December 23, 2013
In honor of our upcoming Turducken Salon/Orphans' Christmas -- you still have time to RSVP -- I asked our wonderful guest Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (who wrote one of my favorite books of the year, The End of San Francisco), to list her favorite books of the year. Below is her response.)
“In diaspora all things are possible, so many things yet remain unseen.”
Thomas Glave, Among the Bloodpeople: Politics and Flesh
At first I wanted to say that I’ve never started an essay with a quote before, but that couldn’t be true, especially when your staircase becomes a cold white blanket, beautiful to look at but hard to climb. You look for the water but it isn’t there, under water turned to white. I’m saying that the snow in Boston right now is beautiful, so this might be a good time to tell you about my favorite books of 2013 (the ones I read this year, that is).
Thomas Glave’s Among the Bloodpeople (Akashic Books) is about the violence of machetes and bombs, the silencing of literature and skin. Listen: “It is something to know that you so dearly and even desperately love a country in which you know that you are not, in fact, safe, no matter the seductiveness of your illusions; no matter your desire for safety (actual safety itself, whatever it actually is)…” Do you see how this book circles around itself, our selves? It’s about Jamaica, and the US, interwoven legacies of colonialism and homophobia and that gasp for fresh air, the way the light gives way to darkness, and how we move from literal to figurative, and whether this helps us, and when that matters.
Refusing to give in to selective amnesia or fatalistic despair, Thomas Glave dares us to examine the contradictions in tyranny and love, desire and hope and yearning and betrayal, personal and structural, our lives and lies, breathing, falling down, getting up again, breathing, yes, breathing. One of the reasons we need bookstores is to find work like this -- I already knew Glave’s work, but I didn’t know about this new book until I found it at a storied place I’ve always been somewhat enthralled by, in spite of the employees who are haughty at best, especially those two guys in the back. Maybe they’ve been friendly to you?
I found Adam Peterson’s The Flasher (SpringGun Press) at McNally Jackson Books in New York, where whoever curates the chapbook/micropress section is really good at it. “He realizes how we’re all just these buildings with bad superintendents and maybe we should move out please don’t move out.” Exposing and exposed, The Flasher is a series of short prose pieces that all start with something the flasher does or doesn’t do. For example, in “The flasher tries to be a nudist,” “it might be easier without the coat.” Humor coats us, rambunctious in its assertiveness, language as conversation and pet.
So you’re “skipping into the sunset hand-in-hand, not stopping to look into the other hand, not worried about the moment they realize it is empty.” The Flasher is about relationships, and bagels disguised as muffins, handprints in your eyes “as he studies the salad in the sink,” the morning, permanence, and a parachute. It is a parachute, all these flashes: “Some words are unforgivable even when they don’t mean anything to the person saying them.” Which reminds me of those Norton Anthologies, can you believe people still read those Dead White Men and a few others occasionally melting snow? One solution is obvious: every edition of The Norton Anthology of Poetry should be immediately replaced with Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt Norton (Les Figues Press), which I also found at McNally Jackson.
For better or worse (worse, I would say), McNally Jackson’s front table mostly features the usual things that every bookstore of a certain stature features (and that is the problem, stature), but also they have these other great things, also on display. And, did I mention that every person working there was incredibly friendly, personable, engaged? So, even though I was on tour for my latest book, The End of San Francisco, and they didn’t have it in the store, I ended up liking them anyway. And going back three times. To get more books. (Maybe they have The End of San Francisco now. Feel free to check.)
There’s always a danger that independent bookstores will become little more than elite venues for yuppie consumption, showcasing the same corporate crap (literary or otherwise) that you can find anywhere; in many cases this is already true. We need more bookstores that show us something we never imagined, help us to imagine. Which brings me back to Dodie Bellamy, who replaces the greats with grates, blows them up so far that they can only pop: “So this is my pussy, the outer compulsion, yet surrounded, driving your car.”
