Ever droll, Sadie Stein writes in the Paris Review about the reaction we’re (all) prone to have when people recommend literature based on our professed likes and dislikes:
When someone says I will like something, I tend to assume the something in question will be precious, tedious, and often aggressively eccentric. Sometimes I do like these things, which is the worst outcome of all.
The New York Comics & Picture-Story Symposium is a weekly forum for discussing the tradition and future of text/image work. Open to the public, it meets Tuesday nights from 7-9 p.m. EST in New York City. (more…)
It may seem a little outdated to invoke Vera Nabokov’s name, but most writers seem to agree on the need for a “Vera”—a partner or friend, willing to edit and support. In the Atlantic this week, Koa Beck explores the legend of the do-it-all spouse.
We know Bishop primarily as the eager traveler who wrote of distant, tropical locations and lived for many years as an expat in Brazil. She was that, of course, but she was also an aficionado of her native landscape and climate. Our canon’s consummate poet of geography, maps, and the mystery of spatial awareness loved the oddly shaped North Haven, which lies about halfway between Boston, where Bishop then lived, and Nova Scotia, one of her childhood homes.
Stephanie Bernhard takes a trip to investigate Elizabeth Bishop’s “North Haven”—the poem, and the place.
exercises in breathing
knowing the rules is not enough. when it snows,
it doesn’t always mean it. when it snows, sometimes
it snows for the museums and sometimes it snows
for the papers and sometimes it snows for only
her majesty, the sea.
following the rules is not enough. when he breathes—
remember this one please—when he breathes he breathes
for himself. when he breathes he doesn’t breathe for her or
for you or for his son or for his future sons, when he breathes,
he breathes for how it feels to be standing
in the public gardens knee-deep in snow, smoking
a cigarette and watching the statues still and cold
and unbreathing and having it mean something.
breaking the rules is not enough. the sea is his mother.
the sea gives back in fish. the sea tells you: this
is what your voice sounds like. the sea reminds you to breathe.
the sea, the sea. she knows the rules are never enough.
Does the “Great American Novel” actually exist—or is it just the name of a book by Philip Roth? Over at the New Yorker, you can read Adam Gopnik’s review of The Dream of the Great American Novel by Laurence Buell, and you can also listen to Elizabeth Gilbert, Adam Gopnik and Sasha Weiss discuss what the term has evolved to mean.
If someone were to recommend a novel in which the reader knows, from Page 1—in fact, from the back cover—that the protagonist loses five people she loves in a matter of moments, I would be skeptical. It would be too far-fetched for fiction. But Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala’s devastating memoir about the 2004 tsunami, is not fiction. While on vacation in Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park, Deraniyagala lost her two young sons, her husband, and both her parents in a single morning.
We are all drawn to stories of tragedy and trauma, almost always for a sense of comfort—to know that someone else has gone through what we have gone through and survived. Or to know that someone else has gone through something far worse so that we can feel better relatively. Or to experience the pleasures of sadness and pain from a distance. We look for this pleasure in our novels, our movies, our television shows, and even in our comedy. But when we read about a tragedy like Deraniyagala’s, it rewires the way we look at the world. She herself asks, “How is this me? I was safe always. Now I don’t have them, I only have terror, I am alone.” It is far from comforting. It makes us scared.
Because, let us be honest, the person writing is a Person Like Us. She is international—a Sri Lankan woman living in London, married to a British man. We can picture her two sons with their handsome caramel skin and light eyes. We know the sort of resort where the family was vacationing when the tsunami hit. This is not the story of a nameless villager in Sri Lanka who lost everyone in the tsunami. What makes this story particularly terrifying is that it makes us feel vulnerable. It could be you. And so the backstory that Deraniyagala gives us about her family, while poignant, is not what we are reading for. We are already coloring the text with our own stories, and that may be why Deraniyagala gives us a stock photograph of an interracial family. The boys climb into bed with their parents in a home in London. Deraniyagala wraps them in blue towels when they step out of the bath. The family travels to Sri Lanka on holidays. They are flawed but even their flaws are picture-frame-worthy.
