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Monday, April 25, 2011

A gap in The House of Words + Travels

North Carolina Arboretum
April 23, 2011
I've had a little difficulty with managing out-of-town wireless, family events, and the need to be off for further adventures, so I am going to take a break in The House of Words. I am sorry to break in the middle of Dave Bonta's interesting responses and hope he will forgive me when I meet him on the 3rd of May! 

Tomorrow I will be off to Wales via Asheville, Atlanta, Paris, and Birmingham, and I have a dire need right now to work on publicity for events on the 12th  (City Lights, Sylva, North Carolina) and 26th (The Green Toad, Oneonta, New York.)

Thanks for understanding, and we'll have more of The House of Words after Wales! In the meantime, adventure is singing her siren song...

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Throne of Psyche news + Ashley Norwood Cooper

I have been having a bit of trouble finding wireless where I am at the moment--I'm afraid that I have abandoned most of my family and headed for Cullowhee, North Carolina. It's here, but it's hard to find at the tail end of Lent. So I wasn't able to post part of Dave Bonta's sequence on Friday. So for Easter weekend I'll post a bit of news plus a copy of an article I wrote for the Freeman's Journal in Cooperstown. One fun thing about the newspaper is that the founder built a house in 1808, and that is now my home. So I live in what was built as a wordsmith's house.


The Throne of Psyche is out, and I have finally seen a copy. And I must say that the art work by Clive Hicks-Jenkins is spectacular, that Burt & Burt are splendid designers, and that Mercer University Press has a level of attention to detail and quality papers and binding that I have not encountered before. My mother, a librarian for an astounding number of years, pronounced the binding work "perfect," and that is a thing that has never happened. She also said that the way the spine was done was precisely designed for library use as well, and it usually is not--that is, no bit of title would be covered by the shelving information. She is a demanding woman!


Elsewhere in The Throne of Psyche news, another poem-as-video by Paul Digby has made it onto the Moving Poems site. Thanks, Dave! Thanks, Paul!

* * *

THE FREEMAN'S JOURNAL, Cooperstown, New York
MARLY YOUMANS: ART REVIEW: ‘Snared In The Moment When Things Go Awry...’

Ashley Norwood Cooper’s latest work, “The Bear,”
is among 18 paintings displayed at the Earlville Opera House
through May 14
Cooperstown artist Ashley Norwood Cooper has a strong solo show of 18 casein-on-board paintings, “Homebodies,” at the East Gallery of the Earlville Opera House. These pictures are part of the resurgence of narrative, representation and pictorial beauty in painting. They are resonant with half-told stories and rich with mystery.

They demonstrate a fascinating relationship to what in the past has been considered a traditional, often-scorned woman’s subject, domestic life. Her statements about her work may sound modest: “I try to paint life in a small town as thoroughly and honestly as I can. We live with our families, protected from the elements in houses built on the bones of the past.” She finds that “mundane details are fraught with mystery and meaning.”

Ashley in her studio!
But the paintings have something powerful and not at all modest to say. Houses have been cut away so that we see simultaneously the ordinary and the terrible intrusions created by nature, accident and danger. These are not paintings removed from real life, located in some distant arena of action. They are the places where we live and die, where transformation is continually happening. Their middle-class interiors remind me of a poem by Mary Jo Salter in which “hidden in the house a fine / crack – nothing spectacular, / only a leak somewhere – is slowly / widening to claim each of us.”

The entire world functions as a kind of doll’s house, where we are allowed to see into the earth or through private walls. The bones of a bear seem to stir, longing to attack a heavy-racked deer that lowers its head to drink from a child’s wading pool in the dream-like “Night Secrets.” Not knowing that mystery is only a few walls away, a man and woman embrace inside the house. Here and elsewhere bones of the past remind us of the scope of time, that it is large and that our lives in the shelter of homes are small.

In “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board,” my favorite of the paintings, children play an occult game down in the basement, lifting a girl into the air with only two fingers from each hand. Weird light spills onto her face; her mouth is open, and she is in the grip of something ecstatic. What have these children conjured? The gold and green gleams shed from a streetlight through a basement window and the face of the half-thrilled, half-horrified child are uncanny.

That uncanniness is contagious. It infects the entire house as well as the yard and street glimpsed outside, where bats jitter and swarm in the twilight. A figure leaving a car seems strangely vulnerable to the open air. Upstairs, reflected eerily in a big-screen TV, a naked man stoops, seeking to get into bed with his wife, who has stiffly ensconced herself in the very center of the bed, her body as pale and cold as the sheets. Outside, a skeleton under the ground gropes upward, as if awakened by the séance game and wishing to snatch at life.

The figures in “The Bear,” Ashley Cooper’s most recent work on exhibit at Earlville, show signs of wanting to escape the dimensions of her current paintings. They have grown large and suggest that the artist is looking for bigger rooms to inhabit. She is looking for generous studio space where she can work on a larger canvas and has ideas about a new project. It will be interesting to watch where she goes from here.

In the cut-away interior of “The Bear,” a family is frozen at the moment when a bear knocks over the aluminum garbage can outside – awakened, caught up, and alarmed. Picasso once said that we see a painting better when it’s not hung tidily on a nail but is hung crookedly. These paintings are crooked in just such a way: their human occupants are snared in the moment when things go awry. Life is illuminated by strangeness and is suddenly more real and intense than it was a moment before.