Then there’s The Zoo, A Going: (The Tropic House) (Sunnyoutside), by J.A. Tyler, who I think must be inside my head or the head of someone like me, someone like me as a child, in the zoo, scared but not by the animals, the way that creature we call family can be so much more frightening. The beauty in the awkwardness of the syntax makes me think of Douglas Martin’s Once You Go Back, which is one of my favorite books. And, I just found out that this chapbook is a chapter in a longer title called The Zoo, A Going, coming out from Dzanc Books in February 2014. “My mom is more than my dad, this way, like them, these butterflies flying this room. They land on the flowers, the leaves, the borders of a path.”
We all want to land on flowers, if only they could catch us, the ones we’re not allergic to. I almost forgot that I read Kate Zambreno’s Heroines (Semiotext(e)) this year, but then I remembered walking to Elliott Bay Book Company, my neighborhood bookstore, with Mairead Case after she interviewed me for The Rumpus (yes, in-person), and Mairead reminded me about Heroines so I bought a copy right then. (Later, I also got a copy of Zambreno’s essay “Apoplexia, Toxic Shock, & Toilet Bowl: Some Notes on Why I Write,” published by Guillotine as a chapbook). Isn’t it great to live in a neighborhood where you can actually find good books? Sadly, this is becoming harder and harder, I know.
Heroines should be required reading for anyone investigating the Modernist canon in literature (or art). Part of the problem with any canon is that it always becomes the cannon, and Zambreno investigates how the big guns of Modernism (T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, etc.) used the creativity of the women in their lives (especially those they married, Vivienne Eliot and Zelda Fitzgerald in this case) to create their famous works of literature, while banishing their wives to sanitariums (or worse). Heroines is heartbreaking, and visionary. Written in an elliptical style that makes poetry out of revelation, the book is part philosophy, part rumination, and part expository dance. I would quote from it at length, but unfortunately my copy of the book is 3000 miles away, in that place that I guess is home, or I’m hoping it will feel that way when I get back after three months. Diaspora implies that there once was (or will be) a home; sometimes this is difficult for me to imagine.
Did I mention that I’m in Boston to do immersive writing on my next novel, Sketchtasy, (which takes place in Boston in 1995/’96)? It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, this month in Boston for my writing: just look at the John Hancock tower and how it becomes a paper doll. Writing is always part of reading is part of writing (for me, at least, and most writers, I imagine). The other day I visited Calamus Bookstore (one of the few bookstores in this country still dedicated to gay/queer/LGBT work), and I discovered a gorgeous art book called An Obscene Diary: The Visual World of Sam Steward, edited by Justin Spring (Antinous Books). But, I only had a chance to glance at the contents before I noticed the book costs $150. Yikes! So, if anyone is planning on sending me a New Year’s gift…
I wonder about recommending books I’m conflicted about, but then I remember something Dodie Bellamy said about how a little Kathy Acker goes a long way. In other words, you might read 10 pages, and get stuck there, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t change you. Rob Halpern’s Music for Porn (Nightboat Books) has some of the most breathtaking prose juxtapositions about war and desire, the war of desire, a desire for war, even if the repetition in the second half ended up boring me (not that it’s not supposed to). Fannie + Freddie: The Sentimentality of Post-9/11 Pornography by Amy Sara Caroll (Fordham University Press) is awe-inspiring in the way it layers conceptual art project over photography over strikethrough over greyscale over feminist gallery art over the financial crisis over your heart; halfway through, though, it felt too cold, so I stopped. This doesn’t mean you will stop. Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, edited by TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson (Nightboat Books) is almost as big as those Norton books, but it’s guaranteed to contain way more revelation.
Alysia Abbott’s Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father (W.W. Norton) describes Abbott’s life growing up in San Francisco with her writer father Steve Abbott in a counterculture of artists and queers and freaks and druggies. Steve Abbott died of AIDS in 1992 (the same year I moved to San Francisco in search of people like him), and the letters between Alysia and her father are gorgeous in their raw intimacy, in the way they show us a lost world, not just Steve and Alysia’s world but our own, yours and mine, even if it’s just the way we imagine. But sometimes the narrative structure felt too tidy for the messy life it sought to convey, tailored for an audience unaware about queer world-making; I’m always perturbed when anything speaks to an imagined center because I think if we are going to imagine we need to imagine something else. I just met Alysia, actually. We had tea and she asked similar questions of her own work, which impressed me. She also spoke of a project that sent a current through my body, a family tree documenting gay men and other queers on Haight Street from the 1960s through the ‘80s, so many of them now dead (and, others who Alysia discovered through the publication of Fairyland). A family tree, that’s what I felt right then, a tingling, an aliveness.
-- Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
December 20, 2013
I was very troubled today to learn about the death of Ned Vizzini. He was a friend and a colleague and a contributor and someone I admired. I don't know if I had ever before met someone who was so genuinely enthusiastic and supportive of people's writing and creativity. He was truly one of the most open-hearted people I have ever known.
He is missed, by both myself and Charles Blackstone. Our only regret is that we didn't have the chance to know him better.
His death is being reported as a suicide, and these things, they tend to spread. The suicidal brain fixates, that is what it does. For people in dark places, and tomorrow is the Solstice, so it's a lot of us: Get yourself safe. I have been where you are, and the only thing is to breathe and keep yourself around until something breaks through. And it does. There are hotlines and your friends love you more than you know. If you feel like you don't have anyone, come find me. You are cared for.
December 19, 2013
Image: Untitled by Louise Bourgeois
I wrote this for the Spolia tumblr, but it seems relevant over here as well.
A year ago, I referred publicly to a woman’s blog post as “hysterical,” and was shouted down by a few people for using a misogynist term. I wasn’t being flip, I tried to explain. To me, being hysterical online is a very specific thing, when you don’t really read the piece you are responding to, and are instead responding to some perceived insult that may or may not truly exist, and then you inflate your own sense of hurt and wear your injuries around in order to protect yourself from any sort of logical response. Taking an argument out of the realm of logic and taking it to this heightened, and personal, emotional state and deliberately blocking a person’s ability to argue.
No one cared. I would have used the same word if a man had written the piece, and it’s not like they don’t. Nerd dude culture is soaking in these responses, just read any blog posts responding to negative movie reviews of The Avengers or responses to women claiming sexism in video games. They get hysterical.
But it started an argument with a colleague: whether or not I was allowed to use the word “hysterical” in reference to a woman. It is too historically loaded, I was told. But the word fits so wonderfully, it is such a wonderfully specific and useful word was my argument. This colleague, a man, also refuses to use the word “bitch.” I use the word bitch a lot.
I understand that the term is loaded in a particularly gendered way. But I also think because it is more often a feminine tactic than a masculine tactic — not because women are more emotional or less prone to logic but because it’s a behavior that is encouraged in women by being rewarded. And any sort of emotional behavior or display is still discouraged in men. It’s not to say the hurt or the injury is never there, it’s that online culture really does encourage this type of response. The “I am right — and the victim! — so any argument is a form of bullying.” And the comment sections fill up with echoes of support, and dissent is shouted down.
(More common on sites like The Wall Street Journal and more male-dominated conversations is the blank refutation of “facts” they picked up by whichever warped source happened to agree with them, and claims of logic that do not in any way exist, and that is a different thing from what I am talking about. Neither one is a better or worse way to have a conversation, they both are horrible.)
Take the 19th century French hysterics at Salpêtrière. They had obvious problems, all of them. Abusive families, rapes and assaults, emotional disorders, PTSD, etc. And that caused physical symptoms, as it tends to do. So off to the asylum they went. Where they were responded to if their physical symptoms lined up with the expectations of the doctors. If they convulsed, they were rewarded with attention. If they contorted, they were asked to perform and found a level of fame. Soon their physical symptoms, which had been chaotic and very wide-ranging, aligned with what the doctors believed about hysteria.
The problem was, the emotional problems and past traumas were never addressed and dealt with. The physical symptoms were all anybody saw. Most of the women were lifelong inpatients. The performance becomes a distraction, a way to keep the conversation or our train of thought or psychotherapy sessions from hitting the real source. It allows us to “win,” an argument or a belief or whatever our rewards are, and that is often times the only thing we want.
