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Preview: The Clever Title: Book Reviews and Other Cool Things

The Clever Title: The Creative Writing World Made Small

Updated: 2018-03-05T14:10:33.011-05:00


Chase Hollands Inteviews Ron Carlson


My father has always worked outside. He started his first construction job at twelve, laying out houses with his father during the summer, and after getting hurt playing football his first semester at college, he built docks and bridges and piers. From Pensacola to Alligator Alley, drivers all over Florida traverse his work. I remember him coming home every day exhausted, with bloodshot eyes and raw hands. A workingman’s skin is often described as leathery, but that’s too sickeningly romantic, too patronizing. Leather is strong, durable, and improves with age. My father’s skin, however, is a canvas of pain—gashes that will not heal, bruises that refuse to fade, and the black, tumorous markings of too much sun. While reading Ron Carlson’s short story “Blazo,” I can’t help but think of my father. The story follows Thomas Burns and his attempt to track down the place in Alaska where his son died. Beyond the obvious father/son dynamic, “Blazo” possesses a profound sense of place. Carlson paints Alaska as a brutal, unforgiving land, a visceral purgatory for the story’s main character. It resonated with me because I’ve always imagined my dad as being an extension of Florida itself, the harsh, eclectic landscape, and the raging wildlife, surviving by any means. “Blazo” struck me as something so curious and beautiful that I had to contact the author and ask him about writing, teaching, and life in general. He was gracious enough to respond. ***Chase Holland: In a PUBLISHERS WEEKLY interview, you are quoted as saying: “I believe in teaching as a real job…I don’t think it’s a substitute for anything else. It’s been shown to me that teachers can help, and the writing today is just as good as it was when I started out…” With this quote in mind, what is your response to critics of creative writing workshops who claim that MFA programs actually restrict creativity and experimentation, and water down much of today’s new fiction?Ron Carlson: This is an issue that eludes me. I don’t see creativity being restricted—and every good story is an experiment. The best writing I see these days is as good as the best writing I saw twenty five years ago. And it is just as rare as it was then. CH: As MFA students, we are constantly being reminded of the bleak job landscape we have to look forward to upon graduating. Do you have any advice for someone who would like to find work as a professor after graduation? What about those students who are not currently Graduate Assistants (and not gaining any teaching experience)?RC: Most teaching is fairly good and there is a ton of it. The workshop. It can be interesting to think about leading a workshop or teaching an eager group of undergraduates. The things a person can do is read more than anyone they know, write every day just enough so that when you come out of your room you’re blinking in the light, and devise fresh ways of diagnosing the story before us. The goal isn’t to get a job teaching; the goal is to be the best teacher in the history of the schoolhouse. Meanwhile, every writer should have a viable plan B, a paying job or a supportive partner.CH: Do you find it difficult to balance writing, teaching, and the common demands of life? If not, have you ever felt it to be a difficult balance? How did you cope?RC: When my two sons were young, we had a house and these two kids and two cars and lawn furniture and a great dog and always a leak in the roof. First things first. There are days writing takes a back seat. Fix the roof. There are weeks when writing doesn’t get any seat. Nor should it. You’ve got birds to feed. A little frustration because you can’t get to your story is not bad. And the real bottom line is: choose projects that you love so you’ll find a way to see them.CH: Wells Tower, author of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, calls the internet a curse, and says that “it’s toxic to the kind of concentration fiction writing requires.” In the past, you’ve warned of the possible creative dangers of the internet and consta[...]

The Church of Poetry


Reprinted from Apple, Word, Kiss Blog,, by Katherine RiegelI buy books and don't always read them right away. Sometimes I know the book is likely to be important to me, to speak on the subjects I can never quite put down, the ones I carry with me always like worry stones, seeking to understand by touching them again and again. This was the case with Marcia Aldrich's Companion to an Untold Story, a book about the suicide of a friend of hers, a book that I bought partly because I knew some of the author's essays and partly because of a poignant book trailer that included her reading from this book and partly because suicide is one of those subjects for me. The book is a "companion" in an old sense, a sort of reference book, thoughts organized alphabetically, wide-ranging bits and pieces about this particular friend and about the author and about suicide and death and mourning and loss.Last week, for reasons having to do with my own inner weather, I knew it was time to read this book, so I sat down on the couch between two of my dogs and opened it up.And it's as terrific as I thought it would be, pulling me in various directions, as compelling and hard-to-put-down as a thriller, taking me out of ordinary life in the ways that speak most directly to whatever strange kind of spirituality I practice.Here's a quote that puts difficult things so clearly I cannot stop thinking about it, wisdom and insight I must share:"In the rituals of mourning, we substitute a final resting place, even one so unmarked as the sea, for the actual place of death. We do so to write over the terrible image of trauma. Substitution of place is our profound device in death and its aftermath. The image of final burial comforts us because we, the survivors, compose it. It is authored rather than thrust upon us, already engraved. Choice of the place and manner of burial gains us composure against the suddenness of tragedy. Those who were lost are no longer lost: they are laid to rest. Meanwhile, the rituals of cremation purify the image of autopsy. The work of mourning is incomplete without a final substitution ('So Lycidus, sunk low, but mounted high')." --Marcia Aldrich, from Companion to an Untold Story, "Disposition of the Body," pp. 69-70I cannot say anything as smart as this, but I have been thinking lately about ritual, and how in my life, at least, I don't have enough ritual. I do not have a Christian faith, so the Christian rituals I grew up with aren't fully resonant for me--they resonate with memory and family, but not with that extra dimension of shared humanity and understanding and connection with the mystery. I semi-joke that I am a member of the Church of Poetry, because poetry helps me enter that extra dimension. But the Church of Poetry doesn't have enough rituals, not the kind that involve all the senses, the way ancient churches and organizations know work best to involve us: rituals with music, dance, incense, specific types of food, sacred objects with their complex textures. Words are bodied, but not as richly as High Mass.I think we need to understand and respect the rituals we have, and Aldrich's words above help me do that. And I think we need to create our own rituals, to reinforce our connections to each other and to whatever mysteries we feel. I am open to suggestions.[...]

Champion of Detroit’s Arts Scene


M.L. (Michael Lynn) Liebler is a senior lecturer at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.  His research areas include: labor literature, Vietnam-era literature, contemporary poetry, performance poetry and work and criticism of Thomas Merton.  Liebler received his B.A. from Oakland University in 1976 and his M.A. from the same university in 1980.  Since 1973, he has published poetry in several literary magazines, including: Paddlefish, Cottonwood Review, River Styxand The MacGuffin Review.  He has also written and/or edited fifteen books, the latest of which include WorkingWords: Punching the Clock and Wide Awake in Someone Else’s Dream.  Liebler is a powerful advocate for the arts in the city of Detroit.  He founded the Springfed Arts Metro Detroit Writers group, with the mission to “educate and inspire folks in the craft of writing, be it prose or song, the performance of works, spoken or sung.”While I had never met Liebler in person, I was familiar with his work in and around Detroit from my years as an online editor for various broadcasting and print news organizations.  Despite being a completely stranger, Liebler graciously agreed to answer a few questions over email.*C. Lasek: I had a round-about journey back into academia and am curious about your path.  I know from your online resume that you received your B.A. from OU in 1976 and your M.A. from OU in 1980.  Did you always know you wanted to be a writer and teacher? Also, could you describe three of the most formative experiences that have shaped your professional teaching life?M.L. Liebler: I wanted to be a teacher from a very early age-maybe 10-11-is[h]. I was raised by my working class grandparents, and I remember my grandmother coming home from a parent-teacher conference saying that the teacher told he[r] that she thought I'd "make a great teacher some day, but not with kids. He'd be better with older people like college level."  My grandmother was baffled because no one in our family had ever been to college or thought about college before. I didn't think much about it then either because I didn't think kids like me grew up to be teachers. We were more factory worker material than teacher. That seemed awful highfalutinto me.These people shaped my teaching life and methodology and who I am:Mr. Wadke 5th Grade Teacher of superior quali[t]yThe Beatles Professor Lawrence Pike my first creative writing teach at a community collegeLasek: Also according to your online resume, you have been writing and publishing consistently since 1980.  Which of your writing projects would you consider to be your most challenging and why? Which did you find to be the most rewarding and why?Liebler: Actually, I started publishing in magazines and chapbooks in 1973, but I found my most recent book of poems Wide Awake in Someone Else's [D]ream to be the most difficult to write and get published by The Wayne State University Press.  The book had to go through several rewrites a[n]d edits to be made ready for publication.  It took the most time of any of my books and projects.  However, it won a couple of decent awards, so it was worth it.Most rewarding would be finally getting my anthology of working class literature Working Words: Punching the Clock and Kicking Out the Jams into print. The book had been assembled, put together and ready to be printed in 2005 when the WSU Press dropped it like a cold potato.  Coffee House Press picked it up, but couldn't get it out until 2010.  However, 2010 was a perfect time and better than mid 2000's because the class war erupted in Wisconsin and spread to the Occupy movement, so the world was more than ready to welcome this collection than in 2005 or 2006. It is still one of the only collection[s] of its kind.Lasek: Of all the classes you have taught at Wayne State University, which was your favorite and why?Liebler: I love to teach anything, but some faves over the years have been “The V[...]