Ashley Norwood Cooper is an artist with a vocation, one that we locals ought to support with our attention and time and, yes, money. From now through May 14, pay a visit to her work at the Earlville Opera House, a model for arts programs in our area.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The House of Words (no. 23): Dave Bonta and internet publishing, 4

Dave Bonta's "Indian pipes"

MY: It also strikes me that you avoid much of the unrest and lack of satisfaction that plagues many writers once they attempt to enter the publishing world. You determine the extent of your freedoms and will what your world will be. You determine what standards measure your work. Comment?
from Dave's "Words on the Street"
series, discussed in the prior post

DB: True enough. I've never really depended on getting published to feel good about myself or my work, and now that I can reach more readers through Via Negativa than I ever could have hoped to at most of the small print journals I used to struggle to get into, I feel even less pressure than before to play the submissions game. It's not just numbers, either. I reach people who would never pick up a literary magazine at a newsstand, or even necessarily visit one online.

I do feel there's value in submitting to journals with editors who have the time and inclination to suggest improvements — which is pretty much limited to online journals, I guess. I feel like a bit of a hypocrite: I run an online journal, but almost never submit my own work to journals unless invited. But mostly that's because very few journals consider previously blogged material, and I write first and foremost to feed the blog.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

House of Words (no. 22): Dave Bonta and internet publishing, 3


Dave Bonta, "Birch leaf in ice"

DB:  I was also pushed to do other creative things to feed the blog, such as take photos, which I hadn't done since I was a kid. And the direct ancestor to my microblog, The Morning Porch, was a daily writing exercise at Via Negativa called Words on the Street, where I had this cartoon I'd drawn of a bum holding a sign, and every day I wrote a new message for the sign. Again, the push to come up with new content every day was transformative.

Over time I've accumulated new tools for organizing content, such as the software plugin I use for series at Via Negativa, and as new projects suggest themselves, I have to consider carefully whether they deserve a new site or can be integrated into something I'm already doing — and, crucially, whether I really have time for something else. Bringing out print editions of my poetry is farther down the priority list.
Dave Bonta, "Luna moth with harvestman"

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The House of Words (no. 21): Dave Bonta, 2

Continued from Dave Bonta and internet publishing, 1

Dave Bonta, "Talus"
I don't regret the rise of Facebook, Twitter and company, because I think a lot of people who didn't really want to write used to feel pressure to engage in long-form blogging, and quickly burnt out on it and disappeared from the scene. And I think it's very important for writers to engage with others who are not writers. But I do miss the more in-depth conversations that used to take place in blog comment threads even as recently as five years ago.

MY: I started out as an innocent in the print and book world and met all the usual mad, mad world discouragements and fleabites: multiple editors who left for greener pastures and orphaned my books; great historical events nudging my book out of the way, Jonathan Franzen comically shoving my book and others out of the way (along with 9-11, not at all comically), multiple editors who fell out of the business for various reasons, the problem of being on great publishers’ lists but not getting a “push,” etc. I imagine that in some ways you avoid all the annoyances of print world (and when you do have a print book, as you now do, it emerges naturally from your online world) by having an online kingdom. Is that how you see it?

DB: Yeah. My mother is a mid-list nonfiction author with ups and downs at multiple presses, so the traditional writer's path held little romance for me. I had pretty much given up on submitting poems to print journals by 2001, when I racked up close to 40 rejections in a row before finally landing another acceptance. I just couldn't afford the postage. I approached blogging as a form of self-publishing from the outset; it's just that poetry didn't happen to be my focus at first. Though I abandoned all pretense of having a thematic focus after about six months, Via Negativa continued to be dominated by long-form expository writing about religion, philosophy, anthropology and culture for about two years, until I finally got that out of my system. But gradually the poems began to creep in, and I was encouraged by the positive responses from other readers and bloggers.

I've come to feel that blogging and poetry writing are an ideal match, at least for those of us who are shameless enough to share imperfect drafts with the world. One friend — Dale Favier — credits my posting of original poems at Via Negativa for sparking his own interest in modern poetry, which I find enormously gratifying. And I've watched any number of other bloggers grow as poets through blogging, myself included. In my case, I was never very good at keeping a journal — if no one but me was going to read it, what's the point? So the discipline of daily blogging has really whipped me into shape.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The House of Words (no. 20): Dave Bonta and internet publishing, 1
Sail off to Phoenicia for audio files, purchases,
and information about Dave Bonta.
Today begins a conversation with Dave Bonta, who is well-known for his many online enterprises, mentioned below. He also has several new print books, one being Ode to Tools from Phoenicia Publishing. Publisher Beth Adams says of that "Dave's popular blog, Via Negativa, contains six years of his almost-daily essays, poems, photographs and videos, but this is -- rather incredibly, considering the blog's breadth and consistently high quality -- the first book that's come out of it. Though he lives on a fairly remote mountainside in rural Pennsylvania, Dave is quick to point out that he's 'not nearly as handy as these odes might suggest' and that his favorite tool is the computer mouse. A writer of poems since the age of seven whose work has appeared in numerous publications, he's now the co-editor of qarrtsiluni online literary magazine and an author who has fully embraced the Internet but says he's 'way more excited to read these poems in print than he thought he'd be.' We hope you'll be excited too."

Dave also has a chapter of poems in the soon to be launched anthology, The Book of Ystwyth: Six poets on the work of Clive Hicks-Jenkins. This gorgeous, profusely-illustrated book will be launched with a reading at Aberystwyth University on May 6th, with all five living poets in attendance and Clive reading for the late Catriona Urquhart. I'm looking forward to meeting Dave in Wales and reading with him.