Maybe I shouldn’t use the word “hysteria,” maybe using the word is its own form of shutting the argument down. I do use it, though. But I thought I perhaps needed to clarify what I mean when I use the word.
December 18, 2013
What We're Reading
Hugo Claus: The Sorrow of Belgium
In advance of a trip to Belgium, I dutifully got hold of The Sorrow of Belgium, by Hugo Claus, which, I had been assured, was the national novel of the country. I was not looking forward to reading it. The book was over six hundred pages. And the title suggested not only suffering and but self-pity, sounding excruciatingly like the World War I propaganda term, “the rape of Belgium.” But in the spirit of doing my homework, I began to read and now I am astonished that I -- and I expect most non-Belgians—have not heard of this fabulous book.
I have now learned now that the book is compared to Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum. This, I suppose, is because there is a young male narrator, and because it is set immediately before, during and after World War II. But I am reminded much more of James Joyce than Günter Grass. Joyce brings you to live with him in Ireland for a time, takes you along on his rambles, shares with you the subtle turns of language and humor. Now, almost to the end of Sorrow, I feel as if I've lived a life in Flanders, one full of delicious, hilarious, peculiar and horrendous intimacies.
Louis, the idealistic, pedantic, sex-obsessed young narrator, begins his story as a student at a convent school; then, when the war begins, he returns home to parents who are Nazi sympathizers and would-be collaborators. His father’s motivation seems to be a combination of Flemish national sentiment, ancient enmity with the British and the French, and hatred of the Communists who are said to have violated nuns in Spain. Along with this goes a wishful sense of self-importance which prompts him to hint that he has Gestapo connections. Lewis’s pretty mother, meanwhile, bored and unhappy in her marriage, enjoys the company of her well-dressed, well-fed German. What with all these complications, Louis is often shipped off to an extended family of villagers, an earthy group with no intention of letting total war get in the way of time-honored obsessions and feuds.
The book doesn’t excuse collaboration with the Nazis, or those who don’t grasp the full horror that is unfolding. The truth is there for those who are able to make the effort to see, who are willing to see. And some do see, even before the house of cards collapses. (When the springy, “dancing” American GIs arrive in Belgium, Louis realizes that the stiff, leather-clad Nazis will not have a chance against them.) Still I am fascinated by the way in which the events of World War II, which can seem so obvious to Americans, are so complicated when placed within the context of ancient alliances, enmities and the simple need to get your hands on some jellied pork.
Image: The saddest owl in the world, painted by Albrecht Durer
Thoughts on Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch after abandoning it 2/3 of the way through:
1. Even when I am fed up with Donna Tartt, and rolling my eyes as I'm reading, I still want to turn the page. She had that whatever quality, that has coined a thousand unfortunate PR-language words that show up in reviews: unputdownable, a real page-turner, etc.
2. So I'm rooting for her, because she can write, even though I don't think she's yet written a successful novel.
3. I loved The Secret History for the first half. The second half was a mess. She did such a good job with the first half getting us on her protagonists' side, getting us to hate Bunny and to cheer for his demise, but then utterly failed in rehabilitating him so that we should ever care that he had died, other than you know it's sad when people are pushed off cliffs in a general sort of way.
4. And that ending! That ending that comes out of nowhere and just shows up in a "well, I need to end this" kind of way, despite it being so out of context of the story, despite it not fitting with what we know about the characters. She couldn't hold the tension anymore, so why not just write in a dramatic flourish that feels like it came in from Mars to take over the story.
5. While The Secret History at least gets one good half, the problems of The Goldfinch start immediately. I kept arguing with the book, even as I couldn't stop turning the pages.
6. I mean, really, if you're going to use a terrorist bombing to kill off a character don't you then have to follow-through with the ways in which a bombing would differ in consequences from an accident? And why does the book refer to the bombing as an accident later? Placing a bomb in an art museum -- and that is never thought through either, why terrorists would bomb an art museum on a weekday morning in a special exhibit where the potential victims will be mostly Flemish paintings rather than people -- is not an accident. And things follow a terrorist bombing -- hearings and crazy publicity and stalking tabloid photographers and settlements and manhunts and political ramifications -- that show up nowhere in The Goldfinch. And the glamour of this book is patchier than The Secret History, so I couldn't hold any disbelief. I needed it to make sense and it didn't.