Lok Lok Dumpling House


I’ve been in Melbourne, Australia, for one hour before I decide to walk the streets for a late lunch. My head buzzes after the twenty-hour flight. During the trip, I read Mira Bartok’s memoir The Memory Palace, a stunning narrative of a daughter coping with her mother’s mental illness. The book was my sanity during the long trip; it transported me to places like Chicago, Europe, New Orleans; places that wasn’t a cramped economy class seat. But it took me to other places to—the love and guilt a daughter carries, the 80’s ruin of mental health care, the constant fear and danger of an abusive relationship. Bartok’s memoir makes me think about the fragility of the brain, of my sister-in-law who suffers from a brain injury, of my late father-in-law who believed everyone was after his money, that the electricians across the street where spying in on his life. I can’t shake the violent tendrils of The Memory Palace. Bartok’s sentences and images linger, her scenes with her mother resonating with a haunting, saddening quality. Even when Bartok is clear across the world, her mother’s shadow falls over her, dictates her every action, invading her every thought. But it isn’t a book about the oppressive nature of a parent. It is a book about love, about family, about forgiveness, and because of this, Bartok’s memoir avoids the common pitfalls of memoir and becomes a glorious work of art, much like her mother’s writing that is sprinkled throughout the book.*I walk down Victoria Street. I feel like my legs are tied to cement blocks. Still, this is what one must do in another country, venture out and explore, find the secrets of this city. And there is one secret I find immediately, drawn to it like a magnet to metal: Lok Lok Dumpling House. The Lok Lok Dumpling House is as nondescript as your average Chinese restaurant. Across the street is the famous Queen Victoria’s Market, where later I will travel and buy eggs and sausages for morning breakfast, where I will be put under a grocery shopping spell, allowing the voices of vendors to bounce around in my brain. It’s a beautiful chaos with the freshest seafood and meats and veggies. But now, I’m too hungry to think straight, so I ask for a menu at Lok Lok and because my blood sugar is so low, I decide to ask the waitress for suggestions. She thinks I need a soup filled dumpling, some shu mai, and pork pot stickers. I think she’s right. As I’m waiting a large man enters, belly and camera leading the way. He looks like a tourist, but on closer in inspection there is layer of dirt over him. He comes in with a lot sound and bravado. “Hey there,” he says. “How are ya?”I look around. There’s no one else in the restaurant. “Fine,” I say and smile. He sits across from me and orders one of the waiters for water. The waiter eyes him. Doesn’t smile. Doesn’t move a muscle. “Please,” the man says. “A glass of water.”Hesitantly, the waiter grabs a glass and fills it with water, placing it on the table. “Thank you,” the man says and downs the water in a single gulp. “Another.” But the waiter ignores him. “You,” he says, turning to me. “You look like you are a nice fella.”I smile. I don’t know what else to do. A stranger has made himself comfortable across from me and my brain feels like cheese. “That’s kind of you,” I say.“Not from here, huh?”I shake my head. “States.”“Whereabouts?”“Florida,” I say. He looks for the waiter again. I take him in, this man. He wears a heavy photographers vest and around his neck is some form of identification. He’s heavily bearded and the beard is dirty like the rest of him. “You think the food here is good?” he says.“Smells good,” I say. The waiter eyes the man again. “Another water,” the man says. The waiter doesn’t move. He talks to the waitress who ordered my dumplings in Chinese. I don’t know what they are saying, but I can tell he wants this man out. I can tell[...]

Chase Holland Interviews George Saunders


Maybe I shouldn’t admit it, but I’ve always struggled to write third-person narratives. Navigating the distance between narrator and character—up close, far away, somewhere in the middle—it trips me up; I overthink it, and POV becomes much more than a way to tell the story, it becomes the whole story, and writing,and life, and I-can’t-do-this-so-why-am-I-even-trying? and I hit the self-destruct button, page one. But something clicked when I first read “Tenth of December” by George Saunders. Originally published in The New Yorker, now the eponymous story in his upcoming collection, “Tenth of December” details the fateful collision of a suicidal man and a boy who just wants to help. Saunders paints a subtle, wrenching portrait of youth, innocence, death, and despair. What struck me most significantly about the piece is how close Saunders gets to the characters. He digs deep into their minds to reveals their fears, hopes, and secret truths. The story is written in third-person, but reads very much like a first-person narrative. After reading the story a few times, I emailed Professor Saunders and asked for some insight into his process, specifically on POV and voice. He was nice enough to respond, writing: “I call that voice ‘third-person ventriloquist.’ As you accurately inferred, the point is to get as close as the person as possible—using his diction, vocabulary, etc.  My thinking there is that our limitations as people (i.e. our character) is all tied in with our limitations of language—we understand, or fail to, through our thoughts, which are essentially limited by our diction and syntax.  Something like that.”    If there is a typical path to becoming a professor, Saunders did not travel it. He graduated from Colorado School of Mines with a BS in geophysical engineering and worked in Sumatra and Indonesia analyzing seismic data before earning his MA in creative writing from Syracuse University, where he is now a Professor. He is the winner of multiple literary awards, and received the MacArthur Fellowship in 2006. Chase Holland: Creative writing programs and workshops are often criticized and charged with producing bland material. Workshops are said to restrict creativity and hinder experimentation. Do you have a response to these types of criticism?George Saunders: I think these are all real dangers.  So my approach is to try to be aware of these dangers and try to steer around them.  I do this through the design of the workshop and (more importantly) its execution.  Almost any pedagogy can go bad with sloppy application.  So I try to be mindful of the inherent risks of the format (as listed above). CH: I've heard some professors talk about how they do not feel creative writing can be taught. How do you feel about this? Can it be taught? If so—to what degree?GS: In a program like ours “teaching writing” isn’t really the point.  We got 520 applications for 6 spots in fiction last year – so these people already know how to write, and write beautifully.  That’s how they got it in.  What we are doing is mentoring existing talent.  I sometimes say we are trying to encourage a talent for having talent – how does the young writer learn to work with her own abilities and challenges?  This sort of mentoring can be done, for sure.  It is complex and sometimes even psychological work.  But you are helped out immensely by the brilliance of the students – they are already on the right track and moving with good velocity – we are maybe only clearing small trees off the tracks and shouting encouraging words as they go past.  Or, in some cases (here I will happily drop the railroad analogy) we are helping them get clear of certain obstructions they may have self-constructed.CH: How do you run workshop? Do you ask the author to remain silent, or ask the students to come in wit[...]

Hiatus DONE!


It has been a while since the Clever Title posted something new. Life gets that way. It intrudes, sometimes, with the things we love most. Including this blog. And eating cake.

But I'm here to say, the Clever Title is back. With new features. The Clever Title will expand its contents to creative writing pedagogical matters. We have a new contributing writer, Chase Holland, who will delight us with author interviews. Happy New Year!

My Friend Ben, the Good Soldier


Even though I prefer to read at night, after my girlfriend and the rest of the apartment building settles into bed, I don’t intend to stay up until two am. I have to teach the next day, but I’m reading TheGood Soldiers. I want to stay up and finish it, pull an all-nighter until I reach the end. Reading the first lines illustrates what a tremendous amount of will power is required to turn the light out and finish the book the following night:“His soldiers weren't yet calling him the Lost Kauz behind his back, not when this began. The soldiers of his who would be injured were still perfectly healthy, and the soldiers of his who would die were still perfectly alive. A soldier who was a favorite of his, and who was often described as a younger version of him, hadn't yet written of the war in a letter to a friend, ‘I've had enough of this bullshit.’ Another soldier, one of his best, hadn't yet written in the journal he kept hidden, ‘I've lost all hope. I feel the end is near for me, very, very near.’ Another hadn't yet gotten angry enough to shoot a thirsty dog that was lapping up a puddle of human blood.”  Unlike the memoir The Forever War, which is the only other book about Iraq written by a reporter, the author David Finkel is not the main character of The Good Soldiers. He disappears behind the third-person in order to tell the stories of the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment who live in a forward operating base far from the Green Zone. The average age of the 2-16 Rangers is nineteen, the same age as my friend Ben when he deployed to Iraq. I’ve known Ben since I was sixteen and he was fifteen. I’m thirty-one now. Only when I say these numbers out loud am I aware that most of our friendship has taken place after his experiences in Iraq—after he changed. I still think of Ben as a loud, goofy guy who rolls his big bobbly head around the top of his spindly neck as he verbally punctuates sentences with “Ahhh!” which makes him sound like a pirate. I know the Ben who snuck onto campus dressed in a ninja suit and vandalized the school. I know the Ben who listened to punk rock but dressed preppy in order to sleep with the kinds of girls who would never talk to dirty punk rockers like me. And I know the weak, scared Ben who arrived crying during the storm New Years Eve to tell me and guys he was being sent to Iraq. Everyone else knows a huge, muscular man with a commanding voice and serious expression, an officer, a Green Beret, a professional soldier straight from central casting.No matter who or what you become as an adult, your family and childhood friends always see you as the little shit you know you are. I think that is why Ben and I are such good friends. Even though he enjoys the admiration and respect he now receives, he’s uncomfortable with the person he has become. His real self is his teenage self. He needs someone who knows the “real” him and needs it badly. After his first tour, he got engaged to his high school girlfriend, a selfish, mean spirited, and spiteful girl who made him visibly uncomfortable and nervous. One night at the bar—and there were many, many nights at the bar after that first tour—I pried out of him his reasons for wanting to marry someone who made him so unhappy. “Because she knew me before the war,” he said. “She’s the only girl who will ever really know me.” Eventually he broke off the engagement, to the relief of his family and myself, but occasionally he admits to me at the end of a long night of drinking that he still calls her.Like the nineteen-year-olds in The Good Soldiers, Ben lived on a forward operating base outside the Green Zone. The stories Ben tells me from that time are the funny, silly stories. His unit brought the ingredients for pizza to a house they raided because a surveillance photo showed an oven. I’ve heard about the pizza they made, [...]

