January 31, 2008
The second person narration of A L Kennedy's new book Day almost scared me off, but come on. It's Kennedy. She can pretty much do no wrong as far as I'm concerned. I love this from Sam Anderson's review in New York:
Second-person narration is the fictional equivalent of telemarketing: It’s presumptuous and aggressive; it forces intimacy by violating your personal space. It bullies you into empathy. It’s like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book in which your adventure has already been chosen. This makes it deeply risky, since, having been forcibly dragged into the book, the reader will be on constant alert for false notes. The canon of the second-person novel is made up of odd, minor classics, from Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler to McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. When you write in the second person, you are writing on behalf of all of humanity, much of which is bound to disapprove.
Alex Kotlowitz (There Are No Children Here) and Sudhir Venkatesh discuss Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day at Slate. They hit on some touchy subjects like are you allowed to pay the people you're writing about, and what is your responsibility to your subjects after the book is turned in.
I am behind on author assassination news.
Thirteen people have been arrested in Turkey as part of an investigation into an ultra-nationalist gang reported to be planning the assassination of Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk.
Blake Morrison looks at George Steiner's My Unwritten Books, his account of seven works he never -- for one reason or another -- got around to writing. Peter Bradshaw also writes about the theme of envy in the book.
Thank the lord for Ursula K. Le Guin and her no nonsense response to the NEA's recent freak out about the state of reading. (You'll need a login to read the whole article, unfortunately.)
Moneymaking entities controlled by obscenely rich executives and their anonymous accountants have acquired most previously independent publishing houses with the notion of making quick profit by selling works of art and information. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that such people get sleepy when they read. Within the corporate whales are many luckless Jonahs who were swallowed alive with their old publishing house—editors and such anachronisms—people who read wide awake. Some of them are so alert they can scent out promising new writers. Some of them have their eyes so wide open they can even proofread. But it doesn’t do them much good. For years now, most editors have had to waste most of their time on an unlevel playing field, fighting Sales and Accounting.
Oh, Canadians and their cheeky little lit prizes. The finalists for the BC Award for Canadian Non-Fiction have been announced. The three contenders all cover family business -- a lost home, the epic squabble over a private art collection, and the ever-entertaining Mormons.
Some Family: The Mormons and How Humanity Keeps Track of Itself by Donald Harmen Akerson
From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People by Lorna Goodison
Beaverbrook: A Shattered Legacy by Jacques Poitras
The shortlist for the Canadian Shaughnessy Cohen Award for Political Writing has also been released, and you wonder if anyone in 2008 can beat out books about climate change: the go-to editorial subject.
Clive Doucet for Urban Meltdown: Cities, Climate Change and Politics as Usual
Richard Gwyn for John A: The Man Who Made Us; The Life and Times of John A. Macdonald, Volume One: 1815-1867
Andrea Mandel-Campbell for Why Mexicans Don't Drink Molson: Rescuing Canadian Business from the Suds of Global Obscurity
David E. Smith for The People's House of Commons: Theories of Democracy in Contention
Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang for The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar
A Hole in the Head scanned in a comic book distributed to the mentally ill in Chicago in 1964 called "The Art of Living with Yourself... and Others."
January 30, 2008
Has there ever before been a fictional character like Fatima? At the age of 12 she flies a kite, reads Pnin, menstruates, and bears witness to the murder of her parents by the Taliban. Soon after she is sent to live with American Christians, and spends a fragile adolescence acclimatizing to the poisonous indifference and callousness of the West before attending an Ivy-league college where she majors in economics and sleeps with a professor (an adjunct but still). We thrill as she casts off her grim past to join a Wall Street investment firm, finds love, and indulges in fine sweaters.
I thought the Beth Lisick book Helping Me Help Myself was kind of worthless and turned a very funny and sharp writer into a bore, but oh lord. There's another one. The founder of Brain, Child, a very smart and worthwhile magazine, also wrote a book about following self-help called Practically Perfect in Every Way. Fuck, it's a trend. Publishing industry, please stop ruining our women writers.
An editor at Self decided that whole enlightenment thing that Eat Pray Love's Elizabeth Gilbert found sounded so good she too would wander the world for a year. And seriously, so unfair, god did not reveal himself to her. Nor did a publishing company finance her trip. Moe at Jezebel compares the travel experiences.
Holly says she got the idea to travel the world while reading a "galley" of the book -- she's a women's magazine writer, natch! -- and was struck by a scene in the beginning where Elizabeth Gilbert cries in the bathroom and thinks about killing herself. Holly likens that scene to a scene in her own life wherein she crosses the Williamsburg Bridge and gets weepy. There are a few crucial differences between Holly and Liz Gilbert's stories, however: namely, Holly is a 26-year-old unmarried magazine editor who lives in Brooklyn, and Lizzie is a 35-year-old writer who lives in the middle of nowhere in a loveless marriage. Also, Liz has a knife in her hand with which she intends to cut herself; I don't think it's even possible to jump off the Williamsburg Bridge -- and you'd probably totally live anyway.
Random thought while perusing publishing catalogs:
If you already wrote a memoir about having obsessive compulsive disorder a few years back, are you allowed to publish a new memoir about your hypochondria? Perhaps there should be a memoir commission that makes these decisions. "Sorry, this negates your last memoir, so you're going to have to tell us how bad your mother was to you instead."
January 29, 2008
Che's mind flickered through childhood memories, helping to distract him and everyone else from the gaping holes in the plot. Sometimes even he could do little but sit back and admire the beauty of his own sentences.
It’s a quickie today at Sticky Pages. We’ll examine “Li’L Dickens” by Jerry Stahl, in the collection, Sex for America, edited by Stephen Elliot.
Page three people.
It appears that Jerry Stahl felt the Bush Administration has rarely given the good people of the United States a reach-around. He chooses to work this frustration out in prose. Told from the point of view of a gun lover who bumps into Cheney in Wyoming at a gun shop, “Li’l Dickens” is the fictional tale of the encounter that follows.
The narrator is slowly drawn in to the power and intrigue that is the vice president. “I couldn’t help but stare at his tufted belly roll, his hairless chest, and -- be still my heart -- his pacemaker. Yes and yes again!”
Cheney undresses: “Big-girl panties!”
And then he offers the narrator some “high-grade government Kkush.” There are butt cheeks duct-taped and Cheney wants the narrator to call his member, “Bunker Buster.” Upon completion, Cheney recites part of Ginsberg’s HOWL.
It’s a moving scene. There’s a certain pathos to a man who calls the girls he banged in high school, Cheney-acs. Stahl’s prose is delicate and his narrator is sufficiently complex. He tears up at remembering his time with Dick, and is “concerned about the nagging chafe on my scrotum.”
My only complaint is the juicy part is lost in the narrator’s marijuana stupor. I mean what does Cheney’s sex face look like? He’s got such a great normal scowl when discussing public health or the privacy of Americans. How his face must contort during the act. Come on, Stahl. Give it to us. We can handle it. Or maybe we cannot. Maybe Jerry Stahl has given us as much as we need.Though I don’t think I’ll be donning my thigh-high fishnets and lighting some candles at the end of this story, I do think I’ll be writing in Jerry Stahl’s name for President.
I missed Robert Burns night. My Scottish ancestors curse my name, I'm sure. But it's never too late to listen to Andrew O'Hagan and his delicious accent reading Burns poetry at the Guardian website.
January 28, 2008
Bookslut's Indie Heartthrob Interview Series
A weekly interview series where someone involved in the small press (be it writer, editor, slush slave, etc.) is thrown into the spotlight, grilled over the state of the independents and sundry other items, and quickly made to return from whence they came after having graced us all with their presence.
This week: Joshua Cohen
Joshua Cohen is a former editor for BLATT and current literary critic for The Forward. In the meantime, he has also written several books of short stories and essays and more recently his novel Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto. His forthcoming A Heaven of Others is slated for a February release on Stacherone Books.
When did you originally become involved with BLATT?
There weren't many Americans - or English-speakers - living in Central/Eastern Europe at that time who wrote well (I mean Berlin, Germany, and east, circa 2001-2005). Those who did, or many, constellated in the pages of BLATT. Travis Jeppesen edits BLATT alone now, from Berlin, and he's turning it into quite the Empire.
And The Forward?
I began writing for The Forward five years ago, reporting from around Europe. Later, when I came back to America, I began working as a book reviewer. Then, they gave me the title "literary critic." Sounds better, same pay.
How do these experiences differ for you?
BLATT didn't pay my rent, The Forward does. I edited for BLATT, I wrote for The Forward... I'm not sure that question is answerable.
You also write your own work. Is it difficult to balance these responsibilities?
I don't "also write my own work" - I "also" pay my way by writing book reviews, or literary criticism. My own books, as they say, come first. It's difficult to balance, yes. Did you know I was born with three legs?
What would you say is your biggest influence regarding your writing/editing work?
I never was enough of an editor to know or care about big influences in that world. And I don't like being edited myself. As for writing - writing what? I like Borges' "journalism," his essays, prolegomena and lectures. Fiction, I can't say. Borges once quoted somebody who said something to the effect of lists serving only to stress what they omit.
I have a strange obsession with Nikola Tesla, particularly the whole pigeon/alien phase. Which is why I'm excited about Samantha Hunt's The Invention of Everything Else. She's at Studio360 discussing her new novel about Tesla.
More AL Kennedy and her award winning Day:
She's interviewed at the Scotsman about the misinterpretation of her dry wit and this abomination:
The former Booker judge John Sutherland wrote a bemused blog entitled "Can a woman pilot a war novel?" ruefully concluding that AL Kennedy can, and that it makes "my whatdoyoucallthems shrivel a bit".
She's also at the Guardian podcast.
Please Dan Brown, we need you to return and save our publishing industry. And of course the critics will eviscerate you as soon as you come back into the spotlight, but seriously. You are our only hope.
Human beings, I was sure, had far darker imaginations than we liked to believe.
Charles Bock, whose first novel, “Beautiful Children,” comes out on Tuesday, used to be one of the horde of struggling, would-be writers who still flock to New York, even though novel-writing isn’t what it used to be. They hang on because every now and then a first-timer — a Colson Whitehead, a Zadie Smith, a Gary Shteyngart — hits the jackpot and makes the game seem worth staying in for just a little longer. You can spot them in coffee shops in Brooklyn and the West Village, clicking away on their laptops — when they’re not wasting time on Gawker, that is. You also see them at readings at Housing Works, KGB Bar and the Half King, dressed in black, leaning forward intently and sometimes venturing to ask a probing question. They idolize Lethem, Chabon, Eggers. They study The New Yorker religiously so that they can complain about how predictable the fiction is.
Wow, Charles McGrath. You just destroyed every single shred of interest I had in reading Beautiful Children in one paragraph.
Today's award roundup:
A.L. Kennedy, newly minted Costa award-winner for Day, is profiled in the Times where she discusses the futility of air strikes in combat, elegantly dismisses the news media, and provides tips for low-cost transatlantic sea travel. The interviewer is more interested in the fact that she doesn't wear make up and is sometimes mistaken for a lesbian.
