girth, etc.? (An example, my students had such criticisms of “XXXL/The Giant” by Micheal Paterniti). Some people spend a good deal of time focusing on curating and selfie-izing their profiles and public images. In your view, how might this affect an ability to observe and report?

I honestly don’t think writers think a lot about political correctness and, if they do, they shouldn’t—or not until they allow themselves to be as vivid and expansive as possible. No writer should inhibit their spontaneous creative expression by worrying about who might be offended by their words, ideas, and observations.  I think their editors should worry about that—or at least help them worry about that.  But I do think, if you work hard enough, you can intimately describe people and places in evocative ways without being mean and hurtful.

On the other hand, people are very sensitive, and often, whatever you say, if it is in any way unflattering, and even if it isn’t all unflattering, you invariably get some blowback. And what’s so terrible about blowback, especially if your observations are rendered truthfully and with eloquent precision?  And, frankly, in my experience, young people are much more apt to be more honest and direct and spontaneous than older folks.  Universities—where young people learn their trade and shape their futures—fear criticism and litigation. The hesitations are enforced from higher up.  Like I said, writers should open up, go for broke initially, then reassess in later drafts, with the help of their editors.

Q: You write that subjectivity is part of creative nonfiction. Yet there’s also the objective fly-on-the wall approach, such as House, Among Schoolchildren, Old Friends, and other books by Tracy Kidder. Can you talk a little about such approaches?

A: We all know true objectivity is impossible. And subjectivity can be subtle.  I mean, who and what we choose to write about—and not write about—is a subjective choice.  Readers know that what they are reading is mostly what is seen and reported with a writer’s eye.  And I think that in creative nonfiction it is okay, although not necessary, to tell your readers what you think about—how you feel about the subjects you are writing about, including yourself—if it is personal history/memoir.  If we do our work well, we writers know a lot, more so in some respects than the people we are writing about.  When I did my book about organ transplantation, I devoted weeks and months to spending time with, living with, patients and their families. And I knew a lot more about them than their surgeons did.  I would have been cheating my readers if I had not added that dimension, even though my reflections and observations were not necessarily balanced.  Many great writers, of course, like John McPhee, capture things so vividly they don’t have to reflect so much, and that is okay. But the traditional objective journalistic barriers are way down.

Q: Is journalism still a backbone of creative nonfiction, including reportage, interviews, and being on the scene? Yes. Even in memoir.  The best personal stories include scenes, obviously, experiences and moments, lived-through and observed.  They also include conversations—you can call them interviews—with the people about whom you are writing.  And with yourself.  This is not journalism in the traditional sense of the word, but the ways in which you gather information and ideas and put them on the page is not at all that different.

Q: What about outright lies, when people make things up whole cloth. In You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, you mention the many writers who did just that: Jason Blair, James Frey, and others. What is the pathology behind that do you think? There must be something more to it…

 A: I think the driving force—the pathology—is the mania and need to get published. Bringing to the public what it is you have struggled with for years or even decades. I have no sympathy for James Frey, but I can, rationally, understand what he did. Think of the life of a writer. We all live alone with our keyboard and punch this stuff out without a lot of encouragement or acknowledgment.  Then your book is done, and for various reasons, publishers pay little attention.  It is very hurtful.  And I can even understand how his imagination ran away with him, extending, for example, a few hours in jail to many months.  But that is all rough draft stuff.  At some point, it is time to go back, assess what you have written and decide what you can live with and what is honest and true and accurate, and what is not.  Frey didn’t do that, which in the end was a prescription for disaster, and he deserved all of the criticism and ostracism he received.  Equally egregious I think, maybe even more so, was Jonah Lehrer.  What was he thinking, I can’t help but wonder, making stuff up about Bob Dylan?  That’s not alternative facts, for God’s sake—it is fake news.  Frey and Lehrer, and many others we could name, will never be believed or respected again.

