Schools Out- Elliot Brady

“School’s Out”

By Elliot Brady

Underneath the awning that stretches

toward pine boughs, you glide through

the zoetrope in your mind as aquamarine

jelly squares beg for cannonballs.

Two mourning doves visit as dawn’s

ambassadors singing the stories of their

province over trucks yawning distant

dragon roars. There was a shooting

in America yesterday at the high school

you are assigned to. We were created

to work in this garden where I keep you,

where summer is kneeling to autumn’s

vapor. I picture our conversations in

spherical time as cicadas sing along

the tree line. The pool is our space

station and we are baptized in our

weightlessness as astronauts that must

return home to questions of property

values. Shame. Clouds hide scarlet

sunlight behind their bellies west over

the high school you will go to if we

stay in this neighborhood. A whole

afternoon slides away in moments. The

sky aches as ash stains its corners, just

as you’ll ache tonight when a deep sleep

falls upon you.

Poetry Feature: An Elegy for Ogbe Osowa by Vincent Nwabueze

Who would have thought that time,

               Can obliterate that tragedy in Nineteen Sixty-Seven?

   Eight and Forty years have fleeted on, and still counting, 

                   Yet memories have refused to die,

       Still etched in our consciousness like a sore wound.

 

That fateful morning as the Sun bestrode defiantly above the tall palm trees in the neighborhood,

                    Her powerful sunrays cuddled the frail ferns of the ageless coconut trees,

           Like a mother will do her suckling babe,

               Merchants of death in military camouflage 

         All armed to the teeth invaded the serene enclave.

 

  O, beguiled to show solidarity to one nation hued in diversity,

                               The young, the old, the feeble; all crept out from crannies,

                 Whereto they had fled to escape the flying shrapnel of death.

                     And adored in their trademark AKWAOCHA, 

           The traditional handcrafted white wrapper the people are noted for,

 

All danced gleefully to entertain their August visitors.

                 Boom: Boom: Boom: Boom:

                        The bullets sounded and rattled, 

          As they jumped out menacingly

               From the smoking muzzle of their article of destruction. 

 OLISA; is this what they deserve in return?

              In place of applause and a thunderous clap,

          For entertaining their August visitors,

                  The invading forces pelted hot bullets from their mortars, howitzers, — 

             On the defenseless poor souls.

 

And when the sound of mortars and heavy artilleries had ceased,

                  Heaps, and heaps of mutilated bodies strewn the killing field,

                           Like some prized trophies for the invading troopers to take home.

        And to remind posterity how merciless merchants of death once visited a peaceful enclave,

 And left behind trails of tears, blood, anguish, and sorrow.

 

 Brother, great was the massacre on that day,

                   That the goddess ONISHE, the custodian of the great river, 

Has refused to be consoled.

          Day and night, her ululation could be heard, 

As she grieved the death of her children.

 

Vincent Nwabueze is a poet and author who studied sociology at the University of Abuja, Nigeria where he started writing. He also holds an LLB degree in law. He has written a collection of short stories and poetry and takes part in writing competitions. One of his short stories was shortlisted at the African Writers Awards in 2020. His poetry has been published by the Society Voice Project and the Voices Project. The manuscript of his debut novel has been completed and his latest books, THE BROKEN DREAMS OF THE INTELLIGENT THIEF and HONEY OUT OF LAMENTATION (a short story) have been released on Amazon.
He can be reached via email at: vincenttnwabueze@gmail.com or on Twitter @VincentNwabuez5
Nwabueze currently resides in Abuja, Nigeria.

Poetry Feature: Picnic by Erin Jamieson

Dunk sliced celery in     muddy water
your lips tasting the
garden where as a child you dug
                                     for earthworms, their mottled bodies 

   rupt  
            ing.   your     hands stained with intestines, food

                                                                       < not yet digested>

 

you ask for ranch dip but in its speckled surface
you see fly antennae, torn ant legs. 
You eat because you can but the sun is blistering your 
lips, breaking these bodies these bodies climbing down
                                your bloodied throat &

 

nothing like new plates stained 
rust, from 
                    peeled oranges  or       apricots
for you form you’re F
                                  O       
                                     R            G                    a story you’ll tell
                                         M      N
                                               I      

your own child, her painted fingernails
dusty with lady bug wings                             

              sipping        lemonade

(powdered, not        fresh).           
                         
