‘Afterland’ by Mai Der Vang: A Review

By: Maison Horton

Smoke rising, black birds a-blur, all flight and dispersion through a grayscale wasteland—-this is the cover image that greets readers of Mai Der Vang’s Afterland, an enthralling debut deserving nothing less than acclaim and admiration. The collection is lush with the shadows cast by history, in which the speaker yearns to understand their ancestral origins and, by the end of the collection, completes their journey to the “afterland.”

Afterland is also timely in that it addresses themes of immigration; these themes about journeys are present throughout the collection. In “Transmigration” the speaker extends a branch of empathy to refugees alike: “I am refugee. You are too. Cry, but do not weep. // We walk out the door.” This declaration comes amidst the first of the poem’s six sections, titled only by the lines “Make me the monarch / morphed from suffering.” What follows is a series of poems that explores the grief (and mere slivers of hope) surrounding the Laotian “Secret War” of the 1960s.

Each section of the collection is organized similarly—-that is, each section is preceded by two lines on a single page, followed by poems covering similar subjects in their respective sections. An example of this structure occurs in the poem’s penultimate section titled, “My mouth is nocturnal.” A word like “nocturnal” is (easily) evocative of the night and its connotations, which encompasses all the senses; “nocturnal” means black, dark, waking in the night, but also quietude, ambience, whispers. The fifth poem in this section “Progeny” seems to reflect all things “nocturnal”: “Night comes in dyads: / Ravenlight, / Drumlands.” Vang challenges the reader to see the duality (“dyad”) by introducing compound words that appeal to more than one sense, just like the single word “nocturnal.” Throughout the collection, the reader encounters lines that say just enough, due to the poet’s careful attention to diction.

On duality, one of my favorite moments is in the poem “Final Dispatch from Laos.” Terms from the Hmong language—-the tongue of an Asian indigenous group—exist alongside Vang’s English lines. Vang talks about one particularly important image in the poem in the Notes section of Afterland:

“In ‘Final Dispatch from Laos’ the Hmong word ‘txiv’ means both ‘father’ and ‘fruit’ in the Hmong language.”

Let’s take a look at “txiv” in the context of its parent line, in the poem “Final Dispatch from Laos”: “A sweet leaf unable to father any txiv.” Note that “father” is used as a verb in this line; if we were to use Vang’s literal English translations, the line could read two different ways, either: “A sweet leaf unable to father any father,” or: “A sweet leaf unable to father any fruit.” Simply including txiv adds a pleasing dimensionality to just one line that unifies a natural image with the plight of being unable to bear children. There are no wasted words in this collection; Afterland is built on line after complex line, each one being integral to the speaker’s transformation as they journey to meet their ancestors in the “afterland.”

I strongly recommend Afterland for readers interested in ancestry, history, or even the spiritual tones and colors of our existence. Mai Der Vang’s shamanic voice is enchanting, and the visions in Afterland will leave readers breathless.

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Afterland, by Mai Der Vang. Graywolf Press. 2017.

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Songwriting for Everyone

songwriting-2757636_960_720By: Virginia Gallner

When I started coaching for Omaha Girls Rock last summer, I found myself stumbling to find words for the process of songwriting. Standing in the Holland Center, surrounded by campers with so many of their own stories to tell, I struggled to find a way to explain how to unearth those stories and turn them into songs.

We started by being silly. Songs about potatoes, favorite colors, beloved pets. After much laughter and fun, we started to get more comfortable with the idea of digging deeper. Sometimes you have to give voice to the silly things, the jokes and absurdities, just to get comfortable with your voice as a songwriter.

But that’s just for getting started. If you want to write songs, the best advice I can offer is to listen.

Listen to all different kinds of music. Music that you might not normally enjoy. Listen to the way the words roll around each other, the way the melody chooses certain syllables to sustain and others to cut short. Songs are a very different beast compared to poetry, fiction, or nonfiction, because they have the added variable of melody. If you have ever performed slam poetry, you might know some of these techniques already.

Listen to the people around you for a taste of their stories. Songs, just like poems, do not have to be written from your perspective. Some of the greatest songwriters of our time—think of John Prine, for example, or Bob Dylan—wrote many of their songs about other people, sometimes even strangers. I invite you to sit in a coffee shop and listen to the conversations of strangers, and craft them into a ballad or lament spun out of your imagination.

Listen to your instincts. This process is an excavation, perhaps even more so than writing prose or poetry. Music is something primal and deep. But how do you take these very personal things and turn them into something universal, without saying something that hasn’t already been said before?

