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- Vol. 1 Brooklyn | Morning Bites: Salter on Matthiessen, 2014 Pulitzer Prizes, Gay Talese Interviewed, Robin Black, and More on Cash Rules Everything Around Me (And Silkworms)
- Jessica Tiffani on Literature on Lockdown: Eric Boyd
- Edoubts on On Gender Bias in Publishing, Editing, and Writing
- The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review | DC, Baltimore, NY » STAFF SPOTLIGHT | Rae Bryant, Editor-In-Chief on An Open Letter to the Pulitzer Board
- “An Open Letter to the Pulitzer Board” Now at The Missouri ReviewRae BryantRae Bryant on An Open Letter to the Pulitzer Board
How much does it cost to produce a literary magazine?
This question was at the core of last week’s class. I wanted to address this on a number of levels: what is the cost of one print copy, what is the cost of one (current) print run with our subscription numbers, and what is the cost of running TMR over the course of a year?
Not all students love this particular class. More than one had difficulty keeping eyes open, there were plenty of yawns, and even one headsnapper (digression: I did the headsnapper at the very first literary reading I ever went to. My Beginning Writing Fiction instructor, Mary Tabor, required us to go to three during the ten week quarter. The first one was poetry, and I had zero interest. So, yup, the headsnapper: falling asleep, eyes close, head goes backward, chin toward the ceiling, and then, boom!, wake up!, snapping my head back down. Oh, and the poet? She definitely noticed and stared daggers through my skull). Those of us in the humanities tend to have no interest in (or no ability with) money.
In small presses and literary magazines, the disconnect between writers and editors often comes down to money. Editors, whether new to publishing or veterans, become aware of the cost of everything. And, I do mean everything: there are the big costs like printing and distribution, but there are also all the small costs, such as staples and stamps to name just a few, and when the bill collector comes ’round, litmag publishers start attentively scouring the line-item breakdown of costs looking for a way to save a dollar or two. Writers, who paid little for their work, don’t appreciate the constant reminders to subscribe, donate, and buy magazines. Also, they don’t particularly like having their work turned down for publication.
The lack of money is the biggest killer of literary magazines. Making my students aware of it is critical.
Also, production costs are an excellent argument for online publications. When they were first launched, online literary magazines struggled for respect. To an extent, they still do. Now that we all read online content on a daily basis, readers embrace magazines like Shenandoah, TriQuarterly, Kill Author, Exquisite Corpse, and Barcelona Review, as well as magazines that do a regular mixture of print and online content, such as Gigantic, Hobart, and PANK.
Still: while new publishers might embrace the “content is king” idea, it seems that reputation, a logical development, from good content, still drives the literary magazine market.
It wasn’t a part of my class, but on Thursday, Karen Russell was on campus and read from her work. At the beginning of the semester, I hand out a syllabus that includes dates and locations for readings throughout Columbia. The dates are subject to change, such as Colson Whitehead’s reading (due to a snowstorm), and I announce readings during our production meeting on Tuesdays. I don’t make it to every reading every week—who does?—but I do stay aware of which interns make it to the events.
The majority of my class made it to Russell’s reading. The room was packed: people stood along the back wall, extra rows of chairs were brought in, and people still had to sit in the aisles. There was even a group of people who drove in from Kansas City.
Russell was terrific. She read parts of her new novella, Sleep Donation, and her story “Reeling for the Empire” then took a few questions. She was intelligent and charming, particularly her anecdote about her sister wondering why sisters always died in Karen’s stories. The MU bookstore showed up (they don’t always do that) to sell copies of her book and if the line was any indication, they hustled a few copies out the door.
At readings, an author almost always has copies of her book for sale; often, this is ignored by the audience. Russell’s work is, of course, excellent, but most authors sell their books at readings based on the strength of their interaction with the audience. I’ve never seen an author sweat and stammer through a reading and then have two hundred listeners clamor to buy the book.
Publishing a book is no longer enough: the author too has to be part of the package, The Platform, willing to go out in public, give readings, make small talk, be friendly, be nice, etc. It’s exhausting. On Friday, Marilynne Robinson was at Mizzou. But her event was invitation only, kept small. Word is that she is a bit shy and doesn’t like doing public events. Which is her prerogative. Though, does she really need to do public events anymore if she doesn’t want to? So, then, why do them at all? And if you do them, and they are invitation only, doesn’t that make literature seem closed off, exclusive, elitist?
Just questions there, no concrete answers.
