Review: Still Life With Octopus, by Tania Hershman

Tania Hershman’s second collection of poems, published by Nine Arches Press, explores the boundaries between animal and human, the worlds in which they live and the spaces they inhabit. Tania has this innate ability to find words that rest in the liminal spaces, almost like entering a Moroccan Souk, travelling through mazes of interlinking pathways, where you find intriguing treasures around each corner. It’s a journey into the unknown, the unexplored, and is a place that’s hard to leave, where the things you discover will remain in your mind long after the poem ends. It’s a magical, mystical experience.

‘What if you didn’t know what night was, landing here. What if you’d never heard of light.’

This enticing opening line, a questioning of reality, sets the tone for what is to follow. We explore time and space, the space within which and octopus can enter, remain, shape shift or escape. These poems explore the edges of mind and body, and the connections between the two in ways that will leave you resting on a particular word or phrase. She challenges our ideas of reality and meaning, our thoughts and feelings.

‘And what if the octopus could talk. And what if they turned to us and said, Enough with all the jars, and the tests of what we can get into and get through. You’ve seen what we can do.’

Each poem shifts the way an octopus changes its colour, reflecting its mood, yet there is a thread that connects many of the poems – the nature and shape of the heart, all that is hidden, the confines of space and the way that some things need to be released, or remain hidden.

‘And the body, too, has things it will never tell.’

The indefinite changes of the octopus are mirrored in the shifting of poems across the pages. There is something almost tidal about the ebb and flow of patterns. That the octopus is able to escape from a closed jar with such ease engages the reader with the idea that words can change and move within the confines of the structure of a poem. The fluidity of the words aid the journey as you travel through the pages.

I worry about where my heart is now, did it even reach you? Let go, whispers the octopus in my chest. These things are not in your control.’

The title poem, Still Life With Octopus, made me catch my breath, the words, ‘let go’, echoing through my mind. There is a literal and metaphorical letting go of expectations and of the boundaries you thought you understood. She creates a freedom with words and worlds where anything seems possible, exploring new possibilities and leaving the reader to ponder where the journey will take them.

A gifted writer and a wonderful short fiction teacher, her skilful mastery of words and her eye for the unseen reaches new heights in this stunning collection. With an extensive background in Science, including an MSc in Philosophy of Science, Tania’s research naturally seeps onto the page and into the words and worlds that she creates. This book is a thing of beauty; it’s a pure treasure and a collection that you will want to re-explore again and again.

Tania Hershman’s second poetry collection, Still Life With Octopus, will be published by Nine Arches Press in July 2022 and her debut novel, Go On, by Broken Sleep Books in Oct 2022. Her poetry pamphlet, How High Did She Fly, was joint winner of Live Canon’s 2019 Poetry Pamphlet Competition and her hybrid particle-physics-inspired book ‘and what if we were all allowed to disappear‘ was published by Guillemot Press in March 2020. Tania is also the author of a poetry collection, a poetry chapbook and three short story collections, and co-author of Writing Short Stories: A Writers’ & Artists’ Companion (Bloomsbury, 2014). She is co-creator of the @OnThisDayShe Twitter account, co-author of the On This Day She book (John Blake, 2021), and has a PhD in creative writing inspired by particle physics. www.taniahershman.com

Flash Fiction Evening with David Gaffney and Tania Hershman

The Milton Keynes Literary Festival moved online this year, with a series of events for their autumn program, which culminated in a wonderful evening of flash fiction readings from David Gaffney and Tania Hershman and a Q&A session of questions from participants. Most, not easy to answer, but, as Tania mentioned, there are no rules. We talked about what flash fiction is, or what it might be, and about permission to leave things out, to be daring.

It was good to see familiar faces, and meet new ones. David Gaffney swept us up into the world of his clever graphic novel, The Three Rooms in Valerie’s Head, which began as a performance, based on several of his micro-fictions, and is the title of one of my favourite stories in his collection, More Sawn-Off Tales. In amongst this brilliant collection of 150 word stories, The Three Rooms in Valerie’s Head describes the men she hides in the cellar. “Sometimes she would bring three of four ex-boyfriends up from the cellar and arrange them into scenes – a trad-jazz band, or a dispute around a pool table – and she would move their jaws and make them speak in scratchy voices.” He draws us into the world of Valerie’s life of inept lovers and weird obsessions.