Everyone experiences the human condition. If you write about your own experiences, chances are, someone will connect with your story. It is all too easy to accuse a songwriter of being unoriginal with their choices of words and metaphor. But the most predictable songs, the ones that are loved and remembered, are the ones that speak to the human condition that we all know.

As we like to say here at 13th Floor Magazine, everyone has a story to tell, and I firmly believe that anyone can tell their story through song.

National Novel Writing Month, it’s Happening Now!

By: Iona Newman

November is in full swing, and for writers across the country this means one thing: National Novel Writing Month.

If you are a writer or are friends with a writer, chances are that you have heard about National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo, through panicked social media posts or a friend’s sudden radio silence. For those who have not heard of it, NaNoWriMo is a writing marathon during the month of November in which participants challenge themselves to write a complete 50,000 word draft of a novel. This means writing about 1,667 words every day in November.

The purpose of the challenge is to give writers permission to finish a first draft and help propel them further into the novel writing process. This can help writers at any level of experience, and can be particularly useful for students who may or may not have completed their first longer manuscript.

But students also know that November is the time of looming final projects and preparing for final exams. Whether or not you choose to participate in NaNoWriMo, below are three reminders for student writers going into November and the pressure this month brings.

1. Health is the top priority.

Mental and physical health should be the top priority regardless, but this is also a practical reminder for writers. Writing is a much harder task when you feel ready to collapse. Scheduling enough time to sleep is as important as scheduling time to study or write the day’s word count goal. Make sure to stay hydrated by drinking water, not just cup after cup of coffee, and to eat real food.

For college students, November is full of stressful school projects and preparing for the spring semester. Taking on a writing marathon at the same time will be hard work, but it should be enjoyable hard work. Make sure to take breaks when you need them. Putting a self-challenge writing project to the side is better than letting yourself burn out, believe me.

2. Take advantage of the opportunities and resources that are available.

The purpose of NaNoWriMo is to make time for your writing. Whether or not you participate, writers can use this spirit of dedication at any time of the year. Give yourself permission to skip the occasional social event to write 1,000 words instead. Use Netflix as a reward for when you finish something, not for procrastination. Carry a small notebook with you or write on your phone while on the bus or waiting in line. Schedule twenty minutes between study sessions or class periods to sketch out the day’s mini creative project. Developing these habits allows us to take ourselves seriously as writers. NaNoWriMo gives us permission to carve out time for our passion and let our first draft be imperfect.

What makes NaNoWriMo attractive is that there is a community of writers out in the world who are also visibly making time for creativity. Through the event’s official website, you can find local write-ins, online forums, social media posts, and pep-talks from established writers to support you. This support does not have to be limited to NaNoWriMo. Instead, NaNoWriMo can serve as a way to practice developing a support system for the rest of the year. Get in contact with local writing communities through social media or your university, follow writing blogs you find inspiring, and create a list of author role models. Store those writing relationships and resources for the long winter ahead.

3. Success is in the eye of the beholder.

As a NaNoWriMo participant, I have only won the 50,000 word challenge once. As a student, I am a great believer in personal successes. My goal for November may be very different from the goals of other NaNoWriMo participants in my area. Maybe I will write 15,000 words by November 30th . Maybe I will finish one short story during this month. For me, completing these goals will still be an accomplishment. 50,000 words is a worthy goal, but any extra words I write this month will be words I might not have written otherwise.

The world needs flash fiction, short stories, narrative essays, blog posts, and prose poems just as much as it needs 50,000 word novels. Get out there and try writing something new this November! Word count doesn’t have to hold you back.

And remember: there is always the camp session of NaNoWriMo in the summer.

13th Floor Magazine: The Meaning of Our Name

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By: Madison Larimore

October is special. Fall has settled in, the leaves are turning, Halloween is fast approaching, and another Friday the 13th is behind us. This time of year like no other marks change, transition, tradition, and superstition, and this October, we are thinking about our origins.

13th Floor Magazine was born in 2013. The original members, all graduated now, were searching for a unique, evocative name to call their new publication. One of the members lived on the thirteenth floor of an apartment building in downtown Omaha. 13th Floor Magazine had a nice ring to it, and though it was important that the publication name was catchy, it was more important for it to be meaningful.

The number thirteen has a bad reputation, scaring people so much with the threat of bad luck that most thirteenth floors are skipped altogether. But it can also be thought of as a number associated with things that are strange, misunderstood, weird, quirky, or unexpected. We strive to make our magazine just that—an outlet where students can be honest, creative, and best of all, where they can defy expectations.

