Friday, December 31, 2010

Poem for the New Year

Thinking, as I suppose many do around this time, about change and rebirth.

And was listening earlier to Leonard Cohen's lovely "Joan of Arc," specifically this line, when the warrior-saint is on the pyre: "Myself, you know I long for love and light/But must it come so cruel, and must it be so very bright?"

(Also, is it just me or is Cohen the missing lovechild link between Leonard Nimoy and Peter Coyote?)

Happy New Year to all.


This draft turned a calendar page.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

New work on Linebreak this week ...

This one's based on one of my trauma nurse sister's tales of her working life. Until she told me, I had no idea that leeches were still used in modern medicine.

Happy holidays!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

And the (Often Futile) Pursuit of Happiness

Where did this not-so-cheerful little draft come from?

I think I can track it:

- A longstanding fascination—usually charmed, sometimes alarmed—with the fact that “the pursuit of happiness” is a right guaranteed in our founding document.

- This book review, in which the following appeared: The title, of course, comes from the famous passage in the Declaration of Independence, which, Kalman tells us, would have read “life, liberty and the pursuit of property” had Thomas Jefferson not decided to change it. Was anyone ever more elated over an edit? “Hallelujah,” she writes. “All I can say is hallelujah.”

- A friend’s riffing on that idea, saying he’d “never seen real estate scamper away,” so he’d go with the more nimble “happiness.”

- Tony Hoagland’s poem “At the Galleria,” which he reads at 56:18 here. In the last lines, he makes a connection I feel all the time: that there is something American about loneliness, or something lonely about Americanness, or just some particular kind of American loneliness that we have yet to fully identify.

I’ve been wanting to write about the pursuit of happiness for years, but imagining it as quarry, as something fleet-of-foot and nimble, helped me start putting this on paper.


This poem escaped your clutches.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Listening to Poetry

The experience of listening to an author read a poem immensely different from reading one on a page. There is some poetry that first came truly alive for me because I heard it read by the poet. Charles Wright's work is one example. Some years ago, I heard him read "Clear Night," and it changed his work for me; I can hear his voice when I read him on the page, and it made him far more accessible for me.

A good reading always reminds me that poetry is meant to be spoken, and it's one of the few public spaces where you can hear an entire audience share a small, inspired, satisfied exhale--that sound you hear again and again at the end of effectively read poems. (If I had time, I would go around and record that sound at readings and turn it into an audio collage. It's a sound you hear nowhere else.)

There are also cases, I think, where poets' readings--due to nervous public speaking habits such as speed-reading or a pompous, bombastic manner--can threaten access to their work. The few times I've done public readings, speed-reading due to sheer terror was something I had to fight through. And I've had this distancing happen with at least one of my own favorite writers; when I first heard her read in person, her peculiar manner and cadence was so difficult for me to get past that I resolved never to see her read again. (A note to poets: For god's sake, practice before you read your work publically. Don't become the literary equivalent of these guys, butchering brilliant material.)

But I digress; generally, hearing a writer read their own material is almost always a good, enriching experience. I would not want to pick between the experience of a poem on the page and that of a poem out loud, but the latter has become increasingly precious to me due to its rarity in my life. I read poetry all the time, but don't go to readings as often as I'd like.

I'm posting these because I only recently became aware of their availability: I think Nick Flynn (author of the hilariously named memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and, more recently, a memoir that delves into the subject of torture) wrote one of the most amazing poems of the past decade with "fire." It's terrific on the page but stunning out loud. You can listen to it at the audio link here.

And this whole reading is worth the time, but at 56:18, the amazing Tony Hoagland introduces and reads an amazing, moving poem about shopping--a rare thing indeed.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Coquinas and Childhood

I was digging through old pictures recently to find some of the best baby and kid shots of my sister, part of a little photo montage for her birthday. One of the shots I found was the one above, which reminded me of lines from one of my favorite Donald Justice poems:

There is a gold light in certain old paintings
That represents a diffusion of sunlight.
It is like happiness, when we are happy.

