January 29, 2009
John Updike's forthcoming collection of poems, Endpoint, features a poem about his "overdue demise": It came to me the other day: / Were I to die, no one would say, / 'Oh, what a shame! So young, so full / Of promise - depths unplumbable!
Wendy Cope has a solution for how to replace Andrew Motion as Poet Laureate--don't bother: Cope, 63, said that there may be a role "for a Poetry Advocate . . . but I believe that the best way for a poet to serve the art is to remain free to get on with writing the poems that he or she wants to write".
By contrast, Silicon Valley is looking to establish a laureateship: "I was really stunned to find that every one of my colleagues (on the Santa Clara County board) had a favorite poem that they could literally recite on the spot," she said. "Almost everyone remembers a poem from their childhood if not more recently."
Before the election, Wave Books published an anthology of political poems entitled State of the Union, and then launched a website that counted down to the election in poems. Penn Sound has posted a recording of a State of the Union reading, featuring Rachel Zucker, Eileen Myles, John Ashbery, and others. Now, Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greenberg have launched Starting Today: Poems for the First 100 Days, which is exactly what it sounds like.
Brian Teare reviews The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest: It is impossible for a reader to leave The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest without appreciating the enormous spiritual gift her work has always offered in the form of an aesthetic and philosophical challenge: "To invoke the unseen, to unmask it. Reality in a glass / of water."
Poetry can save the world from global warming: Simply pasting a "toilet poem" at the eye level of a person seated in the cubicle can help cut toilet paper use by up to 20 percent, a study by the research center Japan Toilet Labo showed. (Via Edward Champion)
The ups and downs of turning yourself (if you=writer) into a brand.
As an aside to the interview I did with Clayton Eshleman, from the Centre Interdisciplinaire de Poetique Appliquee comes Eshleman's lectures on the Ice Age Painted Caves of Southern France (PDF link). The caves are also the subject of his book Juniper Fuse. (Thanks to Jon for the link.)
Margaret Howie mentioned Katherine Ashenburg's The Dirt on Clean to me, and I found this excerpt at the Times. And because Wetlands has warped me entirely, everything I read about sex right now gets filtered through that damn book.
While ads for men told them they would not advance at the office without soap and deodorant, women fretted that no one would want to have sex with them unless their bodies were impeccably clean. No doubt that's why the second most frequent question I heard during the writing of this book - almost always from women - was a rhetorical: “How could they bear to have sex with each other?”
To all those involved in the Wetlands backlash -- mostly arguments revolving around "Why do we need this book? Didn't Sex and the City liberate women entirely?" (Seriously. Read a few.) -- Charlotte Roche would probably jump up and down, point to the excerpt, and say "SEE?!"
There is a new subdivision of self-help: Scientific self help. I took a couple of the happiness quizzes in The How of Happiness and failed them miserably. (Despite thinking of myself as a happy person.) Luckily, there was science there to tell me what I needed to do to improve my score. Random acts of kindness! Writing letters of forgiveness! Exercise! Basically everything everyone has already said before. I review the book for my latest Smart Set column.
If it sounds much too simple, it’s because it really is, despite what Lyubomirsky says. The How of Happiness is not a book for fuck-ups. It’s not for the girl whose first sexual encounter was against her will, or the boy whose parents put their cigarettes out on his arms, or the woman who can look through a room full of 100 single, attractive people and be inexplicably drawn only to the one abusive alcoholic.
There is one segment of the industry that is actually flourishing: capitalizing on the dream of would-be authors to see their work between covers, companies that charge writers and photographers to publish are growing rapidly at a time when many mainstream publishers are losing ground.
This year's Costa judges decide to pee in the winner's punch, at once giving Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture the £25,000 prize, while at the same time using the opportunity to bleat about the book's "flaws".
Very gracious, Chairman Matthew Parris, author of I Wish I Hadn't Said That! The Experts Speak and Get It Wrong.
January 28, 2009
If you want to see some (very sad) literary mud-slinging, you should read the comments section to the New York Times's piece about the death of Book World. "If you’re a [sic] example of today’s typical reader, you’re an example of what’s wrong with today’s typical reader." I'm only one page in, so I'm still waiting for someone to call someone else middlebrow.
A Jack Chick booklet is causing some trouble in Singapore. A couple who has been passing "The Little Bride" (read it online) around has been charged under the Sedition Act and Undesirable Publications Act. (Link from Journalista.)
This whole bitching back and forth between father and daughter in Le Monde and "statements to the press" over Asterix characters is amusing.
"To be accused by my own daughter, in the pages of the newspaper of reference, of being an old man, manipulated and deluded in his insatiable greed by the gnomes of finance, is already quite undignified," he said in a statement to the French press.
It gives me an idea, though. I should start communicating with my father solely through letters in Der Spiegel. First missive: Dad, what is up with the Civil War beard?
I never got around to reading J K Rowling's Harvard commencement speech due to my serious lack of interest of the whole Harry Potter thing. I was a fool, then, because her speech is lovely. You can both read the text and watch the video online.
The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned.
It's hard to recommend a book that made you lose it a little, carrying on and crying after it was over. "Oh here, read this, it will make you feel fucking awful." Yet I still think everyone should read Marghanita Laski's Little Boy Lost. It's a remarkable little book, and I reviewed it for NPR.
Little Boy Lost, first published in 1949, has the potential to be a soap opera dressed up in period garb. All the ingredients are there: the dead wife, the man incapable of love, the ravaged French countryside, the neglected orphan. Yet no one gets off so easily, certainly not the reader. A sentimental shine would have distanced the action; instead, we feel so close to the characters we can hear them breathing.
January 27, 2009
John Updike, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, prolific man of letters and erudite chronicler of sex, divorce and other adventures in the postwar prime of the American empire, died Tuesday at age 76.
Updike, a resident of Beverly Farms, Mass., died of lung cancer, according to a statement from his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf.
You are on a speakerphone with at least 14 teachers and librarians and suchlike great, wise and good people, I thought. Do not start swearing like you did when you got the Hugo.
The magical pixie Librarian dust of the ALA was also sprinkled on this year's Caldecott winner, Beth Krommes, illustrator of Susan Marie Swanson's The House in the Night. How much Krommes swore remains a matter of speculation.
I do a cool thing when I'm meeting a boy and want to fuck him. To prove that I'm the one who initiated the fuck that night. To show that what happens later on is no coincidence. A night like that always starts out a little uncertain. You know how it is. Do you both want the same thing? Will you manage to have sex at the end of the night? Or was the date all for nothing? To make totally clear what I wanted from the get-go, I cut a big hole in my underwear so you can see the hair and lips. Basically, the whole peach should peek out. Obviously I wear a skirt. I start to make out with him and we grab at each other. After he's stroked my breasts for long enough, at some point his finger wanders down to my thigh. He thinks he has to painstakingly work his way into my underwear and is worrying whether I want to go that far. You're not going to discuss that kind of thing when you haven't known each other long. Then, with no warning, his finger comes into direct contact with my dripping wet pussy.
And as a follow up: Men do not marry prostitutes because once a woman has lost her innocence, she has lost much of her allure. You may pay her for sex but usually when you need it anonymously, you want it without complications, or because nothing else is available. One of the great gifts that a woman gives a man is that she makes him feel masculine. When he pleases her he feels strong and capable. When he makes her lose control, when he brings her to the heights of erotic abandonment, he feels that he has caused her to be born anew. But if he can make no original imprint because she is just too experienced, he is denied this great pleasure. He cannot transform her from a woman into a sexual being. She was already there well before he came into the picture.
I am going to give myself the bends if I keep this up.
I was trying to decide what I was going to wear on Chicago Tonight when Bright Young People showed up on my doorstep. I showed Honeybee and asked if the outfit on the cover would be too much. "I think you might take out Phil Ponce's eye with that crown." She is much more sensible than I am. For Phil's sake, I nixed the idea and went with a grey cashmere dress instead. (Such a shame. It's a great look.)
The book's author, D. J. Taylor, is interviewed at NPR, and Troy Patterson wrote about it for Books We Like.
