Time to Get Reading

In my push to work on Hecate Applebough 1, 2, & 3, my poetry has been getting somewhat short shrift.  True, Cate is a poet, so I include some of “her” poems in the text, but as for my own (“real”) poems, I’ve hit a dry patch, which tells me I need to begin a Reading Phase.  (Either that, or I need to win a trip back to Venice, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.)  Reading poetry is helpful on so many levels—among other things, it exposes you to new ways of looking at the world, it offers creative connections with language, and it reveals beauty and anguish and sudden bursts of weirdness.  But more importantly, it lets me escape the dolor of my own head.  I mean, honestly, that thing is like a coffin.  I need outside influence in the worst way.

But what to read?  I have plenty of books on my shelves that I’ve either never cracked, or I read long ago and forgot what it’s them.  (Also, as an aside, “long ago” could mean as recently as a year ago—I have a piss poor memory for poetry, which is kind of pathetic for someone who counts herself a poet.)  There are new books of poems out every day, some of them by acquaintances that I need to buy at some point—all of them equally good, I’m sure, but I think I’m going to choose some “free” ones—and by free, I mean, ones off my shelf.

(Closes eyes and chooses)…And here are the first three winners of my Random Poetry Picking Sweepstakes:

  • Mohja Kahf’s E-mails from Scheherazad (UP Florida, 2003)
  • Molly Peacock’s Original Love (Norton, 1995)
  • Evie Shockley’s A Half-Red Sea (Carolina Wren Press, 2006)

My goal, then, is to read these books in the next few days and be amazed by their words, and maybe after that I’ll read a few more, etc., etc., and maybe after that I’ll be ready to start a Writing Phase again.  I might even include some mini-reviews next week.

I do read journals off and on (especially when I’m in a Submitting Phase), but sometimes, I find what passes for poetry in them unintelligible.  Like, I just have no idea what the person is trying to communicate.  I don’t believe it’s because my brain has certainly turned into marshmallow—I think there’s just a real movement to putting words together for no damn reason other than to see if editors will be fooled into thinking that word-bag poems mean something.  Now, not every journal, and not every poem, obviously.  But it seems to happen more frequently than not.  Recently I read a few poems in a journal (that will remain nameless, but suffice it to say it’s Big and Impressive) that I was considering submitting to, and once I read the kind of poems they’ve published lately, I was very certain that what I write would fall directly into the round pile.

(I’m not talking about The New Yorker though, in case you’re curious what Big and Impressive Journal I mean.  For at least the last 20 years, they publish the shit poems of brand-name poets.  I’m saying it out loud, right here.  The New Yorker prints the absolute worst poems I’ve ever read.  And if this claim on my part means that they will never publish any of my poems, far far into the future, when I am myself finally a brand-name poet, then so be it.  Their poems are the pits, and honestly they should be ashamed of themselves that they can’t pick better ones.)

(Does that sound like sour, jealous grapes?  It’s not.  I know getting published in The New Yorker is a big benchmark for a poet, but I think I hold with Groucho Marx here:  I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.  So, sayonara New Yorker.)

Anyway, in my distaste for The New Yorker, I’ve meandered from my point (it happens, forgive me)… which is this:  it will be good to get back to reading quality writing (instead of what I have been reading, which is fun [manga], but not particularly conducive to inspiring my poetic side).

And if you have any poetry book suggestions that are current and wow, leave them in the comments.  I might go on a buying spree soon.  Goddess bless Amazon Prime.

Reading Many Books at Once–Dilemma or Delight? (Well, It Depends, If One of the Books is Magic for Beginners.)

When I was in grad school working on my comprehensive exams, one of the things I had to learn to do pretty quickly was read many different books at once.

Now, if you think about it, when you’re in any kind of school situation, you naturally read many different books at once, all the time, to keep up with your different classes.  Somehow, though, that seemed different.  Maybe because of the “compartmentalization” that going to school requires—i.e., when I am in my Whitman seminar, I am only reading Whitman; when I’m in my Women’s History class, I’m only reading Women’s History books.  But of course, you’re still taking multiple classes in a single semester, so you’re actually reading multiple books, and you might not finish one on one day because you need to prepare for a different class the next day.

Logically that makes sense, and yet when it came down to my comps, I suddenly felt like, OMG, I have to read 100 books (or whatever it was) all at the same time??? How will I keep them all straight?

