Thursday, December 16, 2010

the internet makes you depressed


"In 1998, a controversial Carnegie Mellon University study found that people who spend even a few hours on the Internet each week suffer higher levels of depression and loneliness than people who use the Net infrequently." --Richard Louve, from his book LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS

Thursday, December 9, 2010

new poems up at Autumn Letters

Autumn Letters has published two of my poems, and I think a third will be appearing there later this week.

the San Bruno fire

53¢

UPDATE 12/15/10

The third poem is up: sick fish

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

loafing



Starting to fantasize about quitting my job, not getting a new one, just loafing around. I used to quit one job and take another, always thinking the next job would be better. Sometimes they were better, sometimes they weren't, but none of them have failed to overwhelm me with a desire to quit before the end of a year. This current job is, by my count, at least the 18th job I've had in the past 19 years. I've been a tree-farmer, a bartender, an able-bodied seaman, a shelf stocker, a cashier, a carpenter, a janitor, a teacher-of-english-as-a-foreign-language, a hostel-front-desk-receptionist, an audio-visual technician, and more. All of those positions offered me more money than I needed to live a simple life, but none of them felt like fair compensation for my time.

I wish my boss would fire me so I could get unemployment.

"I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen,
And accrue what I hear unto myself ... and let
sounds contribute toward me." --Walt

"Mind if I do a J?" --the Dude

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

self-obsessed-white-guy novels


After years of hearing "historic-significance"-style hype about Henry Miller, I've finally gotten around to picking up one of his books: SEXUS. I'm only about 60 pages in so far, and I'm liking it better as I get deeper in, but since about page 3 I've found myself comparing it to certain other novels I've read, such as:

THE STRANGER by Albert Camus
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT by Fyodor Dostoevsky
ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac
THE CATCHER IN THE RYE by J.D. Salinger
MISS LONELYHEARTS by Nathanael West
HUNGER by Knut Hamsun
POST OFFICE by Charles Bukowski
ASK THE DUST by John Fante

What makes all of these books feel similar, in my mind, is a sort of close-focus on a young, white, self-obsessed protagonist, a close-focus that results in a plot principally driven (or at least significantly affected) by the protagonist's personality. That probably sounds like a pretty vague criteria for grouping these novels together, and the honest truth is that I'm just starting to work this over in my mind and I haven't really got much of a thesis worked out, but I'm intrigued enough at this point to start trying to put thoughts into words, in hopes of coming to a few more solid conclusions.

Perhaps I could better state what makes these books feel related by using the term "existentialism," though certain books in this group (like HUNGER) were written prior to the invention of the term, and certain other books in the group haven't been academically recognized as "existential." What I mean when I use the term "existential" in relation to these books is that all of the books seem focused on the protagonist dealing with mundane, day-to-day existence, and it's that focus on the protagonist's reaction to the mundane day-to-day (though it sometimes pushes the plot into extraordinary situations, as in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT and THE STRANGER) that drives the plot.

A sense of "reacting to the mundane" might be key to this feeling of similarity I get from the above-mentioned books. For example, JOURNEY TO THE END OF the NIGHT, written by Louis-Ferdinand Celine, though it follows one self-obsessed protagonist very closely, though it was written within a decade of THE STRANGER by another Frenchman, doesn't feel as similar to THE STRANGER as SEXUS does, and I think it's because JOURNEY's plot is continually affected/directed by war, a phenomena that by it's very nature renders day-to-day existence as fundamentally strange, and not at all mundane.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

George Stephanopoulos discussing his spin response to video footage capturing Bob Kerrey telling Bill Clinton a dirty joke, from ALL TOO HUMAN


"What Governor Clinton has said is that he and Bob Kerrey are good friends...." The opening phrase sends a double message: Not only is the story old news, but it's not even important enough for Clinton to make his own statement. "Good Friends" is a signal to Kerrey's people that we won't go out of our way to hurt him, which is not to say that we will go out of our way to help him.

"Senator Kerrey clearly thought it was a private conversation, and Governor Clinton is going to respect that...." This is Senator Kerrey's problem; Clinton is merely a forgiving observer. Our guy just listened to the joke, as opposed to the poor sap who told it. But we do "respect" Senator Kerrey's right to lose sight of the fact that he's in the middle of a presidential campaign, where everyone knows there's no such thing as a private conversation.

"There were a lot of bad jokes flying around that auditorium... some more tasteless than others." We're not saying Clinton's never told a bad joke; you press guys probably have one on tape. But yes, if you insist, Kerrey's joke was worse. It was--and this is the key word, the most vivid word in the statement, the one that turns the knife--"tasteless."

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

references to cunnilingus in Leonard Cohen's BOOK OF LONGING, the bulk of which was written while he resided in a Buddhist Monastery


When I can wedge my face
into the place
and struggle with my breathing
as she brings her fingers down
to separate herself,
to help me use my whole mouth
against her hungriness,
her most private of hungers-
why should I want to be enlightened?
--p. 19

This is it
I'm not going down
on your memory
I'm not rubbing my face in it any more
--p. 28

need your hand
to pull me out
need your juices
on my snout
--p. 105

I love to sing to Him and her
and to my baby's lower fur
which is so holy
that I want to crawl on my knees
--p.112

It wounds me as I part your lips
--p. 192

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

go independent


On Saturday I was talking with a financially successful (as in, the money she makes from her book sales and from teaching about writing are enough to support her) Bay Area poet who has just finished a memoir. She said she's hoping that her agent can find a publisher for the memoir that will offer her enough of an advance to pay off the money that she owes to her last publisher. She owes money to the last publisher because they signed her to a two book deal, paid an advance, and then rejected the second book. She'd spent the advance by the time the second book was rejected, and didn't have enough money to repay it.

I found this to be an eye-opening detail. I didn't realize that major book publishing houses are as shady as major record companies. It made me think of an article by Steve Albini (famous music engineer who recorded Nirvana's In Utero) in which he does the math and discovers that a typical major label deal, in which the band produces a gold record, will still result in the band being $14,000 in debt.

So, if you write or if you make music, go independent.

Monday, October 4, 2010

poetry videos

YouTube, because of its monstrous size, is actually an interesting place to visit when trying to hear old recordings of poetry as read by the poets themselves. There's a lot of potential in the simple blending of audio and video, and poetry is an art that fits well into this format. Here are two favorite examples of what can be done.



Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Lorca's "Adam"


I'm reading the New Directions Selected Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca, and I'm feeling pretty unimpressed with the translations. The book first came out in 1955, and most of the translations sound like they've been done by English Literature professors from Ivy League schools, who don't actually speak Spanish. Roy Cambpbell's translation of Lorca's "Adam" in particular feels flatfooted and wooden. He contorts the lines in order to make them rhyme, but then he doesn't bother to follow the rhyme scheme Lorca set's forth. To me, it seems like making it rhyme matters less than maintaining a power of image, and a level of elegance. Let's see if I can do any better.