Q: I might be going out on a limb discussing this with the Godfather of Creative Nonfiction, but what do you think of the idea of the three-quarter-true story–what we do here at 3QR, ‘prose and poetry greater than 75 percent true?’ Some would call this simply fiction, but we think there’s another aesthetic offered by a mostly true story, the equivalent in film being based-on-a-true-story. Of course, I agree fully with your idea of nonfiction being factual and sourced, but it seemed to me that a “category” issue has led to restrictions on writers, limiting how and what they write. Why not say what it is?

A: I admire what you are trying to do. I think it’s okay to have three-quarters truth or to stretch the truth or even exaggerate or make stuff up that bolsters what you are trying to say if indeed you are honest with the reader. If you are pushing the genre as far as you can, and your own art and your own potential at the same time, there is nothing wrong with going off on something that might not be true because we do that in our heads anyway—as long as we come back at some point and be honest with the reader. Tell them what we did and why.  It is another interesting dimension.

Q: And lastly, in terms of the political and social arenas of writing, can you tell me a bit more about your recent work with the UA School of the Future of Innovation in Society, and policy-oriented work as a distinguished writer-in-residence at the Consortium for Science Policy and Outcomes? Why are policy and science increasingly important?

A: It is important to me personally, because as we talked when we first started [this interview], I think the parameters of creative nonfiction allow writers to go far past the basics of journalism and personal writing to look at this world we are living in via expanded and analytic ways and dimensions. The world is 50 times more complicated than it was 50 years ago or even 25 years ago. There is so much we need to know in order to get along, to survive and shape the future.  In the science policy think tank, where I am writer in residence and in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, where I am a professor, I work with very committed and incredibly smart people who don’t necessarily know how to take ideas and information and share their knowledge in ways the general reader will understand. The challenge for me is to help them do that, and I have gained a great deal of knowledge in the process—and a new world has opened up for me.

I have to say that I was way behind the curve with all of this policy stuff, the concern with reshaping the future in a safe and well-defined way—what my new colleagues were calling “responsible innovation.”  But I learned a lot, gradually, and was excited and invigorated by how I could open new avenues of communication—between the experts and those impacted by their ideas and achievements—through what I had been practicing throughout my life: Writing and teaching true stories.  Creative writing programs traditionally focus on craft: story-writing technique and not so much the message inherent in the story, as I’ve said, the reason for writing.

A better balance between message and technique would make writers more productive and allow their words to make a greater impact in the world.  Because of the Internet and social media, no writer, especially those who write nonfiction, is local anymore.  We never know who will tap into our thoughts and ideas, or when and how we can change their perceptions. Yes, we write about what we know, what is around us, but we should always consider the potential global effect.

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3QR News

In the Daniel Defoe spirit of controversy (the socially conscious writer and scofflaw dwelt in prison and outraged many) here’s a few words from modern day iconoclast  Salman Rushdie, author of thirteen novels: Grimus, Midnight’s Children , Shame, The Satanic Verses, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, The Moor’s Last Sigh, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Fury, Shalimar the Clown, The Enchantress of Florence, Luka and the Fire of LifeTwo Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights and his newest novel, The Golden House, released in September 2017.

Rushdie, decades ago nearly imprisoned in his own home after controversy over The Satanic Verses, recently read from The Golden House to a packed house at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD.

The prolific novelist was introduced by Sir Andrew Motion, longtime Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, as “a man of great courage.”

Rushdie’s voice, soft and mild, met the applause. He leaned toward the podium mic and spoke about his latest novel set in New York, also home to The Age of Innocence and Washington Square. And he talked of realism in his fiction. The Dickensian sense of realism to carry scenic moment across time. “Right down to the shoelaces,” Rushdie said.

Rushdie talked of creating characters “deeply rooted in the real.” And he tipped his pen to Ernest Hemingway, quoted as saying, ‘A great bullfighter works close to the bull. If the bull is over there, it’s easier. If the bull is much closer, it’s more dangerous.’


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UPCOMING FEATURE: As we peruse contest entries, stay tuned for an interview with renowned author, speaker, and professor Lee Gutkind, called “The Godfather of Creative Nonfiction” 20 years ago this year . . . .

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Our submission period is now Open. We are taking Contest entries only, please include “Contest” in the subject line. The theme: Works that pay tribute to author Daniel Defoe. See details in Submissions.