Co-distributed by the Grey Mare Press (UK)
and Carolina Wren Press (US)

MY: You have a little empiry with qarrtsiluni, Via Negativa, Woodrat Photoblog, The Morning Porch, and Moving Poems (not to mention Festival of the Trees and other side activities I may not even see.) When and how did you start, and does your internet world just expand gradually in time, or have you had some sort of plan — is it simply wandering and finding new paths?

DB: Yes, it's been gradual and completely unplanned. I began posting things on the web in early 2003, as we were ramping up to invade Iraq. My first site was on the now-defunct Geocities. My only internet access then was a glacially slow dial-up connection at my parents' house. Prior to that, I had shared essays and occasional poems via email lists, so it felt like a natural next step, especially since some of the friends whose email lists I'd taken to hijacking — patriotic sorts sharing jingoistic cartoons and the like — were beginning to wise up and cloak the address list so I couldn't respond with a "reply all."

Geocities had no comment feature, so the only feedback was by email or occasional links from other, more widely read websites. Still, I didn't know any better and it was fun having my own site, with pages for homebrew recipes and forest issues as well as essays, which were in the lyrical-political style of Arundhati Roy and Eduardo Galeano. Had I not been on a slow boil about our war in Afghanistan and then Iraq, it would've taken me a lot longer to get an online soapbox, I'm sure, given that I am both very lazy and generally averse to change.

Friends started telling me about Blogger that summer, but like most literary snobs I turned my nose up at it, both because of the absurd and ugly word, "blog," and also because of what I was hearing about blogs in the mainstream media: that they were filled with worthless minutiae of people's daily lives and/or links accompanied by minimal, uninformed comments. It didn't seem at all attractive. When I finally did start a Blogger site in mid-December 2003, I called it Via Negativa in part because I had a chip on my shoulder about the medium, and wanted to see if I could take writing about nothing and kick it up a notch or two.

I am eternally grateful to Blogger for forcing me to learn HTML, and later CSS. The only way to get links in the sidebar back then was to edit the template, and Blogger didn't even have a native comments system yet, so like everyone else I had to paste in the code for Haloscan comments. Of course, once I got comments, it changed the whole equation. Now, I no longer had to leave the mountain to share ideas with like-minded people. Eight years later, I remain good friends with at least a dozen people I met in those first couple months of blogging, including my co-editor at qarrtsiluni, Beth Adams. Her blog the cassandra pages was a major water cooler, in those pre-Facebook days, for left-liberal intellectuals with an interest in art, religion, and culture.


Sunday, April 17, 2011

"A Fire in Ice" from THE THRONE OF PSYCHE

Rebecca Beatrice Miller is learning to paint on her new
wacom intuos tablet. This one is cold enough to go with
 "A Fire in Ice"--and it has a little cauldron of sorts in the cup!
Think she has been a little chilly at Bard College in her first year?

Here's another poem from The Throne of Psyche, now shipping to stores and reviewers from the Mercer University warehouses.  This one is another for which Paul Digby has made a video, found here. It was originally published in print journal The Raintown Review.

Update, 4/18: Thanks (I think!) to Philip Lee Williams for sending me a link to an article in that wit-snapper, the Onion, that says only too truly what happens at some readings:  "Author Promoting Book Gives It Her All Whether It's Just 3 People Or A Crowd Of 9 People."  Nothing more nervous-making that too few bodies! I'd rather have 300 than 3. Twice in my life I have run reading series at universities, and I banged the gong for them like a maniac. At a small college I regularly had a turnout of 120, and that was usually as much as I got at a major university. But it is a lot of work to promote them and demands creativity, sweat, and constant reminders.

          Riposte to Billy Collins, “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes”

Don’t think because her words are wild
That Dickinson’s a sylphine child

For your undressings—don’t rend the haze
Of veils that shields you from her blaze.

Her hands are capable and know
The ways of burning—how sparks blow

When flames are jostled by a bold
Adept, her fingers tipped with cold.

And though in after-hours she threads
The dew she plucks from spiderwebs,

Or answers Who? to midnight’s owls,
Or strokes the cats, returned from prowls—

Or takes to skipping to and fro
With moonlit maidens made of snow,

She’ll freeze, inviolate and meek,
If you so much as try to speak.

Shove off—avoid those brazen wings:
She’s not for your unbuttonings.

The polished stone above her head
Declares her state among the dead:

Here waits that sphinx whose secret power
In riddles found her finest flower.

The Throne of Psyche jacket
"Touched" by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Design by Burt & Burt Studio
for Mercer University Press

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Dreeing your weird*** in THE THRONE OF PSYCHE

The Throne of Psyche - just out from Mercer University Press!
My copies of The Throne of Psyche shipped out from the warehouse yesterday, and so I imagine I will see them on Monday. But some people already received them this afternoon. So far I have heard of one store where they were purchased, and the word was that the bookseller was exuberant over how beautiful they are! Rah for beauty and frolic!

I am in a good mood because we had sunshine today, and though there are some drifts and snow dumps remaining here and there, I have scilla, aconite, snowdrops, and lots of crocuses. Although it is never entirely safe to think the big snows are over until after May 25th, the snow appears to have paused to meditate on sunshine for a couple of months . . .

Jin, Julia, Marly, Rebecca in thekitchen
Also I had fish tacos and fingerlings for a Friday Lenten dinner at Alex and Ika's, a thing which could put the most dour in a good mood. Since I am in such fine fettle, I shall toss out a poem--a somewhat autobiographical (rare for me--I like to make up things) and a rather bleak poem! Because I am feeling so very jolly that I probably need something to rein me in.

