Robin Beth Schaer talks to Brooklyn Poet Laureate Tina Chang about her new collection Of Gods & Strangers, the connection between the interior and exterior, and karaoke.
Interviewing Tina Chang for BOMB was the perfect ruse to barrage her with questions. We have been dear friends for years, but I remain starstruck by her words on the page and grace in the world. I was especially curious to discuss the tremendous shift between her two collections of poetry. The intimate narratives of Half-Lit Houses burst into lush and inventive poems in her new collection Of Gods & Strangers; the heartbreaking acceptance in the first book becomes bold defiance in the second. In the time between the two books, she co-edited Language for a New Century, a Norton anthology of contemporary poetry from the Middle East and Asia, and became a mother and the Poet Laureate of Brooklyn. I wondered how these changes shaped her work and what secrets she might reveal about her evolution as a writer. I wanted to see the blueprint behind her new collection, which grapples with both the disasters of world events and the bewilderment of love.
Robin Beth Schaer In the poem “Lessons in Sleeping” from your first book, Half-Lit Houses, you offer two choices: “You are a misfit or a starlet.” Yet, your work seems drawn from both places: strutting with the glamour of the starlet and then whispering with the insight of the misfit. Which do you see yourself as, misfit or starlet?
Tina Chang I think of myself as both misfit and starlet. Can they exist simultaneously? I’d like to think they can. We are, each of us, so complex in that way. When I sit down to write a poem, the starlet’s bravery, audacity, and fearlessness are necessary. But there is also the misfit who questions, doubts, and casts a shadow on the possible poem, the poem about to be born. So those sides of myself wrestle, and I’m very interested in the tangle that ensues.
Emily Testa chats with author Emma Straub about her new book Other People We Married, the awkwardness of teendom, and the benefits of working in a bookstore.
Emma Straub is very likeable. For instance, I like her collection of short stories, Other People We Married. I also like its cover, which she and her husband designed to striking perfection. I also like her blog. And, yes, I like her tweets.
Yet beneath this winsome veneer lurks the heart of the matter: a fiercely original talent, and a resolute will to get the job done. Emma is that rare writer whose divergent interests (Alan Hollinghurst and Joey McIntire among them) can peacefully, even rapturously, coexist. Just don’t call her womanly.
Emily Testa I wanted to start by talking about late bloomers, because your stories are full of them. Why are late bloomers such natural creatures of fiction?
Emma Straub Actually I find that many writers and their characters are the opposite of late bloomers. Instead they’re these 23 or whatever year old people who are just finding their way in the world. Maybe my focus on late bloomers was reactionary. For whatever reason, I was really obsessed with people who didn’t know who they were or where they were going.
An editor of creative translation journal Telephone and the EFA Project Space’s curator discuss hybrid translations of Brazilian concrete poet Augusto de Campos.
In the 1950s in Brazil, Augusto de Campos and a few collaborators concocted what they called concrete poetry—a “tension of thing-words in space-time,” as a phrase of de Campos’s manifesto puts it. Their work collided written language with image and sound, creating a synesthetic barrage of poems that are also in their ways physical objects. “The concrete poet does not turn away from words, he does not glance at them obliquely: he goes directly to their center, in order to live and vivify their facticity,” de Campos proclaimed. The editors of creative translation journal Telephone recently joined forces with the Elizabeth Foundation of the Arts’ EFA Project Space to put on an exhibition featuring de Campos’s work alongside hybrid translations of it by a number of poets and artists. After visiting the exhibition, I exchanged emails with Sharmila Cohen of Telephone and Michelle Levy from EFA Project Space to get a sense of the resonance of concrete poetry. Selected work of de Campos and translations follow.
Peter Bebergal and Jeffrey J. Kripal on the experience of pop culture and its mystical and mythological implications.
Roughly around the same time in 2011, Peter Bebergal and Jeffrey J. Kripal both published books on the intricate crosscurrents between American popular culture, altered states of consciousness, and religious mysticism—Bebergal’s Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood (Soft Skull Press) and Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics: Superhero Comics, Science Fiction, and the Paranormal (University of Chicago Press). Too Much to Dream is both a memoir and cultural history of psychedelic culture. It relates the story of a teenage quest for personal illumination couched in the pop culture of occultism and psychedelics drugs. This project led Bebergal through a journey involving comic books, Dungeons & Dragons, rock ‘n’ roll, and occultism, all of it fueled by drugs. Too Much to Dream is also a story of recovery and a meditation on addiction, spirituality, and art. Mutant and Mystics is a joyride through similar terrain, a pop history of the paranormal as it expresses itself in comic books, science fiction, and other modern myths. Kripal draws a strange and compelling secret history that reveals how paranormal experiences influenced the very grammar of comic books and suggests that the stories of alien supermen, mutants, and cosmic adventurers are windows into the true shape of consciousness often ignored by science.
Peter Bebergal Both of our books emphasize the way in which pop culture works on the unconscious, how it creates a grammar by which we understand and frame non-ordinary experiences. At the same time, these kinds of experiences shape pop culture in often hidden ways. As you write “consciousness needs culture . . . just as culture needs consciousness.” But inherent in this is the chicken and egg problem. How can we trust the authenticity of any person’s experience if they are so mediated?
