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This is the last piece we worked on with D.B. Jones who died on the morning of October 29th. Jones was a great advocate for our publication, was always wonderful to go back and forth with about edits, and he had a wonderful way of simplifying everything to the root. We will miss him greatly.

Sometime in the year 2000, I think, I came across a news story reporting that explorers had found the source of the Amazon, the world’s largest river. The group making the discovery was an international, 22-person expedition sponsored by three of our most potent supporters of scientific research: the Smithsonian Institution, the National Geographic Society, and the Defense Department. With the aid of satellite mapping technology, laptop computers, and the Defense Department’s global-positioning satellite system, the explorers located “the point of flowing water the farthest distance from the mouth” as a tiny stream high on a slope of an 18,363-foot mountain in Peru called Nevado Mismi.

Having grown up with a love of exploring and a fascination with maps, I could relate to this story and imagine what an adventure it must have been. Half a century earlier, when we were 11, my friend Owen and I went on an analogous venture one August day and made a structurally similar discovery: the source of Shrine Park Creek, just outside of Leavenworth, Kansas. The creek arose west of town, winding eastward through Shrine Park before entering the city limits. In town it meandered through an industrial area, then inched past a row of tarpaper shacks and oozed through the city dump before emptying into the Missouri River. More… “The Source”

D.B. Jones is a retired Drexel professor of film and the author of three books on Canadian documentary film.

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Sylvia Plath has a way of showing up in everything I do. I find her in the essays I write, the things I say, the movies I watch — even the clothing I choose to wear. She is ever-present, ever-changing, working her way into my writing and conversations. I spoke with Emily Van Duyne, a writer, scholar, and feminist, who has also been heavily influenced and shaped by Plath, an American writer and poet best known for her novel The Bell Jar and poetry collections such as Ariel and The Colossus and Other Poems. Emily Van Duyne is an assistant professor of writing at Stockton University in New Jersey, where she is also affiliated with faculty in Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Harvard Review, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Meridian, and Literary Hub, among others. She has written many essays about Plath and is currently at work on a critical memoir called Loving Sylvia Plath. You can tweet her @emilyvanduyne.

More… “Pondering Plath”

Camille DiBenedetto is a staff writer for The Smart Set and an English major at Drexel University. In her free time, you can find her watching romantic comedies, listening to slam poetry, or rereading The Summer I Turned Pretty for the 27th time.

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The opening movement of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others can be described in many ways: bracing, informed, thoroughly engaged with history, disturbing, even profound. I would, however, describe it simply as reassuring. Consider that I’ve just designated the beginning of her text a movement. If I possessed more poetic leanings, I might contend that it functions as a stanza. Its title is measured, artful, a statement that can be read multiple ways — as an opening clause (Regarding the pain of others, comma, here’s what I have to say) or as a commentary on the act of regarding, of viewing, of assessing and appraising human beings in a state of pain and suffering and death. It is in its literary-ness that I find comfort and reassurance, and in its author’s commitment to truly essaying its subject matter (representations of violence) that this volume shines with a lapidary efflorescence. Sontag’s deeper topic, however, is a consciousness of our shared and frangible humanity. More… “Sparing No Pains”

Sean Hooks is originally from New Jersey and presently lives in Los Angeles. He teaches English and Writing at the University of California, Riverside and Fullerton College. Recent publications include Los Angeles Review of Books, Bright Lights Film Journal, Akashic Books, The Manhattanville Review, and Pif Magazine.

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I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, and my mother was a working woman who didn’t like to cook. Although she dutifully made dinner for us every night, these were perfunctory and repetitive meals: meatloaf made with Catalina salad dressing, spaghetti with tomato sauce and occasional meatballs (also made with Catalina salad dressing), roast chicken (overcooked), and instant chocolate pudding or Jello for dessert. I looked with envy at my friends whose stay-at-home moms prepared things like veal parmigiana and shrimp scampi, baked alaska and pineapple upside-down cake.

At the time, convenience foods were sparse, limited mostly to canned foods. For many years, my idea of vegetables were greenish things floating in yellowish liquid that were dumped in a saucepan for 30 minutes so whatever taste and nutrition they contained had been boiled away. Another familiar adjunct to our meals was cream of mushroom soup — flavored lard to be added to casseroles, dips, or anything that needed a fat and sodium boost. Also, pork and beans: snippets of fat drowning in a salty mush and introduced alongside the occasional boiled hot dog (my mother saw hot dogs as low class but made an exception by serving them under the name of frankfurters). Finally, there was the much-loved macaroni and cheese — elbow macaroni and Velveeta — served to us when our parents went out for dinner. More… “Dinnertime and its Discontents”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.

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Rafael Casal is a poet, rapper, producer, writer, and actor. Over the last ten years, he and his longtime friend and collaborator, Daveed Diggs, wrote, produced, and starred in their first film, Blindspotting. The story revolves around best friends Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal) during the last three days of Collin’s probation. As the days progress, their friendship is strained by Oakland’s gentrification and the community’s perception of Collin after his conviction for a violent crime. Throughout the film, heightened verse is infused to showcase Oakland, the city’s natural facility for language, and Casal and Digg’s background in poetry and music. I had the opportunity to speak with Casal about comedy as a vehicle to tell stories about trauma, toxic masculinity, unconscious bias, and the stories missing from Hollywood’s mainstream. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

More… “In Plain Sight”

Byshera Williams is a Senior English Major at Drexel University and the current Associate Editor for The Smart Set.