Thought-provoking lines from Everything’s West Of Something began, mid-action, with a vase flying through the air. “You can discover everything about your girlfriend by tossing a breakable object towards her.  Is she poised? Confident in her judgements? Does she seem willing to take responsibility for someone else’s actions? Is she comfortable with spontaneity? What is her attitude to risk, debt, transgression, sin, guilt? How does she experience the passing of time? Does she appear to believe in an afterlife? An interventionist god? Ghosts, fate, predestination?”

All Mod Cons was another wonderful reading, about Jake, who “invented a prescription glass windscreen for his car so that he could drive without wearing his corrective lenses. He enjoyed the feeling of freedom – no plastic pads digging into his nose – and it had the added advantage that car thieves couldn’t drive the vehicle unless they happened to have the same degree of myopia.”

We discovered the way that stories formed as he listened and observed details of every day life, with Potato Smiles evolving from an overheard conversation between a couple, where the woman had inadvertently been looking at the children’s menu, had never heard of potato smiles, and ended up ordering them with her steak! These are the nuggets of information that listeners savour, the moments that fuel and form a story.

He talked about inspiration drawn from Lydia Davis’ writing as a short story author. As he read a 150-word flash fiction piece about Eggborough Power Station, a slide show was projected on to the wall behind. This was a work of art in itself. The stories were varied, and, as always, utterly captivating. You can find David’s books at Salt and elsewhere.

Photo credit: Sarah-Clare Conlon

Tania Hershman treated us to readings from her collections, The White Road and Other Stories, My Mother Was an Upright Piano and Some of Us Glow More Than Others, as well as stories from many other places. She has an almost hypnotic style of reading, drawing you into a scene and holding you there, momentarily. Listen to her read a selection of work on SoundCloud. Her writing, often based on Science, is bold, quirky and gives a brutally honest insight into human nature and nature itself. Tania’s Science Journalism background, along with a Writer in Residence year in a lab, feeds into every fibre of her writing. She read two of my favourite stories:

Vegetable Mineral took us into some snappy and insightful dialogue, keeping us hooked to the end. “When you came back with the post, you held the letters out to me as if the red ink would burn through you like acid. ‘Let’s run away,’ I said. ‘Barbados, Brighton, Bermuda, Brooklyn.’ ‘Only B’s?’ you said, and slumped onto the couch. ‘Today is brought to you by the letter B,’ I said. ‘Animal,’ you said. ‘Domesticated?’ I said as I shoved the bills down the back of the armchair.’”

How to be Here, took us on a journey to a riverbank. “Hover, over exactly that spot on the river, half way between the locks and listen. After an hour, century or minute, land on this bank, wait, in long grasses and inhale.” Tania’s stories leave you clasping hold of the final few words, willing them to stay and tell you more. You can find Tania’s books on her page at Bookshop.org.

Sipping from an enviably beautiful cup, Tania answered questions about story length and how to balance narrative with dialogue. She talked about a 800 word story, which took two and a half years to write, and when asked about story length, we learned that David has been asked by editors to expand his work at times, whereas Tania often cuts down her writing, culling the words and reforming a story. Both talked about the feel and shape of a story, and felt that no two writers work the same way, and no two stories are created by any specific process. She discussed her hybrid writing, the freedom of form, and the idea of losing labels. We talked about the importance of permission to be freer with what you write, to take risks.

Photo credit: Tania Hershman

I have, by no means, covered all the stories we heard, but I hope this gives a flavour of the evening. A recording of the session will be available on YouTube within the next few weeks and I’ll add a link here for you to watch. Thank you to the Milton Keynes Literary festival for organising this event, and to Dave Wakely for chairing. Next time, we’ll all bring cake!

Unbraiding the Short Story: An Interview with Author and Conference Co-Director, Dr Sylvia Petter

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I met Sylvia recently and fortuitously through twitter via a mutual connection. I was grateful to hear of another writer in Vienna and we have met on several occasions since, including at a reading of her newest short story collection at Shakespeare and Co. in the city. She is an inspiring and enthusiastic writer who is organising events at the International Short Story Conference in Vienna in July 2014. I wanted to find out more about the conference and share with you some of Sylvia’s experiences and writing. Her short stories are thought-provoking, often touching on social and political issues.

Hi Fiona,

Thanks for giving me space on your blog!

What drew you in to writing short stories and what is it about the form that appeals to you?

