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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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A month and a half ago, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made something of a stir when he complained about his lack of a statue in front of the Staples Center; after all he had been a multiple MVP and a major part of 5 LA Laker championship teams.  This is a remarkable complaint, and maybe incomprehensible display of self-importance for anyone who is not a famous athlete, although I think most people could relate to the fear of being overlooked and forgotten.

Less incomprehensible, to me at least, was Jack White’s complaint during a 2005 interview with Charlie Rose about the lack of appreciation afforded Orson Welles in this country, suggesting at the minimum Welles should have a statue in Manhattan for his early productions of Macbeth and War of the Worlds, never mind Citizen Kane. And yet, it seems unlikely Welles would ever receive a statue in Manhattan or that you would find many people who would believe he deserves one—unlike Kareem, Welles is still often considered a career loser in this country—more famous for never directing a hit film or for getting fat or for his association with commercials and the Muppets and the Transformers. His early brilliance tainted by his disgusting fall—in some ways he’s seen as more of a Shawn Kemp than a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Welles was certainly aware of this impression, and it caused him much agony over the later 40 years of his life (and no small stress when attempting to fund a new film).

With this in mind it’s pretty remarkable how many writers with monuments or statues dedicated to them. In the case of the Jack Kerouac Memorial in Lowell, Mass, it’s all the more remarkable considering how badly and out of favor Kerouac ended. In many ways, Kerouac followed something of a similar trajectory to Welles (and many American artists)—the break out hit, and then years of failures, obscurity, ridicule, and money problems. I remember thinking about this when I first visited that memorial about six years go: how I regretted Kerouac died so long before his city honored him.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was another writer who died young and out of favor and he has a statue in St. Paul. I tend to think of Fitzgerald in Paris or, more sadly, in Hollywood, where he was unable to find copies of his books in print, but I like the idea of a major city paying tribute to a native son.

Nathaniel Hawthorne has a statue, and several sites dedicated to profiting off his memory, plus a hotel named after him in Salem, Mass. I wonder how Hawthorne would feel about the tribute paid to him by a town whose major industry is exploiting the same witch trials he so abhorred.  Still, as with Kerouac and his writings on Lowell, Hawthorne does claim fairly frequent association with Salem and the surrounding area in his work.

While Kareem’s complaint is obviously thin-skinned, there’s something quite nice about a town going out of its way to pay tribute and to make immortal their appreciation for the contributions of some cultural or artistic figure. I wonder now how many other writers or filmmakers or artists have monuments and bronze statues dedicated to them in various towns and cities along the country. I can certainly think of a few who deserve them—most prominently, I believe Saul Bellow deserves something, Bellow who so memorably wrote of Chicago in The Adventures of Augie March and Humboldt’s Gift (and elsewhere). I think Bellow, who did worry over the lasting importance of his works (although his writing is certainly at the very top of our literature), would have greatly appreciated the gesture (or even the gesture of suggesting the gesture).

Who else?

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Lately I’ve been rather fixated with the popular reaction to Terrence Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life.  Other than the booing at Cannes, most articles and blog posts about the film have focused on audience members who were drawn into attending based on Brad Pitt’s name and high reviewer “scores” at sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. I will agree, this is one of the last movies most audience members would want to be unprepared for: in an over two-hour film there is very little dialogue or what would be considered a traditional “plot.” More importantly, the films makes two radical leaps–early on and then at the end–from a succession of images focusing on a family in 1950s Texas to extended portrayals of the creation and the end of the universe.

A post at The Film Experience collects various tweets detailing comments “over heard at The Tree of Life” (my personal favorite is the “Old Lady Yelling: CAN ANYONE TELL ME WHAT THAT WAS ABOUT?”) while a post at the New York Times Arts Beat recently touched on all the people who have walked out of the film (and in some cases demanded their money back). I’ve seen the film several times and cannot really report much for a disturbed audience (I’ve attended during the day when the crowd is pretty thin) other than a gentleman who, after arriving 45 minutes late (and thus missing the extended creation sequence), greeted the sudden cut to the end of time sequence  with a very loud, and apparently startled, “What the fuck?” (followed by snickers from several other audience members).

I can’t help but think of an interview I saw years ago where Frank Stallone discussed the moment he felt his brother, Sylvester, had become too self-important for his own good. At that time Sly was working on Staying Alive, the sequel to Saturday Night Fever, and Sly’s coffee table was stacked with books about myths and symbolism and Dante’s Inferno. Sly insisted these were his research, and inspiration, for the film. Frank’s response, of course, was (to paraphrase): “What the fuck does this have to do with Saturday Night Fever?” No doubt, this is what goes on in someone’s mind at The Tree of Life. And I think that’s a good thing.