This piece is in that small but select genre of poems by happy Southern souls who go North and must weather the brunt of cold. Right about January or February, we get tired and discouraged by all the dratted snow walls and dumps and towers. Then we must dree our weird, and by February the weird we are busy dreeing seems to be nothing but a cold, hard, and particularly icicular weird to dree.

The Lake here is Otsego, and indeed I did see the Northern Lights there once, but much paler than I have seen them elsewhere. The arrow mentioned is a great white arrow on the platform by the water in Council Rock Park in Cooperstown. It does point to the North. Which seems often to be the weird I dree.

***And for those of you who are neither Scots nor fans of Terry Pratchett's "wee big hag" and her "wee free men," "dreeing your weird" is something like facing up to your fate--mine being a fate having something to do with living in a snow pocket by a lake and living in a condition that feels like a sort of Narnia with always witch-cold and never spring. But though it is chilly, we at last have birds and flowers and sunshine and, yes, a sort of springtime.

"The Exile's Track" was originally published in storySouth and can also be found at youtube as a video by Paul Digby.


At midnight I went down to the lake, and there
I saw the Northern Lights as seven swords
Of long-dead kings that glimmered in the sky.
They were as thin and cold as icicles,
Set evenly above a shoal of cloud—

The winter’s glittering eyes drew low to see,
Its glories made into one burning look.
I stepped onto the marble arrowhead
That points the way to North forevermore,
And though I stood below a canopy
Close-crowded with the bright burrs of the stars,
And though I held my love, and though our children
Were safe and sleeping at my back, I met
And knew a loneliness beyond all heal.

A silvery voice arose out of the spires,
Out of the dark’s offhanded elegance:
You gave your heart away, oh, long ago,
So there’s no help—now you must bide in frost,
And when you die, the reaper’s men will scar
The ground for your grave, or else will burn your limbs
And bury the ash in a wall of stone.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The House of Words (no. 19): Corey Mesler, bookseller & small press author

Corey Mesler, the Kilroy of books!

 Today novelist, short story writer, poet, and bookseller Corey Mesler talks about publishing with small presses and selling small press books.

You can find out about his many books (and many publishers) and Burke's Books, the Memphis bookshop he owns with Cheryl Mesler, at his website,, and at Signed copies of his books are always available through the store.

Corey and Cheryl Mesler,
co-owners of Burke's Books in Memphis
Marly:  You have published many books and chapbooks in the small press world. As a writer, can you talk about what's good (and bad--we're curious!) about that realm? As a longtime bookseller, would you talk about the obstacles and pleasures of selling small press books?

The first of his many books,
a few of which are shown here.
Corey:  The positives about small press publishing, in my experience, are passion and creativity. There are a lot of good folks doing good work for no other reward than seeing writers and their work reach readers. And some small press books are lovely creations, the work of real book artists. As more and more of the big houses make cheaper and crappier books, books made of paper and cardboard and spit, the lovingly created small press book, often, shines in comparison, or at least holds its own.

The downside to small press publishing is simple: one doesn’t get as wide a distribution. Every writer wants as many readers as possible. Every writer wants attention from the few remaining book review sources, and perhaps a well-placed ad in these same sources. Small presses, due to limited funds, simply don’t have the ability to promote like the big guys do. Though the truth is, possibly, that the big guys aren’t as supportive as they used to be either.

Which dovetails into your second question: it’s hard for small presses to make sure their wares reach bookstore shelves for these same reasons. Bookstores, especially the brick and mortar ones, have limited space, and that space is gonna go to the heavily hyped books, more often than not. But, thank God, there are great independent bookstores still left in America. There you have a wider range of choices. As the owner of a very small, cash-strapped, independent, locally-owned bookstore, I would love to give more space to small press books. As a proud small press author I try to read more of the work coming from small presses and hence try to sell more. But, I won’t kid you: it’s tough these days. It’s tough, really, to sell anything in our little brick and mortar shoppe. I ask you this question in return: what happened to browsing? That to me seems to be a core question. What happened to the readers who like to go into stores and discover something new simply by poking around?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The House of Words (no. 18): Philip Lee Williams & the university press

Philip Lee Williams, continued

But how can one do that and still publish? The answer for me was to hook up with a small but aggressive academic press that was interested in highly literary works. That press is Mercer University Press in Georgia, which is fairly young and eagerly trying to make a name for itself as a literary press. Here, I will be publishing the high-art literary books I've been writing for years but haven't really been able to publish in New York. For instance, last fall, Mercer published my 450-page epic poem The Flower Seeker, based on the life and writings of 18th century naturalist and artist William Bartram. This fall, Mercer will be publishing my 1,000-page novel The Divine Comics: A Vaudeville Show in Three Acts. It's a prose re-imagining of Dante's Divinia Commedia, and a book I've been working on for some 28 years. Others along the same lines will follow--finished manuscripts I've written over the years with a hope that some day I would find a press willing to go with me.

Mercer is aware that my promotions will be virtual rather than personal, and they are fine with it. Of course, this approach may not help sales, but with these kinds of books, it probably won't hurt them much, either.

So for me, it's the best of both worlds: publishing more experimental manuscripts (all of them wildly imagined black comedies, by the way) while not having the stress of the road and motels and the preparation of speeches.

