Archived entries for

Pushcart Nominees for 2015

PushcartCongrats to this year’s fb Pushcart nominees!

For poetry:

For fiction:

Q & A with failbetter Poet Nancy Reddy

reddy_nOur own Angela Apte sat down recently with fb poet alum, Nancy Reddy,  to talk about a few things, including her recently published first collection of poems, Double Jinx (Milkweed Editions).

1) One of the most striking things about your poems is how the speakers often inhabit a world of want. There is a hunger in the poems – often a literal hunger  - but also a need on the part of the speaker for something. With that said, there is nothing feeble or weak about the female figures in your poems.

I think you’re really right that these are women shaped by hunger – and for me, that hunger or want is also really wrapped up in the desire to speak, coupled with the difficulty of speech. I think poetry has long been, for me, a way of testing out the limits of speech. I grew up in a family that was very concerned – especially for its women – about being appropriate and polite, which often times meant not saying anything too directly or saying anything that might upset anyone. As a result, I think a lot of these speakers push against that silencing.

A slight aside: I read “Come Fetch” at a reading in Madison that a bunch of our friends came to – people who aren’t themselves poets. And after I read that first line – “I was the worst of all possible wives” – I saw a bunch of slightly nervous glances at me, then at my husband, who was also in the audience, as if I might be about to confess some grievous misdeed. (I wasn’t.) So later I made a joke about it – my husband is definitely not some kind of Bluebeard burying previous wives in the basement. But I think that freedom to create speakers who are very definitely not-me has been really important as well. These women are often saying things I want to say – but their particular stories are not actually mine.

2) Your poems evoke a palpable and harsh rural landscape. How much were you influenced by your dissertation research into the Wisconsin Rural Writer’s Association? If that research has little to do with the collection, could you speak of the influences informed the collection?

These poems are really shaped by the landscape of the upper Midwest, particularly its harsh winters. I moved to Wisconsin from Texas, and though I’d grown up in Pennsylvania, with snow and winter weather, I found that the Wisconsin winter is an entirely different thing – it totally transforms the landscape. The lakes freeze over and the snow stays on the ground for months. I learned that the sunniest days are also the coldest, because it’s literally too cold for clouds to form. There’s an austere beauty in Wisconsin winters. (It’s perhaps easier to say that, now that I’ve graduated and moved to southern New Jersey, where I live literally two blocks from the beach.)

My dissertation, which is in Composition and Rhetoric, examines the work of the Wisconsin Rural Writers’ Association, an organization founded at the University of Wisconsin in 1948 to encourage creative writing in rural communities around the state. I didn’t really get started on that research until Double Jinx had already started to take shape, so I don’t think there are a lot of direct connections between that research and these specific poems. But my dissertation has helped me to think about writing broadly – why people do it, what it means to them, how they persist when other commitments intrude – and that’s an especially interesting question for the writers I study, many of whom were farm wives – people who’d been set up to believe that their most important identifier was always going to be wife and mother, who were surrounded by implicit messaging that people like them couldn’t really be writers. And in my research, I read about what having a writing group meant to them; one woman says that it has “given me an emotional outlet to supplement the monotonous routine of housework and has thus made me a more interesting and certainly more contented person.” I find that tremendously moving.

My next project is more directly influenced by these women and particularly the post-war cultural climate – tensions between domesticity and industry, modernization and nostalgia.

3) What’s the story of your book?

My book took a while to really take shape. It started in my MFA, but a good half of the poems were written after I’d graduated. Several of the other members of my MFA cohort came in with these specific visions of the book they wanted to write (and they’ve turned out really beautifully – Brittany Cavallaro’s Girl-King and Josh Kalscheur’s Tidal are two) and that really amazed me. I just knew I wanted to write poems, and I was thrilled to have the time and community to do it. It took a while for me to kind of find my footing in terms of the scope of the book. Quan Barry had us write two poems a week in our first semester of the MFA, and that was helpful in setting a sort of poetic metabolism – just writing a lot and seeing what happened. And Jesse Lee Kercheval gave great advice on the first day of her workshop, in the second semester: she said she wanted us to “write more and be less careful.” And since I can be really overly precise and obsessive about revision, that was really important in giving me freedom to keep playing and not take my work too seriously. I wrote the Miss Z poems (these two - All Good Girls Deserve and Birds Keep Nothing in Their Bones — were originally published in The Journal) that first winter in Wisconsin, and then I wrote the first Nancy Drew poem (The Case of the Double Jinx) that spring. Those poems helped me to figure out what interested me, and what questions to follow in writing the rest of the book.

I finished my MFA with a thesis titled Her Body’s Versions – which got at a lot of the central ideas of the book, versions of the self, the invention and reinvention of the female body – but it took another couple years of writing new poems and mercilessly tossing old ones to arrive at the book’s more or less final form. And I should thank my dear friend Rebecca Hazelton for some really crucial and no-nonsense advice – she told me to chuck a couple poems I’m been hanging on to, even though they probably weren’t as strong as they needed to be, and she also suggested some reordering. Ex Machina came to the front of the book at her suggestion, and she also suggested the title Double Jinx.

