Saturday, October 12, 2013

This blog is now inactive. New website!

Hey readers, if you're out there (this feels a little like the communications sent deep into the universe from the SETI institute in search of extraterrestrial beings).

I've finally created a website that I'm much more inspired to update. It has the snazzy url of

Lit Matters started as a lark years ago. It was simply a way for me to record my ideas about the books I read and random topics associated with writing and creativity. I was always so touched that anyone read anything I wrote, and because enough people did, I felt like I had to do some renovation. This Blogger blog just started to feel as if I was texting with a cell phone from 1999.

I hope you enjoy me in my new environs. So long now, and I hope you say hello again at the new site.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Viking Helmets and Writing

Let's just say I've been delinquent in writing this blog. Horribly delinquent. My excuse is that I've been so dang busy with work and family and 100 Word Story and my fiction writing, but I hate excuses. (Technique to make excuses: list all of the excuses, and then stridently declare that you're not a person who believes in excuses).

To kick off a new era of blogging, I'm pledging to simply plunge in and try to write posts that are less comprehensive. The urge to be thorough and polished holds back commentary, and commentary is what matters in a space like this.

For example, I've read so many books that I wished I would have written about, but I was dogged by my big theories that demanded hours and hours of probing. Roland Barthes' A Lover's Discourse. Teju Coles' Open City. Meg Pokrass's Damn Sure Right. I'll try to write about them.

I've also had so many thoughts about writing and publishing, whether via attending Book Expo America last month or chatting with self-publishing sensations like Hugh Howey. From now on, even if it's just a quick paragraph or two, I think it's worth recording such things.

So, I'll start the new era with a photo. I was happy to be photographed in what might seem like a goofy viking helmet, but one that has symbolic moxie. It was part of an interview I did with the San Francisco State alumni mag on National Novel Writing Month.

I like to think it's a good thing to not take oneself too seriously as a writer. I also like to think it's always good to be prepared to do battle, or go on an adventure (and have plenty of caffeine at the ready just in case).

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Day with Jim Carroll: Love Poem as Fix, Grace, Reconciliation

A junkie’s world is inherently riven. The paradise of a high, akin to being in the Garden of Eden, cracks into the schism of banishment, a reeling back to the real world, where one’s fancy suddenly finds little or no reciprocation, little or no tenderness.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been mulling over one of my favorite poems by Jim Carroll, a noted junkie poet. Junkie writers are perhaps best suited to capture the terrifying disjointedness of the world simply because of their own extreme rises and falls, and many, like Carroll, write with a mystical yearning that imbues their vision with sacredness.

Carroll’s poem, an untitled poem that is printed below, can easily be read as nothing more than a tender day’s drift through a lover’s thoughts as he travels through New York City separated from his love. But I think it’s much more than that. The poem hinges on subtle paradox, resides in the complications of absence—and most importantly, attempts grace.

Grace is the key word here. Carroll quests to solve the irreconcilable, the state that defines us in our severance from God, love, or junk (pick your savior), by wending his way—if only momentarily—toward reconciliation. Could reconciliation, no matter its form, be the definition of grace?

The poem follows a meandering, dreamy rhythm. Carroll’s lover goes “west on 8th St.” to “buy something mystical to wear,” and he says he will “simply tuck my hands into my corduroy pockets / and whistle over to Carter’s for the poster he promised me.”

Except simply is misleading, a guise. The lovers survive “like a wet street in August,” imperiled as they move apart because love so easily evaporates with time and distance. The bus he travels on is “terrified by easter”—a lower case Easter, marking a different kind of holiness, a secular sort of rebirth that might be the rebirth of their own love.

Why is rebirth feared, though? As any lover who has lost love knows, the rebirth of love is terrifying—no matter how one might yearn for it—if only because rebirth won’t bring back the Garden of Eden that existed in that initial, wondrous love. In rebirth, a new creature is born, one that holds the strange coexistence of two worlds in troubling paradoxes.