Is my letting go of the public life absolute and eternal? Probably not. If Oprah called, I'd go. But the public figure I have been for decades is gone. I hope and trust that I will still be kind to those who drop me a note (my email address is on my website), and I intend to keep being a writer until the end. But this is where I have been headed forever, it seems. I like to think that with 15 published books in more than 30 different editions and many translations, I've earned it, at least in part. But even if I haven't, it's a happy sea-change for me.


For already established events, see my events page. More soon.

The Reduction of Art

Today I commented on a not-new and rather irascible thread, even though I meant not to do so--I don't really like web-contention or find it worthwhile. Both the article and the thread made me feel the urge to reach out a hand toward the long-dead artist.  It's not just that Bernini arouses controversy; it's a certain lack of courtesy and understanding and love for the works of the past that bothers me.

Why attempt to sink into a  work of art when we are so very different (and better, surely) now?  We're sex-friendly, so Bernini must have just been wanting to show the world a sexual image and plunk it down in the middle of Cardinal Cornaro's chosen burial site. As for Teresa of Avila, a mystical nun, and her precisely stated account of divine contact, what do we care whether it was a direct source for Bernini and accurately portrayed? What does that have to do with anything?

Anyway, I thought that "entering in" to a work of art is an important topic for people who love the arts and the achievements of our predecessors, so I am sharing my comment here. See below the picture for a link to the original article.

from "Sexuality and Love in Art"
The critic says that some of the shots he included were stills
 from Schama's Power of Art DVD--not sure whether this is one.

The desire to depict the overwhelming nature of religious ecstasy and the ravishment of the soul led Bernini here. You can find parallels in written art--in John Donne, for example. The biblical concept of the body of the Church (that is, the company of all believers) as “bride of Christ” is here taken to its passionate, baroque extreme.

Judging by this thread, I would say that the secular eye and the religious eye are not seeing the same piece of art. Two world views, two versions.

The secular viewer is constrained to be reductive and perceive only sex. To use a proverb with a few sexual connotations of its own, “When you’re a hammer, all the world’s a nail.”

Meanwhile the religious viewer sees the sensuality of this bride of Christ, yes, but in the form of an utter abandon of the human body “slain in the spirit.”

Bernini was not a secular man but a Christian, and here he presents divine joy in a way utterly right for how St. Theresa described her mystic union with God. “The Ecstasy of St. Theresa” shines with his genius for bringing passionate life to stone and a thrilling ability to create dramatic architectural design as setting for his sculptural works.

A hallmark error of our era is to diminish the glories of the past in an effort to make them better “fit” our modern times and modern sensibilities. Not only is there a lack of sympathy for religious experience and transformation, but there is a determined and even self-righteous lack of imagination, which has already begun to close off the great works of past time from many secular viewers.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The House of Words (no. 17): Metanoia: Philip Lee Williams

Another kind of metanoia: Philip Lee Williams. 

Today we'll start an interview with Philip Lee William that, among other things, looks at why he has altered his mode of communicating with his readership and moved from relying on New York publishers to the university press.

Phil and I have been correspondents for more than a decade, although we only met in person a few years ago. Oddly, we are both winners of The Michael Shaara Award, but Phil has wheelbarrow loads of awards and books and is a Georgia institution all on his own... If you don't know his work, you may pop over to and take a look at his novels, nonfiction, and poetry (as well as some of his musical compositions.) A blog for his sixteenth (or is it seventeeth?) book, The Divine Comics, is also there. 

In addition to being an award-winning writer, Phil holds solid title to being one of the kindest men on the planet. That quality is not always rewarded in this world, but for me it has been a great pleasure to be his friend. And so I want to say that Phil is the most positive sort of proof that it is possible to be both a good man and a good writer.

Marly: Phil, you have published many books, won awards, been honored--how and why have you changed the way you relate to your public and to the publishing industry?

Phil: It has been nearly 27 years now since my first novel, The Heart of a Distant Forest, was published by W.W. Norton. (It's still in print, btw, in a trade softcover edition from the University of Georgia Press!) From the spring of that year until the summer of 2010, I did many, many dozens of appearances, autographings, speeches to benefit causes and so forth, from New York City to Los Angeles and points in between. I loved meeting with readers and fans of my work, and for many years, I traveled extensively. I published books with major NY publishers such as Random House, St. Martin's, Grove Press, Norton and so forth, as well as university and smaller regional presses.

By last summer, however, I realized several things. First off, I felt a sea-change was necessary in my public life. Where in the past I had spoken everywhere to help push my books and meet my readers, I began to believe that the old model of just showing up in person and signing a few books was no longer the best way to meet the public. Instead, social media, blogs, websites, and so forth are much more effective. I have even done hour-long phone hookups with book clubs that are fun. I also realized that I had simply run out of my need to travel and sell. As a result, I made a decision to severely limit my public life. I announced that I would no longer tour or do routine speeches, lectures, or autographings. Frankly, I wanted my private life back.


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The House of Words (no. 16): Small presses: Phoenicia Publishing

Halving cherries,
I prie the stones
from their black hearts,
blood pooling
my fingernails.

Interview with Beth Adams of Phoenicia Press, continued

Marly:  Beth, you live a highly creative life. You draw, take pictures, write poetry, keep a blog, sing in a choir—probably there’s more that I don’t see. All these things are satisfying. A small publishing house is quite a bit of work and expense. In what ways is it satisfying to join the world of publishing?