What Are You Reading, Sheila Squillante?


Today is my friend C.S.  Giscombe’s birthday, and since I can’t treat him to a pint of lager and a plate of rice & beans or gator sausage with honey at the dive bar we used to lunch at before he moved to Berkeley, I will treat you to some of his poetry. I’ve been re-reading his collection, Prairie Style (Dalkey Archive, 2008), and each time I return to it, I find more to admire, more to uncover and delight in. It’s what I say to my students about how the best poems call you to return to them again and again, offering something new each time. It’s maybe a cliché, but it’s also true. And it’s really true of this book. These are packed (prose) poems that take up/on much: music, race, geography, topography, histories, jokes, animals, love.  It’s a downright reflective book with a voice I find intimately deliberate.  What I mean is that as I read, I feel I’m the presence of a deliberating mind, a whole energy, even, as it works stuff out. It bristles and rings. It surrounds.Consider the first poem, “Downstate,” To have the same sound, to be called by the same name.Location’s what you come to; it’s the low point, it usually repeats.  To me, any value is a location to be reckoned with; I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge how an event could be talked about like it was you or me being talked about.Or location’s the reply, the obvious statement about origin; it goes without saying that pleasure’s formidable.Lots of formidable pleasures dwell within, and not just of the cerebral sort. This is also a poetics of body, and one of my favorite moments appears in the poem, “Two Directions:”To me love’s an animal, not the feeling of watching one but the animal itself—blunt, active, equipped…Yes, yes, yes.To me, (and this construction I borrow from the book—there are a lot of qualifying “to me” moments. As in, Have your own experience. This is what matters to me. Oh, I like that.) there are enchanting if dizzying shifts happening in subject , perspective and voice throughout the collection. In some poems there is the vast horizon:  “Nothing to the sky but its blank, endless chaos,” (“Day Song”); or a moment when “The prairie appeared suddenly like it was a miracle or fortification. (“Prairie Style”).”  Then still others feel, to borrow another excellent phrase, “furiously local” –specific to the speaker’s desires, the smallness of a lived life, internal: “(I’d bought a room in Jeanette Life’s hostelry—the Stone Soup—on the north side and could walk to the archives.)” (“Camp Sites”). Even more so in “Ballad Values,” which is, to me, a delicious list of personal predilections, the sort of things you might want to know about a lover before your first kiss:I like “short grass” and the way we sang once—James Hamilton and I sang once—about liking meat that’s close to the bone. And I prefer going over the junctions to being part of the argument. I like two buses rocking perilously and metaphor judging you. I’m partial to ugly. I vary about the point where pleasure’s a train of waves. I see how voice is a joke on passion and value the smooth as well as the sweet report.  I like it once you get past the natural boundary.What I like most about the collection as a made-thing is actually a formal aspect. It’s the quality of tangent & repetition that gives the book its satisfying shape: we’re in the city, we’re in the city, we’re in the city, there’s a fox! Love, love, love, music, fox again. City. Music, music. Prairie. Love. Giscombe does this with subject and image, but also—and this, really, is my favorite part—at the sentence, phrase, and word –level.  It’s a thing that makes me squeal with delight when I come across it in a book or in music. Oh, how I love a braided motif! I love th[...]

Gift by Donna Steiner


I received a wonderful gift in the mail today: the first book written by my friend, Susan Fox Rogers.  It’s called My Reach: A Hudson River Memoir and is being published by Cornell University Press.I remember walking along a little stretch of the Hudson, listening to Susan describe her vision for the book.  Over time, I read some of the essays that would become chapters and then, as the manuscript progressed, I read full drafts.  As writing friends do, I marked the drafts, trying to make funny or encouraging or helpful comments in the margins.  Later I read the galley proofs, and even got to weigh in on a few design elements.  The book became a godchild, one I wanted to pay careful attention to and love and protect.Susan and I met in graduate school at the University of Arizona.  We had a couple of classes together and became friends; eventually we each left Arizona for New York.  We stayed friends – writer friends – which means we periodically read each other’s work and cheer each other on, occasionally ponder a rejection, frequently laugh about the weird and wonderful facets of this chosen life.  We’ve been close for a dozen years, we’ve had a lot of fun together, we’ve shared some heartbreak.  A lot stands out, but there’s been nothing quite like seeing My Reach come to light. As any writer knows, many good poems and stories and essays and novels never make it to print.  I have friends who are intelligent, graceful, compelling writers but can’t find a publisher.  I have manuscripts of my own collecting dust on a shelf.  It can be a discouraging process, the years of effort that seem, at times, to come to nothing.But this time, with Susan’s project, it was different.  All the customary things happened that typically do when a manuscript is under way – the ideas, the slow progress, the revisions, the submissions, the rejections.  Sometimes that’s as far as it goes…  But after years of hard work, an editor became interested and the funding was found and the project was slated for publication.  The ideas I’d heard while walking near the Hudson had been refined.  The project had become more complex, more touching and more engaging.  It would still be a book about the Hudson, but it was also about the quiet beauties of exploring a territory by kayak.  And, perhaps most interesting of all, it was about grieving, and about joy.It was, in short, a book – a beautiful, tangible, hard-cover book.  And that book arrived in the mail today.  When I read the Acknowledgments, I cried.  I didn’t cry when my name was mentioned, although it makes me proud to see it there.  I cried when Susan talked about her family.  I won’t give anything away – you should read My Reach – but Susan’s family came to be part of the book in ways that she never anticipated. That’s the thing about writing, and about families, and about friendship, and about rivers, and even, I think, about something as simple as opening your mailbox.  You don’t really know what’s coming.  Today came Susan’s book.  Today came a reminder of why writing matters. What a wonderful gift.Donna Steiner’s writing has been published in literary journals including Fourth Genre, Shenandoah, The Bellingham Review, The Sun, and The Los Angeles Review. She’s a contributing writer for Hippocampus Magazine, teaches at the State University of New York in Oswego and is a 2011 fellow in Nonfiction Literature from the New York Foundation for the Arts.[...]

