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Guest Post: And Silent Left the Place: Tall Texas Tale or Moral Exploration? by Elizabeth Bruce

I’d like to welcome Elizabeth Bruce to the blog today to talk about And Silent Left the Place, which was published and re-released in 2021 by the Washington Writers’ Publishing House (purchase the book, here).

Before we get to the guest post, let’s learn more about this book.

About the Book:

A silent old man climbs into his secret hole, burdened by his Great War bargain–his voice for life with his beloved. On this night in April 1963, the burden of silence passes from old to young. The debut novel of Texas native Elizabeth Bruce is a lyric tale of violence, redemption, and love reclaimed through the cruel dry land of Texas.

Please welcome, Elizabeth Bruce:

In my debut novel, And Silent Left the Place (published by Washington Writers’ Publishing House), I crafted, at one level, a mythic, metaphorical, folkloric tall Texas tale. There are wildly theatrical, at times profane, almost circus-like Texas spectacles. There’s a bulldozer ballet, a desert dancehall, and V-Day autoworkers painting all the cars red, white, and blue in jubilee. There are loose horses, rattlesnakes, jack rabbits, coyotes, and a blind dog named Lorraine. There’s Old Man Hopper, the Body Hunter, and his searchlight cracking open the Texas night. There’s a circle of fire, an underground bunker, a New Orleans’ Madam, and the grass Jesus walked on. And there’s Patsy Cline Walkin’ After Midnight and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys wailing about Right or Wrong.

At the same time, in the novel I dove deeply into grievous moral wrong—”sin” in a religious context—and what to do about it. Set in South Texas in April of 1963, Silent revolves around Thomas Riley, an 81-year-old World War One vet who came back from the Great War middle-aged and silent. He can speak, but he doesn’t speak, and Riley’s burden of silence is the mystery of the novel. Over the book’s 24-hour period, a young couple passing through trespasses on a wealthy rancher’s land and sets into motion a cascade of bizarre events that eventually reveals Riley’s secret.

With Washington Writers’ Publishing House’s 2021 release of a new edition of Silent, I’ve revisited the novel’s moral journey, and realized how it was shaped by our friend and fellow artist, the late Mphela Makgoba. For eight years in the 1980s and 90s, my husband, Robert Michael Oliver, and subsequently our two children, shared our home with Makgoba, a fierce South African dissident poet, actor, and freedom fighter who spent 31 years in exile in the USA. He was a ferocious critic of apartheid, of course, but also of the geopolitical forces and nation states that enabled such injustices, the U.S. and the West, most especially. Makgoba and I spent all of those eight years in deep, daily dialogue about these forces and what to do about them. He was the most uncompromised, uncompromising person I have ever met, and he profoundly shaped my understanding of myself, American society, and the broader world.

And all the while I was in dialogue with Makgoba, my writer’s imagination was incubating what ultimately became And Silent Left the Place. Makgoba went home to South Africa in 1995 and he never read my novel, but in many ways its moral investigations are dedicated to him: how to respond to grievous moral wrong?

As the world watched, post-apartheid South Africa, under the extraordinary leadership of the late Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, sought to respond to the atrocities of apartheid. It rejected both the retaliatory “tribunal” response of the Nuremberg Trials and the “national amnesia” response of granting blanket amnesty to all the wrongdoers. Instead, the country pursued a third path: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

What is this path of reconciliation? What is the journey of truth?

While I absolutely—emphatically do not—liken the moral explorations in my short novel in any way to the South African experience, I am reminded of how shaped my moral Geiger counter was by those many years of discourse with Makgoba, as I sought to fathom the radioactivity of human wrongs.

And Silent Left the Place sets forth a backstory of grievous wrong, moral wrong, of “sin” if you will; it offers silence as atonement; it speaks of truth-telling and imagines forgiveness. It even envisions divine retribution—a deux ex machina of sorts—all played out in the cruel, dry land of Texas and the squalid trenches of the Great War. It is often a bleak picture. As I said in my interview with Tom Glenn in the Washington Independent Review of Books, there is “an absence of modern interventions in the narrative arcs of Riley and others. There is no therapy, no drug regimen, no support groups for the traumatized old soldier Tom Riley. No one intervenes to reunite this lonely old man with his beloved wife, Dolores, wherever she is. There are no trials bringing justice to the aggrieved.”

What I aspired to offer in the novel, however, is a vision of possibility, of reconciliation through truth, of forgiveness through atonement, of the reclamation of joy through endurance, and that makes And Silent Left the Place, in my view, a deeply hopeful—if wildly theatrical—book.

Washington Writers Publishing House, in its remarkable generosity to longtime members of the press, has embarked on a journey of issuing new editions of several books published in the press’ 47-year legacy.

In addition to And Silent Left the Place, in 2021 WWPH also issued a new edition of poet Sid Gold’s Working Vocabulary, and in 2022 the press released new editions of poetry books by WWPH Co-Founder Grace Cavalieri—Why I Cannot Take a Lover—and former press President Myra Sklarew—Altamira.

