Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The essay below appeared in the January 2017 issue of Still Crazy. It is published here as a courtesy to Will Shortz, New York Times Puzzle Editor, and participants in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT).

Silvia E. Hines
Quirky is the six-letter word I think of when I set out every spring, for a weekend at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. I explain to friends that I don’t really do puzzles; I go to hang out with my brother, my nephew, and a childhood friend, all avid competitors in the annual ACPT, brainchild of New York Times puzzle editor, Will Shortz.
            But I also go to hang out with a beloved ghost—my father—who in 1935 took first prize in the New York Herald Tribune’s “World’s Cross Word Puzzle Championship” tournament, little-known predecessor of the current extravaganza. My brother and I grew up with the evidence of this feat: a silver loving cup with our dad’s name engraved, always in its place of honor on a tall bookcase in the living room.
When my daughter asks why I didn’t inherit the crossword gene, I say I did, but it didn’t get turned on. I’d thought, in young adulthood, that if I immersed myself in the circumscribed, escapist territory of interlocking words, I wouldn’t get well enough acquainted with the material world or with the world of ideas. I loved words too, but I wanted to arrange them, one after the other, in meaningful ways, in stories and articles. I was going to be a writer. So I’d close the newspaper before getting to the puzzle, confident there would be other ways to beat the scourge of dementia.
Each year, hundreds compete in the ACPT, now held in Connecticut at the Stamford Marriott. The ballroom, more commonly host to concerts, dances, and wedding receptions, is set up with endless rows of long tables, each seating separated from those adjacent by standing cardboard dividers. The room is so quiet during the competition you could hear a pencil drop, although that rarely happens, since dropping and retrieving pencils would waste precious time that might alter a player’s standing. One year, less than a second separated the winner from the runner-up. During periods between puzzles, however, the lobby is alive with camaraderie, as contestants check rankings, compare solutions, and share angst over missed words. Each entrant must complete seven puzzles in two days, with the top three finishers facing off in a final puzzle, solved by filling in the grids printed on giant whiteboards at the front of the ballroom, while everyone watches.   
            The evenings bring entertainment, usually puzzle-related games, hilarious songs, or films. In 2015, there was a celebration of the tenth anniversary of Wordplay, the feature-length documentary film about the ACPT and its contestants that put Will Shortz and his unconventional tournament on the map. In a favorite clip, Bill Clinton compares working crosswords to solving complex problems: You find some aspect of the problem you can understand, he says, and you build on it, until you can unravel the mystery. With such a presidential endorsement, I may need to rethink the usefulness of this diversion.
My dad would have loved all this, especially the plethora of words. Webster’s Unabridged always lay open and inviting on a table in our home, although we didn’t have to go to the dictionary if dad was around. We could ask him what any word meant and he’d know the definition. Car trips brought word games, often ones he’d made up on the spot. In old age he took up writing limericks, scores of them, always rhyming multisyllabic, esoteric words and encompassing puns. He called himself a paronomasaic, which he said meant a “fanatical punster.”
A feature of the tournament that would be foreign to dad is the annual update on the progress of Dr. Fill, a crossword-solving computer program. Dr. Fill finishes puzzles faster than any person could, but he makes mistakes. Last year the announcement of his rather pedestrian standing caused some exhilaration: “Humans rule!” Shortz shouted—as close to a shout as the mild-mannered puzzle guru gets—and the rest of us let out a raucous cheer. The program can’t deal easily with puns, metaphors, or the incorporation of an overlying theme. Unlike the computer programs that have beaten the best of humans in chess and in the game show Jeopardy, Dr. Fill lags behind.
Although I’m not a competitor in the tournament, I sit in the back of the ballroom with other observers and attempt several of the puzzles. This means watching early finishers leave the room at a time when I have pathetically few squares filled. Some puzzles are so difficult I can barely get started. I consider how much more rewarding it would be to go to the hotel spa for a sauna. But I muster patience and stick with it a little longer, which I begin to see is an important aspect of this endeavor.
Despite my resistance, I come to appreciate the humor and ingenuity of those who construct the puzzles. I take issue with the words on a T-shirt that appeared at the tournament one year: “Crossword constructors think inside the box.” Catchy, yes, but not at all true; these folks teeter way over the edge. For example, in crossword land, a “senior moment” can be prom; a “beat reporter” is metronome; and pole star” is Santa. And if you think “down in the mouth” will translate to sad, depressed, or bummed, you need to think again, this time in a divergent way. The answer is uvula, that rarely appreciated anatomical structure attached to the soft palate that hangs above the tongue.
            Dad also constructed crosswords. He would have loved to call himself a cruciverbalist had the word to denote those verbal artisans been around in his time. One of his puzzles, created before the age of 16, appears in the first printed crossword book, published in 1924 by The Plaza Publishing Company, later to become Simon & Schuster. It’s titled simply The Cross Word Puzzle Book; perhaps the editors didn’t anticipate the multiplicity of such books to come. The front matter for the book contains detailed instructions on how to play this newfangled game, as well as a contemplation on the various ways crosswords can be enjoyed: “There is the pure esthetic stimulation of looking at the pattern with its neat black and white squares, like a floor in a cathedral or a hotel bathroom; there is the challenge of the definitions, titillating the combative ganglion that lurks in all of us. . .”1
Dad jumped on the crossword bandwagon while the form was in its infancy. Although there were precursors to crosswords, the first to resemble the modern puzzle appeared in 1913 in the New York World. Along with its great popularity, the phenomenon had some tough critics in the early years. In 1924, The New York Times complained of the “. . . sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex. This is not a game at all, and it hardly can be called a sport . . . [solvers] get nothing out of it except a primitive form of mental exercise, and success or failure in any given attempt is equally irrelevant to mental development.”2
Similarly denigrating is this complaint by the New York Public Library from 1925: “. . . when prizes are offered for solutions, and the puzzle ‘fans’ swarm to the dictionaries and encyclopedias so as to drive away readers and students who need these books in their daily work, can there be any doubt of the Library's duty to protect its legitimate readers?”3 Clearly, these harsh and whining pundits couldn’t have predicted that, only two decades later, a small group of British crossword enthusiasts would be responsible for breaking the German war code, Enigma. 
This year when it’s time to leave, I think about my dad’s place in crossword history and I grab a packet of puzzles to try on the train. I aim to test my improved ability to fill in the squares, but I also want to better understand the appeal of the puzzle. As I close in on completing one of the easier ones within five or six Metro North station stops, I notice a kind of rush beginning. I’m high on a series of those aha! moments so aptly described by psychologists. One minute, I don’t know the answer; a few minutes later, I know it. It seems I know more than I think I know. As I fill in the final box, I admire how neatly it all falls into place. I feel satisfaction, closure, and the thrill of mastery.
Surely dopamine is flowing in my brain. I could get hooked on this! Perhaps someone has put a crossword fanatic in an fMRI machine to see what parts of the brain light up. Whatever loose ends characterize my life—untidy house, very long to-do list—here’s something that can be neat and complete. The world is an orderly place after all.