7. Really? Now we're throwing in a drug addiction narrative? There's nothing new to add to that storyline, now I know exactly how the rest of the book goes, and that's the exact moment I discarded the book.
8. Tartt is a hell of a propulsive writer, but I never really remember any of her descriptions, not a nice turn of phrase, a line of dialogue that sticks in the heart... But that power, of making you keep going, despite those lags when she spends 100 pages writing about two teenage boys drinking too much vodka and huffing glue, is really something else.
9. But now that it's over and I've given the book to a friend, I miss that feeling of anticipation, when I get to go take a bath and read Donna Tartt. It's complicated when you like the writer but not the books.
December 16, 2013
Image: Radio Waves by Kizuki Tamura
In this month’s Bookslut, Daniel Alarcón talks briefly about telling stories in and across multiple mediums. Alarcón, author of two novels and a graphic novel, also has a radio project, Radio Ambulante, which broadcasts Latin American stories told in Spanish from the many places where Spanish is spoken. For those interested in hearing more oral storytelling, here are some links:
The New Yorker fiction podcast
The New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman hosts this monthly podcast in which a writer reads and discusses a story they’ve selected from the New Yorker archives. Some favorite episodes of mine include Edwidge Danticat reading Jamaica Kincaid, Lauren Groff reading Alice Munro, and Monica Ali reading Joshua Ferris.
NPR radio show Snap Judgment is a weekly storytelling series in which ordinary people from all over the world share extraordinary stories from their lives. Check out The Atlantic’s article on Snap Judgment host Glynn Washington: “NPR’s Great Black Hope”
Welcome to Night Vale
A unique blend of horror, sci-fi, and comedy, this bi-monthly podcast takes the form of a community radio show in the fictional desert town of Night Vale, where bureaucratic infighting, local gossip and deadly paranormal phenomena make up a typical week.
Too Much Information
Benjamen Walker, who also hosts the radio show Theory of Everything, shares ruminations, stories and interviews on current events, culture, technology and other things in WFMU’s Too Much Information.
Started by writer George Dawes Green, New York-based organization The Moth runs a series of storytelling events featuring true stories told live without notes. Green founded The Moth to recreate the atmosphere he grew up with in Georgia, where friends and family would sit around on the porch on summer evenings swapping stories and watching the moths circle the porchlight. Participants come from all walks of life and have included well-known figures such as Dan Savage, Margaret Cho, Ethan Hawke, Suzanne Vega and Garrison Keillor, among many others. Below you can watch a video of my personal favorite Moth storyteller, Edgar Oliver.
The Moth also puts out a weekly podcast featuring stories from their events.
December 13, 2013
I keep getting this question emailed to me, so I thought I would answer it here.
Now that I am doing the tarot readings and the tarot column, people are emailing to ask what books they should read in order to learn the tarot. And I always feel a little bad answering: none of them.
I read some tarot books when I first started learning seven years ago, but oh my god they are so dreadful. Almost all of the new ones are stuck in this woo-woo self-help language, all misty and ultimately meaningless. They don't tell you anything you can't learn simply by studying the imagery. I do like some of the really old books about the tarot, because they are insane. I remember reading once that the 3 of Wands meant someone was going to die and leave you a house in France, and I am someone who gets the 3 of Wands a lot, and I was just thinking, there's no way that happens every time you get the 3 of Wands in a reading. But how marvelous if it did and all of these houses in France are just piling up.
Also, if I actually liked any books about the tarot, I would not be writing one. And I am, don't ask me why. (Did you know that Italo Calvino wrote a book about the tarot? Never stocked in occult shops, why is that? Other than the fact that Calvino didn't actually know anything about the tarot, he just apparently liked the imagery and the stories. And normally I would scoff at someone doing something like that, but it's Calvino, he can do whatever the fuck he wants.)
