Sponsor Floating Bridge Press is back to feature a great work from Maya Jewell Zeller, titled Yesterday, the Bees. Zeller's piece was a finalist in the 2015 chapbook competition, a work that looks at parenting, and being a part of a family.
We have two poems from the work on our sponsors page for you to read. Be sure to look, and click through to their website to find out more about Zeller's work, and the other chapbook winners. Thank you, Floating Bridge for your sponsorship!
If you're a small publisher, writer, poet, or foundation that is looking to back our work, and advertise your own in an inexpensive and expressive way, take a look at our open dates. We'd love to talk to you about opportunities to sponsor us. It's our way of making internet advertising something to look forward to.
Now that I am home and eating real meals again, there is time to mull over all the cringey moments of AWP 2016. Like when I bum-rushed Kevin Young in order to gush about how much my middle school students loved his poem “Ode to Gumbo.” I actually said, “you’ve got fans in the 8th grade, Kevin.” And then ran away. Or when I stood right behind Rachel Kushner at a small private reception, stared at her hair and, like a super creep, didn’t say anything. Yes, she was wearing leather pants. I think. It was dark and a nervous fan-girl film came over my eyes. Then I ran away for a minute, but the bouncer wouldn’t let me back in. Or when I rushed up to an author I admire and pressed my weird book upon him and said, “bye!” like a three-year-old. I even waved my hand down low in a weird, rapid erasing move, as if I were cute, and small. A toddler would have been charming. I was a weird lady at a conference doing a lot of running.
After spending a few hours shame spiraling and Hoovering cheese puffs, I remembered my haul of books and settled in with Franny Choi’s Floating Brilliant Gone (Write Bloody, 2014). One of the saddest parts of AWP is all the simultaneous events, some of them spread out all over the city, which was made more difficult by LA’s sprawl and car-centric architecture, and the fact that one cannot attend several panels at once. Clearly, I am easily over-stimulated (see above), but, in debriefing with comrades post-AWP, there were many opportunities to kick myself for missing certain events, like Choi’s reading with Danez Smith as part of the Dark Noise Collective. But I have her book, and many more glinting in my stack – memory palaces of my path through the bookfair, where I pinged back and forth all over the place like multiball. John Hankiewicz’s Asthma (poetry dance comics), Nick Courtright’s Let There Be Light (the Genesis creation myth in reverse), Bianca Stone’s Poetry Comics from the Book of Hours, and many more.
I received three lucky amulets this year: a small crystal, a silver Viking homunculus, and a tiny plastic sea anemone. It happened like this: right at the moment I was so tired, or hungry, or feeling so very alone, one of my favorite writer friends (thank you, Corinne Manning, Katie Ogle, Sierra Nelson) would appear and say, “how are you doing?” and palm me this small charm. It reminded me of when I ran a half-marathon, and halfway up this dreadful hill, a woman cheering us on handed me a baggie of gummy bears. The memory of the sweetness and the tiny bumps of bear limbs on my tongue in tandem with her cowbell of a voice can still propel me to huff up that hill. Likewise, I worry these small tokens in my pocket throughout AWP-ing, and stand them next to my head while I sleep to watch over me, miniature guardians, kitchen witches of conference, hoping they will confer on me some of their givers’ wisdom.
I am still mulling over all that went on, remembering Mark Doty explaining how to embrace frustration, discussing the methods he uses to disrupt — changing point of view, tense, syntax, tone, form, even using C.D. Wright’s writing it backwards exercise, to generate surprise. Inspired by a National Geographic photo of a frozen baby mammoth, he found himself struggling to be faithful to history, chafing against “the whole ‘objective’ thing.” He recognized he needed to be faithful to art, and to himself. Kimiko Hahn described it as that moment when she let her character say, “who are you to speak for me?” And here is what Doty’s perfectly preserved ice baby, brought up from the underworld, said:
I am still one month old,
and forty thousand years without
I carry this image of aloneness on a scale I can barely fathom – 40,000 years — with me as I move through LAX and home again. How it is to be alone in a crowd of 12,000 like-minded strangers – and the unlikelihood that any of our words will travel that far through time like this baby mammoth, its legs frozen and preserved mid-stride. And how many little things – extremely ancient rocks, warrior miniatures, sea creatures posing as plants, OK! Magazine, minutes waiting in cars – might have something to say if I am listening.
Editor's note: Donna Miscolta here writes about an exclusive reading she helped organize. In order to attend, you must be an employee of King County. If you are, on April 7th, the program will be welcoming Troy Osaki and Hamda Yusuf for the next in the series of four. The final two: on June 15, the program will have Anis Gisele and Shin Yu Pai, and on September 13 Kiana Davis and Djenaway Se-Gahon. Email her for details if you're eligible and would like to attend.
There are probably not many sentences in which the words poetry and government appear together, but here’s one from the heading of a Washington Post article published last April: “Poetry is going extinct, government data show.”
The article reported that “In 1992, 17 percent of Americans had read a work of poetry at least once in the past year. Twenty years later that number had fallen by more than half, to 6.7 percent.”
First, we might wonder why government is tracking such a thing, to which one might ask rhetorically, “What doesn’t the government track?”
Second, we might wonder, how exactly are they getting such information? It’s called the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, a product of a partnership between the NEA and the United States Census Bureau. Here’s one of the survey’s findings: “According to the latest numbers, poetry is less popular than jazz. It's less popular than dance, and only about half as popular as knitting. The only major arts category with a narrower audience than poetry is opera – not exactly surprising, given the contemporary state of that art.”
Who knew that it was the role of government to offer this observation of doom: “Over the past 20 years, the downward trend is nearly perfectly linear – and doesn't show signs of abating.” The article is full of dire-looking graphs that resemble the bad news spit from an EKG monitor. If poetry is going extinct, then so must be the poets, right?
Over their dead bodies, they’re likely to reply.
Poets will persist. They will survive because they are necessary. They have stories to tell. And as Sherman Alexie says. “I firmly believe in the power of stories to change the world, and I firmly believe in the power of one story to change one life at a time.”
So here’s another sentence in which the words poetry and government appear together: Local poets present their work to King County government employees in a series on race and racism.
