In 2002, the City of New York created Poem in Your Pocket Day as part of the city’s National Poetry Month celebration. In 2009, the Academy of American Poets took it national, encouraging the country to share, read, and appreciate poetry.
So let me ask you: is that a poem in your pocket?
Here’s the one in mine.
by Molly Brodak
—burst-through bricks were just made that way, ok;
there’s no bossy phone calling, no matching mustard
suits everyone has but you. Some people make lace.
Some people depend on hatred. Blades need making
—see who wins? Your package arrived damaged: a hand fan
with a goldfish eyeing out and some of that hardcornered emptiness
between motifs on Norwegian wallpaper. I tried sending gems
a gold dress for when you decide to eat again, a pretty brunette
paintbrush. But how perfectly awful being a button
on a city mouse’s waistcoat, I thought, how loud
is a new leopard in my heart’s bark rowboat, how
I didn’t realize it was me you hated,
as a photo of a galaxy is unimaginable.
…perhaps in all of this you would take away the most valuable lesson, that to write down a story from the past, you must be loose with the facts; you must only be true to the truth.
A few elements of fiction that may make me wary:
- Multiple narrators
- Second person narration
- Mythology and/or divisive cultural practices and beliefs
The more difficult such a tool is, the more dramatically it can be employed well or poorly. For each wary-inducing device I have listed, I can name beautiful books that rely on it, authors that excel at it (Faulker several times over, Twain, Calvino, A Visit From the Goon Squad, Alice Munro, The Things They Carried, Gaiman, Achebe).
But to combine all of the above? To bring me to the pique of consternation and, still, to succeed?
The Last Warner Woman tells the story (from two viewpoints: sometimes in dialect, sometimes in the second person, sometimes from the writer’s perspective) of one of the last Warners, a religious authority in Revivalist Christianity that, through spiritual intervention, can predict the—often but not always abysmal—future. The book’s overtones are about race and struggle and compassion; the undertones, many, are layers of thought about gender and sexuality, the construction of narratives, and how greatly reality shifts for each person.
So, after all, Miller may have been very wise to smash so many narrative devices into his story—they not only demonstrate his talent but reflect something of his point. Reality is not singular.
Miller shows this, naturally, from the beginning. “Mr. Writer Man,” as our Warner Woman calls him, begins his story so: “Once upon a time there was a leper colony in Jamaica.” Mr. Writer Man then neatly, with humor and keen details, tells how Pearline Portious, a young woman who liked to knit colorful doilies that no one would buy, began to knit bandages for the leper colony’s residents.
After setting the basic story, the author introduces the dual narration, begins to explore the trouble with truth. The Last Warner Woman, Pearline Portious’s daughter, disagrees with the narrative the readers have been fed. The story begins again:
…if you read what I did read, that Once Upon A Time There Was A Leper Colony In Jamaica, then you need to understand something straight away: that is a make-up story, a lie from the pit of hell…It wasn’t once upon a time. It is still there today and I can go back and visit anytime I wants to…when Mr. Writer Man did start to write this story, he should have put down two words to begin it all. Crick, Crack. And if he did start the story like that we would all know that his world was just a world of make believe.
So begins a subtle bickering between narratives and a so-deft-as-to-be-unbelievable weaving of stories that often do not cohere. Mr. Writer Man is researching a novel. At some time, he visits Jamaica. At another time, he finds Adamine, now living in England. He admits, “…there is something that happens when the writer begins to reveal himself…It compels him, quite frankly, toward honesty. So what if I were to tell you—I am not actually sure where the beginning of this book is.” I cannot be sure either but do not care. The story is Adamine’s. No matter how Writer Man intrudes, what role he plays, he only recounts and seeks out her story.
Which is a tremendous one. From the leper colony to the Revivalist Church, from a visit to a Jamaican strip club to an arranged marriage in England, Miller creates a compelling, sympathetic life. And a believable one, Jamaican dialect and all; Adamine needs her “did born”s and “pickney”s and misuse of articles so we can believe in her role as a Warner Woman in Jamaica, as a stranger in England. She notes the discrepancy:
What white man go to on Sunday, that thing name church; but what black woman go to name cult. What white man worship is the living God himself; but what black woman worship name Satan or Beelzebub. Whatever it is that white man accept in his heart is a thing that make all the sense in the world; but what black woman accept in her heart is stupidness and don’t worth a farthing.
Of course, she’s right. Miller’s book is much more than a condemnation of the (still) stubborn racial, class, and gender barriers, so when this passage appears, we notice. Its truth seems more stark. By this time, we know Adamine as a spiritual and, yes, eccentric woman, the kind who can look at an evil man and say, “‘Him is the one who name Abaddon. Him name is Rutibel. Some call him The Wicked One. Know his name, my people. Is him that name Satan.’” As she becomes more entrenched in Warning, her relationship with society falters; eventually, it fails entirely.
