Grist would like to congratulate contributor Erin Hoover, who won the Bronze Florida Book Award in Poetry! You can see the announcement here: http://floridabookawards.lib.fsu.edu/. Congratulations, Erin!
Stephanie Anderson’s One Size Fits None: A Farm Girl’s Search for the Promise of Regenerative Agriculture forwards an old idea repurposed for a century of people wondering what to do to create sustainable food sources. The non-fiction work blends memoir, scholarly argumentation, and interviews to demonstrate that in the face of widespread ecosystem destruction caused, in part, by highly technological practices of consumption, we need a better way of doing argiculture. The idea is a holistic process of farming that privileges the health of the soil, the local economy, and the creation/growth of new life, which Anderson calls regenerative agriculture.
It represents a turn back, a turn towards an integrated way of living that cannot accept globalism’s emphasis on the large and the total. Also unacceptable is the unbarred consumption of food or technological and mundane goods that mark our contemporary society. Regenerative agriculture is a way of living-by-doing, as traditionalist as it is radical to the modern consciousness—conditioned as that consciousness has been by liberalism’s drive toward so-called “liberation” from all possible restraints, an emphasis on bigger instead of better, and a default of centralization instead of decentralization. Anderson critiques this consciousness, thinking through bioregionalist tendencies, and labeling the politics of her work a one-size-fits-none approach to living and farming.
As the farm girl of the book’s subtitle, Anderson reflects on both her experiences growing up on a South Dakota ranch as well as on her interviews with famers and ranchers in Florida and South Dakota. Anderson structures her book dialectically; balancing narrative interviews with her own analysis of the state of agriculture in the United States and the world, she demonstrates through hyper-local examples how “[r]egenerative agriculture…creates new life and resources—and it is already leading the next wave of green food production” (xiii). She argues for moving beyond notions of sustainability, which have themselves become so fraught with sustainability and mainstream hipness that they no longer are (and never were, as Anderson shows) enough to restore the land or defend against the eventual desertification of our environment.
Rather, Anderson demonstrates by traveling to several farms that model her idea of regenerative agriculture that our focus needs to shift to a more holistic theory of land management, one that accounts for the entirety of a local ecosystem. From the soil to the plants to the animals to the humans (habitation, labor, economy), a holistic or regenerative theory of land management would, according to Anderson, lead to a set of practices that attends to all of the individual parts that makes up an ecosystem before making decisions regarding the health of that ecosystem. It would also lead to factoring those individuals holistically into the larger ecosystems of which theirs is a part. Isolating anything, Anderson argues, echoing Allan Savory’s Holistic Management (1999), would be to act both without meaning and without an understanding of the vast complexity of local (not to mention global) ecosystems.
This theory of land management is reminiscent of Albert Schweitzer’s oft-quoted idea from his Philosophy of Civilization (1923), “True philosophy must start from the most immediate and comprehensive fact of consciousness: I am life that wants to live, in the midst of life that wants to live” (156). The embeddedness of beings in the midst of other beings reflects what would later become Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, wherein an act is right when it preserves the integrity and stability of the biotic community, an ethic Leopold developed in the eponymous essay, “The Land Ethic” (1949). Clear from both Schweitzer and Leopold is the emphasis on local ecologies, a scale in which an individual’s behavior can have a real effect on their dwelling places and something to which Anderson returns throughout her work. Anderson shows this kind of attention to stability of the biotic community within local ecologies in her chapters covering the need to end CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). In their place, we ought to structure ranches and animal farms like the Great Plains Buffalo ranch, in which the animals are able to roam and graze as they naturally would (without human intervention). This process in turn enlivens the grass and other plants, allowing for healthier animals, healthier land, and healthier botanical life. Additionally, depending on where one farms in the country, this process likely would look different due to the differing bioregions which make up the United States.