I’d prefer to keep my publishing class idealistic: we “publish the best work” and we do things only because “art is good.” But that wouldn’t prepare them for the work they have to do after they leave my class. Publishing, whether you are out front or in the back room, has all kinds of mundane facets that need to be recognized and taught. Knowing how it’s made doesn’t make bratwurst any less delicious.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
My sister used to have this grand idea that she would read all the books in the world when she was younger and my parents supported it (why wouldn’t they — their child wanted to read instead of watching endless cartoons), while I scoffed in her face. (If you can’t already tell, I’m the older sibling.) Reading all the books in the world meant that she had to read every book she laid her eyes on from cover to cover. I used to always think that she was ridiculous for continuing to read books she found boring or just plain bad, but it’s been several years since she’s grown out of that grand idea and now I’m not so sure I was right to scoff at her.
Let’s look at this from both sides, shall we? On the one hand, there isn’t enough time in the world for a person to read every single book ever written, even if all those books were conveniently housed in one super-duper library down the street. So why suffer through a book if you don’t like what you’re reading? Just pick up another one! I will admit though that I’ve done it before. For class (in which I was forced to continue reading) and sometimes just because I kept hoping that by the next chapter it would get better. And was I mad after finishing that terribly boring book that I followed through to the very end? Yes, sometimes I was, but there were also times when I felt a sense of accomplishment, especially if that book was considered a classic. I know that sounds somewhat haughty, but I’ve found that it’s usually nice to be able to contribute to a conversation about well-known books, even if you didn’t particularly like them.
For me it was Faulkner, more specifically, As I Lay Dying. (Was your mother really a fish?) But my favorite example would have to be Pride and Prejudice. I read the first two chapters as a homework assignment, and I immediately assumed that it was going to be a dreadful read because it was difficult to understand the style of writing. So I set it down until the next two chapters were assigned as homework again and by the fourth chapter I was hooked. The rest of my weekend (which just so happened to be the weekend that Valentine’s Day fell on) was consumed by finishing the book. If the next two chapters hadn’t been assigned as homework, I never would have picked the book back up, and what a shame that would have been. I shouldn’t have been so quick to judge the entire book based on the fact that it was somewhat of a challenging read. Since then I have reread the book two more times and now consider it to be one of my favorites.
Sometimes reading a bad book is worth it. Sometimes, that bad book sticks with you days after you’ve finished reading it and you realize that the bad book has actually made you think about things differently and possibly even see things in a new light. Take, for example, literary magazines. Now before you freak out I am not saying that the writing in literary magazines is bad. I love the stories and essays they publish (most of the time). But my 10-year-old self probably wouldn’t have made it past the table of contents of The Missouri Review. My tastes in writing evolve as I grow older, and I hope they continue to do so. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll pick up As I Lay Dying again find it impossible to put down.
I’ve found that although most literary magazines have a different style and feel, most of them publish well-crafted stories that really make you think. And isn’t that the whole point of reading — to reflect on the various aspects of your life and the world around you? I guess what I’m trying to say is, although you may have been clawing your eyes out while reading that terrible book, you still might learn something in the end. Thus, I challenge you, whoever you may be, to take up the gauntlet for my sister and read every book you can get your hands on!
Welcome back to our many part series where we share narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either. If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. A physical mailing address can also be provided.
Today’s Writer is Eric Boyd.
Grace in Suffering
What I did I wouldn’t call criminal, just stupid. Even my judge, after so many court appointments, didn’t understand what had happened. And there’s a reason I got out on illegal sentencing but, either way, I paid the better part of a year for it all. I don’t want to tell you about that that, though. I want to talk about what it means to write from jail, get rewarded for it, and end up better off than than before any it ever happened. I’ll tell you about that now.
Starting out. The end of 2008. I was homeless for a couple weeks, sleeping in the crawl-space of an art gallery, working six days a week at a multiplex where I often washed my hair in a utility sink. Eventually I got my own place, with a roommate, and that didn’t work out so well, which is why I ended up in the Allegheny County Jail from May of 2010 to February of ‘11. That last part was hell. But let’s be honest, things weren’t so hot before that anyhow.
A few months into my stint I joined a writing program that met once a week, Friday mornings. A few classes in, it became obvious there was a knack. I hadn’t written that many stories, but the men seemed to sit up when I shared my work. This wasn’t in my head, either—my teacher, the incomparable Sandra Ford, had actually alerted me to this.
“Eric,” she’d said, “you’re a born writer.”
And I think I had some smartass remark to that, but her point was made. If I could write stories which gripped some of the meanest, toughest, kindest bastards I’d ever met, then I could write. I would write.
Before jail, I’d let myself slip. I paid my rent and sat around and didn’t do much of anything. Life had beat me. After I was initially arrested I tried to get back into it, but found myself lacking. The worries pile on. Rent, bills, work, food, laundry, school loans. I had resigned myself to a series of banal risks—drinking on the job and watching porn at the local library—and my existence was as pointless as a greased door jamb.