                               

Come here. We have      a feast.
carrot sticks & gorged    pill bugs,
             cricket legs in your potato          chips flavored
just for you. I only thought of      you.

 

 

Erin Jamieson (she/her) holds an MFA in creative writing from Miami University of Ohio. Her writing has been published in over 80 literary magazines, and her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is the author of the poetry collection Clothesline (NiftyLit, Feb 2023). Find her on Twitter @erin_simmer

Poetry Feature: Cool by Pino Pograjc

my body needed to cool,
i begged snow to cover
the scorching concrete

he stood before me and i sizzled,
his breath froze
the oleander blossoms,
introduced the sun to the grey
of thunderclouds

our tongues were not compatible,
he spoke of feasts,
of bodies on display,
of preparation for consumption

i spoke of rest

as he was fucking the daylights
out of me
i thought
there must be
a better way

Pino Pograjc, born in 1997, is a Slovene poet. He is currently in his last year of dual-subject MA studies of English and comparative literature at the University of Ljubljana. In 2022, the newly-formed, alternative publishing house Črna skrinjica (“Black Box”) published his literary debut, Trgetanje (a portmanteau of “trganje” and “drgetanje”—“ripping” and “shivering” in Slovene), which received the award for best literary debut at the 38th Slovene Book Fair. Pograjc is also part of the selection jury for the Ljubljana LGBT Film Festival, the oldest film festival of its sort in Europe.

The Many Forms of Grub Street

By Cora McDaniel

 

In early March, I met with Felicity Knox, the assistant university archivist at TU’s Special Collections and University Archives (lovingly referred to as SCUA) to talk with her about the history of Grub Street

For those who aren’t aware, archives (including ours at TU) play a vital role in the academic community. They meticulously collect materials of historical value in order to preserve and protect that which would otherwise be lost to the everyday chaos of life. These materials can range from yearbooks to student newspapers… to old editions of Grub Street. If you go to the SCUA website, you can see, laid out before you, digitized copies of every Towson literary magazine published from 1952-2022. These would eventually culminate in the Grub Street we know and love today. 

As part of my conversation with Ms. Knox, she offered me the opportunity to hold in my hands some early editions of our student literary magazine, each of which had different names. I saw copies of The Publication, Towers, and The Talisman—each of which contained vastly different artwork and literature. Much like Grub Street has today, there was always a poetry and prose section, however the art wouldn’t appear in the magazine until the 1952-53 edition of The Publication

Strangely enough, the most interesting sections to read through were the editor’s notes and the front and back matter of the magazine; this was where the voices the magazine’s staff came through most, and the drama (when there was any) was published in well-hidden niceties and dreadfully formal language. The magazine’s first name change, for instance, occurred because of a conflict between Towson’s student newspaper (The Towerlight, an organization which still exists today) and The Publication

In 1956, The Towerlight (known then as The Tower Light) published an article which stated that the literary magazine should change their name to something, “more stimulating, and yet in keeping with the nature of the magazine.” After some deliberation, the name Towers was eventually decided on—and changed, once again, soon thereafter. Students on campus kept confusing The Towerlight and Towers (another wonderful moment of historical drama), thus compelling the magazine to change their name yet again. It would take more than 30 years for the magazine’s staff to finally settle on the name Grub Street. I found the process of reading through the magazine content beyond interesting. Eventually, I was able to see a story come through in my head. That’s the beauty of archives—you’re able to see a picture of the past that might otherwise not exist if an archivist hadn’t bothered to save it.

As with any materials held within an archive, its content can say a lot about the time period from which it was collected. Art made in the ‘70s would, naturally, reflect much about the cultural and historical happenings of that decade. The same can be said about Grub Street, in all of its wonderful and weird forms. So, if you’re interested in learning more about our phenomenal archives on-campus and Grub Street, read through a few of the older editions of our magazine. It’s fascinating. 

Nonfiction Feature: The Acolytes by Eva Niessner

Close your eyes, and imagine.

You are a 12-year-old girl and real boys do not like you, and you are not sure if you like them. But the ones in movies—the ones in films and TV shows, the ones in fantasy and sci-fi stories, the ones with wings and horns and fangs and elf ears—you like them. You like when they are nice, except you also like when they are mean. They’re hurting, maybe. They need someone to be kind.