Essential, then, to her book is the idea that “[t]here is no one-size-fits-all approach in practicing [regenerative agriculture]” (xiii) and that instead of imposing policies on ecosystems from far away, we should rather work from the literal soil upwards in order to determine how we should act towards and in concert with the land. Consumption would have to take a second seat, and economies that prioritize fast and convenient access to goods would have to reorganize. “Big Argiculture” would have to be dismantled; notions of bigness and the agricultural standard of “get big or get out” would have to be rigorously defended against by local policies and an insistence on local rather than national government of agricultural policy. Each ecosystem, Anderson argues as evidence for her one-size-fits-none-thesis, “will have unique needs and thus provide different crops and livestock” (264). This fact is relatively obvious if we consider that a fruit like oranges can’t or won’t grow in an ecosystem like that of the Pacific Temperate Rainforests, but they will in a Humid Subtropical ecosystem, like that of Florida.
For Anderson, this allows us to avoid the fallacy of composition (wherein one erroneously believes that something is true of the whole because it is true of a part) when we approach policy and interacting with people in different and diverse ecosystems. “Diversity,” she writes, “will make our food system stronger and better equipped to handle, crop failures, market collapses, and climate change” (264). In other words, we shouldn’t all try to serve the same “niche markets” because we simply can’t—not if we hope to preserve the integrity and stability of local ecosystems (not to mention enabling their regeneration).
While this persuasive and essentially conservative (read: conservation- and stability-oriented) idea about agriculture and land ethics is presented with clear and interesting examples, One Size Fits None could use more and diverse kinds of research to balance the hyper-local examples on which Anderson structures her book. Additionally, a clearer elucidation of who exactly her audience is would assist Anderson in strengthening the argument for a regenerative agriculture to be widely adopted. As an initial illustration of what regenerative agriculture could and does look like in practice, One Size Fits None is an invaluable resource, a step in the right direction of imagining alternative way of doing and organizing life around the soil and farming.
by Stephanie Anderson
University of Nebraska Press
John C. Nichols is Graduate Teaching Associate and PhD Candidate at the University of Tennessee, where he specializes in ecocriticism and American literature as well as theories of place, regionalism, and landscape ethnoecology. While he was the John Hurt Fisher research fellow at Tennessee, he assisted with the development of the Literary Knox website and walking tour. He is currently writing a dissertation on landscape agency, ecosystemic ethics, and regional American literature. He has published a brief essay on the dialectics of control in Sergio de la Pava’s 2008 novel A Naked Singularity at The Curator.
Atypical Cells of Undetermined Significance (C&R Press, 2017)
unfurls like a person aging, unfolding, unraveling, becoming
It is essay and poetry and lyricism in word and line and form choice.
It is voice.
One voice for the one who forgets what she was searching for only the night previous. “It’s true, I call my mother, drunk, to ask about/her god, but the next day/I don’t remember my questions, or her answers;/ I can’t recall the shape of the moon” (35).
One voice for the one who has a friend to give her a ride home. “The doctor asked okay, then paper cut./Paperweight on paper plate;/ she held the nurse’s hand./In the recovery room, no vinegar/or brown paper bag, but a cookie/for the sugar in her glass-paper blood./A friend drove her home to thick pads/papered over Hanes Her Way” (21).
One voice for the one who has felt nothing at all. “It was six pumps before, I’m coming—syllables flaking from his lips like soup crackers: Baby, baby, baby. When he rolled off me his dick slapped wet against my thigh, and he put his hand on mine. Smiling, sweaty, he said, You don’t wanna wait to clean up. It’ll run right out of you. The only thing I hadn’t expected was for it to feel like nothing at all” (39).
These voices come together to tell the story of one body. This body finds itself literally in the hands of misogyny as its introduced to readers in the first essay of this hybrid chapbook of poetry and prose. This body’s gynecologist, too concerned with his own comfort to notice the ways in which his conversation and the conversation forced from this body causes it to become secondary, answers a phone call in a moment of diagnosis. His body is jean clad. His body condescends. His mouth speaks, “Think of it like I’m making a salad in your vagina” (6). It’s unclear whether this doctor is one male or many—he’s not named, remaining an ever present he—but this he, his body, becomes the symbol of what the female body is up against throughout this chapbook: always already positioned by a culture that is violent to and dismissive of it to consider this body secondary even to the one who resides within it. Womer takes these moments of presence and locates the reader at the axis of revelation. These quick truths tell readers Womer will no longer be secondary in her own body.