Also, welcome to the Fifth annual issue of The Three Quarter Review: Poetry & Prose > 75 percent True. Look out for cool stuff about exoplanets and blues ballads. Click on Prose and Poetry, and check out the slider underneath the ‘front page’ image: “Lollipop Tableau.” This inaugural themed issue has been a blast. We’ve been considering poetry or prose about science or music or both. (Check out ‘About 3QR’ for a taste of our submission guidelines. We are not yet accepting new work). In the meantime, read through our Prose or Poetry, slider features, and More Articles. Enjoy our visual art. Peruse our Author Bios. Comment early and often! And welcome to the 3QTrue parallel universe.

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Look for No. 4 to hit the lit internetwaves in late June! An eclectic mix of poetry and prose. Mostly true. All the better to tell you stories with, my dear . . .

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P.s. You might see teasing preview flashes of authors or pieces as we pull this all together. Enjoy or psych(!), according to your POV. Either way, coming soon . . . Submission deadline for our current issue: May 1. We look forward to featuring another round of the best of 3QTrue work! Check our submission guidelines for details.

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If you checked us out in early December you might have noticed a GoDaddy takeover.

Our domain is re-established. 3QR Rules Again!  Remember we are now accepting submissions for our fourth issue.

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Welcome to the third issue of 3QR: The Three Quarter Review!  

We hope you enjoy the wonderful work we are publishing in the Fifth Genre of three quarter-true stories–true prose and poetry. Next stop: The 3QR Anthology!

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In other news, another 3QR writer’s book is hitting the market. Tumble Inn, by William Loizeaux, Writer-in-Residence in the Department of English at Boston University (work excerpted in the second issue of 3QR!) is being published in September by Syracuse University Press; click here for info or pre-orders. “Stunningly clear-eyed and lyrical . . . the economy and beauty of his words give this book a kind of illuminating grace.”—Washington Post Book World. Kudos Wild Bill!

Also Just out: 3QR writer Diane Sward Rapaport’s book, Home Sweet Jerome was published in May by Johnson Books (Big Earth Publishing). It’s available on Amazon.  In 1953, this once-fabled copper mining city of 15,000 shrank to 132 adults and 87 children. Jerome, Arizona became a famous ghost town and notorious hippie hideout, known for ” a quirky patchwork of rebels, heroes, scoundrels, and artists.” Among the  preposterous stories recounted by raconteur Rapaport: “the ten-dollar sale of Main Street in the 1950s; the ghost that lived in a gun; the theft of a large amount of money from the Catholic Church; and several 500-plant marijuana gardens growing in the mountains.”

Also out in May, inaugural issue writer Ann Kolakowski’s book of poems, first excerpted here! “Persistence: The Poems of Warren, Maryland,” a beautifully rendered tribute to the erstwhile town of Warren, Md., which was flooded in the 1920s to create the Loch Raven Reservoir. Published by David Robert Brooks and also available on Amazon.

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WATCH FOR OUR NEXT ISSUE IN JUNE! Also, a call for writers for our print edition coming soon!! In other news, recent book publications for our writers TBA.

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January 2014

LAST CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS: NOW ONLINE

 The Three Quarter Review: Poetry  & Prose > 75 Percent True is now accepting submissions for our third annual online issue and upcoming print anthology. Prose up to 4,000 words. Up to three poems. Submissions must be at least 75 percent factual. Short pieces welcome. Deadline APRIL 30, 2014. Check our site for submission details. We are currently accepting submissions at 3qreview@gmail.com.

Also, check us out at the Conversations & Connections Conference in Washington, D.C. this weekend, April 5, near Dupont Circle. Lots of cool writerly stuff.

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May 2013

3QR IS LIVE!!!! Tweet your friends! Post it on Facebook! Like it! Text about it!

Shout it from the rooftops! Spread the Word in whatever mode you like. Our second annual issue is on cyber stands now! Best, JCS.

 A few notes from authors: 

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe would have been perfect for a 3QR table of contents–if 3QR had existed when he wrote it.” — Mary Jo Salter.