I always loved this photo -- partly because it was taken in one of our favorite places: Gulf Shores, Alabama, back in the early '80s when there were far fewer giant monolithic condos lining the beach and more vast strips of sea oats dotted with little beach houses. There was no oil in the water, our grandparents were still alive, the waves were gentle and glorious, and all we did for a week (and sometimes two) was swim and eat shrimp and read books and play cards and build sandcastles and dig for coquinas (shown here in their "angel wings" stage) and try to avoid sunburn.

But I also love this picture for its specifics: the light of nearly sunset; my father, who grew up coming to these beaches, about to throw me into the surf; the storm clouds retreating and the just-barely-there rainbow arcing through the left corner; and my little sister standing watching it all ... her stance suggesting excitement and fear and the thrill of waiting to get tossed into the sea. Seeing it again suggested certain connections between shell-collecting, the lines between innocence and experience, and the fears a father might have for his children.


This poem dug back into the sand.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Woot! Terrance! Terrance!

Really pleased to see Terrance Hayes win the National Book Award for poetry this past week. I was blown away by Wind in a Box and just finished Lighthead last night ... amazing, trenchant, beautiful stuff. Hayes is an astonishingly adept synthesizer (of the non-Casio variety) of the personal, the pop, and the brutal past of the American project.

For those who don't know his work, find it, ASAP. Listen to it. Or, better than getting the milk for free, go buy Lighthead and treat yourself to his poem "The Avocado" and the rest of the brilliance therein. Or snag Wind in a Box, and marvel at the incredible wit, insight, and form-busting of his "letter" to Michael Jackson.

(I heard him read this amazing, funny poem at the Folger back in 2008 for the State of the Union: 50 Political Poems reading. I got into the city early enough that I spotted him wandering down Pennsylvania Ave. before the reading and briefly stalked him down the block, ogling from a distance to see what geniuses do when they're not geniusing. This one went into a book store and a convenience store (where he bought some water--I can only assume it was this brand). If he ever got creeped out by the adoring white girl loitering creepily behind trees and crouching behind newspaper boxes, he had the decency not to call her out on it.)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Defending Dandelions (Can Older Poems be Saved? Or Should They All be Razed to the Ground?)

Revisiting old poems is something I try not to do very often. It creates a number of problems for me: I notice the immaturity/ triteness/ pretentiousness/ strained qualities of the earlier work, which affects my confidence; and even though I perceive the crappiness, I then find myself stuck in the voice/mode of the earlier work for weeks afterward.

It’s the anxiety of influence, except the influence is of your own younger, stupider self.

Or, sometimes—and worse—the influence of a younger self who was briefly in the poetic zone, and whose momentary energy/vision your current self cannot seem to recapture. It’s a depressing moment to catch yourself trying and failing to write like yourself, especially when the self you’re trying to write like was already mostly trying to write like Philip Larkin.

My few attempts to rescue early poems from their flaws have been largely ineffectual. In my experience, while stories can be retrofitted, most poems cannot. I’m curious whether others have this sense too, or whether you’ve been able to save and use some old trifle—even if it was only a line, an image, an idea?

The first poems I remember writing came in 5th grade, when I wrote one poem about a fox attempting and failing to raid a local farm—“My family must go another night/without a plump and juicy hen/But farmer, tomorrow night beware!/The fox lurks again!”—and another that was my attempt to defend dandelions from what I saw as an unfair hatred by lawn-obsessed suburbanites—“Though some folks call you ‘pesky weed’/Your color never does recede. Dandelion, this poem is true/You're my flower; I love you.”

(I can't believe I'm copping to having written those lines. I can forgive myself for them only by repeating over and over: I was 11. I was 11. I was 11.)