Atypical Cells of Undetermined Significance is a dictionary of one’s life.
Becoming: “For the first time my life was mine and not something I was living to honor someone else with, and while that was exhilarating, it also instigated a passionate revolt against the life my mother and grandmother had settled into. I was—am—terrified of being owned. By a god or a man or a child or a place. By anyone or anything but myself” (10).
Condescension: “He draws a house and a stoop and a path to the front gate, to the curbside mailbox. He draws a stick figure one step down from the door. This is you, he says, pointing to the stick. The house is healthy, and the mailbox is cervical cancer. I’m trying to keep you from checking the mail. He hands me the drawing. For your fridge, he says (5-6).
Family: “I didn’t know the reasons she was sad was because she couldn’t bring herself to leave my father, and I didn’t know the reason she couldn’t leave him was because I loved him too much, loved him enough for the both of us. You were the glue” (12).
Love: “We were together for a summer, the first one he’d ever spent away from his two little girls who were downstate with their mother. He called her my ex on our first couple of dates and then Sally for a handful after that, but it wasn’t long before she was back to being Sal—a name I thought too endearing for someone he was trying not to love anymore” (34).
Maturation: “I want to be a mother before my daughter learns what she is to the world, before she gets angry at me for telling her the way things are, for breaking that beautiful spell as my own mother did. Before she spreads her legs for the first, the could-be, the why-won’t-you, the true, the broken, and the anything-to-fill-this-hole kinds of love. We are not princesses” (23).
The fusion of body to being is present throughout this stunning debut book. It seems to ask, over and again, how do I inhabit? And, then, it tells readers how to do this inhabiting. It must come from a rejection. It must come from an acceptance. It must come from a place of truth. The body of this book smells like flour and brewed coffee. Like gray November mornings. It smells like shamed woman who’s just had sex. Like blood and trapped butterflies, weed and tissue paper, vinegar, cookies, like the one who checks the body’s pulse and decides it is beating exactly at the rate it was always meant to.
This book rips and it tears again and again. It’s willing to explore the one given body as truth. Willing to own the everyday and that one specific day in 1999, that one in 2001, the other in 2003. What is a synonym for having a writer’s eye like a seam ripper? What is a synonym for the feeling that comes from hearing eggs break? The synonym for refusing to turn away? In these pages, Brenna Womer tears at her past. Explores her body and owns it a way that seems both an act of self-love and revolution. I will read these pages again. And the next piece she writes. And the one after. I believe you should too.
Atypical Cells of Undetermined Significance
by Brenna Womer
$10.00, pp. 54
Shane Stricker holds an MFA from West Virginia University and is in his second year of coursework toward a PhD at the University of Tennessee. He was a 2016 fellow at the Writing by Writers Workshop at Tomales Bay. His work appears in The Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Midwestern Gothic, Moon City Review, and other magazines and journals.
Erin Hoover fearlessly explores and reports on the experiences of a young Millennial woman entering adulthood in her debut full-length collection of poems. The overall structure of the book is a three-part narrative that steadily grows in intensity from smolder to burn and finally culminates in a bonfire resulting from the succession of poems that function as self-igniting matches.
barn + burner, from the idea of burning down a barn to get rid of a rat infestation.
slang, chiefly Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, Maryland: a strike-anywhere match.
In a style that is both journalistic and confessional, Hoover addresses subjects such as female commodification, intimacy, and the politics of motherhood to name a few. The speaker’s voice recounts the liminal experiences of a Millennial woman standing at the threshold of adulthood with one foot situated in patriarchal materiality, another wading in third wave feminism as she navigates a burgeoning digital simulacrum on the horizon, questioning the very nature of humanity.
In Part 1, “The Lovely Voice of Samantha West” portrays the speaker working at a call center that eventually outsources jobs overseas with the help of an automated Americanized program referred to as Samantha West, a voice modeled after Doris Day. Here, the speaker first encounters the female body as a product to be utilized as an instrument of capitalism, “…The call center made me an/ expert in my voice’s currency, what I could/ do with its pitches and pauses…” all the while navigating the threat of losing her job to technology “Are you a robot? Samantha West was not/technically a robot…/…her voice vibrated in the
terrifying space between barely and fully/ human.”