Founded in 1975, WWPH has published over 100 poets and writers, many during their early years of literary work. Published authors become members of the press and volunteer for at least two years supporting its operations. As a nonprofit, cooperative press long dedicated to publishing poetry and literary fiction by writers living within 75 miles of Washington, DC (including Baltimore), WWPH has just expanded its scope to include writers from all of Maryland and Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia.

For the first time, in 2023, WWPH will also include Creative Nonfiction in its annual literary competitions. In 2021, the press published its second anthology in 47 years, This Is What America Looks Like, edited by current Co-Presidents Caroline Bock and Jona Colson, which includes poetry and fiction by 100 writers from D.C., Maryland, or Virginia. Bock and Colson have also launched WWPH Writes, a bi-weekly online journal showcasing the work of many area poets and writers.

Happily, the press’ 2022 publications will soon be released: The Witch Bottle, a new collection by short story writer and speculative novelist Suzanne Feldman, and You Cannot Save Here, a debut collection by Baltimorean queer poet Anthony Moll.

For more information about Elizabeth Bruce or And Silent Left the Place, please visit Elizabeth’s website at https://www.elizabethbrucedc.com.

For more information about Washington Writers’ Publishing House, its catalogue of books, or publication opportunities, go to www.washingtonwriters.org.

Thank you, Elizabeth, for sharing your experiences with us.

Photo credit: K. Whipple Photography

About the Author:

Washington, D.C.-based Texas writer Elizabeth Bruce’s debut novel, And Silent Left the Place (new edition– 2021), won Washington Writers’ Publishing House’s Fiction Award and ForeWord Magazine and Texas Institute of Letters’ distinctions. Her collection, Universally Adored and Other One Dollar Stories, is forthcoming in 2024 from Vine Leaves Press. She’s published in the USA, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, Malawi, Yemen, and The Philippines and studied with Richard Bausch, the late Lee K. Abbott, Janet Peery, John McNally, and Liam Callanan. A former character actor, Bruce has received DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities and McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation Fellowships.

The Understudy’s Handbook by Steven Leyva

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 108 pgs.
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The Understudy’s Handbook by Steven Leyva is musically New Orleans, but also a collection of poems about learning a role that you may or may not take on.  It takes on the pomp and circumstance of the city and reveals an underbelly of sadness and want, while paying homage to the beauty of the city and its culture. The dichotomy of New Orleans comes to life in Leyva’s poems.

 From "Inamorata" (pg. 5-6)

...
and a funk in the other
     Nola when your bounce
         leaps from speakers

comes the great gyrate
    the whole line
        all heredity backing it up

...

Where'd you sleep
   last night? In the pines?
        Nola you fat and fine

the quick-quick-slow
        that repeats
         like being sick and tired

of being sick
    and tired or late again
            on last week's rent
...

Leyva’s poems are beautiful songs full of love, passion, and sadness. It’s a collection that pays homage to the past and invents a future. It’s about leaning into a bi-racial skin and finding a path that makes the most of an American life that is not always easy and is not always the most glamorous. It’s about breaking out of the molds assigned to us and creating our own lives and incorporating cultures in ways that make the most sense for our own well-being.

Poems like “Ear Hustle” unearth the dark past of an Americanized New Orleans culture in which powdered faces from beignets are unaware of the ancestors who cut the cane for that sugar. There’s that undercurrent of culture that he explores in his poems, but not to seek a rescue but to pay homage to the sweat and the work — to the understudy of society’s labors. These poems are multilayered, while the surface appears playful and musical. It’s a collection that celebrates rather than shames, though some poems do illustrate some of the shames of American history.

One of my favorite poems in this collection, “Sonnet for the Side Eye,” examines nature’s destructive tendencies (like Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans) with humanity’s obsession with naming that destruction. Leyva is tackling a great many things in this collection, but this poem in particular takes our obsession with categorizing things head on. So much divisiveness stems from these labels. But how do we as humans get to the point where we no longer label our fellow humans as a way to harm them or treat them as “other?”

Don’t miss The Understudy’s Handbook by Steven Leyva. I heard him read at a poetry event online and had to get my hands on this book, and I wasn’t disappointed.

RATING: Cinquain

Check out this interview with Steven Leyva in ArtsFairfax.

Reading: The Inner Loop Presents This Is What America Looks Like

The Inner Loop is hosting a reading from This Is What America Looks Like, featuring Elizabeth Kadetsky.

Poets include:
Serena Agusto-Cox
Hayes Davis
Kristin Ferragut
Matthew Hohner
Courtney Sexton

Fiction writers include:
Amy Freeman
Melanie Hatter
Len Kruger
Kirsten Porter

I hope you’ll join us at 7:30 p.m. on March 16.

Giveaway & Interview with Jona Colson, poetry editor of This Is What America Looks Like

Full disclosure: I have a poem in this anthology.