But writing at the jail, I was free. It felt good, and easy, and seemed like something I could keep doing. For me, the kicker came when Mary Karr visited the ACJ. It was a well-publicized event: she had a lecture at the Carnegie Library Hall, over $100 a head for the better tickets, but the morning before, she was at the local jail for nothing. A lot of us laughed over that, especially me because I listened to the classical station on my radio and heard them, for a week, hocking VIP tickets to her lecture for high-price donations.
After Mary’s talk with us, which wasn’t bad but did find her grasping for more connection between us than there really was (‘I spent a couple days in a mental institution’ was the gist of her most egregious reach), a lot of the men and ladies lined up to speak to Mary personally. I made sure to be the last in line. Once I got to her, I introduced myself and asked if I could recite a short poem. She said sure, and I did. It wasn’t much, but she smiled and told me “I had it” and to “keep going.” Less than thirty minutes earlier she’d been telling us how she got a $1,000,000 advance for her latest book, and she was telling me to keep going. It’s easy to romanticize these things and it is even easier to dismiss them, but when I actually that day factually, it still amazes me.
One day Sandra was teaching us about formatting, a weak point for me, and she showed us a book. The PEN Prison-writing handguide. A lot of us didn’t even have the slightest idea of where to place, commas. Sandra had us all copy down an address to write for a free copy of the handguide. The price was right, so I hurried and sent off for my copy right away. Plus, at the time, I wanted to get the handguide as soon as possible because it seemed useful, but I knew I would be getting out of jail almost any day. A couple months later I received the handguide and used it for a few more. On the back of the book there was information about PEN’s annual Prison-writing contest. It said that anyone could submit work within the year of their incarceration. I began working straight away; I dedicated so much time to my pieces that I ended up getting out of jail before I could mail them.
Just before the PEN contest’s deadline, in August or so, I sent my pieces in. I promptly received a rejection letter from them saying that, because I was not currently in jail, I could not submit. My heart was broken. That is barely a metaphor. I believe I felt something in my chest bend and crack when I read that letter. Then something else happened inside. Something which happens to every inmate, I’m sure. I got angry. For PEN, I had sent stories and poetry which revealed something. I had undressed my soul for them, and they flat-out said no to me. That pissed me off beyond belief. I knew what I and my work were worth.
An inmate learns to put their guard up at moments like this. In the ‘real world’ it would perhaps be closest to a You can’t fire me because I quit situation. I worked myself up for days. I had pined over my submissions. Even just the actual act of sending them off was a task. I bought a manilla envelope, spent over twenty dollars printing everything out at the local library, attached the sheets with paper clips because I’d read a lot of folks didn’t like staples; I went to the post office to mail them. I took no chances. In my head I stewed over all this. Should I write them back? Why? Why bother? Because they were wrong, that’s why.
I read the back of that handguide a hundred times. I could submit within the year of my incarceration. I had done just that. I’d been in jail for two months of 2011, and I was submitting my work that Fall. I waited, sure. Tinkered and edited to the best of my abilities at the time. I tried. Really hard. Finally, I rejected their rejection.
I wrote back, quoting their handguide and really fighting the good fight because, shit, who else was going to? Nobody else was gonna speak up for the merits of some loser jailbird’s ramblings. I sent my letter and waited.
A week later I got a response saying that I was correct, that my work could still be considered for the contest. The response then said, in no uncertain terms, that I did not have to resend my work. They still had it, no worries.
“Bullshit,” I remember saying out loud at that one. I was instantly cynical to the whole thing. I didn’t need to resend my work because they’d already made up their minds and thrown it away. That was obvious to me. It was rotting in a landfill. What could I say about it? Nothing. If they never got back to me about my pieces, they’d just say it was because I hadn’t won. Easy. I crumpled up that response and had enough fire in my belly to start writing even more.
I have always been a person who enjoys pressure. I thrive in it. I like arguments, deadlines, and challenges. In jail I was only in one scrap. I remember my cellmate at the time (great guy, read a lot of Rimbaud) asking me where I had been when the fight started. I said I was in the cell, against the bunks.
He smiled. “So you weren’t standing by the door?”
“That says a lot. You weren’t afraid. You wanted to fight.”
“Well I didn’t start it.”
“But you weren’t scared of it either.”
I think about that a lot. Being an ex-con is the most impossible challenge imaginable. The ‘re-entry’ programs. The drug tests and mental exams. The probation officers who oversee it all and pile on more whenever they’re having a bad day. It took me over a year, after being released from jail, to find a job (which didn’t run background checks, of course). I remember having an interview with a uniform wholesaler. He ran one of the most successful private uniform sales businesses in the country and that meant something to him for whatever reason. He was a big man with wide shoulders. During our interview he was wearing a collared shirt half unbuttoned, revealing gray chesthairs and a gold chain. The entire time we spoke I tried as hard as possible not to look into his glistening, proud ape eyes.