The poem “Girls,” much like the actual T.V. series, begins with an unapologetic tone, “The point isn’t that so-called ugly girls/ get laid on HBO, but their mishaps, that if/ the single one is funny, a slew of them looks downright ambitious.”
Later, in “Livestock,” the speaker flashes back to a scene, quotes Neil Diamond fat-shaming her mother after bumping into him at a 1966 Farm Show “…Get this/ fat girl offa me.”
The speaker adds, “That’s one version/ of intimacy, a body invading/ another’s space, both recoiling/ from trespass as if scalded.”
While in the company of S. and her young son the book’s protagonist encounters the fossilized question “Why Don’t You Have Kids?” after the friend confesses that her husband “hurled a mug/ of coffee at her—” among other offenses. The speaker silently ruminates, “I know how I’m supposed to respond,/ like I know how to slice water/ cleanly with my arms and legs.”
Part 2 finds our protagonist working as a “Temp” where her “…only job [was] to smile at people who leaned/ on reception and talked about their kids.” Years later, she trudges along in another corporate office, watching her “…days fall away like molted feathers.”
In the poem “Gifts,” the speaker describes her mundane office work as, “each year peeling away a layer of girlish skin” and also maintains a long-distance relationship in “D=R x T,” a poem set in a series of major airports during long weekends in which she confesses, “…Neither of us [are] willing/ to dampen the thrill of a friend you never grow/ used to, the romantic weekends away that refuse/ to sink into a home’s worn upholstery. You and I/ will end.” Not surprisingly, this section culminates in a fertility clinic where the speaker brazenly refutes the traditional dyadic path to motherhood, “…Because the binary/ of women’s choices is false.”
By Part 3, the speaker has shifted from disillusionment to assertiveness as she calls out the gender inequity that she swims through daily in the poem “What Kind of Deal are We Going to Make?” She remarks, “It’s what a girl’s days/ are made of: What body part, this time?/ And what will I get for it?” She then confronts cyberbullying and sex-shaming in “Takedown” with her declaration “…As it ever was, the best methodology for devaluing a woman is to strap her body/ to the cum-stained mattress of your mind.” But the protagonist doesn’t just point fingers, in “What the Sisterhood Means to Me,” she acknowledges her own complicity in a flawed social system that had compelled her to protect the character of a former boyfriend in a “Stand By Your Man” situation, only to later realize that he “…knew/ what so many men know: if you don’t/ admit it then it’s not true.”
Throughout the book, the speaker’s voice evolves from a standpoint of introspection to empowerment as she pushes against the metanarratives of modern society.
As a Gen X female, I was delighted to journey with this young woman protagonist from a state of ambivalence to self-assured agency as she confronts not only the blatant hegemonic mechanisms of misogyny but navigates the nuances of compulsory heteronormativity, traditional gender ascription, meritocracy and more. Barnburner implores the reader not only to question, but to deconstruct a flawed cultural system, as the speaker remarks:
“Every day, now, more people are dying/ from cheeseburgers and chokeholds,/ and I have lived through/ so many wars about/ what people won’t say.”
Erin Hoover says it.
by Erin Hoover
Elixir Press, 2018
Stephanie Stanley Walls is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee. Her poems have appeared in Strongverse, Rat’s Ass Review: Love and Ensuing Madness, Cliterature Journal and elsewhere. You can find her at the dog park with Teddy, her Wheaten Terrier.
In these bittersweet, compelling stories, Virginia Pye’s characters long for that most elusive of states: happiness. A young skateboarder reaches across an awesome gap to reconnect with his disapproving father; an elderly painter executes one final, violent gesture to memorialize his work; a newly married writer battles the urge to implode his happy marriage; and a confused young man falls for his best friend’s bride and finally learns to love. As Jim Shepard describes it, “The characters … experience their lives as a tangle they urgently need to understand before it’s too late. They’re experts on how to keep their hearts in reserve . . . yet all they want is to access the appreciative tenderness that’s waiting for them within their best selves.” The book follows Virginia’s two published novels, Dreams of the Red Phoenix, set in China in 1937, the time of the Japanese invasion, and River of Dust, which takes place on the edge of the Gobi Desert in the early 1900s.
