The Empathy Exams
By Leslie Jamison
April, 2014, 256 pgs
Leslie Jamison’s first book of essays covers a wide range of topics: real and imagined diseases, poverty tourism, medical actors, poetry, assault, ultra-marathons and much, much more. What unites these subject matters into a cohesive, intelligent and deeply exploratory narrative is the issue of empathy for other human beings, or rather, what we mean when we say to another, “I feel your pain.”
The first and last articles book-end the endeavor by personalizing Jamison’s query into the human heart. Mind you, Jamison’s feelings are never too far out of frame throughout the entire narrative (something I’m sure critics have noted), but in the titular first essay, Jamison introduces us to her moral nebulousness. She recounts her job as a medical actor, paid to fake pain to medical students who are in turn faking doctoral care and, of course, empathy. The “patients” grade the students on the perceived level of kindness the “doctors” have shown them. She points out MRI studies in which testers are shown images of people in pain and the experiment found that the same parts of the testers’ brains lit up as if they were actually feeling another person’s pain. It’s a perfect metaphor for Jamison’s personal battle with her own feelings: what does it really mean to feel for someone else and how can we best utilize this instinct for betterment?
Jamison is a writer who feels things deeply and has been hurt in her personal life. But due to what she thinks the general public thinks of young women’s troubles, she postulates that many women of her generation have developed a voice she labels “post-wounded,” meaning that sincerity and sentimentality have been displaced (necessarily) by irony, sarcasm and an unwillingness to delve into honest and intimate feelings. She mentions the television show Girls, where two female friends attack each other by accusing, “You’re like a big, ugly wound!” while the other screams back, “No! You are the wound!” It’s become a cliché to express our ugly feelings, it seems.
In her final article (an absolute gem that deserves multiple rereadings on my part), she delves into what she calls “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” citing such blood-letting female artists as Anne Carson, Sylvia Plath, Tori Amos, Ani Difranco and others of the same ilk. Why do these artists elicit such strong responses from their fans? She also exams the phenomenon of young girls who cut themselves — and just as importantly, those who dismiss that action as simply a cry for attention. “People say cutters are just doing it for the attention, but why does ‘just’ apply? A cry for attention is positioned as the ultimate crime, clutching or trivial — as if ‘attention’ were inherently a selfish thing to want. But isn’t wanting attention one of the most fundamental traits of being human — and isn’t granting it one of the most important gifts we can ever give?”
Bookmarks appears bi-monthly in ec and dc. Send your literary news to: email@example.com.
The Empathy Exams
The Color Master by Aimee Bender
April 2014, Anchor
What is the role of the fairy tale in literature? Is it to teach children morality lessons? Do they exist merely to entertain? Can they exist as allegory to reflect and comment on society? Are they supposed to scare the hell out of us? If you’ve ever read the original European fairy tales from Grimm and company, you’ve certainly found the kind that can scare you. In fact, there is a whole school of literary criticism/psychoanalysis that claims that children need to read about the monsters in fairy tales to better understand their own dark feelings, or more poetically, the monster inside of them. I think a good fairy tale can accomplish most things I just mentioned.
The collection begins with one of the most loaded symbols in storytelling history: the apple. In “Appleless,” a wheat-haired girl does not like the taste of apples. “She didn’t even like to look at them. They’re all too mealy, she said. Or else too cheeky, too bloomed.” The narrator of the story is so baffled by her odd taste that he/she decides, along with the rest of the population in this magic world, to only eat apples, forever. But that doesn’t solve the problem. And they attack the girl. What are we to glean from this story? The implications weave and fold and spread for days after reading.
In another story, a perfectly normal human woman is married to an ogre who accidentally eats one of their children in a sort of ogre-ish panic attack. Going back to that aforementioned theory of children and monsters, the same critics also postulated that children’s most innate fear is that of being consumed; hence Hansel and Gretel and the like. In Bender’s version, we have the human perspective on this fantastical situation. It’s magnificent.
In the titular story, fans of Bender will recognize her use of synesthesia as a storytelling mechanism. In her novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, a character tastes the chef’s feelings in every bite of food prepared for her. In “The Color Master,” a seamstress weaves emotions into her colors.
In one of the least fantastical but most conversation-worthy stories, “The Red Ribbon,” a woman decides she can no longer feel sexual attraction to her husband unless he pays her for her sex. She tells him, “I need a specific amount each time or I feel I will melt into nothingness.”
Bookmarks appears bi-monthly in ec and dc. Send your literary news to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friendship by Emily Gould
Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux
July, 2014, 272 pgs
It is almost impossible to discuss Emily Gould’s debut novel without discussing her biography or the controversy surrounding both her and the novel’s critical reception. Gould made a name for herself a few years ago as the editor of the gossip website Gawker, where she called out celebrities on their actions while writing very vividly about her personal life. Gould practically began the national conversation about the act of “oversharing,” which happens when people give away their most intimate thoughts and anecdotes in a public manner. The term has already made its way into the dictionary, with Webster’s New World choosing “overshare” as the Word of the Year in 2008. Oversharing cost Gould her professional respect and she quit the job shortly after she started.
I tell you this, dear reader, because Amy, the heroine of the novel, is a flailing writer in her early 30s (same age as Gould), living in New York City (where Gould lives) and is recovering her life after leaving her job as the editor of a website which focused on “mocking New York City’s rich, powerful, corrupt, ridiculous elite.” (Ahem.) Amy’s best friend, Bev, is another early 30s woman struggling to make her way in the city, though less successfully so as she bounces from job to job, roommate to roommate and ends up getting pregnant on a first date she only accepted to get the free meal. Bev’s ultimate decision to carry the child to term is discussed in a modern, unflinching way that I think many young women will appreciate.