“Well everything seems alright. You’ll pass a background check, right?”
I told him everything. He put his head down, then looked at me and grinned.
“So you really need this job, huh?”
I nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“I mean, not a lot of places are going to hire you. Probably nobody, really. You’re a felon.” He said the word as if there was scum stuck on his tongue and he needed to remove it. I explained that I wouldn’t be any trouble, that he could even make some money by hiring me, with those federal bonds the government gives out as insurance protection when employing ex-cons. He waved his hand off at that.
“Oh yeah, the insurance. That’s a good point. It’d be through the roof!” He laughed. “But maybe it’d be worth it because, let’s face it, you’d be a good worker. A great worker.”
I began to feel red.
“I mean, you’d do anything I said. You just applied to work in my warehouse, but I’m sure you’d do anything like, for instance, if I told you to scrub my toilets. You’d do it! You’d have to!”
I thought of many things and finally settled my mind on my rent. “Yes… I can do whatever you need.”
“Well, I don’t need you. Sorry. Too much hassle.”
That night, I did not sleep. I felt sick because he really thought he was right. And he had no reason not to feel that way. In jail I was a Doc number and out of jail, now, I was an insurance risk. Numbers. They always took your soul away with numbers first. He became one of many people I decided to prove wrong. But I still needed a job. The next morning I called the man back. I told him that he was right about everything he’d said, that I really needed the break and that I could do anything he asked. He hung up on me.
Eventually I’d find a job, at a little Thai restaurant, but I still wasn’t fulfilled. Something was still missing; it was the writing that I needed. I’d started sending work out like mad, but got nowhere. Almost as long as it took to get the day job, it was several months before I had any stories accepted into even the smallest blog zines. But I stuck with it. I kept on. By the end of 2011 I had pieces in about a dozen places. It was great.
One day the next March, a letter came from PEN. I tore into the thing and it was there: the forgotten dream, the thing I’d left behind. “Congratulations!” Second place, fiction. A check for $100 would be received shortly after. Unbelievable.
A few months later I was reading my winning work at the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan, the first time I’d ever been to the city. I had been informed, by newsletter, that PEN was having a reading of the contest’s winning works, but I was not a part of the program. I immediately began nagging various people until it was agreed that I could travel up from Pittsburgh and read my own story. The piece, originally over 3000 words, was trimmed down to a few hundred, and while everyone else on the program was reading several pieces, I was only responsible for my own. I understood. I was nobody and I would likely make a fool of myself. But the pressure of the evening took its usual toll on me and I gave a good reading. I was asked to read the final selection of the night.
Encouraged by the response of the reading (Nick Flynn gave me a piece of gum and asked me how long I’d been writing, because ‘it took longer than a few months to do that…’), I went back to New York a week later for an unrelated PEN event. There, a slew of people remembered me and I got handshakes, cards, etc. One person in particular, a man named Jackson Taylor, was insistent on speaking with me, but I had to leave the event early. A buddy of mine had helped me get to the place, and they were leaving. I knew nothing of the subway system and had no choice but to go.
That night, waiting for our train, Taylor came down the steps, I think with a woman in an eyepatch, and into the station.
“Eric, we meet again!” He said excitedly. “Where are you going?”
“When’s your bus?”
“3.” AM. It wasn’t even 10pm yet.
“Well, I’ll get you there, if that’s okay? I really did want to talk to you.”
We ended up at a diner in Chelsea. Jackson introduced me to the host at the joint, a small latin man. “This is Eric Boyd, from Pittsburgh.”
“Oh! Steeeelers, right?”
We talked about writing. Jackson seemed to see something. I still don’t know what. Finally he told me he was starting an MFA program, that the first wave of students were currently applying and that classes would be starting the next Fall. He told me to consider applying. I informed him that I didn’t have an undergrad degree; he said he’d talk to the dean at the college and get me in. We took a cab to the Greyhound station and I was dropped off without even knowing that Jackson was the head of the PEN Prison Writing program.
So now I’m in school at the Writer’s Foundry MFA in Brooklyn. I have a life going in Pittsburgh and, anyway, most of my stories are set in and around this town; I like it. However, that’s meant I have to travel in and out of NYC every week. I take the Megabus into Manhattan on Tuesday morning and leave on Wednesday night. If I get tickets far enough in advance, it’s pretty cheap. People ask me how I deal with such a commute. I say that I’ll let them know when I start to deal with it: I pop Zzzquils like they’re tic-tacs. It’s not so bad. Plus, it means a lot to me to make the trip up to the city, attend the classes. With that and the writing and everything else, I have been trying to prove the fuckers wrong—the ones that wrote me off, called me a loser. The ones that said my life was over. To hell with that. As I fought for my stories in the PEN contest, I now fight for my soul’s worth. School has helped in that regard.