*

"Adan" (Lorca's Version)

Arbol de sangre moja la manana
por donde gime la recien parida.
Su voz deja cristales en la herida
y un grafico de hueso en la ventana.

Mientras la luz que viene fija y gana
blancas metas de fabula que olvida
el tumulto de venas en la huida
hacia el turbio frescor de la manzana.

Adan suena en la fiebre de la arcilla
un nino que se acerca galopando
por el doble latir de su mejilla.

Pero otro Adan oscuro seta sonando
nuetra luna de piedra sin semilla
donde el nino de luz se ira quemando.

*

"Adam" (translated by Roy Campbell)

The morning by a tree of blood was dewed
and near to it the newborn woman groans.
Her voice left glass within the wound, and strewed
the window with a diagram of bones.

Meanwhile the day had reached with steady light
the limits of the fable, which evades
the tumult of the bloodstream in its flight
towards the dim cool apple in the shades.

Adam, within the fever of the clay,
dreams a young child comes galloping his way,
felt in his cheeks, with double pulse of blood.

But a dark other Adam dreaming yearned
for a stone neuter moon, where no seeds bud,
in which that child of glory will be burned.

*

"Adam" (translated by Marcos Soriano)

A tree of blood wets the dawn
where the newborn woman moans.
Her voice leaves glass in the wound,
and in the window, a graphic of bone.

Meanwhile, the light comes steady, gaining
fabled white goals, which forget
the tumult of veins in flight
toward the turbid chill of the apple.

Adam dreams, in the fever of clay,
of a boy who comes galloping near
by the doubled pulse in his cheek.

But another, darker Adam is dreaming
a neutered, stone moon without seeds
where the boy of light will go burning.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

wordle



Pretty cool program online called Wordle. You paste any block of text into their program, hit go, and they turn it into a "word cloud," with the most often used words appearing biggest. You can customize the image in certain ways, change font and color and alignment of the words and stuff like that. The above image resulted from my story "Jumper at the Hyatt," first published in Instant City #5.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Poem up at Word Riot

Word riot has published my poem "object" in their August issue, which went online today. They've included an audio file of me reading the piece.

Friday, August 13, 2010

FLOOD SONG, by Sherwin Bitsui

At first these poems seem pretty accessible. They're mostly composed of standard subject verb object sentences, a familiar form, and often each line is a separate clause:

He wanted to hold back gas-soaked doves with a questioning glance;
he wanted the clock to tick downwind from this gavel and pew

(page 22)

I started reading and felt comfortable with the format. The rhythms were like rhythms from normal prose, only slightly exaggerated by the use of line breaks.

But as I continued reading, I realized something: I wasn't taking very much in. My eyes would flow over the words in each line, the lines on each page, and I'd finish one page and go on to another. Ten pages later I'd pause and realize I'd noticed hardly any of what I'd just read. A few disjointed images here and there, maybe the product of a dozen words. The rest completely failed to penetrate.

I started looking at the poems more closely. The superficially familiar structure lulled me, I decided. It made me read at a normal pace, but what I read wasn't familiar enough for my mind to absorb it at that rate. Despite my fluency in the form, the actual content is pretty foreign.

Part of this stems from, I think, a less linear, less event-oriented subject matter than what I am familiar with. FLOOD SONG isn't like, for example, Frost's "The Road Not Taken," in which we've got a definite subject (the narrator) in a definite place (a fork in a path) doing a definite action (considering which way to go). At first FLOOD SONG might seem that way, because so many of the lines have subjects performing actions. But Frost's poem keeps us grounded in one place, and we follow along as one thing is done. It's a reality-based sort of narrative. Bitsui, on the other hand, might give us someone doing something in one line, but the next line could be (and probably will be) someone else doing something else. And the things that are being done don't make logical sense.

Sometimes this becomes really complex:

In a cornfield at the bottom of a sandstone canyon,
wearing the gloves of this song tightly over closed ears;
the bursting sun presses licks of flame
into our throats swelling with ghost dogs
nibbling on hands that roped off our footprints
keeping what is outside ours tucked
beneath the warmth of their feet cooling to zero

(page 56)

What's happening here? First, in the first line, we're given a location: a cornfield at the bottom of a sandstone canyon. Then, in the next two lines, we're given a subject (the bursting sun, which is wearing 'the gloves of this song' over closed ears), and the subject is doing something (pressing licks of flame into our throats). But as soon as we're given that--a thing doing an action in a place--the next line further complicates the concept by having the thing that is being done to (our throats) also doing something (swelling with ghost dogs). And then the ghost dogs are doing something (nibbling on hands), and then the hands have done something (roped off our footprints), and then something else (I'm not sure what) is keeping what is outside ours (and what does 'ours' refer to?) tucked beneath the warmth of their feet (not the feet themselves, but the warmth of those feet) as they are cooling to zero.

Huh?

Anyway, it's complicated. We've got concepts stacked inside of concepts stacked inside of other concepts, like the proverbial Russian nesting dolls, and if we just read over it at a regular pace we're not going to have a chance in hell of understanding, or even noticing, everything that's going on. Actually, even if we read slowly and deliberately, and break things down line by line, we still can't really come up with anything solid.

So reading for literary meaning doesn't really work with FLOOD SONG. What then are we supposed to harvest from this book? I didn't really find a lot of strong, descriptive language, so the poems didn't offer me vivid imagery. I might have noticed a mild tone of melancholy, but it didn't feel pronounced enough to really compel me to keep reading, so the poems don't communicate much emotion. Obviously, the poems yield a bit more if the reader puts work into the reading. But is what they yield worth the effort?

Not to me.

Maybe this reflects a shortcoming on my part, as a reader. Maybe I'm just not getting it, or maybe I'm too lazy. But in the end, no one is paying me to read poetry (or anything else, for that matter). I read for pleasure, I read to imbue my life with meaning. There are more books of poetry out there than I'd ever be able to read, so I might as well choose to read the books I find most rewarding. FLOOD SONG is not one of those books.

Makes me think of Bukowski's drunken speech at the start of POETRY IN MOTION. I'm often leery of Buk's macho posturing, and I'm not one to pronounce another's work as value-less. But from a personal perspective, I can relate to what he's saying.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Poetry Books

I've been reading a lot of poetry books recently. The library branch near my house has a decent selection. Libraries are really awesome, you know.