Just as a junkie’s most blissful high always ends, in the dark aftermath of departed love a lover seems to have only two choices: find a way to accept the rather flat state of the world, or get high—find another love. Neither option seems particularly good, though, if your first love possesses what seems like the holy. In this poem, Carroll tries to preserve the holy because it’s the only way he can maintain a state of grace—to nurture the whole of love even when half of it is gone.

“All the while my mind’s leaning on you,” he says as he rhapsodizes about leaning on her below “some statue in Central Park / in the lion house at the Bronx Zoo on a bed in Forest Hills.” The day is “confetti like,” celebratory, but the scraps of paper easily blown about by the wind point to his lover’s absence, or rather, a presence that is dissipating, scattered. “Movie schedules” sustain his isolation; he exists more and more in a world of dreams.

When he finally sees her, he sees her “in the wind of Astor Place reading.” She’s a creature of breezes now, gone. The poem is his effort to keep the goodness of her close, though, to find a way to reconcile this horrible absence.

Junkies live in the moment, and the only planning comes from looking for the next score. In similar fashion, Carroll embraces the fondness of memory, the warmth of a love, as a similar drug. To accomplish this, though, he must think of his love thinking of him, no matter how unlikely that might be, just as the world doesn’t reciprocate a junkie’s high. She’s probably more preoccupied by the “mystical dress” she’s buying, her own life in the city, the separate bus she’s on.

Carroll, raised a Catholic and never able to truly shed his religion, writes with a sense of glory toward something not present. Atheists often find different ways to pray to a lost God. Carroll has been banished from a Garden of Eden, but he travels with the beauty of the memory of it. A different kind of grace, one that God can’t grant, one that drugs can’t grant. Yet in this beautiful leaning toward his absent love, Carroll defines grace simply because he keeps giving to one who’s gone.

Grace, in the end, can't be granted, not even by a God. We have to create our own grace.

Here’s the poem.

We are very much a part of the boredom
of early Spring of planning the days shopping
of riding down Fifth on a bus terrified by easter.

but here we are anyway, surviving like a wet street in August
and keeping our eye on each other as we “do it,” well
you do west on 8th St. and buy something mystical to wear
and I’ll simply tuck my hands into my corduroy pockets
and whistle over to Carter’s for the poster he promised me.

I like the idea of leaving you for a while
knowing I’ll see you again while boring books
W.H. Auden, and movie schedules sustain my isolation
and all the while my mind’s leaning on you like my body
would like to lean on you below some statue in Central Park
in the lion house at the Bronx Zoo on a bed in Forest Hills on a

I reach 3rd avenue, its blue traffic, I knew I would sooner
or later and there you are in the wind of Astor Place reading
a book and breathing in the air every few seconds
                                                                         you’re so consistent.

Isn’t the day so confetti-like? pieces of warm flesh tickling
my face on St. Mark’s Place and my heart pounding like a negro
while depth is approaching everywhere in the sky and in your

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Francesca Woodman: Model Upside Down on the Stairs

I’d never written a story to a photo before a friend and I swapped photos for a 100-word story exercise a couple years ago. She gave me a photo by Francesca Woodman. I didn’t know who Francesca Woodman was. The photo was about as arresting and disturbing as a photo can be: a beautiful nude woman, blurry and abandoned, sprawled upside down on a stairway that has a cracked mirror at the bottom.

My story was very literally titled “Model Upside Down on the Stairs.” The photo overwhelmed the story, of course, although I managed to recently publish it in PANK, which just published an interview with me about the story as well.

The model in the photo is elegant and poised, yet doomed and falling, and contorted in a way that begs the question of what has happened to her, how has she lost herself. It’s a photo that demanded a story, simply because of its irreconcilable contradictions, which was why I was surprised when I went to the Francesca Woodman exhibit at SF MOMA last December and read on a placard that Woodman wasn’t a narrative photographer.

