Steel Toe Review, Editor’s Note #16

Reposted from Steel Toe Review

In our manifesto, which I admittedly wrote in the midst of a complex personal crisis* two and a half years ago, we say: “Tradition means something more than just doing the same things that people before you did with slight variations. Tradition provides a set of conventions and a set of expectations, and all of these can be reinterpreted and remolded and put to new uses. At Steel Toe Review, we strive to find literary and multimedia art that challenges and re-invents traditions.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea lately, almost obsessed with it. For the last year or so I’ve been teaching college English,  and it seems one of the things I find myself trying to convey most often is an awareness of genre conventions, whether the genre is an academic essay or a vampire story. At a conference in Charleston earlier this year, I presented a paper about the ways in which Voltaire appropriates and repurposes the conventions of older genres to create a new kind of literature. I wrote another paper recently about how Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy pick up conventions used by other Southern Writers and modify those conventions to fit their own aesthetic agendas. I think this is one of the main things that we do as writers. We master some conventions from the literature we have always read, and then we alter them to suit our purposes and to give them new voice. In poetry, this might mean experimenting with traditional forms. In fiction, it might mean looking at Southern gothic traditions, folk tales, shaggy dog stories, or ghost stories.

We’d love to hear from contributors about how they think about/use/appropriate conventions of traditional genres in their own work.


We are very excited to announce the publication of our Volume 2 Anthology, featuring all of the fiction and poetry we published online in 2012. You can purchase the anthology by clicking this link. For a limited time, you can purchase the anthology at 20% off the cover price.

By now, any contributors or kickstarter backers to whom we owe copies should have them. If not, contact us (steeltoereview AT gmail). We might not have your mailing address.


You can support us also by purchasing our beautiful t-shirts. They are $20 plus shipping and handling. Go to our Donate page to purchase.


*The “personal crisis” is relevant because it seems to me our minds work in unusual ways during those times. Things that used to seem important aren’t any longer, and other things rise up from the effluvia of past experiences, observations, and emotions that suddenly seem worthy of recognition and further examination. That is to say, I’m not sure I really knew what I was saying at the time, but as time goes on, what I said then continues now to resonate as true in more and more contexts.

Miscellaneous Debris

So I defended my Masters thesis yesterday. Since my degree is in Creative Writing, the thesis itself is actually a draft of the novel I’m writing called The Fireball Brothers. It is about two teenage brothers who, while swimming near their Alabama farm in 1959, come near a “fireball” that has fallen from the sky. From then on, the two brothers are joined at the shoulder. Because they can no longer do regular work to support the family farm, their father takes them on the road as travelling musicians. Along the way, they meet fellow musicians, snakeoil salesmen, circus freaks, and beatniks. A reporter named Munford Coldwater takes an interest in the family and tries to help them while documenting their journeys. Taken as a whole, the novel is a meditation on space, in all its connotations both inner and outer, and its place in the mythologizing of the late twentieth-century and contemporary Southern experience.

Sounds quite fancy, I know. The thesis version of the novel is 168 pages and about 45,000 words. I hope to come close to doubling those numbers before I start shopping the novel around commercially.

In other news, the proof copy of the Steel Toe Review Anthology is on its way. Once we finish checking it over for a week or so, it will be available for all. I’ll be ordering a couple of hundred of them to send out to the contributors and those who donated $25 or more to our kickstarter campaign.

New Work: “The Long Gone Lonesome” in eFiction

This actually was published last month, but I forgot to post about it on the blog. This story was inspired by various stories people have told me about spontaneous drunken road trips. In Birmingham, it appears to be quite common for people to drive the 90 miles to Montgomery in the middle of the night to pay homage at Hank Williams’ grave site. Then I added a little romance drama to the mix, and there you have it.

You can purchase the February issue of eFiction here.

