Kyle Minor is the author of two collections of stories: In the Devil’s Territory (2008) and Praying Drunk (forthcoming, 2014). He is the winner of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction and the Tara M. Kroger Prize for Short Fiction, one of Random House’s Best New Voices of 2006, and a three-time honoree in the Atlantic Monthly contest. His work has appeared in The Southern Review, The Iowa Review, Best American Mystery Stories 2008, Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers, Forty Stories: New Voices from Harper Perennial, and Best American Nonrequired Reading 2013. He has also done reporting for Esquire, and writes a biweekly audiobooks column for Salon.
In what way do you think literature has the ability to change the way people live their lives?
I’m increasingly wary of making any big claims like that for literature. I think that for people like me, literature is a comfort, a way of feeling less alone. It is also a way to live lives not one’s own, to expand experience quickly, to destroy solipsism to whatever extent that might be possible. But literature isn’t any more pure than the world it does or doesn’t intend to represent, and it can be used to destructive ends, and people who are awash in it can commit atrocities the same as people who aren’t. A Shakespeare scholar was one of the authors of genocide in the Balkans, and almost every nationalistic awfulness has tried to hitch its wagon to the national culture, literature included. That said, I think I’d rather spend time with people who read broadly and deeply. They tend to be smarter, more interesting, more likely to have a little societal compassion (but not always). Ultimately: life is not long, most of the things we chase come to naught, the things that don’t aren’t lasting anyway, and the people who make literature at least have the comfort of knowing that they made somebody they’ll never meet feel something in a future moment that can only be imagined, hopefully with great pleasure.
What was the last book you gave as a present?
I’ve been giving copies of The Era of Not Quite, by Douglas Watson, who is the closest thing to Beckett we’ve got now. In 2014 I’ll be giving copies of Demon Camp, by Jennifer Percy.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Lee K. Abbott told me it ought to cost you more than the time it took to get the words on the page.
Which author do you re-read most frequently?
There are a few: Philip Roth, Katherine Anne Porter, John Cheever, Alice Munro, Edward P. Jones, Barry Hannah, Denis Johnson. Lately I’ve been re-reading William Gaddis and Kurt Vonnegut.
What is the best sentence you’ve ever read?
It’s a fragment from the opening of William Goyen’s The House of Breath, which is set in a postage stamp of land in East Texas, but which feels, in the point of view of the speaker, like it’s set in the most expansive extraordinary dark magic laden place since Yoknapatawpha County:
“Yet on the walls of my brain, frescoes . . .”
That’s what I aspire to keep in mind when I’m painting the world. It’s all there, for everybody who cares enough to remember, or for everybody who feels enough to want it to mean or matter.
In the Devils Territory)">/em>)">Describe your writing routine.
Right now I’m working 12-18 hours a day, all summer, a real luxury. I’m staying up all night and sleeping a little in the day. This is probably the last season of my life when I’ll be able to live this way, so I’m trying to take full advantage.
Do you ever listen to music when you write? If so, what’s on your playlist?
Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t, but right now I am. I have the playlist next to me here on my Kindle Fire, so I can give you the list: Pink Floyd, Animals; Violent Femmes, Greatest Hits; The Lovin Spoonful, “Summer in the City”; Radiohead, Amnesiac and OK Computer; R.E.M., Up; Jane’s Addiction, “Been Caught Stealing,” Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here; The Beatles, The White Album and Revolver and Abbey Road; Smashing Pumpkins, “Rocket”; three Blonde Redhead albums; Beck, Mellow Gold; six Deerhoof albums; Pearl Jam, “Daughter”; three Jimi Hendrix albums; Nirvana, Incesticide; Nine Inch Nails, The Downward Spiral; Carmina Burana; Steve Reich, Phases; two Grimes albums; Sufjan Stevens, various tracks; two Steve Earle albums; four Lucinda Williams albums; a few tracks from The Doors, Bon Iver, Fatboy Slim, and Starflyer 59; two Belo albums; a few of Rita Lee’s Beatles covers; seven Bob Dylan albums; two Jurassic 5 albums; The Breeders, Last Splash; Dave Brubeck Quartet, Take Five; twenty-seven Robert Johnson songs; ninety-three Leadbelly songs; The Pixies’ Greatest Hits; Velvet Underground and Nico; the Woodstock soundtrack; a Kill Rock Stars sampler; ten Schonberg tracks; ten tracks from the Berlin Symphony Orchestra; Cream, Disraeli Gears; Elton John’s “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” and Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.”
I also sometimes run movies or TV shows in the background while I’m working, such as The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Highlander, First Blood, The Apostle, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
If it gets to be too much, I turn it all off, but the silence makes me feel even more lonely than long stretches at the desk usually make me feel. Right now I’m in Iowa City, where I have a few friends who will occasionally stay up all night with me, working in the same room, and I like that better than the running music. One friend plays Hyderabad musicals all night, and that’s fine with me. Other friends demand absolute silence, and that’s okay with me, too.
Best bookstore you’ve ever been to?
Nightbird Books in Fayetteville, Arkansas; Powell’s City of Books in Portland; Prairie Lights in Iowa City; Brookline Booksmith near Boston; Skylight Books in L.A.; the late and lamented Shaman Drum in Ann Arbor. Used bookstores: John King Books in Detroit; Half-Price Books in Columbus and Austin.
If you were standing in line at a bookstore and noticed the person in front of you was holding your latest book, what would you say to them?
I wouldn’t say a word. Actually, it’s happened before, and I was afraid they’d put it back if I said anything.
What literary landmark would you most like to visit?
I’d like to take a time machine back fifty-something years and four blocks from where I’m now sitting and see the room in Iowa City that Kurt Vonnegut covered with butcher paper when he was solving the structure of Slaughterhouse-Five.
Do you own an e-reader?
Yes. I was an early adopter of the Kindle, and now I have a Kindle Fire HD. I am still partial to print books, though.
In the Devils Territory)">/em>)">Is Facebook good for you?
Yes. I recently spent six truly grueling years in Toledo, Ohio, where there weren’t many people who were interested in what I was doing, and Facebook was a tremendous tonic for the loneliness that experience provoked.
What about coffee?
Sure. I endorse all varieties of uppers. It’s the downers writers ought to avoid. Alcohol might get you one or two good stories, but it will hurt you in the long run more than it will help you.
What job have you held that was most helpful for your writing?
Teaching is the most nourishing kind of job, for me, but it’s not for everyone. I remember that William Gay drove a bread truck.
What is one of your vices?
I need to quit the Coca-Cola. It’s the worst thing, for real.
What is one of your prejudices?
I don’t like moneyed snobbery at parties. I also dislike coolness.
Favorite books you’ve read in the past year?
William Gaddis, Carpenter’s Gothic, #1. Also: Barry Hannah, Bats Out of Hell; Pamela Erens, The Virgins; Paul Hendrickson, Hemingway’s Boat; Bluets, Maggie Nelson.
Photo of Kyle Minor by Jennifer Percy.
Visit Kyle Minor at KyleMinor.com.
Meet Bookslut‘s new little sister Spolia, “A monthly literary magazine, devoted to the strange and to the wise.”
It’s the birthday of writer Charles Baxter. (Did that sentence make me sound like Garrison Keillor?)
Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of the Orange Prize-winning novel Half of a Yellow Sun, has a new book out this week, her third novel: Americanah.
Journalist Stephen Rodrick’s The Magical Stranger: A Son’s Journey into His Father’s Life, also comes out this week. Rodrick wrote about his father in this month’s issue of Men’s Journal: “A Pilot’s Son, Flying Solo.”
This week we are also blessed with Walter Mosley’s 5000th book, Little Green, another Easy Rawlins mystery.
I Belong To Pan
The god Pan overtakes me
In a scarily erotic
Erect, always at attention,
He caters to my every desire –
Both known and unknown.
I know not where these
Feelings stem from
That he generates from me
Each time he touches me
Or follows my movement
With long glances — when he stares
It is always
My eyes that look
This lust – this passion
Bubbles up inside of me
Like volcanic overflow –
I crave his godhead to enter
Me and wear me down
Until I lie in a whimpering
Mass at Pan’s feet.
To be his concubine
His whore, his wench
Don’t judge me.
If you had known Pan, like I have known Pan
Would willingly lie underneath
The weight of his manhood
Without fear of reprisal
Or sadness in the unexpected disappearance
Of your ’60s-inspired, bra-burning,
Gloria Steinem Ways.
Real Talk about Back in the Day
Today I offer you real talk. I’m not going to blow
smoke up your ass with some bullshit poem that
makes it seem like the world back in the day was
all sunny and gay because it wasn’t—least ways
not all of the time.
Yes, I had happy days but enough poets
have written rhymes about hot Alabama nights,
magnolia blossoms, and cotton fields with joyous darkies
singing the night away. Like I said,
today I offer you real talk beginning with my
I have no happy memories of the day my virginity
was taken away from me by an old man called Uncle
who smelled of Old Spice, stale pork rinds, Budweiser
On that day there was no candlelight or mood music
to soften the pain of that first thrust or dull the
humiliation and repulsion I felt when he told
my eleven year old mouth to take it all in and
feeling there was no other choice
Imagine—if you will—a girl child still being spoon fed
Disney tales where white men on white horses
would ride in and whisk the blue eyed blond Princess
away to a land of happily
Forget the fact that I did not resemble those girls
in the picture books that my father read to me in
a slow stilted voice each night—sometimes sounding out the words
because field work called louder to him than the chiming
of the school bell so words for him did not
He—with all good intentions—convinced me
that Prince Charming would overlook those traits in me
that society deemed shortcomings. He promised that
in spite of my nappy head, dark skin, big nose and wide ass
Prince Charming would still one day ride in on his
trusty steed and ride me off to a land of happily ever
But this was a lie that all daddies probably told
their little girls particularly if they lived during a time
when they were colored. Suffice it to say the Prince did
not ride in on his horse in time to rescue me from
the evil beast who ripped wide girl parts
I was saving for that first night on the day
I would wear white and lovingly give my
He broke in and plundered and rearranged
dresser drawers that had been packed by a
benevolent Mother Nature and strew my
belongings onto the floor with no regard
and no plans or suggestions on how I could repack
and make those drawers neat and orderly
like I’d been taught to keep them by
the nurturing father who had been more mother
than the one who wore the title but never really
So what did I do? I did what I had always done. I fought
back. My daddy once likened me to Joe Frazier because
he said I could take a beating and still get up
fighting swinging. So that is what
I scratched and clawed and fought back the demons
of the night who tried to pull me, drag me, trap me
in the shadows of that first time with the man
who was allowed to walk free because mother said
not to tell. The one lesson she
So silence was my mantra but that does
not mean that I remained unprepared. I trained
and grew stronger so I would be ready
for that next time — so that if another or
the same came back for seconds or thirds
of my virginity, which was used up and of
no worth to me and in my mind anyone else,
I would be prepared to personally take him
Play Me One of Those Old School Joints: And I’ll Be Yours Tonight
Baby, you know me.
gets me high. And when
you sing and play for me,
just for me,
for a moment,
for a solitary moment,
it’s. like. I. can. fly.
When you let loose with one of those
old school joints,
I can’t think straight.
And your guitar, baby.
When you strum that guitar,
when you strum that guitar just right,
making melodies hard, fast and divine –
Well, when you do all that
baby, when you do that,
there ain’t no doubt
i. am. yours. tonight.
Growgirl">/em>">At the age of 34, Heather Donahue meditated for a few days, then burnt the remains of her acting career, which included starring in The Blair Witch Project and the Steven Spielberg miniseries Taken, to begin a more organic life growing medical marijuana with her new boyfriend in Northern California.
Growgirl: The Blossoming of an Unlikely Outlaw is Heather’s very funny memoir of finding her way in the hippie pot-growing community and inventing a more enlightened, post-Hollywood identity out of smoke and ashes.
In her interview with Identity Theory, the writer formerly known as The Girl from The Blair Witch Project talks about ideal marijuana legislation, misunderstandings about pot farmers, and the future of her writing career.
Mike Doughty said in our 2006 interview, “I’d like to get weed recognized as a drug that people can become seriously addicted to and wreck their lives with. I don’t judge drugs—I stopped doing ’em, but I love ’em. But this nonsense that weed is some kind of light non-drug is pure fiction; a major problem in our society.” What is your response to that?
Just because something is powerful, doesn’t mean we need to take it away from people. From children, sure, but not from the grownup among us. I don’t think that anybody is suggesting that cannabis isn’t a powerful plant, it clearly is. That’s why there’s all this political and economic hubbub around it. It’s like the Force, Luke. You can use it in a lot of ways, but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t have the opportunity to choose responsibly. Free, right? That’s the best of our national brand. America: Home of the Babysat. Just doesn’t have the same ring.
In the year-plus since Growgirl was released, major transformations occurred in the marijuana policies of several states. Going forward, what does the ideal pot policy look like at the state level?