Much more moving are the flaws Deraniyagala herself exhibits during the aftermath, the mourning. She writes about her own behavior with disarming honesty. Of course she is a victim, but when a Dutch family moves into her parents’ home in Colombo, she calls them at all hours of the night and harasses them. She visits their home under cover of darkness and, often drunk, screams at them through the gates. The loneliness of her experience is vivid. Her relatives and friends check in on her and help her stay alive—they sit with her, they hide the kitchen knives, they ration out her sleeping pills—but the family in her parents’ home has their own life to live. On those dark nights, Deraniyagala is alone and desperate to share her sorrow. She responds to the world the way the tsunami treated her family—with a savage anger—and you share her sadness. You don’t want to live in a world in which any one person can have to face something like this.
This memoir engages the reader more deeply than any piece of fiction. For tragedy fetishists, Wave has every possible permutation and combination of pain. On the one hand, it is so shocking to imagine one person going through this that it is hard to believe you are reading nonfiction. But perhaps because of that, you are constantly aware that you’re reading nonfiction.
Although the content of Wave is heartbreaking and soul-crushing, there is a glimmer of hope, if one is determined to see the bright side of things. It’s amazing that a human being can suffer through a tragedy of this scale and survive and write a beautiful book. Deraniyagala talks about her multiple attempts to end her life after the tsunami, and as readers we should be grateful that she did not succeed. She is testament to what human beings can endure. She does not speak of finding new love or making peace with what happened or discovering happiness again in the smell of cut grass or her friend’s children. But the very fact that the book exists means she survived and can walk and speak and write—beautifully—even though she is permanently tinged by grief. The book itself is the only object of comfort.
Deraniyagala is an economist by profession but Wave is a book by a writer. The language is powerful in its simplicity and clarity. The book opens as the tsunami is approaching and Deraniyagala and her family attempt to outrun it. The two opening chapters move with the speed and urgency of the water that rushes towards them. We know the result, but those pages are, for lack of a better word, thrilling. We want to hope. We always want to hope. But as reality sets in, the book slows down and meanders through memories and fantasies. Deraniyagala has to keep reminding herself that her family is dead. The second chapter, ends with, “I was terrified that tomorrow the truth would start.”
The next page, just as you feel unprepared for the truth you also already know, we flash back to Deraniyagala’s son, Vikram, eating a bag of crisps. Relief. But the relief is short-lived and the book is relentless. It has no other option. This is much more than a sad book. This is a book that shifts something fundamental inside you. It trivializes the word “sad.”
I will never get tired of 50 Watt’s ongoing 70s and 80s cosmic Japanese art series.
Let’s all go to the 1982 World’s Fair!
Cuttlefish are kinda the best dudes.
I tend to think it is an ill-defined term, not a useful way to think of most fiction, and it spawns some of the worst criticism. “It didn’t feel realistic!” is the go-to complaint for everyone from Amazon reviewers to undergrad workshoppers who didn’t bother to understand what a text was trying to do.
After centuries of shuffling papers, biographers must now deal with the sudden digitization of the self, and the behavioral changes that have followed.
Over at The Millions, Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin considers how email technology has affected biography—and what’s gotten lost in the shift from paper to computer.
Writing over at Brooklyn Quarterly, Will Evans discusses why he founded a publishing house dedicated to translation:
In addition to being a philosophical problem, literary translation is also a contentious business matter. There are thousands of good to all-time-great books published in the world every year in every language imaginable, but only a couple hundred of those ever get published in English, and that’s in a good year.
Book translations provide a fast way for small presses to build a back catalogue. But does the world need more presses dedicated to translation, or better recognition of existing translated texts? MobyLives (the blog of Melville House, a small publisher with a large catalogue of translated works) considers the question.
Nearly any creative writing course, teacher, or mentor will give you the same advice—writing is a solitary act and is different for every writer. However, some of us writers are a bit more different than others. Brain Pickings shows us the wacky habits of many esteemed writers. We especially enjoy this anecdote about Friedrich Schiller:
[Goethe] had dropped by Schiller’s home and, after finding that his friend was out, decided to wait for him to return. Rather than wasting a few spare moments, the productive poet sat down at Schiller’s desk to jot down a few notes. Then a peculiar stench prompted Goethe to pause. Somehow, an oppressive odor had infiltrated the room. (more…)
Polish language speakers are getting a new translation of The Great Gatsby, but a modern translation raises all sorts of linguistic issues. The primary difference, of course, is that the original translator wrote under the iron curtain and without the aid of Google:
It was, therefore, more difficult for her to track down various details, such as those concerning well-known financiers or popular culture starlets of the 1920s.