The best advice I can give to someone who wants to read the tarot is to pull one card every day, every morning. And then see what happens that correlates. I still do this. Today I pulled the Tower. Let's not think about that too much.
But also: read everything. I went to an occult bookshop today because I wanted some Madame Blavatsky, and they actually had it. Which is surprising. Because most occult bookshops have a shelf on UFOs but no actual books about mysticism. They have stacks of those shitty small crystals, most of which are not even what they are labeled, but no medicinal herbal teas. But I liked this place, even if that occult shop incense smell permeated.
Every time I'm in any bookstore, though, I am restocking it in my head. And I learned how to read tarot not just by reading those horrible modern wiccan books or whatever, but by reading a whole shelf of psychology books and Varieties of Religious Experience and CS Lewis and reams of mythology and Henry James novels and physics books and sociology and who knows what else. I don't understand places that narrow their focus so tightly, and I don't understand people who only read one thing. "Oh, I only read supernatural YA with werewolves and mermaids but never vampires." People like that exist! You know they do. I have nothing to say to them. The world is so marvelous, why cut out so much of it?
December 11, 2013
Announcing Chicago's Orphan's Christmas (Turducken Salon)
December 27th, 7:00 pm
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
RSVPs REQUIRED: email@example.com
Yes, we are serving Turducken and other holiday treats. (BYOB)
A night for those of us without homes to go back to, or would just rather not. In that lonely lag where everyone else has scattered for holiday cheer. Readings, socializing, and very good food.
We promise zero Christmas music and no screenings of It's a Wonderful Life. (Although I do watch that every year, and cry like a crazy person from about minute ten to the end.) Just three talented writers and all the food you can possibly put in your body.
MATTILDA BERNSTEIN SYCAMORE is the author of The End of San Francisco, one of my favorite books of the year. Her writings on desire and community, of choosing a life on the margins, break my heart every time.
ZAK MUCHA is one of my favorite Chicago writers. He has a beautiful essay forthcoming in the next Spolia, and Heavyweight Champion of Nothing is one of those books that defy categorization and expectations.
CHARLES BLACKSTONE wrote a novel called Vintage Attraction and is the managing editor of a literary magazine called, um, Bookslut? I don't know, I've never heard of it.
AUSTIN GROSSMAN is the author of You and Soon I Will Be Invincible, and Invincible once made me cackle out loud in line to register my presence with the German government. The Germans all glared at me. Grossman writes deeply felt and deeply intelligent books about video games and superheroes, about masculinity and disappointment. I think he is grand.
* We are holding this salon in my living room, hence the being coy about the address. (I have a shitty ex-boyfriend with stalker-like tendencies, if you must know.) You'll receive the address when you RSVP.
December 10, 2013
What We're Reading
I consider myself a faithful monogamist when it comes to my reading habits: one book, one time. However, I found myself taking a more adulterous turn, when a package of three books arrived at my door, each begging me to read it first. The radical solution? A Mess of Greens became my morning subway book, Chasing the White Dog became my evening commute book, and The Weiser Field Guide to Ghosts became my bedtime book. What can I say, other than we humans crave variety.
Chasing the White Dog and A Mess of Greens explore the gendered sphere of southern staples; places where “woman” means a kitchen and “men” means back shed distilleries.
Both are hidden worlds, where secrets are traded, truths are told, and social norms and expectations get boiled down into rich, distilled liquor or runoff potlikker. Both books are eager to ask the question of whose food and why? As a southerner, I’m quite defensive towards the easy notions about our food being yoked into the realm of cheap Paula Deen spin offs and one-dimensional views of unhealthy trigger trinities of “fatty, salty, and fried.” Our food and spirits, as well as our attitudes toward such enjoyments, is so much more about class, scarcity, and how the legacies of slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, pushed women together in kitchens and men into bootlegging operations.