"It's not useful, because all the wrong people come up and try to score. You get put into the Big Gay Reading Event at book festivals. Gay people can tell I'm not gay from about 400 yards. Plus, it's a festival! I could be hanging out with firefighters! Remember, I have a limited lifespan."
You can take a listen to a recording of Kennedy's stand-up act, Terror: A Pocket Sized Guide, on her website. Warning: contents include a Scottish accent which may rend listener's heart senseless.
The 2008 Golden Trophy at the Angouleme International Comics Festival has gone to Shaun Tan's The Arrival, which in French has been titled "Là où vont nos pères" ("There where our fathers go").
The longlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has been announced, coinciding with news of potential cuts to Arts Council England funding towards UK publishers of translated novels.
Critic Boyd Tonkin is not best pleased:
Without its help, the British literary scene might really start to look like what many overseas authors and critics that I meet already assume it is: the global village idiot, loud-mouthed and lame-brained, foisting its clod-hopping middlebrow fare (very successfully, it must be said) on the rest of the planet while remaining stone deaf to whatever other tongues might have to say to us.
The seventeen titles that made the list for the £10,000 prize are here:
Alaa Al-Aswany, The Yacoubian Building
Bi Feiyu, The Moon Opera
Lars Saabye Christensen, The Model
Jenny Erpenbeck, The Book of Words
Pawel Huelle, Castorp
Ismail Kadare, Agamemnon's Daughter
Sayed Kashua, Let It Be Morning
Daniel Kehlmann, Measuring the World
Erwin Mortier, Shutterspeed
Marlene van Niekerk, The Way of the Women
Bengt Ohlsson, Gregorius
Alan Pauls, The Past
Peter Pist'anek, Rivers of Babylon
Laura Restrepo, Delirium
Yasmina Traboulsi, Bahia Blues
Paul Verhaeghen, Omega Minor
Enrique Vila-Matas, Montano
January 25, 2008
The Prize has been quietly giving out awards to children's authors for 23 years, but Taylor objected to the sponsor's marketing of its baby formula and questioned whether Nestle were the most appropriate company to be merrily slapping accolades onto kids' books.
Now the Book Prize has shelved until further notice, as Nestle and the literacy charity behind it feel this is a "natural time to conclude" their relationship.
The supreme winner of the 2007 award was novelist Matt Haig's Shadow Forest.
Never mind, kids, book awards are like pixies. When one is struck down, three are bound to rise up in its place.
All week I've been bookmarking very long articles that I really do want to read, really. And now it's Friday and I'm left with:
Ben Ehrenreich's essay on mostly forgotten poet Frank Stanford.
An excerpt from David Hajdu's upcoming book Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America.
Ruth Franklin's The New Republic essay on "the nasty truth" about Irène Némirovsky.
The New York Review of Books: "Taking the Gospels Seriously"
Choose your poison.
"I didn't want to put too much of myself in it," she says. "It's kind of funny, because it's a description of what I'm actually doing but I almost never talk about how I feel."
Which is exactly what drove me nuts about the book.
'You have to believe that what you write is more important than any cause, up to the point where the barbarians are two blocks from your home. Then maybe you should think again...'
January 24, 2008
This Recording is launching a new series of posts, "Poets Off Poetry." The debut is Matthew Henrikson, who discusses the music of Gram Parsons and the poetry of Frank Stanford: Our lives and deaths are not as much ours for the making as we’d like or have to think, but in each poem I can fashion an end and a beginning that make sense together and (I hope) makes sense to others. (Thanks, Alex!)
Mallarmé is now available in Arabic.
Eugene Ostashevky has three poems--"Are You There God? It's Me, DJ Spinoza," "A Dialogue on Free Will" (also with Spinoza), and "Days of 356 AD"--at failbetter.com. (While you're there, also see this interview with Junot Diaz.)
Major Jackson on celebrity poets.
Reading Simon Armitage's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to a four-year old. Kids love Middle English!
Interviews return soon, with Joshua Kryah on deck!
Does the world need book prizes? Do kittens purr? Does the sun shine? Is pie delicious?
Perhaps it's been done all wrong, though. Take the Man Booker Prize. Through what kind of craft and hoodoo does this stonking great literary award alight upon the recipient?
What are reviewers, after all? They are judges, advising readers how to choose among the huge over-supply of fiction barraged every week into the public domain.
And what is the Booker panel? It is exactly the same thing: judges, advising the public where they can best invest their valuable time and energy.
Judging panels? What is this, Stalinist Russia? Will no one deliver us from this madness!
There are alternative judicial systems: systems which draw less on the Old Bailey model than the reality TV show. The Quills Prize, based in New York, has devised an elegant and adventurous judging system which, I think, Trewin and his coadjutors could think about as they review the moth holes in their own.
Of course. Let the people speak. (The Quills Book of the Year 2007: Nora Robert's Angels Fall. People: remain idiots)
Having a slow start this morning, but this should keep you busy:
In the house I grew up in, there was no god but Science, and the PBS Nova programming was his prophet. There was a little-g god, as we attended church every week, but we were just there for the dose of morality and the teachings of Jesus. So what if we did not believe in concepts like heaven or hell, probably not the devil, and now that you mention it, that idea of an omnipotent creator? Going to church wouldn’t do us any harm. There is no fire and brimstone with Methodists — just a few hymns, a quiet sermon, and a potluck lunch in the basement sure to include casseroles made with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup.
I have a new column at the Smart Set, and my review of John Haught's God and the New Atheism starts it off.
January 23, 2008
Sara Blask reports from the Iceland bookstore Bobby Fisher spent many of his last days.
The best thing about this interview with Richard Thompson is his cartoon mocking the Washington DC Book Expo. I was there. He's accurate.
Malcolm Gladwell will try to read from his new nonfiction bestseller "The Big, You Know, Thingy" which attempts to describe a concept so tenuous and ineffable that words fail him completely. So he'll mostly wave his arms in the air and sputter. Book signing to follow.
A romance novelist, after writing a randy scene between a Native American and a white chick (I'm guessing it's a white chick, it always is in these books) did something with his "member" and her "throbbing loins," decided to plagiarize... a scholarly article on the black-footed ferret. It turns out someone both likes trashy literature and articles about ferrets, because someone found out.
January 22, 2008
I was a bit flippant about the anniversary of Roe v. Wade in an earlier post, mostly because after working in pro-choice organizations for a while I associate the day with an uptick in crazy letters. (Although I miss the guy who would send porn with all the dirty words highlighted. If you're out there, you can send them to Bookslut.) Now I skim through a few newspaper articles that make a big deal about the fact that women who have abortions are just like you and me. Of course they are, idiot. It's 40% of the female population.
The past few days I've been reading The Second Sex in the form of an old beat up paperback that has been with me for ten years now (and I'm grateful that I bought it in the UK because the US edition is dreadful -- when we get the new translation can we pretty please get a new cover?). I've been feeling very nostalgic of the days working at the sex library, talking pregnant 14-year-old girls down from panic attacks. So this morning I'm reading this Jezebel thread about the anniversary, with women from all over telling the stories about their abortions. You should read it, too, because assuming stereotypes about women who have had abortions -- whether it be the Vogue-approved stereotype of middle class, college educated, "normal" women or the stereotype of the selfish whores -- makes it easy to forget what a complex issue and decision it is.
Jeffery Eugenides has edited a new collection of short stories called My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead. Sorry if I can’t work up any more enthusiasm than that, but after I checked out the selections, it seems to me that Mr. Eugenides doesn’t expect me to. I mean, I’m pretty sure he ripped the syllabus from my sophomore year’s Short Fiction Class and combined it with junior year’s Intro to Creative Writing.
It’s such an incredibly tame bunch of stories, and about 80% of them are all too familiar to anyone who had an English Lit class of any kind: Joyce’s “The Dead,” “The Magic Barrel” by Bernard Malamud and remember that very first lesson in symbolism? It’s here too -- “A Rose for Emily” by Faulkner. All that’s missing is “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. I read the table of contents and wondered if I was going to be tested, if the teacher would overlook a five paragraph essay. I felt the smallest bit of guilt because maybe my parents weren’t paying my college tuition for me to smoke out at 10 am and have sex with my RA (that the Residential Advisor, for those of you lucky enough to avoid the dorms). Oh, that RA. He was really into U2. He had a sweet sun tattoo on his shoulder and played his acoustic guitar shirtless. He was also the last guy I dated with long hair.
Eugenides does include some edgier stuff. "Natasha" by David Bezmozgis is very good and was originally reprinted in Best American Short Stories 2005, edited by Michael Chabon. And because this is the Year of our Lord, 2008, there is a story by Miranda July. God forbid one anthology escapes her quirky! sexy! original! voice.
But hey, let’s get to the sex, right?
There is one story in there that was pretty hot. Stuart Dybek’s “We Didn’t” begins with a really luscious narrative reminiscing about soul-kissing and the tastes of lip gloss and coke and moving into sex on the beach. Not my preferred place -- the sand, you understand -- but just when things get really good, the cops show up and a drowned pregnant woman washes ashore. A mood killer for sure.
So I looked at my bookshelves and felt a little glum, a little let down by J-Eu. I read a lot of celebrity gossip and I think authors ought to adopt these clever little shortening of their names. And then I got honest with myself about my love for The Eu. I came clean. I didn’t love Middlesex. I thought it needed some editing. Like a few hundred pages’ worth. But who am I to say, no one’s given me the Pulitzer, yet.
And as I stood there, I found my copy of The Virgin Suicides. My copy of this book is never to be touched with human hands, other than my own. Why’s that? Well, I bought this gem when I was seventeen years old. I bought it based on a recommendation from Sassy magazine (so emblematic, don’t you think?). It’s a first edition and the only first edition of anything cool that I own. So I am allowed to touch it. Only me. I took it off the shelf and remembered that this little book had some really sexy sex. I remembered a finger inserted, only to feel the oiliness of something animal. I remembered Lux and how cool she seemed. I remember nothing of Middlesex, or “The Dead” for that matter. I flipped through the Virgin Suicides trying to find that scene in the car with the line about oil. As I flipped through, there was tons of sex, though most was awkward and funny.
“Lifting their heads from the soft shelf of Lux’s neck, they found her eyes open, her brow knitted in thought: or at the height of passion, they felt her pick a pimple on their backs.”
But this was not the oily sex scene part. I started at the front and finally found Trip Fontaine and Lux Lisbon doing it in Trip’s Trans Am. Page 86, people.
She said nothing as she came on like a starved animal, and he wouldn’t have known who it was if it hadn’t been for the taste of her watermelon gum, which after the first few torrid kisses he found himself chewing. She was no longer wearing pants but a flannel nightgown. Her feet, wet from the lawn, gave off a pasture smell. He felt her clammy shins, her hot knees, her bristly thighs, and then with terror her put his finger in the ravenous mouth of the animal leashed below her waist. It was as though he had never touched a girl before; he felt fur and an oily substance like otter insulation. Two beasts lived in the car, one above, snuffling and biting him, and one below, struggling to get out of its damp cage. Valiantly he did what he could to feed them, placate them, but the sense of his insufficiency grew and after a few minutes, with only the words “Gotta get back before bed check,” Lux left him, more dead than alive.