By the most generous estimate, there were never more than 2,000 souls among the ranks popularly known at the time as the Bright Young People. By most accounts, those souls were self-absorbed, self-mythologizing and terribly jaded. Their defining exploits included boisterous scavenger hunts, extravagant hoaxes and the "stylized debauchery" of more fancy-dress balls than you can shake an engraved 16-inch-high invitation at — including the Bath and Bottle Party, the Circus Party, the Hermaphrodite Party, the Great Urban Dionysia and the Mozart Party, where the menu came from a cookbook owned by Louis XVI.
I missed this the first time around: Ha Jin's "The Censor in the Mirror."
Four years ago, I signed five book contracts with a Shanghai publisher who planned to bring out four volumes of my fiction and a collection of my poems. The editor in charge of the project told me that he couldn’t possibly consider publishing two of my novels, The Crazed and War Trash, owing to the sensitive subject matter. The former touches on the Tiananmen tragedy, and the latter deals with the Korean War. I was supposed to select the poems and translate them into Chinese for the volume of poetry. As I began thinking about what poems to include, I couldn’t help but censor myself, knowing intuitively which ones might not get through the censorship. It was disheartening to realize I would have to exclude the stronger poems if the volume could ever see print in China. As a result, I couldn’t embark on the translation wholeheartedly. To date, I haven’t translated a single poem, though the deadline was May 2005.
January 26, 2009
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: Michael Muhammad Knight
Knight, a former backyard wrestler and cultural provocateur, is the author of the upcoming memoir Impossible Man, an exploration of Knight's exposure to Islam and eventual disillusionment before a moment of self-definement. With a fluid mastery for prose, Knight recounts his upbringing and movements of faith with language reminiscent of Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, who invokes Joyce and the Fitzgeralds in an attempt to understand her own existence.
Knight's first novel The Taqwacores is also the basis for what can be called, for lack of better words, a Muslim Punk movement. His burqa-wearing riot grrls and other characters helped spawn a Taqwacores movement featuring bands like The Kominas, 8-bit, and Vote Hezbollah as well as a mixed gender prayer organized by author Asra Nomani in support of women as imams.
I spoke to Knight over the past week after receiving a copy of Impossible Man. I'm almost tempted to somehow induce temporary amnesia, just so I can wake up and find the book next to the spot where I passed out and read it all over again. Hopefully you can too.
Your newest book, Impossible Man, details your slow exposure and conversion to Islam. The original subtitle for the book is "or, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Rise of Islam." What does the subtitle mean, and why is it being left out?
The subtitle appears on the title page, but not the cover, just because it's too strange and book distributors wouldn't know what to do with it.
The short explanation: my father is a diagnosed schizophrenic who believes that I am F. Scott Fitzgerald. I am also a Muslim, so there it is.
I think that we tend to make up our own religions, even when we don't know that we're doing so. After my dad told me that I was Fitzgerald, I started to really get into it, because it gave me a chance to take meaning from my father. We didn't have any real relationship, and now he had given me the secret to my existence, and I had to at least try to make that genuinely meaningful. So I jumped into Fitzgerald and tried to be a Fitzgeraldiyya Muslim, whatever that could mean.
When people used to write Fitzgerald letters, he would write prank responses; one time a student wrote to ask for a list of suggested books for research, and Fitzgerald told him to look up "F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Rise of Islam." I felt as though my life was that imaginary book.
At one point in Impossible Man you write to Inside Edition about backyard wrestling, which has been featured on news magazines and the likes of TV Carnage hundreds of times in the past 15 years. You were eventually featured on it. What was the exposure like, and what are your thoughts on the experience in retrospect?
Backyard wrestling was stupid, but it seemed quite noble at the time. The day after a match, I'd be sitting in class feeling all of these barbed-wire scratches, thumbtack punctures, and razor-blade cuts on my body and thinking that I had done something terribly important. I did backyard wrestling at a time when I felt really burned-out as a Muslim, and didn't want to deal with religion stuff. I just pushed that to the back of my mind and found a new mythology with new heroes to imitate. I had gone from the sunna of the Prophet Muhammad to the sunna of Mick Foley.
Inside Edition and Fox News did stories on my wrestling, and Inside Edition even interviewed Vince McMahon about it. The experience was my first taste of how absurd the media can get over something; because yeah, we were a couple of kids doing dumb stunts, but they made it sound like we were an underground cult performing human sacrifices. Then again, maybe we were.
Your novel The Taqwacores seems to have spawned a movement of its own. What are your thoughts on the impact of this book, and what do you think of the Taqwacores movement?
I try to avoid thinking of it as a "movement," because then all sorts of expectations are put on it. If it's a movement, then we all have to share a common platform, and it has to go somewhere. A movement has to progress into something and keep growing, and if a movement stops getting media coverage then people say the movement is dead. Taqwacore, to me, is just a circle of friends. When I wrote the book, I felt desperately alone in the Muslim community, and didn't even think that I could call myself a Muslim. Since there was nothing to lose by going too far, I just let it out. I wasn't diplomatic with my words. I screamed onto the page as an act of complete desperation, and then put it out there as a photocopied DIY novel. I didn't know if it was my goodbye to Islam, or what the book would bring back to me. Then these kids started coming out of nowhere saying "Yeah, that's me too." They tell me how alone and out-of-bounds they felt until they read the book. I tell them that whatever I did for them, they did exactly the same thing for me, because they helped me believe in myself as a Muslim. We're like therapy for each other.
I understand a feature adaptation is in the works for The Taqwacores, as well as a documentary about its impact. Who is involved in these projects, and how much of a hand do you have in them respectively?
Eyad Zahra, the director of the adaptation, invited me to be involved in every area that I could contribute, from the screenplay to being on the set as a co-producer. Eyad wanted to be as faithful to the novel as possible, but at times we also had to let go and allow the film to become its own text. Because a film isn't just the writer, or the writer and the director. It's the writer, director, and lots of other people all putting their voices into this thing. We had some brilliant actors on the set, and they added their own depths and meanings to the characters. So the film isn't just an adaptation of the novel, in the sense that I'm not the only one telling the story. I think that everyone involved can claim this story as their own.
The documentary's also in the editing stage. I'm not involved with it behind the camera, but I'm one of the subjects. The director, Omar Majeed, followed us around for two or three years. In 2007, the musicians and I bought a school bus off Ebay, painted it green, and drove it around the northeast, playing shows. Omar was there for the whole thing. He was there when the Islamic Society of North America called police to shut down the taqwacore bands, all because a Muslim woman was singing onstage. He even went to Pakistan to document the start of taqwacore there, and I went too. I felt really lucky to have these experiences and have someone there capturing it all. I think that the documentary is going to be special. It's not just about Muslim kids who happen to play in bands, but some complicated people and real struggles.
You also have an upcoming novel entitled Osama Van Halen, in which Matt Damon is taken hostage in demand of a more positive portrayal of Muslims by Hollywood. Tell me a little more about this. Where did the story come from, and how does it progress your work as a writer?
I wrote Osama Van Halen at a time when I felt all kinds of confusion about my proper place in the universe, both as a writer and as a Muslim. On the writer level, I had gone from DIY zine author to seeing my stuff come out with a "real" publisher, barcodes and everything. On the Muslim level, people in the community were starting to treat me seriously, like I actually had something constructive to say. In both cases, I had imagined myself as this doomed outsider, Mr. punk-rock playing in the mud, and now the gatekeepers were starting to invite me inside. I didn't know what to do with that, and my insecurities were eating me up.
Osama Van Halen was a chance to have fun with a book, to remind myself that when I started writing, I had no expectations of ever being published or read. The story is weird on top of weird: there's Matt Damon taken hostage by two characters from The Taqwacores, but then I have the real-life taqwacores, Basim and Shahjehan from the Kominas, fighting zombies in the desert, and there are psychobilly jinns, invisibility spells, hanggliding assassins, handjobs, and decapitations. I also appear as a character in the story, and that's where I get the chance to really wail on myself. When I want to talk about race, misogyny, Islam, or the book business, I do it by looking at myself in the worst way possible, just slaughtering myself on the page. The fun parts were fun, but the book also lets out a lot of negativity.
I still feel strange about receiving any kind of acceptance for this stuff, on the writer level or the Muslim level. Now I'm represented by Gersh, and last week I was invited to speak at a mosque. None of it makes any sense to me, but I guess that's what happens when you define yourself with a certain mythology and then your reality changes.