FIELD GUIDE by Robert Hass. I liked the nature aspects, but generally didn't connect with this book. Finished reading it only two weeks ago, and already its only remnant in my mind is the few lines describing the cabezone fish.













SELECTED POEMS OF ANNE SEXTON. A big book. I've only gotten through the first section, which is primarily drawn from her first collection: TO BEDLAM AND PARTWAY BACK. There's power in the imagery and the subject matter, but Slyvia Plath's ARIEL hits the same targets with more power. Many of the poems use rhyme schemes that at first you might not notice, but then when you do notice them they feel distracting. Also seems like she's letting her need for a rhyming word steer her poems for her, and that often results in poems that don't really go to the marrow. Her free verse poems are generally better.




THE BLIZZARD VOICES by Ted Kooser. Easy reading poems that look like, basically, transcriptions of quotes from folks recounting a really big blizzard that happened in 1888. Interesting from a story-perspective, but I'm not sure much is gained by putting them into 'poem' format. Really, all Kooser seems to have done is take quotes and break them up into lines on a page. Also raises questions in my mind about authorship; one could argue that Kooser's role is more editor than poet. Brings to mind Anna Deavere Smith's work. Regardless of these questions, I found it to be comparatively more rewarding to read than either of the first two books mentioned in this post.





THE DUMBBELL NEBULA by Steve Kowit. Probably one of the top five poetry books I've ever read. Maybe even one of the top three. Witty, eloquent, 'poetic' use of language, but still easily accessible and solidly grounded. Because of that ease of entry, and the emotional power Kowit wields, these poems remind me in some ways of Bukowski. But Kowit is a very different character than Bukowski, with a very different perspective: a sort of innocent, boyish exuberance and playfulness, but also an incredible empathy and capacity to communicate sorrow. Kowit also feels more daring than Bukowski, to me--while Bukowski hides behind an armor of machismo, Kowit's willing to really show his vulnerabilities, and he's not afraid to play the fool. Does raise some questions though, like "what the hell is poetry, anyway?" With just minor tweaking, a lot of these poems could probably pass into prose form.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Rattle 32


Here's a notion: poets are more interested in having their own work published than in reading poetry written by other poets. Same can be said of literary writers in general. That means that the number of people who will actually pay money to buy your literary journal will always be dwarfed by the number of people who will submit to it. Most writers will flood the market with submissions, but never buy copies of most of the journals they're sending their precious work to. Kind of funny, isn't it?

And literary journals seem to be catching on to this idea. More and more competitions keep showing up, and a new twist to these competitions is the inclusion of a subscription to the journal with your entry fee. In a certain light, it looks like a way to trick people into subscribing.

Rattle is one of the journals that uses this technique. Honestly, the only reason I've ever read an issue of Rattle is because I entered their competition last year. I didn't win anything, but now I've got a one year subscription.

Actually, I still haven't ever really read an issue of Rattle. I've been trying to read the first issue I got, #32, for more than a half a year now. I get a few poems in, and they're generally decently good, but decently good poems aren't enough to keep you going for long. Especially when you're faced with so many of them.

There are probably around 100 poems in this issue. Of those 100 poems, I've forced myself through more than half of them. And of those 50+ poems I've read, only three made enough of an impression for me to actually write down the authors names': Bob Hicok, Ralph James Savarese, David Hernandez. Actually, thinking about it right now, the only poem that I can even remember clearly is the Hicok poem.

But instead of going into the significance of all that, I want to mention something else. Besides all the poems, Rattle also has interviews, and even an essay. I just finished reading the essay. It's what made me want to write this post.

The essay is by T.S. Davis. It concerns the literary establishments general disregard for prosody (prosody means, I learned in this essay, "rhythm, rhyme, meter, stress, and language") and preference for free verse. It's a good essay for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the feeling of intelligent contemplation that comes across in the writers observations.

But I'm not going to get into all of that. Blog posts are supposed to be short in length and brief in scope, and my posts never seem to manage to be either. This post is already getting too long as it is. So I'm going to limit the rest of it to an inclusion of two paragraphs from Davis's essay. They concern the general shift, from confidence to uncertainty, that seem to accompany aging. It's something I've noticed in myself. It's something that came to mind while I read Dolly Freed's POSSUM LIVING, and compared the tone of the afterword (written while Dolly was in her late 40s) to the tone of the rest of the text (written when Dolly was 18).

Here are the two paragraphs:

When I was a young man, I was much more confident about my ideas of the world and the impact I intended to have on the world. I had no doubt that my art, obscure as it was at the time, would one day take its place in the great canon of literature. I had all the time in the world to make it so. But now, at the age of sixty, I no longer have that time, and I certainly haven't received the level of accolade that as a young man I had anticipated would automatically follow the recognition of what I naively thought was my undeniable talent. [...]

But looking back, I also realize I didn't have much to say then in my poetry that wasn't just an extension of my fairly rigid ideology. The older I got the less confident I was and the more I understood how little I knew about the world and how little my work is likely to influence the world. Paradoxically, now I seem to have more to say and I'm a better writer than I've ever been, though less well known than I once was. Somehow one needs to know less to know more.

How true, Davis, how true.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

POSSUM LIVING, by Dolly Freed


Sometimes how-to books are worth reading not because they're particularly informative, but because they're encouraging. I often use literature as a sort of prescribed propaganda, reading certain books and articles not to learn, but to feel less alone in my interests, and less marginalized in my desires.

This book is a great example of all that. Really, Dolly Freed doesn't give much information that you couldn't come up with yourself, and what she does teach are the sorts of things you really need practice doing to actually learn. But the book is great because it serves as a voice telling you that yes, you actually can do this.

The 'this' that you can do is pointed out pretty plainly by the book's subtitle: 'how to live well without a job and with (almost) no money'. Basically, Dolly's advice can be boiled down to Do It Yourself instead of paying someone else to do it for you, and only pay someone if it's dirt cheap. First and foremost, Doing it Yourself means producing the food you eat, which Dolly does by gardening and by raising rabbits for slaughter. Her diet is also supplemented by wild caught game, mostly fish and turtles and pigeons, and also by occasionally scavenged food (wild mushrooms and plants, roadkill, produce discarded by the grocery store, etc).

Food-related information makes up the bulk of the book, and it makes sense that it would, since food is one of the basic necessities of life. Another basic necessity is shelter, and Dolly delves into that primarily by exploring ways to buy property cheap, which pretty much boils down to purchasing a foreclosed property. I'm not sure how informative her information is in this department, though, because POSSUM LIVING was written in 1978, and it's likely that foreclosure procedures have changed.

