The annual examination of writing as a way of life


"Which are you pursuing: a way of life or a career?" the poet Marvin Bell asks in an essay about the art of writing. The scent of literary careerism has never been stronger, he explains. Conversely, the need for each of us to find a way of life has never been of more importance.

Mr. Bell's essay is among the 61 selections in this year's "Pushcart Prize, XVIII: Best of the Small Presses." The anthology includes fiction, poetry and essays from such beginning writers as Karen Bender, a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, to such established writers as Mr. Bell and Philip Levine, former poetry co-editor of this series and author of numerous books of poetry. Some other well-known names are Tess Gallagher, Albert Goldbarth, Gordon Lish and Stanley Plumley, a poet who teaches at the University of Maryland.

Whether beginning or established, each of these authors writes zTC as a way of life. As Mr. Bell explains, "A way of life is nourished by the practical, the unadorned, the complex and by a direct approach to the mysterious. A way of life means your art continues to arise from your life." It also means your art will probably not be picked up by a large press.

It may, though, be picked up by Bill Henderson, who has edited the Pushcart series since it began in 1976. It publishes the previous year's best work from little (literary) magazines in order to give that work a wider audience. He invites contributing editors to make the final selections. This latest edition includes several writers from Baltimore, including poets Karen Fish, Elizabeth Spires and Josephine Jacobsen.

Small-press authors, Mr. Henderson explains, write because they "care about finding the truths in our funny, lonely, tragic, brave lives." Pushcart honors their idealism -- and the 400-plus publications who submitted material for this volume.

Last year, I noticed that the editors seemed biased; 20 percent of the selections came from three publications. This year, the editors have included more of the lesser-known little magazines, such as Side Show, Shenandoah and Willow Springs.

The selections take risks with voice, as the introduction suggests. Generally, those risks pay off. The most delightful voice belongs to a parakeet named Sid, protagonist of an oddly imaginative story, part fable and part cautionary tale, by Scott Bradfield. Sid complains of being "all dressed up with no place to go. . . . My blood's beating with procreation and heat." Sid's life takes on a new dimension when a cat appears.

The voice in the poem "Woman Kills Sweetheart With Bowling Ball," by Laura Kasischke, has a chant-like quality as it describes a Venus gone awry: "Her left hand bears for you sweetly. . . . Though O tonight in her right hand she, she has invented gravity." A poem by Roger Weingartner makes voice something visible: "Weightless in the shower, I was gliding on my own adolescent current of song, my voice breaking into suds and spray. . . ."

The most stunning voice belongs to "The Sun, The Rain," a story by Marie Shepherd Williams. The language -- like that in the best of this collection -- almost jumps off the page. The narrator describes Rosealice, a retarded woman: "Her smile is a crucifixion: she seems to be in terrible pain when she smiles. The skin of her face is very tight and shiny. The smile breaks it into planes and lines, and whatever light there is slides from plane to plane on her face like little lightning. Why the smile itself is like a dreadful light."

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University. She is the author of "The Laughing Ladies," a collection of poems.

Title: "The Pushcart Prize, XVIII: Best of the Small Presses"

Editor: Bill Henderson

Publisher: Touchstone

Length, price: 574 pages, $15 (paperback)

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