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Fairy tales. The genre shows up all the time, everywhere–in film, art, and literature. Consider films like M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water, and the very aesthetic of Shyamalan himself, across the body of his work. (Lady in the Water  is itself a treatise on the interpretation of modern myth in light of its historical distillation.) With regards to literature, I recently had the opportunity to discuss the use of the fairy tale genre in contemporary writing with Sandy Longhorn, someone who is thinking and writing about this very subject. Sandy is the author of Blood Almanac (Anhinga Press), which won the Anhinga Prize for Poetry.  Her newer poetry is forthcoming or has appeared recently in Cincinnati Review, New South, The Rumpus, South Dakota Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and elsewhere.  Longhorn lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, is an Arkansas Arts Council fellow, and blogs at Myself the only Kangaroo among the Beauty.


CR: Could you talk about your interest in fairy tales as a medium of interpretation in literature? What sparked it and what elements provide for the continuation of your interest?

SL: First, thank you for the interest in my work and for posing these intricate questions.

I started writing a series of fairy tale poems based on the Midwest after reading Mary Biddinger’s book of poetry, Prairie Fever.  Although not a book of fairy tales, I was impressed with the way Biddinger presented some of the darker undertones of living in the Midwest.

After I drafted the first poem “Midwest Nursery Tales,” I went back and read many of the iconic Western fairy tales as they are presented in the original Brothers Grimm books.  These are the non-Disneyfied versions where the ‘good guys’ are often injured or horribly transformed and the ‘bad guys’ often meet bloody ends.  There are versions that go back even farther, but I haven’t done the research yet to find those books.

The gender issues presented in both the Disney versions and the Grimm versions may be one of my primary interests, that and the social ethics the tales attempt to prescribe.  An education in literature gave me the skills to think critically about the tales, and from my first lit classes in college, I began to look beneath the surface of any media I absorbed and into the ideas of self-identity and social positioning, those powerful messages often at work without our acknowledgment.

 


CR: What are you doing in your own work in regards to the fairy tale genre?  How are you using it?

SL: My work in fairy tales is a bit different than what I’ve seen in the past when I’ve read re-interpretations of traditional tales.  Instead of building on the past, I’ve attempted to create new tales, tales that more accurately reflect my own experiences.  Those experiences are grounded in the landscape and the people of the rural Midwest.

In my reading of the Grimm tales, I was struck by the idea of transformation.  In many cases that transformation results from a spell put on a person by a witch or due to some other magical element.  However, in my reality, there was a rock-solid disbelief in anything but hard work and a pure heart.  People got what they deserved; we reaped what was sown, literally and figuratively.  Thus, each of my fairy tale poems is about a girl who is transformed not by magic but by the weather, the land, and/or the industry of agriculture around her.


CR: Going back to the original fairy tales–the gritty, unprettified versions where sometimes the characters get picked to shreds–do you think there is a need in the literary world for the censored (Disney) versions to be ousted?

SL: I don’t know about a need, but I do know that kids can take a lot more than Disney gives them credit for.  Even while I was happy as a child to watch the Disney versions of Cinderella, Snow White, and all the rest, I knew that they didn’t match my reality.

I’m not one to exclude much of anything, but I would argue for a balance.  In particular, when talking about the ‘censored versions,’ we are usually talking about books and/or movies designed for children.  I’m not a parent and I wouldn’t begin to impose my beliefs on those who are; however, we live in a perilous world.  Ask the children who survived Hurricane Katrina about terror, stress, and heartache.  Ask the children whose homes burned down in wildfires in California, Texas, and Oklahoma.  Ask the children whose parents have lost lives or limbs or mental stability to wars overseas.  Ask those who have suffered from domestic violence.  Perhaps the argument for the ‘censored versions’ is one for pure entertainment and escape.  There is a place for that, surely, yet that escape will not necessarily help heal the wounds.  Reality will be waiting when the book cover closes or the movie reaches the end of its run.  How will we prepare our children to return to reality?

 


CR: Do you think we are creating our own fairy tales in this day and age?  If so, how and to what extent, in your opinion?

SL: I do.  The first examples that come to mind are many of the Pixar movies (and the like) that appeal to both children and adults.  I think of Wall-E, Up, and Finding Nemo right off the top of my head.  There are truly scary scenes in each of these movies that expose the hard truths about danger in our world and how we navigate it.  Certainly, the Harry Potter phenomenon lends itself to the fairy tale and draws in modern issues of diversity and a global morality.  The idea of Voldemort as the embodiment of evil fits how overwhelming the bad things of the world sometimes feel.

