Monday, June 26, 2017

Claire Polders' Favorite "(Dead) Father" Flashes

Late this morning, I had a pleasant surprise. Writer Claire Polders wrote a list for the great literary journal SmokeLong Quarterly, examining her favorite "(Dead) Father" flash fictions.

She graciously included my 2016 story "Empire State Building," published in matchbook literary magazine. If you missed it the first time, you can read it here.

About my story, Claire wrote: "Should we hate or love our fathers for their lies, their exaggerations, their obsessions? In this touching story by James Yates, in which more is said than written, I was left pondering that interesting question."

Wow. Thank you, Claire! Plus, I'm just damn stunned to see my work sharing company with the likes of Mai Nardone, Lydia Davis, Steve Edwards, Aubrey Hirsch, Horia Gârbea, Sudha Balagopal, Emily Devane, Paul Maliszewski, and John Cheever.

Overall, this just reminds me to be more vocal about my appreciation for other writers. And don't ever think that a kind word or sharing a link to a favorite piece is an empty gesture; it can come at a crucial time for somebody. I've been in a very long, frustrating creative funk that I'm slowly coming out of, and having a writer kindly share my work was a much-needed boost.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Wigleaf Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions

Earlier this week, the literary journal Wigleaf announced their Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions 2017 list, selected by the wonderful Amber Sparks, who wrote a fierce, necessary introduction to her choices:

"Why stories? Why now? After all, the thinking seems to go – at least, in my social media hive mind – there are more pressing matters, more urgent issues. More rallies to attend, more phone calls to make, more abuses of power to resist. And all this is true – and it is urgent – and it is necessary to respond to the tyranny of the moment with all of our force and might and voice. At the same time, though, I feel certain that to lose our sense of story is to capitulate more absolutely in the face of fascism than any other surrender we might make. The stories we tell are the shape of the world, and the warning of the world to come or the hope of the world we might make. Writers have a unique gift to offer to a sick and sore society: the stories that can keep us alive."

I was caught by surprise when I realized my story "Love Bugs" was on the longlist of stories considered for the Top 50. Over the years, I've browsed and read some stellar writers on the Wigleaf 50 and the longlist, and seeing my name included this year, alongside some staggeringly talented writers, was strange and lovely.

Writing should never be about publications or recognition, but real talk: this year has been hard for me in a creative sense. I'm working on some new stories and even outlining a second novel, but none of my work has been accepted for publication, and the process of finding an agent and/or publisher for my debut novel has led to dead ends and radio silence. I know this is part of the game at times, but more than once this year, I've felt nervous, worried about what my writing is doing, and battling strange, random bouts of impostor syndrome. So, to see myself included on a longlist was touching, because it reminds me that I am doing good work (most of the time, anyway), and I just need to keep pushing and working.

Thank you, Wigleaf. And congratulations to the Top 50 writers! I can't wait to catch up on all the great work published in the last year.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Literary Magazine Project: Introduction

In the past, when I updated this blog regularly, I often did two things consistently: 1.) I'd have a great idea, say something along the lines of "I'll write about this soon!", and then never get back to it. 2.) I'd recognize this failure, claim to not make plans in writing, and then the cycle would repeat again.

But in this case, I'm taking on a smaller scale project for 2017, and I think the benefits I'll outline here have merit.

The accompanying photo shows two shelves of back issue literary magazines and journals. While I'm sure others have much more impressive collections, I have to admit that I haven't finished a lot of these. There are a handful that I've read front to back, some issues I've read selections out of, and some that I haven't touched. People love to talk about collecting books, and this word has spawned endless memes and book posts. But what about literary magazines? Are they counted as books, especially when piled up? Or should they be considered their own class?

This also came about because there are many books I want to reread this year, and I realized that nobody talks about rereading literary magazines. I'm not under the assumption that I'm doing anything unique or radical. This is my own project, to help myself as I put more emphasis on supporting the literary community that has supported me.

I'm not concerned with definitions; what I am concerned with is dusting off some older archives, and giving new attention to pieces that might not have been widely read in the last couple years. When literary magazines are published, they receive attention, hopefully some sales, but this often isn't sustained. The bump in sales and clicks is probably at its strongest when the issue debuts. What I'm hoping for is a renewal of this energy.

So for the rest of 2017, I'm going to read these all from beginning to end, and I'll document hidden gems, early pieces from now well-known writers, and give older literature a bump.