I have no interest in retreating from my past. I want to hold it in my fists and move forward with it. I want to help the men and the ladies as much as I can. I want to be back there because, before jail, I was a college dropout without any hopes, making $7.25 an hour at a shit job. Now I make $8.25 at a different shit job, but I’m on my way to a graduate degree, possibly to teach at the very jail I was housed in, while writing short stories that mean something to me. There are no words to express that mix of humbling awe and terrified excitement. Sometimes I think about all of that and it melts down over me like some great majestic light.
A lot of this probably sounded boastful. Truthfully, I left many things out where it would just sound like I was bragging. And it’s easy for me to talk about this now. It’s easy to act like a tough guy who’s had more luck than most. But remember, an inmate always puts their guard up. My girl, she says I put a few years on my face while I was in jail; she jokes that she misses the old me, but it is only half-joking. I know she is telling the truth because, like any other inmate, I always have my guard up, even when I don’t need to. So I’ll say now that I’ve spent more nights weeping in the dark than I care to count off. I have nearly broken both of my hands while bashing them against the walls (so badly, in fact, that I had to buy myself a punching bag). And I have hidden so much away that sometimes I barely remember who I was before any of this happened. There are question marks branded into my soul; I look in the mirror and see someone else. Can you possibly understand that? Maybe I could explain it better. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll tell you about it someday.
Eric Boyd is a short story writer living in Pittsburgh while attending the Writer’s Foundry MFA in Brooklyn. In 2012 Boyd won the PEN Prison Writing Contest. He is an advising editor for theNewerYork, an experimental lit zine. His own stories have been featured in several places including Guernica, Dead Beats, and Nanoism, as well as a story in Akashic Books’ upcoming “Prison Noir” anthology, edited by Joyce Carol Oates; next year he will will be featured in Chatham University/Trinity University Press’ anthology, “Make Mine Words”, featuring work by Oates, Denis Johnson, Tim O’Brien, and Jamaica Kincaid. Boyd is currently working on a short story collection about the avenues of Homestead, PA.
Last week, my class talked with Cheston Knapp, the managing editor of Tin House. One of the only downsides of these Skype conversations is that the room gets incredibly hot. What we do is Skype through my laptop and hook it up to a projector, which puts the image of our out-of-town editor on a large pulldown presentation screen so that my class can see the editor. I crank the volume on the speakers up, and everyone in the room can hear and see the editor just fine. The editor, unfortunately, only gets my American Bulldog in a Tie face on the monitor rather than the entire class (after the first thirty minutes, students sit down in front of the monitor to ask their questions), so it’s not perfect, but it always goes pretty well nonetheless.
Anyway, if you’ve been reading my Internship in Publishing blog this year, you know the drill by now: because I ask the editors to speak candidly about their publishing work, I’m not going to divulge too much of what they say here. But there is one really important thing that Cheston shared that I want to talk about: his career path.
Cheston’s route to Tin House was a bit accidental. He graduated from William & Mary in 2004, stayed in Virginia for a year, then moved to Portland because he had a “oh, why not?” thought, and started interning at Tin House. None of this is a trade secret—a quick Google search will tell you this—but Cheston went into more detail about the How.
My path to TMR was a similar bit of organized confusion, one that I’ve written about in this space before. With it now being April, and the semester coming to a close, and graduation right around the corner for some of my students, this has been on my mind quite a bit. Like me, Cheston had a general idea of, somehow, writing, got more involved in publishing, and stayed with it, not because he’s climbing a career path, but because it seemed like fun, so, hey, why not?
A large part of the Internship in Publishing class is mentorship. Of course, there is is the work: reading manuscripts, walking through the stages of production of the magazine, etc. But an internship is, by definition, supposed to be on-the-job training in your field: what direction do I want my students to go? Writing, editing, and publishing (as much as these three fields can be separated) can be, though not necessarily, very different paths.
Most career advice seems to be “This is what I did, so you should too!” I took three years off between undergraduate and graduate school, so I think my students should, too. I earned an MFA, so a writer should earn an MFA. I didn’t plan on working for a literary magazine, so my students shouldn’t plan too either. Of course, there is the idea that the best advice is to not give any (that’s deep, yo!), but even implicitly, I think that how I got to TMR often seems to be an endorsement of that plan. And, more than once, I wonder if this is terrible advice for my students.
In all things writing related, the last fifteen years has been chaotic. Perhaps it is always this way. The new century has seen a massive shift toward big publishing consolidation, the rise of digital publishing and the alt-lit scene. MFA programs are now a bubble, like technology in 2001 and housing in 2008. And my students are more knowledgeable and sophisticated about these changes than I had been when I was leaving college.