Incidentally, a lot of what makes this book interesting relates to what you can read between the lines. It reveals little hints and clues about the cultural climate of 1978, and it gives a sense of what daily life is like for Dolly, who quit school in seventh grade and grew up in the care of her eccentric father. These elements become even more profound with the inclusion of an afterword by the author, written for this re-release of POSSUM LIVING, thirty years after the book first hit the shelves. A lot of people who read the first book grew very curious about Dolly's later life. Now their curiosity can be satisfied (though frankly I found Dolly's current place in life to be a bit of a letdown, considering where she was while writing the first edition).

Monday, July 19, 2010

THE BLUE BEAR, by Lynn Schooler


I enjoyed some of the nature-oriented passages, mostly because they engage my interests, but in the end this book felt contrived. It tries to wrap itself around a central topic--the author's friendship with a nature photographer--but the topic is too lightweight to support a whole book. The relationship in question is based on just a few shared trips, with more details of the natural events witnessed than of interpersonal bonding between the two main characters, and the author comes across more believably as a solitary man than as a man very profoundly connected to his friend. Solitary men can write good memoirs, but in this case the 'friendship' topic--typical memoir fare--feels unsuitable, and the author's effort feels fake. The memoir market is becoming a victim of its own success, with its increasing reliance on glib cliches and worn-out approaches, and this book is a memoir-formula casualty.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

How to land a $500K book contract at 17 years of age

Commit plagiarism.



And similarities with McCafferty's work weren't the end of it, either. Unusual similarities were also found with books by four other authors, including Salman Rushdie! A few days after this story broke, Little, Brown and Company issued a statement that they "[would] not be publishing a revised edition of How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life by Kaavya Viswanathan, nor will we publish the second book under contract." All shelf copies of OPAL MEHTA were eventually recalled and destroyed.

For more information, see Wikipedia.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

poem up at The Scrambler


The Scrambler has published a poem of mine in their July 2010 issue.

When I first got interested in writing, back when I was 16, I wrote poetry. After a few years my interest had shifted to prose, and I hardly wrote poetry at all for more than a decade. Now, nearly 15 years later, I've come back to poetry, and that's most of what I've been writing for the past year. This poem in the Scrambler is actually the first poem I've had published since 1996.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

FROWNS NEED FRIENDS TOO, by Sam Pink




I've been a big fan of Sam Pink since I first heard about him back in 2008. I've followed his online publications, ordered his first chap book (YUM YUM I CAN'T WAIT TO DIE), even contemplated starting a publishing company to put out his first book (I AM GOING TO CLONE MYSELF THEN KILL THE CLONE AND EAT IT), and later bought a copy of that book after Paper Hero Press released it. Sam Pink seemed to have something special about his writing, some sort of unique angle on the world that seemed just a little more clever, and more pointed, than the norm.

But YUM YUM was a chap, limited in it's scope and in the attention it received. And CLONE was a first book by a press that came into existence specifically in order to publish Sam Pink's first book (I wasn't the only fan excited about the idea of putting out Pink's book debut, Barry Graham started Paper Hero for the same reason). It sort of felt cobbled together--comprised of a handful of disparate stories and 'poems' and plays--not as sharp as it could have been, not as cohesive.

So I was eager to get my hands on FROWNS. Pink had described frowns on his blog as a poetry collection, giving me hope that it would be more cohesive in feel. He also stated that it's the favorite thing he's done. And it was being put out by an established press (Afterbirth Books) that has published 20 other books and has been around for a several years. I anticipated a more solid tome, better edited and better built. I was excited.

Unfortunately, the excitement I felt died while I read this book. For me, the freshness of Sam's writing has started to feel stale.

I don't mean to say that the book doesn't have its moments. You'll still find evidence of Sam's sharp wit in FROWNS. There were a few lines that actually made me laugh out loud, and there also were spots of darkness that made me feel, for a moment, sort of depressed. The words still hold some power. But that power comes like glass shards on the beach, something sharp and shining here and there, and a lot of dull sand otherwise.

Sam's poetry, as always, consists mostly of numerous lines of prose gathered together under titles. The individual lines sometimes relate to each other, but it's also common for a poem to have several unconnected lines. One of Sam's more effective techniques is to sort of lull the reader with a few lines, and then drop in something so absurd or outrageous that it shocks ("Do the splits on my face."). But in FROWNS he seems to do more lulling than shocking.

Part of what skews this ratio toward the boring side of things is another technique Sam seems to overuse in FROWNS. This technique consists of following one line with another, or with a few more, that transposes or minimally alter the first. I don't have the book with me now--I'm writing this review at work, instead of actually working, and my copy of FROWNS is at home--but here's an approximate three-line example:

It's okay if boring people come in to my office because they are people in my office and I am not alone while they are here.

It's okay if people are boring.

In my office I am not alone it's okay.


In certain cases Sam uses this technique to good effect, giving a spin to what we've just read, making us feel familiarity and estrangement both at once. But he does it again and again in FROWNS, and it becomes a tired technique.

Another technique Sam uses is a sort of breaking apart of language at its more basic levels, often by putting into print turns of phrase that we're familiar with hearing but unfamiliar with reading. Here's a two-line example building on the example used above.

Is okay if people are boring.

Is very okay.


It's not a real earthshaking technique, but it can be pretty amusing. Makes me think of phrases that come out of the mouths of people who speak English as a second language, and because Sam's other writing is obviously first-language level, when he does this sort of thing it almost sounds like he's putting on an absurd voice. Absurd voices can be funny.

He also uses this same vocally familiar, visually unfamiliar writing in other ways, and sometimes they're a bit distracting/annoying:

I want to uh kill myself.

We hear plenty of 'uh' sounds in normal speech, and mostly block them out. But seeing them in print in a non-dialogue format, especially when the statement is more serious in nature, sort of takes the punch out of the statement. It's a technique that provokes an effect, but removing power is generally the wrong effect to provoke, I think.

In any case, Sam continues to explore what words can do, and he continues to discover interesting things with his explorations. I'm not as love with his writing now as I used to be, but I'm still looking forward to his next work.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

iPhone Lines


As I rode my bike to work today I passed by the front of the Stonestown Mall in San Francisco. There was a line stretching from the front entrance to the Macy's building, a distance of at least two hundred yards. Several hundred people waiting outside in the drizzling fog, at 7:45 in the morning. I didn't have to ask what they were waiting for; I've seen such lines here whenever Apple releases something.

I know from the media blitz that the product they're waiting for is the new 4th generation iPhone. I know this despite the fact that I don't watch TV, don't read a major periodical, and don't listen to the radio. Apple's advertising tactics are so ubiquitous, and their actions so closely monitored by most major news sources, that it's practically impossible to remain in the dark of a new Apple gadget release.