Jeffrey J. Kripal Wow, you go right to the heart of things, don’t you? There are two parts to my answer. First, as a historian of religions, terms like “authenticity” and “pure” are extremely suspect. Authentic to whom? These sorts of experiences, when honestly reported, are always authentic to the experiencer (of course, sometimes they are not honestly reported, that is, they are fraudulent). It is orthodox religion, orthodox science, or the normative social censor that then comes in and declares experiences that cannot be slotted into their systems “inauthentic,” “heretical,” “anecdotal,” “crazy,” “New Agey,” or whatever. Second, the chicken and egg problem you cite is just as present and just as powerful in orthodox religion as in pop culture. When the Catholic mystic experiences the stigmata, she or he develops wounds that follow the religious art of the place and time, not the actual crucifixion of Jesus, whatever that involved; a Buddhist near-death experience takes on Buddhist contours; a medieval Hindu encounter with a deity displays Hindu notions; and so on.
Courtney B. Maum and Arda Collins on poetry and Fudgie the Whale.
I met Arda Collins because I had to apologize to her. At a reading she gave last summer at the Bread Loaf writers’ conference, I gasped so loudly during The News that she stopped mid-sentence at the lectern, looked directly at me and said, “No gasping!”
Haunting, inescapable, and frankly, kind of creepy, Arda Collins’s poetry has seemingly little in column with Arda Collins herself. She exudes the kind of self-effacing charm that makes people want to make snow angels. Here’s an example: She showed up for our interview with a jar of homemade tomato sauce as a gift. And yes, I am going to go there, I am going to compare her cooking skills to her verbal deftness: the sauce was complex but abbreviated, with a stunning amount of garlic. I ate it with a spoon.
Arda’s first collection of poetry, It Is Daylight (2009) was awarded the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize. Her poetry has illuminated the pages of The New Yorker, The American Poetry Review, and jubilat, among others. Currently, she’s a Doctoral candidate at the University of Denver where she’s working on a new manuscript of poetry.
We met in an aptly named bar in Amherst, MA called The Moan and the Dove over two steins of Beer of the Gods and a vegetarian pizza to discuss horseback riding; her daily walks to the pond; her writing process (which involves dancing); and the existential angst in Tom and Jerry cartoons.
Our new regular feature From the Archive revisits, recomposes, and reconsiders material from the BOMB archive with a focus on experimenting with experience.
This week, From the Archive looks back at the works of Kimiko Hahn and questions how deeply our first impressions influence us.
I admit that my first encounter with Kimiko Hahn’s writing in the archive was both random and superficial—as if, for a brief moment, staring at someone across a room. For me, that first gaze was at her name on the cover (her “cover name” if you will)—half-Japanese, half-German—having been drawn in by its well-travelled sound. Curiousity peeked, I read more of her, under the guise of “working ahead.”
Sarah Gerard learns how to live safely.
“Life is, to some extent, an extended dialogue with yourself about how you are going to let yourself down over the coming years.”
— Charles Yu, narrator of Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. It was early December, and my husband and I had plans to fly down to Florida for my parents’ annual holiday party. It would be his first time seeing my hometown, and we were both a little curious as to how it would shake down when the world of my present collided with the world of my past. Even though not much time had passed since I moved to New York, I had made many purposeful changes in my life since then, because by the time I left Florida, I didn’t much like the person I’d become. Driving to the airport, I was apprehensive about going back home and bringing David. I didn’t know what we would find when we got there.
I had been reading a lot about black holes for a piece I was writing and was especially interested in how time was observed at the point of approaching them. A black hole forms when a massive star undergoes a supernova and collapses on itself, becoming a point with zero volume and infinite density called a “singularity.” Around the singularity is a region called the “event horizon” where gravity is so strong, not even light can escape. To the layman, this is the point of no return; a body crossing an event horizon cannot be prevented from hitting the singularity. But if you were able to survive falling in, it would appear, upon crossing the event horizon, as if time were moving normally for you. However, to an observer, you would seem to stop just before crossing, and never fall in. Einstein’s special theory of relativity suggests this could be interpreted as a kind of time travel.
In part two of a two part conversation. Ben Ehrenreich and Samuel Bing discuss and Ehrenreich’s new novel Ether. Read part one here.
I first spotted Ben across the courtyard of Syosset High School wearing a thrift store overcoat similar enough to mine to suggest either a bond or a rivalry. I was as relieved to find a kindred spirit as I was tormented by his perfectly floppy new wave bangs. Back then we fancied ourselves “literary,” and we started a band called How We Got Killed. Over time it became clear that one of us was the writer and the other the musician. Ben has gone on to make Syosset proud with his award-winning reporting from Afghanistan, Haiti, and the West Bank, as well as his breathtakingly imaginative fiction—the most recent example of which, Ether, was the occasion for this chat.
Samuel Bing In Ether you seem to find the idea of things hilarious—that there are things. And you show that with these long, sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrific, and sometimes hilarious lists of objects.
Ben Ehrenreich Yeah, on the one hand it’s this basic existential quandary, both a sense of horror at the world of objects and a certain amusement with their stubborn existence, and of course it’s also a problem of language. I guess Wittgenstein would have said that all of our philosophical problems are actually problems of language, but in any case those are the ones that interest me most as a writer, or at least that I can play with most.
Octobriana has been turning up in comics since the ’70s. But who and what is this illustrated Soviet sex bomb? Kevin Kinsella gets to the bottom of her strange story.
In 1970, Petr Sadecký slipped across the border of Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia with a cache of illegal comic books and the fantastic story of the dissident Russian artists who risked everything to create them. A year later, the publication of Octobriana and the Russian Underground, with its lurid illustrations and the suggestion of secret organizations staging drug-fueled orgies behind the Iron Curtain, was just the thing to send the anxious Western imagination over the edge.