No one does it your way. Not that they shouldn’t or won’t try to. There are probably some general wise moves to make—don’t piss everyone off, write more than once a month, read some books, and so forth—there isn’t one correct way to get wherever it is you’d like to end up. The lack of set rules may be a bit terrifying, especially those first steps in any given direction outside of school. But they’re crucial steps. This really just boils down to accepting risk. The world doesn’t have an outstanding road map for a young writer, but when you’re fully engaged in your own work, you’re always going to be able to make your mark. It’s nothing to fear, especially when taking a few steps off the beaten path is, always, inevitable.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
So, you’re picking up one of your favorite literary figures (poetry or prose, living or dead) from the airport before taking them to dinner and conducting an interview. You’re a huge fan and you’re super excited about the assignment, but also a bit nervous. Relax. The main thing you need to be concerned with is having a kickass playlist going on the tape deck when you roll up to the terminal and I’m here to help. I offer no guarantees, but with some deductive reasoning, digital crate digging, and intuition I think we can manage something that leaves everyone comfortable, happy, and bobbing their heads.
Below is a 12 track set that I think should get you from the airport and back again with some stops in between. You can play it in sequence, but it will work on mix-mode as well (this might even be better). The important thing is to have it already playing when you pick them up and to not discuss it at all unless they bring it up first. Basically, play it cool and act like you’ve been there before. I can in no way guarantee that they’ll actually dig this, but I have my hopes. Worst case scenario, just have NPR locked in as station preset 1 in case things get desperate. Best of luck!
Your passenger this week is Margaret Atwood, Booker Prize winning novelist/poet/critic/essayist/activist Margaret Atwood. Buckle up. She’s been slam dunking all over the page for decades, consistently wowing & challenging us with her explorations of power, survival, gender, the environment, politics, science, & her home country of Canada (to name only a few). Here we go.
1. Prince – The Future
Prince’s soundtrack album for Burton’s first Batman went to #1 and featured some of his most radio-friendly work between Purple Rain and the name change. Still, relative to his other hits of the era these don’t get heard much anymore. We should all work to change that. The lyrics fear a future not too far from some of Atwood’s speculative fiction but even more importantly you might get a chance to talk about her Jungian breakdown of Gotham’s finest.
2. Junior Boys – Work
Etching away/ ‘til the end of the day… with 14 novels, 15+ books of poetry, essay collections, literary criticism, librettos, children’s books and more to her credit Margaret Atwood understands WORK. No better song to cruise to while plotting your next project. You’re going to have the urge to floor it at 3:47, only do so if it’s safe. BONUS POINTS: Junior Boys = Canadian.
3. James Newton Howard – Those We Don’t Speak Of (Ft. Hilary Hahn)
M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village is a way less awful movie than people give it credit for. A big part of the reason for that is the score by James Newton Howard. Even without the film’s secretive ruling society, permeating sense of dread, and fight for survival through the wilderness (all prime Atwood territory) the track’ brooding first half followed by Hahn’s brilliant violin make for some cinematic driving…especially if you can find a creepy wood-lined 2 lane road.
4. Joanna Newsom – Sawdust & Diamonds
You ever played air harp alone in your room in front of a darkened mirror? Don’t worry, you will. Get ready to be emotionally invested because this cut won’t let you have it otherwise. Does your car have a moonroof?
5. Verve – Neon Wilderness
A lot of towels have been wedged under a lot of dorm room doors as this song played. There’s a reason. After Bittersweet Symphony kicks the door in this song lurks in Urban Hymns’ middle section just waiting to taxi you off to Xanadu. It’s the perfect companion for a lull in conversation one come along. Relax, it’s part of the normal ebb of conversation. Especially avoid trying to bridge this to Wilderness Tips in discussion.
6. Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir - Erghen Diado
I’ve been listening to this song for years and I still have no idea what they’re singing about but damn if it doesn’t sound urgent & beautiful. The vocal gymnastics are ridiculous and this would probably fly if done totally a cappella but the drum beat really puts it over as a go-to highway track. Crank this.
7. Philip Glass - La Passion D’Avenant (La Belle et la Bête, opera)
Singing teapot my ass. This is where it’s at if you want music for a big screen Beauty & The Beast movie adaptation. Almost 50 years after Jean Cocteau dropped his gem Philip Glass composed an opera to accompany it. The libretto consists of the movie’s dialogue and if you grab the Criterion Collection version on DVD you can watch the film synced to the opera (recommended). This one’s kind of a heartbreaker (made weird by the fact that it’s the lament of Belle’s douchey jilted human suitor). As a librettist herself I think Atwood might dig this one.