I always liked this idea of Sly Stallone becoming a little feverish and insane, and drastically, ridiculously, hilariously overreaching with his material. I’ve never seen Staying Alive, and I can’t imagine I ever will, but a 1983 article in People magazine describes how Sly concluded his picture with “a nine-minute, million-dollar dance sequence staged as a one-on-one bout. There’s even blood. Billed as “Dante’s Inferno,” this grand finale features Travolta dancing his way out of hell and ascending to heaven on a spaceship-like platform that resembles the one in Broadway’s Cats. Stallone originally planned to cap his movie with a musical rendition of The Odyssey, but he opted for heaven and hell ‘because more people know about it.'”

Has anyone seen this movie? Is it as ridiculous and bizarre as it reads? And yet, while I readily grant it seems like the sort of meltdown that could have cost Sly his career (and probably did cost him the gig of directing Godfather III with Travolta in the starring role) I would also argue that a Saturday Night Fever sequel with a journey to hell and an ascension to heaven is more memorable and significant with one than without one. And I think those people who snicker at The Tree of Life probably see the two films in similar terms.

The movie Tree of Life is most compared to is 2001: A Space Odyssey, a comparison mostly based on those ambitious narrative leaps. I’ve always wondered if audience members thought they had entered the wrong movie during the first 20 minutes of silence and primitive yelping in 2001. Film history has confirmed the brilliance of Kubrick’s  jump cut from those primitives to the reaches of space, but I can imagine, and appreciate, that even as some early viewers must have been exhilarated, many must have thought: “Wait… what? What does this have to do with apes?”

I’ve often wondered if a literary experience can equate to the “mind-blowing” jump cuts in that film (and now in Tree). The most literary example of an artist suddenly pulling the rug from the audience comes that I can think of comes some 60 pages into Moby Dick when Ishmael (or Melville) writes: “It is the systematized exhibition of the whale in his broad genera, that I would fain put before you” and from then on the sea adventure the reader has to that point been reading becomes something much grander and stranger and, to many readers, far more boring. And yet, its hard to imagine any reader having the same response to that transition as my fellow theater goer had at The Tree of Life that day. I’ve wondered if there’s something about the visual nature of film that allows movies to make really bold cuts in ways that do not seem so bold in literature–the reading experience necessarily slows down any such impact.

So, what do you think: what literary work has had that kind of impact on the reader (or attempted to)? Is it even possible? What did you (or fellow movie goers) think of those cuts in The Tree of Life? Have you seen Staying Alive? What can you tell me about it?

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Everyone knows that Ethel Rohan is one the rescuers of domestic realism, snatching the notion of family from the gums of academy hacks to re-energize it with her own lyric volatility. Her latest collection, Hard to Say, is a vampiric stunner of a book, very dark and soulful. Check out this sampler of first lines, some of which read like horror fiction:

“While Mother lay in the hospital dying, my aunts gathered in our dirty kitchen and brewed tea, cried and laughed together.” —Corruptionists

“I didn’t believe my brother was real.”–Kriegspiel

“Disease ate away at Mother’s eyes.”–Stung

“At dusk, at the bottom of our street, fear grabbed at the front of my coat and held me dangling.”– Robbed

“Mother opened the fridge door, her knuckles yellow, and removed the bloodied bag of calf’s liver.”–Raw

My reading tastes, especially in summer, are escapist/prurient, so Thank Pank for the irresistible design of this “Little Books” winner that I might have otherwise back-burnered for a more somber season. Mother-daughter chaos, even the kind set in Dublin, is not a subject I relish, but once I started reading Hard to Say, I found its linked stories absorbing, especially as the narrator struggles to identify the mechanisms of altered understanding—it’s all so mysterious:

“Once, for no good reason, one of our dogs bit an old man in the meatiest part of his calf. Prince tore the man’s skin and drew blood, left holes like BB blasts. The man’s face was a dark tangle of feelings. Prince licked his lips and seemed to smile. Ever after, I was a camera carrying around those pictures. I loved Prince so much, and he loved me, but it was hard to feel the same way about him after that—all the rules changed. That’s how it was with Mother too.”–Corruptionists

By design Hard to Say defies cherry-picking and should be read in a single sitting. BUT—and I tested this—despite its mostly chronological organization you can read it backwards, peeling away from the dark purge of “Mammy” until you reach the lonely mysteries of the self destructive child in “Crust.” In case you ever need to illustrate how a literary work can be identified by its complex dependencies, Hard to Say is a wonderful example. Rohan may well be marching us through time, but that illusion, like cause and effect, is for comfort only. Which brings me to the potency of the material we’re given, as well as that which has been held back. In the final three stories the narrator is an independent woman, living far away from Mother. The glimpses of her autonomy are fascinating, leaving me wanting that dreaded more.  I am so sorry, Ethel. The concentrated pleasures of this little book has me wondering when, if ever, we’ll see the big version.

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Knuckleheads

Jeff Kass comes out of the gates hard in his debut story collection, Knuckleheads. I asked him some knuckleheaded questions and this is what came of it:

CDW:  Your stories are charged with a violent, contemporary realism. How do you see this as fitting in with the writing that’s being done by your peers today?