On official UK documents, Adamine’s “Religious Persuasion” is not listed. Blank. Her church and the life she understands are far away. Even the truth evades her as she begins to wonder if her own story is not quite what she thought: “…maybe some of the things that this Writer Man has put down on his paper is true after all. Like maybe he find out things I been trying to forget my whole life.” Maybe a story does not start at the beginning.
Once upon a time a writer wrote a splendid story, about a writer who wrote a story about a woman who warned. He used many devices to tell the story of her life and created a story of great depths. If you’ve read it, you know this. If you haven’t, I have two things to tell you: her name is Adamine Bustamante and she was born amongst the lepers. Go read about her.
* * *
One lucky reader will receive a free copy of The Last Warner Woman, courtesy of Coffee House Press. To enter: “Like” or “reblog” this post. If you do both, you get two entries! But only two. Tweet about the book/my review/Coffee House Press/Kei Miller/the giveaway and include the hashtag #WarnerWinner. One entry per Twitter account. If you have neither Tumblr nor Twitter, send me an email with your contact information—use the contact link in the sidebar. One entry per person. Entries must be submitted by midnight tonight, EST.
Fun for everyone: use the discount code BOOKSMATTER30 on the Coffee House Press website and receive 30% off of this wonderful book! Support small presses! Order now!
The Last Warner Woman by Kei Miller
Coffee House Press, March 2012
ISBN: 9781566892957. 270 pp.
“I wrote The Right Hand of Sleep in a futile attempt to get my first girlfriend to take me back; Canaan’s Tongue was largely written as a way of venting my horror at the turn that the country had taken in 2001. The question of who Lowboy was written for is harder to answer. In a way, I suppose, I was writing it for anybody who would listen.” —John Wray, “How to Write on the Subway”
“The place of women in the literary world is still as urgent an issue as it has ever been. I worry that other women of my generation, having taken their admission to this world as a natural right, have grown as complacent as I have been. But admission is not the same thing as acceptance. And what the reception of literature by women over the last few decades—longer, of course, but let’s keep to a manageable scope—shows us is that acceptance is a long way off.”
—Ruth Franklin, “Why the Literary Landscape Continues to Disadvantage Women”
* * *
Both Wray and Franklin are the recipients of a 2012 Guggenheim Fellowship and a New York Public Library Cullman Center Fellowship. They are working on, respectively, The Lost Time Accidents, a novel about a family of renegade physicists, and Household Spirits, a biography of American author Shirley Jackson.
Of all my friends, my friend Gur has the most theories. And of all his theories, the one that definitely has the best chance of being right is his theory of boredom. According to Gur’s theory of boredom, everything that happens in the world today is because of boredom: love, war, inventions, fake fireplaces—ninety-five percent of all that is pure boredom. He includes in the other five percent, for example, the time two guys beat the shit out of him when they robbed him on the subway in New York two years ago. Not that those guys weren’t a little bored, but they looked really hungry.
So begins one of the (many) tidily written and surprising and sort of magical stories in Etgar Keret’s collection The Nimrod Flipout. Keret’s latest story collection, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, was just published last month, but I decided to taste test his earlier work first.
With titles like “One Kiss on the Mouth in Mombasa,” “My Girlfriend’s Naked,” and “Actually, I’ve Had Some Phenomenal Hard-ons Lately,” the stories contained in The Nimrod Flipout mingle a precise and dry humor with chunks of devastation. A story begins with a magic trick in a bar and ends with an image of bitter loneliness. A story seems to be about a perverted taxi driver’s obsession with the breasts of eighteen-year-olds but ends with an encapsulation of humanity’s fragility. And, somehow, Keret manages to accomplish these shifts of focus, these unexpected depths, in, on average, 4.97 pages. He sends readers on one path that we think we understand, and, in mere minutes, we find ourselves deep in the bowels of emotion with no idea how we got there because Keret’s tone is so casual, so deceptive.
On a great television show, I once heard the line, “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.” It’s a façade of ease and of being just-so that reminds me of Keret’s stories.
BONUS: For those in the greater New York City area, Keret will speak about his latest book with Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, on Sunday, April 29. Details.
* * *
The Nimrod Flipout by Etgar Keret
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, April 2006
ISBN: 9780374222437. 176 pp.
Suddenly, a Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, March 2012
ISBN: 9780374533335. 208 pp.
Writers love getting a great blurb for their new book. Publicists love a great blurb. Editors love a great blurb. You know who doesn’t love a great blurb? The writers who write them, out of the glowing generosity of their godforsaken hearts.