This magazine doesn’t skip floors. We do not exclude. We embrace and we celebrate.

Share your unique voice with us by our next publication deadline: Halloween.

Publishing Tips

By: Kelsey M. Bee

As writers, many of us can agree that the publishing process is exciting, but at times, it can be equally panic-inducing. So often do we pour ourselves into that one piece that inevitably becomes a tender extension of ourselves. We owe it to that piece to let it breathe outside of our notebook; we know it deserves a life beyond our laptop. But then, we start to think about the logistics of sending that piece out, and the alarms in our heads go off: How do I go about doing this? What if it gets rejected? What if it gets accepted?!

When it comes to publishing, it is okay—normal even—to feel a little out of the loop. Publishing know-how comes with trial and error, familiarizing oneself with the market and the process, and consistent research. Below are some tips that might help those who are considering sending out pieces for publication, to 13th Floor Magazine or otherwise.

Tiered Lists

To help combat some of the fear and frustration, it is a good idea to compile a tiered list of journals or magazines in which you hope to be published. This list, which often has three or four tiers, enables you to narrow down the possible outlets for your work while also pushing you to research the publications. If that sounds tricky or time consuming, that’s because it is. Luckily, websites like Duotrope, Submittable, and Poets&Writers have gathered information about numerous publications, their submission deadlines, and any upcoming writing contests. These sites are great starting points for crafting your own tiered list. It will help you assess which publications are top-tier, second-tier, or third-tier. This might depend on the reputation of the publication, but it can equally depend on what you value in an outlet for your creative work.

Submission Guidelines & Masthead

When sending out your work, it is imperative to look through each journal’s submission guidelines and masthead. Often times, submissions can get rejected for not adhering to the guidelines, and we can all probably agree that if we are to get a rejection letter, we’d rather it be for the actual work rather than submitting incorrectly. Many publications have a masthead, or a Meet the Staff page, which identifies editors and their specific positions. If this is available, it is beneficial to know a little bit about which editors will likely be reading your piece. Additionally, it might be a good idea to address your cover letter to the lead editor of the genre that corresponds to your piece.

Attend Conferences

One way to help ease the stress of sending work out for publishing is to attend conferences. This can sometimes be expensive, but universities frequently offer travel funding for students, and it is definitely worth looking into. Conferences are a great place to network with fellow writers—established or up-and-coming—with representatives from MA or MFA programs, and with representatives from literary magazines or journals. Although networking might seem just as frightening as sending work out for publication, it can be a lot of fun even for the most introverted of writers. Conferences are great opportunities for like-minded people to learn from one another about the ins and outs of our industry, something that has proved invaluable over and over again.

If you’re feeling nervous about publishing fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, that’s natural and understandable. Just be sure it doesn’t hold you back from submitting your work.

The Spirit of the City: Kings of Broken Things

 

By: Phil Brown

By trade, Omaha’s Theodore Wheeler is a civil law and politics reporter. That background shines through his moonlight work in fiction. An alumnus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who received his M.F.A. from Creighton University, Wheeler has seen publication in various literary magazines across the country, and published a fiction chapbook and a short story collection in the past two years. This August he published his debut novel, Kings of Broken Things, through Amazon’s new literary imprint, Little A.

Representing seven years of work according to the author, Kings is ambitious in scope, attempting to wrangle the entire sprawling city of Omaha into focus a few years into the 20th Century. Wheeler writes about a time fraught with sweeping change and social upheaval, and a particularly formative time for the young city of Omaha, Nebraska. On his website, Wheeler professes the desire to channel DeLillo, Denis Johnson, and Colum McCann, and Ralph Ellison in his work. While he may not yet be included in that pantheon, Kings certainly doesn’t lack for trying.

The narrative follows a few main characters around the city as social tensions rise. There’s Karel, a recently immigrated adolescent from Europe; Jake, a farm boy come to make it big in the city; Evie Chambers, a kept woman who dwindles in a lonely brownstone; and even a few chapters devoted to the infamous Tom Dennison, a true ghost from Omaha’s past: crime lord, political boss, real-life supervillain. The experience a city far removed from the one we know now, but one that resonates with it, a distant echo.

We read about Karel’s attempts to adjust to life in America, learning baseball, attempting to care for his sickly younger sister, and always striving to fit in with the rest of them. Jake begins to sink into the city’s underworld, working for Dennison, sometimes dirty work. Evie works to survive as well, in a part of town not too hospitable to young women. They have intertwining connections to each other; Jake mentors Karel, Jake and Evie strike up an affair, Dennison looms over all.