Your heart beats faster when you think about being kind in this way, to this kind of person. There is something growing an inch a day inside you like a well-watered sunflower. There is something reaching for the light, and you do not know what it is named.

In real life, you know that boys will laugh at you or ignore you altogether. You have a moon face and a bob that curls up unstylishly. You exist at two ends of the academic spectrum, either raising your hand with feverish desperation to be called on because you know the answer or doodling or reading under the table because you cannot be bothered with long division. You don’t know any of the members of *NSYNC, and you can’t tell any of them apart. None of them can do magic, so you don’t really care. You check out fat books from the library and delight in how hard it is to fit them in your backpack. You are, in short, a hard sell to a boy your own age.

But your girl friends who also like elves and pirates and vampires, they don’t see anything strange about you. They can be just as loud, take up just as much space, when they see you in the hallway. They invite you to the movies and then to sleepovers so you can debrief over the men, men, monstrous men, the stranger the better. 

In real life, they like you for who you are. The stranger the better.

In real life, you start devoting yourself to female friends in a way that other girls do not. 

Do you like the male characters that you have all bonded over, or do you like the bonding with the girls more? Do you like writing longhand in the notebook about how they will fall in love with you all and take you to live in a mansion, or do you like the way they are delighted by your stories? 

Perhaps they are the same plant, a cluster of shared roots, but these feelings sprout separately, and they do not look connected from the surface. 

 

Imagine you are in high school and you can’t decide if you’re gay because you still pine for the men you see in the movies. You play at dating boys. You want them to like you, but when they do, you start to hate them. When they show you attention, you feel smothered. You notice their every flaw with scientific precision. You break up with your first boyfriend at your locker because you don’t even want to look at him anymore, even though he never did anything wrong. When you tell him it’s over, he makes a face that you’ve never seen before.

But you’re boy-crazy, right? Can you still be boy-crazy if you only want boys that can never be attained? You think maybe you’re girl-crazy too, but that is the part you do not say out loud. No one seems directly opposed to it—your parents voted for Obama and spin David Bowie records, and your grandmother speaks fondly of the gay men she worked with at a now-extinct airline. Still, you feel a little dizzy when you think about telling people you’re girl-crazy. It is easier to talk about elf men. It’s a little easier to believe that you will be the queen of his kingdom than that your feelings for someone else might be returned.

You want to believe this isn’t all there is. Boys who tell their sisters they’re fat, boys who share their girlfriends’ nudes. Boys who flirt with you as a joke, the joke being no one ever really would. Boys who follow your friends home until they agree to date them. Boys who do not know their girlfriends’ birthdays or eye colors. This can’t be all there is. Please, God, this can’t be all there is.

 

Imagine, now, you are in your twenties. You are openly bisexual. You are in graduate school. You’re doing what you love, right? You’re doing what you love? 

You’re studying creative writing and you’re going to teach and your dreams are coming true and you are so stressed that you have developed a persistent twitch in your left eye. When you look up reasons that might be happening to you, Google says that it may be caused by caffeine intake and anxiety. You have just received word that a family member checked in to an inpatient mental health facility, and you understand that now is not your turn to break down. Maybe next week. Maybe after this paper.

Really. You are doing what you love. Promise.

By now you have decided that you do not want an ordinary man at all, and your youthful attempts to date them look silly and costume-ish, like when you used to wear your mom’s homecoming dress, pretending to be a bride. You talk to women online. You meet people who don’t really fit into any kind of gendered category. You flirt. For the first time in a long time, you are pursued in a way that feels good by people who are your own people. Imagine a dog who keeps turning back to make sure it is being chased, a dog grinning as it runs. You like being chased. 

But it is the imaginary men who have brought you together. They are the reason you have met. They are the ones you’re escaping with, when the reality you’ve always desired is now making it hard to inhale all the way. You all felt the same way about the same men. 

There is a word for this now. Fandom. You aren’t unusual, now, people like you, the acolytes. All of you together, plotting their every move, making them kiss, making them beg, dressing them up like paper dolls in war uniforms and tuxedos and chain mail. Which man, you ask by creating these works, is most like you? Which one can you make most like you? When you write, who are you inhabiting? Who could love you like they love him?