I jotted down my rebuttal to that notion as I studied her haunting excavations of self. She took most of her photos in a rundown apartment house while at the Rhode Island School of Design, posing nude with broken mirrors and crumbling walls in a style reminiscent of 19th century spirit photography, her photos playful but taunting, erotic but not quite erotic, a self blurred but wanting to be seen. Unfortunately, I lost that notebook, but my conclusion was that her photos told a quite courageous and troubling narrative. She’s the type of artist brave enough to empty her innards yet remain inscrutable at the same time.

She killed herself at the age of 22 in 1981. A friend of mine posited that she was sexually abused. Many photos certainly hint at that, perhaps especially the one of the black, muddy handprints on her breasts and her crotch. And then there is a series called “Charlie the Model,” one of few that includes a man. In one picture he kneels naked next to a mirror while Woodman stands, also nude, behind him. She is blurred, as if she's violently recoiling from him, affronted and afraid of his sexuality.

Some photos appear innocent by contrast, however. She revels in the play of self, embracing the angelic and the demonic, the naïf and the seductress. I’ve read critics who disparage her work as sentimental and melodramatic, but that’s part of the reason I like it; her photos possess the daring verve of youth, the ability to scream while not wanting anyone to respond. In fact, her family and professors didn’t know about the wide body of her work until after she’d died.

The question with photographers like Woodman is how much they truly want to be known, how much they even want to know themselves. In so many photos her body blurs into a wall. She wants to appear even as she disappears. Dematerialization is one of her themes. It seems as if she’s exploring the poses one has to travel through to discover or create the final pose of self, as if there is a final pose, but she's dodging herself all the time, even in her states of nakedness, making sure no one can truly know her. 

Thank God for the Francesca Woodmans of the world, although I wish she would have lived longer, discovered the restful state that sometimes can only come with age, and come out from her wispy smudges of self to be seen. Her fervency would have surely faded, but perhaps she would have slowed down, finally told her story. Inscrutability comes with a price, and screams usually want to be heard.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

John Cage: The Excitements of Boredom

I love John Cage for his appreciation of boredom, if not his indulgence in it. Every artist must reckon with the lulls of life in his or her work, but most inject a variety of entertainments into a storyline, smoothing any bit of necessary banality with candy droppings of mindless flow, the promise of action rising. Ta da! Not Cage.

Once, before giving a lecture at Harvard (and a Cage lecture was never just a lecture, but a metaphysical performance), he unapologetically told the audience they were likely to be bored, but that they should view it as an opportunity.

He composed music with such disregard for audience expectations as well, and in so doing became the musical father of everything from punk to techno to minimalism.

In this age of twitches—people reaching for phones to check status updates, tweets, and emails—our lives are quite filled, yet somehow tend to be unfulfilled. Cage would say we need to listen to the emptiness instead of trying to fill it.

I just finished John Cage’s biography, Begin Again, so I’ve been pondering his definitions of sounds and silence and harmony and disharmony, his wonderful embrace of contradictions.

It’s rare that an artist’s work requires the retraining of one’s way of experiencing art itself, but Cage’s compositions not only jarred the public’s sensibilities in his time (the greater part of the 20th century), but still present a challenging dare decades later.

Cage cherished dissonance and happenstance, dramatizing the sounds that fill our lives in all of their random fecundity. His music was a philosophical statement, a confrontation, rather than a frolic or a diversion.

In his most famous piece, 4’33,’’ a pianist walks on stage to play a piece, sits erectly at the piano, adjusts the sheet music, and pauses for four minutes and 33 seconds. In that intense silence—which isn’t truly silence—sound is transformed. Each inhale and exhale, each mysterious scritch and scratch or stray car horn, becomes part of the musical experience. Expectations are flipped as we explore an absence that is also a presence. Mysteries abound.

By focusing on disruptions rather than the connective tissue of a narrative, he obviates the crescendos and diminuendos of music, and his work actually becomes an odd meditation on those spaces of narrative—traditional harmony—not present.

“I didn’t want the mind to be able to analyze rhythmic patterns,” Cage said of one piece. A patterned universe is one with promises of cohesion, a plan, after all.

Instead of the “intention” that drives most artists, Cage created by “non-intention,” relying on the chance guidance found in the I Ching to guide compositions and performances. At one performance, he even handed out programs with different descriptions so that everyone would view the performance through a different lens.