It doesn’t really matter all that much what happens at the state level until there’s a Federal change. However, I think Colorado is on the right track. Let legalization happen, let there be enough regulation to protect the consumer. Let’s make sure there aren’t pesticides in there that trump the medicinal value of cannabis, but let’s also allow people to grow their own. That’s what legalization means. You can grow your own, freely. That is absolutely not what they’re getting in Washington State. The policy that they’re working on estimates 3 tons of weed produced a year. They will be awarding (and I use that word deliberately) 200 grower permits. That’s like handing a golden ticket to the highest (sorry) political bidder. Ick. It won’t go like that in California. The industry here is too big and folks are finally starting to unite to protect their livelihoods. I think true criminality in the Cannabusiness would be taking it away from the people who built it. Not the cartels–like any big business they can and will and do diversify. I’m talking about the family grower, the single mom, the artist, the musician, the writer, the small town whose economy depends on everyone having their little slice of the pie. Cannabis is the only high-value commodity whose resulting wealth is distributed at the mom-and-pop level. It provided opportunities for entrepreneurship during the crash of ’08 and beyond, especially where I live in Nor Cal. I think the small grower and dispensary entrepreneurs should be considered in any legalization discussion.
What’s the most common misconception people have about pot farming?
I think people don’t see the families who grow. I think they don’t see the grannies whose pensions aren’t cutting it. I think people don’t understand how entire towns that lost industries like logging are have become not ghost towns, but thriving, diverse communities. It’s not all cartels and guns. In my experience, it’s not like that at all.
A character in a novel I just finished reading invents a program that eradicates all online mentions of famous people who want to be anonymous again. Would you have used such a service to start over after leaving Hollywood at 34 if it were possible?
It would be really tempting, but it would also be disingenuous. I am all of these stories, made up of all of these events. The stories I tell myself about those events and how they shape me, even those are fluid. “I am not I” and all of that, because to say “I” is to assume some kind of solidity. Writing Growgirl made me think a lot about that. The rather more diaphanous off-the-page story that I tell myself about myself constantly challenges me to reinterpret my relationship to big, internet-permanent events like Blair Witch, and without that challenge I would be a lesser person. I’m always changing, always growing up and out of what’s come before. Blair Witch repeats on me constantly, like cucumbers or chili, all the better to make peace with it.
Growgirl was your first book, and you’re still quite young. Do you plan to continue to work mostly in personal nonfiction, or are you going to transition to other forms of writing?
I’m working on a novel called Bounds right now. It’s an erotic black comedy about a trio of cancer researchers. The theme is love and other consumptive malignancies. At the same time, I’m launching a business called Prettywell. It’s a mix of herbal and lab-tested ingredients for whole bodies. My first four products, about to fledge the nest, are Lift, Feed, Mojo, Buff, and Hump.
Your dog Vito was one of my favorite characters in Growgirl. How’s he doing now?
He is the planet’s finest creature. Intelligent, mellow, with uncanny comedic timing. He’s five now. He does a lot of this:
Growgirl" width="500" height="375" class="alignnone size-medium wp-image-10989" title="Interview: Heather Donahue, Author of Growgirl">/em>">
And also this:
Growgirl" width="500" height="333" class="alignnone size-medium wp-image-10990" title="Interview: Heather Donahue, Author of Growgirl">/em>">
Dancing in the Dark
Not many see smoke as a way
of opening the body to life.
They see the slow ember of birds
dimming the blue tunnel
and feel icy minnows needling
out of hands of water.
Something they are sure is whispered
must keep them leaning
poised towards the world,
not the world
they are clinging.
Pressing their ears upon
an imaginary child just born,
the insect that goldens the night,
a name flashing
from a dark body,
a small spark escaping
between hammer and anvil,
terrifying and beautiful.
A chill wind against an empty bottle,
one body embracing another,
the full circle of one sound
from a shared emptiness.
Hammer against anvil,
the desperate chord of a scream
unwitnessed in night,
the spark that makes them one.
The apple in autumn,
a child walking into a dark room,
a meteor silently falling,
closing around something hard,
opening out of something cold,
leaping out of windows,
hands in the air
like you don’t care
every night not in the night.
Unearthing the Human Sigh
Every night new holes appear,
yet the world feels a little less hollow.
A candle is lit in a window, and a shadow emerges
from the common dark,
a small child
walking down a long hallway.
It’s a story we read before sleep.
A fable that stretches a little longer
with every utterance.
Once upon a time, a plane explodes in the air,
brilliant fireworks clamor to be seen.
Radiant colors of creation, desire, and passion
quickly shiver back into the universe.
Now is the time someone falls in love,
pretending those pills are just little seeds to swallow.
What she buries will clamber and cling
until all her hard surfaces cannot be seen.
Then she will climb over her body, out of the hole
she’s dug for herself.
Doctors undress her trying to find some name
she hasn’t taken with her,
something she’s left that will lead them back
to the first page of a diary,
the X they can dig up to find a treasure
they feel is always placed
in something empty.
A tattoo from fire.
Every night the many names
soon to be dispersed come into being
and the world becomes
a little less hollow.
They can be heard from bridges or opened windows,
on the backs of old men,
from the breasts of women, between
two lovers trying to find the words
that can endure such nights, the words
that can fall
at the same speed and weight
as a human sigh
that knows no end.
Matt Borondy, Publisher/Editor: I’m reading Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan, The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp, and I just finished A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.
Jullianne Ballou, Assistant Editor: I’m reading an advance copy of Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass, by Murphy Hicks Henry.
Robert Birnbaum, Editor-at-Large: I’m reading Wash by Margaret Wrinkle, How Literature Saved my Life by David Shields, In Partial Disgrace by Charles Newman, The Democracy Project by David Graeber, and Masaryk Station by David Downing. There are more, but I realize listing them is just showing off which I am not averse to but hey…
Hilarie Ashton, Assistant Editor: I’m reading Claire Bidwell Smith’s memoir of the deaths of her parents, The Rules of Inheritance – it’s helping me with the memoir I’m writing of my own mother, who died three months ago. I’m also reading Benoit Peeters’ Derrida, Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land, Julia Alvarez’s De cómo las muchachas García perdieron el acento, and Nicholas Birns’ Theory After Theory.
For more, visit us on Goodreads.
National Poetry Month has returned. We say, “Up with poetry!”
In the wide-open space below, otherwise known as the comments, feel free to contribute your original poetry, your favorite poet’s copyright-free verse, a link to a page of poetry you like, or any thoughts about poetry you wish to share.
(Alternatively, if you’re willing to wait a few months to see your verse online, you may submit your poetry for official publication in our journal.)
Note: We aren’t the lovely people in that photo. It’s a random image from Flickr.
Sarah Crossland likes to write poems about dead people, holiness, roller coasters, and love. The recipient of the 2012 Boston Review Poetry Prize, she was invited to read at the Library of Congress in the spring of 2011, and her manuscript God Factory was a finalist in the 2012 Milkweed Editions Lindquist and Vennum Prize. In her spare time, she plays the harp and teaches at Oakhill Correctional Institute. Someday she hopes to keep bees.
What can people anticipate from your first book of poetry? Are there certain themes or structures that reoccur?
I’m not entirely sure which book will end up being The First One. I have one manuscript out at contests now, God Factory, and another that I’m wrapping up for my MFA thesis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which is called Tomorrowland. Plus two in the proverbial stew—Brioullardeuse and 62 Short Films on Creation.
God Factory is a diptych of two longer poems, both of which investigate the idea that classic cinema created a pantheon of icons for everyday worship. The first poem in the book is a series of epistolary poems written by a contemporary Adam (of the Garden of Eden fame) to actress Grace Kelly, and the second is an abecedarian lyric explosion of the life of Sarah Bernhardt (which concerns themes like lying, spectacle, excess, and of course, God). Tomorrowland, on the other hand, is your standard 21 Singles book. There are some sci-fi poems, persona poems, poems about roller coasters and World’s Fairs and disaster and the sublime, love poems, childhood poems, poems that could be dreams—it’s a whole spice rack of themes, really. But, you know, there’s some follow-through metaphor in there about “when things get all blended together”…
The remaining two—62 Short Films on Creation and Brioullardeuse—both involve film, the divine, and ecstasy. The former is a series of miniature Surrealist screenplays (for which I got my inspiration from Tom Andrews), and the latter is a contemporary, hybrid-genre, feminist retelling of the MGM musical Brigadoon, which I hope will someday have actual music to go with it. So, it seems I have a lot of projects. I think it helps, though, to orchestrate it so they’re all at different stages at any given time. I used to write novels when I was younger, and it would just be an abyss when I finished—I’d have to start from scratch again. This way, I’m always thinking about the next thing while I’m polishing the latest thing. It helps a lot with that metaphysical terror.
Thinking of T.S. Eliot famous quip, “Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity,” what aspects of writing your first book of poems make you feel most anxious and/or most creative?
What I find to be most anxiety-inducing is actually the concept of the book itself! I mean, the front and back covers that close it off, that say: this is the start, and this is the end. It’s hard for me to work that way—thinking of my writing as having these distinguishable bookends throughout time. In finishing up Tomorrowland, for instance, I worry that I have a dozen more World’s Fair poems in me. Then where do they go? I kind of want to write towards everything all going in one big pile—to go straight to the Collected Works. Even the longer projects that could be books in themselves. I know that’s not the way publishing works these days, particularly if I want to get a job, but I’m just hypersensitive to all of the interconnectedness among my poems. Charles Wright said something like, “A poet has only six poems to write.” Meaning that we write what we’re obsessed with. Maybe I’ll suddenly become obsessed with something else as I get older, but so far I’ve basically had the same exact interests since I was four. But I also find that totally empowering—it definitely feeds the creative behemoth. Once you get over that fact—these six poems—you can start digging into specific image and reimagining context.
What advice would you give to students who are just starting to write and publish poetry?
I cross stitch, so whenever I think of writing advice, I think of what I’d consider cross stitching into a decorative pillow (you know—like “Home Sweet Home” or “Live Love Laugh”—which are not my personal maxims, mind you). One of my high school writing teachers, Eric Hoefler, always told us “Pages in, pages out!” You read a lot, you’ll be able to write a lot. I think this is true for capturing inspiration, yes, but also in battling that dumb old saying, “Write what you know.” I hate that. Because you can begin to know about almost anything only by reading about it. Sure, you can’t know what Sarah Bernhardt was thinking when she leaped from the set parapet and injured her knee so badly she decided on amputation—but in reading about historical context, coupled with biography and autobiography, you can begin to take—ah—the leap. (Pun irresistible.)
I also tell my writing students to go big or go home. Yes, specific, sensory detail is important. Yes, realistic dialogue is great. But it needs to matter. You need to be taking risks. You need to be surprised, you need to be uncomfortable. I have a quote up on my wall from novelist Monica Wood that says, “If you’re going to jump, jump off a cliff, not a chair.” I currently work on the magazine Devil’s Lake, and we always try to publish pieces we deem “necessary.” If your writing’s not necessary, then why is it here? Why should anyone read it or begin to care?
Sylvia Plath is reputed to have said she loved rejection slips because they showed her she tried. How do you make art or sense out of the rejection involved in writing?
Sometimes I like to think of rejection as an initiation, a sort of hazing. Minus the velvet cloaks, kidnapping, and riddles (which is a shame, right?—I’d love to be kidnapped by McSweeney’s to, for instance, wind up blindfolded in an orange grove with a sestina written out on my arm, suddenly burdened with the task of figuring out what it all means). I don’t know if it ever really gets better, though—if the hazing actually ends. When I was at UVa, there was a legend going around that Greg Orr covered the walls of one of his bathrooms with all his rejection slips. So maybe you can get to the point where there’s a feng shui to it.
But, right now, I love rejection slips about as much as I love cleaning the onion bits out of the food trap in my kitchen sink. It’s no fun, but you have to keep doing it—and then once it’s over you have a clean drain again. Throughout the years I’ve heard a lot of token phrases about what failure is supposed to mean to writers. The one that I’ve always been drawn to most claims that writing is about trying to achieve lesser and lesser degrees of failure. I think John Casteen said that when he visited one of my undergrad workshops. But language is always (about) failure, isn’t it? In that Buddhist/linguist sort of way—a poem about a dog is not the dog himself. It’s that whole Hassian “a word is elegy to what it signifies.” When I make my poem-things, they’re always fractures because they can’t be the whole world. They can be miniatures, they can be mandalas centered in the self—or an imagined self—but they can’t be the whole universe because language doesn’t let us. Even with Whitmanesque cataloguing, even with thematic obsession, there’s still a sense that what has been done is artifice—not the thing itself, but a representation. Which, though beautiful, is still ultimately, in some way, failure.
What Peaches and What Penumbras, the anthology you edited of witty writerly grocery lists, takes its title from Ginsberg’s “The Supermarket in California.” Within this poem, he takes an imaginary walk with Walt Whitman. What poet would you most like to walk with and is there anything in particular you would like to chat about among “the brilliant stacks of cans?”