You do not really doubt that you are a girl, but these men are not solid forms, they can be stepped into, they can be worn. You can give him life, in your stories, and he can give you confidence. You can imagine—you can imagine someone might love you with the piercing desire that this man, whichever one you’re thinking of, has been loved. He is not even real but he is so loved, and you are real but he has been exalted by a thousand keyboard clicks in a way that you can’t even get your head around. If he has died in fiction, he has been mourned in real life. If he has killed or maimed or betrayed, he has been forgiven. This, say the acolytes, pointing to a man who has committed atrocities, is my baby.

It is not strange to you that the other fans you talk to were brought to you by these sorts of men. The people you meet might also like baking and houseplants and true crime, things you enjoy independently of this fantasy world, but you would never have found these friends if these men had not been the chapel in which you all gathered. It is not strange to be connected by how you will hurt these men, in the privacy of your fiction and in the public square that is online fandom. It is not strange to bond over stories where they cry, where they lose one another, where they hate one another, where they cry again. These works are offered up to the crowd like a sacrificial lamb, tied and presented before a blade. 

The spectacle can be overwhelming, but it sends your blood rushing. It reminds you of being a girl and thinking about placing the bandage on the monster’s wound, how it might growl and pant and flinch but not run away. It reminds you of studying art history and seeing saints, dazed and sobbing, ecstatic at the sight of what no one else could see. You could be on the shuttle bus or in a common area on campus, but in another universe, waiting for him to appear, him, him, on your phone, in your head. 

 

You meet someone online. You meet a person who sees you like a medium sees ghosts. They see you like you have never quite been seen. At first, you imagine you need to put all this away, for their sake. You’re loved romantically by a real person now, so what do you need with your silly little monsters and villains? But no mad scientist can truly destroy their own creation, and you have spent years, decades, breathing life into these imaginary men. You cannot kill your darlings, not this late in the game.

And maybe you don’t have to. Your beloved is no stranger to this game. Maybe they like the same sorts of monsters and men. Maybe they have more to show you.

They teach you about space programs and about horror films. They’re a writer too. They wax poetic about Stephen King. And they show you Twin Peaks

Smarter people than you have had smarter things to say about the show for years, and you’re so new to it. The coronavirus has been making headlines for months by the time you get around to a show that was airing before Desert Storm. But you are struck by one thing above all others—the way that the unreal can be made real by force in this show.

If everyone believes in the same thing, isn’t that thing real? Maybe the show is a metaphor for abuse, for family secrets, for the way that girls will cry out for help in a thousand ways and never be heard. Maybe the world is simply cruel, and girls will be used, and the harder they try to name their own terms, the harder they will be trampled. Women in Twin Peaks suffer endlessly. Madonna and whore, sinner and saint, they suffer. 

Maybe that’s the way of the world, the real world.  

But maybe this show is also a warning and an invitation. We can create our own reality—at our own risk. 

You are loved by a person who encourages you. They are excited to hear about how your day went. They let you cry about the trivial and the terrible and hold you tight. This isn’t all there is, you want to tell yourself as a girl. There is more than a life being flirted with as a joke and a death wrapped in plastic. There is love, and it is real. 

 

You were imagining someone, all this time. If you are a certain kind of person. You were imagining a character that you loved in a way that felt like staring at the sun. And you still love them, even if it’s been years, decades, even. You may have a mortgage and a cubicle and a spouse and a Labradoodle and children and a Honda and a membership to a gym you never go to, but you also have him, living inside you like a dormant gene. You may never show symptoms again of your girlhood obsession, but he will be there, caught like popcorn in your teeth. 

Will you let him live inside you peacefully, or will you evict him by force?

Open your eyes.

Open your eyes, and maybe, just for a second, he will be standing in front of you.

 

Eva Niessner is a graduate of the Towson University’s Professional Writing program and specializes in creative nonfiction. Her work has previously appeared in Grub Street, and she has also been published in Baltimore Magazine.  She lives in the Baltimore area with her partner and cats. She enjoys ghost tours and caring for plants. 

