Concerning Craft: Five Ways of Considering Craft

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Steven Coughlin

Steven Coughlin. Photo by Brian Kellett.

Please meet poet and essayist, Steven Coughlin, whose flash fiction “The Next 32 Years” will appear in our upcoming Summer 2015 Issue. Steven is an Assistant Professor of English at Chadron State College in Nebraska. His book of poetry, Another City, finalist for the FutureCycle Poetry Book Prize, will be published this summer by FutureCycle Press. And now, Steven Coughlin:

  1. “Don’t ever waste your life in a factory.”—John Coughlin

Boston Gear still exists. In the early 1990s the company relocated from Massachusetts to North Carolina. Employees were given the option of uprooting their families or unemployment. My father chose unemployment.

Boston Gear

Boston Gear

He had worked at Boston Gear since dropping out of high school a month before graduation. During his 32 years of employment my father got married, bought a house, and started a family. He also became an alcoholic, battled depression, lost his oldest son to an unsolved murder, and watched as his marriage became months of silence.

It would not be logical to blame Boston Gear for my father’s struggles. Where else would a man without a high school diploma be able to support a family? But I remember those sixty hour workweeks—all that overtime to pay bills already months late.

When I was ten my father took me for a tour of his factory. I remember looking up at several stories of red-brown brick. We climbed eight flights of stairs before my father finally led me to his machine. He pulled a lever. We watched the machine warm up. We watched it spit out a 1/4 inch gear—then another and another. And we just kept watching, not sure what else to do.

  1. “The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language. It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form.”—Deborah Tall and John D’Agata

I was taking a graduate seminar at the University of Idaho. I had never heard of John D’Agata but we read an anthology he edited, The Next American Essay, a collection of lyric essays. The teacher was Kim Barnes. She also assigned Abigail Thomas’ memoir Safekeeping. The book is constructed as a series of vignettes, each chapter no longer than a couple hundred words. Instead of following a linear sequence, Thomas organizes her memoir like memory: chapters arranged by association, not chronology. Emphasizing memory as the primary recorder of truth is a concept that stuck. So did our class discussion on Thomas’ use of parataxis: writing in short, clear sentences.

In truth, everything about that class stuck.

  1. “Masters’ conceptual framework for [Spoon River Anthology] was as startling to American readers of the time as was his form—a blunt free verse considered graceless by many of his critics.”—May Swenson

I have been reading Spoon River Anthology for fifteen years. It’s a collection of poems I keep returning to. First, there’s Edgar Lee Masters’ unsparing realism. Here’s an excerpt from “Minerva Jones”:

I am Minerva, the village poetess,
Hooted at, jeered at by the Yahoos of the street
For my heavy body, cock-eye, and rolling walk,
And all the more when “Butch” Weldy
Captured me after a brutal hunt.
He left me to my fate with Doctor Meyers;
And I sank into death, growing numb from the feet up,
Like one stepping deeper and deeper into a stream of ice.

There’s also Masters’ use of monologue. The collection consists of 244 voices—each with their own contradictory perception of truth.

I often have my students read selections from Spoon River. I try to make them love it. I make grandiose claims. I say, “Besides Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, there’s not a more important collection of American poetry.”

  1. “You should write a memoir.”

Joe Wilkins (author of the terrific memoir The Mountain and the Fathers) said this about six months ago.

“I write poems,” I thought. “I could never sustain my voice.”

Instead I tried to write a lyric essay but had no idea where to start. For an entire week I stared at my empty notebook. I drank coffee and sighed deeply.

  1. The Next 32 Years

Then, a few months ago, I rediscovered Bruce Springsteen’s “Factory.” It’s a two-minute deep cut from Darkness on the Edge of Town. With standouts on the album like “Badlands” and “The Promised Land,” for years I paid little attention to “Factory.” But there I was, December 2014, driving around the Great Plains, a landscape I had moved to for a tenure track job that fall, listening: Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain / I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain. It’s a barren, at times hopeless landscape, and I couldn’t stop replaying the song: End of the day, factory whistle cries / Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes. I was driving one gravel road after another only passing the occasional failed town: a few shops abandoned decades ago; houses falling further into ruin. I kept thinking about my new job. I kept thinking about my father and his 1/4 inch gear machine. It felt like I was never going to escape.

 

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