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My colleague Douglas Ray and I are teaching book review writing through our respective classes, Writing Workshop and Experimental Literature. The first book review published through this initiative is now up at Galatea Resurrects.
I started a press, Coven Press (FB), through which my friends and I will spearhead individual and group publishing projects. The first project is Annual Books, which will publish one full-length experimental poetry book annually, beginning with Amish Trivedi’s Sound/Chest (about which you can read more here). Sound/Chest will be out in January, at which time Annual Books will announce the details of the Annual Books Prize.
I’m curating the Delirious Hem Advent Calendar this year with help from its founder, Dusie editor Susana Gardner. The series will run every day from Dec. 1 to Dec. 25 (like an Advent Calendar). This year, we’re addressing rape culture with poems about rape as a response to the recent Rolling Stone article about rape culture at the University of Virginia, which I attended for two years as a Ph.D. student. The University of Virginia’s response to rape allegations has been brutally insufficient, and I honestly can’t understand why President Sullivan still has a job after all the holes she’s dug during her tenure. I feel no pride about being a University of Virginia alum, as I spent only a brief time there and, with the exception of a couple of classes and the friendships I built in the face of disliking the program, did not enjoy that time. I did not enjoy walking past fraternity houses every day to get to school, their red solo cups littering the ground, the boys with lewd comments and privileged airs. I did not enjoy how the entrenched local sexism often trickled into the classroom. UVA is just one University, and maybe it’s not so unique. I didn’t feel the same way at SUNY Buffalo, though, so I know it can be different.
More recently, the poetry community has been rocked by allegations of rape in San Francisco and New York. We’re not surprised by all this. But we’re responding to it with at least 25 poems this month.
Poetry Editor Michelle Detorie has published a suite of 7 poems from The Daybooks at Entropy as the first in a series of zodiac poems; I represent the Scorpio poet. If you’re a Sagittarius, send her poems.
The Daybooks, a massive set of poems addressing the micro- and not-so-microaggressions against women in everyday life, is now scattered in the following places:
Boston Poetry Magazine (Pushcart Prize nominee)
More Daybooks poems are forthcoming in Open Letters Monthly, Touch the Donkey, Drunken Boat, Delirious Hem, Mondo Bummer, and MiPoesias. Variety is the spice of life.
Poet Michael Wells tagged me to answer some questions for the Writing Process Blog Tour, a linked meme of interview questions for writers to get a chance to reflect on their work.
QUESTION #1: What are you working on?
I have a job and a family, so I am working on keeping those things in order. In terms of poetry, I am working on a very long manuscript that addresses “micro aggressions” and the sexual politics of everyday life called The Daybooks (you can read excerpts at Bling that Sings, Boston Poetry Magazine, Newport Life, The Rumpus, and Zigest). I’m also working on a chapbook-sized set of 30 poems with 30 words each (kind of like this series) about dreams of architecture called Dream House. I started Dream House to flesh out a manuscript that’s kind of about bodies, families, organization, architecture, and fragmentation that I’m currently calling Shards & Parts (but that might change).
QUESTION #2: How does your voice differ with others of its genre?
I don’t know how much my voice differs from others in the genre. I write very un-dreamy poems, usually, by which I mean I write about everyday experience and memory, not about imaginary or made-up things– of course that’s a hard distinction to try to draw, but I admire a lot of poetry that is more “imaginative,” like Michelle Detorie’s After-Cave and CAConrad’s A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon. My style is different; my toolbox is different. I want to capture the moments of thinking that are pre-narrative, confused, lapsed, dirty, soft around the edges, vague.
“‘Thinking’ as the conceptual basis of literary production suggests the possibilities for leaps, jumps, fissures, repetition, bridges, schisms, colloquialisms, trains of associations, and memory; as a literary mode it would rely on concepts related to spontaneity, free association, and improvisation.”
Recently I have been interested in poems by Dorothea Lasky, Sandra Simonds, Gina Myers, Natasha Tretheway, Sandra Beasley, and Hoa Nguyen, which is a little weird because their voices are so diverse. Each of them speaks to me in a different way, and I feel like I’m in a conversation with them where we are each bringing a piece of a massive puzzle that will never form a whole image.
”It’s like a jigsaw puzzle that every piece you put in fits, and then when you finish it, you see that it’s not the picture. That was the idea. The jigsaw puzzle, everything finishes, and it’s not the picture. Then you do another version, and it’s not the picture. Finally you realize that you are not going to get a picture.”