 

Review of Lillies on the Deathbed of Étaín and Other Poems

By Chase Hollobaugh

 

Lilies on the Deathbed of Étaín and Other Poems is the latest collection of poetry from Irish poet Oisín Breen. The collection contains two long-form works as well as four shorter poems. 

As someone who has traditionally only read short poems, I felt the long-form works were an adjustment, but their effect was not lessened by their length. My favorite of the two is “The Lovesong of Anna Rua.” The poem begins with the lines:

                     “Ha-ra-hao-  Ha-ra-hao- Rah-Hao- Ha-Rah-Hao-

                      Ha-ra-hao- Ha-ra-hao- Rah-Hao-”

which creates a sense of chanting in the poem. Breen continues this throughout the poem, using different words and phrases as each section develops. This singsong nature takes full effect, backed by added spaces between sounds, when the speaker says: “Anna- Aye-Anna- Aye-Anna- / Aye-.” Some of these chanting lines do get hard to parse, however, as Breen uses hyphens to create long strands of words that run into one another, such as with 

“Mai-ha-ra-ma-way-wahama-whup-tama.” 

While these lines do require the reader to pay more attention to the poems, they serve to break up the ideas within, and allow readers to pause in between Breen’s sections of dense imagery. For example, Breen writes:

“Melancholias, forced fixed euphorias, thrills, spills, and

hackneyed blue-eyed boys and girls who, sunning

themselves, with ice-cream dripping down their noses,

as their faux-saintliness has gravity itself inverted,

conceive of nothing other than being like and unto one

and other”

in section three of the poem. From the first word, a reader’s mind is drawn into thoughts of sadness, only to be thrust back into a sense of joy with the paradoxical “euphorias.” The image of children enjoying ice cream is then thrown into contrast with the accusations of “faux saintliness.” The additional image of inverted gravity adds a surreal quality to these lines, and obfuscates the image of children playing in the sun and enjoying their ice creams. While these layered images can make the poem hard to parse, they do not make it impossible. If nothing else, a reader could get lost within the images, trying to imagine each and every scene, before connecting it back with the rest of the work and the meanings of the poems. While getting lost may affect reader enjoyment, it did not negatively impact me as I read through the poems.

If the long-form poems are intimidating, then the shorter poems will offer a more familiar option to readers of short form poetry. “Six Months Bought with Dirt: the Bothy Crop of Arranmore” may still seem intimidating to readers expecting short line lengths, as its stanzas more closely resemble paragraphs, but will no less offer an engaging reading experience to anyone who takes the time to imagine the pictures Breen is painting throughout each stanza. Lines like “They knelt in the dirt, above the worms, and seedlings / Dampened off, pressing their hands beneath the earth, seeking / A grip” create haunting images of farmers clutching at the ground, pulling it apart to tend their crop. These dense stanzas come together beautifully in the last three lines as well, as the speaker condenses the thoughts and motion of the poem into a succinct and lasting image.

  My favorite short-form work in the collection is “At Swim, Two Pair.” Once again, Breen constructs an eerie image as the speaker describes the declining marine life he is watching swim across the water. The poem repeats the line “Two pair, where once moved a score and six” at the middle and conclusion of the poem. This line, when combined with “mother, sister, and kin” in the first line invokes an image of 26 women swimming, as their number is slowly reduced to four. When combined with the animals mentioned in the last stanza, the image shifts to fish or other marine life that are hunted as they travel along waterways.

While much of the poetry within Lilies on the Deathbed of Étaín can feel heady and overwhelming with imagery to the reader, it rewards careful readings with an equal amount of depth. The collection boasts re-readability as well, as new meanings spring forth from the reader’s focus on different aspects of each poem. All in all, the collection contains a wealth of expansive imagery contained within six poems.

Poetry Feature: Lonely Asteroid’s Ode to a Rover by Chloe Ziegler

Follows: Curiosity Rover Sings Happy Birthday to Itself

 

I’ll kiss you like the autumn
sun to a horizon, just
at seven. 
And I’ll miss you like lost
stars in smog, just  
past heaven. 

Curiosity does best me when
I hear you sing alone oh

My Dear, I won’t be long. Just   
hold your galactic gates till
dawn, and remember how 
I love you.