Even though I've seen this same phenomenon several times during the past few years, it continues to surprise me. Why do people get so excited about an overpriced, unnecessary gadget that costs them well over a thousand dollars a year? And why are they willing to get up early and stand in line in the rain? And why do they keep doing this each and every time Apple releases a new product (which seems to be every eight months or so)?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Fogged Clarity 1 in print


The online art (literature-music-painting-photography-film-etc.) site Fogged Clarity has finally released its first print edition, and it looks beautiful. I've received the great honor of having my story "Donald Mathison's Heart" included in this premier issue, and it might be the publication I'm most proud of in all my writing career. Fogged Clarity's editor Ben Evans has shown a remarkable level of dedication to the site, releasing a new issue online every month for the past 18 months, and I've got the feeling that this first print edition is a first step in a new area of achievement. I'm glad to be a part of it.

From the press release:

Whether it is Bruce Smith walking us through air thick with nostalgia, Benjamin Percy evoking compunction’s sting, Terese Svoboda posing a poignant question, Joe Meno exploring the remoteness of youth, Michael Tyrell decoding memories of origin, or Marcos Soriano appraising love and fragility, each one of the enclosed compositions tune the intricacies of existence to a resonant frequency. I believe them all to be reflections of the spirit in which Fogged Clarity was born and now breathes.

Monday, June 14, 2010

BHAGAVAD GITA update

I'm still working on the Bhagavad Gita. I've given up on reading Prabhupada's "Purports" and have noticed that I am enjoying the work more because of that. The virtue of apathy/indifference seems to be a key concept.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Map of Fog 2


More true stories about life in San Francisco. Role-Playing nerds, Critical Mass assholes, sticker vandals, desperate slackers hanging on to life in the city, punk and ghetto child alliances, and a section profiling some of the weird houses in the city's suburbs.

San Francisco is a city of nerds. It's also a city of yuppies, homeless people, hippies, immigrants, political radicals, gang bangers, punk rockers, and pretty much anyone else you can imagine. But it's the nerds that are growing in numbers every day, and it's the nerds who will inherit this city once the hippies die of old age, and the yuppies go broke and can't afford to live here anymore.

The nerd takeover started in the nineties with the dot-com boom, and it continues today with the local tech/internet businesses like Google and Yahoo dominating the job sector. Tech companies pay good money, and being a nerd is practically a prerequisite for employment. So the nerds get the cash, and the nerds drive up the cost of living, and everyone else can fuck off and move to Oakland.


Order a copy for $3 by clicking the PayPal button below.





Sunday, May 9, 2010

existentialist

My mom loves me. My girlfriend loves me. My brother loves me. These three people, I am sure, sincerely love me and care about my well being, and think about my well being on a regular basis. And then I've got friends and family, co-workers, acquaintances, etc., who like me well enough and probably wish me at least a modicum of satisfaction in life. And then there are the countless billions who honestly don't give a shit about me at all. Of those billions, there's probably a fair number who would, at some level, feel gratified if I suffered in some way. For some of them they'd like me to suffer in a small way--like having me stuck with shit-pay job's that I hate for the rest of my days--so that they'd feel better about their own lives. And there are probably a decent number of people who'd actually be amused by greater suffering--they'd laugh at a youtube clip of me getting beat up in a bar fight, or run over by a truck.

How am I supposed to get on with life, knowing that?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Five Million is a Failure

I just logged out of my email account and saw an article on the yahoo web page discussing TV shows at risk of cancellation. It mentions certain shows, like Cold Case, which average as much as 10 million viewers a week. And by industry standards, that's a failure!

I knew there was a disparity in the size of audiences drawn by books and television, but frankly I had no idea that the difference in audience size was that large. The List of best-selling books on Wikipedia only lists a few hundred titles that have managed to sell upwards of 10 million copies. In other words, only a few hundred different books IN THE HISTORY OF PRINT have managed to capture audiences of the size captured by a failing television show EACH WEEK!

I realize that numbers sold doesn't equate to numbers of people who have read a book--especially when you consider books bought by libraries and then potentially read by dozens of people--but I also feel like there are plenty of copies that sell and then aren't actually ever read. The Bible, for example, is the greatest selling book of all time, but I'm pretty sure that the number of copies that are sold and then actually read cover to cover is comparatively small. I also realize that one episode of a TV show isn't easily equated to one book--books generally take longer to get through than an hour. Even with those thoughts in mind, these numbers are boggling.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

BHAGAVAD GITA AS IT IS, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada


Some monk dude gave me this, and I've been curious about the Hare Krishnas ever since my hardcore days (anyone remember Shelter?), so I figured I'd give it a try.

First impression: Krishna is sort of like a Hindu Christ, and this book in many ways apes Christianity. I'm not a big fan of Christianity, and (big surprise) I'm already having ideological problems with this book.

The first and most serious problem I'm having so far is with the whole blind faith mandate. Prabhupada, the guy behind the version I'm reading, states in his introduction that "the person who is trying to understand the BHAGAVAD-GITA should [...] at least theoretically accept Sri Krsna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and with that submissive spirit we can understand," (page 7). Every time I've gotten into a conversation with a Christian, I've been told the same thing: don't rely on rational thought; you have to have faith, you have to believe. But if I'm supposed to blindly put my faith in something in order to understand it, how am I supposed to know what I should put my faith in? Most of the major religions want you to make a choice--you can't hedge your bets, you've got to choose just one. But which should I choose? Should I listen to the Christians and have faith in Christ, or should I listen to the Hare Krishnas and have faith in Krsna? Or what about the Muslims? Why shouldn't I have faith in Allah?

It's sort of a catch 22: you have to choose, but you can't think about your choice. Because if you really think about it, none of this stuff makes any sense. For a lot of people, intellect is a major tool in the choice-making process, but intellect is anathema to faith.

How do you make your choice then, if not with intellect, if not with some rational decision? Are you supposed to just intuitively feel that one religion is the right one? For me, so far, my intuition has always told me to trust my intellect, and my intellect has always told me that none of this stuff makes sense.

Another similarity I'm noticing between the BHAGAVAD-GITA and the Bible is that both books seem chock full of contradictions. In the Bible, which is comparatively a much larger work, the contradictions are chock-a-block. I'm only 70 pages into the BHAGAVAD-GITA so far (which is a little less than a tenth of the way through the book), but I've already come across a few contradictions in it, too. The one that stands out right now relates to compassion and willingness to kill.