I’ve worked in government at the local level for almost thirty years. My job is to plan, design, and oversee projects that create opportunities for residents to conserve resources for a more sustainable future. But what’s a sustainable future without poetry? I’m working on a project with three colleagues to bring poets in to county government offices to read work that reflects their experience in a racialized world. It’s part of the county’s commitment to equity and social justice that must begin with a recognition that racism exists, that it’s been institutionalized in our systems, and that we all have a responsibility to change it. One story at a time is as good a strategy as any.
On January 12, about fifty King County employees assembled in a large conference room in a downtown office building to listen to the poetry of Quenton Baker and Casandra Lopez. It was a new experience for both poets and audience. Baker, upon stepping to the podium, elicited laughter when he remarked that this was the first time he’d come to a government building to read poetry to government employees.
Baker, tall and lanky with an untamed Afro, appears shy and serious. He’s anything but shy when he delivers his poems or banters with the audience or provides context for a piece he’s about to read. He’s straightforward, earnest, and utterly himself, which means he doesn’t alter his language even when in a government conference room full of government employees. If the f word is the right word for the moment and the sentiment, then that’s what glides comfortably off his tongue, whether in his poems or in his speech. And if his poems are serious, dark, and angry, his laughter and smile are quick. Despite never having read poems in a government building, this, nevertheless, is his milieu – a room full of listeners. In this room, the audience was mostly white (and mostly female).
Baker and Lopez took turns at the podium for two rounds of intensely felt and powerfully delivered poems that allowed the audience to see racism through the personal and very vivid lens of poetry.
Baker says his poetry “begins from a place of love and is primarily interested in pushing back against stereotypes, implicit biases, and the myriad ways that various forms of supremacy act on and envelop us all.” Here’s the opening of “Diglossic in the Second America,” which Baker gave us in the cadence of his hip hop roots:
If you're kind, you say high or low. Honest: you say [default] or black.
But we don't say black. Not now. Only dog whistles: welfare queen
tough on crime. Wow! Look at her run, such a natural athlete.
What I mean is: two tongues: high and low speech; white teeth and suit or thug.
But don't I have both? Little mulatto codebreaker, identity that jump cuts like a running back.
Wait, am I even black? How black? On a scale of rapist to corner boy?
Lopez noted the similarities in themes between her work and Baker’s. But there is also similarity in the origin of their work. Most of Lopez’s work explores issues related to loss, identity, diaspora, race, grief, and healing. She says that “though her work tackles difficult subjects, she writes from a place of compassion which allows for multiple points of entry into her work.” Here’s a segment from Lopez’s piece titled “a few notes about public grief.”
don’t look too tattooed. don’t look too uneducated. don’t look too brown or black. don’t look too human, like a person who has made mistakes or has a drink at the end of a long day. don’t look like a person who laughs too loudly with a mouth of joy or someone’s whose body sobs history because that will make you look too brown or too black or too other. remember, you want the judge, officials, and jury to identify with you. don’t give them reason to see you as a thug, gangster or whore. don’t give them a chance to see you as too black or too brown, or too foreign.
When asked by an audience member how they have the courage to write what they do, both poets responded similarly – that it’s not so much a matter of courage, as a need, even an obsession to put their stories on the page. “For black people, survival is such an everyday concern,” Baker said. For both poets, writing seems to be a survival strategy, a way to process for themselves and others their reality in a racialized society.
Lopez, too, despite her poems of tragedy and gun violence, laughs readily, joking between poems. The genuine warmth of her personality suffuses the room, her quickness to laughter perhaps a mechanism to deflect the pain of her words. She gestures often as she reads, a repetitive motion, a slicing with a palm or a pretend pounding of the fist to give stress to her words, or perhaps relieve stress from speaking them.
“I didn’t expect to feel so much,” an audience member said during the discussion following the readings. Someone else, while stressing the value of the event, acknowledged her occasional discomfort.
Did the poets feel any discomfort? Baker replied that if he didn’t feel discomfort then there would be no reason for him to be there.
“What can government do to authentically address inequity?” asked another in the audience.
The artists picked up on and appreciated the word authentically, a clear signal that the questioner was committed to action. Baker said that government has to understand how deep racism is and how much work it takes to break down the power structures that keep out certain segments of the population. Lopez added, “There are people who are doing a lot of this work on their own, but they need a more supportive structure in which to operate.” That seems like an argument for more sentences that combine the words poetry and government.
Because we’re government and we must measure everything we do, we conducted a survey of the audience. Overwhelmingly, respondents indicated the event had increased their understanding about race and racism. And while one commenter worried over the multiple times the phrase “white supremacy” arose, another cheered, “Let’s keep it going – the work is not done yet!” Not by a long shot is it done.
When we asked the poets what could be improved about the program, we got this suggestion: Get more white men in the room. We have three more chances to do that with events in April, June, and September. We’re tracking attendance. Maybe it’ll be a graph in our final report.
In the 40 years I’ve been writing book reviews for national periodicals, it’s rare that one of my reviews is reviewed. In a recent post, Paul Constant called my review of Sweeney’s The Nest in the Daily Beast “unfair.” “Wrong” I could silently accept, but “unfair” seems unfair. Since I assume readers have not committed his piece to memory, I’ll quote from it in italics and respond:
First of all, I don’t care if marketing materials mention the author advance explicitly: there is almost no good reason for a book critic to ever mention an advance in a review.
Generally I’d agree, but I had a good reason. It was not only Sweeney, an unknown writer, who received a million-dollar advance for a first novel. Three other recent first novelists I mentioned received similar advances, which were used to promote their books as new literary discoveries when, in fact, most if not all of the books were conventional (and therefore commercial) works with a patina of literary sophistication—what I called “commercialit.” As I said, I don’t begrudge Sweeney the money. As I also said (but Constant ignored), my worry is that paying such advances for “commercialit” will make it more difficult for truly literary writers—those who might be read 20 years from now--to get their work published by major publishers.
But more importantly, the Creation of a Term to Identify a Publishing Trend You Just Now Noticed is a bad reviewing trope. LeClair shoehorned four different books into a category — “commercialit” — that doesn’t even make sense. So these books are well-written but “safe,” whatever that means?
Since Constant doesn’t specify how the four books are different or how they are literary, I have my doubts that he has read any of them. They are different in subject but similar in their traditional storytelling burnished with M.F.A. sophistication. I take some pains to say what “safe” means and contrast the four first novels with dangerous literary novels by a range of contemporary writers.
