Summer Reading List

This is an entry about my Summer Reading List, which is part of my effort to stop having these strange little camps of books wandering all around my apartment.

This is an entry about my Summer Reading List, which is part of my effort to stop having these strange little camps of books wandering all around my apartment.

I’m still totally jazzed about reading and books and stuff, despite the seemingly endless continued continuation of Circumstances.  I’m also jazzed about talking about reading and books and stuff.  I’m also also jazzed about finding new books to read and stuff.  Therefore, I’m posting the recently-or-close-enough-to-recently released books on my As Of Right Now (Meaning 6:58 PM On Sunday, June 30th) Summer Reading List (Subject To Shift, Change, And/Or Especially Probably Expand As Soon As 6:59 PM On Sunday, June 30th).  I’m posting this in the hope that you, Gentle Blog Visitor, will also be jazzed about reading one or more of the books on this As Of Right Now List, and that you would also be jazzed and willing to talk about them.  I’m also posting this in the hope that you, Gentle Blog Visitor, can help this list expand — I’m always looking for new reads, especially ones that others are totally jazzed about.

My As Of Right Now (Meaning 6:58 PM On Sunday, June 30th) Summer Reading List (Subject To Shift, Change, And/Or Especially Probably Expand As Soon As 6:59 PM On Sunday, June 30th)

Fuse by Julianna Baggott: Okay, I’m kind of cheating with this one, so I figured I’d put it first as a warning: this blog entry, as a whole, is probably going to be a disappointment.  Sorry.  But I do have my reasons for posting this, which are mostly related to a heartfelt desire to find other fans of the Pure trilogy willing to FREAK OUT EXTREMELY about how amazing these books are.  I mean, SERIOUSLY.  I can’t even LANGUAGE.

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris: I’m cheating here, too.  Sorry.  I’m a little more than halfway through this book, though I must admit that I’m making my way through it very, very slowly.  It just doesn’t seem as Sedarisish as other Sedaris books, and I love some Sedarisishness.  Still, it has been a very educational read.  For instance, I just finished one essay (which did seem to have some relatively Sedarisish moments) called “Laugh, Kookaburra,” through which I discovered that a kookaburra looks like this:

This is an actual kookaburra.

This is an actual kookaburra.

Which was a good lesson, since I though a kookaburra looked like this:

This is not an actual kookaburra.  Should it be?  I'll leave that to you to decide.

This is not an actual kookaburra. Should it be? I’ll leave that to you to decide.

Also, my dad says there’s an essay about how good colonoscopy drugs are, which seems both ultimately Sedarishish and very, very accurate.

Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee:  The cheating, as you may have guessed, is a running theme.  I’ve read the main story in this sure-to-be-too-awesome-to-language collection in the single-story-book from Madras Press.  Actually, you should follow that link and buy all of their books.  I’ll wait.  Are you back?  Good.  Anyway, it’s basically the most beautifully written story ever, and I want everyone to read it so we can talk about the sentence about supping.  And because Rebecca Lee is the kind of writer who defines brilliance.  Also, Oprah wants you to read it, and are you going to disobey Oprah?  I didn’t think so.

Clearly Now, the Rain: A Memoir of Love and Other Trips by Eli Hastings: I actually haven’t cheated when it comes to this item, but that doesn’t make it any less exciting.  From what I’ve seen, it’s an eloquent exploration of Hastings’ friendship with a woman named Serala, who’s painted in layered strokes in all of her complexity.  If it’s anything like Hastings’ Falling Room, we’re in for a gorgeously constructed trip.

Safe in Your Head by Laura Valeri:  I have been lucky enough to hear Valeri read from this collection, so I guess I have cheated here, too.  But it’s a good kind of cheating because it means I can say this: if you can hear Valeri read, do it.  She brings new life to already-jumping-off-the-page-with-life stories.  I can’t wait to crack open this collection, about an Italian family who emigrates to America to escape the Red Brigades’ movement.

We Come Elemental by Tamiko Beyer: I’m stoked-beyond-stoked for this and the next book on the list.  Pick up any literary journal, and you’ll find Tamiko Beyer just freaking killing it with her poems.  Every single time, she shows language who’s boss, and language is glad to be bossed.  A masterful poet whose work is finally gathered in a collection.