QUESTION #3: Why do I write what I do?
It changes depending on what I’m writing. When I wrote Organic Furniture Cellar (Bootstrap/Outside Voices 2006), I was in love and exploring new worlds for the first time– it records youthful exuberance. When I wrote Life-List (Chax Press 2015), I was dealing with grief and memory through an obsession with birdwatching. The Daybooks was born out of a desire to talk about what really happens to women in everyday life– not just love, or grief, or violence, or sex, but a more inclusive and textural “real life.” Dream House is a constraint-based exercise to keep myself writing when I’m not inspired to work on The Daybooks; I started working on it because of a brief conversation I had with artist Noah Saterstrom about the recurrence of specific houses in dreams.
QUESTION #4 How does your writing process work?
I’m a librarian. I like things to be organized. First I have a plan: I want to write about x. I make notes about what kind of information I want to cover. For Daybooks, I have a huge Excel spreadsheet where I plan out each poem. This allows me to write the content later– I sketch out what I want the content to be, and I can do the work of making the content when I feel inspired or find interesting source material to use. This method became essential when I became a mother and never had time to write. When I did get a few minutes of free time, I didn’t have the wide brain-space to wait to get inspired. So I started keeping more notes to refer back to when I had time to write the poem. There is a lot of planning, but the actual poem-writing takes perhaps an hour. Then the poem morphs through small editorial changes over a series of months as I keep staring at the file when I write more poems.
When writing a particular poem, I have a vision– a phrase, a line, a group of shapes. Usually my poems begin with an image of one phrase or word and its particular placement on a page. Once the first mark is made, I fill in around it. If you imagine a page divided into quadrants, I often start in the middle of the upper right quadrant and work from there– usually up, counter-clockwide and around, like a nautilus.
NEXT: Follow K. Lorraine Graham’s and Michelle Detorie’s blogs to see their answers to these questions!
K. LORRAINE GRAHAM is the author of Terminal Humming from Edge Books, and a second collection forthcoming from Coconut Books in 2015 that will be called 1) Meta Horror 2) The Men Are Etcetera or 3) The Rest Is Censored. Occasionally, she gets excited about transnational theory, network analysis and the relationship between technology and affect. Her current writing projects are about debt, anxiety and operatic suffering. She has work forthcoming in Postmodern Culture and suddenly lives in DC. Wherever she lives, she lives with Lester Young, a pacific parrotlet, who is featured regularly on her Tumblr.
MICHELLE DETORIE lives in Santa Barbara, CA, where she edits Hex Presse and coordinates the Writing Center at Santa Barbara City College. She is the author of numerous chapbooks including Fur Birds (Insert Press), How Hate Got Hand (eohippus labs), and Bellum Letters (Dusie). She also makes visual poems, poetry objects, and time-based poetry. In 2007, Michelle was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts literature fellowship, and in 2010 she won a direct-to-artist grant from the Santa Barbara Arts Collaborative for her public art project, The Poetry Booth. Her first full-length collection, After-Cave, is just out from Ahsahta Press. Her current project, The Sin in Wilderness, is a book-length erasure project about love, animals, and affective geography.
Charmed by this little write-up by Kayleigh Reed for The Spectrum, the student newspaper of my alma mater, SUNY Buffalo (UB). I started name magazine with $300 from Robert Creeley’s endowed Chair funds when Jorie Graham cancelled her reading at UB due to illness. The first issue was loose-leaf paper printed for free from the school’s computers and housed in a translucent plastic envelope. The second, third, and seventh issues embraced experimental book arts with advisement from editors including Chelsea Warren, Aaron Lowinger and Julia Purpura. Prior to name, there had not been a student literary magazine in a number of years; the previous one was edited by Anselm Berrigan. Happy to see that name is still standing and still celebrating the marriage of poetry and book arts!
Time, which eats its own children, wants to pull everything in, and Silliman’s revelator fights back with the same weapon.
A new mini-chapbook of mine is out from Phafours Press, where $10 will get you all 7 of the mini chapbooks in the series. Cicada Radio is a series of square handwritten poems (like this one at Apocryphal Text but smaller). Perfect summer porch reading as this year’s cicadas emerge!
In 2007, I made a book called Z:En. It is available as a free .pdf from Lulu.com and is now up at Eileen Tabios’s Bibliotheca Invisibilis. John Bloomberg-Rissman has reviewed it at Galatea Resurrects.
