On Genre (Stories Can Be Good Short Writing Too)

It seems our contributors are also astutely aware that poems make for good short writing, since of all the submissions that we’ve now received, only one (1!) is a prose piece. And while we love pointed poems, we’d like to see some prim prose as well.

you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye

-Margaret Atwood

Pointed, political, immediately recognizable.

The Sweetest Little Song

You go your way
I’ll go your way too

-Leonard Cohen

Less well known, but beautiful in both its simplicity and its message.

All haiku
Are good short writing
Aren’t they?

-me right now

The genre of poetry seems inherently ideal for good short writing: haiku, sonnets, epigrams, rondeaus — they all beg to be brief and, considering they’ve been around for centuries, they’d better be good!

It seems our contributors are also astutely aware that poems make for good short writing, since of all the submissions that we’ve now received, only one (1!) is a prose piece. And while we love pointed poems, we’d like to see some prim prose as well. So, in hopes of remedying this generic imbalance, let’s unpack an extremely pithy piece of fiction.

Whenever I’m teaching undergrads a text, no matter what length, I always get them to ask the same three questions. What does it say? What does it mean? And what does it do? And when you combine these questions and move through them cyclically you get what we call close reading.

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The piece I’m going to unpack is the “baby shoes” flash fiction often attributed to Ernest Hemingway. The are several stories behind the story, as is often the case, but the one I’ve heard is that Hemingway and some buddies were at a bar chatting about writing. One thing led to another and they decided to have a contest to see who could write the shortest short story. Hemingway obviously won because he’s Ernest Fricken Hemingway. His story was only six words long and has become a literary legend: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Ugh, gets me every time! Six words and I’m like “nope, I’m tapped out!” So let’s take a look at what’s going on in this piece.

First, what does it say? Well, it says there are some baby shoes for sale and that they’ve never been worn. Phew, one down, two to go! What does it mean? It means the baby doesn’t need the shoes… so the baby probably died. What does it do? It punches you right in the feels. Why? And this is where we wonder. This is where we’re curios. And so, this is when we go back to “what does it mean?” and read a little more closely.

“For sale: baby shoes never worn.” It’s definitely in the last two words that you get the emotion, the weight of the implications, the subtext of the dead infant. But what do the other words mean? What do shoes do rather than clothes? Clothes could be for any baby at any stage while shoes are something you buy in a specific size and in anticipation of a specific action: walking. Were it baby clothes for sale the child might have been stillborn. Shoes suggest that the baby was born, that it was alive, and that it died before being able to walk.

The difference is the implied loss of potential life vs the implied loss of an infant; a life stolen away just before it could start acting on its own. And what about the opening words? The shoes are for sale, the parents or guardians did not give them to a friend or to someone in need, because they themselves are in need. They can’t afford to be charitable, they need the money from the shoes even though the child who was supposed to wear them died quite recently.

So now back to the third question: what does the story do? It hits us where it hurts. Why? Because it draws on what a lot of people would call universal themes, like existential dread and the fear of losing a child. “Think of the children” is a common cliché and rhetorical tactic; you can’t help but think of Helen Lovejoy on The Simpsons: “Won’t somebody please think of the children!”

But what does this do? Asking the question again and again is how you get to the social implications of the text, how you connect media to culture. There are tons of different avenues you can pursue here, and some will be more productive than others, but let’s just talk through one as an example.

American literary critic Lee Edelman unpacks the “think of the children” trope in his chapter “The Future is Kid’s Stuff” from his book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Edelman argues that all politics are heteronormative because, whether you’re conservative or liberal, republican or democrat, all policy is made with the future generation in mind and therefore privileges straight reproductive people.

Following Edelman’s theories, you could argue that the baby shoes story reinforces heteronormative politics by appealing to the public’s emotion through the “think of the children” cliché. Alternatively, you could argue that the story’s casual tone and classified ad format expresses a disregard for the child, both the literal one who died and the figure of the child in the cliché, and that the story is actually about money and the struggles of the lower class caused by the expectation that families will have children. Both readings are viable and largely depend on whether you read the story as impassioning or as detached.

The final question that I always ask is “So what?” After you’ve argued what something says, what it means, what it does, and what that function does, take a step back and think about the implications and consequences of your own readings and interpretations. The baby shoes story either reinforces or challenges heteronormative family structures and “think of the children” rhetoric. So what?

So, you have to decide your position on what the story does (and there are a lot more than these two options or this one topic) and you have to ask why you read it as doing that. Then ask “so what?” again. How does your position on this issue, which stems from your reading of a six word story, affect the way you think about politics, about health care, about the economy, about society’s expectations concerning sexuality and family?

This is what we call close reading. And as we all know, reading occurs after writing, so while you can’t anticipate every reading, you can see what might be done with six simple words. We hope this energizes your good short prose writing and that you send it our way!

On Juvenilia: A Decade of Short Writing

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Sooo deep… and look at that font!