 

Chloe Ziegler is a senior attending Towson University who has had works published in Towson High School’s Colophon. She has gained several years of editing experience while working on both schools’ literary magazines. This is in pursuit of a lifelong passion for literary journals and writing that began in a second-grade after-school poetry workshop. As shown in her poem, she is an outspoken feminist and activist via her literary works and also on social media.  Chloe is also featured in Volume 72. 

Exploring the Opposite Viewpoint in Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King

By Rileigh Hartman

 

 Lily King’s short story collection, Five Tuesdays in Winter, preserves an ever-constant pull towards love through affliction and desire. The second story of the collection, which the book is named after, details the love a bookseller has for his employee. Described as reticent by his preteen daughter, Mitchell’s longing for Kate is thoughtfully disguised through his silence. However, in the end, there is a twist; she had been falling for him too. Mitchell thought his feelings were unrequited until she caressed his cheek, the fullness in his chest reason enough to lean in. But now, the story begs the question of how it would read if Kate was the focus instead. To answer this (and nudge the irony), I wanted to use her viewpoint to explore the possibilities of who Kate may be and what she may have felt during the story.

~ ~ ~

  Kate followed Lincoln to Portland. She was estranged in their shared apartment; coasters under her water glass, clothes still tucked in boxes— she never planned to stay. But she didn’t like to think of herself as someone who wouldn’t find love, that she was incapable of it. She could charm anyone, but it always led to them misplacing her, forcing her into boxes she didn’t check. Sometimes, she believed that if she tried to fit where people thought she should go, she’d find love there. Or if she went against fitting in, then not finding love was more intentional than contingent. The only time Kate felt sheltered was between book covers.

  When Paula, Mitchell’s daughter, complained about her Spanish teacher one Saturday afternoon, Kate offered to help. If she was honest with herself, speaking Spanish again would only stir up memories of Peru she didn’t want to revisit. Maine was nice anyway: decent views and handsome company. Later on the first Tuesday evening, it took her longer to pick out an outfit. The bookstore was home by then, and she treated it as such in her secondhand jeans. But it felt different to be going into Mitchell’s home— she wanted to look like she wouldn’t fit. Then Mitchell stared at her for a moment longer than usual when he opened the door, and she was suddenly seamless; settled in his gaze as she remembered what it felt like to be wanted somewhere. During her time with Paula, Kate wanted to ask if Mitchell had seen other women since his wife left, but he didn’t seem like the type of person who’d try to find love twice.

  At Westy’s, Kate always searched for the Mitchell-renowned mushroom soup after he mentioned it to her, and the glimmer in his eyes appeared. It had been years since he’d seen it, but she still enjoyed their inside joke: fitting into a space she didn’t know could exist. Kate couldn’t bring herself to smother her smile when she saw Mushroom Soup written on the menu. As she opened the door to the bookstore, she couldn’t tell what she was more excited for: the soup or the look on Mitchell’s face when she offered it to him. Of course, the latter won. When Mitchell brought up Mrs. White and Kate asked what she was like, he went quiet. But Kate didn’t disrupt his silence; she liked it. There was no place to fit in or out of. He said that she was like her. Even without knowing Mrs. White, Kate felt like she and Mitchell could love each other in a way that only they could understand.

  Paula asked her to stay for dinner on the fifth Tuesday— Valentine’s Day. She’d wanted to decline but it sounded better than going to the mall again, the reminder of how alone she was. Upon arrival, Kate handed Mitchell a small chocolate box, noticing how his eyes stayed trained on the gift instead of her. Time never caught up to when Mitchell knocked on the door to tell them dinner was ready and Paula stood abruptly, leaving a red stain on her quilt. Kate ran to the local pharmacy, never feeling more out of place with her lack of a motherly touch. Yet, she’d grown to realize that being around Paula and Mitchell was like reading her favorite book for the first time again. So, she ran back to the house.

  The quilt was tucked in Mitchell’s hands when she left Paula’s room. They walked to the laundry room, and when they faced each other after washing the quilt, the space between them felt smaller. Mitchell asked why the drunk man last week told them they have the same eyes. It wasn’t true— Mitchell had green eyes, she had brown. But she knew what the man saw. He was fearful that she would leave but loved her anyway; she was fearful that he’d misplace her but desired him regardless. Kate remembered the word Paula used for him— reticent— but could only think of herself, which spurred her fingertips to caress his cheek. He pulled her closer, and Kate thought about how she would never leave his side as she leaned in with him.