Many are comparing the voice of the novel, unflatteringly so, to the writing on HBO’s Girls, saying Friendship is a less raw, less real version of the young, white, creative city girl struggling to find flight in the prime of her life. Many are calling it “chick lit,” a term this reviewer finds slightly misogynistic and generalizing. As a consumer who has watched the series Girls and read this book, I think the comparison is really just another way to level off the young female experience, putting all the complicated, artistic young women into the same indy letter-pressed Anthropologie box, tied up with a nice Sephora ribbon.
Part of this flack is due to some reviewers finding the plot in Friendship rather trite. Two girls in the city, an unwanted pregnancy, moving home to suburban childhood homes to recover, failed relationships with men … done already, say the critics. To which I have to ask, does every plot have to involve death and mystery, or the mechanics of magical realism, or the threat of apocalypse to make it tick? What about an originally wry, self-deprecating, intelligent, modern voice which tells the story of two women sharing an experience that countless other women (and yes, men too, of course) have shared? It’s true that the audience may be narrowed here, certainly, but as a part of that targeted audience, I defend the book’s existence, its writing and its meaning and I would encourage you, readers, to see past the hype, read past the stereotypes and derision and make up your minds for yourselves.
Bookmarks appears bi-monthly in electric city and dc. Send your literary news to: email@example.com.
Columnist Andrea McGuigan previews The Gathering 2014. The annual literary conference is scheduled to take place at Keystone College in La Plume July 17-20. For more information or to register, visit thegatheringatkeystone.org or contact Charlotte Ravaioli (570, 945-8510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The best writing happens when we have something at stake: something to lose, something worth keeping and something to sacrifice to make progress possible. At The Gathering at Keystone College, now in its eighth year, the organizers kept this idea in mind when they created the theme, “On Edge.” The featured panelists and writers for this year’s festival all know writing from the margins: a civil rights poet, a political journalist, writers on the Middle East conflict and a fiction writer who handles familial conflict. All of them challenge the status quo. All of them are ready to push forward. I think of the Fool in the classic Tarot deck, a clownish man following his dog toward the precipice of a cliff. The Fool is an important card with a largely-writ lesson, meant to remind us that sometimes taking a leap into the unknown is the only way to effect real change.
Sonia Sanchez is a poet, playwright and social activist whose awards could fill this entire column. Her work blends a mix of African-American issues, women’s issues and social justice, all polished off with her distinctive, powerful voice. The author of 16 books, her poetry collection Homegirls and Handgrenades won the National Book Award. You would do well to look up her performance on Season One of the now-defunct Def Poetry Jam.
Jacqueline Mitchard is the New York Times -bestselling author of over 20 books. She also has the distinct honor of being Oprah’s very first Book Club selection for her novel, The Deep End of the Ocean. Mitchard is the editor-in-chief of the new Young Adult imprint Merit Press and her essays have been widely anthologized.
Sandy Tolan has written for more than 40 years and as co-founder of Homeland productions, has produced hundreds of documentaries and features for public radio. His book, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew and the Heart of the Middle East, came from the enormous popularity of the Fresh Air segment he produced for NPR.
The three day festival features workshops in essay, earth science, visual art, fiction, memoir, yoga, poetry, digital art, dance and percussion and each lesson plan invokes the over-arching theme of “On Edge.” There will also be a discussion between Sonia Sanchez and social commentator Constance Garcia-Barrio entitled “Sisters Rap.” There will also be a panel discussion “Searching for Common Ground in the Middle East” featuring David Coppola, president of Keystone College and director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University; Eugene Korn, who is the American Director for the Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel and Senior Research Fellow at Beit Morasha of Jerusalem’s Institute for Religion and Society; Ibtisam Barakat, award-winning author of Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood; and Sandy Tolan (see above).
Bookmarks appears bi-monthly in ec and dc. Send your literary news to: email@example.com.
Columnist Andrea McGuigan speaks with local school teacher Barbara Taylor about her first book, Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night, published via Kaylie Jones Books, an imprint of Akashic Books.
I started writing Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night in January of 2007, as a graduate student in the Wilkes Creative Writing MFA program and completed the first draft in June of 2008. After that, I revised for another six months. My agent sent that second draft out to at least twenty publishers. The feedback was great, but ultimately, no one picked up the book. At that point, I put the novel in a drawer and started writing the next book in what I intend to be a trilogy. Shortly after completing a draft of book two, Kaylie Jones, my mentor from Wilkes, came up with a brilliant idea for restructuring the first novel. I spent another nine months revising. In the meantime, Kaylie started her own imprint, Kaylie Jones Books, with Akashic Books and I’m proud to say I’m the second book in her print series.
Can you tell us about the plot, which includes some local history?
My novel is about eight-year-old Violet who’s blamed for the death of her nine-year-old sister, Daisy. It opens on September 4, 1913, two months after the Fourth of July tragedy and takes place in Scranton during the time of coal mining, vaudeville and evangelism. Owen, the girls’ father, “turns to drink” and abandons his family. Their mother Grace falls victim to the seductive powers of Grief, an imagined figure who has seduced her off-and-on since childhood. Violet forms an unlikely friendship with Stanley Adamski, a motherless outcast who works in the mines as a breaker boy. During an unexpected blizzard, Grace goes into premature labor at home and is forced to rely on Violet, while Owen is “off being saved” at a Billy Sunday Revival.
I understand you were working with some autobiographical material here.