Something must have been in the air. In a Cold War waged to this point through the calculated machinations of diplomats and trade organizations, suddenly there was a ratcheting up of tensions. The British government announced the drunk-driving arrest of a Soviet agent posing as a member of the USSR trade delegation in London. In exchange for asylum in the UK, Oleg Lyalin gave up the names of other spies working in Britain, leading to the high-profile expulsion of 105 Soviet officials from the country. Now, throw into the mix a book full of illustrations of an absurdly buxom and near-naked Amazon with a forward penned by the novelist Anatoli Kuznetsov—himself a prominent defector from the Soviet Union—to lend it credibility and the media quite literally has a bombshell on its hands. A bombshell so explosive that the story of Octobriana still enjoys cult status here among comic book artists and enthusiasts a full 40 years after it was published. One need only read David Bowie’s diaries from the 1980s or see the tattoo of the Soviet superwoman on Billy Idol’s arm to feel the far-reaching effects of Petr Sadecký’s story. Problem is, it doesn’t hold up.
Daniel Clowes, renowned comics artist, talks to Alexander Chee about his newly reissued The Death Ray and his distaste for superheroes and wrestling.
Daniel Clowes is currently one of America’s most celebrated comics artists. He frequently illustrates the pages of GQ and the covers of the New Yorker, he publishes with major publishers, he has been nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay adaptation of his graphic novel Ghost World, and is at work on several other film projects. It would, in short, be easy to be suspicious that this success had dulled his edge. And yet reading his newest work, it’s clear he’s allowed his success to encourage him to take more risks, to push himself harder.
First published as a standalone comic in 2004 in his groundbreaking comic series Eightball and reissued this year by Drawn and Quarterly, The Death Ray is something of a departure for Clowes: there’s a hero vigilante in a mask. I conducted this interview with him on the phone in late November on the occasion of the reissue of The Death Ray, and we spoke about everything from the origin of that masked hero to the death of underground culture to whether there was something in the water in Chicago that was good for making comics.
Alexander Chee So, a friend of mine who knew I was going to speak to you asked me to ask you about a pamphlet he said you wrote several years ago [MODERN CARTOONIST, 1998], about how important it was for comics to be an outsider art. Does this sound about right? We wondered, what do you feel about that now?
Daniel Clowes It was many years ago and it was half serious and half kidding. I liked the idea that cartoonists were all insane and so it was really about realizing that and making this pamphlet and I was hoping my publisher would print it and I could just leave it on subways like a Jack Chick comic.
AC Who is that?
DC He’s the guy who does those fundamentalist Christian comics, probably the most widely published cartoonist in the world. I think some of those have like 100 million copies printed.
I have not re-read the thing in many years so I don’t want to comment on that but I think the so-called acceptance of comics is all in the minds of journalists and desperate booksellers.
Renee Gladman’s novels, set in the yellow-skied, unraveling city-country Ravicka, link language and deep disorientation. She talks to BOMB about cities, sentences and the alterities therein.
Renee Gladman’s latest novels, set in a yellow-skied, unraveling city-country called Ravicka, link language and deep disorientation. In Event Factory (2010), a linguist-traveler arrives in Ravicka, which she believes she understands but does not, not really. Her attempts to speak the language, Esperanto-like in its evocation of all European languages yet none, including complex bodily rituals, elaborate concoctions of gestures and bows and dances, never quite cohere. From her errors come comedy, poignancy, and—evoking Kafka—a sense of being trapped in a system whose logic is airtight yet inaccessible. Her latest, and the second in a planned trilogy is The Ravickians, published by Dorothy. Narrated by the “Great Ravickian Novelist,” Luswage Amini, the novel begins with a meditation on its own untranslatability: “To say you have been born in Ravicka in any other language than Ravic is to say you have been hungry. That is why this story must not be translated.” Amini travels through the city and ponders its deepening crisis, which has something to do with the buildings. To give a summary—she takes the train to a park, thinks about the bridge where she met her onetime lover, hears an old friend read poetry, drinks and talks with other writers as somewhere fires start—doesn’t do it justice. Gladman’s writing is about consciousness, memory, and thought, and how these occur in urban space. She calls a city into being for this purpose, its language, culture, architecture. Yet the city itself keeps gleaming in the distance—as Gladman puts it, an idea toward which the characters reach, rather than something that is revealed.
Zack Friedman I’ll start things off with some comments based on Event Factory. To me, a central theme of this book was fluency. The narrator has a formal intellectual understanding of the language and culture of Ravicka, but lacks the practical understanding that comes from lived experience within the city and its traditions or the native speaker’s true facility with natural speech. I was struck by the detail that went into this—the slightly awkward or clumsy phrasing of the narrator is rendered perfectly. What elements of your own personal background with language learning, teaching, and translating (not to mention iffy tourism) went into these books? Are there certain ideas about language and culture that influenced you or that you find coming through in the books?
Renee Gladman I wrote the first two books of the series without ever having left the North American continent. At the time of the writing, I experienced a kind of paradox. It had something to do with the filmmaker Béla Tarr. I’m not sure how to explain this. Seeing his work, in particular the 7.5-hour Satantango—as well as the work of the Polish filmmaker Kieślowski, and the Russians Tarkovsky and Sokurov—created in me some instinct of belonging.
Patrick Gaughan talks to poet Chris Toll about poetry and collage: “My poems are like a pyramid you climb backwards.”