Breaking the Rules

A 21st-century writer could probably never get away with this sentence:

So for the first sixteen years of her life she lived in that grim tight little house with her father whom she hated without knowing it–that queer silent man whose only companion and friend seems to have been his conscience and the only thing he cared about his reputation for probity among his fellow men–that man who was later to nail himself in his attic and starve to death rather than look upon his native land in the throes of repelling an invading army–and the aunt who even ten years later was still taking revenge on the fiasco of Ellen’s wedding by striking at the town, the human race, through any and all of its creatures–brother nieces nephew-in-law herself and all–with the blind irrational fury of a shedding snake; who had taught Miss Rosa to look upon her sister as a woman who vanished not only out of the family and the house but out of life too, into an edifice like Bluebeard’s and there transmogrified into a mask looking back with passive and hopeless grief upon the irrevocable world, held there not in durance but in a kind of jeering suspension by a man (his face the same which Mr Coldfield now saw and had seen since that day when, with his future son-in-law for ostensible yokemate but actual whip, Mr Coldfield’s conscience had set the brakes and, considering his share of the cargo, he and the son-and-law had parted) who had entered her and her family’s life before she was born with the abruptness of a tornado, done irrevocable and incalculable damage, and gone on–a grim mausoleum air of puritan righteousness and outraged female vindictiveness in which Miss Rosa’s childhood (that aged and ancient and timeless absence of youth which consisted of Cassandra-like listening beyond closed doors, of lurking in dim halls filled with that presbyterian effluvium of lugubrious and vindictive anticipation while she waited for the infancy and childhood with which nature had confounded and betrayed her to overtake the precocity of convinced disapprobation regarding any and every thing which could penetrate the walls of that house through the agency of any man, particularly her father, which the aunt seems to have invested her with at birth along with the swaddling clothes) was passed.

Absalom, Absalom! pages 71-72

Faulkner does this in dialog, and it’s a beautiful thing, if a bit of a challenge to parse. I can’t help but be fascinated by the rococo structure, utilizing both em dashes and parentheses, not to mention the vocabulary. I especially like “dim halls filled with that presbyterian effluvium of lugubrious and vindictive anticipation.” The multiple parentheticals and frankly ungrammatical semicolon in the middle are strict no-nos for a contemporary writer. Not only that, but a good chunk of the plot is summarized in this one sentence as well. We’re told to “show, not tell” and this is a huge chunk of amazing telling that gets reinforced by other passages,

I guess that’s all I wanted to say this morning. It just struck me. I feel something a bit more formal coming on though as I think about this passage more.

Holiday Reading

holiday reading 2012During the winter break, I’ll actually have time to read some things for pleasure, and you can bet I will be packing in as much as I can. First, I’m going to be re-reading Absalom, Absalom! (though I am genuinely excited about it, the exclamation point is officially part of the title, which is why I italicized it) by our old friend Mr. Faulkner. When that’s done, I have some perusing of an English 102 textbook to do in preparation for the class I’m teaching next semester and some other decidedly nerdy stuff: Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, Donald Davidson’s Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, and How Novels Think by Nancy Armstrong.

If there’s time after that, I might just read Knockemstiff, the collection of short stories by Donald Ray Pollack. I’d also like to read the new Zadie Smith novel, NW, and Inventing Wine by Paul Lukacs (those last two are on my wish list if you are thinking of buying me something… ahem, Mom).

And guess what? If you still don’t have your copies of Zen, Mississippi and the Salvation of Billy Wayne Carter, you might could still obtain them before Christmas if you act quickly.

Sharing Spirits

I invited a professor to have a drink with me and (he or she) said, “Sure, I’ll… whatever the booze equivalent is of ‘breaking bread’… with you.” This got be thinking about what the booze equivalent of “breaking bread” might be. I couldn’t think of one in the moment. The phrase “breaking bread” comes from the communion rite, and so it has an obvious spiritual connotation, but in the context of sharing a meal with someone, it also has a connotation of intimacy. It is personal and spiritual. It’s a way of bringing people closer together.