“Poetry, for me, is the most honest form of lying. It operates in the realm of three-quarters true.” –Elizabeth Hazen.

“Whenever I write, I think about the great Japanese film Rashomon. Four people recreate different scenarios of the murder of a samurai: the samurai’s wife, a priest, a brigand, and the murdered samurai (talking through a medium). It left me wondering whose truth to believe.” — Diane Sward Rapaport

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3QR‘s second annual issue is going Live soon. Be on the lookout in the next two weeks. And tell your friends. Facebook or otherwise.

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Visit Us At Conversations & Connections Conference , a great event for writers in Washington, D.C. this weekend, April 13th, 2013. Check it out at  http://writersconnectconference.com/wp/.

And look for the next issue of 3QR to go live in May. Right now, a la E.M. Forster, we are three-quarters hidden, like an iceberg.

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Last Call for Submissions

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It’s now 2 a.m. in the world of 3QR, and this is the last call for submissions for our next issue, due out in March. In publishing news, we will be featuring a poem by Mary Jo Salter. Submit and be counted among the vanguard of three-quarter true story telling.

Want to Get Published? Sell Your Book? Go to the Maryland Writers Conference

Community of Writers: Tips and Tricks

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Baltimore, Md.–Prose and poetry writers will meet a literary agent, find an editor, and learn a thousand publishing tips at the Maryland Writers Association’s (MWA) 2012 Writers’ Conference on Oct. 20 at the University of Baltimore’s Thumel Business Center, 11 W. Mt. Royal Ave, Baltimore, MD 21201. The day-long conference offers workshops and discussions on such topics a “Writing for Personal Growth & Publication,” “Sell-Worthy Query Letters,” “What Editors Look for in Freelance Writers,” “From Book to Script to Movie,” “50 Shades of Marketing Your Poetry,” “Children’s Writing Past, Present, and Future,” etc.  Keynote Speaker, Marita Golden will speak on ‘The Changing Tides’and lead an interactive  panel discussion ‘How to write a story your readers will never forget.’  Register at http://www.marylandwritersconference.org/or call 443-293-7745 for more information.

Spreading the MostlyTrue Word

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Come check out The Three Quarter Review and our panel on Mostly True Writing at the Conversations & Connections conference this weekend, Sat. September 22 in Philadelphia. For details click on Convo & Connect. 

Gone All National

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3QR: The Three Quarter Review is now listed on the venerable newpages.com Big List of Literary Magazines. We are linked under NewPages’ T titles online. 
More Publishing News
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* Stephen Dixon’s novel just out!  Story of a Story and Other Stories: A Novel  (linked here and available from amazon.com) published by Fugue State Press. A lost novel originally written at the end of the 1960’s, and too free with its metafictional soul for the publishers of even that era, reads the book descrip. Also released in June: What Is All This?the softcover edition of a three-volume story collection from Fantagraphics Books (distributed by Norton.) The Amazonian sum up: A massive tome from one of America’s greatest living writers.– 5/31/12
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3QR Writer Profile 

* Dario DiBattista, 3QR writer, is featured this month in Urbanite magazine. Check out the profile by Rafael Alvarez at Writing About Iraq. Dario also listed, among his top publication credits, The Washington Post, Washingtonian, and . . .  The Three Quarter Review. Way to go, Dario! –5/8/12

3QR Writer Publishing News

* B.J. Hollars, 3QR writer, is also known for his eccentric quests to track down the many elusive creatures of the world, from Bigfoot to the Loch Ness Monster, and beyond. He notes that, after many arduous expeditions and harrowing adventures, he’s found them!  All of them! And so now he’s really proud to present definitive proof of the existence of…wait for it…the literary monster story! Monsters: A Collection of Literary Sightings is available directly from Butler, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. — 5/1/12
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Overheard at Conversations & Connections Conference

The Three Quarter Review launched beautifully at the April. 21 conference in Washington, D.C. and seems to be soaring high. We’re also out there listening for signs of intelligent life on the frontiers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

So we jotted down this panel quote re: fiction–with its bursts of color and exaggeration–versus nonfiction:

“Fiction is an expressionist painting rather than a photograph.” — Josip Novakovich, author of Shopping for a Better Country, (Dzanc Books, 2012), Stories of War and Lust (Harper Perennial, 2005), April Fool’s Day (HarperCollins, 2004), and several books on the writing of fiction, including The Fiction Writer’s Workshop (2008).

