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In the Moment: A Pushcart for 2020

Mon, 12/30/2019 - 11:37
Bill Henderson
Lily Henderson

“Pushcart Prize XLIV”
Edited by Bill Henderson
Pushcart Press, $19.95

One of the geniuses of the enterprise that Bill Henderson concocted on the East End, along with Genie Chipps, is that years ago, long before the availability of internet searches, Pushcart created a central location for writers to discover the names and addresses of small presses.

That might not sound like much. Yes, their efforts gave small presses glitz. But rather than seeking glam, these Pushcart editors were seeking so much more. They grasped the fact that not enough people in the literary world truly understood the service that relatively Lilliputian endeavors were providing all of us, whether we’d heard of a particular journal or not.

In the afterword of this 2020 edition, the Pushcart Prize editors republish a Raymond Carver letter written to the press: “I don’t think the value of the small presses can be over-estimated in any degree. In truth, I feel they are the backbone of the national literature. . . . The best of the small presses are doing work that is every bit the equal, if not superior to, the literature being issued by the larger better known and certainly more financially sound presses. . . .”

When the Pushcart Prizes were first introduced, the Brobdingnagian publishing houses and magazines exerted so much control over all of us and our literary accessibility. Yet over these de­cades, the Pushcart has continually reminded us: There are so many more voices you must encounter, contemplate, and perhaps heed. Ever since its inception, the Pushcart editors — and, yes, this “editors” list includes dozens of literary illuminati — have emphasized the fact that we can’t think about what is happy-making for the multitudes. We have to dig. And keep searching, burrowing, re-evaluating.

Which is why one could not read the table of contents in this 44th edition (XLIV) and ever fool oneself into the belief that one is reading a table of contents from a Pushcart of IV or even XIV. One of the beauties of the extraordinary concept of taking the best of the best of small literary presses is that one is looking at what matters to writers and to the souls of readers. As a result, one is looking at what matters to the world in this moment. The agility of small presses is impressive and important to our culture, most certainly, most particularly, most especially now.

Here are a few of the entries in the current Pushcart Prize table of contents, titles that let us know authors are thinking about drug overdoses, racism, their own errors regarding cultural appropriation, about caring for elderly family members, their own deathly illnesses, and, yes, the complicated political divide. The authors are creating their works in poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction, along with ever-increasing experimentation in the hybrid form:

“Rewinding an Overdose on a Projector” by Sean Shearer. “The Cure for Racism Is Cancer” by Tony Hoagland. “The Effect of Heat on Poor People” by Farah Ali. “Four Short Essays Personifying a Future in Which White Supremacy Has Ended” by Chen Chen. “I Confess My Cultural Misappropriation” by Allan Gurganus. “Skin-Light,” a poem by Natalie Diaz. “An Open Letter to White Women Concerning ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and America’s Cultural Amnesia,” written by Tiffany Midge, who argues with her friends about their take on a particular work of art. Then there’s “A Deliberate Thing I Once Said to My Skin” by Megan Baxter. This last is about tattoos, replete with Walt Whitman quotes. Go know. Or better yet, go discover.

Of course there are encounters with love sprinkled throughout the 72 entries, yet some are unexpected: Ben Shattuck’s short story, “The History of Sound,” is about a folklore music expert who receives a box of phonograph cylinders only to be brought back to a romance more than five decades earlier. The cylinders are labeled with his name and the name David. The recipient’s doctor recommends he write down the events from the summer of 1916 because the narrator had become sleepless once he received the box from a stranger in Maine. David is, of course, the focus of the narrator’s diary.

Ottessa Moshfegh’s essay, “Jailbait,” originally published in Granta, is chilling for its honesty and its literary mentor-tutee complexity. A driven young person, Ms. Moshfegh tracked down the name and address of a man she believed to be a brilliant author. She wanted to be an acolyte. She wanted to soak up everything she could. The disappointment that permeates this piece is palpable from the first sentence. And yet the reader keeps hoping the tutoring will be beneficial. The answer is vertiginous.

In “New Bees” — a great play on words — Claire Luchette begins a story with the provocative: “We bought the nylons before evening prayer at a twenty-four-hour grocery three miles away. They came folded inside paper envelopes, tawny mesh showcased under cellophane windows. We bought a dozen. They tend to rip.”

Now one would believe this story is a somewhat predictable story about frolicking teenagers. But what is the next paragraph?

“Later we disagreed about whether the envelope could be recycled. If paper’s affixed with plastic, is it still paper? Eventually, we stripped the cellophane squares from all twelve envelopes and sorted the scraps.”

“Everything has a thousand uses. When nylons run, we slip our hands inside and dust shelves, polish silver, buff our leather shoes. There’s always a way to give something new life, but most people don’t realize this. Most people don’t want to know all the lives contained within disposable things.”

That play on words in this story’s title that Ploughshares originally published? The work really is about apiarists. It’s also about novitiates in a convent. And the fascinating role stockings can play. There’s no spoiler alert in revealing the last paragraph of the story: “It is our belief that the greatest grace you can grant yourself is the private knowledge of your strength.”

The continuing strength of the Pushcart Prizes? The respect for the modernist canon is one aspect: The tome opens with a dedication to Lawrence Ferlinghetti from his “A Coney Island of the Mind”: “I am waiting / for the meek to be blessed / and inherit the earth / without taxes / and I am waiting / for forests and animals / to reclaim the earth as theirs / and I am waiting / for a way to be devised / to destroy all nationalisms / without killing anybody.”

More strengths? The ability to publish the (unusually) sacred and the profane. The need to mine the depths. New presses are born — and some quickly die. Older ones continue their unstinting work. New and mature, in this new decade they need support.

Lou Ann Walker is the director of Stony Brook University’s M.F.A. program in creative writing and literature in Southampton and Manhattan. She lives in Sag Harbor.

Bill Henderson lives in Springs.

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