Since the novel is a period piece, I blended real life incidents with fiction. For example, the death of Daisy is based on a family tragedy. My grandmother’s oldest sister, Pearl, was burned in a sparkler accident on July 4, 1918, the same day as her baptism. According to the story, she sang hymns for three days while she lay dying. That story always haunted me and it seemed a natural place to turn for the novel. Also, my grandmother used to tell me that she was born during the “Billy Sunday Snowstorm” in March of 1914, where more than 2,400 people were stranded overnight with the charismatic preacher. To this day, people in Scranton claim to know someone who was saved that night. I love how the story has taken on a legendary quality and I knew I wanted to include it in my novel. When I started writing the novel, my grandmother’s sister, Louise, was the only sibling still living. I thought I owed it to her to ask her permission to use the story. When she gave me her blessing, I started to write.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about the book or any upcoming events tied to its publication?
I was floored when my publisher informed me that Publishers Weekly named Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night as a “Top Summer Read” for 2014. The article generated a great deal of interest in the book. As far as events are concerned, I’m excited to launch the book at the Lackawanna Historical Society’s Catlin House on July 16 at 7 p.m. The staff is wonderful and the venue is beautiful. What a great way to kick off the book tour!
Bookmarks appears bi-monthly in ec and dc. Send your literary news to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Columnist Andrea McGuigan reviews two new releases.
Confessions of the World’s Best Father
by Dave Engledow
Gotham May 2014; 176 pgs
Just in time for Father’s Day (the publishers knew what they were doing with this project) may I present you first-time father David Engledow and his good-sport of a daughter, Alice Bee. When Engledow and his wife Jen found out they were becoming parents, Engledow knew he couldn’t become one of those people who posed sappy, clichéd photos of his child all over Facebook. So he dug into his Photojournalist’s tool bag, strapped on his darkly satirical sense of humor and made a book of professionally-done, hilariously inappropriate photos of Alice Bee and Daddy’s adventures. The picture that begat the project features a bedraggled Engledow, holding Alice Bee sideways like a football, while squirting her baby bottle (full of breast milk) into his morning coffee. The look on his face is perfect: tired, cranky and deadpan. That he caught Alice Bee watching the milk go into his coffee mug is perfection. Other scenarios in the book include making pancakes in bed, or one where Alice gleefully wields a pizza cutter while Engledow’s finger gushes blood. The photos will make you laugh but you’ll also see the love that the author feels for his daughter. The humor may be black but if anything it shows us the insecurity that a new father might feel, especially when, like Engledow, his military wife is away for an entire year, leaving him to make the big decisions and photo-document the proof. This is a well-done project worth the cost of the book.
This collection of eleven stories by novelist John Brandon (A Million Heavens, 2012, Citrus County, 2010) will appeal to fans of Denis Johnson, Lorrie Moore, Charles Portis and other darkly witty American writers. The stories are populated with people from diverse backgrounds — men of the cloth, gamblers, psychics — and all seem to be testing their own boundaries, seeing what it means to push themselves into new possibilities of existence. A woman in one story, “The Picnickers,” goes to visit an old girlfriend in Chicago and instead ends up having a semi-date with her friend’s teenage son. Because it’s good storytelling, our protagonist is sympathetic, because she’s searching for herself.
“For years she’d been trying to get herself to watch more TV, but none of it seemed intended for her. She wasn’t a target audience, she supposed — there wasn’t a spinster-in-training-of-above-average-intelligence demographic.”
In a more surreal story, “The Differing Views,” a heartbroken man comes home to a vision (or is it?) of seven human brains on his spare bedroom’s floor. In “The Midnight Gales” a religious cult is formed around the weather: storms rip through a small town, prying the roofs off of homes and randomly sweeping away its residents. Rather than study the weather, the people form a religion and that provides them with all the information they care to know. Again, it’s handled deftly by the author. Brandon isn’t afraid to experiment, both with what his characters are capable of or the way he guides those characters through language. The prose is original and illuminating, adding a voice to modern literature that will be welcomed by many.
Bookmarks appears bi-monthly in ec and dc. Send your literary news to: email@example.com
New York City-based poet Jeanann Verlee will perform as the special guest of Breaking Ground Poets at TwentyFiveEight Studios in Scranton on Saturday at 6 p.m. Tickets are $10.
Jeanann Verlee’s poetry will make you feel something. Whether she’s digging into her past to present you with the archaeological finds of her painful and storied adolescence, or mining adulthood for those gems of reflection and realization, Verlee knows which relics to bring to the surface for examination. Here: the first broken heart, dressed in a pink Mohawk. Here: twenty years later and the heart wears more tattoos now. She will guide you along this tour, from small town to big city, from brash teen to humbled adult and even if you don’t share her experiences (and I venture to guess most of us don’t), you will be stunned and dazzled by her performer’s ability to draw you in and make you care, and really listen.
Verlee has represented New York City six times at the National Poetry Slam under two of the most highly-regarded poetry performance series in the nation: Urbana Poetry Slam and The louderARTS Project. Verlee was the highest-scoring individual poet at the 2008 National Poetry Slam Finals, was the 2009 NYC-Urbana iWPS Champion, and represented NYC-louderARTS at the 2010 Women of the World Poetry Slam. She is director of the Urbana Poetry Slam reading series in New York City, and serves as writing and performance coach for this three-time NPS Championship venue. She has performed and facilitated workshops at schools, theatres, bookstores, dive bars and poetry venues across North America. Her publication credits include The New York Quarterly, Rattle, failbetter, kill author, and PANK. Her work is included in the poetry anthologies Not A Muse: The Inner Lives of Women and His Rib: Poems Stories and Essays by Her. Verlee’s first full-length book of poems, Racing Hummingbirds, earned the Independent Publisher Book Award Silver Medal in Poetry. Verlee won the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart. She is a poetry editor for Union Station Magazine and the Poets Portrait Project Anthology.