I first encountered Chris Toll through friends in the burgeoning Maryland publishing scene. Somehow two copies of The Disinformation Phase made their way to my apartment this summer. One lived on the kitchen table, the other on the bathroom sink. That’s how Chris would want it. He intends his poems to welcome readers, to extend handshakes, to be gateways to truth. Yet even after speaking extensively with Chris, he remains as enigmatic as his work, as though he was never a child, simply plucked from an elliptical myth, as though he rode the backs of “Voices in the wind” and fell, plopping him on I-83 in Baltimore, a full grown man from the stars. Upon concluding our interview, Chris Toll told me, “It would have been nice to discuss my childhood out in the midwest where I ran away from home and became a rodeo clown, and my best friend was a slightly older boy named Bobby Zimmerman.”
Patrick Gaughan In The Disinformation Phase, you playfully translate purported lost works of poet icons such as Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, John Keats, and Sylvia Plath, framing these poems with sci-fi time-traveling back stories. What was the seed of these scenarios? Would you classify these poems as a parody of canonization or more akin to Jack Spicer’s After Lorca model, a collaboration with the dead?
Chris Toll I almost always begin with a line that pops into my head—lines given to me by the Voices in the wind (I go to a psychic sometimes and I asked her about the Voices in the wind and she said the lines were really coming from my Higher Self—that’s fine—I like Voices in the wind better). So that’s how I begin. I pick poets to “translate” who are important in the construction of my imagination. There is absolutely no parody—isn’t parody the lowest form of rumor?
Nicolle Elizabeth talks to author Elissa Schappell about her collection of short stories, Blueprints for Building Better Girls.
Part of the brilliance Blueprints for Building Better Girls brings is in the way Elissa Schappell moves between narrative perspective. As in Woolf, as in Tan, as now in Schappell, readers are walked through the psychological labyrinths of women evolving. This book is a pressure cooker which ebbs and flows between decades and the pivotal moments women as women, women as girls, women as daughters, women and mothers, women as wives, women as girlfriends, and women as friends brave through every day life. The stories are innovative, riveting, smart, and relatable.
Schappell is the co-founder and Editor-At-Large of Tin House magazine. Her first book, Use Me was a finalist for the PEN/Hemmingway award, a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. Her recent collection Blueprints for Building Better Girls surpasses the weighty expectations these accolades acquire. This collection is an example of when writing from a distinctly female perspective works, proudly.
Myron Kaufman’s illustrated ode to animal-human love continues with the second part of “Horse Scents.” Read Part I (with an introduction from his son Charlie Kaufman) before diving into “E-Male.”
Klieg lights painted inverted white cones of light on the polluted black night of Los Angeles. A brightly lit red carpet parted a sea of fans, photographers, and the curious. Celebrities were everywhere.
There was Peewee Herman, on the carpet, decked out in his plaid, snug-fitting blue and orange tuxedo. Two inches of white socks showed between the the tops of his shiny black shoes and the bottom of his trousers.
The movie Horse Fever was being premiered at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and a gaggle of entertainment types had shown up to be seen and to show off their finery, jewelry and mammary.
P. Diddy was making the scene in a black cashmere coat with an ermine collar. Rosie O’Donnell, looking pregnant in silk tails and cummerbund, towered over little Danny DeVito, who was dressed in a blue sailor suit. Ben Stiller, his hair carefully disheveled, walked next to a bloated Doctor Phil. Dozens of familiar faces with names that don’t quite come to mind meandered on the carpet.
Sarah Gerard on Existentialism, relationships, and Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing.
Choice is an apt theme in literature today, and a timeless one. One could argue that it’s more important now than it’s ever been. Occupy Wall Street demonstrations are escalating in New York and places around the country and abroad. The presidential race is heating up and the national debt is skyrocketing alongside the divorce rate. Choice was Penelope’s only defense against the onslaught of suitors, Bartleby’s revolt, Frodo’s first step on the journey to Mordor. It’s also central to the story of You Deserve Nothing, Alexander Maksik’s debut novel and the launch of Alice Sebold’s new imprint, Tonga Books.
But what does it mean to make a choice?
Jack Christian talks to Mark Leidner about growing up reading and thinking in terms of B-52’s, not birds.
Some notes about reading Mark Leidner’s Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me:
The cover features a wrap-around collage of a basketball player dunking on the Twin Towers. When I opened my book for the first time, out fell a postcard that shows the same image. So, the irreverence is doubled and for-serious.
A page in, there’s the dedication, FOR ALICE. Even the font it’s written in, its seraph corners and its thickness, its printing in all caps, says something about this book’s boldness, and something about the ways in which these poems mean.
If you think about Berryman’s Dream Songs, or, really, just the line where Henry says, “I have a sing to shay,” then that might be a piece of the equation.
The poems in Beauty Was the Case are long, but the words are never difficult.
For a moment in my first read of the poem “Blackouts” I thought Mark had found a way to write a poem that never ends.
This is Big Idea poetry in the entertaining, hilarious way Big Ideas should prove very hard to talk about.
Through prose and image, Myron Kaufman has crafted an uncanny, unhinged romance between man and horse. The story (and its author) are introduced by Myron’s son, filmmaker and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.
When I was a little kid, I would watch my father playing with his toast crumbs on the breakfast table. He’d push the crumbs into interesting designs. My father was always artistic. He painted, he made sculptures from found objects, he fingered toast crumbs. I loved watching him do it: focused, creative, driven, even at breakfast.