Beth:  It's funny – when we were moving to Montreal from Vermont, I found a tiny book I had made when I was maybe 7 or 8, with drawings and a hand-written text. I’ve always “published” things, in one form or another, whether it’s been my own stuff, or newsletters for organizations, or elaborate professional jobs for corporations and institutions. I started my career at a time when you literally had to construct the entire job by hand on a light table, with type galleys and x-acto knives and wax and rubylith masks. Computers revolutionized the whole process, starting in the early 1980s – thank God! -- but digital technology for print-on-demand publishing opens up possibilities for someone like me that are almost too fabulous to be true. I hope and expect that e-book publishing will eventually offer the same design quality, and control over formatting, as print, because that is where I think we are headed.

An entrance to Lincoln Inn's Fields, London, 2010
11" x 7" watercolor
And the internet is so great! It’s put me in contact with talented and creative people all over the world – such a far cry from the isolation and frustration of being a creative kid in a small central New York town in the 1950s and 60s, as you can probably imagine, Marly! I’m also fortunate to have been in a long love and work partnership with my husband, who’s both a very talented photographer and an expert on the computer side of things, as well as being my best and most trusted critic. All these relationships make it possible and exciting to put together book projects that I hope are distinctive and worthwhile.

I have a bit more time in my life now. Some of it needs to be devoted to my own work, but I’m not someone who is happy working alone on personal projects all the time. It’s very satisfying to me to help bring a wonderful manuscript into life as a book -- not just because I love books, but because I enjoy working closely with the authors, and it’s their passion and hard work and spirit that should be reflected in what we do together. In a small way, I hope I’m giving something back to literature and to art – both of which have given me so much.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Confession, on the publication of A. C. Grayling's "The Good Book"

"Illuvia dorado," courtesy of
Ignacio Leonardi of Ushuaia, Argentina
A. C. Grayling, you eminent and rational man of the leonine mane, despite the weight of all your reason, I still will float in mystical gold.

I will go to the pouring fount. I will stand in burning gold rain. I will be ravished and obliterated and transformed. I will be hollowed out, and I will be filled. Because I am in love with the ravishing and the rain and the fire.

I will be a phoenix in that fire.

This I promise you.


Has anybody read the entirety of his The Good Book? I'm afraid that I found the re-writing of great texts a rather dubious and embarrassing enterprise, but I've only read snips.

 Slip down one post to find today's The House of Words post, part of the Beth Adams sequence.

The House of Words (no. 15): Small presses: Phoenicia Publishing

Beth Adams talks about small press publishing, continued

Three small stones observed,
made of pigment, paper, love--
January's gifts.

31 January 2011

Another strength of a micro-press is that it can be a speedy hare. We can bring high-quality books out a lot faster than the typical publishing cycle, and sometimes there’s an important reason to do that. Rachel Barenblat’s book happened very fast indeed – there were only about six weeks from the decision to do it until the publication, which was timed to coordinate with her ordination as a rabbi. And Christmas and New Year’s came in-between! I wouldn’t want to do that often, but with this process it’s possible.

"Cycladic Figure in a Quebec Landscape," 2010
Preparatory drawing in Conté crayon and chalk
Because I’ve spent my professional career – more than 30 years now -- in graphic design and communications, with a focus on print and digital publications, I’m used to tight deadlines where quality has to be maintained, and the whole publishing process is very familiar to me. But if I couldn’t act as editor, designer, and publisher, and had to pay someone, this wouldn’t be financially viable. Even so, it’s a labor of love; I don’t pay myself anything, and the goal is to break even, which we are doing.

I’ve worked with many other artists, photographers, writers, and musicians over the years-- and that’s important. Publishers need to know what really means to be a creative person, especially in today’s world. We need to be collaborative, and empathetic, never exploitative: then it can be a creative partnership and a rewarding process.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Ashley Cooper, "Homebodies," April 9 - May 14

"The Madonna of the Laptop" (casein, 2010)
Yesterday I spent the afternoon driving over to Earlville (five miles from Colgate University in Hamilton) to attend the opening of Ashley Cooper's show, "Homebodies." If you're in the region, I highly recommend a visit. The show will be up from April 9-May 14 in the East Gallery of the Earlville Opera House.

It was a sunny day, and I enjoyed the drive and visiting with Ashley to talk about the paintings and what she might do next, meeting a few people, and mulling over her wonderful work, narrative paintings in which dollhouse-style-cut-open houses and their nearby yards and street reveal unexpected threats. The fragility of domestic life is undermined by accident, death and time (cut-away earth reveals bones that sometimes wish to devour what is living), wildness, strangers, or occult threats.

Ashley is a fellow Southerner who lives around the block from me, and so--thinking of her images--you may imagine us each working away in the daytime in our cut-open houses, children at school or away, cocooned in a fragile nest. I picked "The Madonna of the Laptop" to illustrate because it reminds me of how I wrote my first book.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

"The Marriage Bed" from THE THRONE OF PSYCHE

"Touched" by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Cover and jacket image for The Throne of Psyche
(Mercer University Press, 2011)

Time for an excerpt from The Throne of Psyche: this passage is about halfway through the title poem. I thought maybe you needed a little drama, a little visit from Eros, a marriage of your Psyche-soul and Eros-body here at the start of the weekend...

The poem was originally published in Mezzo Cammin.