Verlee brings her entirely unique voice to the stage of TwentyFiveEight Studios this Saturday at 6 p.m. and Tunkhannock’s youth-oriented poetry club, Breaking Ground Poets, will play host for the evening. The Breaking Ground Poets worked with Verlee last year to help prepare them for the nation’s largest youth poetry event, Brave New Voices. Verlee came in and coached the students on their writing and their performance, and I got to partake as host to the workshop. Verlee wears that label of “slam poet,” so I remember feeling curious as to how she would coach the students. I thought, “How does New York City slam poetry work together with Tunkhannock High School performance poetry? Where do those voices intersect?” and Jeanann did not disappoint, working with the students to find their authentic voices and best selves. I remember her one bit of advice, both for poetry and the prose of everyday life. Helping a student through a volatile, loud piece, Verlee offered, “Read me that poem again but say it to me in a whisper. Sometimes our anger is more powerful when we get quiet with it.”
Bookmarks appears bi-monthly in ec and dc. Send your literary news to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
She is a tornado.
He is a man. He is solid and humble.
She tells the story three times, convinced
he does not understand. He is trying.
The story is about an elephant and a mermaid.
No, the story is about a millipede in a thicket of roses,
a prized buckskin horse and fifty lashes.
She is talking gibberish. He is trying to understand but she
is thunderbolt. Her tongue, a spear.
The dog is hiding in the back corner of a dark room.
The man wants to sit with the dog. She is melting.
Her face pools in her lap. Freckles pile at her feet.
There is nothing in the room that has not been hurled.
She is science like this. An atom, separating.
Finally, the story comes, like flood. Its mud seeps in from under the doorjambs, rising. They are standing ankle deep in water and sludge. He understands now.
He is a spiced wound. He wants firearms. Hit-men. A brutal justice.
All the while, the window is sitting with its mouth open,
spilling their hot storm into the courtyard,
where the neighbors have come to their sills, elbows propped, hungry
— Jeanann Verlee, from Racing Hummingbirds (“The Telling” is available via Kindle sample at amazon.com.)
This Friday night, April 11, at the AFA Gallery in downtown Scranton, newly-minted SwanDive Press (swandivepublishing.com) brings you a book launch bursting at the seams with good words to get you going. Everyday Escape Poems, SwanDive’s inaugural publication, features the work of nine Pennsylvania poets, eight of whom will be taking the mic at 7 p.m. Here’s a rundown of the featured poets:
Kait Burrier is a New York City gal who writes poetry, drama, journalism and to-do lists. Her work has been published online and in print, as well as performed in Pennsylvania theatres.
Don’t miss this poem: “New York.”
A bunch of poetry and fiction by Barbara DeCesare has been featured in numerous literary journals, and adapted for stage, song, and video. She is the author of three collections of poetry.
Don’t miss this poem: “Nancy Drew, Girl Detective, Loses Her Virginity as Medical Necessity to Fend off Hypothermia.”
Stanton Hancock is a poet and writer from Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. He was born in the aftermath of the failed American dream and found his voice in a punk rock basement. His work has appeared spray-painted under bridges and scribbled on scraps of paper.
Don’t miss this poem: “Whitman Hips.”
Dawn Leas’s poems and book reviews have appeared in print and online journals, and her chapbook, I Know When to Keep Quiet (Finishing Line Press, 2010), is available in print and Kindle versions. Currently, she is the associate director of the Wilkes University M.A./M.F.A. Creative Writing programs and a contributing editor at Poets’ Quarterly.
Don’t miss this poem: “Older Boys.”
Sarah Zane is a poet and science geek from Scranton, PA. She has won a slew of literary awards and founded the Word of Mouth poetry series. She was the 2001 BumberSlam Champion. Sarah served as Scoring Director for the National Poetry Slam in 2001, and as a writing mentor through the Emerging Voice program.
Don’t miss this poem: “She is Gone.”
Jim Warner (who will not be at Friday’s event) is the Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program at Benedictine University and the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in various journals including The North American Review, PANK Magazine, and Drunken Boat. He lives in Springfield, IL.
Don’t miss this poem: “Water and Alloys.”
Born and raised amongst carburetors and Susquehanna River water, Dale Wilsey Jr. is a writer, poet, and occasional photographer. His poetry has appeared in the Boston Literary Magazine, Word Fountain, and The Eckleburg Review.
Don’t miss this poem: “Fifty-Fifty.”
Eric Wilson is a pipe fitter from the water industry. His work has appeared relatively nowhere due to a debilitating fear of postage stamps, envelope glue, and technology. He is the president of the newly founded SwanDive Publishing Company and cannot wait to meet you in person.
Don’t miss this poem: “Grave.”
Columnist Andrea Talarico McGuigan is also featured in this poetry collection.
Bookmarks appears bi-monthly in electric city and DC.
Send your literary news to: email@example.com
by Andrea McGuigan
This Sunday, March 23, the Writers’ Circle of Wayne County brings an afternoon of readings to The Cooperage in Honesdale. From 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., authors Bernard LoPinto, Will Wyckoff, Leslie Rutkin and Dawn McIntyre will be on hand to read from their latest publications and will stay afterwards to sign books.