A few years ago, I mentioned the toast crumb memory to him. I wanted to tell him how much his daily ritual had meant to me. He was quiet for a moment. It didn’t elicit the “Oh, yeah! I forgot all about that! I used to love doing that!” I had expected. Instead, he finally said something like, “I was probably feeling trapped and trying to distract myself.” I was floored. I hadn’t gotten that at all from watching him. To me it was just another example of the wonderfulness of my dad, the most eccentric and educated father in our blue collar neighborhood, an example of his boundless creativity: toast crumb art. Suddenly it was something else entirely.
I found myself both flattered by his honesty and taken aback by the abandonment of his fatherly protective relationship. It was similar to that day he started referring to my mother as “Helen” and not “Mom.” We are all adults here, it said. She is Helen now.
“Helen and I went to Vermont this weekend.”
“Helen fell and broke her wrist.”
Of course, had he told me as a child that he felt trapped, I would not have understood.
Of course, as an adult, I do. The nature of my relationship with my father has changed. Now here we are, both older, both parents, both still struggling to understand ourselves at this late date. Helen has died. Myron moved to California to be near Charles. His weekend painting became full-time painting. He doesn’t know what he’d do if he didn’t have it, he says.
In the last few years he has painted hundreds of paintings, written several stories, participated in handful of gallery shows, and had two solo exhibitions.
And I do my own version of toast crumb drawings now. Because I now know the secret of adulthood.
Here’s a story Myron wrote and illustrated.
Levi Rubeck talks to poet Peter Gizzi about loss, literature as instruction manual, and the accident of selfhood.
A co-worker of mine congratulated me on getting “shy Peter” to speak, but it wasn’t all that difficult. Over email and a leisurely Saturday morning chat Peter was forthright and charming while discussing his latest book, Threshold Songs. He paused only to ask if something he had said sounded “cranky.” I assured him that it did not, but thinking back, I wonder if some crankiness is exactly what poetry needs on occasion. What follows is the result of our conversations.
Levi Rubeck As someone who came to poetry through punk rock, ‘zines, and handmade books, I was thrilled to learn of your past dabbling in similar arts. How do you see your work, and specifically this book Threshold Songs, in connection to music, punk or otherwise?
Peter Gizzi I think punk is a stance as much as a mid-’70s cultural phenomenon—strictly speaking, it was over when the Sex Pistols broke up. I don’t really care about pronouncing the word “punk” though—it’s the stance that interests me. And by “stance,” what I really mean is a moment when younger people pushed back against the baby boom generation and the established orders of resistance that they created. My particular moment came at the very tail-end of the boomer generation, and that puts me in a blank spot because I don’t see my generation as “established,” or possessing a vanguard position. In fact, I think one of the values of my generation is that we don’t have a program. Which makes it easier to find this “no-place,” where I have the freedom to simply follow the poem and go where it takes me. And as an aside, song has always been essential to this quest, a language being set to a music, or more specifically, for me, a sound that is an environment.
Levi Rubeck on Peter Gizzi’s Threshold Songs.
The joy of reading Peter Gizzi’s poetry comes from the tense stretch and pull of his language between extremes of sonic taffy pleasure and accessible linguistic connection. It’s a delicate balance that few poets achieve at a satisfying level, but The Outernationale left me, as a reader, ponderously swaying. Which leaves his latest collection, Threshold Songs, open for imbalance.
This book is aptly titled. It very much thrives in the threshold that poetry has carved for itself since modernity. These poems live in the space between past and future, when the potential for action (or reaction) is at its strongest. From there we arrive at their structural nature, which is rooted in songs, agents of action, stories that can only live in time the way that songs do today and before the written word, when song and poetry were the same.
Of what am I to see these things between myself
between the curtain and the stain
between the hypostatic scenes of breathing
and becoming the thing I see
are they not the same
— from “Hypostasis & New Year”
Author Josh Mohr talks to Evan Karp about addiction and redemption, The Flaming Lips, and his new book Damascus.
Shortly after I moved to the Bay Area in 2009, I met Stephen Elliott and asked him, essentially, who and what I should pay attention to. Stephen gave me some great advice but only two names, and one of them was Josh Mohr. I was excited, a few months later, to see Josh on the Literary Death Match bill. It was winter in the upstairs, black-and-candle ambiance of the Mission District’s Elbo Room, and Josh read about his longing to share the camaraderie of World Series champions as they slapped one another on the asses, even while deploring their lifestyle: “The drug addictions and infidelities and steroids and depression, and the nights they beat their wives with championship rings. The celebration silences these realities. But, see, I need a celebration more than these arrogant millionaires” he said, leaving the TV to purchase an entire case of champagne so he could join in the celebration. Josh ended his reading by pouring a whole bottle of champagne over his head.
Looking back, this was a fitting introduction. Josh wrote his first book, Some Things That Meant the World to Me (an O Magazine Top 10 Terrific Reads of 2008) on booze, he wrote Termite Parade (a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice) mostly on coke, and both books deal directly with self-pity. But since then Josh has sobered up, a decision that naturally influenced his routine and his attention to craft in his third and most recent book, Damascus.
I sat down with Josh in June, several months before the early October release date of Damascus, at a small café in Bernal Heights. We talked about his creative process, his decision not to “lobotomize” his first book for Random House, the ensuing relationship he’s had with small press Two Dollar Radio, the new book Damascus, and his fourth book.