I don’t know about "the animal leashed below her waist," but the otter part really entered my subconscious. I mean, I how true is it that, beyond the cleaned up versions of women we get with the scent of the sea and various feminine hygiene products marketed and re-marketed to women, our lady parts are furry and oily. And in that moment, in a Trans Am with Trip Fontaine, who wouldn’t love to feel that animalistic, that out of (human) body. How delicious and erotic and true. And you know if we all owned our inner otter, the Trip Fontaines of this world would eat out of the palm of our hands. So women, rise up say it with me: I am otter! Doesn’t that feel better? Sexier? So much better than wandering on the beach with your mom and discussing douches, or enduring one more Denis-Johnson-Richard-Ford-Raymond-Carver short story.
"I've been in love with you for 10 years," I swooned.
"Well, you're a complete idiot then," she said, "but if you want to go down on me, be my guest."
I'm a 42-year-old gay man with a superhero fetish. Like a lot of fetishists my age, I assumed I was alone until the internet came along. I've since met several times with like-minded guys for costumed roughhousing and bondage. The first time I did it, it was incredibly hot, but since then, it's felt like something's missing. Even when they're sexy and friendly, it just feels lacking somehow. At times, I even feel a bit ridiculous. (Given that I'm a white-collar professional pretending to be a Lycra-suited crime fighter, I'm sure it's not much of a stretch to see why I feel silly.) So my question is this: Am I just being too uptight, or are there some fantasies that are better left to the imagination?
"If you have asthma or something, you tell me," she says. "Then I go into the toilet and smoke and we have to speak through the door."
The Times offers "Ten Things That Make Cormac McCarthy Special," but if you're looking for insightful observations about his work, you'll be disappointed. "McCarthy is Old Fashioned!" "McCarthy is Not an Alcoholic!" Etc. By the end I was expecting "McCarthy Smells Like Cinnamon Rolls and Sunshine."
Yes, yes, I know art and literature is personal and subjective, the eye of the beholder and all that, but human excrement smeared on a blanket is never artistic, and anything written in broken line spacing is not poetic. But try telling that to the literary critics.
Best-selling author Ishmael Beah and his US publisher have stood by his claim to have spent three years as a refugee and then child soldier in Sierra Leone's civil war despite The Australian finding evidence that his ordeal lasted one year, not three.
Bookslut's Girl Interrupting columnist Eryn Loeb interviewed Susan Wickland about her new book This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor at Salon.
When I wear a vest or carry a gun, it often strikes me as I pull up to the clinic that this is absolutely absurd. I, as a physician in the United States of America performing a legal procedure, have to go to these measures to make it possible for me to go to work.
January 18, 2008
Bloggers of the world, unite! Chris Mooney says so.
I was hoping that when they archived Jon Stewart's interview with Jonah Goldberg, author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, they would put up the whole 18 minute interview, but we're not so lucky. They stick to the choppy six-minute interview, which is still a thing of beauty, or a thing of pain and squirminess, I guess depending on what you think of Mr. Goldberg. But I like it when his neck gets all red and blotchy.
Also, Matthew Yglesias takes a look at Liberal Fascism, although the best moment of the blog post is the update at the end:
Goldberg proclaims himself disappointed with the unseriousness of my efforts. Also notes accurately that I've been a bit "pissy" toward him ever since he called me an anti-semite in print.
(As an aside: Publishers should learn that their authors have to get their shit together to go on The/A Daily Show. Let's relive the magic of the Chris Matthews interview, shall we?)
This is a bit later than usual, but for an excellent reason: I was in NY seeing Fiona Shaw in Happy Days, which is absolutely unmissable--a ferocious assault on an incredibly demanding role. Despite being late, I am very pleased this week to be able to present . . . .
An Interview with Laynie Browne
Laynie Browne's The Scented Fox was chosen by Alice Notley as one of the winners of the 2006 National Poetry Series. Browne's seventh book of poems, The Scented Fox is evocative meditation on form, memory, time, narrative, and much else besides. As Browne explains below, the book works by juxtaposing tales and prose poems, in order to open new pathways for the "horizontal collaboration" that is writing. The Scented Fox is a beautiful and rigorous book, in which characters you half-misrecognize forge new ways of speaking through language that ranges from the antiquarian to the familiar to the undiscovered.
The Scented Fox is, in part, a sort of fairy tale, right? But lurking behind these tales is a story about a woman who "set out in search of a form" . . .
The Scented Fox is based on the concept of received tales colliding with prose poem form. I use “tale” in the widest sense possible. This includes fairy tale, folk tale, legend, myth, bible tale, hearsay etc. When I say received I am thinking of Spicer and also the notion of cultural influence that we may or may not be aware of. No doubt, I was influenced by Gertrude Stein before I had ever read her work. In every instance, writing is a collaboration with what has come before and what will come after. Therefore, the writer is never actually accomplishing anything alone.
I did not intend for there to be a story about a woman who set out in search of a form. But then again, the task of the poet is always to be searching for new. Various characters within the book seem to share this pursuit of finding form- both real and imagined. If you consider form as evolution of poem or person, your question becomes even more relevant, as their voices at times interact: again a form of horizontal collaboration.
The stories in The Scented Fox are both familiar and made strange, and sometimes, the poems explicitly rewrite one another in various ways. ("I write in whichways aslant and nonne knowest otherwise where from these antiquated words did furrow.") Does your procedure rely on specific found texts, or does it operate at the level of a cultural mythology?
The familiar is always the most strange, when examined closely, or entered deeply. I’m interested in this particular aspect of the form of the tale, which often explodes the known partially by being familiar. This book both relies on found texts and operates at a level of cultural mythology. At least that is the hope. Though I deliberately chose not to record all of the sources I used, I read and revisited tales from a wide range of cultures and time periods. Some of my tales are rewritten through a lens of current concerns, some using chance operations, and others move backwards, or snakelike through time, borrowing antiquated spellings and vocabularies. The deep unconscious level at which “tales” and all received literature operates is one center or pivotal lens. The invented tales are also received, one way or another. Again this has something to do with time. There is a timeless quality to a tale which may locate a reader anywhere.
Can you comment on the structure of the collection? What is the difference between an "embedded" series of letters and an "intermittent" account of a traveling crystal?
There is a carefully scaffolded structure to the book and also a more unconscious one. The carefully arranged structure contains three books. The first is the level of the tale as roughly one page long and operates mostly at the level of the sentence or phrase. This is book one. The second book, Tales in Miniature, operates at the level of the word. So the focus becomes more compact. Each three word tale requires the reader to imagine the tale between the three words. The third level is even more exacting, and that is the level of the tale within each word in the Festoon Dictionary. The more unconscious or drifting structure is that of the letters, which often interrupt, interact or respond to the tales and the book of the traveling crystal, which appears by it’s own will within the text. Meaning to say, as characters and occurrences appear and disappear so does text, so do objects, etc.
One of the most striking aspects of The Scented Fox is the way it unsettles nature and culture: The woman and the prince are in a forest, but, in part, the forest is "a part of the sentence" (sentence as syntactical unit, sentence as juridical ruling). The crystal, once mined, has a "natural art," useful for scrying. A "festoon dictionary" even seems to be both natural and cultural. Yet, through all of this unsettling, the poems are flush with sensuous, concrete description of nature. Why is that relationship important?
The relationship is important because it is one which is universally human. How is that we are both physical, bound by time and form and also experience a sense of the infinite? To this imponderable of questions I choose to dwell within a cultural/spiritual tradition which does not refute either view. In other words there is a world of “this” and “that” but there is also a non-dualistic approach within which language is both natural and cultural. Paradox is not synonymous with contradiction. Through this lens any separation, such as forest from sentence is illusory.
This might be the place to ask about the role of sex/gender in the collection--I'm thinking, for instance, of "Sentencing," which imagines a dialogue between "the female sentence" and "the pear."
I’m interested in exploring gender here in a more evocative and less dictating sort of manner. What is a female sentence? The question is more of interest than any answer. How have sentences at times appeared to me to be male? Is there a non-gendered writing? Is that desirable? Again this leads back to the previous question – leading beyond duality. I hope that this work is pregnant with question.
Perhaps relatedly, this is a collection fascinated by sleep and dreams: There are interludes at night, lullabies, reported dreams, fugue states, impossible chronologies, and so on. But also, apparently "There will be no sleeping late in the 21st century"--is that a threat?
No, it certainly is not a threat. On a personal level, I was musing on the wonderful and rigorous nature of parenthood. But more generally, it is a comment on the business of adult culture. Thus there is sleep, but is there restorative sleep? Where is rest? We are moving at a speed unfathomable to our predecessors.
The tale mirrors the dream state, the deep unconscious, a shift in consciousness. It is particularly useful to be able to be aware of the speed we are moving and to employ mechanisms which warp and bend time. The tale is one such tool, as is the attentiveness one cultivates in reading poems.
The language in this collection seems openly contradictory: frequently antiquarian, at other times the vocabulary is up-to-date with a vengeance: words like bioserfdom, and gigahertz, and theoretical reflections such as "even though it was her epistemological problem she did not believe the objectification she found herself within, prompted while rhetoric echoed about her to a powerful degree," work alongside poems written in "old English." To what extent is that an artifact of other choices, and to what extent does that tension between old and new intervene in contemporary language?
Instead of contradictory language, I would call it inclusive. The tale is translatable into any time, and so I have translated the tale into as many permutations I could fathom. As to the piece you quote from, “A Spinning Tale,” this is a dictionary experiment in which I used the OED’s various definitions of “spin” juxtaposed with other found text and interspersed throughout the narrative, creating a second narrative which is a catalogue of turning or revolving. “Bioserfdom” is the new peasantry/poverty. How are things still feudal? This is another trick of time. Re-imagining. The other piece you mention, “An Insincere Tale” with the “epistemological problem” is three permutations of the same tale, from the perspective of different speakers. The first is the speaker from within a tale, standing within her paragraph. The second is pastoral, the third voice represents the post-modern scholar or critic.
Also on time: Can you talk about the relationship between the work of form & time in Daily Sonnets (which you explicitly describe as a "collaborative experiment in time") and in The Scented Fox, which perhaps aspires to "A form which becomes what it must in the presence of the actual calamity of time"? Do these differing approaches to the time of poetry supplement one another?
Daily Sonnets is also a time experiment but of another sort. In that book I was trying to invent time which did not exist. I experimented with writing in very uncongenial circumstances, such as wrapped in a towel after a shower for a time limit of one or two minutes. I was trying to find a way to work within that sense of rapid, noisy, interrupted time very much of the moment. This was a very liberating experiment and I recommend it to everyone. Whatever constraints you think you live within, in terms of what time you have to write, try breaking them. Write standing in line, half asleep. Write in every way except the ways which are habitual. In this way time and form open tremendously. Suddenly instead of having only an hour here or there, you have all of time. I think the approaches in the two projects do supplement each other. One is more electric, the other meditative. Both are necessary. And in each book the project is a distinct experiment. All form is somehow an experiment in time.