I have developed a crush on Simon Schama. It's part of this whole "You know something I don't know. Let me sit on your lap while you talk about Turner's color choices" series of crushes I have. (Also in that series: "Let me sit on your lap, Brian Eno, while you talk about generative music.") But I like his The Power of Art, and while watching an episode the other day, I was wondering why no such thing exists for literature. You know, someone walking down a German street in a black trench coat, talking about William James's depressive period. Something pretty and well put together. Hosted by someone slightly more charismatic than anyone I have ever seen host anything remotely literary before.
Get on it, BBC. Also, send Schama over, I have some questions about his essay in that Cy Twombly book to ask him.
This review of Alex Beam's A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books offers a nice background to the Great Books program, those 54 works of literature that had been selected to turn our culture into thinking men and women. They were sold door to door like vacuum cleaners. It's an interesting essay, up until the weird conclusion. Do people seriously use "middlebrow" as an insult to one another?
I always used to hear: “She’s writing about bad sex.” I actually went through my stories, and I think there’s only one story that I would characterize as having bad sex, and that was “A Romantic Weekend.” I would describe that as awful sex. Somebody might look at “Secretary” and say it’s bad sex because it’s violative and it isn’t actually even sex. But to the man, it’s not bad sex. And not for the girl, either; she’s going home and masturbating about it. How can you say that’s bad sex?
A high school English teacher is advocating the removal of Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Of Mice and Men... because Barack Obama is now our president? His reasoning in an op-ed in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer appears to be because teaching these books makes him uncomfortable. But he helpfully offers suggestions for subtitutes:
What books should replace these classics? The easiest call is for “Mockingbird.” David Guterson’s fine “Snow Falling on Cedars” has similar themes and many parallels, and since the novel is set in the San Juan Islands, it would hold more interest for Washington students than the Alabama setting of Lee’s novel.
January 25, 2009
The dapper new kid on the book award block is the £50,000 Warwick Prize. All the titles on the 2009 shortlist share the theme of 'complexity'. Hold up, though - what worthwhile book isn't complex in some way? (Well, there's this one). But let prize
wrangler ringleader director Prof. David Morley explain.
"Complexity can be felt as a stone in the shoe of good writing, yet complexity might be part of the writer's long and sometimes stony journey to simplicity (...) Art conceals art... If we accept that writing makes you think, and that the formation of knowledge depends partly on the complex and often playful process of writing, then what role does the process of writing play on that moving edge of knowledge?"
The shortlist, in all its stony edged moving glory, under the cut.
Lisa Appignanesi - Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800
Francisco Goldman - The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?
Stuart A Kauffman - Reinventing the Sacred
Naomi Klein - The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism
Enrique Vila-Matas - Montano's Malady
January 23, 2009
Pat Holt's argument for ditching the hardback-then-paperback model is worth reading, if only for her description of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: "big-sprawling-summer-novel+Hamlet gimmick+beautiful-writing+struggling author backstory+DOGS DOGS DOGS = Must Read."
Charlotte Roche's press tour for the English translation of Wetlands continues. I should probably read the book, but I just enjoy listening to her talk. Here she is, discussing her book with the Guardian:
"Everybody I know is damaged, completely. I always get very upset when people say, 'Oh, Helen had a bad childhood, she's crazy, and that's why she's sexually obsessed by stuff.' Yes, she had a sad childhood, but that's also made her very special somehow, she knows exactly what she wants, she doesn't want to play any games, she gets rid of all these rules women normally have. I think as a healthy human being you could see in the book what you could copy to have a fun sex life, and what you shouldn't copy because you'd probably die of a bacterium shock."
Greylock Arts has an exhibition of online comics, curated by John Mitchell.
I stopped reading the Chicago newspaper book sections a while ago -- they were making me embarrassed for my city -- but last night two people mentioned this article about Kevin Coval's Everyday People in the Sun Times. It is written by his publisher. Amazingly, this information does not show up in the author's bio: "Mark Eleveld is a local free-lance writer."
Next up in the Chicago Sun-Times: Some press releases fell out of the book we were reading. Let us reprint them for you in full! (This sort of thing makes it difficult to mourn the death of the newspaper book review, does it not?)
Okay, Internet. I have a mission for you. Put your thinking caps on, because I got an e-mail from someone who can't remember the title or author of a YA book, and she's desperate to figure it out. Here is her description:
It was a young adult/juvenile. It was heavy into astrology... water signs/fire signs, involved two children, the planning of a heavy maritime battle, and an evil land-based sorcerer.
Cover: Shimmery pastel opal colors with two long-haired silvery merfolk swimming in the lower left hand corner. I believe there was a mauve/silver Zodiac wheel in the middle which was embossed. Pale purples and blues and pinks towards the upper right. There were also two children in the middle.
There were three chapters: The book was approximately 250-375 pages in length. Chapters 1 and 3 were linked.
Chapter 1: The Pisceans/merfolk, etc were frantically building "gates" that they hoped would ward off the coming war from a dangerous evil Sagittarian sorcerer, who wanted the wealth of their kingdom. There were two mer lovers: a male and female. Spies had infiltrated the underwater kingdom. The Pisceans were learning how to fight for their lives and their kingdom.
Chapter 2: War. The second chapter shifts from the water to the land with the Sagittarian/Scorpion sorcerer (I think he was under or on top of his mountain.) His minions were evil dwarves. I'm not sure if the two mer lovers were turned into children for the land-based part. The book shows the point of view from the fire signs point of view. He wanted the wealth of the water kingdom, at any price-no matter who he had to kill.
Chapter 3: The chapter shifts back to the water and the war in the water kingdom. The casualties were high, but our mercouple were okay.
If you know the book she's talking about, please e-mail me so I can pass along the information.
I cannot seem to download a workable MP3 of this, but I'm told others have succeeded: Stephen Fry, on language.
January 22, 2009
The Guardian has a terrific profile of Ciaran Carson, whose For All We Know I reviewed in Bookslut some months back and whose new version of The Tain is one of the most fun things I've read over the past year: Muldoon insists on taking part of the credit for what resulted. Carson's "main achievement," he says, "is partly a technical one, partly territorial. As it happens, it was I who brought back a copy of CK Williams's Tar from a trip to the US and passed it on to Ciaran. I think he now distances himself from the idea, but Ciaran's interest in the development of the longer line stems partly from Williams. The larger influence was, of course, the longer line so typical of the Gaelic song tradition. The combination of these two somehow allowed Ciaran the capacity (and I use that word advisedly, in the sense of 'capaciousness') to take in the rubble and rumpus and riddling of day-to-day life in Belfast. That's the territorial aspect of his achievement, his taking over Belfast even as he takes it on."
Reb Livingston, who runs No Tell Motel (and No Tell Books) and is the author of Your Ten Favorite Words, on poetry in a depression: And many editors and publishers are being smart. What you may not realize is that your favorite press has quietly switched to print-on-demand, or changed to a hybrid model where they do a small first run and all copies after that are POD. More print magazines are transitioning to online. Or printing fewer pages on on lighter stock.
Tao Lin, meanwhile, has a sponsor for his blog (possibly nsfw).
Or, if porn-ish ads aren't your thing, you could try reading your poem before a live audience of millions, and a tv audience of everyone: Elizabeth Alexander's poem for the inauguration is a bestseller on Amazon.
If you have some spare cash, might I suggest bidding on Charlotte Brontë's dollhouse?
The only other things you need are a drawer full of Agent Provocateur, a minimalist flat in Notting Hill - Stoke Newington, at a push - and lots of friends you can patronise by labelling them as HMGF (Happy Married Girl Friend), GSGF (Grumpy Single Girl Friend) and GMF (Gay Male Friend) and you too can have a life full of italics and CAPITAL LETTERS.
Wouldn't it be nice if everyone who wrote about William James had the clear, warm writing style of William James? I would like him to come back from the dead and tell me what William James at the Boundaries: Philosophy, Science, and the Geography of Knowledge is trying to say, because it makes me very, very tired while simultaneously being fascinating. I'm going to track down a medium and see what I can do.