I suppose some might claim the rise in vampire and werewolf novels for young adults is another foray into fairy tales.  I confess I haven’t read them, as I have a really low scare tolerance (I’ve always had trouble with the line between fiction and reality).  Stephen King’s novels might fall into this same category, in particular The Green Mile comes to mind, although I can’t read much of his work, either, for the nightmares his scenes induce in me.

At the root, a fairy tale goes beyond entertainment.  There is a cautionary purpose there, a moral lesson meant to build a stronger community.  Even though we no longer gather around the hearth, we still have folk tales, just in a variety of media.

 


CR: Do you think there is an aversion toward fairy tales in some literary circles, and if so, why would you say this exists?

SL: This is so interesting.  I’ve heard this question several times now, and I must admit, I wasn’t aware of any aversion to fairy tales.  However, since the question has been raised, I’m beginning to sense that others have felt this aversion.

My own poems are quite new and still making their way out into the world of lit mags and publishers.  I simply might not have felt any push back against the content yet.  I did have one editor email me a rejection with a note that the poems I’d submitted (four of my fairy tales) didn’t fit her journal’s aesthetic but she would welcome a submission with other poems.  I suppose that could be the aversion to which the question refers.

I’m guessing that there have been a lot of poems and stories written that are based on traditional tales that have not gone beyond the tradition and made something new.  In some ways, writing in response to fairy tales might be similar to writing ekphrastic poems.  The writer’s duty is to use the previous art and explore some new territory.  If that isn’t done well, it could lead to a negative branding of the genre, I suppose.

There could also be some gender issues at work here, although I have no scientific proof.  Fairy tales fall in the realm of the domestic.  The connotation of the words brings to mind a mother, grandmother, or nanny with her children gathered around her listening with rapt attention.  Many feminist writers have re-imagined the traditional texts as a way forward into empowerment and a new paradigm.  If anyone has a problem with fairy tales for those reasons, then I’d say it is his or her loss.  Everyone’s voice, everyone’s vision, should have a place at the table.

 

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Pynchon, again

Returning to Pynchon, now, I remember my first taste of his work. A bargain store copy of The Crying of Lot 49 that I bought without expectation. I found the book to be a revelation. I wandered campus in a fog, asking people what they knew about this Thomas Pynchon. I’d never heard of him. Professors were, occasionally, dismissive: “Well, he’s an important post-modernist” they would say in a way that let me know they meant “not important at all.”I thought they were crazy to be so dismissive. Very quickly thereafter I devoured V. and Gravity’s Rainbow. For a little while I considered Gravity’s Rainbow my favorite novel and Mr. Pynchon the greatest writer this country had ever produced. By far. His range, his intelligence, his … greatness seemed to tower above every other possible writer.

I was 22 or maybe 23 at that point. In some ways I was well read for my age. And in other ways I was not. Many of the writers I found impressive in my middle twenties, in particular, the post-modernists and the absurdists (and those who influenced them) were unknown to me and so Pynchon seemed a giant existing in a vacuum.

I wonder if this is why at some point Pynchon became less interesting to me–I stopped reading him entirely after a re-read of Lot 49 my first semester in grad school. In the subsequent years I’ve picked up all of his other novels, once or twice, and considered re-reading Rainbow. Harold Bloom’s high estimation of Mason & Dixon (he sees the novel as towering above all others of the last… however many years or so) has always brought me to that book and back over the years, but I’ve never wandered beyond page 40. I’m reading it again and enjoying it but not nearly at the level of when I was younger. Pynchon no longer seems so gigantic, in short. I wonder now if he’s that certain type of novelist who flares within the mind of the reader for a brief time, but whose work you cannot return to again and again, as with Kerouac, for instance.

However, I’m hoping I’ll rediscover him this time and regain some of that youthful passion. Certainly if there’s any writer my own work would hope to emulate it’s probably Pynchon. Which makes my reluctance these last 8 or 9 years all the more mystifying.

Can anyone relate? Are there writers who meant a great deal to you at a younger age but, upon returning to them, refused to grant the same pleasure?