Not Simply Pro-Vegan or Anti-Meat Book


“Animal agriculture makes a 40% greater contribution to global warming than all transportation combined; it is the number one cause of climate change.” I am not a raging anything. I am passionate about my own decisions yet I have never felt the need to inform others on how to live, behave or what to eat. Yet reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals has led me to examine my life as an eater, a food lover and a person with a heavy conscious.  I was raised in a Colombian household. To my family eating was a shared experience of delight, laughter and indulgence. To put it simply, in our home food was love.  My mother cooked dishes that often times caused our upstairs tenants to come knocking on our door to linger in the doorway and get a better whiff of the spice filled aroma that ran through their air vent. Welcomed by my parents, they’d end up sitting at our dinner table eating my mother’s carne assada, ground beef stuffed bell peppers, fajitas, yellow salted potatoes, chicken and rice, meatballs, ceviche,  breaded lemon pork chops. The Muñoz residence was a home of extreme foodies. This is why I’m sure my family was stunned when I, who loved all things wrapped in bacon, announced that I was going to become a vegetarian. I have been a vegetarian for over ten years now. And although I’m still often faced with why in hell would you not eat meat expressions, hmm, interesting whimpers of pity, interrogating questions and pointblank confused glares, nowadays I rarely stop to acces, let alone defend my life choices. Reading Eating Animals caused me to examine my relationship with food.  My reasoning like Foer’s and that of many vegetarians circled around the fact that I did not want to eat animals. It is the grappling of this truth that lies at the core of Eating Animals. Foer’s book is many things including, a self-study, a memoir, a book about food, an activist environmental book, but above all it’s a book that questions and challenges our habits, our comfort, our future and our humanity. Eating Animals is a call to action for people who may or may not want to know about what eating animals entails. Foer asks readers to put down their forks and ask: What am I eating? How did it get on my plate? Who and what do my eating choices affect? And ultimately, what does it mean to eat animals? Foer’s clever modernist prose seen that appear in his works of fiction, Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, seeps the pages of Eating Animals, his first nonfiction book.  Fatherhood was the catalyst for Foer to research the food industry, visit farms and factories across the nation and write a book about eating animals. In 270 pages Eating Animals examines people’s relationship with animals, identifies Foer’s vegetarian conviction and traces both his hopeful and horrific encounters with American farming and food production.  What sets Foer’s poignant and informative book apart from other books and documentaries about this country’s food industry is his ability to sympathize with animal eaters. Foer’s sentimentality towards eating animals lies in the fact that neither he nor his vegetarian raised child will ever eat his grandmother’s famous chicken and carrots. I am often times asked if I miss the taste of meat and my answer is always yes. Eating animals is delicious. Yet my missing meat does not mean I long for it. I miss eating animals because it was once a part of who I was.  When describing his lack of lust for red meat Foer admits, “…the smell of summer barbeque still makes my mouth water.” Similarly, to this day the smell of fried bacon makes my eyelids flutter. I am able to placate myself with a deep blissful inhale. Stuffed turkey, glazed ham, baked chicken, pickled fish, most majo[...]

There Is No Easy Answer, Claire


I wanted Mary Roach to give me an excuse to stop having sex.  I thought I would find myself in a list of symptoms and say – there I am.  That incurable disease?  That’s me.  Got what I came for… and now I can quit.  I ordered Bonk because I read an excerpt of her first book, Stiff, which explored the wondrous lives of the recently and very dead, and I liked her approach to the subject of bodies, that of a curious wide-eyed researcher.  It followed that Bonk wouldn’t be an account of one woman’s sexual dysfunction (in which I knew I would recognize myself).Stiff assured me that Bonk was about the science of sex, that Mary Roach would be the trustworthy guide I wanted her to be, that she would be funny and sympathetically human, and that she would provide me with the gentle handholding (dragging may be the better term) I needed to enter the Museum of Human Sexuality and by proxy and long-delayed result, my own psyche.  Happily, Mary Roach gave me all of these things. As foreign as some of the battery operated sex machines, rubber anuses, and sheep testicle transplants in this book are, Roach treats them with respect, and, as she already knew or finds out as she explores their history and the history of the people that surround these objects, they are testament to the ways we try to find out more about ourselves.  To make ourselves happier.  Or, as in the case of the penile pricking ring in chapter six, save our souls from the dangers of masturbation.   Thank God times have changed, and thank God sex today can be about fun. Roach also knows that the unbiased, unaffected scientist who denies her own involvement in a project she is unavoidably affected by, is outmoded. She knows that her humanness makes her a better guide, one that we can commiserate with to get through the cringe moments, those moments that strip sex of it’s mythology and it’s emotionality and put it in a petri dish.  She reminds us that all of this science is about being happier and having more fun.  Which is why Roach’s sense of humor is important.  Sex is so scary, uncomfortable, awkward, and silly that without the jokes, Roach’s exploration would seem more like work and less like fun.  I can imagine Roach (the nightingale I take into the coal mine of sexuality) researching, or like in the footnote on page 212, spending half an hour on Merriam-Webster making the dictionary say “CLIT-oris” and “Vagina” and “Penis.”  Unlike science’s need to argue something in order to be successful, what makes Roach, and therefore Bonk, so successful and readable is the fact that she refrains from coming to any conclusions, preaching, or sliding into didacticism.  Roach could have argued that all women should tell their partners what feels good and where, exactly, they ought to be rubbing, and then provided the scientific evidence for said argument.  That would have been good advice. Instead, she explains the myriad hilarious ways in which others (scientists) have made that argument and come to that conclusion.  As well as a twenty other conflicting conclusions. She doesn’t condemn science for its vagaries and lack of sensitivity, either, which would amount to preaching from the other side of the glass.  Instead, she is the best kind of guide, one that would like to understand sex, but really just wants to know more about it.  Importantly, Mary Roach does what I am afraid to do: find out for herself, through experiment, research, and good humor, what sex, is, does, and will be.  All thirteen chapters have titles that, like “The Upsuck Chronicles: Does Orgasm Boost Fertility, and What Do Pigs Know About It?” evince the extent to which Roach plumbs sex (ha ha).[...]

Fragments (From the F section of Kim’s Encyclopedia)


Fragmented things I like:1.     Kaleidoscopes. The struggle to identify actual shapes is both frustrating and endearing. 2.     Mosaics. Especially the Cinderella one in the castle at Disney World. When my legs are not being run over by strollers, I like to stand up close to the long stretch of wall and find where the peach-colored pieces start to form Cinderella’s cheek.  3.      The back doorway of the House of Blues, Orlando. Surrounding the door is a halo of concrete and trinkets. There are old toys, coins, pieces of beer bottles and glitter all cemented into the wall. It reminds me of Junk City from Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. Forgotten treasures packed together. I take a picture because my parent’s won’t let me stand there and ponder over it. I’m blocking the doorway, they say. People gotta eat. Fragments things I hate: 1.      Puzzles. I already know the story.  It’s on the cover of the box. And I can never seem to finish one anyway.2.      Sentence fragments in student papers. Yep.I like fragments. There’s something enchanting and mysterious about them. Maybe it’s because they function like the antithesis of a novel or perhaps they are just one way I find I can relate to postmodernism.  But I’m talking about writing here. Storytelling.So when I stumbled upon Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, the nonfiction equivalent of this kind of fragmented storytelling, I literally gasped loud enough in the bookstore to turn heads. In her forward, Rosenthal boasts of telling the story of her life, one completely absent of shocking clichés like abusive parents, addictions, and past life speculations. This is the story of one regular woman living in the twenty-first century, albeit in the structure of an encyclopedia. No joke. There are charts, graphs, photos and illustrations. Even the front and back flaps of the books are used to stay in-sync with the quirky humor that is Rosenthal. For instance, the back flap has five sentences, each about what a certain person is doing at the exact moment I’m reading the flap. There’s a hilariously long reader’s agreement, in which, if you sign it, you agree not to reproduce the book and agree that “on any given weekend, there are way too many mattress sales” (v).  Rosenthal does a great job grounding the reader in 21st century living, from her Orientation Almanac, outlining anything an alien or time-traveler would need to know about this time period, to entries listed about kid’s meals on flights, parking spots, and compliments. I got to savor each snapshot of life that Rosenthal offered. I remember being stuck on the road for an hour in the backseat and on the way to Disney World for our usual weekend trip. My parents talked quietly and I, being the diligent grad student with no traces left of motion sickness, decided to get some reading done. Be productive. About thirty pages into it, and with more than a half an hour to go before seeing the big ears, I bookmarked my page and put it away. I didn’t want to finish it too soon. I didn’t want to reach the last entry. In the entry titled “Go,” Rosenthal writes:“I get this weird sort of rush when an ambulance comes racing down the street, and I, along with all the other drivers, quickly pull over to let the more important vehicle pass. It’s as if us little cars on the side of the road are cheering, Go! Go! You can do it! Go, important ambulance, go! The experience invariably leaves me feeling proud and giddy”  When reading Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, I felt at times like I was riding in an ambulance. The roads were blurry and I could onl[...]