I came late to writing. In the late 90s, on the way back from a course in the UK I picked up my first writing magazine. There was a contest for a story about a ghost in a computer room. I started writing and couldn’t stop; I wanted to find out how the story would end. Magic? The story got nowhere, but I was hooked. I had to learn how to write fiction and I’ve been learning ever since. I learnt a lot in the Geneva Writer’s Group and also online in the pre-web days in Alex Keegan’s Boot Camp where a group of us had to analyse not only our own stories but also stories from the Best American Stories series. That was an intense three years online, my “MfA”.

The form seems to come naturally; my cruising count is relatively short – under 2K. But it’s a difficult form. There is story and story, and what I’m looking for is resonance.

Which writers inspire your work and do you have any favourite short stories or collections?

I love the work of the Australian expatriate, Janette Turner Hospital, and the Canadian, Timothy Findley, who also wrote short stories. Edna O’ Brien’s stories move me, as do Alice Munro’s and stories by the Australians, Cate Kennedy and Paddy O´Reilly.  Favourite collections would be ones by Janette Turner Hospital – Dislocations, Isobars, North of Nowhere, South of Loss, and her most recent prize-winning collection, Forecast: Turbulence. I’m also fond of the adult short stories by Roald Dahl. There is so much good short-story writing around in different media – online, audio, and the reading I attended at the Word Factory in Soho this summer to listen to Kevin Barry, Keith Ridgway and Mary Costello. Then there´s terrific flash fiction by Tania Hershman, and a host of others.

You’re an Australian living in Vienna, having also lived in Geneva. Have the cultural differences helped to give you new insights or fueled your writing in any way?

When I was in Geneva, my stories were mainly set in Australia, although taking inspiration from happenings in the region. The same thing is happening in Vienna, but to a lesser extent. This may be linked to the expat experience and also to the fact that I feel at home in Vienna now – despite the word ‘home’ being a difficult one to pigeonhole. Many of my stories have a political tinge to them, so the setting depends on who the characters are and the issues that are making me and sometimes them say ‘what if?’

Your reading of the collection, Mercury Blobs, at Shakespeare and Co. in Vienna in the Summer was a wonderful event. Your short stories are full of life and exude the enthusiasm that flows through in to your conversation. How much of your character and experience filters through into your work?

Thank you so much for your good words, and I’m so glad you had fun that night. The atmosphere was terrific and the audience attentive. That makes things easy.  And I was so pleased that Annie Evett, my Australian publisher, was there and that the kids made some videos and didn’t fall asleep. Most of my stories are triggered by some happening I’ve experienced, or been told about, or read about in the papers, and then I do a lot of ‘what iffing’. I suppose bits of me and bits of people I’ve met are all mixed up in the characters. So, beware, you may find bits of yourself in a future story.

As Co-Director for the 13th International Conference on the Short Story in English in 2014, you are organising the conference held in July next year with Dr. Maurice Lee. What are your hopes for the conference in raising the profile of the short story form and what are your expectations for the event?

I’ve been going to the conferences since 2002. I only missed the 2006 one in Portugal because I was moving from Geneva to Vienna. I’m very excited that the 2014 conference will be happening in Vienna, and the international mix is bound to demonstrate all the things the short story can do. There´ll be several stories in English translation from the local Austrian writers and from writers from Asia. The event is timely as recent international recognition of the genre – the Man Booker to Lydia Davis, the Giller to Lyn Coady for a short-story collection, and of course, the Nobel Prize to Alice Munro – will put a spotlight on the Vienna conference. Behind the scenes with her magic wand is also Dr Susan Lohafer, who vets all the papers and proposals.

I expect to have a week devoted to the short story, with readings and panels and workshops and networking, where there´ll be sharing and learning, cross-pollinating, and enjoying the buzz of immersion in this exciting and all too long somewhat neglected genre. There’ll be more than 70 writers attending, as well as a host of scholars. We want people to leave Vienna with a new and stronger appreciation of the short story and how these conferences promote them and their writers, and we want them to want to come to the next one, and the next one and the next. This conference is sort of my home, wherever it may be held.

There is a wide range of authors attending, can you tell us about how you chose and invited the various writers to speak and to get involved in the workshops?

One of the things that impressed me at the first conference I attended in New Orleans in 2002 was that Dr Maurice A. Lee, the Director, told us all to leave our egos at the door – the big ones and the little ones. The conference brings well-known and lesser-known writers together on an equal footing. We are there for story. Of course, there are some big names, but what we are looking for are writers who are ready to be there together and celebrate story. We’re expecting over 70 writers from all over the world. There is a tremendously inclusive atmosphere of sharing and cross-pollination, and we have fun.