JK:     There are a number of writers of stories who are writing similar worlds to the ones I write. I look at Junot Diaz, Lewis Robinson, Michael Delp and Ben Percy in terms of short stories, and a novelist like Adam Mansbach. I also think writers generally associated with crime or detective fiction like Dennis Lehane and Richard Price are trafficking in similar neighborhoods. All of us on some level are exploring how men encounter violence in their lives and how they respond to a situation that could potentially turn violent – will they react quickly and throw a punch? Will they get punched? Will they look for some other resolution or just try to avoid such situations? Do they lust for them? Dream of them? Do different circumstances call for different responses?
I suspect one thing I’m concerned with which these other writers are concerned with is that acts of violence don’t necessarily define a character completely. They can reveal something, but they’re not the whole story.
CDW:  What’s the difference between a guy and a man?
JK:   Labels are interesting – guy, man, dude, knucklehead, douchebag – what are the subtle shadings of difference between terms? A knucklehead, for instance, I think has less cruelty about him, a douchebag something more petty, a streak of meanness. A guy seems more anonymous to me than a man. He’s a back-up singer, a henchman, a third wheel. A man’s out front, screwing up or doing the right thing, but making some kind of attempt to control his destiny, whether misguided or not.
CDW:   Does redemption matter in the short story form?
JK:   Redemption matters in all forms. Even poems. Not every character needs to be redeemed, of course, and some stories are better left in the midst of the struggle, or somewhere headed along the way either toward redemption or away from it, but, absolutely, can redemption can matter if it’s an important part of any particular story, regardless of length.
CDW:   What’s your favorite beer and why?
JK:  My taste for beers runs to simple and mid-priced. I like a good Heineken, a Molson’s. Temperature to me is often more important than anything else. I’ll drink a Keystone as long as it’s cold enough.
CDW:   What makes for good fiction?
JK:   I like a story to transport me out of my own life for the time I devote to it. If I feel like I’ve been taken on a journey and buffeted along to the point where I forget my present surroundings, that’s probably a pretty good story. I like character-driven narratives with narrators that have compelling voices. I like a little snark, but not too much. I’m not terribly interested in stories where the point seems to be, oh, well, life is meaningless, stuff happens that we can’t control. I don’t need a writer to find meaninglessness for me. I need writers to find meaning. I get bored when writers make pets important characters in stories. I like to read about struggle, psychological and physical, but I get frustrated if struggles are presented and never confronted.
CDW: cigar or pipe?
JK:  Pipe.
CDW:  Describe what would happen after you sat down to a steak dinner with Ernest Hemingway.
JK:    We’d probably talk sports. He’d want to compare everything to bull-fighting. I’d want to compare everything to wrestling. We’d both be wondering who could bench-press more weight. The answer is that I could. I’d ask him about lakes and rivers in Northern Michigan. I’d pretend to know more about fishing than I actually do. I’d tell him how I saw a lion once in Kenya in the wild and how it moved with a a confidence no human being can possess. I’d tell him how I don’t stand up to my principal as much as I should at staff meetings, how I feel like a fucking coward walking out of those meetings. We’d talk about writing. I’d ask him what he thought was the best way to test the character of a character. He’d look at me as if that were a really stupid question. I’d ask him if he’d look at my novel manuscript. He’d say, sure. I’d send it to him. He’d never look at it.

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I love origin stories. It doesn’t matter in what form. Comic book heroes, scientists, the construction of the Panama Canal, the first shot fired during any war on any continent. There’s something about how a person or event first became inspired or first began that captivates me. I’ve never turned this inward and thought of how I decided to eventually spend my free time telling myself stories at a typewriter or computer.

The reasons are simple on the surface. Mostly because it was painful and confusing to consider. Of course I, like any writer or anyone who creates or strives for anything, can pinpoint the moment. I can pinpoint the actual minute, the very second to be exact. But it’s not one of those stories you talk about over dinner. So I’ve tucked it away for years.

I dislike utilizing the personal narrative form, though I greatly enjoy reading others who do it well. I don’t trust it, and the practice seems self-indulgent, but I’m setting that aside to tell you about the evening I was forced to throw my books away twenty-three years ago.

Between 1985 and 1987 I read a set of books I still hold collectively as my favorite books of all time. The set was called Childhoods of Famous Americans Series. Juvenile biographies of various people throughout history – Luther Burbank, Crispus Attucks, Knute Rockne, Eli Whitney, and so on. More than one hundred books. When I finished these I felt empty, as if a good friend had just told me he needed to be going, that he had to work tomorrow and it was getting late.

My father, a lifelong reader, thinker and eccentric, suggested I read “grownup” books once I had finished my beloved Famous Americans. He said Stephen King might be a good start and gave me a copy of Christine. Like many others, I became an avid fan. Over the next year I saved my dollar-a-day candy store allowance and bought what was available of King’s work, one book about every two weeks or so. Dad provided me with a bookshelf and my library was underway.

Reading, as it will, led to writing. My stories then were horror stories. Killer plants, haunted airplanes, and one story about a boy killed by a snowman. The story ends after a evening-long search for the missing boy turns up nothing and the next morning the snowman he had been building in the yard has melted revealing the boy who had been trapped inside and froze to death.