Mezzanines by Matthew Olzmann: Take what I said about the stoked and the literary journals and the freaking killing it with poems above, and repeat, with Matthew Olzmann’s name.  Olzmann’s poems feel more traditional in form, but they also feel as though Olzmann shows traditional form that he is the boss and traditional form is thanking him.  As it should.

Red Doc by Anne Carson: So, I’ve actually had this book for a long time, I just haven’t read it.  Or, well, I’ve read bits and pieces of it, and those bits and pieces are crazy.  Like, Anne Carson crazy, which means crazy in an oh-no-she-didn’t-holy-crap-she-DID-and-it-was-AWESOME kind of way.  Let’s all just be honest and admit that none of us understand Anne Carson, and we probably won’t.  And that’s okay.  I remember reading an interview in which Carson says that none of us will ever understand God, and that’s okay, because the fact that none of us will understand God is one of the things that makes God God.  Think about that for a minute.  I mean, RIGHT?  And that’s how I feel about Anne Carson.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed: No, I haven’t read Dear Sugar’s book yet.  And no, I’m not caught up when it comes to the Dear Sugar column on The Rumpus.  I’m not even caught up on The Rumpus.  I don’t have one of those Write Like An [Expletive Deleted] mugs like all the cool kids do.  I’ve had things to do, okay?  Important things.  Really important things.  Like, educating the youth of America and writing books and learning how to crochet granny squares.  Okay, maybe not that last part.  I’ll read Dear Sugar’s book, okay?  God.  Thanks for the peer pressure.

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Are We Après The Avant?*

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately — like, a lot — like, an AWP-followed-by-Spring-Break a lot.  A lot of what I’ve been reading circles around one of my continual curiosities: the avant-garde, and what we consider to be the avant-garde.  This week, I delved into page after page of avant-garde poetry and prose.  It was very exciting.  And then it was, well, a little boring.

I was shocked at my own boredom, but, at the same time, I couldn’t help it.  I also couldn’t help realizing that I was reading, well, the same thing.  Over and over again.  The same kind of poem, prancing across and down the page in the same kind of way, breaking its lines at the same kinds of places.**  The same kind of realist-turned-surrealist story, with the same kind of title (“And A Gathering Of Words Which When Gathered Together Sound Ominous And/Or Biblical”).  The same kind of essay, twisting through hybridity, moving from lyric to narrative to back within the same kind of fragmentation.****  Yes, the turns each author made within the form were very often electrifyingly brilliant — but I couldn’t help but think that they were that, exactly, turns within a form rather than complete formal innovation and experiment.  And I couldn’t help but think that the fact that each piece inhabited a similar form meant, de facto, that they weren’t avant-garde.

Perhaps the issue is that, at the same time, I have been reading authors who are very definitely doing their own thing, making their own forms, creating their own shapes for their own thoughts and working them out on the page, sometimes over the course of multiple texts.  I’m thinking of Anne Carson, who has a mind unlike any other mind at work today, and who makes that mind work on the page through a dizzying, unclassifiable, inimitable collision of form and genre.  I’m thinking of the piece she read at AWP, a collaboration with a California artist, in which she explored the idea of sleep through a searingly brilliant academic critique of the character of Albertine in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.  This piece s both a brilliantly constructed essay and an immaculately built poem — a true innovation in form which might be unique to Carson’s work, starting with “The Glass Essay” ******in her 1992 Glass, Irony, and God, a text which is itself a mind-blending blur of genre and form and forms of thought.  Perhaps the most striking quality of the Albertine piece, to me at least, is that her reading revealed something truly shocking: it’s funny.  Like, actually, legitimately funny.  As in the audience couldn’t help but laugh out loud from time to time.  I now wonder if this — combining poetry, legitimate scholarship, literary analysis, and humor — is what puts the avant in the garde of Carson’s work.

Of course, we can’t all be Anne Carson — which is precisely the point.  A mind like Carson’s, with its ability to shatter form both in terms of structure and of content in order to do something that’s really, truly new, comes along only once in a little while.  Emily Dickinson’s mind was another such mind, which is another point.  Though even elementary school students know Dickinson now, she published fewer than a dozen poems in her own lifetime — which is, I think, yet another point.  Good doesn’t necessarily mean publishedBrilliant means published even less, and truly innovative and new?  Rarely does that mean published.