1The Cross Word Puzzle Book. The Plaza Publishing Co., New York, 1924, p. 3.
2"Topics of the Times." The New York Times, November 17, 1924, p. 18.
3Report of the New York Public Library for 1924; published by The Library, 1925. https://archive.org/stream/reportnewyorkpu00librgoog/reportnewyorkpu00librgoog_djvu.txt.  

Friday, January 20, 2017

Dear Still Crazy Writers and Readers:

With the January 2017 issue, Still Crazy is entering its tenth year of publication.

I have decided that it’s time for it to take a sabbatical and will not publish a July 2017 issue.
Next year, I will decide whether or not to continue publishing the magazine.

The reasons are both business and personal. The business part is that the magazine limps along but earns little more than enough to cover expenses. (I have never taken a salary. It’s been a “labor of love,” as they say.)  This is pretty much the way it is for most literary magazines, in particular, independent mags not associated with an institution or organization.

Some literary magazines have taken to charging a small administrative fee for submissions to cover their expenses. I have thought about that but resisted it. (If you’re interested in reading some pros and cons about submission fees, I have posted some articles on the Still Crazy blog, and I would be interested in hearing your comments.)

The personal part is that I would like to spend more time on my own writing—in particular, a novel that I am presently into for some 50,000 words.

Finances notwithstanding, Still Crazy has enriched my life in many other ways. I have met many wonderful writers (via email) and am amazed at the writing skills, the talents, and the variety of interests of over-fifty writers. I believe we have given some writers the encouragement to pursue future writing efforts and have published some pieces that might not have found a “home” elsewhere.

The January 2017 issue is available for purchase on the web site: www.crazylitmag.com. Selected poems and excerpts from stories and essays can be found there, too. The current issue is some ten pages longer than usual.

My editor’s email will remain active, so you can reach me at editor@crazylitmag.com with comments and questions.


Barbara Kussow

Monday, November 2, 2015

Still Crazy can now be purchased using credit cards (Master Card, Visa, Discover, American Express). If you wish to use that method of payment, contact editor@crazylitmag.com.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Having just read a series of short story submissions that involve death and loss, I'd like to remind authors that a magazine that publishes too many pieces with these themes would be dreary and unreadable. I also think it is difficult to write about these themes in an artful way. In an essay that appears in Writing After Retirement; Tips from Successful Retired Writers (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), I consider themes in over-fifty writing and address this issue, in particular. To quote myself:
". . . I do not disregard the darker aspects of aging; I just do not want to overemphasize them. I have the feeling that this is the case even for magazines that do not focus on this age group."

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Interview of Mary Barnet in Still Crazy

The interview below appears in the July 2015 issue of STILL CRAZY.