Go ahead and laugh. Of course I understand.

But my father did not laugh.

Unlike my prior stories, he gave no feedback or encouragement. He simply ordered me to take my books from the shelf and throw them away, specifically in a nearby creek that ran lively along the edge of the house. I pleaded. I cried. I finally begged. And when I saw it was going to do no good, I made one last request. I asked that he allow me to give the books to my cousin instead of throwing them away. The request was denied and he watched while I carefully placed the books into a garbage bag and followed me as I went to the creek bank.

It was dark and cold. I remember those moments at the creek dipping my hand again and again into the garbage bag with my basic senses. Dark, cold, numb, silent. I had moved a grown man to such emotion he felt it necessary to have me throw away my books. Me, a kid, having this power over a grown man, my father. And how? With words. Writing words on paper.

He had created a monster and a warlord and a rebel and a writer, and he had forged it from anger brought on by fear. I felt untouchable.

As you can imagine, the episode made me more determined. I wrote and wrote and continued to read. If my father had left me alone I may have well moved on to some other interest. I thanked him years later for forcing me to destroy my books. He thought I was being spiteful and mean. He misunderstood. I was and still am truly grateful.

Words on paper. Magic, real magic. My formative years, my origin story, my place of birth was along that creek bank in Pike County, Kentucky, watching a swollen paperback copy of Skeleton Crew dip under the water, drowning at my hands. In many ways I’m still there now, full of anger and determination. In many ways we’re all there.

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Ron Rash in The New Yorker

Ron Rash has a new story in The New Yorker called “The Trusty” about a prisoner, a woman and a drink of water.

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Review – Talismans by Sybil Baker (C&R Press)

I’ve been a fan of Sybil Baker’s writing for quite a while now. She’s witty, intellectual, and one of the most down to earth liberal female writers I’ve ever read. Her book The Life Plan published in 2009 through Casperian Books was filled with intelligent hilarity. Think Bridget Jones meets Carrie Bradshaw on a goose chase through Bangkok and beyond.

The recent release of Baker’s sophomore novel Talismans actually caught me off guard. Published in 2010 through C&R press, Baker navigates her protagonist Elise through childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, intermittently throwing harsh tragedies at the protagonist. At the start of the novel, the reader’s given a glimpse into Elise’s dark family secrets. Since it’s told through the eyes of a little girl, the narration retains innocence and charm, something Baker pulls off incredibly well.

I definitely had to read this knowing that each chapter would harbor a different tone of voice from the next, as Talismans is a series of short stories moving the plot forward. That’s another one of Baker’s talents, she explores numerous voices and styles of writing, and executes them with precision and continuity.

If this book had a soundtrack, it would be A Fine Frenzy’s One Cell in the Sea. There’s a balance between the soft and delicate passages such as the opening chapter and grittiness of a life in San Francisco after the death of Elise’s mother. There are harsher passages filled with Baker’s inner angst, a voice I’ve heard in The Life Plan, but also resolution in the final pages of the final short story.

Sybil Baker exhibits some of her finest writing in Talismans, and I sincerely cannot wait to see what this fellow Casperian Books author is waiting to unleash next.

Review of Sherry & Narcotics by Nina-Marie Gardener (Future Fiction London)

There are many Danielle Steele and Twilight writers out there, but to a much lesser degree, female writers that tackle contemporary fiction like Nina-Marie Gardener. She has crafted a debut novel about a whip-smart editor migrating through a hardcore trip of loss, desire, addiction, and near death in Manchester in her debut novel Sherry & Narcotics. Though the protagonist suffers from an obvious substance abuse problem, she maintains a graceful eloquence in her narration and observations of the external world in a sort of Jane Austin meets Irvine Welsh manner. There’s sex, drugs, booze, drunk texts and email exchanges, and a “life flashing before my eyes” scene toward the end of the novel, moving the protagonist past current demons, but with great certainty, onto new ones. The formatting and pop culture references such as Starbucks or chart music, email and text exchanges reminded me a lot of Sybil Baker’s The Life Plan. Not necessarily chick lit or genre fiction, but true contemporary fiction with an attitude, an edge.

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Granted, LAST NIGHT, is the first book of James Salter’s I read, and maybe that’s why I feel compelled to say I’ve still yet to see anything with its power in my life, but I’m pretty sure Salter might be the greatest writer who ever gazed upon the alphabet.

No seriously.

Just listen to this:

“They ate dinner in silence.  Her husband did not look at her.  Her face annoyed him, he did not know why.  She could be good-looking but there were times when she was not.  Her face was like a series of photographs, some of which ought to have been thrown away.  Tonight was like that.”

Let me say here that all quotes in this post are from LAST NIGHT, just so we’re clear.