This is not a trend that was created by a new generation of writers.
Middlebrow or commercial fiction has been with us since Hawthorne’s “scribbling ladies.” What seems new to me is that young or youngish writers with M.F.A. degrees are producing work that can be marketed as literary when the work is something less than that. My informants in and from M.F.A. programs tell me that much of their instruction now is in how to succeed, not in how to produce original and quality work.
This is not to say that there isn’t an interesting piece to be written about the publishing industry spending too much money on debut novels. But that piece is not a book review. It’s a reported piece, with interviews and supporting evidence and facts and sales numbers.
What Constant calls my “trend piece” had to be at least partly a review (The Nest was the occasion to examine the larger issues.) because the piece was about literary quality, not something that a “reported piece…with facts and sales numbers” would likely address. My “supporting evidence” is the described limitations of Sweeney’s writing. Readers of the other three novels I mentioned can form their own opinions.
Stop trying to make “commercialit” happen, Mr. LeClair. It’s not going to happen.
I regret to say that “commercialit” has already happened. If Constant is not a fledgling, he should know this. If he’s not happy with my term, he could at least admit literary publishing has been commercialized in the last ten years by the takeover of independent literary publishers by large entertainment conglomerates that can pay enormous advances and reap promotional benefits from those sums. Fledgling writers know this, so it’s understandable—if unfortunate--that they would write for the market that exists.
Finally, Mr. LeClair is always happy to be addressed by and receive advice from an experienced editor, but I have to wonder if Mr. Constant had an editor for his piece (as I did for mine in the Daily Beast). I’m a reviewer, not an editor, but it looks to me as if Constant took an immediate dislike to my remarking on Sweeney’s advance and then offered a series of disconnected questions and assertions that didn’t engage in a coherent way with the argument I was making, and that’s what I thought was unfair. At the top of his piece, Constant makes it known that as a co-founder of a review site he is busy, busy, busy writing. This may explain the slapdash structure and even the slightly snarky address of Mr. LeClair. A worrier, I’m concerned that Constant’s piece may represent some or much of web discourse, blog-like writing that is self-edited or that is so rushed to fill space that it seems unedited. So, since Constant takes it upon himself to advise me in his piece, I’ll advise him to find an editor before he “publishes” in the journal of opinion that he co-founded.
Tom LeClair is the author of three critical books, six novels, and hundreds of essays and reviews in nationally circulated literary journals, magazines, and newspapers.
Thank you for writing in. As you yourself note, there is absolutely nothing new about this friction between commercial fiction and literary fiction. You’re just slapping a new name on an ancient conflict with your “commercialit” label. For centuries, critics played at this silly gatekeeping game, and it’s part of the reason why literary criticism has withered away in the age of the internet. Book critics must give up on this hoary construct — this author is a sellout; this author is a pure artist — if they expect literary criticism to survive as an art form for the next hundred years.
Advocates of commercial fiction like to frame literary fiction as elitist; advocates of literary fiction tend to argue, as you do, about whether commercial fiction is somehow worth “less” than literary fiction. These arguments are both uninteresting; they imply a binary choice where no binary choice exists. I have never once visited a home where the bookshelves for serious, literary novels are separate from the bookshelves for “commercial” fiction. Most of the avid readers I’ve met somehow manage to read and enjoy both. Why not try to find the value in a book, rather than wringing your hands over the attribution of pointless labels?
As the Seattle Review of Books reported back at the beginning of March, John Marshall, owner of the Wallingford poetry-only bookshop Open Books, announced that he was retiring from the bookselling business. In an email to his customers, Marshall indicated that he wanted to sell the bookstore, that sales at Open Books were still strong, and that he believed a new owner could even make something more of the store.
So, one month after the announcement, how does Marshall feel? “Overwhelmed, tired and ecstatic in different degrees at different times,” he says. Marshall and I are sitting in the back room at Open Books just after closing time, talking about the response the store has received. He says within a day and a half of sending the e-mail to the Open Books list, he already had more than 30 offers to purchase the store in his inbox. “Most of [the offers] were well-meaning and thoroughly ill-thought out, and that’s fine,” Marshall says. “People’s hearts are very large organs, but their bank accounts may not be” as large.
“We’re deep in conversation with somebody who I think would be a terrific owner,” Marshall says.
Marshall was completely bowled over by the love that Open Books has received in the past month. “The chagrin and the love and the number of queries about buying the store was absolutely overwhelming — way more than I expected. It’s hard to understand how you’re perceived when you’re on the inside,” he says. It reminded him that “there is a lot of affection for Open Books.” He adds that, sales-wise, “there’s no shot in the arm like saying you’re on the way out.” March sales ended 60 percent above March 2015, which is of course wonderful news, but which adds a whole other difficulty to the process of screening for new owners: Marshall has to keep up with ordering new titles to make up for all the books that are being bought. It’s undoubtedly a good problem to have, but it still takes up time.
So, uh, how’s the sale of the bookstore going? Is there going to still be an Open Books after Marshall retires? “We’re deep in conversation with somebody who I think would be a terrific owner,” Marshall says. He describes the process of the sale as in the “closing stages,” and while he declines to name the prospective owner until all the paperwork is signed, he says the talks entered “lawyer-land” a couple weeks ago, and that she gave her blessing for Marshall to mention the progress in an interview with the Seattle Review of Books.
Marshall describes the prospective new owner of Open Books as “a very regular customer and a very passionate person about poetry, a very thoughtful person about poetry, and a kick to be around. I like her a lot.” He says that he never considered her as a possible buyer of the store, but she was the first person to get in touch with him when he made his announcement. It’s been moving steadily forward ever since. “As well as the talks were going, I was sure I was going to to say something stupid” and ruin the whole thing, Marshall says, but that moment hasn’t happened yet: “last weekend, all sorts of dollar figures were being exchanged.”Now, he says, “I’m much calmer about it, but I still knock on wood. Don’t fuck with the gods — they will turn on you in a moment.”