The act of drinking together, particularly wine, has the same connection with communion, and there is no doubt that drinking with someone can be a highly personal and even spiritual experience. But there is no equivalent colloquial phrase that really captures the same thing as “breaking bread.” Then I thought about just the simple phrase “sharing spirits.” The “spirit” part is right in there, and I also like the mental image it gives me of souls co-mingling.

Does this work, or is there something better? That is today’s question.

On the Importance of Lukewarm Enthusiasm

As we get into the final weeks of the campaign season, I want to put a few of my thoughts down. Unlike some people, I’m not inclined to keep my political opinions to myself. I think political discussions are inherently valuable. They don’t have to degenerate into juvenile name calling and facetious insults. And whatever a person says about themselves, I don’t think anybody is actually “apolitical.” I think people who say this about themselves are (1) sick of juvenile name calling and facetious insults on both sides (2) not inclined to supporting one particular party or the other, and (3) not interested in the “horse race” aspect of elections. But everybody has issues that they care about and that affect them on a day to day basis, and it’s useful to talk about those issues in an intelligent, informed manner. Those issues are decided by policy. Politics and policy are the same thing.

When people on the radio say, “that’s just politics,” or “he’s just being political,” what they really mean is “That’s just a cynical narrative device designed to improve his chances at re-election or to attain more power for his party.” Let’s stop using the word politics this way. Politics, in reality is the work of government, and the work of government is everybody’s business. I’m not interested in horse race either, and though I am inclined more toward the Democratic party in elections, it is only because there is currently no reasonable, supportable alternative at the national level. The Republican party takes every opportunity to stand against virtually everything I stand for–equality, justice, peace, and liberty. The Democrats don’t always stand for those things as much as I’d like, but they don’t act against them most of the time.

You might say you stand for the same things, but I’m full of shit about how how Democrats and Republicans relate to those ideals. That’s fine. It’s just my opinion, but hang in there. I’m getting to a point.

President Obama is not my ideal president. In my opinion, he has been too conservative in many ways. He has not always shown the leadership I’d like to see. In negotiating policy, he has given the other side the benefit of the doubt when they have not afforded him the same courtesy. In short, he has been too nice, too moderate. But I understand these challenges as the reality of how national politics work. The presidency, by definition, is a moderate office. Radical changes at that level have many unintended consequences. Obama doesn’t have a lot of radical ideas, and that’s basically okay. Probably the best he can do is fix some little things and enable progress, whereas I feel that his opponent, Mitt Romney, would deter progress. Romney would actively work against it; he would take us backwards, happily, into disaster.

Radical changes need to occur at the local level, at the grass roots level. Third parties have to get footholds at a local level. If you are frustrated by the two-party system, work to get a third party elected to your local government. When you accomplish that, get them elected to your state government. Until we have a half a dozen state governors that are neither Democrat or Republican, we will never have a president from a third party. It just isn’t going to happen. At this time, voting libertarian or socialist or green party at the presidential level actually enforces the two-party system because it makes those third parties look weak and ineffectual. They don’t have enough support to effect actual change. They have just enough support to swing an election from the lesser evil to the greater evil.

I don’t say all this to be depressing. I don’t even think this is a bad thing. If you are serious about real change, you have to understand that it takes a long time, and there are really important but small steps we take during every election cycle that empower long term change. Letting Romney get elected will only set things back another ten years. I am afraid that many people I know will say they would never vote for someone like Romney, but they just aren’t enthused about Obama so they’ll stay home. This is a mistake.

I believe another Obama term will give him a far better chance to stand up to the machine that has worked day and night to make his first term a weak one. He won’t do everything I’d like him to do. The policies I’d most like to see him enact are pipe dreams. They aren’t popular because there are still too many people throwing smoke screens under the labels of socialism and heathenism, and too many people are fooled by those smoke screens. So he won’t do everything, but he will enable progress. It sounds like I’m underselling him, that I’m not passionate enough, but enabling progress is the biggest thing a president actually can do. No president is going to save the world. Enabling progress is actually a really big deal, even though it’s hard to package it as such because our society is addicted to instant gratification.