I’ll be totally honest here. I’d love to make out with John Keats in the wine and beer section of Trader Joe’s. Obviously, there would be very little talking. I think we’d have a good time.
As you look toward the future, are there any specific goals or aspirations you hope to attain in regards to writing?
In the very-soon-future (like this weekend), I’m hoping to start writing a narrative sequence poem about this breathtaking image that was up on themetapicture.com earlier this week—it’s a series of nice-ish dresses, all illuminated, hanging from a tree. It’s very Southern, lots of color saturation, and I want it to be inhabited with voices. And with this project, I’m thinking about utilizing Pinterest (gasp!) as a vehicle for organizing the inspirational images I want to cluster and converse together. Would Elizabeth Barrett Browning have done that? Well, maybe. Probably not. But I don’t really care. I think technology is only moderately evil, but so is vodka. And where would poets be without vodka? I think we all actually do need our sins.
Visit Sarah Crossland at SarahCrossland.com.
Lucy is pregnant. She calls the clinic and makes an appointment for her fourth abortion. She is twenty-three.
The first: She is sixteen and gets pregnant on a mattress on a Wednesday afternoon. The boy is a year younger than her, and she has to talk him into it. It is a school day, and they have come to his parents’ house after eighth period. Walking through the door, she is affected by the tall ceilings and thick afternoon light streaming through the windows. The boy’s mother looks at her son and shakes her head with an indulgence that moves the girl, who likewise believes that he is better than his personality suggests. When the boy tells his mother that they are going to watch a movie in his room, she says to leave the door open. He takes Lucy’s hand as they walk up the stairs, and she feels like herself, only freer; she feels like a girl.
When they go into his room he shuts the door. The boy has taped blue and red blankets over his windows, and the room is darker than the rest of the house. The feeling of being hidden fills her with a golden joy, and she doesn’t miss the sunlight. There is a mattress in the far corner of the room; the sheets are wrinkled and navy blue. The room is a mess; she likes that too. There are boxers and tennis shoes and diving trophies and lighters and crumpled gum wrappers and empty prescription bottles and bent hangers on the floor, desk, table, and chair. She lies down on the mattress, mimicking the movements of her parents’ housecat. He puts a on a DVD—Queen of the Damned—and lies down beside her. She feels bright like the sun in that split second before an eclipse. They start to kiss; his hand, trembling, stops when he realizes how wet she is. She squeezes her thighs together and he reacts.
They undress. He asks her to “suck on it.” She says they should have sex (it’ll be years before she calls it “fucking”), but he repeats his request for a blowjob. He is a virgin and knows she isn’t. She’s been having sex for two years, but has avoided blowjobs ever since the time she was thirteen and a guy told her that it turned him on to see how ugly she looked with his dick in her mouth. She pulls the boy on top of her and guides his penis into her. The moment before entry, he says “please.” She never forgets this.
She doesn’t tell him when she finds out she is pregnant. Her friend, a tense, petite blonde girl, drives her to the Planned Parenthood on Beach Boulevard. On the drive, they smoke a joint and listen to a CD featuring a woman with a guitar and a strident voice. Her friend kisses her on the cheek before she goes in, then stays in the car, burning her fingers on the end of the joint. Inside, Lucy signs in with the woman at the front desk and pays $425. A friend’s mother gave her the money. She has decided to take mifepristone, the abortion pill; the word “surgical” disturbs her.
Lucy and her friend have had a long discussion about the merits of the pill versus the surgical procedure. The phrase “less invasive” has come up at least ten times. They are both secretly proud of using the word “invasive” so casually. Plus their recent feminist education has imbued anything “invasive” with an air of rape. They both agree that letting a male doctor (how could he not be?) vacuum the zygote out of her would be somehow less woman-positive than self-inducing a miscarriage in her bedroom while her dad is at work and her mom is at the town center Christmas shopping.
A nurse takes Lucy to a private room and explains how to take the pills, warning of the inevitable cramping. When they get back to Lucy’s house, her friend leaves for an unexpected family dinner. Lucy goes upstairs, turns on the television, and takes the first pill. The next eight hours pass filled with a pain that Lucy didn’t know hours could hold. She feels as though a hand covered in ground glass is holding on to her uterus, digging its nails in and squeezing. Between bouts of throwing up in the bathroom, she lies in the fetal position on her bed beneath a large poster of Johnny Depp smoking a cigarette while playing piano, and bleeds, and prays to a God she hasn’t believed in for years. After a while she feels like crying, but the pain persists.
When it is over she feels exhausted in a way that is almost beautiful, like the battered feeling of swimming in an ocean only hours before a hurricane.
The second: Lucy is nineteen and in love for the first time. She has brought her boyfriend—a long, lanky boy with Arabic features and uneven dreadlocks—home with her from college. During dinner Lucy sits next to the same friend who drove her to the clinic years ago. The girl now lives with her boyfriend, who is thirty and has a condo on the beach. Lucy and her friend drink a lot of red wine during the meal, feeling very adult with their men and their dinner-party dresses. Lucy’s friend becomes very drunk and laughs loudly at everything she says, which appears to embarrass the boyfriend, who seems sober despite having drunk more than the rest of them. In a fit of laughter, her friend reveals that Lucy has read her boyfriend’s diary and is suspicious of his friendship with a girl who lives in their dorm. Lucy is mortified and her boyfriend spills his wine, breaking the glass and staining the cream carpet beneath the table. They leave quickly and climb into the parked car.
Her boyfriend moves his hand up her leg from his place in the driver’s seat, and Lucy immediately pulls off her underwear and climbs over to sit on top of him, facing away from him. He seems surprised but unzips his pants and pulls her down onto him. She holds on to the latch on the roof and lets him set the pace of their fucking, which is faster than she would prefer. He pulls her down and moans, kissing her neck, and apologizes for coming so quickly. Lucy is only concerned with the diary revelation and moves back to the passenger seat, hoping he is tipsy and distracted enough to forget about it. They head back to her parents’ house with the windows down, careful to drive the speed limit. This is the first time they haven’t used a condom.
Nearly two months later, they are driving to the abortion clinic together. Lucy has known about the pregnancy for over a month, but had to wait six weeks to let the fetus develop; it needs to be visible on the sonogram for the surgical procedure. Lucy has weighed her options and decided she would rather tolerate morning sickness and sore tits for a few more weeks if it means five minutes of pain as opposed to eight hours—invasiveness be damned.
In the waiting room she makes jokes with her boyfriend about the other couples there: the visible discomfort of the boys, hands flat on their jeans and eyes on the floor, and the inescapable misery of the girls. When she is called back, Lucy’s boyfriend touches her arm and says, “Good luck.” This makes her laugh a little too hard; she feels giddy and unreal. A nurse takes her into a small room where she changes into a blue paper gown. The woman pricks her finger and gives her some pills, then takes her blood pressure. Darkness creeps inward from the edges of her vision, and the girl feels lightheaded. She asks if the pills are supposed to have this effect, and the nurse says no. Lucy tells her calmly that she is blacking out.
The nurse, a large white woman with giant breasts, puts her arm around Lucy and leans her back on the bench, fanning the girl’s face with her clipboard. She rubs her fingers over Lucy’s forehead and squeezes her earlobes. Lucy is conscious, but everything in front of her is black.
“It’s alright, sweetie,” the nurse says in a different voice than she’d been using previously.
Gradually Lucy’s vision returns and she drinks water out of a paper cup while being led to a different room, where girls sit on couches wearing the same paper gowns. For the next hour Lucy talks and listens to the girls who want to talk or be listened to. One girl is fifteen and swears she’s never skipped a birth control pill. Another woman already has four kids and says she loves them but can’t afford another. There is a Mexican girl who doesn’t speak much English and cries on Lucy’s shoulder. Lucy tells her she looks pretty when she cries and repeats it until the girl understands and laughs. There is a black girl who sits on the edge of the couch looking at the wall and won’t respond to any questions. One by one they are called away until only Lucy and the silent girl remain.
She thinks about the other girls and decides she loves them. She does not think about her boyfriend in the waiting room. She does not think about the boy in high school or the Johnny Depp poster. The nurse calls her name, and she is taken into a surgical room where she lies back on a table and puts her feet up in stirrups. They cover her mouth to put her under twilight, which Lucy has read will not obscure the pain but will cause her to immediately lose her memory of it. (Later, all she remembers is one moment when she thought, but did not feel, that she could feel everything, and she squeezed a nurse’s hand.)
She wakes up in the recovery room to the sound of the fifteen-year-old girl crying in the bed beside her. She puts on the clothes she brought with her—pajamas and her favorite rainbow-star socks—and is led out the back entrance, where her boyfriend waits in the car. He smiles at her when she gets in and asks her how she feels. She says “blurry.” He asks her to repeat herself. She doesn’t.
As they drive home, they listen to a book on tape about dragons and smoke a blunt he rolled during her surgery. She feels weak and happy and wants the drive to last forever.
Last time: Lucy doesn’t know when she got pregnant. Barely a year after the second abortion, she and the same boyfriend have been living in a house with two other couples. They often move toward each other in the morning, fucking on the bright sheets while she looks at the parsley growing in the flower box in the window over the bed. The sunlight refracts through crystals resting on the windowsill: kyanite, malachite, spirit quartz. She doesn’t love her boyfriend anymore, and it only makes him want her more.
Not knowing what to do about it, she fucks him in the mornings to feel like a decent girlfriend, then leaves to read in a secret park on Chalmers Street. Only tourists go there, and she never has to worry about seeing anyone. What did she read the morning she got pregnant?
Her boyfriend is not there for this abortion; he is studying lemurs in the rainforest in Madagascar and cannot be reached by phone or computer. When she told him on the phone a week before he left that she was pregnant, she didn’t know what response she wanted. She acted tough and made a joke about it being old hat, just another trip to the chopping block. Then she waited every morning for the next seven days for him to show up on her doorstep. Now she is driving to an old friend’s house to take the abortion pill in their bedroom, even though her friend is out of town. She cannot wait alone again through those six weeks of feeling full of something terrible and lovely; she has chosen the agony instead.
She climbs through the window and walks through the quiet house; she has always loved quiet houses. She gets a glass of water in the kitchen, then looks through a stack of DVDs in the living room. She goes back to the bedroom, puts on the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, takes the pill, and lies down.
It is as bad as she remembers. Afterward she feels empty.
This time: It’s been three years since the third abortion, and Lucy meets a man in a coffee shop during the summer. They spend all their time drinking coffee and reading and watching movies and smoking cigarettes. She is in love by September, and is pregnant by the first snowfall.
When the test reads positive, he is in the room with her. Lucy’s first thought is how young the expression on his face makes him look. How childlike. Looking at him, Lucy feels a hundred years old.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “I’ll get an abortion.”
Lucy doesn’t think much about whether she is a good or bad person. She’s not afraid to think about it, she’s just not sure it matters. She feels full of something ineffable. She is in love. She is nauseous. She is horny. She doubts. She smokes cigarettes. She wonders what the baby would look like. She counts the days until her six weeks are up. She dreams about putting red lipstick on a little girl with brown hair. She dreams about having sex with an octopus, like in Hokusai’s The Dream of a Fisherman’s Wife. She makes the appointment. She throws up outside a coffee shop. She colors a seal violet and blue in a coloring book. She doubts. She reads a poem. She wonders about herself, and draws no conclusions.
Image by Pink Sherbet.
Caitlin Doyle is a poet whose recent honors include the Amy Award in Poetry through Poets & Writers Magazine, a Tennessee Williams Scholarship in poetry through the Sewanee Writers Conference, the 2012 ALSCW Fellowship (Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers) to the Vermont Studio Center and a Literary Grant in Poetry through the Elizabeth George Foundation. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in several publications, including The Atlantic, The Threepenny Review, Boston Review, Black Warrior Review, Measure, Best New Poets 2009 and The Warwick Review. She also has a professional background in film and screenwriting, having written and directed short films shown at various festivals. Ms. Doyle is currently at work toward the completion of her first book-length poetry manuscript.
Your poetry, perhaps in contrast to the prevalence of free verse in contemporary poetry, has been recognized for its skillful use of formal elements like rhyme and meter. Besides the musical quality derived from rhyme and meter, are there other reasons why you find yourself drawn to formalism? What would you say to claims that either one of those approaches, free verse or formal poetry, is aesthetically superior to the other?
Yes, there are reasons beyond musicality that draw me toward the traditional technical elements of poetry. After all, rhyme and meter don’t have an inherently larger claim on the power to produce sonorous language than any of the other tools available to a poet. Poets writing both “formal poetry” and “free verse” have so many ways beyond metrical patterning and the pairing of rhyme-words to make a poem sing. Examples include alliteration, assonance, the rhythmical interplay of syntax and line-length, and the resonant blending of varied diction registers. I put the phrases “formal poetry” and “free verse” in quotation marks because, though they serve as terminology to make a general distinction between two kinds of aesthetic approaches, I share the belief of many poets that the terms lack sufficient nuance. The best “free verse” possesses formal limitations and guiding principles, just as the most gripping “formal poetry” contains freedom and innovation.
