Posts by: Kirstin Allio

“Housefulls, Churchfulls, Airportsfull”

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In an extended essay in the New Yorker, Megan Marshall, author of the forthcoming Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, writes about Bishop’s late, serendipitous move to Harvard where she met Alice Methfessel, a young “house secretary” who would become her caretaker, and the last great love of her life:

“The poor heart doesn’t seem to grow old at all,” [Bishop] wrote to Methfessel in March of 1971, a month after her sixtieth birthday and two weeks past Methfessel’s twenty-eighth.

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The Ordinary Extraordinary

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In an interview with Mark Greif for Los Angeles Review of Books, Greg Gerke frames Against Everything as an essay collection that faces outward, more political and less personal, despite its origins in rarified academia. Greif cites the influence and inspiration of traditions of thought exemplified by Susan Sontag and Stanley Cavell, the latter whose philosophy was rooted in “the ordinary”:

In this extended vision of ordinary language, what was principally required was sensitive listening, and a certain persistence, or obstinacy, in contemplating what you heard—and modesty about the value of your answers, except insofar as they inspired others to talk, too.

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Ponsot’s Patience

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The poet Marie Ponsot is a late-blooming ninety-five. For the New York Times Book Review, William Logan reviews her new Collected Poems (Knopf), and follows her arc from early “secondhand Tolkein,” to a letting go of “hollow immensities.” “We read such poets,” writes Logan, “because we want to know how a poetic intelligence inhabits the world, or invents it.”

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Mood Music

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At Largehearted Boy, essayist, literary experimentalist, and scholar Mary Capello shares an annotated playlist for her new essay collection, Life Breaks In (University of Chicago Press). She describes mood as the “companion and muse” for her writing:

If there is one subject under the sun that defies our ordering systems even as it tempts us to apply lists to it again and again and again, it is mood.

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The Long Game

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I’ve kept writer’s notebooks for probably almost 20 years now. I’m very slow to fill them… the notebook I have now I’ve had for nine years now—it’s really beat up.

Over at Chicago Review of Books, Lisa Katzenberger speaks with Christine Sneed about process and patience, in light her second short story collection, The Virginity of Famous Men, just out with Bloomsbury, and on the Chicago Review of Books Award shortlist.

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Short Story vs. Novel

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Over at The Story Prize blog, Lynne Stegner, whose new collection, For All the Obvious Reasons, came out with Arcade Publishing in June 2016, has an apt description of narrative compression and the exquisite burden of the short story form:

So everything that has come before this final scene must be already distilled within character, emblematized in a handful of causatively related events, or even left just out of reach and merely glimpsed in the imagination, or metaphorically presumed, the way you can almost feel the muscles of large birds as they fly overhead.

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Hands Off

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Writer-actor-comedian Phoebe Robinson’s debut essay collection is You Can’t Touch My Hair: and Other Things I Still Have to Explain. As Janice Roshalle Littlejohn writes for the LARB blog, “Her writing is relatable and woke, confronting racism and how to cope with white guilt, feminism and female issues, and America’s problematic relationship with black hair.” Robinson herself says, “Part of the reason I wanted to write this book is because when it comes to matters of race, it’s usually just white men talking to black men.”

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Band Names for Books

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Spoiler alert: there are no cannibals in Mike Roberts’s new post-9/11 novel Cannibals in Love, but there’s a lot to admire. Over at FSG Originals, Will Chancellor gets granular in conversation with Roberts on the episodic nature of memory, and the ways that terrorism forces a very physical response in its victims, at the same time “trigger[ing] a kind of fearlessness in young people,” says Roberts, “when they feel like it probably won’t happen to me.” Back to the title, Roberts says, “It’s like I started a band called something dumb like ‘Smashing Pumpkins.’”

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The Generosity of Kristin Dombek

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In her new book, The Selfishness of Others, Kristin Dombek turns her deliberate inquisition and dry humor on the suddenly ubiquitous if “sketchy” word narcissism. In conversation with Laura Creste at the Ploughshares blog, Dombek talks about the origins and offshoots of her interest in narcissism, refracted by the memoir form, polyamory, and a kind of basic animal insecurity.

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Maggie Nelson’s Natural

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Reading Maggie Nelson can be like banging your head against the wall of categories—or being miraculously freed from them. At Fiction Advocate, Colter Ruland elicits an explanation of hybridity from Nelson:

I just do what’s natural, I’m not thinking, “this is high,” “this is low,” “let’s combine them.” Often I don’t know that something wasn’t “supposed” to be in conversation with something else until someone else reads it that way and tells me so; to me it’s just one flow.

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Steering Clear of “McMagic”

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At the New Yorker, an elegant and comprehensive essay by Julie Phillips from a visit with Ursula Le Guin at her home in Portland, Oregon touches on the importance of place, both geographic and imaginative. Phillips writes, “[Le Guin] has always defended the fantastic, by which she means not formulaic fantasy or “McMagic” but the imagination as a subversive force.” She quotes Le Guin: “Imagination, working at full strength, can shake us out of our fatal, adoring self-absorption and make us look up and see—with terror or with relief—that the world does not in fact belong to us at all.”