A defense of dandelions, though, is an idea I reconsidered a few months back and decided it had some sort of merit. The problem with the 5th grade version of the idea (excuse me: one of the many problems with the 5th grade version) is that my 11-year-old self was truly, passionately, literally devoted to dandelion defense, rather than realizing that suburbanites hatred for dandelions might be extrapolated into something else—specifically, the understandable-yet-sad devaluation of lovely, everyday things in favor of the rare, the forbidden, and the new.

This poem seeded and floated away.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Rainer Marie Jerkweed: A Cautionary Tale?

One of the greatest struggles I have is finding the balance between having a writing life and just living a human one. Discipline is a necessary tool in the writer’s shed—and yet so many times I have come home, determined to write, only to find nothing was happening, and that I had skipped something enjoyable in the futile hope I might spend the evening deep in the current. If you write, you know what I mean: when you are in the zone, it is one of the best possible feelings. When the work is going well, it’s worth trading for.

But the other side of that—skipping pleasurable, important, joyful moments of existence to write, only to find the writing simply will not come—is almost as painful and frustrating as the other is blissful. Then I’m stuck at home, uninspired, and doubly annoyed to be stuck there while somewhere not far away, friends are drinking good beer, saying droll and affectionate things, and bonding in ways that might actually inspire future writing.

Being a hermit has its advantages; god knows you have to set some boundaries. But sequestering yourself for your art—if your art hopes to be human—seems potentially misguided. Yes, I know the Belle of Amherst hid away in her room, feeding her genius and communing only with friendly mice and Jesus (it’s hyperbole, Dickinson scholars; don’t send angry letters). But were she around today she would likely have succumbed to social pressures. She would be Tweeting and Facebooking (Emily Dickinson is nobody. Who are you?”) and perhaps desperate, as I occasionally feel, for silence.

Finding balance—has anyone nailed this one? Just recently, I almost skipped a reunion of old friends from high school for the sake of going home and writing. Instead, I went, and not only caught up with dear erstwhile companions, but met new ones. Good ones. And if I had just gone home, instead? I would likely have been frustrated and ended up sitting on the couch, staring through a Law & Order episode and brooding.

One of the best stories I’ve ever heard on this conflict—it may be apocryphal, but is referenced in at least two biographies—was about the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who reportedly skipped his own daughter’s wedding because he thought a poem might come, and that the wedding might break his concentration.

The first thing I thought when I heard this tale was “What a dick.”

And the second thing was, “You know where your precious poem was, dude? It was at your daughter’s wedding.”

But who am I to think Rainer Maria Rilke was doing anything wrong? Maybe he was skipping a wedding when he wrote "An Archaic Torso of Apollo."

This poem is for Deb, Warren, Jordan, Justin, and Ben. Also for Angela, who is also—like so many of us—struggling to find the space for a writing life that does not eclipse actual living.


This draft flew away.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Poetry for the Sadder (Wiser?) 50 Percent: Loren Graham's The Ring Scar

Anyone who has been through a divorce knows certain truths: Looking back on the time before the decision was made, you can identify a moment when you knew there was no turning back from that precipice. And yet the moments that led to that single awful point in time are too many to count. You also know the way certain objects—or dates, or songs, or foods—will never again be experienced without their accompanying baggage. To this day, for example, I cannot hear Led Zeppelin’s "Bron Y Aur Stomp" without thinking—with fondness, more than six years out of the marriage—of my ex, an intense and talented musician who used to spend hours sprawled on the floor of our apartment perfecting the finger-work on the guitar part.

For a while after we split, I often joked that my newly acquired affection for Zeppelin was the one positive thing to come out of our marriage. As time has passed, I’ve been able to identify others, most especially a changed perspective on relationships, one that perspective will not allow me to call wisdom. If any wisdom came out of the whole chaotic experience, it is only the knowledge that my current ideas will change; five more years could bring something entirely new. Back then, my ideas about love and commitment—and how much work could go into a relationship before it became nothing but—seemed entirely fixed and immutable. I knew what I knew.