Meanwhile, The Weiser Field Guild to Ghosts offers a lighter approach to the many spirits of history out there, less a dive into history and more a layman’s approach to the unknown. Ghosts too have suffered the pangs of being cast into one-dimensional boxes, suffering the affects of a culture that has little to no concern for the vast difference between ancestral ghosts versus a psychopomp. But like the previous two books, Buckland offers a link to the past if we are just willing to take it. “If death is the end of everything, if time stops dead in its tracks for the deceased, there would be no such thing as ghosts. But it is the very appearance of a ghost that signals that death is not the end; that some form of energy connected to the deceased continue.” If we can’t understand our pasts, how will we ever come fully into the present? More so, can we ever place our faith in the unknown?
All these books are chasing ghosts in one way or another: Watman is chasing the ghosts of white lightning, eager to revive the imbibing spirits of the South, Engelhardt is seeking the ghosts that haunt the cultural implications, memory, and misplaced nostalgia of southern cuisine, and of course, Buckland is the man that implores us to really look for and believe in the ghosts that walk around us. Each book is a small dedication towards walking backwards into a past, touching on the need for survival whether through blind faith in the unknown, tender biscuits made by hands hanging tightly to social norms, or keeping alive a great-uncles recipe for moonshine.
December 9, 2013
Image by Giovanna Garzoni
"I know the right word is 'widower' but everyone turns into a girl when the person they love most dies. Their bodies get small and they make small sounds. They don't know what to do."
Can we talk about how amazing Rebecca Brown is? I don't even remember how I first discovered her, it was just like her books were suddenly there in my apartment, tearing me apart.
So above is from her magnificent essay in The Stranger, and a friend valiantly brought me a print copy of this from her travels, just so I could have a version of it on my hands and not just on my screen.
"But then I actually read some of the work (an autobiography called Story of a Soul, letters, poems). That word "little" she uses is about her awareness that most of us are never going to do huge, important things—we'll never be crusaders or heroes or write as great as Virginia Woolf; we'll never have to make a choice as hard as Sophie's or probably any choice that's truly a matter of life and death. We'll mostly just lead forgettable little lives. These are lives in which you'll be irritated by someone fidgeting next to you when you want them to be quiet, or by someone splashing water on you because they're clumsy. There will be times you'll want, if you're like Therese, to glare, or if you're like me, to throttle whoever is bugging you. But also, if you're like Therese, there will be times you will decide to not. Part of Therese's "little" way is to recognize that though you are both insignificant and often very petty in your head, you don't have to always act like that."
That's from her essay about relics and St. Therese, and reading it made me want to be a better writer and reader.
And I remember when I was reading her book The Last Time I Saw You, this line that burned into my head that I have carried around since: "Want will not undo itself."
And then in the new issue of Spolia, we got to publish an amazing poem by her called "The Thing."
they and/or it desired things they and/or it saw or not saw they wanted deep and longed and wanted in the mouth
the thing had a mouth
It is creepy and messy and so wonderful.
You should be reading Rebecca Brown. I feel about her the way I feel about Kathy Acker, despite the difference in style and approach, just like they both have a direct line in. Maybe start here.
December 6, 2013
Bookslut is doing an Audrey Niffenegger giveaway. Go here for details.
"Oh yes, they're all at it now, you know. It's not enough to be stinking rich, land yourself one of the most powerful jobs in television and have two million readers paying good money every week to find out about the dry rot in your skirting-board: these people want fucking immortality! They want their names in the British Library catalogue, they want their six presentation copies, they want to be able to slot that handsome hardback volume between the Shakespeare and the Tolstoy on their living-room bookshelf. And they're going to get it. They're going to get it because people like me know only too well that even if we decide we've found the new Dostoevsky we're still not going to sell half as many copies as we would of any old crap written by some bloke who reads the weather on fucking television."
His voice rose almost to a shout on the last word. Then he sat back and ran his hands through his hair.
"So what's it like then, her book?" I asked, after he had had time to calm down a bit.
"Oh, it's the usual sort of rubbish. Lots of media people being dynamic and ruthless. Sex every forty pages. Cheap tricks, mechanical plot, lousy dialogue, could have been written by a computer. Empty, hollow, materialistic, meretricious. Enough to make any civilized person heave, really." He stared ruefully into space. "And the worst of it is that they didn't even accept my bid. Somebody tipped me by ten grand. Bastards. I just know it's going to be the hit of the spring season."