The reliably hilarious Adam Mansbach (you probably read his fake children’s book, Go the Fuck to Sleep) shared his blurb writing pricing system with The New Yorker. Here’s a selection.
* * *
This is your first book. (+$100)
This is your first book in a decade. (+$150)
I know you. (-$50)
We made out at a party. (+$25)
We got drunk together at a literary festival once, but I could tell you were thinking the whole time about how now you could ask me for a blurb. (+$75)
You are making this request in person at a book signing. (+$150)
You are the only person at this book signing. (-$100)
The first word of your two-word title is a gerund. (+$75)
The word after the gerund in your two-word title is a proper noun masquerading as a regular noun, i.e. “Losing Ground,” a novel about a man named Peter Ground. (+$250)
Your bio contains a list of wacky jobs you’ve held and/or states that you “divide your time” between two cities, countries, or continents. (+$300)
Your book is dedicated to a dead writer you never met. (+$350)
You are a literary novelist best known for writing an expletive-laced fake children’s book. (-$40)
Your advance was higher than mine. (+$200)
You were named one of the “20 Best Writers Under 5’6”” or one of “America’s Best Looking Début Novelists” or some other bullshit list that I should have been on but wasn’t because my agent is a hack who can’t get arrested in this town. (+$450)
But as we, readers, spend more and more time on the Internet and on e-readers, I worry that we are neglecting to appreciate all of the beautiful books.
Let’s think about it:
- “A digital book has no cover. There’s no paper to be bound up with a spine and protected inside a sturdy jacket.” …are ebooks killing the book cover?
- Designer and illustrator Chris Silas Neal speaks about the process of illustrating a picture book: “The biggest challenge illustrating this book was maintaining a healthy balance of poetic-ness with educational and factual imagery.”
- At the Center for Book Arts in New York, one can take classes on Dyed Parchment, Illuminated Manuscripts, and, of course, Bookbinding.
- The Frankenfont Project reconstructs Frankenstein using parts of incomplete fonts found in PDFs on the internet. By the end of the book, the fonts are largely non-Roman, specialized, and illegible.
- A selection from the Morgan Library:
- An inscribed first edition with original dust jacket of Faulkner’s Light in August
- An embroidered binding of The Holy Bible (ca. 1652)
- From the illuminated manuscript Hours of Catherine of Cleves, here’s Last Judgment and Man of Sorrows Petitioned by Pentitents (ca. 1440)
- Galileo Galilei’s notes on the satellites of Jupiter (14-25 January 1611)
- Designer Irma Boom talks about the creation of Sheila Hicks’s Weaving as Metaphor, judged to be the Most Beautiful Book in the World
- Maria Popova, aka the Brain Picker, lists 10 essential books on typography. Guess what: they’re all beautiful.
And in an act that, I hope, has inspired readers to think more about how books are made:
- Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been crowd-sourcing photos and anecdotes for his upcoming memoir.
In 1844, Ralph Waldo Emerson published a new essay, “The Poet.” In it, he demands a revolution in American literature, a disavowal of traditional forms, and one man with the skill and the passion to make these changes. While the young country already possessed thriving naturalists, politicians, inventors, it remained “yet unsung” in verse. No previously penned poem—none by Milton or Homer or even by the homegrown poets, Anne Bradstreet, Edward Taylor, or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—captured the New World’s specificity of landscape, politics, and people and its atmosphere of innovation. Emerson demands that this poet be “representative” and “the sayer, the namer”; the true poet would unite with his surroundings through language.
Emerson suggests that all aspects of life connect to the poet, whose vocalization is both a creation and a reflection of the Universe. The poetic self is the center, standing above other selves—not due to higher quality or, even, to heightened awareness but to heightened expression because “the men of more delicate ear write down [the primal] cadences more faithfully, and these transcripts, though imperfect, become the songs of nations.”
From 2007-2008, I considered Emerson’s call and those who have answered it, particulary Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself” (from Leaves of Grass) and A.R. Ammons in Garbage (these are both tremendous poems that you should read).
After a year of reading and rereading and annotating and sleeping in a library carrel, I decided that the landscape of American poetry provides many voices answering Emerson’s call and that these begin with Whitman. In the early twentieth-century, Louis Untermeyer responded to the growing genre of American poetry with this argument: “It is the spirit of Whitman which has freed our poets.” In both form and utterance, Whitman inspired voices to find and to express themselves, particularly with his concept of Democratic poetry. By writing for the common people, in common language, and by making the common people a focus in his poetry, he allows these people easier access to poetry. Though Whitman expresses the belief that there was one American poet and that he was it, no poet has come stand to stand as comprehensive representative of the country, suggesting that all poets—now coming from every area of the country and every class of people—reside on the periphery. In Garbage, A.R. Ammons reveals, through Whitman and his many other predecessors, that language’s imperfection hinders the possibility of a single poet-prophet.