Dissonance held the most interesting beauty to him. With his famous “prepared pianos,” he twisted objects into piano strings so that each note would be a surprise, and the composition would never sound the same twice. To hell with tuning.

Although he conceded in the end that it was impossible not to have harmony, he defined his harmony as “anarchic harmony.”

“One could say that all sounds make love to one another, or at least they accept one another, in any combination,” Cage said.

All we do is music, in other words, but each sound plays off another in a continuing disjointed abeyance, irresolvable, yet beckoning and wondrous. “I want people to be mystified by what’s happening. The reality of our life is mystery,” he said.

I think that deep sense of mystery is what is most important for any artist to honor and revere. Forget the formula, the expectations that can too easily makes work palatable—and suffocate it as a result. In the end, an artist’s dare is what matters.

Some might view Cage’s work as subversive for the sake of subversion, nothing but the high-jinks of a confirmed Dadaist, but Cage religiously and methodically wove a fragmentary, relativist aesthetic with roots in Einstein’s declaration that “there are no fixed points in space.” Cage’s music truly spoke to a plurality of centers, which resonated with him primarily as a Buddhist notion.

Because of such a vast and ever-expanding notion of existence, Cage delved into the question every artist should reckon with: What does it mean to be a person of beginnings? Too many artists find comfort in their endings as they constantly riff on the same theme, which gets so boring to their audience if not themselves. (I heard Carrie Brownstein, formerly of Slater Kinney, say in an interview that the band knew what their next album would sound like before they made it, which is why they broke up—good show).

“I try over and over to begin all over again,” said Cage.

An artist needs no other mantra. Because all of life is finding wonder in the void. Each time I get annoyed by a car’s honking, I’ll now think of how Cage might smile at it, even find it playful.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Ways Poetry Can Improve Your Prose

A few years ago, while plodding through a revision of my novel (revisions require the writer’s equivalent of heavy-duty hiking boots), I got bored by my writing. It was too literal, too realistic, too earnest, and too flat.

Most writers are all too familiar with this feeling after a red-eyed reading of a draft. I needed a way to literally jar my narrative sensibility. I needed jazz, punk rock, Jackson Pollock, Merce Cunningham, something.

Around this time, I read a quote by Emily Dickinson that remains among my favorite writing advice: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

I started reading poetry avidly and discovered that by focusing on the exquisite “slant” poetry offers, the “truth” I was trying to capture became more piquant, surprising, nuanced, playful, and meaningful to me.

So, in honor of National Poetry Month and Poem In Your Pocket Day, here are my 10 reasons prose writers should read—and hopefully write—poetry.

Mood: Many poems are almost incantations or prayers in the way they use techniques such as repetition and alliteration to establish atmosphere. Of the fiction writers who best use such techniques, I think most immediately of William Faulkner (who started out as a poet, and no, there’s no relation).

Mystery: In general, poetry is more focused on nuance, on the elusive gaps of life rather than on the objective connections that much prose is dedicated to. It’s easy for a prose writer to write toward linkages instead of writing toward the interludes where a different kind of tension resides.

Personification: Poetry gives life to inanimate objects in a way that fiction all too often doesn’t. Animating objects is a good exercise for any writer, but I think the applications for writers of science fiction, fantasy, and magical realism are endless.

Detail: Poets delight in specificity—in fact, you might say some poems’ narrative tension is formed around the drama of minutiae, forcing the reader to parse phrases as if reading with a microscope. As a writer who lacks Nabokov’s or Updike’s obsession with detail, poetry helps me pause and notice.

Sensory engagement: Poems are so often awash in sensory details, and details captured by all five senses, not just sight, which so many writers (including me!) can privilege. I cherish a good dose of synesthesia.

Brevity: Poetry is a craft of compression. Poems don’t have many pages to make a point, so their narratives tend to move through fragments rather than exposition. I love reading Kay Ryan’s miniatures or Basho’s haikus. Brevity inspires suspense.