A lot of headlines and blogs to the contrary, publishing isn't dying. But it is evolving, and so radically that we may hardly recognize it when it's done. Literature interprets the world, but it's also shaped by that world, and we're living through one of the greatest economic and technological transformations since--well, since the early 18th century. The novel won't stay the same: it has always been exquisitely sensitive to newness, hence the name. It's about to renew itself again, into something cheaper, wilder, trashier, more democratic and more deliriously fertile than ever.
For one was always observed: overlooked, without precisely being seen, recognised. My Pakistani neighbour Yasmin, to get between my flat and hers, would fling a scarf over her rippling hair, then peep round the door; with nervous, pecking movements she hopped across the marble, head swivelling from side to side, in case someone should choose that very moment to shoulder through the heavy street door. Sometimes, irritated by the dust that blew under the door and banked up on the marble, I would go out into the hall with a long broom. My male Saudi neighbour would come down from the first floor on his way out to his car and step over my brushstrokes without looking at me, his head averted. He was according me invisibility, as a mark of respect to another man’s wife.
Just in case your resolution this year was to write a novel (I am more realistic; my only resolution was to stop eating a bag of Doritos and calling it dinner), you may want to check out these extracts from Howard Mittlemark's How Not to Write a Novel first.
January 21, 2009
I seem to be doing a lot of interviews lately. Here is another, over at Chicago Tech News.
CTN: How does the print media (not book publishers, the print literary media) react to Bookslut and have the reactions changed over time?
JC: Really, Bookslut was accepted quickly. The only thing that has changed is that Phil Ponce used to giggle after saying Bookslut when I was on Chicago Tonight talking about books, and now he no longer does.
I am very much enjoying Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's new book, The Kosher Sutra. You know, in that, "Oh my god, this is fucking crazy" kind of way. (You can consider me not a fan of Rabbi Boteach.) If I could count high enough, I would keep track of how many times he uses the word "peak" and "climax." As it is, I am merely shaking my head at his sex-as-game-of-frisbee metaphors and sentences like, "Men and women who once seemed so enamored of life, now go through the everyday motions of existence robotically and predictably. The reason is the same. They have orgasmed in their lives." (Italics his.)
And is it any surprise that when I randomly opened the book the first time, I came across a passage blaming most of the bad sex in the world on the fact that women dress like whores these days? No, no it is not. At least there's still a little consistency in the world.
An Australian writer was sentenced Monday to three years in prison for insulting Thailand's royal family in his novel, a rare conviction of a foreigner amid a crackdown on people and Web sites deemed critical of the monarchy.
Mr. Nicolaides, a 41-year-old from Melbourne, was charged with insulting Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the crown prince in his 2005 book “Verisimilitude,” a piece of fiction that only sold seven copies.
January 20, 2009
“I think a weekly magazine is a standing dinner date, or the fourth person in your bridge game,” said Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek. “Sometimes they’re the most delightful person in the world, sometimes they get drunk and throw up on you. But enough times in a year, when something happens, that’s the first place you want to go to hear what they have to say.”
John Calder, the man who published Samuel Beckett, Hubert Selby, Jr., Henry Miller, William Burroughs, and other controversial writers, is interviewed at Vice Magazine about retiring, the duel he almost found himself in, and his career-long battle with obscenity laws.
Things rely on enthusiasts today. I’ve always tried to support these enthusiasts by selling their books in the shop but there are very few other independent bookshops left. We used to have this wonderful man who ran our bookshop. Unfortunately he collapsed. He’s in psychiatric care now. You’ve got to have a pretty strong constitution to be in this world of books.
January 19, 2009
Bookslut is currently flush with poetry reviewers, but we could use an update of fiction reviewers. No one who is dying to tell the world what they think of 2666, please. We know, it's fantastic, let's move on, there are other good books out right now. Please e-mail clips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Seed Magazine is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Origin of Species with "Blogging the Origin." Evolutionary biologist John Whitfield is reading Origin for the first time and writing about it, chapter by chapter.
Industrialist Richard Teller Crane was even more pointed in his 1911 dismissal of what humanists call the “life of the mind.” No one who has “a taste for literature has the right to be happy” because “the only men entitled to happiness . . . are those who are useful.”
We are finally (finally? It's been, what, six months?) getting an English translation of super dirty Wetlands by Charlotte Roche. But I'm hoping the publication will mean lots more interviews like this one.
I’m convinced that in contemporary society a lot of women have a very messed-up attitude to their own bodies. We’re obsessed with cleanliness, with getting rid of our natural excretions and our body hair. So I wanted to write about the ugly parts of the human body. The smelly bits. The juices of the female body. Smegma.
It just recently occurred to me that I could start lying in interviews. There are certain questions everyone asks that I have no real answer to -- Where did the name come from? How did you build your audience? What advice do you have for someone starting up a blog? Mostly I stare blankly and stutter "I have no idea" as if no one had ever asked me that before. I need to invent some stories. Too bad I didn't think of this before part two of the View From Here interview was posted.
I'm very Midwestern in that I just do the work that is in front of me. I just did the work that was in front of me for six and a half years. Somehow, there were just always readers, and I'm appreciative that they exist. (I'm not even entirely sure what my reputation is. I really try not to be distracted by what other people say about Bookslut, because alongside any "Oh, it's great," there will always be someone out there, calling you a dumb bitch.)
The best thing in Vice's Fiction Issue is actually a poem. Read Eileen Myles's "Iceland Melting."
Staff at the world-famous British and Bodleian libraries never assumed anything was amiss when the dedicated bibliophile regularly turned up to pore over their ancient and rare manuscripts. But, out of sight of security cameras, the 60-year-old would slip a scalpel out of his pocket and carefully slice out particular pages.
I may now have to have a pie-eating competition with Jessa Crispin. (I just challenged her to sushi eating at Katsu next time I am in Chicago. She accepted. This could get really nasty.)
By "really nasty" I am assuming he is referring to the potential of someone vomiting raw fish. Or perhaps he is expecting me to trash talk. Ahem. Any Time Any Place, Motherfucker. Etc.
January 16, 2009
For all of you overly optimistic women out there, file this information away: when having sex with Anthony Bourdain, he would prefer if food were not involved. Boundaries, people.
Non-sequitur of the day (which I encourage you to use in conversation, please): "Terror is not of Germany, but of the soul."
January 15, 2009
At Japan's imperial poetry reading ceremony, court readers recited tanka (Wikipedia) on the theme of life. Among the entrants, Empress Michiko and Crown Prince Naruhito: Crown Prince Naruhito wrote of a tiny plant he encountered while walking in the Saudi Arabian desert.
"How vigorous the life of the flower blooming in the waterless desert of Arabia," he wrote.
Gillian Clarke, the National Poet of Wales, has written a poem for Barack Obama's inauguration: "We're all black now. And it's taught us all - from schoolchildren in Birmingham to poets in Wales - that if you're black, you can do it; if you're a woman, you can do it; if you're young, you can do it. And if you're Welsh, we can do it.
The editor of the Atlantic Monthly gave it a curt rejection, which Gilman recounts in her memoir (extracts of which are also included in the forthcoming Virago edition of The Yellow Wallpaper). 'Dear Madam,' he replied in a brief note after reading her manuscript, 'I could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have made myself.' When Gilman's novella was eventually published in The New England Magazine, in 1891, it elicited a number of angry letters, including one from a doctor who protested, 'The story can hardly, it would seem, give pleasure to any reader… such literature contains deadly peril. Should such stories be allowed to pass without severest censure?'
And now, Atlantic Monthly publishes Caitlin Flanagan... Oh, how far they've come. Although all this attention on The Yellow Wallpaper has me thinking I should probably pick up a copy and reread it. I remember mostly skimming it for a lit class, and I haven't read it since.
Former British ambassador to Uzbekistan has released his new book The Catholic Orange Men of Togo and Other Conflicts I Have Known free online after the threat of a libel suit by "mercenary" Tim Spicer scared off his publishers. (Link from Moby Lives.)
Tim Spicer has made millions from the war in Iraq, and the UK has become notorious for the ability of the rich to close down criticism because of the massive costs - often hundreds of thousands of pounds -of defending a legal action.
There is access to the courts in big libel cases only for the ultra-rich. So much so that just a simple letter like this can kill a book. This process is known in the trade as "Chilling". Schillings are the acknowledged leaders in chilling.