Making the claim that one aesthetic approach in poetry is inherently superior to another is like arguing that one instrument in an orchestra produces better music than all of the other instruments. To argue that, objectively speaking, a violin creates a greater sound than a viola or a cello is to leave out a key consideration: the subjective reality of who is playing the instrument and how he or she is doing it. Much like any structural feature of written language, such as syntax or meter, an instrument is an inanimate tool, possessing no intrinsic degree of value until somebody engages with it. What determines the quality of the music isn’t the instrument but the way that it is put to use in the hands of a specific individual.
There’s a quote by the poet Donald Hall that strikes me as providing an illuminating framework for this discussion: “The form of free verse is as binding and as liberating as the form of a rondeau.” A rondeau is a received poetic form with strict structural requirements that dictate the division of stanzas, the number of syllables per line, and the arrangement of rhymes, among other things. What I admire about this quote is that Hall doesn’t simply say “the form of free verse is as binding as the form of a rondeau.” In other words, he doesn’t just make the point that free verse possesses formal principles. He also ventures that free verse is “as liberating as the form of a rondeau,” which could seem like a surprising statement when one considers that a form as stringent as the rondeau does not appear, on the surface, to qualify as “liberating.” With this assertion, he acknowledges the sense of unrestricted license that can come from writing within tightly established boundaries, the freedom that can be found when one allows form to lead a poem’s content in unexpected directions. Essentially, Hall’s quote highlights the way that all good poetry, whether free verse or poetry that uses traditional formal elements, relies on the tension between limitation and liberation.
Your free verse is just as skilled as your formal work. I’m thinking particularly of your highly memorable “Self-Portrait With Monkeys” (The Threepenny Review) and your playful and haunting poem “If Siegfried And Roy Had Never Met” (Black Warrior Review). Do you find that your process and your thematic tendencies differ in relation to whether you’re writing free verse or formal poetry? As a second part of this question, can you talk about how you came to develop your attraction to formal verse in the context of today’s free-verse-dominant contemporary poetry world?
Whether I’m composing a free verse poem or a piece containing traditional formal elements, my process is very similar. My goal is to find a balance between artistic control and openness to the unknown, guiding the language toward my desired effects while also allowing the piece to take on its own agency. I love the way that structure and content can pull against each other with a tension that ends up taking both in unexpected directions, an experience that’s central to my working methods. I feel most successful as a poet when my final product is something I could not have foreseen yet still contains a sense of the core emotional impetus that first set my pen into motion.
When it comes to thematic tendencies in both my free verse and my work that possesses formal properties, I am frequently driven by subject matter surrounding the spaces left in human life by a wounding, a lack, a loss, or a sense of incompletion. Writing about such spaces in my own experience and in the lives of others, frequently the lives of well-known public figures, galvanizes my pen. I am interested in exploring the role of both lyric and narrative impulses in reaching toward filling those spaces.
To answer the second part of your question, I’ve never felt that there was a moment in which I consciously chose to possess an interest in the traditional formal features of poetry. As a writer, you are shaped by what you read, and as a human being, you mostly choose to read what attracts you, a process of selection that isn’t always explicable or definable. I’ve found that a writer’s aesthetic leanings are often as unaccountable as any other inclination in an individual’s life, springing as much from natural disposition as from other motivating factors. Why does someone choose the red bike in the shop instead of the yellow one? Why does someone listen to a certain radio channel in lieu of different options?
I’ve been drawn to the traditional formal elements of poetry since early childhood, having started out my reading life with rhyme-rich poets like Christina Rossetti, A.E. Housman, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Edgar Allan Poe. I felt hypnotized by the way these writers used traditional formal elements to combine regularity and surprise, to create a dynamic interplay of repetition and variation, setting up my ear for expectations that sometimes met with fulfillment and other times met with unpredictable subversions. Of course, back then, I couldn’t have articulated such effects with absolute clarity, but I sensed their great power.
Your creative background includes work in film, with your short films having been shown in a variety of festivals. I am interested in the fact that you’ve taught poetry classes that incorporate aspects of film into the curriculum; most recently, as the Emerging Writer Resident at Penn State University, you taught a course that incorporated screenwriting and poetry. Can you talk about the experience of teaching the two genres together? Is there a particular piece of cinema that you find useful when it comes to teaching students about the role of imagery in poetry?
I relished the opportunity to design and teach a course focused specifically on poetry and screenwriting at Penn State because I’ve always felt that the two genres illuminate each other in a vivid manner. Since students tend to have much more experience with watching movies than with reading poems, I’ve discovered that using film as a doorway to poetry allows students to enter the rigors of finely tuned language in a way that feels exhilarating to them. Film provides a particularly strong resource when it comes to teaching students about the centrality of imagery in poetry, highlighting the way that poets often use images as their primary method of conveying meaning and evoking responses in the minds and hearts of readers. Ezra Pound’s notion of the image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instance of time” really comes alive for students when they watch a segment of film that creates its narrative, emotional, and tonal effects primarily through the accumulation and juxtaposition of carefully chosen images.
When it comes to identifying a piece of cinema that’s particularly useful as a lens through which to discuss the role of imagery in poetry, I find a brief three-image silent sequence in Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M to be very effective. Leading up to the segment, Lang spends the movie’s initial scenes building tension around the fact that a young child name Elsie has not come home at the regular time after school. The child’s mother grows increasingly nervous as the hours pass. We watch as Elsie, who has been walking down the street bouncing a ball, meets a strange man who complements her ball and buys her a balloon. Then the silent sequence begins, featuring the following three images in succession: a shot of an empty dinner plate on the table set by Elsie’s mother, a shot of Elsie’s ball rolling out of the bushes and slowing to a stop, and a shot of Elsie’s balloon, which has floated out of her hands, becoming ensnared in a power line.
I emphasize for poetry students the way that Lang doesn’t choose to directly show the stranger abducting the child but instead evokes that fact through a series of ominous and charged images that make the abduction all the more affecting for viewers. We ascertain through just a few haunting images both the narrative reality of what has happened and the emotional tenor of the event. I’ve found that students better understand the way that imagery functions in poetry after watching this excerpt from M.
Though I tend to view the ever-common “show-don’t-tell” Creative Writing dictum as overly limiting because many of the best poems tell as well as show, I do think the basic idea of “showing” rather than “telling” is an important one for beginning poets to assimilate. To that end, film provides a marvelous vehicle for helping a student grasp how to enact ideas, emotions, and experiences rather than explaining them.
There are a lot of debates about how to properly teach prosody, which is the study of versification (particularly of metrical structure). In fact, it is common today for most students of English and Creative Writing to go through their entire schooling without learning prosody. Can you talk a little bit about your own education in prosody and give some thoughts on how you think it might be most effectively taught?
None of my most memorable teachers of English or Creative Writing taught prosody with a handbook full of rules and metrical terms. The best teachers I had rarely said the words “trochee, “dactyl,” “catalexis,” or “amphribach.” Rather, they emphasized the power of rhyme, meter, and received forms by the direct act of exposing us to superlative poems that engage traditional formal elements. I ascertained way more about the skillful use of rhyme and meter by having to read, memorize, and recite Thomas Hardy poems for Derek Walcott’s class in graduate school than if I had taken a course that focused on versification terminology and scansion exercises.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that young poets shouldn’t learn how to scan poems and how to recognize and use the proper metrical terms. They certainly should take it upon themselves to do so, either by seeking out a class or mentor that can offer that kind of technical training or by learning the material in a self-taught way with the help of some good prosody guides (Alfred Corn’s “The Poem’s Heartbeat” is a particularly useful text in that regard). But I think that, when it comes to assimilating the principles of prosody, it’s ultimately more useful for students to focus on actual poems than on other forms of instruction. The approach of my best literature and writing teachers in high school, college, and beyond seemed to confirm what my own early reading experiences had suggested: the most effective and enjoyable way to gain an education in poetry’s craft components is to absorb them directly through immersion in the works of powerful poets.
In other words, if you want to develop the ability to engage poetry’s traditional formal heritage with skill, I think that your best bet is to learn from the inside out, through inhabiting the words of those with true formal mastery – letting the rhythms of their language enter your mind, heart, and body – rather than trying to learn from the outside in via instructional materials. The important thing is not that you can read Yeats’ Among Schoolchildren and say “he’s writing ottava rima stanzas, combining strict iambic pentameter with instances of significant metrical variation, and employing a mixture of enjambment and end-stopped lines.” What matters is that you can feel the effects of his technical decisions resonating in your core. What matters is that you can register in a visceral way how the poem’s formal features embody the tension between unity and disunity in human life – and that you can absorb from him a sense of how you might use traditional formal properties of poetic language to shape your readers’ sensory experience of a poem.
In American Creative Writers on Class, your poem “Paris,” which wonderfully considers Paris Hilton’s European codified first name pared with the commodification of her surname, seems to suggest that we all take a closer look at the issue of inheritance and privilege. In reference to class and poetry, what interests you or upsets you in the world of writing and teaching poetry?
When it comes to class issues in the world of poetry, what most occupies my attention these days is the financial situation surrounding adjunct professorship. A large number of emerging poets pay the bills by holding adjunct positions, usually teaching English Composition classes or Creative Writing courses. More often than not, these sorts of positions entail an over packed schedule, abysmal pay, zero health benefits, and the absence of a voice in university matters. It’s not uncommon for adjuncts to teach more than a full-time load, spread out at multiple campuses, and still barely earn a living wage. Considering that adjuncts in all fields comprise the majority of university faculty in this country, the lack of institutional respect offered to them, financial and otherwise, is an upsetting reality. In order to become competitive for tenure-track opportunities, emerging poets who work as adjuncts must garner notable magazine publications and produce books, yet their teaching and grading load is often so large that they can’t find the time and energy for creative production.
It distresses me to think of how many gifted writers in the emerging stages find themselves continually stunted by this system. Their status as members of an over worked and poorly compensated academic underclass results in an impoverishment of higher education and also potentially of the nation’s literature. I don’t mean to overdramatize the situation. Adjunct professorship is just one of many difficult financial circumstances impacting young people who choose to devote their lives to writing and it only pertains to those pursing an academic career track. Of course, it has been difficult for most writers throughout history to balance making creative work with paying the bills, and when it comes to the pursuit of artistic expression, many people have lived in far more limiting conditions than those faced by today’s typical emerging-writer-adjunct-professor. But nonetheless, given the large number of brilliant young writers currently holding adjunct positions, whether in the hope of long term tenure-track prospects or just because of an immediate need to cover living expenses, it’s hard not to feel that the circumstances of adjunct professorship comprise an important point of concern in the poetry world.
Thinking of T.S. Eliot’s famous quip, “Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity,” what aspects of writing your first book of poems make you feel most anxious?
My answer to this question is related to your inquiry about class issues in the poetry world. What makes me most anxious as I shape my first book is the fact that, as far as job prospects in the literary realm, there’s a considerable amount of incentive for an emerging poet to put out a full-length collection as quickly as he or she can manage it. Having a published book is particularly important when it comes to finding a university teaching position that offers financial security and the chance of tenure-track advancement. As a result, young poets sometimes end up rushing out their first books in order to achieve a sense of professional stability, later regretting significant quantities of the work they included in their debut collections. It can be very self-limiting to subject artistic maturation to an artificial chronology.
I worry about the ways that the current structure of the professional market in the poetry world can hamper the gradual and laborious development of a poet’s particular set of gifts. What would have happened if Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens, who published their first books at thirty-nine and forty-three successively, had not allowed their work to progress at its own pace?
It’s important to me that I resist the often very compelling professional and financial temptations to publish one’s first book quickly. I feel it’s essential that I produce the collection according to my own internal timeline, respecting the fact that I’m not a particularly fast writer. Poems take shape slowly for me. What matters to me is not that the book comes out a year from now as opposed to three years down the line. The crucial thing is that I feel confident about the manuscript having reached its fullest fruition before I seek publication for it. Of course, it can be just as damaging to hold off on publishing a collection because of pressing one’s work up against unrealistic expectations, waiting until every poem meets some standard of unattainable perfection. There’s no such thing as an absolutely flawless book of poetry. So, for me, the goal is to find the balance between bringing the manuscript to as complete a realization as possible while also knowing when to say “it’s time to let go and release this into the world.”
“Eudora Welty once said one place understood helps us understand all other places better. And I chose to be that kind of writer.”
— NPR interviews Ron Rash on his brilliant new collection of short stories set in Appalachia, Nothing Gold Can Stay.
Emily Rapp’s memoir about her dying son (The Still Point of the Turning World) fascinates Katie Roiphe at Slate, who wonders: Why do we like to read tragic stories about children?
On Reader’s Digest, A Book We Love (And You Should Read) Earns a Well-Deserved Nomination. The book? Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden.