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“Fruitful Bewilderment”

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At The New Republic, Sarah Ruhl elicits thoughts and impromptu poems from poet Max Ritvo on spirituality, performance comedy, and “Fruitful Bewilderment.” On spirituality, Ritvo says, “The first time I heard Schubert’s Agnus Dei at a Mass, it made me feel like my forehead had never belonged anywhere, but suddenly knew that it was right where it belonged, holding my face together.” Ritvo died of cancer at 25 this past August; his book, Four Reincarnations, is just out from Milkweed Editions.

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Feminist Feast

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Sixteen feminist poetry collections, old and new, showcased at Bustle, prove just how rich, diverse, and actionable poetry can be. Author C. CE Miller says, “As feminist icons like Elizabeth Warren and the notorious RBG have recently taught us (thanks, Twitter), there’s nothing like a good one-liner to really rile up the patriarchy.” Highlights include The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks, Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, The Distance of a Shout, by Kishwar Neheed, and Yin, by Carolyn Kizer.

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“Debate/Discuss/Rend Garments”

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Over at Electric Literature, Ryan Chapman interviews Teddy Wayne, whose third novel, Loner, seems to effortlessly blow by the clichés of the campus novel: as Ryan calls it, “the writer’s equivalent of the pop ballad.” Wayne begins by citing “non-campus” novels as influences—The Talented Mr.

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“Dear Abby” for Books

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Stop any comparisons… turn to your own project with laser-beam focus, and bolster your own campaign as if you’ve spent years of blood, sweat, and tears working on this creative achievement—because chances are, you have spent years working on it.

Lit Hub launches a new advice column, “Ask the Publicists,” with publicists Kimberly Burns, Whitney Peeling, and Michael Taeckens all chiming in.

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The Power of Thought

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Over at VICE, Lauren Oyler interviews Mark Greif, author of the recently released Against Everything. Greif trains his keen thinking on current culture, from the almost paradoxical way sanctimony and change seem to go hand in hand of late, to the unnerving fact that loneliness itself may have recently been altered:

…in an era of cellphones, everyone seems to have someone to talk to.

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“The Disjointedness of Life”

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For the New Yorker, Peter Moskowitz talks to poet Tommy Pico about anger, juxtaposition, and inheritance:

He told me that he uses poetry to square two identities that don’t fit together well: being a poor, queer kid from the rez, and being a pleasure-seeking, technology-addicted New Yorker who would rather chase the boys he meets on apps than think about centuries of pain passed from one generation to another.

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Don’t Let Anyone Tell You They Weren’t Real

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The collection both questions and honors a world in which we form emotional bonds to characters who exist for us mostly, or entirely, through various technological projections.

Writing for BOMB, David Burr Gerrard explores humanity, reality, and dystopia in Alexander Weinstein’s debut story collection, Children of the New World.

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Primal Urges

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Alexander Matthews interviews Colm Toíbín for Aerodrome, touching on Toíbín’s transition from journalism and poetry to fiction, coming out, therapy, expatriatism, and the fallacy of self-expression. Toíbín describes the writing process—and writing life—as a “basic urge to communicate levels of feeling—things from the nervous system, and from memory, to other people.

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Lucia Berlin Unplugged

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When there’s emotional truth, there follows a rhythm, and I think a beauty of image, because you’re seeing clearly.

In 1996 Lucia Berlin’s students Kellie Paluck and Adrian Zupp interviewed her for a class on poetics. Published now at Lit Hub, via Picador, Berlin talks about her influences, plain-style poets like William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, and Ed Dorn, and the chronic homesickness and loneliness that forged her instinctual mode of writing.

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Pregnant Words

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In the New York Times, Rachel Cusk takes on two new memoirs about infertility and the quest for motherhood to explore the wholly compelling “half-analogy between the writing student and the woman embarking on in vitro fertilization.” Julia Leigh’s Avalanche relates six years of the author’s trying and ultimately failing to get pregnant; Belle Boggs, in The Art of Waiting, uses Virginia Woolf’s account of childlessness to explore her own.

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Pulling the Strings of Coincidence

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Coincidence often gives fiction its chance to mean something.

Over at Lit Hub, in an excerpt from her new book The Kite and the String, Alice Mattison walks us through brilliantly executed coincidences in E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” and Andre Dubus’s story “The Winter Father.” She argues for action and resonance, an alignment of a character’s inner life with outside eventfulness.

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Structure as Lightning Rod

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Writing for The Millions, M.C. Mah turns over all the cards in the deck on structure in storytelling. He gathers words of wisdom—and many metaphors—from luminaries like John McPhee, Borges, Vonnegut, and George Saunders, and then links the contemporary “horoscopic style” of structuring to an “anxiety about a better way to tell a story…” possibly “synonymous with aiming for the cheap seats of genre.”

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