Reading

Life On Mars Review

By: Henry Nunn

Before the book is even open, Life on Mars offers a sense of its existential heft. An image of the Cone Nebula: taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The turbulent mass of gas and dust has the potential to produce stars and planets—perhaps, to produce life. In her third collection of poetry, Tracy K. Smith explores grief and what it means to be human through a masterful conceit of space. She honors the life of her father, Floyd William Smith, who worked as an engineer on the Hubble Telescope. She questions the nature of God—a nature that seems to be shared with humanity. She celebrates the otherworldly zest of David Bowie and pries at the overstimulating political and social fabrics of the 21st century. She ponders reincarnation through the immutable laws of energy and mass conservation. By the book’s end, the reader is able to share in the cosmic tension one experiences looking into endless space, overcome by the fundamental paradoxes of existence and time’s inescapable transformations. And yet, there is still hope to enjoy life as simply as we sometimes know it to be.

“The Weather in Space”, the collection’s opening poem, introduces the final frontier as a metaphor to signify a state of being, a state of mind—a place of perpetual suspense and possibility, and yet emptiness. In the collection’s elegies to Smith’s father, such a representation of grief is especially compelling. While there is no “weather” as we know it in outer space, solar winds, magnetic fields, and other extraterrestrial phenomena are frequently referred to as space weather. These unpredictable behaviors caused by the Sun move the speaker to reflect on her life: “When the storm/ Kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing…/”. This sense of awe, and perhaps fear, in the face of forces beyond control seems to be embraced, or at least appreciated, by the speaker in the final lines of the poem: “After all we’re certain to lose, so alive—/ Faces radiant with panic.”

In “Solstice”, the speaker turns her cosmic lens to the United States. The title’s lack of specificity is worth noticing. Is this is the longest or shortest day of the year—the brightest or the darkest? The villanelle addresses the gassing of geese that were interfering with flights to and from the JFK International Airport in New York City and the protests following the 2009 Iranian presidential election. Ultimately, the poet uses the intertwining form to muddy the speaker’s perspective and overwhelm the reader: “So much of what we’re asked is to obey—/ A reflex we’d abandon if we could./ The Times reported 19 dead today.” At this point in the poem, the reader is unclear whether the “19 dead” refer to the geese or to people killed in the protests in Iran. This confusion is intentional; the poet wants to highlight the effects of humanity’s extraordinary leaps in technology and political investments on the everyday citizen. The speaker seems to fight against this apparently unstoppable progress but is unsuccessful. “We dislike what they did at JFK./ Our time is brief. We dwindle by the day.”

The range of subject matter in this collection is staggering. The existential poems are balanced by a lightness that can be found in various David Bowie cameos (e.g. “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?”—in fact, the title of the collection is taken from Bowie’s song “Life on Mars?”) and references to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that lightness does not compromise the dignity or emotion of the collection. Smith crafts an impressive balance of emotion and enlightenment with such a technical prowess and raw artistic talent—it is no surprise that she is the current Poet Laureate of the United States.

Life on Mars was originally published in 2011 and received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2012. One of those genuine examples of greatness, it is a collection that stands out among other collections of the 21st century for its potent imagination, technical brilliance, and visceral emotion. It is a rare work of genius that is accessible to readers of all backgrounds and interests.

Make Writing Your New Year’s Resolution

By: Breany L. Pfeifer

Happy New Year!

Ringing in the new year is a great way to start 2018 off on the right foot. With that being said, what are your goals for 2018? More specifically, what are your writing goals for this fresh new year?

As writers, it is important to set valuable and realistic goals for yourself. You may often have peers, mentors, instructors, or other writers tell you to “write every day,” and they are right. What better way is there to improve your writing besides practice?

