There is a point in the conversation between poets Adam Clay and Timothy Donnelly in this issue of Grist where they are discussing truthfulness in poetry. Both poets agree that when reading a poem it doesn't really matter to them whether what's happening in the poem comes directly from the poet's life or not, whether it is “true” to life outside the poem. But then Donnelly brings up the issue of what to do when you, as a poet, do want to “engage with realities outside the poem in a sincere way.” How do you communicate this to a reader? As Donnelly so pithily remarks, “it’s not like you can use a special font for sincerity.”
This issue hovers around a common question directed toward not just poets, but all creative writers: where is the element of autobiography in a given piece of writing? Understandably, it can be a frustrating (even infuriating) question for writers to answer. I think many, if not most, writers consider (or at least hope for) a work they create to stand taller than their own experiences, yet still remain inextricably tied to themselves. This relationship between the writer as a person and what comes out on the page, however, can be too murky to explain to someone who has not experienced it.
Grist is the kind of journal that provokes such thought. In addition to the fine selections of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction in this issue, there is plenty to chew on related to the craft of writing. The above referenced conversation between poets is a great example; it moves beyond a typical unidirectional interview into a wider arena where we gain insight into the minds of two different writers by way of a fluid dialogue between them. Another example of Grist’s offerings on craft is Michael Steinberg’s essay on “finding the inner story in personal narratives,” which offers invaluable advice on methods to connect with readers through memoir and personal essays.
On the creative writing side, here are just a few highlights from this 200+ page journal. First, Ryan Shoemaker's short story “The Crossing” addresses the sticky issue of employing illegal immigrants. While the narrator thinks he's merely getting a bargain on office cleaning in tough economic times, the ramifications of his decision to hire illegals extends much farther into his life, forcing him to confront some uncomfortable realities. A little later in the issue, Jason Schossler cleverly uses popular culture in his poems to interface with some of humanity’s larger universal issues. In the poem “Cliffhanger,” upon hearing a rumor about actor Harrison Ford's plans after The Empire Strikes Back, the narrator’s friend scoffs in disbelief, “Who’d give up the Millennium Falcon / for a fedora and a whip?” Who, indeed.
This issue of Grist is perhaps strongest in its keenly selected creative nonfiction. In “99 Problems,” Andrew Kozma deconstructs his actions and feelings regarding sex throughout a series of relationships, complete with footnotes. Ira Sukrungruang writes in “Bloody Feet” that his “feet connected me to place” in his ancestral land of Thailand, where he traveled to live (and walk) for a month as a Buddhist monk. In “Applied Platonism; Or, What Work Isn’t,” T.R. Hummer throws open the gates to an oddly fascinating Army Corps of Engineers facility, a place where he toiled during a crisis of faith over his creative pursuits and ended up mining for the inspiration he needed to return to his original path.
The issue ends on a powerful note with four stunning poems from Syrian-born poet Adonis, translated into English by Khaled Mattawa. These poems are a fitting close to an outstanding issue that drives the reader on a careening literary tour down shady lanes, dirt roads, and the odd one-way street.