Some mini ekphrastic poems about the Nazca lines and Nazca pottery are up at 17 seconds. These are part of a series of little “light-touch” ekphrastic poems, some of which were recently in The Brooklyn Rail and some of which are forthcoming in The Hat.
A handful of my recent ekphrastic poems are up at The Brooklyn Rail. These are from a series about mothers and their children inspired by an old book discarded from our library, A Gallery of Mothers and their Children* (Marian King, 1958). My favorite is “Saskia, Rembrandt (1636)“, which I recorded here and which is based on this Rembrandt sketch. The poems comprise my own writing, excerpts from the book, and descriptions of the paintings (ekphrasis).
I’ve been talking to some of my poet friends lately about how my poems are kind of post-sonnet sonnets– they don’t have the meter or rhyme scheme, but they have the volta, and to my mind they have the “weight” of a sonnet on the page (think of the “afterimage” of a sonnet). “Saskia” is a good example of what I’m talking about, and if it were a sonnet it might be a Petrachan sonnet because it’s divided nearly evenly between theme and resolution.
Derek Fenner’s The Emerald Tablet, a collection of writing responding to the Emerald Tablet, was initially published in a small run and only available to contributors and friends– a kind of “secret book.” It is now available to the general public through Lulu.
Contains work by Nora Almeida / Micah Ballard / Gerrit Lansing / Cedar Sigo / Whit Griffin / Christina Fisher / Joseph Torra / Alli Warren / Patrick Doud / Peter O’Leary / Jim Dunn / Jason Morris / Jackson Meazle / Rebecca E. Wenrick / Sunnylyn Ballard Thibodeaux / Dana Ward / Julien Poirier / John Sakkis /Brian Lucas / Jessica Smith / Sara Larsen / Garret Caples / Geoffrey Young /Rod Roland / Geoffrey Dyer / Patrick James Dunagan / Nick Whittington /Rebecca Maillet / Sirama Bajo / Ryan Gallagher / Jai Arun Ravine / Andrew Schelling / David Brazil / Lindsey Boldt / Hermes Trismegistus COVER ART BY Thorpe Feidt & Brian Lucas
I work in a library that has been weeding thousands of books (outdated, water damaged, and otherwise in poor condition– it had not been weeded in years and we’re downsizing as our research/space needs change), so my friends and I have been reusing some of the old books for art/poetry projects. Some of the books have become hollow books, illuminated books (a la A Humument), and erased texts (a la Radi Os). I have been working on a series of erasures from a book called Animal Camouflage; the erased series is called Exact Resemblance. A few of these erasures are now up at La Vague Journal thanks to editor Jennifer Pilch. Continue reading
From 2006-2008, Maureen Thorson published small chapbooks called “tinysides,” which began as a large folded sheet of paper with a colored cover, saddle-stitched into an uncut codex with binding thread. If I remember correctly, she got the idea while trying to read a large broadside on the subway. The plan was to make small broadsides, so these little books were like a cross between a broadside and a chapbook. tinysides led to an explosion of small artists’ book publishing, such as Foursquare (4″ sq folded broadside zine in a fabric sleeve, 2006-2008), dusie “wee” (the tiniest of tiny handmade ephemeral chapbooks, mostly 1-3″ sq), coinsides (tiny broadsides in coin envelopes) and eventually things like LRL Textile Series (2011-present). Micro-publishing has many iterations, but this was one “genetic line” of where the editors were working in a particular communal/conversational zeitgeist to make limited edition poetry art object publications. Maureen is now working to put all the tinysides online. Since they were initially handmade in small runs, the audience was limited, but you will now be able to access the digital versions online for free here.
After some time off from my own poetry,* I pulled together a book manuscript last Fall and have spent 2013 editing and adding to it, entering it in contests, writing new poems, and otherwise newly engaging in the poetry community as an author. It’s been awhile.
The book manuscript, as yet untitled, was a finalist for the Nightboat Book Prize and in Tarpaulin Sky’s open reading period. Chax picked it up with a tentative release date of 2015. Since we haven’t settled on a title, I describe this as my birds/love/memory ecopoetry project; it’s my normal visual/plastic style, and the subjects are birds/love/folktales/how we remember things. Life-list as mnemonic device. (Samples)
Some of the poems from this manuscript were published by above/ground as Mnemotechnics; here’s a review. rob mclennan’s support this year has been invaluable for getting me back in the game. Not only is he a good friend and editor, but he keeps track of all the above/ground authors’ activity, which is pretty rad.