[…] there is a mound
too, in the poet’s mind dead language is hauled
off to and burned down on, the energy held and
shaped into new turns and clusters, the mind
strengthened by what it strengthens
Regardless of accurate depiction, the inherent limitations of a single voice cannot overcome the discrepancy between reality and linguistic representation. To achieve a genuine reflection, the poem needs either less language (silence) or more. Poets rarely employ the former option. The ending of Ammons’s lengthy poem (yes, it is a 120-page poem, yes, it’s worth reading every word)suggests that no one poet exists at the center of the poetic world:
[…] if I reap the peripheries will I
get hardweed seed and dried roughage, roughage
like teasel and cattail and brush above snow in
winter, pure design in a painted hold.
but that all poets encircle an ideal representation of an ultimate reality; as more voices “reap the peripheries” and accumulate decades of language and experience, they all progress closer to the center, bringing grass and garbage with them.
Fewer readers imagine they can create their own [Gertrude] Stein; many feel she is beyond their capacity to understand. Maybe this is because she has been claimed as the sine qua non of the avant-garde. But she aligned herself with her time. Being part of the “contemporary composition” was central to her work….
I enjoy Stein most as a theorist: her ideas startle me, in whatever form they appear. (I call myself an inexpert.) One of those ideas was that becoming a classic could kill a work of art. Readers’ responses should shift, like Ida, with changing times, to make a book new(er); otherwise it doesn’t truly live in the present. If Stein becomes an endpoint for literary invention — a classic — her work can’t be read in the present tense. Literature can’t rest on its laurels. I figure that if Stein were alive now, she’d be rambunctious differently. And she wouldn’t be writing like Gertrude Stein.” —
Lynne Tillman, “Reconsidering the Genius of Gertrude Stein”
* * *
Yale University Press recently released new editions of Stein’s Ida (ed. Logan Esdale) and Stanzas in Meditation: The Corrected Edition (ed. Susannah Hollister and [my wonderful one-time professor!] Emily Setina)
The “real-life events” contained in the title of Kevin Moffett’s story collection are sad. In one story, “Lugo In Normal Time,” Lugo visits his ex-wife’s pottery studio behind the house they once shared; already, the story has been a narrative of disappointment, estrangement, formless grief. Lugo used to destroy his wife’s unsatisfactory clay creations so he considers the current reject pile:
This pot he wants to break with a single righteous blow of the hammer. He sets it on the ground, lifts the hammer and strikes it once, hard. The force collapses the pot and produces a cloud of what looks like smoke, but which Lugo can see, after the cloud thins, is ash. Ash and tiny fragments of bone, which spill out onto the grass.
Small moments like this stand out in the most successful of Moffett’s stories: young men with vague ideas of righteousness cannot make the pieces of their lives fit together, fumble into unexpected error. Moffett writes these characters gracefully and knowingly, with the underlying suggestion that, for this young author, autobiographical stories still triumph (though his talent promises more in the future). The award-winning title story and “First Marriage,” two of the collection’s strongest, reveal an unnamable malaise in the lives of their characters. I would happily have read the title story three or four times in place of some of the collection’s weaker narratives, like “In the Pines,” which follows the quiet life of an unconvincing elderly woman who, like most of Moffett’s characters, suffers from a lack of connection with those around her. The story is largely contained in Alta’s thoughts, like, “Alta didn’t want anything to grow in her name after she died” and “The wind made barely a sound, Alta realized.” I couldn’t believe in Alta and didn’t want to, her shape and sounds representing only the barest form of a lonely older woman in wait.
But, in the magnificent title story, a young and struggling writer discovers that his father has begun to publish short stories. Good short stories. With the young writer’s creative anxiety and strained paternal relationship, the author creates a delicate picture of the struggle for identity and for success. His prose shines when discussing Fred Moxley’s stunted writing process (hinting at familiarity): “I quit writing for a few weeks and went out into the world. I visited the airport, the beach, a fish camp, a cemetery, a sinkhole…. At my desk, I struggled to make something of this. What moment made other moments possible.”
Not to align the author too much with this character, but that is a pretty apt description of what Moffett himself tries to do in this, his second collection. The events he writes are sad and small, barely events at all in many stories, but he inspects them and deepens them with every neatly-wrought sentence. If he, too, visited airports and beaches to construct his stories, the research and the struggle are not evident; the stories flow easily. He throws his characters into loneliness and lovelust and unease, and we watch them very, very quietly try to make sense of their little lives.
* * *
Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events by Kevin Moffett
Harper, March 2012
ISBN: 9780062069221. 240 pp.