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North American Review

One question I ask other writers is what sounds stimulate their writing––silence, electronica, mud pools, rain showers, foreign film soundtracks, a woman in the next room boiling water. This is because I have a particular kind of synesthesia, known as chromesthesia, in which many pieces of music I hear are twinned with distinct visual experiences. There are exceptions, and in those cases, the sounds can induce a full range of emotional responses with no visual complements. Occasionally,...

WAKE: WORLD, ARRIVED

Reality, divided into light and matter.
A moment travels from the universe’s birth.

A massless noun converts into light, then reverses.
This, the moment when the universe begins

to shine. Mother’s voice whispering by the crib,
brushing with my first series of particulars.

A probability turns true, tips and flashes
slicing the light into particles it daringly

hails through. Father, teaching me to...

Si le feu était à la maison, que sauveriez vous?

--Je sauverais le feu. – Jean Cocteau

Somehow the conversation comes around to fire. Our coresident Kevin McIlvoy, a novelist and editor, has posted this quote on his website.

‘If your house was burning and you could only save one thing, what would it be?’

‘I would save the fire.’

-Jean Cocteau, in response to an interviewer.

It’s late at night and we’ve gathered...

I used to think that my task as a writer was to form a piece. To shape it. To give it any meaning and chance for beauty it might have by allowing paragraphs and a story arc to determine its direction.

But I was wrong.  It was exactly the opposite. A piece of writing, in fact, often forms us. Our work shapes us, not the other way around. We need to return to our “finished” work as if it were a calibrated compass showing us where we ought to go.

...

Long ago, I became a collector of words and visual images, especially black-and-white photographs.  I keep my journal with me at all times to record beautiful imagery, arresting details, and anything that makes me question life in a way that demands a story.

Below are selected steps from a prewriting journal exercise I designed to begin an original story using black-and-white photographs as creative inspiration.

I hope this exercise will be as fun and as...

The poem “Outside Yet Another Window” was written at the beginning of 1984 when I worked for the BBC Monitoring Service in Reading as a Russian monitor listening in to Soviet radio broadcasts. I’d left the Soviet Union in 1971 at the age of twenty one; my monitoring work brought back many memories, images and words from my childhood and youth, with the immediacy of all my senses, alert, bared, vulnerable.

Born in Estonia, brought up in Latvia and educated in Moscow, in all of which...

I get most of my ideas when traveling, in a car, on foot, on a plane, no matter.

On the interstate one day, I was passed by a Doritos 18-wheeler. I liked the graphics. Then a truck pulling a trailer piled high with milk crates. Soon after at a rest stop I noticed a young man playing guitar at a picnic table in the shade. These images struck me as peculiarly American, anecdotal evidence. Of something.

It’s usually just one, the image or thought that inspires the conceit for a...

Refugee

A pun, nearly everyone agrees, is a play on words.  Apart from the fact that the phrase “a play on words” is a good working definition of the art of poetry, this definition conceals more than reveals the functions and achievements of the pun.  In fact, defining a pun that way is like defining a dictionary as an alphabetized and annotated word list, for most readers not only find that volume often useful, but we also regard the dictionary as a monument of discovery, wonder, and entertainment...

I wrote my first book manuscript, Return of the Lost Son, in nine years over a fifteen-year period. It’s a memoir of my father’s life told through an ensemble of characters. I began writing the book in Mexico City in 2000. I was 28 years old, living in Mexico for a stay of six months, with my wife, Jennifer Jolly, an art historian. We had traveled to Mexico one or two times, previously, for about a week. In “My Own Lost Mexico,” I wrote about those first pressing questions about...

I remember when Allen Ginsberg sold his old letters and notes and drafts to a library archive for a million dollars, or something like that. A lot of people complained that he had “sold out.” Many of my older literary pals sold their materials for big bucks as well: Norman Mailer, James Michener, Joseph Campbell, and John Updike. I assume American Nobelists Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck did the same thing. In the old days, that’s what happened. After a lifetime of writing literature...

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