The pockets of Salter’s critics say, although the New York born wordsmith may be a great stylist, he is not an important writer, one that will have the lasting impact on his society as did, say, Hemingway.  But the mark of an important writer is how much insight into the human condition he can provide.  And style is merely a meter by which to measure how well that message is put across.  It’s the equivalent of saying, okay, this person can sing like a bird.  Okay, you listen to them sing and you get the story behind the song, if there is one, because the instrument that was used to communicate is beautiful and effective.  It’s the same thing with Salter.  His sentences are so beautiful and wonderfully designed, polished, as he says, like rare gems, each one, so as to communicate, without any sign of fat or excess verbosity, exactly the same feeling you might have had at one time in your life, or someone you might know.

And tension, don’t even talk to me about tension with this guy.

In the first story of this collection, Salter tightens the vice grip slowly and then just keeps twisting.  Here we have a couple in the story, “Comet,” who have married, but there are hints in the opening paragraphs things are just off center.  She wore a white dress, but Salter doesn’t just leave it at that, no, instead, he takes that opportunity to start planting seeds and building character.  “It had been a while since Adele had married and she wore white: white pumps with low heels, a long white skirt that clung to her hips, a filmy blouse with a white bra underneath, and around her neck a string of freshwater pearls.”  What’s happening here is that seed of tension is being placed, very gently by a practiced and clearly talented writer.  This isn’t just an ordinary marriage.  This is a second marriage and then later we’re given additional hints of the tension already building and the twisting yet to come.

“Behind her as best man, somewhat oblivious, her young son was standing, and,  pinned to her panties as something borrowed was a small silver disc, actually a St. Christopher medal her father had worn in the war; she had several times rolled down the waistband of her skirt to show it to people.”

Why is this lady essentially showing her panties to people during her wedding?  It’s an unsettling image for me, personally.  And this continues to build throughout the story with the woman’s story of her ex-husband, the one that Philip is forced to endure time and again, that has, itself, some unsettling details.

All of this tension suggests one thing, and it’s a theme I see throughout the collection – that of longing and regret.

Another good example of regret as theme and foundation comes in the short story, “My Lord You,” which depicts a woman unhappy with her current life/ husband and sees the possibility of something new and exciting in this poet character Salter ushers onto stage.  The quote at the beginning of this post is from that story and illustrates the indifference her husband has toward her.  There are some really painful moments earlier in that story where we see the husband makes little or no effort to offer attention much less discussion in regard to some of his wife’s longing and perhaps even lust for this poet character, Brennan, who pretty much stains not only the opening scene but the remainder of the story.  From the start, we know Brennen is will be a driving force in disrupting the fabric of these people’s lives.

“There were crumpled napkins on the table, wine-glasses still with dark remnant in them, coffee stains, and plates with bits of hardened Brie.  Beyond the bluish windows the gardens lay motionless beneath the birdsong of summer morning.  Daylight had come.  It had been a success except for one thing: Brennan.”

I can’t help but quote Salter in long form, he’s just too good.  Even writing the sentences Salter himself once sat and wrote bring a tingle to my fingers, at the very tips, magic somehow to even have the great honor of forming those common letters into the same passages Salter himself wrote with such care.

Read also: A Sport and a Pastime (the novel widely considered his masterwork).

Read also: Everything else he’s written.

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Is it safe to assume that “Queen Isabella Eats a Pineapple and Misses the Jews” is perhaps Cami’s most popular story? In part one I should have noted that I was setting this particular story (also from the For Every Year project) for a later post, because in not doing so it appeared as if I’d made a glaring omission. No, Snow Whale, I was saving it for later, like Fenway Bergomot’s grapes. In “Queen,” Cami hits a satirical high note as Queen Isabella finds that her first taste of pineapple—a gift from Columbus—makes her nostalgic for the Jews, whom she remembers like an old flame:

She had only just started to get over them, the Jews, with their stubborn, endearing habits, the way they’d circumcise their young and refuse to lift a finger on Saturdays, and could never ever say the name of God out loud. Infuriating. Adorable.

When Ferdinand intrudes on her reverie,”ready to start a day posturing over the spoils of the New World,” Isabella forces him to partake of the fruit:

But the scent of the fruit on her breath is too much for him, and he pushes his lips againsthers, causing her to lurch back and smash pineapple into his chin.

“All for the glory of Spain, my Queen, all for the glory of Spain,” Ferdinand says as he wipes his face with the napkin.

Perhaps it’s a little on-the-nose to signal the voracious nature of power via food and sex, but in this story those elements are completely ingenuous, which means we ride along the delightfully insane present of the story and save our horror for later. My question: is this story possible without Mel Brooks?

With a far less accessible message, “Made From Scratch,” from >killauthor, also features consumption and sexuality, but this time fed through the grinder of domestic realism.  Let me get this out here—anytime I encounter fecundity and meal prep in fiction, I think: fear of death. Probably not fair, but I’d say that’s the number one reason I don’t crack open a Best of American Short Stories without a gun held to my head. Cami’s domestic fiction is always riveting, though.