Lie to Me, Baby: The (very) Brief Adventures of Stalker Girl


Not since Lauren Slater’s Lying has a memoir come along and deliberately lied to readers. And I don’t mean in the way of those infamous fake memoirs we all think about when we hear the words “memoir” and “lying” mentioned in the same breath. I’m talking in a straight-up literary and artful way. But before I get into the details of Karl Taro Greenfeld’s memoir Boy Alone I have to tell you how I came across his book. Why? Because I’m a narcissist, of course, so I can’t help talking about myself. But seriously, despite all my navel gazing, I’m also a huge believer in coincidence, or fate if you will.It all began when I first encountered Karl Taro Greenfeld’s work in the pages of The Sun, a short story entitled “Death Or Glory.” I was smitten, in the midst of a very serious literary crush. Needless to say, I’ve had other literary crushes. There was Junot Díaz, Kathryn Harrison, Frank McCourt, all of them shamelessly seducing me with their words. By the time I picked up a used copy of The Best American Short Stories 2009, and found “NowTrends,” I was convinced we were meant to be: Karl Taro Greenfeld and me, Stalker Girl. Fate? You bet. So, fast forward to January 2011. I’ve been celebrating the publication of my own short story in one of my favorite lit mags of all time—but I won’t elaborate on that since this is not at all about shameless self promotion—and tonight, I’m sitting in front of my computer when I open my email. It’s from someone who’s just read my story, congratulating and thanking me for writing it. And who is the email from? You guessed it. Karl Taro Greenfeld. I almost fall out of my desk, and by “my desk,” I mean the couch. But that’s not all. Tomorrow there will be a shiny new copy of The Missouri Review in my mailbox, and what will I find in its pages? Greenfeld’s “Even the Gargoyle Is Frightened.” I won’t read it right away. I’ll carry it in my messenger bag for weeks. Foreplay. Of the literary kind. Back to the present. How should I respond to his email? I stop myself from replying with “Wow! I’ve been web-stalking you for months!” and I resist the urge to use various I-heart-you-and-you-complete-me clichés. I know how frightening such a statement might sound to a normal person. Instead, I opt for sanity. I thank him, because I’m grateful, and I tell him that it means a lot, because it does. Why? That’s the question, isn’t it?*It’s not that simple. Of course, every writer needs validation, to know that our essay or memoir or story has touched even one reader is part of the reason we all write. But let’s just say that lately, I’ve been having a crisis of faith— in the state of memoir as a whole, and in myself as a writer—which was triggered in part by the recent slew of celebrity “memoirs” crowding bookstore shelves. (Do we really live in a world where books written, and I use the term loosely, by Snooki and Justin Bieber are bestsellers? Are there no more Frank McCourts or Annie Dillards left in the world? And don’t even get me started on ghostwriters.) But I won’t mislead you. That wasn’t it. Not entirely. The conversation that followed David Shields’ Reality Hunger also got me thinking about myself as a writer, about my own memoir, and about why I keep writing the thing if it feels like I’m banging my head against the wall. Then Taylor Antrim reviewed Nick Flynn’s The Ticking is the Bomb for The Daily Beast, insisting that the memoir would be a much better book if it were written as a novel. Antrim wrote, “So, what’s with all the memoirs? Are they somehow… easier? Is the storytelling bar set lower? Too often, memoir seems to me an excuse to be fragmentary, incomplete, narr[...]

Life in the 12 x 12, or The Upside of the Downsize


My apartment has granite countertops and cushy carpets. There’s a flat screen TV in the living room, and my two roommates also have TVs in their bedrooms. We have a fridge and a microwave, a washer and dryer. Paintings and posters line the walls, and we recently hung some art deco mirrors from Target. We’ve got two couches and two chairs and a dinner table for four. Vases and scented candles and a martini mix set speckle the coffee table. When it’s cold we turn on the heat and when it’s hot we crank the air conditioning. Inside Dr. Jackie Benton’s home is a rocking chair, four-burner gas stove, a bed and a bookshelf. The photographs of her life are tacked to the cedar walls, along with Buddhist and Taoist sayings written on scraps of paper. That’s it. My apartment’s 1235 square feet dwarfs her 144 square feet. Beyond Jackie’s 12 x 12 grow Virginia bluebells, persimmon for wine and preserves, cornelian cherry, mint everywhere, spicebush, elderberries, pecan trees and much more flora. Her dozens of gardens lead out to a lush forest and No Name Creek—literally, that’s its name. It is here in rural North Carolina that a well educated physician in her sixties lives off the grid without plumbing or electricity—in North Carolina, any structure 12 x 12 feet isn’t considered a house and doesn’t require property taxes. The dirt road leading up to the farm isn’t on Google Maps. In the 12 x 12 she has “the carbon footprint of a Bangladeshi” and thrives off her permaculture farm, one that works in harmony with nature. In short, she makes Thoreau look about as materialistic as Kim Kardashian.All this sounds wonderful to me, as I sink deeper into my recliner and shovel a handful of Oreo’s in my mouth. I gaze up from the book Twelve By Twelve, taking stock of all my stuff. I don’t really need most of it, if any of it. But I like my recliner, I like Oreo’s—if only because I’m used to them. Could I shed it all like Jackie? William Powers went to find this out for himself. After spending a decade as a relief worker in Africa and South America, he returned to the US astonished by the consumption and total division from nature, and at many times the derision toward it. Jackie invited him to stay at her 12 x 12 while she marched in protests across the country (she took the Greyhound— “Grey-doggin’ it” as she called it —and stayed with friends to reduce her footprint). And even though Powers had been accustomed to simplicity from his relief work, at first it wasn’t all rainbows and rapture. The first day he couldn’t stomach the idea of the composting toilet, though he didn’t mind the lack of electricity:The only oddity was that I was in the heart of the world’s richest nation—but living a subsistence life. No humming refrigerator, no ringing phones, and none of the ubiquitous “stand-by” lights on appliances—those false promises of life inside the machines. Instead: the whippoorwill’s nocturnal call, branches scraping quiet rhythms in the breeze, and groggy No Name Creek. Looking east from the 12 x 12 toward the creek into the ink black night, without the slightest glimmer of industrial society, I thought, could I really be inside the borders of a high-tech superpower?My air conditioner just kicked on. My Pandora music station sings, and I’m swathed in the laptop’s fluorescence. I take mental inventory of the computers, video game consoles, iPods and various iParaphernalia that fill the apartment. With entertainment streaming in our pores at the speed of light, surely we’d get bored at the 12 x 12. What would we do all day alone in the woods, without even Facebook to update, to show off to all our friends how rustic we [...]

Fan Letter


@font-face { font-family: "Cambria"; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: "Times New Roman"; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; } December 22, 2010Dear Michael,I’ve been reading your books—just finished Like Happiness—and trying to decide how to tell you how much I like them. Finally I tried to imagine how I’d like someone to respond to my book; thus this letter.I’m writing this by the campfire in Collier Seminole State Park, listening (unfortunately) to the teen girls behind our campsite singing loudly and talking even more loudly. I’ve been thinking about how you camp away from people and wishing we were doing that now. It is a big step, though, from never camping to full-out-primitive-pack-it-in-pack-it-out, and this seemed like a necessary intermediate level.Anyway I don’t imagine you reading this actual scribbled piece of paper—my handwriting is atrocious (the only subject I got a “C” in during my grade school years), and deciphering it would no doubt be more frustrating than any reward in content.First off let me tell you that I really did fall for your poems just from hearing you read at the Other Words conference. I knew then that I wanted your books, but an odd shyness (hard to imagine, I’m sure) overcame me and I decided to order them when I got home. I knew I loved your most recent work best, so I ordered Flock and Shadow and pre-ordered Like Happiness, and looked up anything of yours I could find online while I was waiting for my packages to arrive.And what I found just whet my appetite, and confirmed that you share a peculiarity I had suspected was mine alone: the certainty that there are whole worlds inside us, landscapes both natural and fantastic, better and worse, lighter and darker than our outside selves, more mysterious, more real, truer.Maybe other people feel this. Maybe a lot of other people. But they don’t seem to talk about it, to think about it the way I do—and you do. Well, of course not precisely—these are your poems we’re talking about, your particular wisdom gained (it seems to me) from the kind of mindfulness I’m just taking my first steps towards.And so: Flock and Shadow. I read the new poems first. I mentioned to you already how I had to catch my breath after “Sky Full of White Birds.” Some parts I want to be the speaker: “In the middle of the night large creatures pulled themselves from the ocean and settled down near me.” And some parts I am, even if I’m not sure I want to be: “…would we stand still and inhale, or would we walk on, safe in our smaller selves, free of that feeling that takes us beyond and leaves us abandoned, out of breath and hungry.” And all this building on more ands, more images I know at the heart level (“the guts and groans of horses in glittering fields”) up to the final word, “sing.”(I love the surprising ways singing comes up in your work, the mysteries and apt motif: “the world is always singing,/that’s just what the world must do to stay intact.”—but I digress.)So after I read the new poems, I started section 2, your work from the 1980s. And it was instructive to see where you’d come from—I felt like I was peeking into a photo album. As I read through the whole middle of the book, though, I had to sometimes spell myself with a trip into the last section—the second-most-recent poems. Some of the older poems are starker; some of them hurt more to read; they feel not more lost but less content with being lost, more frantic about it, sometimes almost bitter about it. I know I presume too much, but some of them felt less far along the path to enlightenmen[...]