Benoit Denizet-Lewis talks to Soup Cans about his new book America Anonymous, coming out as a sex addict in the New York Times, and oh, the dear uses emoticons. Well. I suppose there are worse things.
I know you are all dying to hear my "I started this job while being really bored at my day job" story again, and that is why I am pointing you to this interview with The View from Here.
At some point it absolutely had to become my job, because I basically walled myself out of any employment with this thing. I have a very Google-able name, and any business I interviewed at after I moved from Texas to Chicago knew I had this side project that I was way more excited about than anything they could offer. Then I had a job interview for a book review editor position, and was told, "You'd have to sign an agreement that you would end your involvement with Bookslut." After that, I had to make the decision to shut it down, or try to scrape a life together with it and freelance writing supporting me. Somehow, it worked.
January 14, 2009
For all of the television specials about Jonestown, they are reducing a very complicated story down to an hour, with commercials. It’s easy for the media to get distracted by all of the sordid material — the floggings and “catharsis” sessions, the sex, the taking of children from their mothers, Jones’ sodomizing the male members of the Temple, the Messianic sermons, the faith healings — and forget about trying to understand how Jones managed to attract so many people to his cause. Luckily, Penguin/Tarcher is marking the anniversary by reprinting Tim Reiterman’s comprehensive, 624-page Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. Reiterman weaves together the life story of Jones and the circumstances that brought many followers under his spell, while attempting to dismiss many of the Jonestown myths. Reiterman has a journalism background, and he does a commendable job sticking to the facts rather than psychoanalyzing the players.
Bookslut came in second in the Best Literature Blog thingy, so no jpg for us! At least Bookslut beat the dead guy. That would have been upsetting.
Dear Marghanita Laski:
Fuck you. Because of your novel Little Boy Lost, I spent ten minutes yesterday on my living room floor, crying. Over a story about a man incapable of love and a boy who might be his son in a post-WWII orphanage. Are you fucking kidding me? But really pissed me off is the fact that your book is not at all sentimental! Not even a twinge of manipulation, just told simply and plainly. I started muttering to myself about halfway through, talking back to the book, calling Hilary an idiot. Then came the heavy breathing, and then the crying.
And I didn't even want to read your goddamn book. The only reason I picked it up is because I had had just a smidge too much wine with dinner to follow the science book I was in the middle of. So I grabbed yours out of the pile, and immediately felt like someone was standing on my chest. So thanks. I'll leave it up to you to explain things to the UPS man who knocked on my door post-crying fit, because my "allergies" excuse, in the dead of winter, mid-blizzard, obviously didn't fly.
January 13, 2009
And the must-read of the day: Edward Gorey's The Recently Deflowered Girl. It's been going up online a lot, and then disappearing quickly. (Copyright, I imagine.) Read it before it goes away again. You will learn important lessons, like what the proper etiquette is when you've been deflowered by a marimba player.
Because fine art is like the pure physics of visual culture, whereas illustration is like the applied physics and some of the modern art is like a particle accelerator, and the illustration is a bit like those ideas applied. It’s like the radio isotopes in a particle accelerator that they use for something like storytelling. Does that make sense?
His latest, Tales from Outer Suburbia, comes out next month.
This week's Guardian Digested Read: Sarah Palin: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska's Political Establishment Upside Down by Kaylene Johnson.
Faith has always had a profound influence on Sarah's life. Like her siblings she was baptised a Catholic but she went on to find a more meaningful path to God after joining her father on an expedition to Mount McKinley. "We came across a perfectly preserved dinosaur skeleton that was only 3,000 years old," she explains. "I realised the creation story must be true and I joined the Wasilla Assembly of God."
"You were a meth-snorting sex addict with an insurmountable gambling debt, framed for a crime you did not commit! How did you ever manage to turn your life around?"
"Well, Oprah -- I guess the turning point came when I woke up in an ice-filled bathtub with one of my kidneys missing..."
The Economist will be holding an online debate over the proposition, "This house believes that in its appetite for culture, the world is wising up more than it is dumbing down." Susan Jacoby (The Age of American Unreason) and Tim de Lisle (editor of Intelligent Life) take the con and pro, respectively. As someone who saw the Captain Morgan commercial -- where the coaster sticks to the bottom of the cocktail glass, defying gravity, and the dude does a dorky dance as the voiceover whispers "MIRACLE" -- approximately one hundred times and giggled every single time, I will sit this one out.
January 12, 2009
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: Derf
This week's heartthrob is the creator of the underground comic strip The City. His weekly strip is about just that—life in the city. Having spotted him in this year's edition of Best American Comics and falling in love with his "True Story" episodes, I felt it just right to grant him the title of Heartthrob. Check him out, and enjoy.
What was the first cartoon you've ever created?
My first PAID cartoon was drawn in the sixth grade. A horny classmate gave me $2 to draw a comic starring our teacher—in the nude—which one must assume he used for masturbatory purposes. I can't think of a better way to kick off my professional career.
When did you start writing The City? What was your inspiration?
I developed what would become The City in 1989. I had already, at that point, failed at all the traditional comics jobs. I started out as an editorial cartoonist, right out of college, and was quickly fired for, as the editor put it, "general tastelessness." After that, I tried to sell a couple daily comic strip ideas to the syndicates with no luck. In fact, several seemed insulted with what I submitted! Finally I landed a job as a staff cartoonist…drawing whatever was needed…at the big daily in Cleveland, Ohio. I was bored stiff.
So I quit my job and just holed up in my studio for a year, drank coffee, cranked the music and made cartoons. Whatever came to mind. Total freeform, total experimentation. By this time, my drawing style had gotten very weird and wild and I was quite into the urban counter-culture of the day, the whole Gen X thing.
After 12 months, I had all these strips taped to my studio wall. I liked where this was going, but the problem was how to pull it into one concept I could sell. The common thread was they were about living as a young hipster in a big city. So I named it that, The City. I copied off a dozen strips and mailed them to the local alternative weekly rag, The Cleveland Edition. The editor called me the next day and the strip debuted the following week on the front page of the paper. And I was on my way.
The original concept has evolved in the 19 years since, which I'm not altogether happy about. I abandoned the youth culture thing when I stopped being young, obviously. It became a lot more political after George W. seized power…and after 9-11.
So the short answer is, my inspiration came from my life and how I lived it at the time. Still does, I suppose.
Take us through the creation process. Where do you start from each week?
Well, it varies but usually I start with a punchline. These often come to me as flashes of inspiration as I scan the news, or talk to people, or am walking the dog or whatever. Once I have a punchline, I'll write the strip—backwards—from there.
Sometimes I just have a concept and NO punchline. For example, I came up with a strip about a zombie CEO, an executive who rises from the grave because his life is just too cushy to give up. Funny concept, but I couldn't figure out how to end it with a bang. So I set it aside for awhile. Then one day, it came to me: I'll have my Undead CEO get interviewed on CNN to discuss the tax advantages in being the Dead Who Walk…and he eats Lou Dobbs' brain as they frantically cut to commercial. I have a dozen half-finished strips laying around waiting for punchlines. Sometimes they'll come eventually, maybe months later. Sometimes they don't come at all.
And sometimes I just have to grind one out. You can't put off a cartoon on, say, the election, until inspiration hits.
You also use a "True Stories" sketch each month. How are these different from normal episodes, and is this also true in the creation process?
"True Stories" are the foundation of the strip. It's the one thing that's been a constant since the beginning of The City. They are just that, little episodes of urban weirdness I observe in my travels around the city. The guy trying in vain to sell a frozen pot roast to people pumping gas at a local station…or the fast food cashier who refuses to ring up a sale of $6.66 because it 's an evil number…or my favorite local, a middle-aged portly fellow with thick coke-bottle glasses who shuffles around town mumbling to himself over and over "Pressure. Pressure. Pressure." "True Stories" give the strip that element of realism that my otherwise wildly farcical humor strips don't have. And I just love them. They can be funny, or melancholy, or head-shaking or occasionally even profound. But taken as a whole, they paint a very accurate picture of what it's like to live in a big city.
The creation process? "True Stories" are like manna from heaven. When they unfold before me I just want to fall to my knees in thanks. In truth, they're harder than that. If I have no other talent, I possess a skill for observation and a knack for spotting these things. And I have to grab just the right part for a strip. It has to be short and sweet.