Regarding the workshop leaders, all had to have demonstrated teaching experience in the genre, and we wanted a certain geographical distribution. Some of the participants have been attending since the first conference in 1988, so writers who had attended before were asked if they wanted to come to Vienna, and many do come back again and again. Thanks to the possibility of getting the word out about the conference via the website and social media like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, and by word of mouth, new faces will be at the Vienna conference.

Each conference also showcases work by local writers translated, where necessary. We’re honoured to have multi-prize winning writer, Friederike Mayröcker, attend, along with Clemens Setz, Doron Rabinovici and others. The exciting thing about the Vienna conference is that participants will also see the theme of ‘unbraiding’ a little like the unbraided plaits of Empress Sissi, reaching out into perhaps unfamiliar directions, as well as the braids that when opened allow for an investigation  of the techniques, history and psychology underlying a short story. The local approach added to this, I feel, will help underline the universality of the genre itself even though it is one that is difficult to pigeonhole.

Cutting edge papers also play their role in bringing writers and scholars together—the birds and the ornithologists, as Robert Olen Butler once said. I remember at the 2012 conference in North Little Rock when writers and scholars attended a round table on flash fiction. The next day, a young scholar from Portugal spoke about the work of Lydia Davis. Flash fiction writers were in the room, and this year, flash fiction practitioner, Tania Hershman, was invited to address a colloquium at the University of Braga in Portugal. This year, too, Lydia Davis won the Man Booker for her micro-fiction. Synchronicity? Whatever. But some magical connections do seem to take place.

The presentation of papers as a more formal representation will be held alongside other formats, including performance, art and film. How do you think the different angles on the short story will appeal?

The conference has always had paper presentations interleaved with reading sessions, although performance and film have not been very present. The paper/reading tandem works very well. Some papers are sometimes on the work of participating writers, which adds a certain edge for both the presenter and writer concerned, and also for the audience. In Vienna, there may be some new offerings in the area of performance and film, but that all will be seen in the final programme which should be available in a few months. The Call for Papers is open until 10 January 2014.

How it will appeal? I think story can have so many different ways of being disseminated. The idea of performance and film also brings together different manners of representation. Everything is changing in the way things are presented. But hasn’t that always been the case? It is easy to look back and see the changes, but when you’re in the middle of change, it may sometimes appear a little overwhelming to some. We want to look at a variety of possibilities in a nurturing and supportive atmosphere. I also think the readings will appeal to the local Vienna population, so there will be great international mingling for them, too, when they come to hear writers from Austria, Australia, Ireland, Canada, UK and the USA.

How can people get involved in the conference and workshops and how can they support the event? 

The conference proper opens on Wednesday, 16 July and ends on Saturday night, 19 July 2014. But there’ll be kick–off events open to the public: a reading at the Alte Schmiede on Monday 14 July, ten workshops by seasoned and well-known teachers and writers on Tuesday, 15 July, readings on Thursday and Friday evenings. Of course, we would like people to register for the conference so as to take advantage of the mingling and the atmosphere, the learning, and to enjoy and be stimulated by the readings, papers and panels. There´ll also be a luncheon reading for conference participants and a farewell dinner at a Heurigen. Shakespeare & Co is also planning a books & brunch event on the Sunday morning for those leaving Vienna later.

People can support the conference by registering to attend, by going to the readings, signing up for the workshops—I don’t think Vienna has ever seen such a fantastic group of teachers in one place at the same time—by entering the short story contest which closes in April, by submitting papers and proposals by the 10 January deadline, by joining the Society for the Study of the Short Story by making donations, and by spreading the word about this wonderful event that I’m so happy to see back in Europe, and hosted in Vienna.

sylviaBorn in Vienna, Sylvia grew up in Australia and after more than 25 years in the Geneva area, is now living in Vienna, Austria. She started writing fiction in 1993, and her poems, articles and stories have appeared in print and on the web. The Past Present, her first collection of short stories, was published in 2000/2001 in paperback and eBook formats by IUMIX, UK. Her second collection of stories, Back Burning, won the IP Picks Best Fiction Prize and was published in 2007 by IP, Australia. Her stories also appear in the charity anthologies 100 Stories for Haiti, 50 Stories for Pakistan, A Pint and a Haircut – True Irish Stories, 100 Stories for Queensland and New Sun Rising: Stories for Japan.

You can connect with Sylvia on twitter, her website, blog or facebook.