On reading excerpts from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Biographia Literaria printed in the Fifth Edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, quoting directly at the beginning of what may be one of the hottest weeks of the year Posted by Robert Kotchen July 17, 2011

Who has not a thousand times seen snow fall on water? Who has not watched it with a new feeling from the time that he has read Burns' comparison of sensual pleasure

To snow that falls upon a river
A moment white—then gone forever!


On writing...and editing Posted by Sarah Marrs April 11, 2011

I’ve heard that all editors are writers but I’ve always wondered if that goes both ways. Are all writers editors? If they’re not, they should be. Editing for the Labletter has been one of the best experiences I’ve had as a writer. It’s certainly made me a better writer—I can never get upset at my own editor because I know her edits aren’t personal and that the most important thing a writer can do is not get too attached to her own work because odds are, some jerk editor is going to want to change it.

The process of choosing stories to publish in the Labletter is easy—pick the best stories submitted. The action of choosing those stories is rather a bit tougher. For the 2011 edition, it was even harder because of the sheer number of submissions. Not only did we receive over three hundred submissions, but many of the writers were MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipients, O. Henry Award winners, Pushcart Prize finalists, published novelists, and writers previously featured in publications like The New Yorker, Zoetrope and McSweeney’s. How do you begin to process all that?

It starts with me staying up very late, reading stories. It continues with me reading more stories. Eventually our managing editor, Robert Kotchen, will ask me how it’s going and if I need help. The answer is always “terribly” and “YES PLEASE” but I tell him that it’s fine and that I have everything under control. The truth is, while I respect Robert very much and he probably has better taste than me, I don’t want anyone else messing in my sandbox. Fiction is my section—if I have to read five hundred stories I’ll do it because it’s ultimately my decision and I want the fiction section to reflect my taste and my taste alone.

And that’s the key to editing for a journal like the Labletter. It’s all about individual taste. Each section reflects that particular editor’s taste and interests. It can be really intimidating to read stories from writers whose accomplishments outrank mine, who are likely older, wiser and better educated than I’ll ever be. I just have to remind myself of the thing that I think every editor says to herself: “I’m responsible for this. Whatever it ends up being, I’m responsible for it and I have to think that it is the best thing ever.”

The first story I landed on for this edition was Rolli’s “Chimpanions”. I was halfway through the story when I put it aside and shot off an email to Rolli telling him we’d be publishing it. I allow for simultaneous submissions, so I didn’t want to risk getting a message from Rolli, in the few minutes it would take me to finish his story, that another publication picked it up. Once I had “Chimpanions” in the bag, the task became about finding a story that would partner well with it. I came across Daniel Pearlman’s “Canine Virtues” with about a hundred stories left to go and set it aside. I loved the story but it was a bit long, a little daunting given that word count is important with the Labletter. But after reading all the stories I didn’t like any of them as much as “Canine Virtues” and so I just made it work.

Because that’s what editors do—make it work. I didn’t initially start out to pick two stories that had animalian themes but that’s what I ended up with. That’s what the two best stories submitted ended up being. They worked well together, they appealed to my literary and humorous sensibilities. The quality of the writing was excellent. So of course, as a jerk editor, I wanted to change it. Most of the edits were limited to syntactical changes made to smooth out the flow of the stories. With Rolli there was some word-choice wrangling—he’s Canadian and he used a couple words that aren’t familiar to American readers. The upside of having so many, and such quality, submissions is that I have the luxury of pulling out stories that are so good they require little interference. I’m hard on my authors—I think their stories are the best thing ever and I will push and argue and demand until we make those stories as good as they can possibly be.

You can read an excerpt from “Chimpanions” here, but to read both stories in their entireties, please visit the Labletter store to purchase a copy. Also, you can like us on Facebook—being liked is nice. I’m very proud to present both “Chimpanions” and “Canine Virtues” in the 2011 Labletter. I believe these are the best stories we’ve published so far, and I hope you enjoy them.


Welcome to Spivey's Corner Posted by Julian Goldberger March 5, 2011


A Voice Posted by William Sidney Parker February 27, 2011

One of my sisters sent me a link to the below video and it made me think of the power of having a true voice. She sent it for political reasons, I believe. We are Southern liberals. (Yes. There were, and are, such creatures. In Hollywood we are usually revised into the eccentric friend—think Shirley MacLain—which may be a tender mercy: we can be exasperatingly earnest and make Atticus Finch seem like a rake.)

I think my sister sent me this link because of current political events, but after I forced myself through its six-and-a-half minutes, I realized I’d seen a man awed by a voice—a funny and plodding voice.

Craftsmen and artists concern themselves a great deal with the search for voice—so much so that many will term their entire practice as such. It’s funny, because to those who have never confronted a craft or practice, this metaphor of The Voice (and yes, it often sounds capitalized) sounds esoteric (that’s being kind—it sounds pretentious) when it isn’t.