Intensity: I think poems usually hit higher pitches than most prose, so fiction writers can benefit by studying how such intensity is created. I think of Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia Plath. What words, line breaks, rhythms, etc., produced a poem’s steeped moment? How can such intensity be captured in prose?

Exploration: I’ve never heard of a poet who uses an outline. I imagine poets to be more like jazz musicians, who wend their way through riffs to create, taking risks in their word choice and line breaks, and conceiving in the moment (like many Wrimos!). Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara write as if following their pen on a playful romp.

The art of play: Poetry, especially free verse, can be more playful than prose, which finds itself hemmed in by paragraphs and sentence structure. If you want outright surreal wackiness—to the point that every word in a poem surprises—check out Dean Young’s Elegy on a Toy Piano (the title tells it all).

Attention to language: It’s a cliché to say that poets paint with words, but they do. Poets strive to write against cliché—scrutinizing and challenging each word—and perhaps even creating new words, a la E. E. Cummings.

Tebowing: A Found Poem

Sometimes you don't know where a poem is going to come from. A poem can be such a mystical matter, after all. The poem below, a "found poem" that uses the text of several different news articles, holds its own mystical matter (if only because it is about the other worldly Tim Tebow), but it was actually written on a lark, an assignment/challenge from the esteemed Times editor Katherine Schulten based on a poetry prompt at the New York Learning Network blog.

I have to say, however, there is something mystical about putting together a found poem. You're using others' words, and it can feel like an act of criminal plagiarism, yet other forces guide you. Perhaps that's the lesson I take away from this: Poetry is an engagement in a life that's sometimes not yours, an immersion in others' language and thoughts, and no matter the poem or the subject, it can open up mysteries to ponder.

Here's the poem:


What does it mean to be Tebowed?
To meet defeat by God’s grace on a clunk of an arm?

Somewhere within all our reptilian hearts
lurks an instinct for trial-by-combat

Tebow flounders, and it looks like the Living Water Bible Church
out on Route 17 is wrong about pretty much everything

Did a receiver drop a pass?
James Dobson just choked on a nacho.

Did Tim throw an interception?
Daniel Dennett just chest-bumped Richard Dawkins.

Tebow's ability to complete a 15-yard out pattern to Matt Willis
is a referendum on the Book of Deuteronomy

It means something for the blue knight to kill the green knight
only if God is moving the swords.

“Whatever gets more people over to the cross,” Tim says.
One nation under God.

You never know when you're in your fourth quarter,
when you're in your two-minute drill


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A View Askew: Hotel Amerika

The Fall 2011 issue of Hotel Amerika starts with a dare. A teenage boy (or is it a girl?) slicks back his hair in a pose reminiscent of a 1950s rebel without a cause who is about to step into a fast car to find someone to rumble with, a dangerous love to wink at.

But upon closer look, one sees a camera sneaking from the darkness behind him, breaking the frame of naturalism as if to remind us that even gritty reality can be part of a carefully coiffed drama. We’re all actors, posing in some way, splitting ourselves as we create.

I’m always hooked by a good dare.

When I interviewed editor David Lazar for The Review Review, he mentioned the journal’s predilection for the aesthetic of a flaneur, so I decided to mirror that in my reading—meandering haphazardly, popping into pieces based on nothing more than the titles, the names of authors (all unknown to me), the superficial appearance of the text.

I started at the end, wondering if the last piece in a journal is placed there because it's the worst, the runt of the litter.

Au contraire. In this case, the last piece was one of my favorites. The excerpt of the late John Parker's Night Song Da Nang is categorized as an essay, but it reads more like fiction or a long prose poem. The story delivers an inter-textual, dreamy version of Marguerite Duras's The Lover combined with "Apocalypse Now" and "The Deer Hunter", juxtaposing a disjointed narrative from the steamy war zones of Vietnam with letters to “Ma Cherie”:

“Sorry for the period of incommunicado. I will clear this gulch of vermin and return to you by pony express. Skip the dime store cowboys for now and this mauvais quart d’heure will pass quicker than a comet. I have so many designs on your finely chiseled features. Don’t be cross with me. We’ll be thick as thieves after I count your coup. Book our room for hour honeymoon at Niagra Falls. Curfews have been clamped on the villages but they break them like Kewpie dolls. I long for some of your chic. Elvis is the King of Saigon.”