And of course, the reality is, you’re not reading 100 books at once.  You’re maybe reading five or six at once—and taking notes, to keep them all straight.  And many of them were books of poetry, so of course, it’s easy to finish off reading one at a stretch.  But you add in books about practice, about writing, about theory, and you just can’t read 400 pages at a sitting.  (Well, I can’t.)  So you learn to negotiate, and you work your way through the list.

All of this is by way of saying that I used to be particularly rigid about not starting a new book until I had finished the previous one.  When you’re reading for personal enjoyment (i.e., not studying for a comprehensive exam), you can be restrictive like that.  My thought was:  be disciplined, finish the book!  And then of course comps happened and then I let that goal go.  You have to, to manage all that information without losing your mind.

These days, I do mostly just read one book at a time—you can inhabit the world and connect on a really deep level, concentrating on the characters in front of you, and only have them to think about for the duration of the novel.  But occasionally I read multiple books at the same time.  Sometimes, it’s because my attention is wandering in the book I’m trying to focus on.  Sometimes people tell me I need to read X, Y, and Z, so I think, ok, I’ll add them into the rotation.

As I mentioned last week, I was reading Aimee Bender and Kelly Link, in between reading chapters from Kerry Greenwood’s Queen of the Flowers.  But then I got on this Kelly Link kick, because multiple people were saying how she awesome she was, so I focused entirely on Kelly Link.

And got really pissed off.

There are stories in Magic for Beginners that I like.  I liked the first one, “The Faery Handbag,” quite a bit, and both of the zombie stories (“The Hortlak” and “Some Zombie Contingency Plans”) though I didn’t love their endings, were enjoyable in their way.  What pissed me off though was the story, “Stone Animals,” a story which my little writing workshop held up to the highest esteem, and so I had great expectations for it.

It is not rational, when we have a visceral repugnance against something like a fiction story.  But I repugn “Stone Animals.”  I despise it.  I hate it so much, in fact, that I wasn’t even sure that I was going to finish Magic for Beginners at all because it took me so long to get through, and I was annoyed that Kelly Link forced me to read it since she wrote it.  Every page was like pouring acid in my eyes and gulping down deodorant.  Catherine’s obsessive painting, Henry’s inability to quit his job, the rabbits, the rabbits, the rabbits—really?  About the only thing I liked about the story was how they’d stop using some household object because it was suddenly “haunted.”  But after multiple pages of this, I was like, come on.

Perhaps what really pissed me off was that there was no payoff for the story. Like, after I felt I’d given my life’s blood to read it, to discover the rabbits were waiting for Henry to get on their back and be prepared for an attack against Catherine’s party inside the house?  WTF?

Actually, I don’t need an acronym, I need to write that out:  WHAT THE FUCK?

Now, considering the kind of writer that Kelly Link is, I know better, after having read several of her stories, than to expect a conventional, satisfying ending.  She’s kind of out there—she writes horror and fantasy, and they have their own genre-imposed behaviors and audience expectations.  But the horror of “Stone Animals” is its obsession and obsessiveness, and its obsessive repetition, and at some point, I just really wanted to fling the book across the room.  I mean, Goddammit, Kelly Link.

So you’re saying, Why not just stop reading?

Because I was looking for a payoff.  I was looking for THE BIG REASON she wrote that story—I wanted to believe that somehow after reading 53 pages, investing that kind of time into unlikeable characters and a story that just seemed to go nowhere, that everything would be clear—albeit clear in Kelly Link’s kind of fucked up way.  But no.  I got to the end, and couldn’t even feel the relief that it was over.  I just felt angry and betrayed.  (I know, not rational.)

I had to put to put the book aside after that—even though the next story was called “Catskin,” and I’m drawn to anything cat related—because I was too mad.  I was just too mad at her and didn’t want my brain to feel defiled any more.

So I started reading the first book of Chobits (manga) by Clamp (a collective)—I’d long since seen the anime, but found the first book buried on a high shelf in my office (from the previous occupant, I suppose), and thought it would be good to read, then I picked up Kerry Greenwood again, and Aimee Bender… then went back to Kelly Link.

I’m in the middle of “The Great Divorce,” which is interesting from an idea standpoint (that a person can marry a dead person and have dead children), but I find my passion (good, bad, or otherwise) for Link is spent.  I’m wondering why everyone loves her, in other words.  Yes, she’s inventive, but at what cost?  My sanity—what little there is of it—is precious, and I don’t like getting angry at books.  That seems like a waste of time.  Still, I’m determined to finish the book so I can say I finished it.  But it’s happening about six pages at a stretch.  I find that’s all I am emotionally prepared to give her.