Thanks in part to a productive NaPoWriMo and kind editors, my poems have been published in aesthetix, The Chapbook , Cordite Poetry Review, The Emerald Tablet, N/A, Open Letters Monthly, Tarpaulin Sky, The Volta, and Word for/ Word in the past year. (Of these, OLM, N/A, TS and The Volta have poems from the new book.) More poems are forthcoming in La Vague Journal (erasures), The Hat (ekphrastic), and as an installation in a walnut grove outside Smiths Falls, ON. Two of my new ekphrastic poems were featured on dusie’s Tuesday poem series and in the Delirious Hem Advent Calendar. I also contributed to the Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange (brainchild of Melissa Eleftherion Carr) and to a chapbook called Z”l to benefit the family of CJ Martin and Julia Drescher (ed. Ash Smith)
I read in Ottawa, ON (after honeymooning in relatively nearby Lake Placid, NY) and Oxford, MS. Both communities were wonderful and I got to meet a lot of people I’d only previously known online. (Thank you, rob mclennan and Michael Martin Shea for inviting me!)
In an attempt to integrate my love for poetry with my job as a librarian, I was the first libraries editor for Boog City, I guest blogged for The Library as Incubator Project, and I co-curated another year of the Indian Springs School Visiting Writers Series with my wonderful colleague, Douglas Ray.
I think my favorite project this year was editing the Women of Visual Poetry edition of The Volta. After reviewing part of The Last VisPo Anthology in The Volta Issue 32, I wanted to show that there were a lot more women creating visual poetry than had been featured in The Last VisPo (itself an amazing collection of visual poetry, but as editor Nico Vassilakis sees it, “the genre of visual poetry has primarily been a sausage fest“). I had six weeks to solicit, curate, respond to, and prepare poems for publication before Afton Wilky took over the web design portion of the show; I then spent three weeks gathering the poems and the next three preparing them for Afton. The result is an astounding collection of the works of 63 female poets who work with the visual space of the page. I am proud of this collection and overwhelmed by its beauty and the resulting community of poets. Although I don’t want to edit a journal full-time anymore, I enjoyed the guest editing experience and am hoping to do more of it.
* Since my first book, Organic Furniture Cellar, came out in 2006, I’ve changed careers, lived in 4 different cities, started and ended a poetry magazine (Foursquare), married, had a baby, started a poetry reading series… it’s been a busy 7 years, but not busy with my own writing.
While working at the SFSU Poetry Center, Melissa Eleftherion Carr developed the Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange, a digital repository of chapbooks that she intended to function by exchange: when you uploaded your own chapbooks, you would gain access to the others. The Chapbook Exchange chapbooks are now available to the public. The site currently features chapbooks by Stephen Ratcliffe, Caroline Goodwin, Maureen Thorson, Michelle Detorie, Alli Warren, Jess Heaney, Lara Durback, Frances Richard, Donna de la Perriere, Gemma McGrath, Kristy Bowen, Jennifer Firestone, Andrea Rexilius, Maya Weeks, Eve Wood, Christina Lloyd, Mary Burger, Carrie Hunter, Aja Couchois Duncan, Steve Gilmartin, Maw Shein Win, Evan Karp, Melissa Eleftherion, and Patrick Dunagan.
The chapbook I uploaded is butterflies, which was originally published in 2006 by Big Game Books as their first tinyside. tinysides were large broadside sheets folded into pocket-sized books with gorgeous covers designed by editor Maureen Thorson. The limited edition (50 copies) tinysides are sold out now, so the Chapbook Exchange is the only access points for butterflies.
The Chapbook Journal is a periodical that collects new and reprinted chapbooks in one codex. Vol. 2 focuses on Alabama writers and includes chapbooks by Patti White, Emma Bolden, Jim Hilgartner, Jennifer Horne, Laura Hendrix Ezell, and Michael Martone. My included chapbook, The Fortune Teller, was published as a pack of tarot cards by a+bend press (ed. Jill Stengel) in 2009 as part of a dusie collaborative. It has since been out of print and is rereleased here for those who didn’t get a copy of the original. You can order a print copy of The Chapbook ($7.89) or read it online (free!).
To access the original artists’ book/chapbook, visit the Poetry Library at Buffalo.
When Derek Motion asked me for poems for a special issue of Cordite Poetry Review on Gondwanaland, I combined geological research with the acupuncture maps of the body and my physical experience of memory, pain, and desire. Here is the result, lovingly programmed by editor Kent MacCarthur to reproduce my original formatting.