I met my first husband in graduate school in late 1998. He was a student in the same writing program I was in, the same writing program that had had the good sense, the year before, to bring in Loren Graham as a visiting writer and lecturer.

Graham had one book of poetry out at the time. I hadn’t read it. I took his creative writing class because he was one of the few teachers in the English department I hadn’t yet worked with. It seemed like the thing to do.

He proved to be an excellent teacher, and in my spare time (back in those sublime grad school days when I often read five or six books a week) I went on to read the astonishing Mose, which taught me more about the potential of form than any book of poetry I’d read before. The book is a series of letters from a convict in a Texas prison to the woman he loves; it has the imagery, sonics, and precision of the best poetry and the momentum and narrative arc of a thriller.

We also became friends, and it was through that friendship that I became aware of his current project: he was writing a series of poems that he often referred to as “the divorce sonnets.” He read a few of them at the annual Writer’s Harvest event, and it was clear that he was onto something enormously powerful. Over time, the project—now published as The Ring Scar—evolved from a one-sided conversation into a back-and-forth, the husband’s words in sonnets, the wife’s in free verse, each revealing their thoughts and doubts in an imagined conversation that, I often thought as I read them, might have saved the marriage if they had only been capable of having it directly.

The poems cross paths; the speakers are often in agreement, but seldom at the same time and place; they can describe their estrangement, their failure to connect, without being able to fix it. Even the forms reflect a failure to connect, a fundamental difference and the attraction of it. It is an astonishing sequence of poems and I am so pleased to see that it is finally in print.

Anyone who has ever struggled with a long-term romantic relationship will recognize pieces of their own experience here, in ideas and in images—a stray hair wound around a button, a cold motor turning over in the driveway, an escaped pet bird, or the central image of the book: the ring scar itself.

It’s a circle one can step out of but never fully escape (even when you're lucky enough to move on to happier, healthier things). And this book makes that seem only right.

(And what a metaphor on the cover: perfect little houses with no doors.)

I'm posting the title poem, but you shouldn't deprive yourself of reading the rest.

The Ring Scar

By Loren Graham

It should have disappeared by now, this faint
line of pale skin where my ring used to ride,
but it persists. It faded overnight
from my palm, but on the back of my hand,
part of me most familiar, it has remained
for months: indented, obvious, a fine
shadow, a delicate burn never quite
healed. Nothing will erase that little brand:
I’ve stretched it, flexed it, held it in the sun,
but it will not be exorcised. It hangs
on like an old unwelcome ghost, a crank
spirit biding its time, making mortals wait
until the day when, for reasons unknown,
it leaves off haunting and suddenly is gone.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Goodnight, Sweet Pooch

Yesterday, we had to put our dog Coltrane to sleep. He was a sweet, mellow beagle-mix who slept between us in bed every night. My husband and I had a voice for him--we'd often use it to order each other around on the dog's behalf: Open the fridge. Give me a walkie.

Over the years, we had developed a projected personality for Coltrane that altered between morose, snooty, greedy, Al Capone-esque, and deeply philosophical. Sometimes my husband and I would speak to each other in his voice for hours. Coltrane had no idea what we were talking about, but he knew when we were using "his" voice and would look up from the floor and beat his tail against it, waiting for us to stop projecting the fictional Coltrane and pet the real one.

There's an oft-circulated story about "the Rainbow Bridge" that's designed to comfort people who've lost a pet. It's a lovely, sentimental piece of nondenominational religious feeling that depicts a world where bereaved pet owners are reunited with their animals. I honor it for providing a framework where animals can go to heaven, since many religions won't even grant that they have souls (my feeling is that if I have a soul, then Coltrane did). But it always seems so cartoonish and inadequate. After the vet put Coltrane to sleep, a little old lady came in and made a play-dough pawprint mold from his foot and talked to us about the Rainbow Bridge. She was very well-meaning, but after several minutes of patter about how Coltrane had "just gotten his angel wings," I was ready to push her out the door.