I'll also add to my collection as the year goes on, through single issues that I find and through subscriptions that I'll be taking out in due time. As for online literary journals, I'll work those in, but I'm not sure how. For now, the focus is on the printed, physical ones, especially in this age when not many journals still produce actual magazines.

I started this last night, and I already made a pleasant discovery: I'm reading a 2010 issue of Eleven Eleven Journal, and I read an early piece by Alissa Nutting, one of my favorite fiction writers. I'll include more analysis when I report back on the issue, but this is what I want: to see the early development of writers, and to discover names that have slipped under my radar. Maybe these are writers who are still widely published; maybe I'll fall in love with a story by someone who published one piece of fiction in 2012 and never published again.

I'll either do single issue recaps, multiple issue analysis, or a combination of the two. I might incorporate online magazines as well, but this will mostly be devoted to the physical copies, old and new.

If anything else comes to mind, I'll update this post accordingly. For now, I like this foundation, and I'm eager to really get it moving.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Role of Artists/Writers in the New Administration


I can't think of a better title for this, one that doesn't make me uneasy.

First of all, I know dozens, maybe hundreds of others have already written comments, essays, blog posts, and messages of this nature. Second, who am I to take on this topic, to outline ideas that are essential to any involvement within a creative community, whether said community is made up of writers, visual artists, musicians, or spoken word artists? As I've mentioned in other venues, I've long struggled with calling myself an artist; I still do. One of my favorite feminist slogans is "carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man." I take this to heart, because I don't want to come across like I'm telling people what they should do; these are simply ideas that make sense to me. Also, we're in a moment of history when I wish the president was simply mediocre, rather than a danger to all.

The reason I'm writing this: over the last several weeks, I've seen many variations on this sentiment: "Everything will be terrible, but the art will be fantastic." I find this to be a very troubling idea, because, while true in an abstract way, it's a sign of privilege. At its core, this belief states: "Women are still going to be treated a second-class citizens, this administration will do nothing for transgender rights, people of color will be given less respect thanks to a re-emphasis on a police state, and the physical country will be likely to be ripped apart for resources and bottom lines- but the novels will be great!"

Yes, great writing and art will be byproducts of this administration. But great, necessary work would come even if everything was as close to perfect as we want it to be. There will always be problems that require us to dig deep and create out of a sense of empathy and as a way to verbalize troubles, fears, and longing. So even if politicians were focused on funding Planned Parenthood, if the new presidential team insisted on giving full protections and rights to transgender citizens, and if the GOP reached out to listen to the concerns of Black Lives Matter advocates, we as creators would still be beset by daily struggles, lust, dead-end day jobs, and a constant search for meaning, whatever that meaning can be: so there would still be room for creative growth, experimentation, and a desire to put new ways of looking at our lives into the world.

So the art that's to come? I'm not concerned the forthcoming novels with Trump-like dictators and post-apocalyptic themes that examine how our country and world will look next year, or at the end of the current term (assuming he makes it that long without an irrevocable scandal, but shit: if his current scandals weren't enough, I can't imagine anything else impeachment-worthy).

I am concerned with marginalized writers. I don't want a woman or a transgender artist to have to create out of fear or feeling lost in today's climate, but if their creations come out of that, I want to support them. If cops continue to murder unarmed black citizens, I'll buy and read a novel by a black writer about the subject, but I won't sit there thinking "hooray for today's world! It produced this terrific book!"

In a recent Facebook post, comedian Patton Oswalt offered ideas for thriving and living in this administration. One of his suggestions: "Go to an independent bookstore and buy something from a small press." This is essential, and I'm making this a call to everyone, especially myself, to put more money into independent presses, especially those who publish diverse voices. It's one thing to share an online story, but we as a community need to do more. Look yourself in the mirror. Look at what you normally spend money on. Of course, 99.9999 percent of us are poor or just scraping by. We'd love to be in a financial position to drop $100 on a small press spending spree. But look at your packs of cigarettes, your occasional $25 bar tabs, the sandwiches you buy because you didn't feel like slapping together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. Of course, I'm not suggesting a high and mighty "don't spend money on these things," but make sacrifices when you can. Scrape together cash and support a small press. Contact a favorite literary magazine and ask if they take donations to pay their writers. Most importantly, especially if you're a straight white writer like myself: don't think about how your own work will benefit from this terrible climate. Make sure you're actively supporting the voices that need to be heard.