There's also an element of recklessness involved with True Stories. Most people, when some whackjob starts babbling at the train stop, will get away fast. I'm the guy with a big smile going over to talk to said whackjob, scribbling furiously in my notebook!
You recently put out a graphic novel called Punk Rock and Trailer Parks. Where did your storyline come from?
The book, which unfolds in 1980, follows the triumphs and travails of one colorful young man, Otto, who lives in this family-owned trailer park on the outskirts of recession-ravaged Akron, Ohio, the Rubber City. He's a 6'8" lunatic with thick glasses and a personality that fills a room when he enters it. Otto is self-deluded, self-confident, selfless and resplendently nerdy. He possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of psychotronic film, can conjure up a quote from Lord of the Rings to fit any occasion and is meticulously assembling a tape of his every fart from senior year. He refers to himself, usually in the third person, as "The Baron." The Baron refuses to believe he's not the coolest guy in the room. He keeps it up long enough, and eventually it starts to become true.
Otto backs into Akron's punk counter-culture, an unlikely and lively music scene that spawned distinctive acts such as Devo, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders and so many other groups that Melody Maker referred to Akron as "the new Liverpool." By chance and through talent, wit and sheer force of personality, Otto soon becomes a local star. He chases fame and love and has memorable encounters with punk luminaries such as the Clash's Joe Strummer, Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics and rock scribe Lester Bangs.
Punk Rock and Trailer Parks is what I call a "Rustbelt Epic." It's a raucous comedy that's as gritty, bawdy and tasteless as punk rock itself. But it's basically one man's story, that of Otto.
The book is set in two places. One is the trailer park and the other is a punk club in downtown Akron, called The Bank. This was a real place and, outside of CBGBs in New York, the most well-known punk club in the country. It was just that, an old bank that had closed when the first blast of the recession hit. It was an incredible place. The vault was still there, behind the bar! That's where they stored the booze. The surrounding neighborhood was apocalyptic, boarded-up storefronts and abandoned factories. The only signs of life were a few hundred mutants going in and out of the Bank and the eerie neon glow coming from some nearby porno shops. It was an ideal setting for this nihilistic caterwaul that was Akron punk.
I chose to write about these places because I like telling stories that haven't been told. The punk counterculture isn't a common topic in fiction and has hardly been written about at all in comix. As for trailer parks, I've always been fascinated by them. It doesn't seem like there would be a way to connect the two, but I find the contrast interesting and both share a place well outside the American mainstream. And each was a natural setting for the many bizarre characters I invented.
I also write what I know, because when you have that kind of firsthand knowledge, it gives your work an element of truth, no matter how absurd the story. I was a 1st-generation punk rocker, and I come from a long line of Rubber Citians. That's the reason I set the book in Akron and not at CBGBs. Again, I knew Akron intimately and, although I visited CBGBs, I'd only be guessing what that scene was like. A lot has been written about CBGBs. The Akron scene has been largely forgotten and very little record of it survives. Again, It's a story that hasn't been told.
Do you work differently when you write something long-form like Punk Rock and Trailer Parks than when you write The City?
Yeah, it's a completely different process. Punk Rock & Trailer Parks is fiction. I started with Otto, not with a plot. And he must have been bubbling around in my brain for a while because he almost spoke to me from the sketchpad, telling me what he was and what he was into. Once I built him and fleshed him out, he wrote the story for me, too. I'd put him in different situations and his personality and quirks dictated where the plot went. It was a joy to write.
My other two graphic novels, on the other hand, are non-fiction. The first, My Friend Dahmer, is a true account of my teenage friendship with Jeffrey Dahmer. I met him in junior high and, in the book, chart his slow spiral into madness. My second book was Trashed, a memoir of my career as a 19-year-old garbageman. My Friend Dahmer is a fascinating tale, but obviously dark and grim and totally unlike the rest of my work. Trashed is a garbage-encrusted, maggot-covered comedy. But in both cases, the story was already there. It was just a question of how to present it.
The strip usually doesn't have a regular character. I have to conjure everything out of thin air. It's much more difficult than a character-driven piece, often a long, hard slog. To be honest, if I had to do it over again, I'd have made The City a character strip.
Which format do you prefer, the longer graphic novel or the strip, and why?
I like them both!
Graphic novels offer me the freedom to write and draw my ass off. I have as much room as I want to tell a story, and a nice big page to fill with art. All the decisions—size, pacing, complexity—are mine to make and not dictated by a newspaper layout.
With the strip I have four small panels. I have to be ridiculously concise. I make my point, deliver the punchline and that's it. No room for flourishes. But I like the immediacy of a comic strip. I draw it one day and it's in the paper a few days later. And it reaches a broader audience. Graphic novels are read almost solely by comic geeks, God bless them. Newspaper strips are read by people who would never think to pick up a comic book.
Hadfield won for Nigh-No-Place, her second book of poetry written in Shetland and also while travelling across Canada. It includes poems such as Paternoster, which is the Lord's Prayer as spoken by a draught horse and Ten-Minute Break Haiku, Hadfield's response to working in a fish factory.
Sadly, on the day of the prize event the death of nominee Mick Imlah from MS was announced. Imlah's collection, The Lost Leader, was twenty years in the making, and became one of the best received poetry collections of last year, winning the 2008 Forward Prize.
William Langewiesche, writing about a plane crash. All feels right in the world.
It turns out one cannot shift from books about Jonestown to the science of happiness in one move. You need a buffer. Fiction and I made up, thanks to Janette Turner Hospital's Oyster. I decided a novel about a crazy Australian cult would be a good follow-up to Jim Jones, and I was right. Hospital grew up in a waiting-for-Jesus's-return,-any-second-now family. She says in an interview:
"Oyster was one of those books that I wished to God I'd never begun," the author says. "I never meant to draw on my own childhood. I have immensely ambivalent feelings about the whole issue of religion because I extracted myself when I began to have all sorts of intellectual problems with it very early on."
Tao Lin is the "new literature" according to New York Magazine:
“If I shoplifted from corporations and sold it on eBay and then spent all my money on the best venues possible, like independent organic vegan grocery stores or restaurants, then that would be, like, improving the world.”
January 9, 2009
While I was carrying around Raven: The Untold Story of Jim Jones and His People by Tim Reiterman, friends would pretend not to be morbidly interested, but eventually it would come up. "Can I borrow that when you're done?" It has the longest to-be-lent list of anything I have read lately. (And why not? It is fucking awesome.) I finished it this week, so it's about to go out on its first trip. Today I'm watching supplementary materials today, like this interview with Jones's son, who survived because he was out at a basketball game.
Bookslut contributor Paul Morton writes about the push for "Hitler's Secret Archive," the 16-miles worth of files from Nazi Germany that includes detailed records of the concentration camps, to be made fully accessible online. The current plan is to have the records available in a downtown office in Washington, D.C. sometime in the year 2010.
Maggie O'Farrell writes about the source of inspiration for The Yellow Wallpaper: It was Charlotte Perkins Gilman's doctor's suggested regimine to cure her post-partum depression. "Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time ... Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live."
My friend just told me Bookslut's been nominated for this Best Literature Blog thing. I am not sure what the prize is, probably a shiny new animated gif. You can vote here, although since Neil Gaiman's army has been called out, I'm sure all has been lost.
January 8, 2009
The current Guernica has two fine wintry poems by Umberto Saba, translated by George Hochfield and Leonard Nathan. Their translation of Songbook, Saba's selected poems, is out this month with Yale UP. Here's a taste: what you saw—it was an image / of the world’s end—comforts / your inmost heart, warms and eases it.
What Carol Ann Duffy can contribute to a post-apocalyptic world: I shall say poems in the dark.
VQR has awarded its Emily Clark Balch prize for poetry published in their pages to Todd Boss, whose first collection is Yellowrocket. "Ruin" is particularly lovely, though I can't quite reproduce its layout here. While you're at VQR don't miss Ted Genoways's roundup of the top ten poetry books of 2008. Paul Vermeersch has a good list, too.