Adam Robinson chats with author Michael Kimball about the writing and publishing process of his book Us.
I read How Much of Us There Was after I first met Michael Kimball, maybe back in 2007. I picked up the book at Minás, a clothing shop and art space here in Baltimore, and immediately, from the first sentence—“Our bed was shaking and it woke me up afraid”—I was struck by the scope of the book. Clearly the story here was about something intense and personal—and focused on old people. That struck me as strange. In the catalog of novels about octogenarians, how many are written by people 45 years younger than them?
When How Much of Us There Was was reprinted recently by Tyrant Books as Us, I was interested in what had changed, aside from the title. I didn’t notice anything very different in the text, and what’s probably more important is that I didn’t notice anything different in my response to it. On my second reading, the book was as gripping as it was the first time. But having read a lot more of Kimball’s work since 2007, I found myself attending to the nuance of his writing. The real genius of Michael Kimball’s prose lies in his finely-honed grammatical subversions.
Now Kimball and I play together on a softball team called Sir Lord Baltimore—he’s a knuckleball pitcher who’s also usually good for two home runs a game. After lobbing him a couple soft questions about his book, he told me to ask him something he can’t answer. So I threw some impossible questions at him, and he hit them out of the park.
Adam Robinson How old is this couple you’ve written about?
Michael Kimball I never gave the characters a specific age, but 80-ish was the age I was thinking when I saw the two characters in my head.
AR I think you’ve said that you wrote the book to process your feelings about your own grandparents. Did you ever doubt whether you were qualified to project these thoughts? Did you ever worry that no one would care if you did?
MK Yes, processing certain feelings about my grandparents, this one set I grew up close to, was a big part of the novel. I didn’t set out to do that, and I didn’t realize that I was doing that until I was a ways into the novel, but that’s what happened. And it’s funny, at one point, when I was stuck in the middle of the novel, I did stop and ask myself what I was doing. I didn’t know, and I didn’t know why. It made me question the whole thing, but facing down those questions also sent me deeper into the novel. Whenever I’ve found myself worried about whether or not I should do something with a piece of writing, especially something that a writer isn’t supposed to do, whenever there is that hesitation or fear, I try to move into that space. I try to be brave on the page.
Christopher Louvet, the editor and publisher of Floating Wolf Quarterly, talks to Scott Geiger about the electronic past, present, and future of poetry.
In discussing the Tranströmer Nobel win last month on The New York Times Book Review Podcast, Julie Bosman notes the absence of any electronic editions of the Swedish laureate’s work. “I’m pretty sure they don’t exist,” she tells Sam Tanenhaus. “Poetry is often not released in digital form because the formatting is complex and difficult. A lot of publisher’s just don’t bother, especially because a lot of people, when they buy a book of poetry, they want to keep in on their shelf, they don’t want to read it on their black and white Kindle.”
Is there really no electronic future for poetry? One emerging digital publication has addressed both challenges cited by Bosman in one take. Launched in June 2010, Floating Wolf Quarterly pairs the chapbook (between 8 and 12 poems) of an emerging poet with one from an established poet. The FWQ site is tidy and minimal, and it displays identically across browsers, mobile devices, and tablet computers. Though its functionality is optimized for the iPad and iPhone, where navigation between poems is by a sweep of the finger. All formatting of the poets’ lines is carefully preserved and consistent across platforms. Kindle editions of individual chapbooks are available on Amazon.
Behind Floating Wolf Quarterly is poet and programmer Christopher Louvet, who responded in writing from his home in Miami Beach, Florida to the following queries about the future of poetry and a literary artist’s opportunities in the age of electronic literature.
Laurie Weeks’s Zipper Mouth takes readers on a mind-bending journey through the body’s ins and outs. Weeks talks with Jennifer Coates about the novel’s psychedelic dimensions and the creative parallels between writing and growing plants.
I was really excited to sit down and talk with Laurie Weeks about her recently published novel, Zipper Mouth. We had been internet acquaintances for years through blogging (we both had online alter egos) and have been developing a texting friendship for the last few months. This was our first chance to talk in real space and time, two things Weeks’s writing enthusiastically dilates. Zipper Mouth has been described as a lesbian drug novel and is set mostly in nineties downtown NYC, but wormholes open up repeatedly into an abusive, escapist suburban childhood. “If I was wasting away in a hospital like a deer, very quiet and shy, everyone would feel bad for being blind fuckheads and put me in a foster home. World’s greatest dream.”
Journal entries and letters to Sylvia Plath from adolescence punctuate the book at comically disruptive intervals. We zoom back and forth in time as inward life (hallucinations, memories and desires) and outward connection to the world blur together. What holds the novel together is the off-kilter rhythm of the narrator’s drug-fueled highs and lows and the unrequited desire for her straight friend, Jane. Dirty streets, deadening part-time jobs, looming uncompleted life tasks, and self-hating hangovers are the dark backdrop on which moments of poetic transcendence stand out. “For what is desire but this dervish drilling into the air a window on the glimmering panorama that flashes into existence the second you think I’m in love. As soon as you approach that enchanted space, desire spins it away.”
Juxtaposing the abject against the ecstatic, Weeks’s unnamed, unstable, but thoroughly lovable protagonist can project an acrobatic circus routine onto a classroom, a field of flowers onto a dirty elevator shaft.
Jennifer Coates Have you ever had contact with the vegetable over-mind?
Laurie Weeks No, but I think of myself as a psychedelic person. My brain is in a vegetated state, but more because I’m so obsessed with growing flowers. I am ready to take mushrooms, I just want to do it correctly . . . according to Terence McKenna’s instructions.