“[John Brown] would probably find us depressing: doing nothing to change the world, sitting in comfortable cafes, living our—for the most part—comfortable lives, and not being awake to the evils of our day.”
— Tony Horwitz interviewed by Robert Birnbaum
And in case you missed it we published a new interview with Vanessa Veselka.
Vanessa Veselka is the author of the novel Zazen, which was published by Richard Nash at Red Lemonade and won the 2012 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for fiction. A resident of Portland, Oregon, she has been at various times a teenage runaway, a sex-worker, a union organizer, and a student of paleontology. Her writing has appeared in GQ, Bitch, The Atlantic, Tin House, and other publications. She is currently at work on her next novel, to be published by Riverhead Books.
In what way do you think literature has the ability to change the way people live their lives?
It’s a question of audience. We all have, at some level, an audience that we cater to, be it our family, our friends, our cat, God, or an idea of selfhood/identity—vegetarian spiritualists everywhere, for instance. We refine ourselves, our sensibilities, our humor and moral code through interaction with that perceived audience. Since literature has the power to change our sense of audience (by stretching our sensibilities to meet those of the book) it has power to change our lives. We’re narrative-making machines (as much as I bristle at that) and so the stories we tell ourselves about what is happening shape our actions. Nothing is as dangerous as a story.
What was the last book you gave as a present?
The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
“You’re writing for the person who gets the joke.” –Karen Shepard
Which I took to mean ‘you’re writing for the person who gets it.’ Whenever I am lost in a passage, it is my one compass needle.
What is the best sentence you’ve ever read?
Dear Sir: What you advised me not to do, I did.
Describe your writing routine.
At my best I write six mornings a week for several hours, then later in the afternoon a little bit by hand.
Do you ever listen to music when you write? If so, what’s on your playlist?
Ha! Only when I’m doing interviews. Right now I’m listening to Four Saints in Three Acts. I use music to get in the mind of a character when I’m walking or imagining, but I can’t write to it. It’s just too distracting.
Best bookstore you’ve ever been to?
You’re going to put me on the spot here…there are so many great small bookstores I’ve been to, Riverrun, Elliott Bay, Skylight, Word, The Community Bookstore, so many, but it’s pretty hard to beat Powell’s Books in Portland.
Zazen)" width="200" height="282" class="alignright size-full wp-image-10892" title="Author Q&A;: Vanessa Veselka (Zazen)">/em>)">If you were standing in line at a bookstore and noticed the person in front of you was holding your latest book, what would you say to them?
God, I’d hide. Maybe not. Maybe I’d tap them on the shoulder and say, “I wrote that, ya know.” I’d probably be a little more sheepish than that. Hard to tell. I’ve never had that happen. I know when my friends see someone reading Zazen on the subway or the bus they get really excited.
What literary landmark would you most like to visit?
The train station where Tolstoy died. It’s the scene of such incredible failure and success. He finally, finally gets the guts to leave everything and take up the ascetic life–only he’s in his 80s and sick and it’s all kind of pathetic. In that one gesture–delusion, grace, determination, failure, absurdity–most train stations just can’t provide that kind of conflict in a single death.
Do you own an e-reader?
Not yet. I’m not anti though. I think fighting e-readers is a ridiculous battle. If I had one I would use it for all the trashy things I like to read that I don’t want my bookseller friends to see me buying.
Which would you prefer to write: a poem or a personal letter?
A personal letter. I’m no poet.
What non-literary profession would you find most compelling to pursue?
Haberdasher. Kidding, sorry, too much Spinal Tap. Academic, probably. American History or lit. I love the sciences but I would be better at teaching History of Science than as a real scientist. I’m just starting to learn about the stars now.
What is one of your vices?
Cowardice. Okay, that’s a failing.
What is one of your prejudices?
I should not say this…but in honesty? MFAs. But I’m not very bigoted. Some of my best friends are MFAs. I expect I’ll grow out of it.
Favorite books you’ve read in the past year?
This morning it is: advent.
Visit Vanessa Veselka’s blog.
Purchase Zazen at Powell’s.
A Floating Life" width="200" height="299" class="alignright size-full wp-image-10868" title="5 Questions: Allworth Press Founder Tad Crawford on A Floating Life">/em>">Tad Crawford is the founder of Allworth Press and the author of a dozen nonfiction books including Legal Guide for the Visual Artist and The Secret Life of Money. In September 2012, Arcade Press published Tad’s first novel, A Floating Life, which Kirkus Reviews described as “odd, offbeat, strangely shimmering.” He lives in New York City.
Why is your novel called A Floating Life?
The unnamed narrator is adrift in his life. His marriage has fallen apart (yet he’s forced by finances to continue living in the same apartment with his wife), he interviews with a seven-foot-tall chef in a steam room but fails to get a new job, and not even the magic of modern medicine can cure his erectile dysfunction. He apprentices with an elderly Dutchman named Pecheur who builds model boats sold in a hard-to-find shop called The Floating World. After the devastation of World War II, Pecheur felt lost and worked as a boatman on the rivers and canals of Europe. On the night of February 1, 1953, his heroism in the face of a hurricane helped save much of Holland from flooding. That night Pecheur discovered his life’s work as an engineer seeking to channel nature’s destructive power into protective and saving forces. The narrator begins to find meaning in his own life as he takes up the work of his mentor, ultimately traveling to a storm-battered volcanic island as far from the centers of civilization as imaginable. As he says, “I discovered that the floating world was about far more than illicit pleasures. Called ukiyo in Japanese, it grew out of the Buddhist concept of a world filled with pain and came to mean the transient and unreliable nature of our world, how fleetingly it floats in the illusion of time.” In this transient and unreliable world, the narrator seeks his own depths and the purpose of his life.
How do you normally write? Did you tweak any aspect of your writing process when creating this book?
My prior books lent themselves to an overall plan. While there was much to discover and create in the writing process, I was guided throughout by knowing the shape of the book and how it would end. A Floating Life was an utterly different experience for me as a writer. I had no idea what came next or how the novel would end. I was as lost—and engrossed—in the novel as the narrator is in his floating life. The thread of the narrator’s deepening connection to Pecheur represented to me the growth of the narrator’s consciousness. But the unconscious is a far vaster territory than the conscious. I wanted to portray the unconscious imagery and process that accompanied this inner deepening. So a dachshund brings a lawsuit against the narrator, the narrator (despite being male) gives birth to a baby, and bears devour the narrator in his bed. To use this imagery required trust that it would enhance the story and a relational sense much like that of an abstract painter balancing shapes and colors against one another on a large canvas. Not knowing my destination created a wonderful, frightening sense of freedom. After all, if I didn’t know the ending, anything might happen. Because of this, some interesting pieces had to be cut when I began editing and saw that certain risks taken hadn’t actually succeeded in creating stories integral to the novel.
A Floating Life">/em>">Who was the first writer you tried to imitate?
I remember discovering D. H. Lawrence in college and having great admiration for his writing and the passion with which he lived his life. Under this intoxicating influence I wrote a number of poems. I was perplexed and hurt when a literate friend said he didn’t like the poems. I couldn’t see that my hero worship made the poems sentimental and not at all like the writing of Lawrence himself. If I had to say now who has influenced me, I would point to writers like Kafka, Beckett and Mann. Stylistically, it would be difficult to say what unifies authors such as these (although Kafka and Beckett both contain much that is absurd—as does life). For me, they all dared to plumb beneath the surfaces that surround us, to seek the deeper meanings that are elusive and teased into consciousness only by fearless and continuous effort.
Is your fiction political?
My fiction isn’t political in the sense of Republicans or Democrats or even of “isms” such as communism or fascism. If politics require taking individual responsibility and acting in relation to a larger community, then A Floating Life has a political aspect. For example, Pecheur has chosen as his life task the taming of the destructive forces of nature. When Pecheur dies, the narrator takes over his charitable foundation, continues his good works, and tries “to support scientific research that would advance Pecheur’s dream of harmonizing the forces of nature.” The novel also has an “ex-centric” aspect in the narrator’s leaving behind established views of society when he travels to an island far removed from the urban center of New York City. On this volcanic island the narrator finds two soldiers—one American and the other Japanese—who have been stranded for more than six decades since the end of World War II. Originally adversaries, one soldier is the prisoner of the other, but at the heart of their connection is love and a willingness to sacrifice. The desire for human betterment, the bond that joins the narrator to Tex and Tsukino-san and makes him willing to sacrifice, is ultimately political.
You studied economics and law and then made a career of writing and publishing. What constitutes success for you?
I don’t experience success as static. I’ve always enjoyed projects, whether the creation of a book such as A Floating Life or the creation of a company such as Allworth Press. To finish a project is a kind of success, but the pleasure of completion passes fairly quickly. For example, seeing a printed book that I wrote is nice enough but has a “pastness” about it. What I value most is the process of creativity, the deepening of understanding and expression that occurs when I return again and again to a project. I experience this as an inner communion as ideas, feelings, and realizations rise from hidden depths. Failure and an inordinate amount of work are aspects of this, but the sense of building and moments of discovery are sufficient rewards. I’m also happy that my nonfiction books (such as Legal Guide for the Visual Artist or The Secret Life of Money) have been helpful to people. Success for me turns on having the freedom to do the next project—and also on being receptive and willing to wait as the project reveals its dimensions.
Visit Tad Crawford at tadcrawford.com.
Purchase A Floating Life.
Photo: Susan McCartney
Tenth of December, by George Saunders
Owners of a subscription to The New Yorker also tend to own a sizable stack of unread New Yorkers. And what often separates the issues that get read from the ones that gather in the basket next to the coffee table is a quick glance down the contents page. There are certain marquee names. If, for example, there’s a new essay by David Sedaris, the odds of the issue making it into a gym bag rise exponentially. Louise Erdrich seems to have a similar effect. As do Calvin Trillin, Charles D’Ambrosio, and Alice Munro. Each of us has our own short list.
Among readers of contemporary fiction, George Saunders is often included in such lists. He has published stories and essays in The New Yorker for more than twenty years, won a MacArthur Fellowship, appeared on Letterman, and, in the process of all this, come as close to the modern writer’s platonic ideal of a “modern writer” as one could hope. But Saunders’s recent collection, Tenth of December, shows how stories that often stand well on their own can lose their appeal when gathered together.
Part of the problem involves scope—specifically, Saunders’s proclivity for focusing on his characters’ cognition. During a discussion about the story “Tenth of December” with Deborah Treisman on October 24, 2011, he stated: “Lately I find myself interested in trying to find a way of representing consciousness that’s fast and entertaining but also accurate, and accounts, somewhat, for that vast, contradictory swirl of energy we call ‘thought.’” Thus Saunders wrote each of his stories from the first-person or third-person-subjective vantage point. In addition, he utilized narrative techniques—self-interviewing with rhetorical questions, imagined dialogues—that effectively mimic a mind at work.
The book’s first story, “Victory Lap,” begins as Alison Pope imagines descending a marble staircase to awaiting suitors, a thought soon abandoned when another part of her consciousness cues the directive to: “Do the thing where, facing upstairs, hand on railing, you hop down the stairs one at a time …” Over the next few pages, Alison’s mind drifts and eddies among thoughts of a boy she kissed, her parents, Helen Keller, and her recently divorced teacher—all while she performs ballet moves and decides to “hop over thin metal thingie separating hallway tile from living-room rug.”
Here, Saunders achieves the “contradictory swirl of energy” that enables Alison’s circumstances and motives to unfold in a natural and engaging way, which is why the story is so good. One could stop reading at this point and think, This guy just kills it.
Which he does. Many of his stories display thrilling levels of humanity and humor— that is, when read the first time they were published, individually.
But a major risk for any author—especially one whose main theme involves human consciousness—is overusing certain techniques and letting the voices of characters overlap and repeat. And among the stories in Tenth of December, repetition is abundant—stylistically, structurally, and thematically.
In “Victory Lap,” Alison Pope suddenly asks herself, “Was she special? Did she consider herself special?” It’s as if she’s imagining herself being interviewed, and this setup provides Saunders the opportunity to display her youth and innocence: “Oh, gosh, she didn’t know. In the history of the world, many had been more special than her … There was so much she didn’t know … And what was a mortgage? Did it come with the house?” This stream of thought changes course only after Alison raises another question, “Who was this wan figure, visible through the living-room window, trotting up Gladsong Drive? Kyle Boot.” A simple declarative sentence would’ve sufficed in this situation, but the rhetorical question seems embedded in Saunders’s writing—so much so that it’s as if the device has become a narrative tic he cannot refrain from.
In “Puppy,” the technique reveals the nature of Marie’s desire: “So what she’d love, for tonight? Was getting the pup sold, putting the kids to bed early, and then … they could mess around and afterward lie there making plans.” In “Escape from Spiderhead,” the self-questioning displays the bewildering effect of the pharmaceuticals being tested on the main character: “Why weren’t we dressed? We real quick got dressed.” In “Exhortation,” the device is used to reveal the passive-aggressive leadership of a mid-level corporate supervisor: “And what mental state helps me clean that shelf well and quickly? Is the answer: Negative? A negative mental state? You know very well that it is not.”