The idea of Open Books continuing with someone else at the helm excites Marshall. He looks forward to the reinvigoration that a new, younger owner will bring to the store. “I think the internet could be used more as a sales tool and as a medium,” Marshall says. “I grew very tired of throwing readings,” he says, but “I think going back to a reading a week” would probably be advisable. “Reaching out to a broader customer base with the mighty internet” is important, “but getting more bodies in the building” is essential. “I hope the next owner brings community with her, and I’m sure she will.”
Marshall has been thinking a lot about the idea of founder survival, the idea of an institution growing beyond its originator. “If there’s a model — and I really don’t know jack shit about it — I fancy Allan Kornblum, who ran out of Iowa City a very wild press called Toothpaste Press which went on to become Coffee House Press. And then when he retired he moved it along so that the next person was in place for a while and then he stepped aside and he continued to be associated with it.” Does that mean Marshall envisions some kind of a relationship with the bookstore in the future? “To whatever extent it’s valuable, I hope to be connected with Open Books moving forward,” he says.
Open Books is the Seattle Review of Books Bookstore of the Month for April. Every Monday this month, we’ll be talking with Marshall not just about the future of the bookstore, but about its legacy and history, too. More than just about anyone else in Seattle, Marshall has had a front-row seat for Seattle’s poetry scene over the last two decades. It’s an incredible legacy — one that will hopefully continue for years to come.
Correspondant Rachel Kessler agreed to be our eyes-on-the-ground at the AWP festival this year. Join us for her daily updates as the conference unfolds.
The final day of AWP produces a noticeable thrum from inside the hive. Up and down the teal conference center hallways 14,000 attendees power walk and talk and gesticulate wildly, swinging beige tote bags with great vigor. Drinking fountains were in short supply, although the dehydrated could quench their thirst at one of the many cocktail carts that popped up at noon throughout the venue. Thrifty writers were found purchasing half-racks of beer at a nearby grocery, poetically named “Smart & Final,” sidestepping the day-drinking surge of hockey fans swarming the Staples Center for the game.
Chang explained her process as one, initially, of intuition.
“This book was written in a car, waiting, to pick up a child from school, or some practice or other,” during a time when her father’s brain was deteriorating, her mom was sick, she had a bad boss, and a bunch of kids under the age of five. “I wrote these long lines without punctuation—notes, really. It was an aura, an itch, a feeling nagging… these ghosts hanging around my head. I was examining the slippage of hierarchy and shifting roles of everyday life—you’re the mom so you’re the boss of kids, but your dad is a man so when he is around he is boss, and at work your boss is the boss.” Following this thread led her to a “critical mass of 20 pages of junk typed up,” where a pattern emerged, which provided a form, and more and more intention built on that first impulse.
Kevin Young’s talk took on the form of a list poem. He began:
When I hear the word “intuition,” I think of mother wit.
When I hear mother wit, I think of eyes in the back of the head.
When I hear eyes, I think of second sight.
When I hear second sight, I think of my father —
He went on to tell the story of first learning about his father’s special ability at his funeral. “Second sight is a kind of double-vision, and what you need to edit: seeing the poem’s present, and future,” he said. “Think about how you read something before, and after.” How he read something when his father was alive and then after he was dead. “No one wants to write an elegy. They come unbidden. Necessity is at this poem’s heart.” He read the stunning “Prayer for Black-Eyed Peas,” one of his complex, layered odes to food that rose up from grief. At first, it is not obviously about his dad, but the “you” shifts in the poem, and toward the end he appears:
Holy sister, you are my father
planted along the road
one mile from where he
was born, brought full
Small book of hours, quiet
captain, you are our future
born blind, eyes swole shut,
Hahn read an excerpt from her essay “The Concept Collection: All Bark and No Wow,” comparing the literary traditions of renga, lyric sequence, Pound’s “Cantos,” Whitman’s “Songs of Myself to the music recording industry’s genre of the concept album, where a central theme or storyline exists throughout an entire album, as opposed to a collection of songs. She cautioned, “does a concept allow moving around, though? A ‘project’ can shut off poems. If it is not moving, it is just a project.” The consciously constructed arc can be too tidy. “Marketing potential—BLEH!” Later she said, “language can often be a portal. Words have multiple meanings—loafers, broach…” She described her take on necrophilia in her poem “Exhume” as “unearthing the past and, in a sense, fucking with it.”
Mark Doty traced how a poem begins “as a report on an experience, and in that act of reporting, something begins to shift. There is the speaking part of writing a poem, the announcement on the page; and then the listening – what else comes up?” Once this question opens the poem, he examines the language and sees “a hole I could go down. We realize there is something besides us in the landscape.” A poem can occupy levels of meaning, levels of tonal variation. “The lyric poem is a technology of shift,” he said, “bringing onto the page the questions we can’t answer.”
Over at the bookfair, publishers were slashing prices. They don’t want to schlep home all those books. Some attendees’ eyes might have been bigger than their suitcase expanders. I picked up Anis Mojgani’s gorgeous illustrated prose poem memoir The Pocketknife Bible, from Write Bloody Press and met Rachel McKibbens, a poet who is currently touring the country performing cathartic poetry rituals with a typewriter. Trauma survivors can type their own lines, contributing to a multi-state group poem.
Waywiser books strung up a Trump piñata, offering the opportunity to go at it with a neon orange bat for every book purchased. Eric McHenry, poet laureate of Kansas, was there, signing his new collection Odd Evening. His poem, “Turkeys and Strippers,” ends with these lines:
please raise your phantom hand and take the Phantom Oath with me:
When I have the power I am going to use it differently.
Poet Cody Walker was held up in horrific LA traffic due to some sort of explosion (for a film shoot) on the freeway. As he signed my copy of his new book The Self-Styled No-Child, (which includes this jaw-dropper) I heard the clacketty-clacking of typewriter keys. There was a bearded young man typing up haiku on demand! Business was slow. People were too glazed, or too frantic, or too busy snubbing one another to be bothered with commissions. I leave you with a haiku from Walker’s book:
I’m a mountain and
you’re a new weather pattern
that crushes mountains.
Jia Tolentino, in a long detailed article in Jezebel, goes inside the Iowa Writers Workshop to examine a man accused. She looks both from the perspective of how historically many men in power used their position for sexual privilege with students, but also how the method of accusation should support believing women, but maybe with a higher bar than anonymity. Fascinating read.