Monday 4/14: Write Club Los Angeles celebrates its 2nd birthday with Chapter 24: Spring loaded! Featuring three rounds of competition with readings by Mike O’Connell, Jeremy Radin, Justin Welborn, Paula Killen, Rachel Kann, and Jefferey Dorchen. Hosted by Paula Killen, Jefferey Dorchen, and Justin Welborn. 7 p.m. at The Bootleg Theater. $5-$20, pay what you can.
Soman Chainani presents and signs The School for Good and Evil #2: A World Without Princes. 7:00 p.m. at Book Soup.
An evening with Alice Carbone and David Kukoff. 7:30 p.m. at Stories Books and Cafe.
The Vindication of Judas
Forgive me at last, Brother,
for the death sentence: a kiss
that revealed me, an act of obedience
which began your martyrdom.
Who else but you—who loves
me still—could I ask to bear blame
for my murder for all time?
I knew too of the wind of stones
conjured by our brothers
that would split you like a fig,
your blood not grieved but
misnamed justice for my flesh’s end.
They could not conceive that it was
the Great One’s will—not yours—
to stage a betrayal with your lips;
that you must be sacrificed so I could be.
Have you been wondering what the point of the AWP conference might be to the 11,800 who attended this year? The Atlantic gives the ins, outs, and mishaps of the conference, along with tenuous or even doubtful optimism for the future of publishing:
I asked the editors of two-dozen journals to briefly describe their publications and what they look for vis-à-vis content (genre, aesthetics, etc.) and the response was universally this sentence: “We publish poetry, fiction, art, and creative nonfiction. We’re looking for anything good” (with the occasional rearrangement of said words). While I do not doubt them, I wondered how such journals (and there were legions present, though I couldn’t get an exact figure, as some were under the guise of host MFA programs) could distinguish themselves in a wildly overcrowded field.
Blue Cubicle Press, the small independent publisher that put out Emil DeAndreis’s debut collection Beyond Folly, specializes in workplace fiction. As their website explains, “We’re here to support the artists trapped in the daily grind.” The dichotomy of work versus art is omnipresent in DeAndreis’s stories, which follow Horton Hagardy, a mid-20s failing poet thrust into the world of substitute teaching to support his fading passion. Always underprepared and usually overmatched, Hagardy serves as a window into the world of San Francisco’s morphing and much-maligned K-12 public schools. Texting students, faulty lesson plans, and inept administrators all contribute to the madness of the education system in these stories. And Hagardy is just as guilty. He is at some moments a dunce and at others just like many one of us—overeducated, underappreciated, and struggling to reach a place beyond his current lot.
Authors regularly valorize or demonize the teacher—the teacher is used as a foil to better understand some other protagonist. But Beyond Folly, which progresses chronologically through a school year, from the annual Substitute Orientation to eight vastly different classrooms, is about the interior life of the teacher, not the student. Every school and every assignment, from librarian to AP English teacher to Computer Lab specialist, works predominantly as a way for the reader to better understand what makes Hagardy tick. A conversation with an Advanced Placement English Class highlights his consuming nostalgia: “It used to be that ideas were not pulled from thin air and sculpted flimsily into ‘art’.” His stint in the computer lab demonstrates the separation he feels from the other subs: “They are overeager to reveal their harsh daily bouts with things like rheumatoid arthritis, claustrophobia, or explosive bunions, which prevent them from getting jobs in the real world.” Hagardy is a young man who happens to be a substitute teacher, not a teacher who happens to be a man. In each story, we understand a little more about how hard it is to make it as a poet and how easy it is for a job to turn into a career. No one ever plans on becoming a middle-aged substitute, and yet there are countless people who find themselves in that lot.