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Some Kind of Monster

Recently my wife and I happened across the last forty minutes or so of the Encore mini-series version of Moby-Dick with Ethan Hawke as Starbuck and John Hurt as Ahab. This was the first I’d heard of this newest version and certainly I watched as I always watch these things: possessed by something like disgust and horror (plus, I’ve never watched Ethan Hawke without wanting to punch him in the face).  This trailer seems to confirm my initial impressions (I don’t think I’m capable of watching the entire mini-series): that this version is about Ethan Hawke’s tug of war with John Hurt’s obsession plus some action and some adventure and some period costumes and some guy with mutton chops playing the role of Ishmael. From what I’ve seen, it is another fairly literal translation of the novel onto the screen with some alterations made to appease Hawke’s ego.

And according to this review from the NY Daily News “For the first 10 or 15 minutes, the film lingers on the genteel life Ahab has built on Nantucket, heart of the whaling industry in 1850.Whaling captains were royalty then and Ahab lives accordingly. This is no ruffian who slouches around until he can climb on a boat and go kill something. Hurt’s Ahab is a man of culture and refinement. He lives in a grand, tastefully appointed house. He eats good food, drinks good wine and enjoys relaxing in his library with a good book. He has an obviously caring wife, Elizabeth (Gillian Anderson) and all the money he needs to live out a comfortable life.”

To me, these seem like perfectly reasonable additions to add background depth to Ahab’s character (even if I disagree with them). In general, I’m in favor of any adaptation that bends from the source material and creates its own logic and reality. If this were, say, Pride and Prejudice I would see nothing offensive in any of this. However, Moby Dick is not a perfectly reasonable book. It is not about period costumes and mutton chops. Moby Dick is a novel written in full fever. It is a little bit insane, in parts, and all parts are written by a writer of high ambition.

I’ve been on a Metallica kick these last few weeks. I have no idea why, but every so often “The Call of Ktulu” calls to me. Anyhow, I’ve been listening to the entire output, but the album that I come back to, and enjoy the most, is the much derided St. Anger, best described as a 75 minute bludgeoning although it is probably most commonly called “laughably bad.”   The 2004 documentary of the recording of this album, Some Kind of Monster, shows a petty, desperate, emotionally strained group of musicians with enormous egos and thin skins who spend as much time in group therapy as they spend recording the album. Most seem to use this documentary to illustrate the reasons why the album is bad. To me, it sort of explains why it sounds so good. To me the album sounds furious and unhinged and frustrated and confused but it also sounds like a band of great talent going all out to make a really good record. There’s something about this coupling of insanity and uncertainty and talent and ambition that, for me at least, makes a really nice sound. At the least, I suggest giving this youtube clip of Frantic a listen. I may be the only person who like this record.

Anyhow, for me, this is what all film versions of Moby-Dick are missing–the unhinged ambition and risk taking and fearlessness. This brings to mind an article (I’ve since misplaced where or when it was from) about Werner Herzog’s Hollywood adventure/ rescue film Rescue Dawn. While making the film the Hollywood crew and producers were horrified by Herzog’s approach–considering him no better than an amateur in his methods. Not surprisingly, Rescue Dawn is a very safe, button-down movie compared to Herzog’s non-fiction take, the slightly unhinged and risk taking Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Dawn only works when Herzog’s madness peeps through, fleetingly, here and there. Give me madness and ambition and risk taking over professional and safe and well done any day.

Certainly, as critics of his day were glad to point out, Melville’s great novels from Moby Dick on were not “well made” in many aspects. Potentially major characters and plot points are introduced and then forgotten, inconsistencies abound in the point of view and in the plots (to the extent that there are plots). And a few even accused him of having gone insane.

I’ve often said that Moby Dick should be made into a film–I’m all for our greatest literatures being translated into other mediums. But it would take a filmmaker of a certain greatness and madness to pull it off. At times I’ve thought the Wes Anderson of The Life Aquatic (probably the film closest in spirit to the true Moby Dick) is just weird and ambitious and fearless enough to pull it off. Other times its clear that the Paul Thomas Anderson of There Will Be Blood and Magnolia would make a masterpiece. What do you think?

 

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You don’t need to have read Moby Dick to enjoy John Minichillo’s witty, short re-telling, The Snow Whale. But does it help? Having spent my life in academic literature programs, somehow I never read Melville’s seminal work, so I have no idea. And given that I have smaller, prettier fish to fry, I’m happy to leave the Dick appreciation to my co-bloggers. But if I missed all or some of the referential nuances of The Snow Whale, it didn’t interfere with my enjoyment. Essentially a story about a man in search of identity, The Snow Whale is an accessible, smart satire that is full of snow, making it a perfect summer read.