I love "Festoon Dictionary," for its whimsical sense of implication, its humor, and especially for its unprescriptive refusal to identify parts of speech. Each "definition" seems to open up into an entire poem--poems which may/may not line up with elements of "The Scented Fox" or "Tales in Miniature." How did you generate this list of words?
My festoon dictionary evolved from spending time with the dictionary and from a fondness for associative thinking. I collected the words in the same manner that one might discover new friends—without an ordered process. I like to think of words as visceral companions. At times associations are stronger than definitions. I was also thinking about the way a child will try to describe a word s/he knows but cannot explain.
Finally, what are you working on now, or do you see yourself working on next?
I tend to work on many things at once. That said, here are descriptions of some books in progress:
The Desires of Letters: This is a book of letters inspired by and in conversation with Bernadette Mayer’s book The Desires of Mothers To Please Others in Letters. The book begins at the beginning of the war in Iraq and includes lots of pieces to do with the dynamics, politics and daily life of mothering alongside writing and living in the very poet-rich Bay area. Two chapbooks from this book have appeared, both with the same title (one from g-o-n-g, the other from Belladonna).
The Ivory Hour: The Ivory Hour, an experimental novel, is a reading across and re-versioning of characters in Henry James last unfinished novel, The Ivory Tower, and Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star. Other re-versioned characters include the Indian mystic/poet/saint, Mirabai, and various characters from children’s literature including Pixar characters. I am concerned in this work with conversations between high art and low art, characters across cultural and time constraints coming into conversation. The book is set in the future, I call it a “future memoir.” It is also an environmental cautionary tale. In the time of the text, there is no longer a “sky” and workers must paint computer simulations of what is called the “Future View.” Excerpts from this book appear in the current issue of War and Peace (O Books) and are forthcoming in an anthology titled: Anthology of XXperimental Women Writers Writing in the 21st Century (Spuyten Duyvil Books).
Wave Offering: Wave Offering is a series of poems based on the Jewish practice of counting the days of the Omer (or Sefirat Ha’Omer). These are the days between the festivals of Pesach and Shavuot. These days represent the Biblical passage from liberation (from slavery in Egypt) to revelation (receiving of Torah at mount Sinai) and are considered a time particularly auspicious for personal reflection and spiritual purification. Each of the seven weeks can be characterized by one of seven sephirotic qualities. The Hebrew word “sefirah” has many meanings, among them: number, story, and sapphire. The Sefirot represent emotional aspects and are associated with areas of the physical body. Each of the forty-nine days is characterized by a blending of two of the seven qualities. One practice is to meditate upon the unique combination of two qualities represented by each day. The seven qualities are: Chesed (lovingkindness), Gevurah (judgment), Tiferet, (beauty), Netzach (endurance) , Hod (humility), Yesod (foundation), and Malchut (nobility). The movement from slavery to freedom is a central metaphor in Torah, as is the belief that revelation is a communal, inclusive, necessary process. Excerpts from this book appear in Conjunctions Web Forum, 42 Opus, Track and Field and EOAGH.
Lost Parkour Ps (alms)
“Our aim is to take our art to the world and make people understand what it is to move.” David Belle, BBC News
Parkour ,or l'art du déplacement (the art of displacement) is an activity with the aim of moving from one point to another as efficiently and quickly as possible. It assists in overcoming obstacles and experiencing freedom. There is no list of “appropriate moves” and it is not a sport but a mental and physical discipline. As a method of ambulation parkour makes an apt metaphor for spiritual practice. Psalms are commonly associated with “praise.” However the book of psalms contains a great range in tone, content, form and manner of address- leaping as would a traceur. Lost Parkour Psalms explores the question, what is the ps (alm) now, as a poetic form?
January 17, 2008
When people ask me, where are you from? They don't care where I grew up. What they really want to know is, cards on the table, what combination of fucking produced someone who looks like you? Even though we don't have the same on-shore slave history as you have in the States — that Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? stuff — my mom was asked by relatives when she got together with my dad, "Fine, he's a lovely guy, but how will it be when you're pushing a brown baby down the street?'
France's National Library is displaying items from their permanent collection previously kept locked up. They include a 1921 pornography film, handwritten works from the Marquis de Sade, "flagellation novels" from England, and "inflated genitalia," which I don't want to think about too much to figure out what that means exactly. There is, of course, an hour long wait to see the exhibition.
The items, on display through March 22, are drawn from a permanent collection created in the 1830s when the library isolated works considered “contrary to good morals.” They were put in a locked section with its own card catalog and given the name L’Enfer — hell.
It's the question of whether the last unpublished work of Vladimir Nabokov, which is now reposing unread in a Swiss bank vault, should be destroyed—as Nabokov explicitly requested before he died.
It's a decision that has fallen to his sole surviving heir (and translator), Dmitri Nabokov, now 73. Dmitri has been torn for years between his father's unequivocal request and the demands of the literary world to view the final fragment of his father's genius, a manuscript known as The Original of Laura.
Did you know Dmitri Nabokov has a blog? Or had? See, Lee Siegel, the Internet isn't all bad.
January 16, 2008
I'm not the only Bookslutter (?) being written up in PW: guest blogger and woman who leaves dirty books on my pillow when I visit her in Minneapolis Emily Cook is also profiled. Okay, lovefest over, but it's been determined -- scientifically proven, in fact -- that Emily Cook is indeed "the cutest."
Laura Amy Schlitz won this year's Newberry Medal for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village.
The Randolph Caldecott Medal has gone to The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.
I hope both of these authors celebrate their wins by flossing their mint bronze pieces on something like these.
The T.S. Eliot award is now worth £15,000, making the prize (given by the Poetry Book Society) the richest poetry prize in the UK. Sean O'Brien threw it on the mantle this week next to his 2007 Forward Poetry Prize for his book The Drowned Book, making an 'unprecedented double' in UK poetry, possibly unprecedented because the Forward is 17 years old and the Eliot just 15.
I have to admit, once again, that I am cheering for Caitlin Flanagan. I think she's funny, astute, and every time she says something absurd, it comes as a bit of a surprise. Yes, even though it happens in almost every essay. But surely one day... Her review of Katie: The Real Story by Edward Klein might be a turning point (look at me, the undying optimist): "You're not really a huge power broker of the female variety until some bitchy man writes a nasty biography of you, a literary pap smear meant at once to diagnose and humiliate." (I am so fucking stealing "literary pap smear.") The whole essay is like that -- sharp, on point, with no dangerous dips into her (serious) issues with working women, abortion, etc., etc. I think I'll read it again without holding my breath and crossing my fingers this time.
Things I can't get my head around today:
What Dog Are You?: Discovering Your Inner Pooch, to be followed by What Cat Are You?. Of course.
I'm sure this list will grow as the day goes on.
It was inevitable that the word finally happen: blogofascism. They were running out of words to put -ofascism behind. Lee Siegel, the book critic who got into trouble for padding his own comments section with an alter ego, hates the Internet and has written a book about it: Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob.
The "borders of truth" are eroding. Knowledge is "devalued into information." Americans are producing, not enjoying, their own leisure. Our interior lives are being "packaged like merchandise," and "the sources of critical detachment are drying up, as book supplements disappear from newspapers and what passes for critical thinking in the more intellectually lively magazines gives way to the Internet's emphasis on cuteness, novelty, buzz, and pursuit of the 'viral.'"
While we can only aspire to be as highly regarded critics as Mr. Siegel, we have to wonder at what point he lost creative control over this homage to the Necronomicon of Evil Dead.
The end is nigh.
January 15, 2008
Hello, everyone—remember me? Emily Cook? I was here in December, and now I'm back for one post, but shhhhh: don't tell Jessa, because she doesn't know I'm here. I just snuck in because I thought you should all see this.
I need a little plot, you know. And I write young adult books and have taught at some really conservative Christian colleges, so I can’t really be writing reviews on the Internet in which I quote passages about pounding a woman’s pussy, or discuss the merits of lesbian-sci-fi-vampire erotica. It just wouldn’t be right. I think a lot of us are in this boat. While the covers of various Best Erotica anthologies are always enticing, we can’t take those into the lunchroom at work. So what to do if you want a hit of well-written sex, but you’re not in a position to show your copy of Manhandled with pride?
Sticky Pages is an exploration of sex in literary fiction. In other words, I’ll tell you the page numbers so we can all flip ahead and enjoy our sex on the literary side.
The person who designed the cover of Do Me, Tin House’s new anthology, is a real visionary. I mean, how cool is it that the cover is a picture of a book’s pages, parted slightly to look like a vulva? (An aside: the wikipedia entry for vulva is so NSFW.) Despite the title and the cover, the stories inside are surprisingly unsexy. In Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s “Sandman,” an eighth grade teacher tells her class that clowns will come in vans and kidnap them if they aren’t careful. “'Sodomy,' Ms. Hempel now said to her class, 'is what’s happening in the back of those vans.'”
Matthew Vollmer describes the awkward fantasy of a young woman, who is infatuated with an older woman, as her boyfriend is giving her head. “That night, after a few beers, the younger woman allowed the boyfriend to go down on her. She tried to imagine the older woman. It was hard. The older woman would not have whiskers.” Most of the stories in this collection follow that same idea about sex -- exposing the uncomfortable and all too human elements of real sex. This is literary fiction, after all.
But Martha McPhee’s story “The Anthropology of Sex” really earns the collection its vulva on the cover. McPhee writes about two sisters who, in childhood, engaged in a game called, “Normal Day.” The sisters would play it with the neighborhood kids and the game involved having an affair and successfully keeping it a secret from the others. The narrator, Isabelle, is grown up now and watching as her sister’s own affair is unraveling, while reflecting on her first affair as a college student with her married professor.
Not too surprisingly, this collection contains a few college girls and their professors. I can’t tell if this is a common fantasy, or a common experience. I do have a memory of being in a professor’s office, discussing the likelihood of my making into the class from the waiting list, while I sat with my 18 year-old legs curled under me, a black Fredrick’s of Hollywood push-up bra showing beneath my white Calvin Klein camisole. I made it into the class, but never slept with the professor. About mid-way through the semester, after checking the alignment of my own buttons, I realized he was wearing not only a woman’s blouse, but women’s pleated jeans too.
Open your copies of Do Me, pages 155-156, everyone. McPhee’s fictional college professor takes Isabelle to his house, where they are in the midst of relations (a.k.a. fucking on the living room floor) when they hear a woman’s voice. Isabelle thinks it’s the wife come home. She gathers what clothes she can and runs to the bathroom, where she sees, “rouge and tampons and pads and lipsticks and hair clips and her bras hanging from the shower rod and her underwear (big white overused underwear) and her socks and stockings.” Oh those big white underwear. Are there horrors any more horrifying than granny underpants when you’re young?