In the rare instances when the teacher has been given the leading role in a novel—in Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace to name two—the majority of the narrative arc occurs outside the classroom. Pirsig’s Phaedrus rediscovers himself on the road and Coetzee’s David Lurie is finally undone on his daughter’s farm. For Hagardy, his demise takes the form of a myriad of small failures within the classroom—a spilled burrito, an argument with a class clown, and finally an unfortunate YouTube clip.
Beyond Folly, understood as a collection, is about a young man trying to negotiate growing up and failing to become the person he believed he’d be. When we meet Hagardy, he is at his fourth Annual Substitute Orientation; he is twenty-seven, disinterested in the job and struggling with his writing. This could have been a tragic story, but DeAndreis’s comedic tone keeps the prose from sinking into morose melodrama. The Hagardy of the early stories remains resolute and prideful in the face of chaos and chicanery. When an absent teacher leaves him the lesson plan— “facilitate a dense literary discussion”—Hagardy greets the AP English Class with tongue in cheek: ‘“I have been instructed to facilitate a literary discussion with you, densely.”’ But as the collection progresses, he begins to slip deeper into that familiar darkness of the artist as a slightly less young man. Stripped of his artistic façade, he’s forced to examine the reality that he’s becoming what he used to deride: a career sub. In an especially striking moment in the penultimate story, “Day Off,” the narrator explains that Hagardy does not write much poetry anymore: “When he sat down with a pen and pad, he had a difficult time starting—he couldn’t seem to get past the fact that no matter what he wrote and rewrote, no matter how polished and poignant he thought his work was, there was a good chance it would go unpublished.” Hagardy’s tale is a familiar one, but the specificity of his professional life makes the stories of Beyond Folly resonate.
Beyond Folly ends with “Banana Pancakes,” a story of farce and tragedy that hits the nail a little too squarely on the head in its commentary on the absurdity of our digital age. But it’s the quiet moments in the book that elevate it as a collection of fiction. The substitute is an inherently comic character, but DeAndreis crafts a three-dimensional protagonist and treats him with a level of respect that welcomes both judgment and empathy. Hagardy is not without his pocks, but beneath his faults, he remains very recognizably human. We watch as time slips by for Hagardy, and he’s taunted by a childhood that is concurrently dangled before him and too distant to ever recapture. We cringe as he continually harps on a better past—some other time when kids were kids and the world was fair. But we don’t trust that either he or the unnamed narrator really believes that that time ever existed. It’s just easier than admitting that it’s always been just like this.
One challenge any artist faces when taking on existing material is to balance what the public knows about a subject or character against the new story the artist wishes to tell. Stray too far from the original and you lose the power that your subject already possesses; stick too slavishly to the original and you won’t give the public any reason to experience your art.
Antigone’s story has been ripe for adaptation almost since it first appeared. The most popular version of her story came from Sophocles, but Euripedes also penned one (in which Antigone both survives and marries, thanks to some interference from Dionysius). It’s been turned into operas and plays multiple times–Seamus Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes is an extraordinary version of the story, as is Anne Carson’s remarkable Antigonick–and here, a collection of poems titled The Antigone Poems by Marie Slaight.
So what does Slaight bring to Antigone’s story? It’s worth noting that her collection is actually a collaboration with the visual artist Terrence Tasker (who died in 1992), and the images are striking–dark and muddy, like the original story. They’re not simply illustration—they let the reader know from the cover that we won’t be straying too far from the brutality that fills the Antigone story.
The poems are earthy as well, like Lacryma Christi, the wine made from grapes grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. You can taste the ash, the death brought on from previous eruptions
Like scattered dynamite
Gypsy shackle sacred
Wrists bound in blood
Most of the poems in this collection are short, enigmatic pieces which seek to convey emotion rather than narrative structure. Indeed, if not for the title, it would be difficult to locate these poems inside the Antigone story. And yet Slaight does give us a sense of anguish that her Antigone experienced while facing Creon’s decree to leave her brother unburied and unhonored.
It’s in Book IV where the traditional Antigone seems to come through most, the Antigone who is facing exile at least, death at worst, for disobeying the orders of her king.
And are we corpses clutching?
(The gnawed bone,
the splintered throat.)
Find my earth.
Reclaim my desire.