I made the following suggestion to the newly formed Obama Foundation. Their website is seeking calls for ideas, so I wrote this message to them:

To the Obama Foundation: my name is James Yates, and I'm a writer based in Lafayette, Louisiana. I'm very much troubled by the proposed cuts to the NEA, and other programs aimed at financial support of the artistic communities. Depending on the finances of the Obama Foundation, I'd like to see money and time spent to creating grants and scholarships for diverse voices, especially writers who are women, transgender, and non-white. Many writers struggle financially, and in these times, their stories and voices need to be heard more than ever. I'd love to see attention devoted to the creative community, through workshops, financial support, and visibility. I hope this makes sense, and I'm happy to share more ideas if necessary. Thank you so much for your time. Sincerely, James Yates

These are trying times, and it's only going to get worse. Writers have a responsibility. Let's keep moving.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

2016 Readings, 2017 Goals

Happy New Year, y'all. Here's my annual reading recap.

For starters, this is what I wrote last year, when I revisited my 2015 readings: "In 2016, I want to read more classics, more international translations, and spend more money on small press titles. My goals will fluctuate as the year goes on, but I think that's a good starting point."

Back in 2015, I read 93 books. This year, my total went down to 55, but I have good excuses. First, my girlfriend and I moved from Chicago to Lafayette, Louisiana for her PhD candidacy. From packing, to planning, to coordinating the drive down south (helped immensely by my brother and sister-in-law), reading time was taken up by this. I also started teaching English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I highly enjoyed teaching, but was unaccustomed to how time consuming it is. Lesson planning, class readings, assignment preparations, student meetings, grading, and general anxiety about essentially performing four times a week in front of nearly fifty students: I read fewer books from September to December. I started several, but they took over a month to read when they should've taken a week at most.

My goals for 2017 as a reader aren't as detailed as my goals as a writer. I (still) want to spend more money on small press titles, because we as a community need to sustain them. I'm not preaching from a soapbox, because I could have done more to financially support worthy literary organizations. With the Trump administration just weeks away (oh fuck, just typing that makes me angry), small presses will need to to remain voices and homes for the voices that might be silenced or marginalized by the powers that be. I want to remain optimistic about 2017, but deep down, I worry it'll be a shitshow. So, I want to do less talking about supporting diverse demographics and more buying, reading, and promoting of them.

So this means I'll do everything I can to help small presses and literary magazines. I also have an entire shelf of great literary magazine back issues (Hobart, American Short Fiction, Fence, Tin House) that need attention.

I'd love to hear your goals, too. As always, I'm eager for recommendations.

Here's to 2017. As we read and write, don't forget to fight back against the backwards thinking that wants to prevail in our culture. This is a challenge to myself more than anything.

My 2016 readings are listed below:



1.) Mothers, Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell

2.) Crazy Horse's Girlfriend by Erika T. Wurth

3.) Negroland by Margo Jefferson

4.) Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexual by Patricia Lockwood

5.) Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

6.) Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin

7.) The Unfinished World and Other Stories by Amber Sparks

8.) Blood Runs Green: The Murder That Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago by Gillian O'Brien

9.) Not Dark Yet by Berit Ellingsen

10.) Elegy/Elk River by Michael Schmeltzer

11.) What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

12.) The Girl Who Could Only Say 'sex, drugs, and rock & roll' by Kendra Fortmeyer

13.) The Farmacist by Ashley Farmer

14.) The Revelator by Robert Kloss

15.) Slut Lullabies by Gina Frangello

16.) Find Me by Laura van den Berg

17.) The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato

18.) The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

19.) Cataclysm Baby by Matt Bell (re-read)

20.) A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

21.) If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home by Dave Housley

22.) The Upper Peninsula Misses You by Mark Magoon

23.) A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

24.) Long, Last, Happy: New and Collected Stories by Barry Hannah

25.) The Vegetarian by Han Kang

26.) Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle

27.) The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation by Natalie Y. Moore

28.) Please Don't Be Upset and Other Stories by Brandi Wells

29.) The New York Stories by Ben Tanzer

30.) The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

31.) My Only Wife by Jac Jemc (re-read)

32.) Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss

33.) Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA by Jonathan Abrams

34.) Beloved by Toni Morrison (re-read)