Today, we’re talking with poetry editor Jona Colson about the new anthology from the Washington Writers’ Publishing House.

It is their first anthology in a number of decades, and the fiction and poetry included in this collection runs the gamut in terms of what America looks like. Many of these poems and stories were written during the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, and so many other traumatic and pivotal events in recent history.

Please give Jona a warm welcome.

Stay to the end of the interview for a special giveaway.

Savvy Verse & Wit: Congratulations on the new anthology, This Is What America Looks Like, published by the Washington Writers’ Publishing House.

This is the second time you’ve worked with them, since they published your first poetry collection, Said Through Glass. How would you describe the publishing process for a debut poetry collection and was that similar or different from working on the anthology?

Jona Colson: It was similar and different. With your own work and developing a manuscript, you see how the poems speak to each other, and I did the same for the anthology. However, the writers were placed reverse alphabetical (Z-A), so I did not have to consider the order of the poems. I still had to create a balance with the poems—the themes, topics, and forms. This was the first time I put on an editor’s hat, and I learned a lot about working with other writers. I also was able to read so many wonderful poems!

SVW: As the poetry editor for the anthology, how much coordination was there with fiction editor Caroline Bock? Did you both have a game plan in mind before submissions started rolling in or were their themes that emerged on their own as submissions were being read?

JC: The submission’s call offered a prompt in many ways, so I was ready to read submissions in response to that. We didn’t share the specific poems and texts that we were reading, but we did discuss the topics and themes we were getting. The majority of submissions came in during the height of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movements. So, many of the topics changed in response to these events, and we had to balance the narratives of the work we accepted.

SVW: How did you view your role as an editor of the anthology? Let us in on what your process was when selecting poems and whether you asked any artists for edits.

JC: I was so pleased with all the submissions we received. Unfortunately, we had a very limited space with the book, so I had to choose what fit the best. There were many poems that I couldn’t take because of space. I asked poets for revisions when I felt that it would improve their poem. I had a few edits—some minor and some major. I found that writers were really responsive to revising their work, and that was wonderful. I love reading poetry, and I have such respect for any artist who attempts to shape experiences into language.

SVW: This Is What America Looks Like provides a very broad landscape in how writers could approach the topic, but how would you describe what America looks like? Does America’s description merely entail its mountains and landscapes or is it about the people within it?

JC: I would say it is all of that. Emotional and physical landscapes. Dreams and visions. The poems in this anthology offer a reflection of America in many different ways. There are many poems that do not directly respond what America looks like, but discuss belonging, childhood, adulthood, expectations. These are all American experiences.

SVW: Thinking about the writers in the Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia (DMV) region, how would you describe their writing styles and overall view as presented in their poems? Is there something that readers could immediately recognize as poetry from this region?

JC: There are many references to locality. Many poems showcase towns in the DMV, or specific streets and locations—Dumbarton Oaks, The Library of Congress, battlefields. In this way, you are immediately placed into a particular part of our country. Some poems are more abstract but suggest places in the area. The poems—and the fiction—solidify the DMV as a literary powerhouse.

SVW: What has been your fondest memory of your poetic journey so far? And what’s next for you?

JC: Getting to know other poets and writers, and being welcomed into the literary community. I got my MFA from American University, and I got to know many writers. However, since I published my book and started working on this anthology, I have met so many more people and the thriving literary community that we have here in the DMV. Discovering more writers and hearing their stories have been the best part of this journey.

Right now, I’m working on poems and some translation projects. Another book may take a while, but as long as I can keep writing, I’m happy.

Giveaway: Leave a comment about what you think America looks like by Feb. 17, 2021.

I will send the winner (age 18+) a copy of Jona’s book, Said Through Glass, and the anthology This Is What America Looks Like.

Please leave a way for me to contact you.

Publication News 2021

Hello everyone!

I have some wonderful publication news to share. It’s been a while since I’ve shared some news on the poetry writing front. I have been updating my Publication Credits page (it’s in the menu), so feel free to check that out, too.

First, three of my poems now are available in The Magnolia Review, Volume 6, Issue 2. The theme for the issue was “A Defining Moment.” You’ll need to download the PDF, but the magazine is worth the download.

My poems appear on pgs. 68, 80, and 115. I hope you check them out, but they are on dark topics regarding gun violence, so be aware.

Secondly, I’m happy to announce that the anthology from the Washington Writers’ Publishing House, This Is What America Looks Like, is available for purchase.

I have 1 poem included in this collection, but I hope you’ll buy a copy because I know many of these writers (fiction and poetry) and their work is AMAZING.

You can purchase the anthology through Amazon or directly from the publisher.

I’ll also have an interview with the poetry editor Jona Colson very soon on the blog. You may recall my review of his collection, Said Through Glass.

Perseverance pays off. I just want to remind you that art is hard work and pleasure in the making, but getting it published is even harder work. If you want it, pursue it.