“A short story should always move forward in time!” and “Use strong action verbs” and “Only leave the words that do the most work emotionally” are phrases former students of Alan Cheuse may have heard often. “He pushed for more drama, more emotion, fewer words,” writes Phoebe Editor-in-Chief Amanda Canupp Mendoza. “He wanted us to live up to our full potential not only as writers, but as humans.” In July of 2015, Alan Cheuse passed away and this issue, in collaboration with Alan Cheuse Literary Review, opens with a special section dedicated to the late George Mason University professor.
The section features three pieces inspired by Cheuse as well as a bio written by him originally published in Phoebe in 1988, and they all seem to follow his astute advice. For example, Michael Cowgill’s “Major Key” is emotionally striking and a great example of strong action verbs; take a look at the verbs in the first paragraph alone: squawks, scolding, ruining, lifts, slides, reverberates, lands.
The issue then fills out as normal with fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. The standout for me for fiction was Christian Winn’s “The Landline” which, in short spurts, tells a first-person narrative of a mother whose thirteen-year-old son disappeared nineteen years ago and who still receives phone calls from a boy pretending to be her son. The writing is precise and doesn’t give away more than it needs to while still being incredibly emotionally gripping and telling. “He couldn’t understand a mother’s hope, ultimately,” she says of her husband leaving her, “or that there is often no difference between truthfulness or lies, or that motives are often meaningless, or that living and dying are not absolutes.”
I read and re-read Ellen Noonan’s poem “Certainty” for the way the words slide off the tongue: “There are people who knit tea cozies / those who buy them. Those who / let tea cool in its own sweet tea-time . . . ” and “Glimpses get taught, ropes and nerves / frayed and fraught . . . ” And Katie Willingham’s “Honey Locust” for its creative use of photography and numbered stanzas. My favorite poem is Shareen K. Murayama’s “Exploded as in a Fairy Tale,” which is a must read; you must read slowly and quietly, and let it sink in as you go. It perfectly layers what is going on in the physical world with what is going on within the mind.
But the piece that settled most deeply with me was Gail Griffin’s nonfiction “Gloria,” where Griffin ponders on how, as a five-year-old white girl, she came to own a black baby doll in the ‘50s in Detroit—and why it was later taken away. Structured into sections numbered 1 to 7, Griffin pairs recollections of her childhood trying to learn about race alongside historical facts of how Detroit changed from a predominantly white city when she was born to a when “’Detroit’ became code for ‘black,’ as filtered through white fear and loathing.” Without judgment, Griffin displays an important reflection which can be cast alongside the events in our country today.
This issue was a little bit more “heavy” than I’m used to with Phoebe, but it still definitely needs to be read. It makes you reflect, and think, and reflect, and think some more.