In “Al Roosten,” the technique is used to illustrate the main character’s obsessive self-inventory: “Was he nervous? Well, he was a little nervous.” (In seventeen pages, the story contains about forty rhetorical questions.)
Eventually, the near-constant queries throughout Tenth of December cause the characters to blur together into one unified voice: that of Saunders.
When these stories appeared individually in The New Yorker, couched somewhere between a 20,000-word profile and the movie reviews, they offered a sojourn into Saunders Land, a unique landscape consisting of equal parts humor and heartbreak, and successfully highlighted the idiosyncrasies of their specific characters. But corralled and placed in a lineup, elbow to elbow, one sees that the stories are of the same height and build, that they all possess similar features. The characters’ charming quirks become merely extensions of Saunders’s narrative habits. Used again and again, the techniques seem like tricks, and then the tricks seem like cheap tricks. And then they become tedious.
Perhaps a certain amount of blame can be placed on the publisher for not giving more consideration to the sum of the parts. But it would also be nice if Saunders employed a few of his own rhetorical questions: Is it time for me to retire some of these old tricks, the goofy trademark names and the hammy rhetorical questions? Is it time to maybe vary things a little? It’s time, George.
Elizabeth Crane is the author of three collections of short stories, most recently You Must Be This Happy to Enter. She is a recipient of the Chicago Public Library 21st Century Award. Her work has been featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts and adapted for the stage by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater. Her debut novel, We Only Know So Much, is out now from HarperPerennial.
William Shakespeare was a writer who lived in England. In the following interview conducted via sonnet, he asked Crane about all things Elizabethan.
For where is she so fair whose uneared womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
I have no idea where she is, dude, there’s not a lot of husbandry that I know of happening in the East Village.
Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thy self thy beauty’s legacy?
Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums, yet canst not live?
For having traffic with thy self alone,
Thou of thy self thy sweet self dost deceive:
Then how when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
I think you’re preaching to the choir here.
That use is not forbidden usury,
Which happies those that pay the willing loan;
That’s for thy self to breed another thee,
Or ten times happier, be it ten for one;
Ten times thy self were happier than thou art,
If ten of thine ten times refigured thee:
Then what could death do if thou shouldst depart,
Leaving thee living in posterity?
Seriously, I DON’T KNOW. But I promise I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to figure it out.
O! change thy thought, that I may change my mind:
Shall hate be fairer lodged than gentle love?
I hope not.
But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?
And fortify your self in your decay
With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?
You keep asking questions I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to answer for years. I do know some other stuff, though, like where to buy a really nice letterpress card in Chicago, or how to mend a hole in a sweater.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Sure, but I think I can kick a summer’s day’s ass any day. Of any season.
Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,
And make me travel forth without my cloak,
To let base clouds o’ertake me in my way,
Hiding thy bravery in their rotten smoke?
Everyone makes mistakes once in a while. Cut me some slack.
Shakespeare’s questions above were taken in order from Sonnets III , IV, VI , X, XVI, XVIII and XXXIV.
My Tranquil War and Other Poems)">/em>)">Anis Shivani’s two new books are My Tranquil War and Other Poems (NYQ Books) and The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (C&R Books), both of which just came out. Anis is also the author of Anatolia and Other Stories (2009), which was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor short story award, and Against the Workshop (2011), his first book of criticism. His debut novel Karachi Raj will be published in 2013. He is currently writing a new novel, Abruzzi, 1936, and a new book explicating “plastic realism” in American novels of the last decade.
In what way do you think literature has the ability to change the way people live their lives?
Literature has the ability to pull us out of our narrow view of life, focused on trivialities, and make us see the larger picture in terms of history, in terms of our place in the universe of things, in terms of how we belong to everything else around us. Literature above all, more than music and painting or any other art form, can do this because it traffics in words, and thus gets closest, in the most rational, precise, direct way to how we frame ourselves to ourselves. Literature challenges us to rethink our cherished perceptions which conventionally tend to remain within very selfish, egotistic boundaries. Literature dissolves these boundaries so that we expand into new realms of imagination and experience. Literature allows us to experience all that humanity is capable of experiencing.
What was the last book you gave as a present?
Orhan Pamuk’s The Innocence of Objects, which just came out from Abrams. It’s one of the most unusual “books” I’ve ever encountered. Pamuk all along had the idea, when he was writing his latest novel The Museum of Innocence, to build a museum commemorating the objects described in the book. But which came first, the book and its characters or the collection of objects and the characters conjured up by that? The Innocence of Objects is at the same time a manifesto of writing (a supplement to Pamuk’s The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist); a catalog of the actual museum (which now exists in Istanbul after enormous effort expended by Pamuk); a companion piece to Pamuk’s biography of Istanbul and autobiography of his own early years, Istanbul: Memories and the City; Pamuk’s own finely-tuned theory of aesthetics; and an elaboration of the way art and experience bleed into and transform each other. And it’s one of the most visually exciting books I’ve ever known, a book that has many layers of mystery.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
I haven’t listened to any writing advice in a long time. But in my early years I did. It may well have been Salman Rushdie’s advice in an essay to go for broke, the lesson he learned from Gunter Grass I believe. If you’re going to do something as risky as investing your emotional life in writing, you might as well go all in, leave nothing in reserve. Other than that, I would say picking up the idea early on, from just about every serious writer I admired, that writing means showing up for work every single day without exception, no matter the mood or inclination. Writing is something you prepare and appear for each morning without fail, just like with any other job. If you do that long enough, good things are bound to follow.
What is the best sentence you’ve ever read?
Possibly “For a long time I used to go to bed early,” the beginning of A la Recherche du temps perdu. A sentence that is magnificently hypnotic and promises to reveal the secrets to things that can’t possibly be revealed. Or, “A screaming comes across the sky.” Pretty good, no? But really all great books tend to have memorable opening sentences. Pick any classic book at random and you’ll probably be floored by the opening sentence. (I see that I misread your question about sentence as opening sentence. So how about this: “Taposiris is dead among its tumbling columns and seamarks, vanished the Harpoon Men…Mareotis under a sky of hot lilac.” From Lawrence Durrell’s Balthazar. Or this: “On the seat of the bog-cloth drawers to his fork was shuttled the green alchemy of mountain-leeks from Slieve an Iarainn in the middle of Erin; for it was here that he would hunt for a part of the year with his people, piercing the hams of a black hog with his spears, bird-nesting, hole-drawing, vanishing into the fog of a small gully, sitting on green knolls with Fergus and watching the boys at ball-throw.” From Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds.)
Describe your writing routine.
I like to write first thing in the morning, before distractions. A good breakfast to get me started. I tend to get very hungry when I write, so I fuel myself with fruits and nuts. The internet is very distracting and I’d like to get to the point soon where I’m off it almost altogether except for some email. I tend to read maybe fifty or a hundred times more than I write. The reading fuels my writing. The writing takes place in concentrated bursts with little revision, except for minor editing. Anything I write is either good to begin with and needs only minor alteration or is no good at all. I’ve convinced myself that I’m unable to write deep into the night or after having faced multiple distractions, but recently, as I was facing a deadline to rewrite a novel, I surprised myself by writing fresh work almost all day long, for twelve hours a day or more, even late into the night, so maybe my whole writing routine has been misplaced all along.
Do you ever listen to music when you write? If so, what’s on your playlist?
I’ve never understood the idea of listening to music as one writes. I would find it incredibly distracting even to have classical music on. I try to eliminate every sound, and luckily I live in a house that makes it possible. I live in a city center, but my street has some of the most majestic ancient oaks in the city, making it all very soundproof, which is a great advantage. I really don’t like sound when thinking or writing. After finishing work, I might reward myself by listening to bouncy, happy, danceable music while doing yoga. Gangnam is a new favorite. And all its parodies.
Best bookstore you’ve ever been to?
Tattered Covered Book Store in Denver might be the one. I love the layout, it’s amazing, inviting you to get lost. A bookstore should emphasize the essential mystery of books, not be too transparent or obvious. Also Denver just might have the most beautiful people in the country, so that never hurts. Brazos Bookstore in my hometown Houston, for obvious sentimental reasons, because over the years I have gone to so many memorable readings there. There are many great independent bookstores around the country I still haven’t gone to, particularly on the West Coast. I’m planning to visit Books & Books in Coral Gables next month for the first time. A bookstore, like a library, or a university campus, is the only oasis of sanity in a neighborhood or city, and I make it a point to check out whichever of those three exist wherever I travel.
If you were standing in line at a bookstore and noticed the person in front of you was holding your latest book, what would you say to them?
I would overcome my nervousness to tell them I wrote the book and go from there. If circumstances were right, I would share my excitement about the book. And I would be immensely grateful. Nothing pleases a writer like someone reading their book without being forced to do so out of a sense of obligation.
What literary landmark would you most like to visit?
I would love to visit Oxford, Mississippi to get a sense of Faulkner’s surroundings. I’ve come close to visiting several times but not quite made it. Something about the South is very generative of great writing. Where you live does affect the nature of your writing to a great extent. I’ve explored New Orleans’s literary landmarks, and this most charming of cities has a magic all its own. How can one live in such a lush, ornate, opaque city and not want to turn to writing or music?
Do you own an e-reader?
No I don’t, and I never plan to. I don’t even have a smart phone, don’t plan on having one, or any of the fancy gizmos people play around with these days. A basic laptop for word processing is what I started with and that’s the limit. For me, books mean the printed word. I don’t care how readable books on screen get, the screen is still a screen, not print on paper. I think the idea of books is inextricably connected with printing. Printing is more than a technology. It generates a certain attitude toward the self that is irreplaceable with any other technology. It demands a certain type of writing. It is the invention, above all others, to which I owe the most, which constitutes me as a person more than anything else. Print is that important.
Is Facebook good for you?
Facebook has allowed me to make connections with writers it would otherwise have been difficult to get to know, given the fact of wide geographical dispersion. The best thing is when those initial connections soon become real-life interactions. But Facebook extracts a high cost in terms of constant distraction. You face an endless stream of pseudo-confession which really doesn’t put writers in their best light. Beyond a certain number of close friends it becomes impossible to say anything personal or real without offending someone. Facebook has turned into a self-promotional vehicle where only positive, optimistic, ebullient feelings are allowed, where emotions are instantly converted into acceptable mush which passes somehow for honesty and sincerity. I haven’t posted anything personal for years, once the number of friends exceeded a certain count. You can’t do that without inviting misunderstanding. So while I’m grateful to have engaged with many writers which otherwise would have been difficult, I’m looking forward to the day when I can deactivate my account. I think on the whole social media has been negative for writers. Nothing is worth the slow erosion of privacy. We should all disengage and invalidate this latest capitalist enterprise trying to suck up our energy and precious words and thoughts. And write poems instead.
My Tranquil War and Other Poems)">/em>)">Which would you prefer to write: a poem or a personal letter?
I’m not into personal letters. Or confession of any sort, really, without the mediation of art. I would definitely write a poem. I may still end up sending it as a personal letter, that way I would kill two birds with one stone. There’s not much one can say in a personal letter anyway, is there? One only ends up trying to justify oneself, which seems futile behavior.
What non-literary profession would you find most compelling to pursue?
I would have been a fantastic chef, and I think I would have made people very happy with my creations. I love cooking as an expressive art, and it’s becoming increasingly important to me as time goes on. I would also have been good at animal rescue, working with cats and dogs. I much prefer the company of animals and children to most adult human beings with their selfish neuroses and fine-tuned mechanisms of delusion. Both animals and children convey emotions without filter—although children are soon trained not to do so. It’s very life-giving to be around that, and very draining and emotionally wrecking to be around adult human beings, who don’t seem to have the basic intelligence of animals and children. If I did have to work with people, I would teach very poor children the arts of reading and comprehension. I would not want to teach privileged people who already have access to good schools and facilities. I wouldn’t mind being a ranger in a national park either.
What is one of your vices?
I have many vices. Most of which I cannot discuss here. Probably the one I can talk about is perfectionism, expecting a degree of thoroughness and forethought and minuteness that’s pretty much impossible to expect from any human being, which makes it difficult for those around me. I’m probably very judgmental, which also means I’m probably hypocritical, since the two usually go together. Also I like to tear pages out of books. Write all over them and destroy them. I comment nonstop and make predictions about films and television shows I’m watching with other people. I know, how vulgar! I like to make predictions in general about all sorts of things, from the behavior of people to results in politics and sports, which is fine as far as it goes, except I also like to cover myself by writing preemptive contradictory emails in case the decision or result goes the other way. I would count the hedging as a definite vice.
What is one of your prejudices?
It’s terrible to admit, but I think I like beautiful people more than people who are not. It may have to do with fear of death because being around someone beautiful takes one away from that perpetual dread for a while, because it seems impossible to imagine a beautiful person ever being dead whereas everyone else you can, which is such a downer. Yes, I like beautiful people, and if it makes me shallow, so be it. I like being around articulate, very smart people who don’t spout bullshit fakery. And did I mention that they have to be beautiful?