See, the BHAGAVAD-GITA is set up like this: two opposing armies are on a battlefield, preparing for war. One army has God (Krsna) on it's side, working as a charioteer for the warrior Arjuna. Just before the start of the fight, Arjuna has Krsna drive him out to the middle of the battlefield, where he is struck by the fact that people he loves are in both armies, and family and friends are going to die no matter who wins. He tells Krsna he doesn't want to fight, and then Krsna lays the whole meaning of life, the universe, and everything else on him, which constitutes the bulk of the text. After that, Arjuna realizes it's his duty to fight, despite the fact that he'll be fighting with people he loves.

The contradictions come in because Arjuna's compassion, and his unwillingness to fight, are viewed as both a supreme virtue and also a sign of unworthiness. Krsna wasn't looking for just any random dude to deliver the universe's secrets to; he chose Arjuna, out of every living person on the planet at the time, because Arjuna was special. One of the reason's he was special, and worthy of Krsna's knowledge, is because of the ambivalence he feels when confronted with the notion of killing people from the opposite army. And yet he is given Krsna's sermon in part to provoke him to kill, because to not fight in the war is "degrading impotence" and a "petty weakness of heart" (page 67).

WTF?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Death Year

It's turning out to be a bumper year for death. Since my last post, two other people I knew have died. Both of them were acquaintances made through my last job: working as a groundskeeper for an apartment complex. The first death was a suicide. An old guy who lived in one of the apartments, who's wife had died the year before, found out he had cancer. He lay down in his bed and shot himself. I'd only seen him once since I left my last job. Normally he was a very friendly, chatty personality; the sort of fellow you liked having around, but also kind of dreaded seeing--he'd talk your ear off if you let him. The last time I saw him he walked right past me and didn't even seem to notice me; like he was lost in a haze. When I heard he'd killed himself, that last encounter took on a whole new meaning.

The other death was accidental. One of the boiler-room workers burned to death in his own home. He'd been scheduled to go in for knee surgery the next day. I don't know if his knee problems contributed to him not being able to escape the fire, but his death caught everybody by surprise. He was only in his 40s, and in good health other than his knee problems.

Also, yesterday I learned that author Howard Zinn died recently, and so did emcee Guru of Gangstarr. I haven't heard much about Zinn's death, but Guru's--which only happened Monday--has received decent publicity. He died at 43, from cancer. From his hospital bed, shortly before his death, he wrote a letter for the public, much of which has since been made available online. The letter seems like a bitter-sweet mix of gratitude for the life he's lived and for the friendship of his business partner Solar, and contemptuous furtherance of his desire to not be associated with DJ premier, the other half of Gangstarr. Interesting, and kind of sad, that he'd hold on to his grievance even at death's door.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Murdered Friend


Yesterday I got an email with a bunch of old photos from a childhood friend's birthday party like 20 years ago. In the photos me and my old friends are running rampant, fighting, wrestling, mouths open yelling, arms flung out wildly. The friend who originally posted the pictures did so because one of the kids in that group, who appears in the far left of the picture above, was murdered on March 16. Apparently he'd become a member of the SD chapter of one of the big 1%er biker gangs. He died of multiple stab wounds to the head, neck, and chest.

I've been in a funny state of mind since seeing those pictures, and learning about the murder. I drifted away from that group back in our early teens (when a lot of them started playing at being gangsters) and I hadn't heard anything about the murder victim since high school. Now that I've learned of his death, my mind is flooding with thoughts of those childhood times. I've been musing over the different paths we take, and how far from each other those paths take us.

It's stunning to think of the importance childhood choices have on our eventual fates. It's even more stunning when you think about how wild and ill-prepared for serious decisions we are as children. In the picture above you can see some of the kids flashing gang signs. We probably didn't even have any body hair yet, and already some of us were showing fascination with gangs. For my recently deceased friend, that fascination led to a lifestyle that resulted in his early death.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

spider


Yesterday, as I was eating lunch, a spider started building a web between the bench I was sitting on, and my head. At first I didn't notice at all--the spider had anchored one end of his web in my hair, behind my right ear, and I couldn't see it out of my peripheral vision. I did notice, sort of subconsciously, a very minor sensation on my right cheek once or twice, when the breeze blew and web tendrils dragged across my skin. Finally, with a larger gust, the spider's web bowed into the edge of my vision, and I saw the gossamer shine in the sun. It still didn't occupy a lot of my attention, I just sort of brushed it away. Then I felt something crawling on my neck. I batted at that with my hand, and caught a glimpse of the spider crawling along my upper arm, seeking shelter in the folds of my jacket. The spider started toward my face, and since I didn't want to risk a bite, I flicked it off of me. The wind blew again while the spider was airborn, and carried it a good seven or eight feet away. I saw it land on the bricks off to my right, a tiny little speck on the red.

The spider didn't move for a few moments, and I got up to look at it, hoping I hadn't hurt it. When I got near, I actually saw it lift its head to look up at me. It was such a tiny little thing--probably less than a half centimeter long--that the idea of it regarding me--so massive in comparison--made me wonder about the spider's thoughts. How would it's brain grapple with being confronted by another living thing so immense? What would go through my mind if I were face to face with some living thing as much larger than myself as I was to the spider? Is there even anything alive on earth that could match that scale?

The spider started crawling in little circles, as if to get his bearings. All his legs seemed to work fine, though he dragged his abdomen in a way that didn't seem very spider-like to me. He was an example of the type of spider we called "Jumping Wolfs" when I was a kid, and looked sort of like a very very tiny tarantula, his body stocky and hairy, his legs thick and blunt. I saw him lift his head to look at me a few more times as he circled his landing spot.

I went back to the bench and sat down. The spider seemed to watch me as I left, but I didn't really feel confident that he could see me at any distance. If you're that tiny, wouldn't your eyes also be set up for seeing things on a smaller scale?

But, as I continued to eat my lunch, the spider continued to walk toward me. Remember that I said the thing was only a half a centimeter long, so seven feet was comparatively a massive distance. It kept on toward me, stopping every now and then, veering slightly to the left or the right as it walked, but showing remarkable orienting abilities.

When the spider got within twenty inches of my feet, he changed his walk. Where before he had crawled along six inches at a time or so, then seemed to rest and re-orient, now he began stopping every inch, stopping stock still for a millisecond, and then moving again. The stops seemed to happen at random points in his gait, so that different legs would sometimes be caught in the air, and he changed from moving to still so completely with each stop that it looked like nothing any human could do. The best way I can describe it is to compare it to watching a film in which every tenth frame has been tripled, so that the image in the tenth frame freezes for just a flash.

Eventually, the spider crawled right between my feet, lifted his head again, and looked at me.

