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Scholars have been laboring for more than a century to transform Emily Dickinson’s faint pencil jottings on envelopes, letters, and sewn sheets into accurate and readable editions of some or all of her 1,800 poems. Recently, there has been a counter movement to return Dickinson’s verse to something like the textual fluidity of its original state, which in practice is rather like returning nonspecialists to the state of dazed incomprehension experienced by the small circle of her earliest readers. The online Emily Dickinson Archive, which reproduces the manuscripts with all their wayward calligraphy and unresolved word choices, is a necessary and laudable enterprise, but the last thing it does is make her poetry more accessible. You thought it was hard reading Emily Dickinson before? It just got harder.

More… “Reading Emily Dickinson”

Stephen Akey is the author of two memoirs, College and Library, and of essays in The New Republic, Open Letters Monthly, and The Millions.
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Examine your sentences. Use strong verbs wherever possible. Use the active, not the passive, voice. Try not to use the same words everyone else uses, unless you have a particular reason for making your piece flat. Flat is not what usually works, because flat is boring.

Examine your paragraphs. Do they lead from one to the other in a way that makes sense? Does each paragraph carry an interesting thought, a wonderful sentence, a joke, an astute observation, something to mull over? You do not have to have all of these in the same paragraph. George Garrett advised us to touch base with each of our senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell) on every single page. It is good advice.

If your piece contains chapters, ask yourself if you have started and ended them at the most effectual points. Until you reach the end of the piece, you want each chapter to tantalize the reader into the next chapter. This is called narrative drive. It was not always seen as essential, but today it is essential. Without narrative drive, a story withers on the vine. More… “Poetic Praise”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is forthcoming later this year.
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All is completed, I said. You can rest and take delight in your accomplishment, I said. Except.

Except now you have to do it all over again.

Maybe not all of you. Maybe only most of you. There are, after all, those painstaking writers who meticulously go over each sentence as it appears and polish it until it has just the right glossiness and hint of darkness. When it is as smooth as a milkshake. When it dances or sings or claps.

But make no mistake: Almost all of us have to do all of it all over again.

You may start by running a spelling and grammar search on the file in your computer. The search will clean up a few typos. Which helps, but, sadly, not all that much. After all, this is simply housecleaning, and like housecleaning, you need to do it repeatedly, i.e., every time you add to or alter your piece. You must also read, reread, reread again, and then reread some more. Some readers suggest reading backwards from the last page, especially when what you have written is poetry. What are you looking for? The tiniest things imaginable: reversed quotation marks, for example, and words that lack needed power, or a comma that should be a semicolon, a question mark that should be a period. Check spellings for capitals and hyphens. Check military abbreviations. Check all other abbreviations. This, unfortunately, is not fun. This is tedious. And you may find yourself nearly hysterical with anxiety.
More… “Revise Until You Drop”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is forthcoming later this year.
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Some stories have fantastical endings. Matthew Vollmer’s forthcoming Gateway to Paradise, a smart collection of short stories, begins with “Downtime,” wherein a dentist named Ted Barber is haunted by the loss of his wife, Tavey, who drowned on their honeymoon. He flew back to Valleytown, North Carolina, knowing that his wife’s body was stowed in the cargo bay of the plane he is on. He is now having a hot affair with his assistant, who is formidably competent and would be a great wife, but images and reminiscences of Tavey keep pulling him away from Allison. He has weird imaginings, weird dreams, or perhaps they are hallucinations. They are certainly hallucinatory. He swims with Tavey off the coast of Mexico and, after trying to shake her off — her dimly lit, sketchy, almost transparent body — he gives up. She hangs in and he finds himself giving into her. He allows her to find places in his body where she can hold onto him. He knows this is slightly insane, but he finally decides both women will be with him: one in the real world, one in another world. As odd or weird as this sounds, it is simply a metaphor for how a man whose wife has died must accommodate both the memory and the reality, the woman lost and the woman he needs now. At the same time, the image of the husband taking his dead wife’s corpse into his own body makes a striking impression. It is not unrelated to Franz Kafka’s insect in the Metamorphosis. And if you have not read the Metamorphosis, you must put down this essay right now and go straight there. Then read “Downtime.” More… “Imagined Endings”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is forthcoming later this year.
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Omit needless words!

That’s what you’d have if you reduced the 105 pages of William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style — which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year — to three words. The idea is that fewer words leads to clarity. Clearness and brevity go together, as do confusion and prolixity. You are also advised to avoid pretentious words like “prolixity” (though I’m not sure a more concise word exists in this instance). But when in doubt, omit, simplify, pare.

The fun of The Elements of Style is in Strunk’s outrageous confidence. Bill was enjoying himself. He wrote the book as a manual for his English students at Cornell University. E.B White, Strunk’s student at Cornell, loved the tone, the advice, and the man. How could he not? In the “Principles of Composition” section,… More…

Because life is so utterly elusive all the way down to the end, you have two basic choices if you want to say anything about it. You can say a lot, too much even, and be satisfied that at least you’ve dumped as much clutter on the matter as you could. Or you can withhold, take little tiny pecks at the thing, and be satisfied that the gaping silences are doing the job.

Raymond Carver came out with Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? in 1976 and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in 1981. The stories are a revelation in pecks and silences. Stripped down, punchy sentences did just that: They punched your guts out. The human landscape of his stories was so rich for being so bare. It seems impossible that literature can be this honest, this true. But there it is. If your hands… More…