Favorite books you’ve read in the past year?
The Road, which I read this year at last, stands out. Part of me wishes I hadn’t read it. It’s a fantasy of the apocalypse aestheticized to the point of almost-beauty, a visitation of terror that makes you afraid of McCarthy’s mind. But it dealt with the fear of death in a relentless way, so I can’t fail to admire him for that. Then I watched this low-budget parody. It may be just as valuable an aesthetic statement of the fact of mortality as the book itself. You can either take it too seriously (the book) or not take it seriously at all (the YouTube parody), but the lame bourgeois attitude of being earnest and pontifical about things, that’s the stupidest attitude of all, which art is always trying to demolish.
I read Cat’s Cradle, and although Vonnegut couldn’t sustain it in the second half of the book, his death wish for civilization is sane in more ways than we realize. I also read Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which is an acute commentary on the delusional ways of the Mitt Romney ruling class’s false sense of noblesse oblige, a book very relevant to the current political moment. I finished at last Tropic of Cancer—there are many books I’ve been reading in driblets over my whole life—and can’t speak highly enough of how Miller forces us to look at all sorts of things we choose not to look at out of disgust or shame. Dashiell Hammett’s The Continental Op was eye-opening in terms of the possibilities of that genre. The sheer inventiveness of plot convolutions was exhilarating. Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri mystery series is the funniest set of books I read this year.
Although Katherine Boo has been getting all the recent attention, Siddhartha Deb, Akash Kapur, and Aman Sethi have written very important new books about the dark side of Indian globalization, and all three were the kind of books I’d like to write.
I’ve been revisiting a lot of the classics of post-structuralist theory, and I recognize the worth of those insights from almost half a century ago, particularly Foucault (a lot of whose conclusions I came to on my own, though in very roundabout ways). I still insist it’s a shame the way the American academy fetishized French theory, rendering it mostly worthless, freezing it in place when it should have been allowed to keep moving forward. Nonetheless, the originals are still worthy of consideration and always provide fresh insights.
Craig Morgan Teicher’s To Keep Love Blurry really moved me: I’m amazed at the deep level of revelation in Teicher’s poetry which doesn’t manipulate my emotions as a reader and makes me engage with a higher ideal of the self than the material of the life—all our lives—would seem to warrant. I became even more of an Eileen Myles convert after reading Snowflake/different streets, which is split into two parts so that one turns the book upside down and starts reading from the other side. This reflects Myles’s split persona, the open spaces where true meaning transpires. She’s one of the most rewarding among second and third generation female New York School poets.
The best book of fiction I read in 2012 was Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which is a wail of anguish against the shortness of life in the face of the infinite promise of technology, a contradiction that seems to intensify with each passing day as incomes converge around the world. Sloan’s book ventures into some of the same metaphysical territory as Rana Dasgupta’s Solo from a couple of years ago, which I consider one of the most original recent novels.
Finally, I think Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton is one of the most important books of our time, and he may well go down in history as our own Voltaire or Rousseau. Joseph Anton might be the most interesting book about the writing life in many, many years. I’m hard pressed to think of something of comparable intensity. Rushdie’s self-presentation as an author militates against everything we in this earnest, safe, pseudo-wholesome, fake literary culture of ours have established as the persona of the ideal author. You must not miss this book!
Um, the f-word? I’m very profane, I’d give Rahm Emanuel a run for his money. Also perhaps love. And death. They’re all the same anyway. And my cat’s name, Fu. Repeated in a musical chant, over and over, trying to tap into his massive universal cat brain, so superior to my own puny human counterpart.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi " title="jiro-dreams-of-sushi-movie-2012" width="166" height="250" class="alignright size-medium wp-image-10809" />Perfection, or at least its more sublime cousin, the aspiration to it, is found in Sukiyabashi Jiro, a small, ten-seat restaurant with no toilet that is buried on the ground floor of an office building near a Ginza subway station in Tokyo. There, Jiro Ono, his eldest son, and many a reverent but haggard apprentice (some of whom have to endure ten years or more of learning how to properly fold a hot towel before being even allowed near the eggs or nori) devote their lives to one thing: the daily, rigid-but-artistic routine of producing some of the greatest sushi in the world. Some would say that they make the greatest sushi one will find, and that Ono is the premier sushi chef in the world. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is reverent and generally agrees with that assessment of the man and his work, though enough of the all-too-human poignantly bleeds through to give us a guarded, but occasionally revealing look at the glories and costs of being a Shokunin, a master artisan and craftsman with singular focus.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi follows the daily work and musings of the man considered a contemporary master, who uses sushi as one would use clay or canvas. Ono’s younger son set out on his own, and runs a sushi restaurant in the Roppongi Hill section of Tokyo. It is literally a mirror image of the father’s place, with the seating and kitchen designed opposite on the arrangement at Ono’s. 85 at the time of filming, the master seems to think about sushi all the time. It has been his life’s work to perfect the art of sushi making, to elevate it to the status of art. Along the way he has a group of dedicated buyers who navigate the impossible but poetically chaotic Tsukiji fish market for a legion of admiring patrons. Reservations are taken a year in advance, and the $300+ meal usually lasts about twenty minutes. There is no time to savor his genius; as soon as one has scarfed down a piece of sushi, there is another on the plate waiting. This is as it should be, according to another admirer, the food critic Yamamoto, who serves as our aesthetic guide throughout the film. It is he who articulates which attributes it takes to be a master chef, traits he clearly sees in Jiro:
“1. Take your work seriously
2. Aspire to improve
3. Maintain cleanliness
4. Be a better leader than a collaborator
5. Be passionate about your work.”
In the few brief conversations that do not revolve around sushi or the restaurant, Jiro reflects on his absent father, who taught him that life was about making it or, if you fail, having nowhere to return. This idea of endurance or disgrace was passed on to his sons. It is implied that he was not home much when they were growing up and that he expected them to become artisans with as single a devotion to craft as him. It is also apparent that the nest was closed should they come up short. The elder son is expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, so while the younger set out to start his own place, the elder son has served as an apprentice with Jiro for almost fifty years. It is not known if either son has a family, or if they too subscribe to Ono’s success-or-bust style of parenting. In any event, they clearly revere him and put a lot of pressure on themselves to continue the business and the obsessive drive for perfection.
Director David Gelb is understated in his approach, to say the least. For the most part, he keeps to a straight-forward style, with a focus on the cleanliness and almost casual elegance of the daily routine, with some nice slow motion to emphasize that grace. In most interviews, including those with vendors and patrons, Gelb lingers a few seconds after responses, catching unguarded glances, awkwardness or happiness in their faces. The beauty and estrangement of the perfectionist is the priority, and these are really the only moments where emotions are given center stage. There is some minor drama at the end of the film, and you’ll miss it if you are not paying attention. To offer a tease, it involves just whose sushi it was who wowed the Michelin judges when they awarded Jiro those coveted three stars, and why.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a subtle meditation on art and the price it exacts from those who would seek its peaks, in the fascinating context of the sushi world. It is also an opaque but riveting study of people who strive for glory in the simple gestures of good food, clean spaces and loyalty.
Prometheus and the Complexities of Interpretivism" title="prometheus-film-poster" width="216" height="320" class="alignright size-full wp-image-10804" />The critical reception for Prometheus has stimulated an interesting and extended discussions regarding the film’s synthesis of religion, science, and society. These discussions, however, have been markedly characterized by confusion and puzzlement. In their rush to understand the film’s narrative, some scientists have expressed their bafflement while theologians and creationists have asserted their interpretive theories. To keep people from losing their way, pop-culture, traditional and legacy media types have tried to process the film’s larger meanings by plodding into convention and easy distinctions. But the more useful discussions regarding the film’s use of proto-linguistics as well as the narrative’s synthesis of intelligent design and naturalism can be found in more discreet places. In this respect, the critical reaction to Prometheus has created a clustered set of discourse communities dedicated to clarifying the film’s nebulousness.
No one, however, took a longer leap of interpretive faith than Christopher S. Morrissey. Morrissey, a professor of philosophy, makes many speculative claims in his essay for the Catholic World Report. Interestingly, he begins his effort with this cause-effect statement, trying to explain the audience’s confusion regarding the story: “the fact that people are genuinely puzzled by [the film] reflects the genuine integrity with which the film has been constructed.” Though one should quarrel with the assumptions behind this statement, we’ll permit Morrissey some creative latitude in framing his analysis, for Morrissey argues that Prometheus contains “profound literary and mythological themes” in which “these very religious Engineers, who are highly sympathetic to Jesus and his message, are completely appalled at the human race’s treatment of him.”
Morrissey’s interpretations may be rhetorically bold, but they are not discardable.
According to Morrissey, the crucifixion of Christ created discord among the Engineers, dividing them between “the Gnostics” (or Heretics), who want to wipe out life on Earth, and the “Universal Engineers,” who see this kind of capital punishment as contrary to their beliefs and practices. Morrissey extends further, arguing that the film resonates with audiences because it treats the mutuality of faith and reason as a serious subject.
Our goal is not to critique Morrissey’s interpretive thesis or to offer a rigid analysis of his evaluative claims. We understand that deciphering the authorial intent of writers John Spaihts and Damon Lindelof (as well as director Ridley Scott) is often related to comprehending the response of viewers, and Morrissey understands that creating textual meaning is a cooperative act between viewer and artist, so he intertextualizes and referentializes his review with quotations from the filmmakers to strike a clearer understanding of the film’s intentions.
In this respect, we encourage people to read Morrissey’s arguments and determine for themselves the validity of his rhetorical acts. With this context in mind, we offer and restate some questions and partially developed ideas (that support and have no bearing on his observations) in the spirit of broadening the discourse related to Prometheus. Here we go:
1. Opening scenes: the First Engineer ingests a liquid matter that violently breaks him apart. This action eventually results in our creation. However, this cause and effect relationship is developed ambiguously. Prometheus suggests (but never makes clear) that there is more than one kind of liquid matter. For instance, when Android Dave (Michael Fassbender) surreptitiously gives Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) a drop from one of the cannisters, Holloway undergoes rapid change, but he is killed before we can fully understand what’s happening to him. Further, when the geologist Fifeld (Sean Harris) is compromised, he becomes viciously violent and is soon torched by Vickers (Charlize Theron). However, the liquid matter’s effects on another life form yields different results. When a seemingly simpler life form contacts this matter, it grows, but it does not appear to turn on its own species. This duality raises questions: are these varied effects caused by different kinds of liquids? One for the Engineers, and a weaponized one for non-engineers? Probably. Is the liquid a natural substance or an artificial brew? Both? Though we may never know the answers to these questions, the duality of these effects is quite evident: when the Engineers ingest their liquid, their painful, isolated deaths lead to the birthing of life; for non-Engineers, they turn into violent antagonists who are compelled to harm, overtake, or destroy others.
2. Duality, Antithetically: the First Engineer’s self-sacrifice can be interpreted a few ways. His action may fulfill a small role in an larger kind of interstellar manifest destiny (or divine destiny), but his self-sacrifice could also be interpreted as part of an imperialistic, hegemonic form of expansionism (more exogenesis than panspermia) independent of religious doctrine. Though the First Engineer’s garb suggests a medieval (even religious) signifier, only when his behavior is recontextualized with the overt religious displays of the humans do his actions take on a potentially religious connotation (yes, juxtaposition), as Morrissey suggests. Most critics have acknowledged the thematic importance of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw’s (Noomi Rapace) Christian beliefs as well as her preoccupation with her cross, and the film develops this theme in various ways. For example: the captain’s (Idris Elba) staging of the Yule tree is a simple signifier; but when he willfully crashes the Prometheus into the alien ship, he stands in the center of the bridge, flanked on both sides by his two remaining crewmen. They all raise and spread their arms before the ships collide. This scene suggests the importance of the trinity and could serve as a reference to Golgotha. This religious theme, however, is developed antithetically. Android Dave’s reference to how children would like to off their parents (re: Vickers and Weyland) might reflect Nietzsche’s “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?” from Thus, Spoke Zarathustra. This thematic contrast is reinforced early on when Shaw is mocked caustically by her colleagues because of her faith.
3. Dating the Engineers: the carbon dating of the headless engineer’s body (2000 years ago) puts their presence on LV 223 at the time of Christ, as Morrissey indicates. It is also the period in which the Engineers apparently weaponize the liquid matter. The holographic images showing the Engineers running for their lives could be interpreted a few ways: (1) these creations were unleashed upon them by the Last Engineer, as Morrissey indicates, or (2) these Engineers simply lost control of the experiment. But the Last Engineer’s actions do raise a number of questions. Did he chamber himself to hide from the creatures, hoping that others of his kind would rescue him? A long time has past since, so why did no others come? Or did they? Perhaps the corpses belong to those who investigated and were killed by the surviving Engineer, a circumstance that reinforces Morrissey’s Universals vs. Gnostics argument. However, if they had all been on the planetary moon at the same time, the odds are likely that they were all complicit in this program, as the Prometheus captain guesses, so maybe there was no Universal-Gnostic conflict. If the Engineers were killed by their experiment, it is odd that they had no apparent method for better controlling this experiment (ala the Blade Runner replicants). Were such a superspecies of creators really that strategically naive? More adept at creating than killing? Perhaps inexperienced at biogenic warfare? If their control method was to isolate this experiment to this particular planetary moon, why have and keep space-worthy ships and allow other interstellar travelers to land?