Isabelle is crouching in the bathroom, wanting to hide from the wife, when the door creaks open and it’s the professor, no wife in sight. He tells her to put on her shoes, “to stand in front of the mirror and hold on to the sink.”
He bends her over and says, “You’re going to feel me between your thighs now.” He teases her, entering her a bit and then pulling out and she begs.
“‘Please,’ I said again, Gwen’s big underwear staring me in the face. I wanted her to see me like this, wanted her to walk through that door.”
And the professor, “‘Tell me everything.’ he whispered, warm wet soft, coming into me again. ‘Just exactly what she would do to you?’”
Isabelle reflects, wonders if this is what her sister was experiencing. McPhee’s nimble voice moves from dirty to divine, “Were Serena and Lucian involved in this? So magnificent, like being cracked open and offered up to the universe. A life is being sacrificed for your pleasure. SEX. Exquisite, like glass breaking, shattering a thousand fractured parts of me to become completely whole and new again.”
Oh, I forgot to mention, Serena is the sister and Lucian is Isabelle’s husband.
The deliciousness of the affairs is never lost on the narrator or the reader. While in our normal lives, we’re all ready to condemn philandering, but in our brains, how many of us haven’t fantasized about a partner, a wife, a boyfriend going out getting some action and coming home with a few new tricks. For the professor and his wife, the student gives them something new to talk about, to analyze. They discuss her over dinner. For the grown narrator, her husband becomes even more enticing, and yet, small too for his weakness. And the sister. With her power, her sensuality, she is behaving as she always has. Always struggling to be the most loved, and Isabelle is ready, as she always is, to love her sister the most.
McPhee’s writing in this story is so wonderful, that though the bathroom passage had me reaching for my JimmyJane, the language and characters were so flawed and complicated, I had to keep reading.
Isn’t this the best and worst part of dirty scenes in literary fiction -- the authors maintain their cock-lock on the reader long after the climax.
Every damn time a self-published author manages to create some sort of following and get a real publishing deal, there's an article about how self-published authors can make it after all! Look at Brunonia Barry! Except it happens to one person every other year, at best, and the articles never mention the countless number of self-published authors who are lied to and taken advantage of by iUniverse, et al. Don't listen to them, people.
And this girl began to think very seriously about winter, never having been properly introduced to it before. She thought that perhaps the world had it backwards: nothing dies in the snow, it is not the end of life, the elderly dotage of the year. It is the beginning, when all the seeds and bulbs are still sleeping way down deep in the black. It is the very newest and cleanest and sweetest of hours, when there is firelight and great roasted birds and bloody, scandalous wines.
Do not fuck with Scots.
The stroke of a pen at the Library of Congress -- which rebranded 700 years of Scottish literary tradition as "English literature" -- has in recent weeks generated a spluttering uproar here. And last week, faced with Celtic fury, the American institution made an undignified U-turn.
There is only so much eye rolling and sighing I can do over awards. During award season there's a slight risk of hyperventilation. So I asked (the mighty) Margaret Howie to start covering awards for the blog. Here she is to announce the NBCC nominations. - Jessa
The 2007 National Book Critics Circle nominees are in. C'mon, nothing says cutting edge like Joyce Carol Oates. Twice.
On Critical Mass, Lizzie Skurnick liveblogged the announcement event, forgetting her shift key, and, possibly, to breathe:
6:53 p.m.: MAXINE HONG KINGSTON TAKES THE MIKE!
The winners will be announced on March the 6th.
Philip Gura, American Transcendentalism
Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815-1848
Harriet Washington, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present
Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA
Alan Weisman, The World Without Us
Joshua Clark, Heart Like Water: Surviving Katrina and Life in Its Disaster Zone
Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I'm Dying
Joyce Carol Oates, The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates, 1973–1982
Sara Paretsky, Writing in an Age of Silence
Anna Politkovskaya: Russian Diary: A Journalist's Final Account of Life, Corruption and Death in Putin's Russia
Tim Jeal, Stanley: The Impossible Life Of Africa's Greatest Explorer
Hermione Lee, Edith Wharton
Arnold Rampersad, Ralph Ellison
John Richardson, The Life Of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932
Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy
Joan Acocella, Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints
Julia Alvarez, Once Upon a Quniceanera
Susan Faludi, The Terror Dream
Ben Ratliff, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound
Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
The Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing went to New York's Sam Anderson.
January 14, 2008
Bookslut's Indie Heartthrob Interview Series
A weekly interview series where someone involved in the small press (be it writer, editor, slush slave, etc.) is thrown into the spotlight, grilled over the state of the independents and sundry other items, and quickly made to return from whence they came after having graced us all with their presence.
This week: Joanna Smith Rakoff
Joanna Smith Rakoff is the editor-in-chief for Nextbook.org, a Jewish arts and culture magazine. Aside from editing the magazine, she is also a poet whose work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, and other journals. Her novel, Brooklyn, is forthcoming from Scribner in 2009.
Smith Rakoff talks to Bookslut about her experience in editing the magazine:
What about Nextbook makes it stand apart from other sites?
Officially, Nextbook.org is a Jewish arts and culture magazine, but in a way, it’s more accurate to call us an arts and culture magazine with a Jewish focus. There are a number of great Jewish magazines out there, certainly, but in general, Jewish media tends to be somewhat parochial. Our goal is the opposite, in a way: to produce a an idea-driven magazine that covers Jewish subjects in a way that makes them relevant to everyone. Our editorial models aren’t other Jewish periodicals, but The New Yorker, Harper’s, the late, great Lingua Franca and Feed, The Believer, and suchlike.
Jewishness aside, Nextbook.org provides a different sort of coverage from many other magazines: though we certainly cover contemporary literature—through author interviews and such—we aim for a deeper sort of coverage than is the norm. We don’t run anything that would even vaguely resemble a puff piece. We don’t run reviews or profiles. We don’t cover events. We don’t do any sort of celebrity journalism. Most of what we do—even our interviews—is idea-driven. We also try to avoid replicating coverage: So, if everyone is interviewing Michael Chabon, we ask ourselves if we can cover his new book in a different, more inventive way. If the answer is no, we drop the story.
When and how did Nextbook begin? How has it since then?
Nextbook was launched in 2003, by Julie Sandorf, our recently departed executive director, with funding from an organization called Keren Keshet. Before I go any further, though, I should explain that Nextbook.org—that is, Nextbook, the online magazine—is part of a nonprofit also called Nextbook, which has two other arms: a books imprint, with Random House/Schocken, edited by Jonathan Rosen; and a programs division, which offers readings and talks in Seattle, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., and festivals of ideas in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The goal of Nextbook, as an organization, is to promote Jewish literature and culture.
Nearly five years ago, when Julie launched Nextbook, the Web site—then run by my predecessor, Blake Eskin—consisted only of a sort of blog, or aggregate, of news about Jewish arts and culture. Within a few months, Blake began adding features. Today, that news blog is a small (but popular) part of the site, called The Filter, which also goes out as a daily email, and we’re a daily site with an average of 600,000 page views a month, and thousands of subscribers to our (amazing) weekly podcast and various RSS feeds.
How does it tie in to the imprint?
We do all we can to promote the book series. When a book comes out, we run an interview with the author, as well as an ad for the book. Through a partnership with Barnes and Noble, we have a book club, in which our authors interact with readers, via a message board on Barnes and Noble’s website. We run ads for that, as well (though we don’t have anything to do with the day-to-day operations of it).
When did you become involved?
Blake hired me in February 2004, to oversee a section of the site then called “Recommended Books” (now it’s “Recommended Reading”), which is exactly what it sounds like: little write-ups of books we like. About 600 of them. At that point, Blake was just starting to add features—and still trying to define the magazine, to figure out what he wanted to do with it—and allowed me to launch a series of essays on forgotten books and authors, which I inventively titled “Lost Books.” The series still exists and it’s been, in a way, defining for us, as it’s allowed us to commission essays from now-famous writers, like Shalom Auslander, on their most important influences, pieces that they might not have been able to write for other places, because there was no peg.
As the magazine grew, I became the features editor, and, then, when Blake left, in June 2006, I took over for him.
What would you say a normal day at Nextbook is like?
Our days vary somewhat greatly and they’re different for different members of the staff. Let’s see: In the morning, we generally spend some time making sure that the day’s feature is ready to go, which means coordinating with our art director, India Amos, to see if art is ready. Having someone give the story a final proofread. Perhaps asking one of our assistants to add links into the story. Sometimes we’re running behind and desperately trying to come up with a hed and dek (or heds and deks, if we’re doing a package, or running more than one story); so we’ll email a few choices around, or gather at someone’s desk to brainstorm. At the same time, our assistants will be surfing the Web, choosing stories for that day's Filter, then checking in with Sara Ivry, the senior editor who oversees it, about those stories. They’ll then write up the Filter and sit down with Sara to edit it.
On Tuesdays, we have our story meetings at lunchtime—we order lunch in, which is nice—during which we check in about various pieces in the works, bat around new ideas, suggest new writers, present pitches from writers, and sometimes discuss larger plans and initiatives. Often these meetings are long—two hours, sometimes more—because we really help each other shape story ideas (which is necessary, being that we never just say, “Okay, let’s do a review of the new Philip Roth novel”).
Other days, I’ll often have lunch with writers--during which I either try to convince them to write for us or, if they’re convinced, bat around story ideas—or editors.
The afternoon, for most of us, is devoted to editing. We do pretty heavy edits on most stories, so we need long stretches of quiet.
I think the only way to write about sex is to write about what the people are thinking and not what they're doing. If you start writing about the bodies then it just becomes pornographic.
So says Jeffrey Eugenides. Not that there's anything wrong with that. If you like your pornographic reading material to be comics-themed, Journalista is feeling a little dirty today. I was just rooting through my stack of galleys and found Melanie Abrams's Playing. It was the cover that got my attention. And then this:
An Indian surgeon ten years her senior, Devesh is a strong and enigmatic man who pulls Josie into a dizzying world of sexual domination and submission that speaks to her deeply hidden desires.
Umm, yeah, I'll see you guys tomorrow.
I'm slowly, slowly, slowly making my way through new writer applications, so yes, there are openings still available:
Judging a Book By Its Cover writer
If interested, please e-mail me.
I had twenty-eight years of standing behind a stove - while you were arguing over bundt cake recipes in a chat room, motherfucker! Now, kiss my ass!
Oh, love love love.
Do ideas about information and reality inspire fruitful new approaches to the hardest problems of modern physics? What can we learn about the paradoxes of quantum mechanics, the beginning of the universe and our understanding of black holes, by thinking about the very essence of information? Those are some of the questions our panel tackled.
Too early? Yeah, for me too.
January 11, 2008
I found that this absence of language also slowed down the flow of the narrative, and that is something I needed because the panels are quite detailed, and there’s really not very many of them given the scope of the story. Words would hurry things along too much, and also possibly interfere with an open interpretation — I realise that my own “explanation” of what’s happening in the illustrations is not always the most interesting! Sometimes it’s better to let the reader imagine the captions or speech bubbles in their own personalised way.