My colleague and friend Douglas Ray and I went to Oxford, MS yesterday to read in Michael Martin Shea‘s Trobar Ric reading series (which he inherited from Tim Early; recent readers have included Adam Clay and Ada Limon, and Douglas and I were scheduled with TJ Beitelman and Andrew Freiman). It was a beautiful warm autumn night, and the reading took place in an old shed with decor, seating, and podium made from reclaimed materials– kind of what you’d imagine a magical Mississippi poetry setting to look like. We had a good turnout and the audience was really friendly and supportive. All in all a great experience.
My friend Robin Brox, who is a poet/organizer/small force of nature/educator on the Buffalo scene, has started performing bpNichol’s “pome poem” before her readings in Buffalo, and it was running through my head yesterday as I tried to calm myself before the reading, so I decided to give it a go. I don’t have enough wind power to perform this as well as Barrie or Robin, especially when nervous, but I enjoyed opening with it and will probably do it again.
A memorial book for the family of CJ Martin and Julia Drescher, now available for pre-order here
1. Read poetry
2. Listen to poetry
3. Disseminate poetry
4. Write poetry
5. Remain open to learning more
1. Don’t bully other poets online or in person
2. Don’t write bad reviews of a poet’s work out of personal spite for the poet
3. Don’t make definitive lists of poets or poems
4. Don’t take on more than you can handle
5. Don’t over/under-estimate the value of poetry in the world
I spent the first three weeks of June guest editing the September issue of The Volta/Evening Will Come, which focuses on visual poetry created by women. Thanks to Joshua Marie Wilkinson and Noah Eli Gordon for letting me put this issue together and to Afton Wilky (who should also be in the issue– check out her vispo on her website) for creating its web presence!
I had fun reading poetry in Ottawa last weekend and meeting a bunch of cool poets, including my publisher rob mclennan and my co-readers Amanda Earl and Marilyn Irwin. I read from my recent chapbook mnemotechnics (available here). Recording here.
I’d love to just talk about my poetry/methods for the entire reading period instead of reading the poems aloud; I prefer readers to encounter the poems for themselves in a reader-page affair. There’s more time to linger, reread, sit still with phrases when you’re reading to yourself.
5 poems from my birds/memory project in Tarpaulin Sky Magazine (thanks Christian!)… if you like these, consider checking out poems from the same manuscript in N/A and my recent chapbook, mnemotechnics (above/ground press). Ottawa! I will be reading in your fair city this Saturday, 7/13.
With each line as deliberate as a brushstroke, Smith constructs scenes on standalone details, which – like the birds she muses – contribute insights best when taken as a flock.
Some new excerpts from my ongoing birds/memories project are in the first issue of N/A, Ed. Amish Trivedi.
Creativity is something that is inherent in everyone, but it gets beaten down a lot in our production-focused educational and economic systems. The library remains a democratizing and nurturing environment where creativity can thrive.
New Boog City (.pdf) with an interview with The Library as Incubator Project’s Erinn Batyfeker (turnabout is fair play).
In my “other life,” I’m a librarian. I’ve tried to integrate my poetry life with my library life by hosting poetry readings at the library. My guest blog post on Library as Incubator Project describes our main library program, the Indian Springs School Visiting Writers Series. Listen to some of the readings at SoundCloud. (Publicity posters based on a design made for us by Shanna Compton.)
mnemotechnics is about birds and memory– specifically, it’s an homage to the life-list, the list that a birdwatcher keeps of all the birds she’s seen and in what context she first saw them. A life list becomes a record of travel, of personal memory, and of shifting avian territories. (TNBT)
For those of you who haven’t ever used it, Pinterest is a link storage site (similar to delicious) that organizes bookmarks with pictures; it’s also similar to Tumblr in that you can like and share links.* Users make “boards” and then upload, link, or share “pins” based on the subject of the board. For instance, you could make a Book Arts board and “pin” links to cool book art on it.
Pinterest is a great tool for poetry. You can pin your own projects (although it’s discouraged, and you certainly shouldn’t use Pinterest as pure self-promotion– it’s just not the ethos of the site). You can pin inspirational pictures or follow poetry magazines and presses to see new publications. Pinterest is very popular among k-12 teachers for lesson planning, and there are lots of great ideas about teaching poetry that you can share (pin to your own boards).
