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Thursday, March 10, 2022

The Literary Community Exhibits Creative Bravery in Critical Mass X

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The irony of being a writer is that creative power blooms in community, even though creation generally happens while we are alone. These communities can be difficult to find, create and nurture. Yet, Shreveport has excelled at this — as I witnessed, a bit awestruck, at Critical Mass 10. I was thrilled by the diversity of voices, styles and techniques on exhibit and even more thrilled by the community that

nurtured such creative bravery. One piece stood out among the rest, though: Genaro K. Lý Smith’s “The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born” (an excerpt from his novel in progress, “Napalm Lullaby”). The excerpt gnawed at me, forcing me to return to it repeatedly, both in my mind and on the page.

The art of titling is a difficult craft to master, and yet Smith’s title not only draws us in with its paradoxes and poetic the reader. Whether it is the cinematic first sentence, “The monks, swathed in gold saffron robes, sit cross-legged before the Lý household, eating steamed rice and eel with their fingers,” or the way the last phrases unfold with devastating, language, it stands true to the content and is precise imagery: “Ly hard to forget. “The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born” is haunting, like the work itself. What really sets the chapter apart, though, is the juxtaposition of ethereal (yet concrete) language and familiar, ugly realities. Early in the piece, as the worried men wait and wait Loc takes the boy from the midwife to feel his soft skin again, the bones that are as pliable as a sparrow’s.” Smith leaves no movement unrealized for a woman to give birth, the narrator tells and no sentence unchiseled. Every us, “Lightning sparks within the thick walls of clouds before gasping, and the moment the sky is calm again, another scream comes from inside the house.” The art of this sentence lies within one word: “gasping.” It is not, as one would expect, a word describing the clamor of thunder but instead the exhausted pauses in between booms. Placed at the hinge of the sentence, before narrative moment shows care and craft. I truly believe the novel which emerges from this piece is destined to be snapped up, destined to make Critical Mass proud.

There were many other compelling works, as well. Dorie LaRue’s “Treading Charybdis in the Bayou Macon: The Water Poems” pushed past the expected over and over, the comma that separates clauses, providing startlingly magical lines. “gasping” caused me to gasp, not only with the lightning, but with the woman, paused (like the sentence) for a second between screams. Things are not going well, but in mundane ways, things often don’t go well. But Smith’s language choices make the moment beautiful, sad and beautiful. This is the way with all his sentences.

The narrator is especially cognizant of the body, so the characters seem to move through real space, to live and breathe like In another perfectly titled work, “Aunt Mabel’s Cup of Passion,” comes one of my favorite pair of lines I’ve read recently: “love-shorn stories with the saddest endings/flapping out of my mouth like ugly jay birds.” The ability to flip language beyond expectation and yet communicate with preciseness is the heart of the best poetry, and LaRue is a master. DL Holmes is learning this art, and his forays into it are such a pleasure. In “Haunt,” he takes the familiar (childhood superstitions) and manages to upend expectations, despite flirting with cliché, providing something fresh and biting. Crystalyn Whitaker- Nelson’s (Lady Munira) poems exhibit the power of voice, her own burgeoning voice. Her poems are unflinching. She is doing the hard work of exploring racial pain, historical truth and the nature of home and identity. I hope to see more from all the writers I read, especially these three.

It was a great joy to be a part of Shreveport’s community, if only for a few days. I am excited to return in the fall to see what the artists, writers and performers have in store as they continue to grow in the rich community Critical Mass has cultivated for the area’s creatives.

Leigh Camacho Rourks is a Cuban-American author who lives and works in Central Florida, where she is an assistant professor of English and Humanities at Beacon College. She is the author of “Moon Trees and Other Orphans,” a short story collection that received the St. Lawrence Book Award.

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