Pushcart 2015: Open

Book carvings from the culture warrior series by Long-Bin Chen

Book carvings from the culture warrior series by Long-Bin Chen

Thousands of editors and writers have helped keep this series thriving. Back in the early 1970’s Stuart Brand’s small-press published The Whole Earth Catalog was an inspiration to millions. It billed itself as an “access to tools” of all sorts – books, medicines, bikes, shelters, etc. And drew its inspiration from thousands of people who helped.
       Brand’s idea of asking many people to help out was borrowed by Pushcart in 1976 for the first Pushcart Prize. At that time, twenty-six distinguished founding editors assisted us as did hundreds of little magazines and small press book editors with nominations. Over the past thirty-nine years “the people who helped” listing on our masthead and back pages has grown to almost 950 for each edition. “Access to literature” might be our motto, and our gatekeepers are readers everywhere.

Pushcart is something of a contradiction in terms. In eschewing the large circulation glossies – TNY, The Atlantic, Harper’s – they focus on small presses. The stories have few boundaries of authorship, form, or theme. But then, there’s that whiff of exclusion from the years when the introduction raved against online literature (a fight they seem to have abandoned); this year, there’s a rant about vanity presses, which I can’t argue with, except I know a couple of people – academics as well as literary writers – who’ve self-published books, not to ring up receipts, but to contribute, to speak, to teach. So, as usual, I see twelve sides of every issue, but it boils down to this: I love Pushcart.

I love the oddness of many of the pieces, how they don’t fit into typical categories. I love the combination of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, though it’s taken me a while to get on board with the latter two categories, mostly out of intimidation: I know little enough about literary fiction, but even less about the others. As long as I don’t hold myself out to be an expert or a critic, but merely a reader reacting to what’s on the page, I think that’s ok.

I recognize four stories, two from the BASS I just finished, and two from One Story. I see a few familiar fiction writers – David Means and Bennett Sims among them – and I’m looking forward to reading them again. What’s really exciting is that I’m starting to recognize contemporary poets. I guess that’s what happens when you start to read contemporary poetry – who knew?

This is my fifth Pushcart read, and each year, I’ve approached it a bit differently. Last year, I tried to include a work from each of the three genres per week, though time made that impossible for a while. It also resulted in a lot of extra poetry left over at the end. I suspect I also lost the overall statement of the volume. Unlike BASS and PEN, Pushcart chooses the order of selections. Last year, I noticed some themes emerging and mutating, but because I didn’t read it in order, I wasn’t experiencing it as the editors planned.

So this year, I’ll go back to my usual process: start at the beginning, and read each piece in order. This, combined with other demands on my time, may result in weeks when I do three poems, or weeks when I do one story – or two weeks when one story is all I can handle. I’ll just keep going, and see what happens. My time budget is six months, which seems like a lot of time to spend on a single book – even a 573-page book – but I like to take my time, let each piece sink in, sleep on it, research what feels necessary, and occasionally, find just the right art to go with the post. It’s the upside of not having to please anyone but myself, of having no purpose other than to learn something from everything I read.

Open…

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