“It’s the most ghastly of times and the most glorious of times,” Bill Henderson writes in his introduction to the new Pushcart Press Prize (PPP) annual just out, a 651-page anthology, “the largest ever.” He means, riffing on the allusion to Dickens, that although politics and culture, not to mention the future of independent publishing, don’t augur well, he’s “never been so happy with our literature….the Word survives, indeed thrives, in the ruins.” He’s judging, of course, from the submissions he and his staff received for Volume 37. Some of the authors, he notes, were turned down by the commercial world, by “bean counters” who don’t know and don’t care to know what’s “truly valuable and enduring”
Henderson (who used to be an editor at Doubleday) with his editors selects material nominated by small-press literary magazines all over the country (an alphabetical list of those contributing to this year’s volume is included, along with two-to-three line bios for the authors). His editors then winnow out the winners—a daunting task—that necessitates, for him, adding a short section of Special Mentions. This year’s poetry judges were Maxine Kumin, a former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner, and Bob Hicok, a multiple award-winning author of seven books of poetry. Hicok notes that both he and Kumin had 36 pounds to read before settling on 15 poems, each. As PPP fans well know, the PPP, itself, has been the recipient of numerous honors, including the 2005 Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle and in 2006 the Poets & Writers/Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Prize.
The literature in PPP volumes consists only of short stories, non-fiction essays and poems, though the brief bios show that some authors are also novelists. The delight of PPP is its invitation to dip in anywhere, though Henderson advises starting with Rasheda White’s 11-line poem, “A Shadow Beehive” (Ecotone)—“I hear an old man and woman playing chess/for some false teeth…I hear my mother/in the kitchen drying out the darkness.” White is in the fourth grade, and this is her first publication, Henderson points out. Although it’s impossible to recommend noticing one writer over another at first, Poland’s premier poet Adam Zagajewski might claim immediate attention with his beautifully elegiac “I Look At a Photograph” (Tin House) because an earlier poem, “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” (not here) appeared in the 9/11 black cover issue of The New Yorker.
Leafing through PPP can also reveal surprises, such as the one-paragraph (10-line) short “fiction” by James Robison (Wigleaf). It works—a compressed organic whole of narrative, setting, character (speaker) and theme. Also, one is not likely to ignore Joyce Carol Oates’ “Mudgirl Saved By the King of Crows, April 1965,” (Boulevard) if only out of curiosity about her unbelievable productivity. She does not disappoint. Her story is memorable for its moving folk tale-like recreation of a backwater inhabited by impoverished souls, at the center of which is a 29-year-old idiot with an almost holy instinct for compassion.
As for the opening piece (everyone is likely to start with this), a story called “Regeneration at Mukti” by Julia Elliott (Conjunctions), it moves quickly from its opening line, “Call me a trendmonger, but I’ve sprung for a tree house,” to a bizarre situation, collecting some striking metaphors along the way (“A flowering vine snakes along the railings, pimping its wistful perfume”). The tree house, in a Buddhist spa, has a toilet that empties into “a pit of coprophagic beetles,” bugs “with an enzyme in their gut that makes the best compost on the planet.” It’s difficult to finger the point at which the satire sets in with savage, gleeful, super-literate intensity, sending up vanity make-overs, but the story forms a nice complement to the last piece in the volume, “Internal Monument” by G.C. Waldrep (Michigan Quarterly Review), a short fable about the embodiment (literally) of deep needs.