So…I wrote some book reviews & The Brooklyn Rail decided to print them. You can also find them online here [Monica Drake], here [Chris Offutt], and here [Kristin Hersh, Kim Gordon, Carrie Brownstein].
This year’s AWP conference was in WDC and what with the current political climate & the crowds of deep-thinking humans attending, I had high hopes for “activist moments.” Perhaps there were some in the keynote(s) that I was too exhausted to attend or during something of the panels – too numerous to choose from. The single event advertised as specifically activist was on Saturday. After a tour of the very poorly designed DC Metro system trying to get from the Convention Center to the White House, I witnessed the end of a short “vigil.” A vigil where poets spoke and no one could hear. A vigil where there was insufficient light and no one could see. A vigil where the messages were so muddy as to fizzle out as soon as they were voiced. After taking part in countless post-election protests in NYC, I felt let down. This isn’t a time for holding candles politely and speaking softly. We’ve done too much of that.
AWP is always a bit of a mess – too many panels, too many people crammed into the book fair, not enough drinking water or edible food, terrible coffee (except the year AWP was in Seattle). But AWP is also a yearly affirmation that words matter; that people still read and write books; that there is more to American life than Reality TV, the LCD, fake news, and sound bites. At AWP17, I had countless enthusiastic conversations with writers, poets, editors, and even a few who self-identified simply as “readers.” There were also a number of MFA students who weren’t quite sure they could identify as “writers.” Note: If you commit to an MFA program – you’re a writer.
Working for a small press is a bit like working for an indie label (something I did a lot of in decades past). It doesn’t pay, it’s a lot of work, and you have to care about what you do. Many people who stopped by the BLP booth at the book fair asked, “What kind of fiction do you like/publish/read?” and “What do you look for in a book?” The best answer I can give to any of these questions is, “something good.” By which I mean a manuscript that shows not only a knowledge of plot and character but language, how to craft a sentence, how to edit. So many manuscripts I read have unnecessary prefaces, prologues, endless paragraphs telling me what the book is about. I want to read the book, not words telling me about the book. Certainly there are publishers, editors, agents who require query letters, a synopsis, etc. but not BLP. That first sentence is crucial. The first chapter in a novel, the first story in a collection has to be strong. Often when I read a manuscript that saves the best for the middle, I’m reminded of listening to band demos where the “best” song is third or fourth. This makes the assumption that the listener/reader/editor is going to listen or read more than the first song, the first few pages. We’re not, we don’t, we can’t.
I’m a writer myself and I know how frustrating the publishing world can be. In the past couple of years, my own non-academic writing has suffered from a surfeit of neglect. Sure I do poem-a-day & NaNoWriMo but I rarely send anything out into the world that’s not a book review, an academic essay, or a blog post. After each AWP, I feel inspired (at least a little) to send stories, poems, manuscripts out to any of the hundreds of journals and/or small presses that publish work I like. But it’s rare that I follow up on that feeling.
When my father died earlier this year I thought a lot about what I would say at his memorial. I ended up writing something the day prior and tossing everything else I’d drafted. When I thought about our relationship over the years and what it means to me to lose him, a lot of that loss is the silencing of his stories. He was a wonderful story teller. He told stories about his life, his ancestors, his childhood home, and the many and vastly varied places he saw in his long life and travels. There is some part of me now that wonders just what it matters whether or not my own stories ever get out into the world now that he’s gone. But there’s also a part of me that knows that when I say women’s voices matter, I also mean my voice, my stories and so I know I have to face down the ugly dual monsters of discouragement and fear of rejection and send my stories out into the world. Because I’m a writer and because my dad would want me to.