Told in multiple points of view—The Husband, The Wife, The Babies, The Family—”Made” describes the other side of the transaction featured in “Even the Smallest.” Once a year The Husband visits the pig farmer to procure meat and casings:

This bargain. As if knowing where their food came from, getting it, making it, eating it, right from the source, was enough to charm them against a past, a future, of stench. Or was it a penance of some kind? His wife could have everything she wanted—she would allow him to give her everything he wants a wife to want—if once a year he smelled this shit, she ground this flesh, they ate her meal. 

While The Wife is obsessed with preparing the meal, The Babies are obsessed with her:

We take things up. We bring them down. Noise. We see her, the One, smell her, and there is nothing else. We go there, we gather, we make her our center.

But it is only after they eat that The Husband can approach:

He swallows and starts toward her, but stops at the babies, still in their high chairs. Cock blocked again, they laugh.

There is something disturbingly charming in “Made From Scratch,” as muted as it is. For me it comes down to the piggy, raw desire of The Babies compared to the deferred desire of The Husband, all of whom seem to agree that The Mother is the meal, to be consumed nightly. Now that sounds like a horror story, right? I’m sure there are more generous ways to read this one, though.

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A Poet Reads Panels

 Recently I traded my poetry manuscript with a new friend who is writing a graphic novel.  I am not a regular reader of comics or graphic novels, and he is not a regular reader of poetry.  Yet we are both writers and always find something interesting to discuss when we have time to talk.  I was unsure what I was getting myself into, as I am visually challenged.  When it comes to direction on the page I flounder.   In grad school we had to read a screenplay.  It was one of my least favorite exercises, as I detest courier font and everything was so stripped down – but this is what a screenplay is supposed to be, right?  A set of directions and dialogue.  The actors and directors flesh out the storyline that exists on the page into a visual meal.  Luckily this is what happened when I read my pal’s panels.  Similar to a screenplay, the manuscript lists each panel and describes the action that the panel is to depict.  Sometimes there is dialogue, sometimes SFX (sound effects), and other times there is simply a detailed description of what the panel is to show the reader (reminiscent of the usual workshop advice:  show, don’t tell…).  The brilliant thing about this exercise of exchanging our creative work is that it pushed me and made me realize what goes into creating a graphic novel, which is a truly collaborative endeavor between not just the writer and editor, but also the visual artist.  For each panel described, I had to visualize what it would look like.  The words on the page told me, but my brain had to create it and suddenly I realized that when I return to Kick Ass (which my pal loaned me), I will be able to “read” the story much better because I’ve gone about it from this angle.  Like my own poems, where I describe a feeling or a moment, I expect the reader to visualize or feel it.  The graphic artists ask us to participate in a similar way, but we fill-in the narrative by studying the images on the page.  There is minimal dialogue in the panel, and the reader must interpret the expressions and body language of the characters.  We are expected to “read” each panel, whether it has words or not.   

While all reading is a participatory act between the writer and the reader, graphic novels use an actual image which those of us who write poetry or fiction create with words, asking the reader to fill in or flesh out on her own without a picture provided.  Graphic artists go about it in the opposite way – giving us the visual image, and only a few words.  All in all, this was a great exercise for me.  If you are interested in comics, check out my friend’s site.

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This is the first post in what will be an ongoing series of discussions with some of my favorite writers who also double as editors (or, some of my favorite editors who also double as writers). My focus will primarily be on the conflicts between these two identities and those moments of cohesion and influence.

My first post is a conversation with the ever great Rusty Barnes. I met Rusty several years ago when I attended his flash fiction and microfiction class. As a student, I was particularly impressed with the way Rusty understood the process of writing from both sides of the table, both as a successful writer and as the co-founder and editor of the well regarded Night Train. Recently, Rusty has started published Redneck Poems and has an upcoming story collection titled Mostly Redneck  as well as continuing his Fried Chicken and Coffee site, dedicated to his interests in rural and Appalachian related writing. So, it was my great pleasure to ‘chat’ for a little while with Rusty about these matters and more.

Q: Were you interested in writing or editing first? Was there any relationship between how they came about?

A: I was always interested in writing first. Although I ‘edited’ journals in high school and college and graduate school, my real introduction to editing came on the student newspaper in high school, where people started to actually remember and agree with what I had to say about their work. Most of them couldn’t write well under pressure, and the more pressure I had on me, the better the writing turned out.  That experience continued on into college where if I wasn’t writing, I wanted to be associated with writing in everything I did, so I wrote theater reviews, music reviews, editorials, small news stories and feature articles. Eventually I stopped doing that much non-fiction and turned to fiction and poetry almost exclusively. Maybe the shorter answer is that writing and editing were the only things I was interested in pursuing past a certain point, when I’d decided to get an MFA in fiction. Now it’s difficult to think of them separately. What reputation I have is as an editor, though by the end of this year I’ll have published four books and a couple hundred stories (mostly flash fiction), along with many poems and interview and essays. That’s OK with me, though I’d certainly like my stories and poems to be better known.

