It started with Nick Adams.
I discovered Nick while reading through the collected stories of Ernest Hemingway a while back, and it is his voice, more than any others in the Hemingway corpus, that sticks with me years later. Nick Adams is in many ways Hemingway’s alter ego. Like Hemingway, Nick grew up in a rural part of the Midwest that still felt like (that still was, perhaps) Indian territory. Like Hemingway, Nick had a doctor for a father. Like Hemingway, Nick’s father commits suicide when Nick is a boy – this is the subject, by the way, of one of Hemingway’s most arresting Nick Adams stories, “Fathers and Sons”. As Nick grows up, and the stories progress and begin to slightly contradict one another (these are distinct stories, after all, and were never meant to be a coherent novel) his life grows murkier.
The Nick Adams stories, though published as a complete volume in 1972 – years after Hemingway killed himself in a manner similar to his own father – were never meant, I think, to be read in one sitting. The Nick Adams stories were written over a period of decades – during, not coincidentally, Hemingway’s most productive and most fruitful period – and they are each one of them distinct, many of them gems. They can be read together, that is certain. But part of the beauty of these stories is how well they stand on their own, each one highlighting a facet of Nick’s character, a specific moment in time. A day, as it were, in the life.
Don’t get me wrong. It is a pleasure to piece these stories together, to chronologize them and evaluate them – and the character of Nick Adams – fully. But the real pleasure of these stories, for me, is in realizing that while they do not exist in solitude, they can and do stand alone as complete works of art.
Nick Adams hooked me on the episodic short story. By which I mean, as it should by now be obvious, the tale of an individual told over several loosely related episodes. Finishing a story – a good, well-written story – about a character both well developed and personally intriguing, and knowing that another story about that very same character is out there somewhere, has become, for me, one of the best feelings in the world.
One of the finest modern practitioners of the episodic short story was the late Leonard Michaels. Though Michaels is most well known for his 1981 novella of male angst, The Men’s Club, in my opinion his greatest achievement came near the end of his life, when he started chronicling the fictional life of a mathematician named Nachman. Nachman, a professor at Berkeley (where Michaels himself taught) is a lonely, trusting man who understands the most complex equations but cannot begin to comprehend the subtleties of human interaction.
Michaels, along with his character Nachman, pulls you in from the very first sentence of the very first story, and never lets go. Here is that first sentence, of the eponymously titled story, “Nachman”: “In 1982, Raphael Nachman, visiting lecturer in mathematics at the university in Cracow, declined the tour of Auschwitz, where his grandparents had died, and asked instead to visit the ghetto where they had lived.”
There may be a better first sentence to a short story in existence, but I don’t know what it is.
The Nachman stories, like those of Nick Adams, stand well (stand very well indeed) on their own. Pieced together, though, they really are something of a masterpiece. The seven Nachman stories Michaels completed before his untimely death can be found at the end of Leonard Michael’s Collected Stories. They are well worth the price of the book.
In my opinion, the most promising episodic short story sequence currently being published is being written by Nathaniel Bellows. Bellows is the author of On This Day – a beautiful, painfully moving novel of a pair of siblings who lose both parents in the same year – as well as a magnificent poetry collection, Why Speak. While I am a great fan of all of Bellows’ writing, it is his Nan stories that really blew me away.
Bellows has a strong New England sensibility. With his vivid evocations of cold Maine winters and lonely, ice-strewn landscape, the poet he most consistently reminds me of (in content if not in form) is Robert Frost. Wisps of Emersonian self-reliance – as well as, perhaps, tacit acknowledgments of self-reliance’s limits – also carry through his work. In his Nan stories, Bellows takes that lonely New England self-reliance and brings it to New York in the character of Nan, a magnificently drawn Columbia University undergrad who comes from a sheltered, broken (in ways that I won’t ruin for you here) lower-middle class Maine family.
Nan, like Bellows, comes from upstate New England. Also like Bellows, Nan comes to Columbia to study literature and to become a writer (Bellows received his MFA from Columbia). Nan, like Michaels’ Nachman, has a fundamentally good although somewhat naïve personality. In these stories, she faces a world, often complex and underhanded, that she does not (at first, at least) really understand. The beautiful imagery of the stories, as well as the slow-paced, heart-piercing development of Nan’s character, make these stories not simply delights but, I would argue, necessary reading.
The three Nan stories that have so far been published – here is a link to the first one, published in the excellent literary magazine Post Road – are uniformly fantastic. According to Bellows’ website, there are at least four more Nan stories awaiting publication. I am sure I am not the only one who eagerly awaits piecing the rest of the puzzle of Nan’s life together.