Book V does a good job of placing us in the walled up tomb with Antigone just before she hangs herself. Her Antigone is first philosophical:
And is the enslavement an ode to a greater liberation
Or is it a dead rat in my hand?
and then resigned:
I can’t face the dirt
Without this dream of barbaric
Lust and grandeur…
And thus does Antigone die. Or does she? Slaight is silent on this point—the tale ends the only way it can, in darkness, leaving the reader to work it out for themselves just what has happened in this tragedy.
It’s been said there are only a handful of stories, and they’ve already been written. The story of Antigone is timeless not for when it was written but because it is still relevant. Which is part of why this collection works so well. This is still the human condition even presented anew or used as a vessel for Slaight’s beautiful verse. With The Antigone Poems, Marie Slaight adds a new and original spin to the bounty of lore surrounding this most intriguing character.
Each year I know less about myself
but the insurance company knows
how much my life is worth.
This is for those who suffer & endure
& laugh about it later.
Someone asked, “where do you get
your news from if you don’t have a teevee?”
It is 7:36 a.m. & I have been awake
all night. I am pushing forward,
caffeinated & reminding myself:
don’t be busy. Busyness is the enemy
of art and life. Spring is here, it is
Saturday. The clouds make shapes & go.
When NPR’s Code Switch went searching for “young poets who were livening up the literary landscape” in honor of National Poetry Month, they found themselves in the world of Rumpus contributor Kima Jones. Code Switch and Ms. Jones set out to crowdsource a poem, which they most certainly did. Kima followed up the collaboration with an essay titled “Writers of Color Flock To Social Media For A New Way To Use Language” wherein she talks about the accessibility of the form and identity:
“The poem can’t find its audience until the poet has turned on the little hallway light of empathy and mercy and meaning. Those are the building blocks of understanding and reconciliation. That is the foundation. (more…)
Saturday 4/12: Michael Parker and Ethan Hauser celebrate their new books with a reading, musical DJ Jim McHugh, and literary mingle. Wythe Hotel, 6 p.m., free.
Sunday 4/13: David Gerrard, Douglas Watson, and Jason Porter join the Sunday Night Fiction series. Gerrard’s Short Century (January 2014) centers around a mysterious blogger revealing a journalist’s incestuous affair. Why Are you So Sad (January 2014) is Porter’s debut novel following Raymond Champs, an illustrator of manuals for assembly-yourself-furniture. KGB, 7 p.m., free.
My First Male-to-Male Kiss
______was on Mexican TV. In the 80s. Believe me.
Like my cousin Mari, I too wished I could be
Érika Buenfil, her blonde locks so close to
René of the dark pompadour that looked like a cliff
where so many broken hearts took their final leap.
Equis-eh-tú he always yelled at the start of his show
and when he pointed at the camera his finger
perforated the screen because he was choosing me–
me + René Casados–such last name foreshadowing–
me + René = Married, holding hands down the street
where my cousin Mari could see us and for once,
dear God, let it be her envious of me and not me
watching her stroll with the baker’s son, who
fed her sugary morsels under doorways at dusk
and left me wondering what such nibbling tasted like
and could I find the crumbs collecting at their feet.
How I slipped into the black dress of her shadow,
how I mouthed my cousin’s mouth and swallowed
the ghost of her sweetheart’s hand whole.
______I knew about pretend. I could lip-synch
to Rocío Dúrcal, Dulce and Ana Martín–Yo te quiero,
Yo te quiero, por un beso tuyo puedo enloquecer.
I had been crooning along every week that summer
when René Casados emceed that competition
in which a voice and a memory for lyrics was all
any Mexican kid needed to compete. How else that girl
with her little arms, how else that chubby boy, face
indigenous as mine, how else that tall girl whose left
eye was fixed to the mic, right eye to the grand prize–
a bike that could launch its rider into neighborhoods
more manifold than the ones we lived in. I became
each contestant. Including that dainty boy with a
nightingale throat, his pixie cut exotic, his androgyny
hypnotic. It seduced the jury, audience, the bodies
in our living rooms, and even René, who rewarded
the winner with a kiss. How shocked was Mexico
as the TV stud pressed his lips to the pretty cheek.
What a relief that such affection wasn’t make-believe.