The Love of Dogs


@font-face { font-family: "Cambria"; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: "Times New Roman"; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; } I’ve been in Boise, Idaho, for the last couple of days in a kind of pensive state. Not that I abhor Boise. In fact, I’m charmed by the place, charmed by the surrounding Boise foothills and the snow that has coated everything in a layer of white. During my time here, I finished Mark Doty’s memoir Dog Years and feel enlightened. After snapping the book shut, I sat in quiet. In the last year, I’ve been on the road, travelling from city to city, spending my days in cold hotel rooms. There is a loneliness that comes with travelling. Our minds travel the miles back to our comfort, back to the warmth of the familiar body, to the routines of our lives.  Travelling is a disruption of routine. No longer do I hear the familiar click-clack of my dog’s paws, or the energetic bark for a treat, or the naughty scratching at the pantry door. At night, this is what I miss most: the beating hearts of my pack, their soft, velvety heads under my hand. I grew up in a Thai household that was wary of any animal, especially dogs. In Thailand, dogs run rampant all over the country, dogs without homes, without love. It is a deep sadness I keep hidden when I visit, an adjustment in culture that tries me to the point of tears. Since meeting my wife, however, and during the ten years of our relationship, I don’t think I can ever be without a dog again. They are as much a part of me as I am a part of them. To describe how integral my dogs are in my life is impossible. When asked what I miss most when I’m away, most people tilt their heads when I say my dogs and not my wife. This is not to say that I do not miss my wife. I do. Immensely. But this yearning for my furry pack transcends language. Doty writes: “Love for a wordless creature, once it takes hold, is an enchantment, and the enchanted speak, famously, in private mutterings, cryptic riddles, or gibberish.”    My three dogs—Ginger, Charlie, Savvy—are getting old. One day they scurry across the pool deck for Florida geckos, the next they sleep a little longer in their beds oblivious to our comings and goings. With a dog you witness a whole life—from the exuberant, inquisitive puppy to the slow-paced steps of the old dog. And time, though it is years, descends quickly, and for some, unexpectedly. For the longest time, when asked how old our dogs were, my wife and I always said the wrong age, a younger age. Not because we were liars, but because we were trying to prolong the youth of our dogs as long as possible. We ignore the little things. Chalk it up as the quirkiness of character. But then, the realization hits: the reason our dog is not responding to her name is that she is deaf. The reason she does not hop up on our legs for a treat is because her hips are stiff. And then come the fatty lumps, the white around the muzzle, the crackling joints. Slowly, we begin to prepare ourselves. Slowly, time registers for the dog, too. “Knowledge of limit. A hesitation in the step, a look in the eyes, something tentative.” This trip to Boise was a difficult one. I left with the knowledge that one of our dogs was ill. The day before I left, she wandered from room to room, her ears back, her blond fur without shine. She’s the oldest, but the naughtiest. My wife Katie and I nickname her, “Naughty.” Because she scrapes at the pantry door. Because she is endless with barks. Because she steals food off our plates. When none this happens, something is not right. On [...]



p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: "Times New Roman"; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; } By the time I see the thin box on my way to the grocery store, the cardboard is sloppy with rainwater. I tear it apart while the engine warms and my daughter coos in the backseat. So new, the spine cracks. It smells a little bit like glue.At home with Lit, I touch a match to the eye of the stove. In a moment, chicken will warm, liquid fat swelling out of the flesh. Standing over the stove, I bend open the book’s spine, and this time, it whines. I keep reading while my toddler marches in circles around me. I read it while gravy thickens and corn muffins rise. The story lilts and booms through Mary Karr’s young adulthood and her first years as a mother as she recovers from addiction by recovering from her past. In the middle of preparing dinner, I read, “In the next room, my son, stout but saggy-kneed, clings to the crib bars like a prisoner. Menthol steam from the vaporizer has made a ghost of him. His ringlets are plastered to his head, and coughs rack his small frame. The animal suffering that’s rattling him throws ice water on me, and I enjoy a surge of unalloyed love for him, followed by panic, followed by guilt.”Exactly that is motherhood. Pots are boiling and spitting. The oven fan purrs; the burners warble under it. I sit on the floor and read the next few pages out loud, letting the vowels expand through the room like the herbed heat from the stove.I bring Lit into my bed and read through one eye when the other is too tired to stay open. I wake up in the morning with the book in my hand. Day and night for this fraction of my life, I carry it with me. At the end, I sit at my computer station – a swivel chair pulled up to a deep freezer. I close Lit. The glue smell dissolves into the kitchen air. My daughter is napping a few rooms away, and the kitchen is unusually quiet, a soft appliance hum. I flip through, reading “Without Warren’s hands cupping my own face, I’m almost faceless. I need his body in bed and his books on my shelves anchoring me to the planet.” I know that feeling. I felt it when my daughter first nursed, that my identity had shifted, that I existed through the touch of her skin. The first time my new daughter caught a cold, I spoke to an older, more experienced mom about home remedies to ease my baby’s cough and congestion. She told me to feed my daughter warming foods – chicken broth and garlic – rather than treat the symptoms. The symptoms, although uncomfortable, are the body’s way of expelling the offending organism, she said. Do not cure a cold, but let the cold cure you.She told me that the body invites illness when it is overcome with toxicity. The virus pushes out the toxin, and the body and spirit are cleansed and refreshed. But these days, she told me, We fight the cold as if to capture to the damage the virus wants to purge from us. We are addicted to damage, to our pasts. We have to let it go.Mary Karr writes, “As I slow down inside, the world’s metronome seems to speed up, for without keen, self-centered focus on your own inward suffering, clock hands spin. Days get windstormed off the calendar. Rather than thinking about spiritual practices, arguing them out in my head, I almost automatically try them. That, I suppose, is surrender.”Lit exposes the single device running through you and me and Mary Karr: that recovery is surrender.As a virus wormed through my daughter’s body, as she survived, seeming to have grown up exponentially after the fever broke, I realized that the[...]

On Scratching


I love listening to other artists talk about their work. Comedians discussing how they structure their stand-up acts, origamists on the art of folding, painters on design, actors on preparation for a role, photographers on composition – all of it intrigues me. Shows like “Inside the Actors Studio” and “Iconoclasts” hold my attention, and I’m riveted by movies like The Beaches of Agnes, a documentary by and about the French filmmaker Agnes Varda that delightfully welds autobiography and the documentary form. Consequently, I’ve read, over the years, a number of books that might rightfully fall into the category often called “writers on writing.” I read these for enjoyment, sometimes for inspiration, other times to glean ideas for my classes. I save those I expect to return to and pass others on to colleagues or students. I have a bedraggled copy of Anne Lamott’s beloved Bird by Bird, which I often excerpt for students, who are both reassured and entertained by chapters like “Shitty First Drafts.” Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer and Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem (And Fall in Love with Poetry), likewise, have been great teaching resources. Other books have had a direct influence on my own writing. Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story and Mark Doty’s The Art of Description, for example, have been underlined in places because they manage to say, concisely and/or beautifully, what I need to hear and rehear. Gornick: “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” Doty: “Description is fueled by HUNGER for the world, the need to taste, to name, to claim what’s seen, to bring it, as Rilke would put it (in the ninth of his great elegies, the subject of which is the resurrection of the world within the perceiver), ‘O endlessly into ourselves.’”There’s a subcategory of writers on writing which isn’t quite that at all. These are generally narrative nonfiction books wherein the writer does something new or unexpected and so the book becomes, for me, a model of creativity. They aren’t intended as how-to books, in other words, but they become, by virtue of a unique quality, exactly that. Lauren Slater’s Lying is probably the best example. It’s billed as a memoir, and its first chapter reads, in its entirety, “I exaggerate.”No nonfiction writer I know has quite recovered from the mind-blowing repercussions of that opening. It’s a brilliant move, one that guarantees the reader will question every word that comes after. Chapter 1 is both reinforced and complicated by periodic moments of clarification, denial, hesitancy, contradiction, and retraction. The reader is drawn forward by the elegance of the prose, but all the while we are forced to stop in our tracks over and over again and wonder whether we’re reading fact or fiction and, importantly, to question the legitimacy of that distinction. A stellar how-to model, albeit one I will never attempt to mimic. While dramatically different in style and content, these books have all helped me in one way or another. Sometimes that help has been immediate and practical – providing an exercise I can adapt for a class, for instance. Other times they’ve been influential in a long-term sense. There’s not much crossover, however. A given book is either useful or influential… but rarely both.Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit, m[...]