Power in the Blood
By Bernard LoPinto
Published by Bernard A. LoPinto, 2011
This novel tells the story of Tim Rathbone, a down-and-out minister who returns to his hometown of Dayton Crossing to find that things have changed, and not for the better. The married couple who had previously taken in Rathbone end up dead, possibly from suicide. The mystery of Rathbone’s father’s death, which happened some twenty years prior, comes back to the forefront when reporter/pretty lady Freddi starts investigating deeper. The religious overtones ask some heavy questions, and the thrilling plot will guarantee you read to the end to get your answers.
Counting the Days: 366 Days in Prison
By Leslie Rutkin
Published by Authorhouse, 2012
Counting the Days tells the very real story of Leslie and her husband, policeman Matthew Smith, who was jailed for a total of 366 days. Smith, a decorated cop, becomes embroiled in a huge dilemma when the cops he works with go rogue and try to corrupt him. After making a major drug bust, Smith is offered $3000 of illegal money from his fellow policemen. He has a choice — turn the money in and risk his entire career, or take the money and ruin his morality. In the end, he is charged with grand larceny and spends 366 days in jail, writing letters to his wife throughout the year. This is their story.
By Dawn McIntyre
Published by Dawn McIntyre, 2013
In this novel, Sarah Greene thinks she is wisely investing in real estate when she gets roped in to buying a lake house in a newly-forming community. No one ever warned her that the local residents surrounding this new community would take offense and then action over what they see as the abuse of their local land and environment. Sarah, a tough lady from a biracial family, knows what it means to defend herself against bullies, and it will take everything she’s got to win this fight.
Birds on a Wire
By Will Wyckoff
Published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012
Wyckoff’s novel may include a fictional president and a North Korean assassin, but the author describes this work as a “non-political” tale of love, friendship, and intrigue. Eli and Rita Parks think they have a chance at new love and a new life together in Montana when Elijah Rittenhouse, America’s second African-American president, warns Eli that he and his family are in serious danger. Eli must collaborate with an old friend to help save his family from the ruthless and determined Hyun Lee, female assassin extraordinaire. The reviews on Amazon are overwhelmingly positive for this thriller of a novel.
Bookmarks appears bi-monthly in electric city and DC. Send your literary news to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Poet Micah Towery studied at Binghamton University and Hunter College before becoming an instructor himself at Indiana University in South Bend. He share selections from his new book Whale of Desire and other recent works at Library Express at The Mall at Steamtown with special guests including Joe Weil, a former teacher, on Saturday, March 8 at 3:30 p.m. The poems in Whale of Desire ($12) have been described as “little miracles of lyric intelligence pitched against a skeptic’s need for faith: faith in God, faith in other people, faith in love and faith that daily life means more than its repetitions and its downward spiral toward death.”
How long have you been writing poetry? How did you come to it?
I grew up musically inclined but always tinkered. Kids are natural tinkerers, like the old country parson doing scientific research in his back garden. I came to capital-P Poetry in high school when I read and started trying to imitate TS Eliot.
Tell me about your writing process. Do you write every day? Do you have a place where you like to write? Walk me through your ritual.
I never gave up the tinkerer approach, so I don’t have a ritual to speak of. I am productive with long stretches of unstructured time. It often starts with some skimming, different books or topics. Ideas converge. Then, as Dickinson says, “a formal feeling comes.”
The poems in your book have a spiritual leaning toward Christianity, though I would never micro-label Whale of Desire as being a “Christian” book of poems. Rather, religion or spirituality seems to be a doorway into your pieces. How do writing and spirituality work together for you?
Because most expression springs from inner life, I think most writing is spiritual. My own inwardness has been explicitly shaped by the Christian tradition–from the Apostle Paul to Augustine, Theresa of Avila to Dorothy Day. Still, readers connect with concrete experiences, so I strive to say what Robert Francis says: “My inner world and outer make a pair.”
There are literary allusions and poetic homage throughout the entirety of your book. I see influences of Frank O’Hara, Seamus Heaney and Robert Hayden, just to name a few. Who can you name as other inspirations or poetic predecessors to your work?
Too many to name and growing all the time! As my teacher, Joe Weil, used to say, “Learn from all. Be loyal to none.” It’s probably better to name my teachers and what I learned from them: Maria Gillan taught me instinct and poetics as a democratic art; Christine Gelineau firmly grounded me in the 20th century poetry; Tom Sleigh gave me access to the classics and a sense of both tradition and lively continuity; Joe Weil taught me that love and self-giving, an openness to the world, creates the only truest art.
What was the process of publication like? Did you submit to many places or was it a more organic process?
Most blind submissions happen through contests these days, but those fees add up! Contests also give the veneer of accolades and accomplishment but don’t always deliver enduring work. I had submitted to some contests but ultimately figured I could wait for the right opportunity. It came faster than I thought: Joe Weil and his wife Emily started a new press and said they wanted mine to be their first book. Small-scale, relationally-driven publishing has always been the norm for poetry. Poetry is more professionalized these days (‘Welcome to po-biz’ writers joke). That’s a boon for some talented folks, but other deserving writers have definitely fallen out of favor undeservingly. I just feel lucky Joe and Emily gave me a platform to share my work.
You have a reading on March 8th?
It’s Saturday afternoon at the Steamtown Mall, 3:30 p.m. in the Library Express. I love libraries, and I love public spaces where people wander in and out. I loved the way Pete Seeger turned his solo art into collective experience. He released control, invited others to have input. I want poetry readings like that. I want people to interact with me and each other. I want people to go out for a good meal after. And buy the book, of course.