Pinterest is also handy for remembering that although we’re all poets, we have other lives too. We’re moms, dads, cooks, teachers, artists, book makers, consumers, designers, fashionistas. Poetry is often a male-dominated world and the stereotype of the “life of the mind” is a masculine stereotype– women have to multi-task. Emily Dickinson baked. Sylvia Plath was a single mom with two kids under 5. Facebook also reminds us of this: we’re not just brains. We’re real people, with problems and debts and births and deaths. Poetry is not just the words we put on the page: it’s the way we live, the way we see the world and interact with it. And that’s not just cerebrally, in our ivory towers and attics, it’s physically, in our gardens and kitchens.
One of the most useful lessons that Pinterest offers is a frame shift for thinking about poetry publishing. When you’re pinning to a board, you create the board and its boundaries; you curate the pins that relate to the board as you define it. Poetry publishers work like this too, whether they’re magazines or book publishers. Each press or magazine editor has a sense of the board s/he’s making, and selects poems/manuscripts that fit into that board. As the poet who “submits” (recommends?) work, it’s hard to remember that your work might be wonderful and it just might not fit into the Editor’s board. PoetryLand can often seem highly competitive: we’re competing for limited readers, the limited time those readers have to focus on our work, the limited funds available for publishing work so that it can find more readers. But this competition doesn’t necessarily find the “best” work. The people who control the resources– the Editors and Readers– are sifting through all the pins and looking for the ones that appeal to them to put in their boards (publications/brains). It’s not (just) about merit, it’s about taste. It’s not (just) about competition, it’s about curation.
And just like on Pinterest, you always have the power to build your own board: your own press, your own magazine, your own readership. Don’t rely on the tastes of others to define the poetry landscape: get in there and start your own boards.
* It seems like whenever a new social media tool pops up, people grumpily ask, “What would you ever use that for?” and then complain that it’s stupid or a waste of time. They joke about people taking pictures of their food or writing about what they had for lunch. Those people lack imagination.
We’re packing and cleaning this weekend to get ready to move for May 1. As you can probably tell, I ran out of NaPoWriMo steam mid-month when we finalized the house purchase. This poem is for the spiders we’ve uprooted:
Spider Poem with Exclamation Mark
The spider draws
two unrelated points
together; a new, temporary
geography. In this space,
Life! In this space,
Death. The guy wire breaks,
the circus is over, the tent
My 2.5 year old son dictated this poem to me, including the placement and sizes of the words. I like his use of space. One thing that’s really interesting to me about his perception of the world is the way he seems to think that writing a word makes the thing magically exist. So when he dictates “daddy,” “mom” and “Paul” must immediately follow or they might disappear. Writing “green” or “yellow” seems to mean that those colors appear (in real life? In the mind’s eye? Or just philosophically, existentially?) in a magical way that probably happens for us, too, still, on some level, but which we gloss over because words are so transparent for us most of the time.
1. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
This short book is so well-written, it’s all but perfect. The plot is a little weird, and it’s kind of about plot, so I can’t give anything away; but the writing is so clean and fluid. When I read this, I thought it was so easy to read that it was “nothing,” like drinking water, but I keep coming back to it because I enjoyed that smooth writing so much.
2. The Dogs Stars by Peter Heller
One of the best books I’ve read in years. The writing is awesome– something very fragmented/ecriture feminine/poetic about it and at the same time very masculine, in terms of expectations of how an experimental male writer might right, it’s this weird gender-bending prose. This book is about grief and what happens after grief, which is that things change, but there’s still grief. If you’re in the mood for some easy-but-not-too-easy contemporary fiction, I can’t recommend this highly enough.
4. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
I found this book kind of annoying when I was reading it, but I made myself finish it. Like Let the Great World Spin, I now come back to its images, especially a particular birth scene. After I read it, I tried to read The Book Thief because I thought it would be similar and perhaps even better, but I found it completely intolerable. People of the Book is like The Book Thief for people who enjoy reading, but what you probably also want to read is Everything is Illuminated.
5. The Dinner by Hermann Koch
I have very mixed feelings about this creepy book. It’s well-done– the drama is centered during one dinner party, like one of Ingmar Bergman’s chamber films. It’s fast-paced but the characters are extremely well-developed and the narrator is deliciously unreliable (Cf my love for Lolita). But some of the implications about the mental states of the main character and his son are sketchy.
Yeah, so I missed a few days. We bought a house. People buy houses all the time, and it seems like it must be an easy process because people do it all the time, but it’s not easy. It wasn’t easy for us. Sometimes you have to write bad poetry to crank up the machinery. Thanks to my friends for um… “letting” me write poetry about them.