We all know about the Fuckabee/Chuck Norris thing. (He doesn't seem like much of a reader.) But no literary love for Edwards?
Imre Kertesz's 1977 novel A Detective Story is appearing in English for the first time. (Read Elizabeth Bachner's review in the new issue of Bookslut.) He's interviewed at the Independent about trying to make a living as a writer in Hungary.
Berlin has become a second home for several Hungarian writers. Many British writers would be hard-pressed without German royalties, but most established Hungarians simply wouldn't be able to eat. There's an element of "sorry we tried to gas you" in relation to older Jewish writers such as György Konrád and Kertész, but the links of history and geography are strong in any case.
"It can be a grim time of year, Christmas," says the man who created the iconic snowman image. You know, the cartoon they play over and over with the little boy who goes out frolicking with his new snowman friend, only to find him melted in the morning? Slightly scarring, that. But this interview with Raymond Briggs allows me to forgive him for making me cry when I was four:
"I don't believe in happy endings. Children have got to face death sooner or later. Granny and Grandpa die, dogs die, cats die, gerbils and those frightful things - what are they called? - hamsters: all die like flies. So there's no point avoiding it."
Slate looks at the legality of JK Rowling's lawsuit against the creators of the Harry Potter Lexicon.
January 10, 2008
A Conversation with Jennifer L. Knox
Jennifer L. Knox's second book, Drunk by Noon, and her first book, A Gringo Like Me (originally put out by Soft Skull), have just been published by Shanna Compton's new indie press, Bloof Books. Her poems are an almost indescribable mix of crazed humor and sympathetic imagination, always provocative and even moving. (Samples from Drunk by Noon: "I Am a Girl," "If My Love for You Were an Animal,", plus another 4 here.) What's striking about Knox's work is that she seems willing to say almost anything, which sounds like it could be self-indulgent but which in her hands turns into a powerful, idiosyncratic account of American culture.
In prepping for this interview, I found that you've been compared to Erasmus, Jesus, Richard Pryor, and, perhaps most impressive on this list, Doug Henning. Should I kneel?
Sure. And while you’re down there, can you vacuum? I have four birds, and it’s impossible to keep up with all the feathers.
More seriously, can you comment on the role of hyperbole in your own work?
Hyperbole is the single most crucial tool in any writer’s war chest. More important than paper or any writing implement. Without it, there would be no poetry—no written communication of any kind. Eventually people would stop talking, their mouths would seal over, no one could eat food, and everyone would die—slowly and grossly, with blood spurting out from our eyes like from ebola. Thank God as big as ten thousand football stadiums! Thank Jesus who’s prettier than Marilyn Monroe and Ru Paul combined! Thank the universe’s most ultimately awesomest chocolate cake and all that is sacred and holy in this great country of ours for hyperbole!!!!!!!!!!!
A number of poems, plus Drunk by Noon's terrific cover, plus the epigraphs to the different sections, draw on images of (movie/music) cowboys. Why is that?
I had originally wanted to include five poems I’d written in the voice of Doc Holliday. But they were just too different than the others—too deliberately western, one friend said. Big Game Books has since made them into a handsome chapbook [sold out!--JBJ]. But the country-western epigraphs, I felt, still worked. I love the metaphor of the cowboy–an essentially flawed, fallen person, alone, striving in Godless, chaotic wilderness to ground himself through his own spiritual code. That painting on the cover, as well as the one on Gringo, is by Charles Browning who emailed me just this morning to say he has a new piece in the same style called, “Sometimes You Just Have to Kill Everything.”
It's obligatory, I think, to describe your poems' humor as transgressive. What's uncanny about them is their precise knowledge of our national id--my favorite example of this is when you translate the cliched phrase, "blood on my hands," with "or worse: dead kids / stuffed in the reeds--sans underpants." It's like a root canal for our national fascination with child sexual abuse. Do you see your humor as having a particular point or agenda?
I’m interested in people who do and say stupid, insane or compulsive things, and finding respect for them despite that. I’m not interested in pointing out how wrong people are—-even the President-—it’s way too easy—-like watching Cops. Take the biggest yahoo on Dr. Phil and discover your common humanity. The dark side’s real, and it’s something to stand against. But nobody is all one thing. I was in a class with Gerald Stern who said that every human being-—unless they were raised in a cage or got kicked in the head-—has the standard set of feelings that everybody else has: hate, love, fear, loneliness, hunger, etc. He said, “Adolph Hitler was a vegetarian who loved his dogs. In other words, he was a man who cared deeply about the sanctity of life.”
When does "the funny" come to you in your process: Do you tend to start with a comic image or thought, or do you keep honing the weirdness until a poem is adequately funny, or some other alternative?
When something pops into my head that’s really messed up, like, “I want to murder that person with piano wire, scoop out their eyes with a melon baller, fill the sockets with tapioca pudding, and a watch a horse make love to the holes,” I write it down. When I hear an odd or funny phrase, I write it down. My friends are hilarious, so I steal big from them. When I write, I try not to censor myself. I do that in editing. I remember a line that included the phrase “menstruates enough for 11 vaginas” that I took out—after a friend begged me to because it made her stomach flip. I’ve been told that I don’t have the filter that other people have for profanity and gross stuff—esp the scat stuff. In real life, this has bit me in the ass many times. Conversely, the actual statements that risk emotional exposure—those scare the bejeesus out of me. So that’s where I’m trying to “go” these days.
Perhaps its weird to say so, but I couldn't help thinking that many of your poems, even (or especially) some of the wilder ones, seem concerned with innocence. Usually innocence wrecked or perverted--but one really does feel badly for the obese spaniel, for the "girl dribbling gas into a fresh-empty 40."
I feel bad for good people. I feel bad for bad people. And I feel bad for the animals.
The poems in Drunk by Noon are formally fairly diverse, and I know you've said in interviews that you were looking to branch out from the dramatic monologue. How did you approach the writing of these poems?
Out of a lack of necessity, the characters fell away. I was going through a divorce, and not surprisingly, I wanted to talk in my own voice. If not exactly my own, then a hyperbolic me. It’s like that James Tate poem, “Distance From Loved Ones,” at the end where he says, “But mother, I am dying…”
In "Part Rodent, Part Pronoun," you have a terrifically realistic line about the passing of a subway: "silver zipper sealing up space," before turning the poem into a quite different direction. How interested are you in physical, as opposed to cultural/media, settings?
t’s like the Simpsons—the poem has to work on many levels—whether you’re 8 or 80. I don’t want to alienate anyone who doesn’t get a reference. If they do, great. If not, the poem should still work. But having said that, now that I don’t have cable, my writing has really changed—it has gotten more, uhm, essential.
But that line you’re talking about, I used to use physical language a lot more—undergraduate workshops beat it out of me. One of the reasons that I write poetry and not other stuff is how fast you can change directions in poem. It’s like animation—in both, the physical world can change on a dime, on a letter, in a second. You need at least full sentence in prose to establish “Where are we? What’s happening?” In music you need to hear a few bars before you can move on to a new motif. Unless you like listening to random sounds and watching Rorschach blots. Some people really do. I don’t.
Your books are, in effect, launching Bloof Books. How did that come to pass? Were you looking for an independent press?
There’s that phrase, “Go through the doors that are open.” Shanna Compton, my Bloof boss, was also my editor at Soft Skull on A Gringo Like Me. She’s also a dear friend—we toured for months together with our first books, gorging ourselves at truck stop buffets, taking turns filling up the Econolodge icebucket. It was kismet because I snore, but she’s hard of hearing. Then she started Bloof. She’s an indie publishing rock star. But the best part was that she actually wanted the book. No “OK, OK—we’ll publish it.” But “I really want to publish your book.” That’s fairytale dream talk. Bloof also republished Gringo, which would have taken a long time to do otherwise.
What is your current (or next) writing project?
I have two: the next book of poems (working title: The Hidden Driveway), and a quasi-memoir about work.
A final question on behalf of my Wisconsin-born wife: Liberace and meat? What did Wisconsin ever do to you?
I lived in Milwaukee for six years. I still have some very good friends there. It’s not a town for the weak—but it is a town for the drunk. There’s no time for self-reflection on the banks of a frozen lake. It’s not about you. It’s about nature. And shipwrecks. And cannibalism. And celebrating the fact that you’re still alive. And there’s a grill right over there.
Police supervisors in Mexico are combating the poor education of their cops by translating classic works of literature into language they can understand.
"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Col. Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice," García Márquez wrote.
But here in Nezahualcoyotl, García Márquez's opening line reads, "Many alfas later, in front of a 44 squad, Col. Aureliano Buendía had a 60 about that distant afternoon when his father 26 him to 62 ice."
The show is really popular in Southeast Asia, so every time I go out there, they see me eating crazy shit, and people will always say, "Oh, you've tried durian? Have you tried this? It's even stinkier." So I've pretty much covered the waterfront in that regard. And it's not a focus of the show, but when you're a guest of honor in certain parts of the world—and with a track record like mine—people want to give you stuff that will make you throw up.
It was something that I wanted as a child and couldn’t have. The times and my father forbade it. I have two younger sisters, and they had a pretty abundant Barbie collection. I was a boy and wasn’t supposed to be interested in such things. I was supposed to like war, cowboys, Indians, and Erector sets. I’ve written poems about all this. One’s called, simply enough, “Playing with Dolls.” It’s about sneaking downstairs to look at my sisters’ dolls and how forbidden that was. I’m attached to the dolls and clothing of that period—roughly, between 1959 and 1966. The clothes are important, if not more important, than the dolls.
January 9, 2008
I heard about Nickole Brown's poetry collection Sister because of the cover art. A friend we share in common told me Brown was rejecting a series of cover ideas sent to her by her publisher. "It's called Sister and they keep putting naked ladies on the front." When I received a copy with the final artwork, instead of a naked woman there was a beautiful photograph of a young girl, holding a cicada. I e-mailed Nickole to ask her to share her side of the story.
Nickole Brown: It took me about six months to settle the cover art for Sister. From the beginning, long before I even had a publisher, I had my heart set on an image, “Night Blooming Cereus” shot by Sally Mann in 1988. I knew that Mann’s reputation (and my limited budget) would make permissions for any of her images (much less the one I wanted) nearly impossible, but Mann’s photography, with its attention to the thick, sensual humidity and grit of a rural childhood, was a twin spirit of my work.
After waiting about eight weeks without any luck for Red Hen to acquire some information about the possibility of using Mann’s art, I lit out my own. With a little networking, I contacted her personally, and while she was surprisingly enthusiastic about my work (even sharing my poems with her daughter Jesse, who was the subject of the photo I wanted to use), she told me that she rarely gives permission for her images, and absolutely never gives permission for those pieces featuring her children.
That said, I had befriended one of my long-time heroes, but I was back to square one with the cover art. We were close to the deadline, so the editor at Red Hen, along with several staff members, began to e-mail me images that they thought might work. Over the course of a few weeks, they sent me at least a dozen images, almost all of which depicting nude women in a variety of poses—sitting on the edge of the bed puffing off a cigarette, for example, or pressed up against one another, breast to breast, or leaning back with the bottom half of her body morphed into a waterfall.