In the 7th grade, I played flute in the school band. I was slightly above average, certainly not first chair. That’s how our band director organized us; first chair meant you were expected to help out your section-mates, pick up the music fastest (practice more, in other words) and perform solos when your instrument was called for.I had a crush on the boy who was first chair trumpet.He wasn’t particularly cute, certainly not carrying any more drama or depth than any other 13-year-old boy. He had a bowl-cut head of hair streaked with white blond, silver-rimmed glasses, and an obnoxious laugh.But he could play the trumpet.When he raised that instrument to his lips, he shone. The light reflected off that polished brass and the sound that came out promised secret rooms inside him, hints of the complex self he himself might never even know about.He wasn’t Louis Armstrong, of course. He was just a 13-year-old boy who played trumpet better than anyone else in his class, and knew it. He wasn’t awkward when he played, or conscious of his body or, really, of anyone or anything else. And though I’d never noticed him much before he stood up to play his solo in October of that 7th grade year, I was, suddenly, smitten.I crush easily. I sense some hidden angle in a person and I’m gone. But it’s not about appearance—a parade of Brad Pitt and George Clooney look-alikes would entertain me, but produce no crushes. My easily-won, temporary love—for that’s what it is—blossoms under the conditions of performance.So imagine you love poetry as I do, that it is the closest to spirituality or transcendence you ever feel, that it drops into your center like a stone into a pond and the ripples trace the most vital patterns you will ever know. And imagine you’ve read someone’s poetry and it makes the patterns you didn’t know you needed. And this, of course, is art, is a performance of words. Wouldn’t you fall in love?Then add—oh such a delicate equation—a person whose conversation and body language and expressions remind you of that art you love, like the little whiffs of cologne a body gives off when it moves to put on a coat or wave to a friend. Imagine a poetry reading, and the person responsible for that art performing it even more directly, making it even better than it was when you first met it, solitary, on the page.That, for me, is the ultimate crush: the poetry crush. Mark Strand, sexy and witty in person, definitely still the man I can imagine “romp[ing] with joy in the bookish dark.” James Galvin, who wooed me with lines like, “The slender lodgepole pines/Stand so close together/You couldn’t walk through them/In your body,” before I ever met him and became his student. And Jean Valentine, for “Under our radiant sleep they were bearing us all night long,” and the quiet but real magic of her voice when she read her poems in a crowded room in Washington, D.C.My poetry crushes are true loves—I really do love them, these poets. And I don’t know how else to feel my love but in my body, too, wanting to both kiss the maker and taste the words, the bells ringing under my sternum and the loosened rubber bands of my leg muscles.This is who I am: I get crushes. I fall in love with poets, including those I will never meet (James Wright, W.B. Yeats, W.H. Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sara Teasdale…). Sometimes those poets’ books watch me while I sleep. That I am happily and faithfully married to the funniest, kindest, most talented writer in the world doesn’t mean I’m lying when I say, “I love this poet.”[...]

My Dog Ginger Reviews Stitches


Ginger hugging StitchesFirst off, I'd like to say when your two masters are writers, you get to be a bit of a literary snob. Nope, no rhyming poems for me and bad metaphors are like flees; sometimes no matter how hard you scratch, there's always more of them. Every day, I listen to my masters type away on their computers. My mom master is quiet and intense and stares hard into the screen, and sometimes, I have to roll onto my back and show her my tummy, so she returns from whatever poetry world she entered. My dad master, he insists on reading his work out loud to me and sometimes what he reads is good, and sometimes I howl and bark like I do when I see a squirrel on the pool cage.One day, my dad master couldn't sleep so he went into his office and read this book with lots of pictures in it. I think it's called a graphic novel. He read the entire book in one night till it was four in the morning, a few hours before my breakfast. After he read the book, he made this breathy noise with his nose. I do the same after dinner. It means he's satisfied. I'm usually satisfied after dinner, too.He left the book on the floor, and there it stayed for three months.I couldn't help myself. While both my masters were away at work, I read the book. I mean, it was at my level and all, and I kept stepping on it, so I thought, why not? The title of the book was Stitches and it was drawn and written by David Smalls. There were lots of pictures in it, and some of the pictures were scary, like the crazy lawnmower people that come once a week with the crazy blowing machine. Still, I couldn't stop. I needed to know what happened to the main character; I needed to understand this family that seemed to hold so many secrets.What I found disconcerting, especially for me because I'm a dog and my favorite thing in the world is to bark, were the silences in the book. There would be pages of drawings and no words at all. But those drawings were screaming. Those drawings illustrated devastation. Those silences were what made Stitches unforgettable, which was a pretty good feat because us dogs have short memories. At the core of this graphic novel was the way Small's family lived in silence and percolating anger and resentment and disquieting rage. At the core of this graphic novel was also a past that continually haunted Smalls.In short--Four Paws Up for this book. I enjoyed it as much as I enjoy eating Milkbones and barking at the turtle outside the fence. I won't hurt it. I just want to play. __________Ginger is an eleven-year old cocker spaniel and is responsible for writing this bark-tastic review. Her work often appears in the backyard, and she likes to play hockey with her dog dish. [...]

Bye-Bye, Summer


The Love Sponge here.I've had a fantastic reading summer. Not only did I travel the country, but I read all over it. I read in hotel rooms, in parks, in Midwest cornfields, in the Pacific Northwest mountains. I read in my car (not while I was driving), in independent bookstores, in coffee shops, in our nation's capital, and on Florida beaches. I read in doctor offices, in a hammock, in a pool, in a loft, in a cabin. I read while hiking, while playing disc golf, while waiting for the wife at the airport. It seemed every free moment I had this summer--no matter where I was--I read. I read fantastic books. Books that have stuck with me for days and weeks and months, even now, when the semester's trucking along.I read without a pen. I read without judgment. I read for enjoyment, which has been the Clever Title's mission for the last three years.  Read because we want to, because it makes us feel good, because it awakens something within us.I'd like to share three books I enjoyed and where I read them.1) Cheryl Strayed, TorchHow does a family keep it together after the loss of a mother? How does this loss effect everything they do? I was swept way by the lushness of Cheryl's prose and how she gets into the brains of her characters' and their vulnerabilities. A fantastic read. Where was I when I read this? In Sparta, WI, in a log cabin, where outside, two llamas slept.  2) Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianAlways a big fan of Alexie's work, I picked this YA novel expecting more of the same brilliance. All I can say is this book exceeded my expectations. The balance of humor and seriousness is what makes this book special. A quick read that will keep you on your toes from page to page. Where was I when I read this? In Los Angeles, sitting in the Westin Bonaventure lounge, completely absorbed in the book, while everyone else was watching the Chile versus Spain World Cup soccer match.   3) Craig Thompson, BlanketsDon't let the size of this graphic memoir fool you. Once you start, you don't ever want to stop reading this story about a boy who is trying to find himself in love, family, and religion. Though expertly drawn, what is compelling is the writing of this book, the minimalistic style that still hits hard on the heart.Where was I when I read this book? Most of Blankets was read in the car with the a/c on, waiting for the wife to get her allergy shot in Brandon, FL. This little excursion took much longer than anticipated, which I was thankful for because I didn't want to stop reading this book.Other books read:Joe Meno, The Great Perhaps, Memphis and AtlantaPaul Guest, One More Theory About Happiness, Carbondale, IL (getting a tattoo) Joan Wickersham, The Suicide Index, Bellingham and Spokane, WA Haruki Murakami, After Dark, Fort DeSoto Beach in Florida Kevin Sampsell, A Common Pornography, In a plane from Seattle to Tampa What I find intriguing about reading a good book is not that it takes us somewhere else--which of course it does--but it makes us remember where we read it. This is a reminder that reading can be an experience, just like the big events in our lives. We remember our first kiss, our tragic moments. We recall what we were doing and where we were physically and mentally in our lives. Reading has become like that for me. It cements me to the world. It marks the road I have taken.We, at the Clever Title, want to know your best summer read and where you read it. Please share![...]

What Are You Reading, Wendy Rawlings?


David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten (Vintage, 1999) is a monster of a book, and even more of one when you realize that this is the guy’s first novel (he has since written four more, including the hugely popular Cloud Atlas), and that Mitchell has just barely turned the corner on forty (he was born in 1969). I’ll admit up front that I have a strong (almost malodorously strong) preference for small, lyric novels: my favorites include Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, James Salter’s Light Years, and Edna O’Brien’s A Pagan Place. By “small,” I mean that I tend to like novels that are light on action and plot, with closely observed details that often focus on domestic and psychological interiors. I’m really not a big book sort of person, but one of my students gave me Ghostwritten as a thank-you gift after he defended his MFA thesis, so I sort of felt obliged to read it. “Uh-oh,” I thought as I scanned the table of contents, which contained ten chapters with titles like “”Okinawa,” “Petersburg,” “London,” and “Mongolia,” “I’m about to be sent all over the freaking world.” Worse, when I perused the novel to see what I was in for, I counted nine first-person narrators, one of whom appeared to be a “noncorpum” entity that transmigrates into a series of human hosts. I remembered how pissed off I’d been years earlier when I’d read Mona Simpson’s terrific novel, Anywhere But Here and discovered that the point of view switched all of three times. How would I manage to keep engaged through nine narrators, one of whom wasn’t even human?I’m happy to report that Mitchell’s risky narrative experiment passed this cranky reader’s test with flying colors. The separate first-person narrative strands in this novel are so utterly distinct and detailed that I found myself immediately immersed in each one, so much so that I often had the strange feeling at the end of a chapter of having myself transmigrated into a kind of fictional host, a narrator whose story inhabited me so completely that I temporarily forgot my own identity as well as all the novel’s preceding narrators. When Mitchell takes me into the mind of a terrorist who belongs to a cult in Okinawa, I fully enter that terrorist’s mind. And when he takes me into the mind of a female Irish physicist on the run from Pentagon officials, I somehow become part of that physicist’s mind. I won’t spoil the ending, which is as intellectually challenging as it is aesthetically pleasing, but I will say I haven’t had such an exhilarating experience reading a novel since my parents gave me a Wizard of Oz series book each time I managed not to cry during a visit to the orthodontist. Maybe I am a “big book” person after all, when it’s a magic carpet ride of a book.__________Wendy Rawlings is the author of a collection of short stories, Come Back Irish, and a novel, The Agnostics. She teaches in the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Alabama and is the hippest person I know. Period. (And she loves dogs and that's super cool.)[...]