As the late poet Joel Oppenheimer’s favored adage goes “be there when it happens, write it down.” It’s an old tradition, bouncing along down the centuries, crisscrossing continents and cultures from here to there, Basho, for instance. Merrill Gilfillan is but another accomplished voice adding to this poetic lineage of clear concision derived from active observation. Reading his poems, especially those in his new collection Red Mavis, is nothing but pure pleasure.
Even the longer, much more complex among them, such as “Walking with Cheese” written “in memory of Michael Gizzi” may be found to be rather airily lumbering along, apparent complexities dissipating as it goes, leaving a distinct sense of being awash in its own orders of specifics. Even if the names of cheeses and musical composers are not readily familiar, Gilfillan’s tuning of the language make for a fun jaunt to be accompanying him on.
After that it was music, or the thought
of music more than words, the token cheese
the human honey more than words
that led us on a Friday with frets
on its neck through the Luxembourgs
past all the queens of France with a wedge
of Saint-Nectaire in the jacket (carried
like a tune) to Avenue Gay-Lussac and down
rue Saint-Jacques to number 269,
the Schola Cantorum, where a few late
butter-colored hollyhocks bloomed
in the courtyard with its footsteps
and tracery of Roussel, D’Indy, Messiaen, Satie.
But the cheese is for Joe Canteloube,
the Chants from his native Auvergne,
those soprano high notes soaring and sailing
like a flamingo up on the Rhone. A piano chords
from the back, a violin unlimbers
in a curtained room.
You want to be returning to these poems. Gilfillan carves out a space for reflection byway of sounding the language from out the intimacy of a perspective wholly his own. Repeated readings only yield further depth, never disappointment.
Mixed in among many near or “salted” haiku and rather shorter poems are several prose passages. These act as bits of mini-memoir. In “1963” Gilfillan recalls his undergrad days browsing bookstore shelves, the attraction he felt for “the nouns Lorca and Rilke” as they “circled teasingly in my mind in a tight orbit induced by the light similarity of their names” how “their opening syllables sometimes threaten to switch, recouple . . . still move as a double-yoked sun, or distant pun—Lorca dancing under Rilke’s moon, or the other way around.”
Not too surprisingly Gilfillan’s prose proves relentlessly lyrical in nature. His descriptions of singular occasions demonstrating, without beating his readers over the head any, his employment of what might be termed ‘the poet’s perspective’ in order to catch the moment-of-the-poem as it happens, “to be there” as in Oppenheimer’s adage.
In “Suddenly in the Sky” Gilfillan recounts a stay in Pine Ridge country where he went “out each late afternoon to the lovely hills along upper Bordeaux Creek and sat for an hour in the late August change-of-things, taking in the first of the cool autumn tones and bidding a gradual farewell to a favorite place.” One afternoon near the end of his stay a young goat chose to accompany him. “He had seen me and proceeded straight up the hill. Bleating as he came, to stand beside me, obviously seeking simple nonspecific companionship—I guessed he was a castaway.” And soon thereafter, a massive number of nighthawks appeared, leaving Gilfillan and his observing partner to only watch.
a tribe or family moving out against the pastel sky for the evening’s work, gregarious and graceful. They began to hunt, looping and tracking in a loose unassuming group. Every few minutes they passed above, giving a soft, unfamiliar mutter of a call among them—wik-wik, wik-wik, wik-wik—and we looked up as one to watch them go over.
For Gilfillan it is all a song, and therefore to song it all, i.e. literally everything, returns. There’s nothing glib about this poetry business. The tune of activity hangs about in the air wherever you go. Gilfillan locates it all over, particularly when in the outdoors. In “Bullwhippoorwill: Cirrus over Quicksand” he sees fantastical jousting among “Aprils in the schoolyards / boys paired off” which he goes on to describe as
Bantam centaurs circling
and charging, trying to unseat
the counterpart jockey and win the hour.
A little girl cheers.
Such common, everyday scenes are the bulk of concerns Gilfillan troubles addressing in his poems. Shades of light; shadow of cloud; twitter of this or that fellow creature whether bird, human, or other. It is all a company with which he delights in sharing. The celebration abounds and is quite mutual. Masterly care of not only poetic craft yet tender attention to the event happening in the instant has never been more deceivingly displayed with such apparent ease.