(Full disclosure: John is a writer-friend, and I got my copy for free, so I may be biased, but honestly? So far? Everyone loves this damn book.  It’s got a great hook, real momentum, and relevancy.)

In a nutshell, John Jacobs, an office drone who sells corporate novelties for UniqCorps Plastics Division, has grown tired of his middle class suburban life and his stale marriage. Ripe for a mid-life crisis adventure, Jacobs’ imagination is stirred when he learns that a co-worker has taken a DNA test that suggests Mongolian ancestry:

“I need to be with my people,” Mike said. “To walk knee-deep in the Mongolian snows and breathe the free Mongolian air. Before this DNA test I was nobody. Did you know they drink oxblood and have seventeen varieties of yogurt unique to the region?”

“You’re always eating yogurt,” Jacobs said.

 “I know!” Mike said. “Now it all makes sense.”

Inspired, Jacobs orders his own DNA test and discovers that his is “37 percent Inuit,” and so begins his journey to reclaim his heritage, an obsession that is almost irretrievably hazardous to his domestic life.  A turning point comes when he discovers an online  protest against the annual Inuit bowhead whale hunt:

Despite PETA’s complaint, Jacobs knew the hunt was for the continuation of his culture. . . . He imagined chewing the raw meat and using the whale oil for light and for heat. His mood improved immediately, and he called to his wife as he read on.

“Look,” he said, oblivious to her resentment because he’d threatened their marriage, “the Inuit are allowed to hunt whale.”

“I’m supposed to care?” she muttered to herself.

“I want to hunt a whale. It’s my right.”

She stared at the lanky pale man who had been her husband for over a decade. People thought she settled when she married him, but he at least held more promise then. All her old ballroom dancing friends thought so. They called him light on his feet.  They said he cut a nice figure. Now she was married to a desk doodle salesman and he was losing his mind.

This is by no means a bad thing, but I think a lot of readers will enjoy The Snow Whale for its appeal to their research interests, whether it be cultural studies, environmental issues, general Melville enthusiasm, etc. For example, I know of a folklorist who plans to use the novel in her “Xenophobia/ Xenophilia” class. It’s the same for me I guess–I can’t stop reading as a writer because Minichillo’s modulations are so impressive; the tone adjusts to the emotional development of Jacobs, and the variation in intimacy and attention results in a dynamic narrative. The first three chapters of The Snow Whale are essentially about the frustration of being trapped in white suburban mediocrity, and the satire is dry and contemplative. But when Jacobs leaves to join the whale hunt with a black teenager named Q enlisted to film the adventure, The Snow Whale shifts into a lively buddy comedy. By the final third of the novel, when the thing-we’ve-been-waiting-to-happen happens, the tone shifts again, this time to make room for a genuinely thrilling adventure to play out. And while we think we know what to expect from The Snow Whale’s conclusion, the final chapter manages to be quite surprising and moving.

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Endings

In college we were always told the best endings were those that wrapped up and elevated a story. We were also told the most important part of any story or poem or play or novel or essay were those last few lines.

In the midst of another summer session teaching Intro to Literature where it seems the only stories I’ve ever taught, and indeed the only stories I’ve ever read, are those concluding with some grand statement, some beautifully perceived epiphany. “Do the clouds open up for you?” I want to ask my students when I’m in the mood to criticize these endings. “Does the sun shine down and suddenly you understand your life?”

I think for the most part my students enjoy these stories about  the boys who quit their jobs for persecuted rich girls in bikinis or drunk men who draw on the floor together or young boys who promise to buy trinkets for the girl next door, but I don’t know if they’re terribly impressed by the endings of these stories–they find them mysterious in a bad way, false, and, surprisingly, inconsequential considering many of these endings seem designed to illuminate the consequence of seemingly inconsequential tales.

Do people still end stories with epiphanies? I don’t know that I’ve seen many new stories like this–other than the dozens I wrote in my early to middle 20s.

It seems to me the way you end a story or a novel or a film says something about your philosophy of art or life in a way that the beginning of your work maybe doesn’t do.