(Sadly, when I bought Magic for Beginners [after all the Kelly Link love I was hearing about], I also bought her Pretty Monsters.  I feel depressed just thinking of it sitting on my nightstand and taunting me to read it, knowing as I do that it will probably be more of the same.)

I’m also currently reading the manga for the Ouran High School Host Club. (I’ve watched and loved the anime multiple times, and thought I should finally read the manga—and it’s just as funny as the anime, and I like how the author, Bisco Hatori, periodically makes herself known and comments on her own work, which amuses me—although I know lots of people don’t like when an author breaks into the world of the story.  Generally I don’t either, but maybe it’s ok in a comedy full of highjinks and farce—you learn to accept that anything’s possible, including authorial intrusion.)  And I’m reading a couple of books of poetry, one of which is Daniel Khalastchi’s Tradition, the other, The Octopus Game, by Nicky Beer.

Speaking of the “payoff,” in case you’re wondering what it is for this post:  I guess it’s this—that my reading process is kind of like my writing process—all over the place.  And that’s ok.  If a book annoys you, put it down and come back later to it.  Or don’t.  There’s no Book Police out there who will hunt you down if you don’t finish a book—especially if you’re not reading for educational requirements.

I don’t know why I feel like I HAVE to finish a book though–like I will finish Magic for Beginners, even if it kills me—which it very well might.  I certainly don’t feel that way about my writing.  If something’s not working in my poetry (and especially my abortive attempts at fiction), I set it aside, and come back later. Or I don’t.  I guess with books that are already written (in comparison to my writing which is in various stages of completion anyway), if you don’t finish them, you’re denied that little perk of feeling a sense of accomplishment.

And if you think about it, that’s really ok too.

On Reading Ivy Alvarez’s Disturbance

Benjamin Dodds (an Australian poet I know here through WordPress and Twitter) and I once discussed how we never read poetry before going to bed.  Usually I adhere to that no-poetry-before-bed rule pretty religiously; as a person who suffers frequent insomnia, the last thing I need to be doing is riling up my mind when I should be winding down for sleep.  But last night I broke that rule and read Ivy Alvarez’s verse novel Disturbance (Seren Books, 2013), which had come in the mail earlier in the day, a book he had recommended to me (along with The Monkey’s Mask by another Australian poet, Dorothy Porter) when I was bemoaning the fact that nobody likes narrative poetry any more.

ivy alvarez book

Is Disturbance ever aptly named.  It is a deeply disturbing book, because it is so familiar:  abusers who keep upping the ante against their victims; a police force unwilling to intervene; victims who constantly adjust and modify their behavior to satisfy the whims of their abusers; neighbors who notice nothing.  This is the story, in spare, chilling, poetic detail of a man who, after abusing his wife for years and creating a household of terror for his wife and children, decides to kill her and the kids once she files for divorce.  And he succeeds (although, spoilers:  he dies too, though the daughter, who is elsewhere on the fateful night, survives).

What is interesting about this book, and I what I respond to, is the number of voices present here, many of them “after the fact.” It’s almost like noise—so many voices weighing in that Alvarez means us as readers to lose sight, temporarily, of the people at the heart of this tragedy. Once the wife, the son, and the husband are dead, they are just bodies, and all these other voices are giving testimony about their compartmentalized knowledge of the tragedy.  It’s a barrage at the reader from the very first poem, “Inquest,” and it’s devastatingly effective.

Jane, Tony, and Tom become figuratively “buried” under all of the other people brought together because of the crime.  And because this is a “tragedy,” a “crime,” we see how quickly dehumanized the murdered people become—they are just a “job” for others to deal with—the police, the coroner, the journalists, etc.  The poem “The estate agents” demonstrates, for example, this dehumanization, when they discuss the price for the sale of the house.  They explain that the house will be sold for $985,000, a $15,000 discount, because it’s “five thousand per dead body/ but we don’t look at it/ that way” (p. 14).  When of course that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Abusive relationships flourish in silence—we don’t even really hear anything from the wife Jane’s perspective until a 9 line poem, “Happy Sunday:  Jane” on page 47 (whereas we get a three-page poem from the Mistress on p. 29, “The Mistress Speaks”).  There is so much silence leading up to murders—then this interesting and horrible proliferation of people commenting on the unseemly details occurs.  Emergency operators, estate agents, journalists, neighbors, grandparents, police, coroners all relate their stories in individual poems—witnesses after the fact.  (Where were many of these people when Tony was terrorizing his family?)  We have to wade through all of their reports until Jane and Tom and Tony are “animated” again, through poems in their voices.