— from J.Cavanaugh Simpson’s literary blog litdeadline.wordpress.com

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3QRollout!!!

Join us for publishing tips and other writing advice at 3QR’s semi-official rollout at the Conversations and Connections conference in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle this Saturday, April 21. Check out the conference website.

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Contact Us & Submissions

Our submission period is now Open. We are taking Contest/Theme entries only. The contest theme: Prose and poetry that pays tribute in some way to the works, style, substance, or interests of Daniel Defoe, who wove his experiences with fact into the art of fiction, and accomplished literature and essays in the three-quarter true vein. Peruse DeFoe’s books, essays, editorials, or articles and find inspiration (see details below). The 3QR Daniel DeFoe Award will advance the 300th anniversary of the publication of Robinson Crusoe in 1719.  

For a high-water mark, read the poem we published by American poet Mary Jo Salter, “Crusoe’s Footprint.”  Salter is co-editor of The Norton Anthology of Poetry and a leading figure in New Formalism, among many other literary accomplishments.

If you sent a submission during our closed reading period, we were, well, not reading then nor will we go back in time. Again, we are accepting contest entries—Poetry and Prose—in this theme only. Please put the word “Contest” in the subject line and note briefly how your work relates in some way to Defoe’s in your cover letter. (See other guidelines below). There’s no fee for contest entries, though we’ll be setting up a donation channel in support of our print edition: 3QR True, which will include our five issues, as well as the contest winners and honorable mentions for the Daniel Defoe Award.  

As bio.com notes: “English novelist, pamphleteer and journalist Daniel Defoe is best known for his novels, Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders. 

Some of his most popular works include The True-Born Englishman, which shed light on racial prejudice in England following attacks on [King William III] for being a foreigner,” and other writings. “Political opponents of Defoe’s repeatedly had him imprisoned for his writing in 1713.”

“Defoe took a new literary path in 1719, around the age of 59, when he published Robinson Crusoe, a fiction novel based on several short essays that he had composed over the years. A handful of novels followed soon after—often with rogues and criminals as lead characters—including Moll Flanders, Colonel Jack, Captain Singleton, Journal of the Plague Year and his last major fiction piece, Roxana (1724).”

In the mid-1720s, Defoe returned to writing editorial pieces, focusing on such subjects as morality, politics and the breakdown of social order in England. Some of his later works include “Everybody’s Business is Nobody’s Business.” (1725)

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In the meantime, read our current issue featuring poetry and prose about Science … or Music … or Both. String Theory, anyone? Our writers serenade with science, or illuminate the cosmos with music. We are also working on our print anthology set for 2017. Stay tuned for details. Overall we look for engaging prose up to 4,000 words. Up to three poems. Submissions must be at least 75 percent factual. To learn more about our philosophy and aesthetic, peruse our writers’ work and check out the essay “3QR: Free to Pass” in About 3QR.

Short pieces welcome. Prose double-spaced. Submit online to 3qreview@gmail.com. Be sure to attach as a Word or similar doc., and include your email address. If you have not heard from us within four months, assume that we are unable to publish your work at this time. We consider simultaneous submissions; please advise promptly if your piece is accepted elsewhere.

We read and consider all submissions thoughtfully. Know that there is nearly always something in your work that we like or that moves us. Your piece or poem simply might not be a fit for 3QR. We will communicate electronically once a piece is accepted. Most of our stories are edited, in collaboration with the writer, for fine-tuning and polish.

The Three Quarter Review publishes annually and holds first, North American rights of work we publish.

Editor, Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson
3QR: The Three Quarter Review
3qreview@gmail.com

Quotable Thought: The plot–instead of finding human beings more or less cut to its requirements, as they are in the drama– finds them enormous, shadowy and intractable, and three-quarters hidden like an iceberg.