And if the palace seemed bewitching, how
Much more the bed, a marvel of the gods—
Like nothing for an earthly king and queen,
A lustrous treasure box packed up in silks,
Four-legged, each leg a tree of ebony.
As shadows slid across the windowsills,
Collecting in the corners of the room,
The trees began to send out wands and leaves,
Darkening the air with gleaming branches.
Whoever saw such freedom from the laws
Of earth? I stared, forgot to tremble in
My wonder as new tendrils wove a maze
Above a bed that glistened, beetle-black.
Unseen hands drew dusk across the portal
And windows, carried off the glowing lamp,
And strewed fresh petals on the inlaid floor.
If this was how my promised husband’s house
Received his bride, perhaps the feathered snake
—for so Apollo’s oracle foretold—
Could be more beautiful than I had dreamed,
If flying terror could be beautiful.
Shade took the room until I could not see.
A mimic springtime blossomed on each branch
As tiny stars shone out, began to crawl
And sometimes blink like phosphorescent bugs.

I fell asleep and shinned the olive tree
That waxed inside my mother’s garden walls
And heard a crinkling of the leaves that spoke
Oracular to me of love and fate,
But where was dream and where the waking world
I hardly knew, and when the feathered snake
Came wooing with eternal promises,
I let him hold me in his arms that seemed
More like a man’s than like a serpent’s grasp.
Yet fear is strange: at times he seemed all scales
That snagged against the linen of my gown,
At times he seemed as yielding as a child.
I woke to find that what I dreamed was true—
The rustle of his wings was like the leaves,
The arms that pinned me close were like a man’s,
Although no man could emanate such fire,
A darkness glowing in the chamber’s pitch.
But what did I, long sheltered in my home,
Know of the ways of monsters or of men?
A tree of nerves sprang into trembling life
Inside this body that the world desired
But never knew—the starry insects swarmed
Among the maze of limbs and multiplied
Until the dark was pricked with flecks of light
That gave no seeing to my open eyes.
The snake kept winding on the tree of me—
I flashed with nervous fire from root to leaf
And shivered as my gown was tugged aside.
A rush of wood: new saplings broke the floor
And forested the chamber, wild with growth.
The room dissolved as floor was changed to earth
And roof transformed to sky and swarming stars.
In midnight’s wilderness my lover struck
Asunder all my childhood’s innocence—
The little stars went shrieking through the wood
As jet-black trees contracted, splintered, fell.

I lay within a nest of shattered twigs.
A shape with wings was sobbing on my breast,
Some wall between us battered down to dust.
I touched the face invisible to me.
His serpent pinions beat convulsively.

***Available via Indie Store Finder (find an independent store near you), Amazon, and other outlets, etc. We appear to be in the very end of the pre-order period.

Friday, April 08, 2011

The House of Words (no. 14): Small presses: Phoenicia Publishing

Elizabeth (Beth) Adams is the founder of Phoenicia Publishing, a small independent publishing house in Montreal, and co-managing editor of qarrtsiluni online literary magazine. Her prose and poetry have appeared in venues from The Witness to Tikkun, and in June 2006 her book Going to Heaven: The Life and Election of Bishop Gene Robinson, was published by indie NY publisher Soft Skull Press. She is the author of The Cassandra Pages, a blog about art, life and spirit that has just entered its ninth year.
Such struggle gave these subjects to the queen
that consuming them with relish
gave her pleasure.

(olives, watercolor, 22 January 2010)
Marly: Writers are now confronted with many choices—there are major houses and midsize, presses of various sizes, nanopublishing, and self-publishing. What are the strengths of a micro-publisher like   Phoenicia Publishing? What do you see as your special strengths and past experience that contribute?

Beth:  Marly, I don’t know that we have any “strength” at all – all publishers are having a hard time. But there are several things I’m able to do that bigger houses can’t. One is to have a fairly narrow focus about what I publish, so that over time Phoenicia’s list will, I hope, can have an identifiable integrity. This will only emerge slowly, but it’s something that matters to me.
Her self-portrait from October, 2010.

I do know what I like and what I’m after. Some of that has come from a lifetime of reading and writing, but I think my skills and confidence as an editor have been honed by co-editing qarrtsiluni and working closely with my colleague and friend Dave Bonta. We see so much writing, poetry in particular, and have had to articulate to each other not only what we like and don’t like, but why. We almost always agree, but I know I’ve learned a huge amount and gained confidence through qarrtsiluni, and also through relationships with other writers that I’ve been fortunate to develop through eight years of blogging.

The main difference between a small house like Phoenicia and a large one is that we can afford to take risks on high-quality but quirky work that doesn’t fit elsewhere. If I see something that I’m crazy about and believe in, I can do it, while the big houses often can’t.

Beth's "Vermont Autumn" (2010)
Come back for more of The House of Words on Monday. Up tomorrow: "The Marriage Bed"

Thursday, April 07, 2011

The House of Words (no. 13): Moving toward alternatives

"Luminous Letters" by Mary Bullington.
Acrylic & oil pastel on paper, 21" x 26." 
We read each other's poems in college,
and now look at us, long grown up.


No longer is any large house exempt from the rule of marketing. This change in publishing means that many writers look for a secure home and never quite find it—sometimes they are uneasy where they are or they keep moving or they have stopped being able to publish because of numbers.

The world of micro presses, small and regional presses, midsize houses, and university presses changes constantly. What I notice most at the moment is that poetry is still dropping away from university presses and many midsize houses. But new presses spring up all the time. People in our cities or in obscure and surprising places are striving to make culture, to distribute well-crafted books.


In fact, my first book was published at a smallish house, maker of beautiful books. In my innocence, I sent a little book to David R. Godine. How did I pick him? Browsing, I stumbled on a Godine book that called my name. And as I was reading that strange and wonderful book, Salar the Salmon, and I thought that if David R. Godine liked this book, he would like mine. And he did.