At the International Exchange for Poetic Invention, Linh Dinh has been posting a series of translations of contemporary Italian poets. Thus far: Marco Giovenale, Gherardo Bortolotti, Marina Pizzi, and Vanni Santoni. There's also an interview with Bortolotti: in Italian bookstores one can find a huge selection of mainstream American fiction (and even some underground fiction) but almost nothing of American poetry, especially from the last 50 years. One can find Bukowski, as you pointed out, and one can find a translation of the old New American Poetry anthology, edited by Allen, a few moderns (Pound, above all, some Stein but absolutely no Zukofsky), something by Ashbery but, in light of the frenetic volume of poetry generated by the United States, one could say that there’s almost nothing available in Italy. To cite one example, I can tell you that even a movement as important as Language Poetry is practically unknown in Italy, even among specialists.
Turkey has posthumously restored the citizenship of Nazim Hikmet, which may also allow repatriation of his remains: Hikmet introduced free verse to Turkey in the 1930s, with his themes ranging from war to love. Despite his imprisonment he retained a deep passion for Turkey. "I love my country", he wrote in one of his poems. "I swung in its lofty trees, I lay in its prisons. Nothing relieves my depression like the songs and tobacco of my country."
Njeri Wangari has assembled an interesting collection of Kenyan poetry blogs.
During the break, Mike Chasar looked back at Robert Frost's Christmas collaborations with Joseph Blumenthal: For nearly 30 years (from 1935 to 1962, at least), Frost and Blumenthal partnered up to produce finely-printed, delicately-illustrated Christmas cards featuring Frost's poetry, such as the 1961 card pictured to the left. Blumenthal, who ran the Spiral Press of New York from 1926 to 1971—the press for which the typeface now known as Emerson was first designed—made it a practice to work with well-known writers such as W.H. Auden, Pablo Neruda, William Carlos Williams, Robinson Jeffers and Franklin Roosevelt. So it was with Frost, though it's probably more accurate to call the Frost-Blumenthal productions holiday "greetings" rather than "cards," since many of them were in fact small, saddle-stapled chapbooks and not cards as such.
Jennifer Aniston: poet.
As you settle into the new year, please spare a thought for poor James Patterson.
There's a big difference, though, between a personal account designed to contribute to wider understanding and a personal confession calculated to win the confessor money/fame/public absolution. Unfortunately, I fear we're becoming so used to the latter that any writer using the first-person will be read in this mode.
Morgenstern thinks taking time off is crucial; since I'm around tech all the time, she recommends something nature-based. I head for Griffith Park in Los Angeles. Aside from the homeless woman shouting obscenities at a raccoon, it is strangely refreshing. I find a stone bridge where a copse of old trees hang over a brook, a setting so storybook I expect a faerie orgy to break out at any moment. Sitting there, I actually begin to get excited about my workload. I go home and work on my blog, the Nerdist, for an hour and a half—pure output. According to Morgenstern, I have found my "concentration threshold" and am now "on my way to time mastery!" I silently vow that once I have truly mastered the dimension of time, I will go back and tell my sixth-grade self to never bring Dungeons & Dragons books to school, where girls are.
In the American Scholar, there is a very interesting look at how copyright law in France can stifle biographers. From their lack of "public domain" to their law protecting “la loi sur la vie privée” -- "which means that if you do not like what someone says about you, you can sue" -- it can make it very difficult to keep your publisher from getting sued. Hazel Rowley fought many battles for her book Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, including lawsuits from a man who did not dispute what she wrote about him, just didn't like that she did.
When you plagiarize a story about Christmas, baby Jesus cries. Especially when the only excuse you can give is, "Finding it utterly charming and its message indelible, I must have clipped and pasted it into my file of ‘stories to tell that have a message I want to share.’ I have told the story verbally so many times over the years that I had it memorized ... and then, somewhere along the way, internalized it as my own experience." Look what you did, now the angels are weeping, too.
Diana Athill's memoir won a Costa book award in it's category, as did some other probably very fine books, but none of those authors really have any chance of being as effortlessly awesome as her.
The USP of the Costa Book award (which before the divorce was known as the Whitbread) is the way it pits nonfiction vs. poetry vs. children's books vs. whatever else came down the spike.
The category winners and some bonus Athill:
Novel: The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
First Novel: The Outcastby Sadie Jones
Poetry: The Broken World by Adam Foulds
Biography: Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill
Childrens: Just Henry by Michelle Magorian
The most obvious thing about moving into my 70s was the disappearance of what used to be the most important thing in my life: I might not look, or even feel, all that old, but I had ceased to be a sexual being, a condition which had always seemed central to my existence.
January 7, 2009
Norah Vincent bothers me. Maybe it's her pro-life-ness, or her contrarian-just-cuz columns she used to write about "women's issues." Maybe it was her book Self-Made Man with its non-stop obviousness. "Oh my god, men are people, too!" "I never knew this, but it turns out people respond differently to you, depending on how you're dressed!" "Lordy lordy, gender is, like, a thing!" There is something about her writing that makes me think she's part of this group of writers who have never actually thought about an issue before, but they just started, and now they have a theory they want to share with the rest of the world.
So I plan on approaching her new book Voluntary Madness with some skepticism. Oh hoorah, a shallow take on mental illness, just what the world needs more of. You can read an excerpt here, while I decide whether my blood pressure can take trying to read the whole book.
Wyatt Mason talks to the man who debunked An Angel at the Fence, Ken Waltzer, about why this memoir scandal is particularly disturbing.
I think inventions that subvert the authenticity of personal memoirs are galling, period, but those that operate to invert Holocaust experience are especially dangerous. We have great challenges in American culture confronting the difficult knowledge of the Holocaust, especially facing the everyday experience victims had in the ghettos and death camps and prisoners had in the concentration camps. This remains so despite decades of books, memoirs, museums, and movies. Inventions that serve to hide those realities from us and even deny them actually invert reality and damage our sense of the past. They besmirch it. Their doings also call into question memoirs of experience by other Holocaust survivors who confront their difficult pasts with integrity, despite the burdens.
There is a book about William James I don't have. And thank you to Mark for pointing it out to me. Francesca Bordogna's William James at the Boundaries: Philosophy, Science, and the Geography of Knowledge. Oh, I want to run out and get a copy now, but I don't think there's a bookstore open at 6:17 a.m. From the book's description:
At Columbia University in 1906, William James gave a highly confrontational speech to the American Philosophical Association (APA). He ignored the technical philosophical questions the audience had gathered to discuss and instead addressed the topic of human energy. Tramping on the rules of academic decorum, James invoked the work of amateurs, read testimonials on the benefits of yoga and alcohol, and concluded by urging his listeners to take up this psychological and physiological problem.
Drunk yoga! Why didn't I think of that? Ah well, while I wait to run out and get a copy, here's the text of the speech.
We are all to some degree oppressed, unfree. We don't come to our own. It is there, but we don't get at it. The threshold must be made to shift. Then many of us find that an eccentric activity -- a 'spree,' say -- relieves. There is no doubt that to some men sprees and excesses of almost any kind are medicinal, temporarily at any rate, in spite of what the moralists and doctors say.
But when the normal tasks and stimulations of life don't put a man's deeper levels of energy on tap, and he requires distinctly deleterious excitements, his constitution verges on the abnormal. The normal opener of deeper and deeper levels of energy is the will. The difficulty is to use it; to make the effort which the word volition implies. But if we do make it (or if a god, though he were only the god Chance, makes it through us), it will act dynamogenically on us for a month. It is notorious that a single successful effort of moral volition, such as saying 'no' to some habitual temptation, or performing some courageous act, will launch a man on a higher level of energy for days and weeks, will give him a new range of power.
January 6, 2009
He had had enough. When he'd first started reading the Lake Wobegon series the characters seemed charming. But now the quirkiness was tired and repetitive. It was time to go. He was 60, his garage was going bust and his marriage to Irene was as tired as the plot.
I had a conversation last night about how fiction is failing to thrill me much these days... a few novels here and there, but for the most part I can't be bothered to finish a book unless it's nonfiction. Even in the middle of a movie, unless it's a documentary with Simon Schama standing in front of an old cathedral, I feel the urge to get up and do the dishes. I've been telling myself it's just a phase, but perhaps not. Arthur Krystal has had the same problem for a while now.
