Saturday, November 29, 2008

found it!

interesting poetry, not all of it, but some. enough for now.

holidays are for bs

Just back from 2ndary thanksgiving with three poets, and over two pies we all agreed that new fiction has gotten/is getting very interesting, but poetry seems to have gone soft in the belleh, having grown reliant on sentimentality at the expense of interesting language. This conversation came on the heels of an IM chat with a friend who has to review three books of poetry for her grad class and is hating it every step of the way. She has concluded that she hates poetry period (citing exploitative, whining content) and doesn't buy my argument that she's really only been exposed to the most accessible (and therefore most teachable?) examples. Shocked to hear a grad student make the kind of statement that I only hear from sophomores--and I took her seriously so I'm thinking I should take the sophomores more seriously as well--I went diving around the net to show her something new and interesting that relies on word tension and not so much gimmickry or confession, but I came up short when went to my usual sources. And then the dog had some sort of gas attack and then . . . I felt bad because for a moment poetry was Santa Claus, and I really wanted her to believe (the IM friend, not the gassy dog).

Oh well, I can always put her on the Buck Downs postcard list.

Monday, November 24, 2008

My characters did what?

Just received a rejection from a big deal journal, and the guy writing to me went out of his way to praise my concept before he explained that the story meandered too much. It's a fair cop. He even asked me to send again, which was unexpected. But then he added that he really liked it when my characters cooperated at the end for a righteous purpose.

I was weirded out by his interpretation of my characters' actions. Because they didn't have a righteous purpose at all. They were trying to kill a guy.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Potty Mouth

I’m not very sensitive to foul language unless it is excessively body function-y and/or so evocative that the metaphoric intent is eclipsed. I curse a lot, and my characters tend to think in swears. When we lived in Athens, Ohio our downstairs neighbor was a British radio DJ named Mike and he used some very colorful language. One day while raving about conniving American Dentists and his need to find a clean recording of “Tallahassie Lassie,” he referred to his rotted tooth as a “dirty foreskin.” This after he insisted Dean examine his mouth with a flashlight. Made sense, as Dean has a PhD in Poetics. I don’t think I threw Mike out of the apartment, but I might’ve come close.

I’m thinking about dirty words, partly because my current fiction workshop is pretty swear-y, and I’ve taken no steps to control it. To be honest, I hardly notice, except when one of the women in the class makes a face. My class is made up of 4 women, 17 men—the men do all the swearing. The women don’t swear, but they write about rape and childbirth in ways that make the men squirm. I had a filthier workshop a few years ago—again, it was men doing the swearing, but in that instance it seemed obvious that the f-bombs were being dropped as a nervous reaction to the presence of assertive Muslim women in the class. The English major is now more diverse, but not too long ago the presence of opinionated women in scarves scared the living shit out of our usual population of fat athletes, ADHD preppies, and the home-school refugees.

My current class is pretty sweet though, despite the fact that they should not be kissing their mothers with those mouths. For example, they know that phlegm imagery makes me gag, so if the subject comes up (and you’d be surprised how often it does), they substitute specific references with the letter X—as in, “He wiped the X from his face.” I feel guilty about that, but only a little.

Friday, November 21, 2008

I also have relatives named Ervin, Vada, Norris, Alva, etc.

The majority of this post was cut for crimes of indulgence. What's left is this:

About a year ago I learned that my family on my mother's side were Quakers before they became Methodists, which feels so right I can't describe it. I also learned that I had a relative named Boyd Carlisle who tied his horse's lead around his leg because he couldn't find a tree. He wanted to stop for a smoke. At the sound of the match strike the horse bolted, dragging Boyd Carlisle for a long time. It took him about three days to die. This was in 1934 in Indiana. 'Uncle Boyd' has been characterized (by other dead cousins) as a naive speaker and different to the extent that he was not permitted to manage his own money. He was 62 when he died.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

I (don't) Wanna Go Backwards


Last night we saw Robyn Hitchcock performing his 1984 album I Often Dream of Trains, and it was a great show. I’m not nostalgic, but I do like the idea of albums becoming set lists as a way of reasserting the necessary relationship between songs, even if, and perhaps especially, the songs are performed out of order. If we operate from the assumption that all albums are concept albums, the whole album concert shouldn’t just be about returning to the past.

Hitchcock is still does his trippy patter between songs, having never made the Peter Gabriel transition. Gabriel used to tell weird stories between songs when he was in Genesis, while the band tuned their instruments, but when he went solo he abandoned fantasies for secular parables. I’m not complaining about that. Gabriel’s sermonizing directly influenced the Sun City and Band Aid projects which led to heartfelt embarrassments like Live Aid and We are the World and on and on. However one feels about the nebulous agenda of Live 8, early on in the cycle it did feel like activist concerts provided concrete responses to concrete problems. I mean, Sting cured Apartheid, right? Oh where have I gone with this . . . Robyn Hitchcock never changed the story he tells, and I suppose his political/social influence is nonexistent, but as I listened again to his excellent love songs about transportation and infrastructure I couldn’t help but think how brilliant he would be on the Fairfax City Council.