The spirit of Omaha in the novel is much the same as it is now, although it may not be immediately recognizable. The town grew due to the hunger for growth and labor caused by its position as “Gateway to the West.” The restless insatiability of the city for resources is well-captured in the novel. The plight of laborers, many of whom are immigrants or racial minorities brought in cynically to break the backs of domestic workers, is clearly drawn. The ugly racism and violence that followed as a result of the domestic workers’ fear, instability, and weakness, is also indelibly marked. This is the heritage of Omaha.

Wheeler’s prose is often evocative, particularly when writing about Karel, his youngest protagonist. Rarely a wrong note is struck with his description of the young immigrant’s adjustment to life in Nebraska. Most memorable are the passages devoted to baseball. Even readers who don’t appreciate the sport will have to grudgingly respond to the game as Wheeler writes it. Karel, his adventures, and his young friends, are the strongest parts of the novel.

Old Man Tom Dennison, too, is well-rendered. Presented as pragmatic before anything else, and with a staunch refusal to chew the scenery too much, Wheeler’s Dennison is a cold, yet still human, worthy antagonist. The novel is less effective in degrees when it studies Jake or Evie. The pair are more conventional characters, their plots often falling into well-worn grooves in the American fiction landscape. Nonetheless, time spent with them is rarely unpleasant.

Kings shines in the details: there’s a sense of thoroughness throughout the book, of solidity. Wheeler builds a city in the novel, brick-by-brick, and it feels authentic. Wheeler’s reporter’s hat doubtless comes in handy. The strength of his research and confidence in the city are what make this novel what it is.

Wheeler struggles in more turgid waters. His descriptions of the city vice district venture into the lurid and moralistic, like a graphic description of an aging sex worker in the opening few chapters. All too similarly, the sex scenes are blue without being particularly fun or interesting. These passages are clumsy foibles in an otherwise well-crafted work.

Kings of Broken Things is a highly evocative read, with its portrayal of the historical city of Omaha and its winsome young protagonists. It reminds us where we came from, all of us, and the forces that still run deep underneath our society. Many of us, like the young Karel, are immigrants or descendents of immigrants, and we face similar choices in our own lives. Imperfect like its subject, Kings nonetheless manages to capture this spirit and these messages in a way that leaves an impression, and leaves us anticipating Wheeler’s follow-up.

Kings of Broken Things
By Theodore Wheeler
Published 8.01.17
Little A
322 pages

Creative Writing + Nonfiction

By: Madison Larimore

My mom gets nervous at the thought of my concentration, creative nonfiction.

“Are you going to write about me? What are you going to say? Does the creative part mean you get to lie?” she asked, when I explained my degree to her for the fifth time.

I don’t blame my mom for having so many questions. I even find it difficult to answer those questions as a student who has studied the craft for three years. But creative nonfiction is not unfamiliar to us, no matter how hard to define the term may be.

The last time my mom asked me about it, I mentioned that the way we communicate on social media is a form of creative nonfiction: we use creative tools to best represent the nonfiction elements of our own personal lives.

In the craft of creative nonfiction, the creative tools are generally literary devices commonly found in fiction and poetry to tell the story well by crafting a scene, establishing character, etc. Of course, in creative nonfiction, the subject matter is true.

Creative nonfiction is not an oxymoron.

In other words, nonfiction, or the truth, does not have to be told boring and lifeless, and good writing does not have to be made up or imagined to be creative. Creative nonfiction can have literary merit, and those pieces that do represent the truth in a way that allows the reader to experience it in the most realistic, purposeful way possible. Creative nonfiction gives you an opportunity to directly expand your perspective through experiencing a piece of someone else’s.

In creative nonfiction, instead of the imagination, our main tool is memory. That’s where we get the term memoir, which is one of the largest sub-genres within the autobiography category. Another popular sub-genre is the personal essay, which commonly explores a question in the writer’s life. Sometimes you will hear both creative nonfiction and fiction referred to as prose, as opposed to poetry.

At the University of Nebraska at Omaha, students are lucky to have two departments with programs in creative nonfiction: the Writer’s Workshop in CFAM and the English department in ASH. Both of these departments are great resources to learn more. And of course, 13th Floor magazine, our campus literary magazine, publishes creative nonfiction. If you have any questions, please email me, the Lead Creative Nonfiction editor, at mlarimore@unomaha.edu.