8. Student Body Presents – Rush Hour
This is the only “rush hour” I ever want to have anything to do with while driving. If you however happen to find yourself mired in the real thing on your journey from the airport this might help to ease some of the violent impulses. The production is as laid-back as can be (I’m shocked it hasn’t ended up on one of thoseLateNightTales post-club chillout compilations) and the vocals… Well let’s just say I’ve heard way too muchDiamanda Galas in my day and these are some of the most bizarre vocals I can recall. Is it slam poetry? Modern jazz scatting? An ever-so-slightly deranged woman reading passages from her dirary? Whatever the case they’ll draw you in for repeated listens.
9. Newcleus – Automan
Simply the best electro song ever recorded about a doomed android/human relationship. I don’t know how to breakdance, you probably don’t either. But I dare you to try and not make at least an attempt while listening to this (hands on the wheel!). You might be an unwitting replicant if you don’t like this, but I believe it touches on some of Atwood’s major technological/futuristic concerns, so it has that going for it too. Enjoy.
10. Iron Maiden - Rime of The Ancient Mariner
It’s a risk I’m taking. Atwood’s inclusion of Metallica on this short playlist that she curated shows she appreciates classic metal acts. And it doesn’t get much more classic than this 13 minute stunner off of Powerslave. Incorporating actual verses from the Coleridge classic this album closer goes through several shifts and mood changes that will have you guys both fist pumping into the roof of the car and crooning along with Bruce Dickinson about the sad fate of those who’d dare flout nature’s majesty.
11. Michael Nyman – The Other Side
In Oryx And Crake Atwood explored the possibilities and dangers (to say the least) of genetic engineering. 1997’s Gattaca remains the most elegant, grounded and human U.S. film to tread that same ground. Ethan Hawke’s resolve, Jude Law’s remove, a flawless script and some spot on production design (seriously, it’s like Apple got asked to make a mock-up of the “not-too-distant-future” in their own image) all make the movie a landmark of onscreen speculative fiction. But you might remember Michael Nyman’s score most of all which is fairly remarkable in that it manages to be so notable while perfectly complementing the movie, rather than obscuring it. Here we have probably the most memorable individual track and you might need some tissues whether you’re familiar with Gore Vidal’s best acting role or not.
12. Joni Mitchell – Woodstock
The concert was almost 50 years ago, but this song hasn’t lost a step. CSNY’s version was a bigger hit and powerful in its own right but I’ll take Mitchell’s version any day. Mitchell and Atwood might have well crossed paths at the open mics of the Bohemian Embassy cafe in Toronto back in the 60s. Regardless, their work still overlaps in its perceptiveness about what humanity stands to lose if we keep racing down some of our more wayward roads.
One of my favorite parts of the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference is always the generous armloads of swag I get to come home with afterwards: literary journals, magnets, mini notebook pads, pens, fortune cookies and saltwater taffy, and, of course, books of poetry. While at AWP14 in Seattle, I perused the enormous book fair for the most exciting new poetry books of 2014. Some books were long-anticipated and some were surprises, and I have been savoring them all in the weeks since I’ve returned to Missouri.
In no particular order—and in honor of the first week of National Poetry Month—here are the top five books I brought home from AWP14:
1. Seam by Tarfia Faizullah, Southern Illinois University Press
Winner of the 2012 Crab Orchard Award Series in Poetry contest, Seam is described by US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey as “a beautiful and necessary book” with a “brave and unflinching vision.” Its driving force is outlined in the epigraph of the powerful first poem, “1971”:
On March 26, 1971, West Pakistan launched a military operation in East Pakistan against Bengali civilians, students, intelligentsia, and armed personnel who were demanding separation of the East from the West. The war resulted in a secession of East Pakistan, which became the independent nation of Bangladesh. According to Bangladeshi sources, two hundred thousand women were raped, and over 3 million people were killed.
In her fierce and courageous debut, Faizullah intertwines words from the birangona women themselves (a Bangladeshi word that is translated as “war heroines,” although they were usually ostracized from their families and communities) and the speaker’s own coming to terms with how “the country of her birth/ became a veined geography inside// you, another body inside your own.”
The bravery and vulnerability of this stunning first collection took my breath away as the speaker asserts in the poem “The Interviewer Acknowledges Grief”: “Because you/ can’t reassure me I have/ the right to ask anything// of women whose bodies won’t/ ever again be their own.” Seam ends, though, with a line of hope: “The moon filled the dust-polluted sky: a ripe, unsheathed/ lychee. It wasn’t enough light to see clearly by, but I still turned/ my face toward it.” I am excited to read more from this poet who is steadfast in her search for the truth even in the most unimaginably dark places.
You can read an interview with Faizullah about Seam at The Paris Review.