Hitchcock did not play “Furry Green Atom Bowl.” I think all of the encores were Queen Elvis era and later. I woke up this morning pissed at the Beatles for being such greedy bastards.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Monday, November 10, 2008

Focusing NaNoWriMo

I tried NaNoWriMo once, sincerely. Failed very early in the process because my head, like yours I bet, is jammed too far up my own hole to free write any more. Now I sponsor and host NaNo events for the Mason community because I admire how the event provides 1) permission to be creative & 2) loopy constraint for those who need it. A more specific reason I like NaNo is that it demystifies novel writing by reducing the activity to just that, activity. It may be a lie, but exposing the process in this way provides an experience we can’t offer in academic workshops, not really. (I tried last year. My understanding is that most academic novel writing workshops devolve into support group sessions) We train students to write short stories because that’s what we can manage within the physical realities of class size, semesters, etc, and isn’t that just as artificially constrained as reasons for not teaching novel writing? Worse, students come into fiction workshops believing that short stories are easier to write because they are, er, shorter. I always stress writing in the form that one reads for pleasure, and that the forms have different aesthetic shapes that are far more important than word counts.

But back to the demystification angle. I’ve never met a successful novelist who described novel writing as anything other than painful. I’ve never met a student novelist who described novel writing as anything other than joyful. I’ve never met a novelist who could tell me how to write a novel. Or maybe they can and they don’t wanna? So we learn by doing, doing, doing. In the absence of any other willing authority, NaNo exhorts us to do, do, do. I know this sets aside the old whiskey breathed chastisement, “A writer writes”—which may be true after all—but that’s not a good enough answer to any question. It’s certainly not education.

The Recovering Novel

Just finished Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson, and it took me a while, but I have to say I did truly enjoy the book once it got going. I stopped early on because it looked like the conceit was keeping me at arm’s length, and that I was going to be subjected to a parade of tragic circumstances that I would be forced to observe from a frustrating, cool perspective. But as soon as the unifying character, Jackson, appeared, the narrative began to gel. And in the end, lots of relief all around, and even if that relief wasn’t really believable, so freaking what. I think one review called the book a “noble failure,” which suggests a kind of march towards defeat, but I think the failure, if any, is at the front end with its stagy premise, and that the thing pulls itself together more than nicely for a satisfying finish.Which is most important to me, as books rarely end right.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Gilbert & Sullivan

Nice surprise at the mid point of our 20 mile bike ride on the Maryland Rail Trail. Tacked to the info kiosk at the halfway point, a bit of delight from the Lyme Disease Foundation (which I hope I remembered correctly): “The best tick check takes place in private, with a full body naked tick check.” I love nature prose.

To serve Man

So I want to acknowledge the influence of two teaching poets, Skip Fox and Carolyn Forche, on my fiction writing. They really don’t hang out in the same prose very often. Because Skip was interested in my husband’s poetry he was tolerant of me, and when he found me browsing through the library stacks at the University of southwestern Louisiana (now UL), he pointed me towards the works of Kathy Acker, Leslie Scalapino, and all those amazing folks included in Andrei Codrescu’s Up Late anthology. Later, after encountering Forche (yes, skip is skip and Carolyn is Forche, even though I am closer to her than him), she too cited Scalapino and French surrealists, making us use all the toys of chance composition available in Behn and Twitchell’s amazing The Practice of Poetry. These exposures were more memorable, and so I assume more significant, to my most recent writing than say, Best American Stories, or my conversations with fiction writers during the same time.

And speaking of writers in dialogue, I’m going to try to go on an HTMLGIANT dot com diet, see if I can’t go the whole weekend without checking in on the laddish banter, which is starting to creep me out and certainly distract me. For example, the Sam Pink urgency may have gotten to the point where they will start posting recipes on how to cook him for Thanksgiving. And now we’ve come to my point: I wanted to put Pink, Fox, and Forche in my labels.

Off to ride my bike along the C&O, then back to the cabin to work on the novel.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Phantoms

Voted early so I could get to work, where 35,000 students, faculty, and staff members were the amused/angered recipients of a hoax email from our Provost, informing us that the election had been rescheduled for Wednesday the 5th.

Later in the day I met one of those "undecided" voters; I'd honestly thought they were creatures of myth. This person played Bartleby for a while before confessing that the lack of civility in the whole process was too much to endure. I can almost see that.

Monday, November 3, 2008

ooo, NaNoWriMo is good for me

Saw Hillary speak last night, which was super cool, but I'm going batty with the stress, possibly because the fate of the world depends on whether I get up in time to vote at 6am tomorrow. Can't sleep, clowns will eat me.

But in the middle of the day today, I took a break to host a NaNoWriMo write-in (the first of 10), and I have to say that was a lovely, peaceful, and creative 90 minutes. Reject negativity.

Si Se Puede, babies.