Nathaniel Bellows is the author of the novel, On This Day, and a collection of poems, Why Speak?.A line of poetry by Nathaniel: “It takes youth to witness such desperation and read it / as joy…”At a recent reading in New England, I was asked two questions that stumped me. They shouldn’t have, but they did. The first was: Why do you write both fiction and poetry and how are they different to you? The second one was: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?The questions weren’t necessarily complicated, but they brought up things I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about. Or, rather, things I haven’t spent time articulating to myself. As a result, my responses were pretty poor. To the first question I said that my fiction attempts to tell other peoples’ stories and my poems attempt to tell my own. This felt true, if overly simplified. The second question was harder and I answered: “I’m really not sure.”On the train ride home to New York, I thought a lot about the questions and my answers to them. After the train left Boston, it went through various neighborhoods and shopping districts outside the city limits, all of which seemed strung together by an endless line of telephone polls. These telephone polls brought back a memory I hadn’t thought of in years, of when I was a kid walking home from school just as it was getting dark and the streetlights were coming on. We lived in a small town back then and as I made my way down the quiet streets, the pools of light from the streetlights grew more and more distinct against the growing darkness. It was both terrifying and exciting, passing from shadow into light – being hidden and then revealed – knowing that at the end there was the safety of home.Thinking of this memory, I remembered how I’d described it to a high school fiction writing class years before as a way of explaining my approach to writing fiction. Like that street, the reader progresses forward in a story through passages of ambiguity and mystery, stopping periodically in stations of light and clarity, which the author has strategically placed along the way. The reader is urged forward through these opposite and sometimes uncomfortable states by the promise of a secure, however unknown, destination.After Providence, Rhode Island, the train tracks closely hugged the shoreline. The views of the marshes and ocean were beautiful. We passed by a beach, which was empty except for a couple and their dog. The dog ran along the waterline chasing after its toy; its dark coat against the white sand made me think of our old lab who used to follow us down to the cove near our house where we’d all go swimming.One of my most vivid memories of that place was from high school, just before I left for college, swimming after sunset. The water was calm and the wind was warm. I floated on my back a few yards from shore, listening to our dog chewing on driftwood, the wind rustling the leaves on the hillside, the water echoing in my ears. Slowly, the stars appeared in the sky above me – and then, somehow, all around me: blue and glowing, lifting with the gentle waves and spiraling around with the current. I was surprised but not afraid: I had seen this before – phosphorescent algae in the marshes and water in the area – but I had never swum in and among them. They were everywhere. The dark water pulsed with an otherworldly glow that seemed to surround and include and devour me all at once.I looked out the window of the train and over the winter ocean and thought: that’s what poetry is like – that feeling of being immersed in black water, shot through with tiny living lights. It seemed as truthful a comparison to my poetic aspirations as the memory of walking home on that lit street came to represent my approach to telling a story. These memories weren’t perfect analogs to why I’ve come to do what I do, and they couldn’t have served as sufficient answers to the audience members at the reading. But they were answers I felt grateful to come upon, embedded, as they were, in a version of myself that feels very far away.So in that way, I guess I did arrive at a response to that second question: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? I think I would have to say: when I was still very much a child.More National Poetry Month at The Millions
I like poets. At Iowa, they wore the best jewelry, they hosted read-aloud Shakespeare parties (alas, I never attended); some of them went shooting (I mean with real guns); many drank too much, fell in and out of love easily, danced well and terribly, talked John Donne. One poet I know kills turkeys for money. Another has impeccable finances and a mythic mother. In my worst days, I think fiction writers are merely diluted poets – heavily, and erroneously, diluted. Why do we need all these words, when a poet, with fewer, can say it better – or best?I’ve heard many bookish people proclaim that poetry scares or bores them, and I can’t understand it. Poetry is so pleasurable, so moving. Before going out, I love to say to Patrick, “Let us go then, you and I/ When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherised upon a table.” When I am annoyed, I consider “Purple Bathing Suit” by Louise Glück, with its final lines: “…I think/ you are a small irritating purple thing/and I would like to see you walk off the face of the earth/because you are all that’s wrong with my life/and I need you and I claim you.” A single word, said three times, can bring me to tears: “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.” (Oh, Robert Hass, you slay me!) I find that when I need to revitalize my own work, and recall what words can and will do, I turn to poetry. One of my favorite novels, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, is written in verse.And yet, I don’t read poetry regularly, and I rarely seek out new collections. Why not? Why has poetry retreated to school lessons and a thing for other poets to enjoy? It doesn’t seem right.So this:April is National Poetry Month, which means… I’m not sure. At The Millions, it means getting to know some very fine contemporary poets who have keen insight on all matters related to poetry. Over the course of the month, both emerging and established poets will share their thoughts. We will listen, and maybe take poetry with us, come May.This post will be the index for the series, and as we add our guest poets’ contributions to the site, we’ll link to them from this post. You can bookmark this post to follow the series from here, you can just load up the main page for more new poetry posts appearing at the top regularly throughout the month, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.Zach Savich author of Full Catastrophe LivingNathaniel Bellows author of On This Day and Why Speak?Terese Svoboda author of Weapons GradeMolly McDonald author of “Your Beautiful Grunt”Kiki Petrosino author of Fort Red BorderJamey Hecht is the author of Limousine, Midnight Blue: Fifty Frames from the Zapruder FilmDorothea Lasky author of AWE and the forthcoming Black LifeKazim Ali author of five booksRebecca Keith poetKwame Dawes is the author of fourteen books of poetry, including Hope’s Hospice, and many books of fiction, non-fiction and drama.