The ability to respond to prose and poetry hasn’t entirely disappeared, but it has been dulled. This is a dicey business to discuss. There are many people who still depend on novels and poems for enjoyment and intellectual stimulation, and they tend to dismiss someone who feels differently. Clearly, I’m either depressed or I just don’t get it. Thing is, I’m not on meds, and since I believe that I do “get” Joyce, Pound, Beckett, Larkin, and Auden, I also believe that I’m able to appreciate what novelists and poets are doing today. And yet very little strikes my fancy. I can’t prove it, but I think the fault lies in the literary firmament and not in me.
IF YOU RETURN to the faith of your childhood after long wandering, people whose orientation is entirely secular will tend to dismiss or at least deprecate the action as having psychological motivations—motivations, it goes without saying, of which you are unconscious. As it happens, you have this suspicion yourself. It eats away at the intensity of the experience that made you proclaim, however quietly, your recovered faith, and soon you find yourself getting stalled in arguments between religion and science, theology and history, trying to nail down doctrine like some huge and much-torn tent in the wind.
I usually can't read a Modern Love column without fretting about the state of everything from newspaper publishing to all of the human beings in New York. But I actually made it all the way through Benoit Denizet-Lewis's entry about his sex addiction. He's the author of America Anonymous, a decent look at addiction recovery in the US. I read it for my latest column at the Smart Set, and I quite liked Jody, the man "addicted to everything" turned addiction counselor, who went on a two-page long rant about James Frey.
“I mean, what’s the message of that book? The Twelve Steps are for pussies. Fight everybody. Hold on. Get better on your own. Don’t do anything the treatment center says… If you know anything about addiction, you know that he’s this typical grandiose, un-recovered, wannabe bad-ass… Because if you had to explain recovery through the Twelve Steps in one word, what word would that be? … Rigorous, painful, gut-wrenching honesty. And he couldn’t even be honest about his recovery. What a fucking coward.”
January 5, 2009
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: John Mejias
John Mejias is the mastermind behind the strip "The Teacher's Edition", which appears in his zine Paping (pronounced pah-PING). As a public school teacher by day, Mejias gets a firsthand look at the NYC public school system's each and every idiosyncrasy, from the ESL language barrier to the lunchtime art club. You can find a selection from "The Teacher's Edition" in The Best American Comics 2008.
When did you begin "The Teacher's Edition"? What made you want to chronicle your work as a public school teacher?
I first started "The Teacher's Edition" in 1997, my first year of teaching. The culture of public school with its nonsensical systems and bureaucracies was a shock to me, and I needed to do some screaming about it. I was already making autobiographical comics, the kinds that no one who doesn't know me personally would care about. I remembered when I first started teaching, a friend said to me, "Wow, they pay you with stories." So it was only natural that my teaching stories would take over my sketchbook.
Your strip covers the highs and lows of the public school system (i.e. the "How can you address individual needs in public schools?" strip). Do you hope to publicize the system's faults to encourage change through your work?
My "Teacher's Edition" comics are largely about publicly questioning how and why things are taught in the school system (to both students and teachers). As I don't have all the answers, sometimes the questions are pointed at myself. I just want people to hear, loud and clear, that public schools have a lot of complex issues.
What kinds of reactions have you received from your colleagues?
I don't tell too many people at work that I am going to be publicizing what we do with funny pictures and speech bubbles. A few close colleagues that I trust have known about it and helped me get the facts straight. My strongest feedback is always from teachers who e-mail me telling me how much they can relate.
At one point you go over music the kids enjoy (songs with a story to tell) and music they tend to dislike. You include Johnny Dowd in the former. How did the kids react to this at first? Its something I still have trouble playing for anyone but myself.
When I play music for my students, I just want them to be aware of the big world out there. They often ask "where did you even get this music from?" Johnny Dowd has a special place in my heart as I am good friends with the guitar player, Justin Asher. They mostly just dismiss it as Mr. Mejias being weird.
Let's talk about Paping. When did you start the publication, and where did your inspiration come from?
I've always been interested in zines and comics through punk culture. I started Paping in the early 90's. At first it was just something I would give to my handful of friends. When I graduated from art school, it turned into my main artistic outlet because I didn't have to wait around for some art dealer or publisher to tell me I was good enough. Over time I started to include contributors just because I thought it would make the zine better and it was a good way to be social with other artists. I also started to include handmade elements of bookbinding and silk screening to help make it better than a blog.
What is the zine's focus?
The zines focus is whatever I think is interesting. Since I don't depend on it to pay bills, I don't have to depend on marketing or a target audience. I get great pleasure that twenty years from now it can just be about button collecting. I love pictures and stories though, so it will probably always involve comics.
Your site says that the zine was given its title after your father's nickname. What does the name mean?
In Puerto Rican culture children are often called Papi (Oye Papi, come here!). My great grandmother called my father Paping (American spelling). It is a term of endearment.
A new year, a new issue of Bookslut... I put on my fanciest shoes and went to Alinea Restaurant to interview Grant Achatz about his new cookbook, wanting (or not) to punch Anthony Bourdain in the face, and why he made the decision to self-publish. It's our latest video interview. I also put on some sneakers and took the Amtrak out to visit Clayton Eshleman and talk about his translation work, the new collection summing up his 40-year poetry career, and the specific difficulties of translating a Spanish language poet while living in Japan.
Other people wrote things as well! Paul Morton interviews both Jason Lutes and Tim Fish, comic book writers you should know by now. Amy DePaul talks to Nancy Polikoff about her book Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage and her idea that the definition of marriage should not be stretched to include gays and lesbians, but perhaps abolished or rewritten entirely. And three poets, including Bookslut contributor Kate Greenstreet, discuss the process of putting out your first book and the pressure of the follow-up.
We also have Elizabeth Bachner hanging out with George Orwell, Barbara J King examining a pop anthropology magazine, reviews of new work by Thomas Glavinic, Mario Bellatin, Gregoire Bouillier, Jack Spicer, and more.
Phew. I'm glad that's up, so I can return to the massive, unbelievably detailed 600-page account of Jonestown I was pining for during all that editing. I'm on page 400 and they've only just arrived in Guyana! I love this fucking book.
The Comics Reporter talks to Eddie Campbell about The Alec Omnibus: The Years Have Pants, the complete collection of his Alec comics, the television adaptation of Fate of the Artist, and the current state of comics publishing.
I find that I can read fewer and fewer comics these days. They're like celery in that the effort it takes me to read them is way out of proportion to the information they can give. In my pessimistic moments I think the idea of complicated and challenging comics will recede and become commercially problematic. The market seems to want the "young readers" stuff. Was the idea of mature comics nothing but folly all along?
I know you're dying to read excerpts from the latest (or maybe not, it's possible scandal has broken in the last fifteen minutes) fake memoir fiasco, Angel at the Fence. Well, Gawker is here to help.
But if Mendes's new film is to do Revolutionary Road justice, it will transcend the easy anti-suburban categorization. While Yates's depiction of suburban life is nightmarish enough to exceed the worst fears of Jane Jacobs's devotees, Revolutionary Road is far more than a complacent takedown of the 'burbs. It is in fact less an anti-suburban novel than a novel about people who blame their unhappiness on the suburbs.
Hello, it's been a while. I hope everyone spent their holidays enjoying the seven deadly sins, specifically gluttony and sloth. I spent a lot of time reading, roasting duck, seeing a few bad movies... oh, and there was that moment while I was being interviewed that I was told that the definition of feminism was "some women who think they're superior to men." That was after the opening question, "Are you still a slut?"*, but before he tried to explain to me why I like W. Somerset Maugham. So all in all, a sort of mixed vacation.
* I named this website when I was 23, and it's true, if I had thought it would be anything other than a time killer read only by my sisters and a few friends, I may have named it something else. But the only people to confuse the fact that "slut" describes my reading habits and not my defining characteristic as a human being are divorced/recently separated(/still married) men in their 50s. Funny, that.
When I e-mailed a friend to ask why I responded to this entire situation by going into Hostess Mode (cracking jokes, offering to make tea, thinking "there's no way he means it like that..."), he blamed "our Midwest sense of decency." Damn you, Kansas upbringing! You'll have me murdered and found half eaten by the beast I'm cat-sitting yet!