In this discussion, Nathalie Handal tells Ram Devineni of her experiences in Afghanistan as well as explaining where her fascination with the written word originally came from.
In May 2011, poet Nathalie Handal was invited by the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa and the State Department to travel to Kabul, Afghanistan to participate in a literary tour, which also included National Book Award Finalist Joshua Ferris and essayist Christopher Merrill. While in Afghanistan, she taught a poetry workshop to young Afghani women students at Kabul University and participated in many literary dialogues with other poets from the country. The short film captures this unique poetic journey. Nathalie currently lives in New York City.
Ram Devineni You are probably one of the best-traveled poets that I know, and you have been to some difficult places. What is the role of a poet in the world?
Nathalie Handal I’ve always been fascinated by words and journeys. From a young age, I collected photos, postcards, letters, or whatever I could find that told a story about being on the road. When I was about fourteen years old, I found a letter my grandfather wrote. It was about my family members who immigrated to Egypt. Excited, I showed it to my parents. My father was amused. My mother was emotional. My grandmother thought we should throw it away—she didn’t want people reading about him. Everyone wanted the letter for different reasons. Finally, my mother hid the letter. During our many moves, we never found it again. At that moment, I realized that writing was risky. It could infuriate. I later discovered writers were exiled or imprisoned because of what they wrote. What we read could take us into different worlds—I couldn’t remember the story in the letter because I read it fast, so I created my own version. It took me to the cusp of my imagination and emotions, to illusion and disillusion, to where what’s real and surreal, and where the sacred and unholy collide. I realized that writing has power, and that was exhilarating. It seems impossible for poets to stay away from the debates that surround them or be indifferent to their ghosts. Poetry can show others what has happened to them, and what they have lost or gained. It explores the human condition. It is a meeting place of society, history, and self. And when we write, we not only use language, we use silence.
Andrea Scrima spent an afternoon at the Frankfurter Buchmesse, the world’s largest book fair, and found peace and prose in the less crowded International Hall.
After two days of running from booth to booth, appointment to appointment at the Frankfurter Buchmesse on a journalist’s pass, I wasn’t prepared when the world’s largest book fair—with around 7,500 exhibitors from over 110 countries—was opened to the public this past Saturday. The crunch already began in the S-Bahn as the train pulled into the Messe station. A thickly packed crowd spilled out onto the platform and then inched its way up a narrow flight of stairs. This mass of curious humanity, myself included, proceeded at an excruciatingly slow pace until it finally arrived in the entrance hall, where a flurry of colorful Manga-costumed youngsters was busy donning day-glo wigs and checking their backpacks to head for Hall 3 and their favorite comic-book publishers. I was glad I’d already worked my way through Halls 4 and 8, which feature the large American and German publishers, as they were packed to the point of being unnavigable. On the other hand, the International Hall, my destination for the afternoon, was comparatively empty. Evidently, foreign presses attract far less attention than one might hope, given the prevalence of translation in German publishing, and I was able to peruse the aisles in peace.
In anticipation of the 2011 Poets Forum, our friends at the Academy of American Poets will conduct a series of six-question interviews featuring six different poets leading up to their event this month, October 20–22. BOMB is excited to be able to share the next interview in this series, a conversation with Cathy Park Hong.
Poets.org How do you begin a poem?
Cathy Park Hong 1. I read a lot, procrastinating from actually writing with “research.”
2. I go to the New York Public Library, fill out requests for books, retrieve books, read, and take copious notes in the Rose Room.
3. Sometimes, I force myself to write a sonnet a day, where I just empty my head.
4. I go to museums, films, galleries, where I steal images.
5. I unload most of this raw material into my unlined black notebook that I always buy at a tiny stationery store on 12th Street. The notebook may consist of information, data, “free writing,” stabs at stanzas, to do lists, directions to places (I don’t have an iPhone).
6. I transfer the mess to a computer and twiddle with it.
Poets.org What poets do you continually go back to?
CPH Gerard Manley Hopkins, Harryette Mullen, John Berryman, Wallace Stevens, Inger Christensen, Lyn Hejinian, Fernando Pessoa, John Ashbery (and to add some nonpoets who I like to return to: Hernandez Brothers, Roberto Bolaño, Susan Sontag, Mike Davis, David Mitchell, Paul Chan, Bong Joon-Ho).
Poets.org Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poems?
San Francisco’s Litquake might be over, but the aftershocks keep rumbling. Novelist and playwright Lucy Caldwell—the author of Where They Were Missed and The Meeting Point—participated in Litquake’s Young Ireland. She is a native of Belfast.
Litquake What is your favorite book?
Lucy Caldwell Oh my goodness! You do know this is impossible to answer, right? I’ll go for the books I loved most as a child—there are five of them, but they’re a quintet, so you’ll have to let me get away with it. I still re-read them almost every year, and one day I hope to write my own series like them. They are Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence: Over Sea, Under Stone; The Dark is Rising; Greenwich; The Grey King; and Silver on the Tree. A haunting, chilling and utterly compelling saga based on Arthurian legends and the age-old battle between good and evil, Light and Dark.
Litquake Who is your favorite writer?
LC Again: absolutely impossible. But I think I’ll go for Chekhov. Three Sisters is my all-time favorite play, ever.
Litquake If the answers to 1 and 2 are different, why?