I first met Virginia two years ago when she read at Booklab, a literary salon I co-host in Boston. Recently we emailed about her forthcoming book.
KS: Often a writer works first in short fiction before moving onto the longer form of the novel. You seem to have worked in reverse, given that you published two novels before bringing out this story collection. How did you come to short fiction?
VP: You’re right that it’s wise for aspiring fiction writers to start by tackling the short story form before trying to write a novel, not that short stories are necessarily any easier to perfect than novels, but the shorter form makes them more manageable. I’ve written short stories for decades at the same time as working on various novels. I tend to write the stories when a gem of an idea strikes me; some instance of life’s ironies or moments of clarity through which a larger theme can emerge.
For example, at a neighborhood gathering in our backyard one Easter morning when my children were young, it came to my attention that my son had dug up a dead bird that he and his father had buried not long before. Now what do you do when life hands you a resurrected bird on Easter morning? You write a story!
KS: It’s interesting that you mention the story “Easter Morning.” I was quite struck by the boy’s anguish, and how the adults dealt with it, and it has stayed with me. In that vein, I often think about how a writer wraps her own life into her fiction and I’d like to ask you to weigh in on that, on where the line between experience and imagination falls. For instance, in “White Dog,” another of the stories, you depict interaction between an artist and an art dealer. Given your husband’s career in the arts, I imagine you have observed such interactions. On the other hand, I don’t imagine you have witnessed events as they unfold in the story. How do you catapult from one to the other?
VP: When I was writing about the far off world of historic China in my novels, I thought that readers might not assume that the story was about my family or me, but they did. My brother said to me that I had “gotten Dad’s childhood right.” “No!” I wanted to say, my novel isn’t my father’s childhood. It may be inspired by my family’s past, but fiction, to succeed, must be fully imagined.
The short stories are going to be even harder for readers to grasp as not from my life, because they’re set in the present and are about people like me. However, while some of these stories, like “Easter Morning” which I just described, were inspired by real moments, those moments are then transformed into a life of their own on the page. The way the imagination works is nuanced and complicated, never reductive.
I have a number of stories, including “White Dog,” that are about artists. Being life- partners with a modern and contemporary art curator (who is now a museum director) has meant that I have a lot of familiarity with the art world. But I often use “the artist” in my stories to play out themes that could just as easily apply to writers. The ongoing battle between art and life has always occupied my mind: how, as Yeats said, one chooses between perfection of the life or of the art. The old artist in White Dog shares his philosophy of life when he says that what matters most to him is “the lover’s quarrel with the work.” I believe that, too, because my work has been with me all these years and it matters to me almost as much as my family or friends. That’s a little surprising to admit, but it’s true. Anyway, these are the thoughts that occupy the artists in my stories and me.
KS: Another story, “An Awesome Gap,” left me astounded at your descriptions of skateboarding – what it feels like to do a trick in the air, all the lingo. Plus, what it feels like to be a teenage boy. Where did that understanding come from?
VP: My son is a serious skateboarder, sponsored by several national companies. It became his passion from the age of six onward. Every place we ever visited when on vacation, I’d always drive him to a skate spot because he needed to skate. It made him feel better to do so. It became very clear to me that his focus and dedication wasn’t unlike my own about writing, or any artist’s when pursuing his or her craft. So that story came out of exploring those same themes of life and art and how you communicate your passion to those around you—in the case of the story, the boy’s father.
Over the years, I learned a bit about skateboarding, but also, I had my son read the story before it went to press, and he corrected a few places where I had gotten the lingo wrong. It’s always good to engage primary sources when doing research!
KS: Speaking of your son and husband, many of your lead characters are male, and often the females play a subtler role, harder to pigeonhole. What were your thoughts about approaching male characters head on?