For years I've been amused imagining Coltrane's reaction to the Rainbow Bridge: He would not want to go anywhere near it. He would check to make sure if there were any abandoned plastic bags (terrifying!) on it. He would sniff it in hopes of finding some dirty underwear or a nice week-old chicken bone. In Coltrane's real heaven, I imagine, sausages would grow out of the earth and the trees would all have low-hanging branches good for scratching your butt on. But even that image is my own projection. I do think that if Coltrane has a heaven, the Rainbow Bridge is about as good an approximation of it as the harps and angels image is for mine.

Bonnie Raitt's song "I Don't Want Anything to Change" comes close to the mood around our house now, where snowdrifts of white fur are still piled up in every corner. He was, we liked to say, a serious dog for serious times, and we will miss him for years. (We'll probably be finding his hair for even longer.)

There are no adequate words to get at how awful it is to deliberately end the life of a dog you love so much. I'm posting the only poem I've ever read that, for me, comes close to the truth of it. It's stripped down, plain--perhaps the only way such a thing can be talked about.


I wanted to stay with my dog
when they did her in
I told the young veterinarian
who wasn't surprised.
Shivering on the chrome table,
she did not raise her eyes to me when I came in.
Something was resolved in her.
Some darkness exchanged for the pain.
There were a few more words
about the size of the tumor and her age,
and how we wanted to stop her suffering,
or our own, or stop all suffering
from happening before us
and then the nurse shaved May's skinny leg
with those black clippers;
she passed the needle to the doctor
and for once I knew what to do
and held her head against mine.
I cleaved to that smell
and lied into her ear
that it would be all right.
The veterinarian, whom I'd fought
about when to do this thing
said through tears
that it would only take a few minutes
as if that were not a long time
but there was no cry or growl,
only the weight of her in my arms,
and then on the world.

from What Saves Us, by Bruce Weigl

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Lebensraum, Cleave, and Strout

Ah, my poor little neglected blog. It's been so long, and this will be but a short visit to make you feel briefly cared for.

Over the past few months, Work has become my little kommandant, demanding more and more lebensraum in order to stretch out and stuff its face with the schnitzel that is my life. I’m hoping that soon the allied forces will land at Normandy and starting beating Work back into the space it belongs in.

It’s best that I abandon this metaphor before it becomes even more ridiculous.

So much research, so much interviewing, so much writing. I read more than any sane human should about the congenital disorders that are hurting purebred dogs. I went on a trip to Mississippi to cover a major seizure in preparation for a story on animal hoarding. I’m starting work on a feature on shelter animals working with combat veterans with PTSD.

All of these experiences have been interesting and rewarding (the genetic disease story became an obsession; for a few months, I couldn’t see a purebred dog without wondering what was wrong with it). But between them and the rest of the pile of work on my desk, I’ve had no brain matter left for fiction and poetry.

I have managed to get a little reading done, though, and so just wanted to give a little shout out to a couple of books: Little Bee, which is very moving and very funny in spite of some credibility-straining inner monologues (it wasn’t the precise English of Little Bee that bothered me, but her insight into the ironies of English culture—some of these seemed work better as a novel device than as the real voice of a Nigerian 16-year-old). I'm curious about the decision to change the title for the American market. The Other Hand seemed to me a much more intriguing title.

I also read another of Elizabeth’s Strout’s books—Abide with Me—almost as soon as I’d finished Amy and Isabelle. I think Strout is rapidly becoming one of my favorite writers; she takes small-town settings and characters and psychologically unpacks them in a way that is so true and so unsettling. Check out her great interview with Michel Martin from 2009. I’m looking forward to reading Olive Kittredge, once I can force out the Work invaders and reclaim a bigger piece of my own mental territory.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Lev Grossman's "The Magicians": You Can't Go Home Again

My three late-childhood reading obsessions can be summarized easily: The Chronicles of Narnia; its less-famous cousin, The Chronicles of Prydain; and Tom Sawyer. And then when I was 12 or 13, I read Stephen King's The Eyes of the Dragon, which thoroughly obsessed me for months.