~ ~ ~

   Five Tuesdays in Winter follows two complex individuals who have quietly chosen each other. The significance and irony of their relationship is how they were both reticent but we, the reader, only received one side of their story; we were only seeing Mitchell’s world sculpt around Kate. In the rewrite above, her character is translated from the specks we’re given of her through Mitchell’s point of view. Kate is subjective, yet we’re given just enough information about her that it becomes clear she shouldn’t be left in the reader’s peripheral. As Mitchell demonstrated, being reticent doesn’t mean untroubled. 

  Lily King’s collection carries the theme of only sharing one side of a love story. While she accomplishes making her reader ponder the romantic probabilities for each story, it leaves little room for discovering the unacknowledged character’s perspective. In Five Tuesdays in Winter, the surprise ending gnaws at the unsettled relationship between Kate and Mitchell, making it feel unfinished. But letting the reader know what Kate was going through and what she could have been thinking about strengthens their bond and puts their relationship on more solid ground, creating a well-rounded love story and breathing life into her love for Mitchell.

Interview With Professor Benjamin Warner

By Holden Schmale

Prof. Benjamin Warner is the author of two speculative fiction novels, Thirst and Fearless. A lecturer at Towson, Ben teaches creative fiction writing and creative nonfiction, among other courses. Recently Warner and fellow writer and former Loyola creative writing professor Ron Tanner decided to take on a new challenge: writing a craft guide. Titled Speculative Fiction: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology, the book is intended for college creative writing classrooms and will be released in summer 2024. I had the privilege of discussing this project with Ben, gaining insight into a process that has been unique even to an experienced author. 

This interview was conducted by Holden Schmale over a series of emails and has been edited for clarity and length.

Holden Schmale: What first led you to want to take on the challenge of making a craft book and stepping away from your niche in fiction writing?

Ben Warner: I know that when I was an undergraduate, I imagined my creative writing instructors went home from teaching their classes in Helen C. White Hall, and then wrote fiction until they fell asleep at 2 a.m. I didn’t understand just how much effort they were putting into preparing for the following class: reading student work, choosing stories to teach, thinking of ways those stories might be discussed, and creating writing exercises. There’s a lot to it, and it’s fun, and now I’ve been doing it myself for close to 20 years. So writing about that process—and hoping that it might offer other instructors and students some insight—feels both natural and rewarding.

HS: How has the writing process been compared to your regular process for fiction? Obviously, you’re reading other pieces and deciding what belongs in the book, but I had the pleasure of reading a preliminary chapter for class, and there is a great deal of writing you must do on top of choosing each piece.

BW: Yes, that’s true. This is less of a textbook than a craft guide, which is its own genre, I guess. Ron and I are putting a lot of effort into explaining concepts, annotating stories, working out exercises that build on themselves, and trying to help students see some of the ways that speculative fiction is built, one element at a time. As you know, there’s a lot that comes up in a creative writing classroom discussion that feels off-the-cuff or improvised—as students and instructor thinking out loud together. In writing this book, those ideas need to be fully and artfully articulated, so that they can be expressed clearly to our audience.

HS: What are you looking for in a piece you are going to include in your craft guide? I won’t use any specific names, in case it ultimately doesn’t end up being included, but the piece you showed me that you were considering was wacky and wonderful.

BW: Wacky and wonderful is a good start. First and foremost, Ron and I are readers, and we want to be moved by what we read. That can mean so many different things. The speculative fiction we’ve chosen to include is inventive, funny, character-driven, odd, unexpected, and comes from a diverse group of contemporary voices.

HS: What, if anything, are you going to take from this experience and apply to your own creative work?

BW: My teaching certainly impacts my creative work, and I think of this book project as an extension of my teaching. When I’m, say, 50 pages into a draft of a novel, I often stop to think: Is there a world here that my audience understands? Have I fully thought through the way that world works? Do I know these characters? Are there places where I’m falling into cliché? These sorts of self-checks come directly from my teaching, and now, hopefully, this book will help make them available to students in other classrooms.

HS: How has your creative writing benefited and/or suffered in the process of working concurrently on this craft guide? Do you find yourself just swamped with the writing load, or do you find yourself inspired from reading so much fiction at (presumably) a higher rate than usual?