I get it; it’s not easy to feel inspired to write every day, and it may be difficult to find the time. However, writing is a great way to relieve everyday stress, and is an amazing way to vent or escape reality. Consider making writing each day your new year’s resolution.
Here are five things to help you keep writing—whether it’s journaling, writing poetry, making short stories, or writing a full novel:

1. Set a daily word count. Whether its 500 words or 2000 words. Give yourself a challenge, but keep it realistic. If you know you don’t have time to write 1,600 words per day, set your goal to 700, and don’t stop writing until you reach that number.

2. Make a specific writing time, and find a comfy place. Perhaps you have free time at 6:00 p.m. every day. Spend that time writing non-stop, until you feel ready to be done. Also, find a spot to write. Whether it’s in your living room, kitchen, the coffee shop down the street, or your roof (be safe up there), find an inspiriting location you love, and make it your writing space.

3. Don’t push yourself too hard, but stay persistent. As previously stated, make sure your goals are realistic, but challenging. If you find writing 500 words per day too easy, bump up to 700 or 1,000. Challenge yourself to write in a genre outside of what you usually write. For example, if you normally write fiction, try a day of poetry. You could even spend a day revising some of your previous work. Whatever you do, don’t stop writing!

4. Determine what plotting method works for you. This doesn’t only apply to only story or essay writers. Poets can choose a “topic” to write about. This is when you must ask yourself: “Do I prefer to create outlines and plot out my work? Or, do I want to put the pen on paper and let my hand and mind soar freely?” Knowing which method you use may help you create your best work.

5. Surround yourself with other writers. You don’t have to know New York Times Bestselling authors to find yourself some writing buddies. Look for a local workshop group, or a writer’s group on Facebook to make some new friends. Find a workshop pen-pal to share your work with and discuss ideas. If you’re a student, join a writing club. If you already know some other writers, take the initiative and invite them to have coffee one day and talk about writing. Getting involved in a writing community will inspire you to do more with your creations.

On Summer Writing Workshops

By: Sophie Clark

In the summer of 2017, I was willing to try anything. During the semester prior, I had become distant to my writing and decided to devote my free time in the summer to attending poetry workshops and traveling. First, I planned to attend the Juniper Summer Writing Institute at UMass Amherst for a week in June. Then, in July, I signed up for a weekend workshop at the University of Iowa in Iowa City for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. I anticipated a summer of inspiration and dreamed of meeting and learning from well-known writers as well as finding the path to becoming one myself.

At UMass Amherst, I was placed in a poetry workshop with Timothy Donnelly (Author of The Cloud Corporation). For a week, I would attend a craft talk in the morning, a workshop in the afternoon, and enjoy a reading by a contemporary writer in the evening. I found the writers involved in the program to be wonderful and the attending students encouraging. However, while I was there, I noticed I had done very little writing. Although I attempted to write in my free time, I felt too intimidated to write amongst the attending writers and decided to settle for taking a lot of notes instead. At the end of the week, I was glad to have gained a lot of books and information but was ultimately disappointed that I didn’t write more.

After my experience at Juniper, I had not given up hope on my Iowa Summer Writing workshop experience. I planned to do nothing but write for an entire weekend. Although I ended up writing a bit more because my group was writing from prompts in our workshop, I still wasn’t writing from that great source of inspiration I had hoped to find there. Again, I settled for mostly taking notes and exploring the city.

At the end of the summer, I was left with a good amount of books and a good amount of advice written in my notebook. In the coming semester, I would learn my inspiration was just around the corner and that I would soon find my voice in writing once again. Since that summer, I’ve not only learned that you cannot force inspiration but also that you cannot simply expect it. I was waiting for something to happen to me while, in truth, I had to make it happen myself. While I would recommend attending these workshops if you have the time and money, I would also advise you to truly make it worth your resources. Work hard while you’re there and try to get into good writing habits you can stick with afterward. And if you are unable to attend these workshops (which many of us college students are), know that if you work hard, you can gain the same knowledge on your own. Your greatest inspiration is waiting for you, but you ultimately have to find it for yourself.

‘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.