Though I never got into the Middle Earth saga, all the books I really loved (OK, maybe with the exception of Tom Sawyer) suggested I was going to end up as Renaissance Faire geek, summoning the moon, experimenting with Wicca, tattooing myself with unicorns, and listening to a lot of Loreena McKennitt.

I kind of wanted to end up that way. I kept trying to get into it; in high school, several of my dear friends loved the scene. But my parents were vaguely suspicious about the air of paganism and truancy that surrounded the whole culture, and the one Renaissance Faire I ever went to--not until college--spoiled the whole deal. Beyond the jousting and the wax hand-dipping, there was one exhibit behind a little hut, marked with signs that said, "Come see the littlest Unicorn!"

I was 19 by this point, there with my boyfriend over summer break. We were doing our best to get into the spirit of things, and the sign noted that the extra charge to meet the numinous beast would be donated to the March of Dimes. So we each paid the extra $2 to go behind the hut. We followed an incredibly excited pair of 8-year-old girls who were squealing to each other about the amazingness of what we were all about to see.

Behind the hut, in a small clearing scattered with hay and droppings that looked like buckshot, was a red-eyed teenaged boy in a slouchy velvet hat and leggings. The smell of marijuana around him was so strong it was almost visible, like the clouds of dust that follow Pigpen in the Peanuts cartoons. He was holding a rope attached to the halter of ... a small white goat with no horns.

Now, I can't say exactly what I expected to see. I knew it would not be a unicorn. I kinda thought it would be a pony with some sort of horn strapped to its head. I expected that they would have made SOME sort of effort, at least, to wow us just a little bit. I watched as the two little girls ahead of us frowned and looked at each other. And then one of them said to Cheech Greensleeves, "That's not a unicorn."

I waited for Cheech to spin some excellent fairy dust about how it had lost its horn through a curse, or how it was so young its horn hadn't sprouted yet.

But Cheech (who, let's be honest, had a lousy job and did not belong in any arm of the hospitality industry) leaned down and said to the girl, "That's right. It's a goat. And do you know WHY it's not a unicorn?"

The girls shook their heads.

"It's not a unicorn because children like you don't believe in unicorns anymore."

I give the kids a lot of credit for not a) bursting into tears (which likely would have been my approach at their age), or b) punching him right in his THC-laced nuts, which is what I thought he deserved. They just looked at him and looked at each other and looked disappointed, and then left.

My boyfriend and I did the same, and immediately began discussing whether we should ask for our money back. In principle, we felt we should. I don't think we did, though. Perhaps we were hoping that the $4 we'd given the March of Dimes would prevent more tragedies like Cheech. In any case, that was my first and last Renaissance Faire. And while I actually did like the wax hand-dipping and kept the resulting Mickey Mouse-ish wax glove for several years, nothing at the Faire came anywhere close to providing the kind of pleasure I'd gotten reading the Narnia or Prydain books, or from fantasizing that I lived in a place where it was possible to ditch school and go drift down a river on a home-made raft.

Honestly, while I've loved reading as long as I can remember, post-junior high, it's been rare that I've found a book that I loved as obsessively and devotedly as I loved those. Sure, I've read great books, I've found books that made me think and laugh and cry, I've found books that blew my mind with their ideas (Swift's Waterland, Quinn's Ishmael, Fowles' Daniel Martin all leap to mind). But books I wanted to chuck it all and LIVE in? Very rare.

And of course, once you actually study them, the Narnia books--like all books subject to academic exegesis--are tainted. If you read them again, you spot the sexism and the xenophobia and the religious fundamentalism, and it makes the whole thing just a little bit harder to get lost in.