4. The Last Engineer: Shaw asks Android Dave to ask the Last Engineer why the Engineers changed their minds about humanity. There are a few interesting points about this scene. First, Shaw is not wearing her cross. Earlier, Android Dave removes her cross and places it in her pack after her self-directed surgery. If the hidden premise of the film is that some faction of the Engineers were deeply angered over Christ’s crucifixion, then the Last Engineer would have had to react in some way to her cross, thus giving away the unstated plot elements. Second, if the Engineers truly are targeting Earth for crucifying Christ, this stratagem suggests that they do not understand Christ’s significance in the Judeo-Christian narrative. If, indeed, the Engineers see Jesus as a messianic figure (or as a kindred spirit), why attack earth when a substantial part of humanity believes in his resurrection and revelatory return? Given that Jesus’s death and resurrection were the most important factors in the birth of Christianity, the Engineers should understand the transcendental nature of these events, right? Or, do they understand only the event and not the corresponding narrative? But if they do understand this narrative, are their own acts meant to usher in the violence related to Revelation? Or did Jesus’s life end on the cross without a resurrection—an execution incurring the wrath of the Engineers? Again, more interpretive pluralism here.
5. Spatial Mistake (maybe) and Spacial (Mis)direction (maybe): the film’s motifs of dislocation and belonging are intentionally and unintentionally reinforced when, after the alien ship crashes spectacularly and rolls improbably on the surface, Weyland and the others are displaced by this crash and roll, so their bodies are nowhere to be seen, but, curiously, Android Dave’s head and body seem to be in the same spot before the ship’s crash! This apparent flub does ironically work to support the film’s broader ideas about the mental and physical traumas related to dislocation and displacement (a problem that seems to maladjust Vickers). Additionally, audiences probably believed initially that this Last Engineer is the same Space Jockey that the crew of the Nostromo discovers in Alien. However, the Nostromo lands on LV 426 while the crew of the Prometheus lands on LV 223. Clearly, this Engineer isn’t the same pilot—which means this ship isn’t the same one from Alien, and this planet isn’t the same one on which the Nostromo lands. Is this circumstance akin to the Isla Nublar and Isla Sorna distinction in the Jurassic Park films?
6. Are there no liquid canisters on the ship that David and Shaw use to escape?
7. Interpretation and Interpretivism: Morrissey’s theories reinforce the film’s arguments related to the broad dimensions of human interpretation. The film argues that interpretive acts are primarily moral in nature, and discovering and understanding metaphysical truths take a certain amount of risk and a leap of faith. Certainly, Morrissey’s interpretive act mirrors the film’s primary theme, for Prometheus makes clear that humans have been enriched and conflicted by their varied belief systems (evolution, religion)—and such epistemic systems allow some the power of sight while blinding others. The arguments here are about the actions related to interpretivism. As the film reveals early on, human belief systems are discussed and debated—often integrated—because humans have learned to engage and learn from one another (for the most part) without inciting violence (Vickers, ever the outsider, has a different kind of response to conflict). For the film, belief systems are primarily interpretive systems where humans use an interactive frame of reference to create and recreate knowledge. If Morrissey is correct about the Engineers, then their human children seem to have evolved behaviorally (and cognitively?) beyond their barbarous parents. How? Why?
8. Ambiguously Mediating Conflicting Values: Although there is only indirect textual evidence suggesting that the Engineers attend to spiritual matters, there doesn’t appear to be any overt evidence that the Engineers possess any knowledge of Jesus. The film seems more focused on illustrating the problems associated with human interpretation than explaining the Engineer’s values and actions. We assume Android Dave is the best candidate to stand in for the mythic, titular figure, for the film is more about the Android than either Weyland or the ship. Why? Because Android Dave is the implied narrator, and Prometheus compels us to comprehend the Engineers by how Sha—but mostly David—“see” them and interpret their actions. As viewers, we understand that we have to take dubious Dave’s claims seriously yet cautiously, for he is more willing to overreach and sacrifice others than any other character than, perhaps, Weyland. In scene after scene, the android transgresses barriers, forsaking the safety of his human peers, taking risks not only out of curiosity but because he is implementing Weyland’s plans. The film crystallizes this point when he (it?) uses PIE to mediate between the Last Engineer and his human interlocutors, a meeting that leads to the Last Engineer’s attack. Based on this scene and others, the film argues that mediated acts of interpretation (and diplomatic frames) become deeply problematic due to irreconcilable, conflicting moral values. In this sense, we believe there should be more critical discussion related to how Prometheus explores the need and dangers of interpretivism—of interpretation, interaction, mediation, and diplomacy—regarding judgment and truth. We believe that the popular discourse about the film should be broadened and focused to include a quadralogue of concepts—to study how the film uses interpretive narratives to contextualize discussions about religion, science, and society. Truth is, the film never makes clear the strategic purpose of the weaponized liquid and the creatures it creates, and we are uncertain about the intentions of the Engineers. The film does suggest that the creature at the end will eventually spawn H. R. Giger’s xenomorphs, for there are a few visual references to (what appear to be) the “alien,” if not the alien queen (if she hasn’t yet been created, how do the Engineers know what she looks like? Or was the unseen queen herself responsible for chasing the Engineers?). Although we’re uncertain about the Last Engineer’s earthly plans, he does try to destroy Android Dave by beheading him (a curious move), and he assaults his human visitors (killing Old man Weyland), but the rest of the crew (we presume) perishes as a result of the crash—not because of the direct actions of the Engineer. Later, when Shaw attempts her escape, David warns her that the Engineer is “coming after her.” We assume that the Engineer is going to kill her, but is he? The Engineer does aggressively move to assault her, so she understandably springs the polypus in the life shuttle on her pursuer. The long point is that Shaw’s understanding of the Engineer’s actions is heavily influenced by Android Dave’s politely dubious, manipulative framing. We are not saying that the Last Engineer is not hostile. Clearly, he is. But we are uncertain if his intentions include killing her.
9. Attacking Westernism? Morrissey argues that the Engineers are fighting among themselves about the “meaning of the crucifixion.” The Engineers are split between those who understand the significance of the cross and the more extremist militants (or sectarians) who see this kind of belief as contrary to their foundational tenets. Thus, the Gnostics have liquidated the Universals (who embrace the cross events) as a prelude to their war on humans. If Prometheus represents a confluence of tension and, ultimately, an internal struggle among the faithful, then the Universalists, as Morrissey figures, bend toward holiness while the Gnostics pull toward totalitarianism. However, one could read things differently. Because Shaw is the protagonist, one senses great sympathy on the film’s part with her philosophical natality and scientific creativity as she searches for hard answers for her existential questions. In this sense, Shaw has been inscribed by an intellectual and religious tradition (Athens-Jerusalem) in which the past is freely contextualized with the future—where a belief in transcendence holds together the possibility of framing traditional ideas, beliefs, and practices with new (even radical) scientific discoveries. This kind of Westernism (one should factor Weyland’s kind of corporate capitalism, too) could have provoked a Clash of Civilizations reaction from the Engineers. If the Engineers do possess a faith, this faith may have compelled them to assert their identity by shaping the universe in their androcentered (which may explain the large male-like, humanoid bust in the ship), less egalitarian, “anti-Western” ways because the Engineers (or at least the more terroristic ones) refuse to embrace democracy and pluralism.
10. Athens-Jerusalem, Nature and Providence, Reason and Faith: clearly, there is a conflictive crisis between the Engineers and humans, but this crisis could have started for another reason, one related to but different than Morrissey’s hypothesis and unrelated to the Clash of Civilizations model noted above. The film could be illustrating the conflictive and pluralistic synthesis of the Graeco-Roman and Judeo-Christian master narratives. When religious perspectives grew significantly, humans turned away from the old secularism and moved toward a new epistemology based on theocentric values, and when man’s belief in the significance of the crucifixion and resurrection grew, the Protagorean maxim of “man is the measure of all things” became subsumed by a developing set of transcendental beliefs. The very idea of a human-centered universe embracing a theocentricity could also explain why the Engineers chose to punish humans, for they may interpret any kind of religious conversion as a betrayal worth damnation. Here, if the filmmakers assent to this kind of historicism, then the film’s narrative would make better sense if the Engineers come from a kind of humanism that breeds a nihilistic, techno-secularism that judges religious faith as deeply and dangerously offensive. This antithesis of nature and providence, reason and faith—as a thematic, organizational, and narrative principle—is reinforced in the film’s many motifs and larger themes. Although we’re uncertain if the Engineers wish to extinguish humans, they do seem willing to populate earth with vicious and base creatures that are neither capable of comprehending nor expressing a faith.
Of course, there is more about the effects of modernity, but the film’s most vibrant theme explores how interpretive acts are really moral acts of reasoned faith. The film argues that exploration and interpretivism are really about the search for the Self. As different audiences with varied values watch and re-watch Prometheus, they will exert more discussions about the film’s constellation of thematic concepts, for Prometheus spans the spectrum from natality to finality by exploring the epistemological and ontological significance of how transcendental beliefs (myths, religion) might better contextualize scientific knowledge. Because the film argues that a belief in transcendence can compel people to find larger biological and scientific truths, the film ends with a quest. As Shaw and Android Dave leave LV 223, they possess the answers to humanity’s origins, so they seek uncertain existential and teleological paths to understand if humanity has an intrinsic legitimacy (and finality) beyond the Self and beyond the determinism of the Engineers.
by David Ryan and Michael Ryan
Sarah Weissman, Fiction Editor: Building Stories, a beautiful collection of graphic novels by Chris Ware.
Matt Borondy, Editor/Publisher: Still catching up on last month’s list but also reading Jared Diamond’s forthcoming The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
Anna-Lynne Williams, Music Editor: A Man Without A Country by Kurt Vonnegut.
Robert Birnbaum, Editor-at-Large: Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball by Joe Bageant, The Best of Youth by Michael Dahlie, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan, Overture by David Slavitt, The Baffler #21, The Round House by Louise Erdrich (which I found boring), The Bird Saviors by William Cobb, The Valley of Unknowing by Phillip Sington, Woes of the True Policeman by Roberto Bolaño, Wilderness by Lance Weller
Hilarie Ashton, Assistant Editor: Aerogrammes by Tania James, Quarantine by Rahul Mehta, The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty, Information Visualization: Perception for Design (Interactive Technologies) by Colin Ware. Just got Paul Auster’s Winter Journal, and will probably drop all others until I’m done with it.
1. Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, by Jim Holt. From the bed of my casino hotel room in the Smoky Mountains, I wrote an Identity Theory newsletter which began: “Do you ever wake up abruptly from an accidental nap feeling a deep sense of emptiness about the universe?” A kind reader responded by recommending this critically acclaimed examination of being and emptiness.
2. Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo. The worthwhile critics and award-giving people loved this book more than any other that I missed this year. (P.S. I got to write “Boo” in this post.)
3. Hallucinations, by Oliver Sacks. My ex-girlfriend’s word-happy mother gave me a worn-out paperback copy of Sacks’ literary investigation of migraines years ago, and I haven’t read it for fear her gift would trigger a migraine. I prefer a book with the potential to bring on hallucinations.
4. Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens. Four is the number of death, according to the Chinese. I was born on the fourth of September, so my chances of being cursed are greater than zero. Beyond superstition, I’ve spent most of the past two months around women with breast cancer, working on puzzles both literal and existential. Hitch’s contribution will place a few pieces in their rightful spots.
5. The Cove, by Ron Rash. As he revealed to Robert Birnbaum earlier this year, Ron Rash was a fan of the late, great Rosie. I read a few Ron Rash books in 2012 but not his most recent novel. Rash is a big name around these parts. I hope he is wearing a gaudy t-shirt that says “I’M KIND OF A BIG DEAL” while touring to promote his next great collection of Western North Carolina-based fiction, Nothing Gold Can Stay, in 2013.
6. Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson. The first book mentioned in the NY Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2012 comes from young, Cairo-based G. Willow Wilson, whose essay “Eco Next: The Mechanics of Hyperpraxis” appeared on this very website in 2006.
7. A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers. I’ve never read a Dave Eggers book.
10. Inside, by Alix Ohlin. We met during the weekend of my birthday, at the Decatur Book Festival, when I was sneakily acquiring a free Bookzilla t-shirt, and I told her I would read at least one of the two fiction books she released this year. But I haven’t gotten my hands on a copy of either yet. Blame it on Bookzilla: