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Sunday, February 21, 2010


Illustration at left: Clive Hicks-Jenkins, painting for Val/Orson cover and jacket.

Here are a few Melvillean "fast fish" from the wide net. Each has made me pause of late; each has interested me. As you might expect from my writing, the catch contains poetry fish and children's-books fish and novel fish and more. And feel free to leave me a fish or two in the comments. There are an awful lot of "loose fish" in the sea.


This small essay packs into many of the problems created by a runaway poetry market full of back-slapping and academics and an overgrowth of poetry magazines. While it makes me feel very glad that I quit teaching right after tenure (costly thing, that, but it would have been more expensive in ways that matter not to do so), it also emphasizes that I ran away from the Club, and that I am out wandering in the wilderness where a would-be and occasionally genuine poet lurks under every stone and leaf. So far the comments jostle wildly--all to the good, I expect.

"Every now and then someone asks me, 'Who are the best poets writing today?' My answer? 'I have no idea.' Nor do I believe that anyone else does. I do have an uneasy feeling that a Blake and a Dickinson may be buried in the overgrowth, and I fear that neither current nor future readers may get to enjoy their art. That would be the most devastating result of the new math of poetry. The loss would be incalculable."


This is a delicious series of meditations on what is called "literary" and what is called "genre," proposing that the literature currently coming into being finds its roots not in modernism but in mid-twentieth century fantasy and science fiction. I've been to this site before and always find Ted Gioia interesting.

"A critic as astute as James Wood--who ranks, for better or worse, among the most influential writers on literature in our time--can continue to pretend that the "realist" tradition in literature somehow reigns supreme. Yet any perspicacious reader should be able to see that tinkering with reality is the real driving force in contemporary fiction, and has been for a long time."


Clive Hicks-Jenkins, who painted the wonderful cover of Val/Orson, has started an “Artlog,” and I highly recommend it. If you’ve at all interested in the visual arts, how painters think, or how a sensitive and highly verbal visual artist might describe his wanderings through the theatre (dance, set design, choreography, direction, more) and toward a life of painting, go! Clive is one of my favorite people, and his writing has great charm. See you there...


Though this approach to marketing is not new, the examples are illuminating and could be helpful to other writers: when she found that bookstores are often not as welcoming for new writers as they might be, Marie Mutsuki Mockett wrote a series of talks related to her first book. She used them in alternate venues as a way of promoting her novel. Every writer could use a dash of Mockettian boldness and enterprise.

I happen to be fond of The Baton Rouge Advocate, in part because I love Louisiana and in part because editor Greg Langley has been so supportive of my books and in part because it's one of the few newspapers left that has held fast to book reviewing. I remember doing my first book with FSG and being told that Greg Langley "was one of the good ones." He is. Here his wonderful in-depth interview with Ernest Gaines.

"Age, then, was a logical complication in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Gaines sees her age, her endurance as the defining facet of her character.

“I think anybody who can live to 110 years old, who can have baseball and ice cream at 110, they are heroic to me,” he said.

“I was criticized by a lot of my young, black militant critics in the ’70s (for that). Here’s this little old lady, there’s no shotgun, no machine gun in her hand — she’s not doing anything. What is heroic about it?"


One of the more interesting pieces I’ve seen on the subject of “boy books” is this consideration of what pleases boys in stories. David Elzey's references to research are useful; the bit about boys writing noisy prose and being reflective not about what is past but about what must be done next I found especially good. While not yet complete, the essay so far discusses the uses of humor, feeling, action, and violence. The examples and discussion of them would be especially illuminaing for a young writer. David Elzey also does a lot of reviewing on two other sites and is a brand new M. F. A. who plans to write many books for preteen and teen boys.

As I just finished the third draft on a novel designed especially for my third child, a boy of twelve, I was torn between being glad I hadn’t read this before beginning and some regret for the same.


Nobody at the Palace has read or seen anything of the Twilight series, but that didn’t stop me from being fascinated with John Granger’s reading of the books as Mormon allegory—I don’t know too much about Mormonism, so I’ll have to take his knowledge on faith.

Mr. Granger has long considered the curious business of why the Harry Potter and Twilight books have elicited such a huge response from readers. In both cases, he leans on this core idea: “Mircea Eliade, in his book The Sacred and the Profane, suggests that popular entertainment, especially imaginative literature and film, serves a religious or mythic function in a secular culture.”

Considering Twilight, he reaches this conclusion: “In a nutshell, Bella is Eve and Edward is the Adam-God of Mormon theology. Their “Fall”—when Bella/Eve/Man chooses the apple from the tray of Edward/Adam/God, although rife with dangers and difficulties, is the beginning of a spiritual transformation culminated by an alchemical wedding with the God-Man. The story is a romantic allegory depicting the roles and responsibilities of the divine and human lovers, but it has the specifically Mormon hermetic twist that sex within marriage is the endgame and the only means to personal salvation and immortal life.”

And that article made me look back to an older one…


Now and then I still think about this wonderful Joseph Epstein article about the art of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Need I say, to remember an article long after it was read is rather unusual? It has some lovely consideration of particular stories, and it sheds some light on some contemporary problems with triviality and lifelessness in the book-making line: “What makes Isaac Bashevis Singer's fiction so immensely alive is that its author understood that nothing has successfully replaced this drama, with its sense that one's actions matter, that they are being judged in the highest court of all, and that the stakes couldn't be greater. No contemporary human drama has been devised that can compare or compete with the drama of salvation, including the various acquisition dramas: those of acquiring pleasure, money, power, fame, knowledge, happiness on earth in any of its forms.”


Here's Annie Finch on the sonnet in “Chaos in Fourteen Lines: Reformations and Deformations of the Sonnet” at Contemporary Poetry Review: “The very familiarity of the sonnet expands a poet’s possibilities for working with and changing it, and, on exploration, the apparently confining poetic structure of this stubbornly persisting form may prove one of the most accommodating poetic shapes.”


Between gifts at Christmas and an unusual number of friends with recent and forthcoming books, I have a wildly tottering To Read stack. But somehow I need just one more…


  1. Ah yes, always too many books, and yet always room for more...I think we suffer from the same affliction, Marly:-) (It's a good one to have though, I think...)

  2. Yes, I'm afraid that I've already ordered the book, too.

    And I'm looking forward to the time when your new one pops up. March? May? Lovely title.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.