35.) Chronicle of a Last Summer by Yasmine El Rashidi

36.) Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

37.) Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith

38.) The Tennessee Highway Death Chant by Keegan Jennings Goodman

39.) McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh

40.) The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

41.) Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom by bell hooks

42.) Dandarians: Poems by Lee Ann Roripaugh

43.) Insurrections: Stories by Rion Amilcar Scott

44.) Twenty Grand and Other Tales of Love and Money by Rebecca Curtis

45.) Mesogeios by Steve Karas

46.) Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

47.) How the Post Office Created America: A History by Winifred Gallagher

48.) Sex Object: A Memoir by Jessica Valenti

49.) The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race edited by Jesmyn Ward

50.) Him, Me, Muhammad Ali by Randa Jarrar

51.) No Man's Wild Laura by Beth Gilstrap

52.) The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai

53.) Sing the Song by Meredith Alling

54.) Swing Time by Zadie Smith

55.) You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon

Friday, December 16, 2016

"Love Bugs," Split Lip Magazine

With all the horrible things happening in the world to wrap up a terrible 2016, I feel silly promoting myself, but my latest flash fiction, titled "Love Bugs," is now live at the great Split Lip Magazine. You can read my story here, but I'd prefer if you'd check out the other voices in this issue. Click here.

Thank you to Kaitlyn Andrews-Rice, Split Lip's wonderful flash fiction editor. And a thank you to Amanda Miska, Editor in Chief, who's been such a wonderful fixture in the literary community, both as a writer and champion of others. She's essential, and I think her words in the introduction to this issue are best to close out this year. Let's all keep reading, creating, writing, and fighting the terrible, looming administration.

"This time of year can be hard. Holidays and darkness and cold and anxiety about what will come in 2017. I am choosing to be hopeful--it's a choice I have to make daily, because it's not my natural inclination. I am choosing to keep writing and publishing writing because I think Art matters and can change the world. It's not the only thing, but it's one thing. I am choosing to get out of bed every morning and try, which is all we can really ask of anyone." -Amanda Miska

Friday, August 12, 2016

Chicago Flashbacks: A 2013 Interview with Ben Tanzer

Two weeks ago,my girlfriend and I moved from Chicago to Lafayette, Louisiana, as she prepares to embark on her PhD studies at the University of Louisiana. While this is an exciting new phase, in a fantastically different landscape from the Midwestern lives we've been used to, there's also the challenge of immersing myself in a new literary community, one concentrated in what feels like a small town (in reality, Lafayette is the fourth biggest city in Louisiana, I believe; in addition to the University, there's a beautiful downtown and fantastic restaurants sprinkled in unexpected areas off the main roads).

I'm going to be teaching two English composition courses at the university, and once I get into that groove, and once we explore the city (and hopefully nearby New Orleans in due time), the transition will feel more complete. For now, though, I still feel pang of homesickness, and I remember why I started this blog in the first place: back in 2008, I impulsively moved to Washington state, and thought this would be a log of new landscape experiences. Instead, it turned into a film and book review blog, and the upkeep of this site led me to renew my focus on creative writing. Eight (!) years later, I have my MFA, I have a novel draft that's almost ready to send out (Hi agents! Hi publishers!), and I'm about to start teaching at the university level.

Where am I going with these ramblings? I've neglected this space pretty heavily over the last three years, updating sporadically, mainly showcasing my publications when they happen. I don't want to make any goals on how I'll dust off this blog, but I'd like to start with a piece of writing I recently unearthed. Back in 2013, I had to do an interview as part of a creative nonfiction assignment, and I reached out to Chicago writer Ben Tanzer. I'd read his work, loved it, and found him to be gracious and hilarious on social media. To my surprise, he readily agreed to take time and meet with me. Little did I know that I'd end up doing readings with him, and fostering what became a genuine friendship. In 2015, we read together for the book launch of Steve Karas' Kinda Sorta American Dream. After, we went out for drinks, and Ben insisted I ask him whenever I had questions about publishing, writing, or life in general. It doesn't matter if I end up moving back to Chicago or just end up visiting sporadically. Ben will always be a warm link to Chicago for me, and I'll always be grateful for his guidance as I stumble toward life as a professional writer (whatever the hell that means). So here's the transcript of my first meeting with him. I've edited parts (mainly to clean up some bad writing of mine), but almost three years later, I think this reveals some good ideas. Thanks, Ben.