In public, everyone says that Thomas Sayers Ellis, 52, formerly of Case Western and Sarah Lawrence, a visiting professor at the Iowa Writers Workshop this semester, is brilliant. Even the people who find him off-putting and unprofessional tend to agree. He’s charismatic and surprising, a protest poet, a real intellectual, unafraid to cause alarm. His style is enjambed, urgent, and rhythmically afire; in the late ‘80s, he founded the Dark Room Collective to promote writers of color, and he’s been known as an activist ever since. He attracts women; several women I talked to said he had “groupies.” But in late February, a group of women came together to say that he’s abusive, that he preys.
Sofia Samatar on the language of fantasy that made her want to write it.
There was a library and it is ashes. Let its long length assemble. These words made me a writer. When I was in middle school, my mother brought home a used paperback copy of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. “I thought this looked like something you might like,” she said.
E. Alex Jung interviews the most Queenly of the drag queens.
Congratulations on the 100th episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. With the eighth season, how do you keep things fresh? We're always inspired by the queens. And because it's like a school, we get a new crop of kids every single year — that's how it stays fresh. This year especially, it's the children's Drag Race. These are the kids who grew up watching it, and their whole drag aesthetic comes from the show. So it's an interesting shift. And we knew this would come if we stayed on the air long enough — we'd see what we produced in the public. And they're beautiful! They're smart. We have to actually work harder to stay one step ahead of them.
Max Ross on the father's in his life, and his relationships with them.
When my car’s battery died on a bitterly cold January day, my father refused to come to my apartment in south Minneapolis to give me a jump. He drives a Tesla and claimed (not quite accurately) that using it to power a regular car would cause it to short-circuit. “Plus, it’s nasty outside,” he said, “and, as you know, your father is a wuss.” Luckily my stepfather, Kevin, agreed to help. He is bald, clean-shaven, slender, friendly and handy. An agricultural engineer, he has a master’s degree in weed science and subscribes to journals such as “Wheat Life.” He always knows what time it is. “I’ll be there in 15 minutes,” he said. He arrived at my apartment in 15 minutes.
Correspondant Rachel Kessler agreed to be our eyes-on-the-ground at the AWP festival this year. Join us for her daily updates as the conference unfolds.
Friday morning at AWP many attendees are moving slowly. Bloodshot eyes abound at the bookfair. This is a result of the many opportunities to drink, dance and attend offsite readings at places like The Ace Hotel’s rooftop deck, featuring a pool the size of a postage stamp that no one was “swimming” in, until suddenly it was full of dudes in what looked like their underwear.
Bro soup aside, choosing what reading to attend in the evening is agony.
“I was standing two feet away from Natalie Diaz and I couldn’t hear a word of her reading!” I heard a woman complain at one.
“I just totally snubbed James Franco in the elevator!” boomed a pant-suited young woman staggering into the hushed The Offing reading.
Evening readings proliferated all across the city, from the swanky downtown public library to somebody’s AirBnB in Silverlake, featuring incredible line-ups of ten, or more, writers crammed into a tiny room, the likes of Danez Smith performing with Seattle’s own Willie Fitzgerald. I fell asleep Thursday night full of tacos and literature, words buzzing around my head, fat bees pollinating my dreams.
Friday morning I slipped into the tail end of a panel “You Don’t Know Me At All: The Creation of Self as Protagonist in Memoir,” and watched Cheryl Strayed smile and chat with a throng of swooning writers. I was there for the next panel “Cunty Faggots: Who Can Say Wut?” with Eileen Myles, Danez Smith, and TC Tolbert. Moderator Christopher Soto began with a “trigger warning, for everything.” He shared a conversation he had with Junot Diaz about the n-word and its use in Oscar Wao which led to the question “how can we write about the realities of queer and trans communities if we can’t use vernacular language?” which was not actually a question, because all of these writers engage some sort of vernacular in their work. Smith described it as a problem of translation, and noted that something is always lost in the act of transcribing a thought to the page anyway, but it is worth the risk.
“As a poet, I can talk about the realities of a black queer individual through plants, if I want – I have metaphors,” Smith said with a smile. “I speak in eight different ‘languages,’ and when I speak in code I use it to invite, or to exclude. Am I supposed to center on the center? In my work I center the margins. When I write I’m purposefully not centering the most average motherfucker. As a reader when I hear vernacular it makes me feel home, validated, that my language is worthy.”
Myles discussed the privilege of success. “My writing is not vernacular, I’m Eileen Myles now. Editors explain to publishers who might be offended, ‘this is her thing.’ Winning, I change the game.”
Graywolf Press publisher Fiona McCrae hosted a reading and conversation with Geoff Dyer, Leslie Jamison, and Maggie Nelson. Each read a short nonfiction excerpt that, by chance, included blood and guts. Dyer described Jackson Pollack’s drunk driving car wreck death as “his final drip painting.” He examined the tortured genius binge-drinking artist myth with word play, sly humor, and sampled language, pivoting on a hilarious deadpan rap, “romantic, fantastic, semi-bombastic,” concluding that this drunk ego-maniac was “a bore, and boring.” Jamison read about wounds from The Empathy Exams, and Nelson on fetuses from The Argonauts. Their conversation turned to the process of writing nonfiction.
“Defensiveness doesn’t have much place,” said Nelson. “I’m offering up my way of thinking as I write.” She paraphrased Deleuze, “part of the horror of speaking and writing is this. What else is writing but to be a traitor to one’ own brain, traitor to one’s sex, to one’s class, to one’s authority? And to be a traitor to writing.” Wittgenstein illustrates the process of thinking with an image of climbing up a ladder where the rung below is discarded, Nelson explained, and this is how she views writing.
Dyer described an essay “as a record of the process of discovery. The book ends exactly at the point I am qualified to write. If I didn’t start writing until I researched and knew everything, it would’ve killed the desire to write.”
Jamison talked about how Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage was like a bible for her – it gave permission to not know where the writing was going. Dyer laughingly pointed out that this “liberation” could also be “an excuse for laziness.” These three minds are anything but lazy.
The final reading and conversation I attended was possibly the best thing I’ve seen this year. Douglas Kearny, Robin Coste Lewis, and Gregory Pardlo are all stunning poets, and the combined effect of their performances and subsequent discussion blasted the cobwebs out of the rafters in that florescent-lit convention center.