4) So many people (including me) struggle to fit their creative work into their family and work lives. How did work on the book fit in with work on your Ph.D? Were you still writing and editing the collection when your first son was born? If so, was he a good sleeper?

I haven’t counted, but I’d guess about half of the poems made it from my MFA thesis into the book. I believe the book was more or less done by the time my older son, Penn, was born – a very small number of the poems, I think, are from a poem a day challenge I did when he was tiny. He was decidedly not a good nighttime sleeper for the first six months or so – but he would take incredibly long naps, and I would drag myself into my office and try to write. I was so hungry for that time, because motherhood was such a big change, and writing was so hard, but it also made me feel connected to that other, non-mother version of my self. And so, in a way, the book feels like the last artifact of the person I was before I became a mother.

In terms of sustaining my poetry writing while completing the PhD, I think two things have been really crucial. The first is being part of a writing group. As I’ve developed a scholarly identity, it’s been really important to also have a place where I’m seen as a poet and where I know I’m going to be asked what poems I’m writing. It’s affirming, and it also helps keep me accountable to my writing. The second is that I’ve periodically done poem a day challenges via email. Every person on the email chain writes one poem each day and sends it out – and you’re not allowed to comment on anyone else’s work, and you’re actually discouraged from even really reading what other people send. So you have the accountability of sending new drafts  out without the anxiety of “ack, is this crazy thing I wrote this morning actually ready for anyone to read yet?” And that’s been incredibly freeing for me. (I actually think 2 or 3 of the 4 poems Fail Better published were written that way.) And because it’s for a limited period of time – 10 days or sometimes a month – I was able to fit that kind of writing in with the other work of graduate school. It’s helped also that my scholarly work is on writers, so I’m always thinking about how people write and why, and that’s helped me feel connected to my own writing self in a way that other research might not. Though of course there’s a certain irony in writing a dissertation about how ordinary people maintain a writing practice – when, to be honest, that dissertation writing at times crowded out my poem writing.

Game of Thrones…and Our Decline in Reading

Jon Snow Is Dead

Last week, season 5 of HBO’s acclaimed adaptation of George Martin’s Game of Thrones fantasy series came to its usual main-character-killing-end.    Say it ain’t so, Sir Jon Snow!  Predictably, this set of a week-long (and continuing) news reports and pundit pontifications on the shocking revelation (with spoiler alerts) that yet another beloved character from the popular series was killed off.  Terms like “shocking,” “devastating,” “unpredictable,” and other “did that just really happen?” complaints filled the blogosphere and pseudo news outlets.  Yet, the one takeaway from it all is the harsh reminder that fewer and fewer folks read anymore.  Let’s face it, the character of Jon Snow dies in the books (albeit an event that is debated).

And yes, while Martin’s A Dance with Dragons (in which Snow meets his fate) sold in the hundreds of thousands, such figures pale in comparison with the average gross audience of the TV series of nearly 20 million per episode.  True, the TV series has deviated at times from some of the plot twists of the books, but in general, much like Jon Snow’s proud papa or stepmom, the fate of these characters is already written down in black and white…in a little thing we like to call…a book.

Now some of the millions of viewers, myself included, likely came upon the TV series and then went out and read the series (others I bet have been doing the same with the Walking Dead comic book series) but the simple abundance of media stories detailing the shocking unforeseen fallout of Snow’s demise can’t help but make me realize how reading is continually losing out to other forms of media/storytelling.

Going back a decade or so, did you find yourself surrounded by colleagues who were confessing their astonishment that “I can’t believe the killed off Voldemort?”  You simply didn’t hear someone ask out loud or in print, “Who would have thought Gollum would die in the end?“  Seriously, anecdotal or not, the best of my recollection is that most folks read the likes of the Harry Potter series or Lord of the Rings before taking the story in visually.  At the very least, few internet media outlets were reacting with such shock when such characters met their demise on screen.

And we’re not talking about a film/TV adaption of exactly a difficult or obscure literary read.  So our advice to those eagerly awaiting the next season, or another film adaption of a work based on a book, let us let you in on a little secret: if you want to get a jump start on everyone and be in-the-know before all your friends, read the book.

Show Our Failbetter Fictioneers Some Love

2014 storySouth Million Writers AwardThe storySouth Million Writers Award is now open for reader and editor nominations! So failbetter fans, give our writers a little love by nominating their deserving stories at:

Nominations will be accepted through 15 August 2014.

Donald Antrim – MacArthur Fellow 2013

Congrats to a writer we’ve always loved, and are honored to have as an fb alum — Mr. Donald Antrim — winner of a 2013 MacArthur Foundation genius grant, a coveted accolade that earns them $625,000 and a spot in cultural history…and I lifetime worth of pancakes.