Perhaps, then, there’s a reason why the avant-garde feels less like individual formal innovation and more like a group form.  Perhaps what we term as “avant-garde” isn’t necessarily the work of individuals quietly bulldozing and disposing of the boundaries on their own, but of groups of people who run the bulldozers together, for support.  I’ve been reading Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty this week.  Nelson herself, I think, is an interesting case — hers is a mind that blends and bends genre, but rarely inside the same text.  This is not to say that Nelson’s work isn’t absolutely brilliant, because it is — it’s just to say that her brilliance fits inside of forms that have become, well, forms.  I don’t mean this as a critique, in any way, because I think her work fits well there: her brilliant criticism is brilliant criticism, her brilliant lyric essays are brilliant lyric essays, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

It does, however, seem symptomatic of what Nelson describes in The Art of Cruelty, in which she explores the work of various performance artists.  After a while, all of their pieces began to blend together for me; they started to feel the same, as though each performance artist worked off of the form and content of other performance artists.  Though each of the performances Nelson describes is unmistakably avant-garde, they are also avant-garde in the same way.  These artists use the same forms to express their ideas.  They push the same boundaries, test the same limits, and in the same way.  This doesn’t make their work any less important or useful, but it does, I think, make their work part of a movement.

I guess what I’m arguing here — if I’m arguing anything, if there’s anything to be argued — is that what we typically think of as avant-garde or experimental writing is writing that is part of a movement.  It’s the work of a group who are facing the same limits in the same ways.  That’s not to denigrate this kind of writing at all, but to say that perhaps we need different definitions — and different ways to talk about the work of writers who are really, truly doing their own thing.  This isn’t to say that the former is better than the latter, or vice versa, but to say that there’s a difference, and it’s one of which we should be cognizant when we talk about experimental writing.

After all, I think there’s value in pushing one’s self as an artist, in testing limits and boundaries, no matter how that’s done.  The truth is that Emily Dickinson did only publish a handful of poems during her lifetime, and we have her work now through what seems to be essentially a series of accidents.  The truth is that there might be hundreds of Emily Dickinsons out there, whose work didn’t reach us through the same sort of happy accidents.  The truth is also that if there is a group of people working together to test boundaries, their work will be more likely to reach readers, as they will be more likely to publish each other.  And they may be more likely to continue their work: as a group, human beings love groups.  More and more it seems to me that we’re pack animals.  We need company.  We need the support of people who think the way that we do.  Every human institution — from kindergarten classes to University departments to corporations — splits, eventually, into groups of like-minded people who like to do the same things.  The literary world is no different.  And the existence of a group means freer communication, which means the development of ideas, and it’s difficult to argue that there’s anything wrong with that.

Still, I think of Anne Carson.  I think of Emily Dickinson.  I think of the writer and artist and thinker working, quietly, on their own, thinking and putting their thoughts on the page in ways which can be thrilling and terrifying all at once.  I think of the artist who eschews the group and walks out, alone, into what might be a field of flowers, what might be a minefield, and keeps going.  I can’t help but think that there must be a way to support this kind of writer, or, at least, to talk about their work more clearly, without classifying it out of existence.

Though, of course, that might be just the point: if we do classify it, if we do have names for it, then it no longer exists in the same mind-scorchingly brilliant way.

In that case, let the Carsons be Carsons.  We can, with them and through them, rejoice in their ability to let the unnameable go without name.

 

*That’s right, people.  I did that IN FRENCH.  Somewhere, Madame Lee is suddenly forgiving me for pronouncing English words in a French accent for years.
** I feel it’s only right for me to go ahead and say that I in no way excuse myself from this, as I’m as much a part of the sameness as anyone — I swoon over a couplet, I love a single-line stanza, I die for a transformational line break.  Mea culpa.  Mea maxima culpa.***
*** That was Latin, which is also another language.  THIS ENTRY IS HELLA DEEP, Y’ALL.
**** Here, too, I admit that I am complicit.  I hesitate to say guilty, because I don’t think that “guilt” is an applicable term.  “Prey to the zeitgeist,*****” maybe.  But then again, is “prey” the right term?  Or is this just the form thought is taking on the page, in the age of electronic information and publishing?
*****THAT WAS GERMAN.  BOOM.
******There’s a link right there to the poem, posted on The Poetry Foundation’s website, because if you haven’t read it, you need to.  Believe me.  Just fasten your seat-belt and get ready.