“I’m a pastoral poet in a post-colonial body,” Lewis quipped. “When I see an ocean I can’t look at it without thinking of the Middle Passage. But then, it’s the OCEAN, and beautiful.” Kearny launched into a mind-blowing performance of “a peppy poem about the Middle Passage,” that was a high-wire mash-up of sharks, Disney’s Little Mermaid, Parliament, the funk band not the government. He sang, voiced different characters, moving back and forth to embody the multitudes so rapidly that it exhausted the ASL interpreter who had to tap out with a replacement interpreter.
“Begin a poetry reading with delight,” Kearny introduced his devastating poem, “The Miscarriage.”
“April Fools!” he said when he finished. I can’t do his work justice in this blog post, but Seattle poet and teaching artist Daemond Arrindell likened Kearny’s work on the page to “e.e. cummings on steroids,” and I strongly recommend seeking it out.
The three poets discussed beauty, and joy, and writing gorgeous poems about ugly history.
“Beauty is not pretty,” Lewis said. “In Spanish, there is a saying, roughly translated, “strong, ugly, and formal,’ and that’s a compliment.”
Pardlo spoke about the sense of responsibility to the ancestors, and to community as Cave Canem writers and part of the African Diaspora, but also to the future. Kearny talked about being a component in a larger body, and going towards the thing that is terrifying.
He said, “When your hand trembles above the keyboard—that’s the poem.”
Every week, the Seattle Review of Books backs a Kickstarter, and writes up why we picked that particular project. Read more about the project here. Suggest a project by writing to kickstarter at this domain, or by using our contact form.
What's the project this week?
Poetry Flash Now!. We've put $20 in as a non-reward backer.
Who is the Creator?
What do they have to say about the project?
Help us build a new online home for our work so that we can better serve & support the literary communities of the West Coast & beyond.
What caught your eye?
Poetry Flash has been around since 1972, a poetry calendar mixed with a literary review. It's a website now, but was used to live in print, and still does live through a reading sereies in Berkely and through organizing festivals. This publication is a labor of love, and just look in the video at all of those poets praising them for keeping it alive.
Now they're looking to update their website and maybe get back to doing some print issues. Surely one of the most advanced tech communities in the world deserves a great website that covers poetry, and knows the history of the region? If you're a tech worker in the Bay Area, of course, here's a great way to build a bridge to the past community.
Why should I back it?
Personally, I'm partial to broadsides, and the $50 level offers a couple options. Of course, there's a tote (there's always a tote with book people), and you can even pre-purchase advertising for upcoming editions.
How's the project doing?
They've just gotten started, but it's a slow start so far. They're asking for $11,800, and don't even have $500. So, if you dig poetry, and you want to support a Bay Area institution, you should consider backing.
Do they have a video?
Correspondant Rachel Kessler agreed to be our eyes-on-the-ground at the AWP festival this year. Join us for her daily updates as the conference unfolds. Comics here are from Gabrielle Bates, used with permission.
Trotting down Figueroa Street this morning I saw a young and healthy-looking woman crouched behind a concrete planter. Her head bent nearly between her legs, AWP lanyard flapping behind her in the wind like a terrified bird trying to escape, I noticed she was shaking. I approached, concerned — was she ill? had she fallen? — and saw her notes trembling in her hands. Her lips moved, either in prayer or rehearsal. This panic attack technique seemed to be working for her, as she appeared able to inhale and exhale her cigarette, so I let her be. I have assumed this same position before panels, and childbirth, and I did not need anyone touching my shoulder in a neighborly way in those moments. What I needed was the Emily Dickinson Quiet Space, open from 8:00 am to 5:30 pm in room 507, which I was not able to find.
I began the day at the book fair, where all of my favorite small presses offered extremely tempting discounts on books. Soon, my tote bag bristled with titles, digging painfully into my shoulder. It was time to sit down. Fortunately, there was an excellent and entertaining panel, “The Poetry of Comics,” featuring Bianca Stone, Alexander Rothman, and the multi-talented Seattleites Gabrielle Bates and Catherine Bresner.
“Come join us!” Bianca Stone began her reading with this invitation. You can watch Bianca Stone’s video of her poetry comic “Because You Love You Come Apart” here, but seeing this work in its original poem comic form is essential. She described her process as collaging great lines from poems that didn’t work, an exercise in editing. “Poetry comics are great for understanding your own work. Once you cut it out and stick it in a box, you can really see if that line fails,” she said. “Because You Love you Come Apart” begins with her rendering of an iconic Batman image. A few panels later the poem reminds us “but this is also your life made with your clumsy hands,” lettered in the speech bubble of a long-haired, suit-jacketed hot air balloon operator. Poetry comics, or “poïc cometry” as Alexander Rothman put it in his insightful manifesto, ask “what else can language and the visual do?” These poets and visual artists are not animating a poem. A grad student attending this talk inventively used eyeliner to outline her schedule while the poets read their poetry comics out loud and showed slides of these poem-comics. Gabrielle Bates showed “We Are All Arachnes.” She spoke about the visual creating its own thread, as this poem demonstrates:
I think about the act of weaving a lot
the body as both motion and yarn
but what is our loom?
Catherine Bresner read her erasure and digital collage poems. She writes in her poem comic “The Empty Season,” (published by BOATT journal) “I hate people who answer questions with answers / I would like to be a scientist of all things […] Please shut up for a minute / & look / the window washer fencing his sky double.” Suddenly there is an image of Susan Sontag lounging large on top of a bullet train. The poem concludes with a hand-drawn panel of a hand holding a card that reads “The End,” in the spirit of Mary Rueffle. Check out Ink Brick and Gigantic Sequins for more poetry comics.
Why does AWP continually underestimate attendees interest in panels that discuss hiphop? All 300 seats were filled, with many more sitting in aisles, standing in the back and crowding around the doors for the panel on “The Literary Genius of Kendrick Lamar.” Jostling outside the room, it was difficult to hear, but I caught snippets of Natalie Graham’s talk drawing parallels between Lamar’s “These Walls” and James Baldwin’s essay “Uses of the Blues” and novel “Giovanni’s Room” to discuss “the anarchic vitality of the human interior.” She summed up so much with this brilliant line: "so, journalists caught all the holy ghosts of Blackness when To Pimp a Butterfly came out."