But of course, where can you live then? Reality is such a pain in the ass, so lacking in winged horses and warddrobes that give way to winter forests. I can tell you what's in my warddrobe: Clothes. A mess of clothes, some of them I need to wash soon in order to look presentable for my job--a good job, all in all, but one where I work in a cubicle a good part of the time and rarely have to escape from Tashbaan in the middle of the night riding a talking horse.

All of this is a long way to get around to asking: Have there been any books you really wanted to live in since you turned 18? And if not, why not? It can't be that the books aren't as good. Qualitatively, the books are almost certainly better. At least some of them.

And a long way to get to my plug, which is this: If you are an adult who grew up on the Narnia books, if you like the Harry Potter books now, you should read Lev Grossman's The Magicians. I've been snowed in for the past few days and I read it basically overnight. It deserves the praise it's getting, and will make you remember the feeling of wanting to live in a book. (Not that you'll want to live in his. You won't.)

Read it, please, then come back and tell me a) why, once you pass puberty, so few books inspire the longing to live in them? And b) whether you think Grossman's ending is happy or sad. Because I can't make up my mind, and it's bothersome in the best kind of way.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Novel About Poetry

That's what I'm reading now, having finished Jane Hamilton's book Disobedience, which is about a teenaged boy who stumbles upon an e-mail from his mother that reveals she's having an affair. Terrific on multiple counts: the family dynamics, the affair dynamics, the teenage petulance and rage and confusion. Funny and well worth reading, though technology has already caught up to Hamilton's opening:

Reading someone else's email is a quiet, clean enterprise. ... There is no sound but the melody of the dial-up, the purity of the following Gregorian tones, and the sweet nihilistic measure of static.

How long has it been since you heard that sequence of sounds? So odd to think that dial-up's a technology that most people won't even remember in a few years.

Now I'm starting into Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist, which is about a minor poet whose personal life is in shambles and who's trying to write the introduction to a new poetry anthology. Even though I love poetry, a novel with such a plot would normally make me run very far, very fast. Probably toward a movie with lots of explosions.

But Baker is a very interesting writer. Along with a book about his obsession with John Updike (U and I), he has written a couple of fairly dirty books (Vox and The Fermata). Vox, which is the transcript of a long phone conversation between two people who've dialed into a chat line, is a really smart book that will make you think about the depersonalization of sex, the eroticism of anonymity, the old Shirley Maclaine quote about the brain being the most important sex organ. It will make you think about all of these things, once you're done with the lotion.

The main quality of Baker as a writer, though, is interestingness; he is seemingly incapable of not being interesting, and usually this is one of my favorite things in his books: He'll take some ordinary object, like a toenail clipper or something of the sort, and mine it for all its odd history and personal meanings and place in modern life, and usually this minutia is so fascinating that it doesn't bother you at all that, very occasionally, it grows a little chilly. (He talked about his fixations a bit in an interview with Salon a while ago.)

Anyway, my point is that Baker is one of the few writers who could write a book about a guy trying to write the introduction to a poetry anthology and actually make me want to read it. And sure enough, on page 9, the narrator provides advice I thought worth sharing.

And never think, Oh heck, I'll write that whole poem later. Never think, First I'll write this poem about my old orange life jacket, so that I'll be more ready to confront the haunting, daunting reality of this poem here about the treehouse that was rejected by its tree. No. If you do, the bigger theme will rebel and go sour on you. It'll hang there like a forgotten chili pepper on the stem. Put it down, work on it, finish it. If you don't get on it now, somebody else will do something similar, and when you open next year's Best American Poetry and see it under someone else's name, you'll hate yourself.

This strikes me as about 90 percent true, which is enough true that I think it should be Xeroxed and handed out to creative writing students. And then there's that 10 percent that says sometimes you are just not ready, and you have to let that poem percolate or it's going to come out weak and grainy.

I've had this happen with poems that I let sit in my brain for over a year before writing--but then, I've also had the other thing happen, where I didn't write it and it flew off to visit someone else. What about you? Are there ways you've learned to lasso the thing and get it tied it down before you're ready to ride it?