It’s why we put off a phone call, or why we put off a phone call when we feel in person more appropriate; why some things are not said in a voicemail; why some things written in an e-mail or posted on-line go disastrously awry; why even today we want to put some things in a letter—and dread how to do it. If you’ve ever said, “That’s not what I meant,” you have, in some way, struggled with finding your voice: you explain the recorded message, the e-mail. You quickly give its context and your intention, and your demeanor, you hope, supports the sincerity of your explanation. If you take on the responsibility for the miscommunication (if it is miscommunication and this is not a post-factum cover up) and the damage hasn’t festered into its own conflict, the situation is quickly resolved. You, in person, with your voice, communicate quickly and easily what your message, e-mail, post or letter disastrously did not.

That’s part of what craftsmen and artists mean when they speak of the struggle to find their voice: they can’t follow their work around, explaining what they meant; they have to synchronize what they say with the medium through which they say it. What may be easy, and quick (and fleeting), to say in person, can be fiendishly difficult to write, to paint, to sing.

Those craftsmen and artists who find their voice usually say similar things about the experience: it took a lot of work (and usually a lot of time); it made their previous understanding of their work seem childish or nonsensical, irrelevant or misguided; the voice itself has a disembodied reification to it—like a chalice they’d suddenly stumbled upon; it has tremendous power (which they characterize as not their own or as not owned by them); and the craftsmen and artists are humbled by it.

I think in this video you see the power of such a voice. Mr. Rogers’ voice is, in fact, comical. To this day, my first reaction is: is this guy for real? It’s as though he took baby talk, flattened the range and lowered its timbre and pitch back to a semblance of adult speech (like a reverse chipmunks effect), but the lively mouth with elongated vowels and gentle consonants remain. A reverse chipmunks effect—too much actually, because while the pitch and timbre are now normal, someone forgot to adjust the rate, forgot to de-metronome it: it is too slow, too regular. My God, Mr. Rogers doesn’t just speak slowly, he makes you know, instantly, he will never, ever, speak faster. At first blush, you may think, as I do, he’s condescending, but you quickly realize his voice is something about clarity and sincerity, and it ain’t going nowhere.

In this video, Mr. Rogers is testifying before the Senate against a proposal to halve the budget for PBS. He starts off with a move that, since it’s Mr. Rogers, you don’t realize for a few beats is stunning and audacious: he compares the Senator to a child and explains he will trust the Senator to read his prepared statement, because it is important to teach trust by trusting, and instead use his live testimony time to speak to other matters.

It takes the Senator a few beats to feel the blow as well. He belatedly interjects a response, but listen closely to it: it’s manly, almost condescending, and practically admits he hadn’t planned on reading it, begs to be absolved of the trust (and work) to do so.

Mr. Rogers carefully, and politely, leaves the responsibility with the Senator.

Now you can just watch. It’s not easy. I loved his show, but Mr. Rogers’ Senate Testimony sounds like a late-night comedy sketch idea (a bad one), but that voice, plodding and funny, is powerful. And watching this testimony is a rare opportunity to see what craftsmen and artists mean when they speak of finding their voice: it can awe.

Anna Marie (revisited) Posted by Eliot Houser February 15, 2011

Attached is a later version of Anna Marie. The last file I uploaded was a barebones guitar/vocal arrangement. This next rough draft features an upright bass (played by Mark Miller) and drums (played by Dave Harrison). Both cats played beautifully and very naturally to the original accoustic guitar that I recorded to a click. The interplay between the instruments feels organic and not forced. Sometimes, when the rhythm section is recorded after the fact, the outcome doesn't groove or doesn't sound organic. That is not the case here. I especially love the Ringo-esque entrance on the toms halfway through the first verse and the way the bass does double time on the last verse.

Also featured is an out-of-tune electric guitar that I played without much thought and some surprisingly-in-tune chimes that the wind played with even less thought. These wind chimes hang outside the backdoor of my studio and on the night that we were recording the bass and drums the wind was really blowing. When you listen to the middle section you can hear the howling and gusting. It seems lonely and beautiful and I love the effect it has on the song. You can hear the wind chimes all by themselves at the end of the song.

At this point, all I really need to do is re-sing the vocal and mix it. Maybe I'll replace that out-of-tune guitar too, but these days I feel less concerned about making sure everything is in perfect tune. Getting the vibe and personality are more important. I'll keep you posted.

Over and out from Nashville,


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On reading an article in The New York Times, an adjective Posted by Robert Kotchen January 8, 2011

In an article in today's paper by John Branch about the unusual situation of the Seattle Seahawks making the playoffs with a losing record—"the only thing worse than their defense (ranked 27th among the league's 32 teams) is their offense (28th)"—and the emerging groundswell of support for the team—"among fans, the most endearing transformation has been the contagious notion of hope"—Branch quotes a Seattle resident who works in the "hilltop Queen Anne neighborhood."

Normally the adjective "hilltop" used in that context would mean very little to me, but I remember walking up that hill a couple times...


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