2. Thieves in the Afterlife by Kendra DeColo, Saturnalia Books
Chosen by Yusef Komunyakaa for the 2013 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, each poem in this debut collection fizzles and crackles with such energy you expect the book to burst into flames in your hands. It exposes a world that “belongs to the panty-less/ and unshaved” “where the road was a ripped/ vein and the night bled oil/ and the bodies swallowed up/ in the green music.” DeColo employs a language you can sink your teeth into, full of sex and grit and color, of “what is too precious/ to be said aloud,/ what is so beautiful it’s a sin.”
More than that, though, I read Thieves in the Afterlife as a lush, unabashed ode to female desire, pushing the boundaries of what women are allowed to say. The book opens with the first poem, “Anthem,” that begins with the words “I Heart Pussy,” and ends with the yearning “to love myself/ the way a match combusts// in a pocket.” And yet, the speaker knows that it’s not enough to simply voice this longing in a world where female desire is still considered taboo. The emotional heart of this book rings out in the lines: “It’s not enough to save a body/ from darkness but teach one to shine.”
You can check out Kendra DeColo and more of her work on her website.
3. The Tulip-Flame by Chloe Honum, Cleveland State University Poetry Center
I loved this book. I loved these poems. Not just appreciated, admired, and were inspired by them, but loved. Shrouded in mist, set in an eternal spring where moths collide with throats and ballerinas never turn around, they pay homage to beauty amidst the overwhelming sensations of grief and loss. Even as these poems meditate on melancholy and sorrow, they expose a world that glimmers with unexpected musicality. The speaker’s senses here are so sharp, so finely tuned, nothing is ever what it seems. A house becomes “a wet coat/ we couldn’t put back on,” an absence of voice, “a bowl/ of very still water,” the pinch of hunger “a balloon tied to your wrist,” birds “white scarves in the wind,” “wet handkerchiefs,” “their wings turning like oars.”
Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith writes in the introduction to Honum’s book, which won the 2013 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize, “Like a dancer, or like a dance, The Tulip-Flame is expertly wrought, built upon muscle and instinct and crafted into something that feels effortless and spontaneous.” This is a book I know I will return to again and again for comfort, beauty, music, and inspiration.
4. Abide by Jake Adam York, Southern Illinois University Press
What can I say about York’s final book, published posthumously a little over a year after his untimely death, that will do justice to its brilliance, beauty, and bravery? I didn’t know if anything could top Persons Unknown, which was my previous favorite of his books, but in Abide I felt the full weight and emotional resonance of York’s life and work, and it left me breathless. Did this book mean so much to me because I could feel the tragedy of his death pressing on it? Absolutely. Is this a fair critique? I don’t know. All I know for now is that I’m not done being amazed by this collection. So, instead, I’ll just leave you with the title poem from Abide, a book with a glowing white cover where the rest were black, and a book that’s filled with elegies, the blues, and the powerful work of one man’s life:
Forgive me if I forget
with the birdsong and the day’s
last glow folding into the hands
of the trees, forgive me the few
syllables of the autumn crickets,
the year’s last firefly winking
like a penny in the shoulder’s weeds,
if I forget the hour, if I forget
the day as the evening star
pours out its whiskey over the gravel
and asphalt I’ve walked
for years alone, if I startle
when you put your hand in mine,
if I wonder how long your light
has taken to reach me here.
5. The Keys to the Jail by Keetje Kuipers, BOA Editions
I’ll be the first to admit—I totally fan-girled over Keetje Kuipers after her University of Oregon alumni reading at AWP. I discovered Kuipers’ work back in 2011 when I stumbled on one of her poems on Verse Daily, and her first book, Beautiful in the Mouth, has remained one of my favorite contemporary poetry books ever. Needless to say, I was ecstatic to devour her second collection, The Keys to the Jail, also out with BOA Editions.
Elyse Fenton writes of Kuipers’ second collection, “These poems are not afraid to feel, not afraid of desire or beauty or the inevitability of their respective undoings.” In an age where everything feels like it’s layered under fifty cloaks of irony, Kuipers’ poems to me have always felt like the real deal. They take place in the actual world; they have their feet firmly planted on the ground. Kuipers’ work has meant so much to me for this reason and more—she doesn’t gussy up heartache but looks at it straight-on with fear, sure, but fear that is recognized and whole. She is a poet, first and foremost, of the heart.
The poems in The Keys to the Jail are wolf-strong, rooted in “the cold hassocks of snow-filled grasses” that elk leave behind, in the place where “The ocean is a fist, inside of which I/ am allowed to be heartbroken,” where along the road semis “make the dead/ bird’s feathers fly again, the deer’s town// leap from the gravel of the road.” They inhabit a place where, ultimately, the speaker, with all her full-hearted desires and flaws, “know[s]/ who you are, and goodbye (goodbye!) is forever.”
You can check out more about Kuipers and her website here.
I hope you check out these five fine books of poetry and enjoy them as much as I did. Happy reading!