And speaking of Tony, he is a chilling character.  His eponymous poem, in twelve sections, lets us see how meticulous and really just disgusting he is.  In the fourth section, he describes Jane’s expression as “Her look of kick me/ bruise me/ hit me” (p. 64)—an expression, of course, that he’s made her wear.  Later in the eighth section, he says, “I’m only electric when she’s close to death.”  In other words, he feels “electric” (we can read this as “energized” or “aroused”) when he has cornered her like an animal and brought her to the brink of her life being extinguished.  Who gets aroused like that?  Tony’s just the proverbial sick bastard (or in psychological parlance, a narcissistic sociopath).  And he would be easy to write off, in some ways, except that the sixth section seems to want to complicate him.  I wonder if the poet wants us to evaluate his murderous rampage through the possibility that he’s insane—that it is his insanity that “…is the dark/ I know/ chasing me/ down the road” (66).

I don’t know if I believe this though.  I think as a society, we have a tendency to assume that people who do horrible things and exhibit extreme antisocial behavior are necessarily crazy.  But I think that’s too facile a reading of Tony.  It could be, rather, that’s he’s trying to justify his behavior–that this “darkness” is merely an excuse he uses to allow himself to be evil.  And sociopaths are masters of lying (“Sometimes I tell the truth/ but really crave the lie” he says on p. 63). But Alvarez shows us the real truth in the ninth section , and I want to quote half the poem so we can see how twisted Tony is (p. 69).  As she writes,

When I hunt, I am more myself
than ever.
No longer an unsuitable man.
I am my own best version then.
No longer an ordinary sort.
Ordinary sweat of an ordinary man.

Better to be a brute
than be far less.
I realise myself

when I hunt.

In other words, when he abuses his family, he is his “best” self.  He is “realized” which means, among other things, that he is his most “real,” that he “grasps” or “understands” himself with absolute clarity.  I don’t think he’s insane at all—Alvarez makes it very obvious that in Tony’s mind, he’s in his right mind.  Tony is the hunter; Jane is the prey.  That is the way of things.  “Better to be a brute/ than far less.”  In that line, we see Tony “realized” most fully. Because anything less than brutality (such as just being an ok guy and ok husband) he perceives as weakness, as untenable, as “ordinary.”  The lines are condemnatory and a watershed for the poem.  Insane?  Not a chance.

Of course, we can argue that insane people often don’t recognize their insanity, but I suggest that despite his blood-soaked dreams (p. 68), he is too clear-headed in his serial, ritualized abuse, too pragmatic in his approach to pre-meditation (“Notes to self, p. 72), and much too dedicated to hurting others as a way of life.  You don’t have to be “crazy” to flout the social contract and cultural script—you just have to choose to ignore it because you don’t see any direct benefit in it for you.  His narcissism and his sociopathy do not recognize that others don’t exist to please him; he believes in his heart that Jane, Tom, and Hannah are his property, and he can do with them as he will.

Reading about domestic violence, is, of course, excruciating (it brings up a lot of painful memories in my own past—though my experience was never to the extent that Jane’s is), but it’s more powerful when it’s written about with such economy of language.  To read about this marriage, these murders, these experts’ testimony in just the barest few words absolutely levels me as a reader.

Many of these poems don’t take up much space on the page at all—they are thin or short, or they show big breaks in the lines—many of them are written in fragments.  Which is, of course, a brilliant rhetorical and visual strategy that Alvarez employs, because it indicates the insignificance of family (if they only take up a few words) as well as highlights the constant disruptions that exist in such a dysfunctional relationship (when words are spread over the page with large gaps between them, we read the poems differently).

How do I say this?  It seems as if the white space in the book is a metaphor for a million dollar mansion that only houses four people.  Each page is a room.  The lack of verbiage on the pages reminds me of the way Tony wants his life to be—clean, orderly, tightly run without fanfare—like he doesn’t want his family to take up much space in his life—he wants nothing to detract from himself being the most important person—so the words on the pages don’t take up much space.  I could probably describe what I’m trying to say more articulately—but let me put it another way.  Alvarez’s choice to use so few words in her poetry partly demonstrates her poetic aesthetic, but it also refuses to allow the story to be obscured.  Poems with longer lines and more text on the page would serve only to conceal the horror.  In their nakedness, we see the truth.