Most of the images were "sexy," images that would, no doubt, grab a browser’s attention, but personal taste aside, these images didn’t reflect the content of the book. Worse yet, using those images could have actually done harm by suggesting something that was not present in my work. Misguiding the reader in such a way could have led to disappointment, yes, but my primary concern was that the sexual overtones from any one of those images could have derailed a story that is, with all intents and purposes, simply about the love between two sisters.
Fortunately enough, Red Hen was completely flexible and very respectful of my choices. After sifting through hundreds of other images and finding very little, I decided to collaborate with a photographer to create an original image. Kathleen Flynn, a friend of mine from Louisville who works as a photojournalist at the St. Petersburg Times, came to the rescue. We met a several times; I explained my dilemma, showed her the Mann images I wanted, and gave her a sampling of poems from the collection.
Armed with my collection of dried cicadas and an eleven-year old model, Kathleen produced several images for me, and we selected the final few together. The one we ended up using was further cropped by Kirby Gann at Sarabande, who helped to design the cover. I sent everything to Mark Cull at Red Hen, and much to my relief, he was happy with it and pretty much accepted it as is for the finished product.
God bless Penguin Classics for reprinting W. Somerset Maugham's Mrs. Craddock... in a slightly less horrific cover than the one Amazon has up. It still presents a portrait of a woman, eyes downcast, slightly pained, as if she were contemplating her menstrual cramps. But that doesn't matter, because Maugham is one of the few writers who wrote about marriage in a compelling (to me) way. Marry a foolish woman, die of cholera. Etc.
Mrs Craddock, which appeared on my doorstep as I was reading an introduction to Carl Jung's theory of synchronicity -- you know, for fun -- and my brain was reaching capacity, involves a woman marrying down. She's a landowner and a society girl, he's a "gentleman farmer." But really, what I love about Maugham's marriage books is the fact that the most lively characters are always spinsters and bachelors. Spinster is never a dirty word to Maugham; if anything it means a middle aged woman who speaks five languages, owns her own property, and has the perfect quip right before stepping on a train to Italy. She could have married, but lord, why bother with all of that? In Mrs Craddock, it's Miss Ley.
She had a habit of fixing her cold eyes on people with a steadiness that was not a little embarrassing. They said Miss Ley looked as if she thought them great fools, and as a matter of fact that usually was precisely what she did think. Her thin grey hair was plainly done, and the extreme simplicity of her costume gave her a certain primness, so that her favourite method of saying rather absurd things in the gravest and most decorous manner often disconcerted the casual stranger. She was a woman who, one felt, had never been handsome, but now, in middle age, was of distinctly prepossessing appearance. Young men thought her somewhat terrifying till they discovered that they were to her a constant source of amusement, while elderly ladies asserted that, though of course a perfect gentlewoman, she was a little queer.
Not a houseful of cats or a face pinched with bitterness to be found. You can read bits of it online.
io9 unearths The Feminists a 1971 pulp sf novel. "1992: To Be a Man Is a Sin, To Take a Woman Is a Crime."
January 8, 2008
This 1946 review of the works of James Joyce took me about a week to read, because it was the first bookmark I would open in the morning. I would read
There have been other demonstrations, but none so pertinent, of how an original mode of expression can help us to grasp a new phase of experience. Is it any wonder, when we live in such an explosive epoch, that even the arts have made themselves felt through a series of shocks?
and think, Oh lord, I'm going to need more tea for this. But today I finally had enough caffeine in my system to soldier through. Your turn.
I’m an unrepentant Londoner, and the places that have chosen me (because I think it’s that way round: places choose you, rather than vice versa), have already done so. I think you only have room for two or three serious affairs of place in a lifetime, just as you only have emotional space for two or three serious love affairs.
And now, an interlude from Don'ts for Wives:
Don't pose as a helpless creature who can do nothing for herself; don't drag your husband away from his office to see you across a street; don't profess to be unable to understand Bradshaw, or to take a journey alone. It is true that the weak, clinging wife is often a favourite, but she is equally often a nuisance.
In the old days, a bitch came on with all guns blazing, talons sharpened and a neon sign a mile wide above her head: No loyalty expected or given. She may have been a gold-digger, a back-stabber or a ball-breaker - but she was never a hypocrite. She got a tremendous kick from being a bitch and didn't care who knew it.
These days, though, women who might once have stood a chance of making decent bitches are whines, nags, snobs and scolds instead. When they diss another woman, they make a great show of doing it more in sorrow than in anger.
There's nothing going on in literature. Quick! Someone write a list! (My friend who sent me the link wrote in her e-mail, "Isn't this list just basically a compilation of every British writer?")
From "Don'ts for Husbands", originally published in 1913:
Don't discourage her if she wants to take up serious reading, even if you are not interested in it. Tastes differ, and you needn't call her a blue-stocking because she prefers not to be an ignoramus.
(Although, honestly, if a man ever called me a blue-stocking I would probably marry him.)
Kansans know the shame of sharing their state with Fred Phelps. The Phelps compound was down the street from my aunt (also religiously crazy, but Phelps's proximity made her look quite sane). They were a constant presence at concerts, outside museums (everyone knows the tsars were sodomite whores), and on college campuses. Our idea of counter-protest was to get drunk and make out with our girlfriends in front of them. Bold! Oh, 18-year-olds are so bright.
Well, Josh Kilmer-Purcell believes that Fred Phelps is a gay activist. "I would much rather have Fred Phelps be the public face of homophobia than 'tolerant' homophobes like Mitt Rommey, who preaches 'respect for diversity' while recently insinuating that dead heterosexual parents would raise children better than live gay men and women." He created the website Phags for Phelps. And when Phelps was hit with a $10.9 million judgment for inflicting emotional pain, Kilmer-Purcell wanted to help. He sent him a check. Which was returned. So then he wrote to Phelps's daughter Shirley, she wrote back, and the whole thing got weird.
January 7, 2008
Bookslut's Indie Heartthrob Interview Series
A weekly interview series where someone involved in the small press (be it writer, editor, slush slave, etc.) is thrown into the spotlight, grilled over the state of the independents and sundry other items, and quickly made to return from whence they came after having graced us all with their presence.
This Week: Ander Monson
Ander Monson, aside from editing DIAGRAM and The New Michigan Press, is also a writer with several books of poetry, short stories and essays under his belt, including Vacationland, Other Electricities, and Neck Deep.
As editor of DIAGRAM, Monson talks about the convergence of design and editorial in the world of literary journals. He also departs some well-received advice on an interviewer with the ulterior motive of starting up a webzine [::cough cough:: john AT thimblezine DOT com for submissions, ideas, encouraging and/or disparaging niceties ::cough cough::].
You're editing for both Diagram and New Michigan Press at once. Oh yeah, and you write. How do you do it without losing your mind?
For me the writing and the editing are interconnected, and are both necessary. I started the magazine and press partly to publish (and, by so doing, encourage) work that excites me as a reader and a writer. New Michigan Press is officially the publisher of DIAGRAM, though the Del Sol Press publishes our print anthologies (third one to come out at the end of the month!). I guess part of what keeps me going on all of this is that finally I really like design work, and editorial work, and the design spills over into the writing sometimes too. Though it does tire me out at times.
Your website describes DIAGRAM as interested in "labeling and the taxonomy of things." Can you elaborate?
We publish these found, made, and reprinted diagrams from the past up to the present (in addition to original prose and poetry and images), but in many ways we're less interested in the content than we are in the act of representing one thing as something else, and the aesthetic it embraces or explores. I have a special fondness for diagrams of things that are undiagrammable, consciousness for example, or bliss, or guilt: the people who make these schematics are tackling an incredibly difficult proposition and trying to distill an idea for an audience, to isolate what's important, what moves, and into where, and there's something about that process that is beautiful, sort of like how a poem works. We really like the eclectic, and the strange, lists stripped of their referent, processes without outcomes or input. The way the scientific (or, better, pseudo-scientific) mind tries to work a problem out.
How and when did you become involved with DIAGRAM?
DIAGRAM started in 2000 shortly after I finished my tenure as editor at Black Warrior Review. I started it partly in response to my experience at BWR, where I felt we ended up not publishing some really interesting/risky work because the editors couldn't agree on it. It's part and parcel of the process, of course, since we had 50 people on staff, and it's all grad-student-run, so we had a wide variety of aesthetics and subjectivities all coming into conflict constantly. This meant that we would publish work we could agree on, which wasn't always the best, riskiest stuff in this editor's eyes. And since I was of course convinced that my taste was better than everyone else's (one sort of has to in order to start their own magazine), or convinced enough to get this thing going. We brought an element of design to the online journal that seems to have legitimized the whole project for a lot of readers. And we have a lot of readers now. It's kind of amazing, actually.
And New Michigan Press?
NMP began in graduate school, where somehow I ended up being asked to take over the printing and design of broadsides for the MFA reading series, and I needed a name to put on the colophon. At about the same time I had been doing a lot of design (offset and letterpress--through the book arts program at U Alabama), and I remember a conversation with one of my professors I had a year or two ago and we were talking about contests, and she suggested that, really, I should just start a press. Run a contest. Publish books. And when I looked at it it didn't seem all that hard to get into. Make a name. Get a website. Articulate an aesthetic. Solicit some work. Read submissions. Get the word out. And again to overlay this design aesthetic that just looks good, so readers (and writers) take it more seriously. It matters to me as a writer that my books have been beautifully made.
You're also behind some pretty awesome contests (Chapbook, $5). What are these about, and what kind of work do you look for?
The chapbook contest is pretty wide open. The only guidelines are length (18-48pp), and that we can't do color images on the interiors. We are open to work that's between genres, or that is in some way multigenre or slippery, since there aren't all that many presses that get excited and dorky about stuff like this. But we've published several quite traditional lineated, narrative poetry chapbooks, some prose (we're publishing one mostly prose narrative chapbook this year and a chap of lyric essays on 1/15), and some weirder things with images, that just didn't seem to fit anywhere else, and that just rocked us when we read it. It's a pretty ethical contest; we don't make any money from any of this, really. And we publish 4-6 of the finalists, typically, too. I think we have run some great writers, many of whom have gone on quite quickly to more major literary success (book prizes from Iowa, the National Poetry Series, Whiting awards, etc.). I don't know what that means but it's nice to provide some writers with needed exposure. One of my favorites whom we've published is (Chicagoan) Jason Bredle, whose chapbook, A Twelve Step Guide, we picked as the winner a few years back. And he's had some great success since. He's just a really interesting writer.
The $5 innovative fiction contest is more limited. It's partly designed to help people think of DIAGRAM as a place for prose, too (we get 90% of our submissions in poetry, and that more or less translates into what we publish, though it's not by design), and we wanted to support writers working on more unusual prose projects. Michael Martone judged last year's. Kelly Link is onboard to judge this year's (both these contests are spring deadlines). And this one's really bare bones, unlike the somewhat more deluxe chapbook contest, $5 entry fee, no SASEs, no notification besides the website, $1000 prize, and we publish our 10-12 finalists in the summer fiction issue of DIAGRAM. This one really doesn't make any money, but we're able to publish some really really interesting fiction that probably would be a tough sell elsewhere. And we run it very lean so we can afford to make it happen again each year and not lose money.