Bookmarks appears bi-monthly in electric city and dc.
Send your literary news to: email@example.com.
Author Le Hinton is the special guest at the next Writers Showcase on Saturday, March 1.
The next installment of the Writers Showcase at The Vintage will be held on March 1 at 7 p.m. at The Vintage, 326 Spruce St., Scranton. The reading series, hosted by Brian Fanelli and Jason Lucarelli, will feature readings by local and visiting writers including Laura Duda, Jeff Rath, Emmalea Russo, Kevin McDonough, Amanda J. Bradley and special guest, Le Hinton.
Laura Duda is a recent graduate of the Wilkes University Creative Writing Master of Arts program. Her fiction has been published in the Osterhaut Library’s Word Fountain, and her non-fiction short story “Bonnie” was published in the Fall 2012 edition of the East Meets West American Writer’s Review and won honorable mention in the 2012 Fall Writer’s Contest. She is employed full-time as the Director of Institutional Research at Lackawanna College where she is also an adjunct instructor in the humanities division, and co-chair of both the Creative Arts Club and First Friday Committee. She is also an adjunct faculty member at Southern New Hampshire University as an instructor in English composition and creative writing.
Jeff Rath is the author of three collections of poetry: The Waiting Room at the End of the World (2007), In the Shooting Gallery of the Heart (2009) and Film Noir (2011), all published by Iris G. Press. His works have been published in a number of journals including Everyday Genius and Fledgling Rag. He is the 2007 R.E. Foundation Award winner and a Pushcart Prize nominee.
Emmalea Russo is a poet and visual artist. Her books are they (forthcoming GAUSS PDF, 2014), CLEAR1NG (dancing girl press, 2013), and book of southern and water (Poor Claudia, 2013). She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Kevin McDonough is a full-time Assistant Professor at Lackawanna College. He teaches a range of English and writing courses including College Writing, Introduction to Literature, Women’s Literature, American Literature to 1900, and Language, Literacy and Play. Kevin also works as an adjunct professor for Marywood University’s English department teaching Composition and Rhetoric, Children’s Literature and Structured Linguistics. He spends his time outside of the classroom writing and performing original music and working on short fiction. His New Year’s resolution for 2014 is to start submitting stories.
Amanda J. Bradley has two books of poems out from NYQ Books: Hints and Allegations (2009) and Oz at Night (2011). She has published poetry and essays in journals including Kin Poetry Journal, The Nervous Breakdown, The Best American Poetry Blog, Rattle, The New York Quarterly and Poetry Bay. She was interviewed in The Huffington Post in April 2013. Amanda is a graduate of the MFA program at The New School and holds a PhD in English and American Literature from Washington University in St. Louis. She is an Assistant Professor at Keystone College.
Le Hinton is the author of four poetry collections including Black on Most Days (Iris G. Press, 2008) and The God of Our Dreams (Iris G. Press, 2010). His work has been published in Gargoyle, Little Patuxent Review, Unshod Quills, Watershed, Off the Coast and in the poetry anthology/cookbook, Cooking Up South. His poem “Epidemic” was the winner of the Baltimore Review’s 2013 Winter Issue contest. In 2012, his poem, “Our Ballpark,” was incorporated into Derek Parker’s sculpture Common Thread and installed at Clipper Magazine Stadium in Lancaster, Pennsylvania as part of the Poetry Paths project.
The event is free, but donations are encouraged to help support The Vintage. Light refreshments will be provided.
Andrea McGuigan’s Bookmarks appears bi-monthly in ec and dc. Send your literary news to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author Lori May’s new collection of poetry, Square Feet (Accents Publishing, 2014), deals with the complexities of love, loss, and home-making. The author uses a speaker and a fictional narrative to tell the story of two people making their way. The author is quick to note that the work is not autobiographical, saying, “I’m one of those folks who doesn’t count poetry as non-fiction and I’m trying to ensure, whenever possible, that prospective readers don’t get the wrong impression.” But whether it’s May’s self or another self speaking, it doesn’t matter. The prose is rich, alive, and succinct, a study in the economy of powerful language.
Take this piece, for example:
How much would it cost
if relationships charged
How much would you carry on
and what would you check,
possibly leave unclaimed?
You don’t just write poetry; in fact, you’re known as a cross-genre writer. How is the process of writing a poetry collection, especially one as cohesive as Square Feet, alike and different from writing, say, creative non-fiction?
I’m a fan of story, regardless of genre. In a poetry collection, I hope each individual poem stands alone in its narrative while also contributing to a larger arc. Of course, when I start writing poems for a collection, I may not immediately know what the larger story is, but work to reveal the story over time. It’s really in the editing process where the big picture comes into play and that helps shape where poems appear in sequence. For prose, I feel like much of the process is the same for me. I work word by word, line by line, and don’t always know what the macro vision is until the micro components are laid out in draft form. The only difference in the process, I suppose, is that in my non-fiction I need to ensure I retain the facts while telling an engaging story, whereas in poetry —which I seldom write autobiographically— I have a bit more room to play and invent a story as the arc unfolds.
You use the short-form poem very effectively throughout this collection. What about the smaller poem appeals to you?
Thank you, Andrea. I feel like a lot can be said in few words. I’m also interested in leaving room for the reader. As a reader, I love that feeling when a poem or flash piece leaves me tinkering with interpretation, considering the possibilities of what happened on the page and how space and brevity offer room to play in response. As a writer, I enjoy the challenge of being sparse in words but grand in image.
What was the publication process like with this book?