Sometimes things are exciting …

… and when things are exciting, dear denizens of the Blogosphere, I like to share them with you.  One of the best things about the Internet, besides the seemingly endless and ever-regenerating number of photographs of cats wearing fruit on their heads and of sloths Photoshopped into the middle of the Crab Nebula, is that the Internet gives us the ability to share in IRL experiences we wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend IRL.  For people like

This is a photograph of me reading.  I'm taking off my reading glasses but it looks like I'm doing something dramatic and meaningful. In fact, forget the part about the reading glasses.  This is a picture of me doing something dramatic and meaningful.

This is a photograph of me reading. I’m taking off my reading glasses but it looks like I’m doing something dramatic and meaningful. In fact, forget the part about the reading glasses. This is a picture of me doing something dramatic and meaningful.

myself, whose bodies periodically refuse to work and who are, let’s face it, always like two and a half at the most seconds away from dressing all in white and living in somebody’s attic (because really, what’s the fun if it’s your own attic?), this is the definition of a blessing, a word that can so often feel insincere and general gives me a queasy case of agita, but which, in this case, absolutely applies.

Another part of The Great Blessing of the Internets (ugh, there’s the agita again) is that it allows people whose bodies periodically refuse to work, perhaps because they’re never much more than two and a half seconds away from Emily Dickinsoning up some unsuspecting nuclear family’s attic, to share with others the times they make appearances In Real Life.  Such is the case with my reading in the Indian Springs School Visiting Writers Series, which you can hear here.

The first reading in the recording isn’t mine, it’s Kate Greenstreet‘s.  If you listen to it, you’ll see why my knees were positively shaking because, seriously, how do you follow that?  You’ll also see why I’d ordered a copy of Young Tambling, her newest collection from Ahsahta Press, before I’d even left the building that evening.  I’ve been hungrily devouring the poems and people, this is one of Those Books — by that, I mean this is a life-changing book, the kind of book that leaves a reader wowed and restless and with a completely new way to look at poetry, books, art, life, everything.  That’s because, in many ways, the book isn’t really a book.  I mean, yes, it is a series of pages with words printed on them sewn together and bound.  But it doesn’t solely exist in that form, in that bound structure.  Greenstreet’s reading shows this: she re-orders the text and the text slips seamlessly into a new narrative, a new sequence of development.  Each re-ordering creates a new story, a new series of images, a new work of art.  Like she writes in the end of the collection, next to an insanely amazing oh my God seriously photograph of this book in a different incarnation, as pages of

This is a photograph of Kate Greenstreet's Young Tambling. It's been Instagrammed because its unfiltered awesomeness would make the Interwebs EXPLODE, and then where would Al Gore, astronaut sloths, and fruit-hatted cats be?

This is a photograph of Kate Greenstreet’s Young Tambling. It’s been Instagrammed because its unfiltered awesomeness would make the Interwebs EXPLODE, and then where would Al Gore, astronaut sloths, and fruit-hatted cats be?

typeset and photographs arranged (and, presumably, re-arranged) on the wall:

Although I was thinking in two-page spreads, at some point I realized that I wasn’t actually (physically) making a book.  I was making a

big rectangular piece of temporary art.

Which is SO RIDICULOUSLY INSANELY AMAZING OH MY GOD I CANNOT EVEN TALK ABOUT IT.  It’s like she’s created a work of code-based electronic poetry without the code.  Which, seriously.  AMAZING.

And there are MORE EXCITING THINGS, the first of which has to do with my actually leaving the house and going to another location, specifically Boston, where I will be talking about writing and working and how those things go together at AWP 2013 (HOLLAH).  I’ll be moderating a panel on the academic job market with three lovely friends and colleagues, Hannah De La Cruz Abrams (you should totally read her book, The Man Who Danced with Dolls, which is so beautiful I can’t even talk about it and is one of the few books I immediately read again after finishing), Sarah Domet (author of 90 Days to Your Novel) and Jared Yates Sexton (author of An End to All Things).  The panel’s called Navigating the Track: The Writer and the Nontenured Position.  It’s at noon on Saturday in Room 104 and should be pretty awesome.  You can find more information about it on the AWP Website, here.  Keep scrolling ’til you find it.  I’ll also be a’signing books at the Toadlily Press Table in the Bookfair on Friday at 11:30 am.  Come and find me and say hello!  I will probably desperately need some coffee too, so if you’d like to bring some my way, that would be great.

See?  EXCITING THINGS.  And God bless Al Gore for inventing the Interwebs so we can all share in them.