CNF: Know Your Cans

by Erica Soon Olsen


Cowboys in the Old West played a game called Know Your Cans. One would call out a brand name, like Hunt’s baked beans, Borden’s condensed milk, or Maxwell House coffee. Another would step up and recite the label on that can from memory, word for word, including the punctuation marks. Miss one thing, even a comma, and the cowboy would forfeit a dime.

In the bunkhouse, there was nothing for the men to read except the labels on cans.

Proposal for a collective noun: a hardship of cans.

It’s good to keep some canned goods on hand in case of a natural disaster—an earthquake, a hurricane, or a flood. People who keep canned goods at home are prepared and self-sufficient. They donate canned goods to food banks, to shelters, to people who are not as prepared and self-sufficient as they are.

Proposal for a collective noun: an admonishment of cans.

Once, out in the desert, we found a miner’s camp with the remains of a narrow metal bedframe, the springs all sprung; a stove, stove in; and, in a gully below the camp, the miner’s can dump. The labels on the cans were long gone, but I could imagine the illustrations: a red-checked border, a touch of the feminine, the grace of a hand pouring milk. This miner was prepared and self-sufficient. He was also lonely as hell.

Proposal for a collective noun: an isolation of cans.

At fifty years of age, an artifact becomes historic. At fifty, a rusty can may be collected by archaeologists, analyzed, catalogued, nested in Ethafoam, and housed in an acid-free box in a climate-controlled museum curation facility.

Proposal for a collective noun: a preservation of cans.

There is a can in the kitchen sink. There is a can on the kitchen counter. There are cans in the driveway where you opened the door of your truck.

There is only one of you, and so many of them.

A can is a masculine thing: strong and functional when full; when empty, easily crushed.

Proposal for a collective noun: a thirst of cans, a quench, a disappointment.


Erica Soon Olsen was born in Hollywood. She is the author of Recapture & Other Stories (Torrey House Press), a collection of short fiction about the once and future West. She teaches online in the UC Berkeley Extension Professional Sequence in Editing and lives in a log cabin near the Ashley National Forest in northern Utah.


What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Know Your Cans”?

This short essay came together over a number of years. I knew about the cowboy game called Know Your Cans and had long wanted to use it in a story. In 2010 and 2011, while I was working at what was then known as the Anasazi Heritage Center, an archaeology museum in Dolores, Colorado, I became aware of the fifty-year threshold for an artifact to be considered historic. (The common ring-tab beer can achieved this status in 2015.) I liked the idea of the can as an object that embodies both sustenance and a kind of social or emotional deprivation. Stumbling on a rusty logger’s lunch box in the forest while camping last summer prompted me to see what I could do with these materials. The idea of collective nouns was a late addition; it holds this assemblage together.


Congrats to Christopher Allen for having a work from HOUSEHOLD TOXINS being chosen to appear in BSF 2019 from Sonder Press.

Check out the write-up of the journal in The Writer.

New titles available from Robert McBrearty and Tori Bond.


Poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction/prose poetry submissions are now CLOSED. Check out our new category triptychs! The submission period next opens March 15, 2020; submit here.


02/17 • Madison Frazier
02/19 • Gail Geopfert
02/20 • Maureen Alsop (8 of 12)
02/24 • Kenneth Pobo
02/26 • Miranda Campbell
02/27 • Maureen Alsop (9 of 12)
03/04 • John Meyers
03/05 • Maureen Alsop (10 of 12)
03/09 • Grant Faulkner
03/11 • Maureen Alsop
03/12 • Maureen Alsop (11 of 12)
03/16 • Tara Laskowski
03/05 • Maureen Alsop (12 of 12)
03/23 • Kim Chinquee
03/25 • Lucinda Kempe