Do you have any advice for hopeful literary magazine slash webzine slash etc. editors who are just getting their feet wet?
I guess it's to find an aesthetic niche, or an idea that nobody else seems to be taking on. And then get a good designer, since that will make you stand out. A graphic identity is great, particularly if it comes from an idea that the press or journal or whatever supports. And online is a great way to go. You get so many more readers--internationally, especially--by making it available free on a website, and sure you won't make any money, but if you're lucky and tenacious you'll find a way to have the project support itself at least. And talking to others in the same boat is a very smart way to connect and share resources. There are all kinds of people starting up these cool projects all the time, and there's no point in reinventing everything every time. Just reinvent a little bit of it.
Daniel Clowes explains the restrictions of publishing comics in the New York Times.
Not only can you not swear, this morning I was informed I couldn't use the word "schmuck." I couldn't use "crap," "schmuck," or "get laid." Those three were beyond the pale. But you get around that, and it comes out better. I can't quite explain why.
I spent the weekend catching up with the latest atheist books, a trend in books I despise and yet can't put down. (Chris Hedges, he of American Fascists and War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, is about to enter the debate with I Don't Believe in Atheists. I'm happy he's chiming in, but also angry I'll have to read spend another eight hours of brain time following this nonsense.) I wanted to light Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up on fire and then throw it at Sam Harris's head. The insults and sarcasm get thicker with each new book, and I felt like I was back at Planned Parenthood, reading the crazy "You're a Holocaust Enabler!" letters we got with regularity. And I'm on the atheists' side for christ's sake. Whenever an atheist brought up William James's name I yelled at the book, "William James didn't so much believe in a supreme being, but he wasn't such a fucking dick about it."
Atheists! I am done with you.
The burka effect is a habit of mind neither unique to Islam nor new. Virginia Woolf described it in 1925 when she wrote about British views of the exotic territory known as American letters: “Excursions into the literature of a foreign country much resemble our travels abroad. Sights that are taken for granted by the inhabitants seem to us astonishing. ... In our desire to get at the heart of the country we seek out whatever it may be that is most unlike what we are used to, and declare this to be the very essence.”
Rolf Potts reviews Chuck Thompson's Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Traveler at World Hum. Potts is unimpressed with the reports of travel writing's death. (And if you have access to Harper's archives, you should read the essay he mentions, "Never Let the Locals See Your Map: Why Most Travel Writers Should Stay Home.")
January 4, 2008
Don't be an OL! Be Y&H! Oh my god, I think I just found something more annoying than Rachel Ray's EVOO. Time Magazine, bless their little dentist-office-waiting-rooms-where-hearts-should-be, gives space and time to Charla Krupp's How Not to Look Old: Fast and Effortless Ways to Look 10 Years Younger, 10 Pounds Lighter, 10 Times Better. Botox! Brush your hair! Wear clothes that fit you! Groundbreaking stuff. No word yet if "airbrushing the fuck out of your face on the cover of your book" is one of the steps.
(Link from Jezebel, which is helping stabilize my Hooray Obama/Holy fuck I am scared to death of Fuckabee bipolar disorder today.)
Next week is Simone de Beauvoir's centenary. You know what we're talking about? Her sex life.
Hazel Rowley, an Anglo-Australian writer whose recent book Tête-à-Tête detailed how De Beauvoir and Sartre's open relationship polarised public opinion, said she was worried that next week's rush of debates would see the couple described as "monsters". She said it could set off a stream of pronouncements on De Beauvoir's sex life, including "cruel, sadistic, manipulating, lying and all these stupid words".
VQR has selections from its Winter 2008 issue online. (I find it strange that now that Chris Ware is getting more and more boring, more and more predictable, he's getting more and more attention from places like the New York Times and now VQR. Haven't they heard? It's all about writers without words now.)
Jon Scieszka, the author of witty and subversive children’s favorites like “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” and “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales,” is to be named the country’s first national ambassador for young people’s literature on Thursday, a kind of children’s book version of the Library of Congress’s poet laureate program.
(Read Bookslut's interview with Scieszka here.)
I'm a little behind, but here are the winners of the Costa/Whitbread award:
Novel: Day by AL Kennedy
First Novel: What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn
Biography: Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Children's Book: The Bower Bird by Ann Kelley
Poetry: Tilt by Jean Sprackland
January 3, 2008
Dale Smith offers a 2008 poetry forecast: 2008 should be the year we stop measuring poetic quantity and begin to invest in figuring out how poetry can remain useful in a world tethering away into little bits of paper, words written on each shred, as if to be pulled from a hat to form a new poem of the coming era of oilessness.
Smith, of course, will be familiar to Bookslut readers for the Marsupial Inquirer columns which have resumed--here's one on Alice Notley from October, and one on Ed Dorn Live from last month's issue (I wrote about Way More West in October.).
Via a reborn The Morning Line, 12 or 20 questions with Tony Tost: Sometimes I suspect it’s too overtly pursued, but I try to cultivate a poetics of internal consequence: meaning, if I write something and publish it, I want my future writing to have to face up to it, to some degree, even if it’s in such an oblique manner only me and my shadow will know.
At Todd Swift's Eyewear, Janet Vickers (winner of the Facebook Poetry Prize) reviews Half in the Sun: An Anthology of New Mennonite Writing: However, the good heart is open to honesty and refuses to euphemize violence. Most Mennonites come from the farming community; they know how meat is more than that package in a supermarket refrigerator. In ‘The End of Swinbourne’ written by Harry Tournemille, a young boy comes of age watching the breach birth of a calf, and is expected to get in there with all the stinking fluids. Neufeld’s poem ‘Yesterday’s Kill’ describes the harvesting of pigs. You can feel the fear and smell the “piss blood” while women in the kitchen merrily prepare sausage.
Swift also prints a poem by Maxine Chernoff, "A House in the Country Is Not the Same as a Country House."
Seth Abramson reflects, once more, on the School of Quietude: I've come to the personal revelation--hard-won--that there is indeed a School of Quietude, and that it does indeed mop up at award-time, that it has both a lyrical branch and a narrative-meditative branch, that it is essentially devoid of surprise, and that the cost of its solemnity is, ironically, both the sense of discovery and/or fabulation it seems to care nothing about developing and the type of emotional weight that is not merely "real" but transferable.
At 9-to-5 poet, Jessica interviews Tao Lin and then organizes a discussion of You Are a Little Bit Happier Than I Am. From the interview: There are a lot of things I don't want to read though, that doesn't change as much. I don't want to read poetry that will make a 12-year-old feel stupid. I don't want to read poetry that will make someone who works at Kmart and has never read poetry feel stupid. I don't want to read poetry that has the power to make anyone feel stupid.
“Mexican Hat Dance” - Traditional
Hispanics are known for their passionate, millinery-based dancing. I feel that this song captures the subtlety of the Mexican race without oversimplifying their proud cultural heritage.
Gawker Media launches io9, tagline "strung out on science fiction."
I have spent more Sunday mornings than I care to admit watching Joel Osteen. Usually they're mornings with hangovers, or in strange hotel rooms, but there's usually a serious lack of motivation involved. And then there's Osteen, with his pretty teeth, being very supportive. "You can move past your obstacles!" he tells me, which I take to mean, "You can get out of bed and go take a shower! God wants you to smell nice today!" Then somewhere I find the strength. Hallelujah.
Turns out Osteen and God also want me to be pancreatic cancer free, and all I have to do is think I don't have pancreatic cancer. That's a neat trick. Chris Lehmann neatly eviscerates Osteen and his books at Slate. (Updated to say that no, I do not have pancreatic cancer, it was a random example of Osteen's Christian Science-like beliefs. But thanks for worrying.)
John Habgood writes about "the new atheists" at TLS.
It also provides a useful reminder that there was a scientifically and theologically based tradition of atheism in European culture long before Darwin. Küng comments, “Beyond question, the critique of religion offered by these ‘new materialists’ has not remotely reached the depth of their classical predecessors”. Feuerbach, Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, where are you now?
January 2, 2008
I like Beth Lisick, an awful lot. I hoped that her foray into the Doing Something for a Year book gimmick, Helping Me Help Myself: One Skeptic, Ten Self Help Gurus, and a Year on the Brink on the Comfort Zone, would be a funny and refreshing version. It wasn't. (And not because I had the grumbling Midwestern reaction I had to the self-help for the creative types.) Lisick's book should have been a magazine article. It would have been funny at 2,000 words. She's on NPR, talking about New Years resolutions.
No, it wouldn't be wrong. It's just that the comics selected by Chris Ware for this year's Best American Comics are heavily slanted towards the mopey, emo, and self-indulgent. I'm not one to agree with Ted Rall about, umm, anything, but the Best American Comics was boring enough that this becomes funny:
Anticipation yielded to disappointment as Ware, in his typically mannered and obtuse style, rendered the paint-drying anti-drama of a dowdy middle-aged, one-legged (<--call her Ahab, in search of the Great White Male) spinster wallowing in self-inflicted depression in a hundred thousand earth-toned squares. Unless you count phony, plot-less, generalized angst, nothing happened in "Building Stories." Ever.
(Link from Journalista, and thank goodness it's back.)
Let's all just admit that 2007 was a lousy year for the printed word and hope for the best for 2008.
Every once and a while my Midwestern soul comes out raging, and this article about very special self help for very special creative types caused a reaction of "Fucking pussies." What do they need help with? Things like surviving a job in a corporation, figuring out what books to read, and having a conversation. Let them get a real job, on a farm, that'll build some character! (Have I ever had a real job on a farm? No. I was a town kid, the pussies of my high school.)
Because no one expects you to do any real work today, you have a chance to read Gay Talese's "Looking for Hemingway":
Early in the fifties another young generation of American expatriates in Paris became twenty-six years old, but they were not Sad Young Men, nor were they Lost; they were the witty, irreverent sons of a conquering nation and, though they came mostly from wealthy parents and had been graduated from Harvard or Yale, they seemed endlessly delighted in posing as paupers and dodging the bill collectors, possibly because it seemed challenging and distinguished them from American tourists, whom they despised, and also because it was another way of having fun with the French, who despised them.
"My father used to tell me that before we are born, St. Bartholomew, patron saint of bookbinders, presents our soul with a choice of two books," Dora Damage writes. "One is bound in the softest golden calf and majestically gold-tooled; the other is bound in plain, undyed goatskin straight from the tan-pits." The "nascent soul" who chooses the opulent volume, she continues, "will open it to find that the pages of the book are already inscribed with a story of an inescapable fate." The latter's pages "start off blank, and await inscription by the leading of a life of free will according to personal inspiration and divine grace."
January 1, 2008
I should mention that with the new year we'll be looking for new blood at Bookslut:
Judging a Book by Its Cover writer
Send all queries and pitches here.