I knew I wanted to work with Katerina Stoykova-Klemener, the editor at Accents Publishing in Lexington, Kentucky. Katerina has an amazing eye for detail and is meticulous in going over every word and every piece of punctuation. I was thrilled when Accents accepted my manuscript and they continue to be such a joy to work with. We spent quality time discussing the final shape of the manuscript throughout the editing process and then the production fell into place without a hitch. From cover design to layout, from bound copy to media relations, the people at Accents are hands-on and truly care about their authors and the success of their books. It’s been a wonderful experience.
Bookmarks appears bi-monthly in electric city and diamond city.
Send your literary news to: email@example.com
Book columnist Andrea McGuigan talks with Katie Wisnosky in advance of the Breaking Ground Poets poetry slam on Saturday, Feb. 1 from 2 to 5 p.m. at TwentyFiveEight Studios off North Washington Avenue in Scranton.
Please tell us all about the group you coach, the Breaking Ground Poets.
The Breaking Ground Poets is a volunteer run community organization that provides safe spaces for teenagers (ages 14-19) to express themselves through writing and develop their voices as artists. Our mentors have backgrounds in education and the arts. Overall, we aim to promote creative writing, public speaking, emotional literacy and civic engagement within the youth writing communities of NEPA. The Breaking Ground Poets believe through storytelling and positive reinforcement we can build a stronger generation of readers, writers and thinkers. Most importantly, the teens are like family to me.
You host monthly open mic nights at the Tioga Bistro in Tunkhannock, but you also hold slam poetry competitions. What can you tell us about the slam that’s taking place on Saturday, Feb. 1? What can people expect to see and hear?
Slam was invented in Chicago, in the ‘80s, by a construction worker named Marc Smith who was tired of going to boring poetry readings where the audience wasn’t engaged in the performance. Slam was a way of giving poetry back to the people and creating a conversation between poet & listener. A slam is a competitive poetry competition where a panel of five judges score teens’ original poems on a scale of 1-10 (with decimals). There are three rounds and eliminations after each round. To encourage crowd participation, the judges hold up their scores immediately after the performance so the crowd can boo or cheer the score. Even though a winner is declared at the end, the opportunity for teenagers to express themselves is always greater than the feat of winning or the feeling of victory. This month Conor O’Brien will be our featured emcee, and we have poets from five schools across NEPA competing. Poems are often deeply personal, raw, dynamic, beautiful and honest!
Some of these events are fundraisers for the BGP. I understand the group is saving up to attend the Brave New Voices competition. What happens at BNV and when and where is it happening this year?
Brave New Voices is the largest youth slam festival in the world. It is a four day festival about learning from each other about how to create mutual respect across cultures. 50 teams of youth poets come from all across the United States. BNV also features International teams from Canada, Africa, Guam, and Leeds. At the festival teens participate in forums, workshops, and slams. Last year we traveled to Chicago for the festival, but this year it is in Philly!
What other sort of activities does BGP participate in?
Our organization hosts free monthly writing workshops for local youth, open mics, pre-teen workshops facilitated by members of the BGP, next month we are the featured performers for the open mic in Wilkes-Barre, and occasionally we bring some super-fly poets to the area. Clementine Von Radics will be here in March and Jeanann Verlee will be performing in May.
How do you think poetry and spoken word performance helps the students you work with?
I have always believed that genuine investment in a student’s future begins the moment an individual is convinced she possesses a sense of empowerment. When you enter into honest conversations with students that promote student-centered thought, it breaks down barriers in the classroom and in their personal lives. Writing provides teenagers with a coping mechanism and makes them feel comfortable exercising their right to be heard in a mature way. Many times we talk at teenagers instead of with them. This creates passive learning. Overall, poetry has taught my students tolerance of one another and how to navigate through their identities in a positive way.
Bookmarks appears bi-monthly in ec and dc.
Send your literary news to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Andrea McGuigan
New York writer Ross Klavan may be best known as the screenwriter of the 2000 film Tigerland, starring a young Irish upstart named Colin Farell. The work garnered an Independent Spirit Award nomination, and Klavan has been working hard (before and since) in film, television, radio, print and performance. His latest novel, Schmuck, from Greenpoint Press, takes the reader to 1960s New York City, where radio personalities John Elkin and Ted Fox are Kings of the Airwaves. Enter the girl, Sari Rosenbloom, who turns the world upside-down with her mysterious beauty. Everyone falls for her — Elkin and his son Jake, Fox, and every other man in the boroughs who plays host to a pulse and a working set of eyeballs. Too bad for the boys, Sari’s father is one Max Rosenbloom, a gangster specializing in “salvage” who can make more than textile factories disappear overnight. Set against the backdrop of the Viet Nam era in New York, the book captures the longings of both Elkin, a frustrated radio host who longs to be more than just funny voices, and his son, Jake, an angry young beatnik making his way through one of our nation’s most confusing, violent eras. Told with ribald, laugh-out-loud, seriously dark humor and well-crafted grace, Schmuck touches readers with dashes of J.D. Salinger, Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiassen, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
First, discuss the title choice and meaning of the word “schmuck.” I always knew it to mean a sort of an unintentional idiot, but there are further connotations. You use the word throughout the book as almost poetic device, it’s repeated so often.
There literally are further connotations, yes. And you can be an intentional idiot, too (laughs). But the word is a derivative of the German which means “jewel,” and I think it refers to the same word we would use when we use the term “family jewels,” as in calling someone a prick. In Yiddish it takes on all sort of permeations and has a resonance to it. The utilization of Yiddish and Yiddish phrases by the generations who were born in America and (are) largely unreligious, is fascinating because it’s like they’re pieces of shrapnel from the language grenade that went off and became imbedded in the patois.
