Prospectus for a Gathering of Chapter Ones:
A Tripartite Invocation and Call for Submissions
In (this issue and) the issues to come, Tupelo Quarterly will feature one or more Chapter Ones: the opening pages of in-process or not-yet-published book-length prose works.
Our intent, beyond whetting readers’ appetites is not to present a collection of what we have judged to be exemplary texts. It is rather to expose a range of strategies used by writers to open up the space for a long-wave narrative.
How does the writer set an atmosphere, begin to unfurl a story line, in short, what is it that she or he draws into visibility at the outset?
Generally, it is in the first chapter, if not sooner, that we find ourselves either renouncing a text, or conspiring with it. If the latter, it is here that we establish our synchrony with the book, falling into a pattern of circulating respirations in which that other world, breath by breath, becomes internalized in a sustained call-and-response of indefinite, even timeless, duration.
Whatever we may be told or shown in the first chapter, however specific or authoritative the information rendered, the initiatory movement articulates a liminal space in which the forms at play have yet to fully emerge. There is immanence here, and potentiation, even as we begin to grasp a structure.
One could, of course, do things differently. But then Raymond Chandler did not write Bleak House. Jane Austen did not write The Plague. The Water Margin did not emanate from the pen of Edwidge Danticat. And Daniel Defoe’s picture will not be found on the jacket flap of Kapital. These books, too, were creatures of particular modes of thought, sensibilities and circumstances that surrounded and permeated their authorship. Thus their first and following chapters may be considered deployments of language within and upon an ever-changing field of social dispositions and patterns of meaning. The choices made in Chapter One, the roads taken, and those bypassed, refer us to a limitless fount of compossibility.
That said, Chapter One is neither a given, nor a necessity. It is a literary convention that carries with it a certain efficacy in granting access to the greater form. In this initial globule of sounds and images, reader and writer alike may begin to discover what the work at hand means to say.
I encourage you to read on. You will find eloquent and fascinating expansions on the theme of Chapter Ones by Christopher Kondrich (Editor-in-Chief) and Bronwyn Mills (Senior Prose Editor) below.
Beginning Before the Beginning
In her essay “On Beginnings,” Mary Ruefle writes, “I think it is easier to talk about the end of a poem than it is to talk about its beginning. Because the poem ends on the page, but it begins off the page, it begins in the mind.” If we expand Ruefle’s subject, poetry, to include prose or hybrid work of any kind, we can begin to approach what the following, newly recurrent series Chapter One will be after—a courageous inquiry into the qualities of beginnings, into what beginningness might look, feel or sound like in the mind and in whatever form the mind is moved for it to take on the page.
Most esotericism aside, I am delighted to help introduce Chapter One because presenting opening chapters or passages in each issue will not only allow for conversation around such work (interviews, commentary, etc.), but it will also provide an opportunity for writers, editors and readers to consider the implications of beginningness on what comes before, in the mind, and what comes after, in subsequent chapters or passages. Ruefle goes on to write “we only really speak one sentence in our lifetime. That sentence begins with your first words, toddling around the kitchen, and ends with your last words;” thus, considering the implications of beginningness has everything to do with considering the point at which the language of one’s life slips into the language of aesthetic representation, where the beginning is.
Aleph & the Ox
Announcing this new venture, Chapter One, I naturally think a lot about beginnings. First words. Alphabets. In Hebrew, the first letter of the alphabet in biblical texts, read as is Arabic, from right to left, is
Aleph or א
In Arabic, this same letter is Alif:
Both share the common Phoenician root, “alp,” referring to the ox and the condition of being trained, tamed, or familiar, being intimate with. The first word of the tablets of the Law that Moses brought down from the mountainside also begins with Aleph:
In the beginning… אָנֹכִי
Much later than the Pentateuch, the Gospel of John 1:1 in the Christian New Testament declared “In the beginning was the Word….”
I am not theological. Nor will we be soliciting exegeses of sacred texts. However, we “people of the book”—or at least of the cultures so profoundly shaped by the people of the book—we are not off to say that writing marks a special beginning, at the least, bringing order out of chaos, taming that enormous, implacable creature, the ox. The word.
If, as early 20th century sports journalist Red Smith said, writing is easy—all you have to do is sit down at the typewriter, open a vein, and bleed—why do we labor over our beginnings so much? Obviously, Smith, who putatively uttered that formula, was saying it tongue in cheek. It isn’t easy. Sometimes we struggle just to start, to goad our lumbering creature forward. The best teamsters, as the drivers of oxen are called, do it all with words; and while we may not have known this about ox-driving, we are painfully aware of it with respect to our fiction. All we have are words. Now, how do we begin? The great medieval Sephardic scholar, Moses Maimonides, insisted that there was no thought without simile, without metaphor; it is thus that we are able to speak of the unspeakable.
Consider the opening words of Jess B. Simple (from my edition of Langston Hughes’ The Best of Simple):
“If you want to know about my life,’ ” said Simple, blowing the foam from the top of the newly filled glass the bartender put before him..Look at my feet..'”
Simple uses, technically speaking, a synedoche to signify so much of where he has been, and who he is. A simile. My life is like my feet. Then Hughes marshals an ancient device, that of one character in a series of interlocking stories. Scheherazade, many millennia before him, used the same strategy with different characters, to save her royal derrière. Carlos Fuentes introduces his Burnt Water, with a beginning that, honestly, I would kill for: “I own an imaginary apartment house in the center of Mexico City.” Oh God.
But if you are not weaving individual stories or episodes together, what is your strategy? What, for that matter, determines what a “chapter” is? Riffing off the more drab prescription, one wag has said that a story must have ” a beginning, a muddle, and an end” (variously ascribed to Philipp Larkin, Peter deVries, and a cast of luminous thousands.) I wonder if that applies to a chapter as well?
In particular, like my ox, the novel is an unwieldy thing. For a novel requires quite a few words. A lot more than Giddyap! You must begin, and not just with the well-honed and flashy first sentence; for you would hope not to have an inquisitive mutt pull aside the curtain to reveal that the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz is just a short, overblown shyster. That being said, it is no accident that our first chapters are often the most polished part of our manuscript, sent out to show off the entire work. We hover over it like our firstborn, polish, rework, revise, read it over again, when going on to Chapter Two, Three, and so on.
Beyond the preening and pruning that such a process often entails, have you called up a world? Have you let the reader peek through a keyhole, peer around a crack in a barely open door, into a world that he or she cannot resist? Have you gotten your beast moving, ready and able to carry the burden of your imagination, and, let’s not forget, your ideas—and the reader’s?
Try us. We’d love to see.