Love By Drowning – Q&A with C.E. Poverman

Front Coverfb alum Buzz Poverman’s latest novel, Love By Drowning, was just published….the seeds of which we help sew here at failbetter.  We had the great pleasure of publishing several excerpts of the book in its most earliest stages — and are happy to see the project come to fruition.  We’re grateful to Buzz for letting us show his work, and even more happy that he recently took a moment to answer a few questions for us.



I wrote Love by Drowning day and night for five years.  It was like a blast furnace.  Whatever I fed it, it took it and melted it down.  I went on like this, and I was just exhausted and consumed.  When I finished, the book was 680 pages.  Over the next few years, different people read it and made suggestions and each time I dug back into the manuscript.  This is just a few sentences, what I’m explaining, but each time I returned to the world of the book, often for weeks or months, it was a kind of crisis of confidence; can I cut this?  Am I doing the best thing here?  Eventually, the book came to be the length it is now—440 pages in manuscript, the novel as it is being published.  Looking back, I feel good, almost lucky, about the path its editing and revision have taken.


Four parts of the novel were published by , and this would come to have a major impact on the book and its ultimate form.  Caitlin Johnson, Andrew Day and Thom Didato read the opening, MARLIN, and pointed out where the piece took off for them and how it could reach this place faster.  With very little back and forth, I made the adjustments and everyone was happy.

Several years later I sent Thom Didato the next section, which was simply entitled, VAL.  It was much longer—maybe 35 pages.  Thom asked that it be broken into three sections, each to be given a title so that he could publish them in succession.  I looked at how and where he had made his breaks and thought they made real sense.  I went back into each section to see if titles would emerge, and in doing so I found that each time three or four good possibilities would surface, and when I came back to them a day or two later, I knew which one was right.  I realized that this process gave me another opportunity to rethink and clarify the narrative.  This is a variation on what you do when you write anything—a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, a story.  You find out where it’s going, and then, once you know, you write and rewrite toward that place, refining it until you hit the exact note you hear.  Going back to break the narrative into sections and put in titles allowed me to reenter that process one more time in a comprehensive way in what was a long novel.  It allowed me to find a method for re-inventing, reinvigorating and renewing the reader’s focus.  And so, when I came to do the final editing, I applied this process to the rest of the book.  I looked for places where I could make breaks and title those sections, and this forced me to think harder about the book as a whole and what it was about and how it took its steps in getting there.  I never would have done this if Thom hadn’t made that initial request.  It became instrumental to the final form of the novel.


While acknowledging the changing world we’re living in, I would like to see the role of editors restored to the extent that they help a writer realize his/her work.  Let me illustrate by speaking directly from my own experience.  I’ve mentioned the effect of failbetter’s editors on the parts of Love by Drowning which they edited.  In addition, there were others.  Dan Green, who had formerly been an editor at Simon and Schuster, and who for some time was my agent on the novel, was very helpful in making broad editorial suggestions; he helped me shape and cut the manuscript down.  In addition, I’m grateful to the work of Kit Duane, the editor who accepted the novel at El León and then spent months line editing the entire manuscript with me.  She was patient and astute and helped bring the book into its final fine focus; in my acknowledgements, I thank her for being an angel on my shoulder, which is exactly how I came to feel her presence.  I would like to see the restoration of editors to that role: angel on the shoulder.  It will make writers and books better.

Happy Ho Days!

fbtatooWe’re taking a few well-deserved weeks off at the end of the year, but already have a bunch ‘O new works set to be published in the New Year.   In the meantime, if you are still looking for possible gift ideas, might we suggest this…

You Likes Us…You Really Like Us!

NewPagesLogoOrangeBlackWell gee golly gosh….We just got a nice little review on New Pages.  More importantly, they seem to like  what Ann Tashi Slater, Noha Al-Badry and Kara Candito have to say in our latest issue.  Of course,  we’re always happy to provide our readers with some damn good reads and have a bunch more in store.  But for now, we’ll bask in the limelight and say this.

We’re Back!

were-backGet ready folks!  Fall is here and guess who is back?  That’s right failbetter fans, we’re back baby!  Our fall 2012 issue is unfolding as we speak.  Sure, some folks might not be so excited about the news.  And others still may mock the point of it all.  But we’re thrilled (just like this guy) and we hope you are too.  Sure, we could make this personal, but really, this is all we’ve got to say.  After all, if you are reading this , it is kinda self-evident. So….We’ll let the new issue speak for itself.  Go check out Girl X.  And feel free to listen to our snazzy non-official theme song for the issue as well.

We’re Taking The Month Off — August

hand drawn cartoon characters - swimsuits and tanning 2392097Folks -

We here at failbetter need a break from the heat…and the computer.  Thus, we’re taking the month of August off.  Rest assured we’ll be back in September with new works and exciting things for your viewing pleasure.  Until then, power tan.

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