(I count at least three metaphors in the above couple of grafs--coffee, birds, broncos--that make me think I just need to go back to reading for the evening.)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Kudzu, Kannibals, and Kosher Sushi

And now for recent reading highlights ...

Best book that never quite seemed to develop a plot: Joseph O'Neill's Netherland. Really, what happens in this book? A lonely dude mooses around New York missing his estranged wife, dealing with his natural dreaminess (Frank Bascombe, meet your Dutch-boy soul mate), and interacting with a vast multicultural stream of characters. But who needs a plot when you have New York City, disquisitions on how to produce kosher sushi, and a quest to turn cricket into a national sport?

Best book that will make you want to shoot yourself, in between bouts of wondering whether human flesh really tastes like chicken: Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

(I dragged my husband to the movie during the holidays, too. Sorry, honey. It wasn't exactly festive. But I generally agree with Kafka's idea that we should read "only the kind of books that wound and stab us ... books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves ... book must be the axe to the frozen sea inside us." To which I've long been sure Kafka meant to add, "Oh, and books that make us laugh till a little bit of pee comes out.")

Which brings me to:

Best book I read, flat out: Beth Ann Fennelly's collection Unmentionables. It's funny, naughty in parts, imbued with a nice southerny tongue-in-cheek-iness that I liked a lot. But for all the southern bits (the kudzu poems are terrific, and you can see a cool video art version of them here), my favorite part is the sequence on Berthe Morisot.

Other bits of note: Katie Roiphe's fascinating essay on sex and the American male novelist in the last New York Times Book Review. A friend of mine pointed out that, in An American Dream, Mailer throws a woman out the window after raping her, and that therefore she couldn't find it in herself to work up much nostalgia for this older generation of scribblers. My first instinct was to agree, but then it occurred to me that it wasn't Mailer but Stephen Rojack who threw someone out a window, so given the novelist's common role of cultural critic, it seems a less clear feminist cause to me (though Mailer's own taste for the human ear is well-documented). In any case, the essay's definitely worth a read. Did you read it? What did you think?

Now starting into Ron Slate's The Great Wave and Jane Hamilton's Disobedience. See you on the other side.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Of Yaks and Modern Poetry

The Washington Post released its list of the best books of 2009 a few weekends back.

Memoir! Fiction! Arts and Letters! Business and Economics! Separate lists of American history and world history! Biography! Politics! Science! Sports!

And not a poetry book in sight. Not one.

The Post has apparently decided that poetry is a dead medium. Maybe it takes one to know one?

(I'm sorry. That was harsh. I know some very dear people who work at WP. And it has occurred to me lately that there are similarities between the ongoing gutting of journalism and the neglect/disappearance of poetry. Good poetry and good journalism are both things many people will not miss until they've disappeared completely, when the difference between the two arts and what's left in their place--Hallmark card doggerel and blogs loaded with truthiness--becomes starkly clear. Poets have never been able to make a living off their craft, yet poetry has survived, even if it's been marginalized. Journalists--who once could turn their skills into a decent living--are increasingly in the dinghy poets have drifted in all along.)

The New York Times, at least, included two poetry books on its 100 Notables list, those by Amy Gerstler and Louise Gluck. It's paltry, sure, but it's something--and the Times also included a lot of terrific short fiction collections, which frequently suffer similar neglect.

I'm sad to see my hometown paper ignoring poetry. I know they have their little poetry ghetto every week (which has recently changed form, allowing a poet to discuss one of his or her own works). I like Poet's Choice, but whenever I used to read the columns, my enjoyment was tinged with the sense of being treated to an explication of an obscure and mysterious art from a strange and distant land. As though the poem under review were a Himalayan basket designed for an obscure god to lay an egg in, or a Peruvian bowl made out of alpaca hoof.

It was this thought, along with a general musing about the insular nature of modern poetry, that inspired this poem a while back.

Happy new year to all!