Why did you decide to write this as a novel rather than a screenplay? How do the two writing processes differ?
Many screenplays come to me first as a novel. Tigerland was written in its first draft as a novel, and then I wrote the screenplay after that. I love the screenplay form. I very consciously attempted to use screenplay structure in this novel so that it moves fast and funny without long periods of side story. It doesn’t go off the beaten track, and film is like that, tight.
How long did the project take to complete? Has this been a project that has lived inside of you for a while until it found its voice, or an “AHA” moment in which you just knew what you were going to do?
The actual writing took two years and I had been fooling around with the story for a while and didn’t even know. I don’t know how it happened but I woke up one morning, rushed in and grabbed a pencil and pad, and as I wrote, I went into my computer and found I had this completely escaped vision. I found notes and false starts going back ten years. I didn’t remember taking half of them.
There are certainly some autobiographical elements to the novel. The father in radio and show business, which is true to your life, the New York backdrop, the military background. I’m not going to ask, “Is it about you?” because every author has their philosophy on autobiography. What I’ll ask instead is, “What is your answer for when people ask ‘is this about you?’”
It’s almost impossible to answer. I utilize some of my experience in a fictional manner. I utilize some of my father’s experience, as he was a radio comedian, part of a team throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. I think you only have yourself to write from and it depends on how you’re using that. It also brings up the question of which selves you’re involving in this because the self who writes versus the one who sits down to dinner or hails a cab, say, are different selves, right?
Growing up in New York in the ‘60s, a truly interesting time in the city’s history, can you compare and contrast the New York City of that time with the present day?
It’s almost a completely different city. Here and there a memory of that time pops through, but the city was much looser and wilder in those days, as perhaps as the rest of the country was. It was definitely more violent, and heated up by the Viet Nam war and by various movements for racial and sexual equality. It was an incredibly vibrant city. I think a lot of that has calmed down, for better and worse, certainly.
Let’s get hypothetical. I’m an avid reader who’d walked into the bookstore and I ask the bookseller for a recommendation on a new novel. She wants to sell me your book. What does she say to me?
She would have to say to this avid reader that this is a throwback to a kind of novel that is at the same time hilarious and deeply meaningful, simultaneously. It talks about the world which existed that Manson came out of, a wilder America, from the days of the three martini lunches, people chasing each other around radio studios, all of it done with not only the comedy but also under the haunting umbrella of World War II, which all of these men carried with them. But I also want this to function as the type of novel that has the feel as if you were in a halfway decent bar in New York and someone told you a great story with that sort of absurdist tragedy to it.
Bookmarks appears bi-monthly in ec and dc.
Send your literary news to:
Book columnist Andrea McGuigan gives her top picks of holiday “Gifts for Geeks.”
The Wes Anderson Collection
By Matt Zoller Seitz
Harry N. Abrams, 336 pgs, hardcover
For the film-buff or art collector in your life, this purview of Anderson’s work will astound even the most ardent fans. The author set up the collection to look like a scrapbook of each of Anderson’s films — Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Moonrise Kingdom — so that each spread tells a story, from set design to fourth-wall perspectives to costume design. People who appreciate Wes Anderson’s singular aesthetic will find hours of enjoyment here.
The Sandman: Overture #1
By Neil Gaiman, Illustrated by J.H. Williams III
Vertigo for DC Comics, 18 pgs, comic book
Did you know that the comic book Sandman was so popular, that in the mid-1990s it actually outsold Batman and Superman? It is also one of a very few graphic novels which ranked on The New York Times Bestseller list. Gaiman ended the series in 1996, but now, the Sandman returns, with a new storyline and talks of a movie in the works. The Sandman: Overture is technically a prequel to the earlier stories, telling the tale of how Sandman came to be captured in Sandman #1. The Sandman, also known as Morpheus or Dream, is one of the seven Endless: Destiny, Death, Delirium, Destruction, Dream, and twins Desire and Despair. Take it from a diehard fan, the new storyline is fantastic, and Williams’s artwork resplendent. Fans of world mythology, poetry, and classic literature would do themselves well to dive into this rich, intellectual comic series.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Chronicles: Art and Design
By Weta Workshop
Harper Design, 208 pgs, hardcover
This visual dedication to the second of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy is a must-have for earth-bound travelers of Middle Earth. Filled to the brim with art, photography, and commentary, the book follows Bilbo and company through their adventures in vivid, striking detail. Die-hard fan reviews say that even if you found the movie disappointing, this book is worth the buy.
Doctor Who: Essential Guide to 50 Years of Doctor Who
By Justin Richards
Penguin Books (UK), 208 pgs
Released in tandem with the movie-length feature, The Day of the Doctor, this book covers all eleven incarnations of the TARDIS-traveling Time Lord. Light on text but heavy on visuals, the book covers everything from companions to TARDIS tours to the many alien enemies of the Doctor. This is definitely a collection for die-hard fans (those people who can wax poetic about Tom Baker versus David Tennant) rather than newbies into the world of Dr. Who.
Let Me Off at the Top! My Classy Life and Other Musings
By Ron Burgundy
Crown Archtype, 224 pgs, hardcover
The autobiographical event of the decade has happened, ladies and gentlemen: San Diego’s anchorman Ron Burgundy has graced us with his life story. If we are to believe his author’s note, Let Me Off at the Top took a full eight years to write and couldn’t have been done without the oversight and, um, special companionship of Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Needless to say, this book is a pretty big deal around here. You should get on it.