LC I love Chekhov’s work as an adult, and as a writer. But the books you love as a child you love in a different way: all-consuming, obsessive. Their stories and characters become part of you. So it seems important to acknowledge both.
In anticipation of the 2011 Poets Forum, our friends at the Academy of American Poets will conduct a series of six-question interviews featuring six different poets leading up to their event this month, October 20–22. BOMB is excited to be able to share the next interview in this series, a conversation with Ilya Kaminsky.
Poets.org How do you begin a poem?
Ilya Kaminsky I write in lines. So the lines find their way on paper whether I overhear two boys insulting each other at the gas station, or see a gull cleaning her feet, or two old men playing dominoes on a hood of a car, or two young women kissing at the fish market. They become lines on receipts, on my hands, on a water bottle, on other people’s poems. Lines collect for years, but once in a while they discover that other lines are sexy and, well, the poems may come from that sort of a relationship. If I am lucky. Which isn’t often. But one has to have faith.
Poets.org What poets do you continually go back to?
IK I am hopelessly in love with Shakespeare, mostly plays: The Tempest, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, of course, but also less famous ones, King John, for instance. My wife and I used to have Shakespeare parties at our place, which was great fun. We would provide everyone with lots of wine, copies of the book, and pencils; they drank and underlined their favorite passages in plays. So, after the party there was this great harvest of other people’s Shakespeare, which was a hunter-gatherer’s paradise.
My first Shakespeare, though, was in Russian. The poets of my generation got quite lucky since Pasternak translated many of Shakespeare’s plays and also much of Goethe—and he did a supreme job. Because Russian literature is much younger than English (so we don’t have much of a sense of 17th century literary Russian), one gets the feeling that one isn’t reading a translation but instead reading Shakespeare as if he wrote in the 1950s, at the time Pasternak was translating him en masse.
Lyric poets I go back to a lot are Catullus, Dickinson, Mandelstam, Celan, Vallejo. I love these poets because they reinvented the language, the syntax, in a way that showed me their love/hate relationship with it. I love how Mandelstam isn’t always grammatically correct in Russian (of course he simply sees new grammar), how Dickinson wants to grasp from one line to another, skipping the politesse, using dashes as stairs to jump between floors, or how Celan combines words because German vocabulary didn’t make the right ones for the grasp of human despair. I love, too, the three dots in the middle of lines in Vallejo, who knew that language wasn’t enough—this is probably the case, at one moment in her or his life, with any lyric poet.
And, I go back to Herrick and Donne and Stevens and Crane because they are great teachers of English music. In recent years I went back to Whitman’s “The Sleepers” and his wartime poems quite a bit as well. Longer poems I like to go back to or teach are Herbert Mason’s “Gilgamesh” and Christopher Logue’s versions of Homer. Those are great fun.
Poets.org Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poems?
“You can never / persuade one person that another / is a liar. People prefer the liar.” Elsbeth Pancrazi on Fanny Howe’s Come and See.
Great films begin in chaos.
They are made in order to show the abyss emerging into laws.
These lines are not the beginning of Fanny Howe’s Come and See—they come in the middle of an eight-page long poem encountered after the point at which I’d broken the thin book’s spine—but to me, they seemed a possible beginning, a dangling thread that promised to guide me. The thread continues, “Like Pope John Paul, certain directors only want the splendor of truth.”
The splendor of truth! If this is merely one possibility, what are the alternatives? Following the voice that made these proclamations, I began to get my bearings in what had seemed a closed system of beliefs—certainly a cryptic system, one of riddling logic guided by sound, as when:
Certain gnostics achieve ecstasy through random and frantic sex
But love aches its way through the interstices.
At the Romanian Institute of Culture, Ella Veres sat down with Mircea Cărtărescu to discuss the lineage of Romanian fiction, the effect of technology on writing, and Cărtărescu’s book Orbitor/Glaring, which he compares to “a huge aircraft carrier.”
At the end of April, 2011, I attended the opening night of the Pen World Voices Festival in preparation for my encounter with Mircea Cărtărescu. It was a lovely evening, at the Light House on Chelsea Pier. In the small harbor there were anchored several sail boats, as if it was centuries ago. One of them was sailing out of the harbor and blew the fog horn. I expected Johnny Depp to swing by the ropes and wink tipsily at any moment. Instead I ambled through the parking lot, past the lengthy line of attendees, straight to the press reserved seats.
I took my front row seat, ready to hear grand speeches about freedom and tyranny. I considered PEN sacred ground. On its podium Nobel Prize winners, Eastern European writers with names difficult to pronounce, had launched their statements that shook the world. Well, not tonight. It felt like an expensive open mic. Writers from all over the world were flown in, wined and dined, so we could hear them read ten minutes of their work on the theme of water. It was fun, but not invigorating.
The next day I had my 45 minutes with Mircea Cărtărescu. In preparation, I read the first part of his humongous 1,500 page novel,Orbitor/Glaring. I was stunned that he had pulled it off. Everyday I am admonished to keep my writing short and to-the-point. No one wants to read 1,500 pages!
Cărtărescu seemed a modest man, and his first name is Mircea, like my departed little brother’s.
Ella Veres How does it feel to be part of the PEN festival, in such prestigious writers’ company?
Mircea Cărtărescu From what I’ve understood this festival is one of the largest in New York and in the United States of America. Of course I was impressed that I was invited to participate, and even more so, that I was invited to participate at the festival opening night next to very few writers, amongst whom were Salman Rushdie and Amélie Nothomb, names very well known around the world.