Q: To what extent is starting a journal or editing a creative act … a personal act? versus how much you are thinking about what will appeal to a particular audience? How does your approach change from Beacon Street to Night Train and Redneck Press?

A: I thought about the audience constantly when Rod Siino and I founded Night Train. Now I don’t think about it at all. I trust that if I do what I’m supposed do in promotion and in finding good material, readers will find what I do and support it.

I approached editing the same way in all of those projects: there were writers who deserved to be read, and I could help them find readers.

I guess I didn’t think of the magazines and journals I’ve worked at as creative acts or personal acts. I wanted exposure for my writers. I wanted to give something back to the writing community, and I wanted to know why I wasn’t getting published as well or as much as I liked. Reading for NT in particular cleared that mystery up in a hurry: I was better than most, not nearly as good as some and that was that. I found that I was good enough to get published, and eventually I was, though there’s a top tier of literary journal and small press to which my work simply doesn’t appeal. That hurts a little, but that’s OK in the long run too. Lord knows I gave them my best shot.

Q: In what ways has editing impacted your own writing?  And, in the opposite direction, how have your tastes as a writer affected your editing?

A: Editing has taught me everything I know about writing, pretty much.

My tastes were fairly wide-ranging, but editing has forced me to narrow them over the years. I own a couple thousand books again after donating many a few years ago. I read mostly poetry these days, and save room for my favorite novelists and short-story writers, and not much else. I have few to no hobbies: I read, I write, I edit. I don’t want to do anything else.

People generally don’t send my favorite kind of stories to NT, though,  so for fun I started a blogazine called Fried Chicken and Coffee which publishes only rural or Appalachian material or frankly, anything else I like. I think this has helped me keep my commitments to NT after almost ten years. Reading all those stories and poems can get to be a drag, especially as I steal time from my novels and poems to do so. Editing a journal will suck up every single bit of your time, especially if you seek grants and make decent money through donations and the like. All your time ends up spent on paperwork instead of actual editing and reading.

Q: Has there ever been any conflict between your roles as a writer and editor? Resentment?

A: Yes, there have been troubles sometimes. Not often, but sometimes you get a writer who seems OK on the page but turns into a raging editorial head case that you have to deal with months or sometimes years later.

Also, a few people have come straight out and told me people only ever published me to get themselves into NT. If that’s true, those folks could have gotten over far more easily if they’d just promised me hot sex. But, I know the editors of many journals, I have contacts everywhere, and I don’t get in everywhere I submit. So if there’s a squid pro ro (yes I know it’s quid pro quo, but I like Austin Powers’ pronunciation better) going on, I’m at the ass end of it, and terribly sad that my efforts at sucking the multi colored teats of culture failed me so badly
Q: Do you ever see yourself going with all of one or another in the future?

A: I’m on hiatus from NT until 2/2012. I’ll be working on Fried Chicken and Coffee until then. I have no plans to pick one or the other to concentrate on in the long run, but that might change. I’ve been editing for a long time.

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The Mimic’s Own Voice a novella by Tom Williams is getting a lot of good press (and here and here).   I recently read it and found it to be terrifically imaginative, funny, and yet somber and astute. 

I had a few questions for Tom and this is what he had to say:

How long did it take you to write The Mimic’s Own Voice?

It’s taken a long time to get to where it is now. I got out my notes and saw I first really started writing the book in, no lie, 2002. I think I had a completed draft by 2003 and tried it, in various places (as a part of a collection, on its own) over the years, often getting it out and tinkering and cutting and whatnot. It used to be called “The Impressionist,” but I got worried about Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (with which it shares a similar allegorical spirit) and there was a book called The Impressionist that Amazon tells me came out in 2003, but I’m happy with the title, and I’m happy with the book. I’m glad to see it’s out in the world instead of my hard drive.

Was Douglas Myles a character you’d been batting around in your head for a while or was he purely an invention for this novella?

I always have loved performers and comics. Rich Little, George Kirby, Charlie Callas. I previously published a story about another biracial character of mine (a recurring little guy called Alvin) who does some impressions at a talent show. But The Mimic came about when I had the idea of writing about a performer who inspired a host of reactions but remained as unknown to his fans as he might have been to himself. When it occurred to me that I could do that through a parody of an academic biography, all the possibilities that I tried to explore started to reveal themselves, and I just couldn’t pass up the chance. I was creating a kind of alternative universe to the past fifty or so years of American comedy as well as creating a character that, frankly, I just love.

What do you like best (or admire) about Douglas? 

The purity of his art. He becomes so self-effacing that he almost ceases to exist when he performs. I know I’m always trying to show off in my fiction, remind everybody there’s a really smart or funny or philosophical fellow responsible for these pages. Douglas just performs. It’s almost as though that’s the only thing he can do and yet in no way does his performance reveal much about the person he is. He disappears.

What are some underrated books that you think deserve more attention?  

Jack Butler’s Living in Little Rock With Miss Little Rock. Reginald McKnight’s The Kind of Light That Shines on Texas.   Jim Robison’s The Illustrator and Lewis Nordan’s Wolf Whistle.