The thing was too tiny for me to feel frightened, so none of the experience struck me as creepy, but it certainly was uncanny. My emotional mind toyed with the idea that the spider wanted my company, even my camaraderie. Another part of my mind wondered if the thing had left an egg-sac on me, and wanted to return to its young. In either case, it seemed too unerring in its path to have arrived back at my feet by coincidence.

By this time my lunch hour was nearly over--the spider's walk had taken nearly twenty minutes--so I left the bench and went back to my office. Today, though, I've been thinking about returning to the bench, to see if the spider is still about. It seems impossible that he would be, and yet all of the experience yesterday seemed impossible, too.

Monday, April 5, 2010

LYNEE BREEDLOVE'S ONE FREAK SHOW


Basically, this is an attempt to put Breedlove's comedy show into book format, but it doesn't quite manage to totally bridge the gap between the live and printed forms. For example, the cover makes me think that Lynn's puppet skits--in which he uses stuffed animals to act out interactions between various identities within the queer community--are a highlight of the stand-up act, but they come across as one of the weakest parts of the book. There are a couple of songs in the book that are sort of lame, too. I bet the songs and puppetry would be pretty funny live, where they'd have Breedlove's voice and body-gestures to help them float, but they're not that funny on page, and they don't give the impression of having been modified to play to the strengths of the printed word. On the other hand, there are a few parts of the book that do manage to provoke a laugh, like the "Wrong Bathroom" section, and I definitely appreciate the light-hearted approach to topics that often get people all up in arms. At its best, this book can be thought-provoking too, like when it touches on the complications that arise when lesbian-feminist outlooks meet with transman identities ("When we had feminism, we could blame men for all the lousy things...now we're all becoming men..."). In the end, though, I'd probably recommend using your cash to see Lynn Breedlove live, instead of using it to buy this book

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

writer myths


I recently picked up a mildewed copy of Emily Dickinson's poems, and the first thing that struck me about the book was the emphasis put on the author's reclusive nature. The dust jacket blurb, the author bio, the introduction, the preface--literally all the text in the book that wasn't actually written by Emily Dickinson--spends as much time discussing the poet's reclusive nature as it does her actual poetry.

Here's how the dust jacket blurb starts: "Known as a recluse by her New England neighbors, Emily Dickinson fashioned in private a body of verse unmatched in its vision and understanding."

Here's the first paragraph in her author's bio: "Emily Dickinson was born into a prominent family in Amherst, Massachusetts. Sociable as a child, she grew increasingly withdrawn; she discouraged visitors, and in later years rarely left the grounds of her family's home."

Here's the start of the introduction: "Now celebrated as one of America's greatest poets, Emily Dickinson is also famous for her quiet, private life. [...] she confined her activities to the grounds of the family home. She traveled out of Amherst only a handful of times, and did not marry. Later in her life she dressed all in white and acquired a reputation as an eccentric recluse."

And this is from the book's original preface: "A recluse by temperament and habit, literally spending years without setting her foot beyond the doorstep, and many more years during which her walks were strictly limited to her father's grounds, she habitually concealed her mind, like her person, from all but a very few friends..."

Why is it, I wonder, that the authors of these words are so determined to drive home the idea of Emily Dickinson as a recluse? Why can't the focus be on her poetry itself, instead on her unusual habits, her unorthodox lifestyle?

The best answer I can come up with is this: it sells books.

For some reason, building up the myth of an author seems to provoke greater interest in that author's work. It's almost as if a portion of the reading public won't feel eager to engage with writing unless they feel that the writing is the product of an interesting person. The weirder or more tragic the author's life, the greater the interest shown in their work.

Take Sylvia Plath's ARIEL, for example. It came out two years after her suicide, and you can bet the fact of her suicide was made widely known during the marketing of the book. In fact, so much attention is paid to Plath's life and untimely demise that I'm sure most people know more about her death than her poetry. And I bet you'd be hard pressed to find someone who had read even a single Plath poem without knowing anything about the author.

Personally, I'm a bit uncomfortable with this idea. I think ARIEL is a great book of poems, a book that would definitely be able to stand on its own without any accompanying author-suicide hype. But the reader is never really given a chance to directly engage with the poems without first having their reading experience 'informed' by knowledge of the author's life and death. Somehow, that feels like a lost opportunity to me.

Monday, March 8, 2010

24/7 RELENTLESS CAREERISM, by Jim Behrl

Ran across a very funny article on the Poetry Foundation's website. The author, Jim Behrl, hits a remarkable number of key points. The following passage in particular stood out to me, because of it's mention of "most poets in America [having] boring office jobs in which they are screwing around on the Internet most of the time," which makes me think of the some of the thoughts I mentioned on this blog while considering the potential merits of publishing online instead of in print. Here's Jim Behrl, putting it in his own words:

"How can you become the most important poet in America by tomorrow? It’s not as hard as you think. Poets used to have to pass out poetry-reading flyers by hand, one at a time, or publish poems one at a time in magazines, slowly building a career. But technology has changed all that. Now you can spam every poet in America with every new poem. Start a fan page for yourself and your books on Facebook. Blog about your every thought—they don’t even have to be astute thoughts. Most poets in America have boring office jobs in which they are screwing around on the Internet most of the time. Just mention the names of as many contemporary poets as you can in all your blog posts. You will catch all the self-googlers self-googling. Self-promotion is the only kind of promotion left. Without poetry reviewers to rely on, only you can spread the word about your product. And if you spread it suddenly, relentlessly, brutally, then you’ll have name recognition from here to Hawaii . . . and that’s all you need, because there are two kinds of poets: those you’ve heard of and those you haven’t. Almost all of us fall into the latter category, but not you! If only you take my advice."

Thursday, March 4, 2010

regarding poor reviews of unknown authors, and whether such reviews should be written

A long while back I wrote a review on this blog about a linked-short-story collection published by an author I've had classes with and done a reading with. My review basically stated that reading the book exacerbated feelings of ennui I often suffer from, that the book was so boring it made me feel like the effort of writing might not even be worth it, especially since certain other reviews called the book 'ground-breaking.' My feelings about the book are pretty much the same now as they were then. Even so, I now regret publishing the post because I did a Google search for the author a few days ago, and my review came up as the third search result. I don't like the idea that people searching for information on this relatively unknown author will have such a discouraging view as one of their first search results. Trashing a big-name millionaire like Dave Eggers is one thing, but hampering a young unknown's chances is another. So I tried to edit the old post in a way that removed any identifying details about the author. Unfortunately, even though I changed the post's title, the author's name and book title still showed up in the address bar when the link was clicked on. In the end I deleted it. My post still comes up as one of the first Google hits for now, and you can still read it in Google's cache, but I imagine it will disappear before too long.