Long term change requires long term thinking. That’s why I’m lukewarm on Obama, but he still has my enthusiastic vote this November.

Rock and Roll Still Not Dead

My faith in rock was renewed once again just now as I was walking home from teaching my class. Some college students were sitting on a front porch with guitars and playing “Wild Thing” by the Troggs. It occurred to me that when my high school band played that song way back in the 1980s, it was already 25 years old. It was fun to play because it was easy and catchy and it made people dance. So on one hand, maybe it isn’t surprising that it has lasted into the current generation of musicians. But then again, that means the song is now more than 50 years old, and kids are still playing it.

When I was a teenage rocker, songs that were 50 years old were not even on my radar. Sure, these days I regularly perform songs from the 1920s. And though I may have heard some songs from that era on Looney Toons cartoons, it would never have occurred to me to sit on the porch and play them on the guitar with my friends gathered around. Rock and roll was all there was to me then, and the form had been around only 30 years. Songs that were ancient to me then were mere babes in the woods, younger then than I am now. Those same songs are now qualified for Social Security benefits.

Other music forms sometimes come more into popular focus–hip hop, neo-folk, and alt-country come to mind. But rock always sticks around, always comes back. Long may it prosper.

Steel Toe Review, Editor’s Note #13

Republished from Steel Toe Review.

There is no triskaidekaphobia here at STR. We are amazed that were are still doing this. To help ensure that we continue to bring you a top quality product that isn’t rushed or thrown together, we are moving to a quarterly schedule instead of bi-monthly. This summer has flown by in a whirlwind of dayjob working, teaching, tutoring, scholarship, and writing our own fiction.

This has also been a summer heavy with classic cocktails, our latest non-literary obsession, which certainly helps cool things down after a long hot day deep in the stacks of of the University Library. Here’s one that merges our two interests.

The Hemingway Daiquiri
(courtesy of the Bar La Florida Cocktail Book – 1939)

2 oz of whatever white or silver run you like
.75 oz of fresh squeezed lime juice
.5 oz of fresh squeezed grapefruit juice
.5 oz luxardo maraschino liqueur

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled coupe class. Garnish with a lime wheel.

We know that Hemingway was also fond of mojitos, and those are fine summer drinks too. As are mint juleps, which Faulkner liked. We can go on and on about alcohol, just as we can about our favorite authors. We’ve been dreaming this summer about opening a bar where we can sit in the back working on our novel during the slow hours and then serve fresh classic cocktails while we discuss the merits of The Great Gatsby with someone drinking a gin rickey the way Fitzgerald liked it. If only someone would hand us a pile of cash, we have lots of really great ideas of what to do with it…

Speaking of which, if anybody has advice about how to get a grant for a literary magazine, drop us a line. We’d really appreciate it.

We made enough money with our Kickstarter campaign earlier this year to print our anthology. It seems that the vast majority of people interested in buying such an anthology were the same people who donated to the campaign and therefore earned a free copy. We’d like to do another one next year anyway. We learned a lot about the process last time, and we think it’s important to have a print presence in addition to what we do online.

In summary, if you happen to have too much money, and you’d like to invest it in the arts (or in a bar), send me an email.

Too Clever By Half: The Best of PopCanon

It’s been bothering me for some time that my old group PopCanon, which I unabashedly claim as one of the best bands to ever exist, does not have anything available on iTunes, Spotify, and other digital music sites. Alas, when we did our recordings, that technology was not yet available.

I considered re-releasing all the old albums one at a time in digital versions, but due to the fees involved, I just made one giant 50-song album called “Too Clever By Half: The Very Best of PopCanon.”

The reason I only included 50 songs, instead of all 75 or so that we recorded from 1995-2001 was because there was a limit on how much I was able to upload on our host site CD Baby. I also didn’t want to deal with the legal issues w/r/t some of the covers we did, so I left those out.

If this is successful enough and people want it, I will consider creating a Part II album for the leftovers.

The individual songs are the usual 99 cents each, but you can buy the whole album for a mere $6.66 (natch).