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


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.