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it rained, fell like Jericho
its walls. Water broke

through the roof. All
our pails were full —

Kevin Young, “Flood,” from Dear Darkness

“In the morning,” wrote a wistful Henry David Thoreau, in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “the river and adjacent country were covered with a dense fog, through which the smoke of our fire curled up like a still subtler mist.” And so the Merrimack River, which young Henry was surveying with a friend in 1839, emerged in print as an idealized thing, a natural phenomenon of a Massachusetts ecosystem inseparable from human activity — mingling its elegant vapor with the “smoke of our fire” — while being warmly respectful of all surrounding features. Nice. More… “A River Runs Through Lit”

James McWilliams is a writer based in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly ReviewThe New Yorkerand The Paris ReviewHe’s currently writing a book on the art and expression of the American South.

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I’d waited months, nay years, for this moment. I was finally getting a tattoo and not just any tattoo but a tattoo of a Hamilton lyric after seeing the musical on broadway. In high school I was dead set on getting the Fall Out Boy lyric, “I can write it better than you ever felt it,” in dainty script across my rib cage. I was introduced to their music at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (or PAFA) summer camp in middle school and ever since, their music was the lifeblood of my of young angsty want-to-be-artist soul. So after seeing them live and getting into college as an English major, I felt I needed something to commemorate both my love for this band and for writing. But that was a childish notion (that my mother said absolutely not to). I was 17, what did I know about anything? Plus, now at 22, I barely even listen to Fall Out Boy. But Hamilton — a Tony award winning, constantly sold out, people of color driven narrative — was never going to go out of style.

Now after spending months scrolling through BuzzFeed articles about the best tattoo artists around Philadelphia and New York, I found the place, Bang Bang tattoo studio. The minimalist black and white building, the artist bios about how each person has carefully cultivated one skill or another, and of course the owner, Keith McCurdy, nicknamed Bang Bang for reasons I didn’t bother to google, who’s tattooed everyone from Rihanna to Adele. This was it. This was the place I was going to get my tattoo. After months of scrolling through images of script, watercolor, and portraits, the day was here. I should have been excited. More… “Like You’re Running Out of Time”

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

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In other words, the man who is born into existence deals first with language; this is a given. He is even caught in it before his birth. — Jacques Lacan

The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Laypeople are often fascinated by the law — fascinated, and also horrified. Unsatisfactory outcomes, of which there are not a small number, are almost the least of their objections. They are frustrated by the law’s obfuscations and its inwardness, and they resent the condescension of lawyers. Lawyers, in turn, are frustrated by how much laypeople miss in their account of the culture of the courts — how much, in short, they don’t know they don’t know.

The law serves a crucial public function, but the courts often appear to operate in ignorance of that function. This is why intelligent lay commentary on the law is important. Laypeople see things that lawyers have stopped seeing and raise issues that lawyers have assumed away or given up as intractable. Their commentary aerates a closed system. Occasionally it even embarrasses the legal profession into reform. More… “Balloon Meets Pin”

Jonathan Clarke is a lawyer and critic living in Brooklyn.

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The best rock and roll performers have tended to make impetuousness a virtue. We learn of accounts of how Brian Wilson labored over studio creations like Pet Sounds and Smile for ages, but the more readily available go-to examples of rock and roll inspiration center on Bob Dylan leaving in a given take despite microphones picking up the scrape of his jacket buttons on his guitar, or the Animals nailing “House of the Rising Sun” in a single early morning attempt. We like the idea of genius rising up in one inspired moment, and we also like the idea of an artist being secure enough in what they’ve just wrought to let it ride, knowing that it is more than good enough — it will last.

Within the Beatles, John Lennon had a famous — or infamous — lack of patience when it came to recording. He wanted a number in the can, and he wanted to move on to the next. Better yet if it was one of his songs and not Paul McCartney’s, given their more or less friendly completion. Friendly enough, anyway, that they’d help each other out with tips, newly added bits, criticisms. For the band’s early period, Lennon was easily the most productive composer between the two. If you go back through the discography, you’ll see that he dominates. There is a shift around the time of Revolver, when McCartney pulls ahead by the same margin. The death of manager Brian Epstein in August of 1967 led to a big McCartney growth spurt in terms of handling the bulk of the songwriting and directing the group. Lennon, simply, seemed to acquiesce, which hadn’t seemed to be in his nature up until then. There was a combination of burnout, a giving in to lethargy, but also a change in how songs were going to be written. More… “Revolution Carnival”

Colin Fleming’s fiction appears in Harper’s, Commentary, Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, and Boulevard, with other work running in The Atlantic, Salon, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and JazzTimes. He is a regular guest on NPR’s Weekend Edition and Downtown with Rich Kimball, in addition to various radio programs and podcasts. His last book was The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss, and he has two books forthcoming in 2018: Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls, and a volume examining the 1951 movie Scrooge as a horror film for the ages. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com.

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Returning to the States after two years in Poland – during which I had married, taught English, and witnessed the rise of Solidarity and the imposition of martial law – I suggested to my wife that we live in Philadelphia.

I had always liked the city, not least because I owed my existence to it. Somewhere in its folds in 1941, my father, a student at Penn Law School, met my mother, a nurse at the Children’s Hospital. As parents, upriver in New Jersey, they introduced my brothers and me to the zoo, the Franklin Institute, Connie Mack Stadium, Elfreth’s Alley. Years later, as a student at Villanova, I took the Paoli Local in to watch Big Five basketball at the Palestra and, one memorable evening, strippers at the Trocadero Theater. In my junior year I bought my first pair of round tortoiseshell glasses – the same style I wear today – at Limeburner Opticians on Chestnut Street. More… “Out of Philadelphia”

Thomas Swick is the author of three books, the most recent being The Joys of Travel: And Stories That Illuminate Them. His work has appeared in numerous national magazines and literary quarterlies, and in six editions of The Best American Travel Writing.

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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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Michael Andreasen’s first book, The Sea Beast Takes a Lover, is one part Twilight Zone, a hint of Twin Peaks, with a dash of Booshian surrealism. Anchoring his short stories is one of my favorite sensibilities in film and literature: the extraordinary in the ordinary, whether that is making the banal fantastic or normalcy perverse. Below, Andreasen, graciously addresses some of the questions I had about Sea Beast, gearing up for his first book, and his inspiration.

More… “Sailing with Michael Andreasen”

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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“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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Levine continues:

By the time I was twenty-one years old I’d begun to think of myself as something of an accomplished poet; what I lacked — among other things — was a recognizable, consistent voice for my poems. For the most part, American poets make this search for a voice automatically — it’s part of our native Yankee gift for marketing, this straining after a voice that will make one’s poetry sound utterly unlike the work of other poets and hence a unique commodity. It is something like the equivalent — to cite another Detroit effort in the same direction — of adding gigantic tail fins to our cars to make them distinctive. And like the tail fins, it’s a mistake. When I read my work loudly enough to myself, it was clear it wasn’t prose; that it was not poetry was clear to most everyone else. Fortunately, the voice of my poems was in a constant state of change. Years later I realized that developing a voice before you knew what you needed to say was pointless at best, self-defeating at worst. You could spend years trying to sound as lyrical as Edna St. Vincent Millay or Hart Crane only to discover you wanted to write poetry incendiary enough to burn down General Motors or the Pentagon.

More… “Voice Is Vision”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is now available.

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