BW: That’s a very astute question, Holden, because you’ve identified a problem I didn’t know existed when I started out. For so many writers I know, the hardest part of writing is making the time to write. I teach four courses each semester at TU, and I have a family who I have to make oatmeal and spaghetti for (those are separate meals… I don’t mix the spaghetti with the oatmeal), and so taking on a big project like this means I have less time for whatever narrative I’m working on. But you’re right, too, that reading a lot of contemporary speculative fiction has been inspiring and motivating, and though it might come to nothing, I have started working on a new novel at the same time as I’m working on this book.

HS: How do you find the right balance of borrowed work (short fiction pieces) and your own instruction and analysis within the craft guide? You are in a unique position writing a craft book for creative writing, as opposed to another discipline that may be less example heavy.

BW: We’re dividing the book up into two parts: a craft section in the front that talks about the nuts and bolts of writing a story and an anthology in the back. The examples we use in the craft section are often very short (anywhere from a page to five pages); these stories are small enough to take apart, like engineers cracking open the motor housing of a drill, so that we can ask: How does this thing work? In the anthology, we’re allowing for stories that demonstrate at greater length some of the lessons of character, setting, and conflict that we try to illuminate in the earlier chapters.

HS: What have you taken away from your experience writing about technique? Have you learned anything about yourself or  your own process? Do you see yourself changing anything about your technique after this experience?

BW: I think I’m always changing my technique. Like so many readers who write, I absorb the rhythms of other writers’ language, and those rhythms make their way into my writing. And when I read a story deeply, and break it apart line by line, examining each word choice with a spirit of discovery and admiration (as Ron and I do with the stories we’re using), that syntax and diction gets lodged in my brain. I can’t imagine that it doesn’t change the way I sit down to do my own work. Sometimes I write something that feels a bit too familiar—an expression or bit of dialogue—and I realize that it’s close to a line I know from another story. Those are moments that make me smile, because that bit of language has become an unconscious part of the way I see the world (though I always revise those lines).

HS: Take yourself back to when you hatched the idea to write this textbook. What did you hope to gain personally as a writer? How has reality compared to those expectations?

BW: I really wanted to help students in creative writing classrooms. When I first started writing in college, some syllabi stated explicitly: NO GENRE WRITING. I took that to be the law of the land, that is, what “serious” writers thought about speculative fiction vs. realistic fiction. But that’s not the case. In fact, most of the serious writers I know are great lovers of speculative storytelling. And yet, the fullness of that truth hadn’t made it into the classroom. It seemed like no [one] was willing to commit to the idea that genre writing is suitable for college students to read, write, and talk about. In part, that’s because no textbook about writing speculative fiction existed. So, we set out to write one.

HS: Could you see yourself writing another craft book? How has your experience been compared to the writing of a novel?

BW: I can’t imagine writing another craft book, but then again, I never imagined writing this one. I’m happiest when I’m working on a novel, and I think I’ll always be working on a novel. Even recently, as I was deep into working on this book, I felt a bit antsy that I wasn’t writing a novel (which is probably why I started writing on another novel).

HS: Last question—a broad one. When it is all said and done, what do you hope a reader of your textbook will take away from its content? Where do you expect its best uses to be? The college level? High school? Who do you see benefiting most from its content? A beginner or a more experienced writer?

BW: This is an easy one. We’re writing this book for any writer who wants to feel a bit more confident about writing a speculative story. I’ve met so many students who have told me that they’ve started a novel or a story but got stuck and stopped. Or they didn’t know “where to take it” after 100 pages. We hope that this craft book is a way to help students get un-stuck, or that it will inspire new directions for those who felt inspired enough to begin the imaginative journey in the first place. It’s a weird thing to be moved to make up problems for made up characters. But that’s what writers do. And that weirdness deserves to be helped along!

 

Benjamin Warner is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and Cornell University’s MFA program. A lecturer at Towson University, he teaches courses in composition, environmental writing, and fiction writing. Ben is the adviser to the Towson University Urban Farm and Veg.

Holden Schmale is a junior at Towson University. He has published a short story titled ‘Acquaintances’ in Fairlight Books online portal. He currently serves as Fiction Editor on the Grub Street staff.