A Sweet Birthday

November 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

sweet

SWEET: A Literary Confection is entering its sixth year and the folks at Brevity are plenty pleased to wish a happy, productive birthday to one of our favorite online counterparts. Under the direction of co-founders Ira Sukrungruang, Katherine Riegel, and K.C. Wolfe, SWEET has from the start offered consistent high quality literary energy food. In this guest post, SWEET staffer Christine M. Lasek interviews the magazine’s co-founder Ira Sukrungruang:

SWEET is truly a “labor of love” (i.e., a lot of hard work that you’re not paid for).  How were you inspired to start this magazine, and how has your concept of the publication changed since its 2007 inception?

When did Sweet start? Sweet started in a car in upstate New York, on a county road, in the middle of a blizzard, the snow like a blanket over the windshield. Katie Riegel and I were driving home and I said, “Let’s edit a magazine. Let’s get crazy.” And it was crazy, wasn’t it? To start another literary journal in a world filled with literary journals? But as Ted Kooser said, what’s the harm of another poet in the world? What’s the harm of having more poems and essays in our lives? What’s the harm in littering the world with literature?

Six years later, here we are. And the biggest surprise for Katie and KC Wolfe–the founding editors—and I is how we still retain this excitement of editing a magazine. We love it. We all teach, we all have busy lives, and so editing Sweet is our break from our lives. It’s six years, and we keep growing, keep falling in love with everything we publish. Sweet is our way of giving back to the literary community, the reading and writing life.

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Ira Sukrungruang

Even though SWEET doesn’t publish “themed” issues, it is often the case that the work in each issue has similar thematic threads.  Can you talk about this generally, and speak specifically about issue 6.1, which has the theme of “impressions”? 

There are a lot of ways of defining impressions. The impressions we leave on others. The impressions that we leave on the world. An impression is a way of defining who we are, and how we are viewed. The work in Sweet 6.1, especially the essays, speak to this need of understanding the impressions we make in this life.

From 36A: “…I couldn’t be a cheerleader. I had no bust. I was a Jew.”

From Dream Child: “I was alone in this dark apartment. My daughter, my Little Lamb, was nothing; less than nothing, and dreams.”

From Freight: “Over time more stories will entwine themselves in these vines and flowers…I still need to be the keeper of memory, need to throw light on the freight of yesterday.”

From The Beginning and the End: “She sucks a breath into liquid lungs, and her body falls into itself again.”

From Buddhism 101: “But I believed if I could just let go of my insistence on the solidness of myself, if I could just see things as fluid and interconnected, if I could tap into the eternal clarity of this, in the gleaming northern star above the Bodhi tree, in the stillness of my inhalations and exhalations, I could know bliss. I could never know pain. ”

If anything, impression made.

Do you have a favorite among the 16 issues you have published?

I keep saying this–and this by no means is me avoiding the question–but I keep saying that the newest issue is the best issue we’ve published. I’m swept away by the poems and essays; all of them we’ve had the honor to publish over the years have engrained themselves into my body, my being, a metaphorical tattoo. That, to me, is the point of good literature. That it awakens us. That it breaks us in all the right places. That it elevates our understanding of our place in the world. I live with Geoff Schmidt’s essay “Otis and Jake” in my bones. Ruth Awad’s piece, “In the Skin,” is in my skin. I’m winged away by the swifts in Amy Monticello’s “Chimney Swifts.” I am made aware of my body, as Wendy Rawlings is in her essay “36A.”

Tell me about SWEET’s publishing arm, SWEET Publications, including any projects that are on the horizon. 

Why stop at a magazine? I’m a dreamer. My other editors have to sometimes reel me back in. But this was something we all wanted to do. We wanted to publish books. Books by authors who did not have books. Books by contributors of the magazine. Books that were beautiful to touch, to hold. We wanted readers to not only take pleasure in the word, but in the product. The book was going to be art in and of itself. Sweet is blessed with staff members who are also artists like RC Stephens, Gloria Muñoz, and the head of Sweet Publications, Jim Miller. We wanted to create limited edition handmade books, and have those books available in e-format or PDFs. The designers of the books read and work closely with the authors. We have three books so far. Amy Monticello’s Close Quarters, Megan Gannon’s The Witch’s Index, and Donna Steiner’s Elements. We are working on a compilation of poetry published in Sweet in the last five years. Have I mentioned we love what we do?

What advice do you have for aspiring poets and essayists that hope to be counted among SWEET’s authors?  What about for writers who hope to start their own literary magazine some day?

To writers: Send. Send again. Send better. Believe.

To future editors: Do it because you love it. Do it because you want to bring the world a gift of words.

——-

Ira Sukrungruang is an Associate Professor of Creative Nonfiction at the University of South Florida.  He is a Chicago born Thai-American whose cultural identity often features prominently in his work.  His memoir, Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, was published in 2010, and his book of poetry, In Thailand it is Night, was winner of the first Anita Claire Scharf Award.

Christine M. Lasek teaches creative and technical writing at the University of South Florida.  She also serves as the Public Relations Officer for SWEET: A Literary Confection.  Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Pearl Literary Magazine, Tampa Review Online, the Coal City Review, and elsewhere.

 

AWP 2012 — The Hipster Genre and The Inside Joke

March 9, 2012 § 18 Comments

By Paul Haney

Chicago 2012 was my first AWP, and as such, by week’s end, I was pooped. All those panels, all them booths, all that cold Chicago out there to mess around in. But as one who check-boxed all the nonfiction-themed panels on the schedule, I had one more to attend in the last slot on Saturday evening: “Lyric Essay: A Collapse of Forms, or a Form of Collapse.” It turned out to be the most contentious panel of the week.