VP: Honestly, I’m not sure why I write about male characters with such relish. Maybe it’s a holdover from reading so much of the canon of male writers when I was learning to be a writer? Or maybe it’s because I have lived with a man for decades and have a son and yet men remain mysterious to me? Their lives seem worth exploring in fiction because I don’t instinctively understand them. I’m not sure of the answer, but hopefully I get it right, at least some of the time.
KS: I find endings to be one of the most difficult aspects of writing, but you manage to construct endings that are sometimes unexpected, often lyrical, yet not overly dramatic. Consistently they feel organic to the whole of the story. What is your secret to endings?
VP: Thank you for saying that. I work hard on the endings. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, the ending flows naturally out of the story. I can see where I’m headed as the story unfolds, and as a reward for getting all the threads woven into place, I can unfurl my banner in the final sentences. In novels, too, a writer has to wait until the later pages to “deserve” more elevated language. In a short story, the scale is much smaller, so the language can’t be too highfalutin. Still, you’re given some latitude to rise up at the end and venture into poetry. It’s a fine line, though, and I tend to revise the endings madly over many drafts. I guess I could say that I want the endings to sing quietly.
KS: When I opened the package that contained your book, I was overjoyed at how beautiful the cover was. How did you come upon this designer, and how did you work together?
VP: I’m delighted to share that my cover was created by my dear friend, former neighbor, brilliant artist, and experienced graphic designer, Margaret Buchanan of Buchanan Design in Richmond, Virginia. I was pleased when my publisher agreed to allow her to design the outside of the book. She came up with close to a dozen different designs and none seemed quite right to me. But she didn’t lose her patience and eventually proposed the extraordinarily haunting photo of the dying flowers. The colors, fonts, and placement of the words are all Margaret. Her designs are always sophisticated and beautiful. She has designed my website for years and our aesthetics are closely attuned. I hope she’ll have the opportunity to design other book covers, not just for me, but for anyone who wants a striking outcome.
KS: Tell me about Press 53. How did you find them, and what was it like to work with them?
VP: I have loved working with Press 53! Kevin Morgan Watson, the publisher and editor, is very smart about short stories, probably because the press focuses exclusively on short story and poetry collections. He offered clear editorial guidance, but also was flexible about some things, including having Margaret design the covers.
It was Kevin’s decision to put the story “Best Man” first in the collection, and Kirkus Reviews just confirmed that it is “a particularly strong opener.” Kevin really knows how to shape a collection. He cut three or four of the stories from the original manuscript and while that was a bit agonizing for me, I saw that he was right. He wanted this to be a tightly themed collection and I think it is in the end.
Mostly, I’ve grateful to him for accepting the book for publication at all! I had been a finalist twice for the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction and we both had the same idea that they should just go ahead and publish it, even though I didn’t win. But after working with him on Shelf Life of Happiness, I think we’d agree that the book is much stronger than it was when I first submitted it.
KS: Last question: is there a book for which you are an evangelist, which you recommend to everyone?
VP: I tend to go a little wild over whatever book I’m reading, if I’m enjoying and respecting it. I’ll rave about it, but then some weeks later I can no longer remember it very well, only that I admired it, which is probably because I read too many books at once. In any case, I don’t have one book that I always recommend to everyone, but I do have books that I carry around in my head and return to in my thoughts. First among them is Madame Bovary. Reading tastes are so personal, I don’t want to assume that everyone likes what I like, but it is wonderful that there are so many novels and story collections out there today that are brilliant. I feel honored to have Shelf Life of Happiness be in such great company!
Virginia Pye is the author of two award-winning novels, Dreams of the Red Phoenix and River of Dust, and the forthcoming short story collection, Shelf Life of Happiness. Her stories, essays, and interviews have appeared in The North American Review, The Baltimore Review, Literary Hub, The New York Times, The Rumpus, Huffington Post and elsewhere. She lived in Richmond, Virginia for many years and now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Find her online at www.virginiapye.com, FB, Twitter, and Instagram.
Kathleen Stone lives in Boston and writes nonfiction. Her essays, reviews and interviews have been published by Ploughshares, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Arts Fuse and the Timberline Review. She holds graduate degrees from the Bennington Writing Seminars and Boston University School of Law, and you can find her website is at www.kathleencstone.com.