Carol Smallwood

Mary Barnet was nominated a second time for a Pushcart Prize for her recently published
86 Sonnets for the 21st Century (Casa de Snapdragon, 2015). Her books are accompanied by the artwork of Richard E. Schiff, a Life Member of the Art Students League of New York.
Mary is Senior Editor of PoetryMagazine.com, http://www.poetrymagazine.com/index_real.html the longest continuously publishing poetry journal on the internet, founded in 1996.

1. Please describe your website and your duties as editor/writer:
I founded PoetryMagazine.com back in the web primitive days of the 20th Century, 1996, to be precise. That was when few webzines existed, and our advertising was primarily guerilla style; bumper stickers on walls all over New York City, ads in small periodicals as well as Poets & Writers. Early on, we introduced streaming video, and in 1997, we won a Webby Award for our streaming video. That got us a write up in USA Today by Sam Meddis, and we have grown steadily by the year. Our difference has always been the strict criteria we use to publish poets. We are not snobs, but we want to bring the best to our readership who have now come to expect that from us.

Over the years I have added to the mix of unsolicited submissions from which I choose, and then present. There are also Features by invitation by Andrena Zawinski; live poet interviews by Grace Cavalieri; reviews by Grace, Joan Gelfand, and others; and PoetryFilms by our own Richard E. Schiff.

2. Tell us about your career:
I began writing poetry as a small child, seriously at 16 years of age. I had reason, early on, to travel into South America at a time in the volatile days of the mid ‘60s. By 1968, I was living on my own in London, and there I put together the earlier writings and moved my work on. Nineteen sixty-eight was a pretty hip time to be in Britain, and I was in the middle of all that Piccadilly circus stuff in my man’s stovepipe hat and high boots and a wild Victorian embroidered cape I had picked up for a song. 

I returned to New York City in the early ‘70s and have written and published, since then, in many publications, including Crossroads, Gusto, New Worlds Unlimited, The New Jersey Poetry Society Anthology, Funky Dog Publishing, Recursive Angel, The Greenwich Village Gazette, The Poem Factory, Numbat, The Pittsburgh Review, and elsewhere .
Also, I was the Featured Writer in a special edition of Poet magazine. This was followed by my own chapbooks including Orchidia, Proud to be a New American, Landscape and Dad’s Shoes.  These lead to my books, The New American/Selected Poems (Gilford Press, 2006), Arrival (Casa de Snapdragon, 2010) and now, 86 Sonnets for the 21st Century (Casa de Snapdragon, 2015). Both of the latter were nominated for Pushcart Prizes.

3. Which recognitions/achievements have encouraged you the most?
My public readings that began when I was sixteen. I read at The Grace Church, Cage Figaro, and The Baggot Inn, all in Greenwich Village. Later, in 1970, I read at one of my now husband’s openings at the Avanti Galleries on east 72nd street.  I have also read recently at Princeton for the New Jersey Poetry Association.

In 86 Sonnets for the 21st Century (Casa de Snapdragon, 2015) www.marybarnet.com, my sonnets are written for the modern English language. Sonnets are poems, used by, among others, Plutarch, Michael Angelo and William Shakespeare with a specified rhyme scheme and meter. Grace Cavalieri (host of “The Poet and The Poem,” interviews presented by The Library of Congress) and Joan Gelfand (National Book Critics Circle) both admired their originality and readers found their modern presentation of an iconoclastic poetry form refreshing as well.
For a sample, here is one of my recent sonnets:

My Sum
When I find myself in some reality of pain
I know old age can cripple us;
still  there is no need to make a fuss.
I won’t be able to travel to Spain;
many are the places I’ll never visit by boat or plane.
I can’t climb the steps of a bus;
I go so slow some folk just cuss.
Oh ! How I wish I could dance in the rain!

But nothing is lost in my craft;
I write with more facility than in times past.
I’m so happy with this some might think me daft.
All are friends to whom I serve up my words’ repast;
glad will I be if my life is no more than my writing’s sum!
                        March 2015

4. What writers have influenced you the most?
I have never allowed myself to be overly influenced, as I began writing before my mind was full of poets and poems. Chinese and Japanese poetry had an effect on me; brevity is the hallmark of the Haiku, after all. Economy of words goes along with our ideals of wisdom. Doesn’t everyone want to be the person of the “least words”?

5. How has the Internet benefited you?
Well, it gave me the idea that with a www you can reach all the way around the world with your circulation, automatically! And not a single tree paid for the thousands of pages of poetry we have generated in the past 19 years!

6. What classes have helped you the most?
The writing workshops I took part in at what was then The New School, I think it was in the ‘80s, or early ‘90s when Robert Pinsky was there, were invaluable to me.
The Master Class I took with Gerald Stern when I attended a Writers’ Conference at Williams College was also very enlightening to me.

7. What advice would you give others?
Be your own muse and inspiration and remember poetry is an art and a serious craft, requiring you read poetry and write poetry, every day if possible. I say possible, and really as a poet I can barely keep myself from poetry. I am very lucky my husband fancies himself a chef. That gives me a little time to work, and I eat well every night.

8. What is your favorite quotation?
This says everything:
“Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.” – John Donne∎