I still think it’s a grand way for a writer to find a press. Whose books do you love? It’s also a good way for readers to escape the list of “pushed” books. Find a book you like at a small press or midsize house? Perhaps you might like more of their books.


Next up is a look at Beth Adams and Phoenica Publishing. Afterward, I’ll whip down South to get warm and talk to Philip Lee Williams and learn how and why he turned away from public speaking and New York publishers to a more retired life and association with the university press. Among my friends in the small press world, nobody is more experienced than poet, novelist, and bookseller Corey Mesler. In an upcoming post, he’ll talk about what’s good and bad about smaller publishers, both from the point of view of a writer and of a bookshop owner. The internet has altered the situation for many who are nimble enough to take advantage of it. One who exemplifies nimbleness and ability to adapt to change is poet Dave Bonta, and I’ll ask him a few questions. Somewhere along the way we’ll talk to literary advisor Carole Sargent and Gary-the-out-of-the-box marketer who was so active and interesting in the no. 11 comment thread. (Thanks, Gary!) He is going to talk about luck, or how nothing is luck. If we are lucky (if we ask nicely or maybe hound him), he may talk some time about marketing. And there will be other voices--more poets and writers--as well.  No doubt there are surprises ahead and many rooms in The House of Words.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The House of Words (no. 12): "The House That Ate Marly's Blog" *

"Hot Type" courtesy of photographer Andrew Beierle
of Running Springs, California and
Let’s sum up and then push off in a new direction.

Once publishers and editors felt it an honor to choose the best books, guide a career, and develop an audience for a writer. No longer is that so (at least not to the same extent and not for most writers) as anyone who hasn’t been living under a plant pot in Mr. MacGregor’s potting shed knows full well. After all, our great edifices of culture have been sold overseas and are no longer entirely ours. The gentleman’s tiny profit margin of the early twentieth century is no longer considered sufficient.

Now the big-house publisher perceives an audiences—a mass audience—and looks for something that will grab its intention and sell in large numbers. Examples abound. Why else would a young woman of nineteen like Bristol Palin write memoirs? Houses—that is the publisher, who is a real human being, and the editors, who are likewise—may not like or want these changes, but if you steer a New York editor into a corner and are the sort of person who keeps her mouth shut, he or she may well tell you that they are forced to look for the commercial these days. I have been in the corner, and I have been told..


This goes for the young adult and children’s market as well. Yesterday I flipped through a novel that my youngest child bought, recommended at a school book fair; it is poorly-written but sells itself to teens by sensationalism and blood. If the protagonist thinks, he signals the motions of his mind by chewing his lip. It’s a wonder he still has a mouth by the end of the book, especially since he has a weakness for the taste of the old crimson juice, fresh-squeezed. Descriptions are contradictory. He can hardly flee (which he must do often) without promptly tripping over the shoelaces of a poorly-chosen adverb. I don’t object to young teens reading books about vampires; I object to poorly-constructed books about vampires that sell on the basis of cheap thrills. Yep, such a book sucks. And what it sucks most is the attention and care in bookselling that might be given to better children's books.


All this is not to say that editors don’t desire good books any more. They do. But the press of finance and the demands of a large organization affect the books chosen. They affect where the publisher puts marketing money. And since books don’t tend to sell all by themselves without help, many writers are subject to the tyranny of numbers. Earlier I mentioned that only a few books can be anointed as lead books.

The ones that are not anointed frequently sit, often beautifully, in the shade. Each ensuing submission is judged by prior sales, as though the publisher could be only a salesman and not a builder of culture. The writer whose books sit beautifully in the shade inevitably sees his or her numbers drop. Usually nothing makes up for lack of push. Occasionally a writer has the freedom (that is, time) and guts and youthful steam of somebody like Christopher Paolini, who in one year flogged his first book at more than 135 schools and libraries, gussied up in a pseudo-medieval tunic and cap. Not having read it, I can’t speak to the book, but I can certainly be impressed by that blistering pace and sheer oomph and his willingness to play the jester in the service of his book. Clearly the strategies most writers use to make up for what the publisher and marketing departments choose not to do are ineffective. (Here I suggest that you look in the comments of the last The House of Words post because it deals with marketing and gives the viewpoints of writers, an imaginative marketer, and a publisher.)

Continued  (The House of Words is growing rather fat and unwieldy; it now takes the rather tubby house a little space to turn around.)
* And the title comes from Dave Bonta, poet and online culture maker.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Alice, Peg, and Marly at the Cooperstown Village Library
Update:  Thanks to everyone who turned out--Peg, Alice, and I had a blast (and not just at dinner!) Grand questions, interesting ideas, and 31 in the audience makes quite a respectable crowd in little Cooperstown.

On the 7th, Thursday, at the Cooperstown Village Library: come by a chance to yack with novelists Alice Lichtenstein and Peggy Leon.  The three of us are going to dinner beforehand, it seems. And then we are to talk about whatever you like--I posted that piece of news on facebook about a minute ago and already have requests: Julie says "paisley"; David says "what David Rondinelli wants for his birthday" (Julie responds with "Tinker Toys"); Lisa says "accidental birds"; Esther is thinking about Tinker Toys and toe jam (that must be an obscure David reference.) 

With that start, I can see that we will have a wild time on Thursday. Luckily or unluckily, none of those suggestions come from Cooperstonians.

Oh, and if you're looking for today's installment in "The House of Words," drop down one post, if you please.