From Jonathan Coe's The Winshaw Legacy
December 3, 2013
Image: Boar Hunting by Wolfgang Beurer
I always used to like advent calendars, but only when they were all closed up. Once you started opening the things, you'd find some dusty chocolate, a plastic thingy that didn't make any sense, maybe a broken candy cane. But all of those wonderful closed doors, all of that potential.
(Someone told me there was a whiskey advent calendar somewhere in the world that you could buy, but in such small drams. Like trying to get drunk by going to communion.)
Anyway, it is December, and here is the new issue of Bookslut, all closed up and filled with potential, but I swear there is no dusty chocolate in sight. Here are three marvelous things to get you started:
He means to attach us again to the world we thought our thinking removed us from by showing us that the world too thinks. He is enchanting the real world or reifying the enchanted one: "If thoughts are alive and that which lives thinks, then perhaps the living world is enchanted. What I mean is that the world beyond the human is not a meaningless one made meaningful by humans."
Is Kohn simply redrawing the boundaries, redefining self, live, think? It's possible. But the imaginative possibility counts for us poets, or for anyone who uses words, or thinks in symbols, or interprets at all -- which, Kohn shows, is everyone, by which I mean everything.
Divola was driving and he had a camera, and the dogs out the window are fierce and graceful, black lines against the sand. They look like lines of type. They remind me how I learned to walk differently, once I moved to a city. The girl’s lines and these dogs have a similar seriousness. I write in my notebook every day and sometimes feel like the dog, sometimes it’s John inside the car, and others it’s the desert, once everyone’s gone. I wish I knew how Krapp really felt, listening to his tapes. He kept doing it so either he was bluffing or he liked the pain.
Nicholas Vajifdar's column about the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven:
That's a bit out of joint from the wilting follow-ups of today's literary strivers, most of whom would be remorselessly tasered if they tried something similar. The Little Review was a small shop, but off of its sawdust floors strode the Pantheon of Modernism. Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Djuna Barnes, James Bloomin' Joyce -- all spent their hour or two in Anderson's pages, which lasted only fifteen years, no longer than a terrier. Even that infernal busybody Ezra Pound served as its "international editor," the pointy end of his goatee gesturing toward a brave new Future all the while. And yet, for all the transience of her magazine, Anderson's heresies would become orthodoxy in mere decades, as if in her tiny office she had been watering the seed of a new Christendom. Today, literature departments around the earth dutifully administer the doctrines hatched in The Little Review; but back then Anderson must have seemed (at times even to herself) like a lone prophet, whose duties included humoring visitors tricked out with ice-cream-soda spoons. Talk about thankless work.
December 2, 2013
Mairead Case has written a really lovely essay for Bookslut on loss and reading Akilah Oliver. For more on this revolutionary poet/performer/activist whose legacy as both an artist and a queer woman of color continues to inspire, here are some links:
“Akilah Oliver: Good Grief” by Susie DeFord | BOMBLOG
In this 2009 interview for BOMBLOG, Akilah Oliver and Susan DeFord discuss grief, graffiti and poetry and Oliver’s collection A Toast in the House of Friends.
A poem by Akilah Oliver in Trickhouse #2, from her collection The Putterer’s Notebook.
PennSound at the University of Pennsylvania has a collection of audio recordings of Akilah Oliver reading.
“Hold the Space: The Poetics of Anne Waldman” by Akilah Oliver | Jacket
Akilah Oliver examines queerness and the disruption of binaries in the work of fellow poet Anne Waldman in this essay for Jacket.
“The teachings of Akilah Oliver remembered” | Poetry Foundation
Friends and colleagues share their memories of and appreciation for Akilah Oliver.
From YouTube, some videos of Akilah Oliver reading:
Akilah Oliver - In Aporia/The Stand Still World (audio set to slideshow) | youtube.com
Akilah Oliver reading at PARACHUTE: The Coney Island Performance Festival | youtube.com
(Thanks to Akilah Oliver’s author page on the Coffee House Press website for many of these links!)