Also, Ben has a new book out: Be Cool is now available from the great people at Dock Street Press. So if you'd like, read this and then order the book from your favorite independent bookseller.



Ben Tanzer Interview: October, 2013

The rise of social media has made it possible to blur the definition and distinction of "stranger." Last fall, I became acquainted with Chicago writer Ben Tanzer after I read and reviewed My Father's House, a novella published by Main Street Rag. Mr. Tanzer shared my review on his website and his social media feeds and sent me a thank-you email for my review. Since then, we've followed each other on Twitter and have been Facebook friends without actually meeting in person; however, I've met him twice in the last week.

I attended a book launch last Saturday at City Lit Books in Logan Square for Friend.Follow.Text., a collection of stories about digital culture, and Tanzer read his excerpt. The previous week, he agreed to meet with me as the subject for this interview, and I talked to him after the reading. We finally introduced ourselves, and actually had proper faces to put with our social media handles. We met the following Monday at the Starbucks on Wabash and Jackson. I wanted to interview Ben for a variety of reasons. In my opinion, his fiction explores contemporary masculinity in complex ways, not shying away from negative aspects. This is a subject I want to explore more in my own fiction and creative nonfiction writings.

Tanzer is interested in twenty-first century men, but he explained to me that he wants to write stronger female characters. This is yet another idea that I've been conscious of in my own work. With Tanzer, he explained this need not with any grand social meaning, but out a necessity for male writers to make sure they're not just exploring their own views and sensibilities.

Tanzer is very active on Facebook and Twitter, which ties nicely into his inclusion in the Friend.Follow.Text. anthology. He also maintains a blog and website, devoted to publicizing other writers and books, in addition to sharing reviews of his own work. However, he maintains a strict distinction between marketing and writing, saying "I would never market [myself] instead of write." I also asked him about his online persona. His blog is called This Blog Will Change Your Life, and online, he maintains a steadily sarcastic, hop voice. In real life, however, he's polite and expansive in his answers. He started the blog back when, in his words, "nobody was blogging," and he wanted to create a mini-universe and tongue-in-cheek "media empire," making it a fake corporate blog. This backfired on him at one point: an unnamed writer, upon reading Tanzer's debut novel, was disappointed that the book didn't literally change his life. He wrote a long complaint to Tanzer, who was perplexed that anyone could confused a literary work with an obviously satirical website.

My work with Longform.org has helped me familiarize myself with small presses and independent journals; that's how I discovered Tanzer in the first place. I stumbled upon his short story "The Gift," published in The 2nd Hand, after a random Google search for local journals. I asked him how he views the sheer number of places for writers to publish their work, both in print and online. He believes it's very good for writers, since it gives them wider audiences and readers. For readers, however, Tanzer maintains that the volume is good and bad. There are a lot of journals that publish work of poor quality, and the amount of reading available is such that one can never read everything.

This brought me to the final question of my interview. Tanzer is married with two boys, works full-time doing social media work for a nonprofit, and finds the time to write a variety of stories and novels (Orphans was released this week, with a starred review in Publisher's Weekly), in addition to reading a staggering amount of outside fiction. He's very strict about his time.

"If my wife and kids go out unexpectedly, I never look at it as 'oh, I have half an hour to myself to sit on the couch and watch TV.' I made it my writing time. I strip the fat out of my day." I asked him about this because I find myself daunted with my school activities and my day job, but Tanzer believes that, no matter how busy one is, there is more time in the day than most people realize. He makes his day segmented, balancing his outside responsibilities with his duties as a reader and writer.

This interview wasn't conducted out of a need to research a specific topic, but it was done because Tanzer represents so many intangible ideas that come up in my writings and research. I wanted to get his opinion on these ideas-masculinity, time management, and independent journals- because, combined, these make up the vast majority of my interests. For as familiar as I am with independent journals, I wanted to hear a new take on their numbers and qualities. And most importantly, I believe this interview has given me a new contact within the literary world; while Mr. Tanzer and I have been in touch over the last year, he's always been quick to answer my messages and questions.

He closed the interview by insisting that I email him with any further questions or to set up times to meet for coffee and more discussions. This was a genuine offer, and I'm confident that, should I need an outside opinion on creative matters or subjects, I have someone I can reach out to for insights and guidance. This will prove to be very valuable during the course of my MFA candidacy. So while I'm still considering various creative nonfiction projects, this interview provided me with an excellent face-to-face with a writer who touches upon my concerns.