My girlfriend, though professedly not a writer (I would argue, Who isn’t?), came with me to the panel as it fit in our schedule between seeing the jellyfish at the Shedd aquarium and meeting friends for dinner over a Chicago deep dish pizza. As the discussion got underway, she slouched down and stared at the laces on her boots. I sat up and got out my notebook.

Wendy Rawlings posed the issue for the panel, a certain “pedagogical vacuum” she had found between narrative nonfiction and the lyric essay in which she struggled to articulate and define for her students the rules and allowances for truth, fact, and art within that spectrum.

Jocelyn Bartkevicius addressed the matter first, speaking at length about Virginia Woolf’s wandering, narrative “I,” and the slipperiness caused by allowing writers to stretch the truth, play with details, and force the reader to discern fact from fantasy. Memory is the essential self, Bartkevicius seemed to say, and the essay should mirror actual memory, like Woolf’s essays, and not fabricate details. It’s the image of the mind we’re after, not perfect prose and narrative arc.

After Bartkevicius’ scholarly approach, Steven Church drew a humorous analogy between the lyric essay, a genre that has come to be defined as a compromise between poetry and prose, both lyric and narrative, and the contemporary stereotype of the hipster. The lyric essay’s cooler than everyone, above reproach because it knows more than everybody else, like an inside joke. According to Church, at its worst, the lyric essay “dances in sequined pants” without having anything to say. At its best, it preferences subjective perception over collective, and respects the “writer-reader relationship that makes nonfiction special.”

I thought Church was forceful and funny. My girlfriend studied her fingernails.

Next Colin Rafferty spoke from personal experience as the first faculty ever hired as an essayist at the University of Mary Washington. Rafferty said that nonfiction is becoming more prevalent in creative writing departments across the country, and with the essay grabbing a place in the university, nonfictionists are having to grapple over a definition of who they are and what exactly their genre does. This is a good and necessary thing, he said. He also asserted that once an essay privileges fact and truth, it can get as lyrical as the author would like.

There seemed to be an implicit reference in Rafferty’s concluding remarks to the recent hubbub over John D’Agata’s blatant dismissal of absolute fact. Earlier, Bartkevicius had ostensibly thrown D’Agata with James Frey in the bucket of writers who fib and betray.

The final speaker, Ned Stuckey-French, directed his comments straight at D’Agata in a “Dear John letter.” “It’s over, John,” he repeated, deadpan, and used the form and tone to admonish D’Agata’s fact-stretching, adherence to the label “creative nonfiction” (“‘creative’ as opposed to what,” Stuckey-French asked, “‘destructive’”?), and deracination of essays from their original context in anthologies without acknowledging the interpretative effects of such an act. The audience chuckled throughout. My girlfriend crossed her arms.

And then it happened. In the Q&A, the first questioner spoke with such vehemence and conviction in defense of John D’Agata that the room broke into a free-for-all, the panelists scrambled to shield themselves from AWP field guides-turned-projectiles, and audience members dove into the fracas in the name of nonfiction.

Okay, so it wasn’t that intense.

But the questioner did say that to put D’Agata in the same sentence with James Frey was inane and ingenuous because the book itself, About a Mountain, points out every instance of fudging with the facts in a special notes section in the back. She accused the panel at hand, as well as all the other panels that weekend who took up the D’Agata controversy, of character assassination, of making the issue personal, of seeking to ruin a man’s reputation because of some set of arbitrary, nebulous, incipient, prescriptive rules of composition. When she finished making her objection, the questioner received a few smatters of applause from around the room.

It was a question that ended with a period.

And was followed by an awkward silence. The panel leaned forward on their elbows.

“Is there a question?” Rawlings said.

Rafferty was the first to respond and attempted an informative, cogent answer that would also pacify tempers. When he was done, others audience members from the D’Agata camp demanded more answers.

“Look,” Stuckey-French said, pulling the microphone close. “I’m not really breaking up with John D’Agata.” It seemed to me that the rhetorical moves made in the panel’s presentations—Bartkevicius’ bucket of betrayal; Stuckey-French’s breakup letter—hit a sore spot that had reached its pain threshold. But I wondered, wasn’t the panel somewhat playing devil’s advocate? Weren’t they using D’Agata not as a punching bag, but as a learning moment, a launching pad for an important discussion in a nascent genre?

As we left, I looked to my girlfriend for answers. “What’d you think?”

“It was like a giant inside joke I wasn’t let in on.”

“What about the disagreement at the end?”

“I don’t know why people care so much.”

Maybe that’s the question we should be asking.

Paul Haney is soon to receive his Master’s in Literature from Florida State University. His has a nonfiction piece forthcoming in Redividerand shudders to think of the angry horde of fact checkers waiting to dismantle it. He is originally from Orlando

Help Tuscaloosa: Brief Essays from Michael Martone and Wendy Rawlings

May 4, 2011 § 5 Comments

One week ago, a massive tornado tore through Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of a vibrant writing community associated with the U of A’s esteemed MFA program.  Brevity has been gifted with stellar essays from Tuscaloosa students and alums over the years, and our next issue will feature essays from Michael Martone and Wendy Rawlings.

Martone’s essay was written just days after the deadly tornado touched down, killing at least 40 individuals and leaving many, town and gown alike, homeless; Rawlings’ poignant look at her Tuscaloosa neighborhood was written before the storm, and sat in our submissions queue on the evening the tornado turned the city’s neighborhoods inside out.

We’ve decided to extend the reach of our Tuscaloosa benefit by releasing these two essays one week early: MARTONE ESSAY and RAWLINGS ESSAYPlease spread the word via Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, or whatever method you choose.  These beautiful essays deserve as wide a readership as possible, and we hope that after reading them, you will make a donation to Give Tuscaloosa tornado relief or to the West Alabama Food Bank.

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