My favorite endings are the ones that project to some event outside of the story while relating to the story–like the dead letter office in Bartleby– or that project the outcome of the next fifty years in the space of 100 words–something like Young Goodman Brown’s conclusion or, jumping to novels, those in 19th century novels, the final years of Mr Bovary’s life, his fall into ruin and his death and the sad life of his little girl. Or the ones that seemingly have nothing to do with the actual story of the novel you’ve just read–some weird event or parable in italics –Cormac McCarthy, for instance, does this often and grandly although I wonder if these endings aren’t now all outdated or clichéd in their way. It’s hard for me to believe anyone ends their novels now with the last 30 years of a character’s life, for instance.

I don’t particularly care for endings to novels that are melodramas that attempt to elevate the story to some cosmic significance although when I was 21 I thought the ending to The Great Gatsby was pretty fine. I also rather enjoyed the endings to Hemingway’s novels, the understated walks in the rain, the perfect final line. I concluded many a clumsy manuscript with attempts at emulating those forms until someone finally suggested I was treading a well-worn path. Until I stopped asking: “How do you end a story?” and started asking: “What is the point of ending a story? What should someone attempt to achieve with that last page?”

As far as films go I like the ones like City Lights that end poetically and sadly and quietly or the ones that end with grand fevered madness like the monkeys on the raft and other outrages that conclude Aguirre or the bludgeoning by bowling pin at the end of There Will Be Blood or the ones that end with some ambiguity or strangeness like 2001: A Space Odyssey. We rewatched A Thin Red Line last night and I thought that ending was particularly strong, ending as it does with a voice over soliloquy and some beautiful images and the idea that nothing has really ended, that our characters will continue to do as they did within this film, until they are killed or until the war is over.

I like endings by people like Woody Allen who emulate the great endings of the master filmmakers with similar endings of their own–repeating the great finishes of Chaplin, Fellini, and Bergman in various films–as if to acknowledge, yet again, his admiration for the great filmmakers of his youth and to say, again, how small he is compared to those greats.

I like the sort of endings that prompts most other people to say “What was that ending? Is that even an ending?”

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Yesterday, while kibitzing at the inaugural Indie Lit Summit in DC, I saw the news that Reb Livingston has decided to shut down her enormously influential online poetry magazineNo Tell Motel after October and that No Tell Books would be going on hiatus after August. In a blog post Reb reassures us that this is a natural conclusion for a project that has required a lot of commitment to sustain:

Anyone who edits a publication knows the amount of time and energy required to start and maintain a literary magazine. After 7 years of channeling much of my time and energy into NTM I decided that I very much wish to channel it into new directions . . . I’m not sad about NTM ending. Everything has a lifespan.

Reb’s contributions as a writer and publisher of contemporary poetry cannot be over-estimated. I look forward to her future projects, should they be public ones. The body of work showcased at the elegantly designed Motel will astound you. If you have never been there yet, go now and spend the rest of 2011 getting caught up.

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Thomas Williams’ novella The Mimic’s Own Voice is nothing short of extraordinary. It details the enigmatic life of Douglas Myles, a mimic, in his rise to the spotlight, the tours of his talents, his death, the ignition of awe and greater fame postmortem.

What stood out the most was the intellectualism of the writing. Where the hell did this guy come from and how has he managed to craft such an artful and clever production? Williams packed a kick in every single line, not just in detail but also style. Think the formal approach of Shakespeare crossed with the class of F. Scott Fitzgerald, something immediately illustrated in a potent opening line, “In the halcyon days of professional mimics, shortly after they’d outpaced their predecessors, the vernacular storytellers, who had, a decade earlier, wrested the comedic throne from the one-liner royalty, it would have been difficult to name a town of ten thousand souls that didn’t possess some venue where performed those artists who made their fame and fortune with stunning mimicry of the period’s political leaders and actors, athletes and musicians, scholars, and men of science.”

It’s not easy reading, and it takes a great deal of focus to wade through the complexities of his narration. Take this string, “Had any other comedian been enlisted to provide Myles’s comeuppance, the last line of their exchange might have eventually faltered, as most, when surveyed by The Jester, replied that they’d have avoided the stage for a week, allowing the public to forget Myles’s prediction (our national attention span as short as it is). But King David Blum was not called king for nothing. Few had a mild response to his act, so he was met at every concert by fans and detractors alike, all of them now turning out to see if the upstart from, as Blum called it, ‘the fucking prairie,’ knew more than the comic’s voice and routine, but as well the workings of his mind.”

There’s definitely a heaviness in the novella’s lengthy passages (sometimes it read like an encyclopedia), but by far this writer has one of the most unique styles I’ve come across in today’s indie contemporary market. Definitely check it out, you will be awed.

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