A last note about Disturbance—I wish, somehow, Alvarez would have written more about Hannah, the daughter who escaped the violent end that the rest of her family suffered.  There are two poems about her, “Hannah’s statement” and “The surviving Daughter,” and while they give us some information about how it happened she wasn’t there (she is away at school: “So I left/ as soon as I could/ the black cloud/ of home” p. 84), I kind of wish we knew more about her.  Of course, perhaps there is a sequel to Disturbance somewhere in Ivy Alvarez’s future… perhaps Hannah’s story will be explored yet.

(In case all my rambling did not make things clear, this was an amazing book.  Please go buy it.  Support Ivy Alvarez and narrative poetry and verse novels…  It’s so worth it.  It’s painful but powerful.  Thank you, Ivy, for writing it, and thank you Benjamin for suggesting it!)

Some Thoughts on the Pecularities of Inspiration

Inspiration is a tricky, capricious thing.  Or is it?  There are those who’d argue that inspiration isn’t capricious at all–that it hovers “out there,” waiting to be actively courted, waiting for any of us as writers (or artists or musicians, etc.), to grab hold and begin to use it.  We just have to see that little sparkle that alerts us it’s there.

Sometimes, it eludes our notice.  Sometimes the sparkle hits us in the face like a baseball–though I can’t say I’ve taken too many baseballs to the face in my life, and certainly not lately.  (I’ve taken my share of tennis balls to the face–but that’s beside the point.  This is not a post about sports injuries.)

I’ve always said I’m not an ideas person.  I don’t see possibilities and connections the way I wish I did (the way geniuses seem to).  Inspiration might stare me in the face sometimes, and I’m off looking at a bird that’s soaring by, or a tree whose branches waver on the wind in some melody I can’t quite catch.  (Hello! Inspiration yells, why do you think I put that bird and tree in front of you? You dummy!) My point is, I’m not paying attention.

So inspiration, I think, is really about paying attention to your surroundings, getting caught in a rhythm, and adapting yourself to what that rhythm means.  How do we do that?  As poets and artists, we’re supposed to be hypersensitive to our surroundings anyway.  Aren’t we supposed to feel more deeply than the rest of society?  Aren’t we supposed to notice the certain play of light through the leaves on  the cherry tree outside our door and be moved to lyricism?  Well, maybe.

Maybe for some people, that actually works.  For myself, I think being in tune with that rhythm means to cut out a lot of extraneous noise from my life so I can actually hear that rhythm, see that sparkle.  Of course, everyone always says this.  And it’s hard.

For me, disconnecting with the world means disconnecting from the news, and Facebook, and stupid binge-a-thons on Netflix, and my Sudoku habit.  It means reading more–whether it’s new journals that have arrived in my mailbox, or reading the other authors’ works (fiction and nonfiction too, not just the poetry) in the journals that my own work appears in.  It means allowing myself the pleasure of reading a Phryne Fisher mystery (thank you, Kerry Greenwood, for giving us Phryne) so I can indulge in language used well, and fall in love with a place and characters who are real.

I know this is not new.  For heaven’s sakes, Wordsworth was saying the world was too much with us back in 1802.  But the world is hella more complicated in 2015, which makes it all the more essential to get away from it if we want to be true to our art.  (Or at least, if we want to recharge our flagging art.)

I’ve been thinking for a quite a while that I’ve needed to go to a writer’s residency somewhere.  I had actually even applied to one for the summer–and mistakenly believed I’d get in–and of course, everyone knows, throwing all your eggs into one basket is the surest way to making scrambled eggs.  But even if that didn’t work out, there are other residencies, other writers conferences that can help me to reconnect with writing.

I think a residency is one way to actively court inspiration.  Meeting with new writers, inhabiting a new space for a while, getting out of the routine of our daily existence–this is all about finding that new rhythm.  Certainly not everyone can afford the luxury of a writer’s residency (I mean, I can’t really either, but whatever)–but those rhythms are all around us.  We can hear them when we disconnect. We can hear them when we start reading one of our books from our never-ending “books to read” pile.  We can hear them when we sit on top of Stone Mountain, or if we’re taking a walk on a wooded path.  We can hear those rhythms everywhere if we give ourselves a chance.

Inspiration wants us to find it.  It does expect us to work a little, of course, to get outside ourselves a little, so we can see it, and benefit from what it has to show us.  Inspiration wants to include us.  It wants us to get into its rhythm.  We don’t have to be “ideas” people to get access–we just have to be a little more open-eared and flexible.

And maybe that seems harder than it really is because we’re too tied to our devices and routines.  But I for one am going to try to slip into that rhythm, because it’s calling me.