It’s the very
end of the world. We drive from
Briny Breezes, with its bird-named
streets, to Fort Zachary Taylor,
but we can’t rent
a 1966 Thunderbird, so I’m
and you’re on the beach alone.
It’s the end of the world; the
sky is complicitly cloudy. In my head
I rip you open, disembowel you,
hang your organs up as a bunting,
and crawl inside you.
Whatever’s left, I eat,
making a smooth hollow space
On the river, the old train depot
and Greyhound station
aren’t that old. The buildings are named
for the president of the Confederacy.
But I am with you in Oakland, nursing a tear.
I carry you for ten miles,
running. I am with you in Goleta,
following you around like
the pelican in the parking lot. I
am with you in Denver listening
to Beethoven; I am with you in
Fayetteville listening to Carter.
The time of the moon isn’t right
for escape, so we wait.
1. Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)
The Great American Novel was written by a Russian aristocratic expat, and one of its two main characters is a similar European expat– but then, most of us came here from elsewhere, and until recently, English wasn’t the first language for most Americans. There’s a lot to say about Lolita, but one of the things I want to say is that if you haven’t read it rigorously, you haven’t read it. Many dirty old men taut this book as a celebration of pedophilia and child pornography, but it’s a scathing psychological investigation of a rapist and murderer (I have to constantly remind my students, when they read it, that he’s been institutionalized multiple times and is in jail for murdering another wealthy white man, not for raping an orphaned child). The book covers rarely do the book justice either, as they try to sell it as a “love story” — saying Lolita is a love story is like saying Twin Peaks is a love story. It’s social commentary, it’s a crime novel, it’s a murder mystery… and if it’s a love story, it’s a story of Lolita‘s courageous love for herself (cf. Vera’s diaristic notes, quoted in this review of Chasing Lolita). Runner up: Ada or Ardor.
2. Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)
I know Ulysses and The Sound and the Fury are often on these lists, and I love them too, but Mrs. Dalloway is, for me, everything I would have wanted in those other two books. Septimus is what I want from Stephen and Quentin. Mrs. Dalloway is shorter than Ulysses and less fragmented, and I have a short attention span. I loved reading Ulysses multiple times in undergrad and grad school, but I don’t really want to read it every year. I like that I don’t need a slew of other books to decode Mrs. Dalloway. Runner up: To the Lighthouse. Although I love re-reading Mrs. Dalloway, I wish I could read To The Lighthouse again for the first time.
3. Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë)
Creepy. Sadistic. Scorpionic. Class, race, gender politics. It’s all there, evil and delicious.
4. Washington Square (Henry James)
Henry James is such a master: I love What Maisie Knew, The Portrait of a Lady, “Daisy Miller”… really everything, which I read in 2005 in Stockholm, Charlottesville, and Ithaca. If I were to pick one Henry James novel, it would be Washington Square because I think it’s does the most “Henry James stuff” in the least space. (Except maybe “Daisy”, but is that a novel?) … Also what’s with the non-feminist appropriation of James? I see him in this feminist novelist line somewhere between Jane Austen and Joyce Carol Oates. Move over, old white male academics — this one is ours.
5. The Metamorphosis (Franz Kafka)
I can’t believe I’m putting this at 5. This used to be my automatic answer for “What’s your favorite book?” Everyone should read this. It has something for everyone. It’s very easy to teach. And it’s short.
6. Swann’s Way (Marcel Proust)
I can’t argue with the mastery of In Search of Lost Time, but I can say that I have no desire to read it again, except for Swann’s Way. After Swann’s Way, when reading Proust becomes like a reactivation of his life inside your head, like he’s a parasite who came to eat your brain and reanimate himself in the world, it’s all very interesting, but argh, I have my own life! If you, too, have your own life, and don’t have time to read 7 volumes of someone else’s life, just read Swann’s Way.
7. The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov)
Maureen Thorson told me to read this, and when I saw this cover I was convinced because I like cats. This is a delightful, funny, magical book that I wish I could read again for the first time because it gives one the constant joy of new discoveries (plot twists, jokes, magical realism). What can I say about it that won’t spoil it?
8. Hunger (Knut Hamsun)
I read this after it was suggested to me by multiple friends (Michalle Gould and Matt Henriksen), and it’s such a great novel for starving writers. I’d thought Auster and Hustvedt were the ultimate writers of the pomo American starving artist type, but I was wrong, it was the Norwegian writing 120 years ago who really puts the experience of being an egotistical, slightly crazy, starving artist to paper.
9. Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neale Hurston)
I read this in high school, and I read it again in preparation for one of my oral exams at UVA, which was soon after Hurricane Katrina. I’d entirely forgotten that there’s a hurricane in TEWWG. What’s not to like here? — Strong women with sex drives, crazy lousy men you love anyway who drive you to destruction and redemption, hauntingly beautiful descriptions laced with mourning and loss….
10. The Ravishing of Lol Stein (and the other India Cycle books) (Marguerite Duras)
Duras is one of my favorite authors– I love The War, the India Cycle books (and the film India Song), the beaches and heat and jungles (reminds me of growing up in Alabama?) and her treatment of trauma. Although most people who read Duras start with The Lover, and I did too and loved it, there’s a lot of great Duras beyond that. (I like The Lover, but I think it’s problematic, and I don’t think it unveils its problems like Lolita does.)
11. Elective Affinities (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
12. Sons and Lovers (D.H. Lawrence)
13. Ulysses (James Joyce)
14. Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen)
15. The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
How do you write a Top 10 list? Are these my favorite 10 books or what I would consider the “best” 10? This list started when Michelle Buchanen said it would be interesting to hear my top 10 books, after I’d mentioned wanting the experiencing of reading The Master and Margarita again for the first time. So this is a combination of: what books do I think everyone should read? What books would I teach? What books were my personal favorites? What books are the “best” (best-written)? And what books do I wish I could read again for the first time?
These favorites stem from the usual kind of education– my k-12 education and self-education reading through “classics,” my college/grad school education of reading just slightly beyond the “canon.” I didn’t include any contemporary fiction, which would be another list. I think there’s a lot of great literature being written these days.
Links are to free .pdfs (if you have a link to a free .pdf or other ebook format for one of the books without a .pdf, or to an alternative translation, lemme know).
This weekend, we went to Atlanta for Nick’s 30th birthday; his gift was tickets to both They Might Be Giants shows at Variety Playhouse. Before we left, we went to the Birmingham Museum of Art to see the hippos. In Atlanta, we went to the Frida & Diego exhibit at the High and the Saarinen exhibit at MODA (Nick and I met while working at the Buffalo Philharmonic, which is housed in Kleinhans Music Hall).
We saw a lot of art this weekend, and it helped me write some ekphrastic poems. I wanted to write about Frida Kahlo’s work, which I really admire, but I couldn’t get into writing about it; instead, I found the Saarinen exhibit to be inspiring. I wrote the first layers/drafts of poems about some of his work (.pdf here)
Although I wrote about Saarinen’s architecture, the piece I found most useful for talking about my work was Robert Rauschenberg’s Overcast III (1963) (another photo). Overcast III is a series of overlapping glass panels. Each glass panel is also a series of superimposed media (screenprint, abstract painting, etc.). This is similar to my work, which is usually a series of overlapping ideas, images, or stories. I try to separate out the various elements enough so that the reader can tell what’s going on, but the layers overlap because memory/life/perception works that way. The straight narrative or melodic line is unrealistic to me, as are the hyper-paratactic and visually illegible, although I am clearly playing with all of these elements (I feel that no form, style or subject is off-limits when I write). Different parts of the work may be emphasized by being clearer/easier/linear while others remain hazy/extremely abstract. Overcast III also reminded me of my poems because of its scale– not that my poems are physically large, but that they use a handful of layers and a handful of images/elements– enough to complicate, but few enough that the reader could still parse them. These first elements of the Saarinen poems will be complicated by further layering and reduced by further editing as they develop.
Ash Smith, Sarah Campbell, Pattie McCarthy and I have been responding on Facebook to a post from Ash about pigeons. I wanted to share two recent (non-NaPoWriMo) poems on the subject.
This poems follows the “x is a y” extended metaphor model that I grew up with in k-12 creative writing lessons. Here I want to think about violence and choice. I took a phrase from this Salon article about North Korea. Not all violent deaths are morally objectionable. Violent death is a part of life. But there are junctures where one may choose against violence and death; this poem presupposes both the necessity of violence and the potential joy of peace. I threw some Mao and Kant in there too. I think the Kant is particularly awesome for delineating the difference between being a hawk tearing apart a fresh kill and being a human with the ability to choose against murder (possession/ownership/survival). And the Mao is nice for setting the table, er, stage (theater?).