How could a story of love and war be anything but stitched-together shards, stray phrases, ripped pages—a startling collage of yearning and suffering?

Hotel Amerika structures itself for such driftings and juxtapositions. One of my favorite sections was Aphorisms—a section I've never seen in a literary magazine, but one that should become standard in more. I loved pondering Stephen Carter's “Human relationships might develop in very different ways if we substituted a gentle touch on the cheek for a strenuous handshake.” Or, consider John Klein’s twist on a well-hewn critique of capitalism: “Erudition is a conspicuous consumption of time.”

Such aphorisms invite new angles of reflection at the same time they smack of a certain triviality. Klein comments on the form quite appropriately with another aphorism:  “What stops an aphorism from becoming a philosophy is the next aphorism.” But, as an author who goes by the moniker “The Covert Comic” posits, “Once you're caught in the mousetrap, why not eat the cheese?”

Such a sense of playfulness mixed with a sense of the absurd laced through several pieces. One of my favorites was a prose poem by Sarah Blackman, “The 5 Strong Brothers” (which could have been included in Hotel Amerika's "TransGenre" section—a section that begs to be read in order to define what TransGenre is—yet in reading transgenre pieces, you can’t help but question the definition of genres in general).

“The 5 Strong Brothers” reads like a fairytale that explores a family's bonds—at once sweet, at once nightmarish. A mother takes her shears and cuts stray parts off of her sons—the tough skin of their elbows, the lobes of their ears—to fashion a daughter, who begins the story no bigger than a thumb. She narrates the tale with a loving tone, however, if only because she’s the baby of the family who looks up to her brothers, despite being a scarred creature whose mouth “could neither eat nor be silent.”

Blackman writes, “As an adult, I have been told I'm hard to love, but my brother kept me always at his hip like a luck note, a lone fricative sound. How would I describe my family now? We've all learned to look past the parts of us that are missing. Our mother was possessed with strange passions. She was taken by the smallest things. Half of the brown eggshell or a child's pearl tooth rolling anyhow—like a kernel of corn, like a beetle—over the door sill and into the yard.”

The poem, like a fairytale, creates a simple metaphor—that we’re all fashioned from missing parts, that we’re all creatures intrinsically lacking wholeness. The poem is at once a celebration of the glorious imperfections of life as the brothers take such loving care of their sister, and yet it's sad because in the end life tends to be about dispersals that don’t include reunions. Everyone goes their own way despite sharing parts of each other.

In my interview with Lazar, he offered the following advice for writers interested in submitting to Hotel Amerika: “I would not submit the kind of autobiographically narrative poems that you might be likely to see in a dozen other literary magazines. Something has to be different. I would not submit a piece of memoir unless it’s performing something so interesting, doing something with its language or form that it’s going to stop me in my tracks. We tend toward a more urban sensibility. Favor self-reflection. Flaneurs welcome.”

I found that advice to be generally enacted in the journal—most pieces challenged language and form in some way, and almost everything required a second reading, and a thoughtful one at that. For example, in Peter LaSalle’s story, “A Short Manual of Mirrors,” the story lists 19 instructions of how to approach a mirror, but the reflection only begets another reflection. “And while Borges is often attributed with having said all there is to say on mirrors, Borges himself would always be the first to argue otherwise.”

Some of the essays take a more conventional narrative approach, but the approach serves to tell jarring stories, such as Desirae Matherly’s lyrical exploration of the effects of her many LSD trips as she’s suffering from the side effects of the pill, and Shifra Sharlin’s confession of taking care of—and not taking care of—her dying brother in “Not Against Irony.” 

As the title of the journal itself speaks to, Hotel Amerika looks at a world with a slightly skewed spelling and challenges representations in its tellings.