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For a year I helped published the print journal Cellar Door Magazine. It was the early 2000s and we were full of piss and vinegar and ready to add to the already changing landscape of contemporary literature. It was a blast and we had a great time and had the chance to publish stories from many writers who are still working and doing well today. But we didn’t stop at literature. There were also some killer works of art included in each issue. Full series from graphite works to photographs. I’ll include some in this post for your consideration.

To introduce each of the four issues we printed we wrote a column called “From Pubs and Eds”. The following were the last two columns, written before we realized these would be the last we’d share with readers. And since there are no remaining copies of any of the four issues other than a handful we kept for ourselves, it further motivates me to share these columns.

There was no Issue Five due to the fact that we took part in a reading to launch Issue Four which resulted in an obscenity scandal. The college where the reading took place formally protested the content we shared, sending out mass emails to both faculty and students offering apologies to those who might have been offended by the Cellar Door reading.

At the time we had just been shipped more than 200 copies of the new issue. Normally, to keep the boat floating, we sold the copies to pay for the next print run. This time, we thought it would be a good idea to instead take all 200 plus copies and litter them across the college campus. We left them in bathrooms, on desks, in classrooms, in lounges, we left about ten copies on a stand in the college’s bookstore. Apparently the work study student running the front counter had missed the memo or didn’t care.

We made nothing from this move, not a cent. And Cellar Door Magazine was no more. But what a hell of a fine way to go out.

So here are those final two columns. You can see the piss and vinegar was still strong, and remains strong today. We didn’t stop publishing, we didn’t stop holding readings. We didn’t stop writing. We didn’t change a single thing about how we do things and why we do them. Never will.

Issue Three Column:

More and more since starting this magazine, we’ve been faced with rejection in one form or another. Parents have stowed free copies away, afraid to have guests stumble upon some horrible subject. Some have laughed and called the subject matter “pretty rough.” But the truth of it all is that what we’ve published is rough and horrible at times, but no more so than much of what you can see any hour of the day on CNN or more than a mile from your front door. And it’s not even as groundbreaking in terms of literature.

Before he sang about himself, Walt Whitman wrote a rare story about a student getting severely beaten for falling asleep in class. The story is full of delightful details about each lash the instructor inflicted upon the unresponsive student. It takes a painful number of well-placed strikes before the instructor realizes he’s been beating a corpse.

Literature has long touched subjects that others prefer to turn their faces from. Society, although instinctively prone to denying such work, actually need writers willing to answer the call. And this must be done in appropriate measure within the fabric of the given time period. The stories of D.H. Lawrence might seem bland by today’s standards, while much of the material that has raised eyebrows that we’ve printed or written is seen as radical. There’s some basic points to be considered with this.

The first, and most important, is that our stuff is not really that radical. There are several good writers and good magazines out there doing very much the same stuff. As John Wayne said in The Green Berets when a buck private complemented him on his skill at skeet shooting, “That’s normal.”

The second point is that none of it matters anyway. We don’t write stories or choose stories for publication because they seem radical or over the top or any number of other worn out ideas. We write stories or choose stories because we like them. They pull something loose from inside of our guts and then hold it up and ask questions we’ve never heard before and make us think of things we’ve never thought of before.

The idea of using striking subject matter and themes and images to convey deeper meaning is as old a technique as literature itself, but has never been more aptly described than by one of the greatest writers to ever string sentences together. We’ll leave you with the words of the immortal Flannery O’ Conner, who we should all thank for her courage and foresight in matters of the written word.

“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.”

Issue Four Column:

One year down, no scars

With this, our fourth issue, we now have a full year to our credit, no doubt about that. But our scars are few.

Sure, we miss Salinger’s first edition printing, sold to ensure publication of our maiden issue, but our struggles and sacrifices have passed unnoticed.

There’s a simple reason we don’t have war wounds.

We’ve loved every second of it. And without pain, there can be no scar.

Every minute we’ve spent working to better this magazine has culminated in some of our best hours and days. When those efforts resulted in success, we enjoyed it. When we stumbled and made mistakes, we appreciated the opportunity to learn more and do better the next time.

Still, a scar or two wouldn’t be such a bad thing. There‘s nothing like a ragged scar to get a good story started.

But then, hell, there’s always beer bottles and pool cues. Maybe there’s hope yet.

The Bible Belt. It’s where we live and work and play. It’s the reason we’ve never expected to gain local standing. Despite this, a few local bookstores have picked up the magazine, and for that we’re grateful.

Still, there was no home for what we do at home. Our work, and the work of writers and artists we valued, was doomed to be left unappreciated in our own backyard.

That‘s what we thought, until some locals showed up and shattered that perception like so many brittle bones.

So now that our kicking and screaming is spilling back into our own neighborhoods, let’s hope the waves crack against this small ship and challenge us at every turn. What can we say? We grew up in Eastern Kentucky reading books and writing poems. We’ve developed a decent right hook and an appetite for a good fight.

Here’s to the first year, and the fights yet to come.

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