The Same Book


We all go there eventually,taken by the dark god from the greenmeadow life must seem as one is departingtoward another meadow…--Alison Townsend, from “The Meadow” In February, my father died. He had Parkinson’s and was battling dementia. He fell down on the stairs, hit his head, and never recovered consciousness. We had talked on the phone less than two weeks before his death. He had called to tell me that the book of poetry I’d sent him for Christmas, the book he’d saved to read for his vacation, was “magnificent.” He told me how it fed his soul, how wise the speaker was and how vulnerable, how vivid the author’s images. He told me he loved it, and he thanked me for sending it to him. The book was Alison Townsend’s Persephone in America, which I’d finally bought after teaching her poem “What I Never Told You About the Abortion” in a coursepack for two semesters. I don’t know why it took me so long to seek out more of her work—perhaps a fear that the other poems wouldn’t stand up to the one I knew?—or why I chose to search for it when I did. But I had read it in the fall, and I loved it. It is sometimes difficult to share the books we really love, books that aren’t just well-written and beautiful but that fit into some space in us we didn’t even know was there. I don’t think I could teach the whole book, because I might actually cry in class if a student were to criticize it, flipping through the pages and saying, “Honestly, I don’t see what the big deal is about.” Or maybe I would lash out, saying, “The big deal? The big deal is about how these poems show a girl’s life spinning out after a rape, a woman’s sudden hollow despair, a curving desire for familiar landscape and a stranger’s startling affirmation in the crosswalk. The big deal is about how we are the speaker in these poems, and the girl, and the stranger. The big deal is about poetry that matters, that goddamn means something instead of just playing around with its own cleverness and blasé.” But when I sent the book to my father, I did so because I needed to send him a Christmas present, and because he was a poet and a reader of poetry, and because I wanted the gift to help keep alive our connection to each other, tenuous and strained as that connection sometimes was. I sent it to him because he knew about the labyrinths of despair, as I did, as Alison Townsend did, and because when a book can help you take in just one big lungful of air—scented, perhaps, with hay and sunset—you look around for someone to share it with. And so I mean this small essay as a thank you, to Alison Townsend, to writers and writing that challenge and define and question and shape us. Because of this book, I had something real to talk about with my father when he called. I had the joy and satisfaction of having chosen just the right gift. And when he died, suddenly, I knew he had been happy, he had been feeling, if not whole, then at least less hollow than he sometimes did; and though never of us were ready for him to leave this green meadow, we had walked together in it for a while, holding the same book in our hands. This essay was written by Katherine Riegel. Her debut collection of poetry, Castaway, is forthcoming from FutureCycle Press. [...]

Go Independent!


This summer I've been touring the country, doing readings from my new book Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy. What I find deathly for a bookaholic like myself are events at independent bookstores. Yesterday, I read at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis with my friend, Kao Kalia Yang, author of the marvelous memoir The Latehomecomer. I left Magers & Quinn with a large dent in my wallet. This happened at A Room of One's Own in Madison, WI, a lovely store in a lovely city, where I walked out with a hefty bag of books that nearly tipped me over. And I can't forget Bookends on Main in Menomonie, home of Neil Gaiman. The truth is I won't get to many of these books for another decade because I have other books I've purchased at independent bookstores, like the ones sitting in my car from my reading at The Book Cellar in Chicago, or the ones I bought at Village Books in Bellingham, WA, and the ones chilling on the ping-pong table at home in Florida from Aunties Bookstore in Spokane, and the ones gathering dust from the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, and oh, the ones from Busboys and Poets in DC and the ones from Book Soup in West Hollywood.Reading at Busboys and Poets.Books and books and books. Do I feel guilty about my purchases?Answer: Not one damn bit.In fact, I make it a point to buy at least one book at any independent bookstore I go to. Independent bookstore exists for the love of books and the love of reading. True love. But more importantly, independent bookstores love people. Bill Reilly, owner of one of my favorite bookstores, The River's End, in Oswego, NY, said that indies are as much about the books as they are about the community. The River's End bookstore hosts a number of events and book clubs, and many of my students--students who adore reading and the reading life--have worked there.This past Wednesday, my niece Jenny and her partner Michael wanted to take my wife and I to an independent bookstore in Minneapolis, Arise! When we got there, we found it closed."Oh no," Jenny said."This sucks," said Michael. He kept peering into the store, as if to see, by some miracle, that the bookstore was open, that this had been a cruel joke on us. We grumbled away. Yet another indie had sadly bitten the dust.Like the one in Savoy, IL, Pages for All Ages. When my mother-in-law was alive, before cancer took her away, it was this bookstore she loved most, three blocks from her home. She was a voracious reader, finishing 1 or 2 books a day. The workers knew her by name, Dinny, and she had accrued so many points it seemed she got a perpetual discount. The service, the attention, the care, the community, that's what made Pages for All Ages special, what makes all independent bookstores special.What does the closing of independent bookstores say about our culture? If the indie bookstore is about community, as Bill Reilly said, have we begun to isolate ourselves? Have the Kindle, Nook, E-readers, made the indie bookstore obsolete? Have, the large chain stores like Borders and Barnes & Nobles, taken away an essential intimacy that buying a book entails?Seriously, we, at the Clever Title, don't have an answer. We want to save the independent bookstore. We want to save all of them, cradle them in our arms, because the world needs books, lots and lots of books, books to hold, books to hug and kiss and cuddle like a binky.  Please tell us what your favorite independent bookstore is, an[...]

Step Over the Blood


The first time I walked up the hill from the Manshiyet Nasr garbage village to the cave churches carved into Cairo's Muqattam mountains, I had to step over widening streams of blood rushing down the middle of the steep street. When I reached a curve in the road I found the source: a pig, recently poked in the heart with a knife, was draining before being skinned. The knife-wielder, a boy of fifteen or sixteen, smiled at me as I walked by. His smile was so intense that it seemed like he killed pigs in the street every day. Which, of course, he did.My friends and I stayed in the visitors' housing at the monastery at the top of the hill for five weeks, learning about the complex cycles of poverty, religion, and health in the lives of the zabaleen, the garbage collectors who traveled through Cairo's metropolis to collect the trash and bring it back to be sorted in the streets and lower levels of their homes for recycling and as food for the pigs. Every day, my group and I hiked the road to the monastery, always turning the tight corner where the pig butcher's family lived. They worked their trade in the wide space of the street corner, always eager to talk but careful not to shake hands when theirs were covered in blood. I was surprised at how quickly this felt unsurprising, a daily occurrence as unnoteworthy as the sweet, rotten smells of garbage.Usually we only caught pieces of the show, stepping by quickly, grasping the whole process in a disjointed, out-of-order fashion, like watching a movie out of order throughshort clips caught on late-night cable. Only once did I watch the entire process from beginning to end. T he pig was guided out of its chamber by its ears. It quickly escaped, hiding underneath a car. It was pulled out by its legs, screaming as if there were a person living in its belly. Its heart was stopped by a knife plunging into it. It laid down, as if sleeping, and died. Hooked up to hang and drain, right there in the street. Skinned--the moment when, to me at least, it changed from "animal" to "food." Cut apart swiftly.I later learned that roasted, these pigs tasted very, very good. When reading Joan Fry's How to Cook a Tapir: A Memoir of Belize, I kept thinking of my weeks in Cairo, of what it was like to see animals transition to food more directly than I had ever experienced growing up in the U.S. Fry uses her slowly emboldened adventures with food in a 1960s Mayan village as the symbol of her slow acceptance and love for the people she knew during her year-long stay as a twenty-year-old who taught English to the village children while her husband did whatever grad students in anthropology do. Throughout the book, his heart drifts in the opposite direction from hers, dreaming of his U.S. world of prepackaged meals-in-boxes and a life where he can control his meals, his schedule, and his wife. But Fry's story is one of embracing the unexpected, of accepting the chickens, gibnuts, iguanas, and tapir that her neighbors lovingly deposit at her door, and figuring out whether to fry or boil the suckers, and with chayote, beans, or what.Food draws you in like that. Our first meal with the pig-slaughter family in Cairo was simple: lots of ful (a thick hummus made of fava beans) and pita bread, and huge bowls of green molokhiyya soup, its slimy snottiness dripping from the spoons so that we had to hold the bowls close to our faces. But even better, to eat the foodwe ha[...]