For me, this whole process has made me think about the act of publicly reviewing your peers' work. On the one hand, I do believe that in the end any review is a good thing because it can help raise awareness of the work. And I also think it's pretty ridiculous to feel bad about not liking something, or to apologize for having an opinion. On the other hand, trashing someone's writing, or giving it a poor review, can hurt people's feelings, and I don't like hurting people's feelings.

Writers in particular seem susceptible to hurt feelings, and they often closely associate criticism of their work with criticism of themselves. When I think of the late Norman Mailer, for example, what comes to mind more than his works are his continual attacks on all those who dared give his books poor reviews. Even a somewhat objective approach to something relating to an author can inflame that author's ego. A personal experience I had with this came at the start of this blog, in which I published a tongue-in-cheek post referring to my stumbling across an author I'd found online who had a lengthy publications list full of pieces featured in places I'd never heard of, most of them online. I quickly found out that several of the editors of the sites publishing this author's work had in turn been published by the author on his own literary website, or had their personal blogs linked to by the author, and I delivered that information on my blog in the form of a facetious conspiracy theory. The author took it seriously, or at least seemed to be upset that I'd post a viewpoint relating his publications to anything other than actual merit, and he responded by lampooning me on his own website. I also got a series of comments from friends of his, defending him. Then I myself got touchy about it and responded with another snarky post of my own. It was all pretty passive aggressive and childish, and the ironic thing is that I never meant the first post as a personal statement relating to the author or his ability as a writer in the first place. I mentioned him as a 'key' to my unlocking of this 'conspiracy,' and the 'conspiracy' was the primary subject.

In any case, I'm not sure if the fellow whose book I mentioned at the start of this post even ever saw my review. I have noticed that in the times when I've been in the same room with him since I posted the review, he's avoided eye-contact with me, and hasn't spoken to me. Maybe he just doesn't remember who I am, or maybe he's harboring negative feelings for me. In either case, I meant him personally no ill will, even if I didn't like his book.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE AND OTHER STORIES, by Robert Louis Stevenson


Been working on this book for ages. I remember loving TREASURE ISLAND, though it's been years since I read it, but the stories in this collection sure aren't holding my attention. Worse, forcing through a few pages of this and then giving it up for something else, I find that whatever else I turn to also fails to engage. Or maybe I'm just a bit burned out on reading.

With the new job I'm sitting at a desk for ten hours a day, four days in a row each week. A good portion of that time is spent reading. I get an hour for lunch each day, too, and spend some of that hour in a book. Maybe I'm just cloying my reading energies.

Leads me toward thinking about 'too much of a good thing.' I feel like American Society encourages a sort of 'all or nothing' approach to life. You're supposed to find what you love doing and then spend all your time doing it, especially if what you profess to love is art/music/writing. I know of an author who spends 40 hours a week writing, bare minimum, every week. Recently he's broken through with book publications, and now his backlog will flood forth, but for a while he pinned it all on writing and trusted to fate (and his parent's support, I'm guessing) to cover his expenses.

Even if I didn't have to support myself, I doubt I could dedicate that much time to writing. In the busy spurts I've experienced, the most I've managed is three or so hours a day for a few weeks. Then I get bored, or glutted, or disinterested. Whatever it is I'm doing--writing or reading or sleeping or eating or whatever--loses its appeal when I get too much of it.

Makes me hesitant to define myself as a 'writer,' or anything else. I can't fit myself all-together into one pursuit, or one interest. About the one thing I can imagine myself doing all the time is this:

not fucking working.

Of work I'm sure I've had enough.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

THE LONG VALLEY, by John Steinbeck


I've been working my way through Steinbeck's famous short story collection THE LONG VALLEY, and one of the thoughts I've held in my mind throughout is how different the literary landscape was at the time these stories were written. A few of the pieces in this book--'The Chrysanthemums' being a prime example--have been embraced as canonical literature. Their focus on character, and their effort to reveal character subtly through action and description, seem intrinsic to our contemporary concept of 'literary' writing (a concept pounded into my head during four years of college English). But at the time these stories were written--in the early 1930s--such concepts weren't nearly as established and universally dominant. 'Literature' just wasn't as tightly nailed down as it is today. And because of that we have stories we know consider 'literary' published side-by-side with stories that feel decidedly 'non-literary.' Steinbeck dips his pen into styles we'd now label 'pulp,' or 'genre' fiction. His piece 'The Snake,' for example, makes me think of the Weird Fiction being written by H.P. Lovecraft and other authors of the time; and Steinbeck's 'Flight' feels like classic Western.

Another question that comes to mind while reading this collection is whether or not such a book could have any chance of success in today's market if Steinbeck was an author just trying to break through now. My gut tells me no. Everything I've heard or read about the short story market today tells me that it's incredibly difficult to get anybody to buy a collection of short stories, which consequently makes it incredibly difficult to get anyone to consider publishing one. In order for a short-story book to be considered it needs to be chock-a-block with Pushcart Prizewinners, or dressed up with some kind of gimmick that makes it look like a novel (like all these 'novel in stories' you see coming out, Amy Tan's JOY LUCK CLUB being an early success), or written by a bestselling novelist. A book like THE LONG VALLEY, with its haphazard collection of stories written by an at-the-time unsuccessful author...it's hard to picture that appearing on bookshelves fresh today.

Then again, it didn't show up on the shelves just after being written, anyway. Steinbeck's first commercial success, TORTILLA FLATS, paved the way for THE LONG VALLEY's later publication. Steinbeck was already a bestseller by the time these early stories ever saw a mass audience. Maybe they wouldn't have made it to press back then, either, if he gave up after writing them, and never got around to the breakthrough book.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Hello Again

Nearly a year has passed since my last post, and now that I've probably lost whatever minuscule audience I'd built for this blog, I'm ready to post again. The dark period this blog just went through pertained to a change in employment--I went from an office job to a labor job with no regular access to computers--but I've just recently changed jobs again, and now I'm back indoors and back near a computer.

Not really all that much writing news to catch up on, anyway. The main publications to mention are two short shorts in the fiction section of January 2010's Fogged Clarity. I've added links to them in the Stories Online section to the right--the pieces are called "Love" and "A Prayer for Becky Sims." As an added bonus, Fogged Clarity also published audio files of me reading each piece--the first time a literary journal has ever asked me to do this.

I submitted those pieces to Fogged Clarity after receiving notice from editor Ben Evans that he nominated my story "Donald Mathison's Heart" for a Pushcart. Since he liked my writing enough to nominate it, I figured I'd send him more, which led to the two short shorts just published. My thanks to him for the encouragement.

Only other news is that a second Map of Fog is in the works. I'm hoping to have it in print within the next few months. If you want details, feel free to email me.