The microclimates of AWP merit comment. Vast windowless rooms of sparsely attended readings are aggressively air-conditioned, requiring layering sweaters and jackets and scarves, while the smaller packed rooms were as hot as a summer Sunday in church, sweating writers knelt and beat conference planners against the warm air. It is essential to pack clothing for a 30 degree range of temperature. The absence of drinking fountains stood out in sharp contrast with the proliferation of cocktail bars within the conference center. Is this a feature of LA life?
Perhaps there is a gap in AWP’s awareness of pop culture, but the next panel I attended, “From Writing as Craft to Minecraft” was similarly humid and packed. The staid format of panels and readings in the overly florescent-lit conference center was upended by marketing-savvy presentations dripping with education-speak. One presenter, Mark German, a former teacher turned curriculum developer, blasted note-scribbling attendees with three video game trailers. Especially notable was Never Alone, a game made in collaboration with First Nation Alaskans, narrated in Iñupiaq with English subtitles, demonstrating a possible future for oral tradition. We go on a quest with an arctic fox, and on the way learn about the environment, culture and tradition of this place.The main thrust of this panel was pedagogical: engage students in video game creation, andvoila! they are collaborating and story-telling.
Back at the book fair, a booth promoted The Call Me Ishmael Phone, “a literary device that helps people celebrate and discover great books,” which is an old-timey-looking payphone-style receiver where users punch a button that triggers audio recordings of people describing a memory of their first encounter with a favorite book. What I really wanted at this point was an old fashioned phone booth to duck inside of and slide its door shut. Then a manual typewriter caught my eye, and I met a woman, Jacqueline Suskin, who composes poems for people on it. She calls this project Poem Store, and claims to make a decent living doing it. She does not keep copies of the poems she writes. Many years ago I co-founded a similar performance art collaboration with Sierra Nelson and Sara Paul Ocampo tapping out poems on demand, and we kept carbon copies of thousands of poems we’ve typed since 1998. I continue to be fascinated by the typewriter’s inky, percussive power and the work these machines inspire.
Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My aunt and I are avid readers and tend to trade books back and forth. If my mom (her sister) is there when my aunt returns one of my books and hears us talking about it, she always says "sounds interesting, can I borrow it?" But every time, sure enough, if I stop by my mom's house, the books are sitting in her front door staging area... you know, the spot where she puts things that she wants to remember to take with her when she leaves. She will keep my books for up to 3 months then return them and admit she "never got around" to reading them. The last time she did this I said "Mom, let's cut out the middle man here"...and I wouldn't let her borrow them. My aunt thinks I should apologize. What do you think?
Georgina, Federal Way
I met a woman once – let's call her Jaustiny – whose mother sat her down at the tender age of 14 and told her that she was leaving the family to go find herself. Not only was she tired of being a mother, she'd decided that she really liked the name Jaustiny so she was legally changing her name to the name she'd bequeathed on her daughter. Then New Jaustiny peaced out to San Francisco, bought herself new tits and realized her dream of being a childless waitress/artist named Jaustiny with sexy breast-induced back issues. The psychological mindfuck of that aside, her mother's new identity created a lot of weird burdens in Original Jaustiny's life as she grew up – her mother developed a criminal record stemming from a brief career as a meth chef and had most recently stolen OJs identity and ruined her credit by buying matching Harleys for herself and her new boyfriend, all of which OJ had to account for.
OJ told me this story at a bbq. Ten feet away stood my own mother, who was evaluating some cowboy she'd just met for the quality of his sperm (for me. Always for me). As I watched her inspect his gums for disease I thought, "that old broad ain't so bad."
Your complaint is that your mother borrows books that you and your aunt have already read but she doesn't read them, correct? How does this actually impact you if you've already read the books? Your mom wants to feel included in the conversations and closeness you share with your aunt but she sucks at the follow-through. That is a harmless annoyance stemming from love.
Be sweet to your mom. Apologize. Let her borrow all the books she's guaranteed to never read and be thankful she's not a Harley-riding meth chef named Georgina.
Correspondant Rachel Kessler agreed to be our eyes-on-the-ground at the AWP festival this year. Join us for her daily updates as the conference unfolds
The AWP, which stands for Association of Writers and Writing Programs, is the big annual literary conference that takes place in a different city each year. This year it is happening in downtown LA, right next to the Lakers home court. The three-day conference includes readings, panel discussions, pedagogy talks, educator caucuses, and countless offsite events, like poetry pool parties, as well as a sprawling bookfair with hundred of authors signing. It is where writers go to geek out on the cognitive science of story, the poetry of comics, intersectional queer poetics, and formal prosody.
When I attended the conference in Seattle two years ago, I experienced the usual dread of an introvert in airless conference rooms and questioned what the hell I was doing there. (This year, there is a panel for that: “In Case You Think You Don’t Belong Here: Imposter Syndrome and AWP” at 10:30 a.m. on opening day). But I found I enjoyed dipping into the crush of 10,000+ writers arrayed in their spectrum of eyeglasses and disappearing in the crowd. Riding down the three-story span of escalators with thousands of writers and watching thousands of writers riding up next to me, I understood in a profoundly physical way that my writing didn’t matter. I felt like an ant marching forth from the colony in formation with my multitudinous fellows. Smiling, or grimacing in claustrophobia-induced panic, gossiping and arguing about rhyme, gripping our tote bags or obsessively thumbing our thick conference program books, we were all there because we write and read and teach and care about literature.
This year I arrived in Los Angeles and realized I brought all the wrong clothes — it is colder than Seattle right now and quite windy. Angelenos on the street are wrapped in wool hats, scarves and puffy jackets. En route to the bunker-like conference center, I ducked into H&M to panic shop, and I think I saw Claudia Rankine doing the same. She had several fun print dresses picked out and that look in her eyes. (She’s giving the keynote address tonight, opening night.) After picking up my badge and 250 page program, I ran into Liz Bradfield, poet and naturalist from Cape Cod, on the street. I got invited to eat steak with Stanley Plumly in a revolving rooftop bar, which seemed impossibly far away, but not as far as the DJ-ed dance party with hot tubbing some associates invited me to. After all the long blocks of walking and cacophony of 20-story video screens, I am exhausted and return to my shopping mall hotel that appears to be modeled on a nuclear reactor, radiating concrete and confusion like the Death Star.