— E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

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The Trumpian Test

In this new era, what we mean by “mostly true” does not include how one leads a nation (via “alternative facts”). Here a commentary on what an actual disrespect for truth (versus a literary love for storytelling) could do to a society, and how it will test all of us . . .  

 A Republic if you can keep it.

— Benjamin Franklin, September 18, 1787

This is a test.

No, this is not a test of the emergency broadcast system (though that might occur more frequently now). This is a test of our nation. Of the U.S. Constitution. Checks and balances. Of how we define ourselves as Americans.

Soon after Election 2016, The New Yorker‘s David Remnick called Donald Trump’s win an American Tragedy, a triumph for “nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism.” Remnick need only cite Trump’s campaign speeches. Yet there’s another view: Not tragedy, but trial. Tweet-gauntlets thrown down to test our post-millennial complacency.

A call to action, almost despite one’s politics.

The Trumpian Test.

Recent weeks, for example, have tested the independence of judges, who have substantially ruled against President Trump’s executive orders banning travel from several Muslim-majority countries. Trump’s actions have prodded the press, as The New York Times calls a lie a lie, and The Washington Post adopts a new slogan: Democracy Dies in Darkness.

Trump and his advisors, including unkempt alt-right Rasputin Steve Bannon, have pressed traditional boundaries with orders tainted by right-wing extremism, fossil-fuel financial interests and a thin-skinned autocracy not seen in these United States.

Or have they? Maybe this administration will prove a pop quiz on our grasp of history: President Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre; the vulgar and gauche Lyndon B. Johnson; and Ronald Reagan’s anti-environment EPA director. Or, further back, to the 1829 election of Andrew Jackson, U.S. Senator, war hero, brawler and bad speller. Jackson’s unprecedented use of veto powers prompted comparisons to a dictator. He rallied the common man against elitism. At his inauguration Open House, a mob was lured from the White House when servants “set up washtubs full of juice and whiskey” outside.

Trump and Jackson represent tall men practiced in jaw-thrusting and sporting poofy hair. Trump admires Jackson, recently laying a wreath at his tomb. Populists-in-arms? Maybe not. Outside Trump’s White House, a placard recently noted: “Let Me Dream or I Won’t Let You Sleep.”

Trump is our Nixon. Our Old Hickory. The rattled strongman resemblance could prove telling. In 1838, Jackson’s racial biases relocated thousands of Cherokees—men, women, and children dying on the Trail of Tears.

In fact, 2017 could prove a yardstick year for democracy itself. We’ve been chugging along, after all—sublimely confidant in a style of governance borrowed from Athenian Greek democracia and the Roman Republic, reimagined via the Enlightenment into a system its founders hoped would never foster an American CaligulaIsn’t that what we fear now?

Trump seemed to rise to a challenge with a toned-down address to Congress on March 1. Then, four days later, he Tweeted accusations—with no evidence—that President Barack Obama had bugged his phones, calling his predecessor a “Bad (or sick) guy!”

How do we respond to this roller-coaster presidency? To the impending threat of military quagmires? Maybe we should cram for this exam of who we are, and who we will become:

This is a call for Americans to vote more and complain less. An audition for a new Resistance. A heads-up for writers, playwrights, and film makers to protect free ideas (even when facing Tourette-style Tweets. Sad!).

Writers at this year’s AWP’s D.C. conference held a candlelight vigil at the White House. A theme among literary speakers in Lafayette Square: “A vigil is a period of staying awake when you normally would be asleep.” Literature, nonfiction in particular, is on deck.

In an AWP panel titled “The Personal (Essay) is Political: Nonfiction as an Agent of Social Change” writer Eric Sasson, a frequent contributor to The New Republic, hit the mark. “As obfuscation becomes a primary distraction and truth becomes vital more than ever, nonfiction has to be used as an agent of change,” Sasson said. “It’s so much better to think of this as a call to action, a wake-up call, rather than ‘Oh my god, what do we do… this is so awful?'”