Clearly I had yet to become a fan of Tolkien, but what strikes me is that a decade prior to co-founding a magazine of literary brevity I had already rallied to concision.

Just over a decade ago, a creative, ambitious, and “super deep” adolescent named Jordan Bolay self-published a book of poetry titled Once Upon a Mind. It’s about as abstract, angsty, and melodramatically poetic as the title suggests (complete with randomly capitalized nouns onto which I was trying to impose deeper meaning, a rejection of sensible punctuation, and a proto-hipster refusal to capitalize the pronoun “I”). I’d all but forgotten about the book until recently, when some friends busted out their copy at a house party, showed it to my partner, and had her read from it as they recorded a video, which they promptly sent to me so that I might experience the spectacle despite being in another province at the time.

A few weeks later I came across it again, this time in the archives of my hometown’s newspaper, which had written an article promoting the book’s launch (I won’t bore you with the odd chain of events and happenstance that lead to this rediscovery). It’s through this article that I realized I had just missed the publication’s 10th anniversary and that the date nearly coincided with antilang.’s inaugural issue launch. More to my delight, I read that when asked why I chose poetry as my medium, I had responded: “You write simply with a small amount of really powerful descriptive words. My favourite thing about poetry is you create a lot of imagery without writing 20 pages.”

Clearly I had yet to become a fan of Tolkien, but what strikes me is that a decade prior to co-founding a magazine of literary brevity I had already rallied to concision. Perhaps not to good writing, but to short writing. I was two-thirds of the way there, and while it took me a decade to find good short writing in others, I’m still not sure I’ve made it the last third of the way myself (I have, for instance, yet to publish another book, save in the role as co-editor of antilang.).

I leave you now, in an act of ultimate bravery (or perhaps just incurable folly), with a piece of juvenilia from Once Upon a Mind (I notice now that this short poem is very Kroetschian, another delightful surprise as Kroetsch is one of the subjects of my ongoing dissertation research):

As i wrote

As i wrote
more and more
i came to realize
two things
Firstly
that a lot of my poems
can hardly be
considered poetry
And secondly
that i like them
a lot better that way

No. 1 Lives Online!

Who says no one lives online? antilang. no. 1 lives online!

Our inaugural issue is live, and best of all it’s free! Read it, share it, tell us what you think about, and stay tuned as we get ready to open for general submissions for no. 2.

Thank you to everyone who helped make this publication possible! We hope you enjoy this beautiful magazine that we have all created together.

alpfix

Get-to-Know-the-Editors: Allie

Calgary born and raised, Allie completed two BAs (English, with a creative writing concentration and honours; Law and Society with honours) at the University of Calgary. She left for colder climes to pursue a MFA in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan. Allie writes novel(la)s that explore female experiences in Western society (or futuristic dystopian societies). She favours prose, with excerpts from her manuscripts appearing in filling Station Magazine, Nōd Magazine,  and forthcoming in In Medias Res. However, various sources have accused Allie of being a poet in disguise, and her poetry can be found in The Boston Accent, Hooligan Mag, and FOUND, the second chapbook by Malform Press.

During the last year of her BAs, Allie was the managing editor at Nōd Magazine (the undergraduate-run literary magazine on campus). She works odd jobs such as copy-editing a manuscript about the history of women’s prisons in Canada, researching environmentally inclined artistic endeavours in Vancouver, enforcing Chicago-style citations on legal papers for an upcoming collection, and teaching first-year creative writing.

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Although Allie has no musical talent she often insists on singing while writing (her roommates go to class and are grateful to avoid Allie’s ‘metalicizing’ of country songs). When forced to interact with people, Allie will offer snacks in an attempt to trick unsuspecting persons into playing card games.

Get-to-Know-the-Editors: Jordan

He dabbles in Marxist poetry, conceptual translational poetry, and short fiction.

Jordan Bolay hails from Northern Saskatchewan. He first migrated South (like an hour and a half South) to Saskatoon where he got first a BA and then an MA in English. He then moved to Calgary to pursue his PhD in English. He studies videogames, the ideology of canonization, comics, and (when he actually works on his dissertation) social politics in the archives of Western Canadian writers. While not working on his research (procrastinating), he dabbles in Marxist poetry, conceptual translational poetry, and short fiction. His chapbook how to make an English exam interesting was published by The Blasted Tree Press in 2017 and his long poem “Rest (an erasure of the Regina Manifesto, Cooperative Commonwealth Federation Programme, 1933)” was published in ti-TCR and was an honourable mention for The Capilano Review’s Translate and Transform Contest, also in 2017. (Jordan is working on making future titles more concise.)

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Jordan in full-blown adventure mode near Haines Junction, YT (photo by Allie McFarland)

During his MA he was the poetry editor of The Fieldstone Review at USask, and has been the fiction editor of filling Station (Canada’s experimental literary magazine) since 2016. In his spare time, Jordan enjoys hiking in the mountains surrounding Banff, homebrewing craft beer, and rocking out on his Geddy Lee signature jazz bass.