The Seattle Review of Books is looking for a freelance Public Diversity Editor. Since that's a term we just made up, we should probably explain what it is.
We're two white guys. One of our goals with the site was to try to do a good job with representation, to create a site that reflects the diversity of the literary community. We thought one way to guard against us succumbing to our own unconscious biases would be to hire an outside person to check our work and report back to our readers.
This will be a role that periodically holds our feet to the fire by writing a semi-annual column for our site that explains what we do well, and points out where we can improve.
This includes diversity in:
We'd prefer that this be a person we don't know, whose work shows a dedication to awareness, education, and who can write well on these subjects. Of course, you'll be paid for this work — likely akin to the amount we pay for a review, but possibly more if the work involves charts or other statistical considerations.
Your work will be published on the site, with editing only for clarity, grammar, and stylistic compatibility. You'd see any changes before publication.
If this is something you're interested in, email us: diversity at this domain. Please include writing samples, and a brief overview on why you are right for the role.
The Joyce Maynard reading we selected as tonight's best literary event has been canceled due to an illness in Maynard's family. We hope to see her again in Seattle soon under better circumstances.
In case you were staring out at sunny skies and planning what to do this weekend, let me just make one thing abundantly clear: Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is every bit as terrible as you’ve heard. It is not so-bad-it’s-good. It’s just bad: inept, crass, soulless, mean-spirited, and dumb. Don’t pay money to see it.
But this isn’t another review of that movie (the world doesn’t need any more of those) and it’s not another middle-aged white dude whining about his childhood being stolen from him (the world didn’t need one of those). Instead, I want to talk particularly about one commonly held belief: the concept that Superman is hard to write. If you Google the phrase “Superman is hard to write,” you’ll get over 2.6 million results, featuring articles with titles like “The Difficulty of Writing Superman” and “3 Reasons It’s So Hard to Make Superman Interesting.” This idea is absolute bunk, and I’ll explain why.
Here it is: A good Superman story is an inward-facing story. The conflict in a Superman story is almost never external. In fact, they’re almost always internal. Everyone imagines that Superman is hard to write because he’s invulnerable, and super-strong, and has super-senses, and so on and on and on. That doesn’t matter. When you’re writing a Superman story, you’re not trying to find his toughest opponent, or his most difficult physical challenge. None of that stuff—super-speed, laser beams—matters at all. Instead, you’re trying to challenge the idea of morality.
The greatest era of Superman comics were the books edited by Mort Weisinger in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s where most of the core Superman concepts came into being, and it’s where the greatest Superman comics of the modern age (the ones written by Alan Moore and Grant Morrison) found their inspiration. And if you read any Superman story from that time, you’ll find that very little of the plot has to do with Superman fighting anything.
Instead, Superman has to confront moral problems. Often, the cover of the comics would have Superman behaving in some amoral way — robbing a bank, say, or treating Jimmy Olsen terribly — and the drama would be in finding out how the most moral person in the universe could possibly have gone bad. (The answer is usually a trick, or Red Kryptonite.) The story would introduce some sort of possible gray area, and then Superman would find some way to render it black and white again.
Think about the strange ideas those comics delivered on a regular basis: Superman. Supergirl. Beppo the Super-Monkey. Bizarro Superman. Superman Red and Superman Blue. Superboy. Comet the Super-Horse. Streaky the Super-Cat. The Legion of Superheroes. You could easily argue that there were no characters in Superman comics aside from Superman himself; everyone else was a reflection of his psyche and an exploration of his themes. It’s as interior as a Beckett novel.
The over-literal interpretations of Superman that followed the Weisinger years are to blame for making Superman boring. The New 52 reboot of Superman has never been interesting. John Byrne’s sad attempts to create sci-fi justifications for Superman’s powers were about as fun as counting each individual piece of gravel in a driveway.
At least the much-reviled Death of Superman storyline, which many blamed for launching the comics bubble that almost destroyed the superhero industry in the 1990s, delivered four different Superman characters to comics, including a new Superboy and John Henry Irons, who was later known as Steel. The creators of those comics understood that Superman was only compelling when his basic goodness was reflected and distorted onto other personas.
So listen: Nobody cares about how much Superman can lift, or how hard he can punch, or whether he can beat Batman in a fistfight. The trick is this: think about the most decent person you can. Put pressure on that person. Imagine what would happen if that person happened to be, say, from the poorest one percent of the USA, or from a part of the world ruled by a tyrant, or raised by an Objectivist. What happens then? Is he still good? What if he’s in a situation where he has to confront a mistake he’s made? How does he behave then? What happens next?
Novelist Jonathan Franzen will be appearing on Celebrity Jeopardy with a number of other luminaries including Louis CK, Anderson Cooper, Al Franken, Melissa Harris-Perry, Lara Logan, and Chuck Todd. If Louis CK cleans Jonathan Franzen's clock on Jeopardy!, I will die a happy man.
Shelf Awareness reports that local book distributor Partners/West is closing. The Renton office will stop delivering books on April 1st. This is a huge bummer; it means that local bookstores in need of rush titles will have to rely on Ingram, the largest book distributor in the country. Though most bookstores try to order direct from publishers whenever possible because the discounts are better, distributors are the best way for bookstores to get books in a hurry. Booksellers turn to distributors when a book breaks big on NPR, for instance, or when a customer needs a special order. As an indie bookstore customer this news probably won't affect you directly, but it does mean that local bookstores have one less option for getting books, which could create larger problems down the line. As comic book stores have learned, having one major distributor for your product can be problematic.
Looking for a good new translated book to read? The Best Translated Book Award 2016 longlist for fiction has been announced. At 25 books long, it's a bit excessive, but there's something to be said for having a nice long shopping list at the ready for the next time you go book shopping.
Eight thousand library jobs in the United Kingdom have disappeared over the last six years, reports the BBC. This is terrible news for British library-goers, but speaking selfishly, it's a relief to read that this isn't America for once.
The Comics Journal published a long interview with Underworld artist Kaz, by Seattle cartoonist Peter Bagge. My favorite bit?
Yes, back in the day we were just called weird. Nerds were into science and such. I never thought of myself as a nerd. Geek makes more sense. My friend Jim Ryan called us Lowlife Scum.