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Shannon Downey is a craftivist, community organizer, and as of June, a commencement speaker. She was recruited by Drexel University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry to deliver the commencement address for their Custom Designed Major. Her speech was firm but funny, honest in the “what is yet to come,” and encouraging in regard to their potential to alter the world one small step at a time. Before she inspired the room, we had an opportunity to sit down with Shannon to talk about Badass Cross Stitch, activism, and going viral.  The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

More… “When Being Bad Does Good”

Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.

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God narratives don’t tend to begin in hotel conference halls. Rarer still is it to find one starting with a couple of patched up sound technicians readying a hall for a TEDx talk on business processing. This one does. In March 2012, I was more concerned with how realistic it was to believe I could fund my master’s degree through selling bonsai trees than with existential questions about God and fatherhood. I didn’t expect to leave that job with a collapsing barracks of beliefs about what it means to be a father, son, or devotee. I took for granted that these relationships simply exist, never delving too far into what happens when one of the parties within these relationships doesn’t consider the relationship valid. I suppose such thoughts had been safely shut away in the cave of my personal mental garage, requiring a jolt to help pull the shutters up. That jolt came from a man trying to find the words to obliterate the distance between himself and his God. More… “Talking to Gods and Fathers”

Imran Khan received his degree from SOAS and teaches creative writing around South West England. His work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in ucity Review, The Lake, Puritan, Across the Margin, and elsewhere. Khan is a previous winner of the Thomas Hardy Award. He can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/ImranBoeKhan/

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“Hey,” I say, and pause for a moment, slinging my tennis bag over my shoulder and closing the car door. I start down the grassy slope toward the tennis court. It is my opponent I have called out to, inside the fence. I swing the gate open and let it clang behind me. Now, I shuffle a little on the court, to hear the clay beneath my shoes. The court waits for us, swept of any previous play. We are ready to begin.

The way I imagine it, we are at the Highland courts, a short drive from my home. The Highland courts are a set of four natural red clay courts at the edge of a forested town park, right next to a somewhat secluded neighborhood of Victorian houses from the town’s factory heyday. We are alone, he and I, perhaps in the early morning. He has something of a blank look on his face, dressed not a little uncomfortably in a set of what looks like Wimbledon whites, except not so bright, rumpled even. But he has on his trademark head rag, tying back his hair.

Maybe there is small talk, as we unpack our bags. The weather, or when was the last time each of us played. Does he want to warm up short, standing on the service line and trading easy half volleys? In the kind of tennis I play, the adult recreational kind, there is a certain unease to begin, a mix of friendly get-to-know-you banter with an overlay of the what-sort-of-opponent-will-you-be subtle interrogation. Perhaps this is not unlike sizing up a new book, or maybe even moreso for a book whose reputation, at this point, certainly precedes it. More… “The Other Side of the Net”

Andrew Varnon lives in Greenfield, Massachusetts, with his wife Lynette and two children. A winner of the 92nd St. Y/The Nation “Discovery” award in poetry, Varnon teaches a course called “Beer, Baseball & the Bible” at Western New England University and coaches high school tennis at Greenfield High School. You can find him on Twitter at @SachemHead.

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dark forest with mysterious eyes
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As the first asteroid confirmed to have originated outside the Solar System whizzed by at roughly 85,000 mph, scientists scrambled unsuccessfully to figure out some way to catch up to it. Was it different from the asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter? Was it even an asteroid? What if it was some kind of technology designed by an alien race?

The Breakthrough Initiatives program observed and gathered data from the asteroid, but found no evidence of life or signals indicative of technology. For all we’ve learned about space, the more we realize we don’t know, especially when it comes to aliens. More… “Should We Stop Looking for Intelligent Life?”

Joelle Renstrom‘s collection of essays, Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature, was published in 2015. She’s the robot columnist for the Daily Beast and a staff writer for Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. Her essays have appeared in SlateAeonThe Guardian, and others. She teaches writing and research at Boston University with a focus on space exploration and artificial intelligence.

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A man sitting inside a woman's ovaries, reading a book.
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In the early ’80s, my mother — barely 30, but already divorced — took a children’s lit course at community college. We were living at the time in a rented house next to an old tuberculosis sanatorium that had been turned into a home for the developmentally disabled, and every night, while the old buildings on the hill above us were lit like spaceships, my mother read in a small pool of light, her feet tucked beneath her, occasionally hooking a fallen strand of hair behind her ear. My brother and I read with her: Watership Down and Charlotte’s Web and Where The Wild Things Are. More… “Are You There God? It’s Me, Crenshaw.”

Paul Crenshaw’s essay collection This One Will Hurt You is forthcoming from The Ohio State University Press in spring 2019. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, anthologies by Houghton Mifflin and W.W. Norton, Oxford American, Ecotone, Brevity, North American Review, and Glimmer Train, among others. @PaulCrenstorm

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