Sasson compared the post-inauguration Women’s March on Washington, which drew 2.6 million worldwide, and other recent demonstrations to the historic civil rights, Women’s suffrage, Gay Rights and LGBT movements. We are also looking to our future: Our climate, Our selves. Take the April 22nd Earth Day March for Science in Washington, D.C. Could the worst in Trump bring out the best in us?

Some voices prove the Absolute Power of satirists. Take Melissa McCarthy’s SNL cross-dressed apoplectic rendition of Sean Spicer scolding the media.

On Capitol Hill, the Trump Age will also prove a litmus test for Republican’s claimed high morals. Many were appalled by candidate Trump’s behavior, yet silent or approving afterward. And Democrats? Will a recent failed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act lead to renewed overconfidence? How vehemently will Dems fight to make a difference?

Government shake-ups are expected, yet this Oval Office CEO’s threatening demeanor will assess the departmental backbones of Justice and State, the CIA, EPA, NOAANational Park Service and the Arts. Just consider the president’s slash-and-burn federal budget proposal.

We’re all on trial now. Will Americans actually tolerate the Other, whomever that might be? Evaluate our own empathy for opioid-destroyed generations in Rust Belt America or Baltimore’s drug-war zoned streets. What is any one of us going to do?

For many, the shock-and-awe of Trump’s election disrupted a complacency adopted when we elected our first African-American president eight years prior. Some touted a post-racial nation then. We thought we had all passed a major test.

In the end, this is also the test of a man.

Of one man’s self-control and sanity. Of his judgment and penchant for petulant Tweet-blasts at 5 a.m. Of his need for sleep. Or the proper medication. Of his commitment to the Rule of Law he claims to admire, even if something rubs him wrong.

Because, if it’s raining, pretending it is not will not make the rain go away.

Nor will Americans, with our own tested measures of thought. And action.

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J. Cavanaugh Simpson, the founding editor of 3QR: The Three Quarter Review, is a university lecturer, essayist, and author. She is currently working on a book about the future of digital culture and counterculture, delving into how we might survive an age that has, among other surprises, sparked an online-celeb and Twitter-addicted prez.

 

 

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ABSOLUTES by Ingrid Jendrzejewski

absolutes

He says the speed of light is an absolute, a universal physical constant: 299,792,458 meters per second, no more, no less, but then I say that’s nothing to how quickly my mind races when he’s away the way he is now, away in the night when I know-damn-well-know that he’s not still at work, that the glow illuminating his face is coming not from a computer screen but from beer-filtered neon and another woman’s cigarette.

Still, I know already what his response will be, possibly because the speed of sound has quickened such that I can hear his voice before he’s even started to speak but more likely because it’s an argument we’ve had before, and I have a good memory for such things.

No, he’ll say, he says, he’s said, no, your mind can’t move faster than the speed of light; your mind’s nothing but a network of electrical impulses, all firing off all-over-the-place, just synapses firecracking, and synapses, well, they’re bound by the laws of physics, just like everything else, just like you and me.  I don’t doubt they’re quick, but they ain’t never gonna go faster than the speed of light.  Just not possible.

Then he’ll quirk a smile, that smile that’s meant to end conversations, change subjects, as if being right about the nature of electromagnetic radiation in the visible spectrum absolves him from talking about other absolutes in the universe, absolutes latent in minds and bodies and hearts.

And I will try to redirect the conversation, deflect us back to what’s obvious, what’s visible, what’s blinding: the missing phone bills, the new cologne, the late nights and the way he’s started to radiate in a way I’ve not seen since the days before the mortgage and the kids.

This is where my momentum is, where I’m leaning, where I cast my shadow.  But he is good at refraction; he will make himself into a mirror and bounce my words back at me: naked, glaring, distorted, opaque.  I will watch my words fall and bend like particles of light being sucked into the black hole of his logic, a black hole that can absorb everything I have to offer–so much, too much more.

He tells me that the speed of light is an absolute, a universal physical constant, and already, already he’s walking away.  If only I could learn how to luminate, to shine so brightly that I could stop him in his tracks, make him turn around, shade his eyes and smile into the brilliance, then I could say to him, yes, an absolute, a universal physical constant is exactly, exactly what I want.