Somehow it’s already October & as I watch deadlines fly by somewhat akin to the leaves blowing off trees, I realize it’s been weeks (months?) since I’ve written a blog post. I could blame the volume of reading I have to do for Grad School “comps” or the hundred manuscripts I have to read or the heavier workload at my “day job” this semester, but really, it’s this “non-writing” thing that’s been happening since August. I’ve gone from writing a “poem-a-day” to maybe one every couple of weeks. I haven’t written a word of fiction since August & the only non-fiction I’m writing is of the academic variety: dry and focused on exposition and argument, not image/character/plot/rhythm. For a while in September, I was creating “erasure” poems from various texts and that was fun but it didn’t stimulate my writing the way I’d hoped it would. Much of my energy these days is focused on keeping up with the workload(s) and getting my body moving again post-surgery. I’ve done a couple of hikes & I’m walking to/from work again most days (about 1.5 miles each way). A walk that can be both freeing and irritating (cars blasting through crosswalks, bicycles on sidewalks/blocking crosswalks/ignoring red lights, tourists, people glued to phones). My commute takes me from the West Village to the East Village and this time of year, everything is decorated for Halloween except the banks & that hideous IBM tower in the midst of Astor Place. Halloween has always been my favorite holiday & this year is no exception. I’ll be celebrating in various ways: a séance at the Merchant’s House Museum, two episodes of Radio Theatre NYC’s HP Lovecraft Festival, and maybe a spooky movie or two. I may even go see The Damned. Every few years I attend the Village Halloween Parade but last year it was such a crowded mess, I’ll likely skip it. There’s something about the season that brings on a certain post-Goth nostalgic-melancholy that is both uncomfortable and oddly pleasurable. I miss dressing up. I miss going to see “scary” bands with my scary Goth friends. But seeing the new Clash-inspired film London Town last night I was reminded of just how dirty, cold, and brutal London was under Thatcher. I lived there at the height of the London Goth scene and while it was a formative year for my very young self & rife with positive new experiences (Joyce’s Ulysses, punk rock/Goth boyfriends, Sisters of Mercy/Virgin Prunes/Nick Cave-Bad Seeds/Neubaten) I also have a strong memory of ALWAYS being cold. Freezing in fact. London was damp and everywhere I lived suffered from poor heating and terrible water pressure (when there was running water). It’s not much different in NYC. Although I have a door that locks, a toilet that (mostly) flushes & a shower that (nearly always) has hot water, and at least an expectation of heat at home and work, I’m still cold. And maybe that’s a lesson I learned all those years ago living in my own version of Halloween Town, all the beautiful words & books & all the loud music in the world won’t keep me warm. Sometimes writing eases that deep, dark cold inside but sometimes it serves only to open another door into that well of nostalgia and melancholy from which much bad poetry emanates. Still, I’ll celebrate the best holiday of the year & maybe I’ll even write a line or two in celebration.
This year’s AWP Conference was in L.A. (or Hell-LA as I used to call it). I haven’t been to LA in some years and I’m decidedly less gainfully employed (yet much more educated) than I was then. I don’t like LA despite the good people I know who live there). I don’t like a city where I can’t walk to/from everything I need. I don’t like a city without significant public transit. I don’t like a city with no heart/no center – I always feel like “there’s no there there” when I’m in LA. This trip was spent mainly behind a table selling books, talking about books, and hearing about books at the Black Lawrence Press booth. While it’s always inspiring to see so many people (14,000 ?) who love books, AWP is always an endurance test. Because of my various limitations, my post-accident AWP experiences are definitely anxiety-driven. I opt to sit behind a table at the Book Fair not only because I feel it’s the best use of my talents on BLP’s behalf but also because it feels relatively safe. Once I’m out there walking around the Book Fair, the noise, the bright lights, the volume of information, the general sensory overload can prove too much for my already-challenged brain. In coping with PTSD on a daily basis, there are certain triggers: lights, noise, crowds. But sitting behind a table, I feel at ease and fully able to talk about and sell books. I feel useful. And that’s incredibly important to me right now – feeling useful. One of the panels at AWP this year focused on “Imposter Syndrome” – while I didn’t attend the panel, I did find myself considering whether or not I feel like an “imposter” when I’m surrounded by writers. I don’t have the same kind of self-confidence I had when I was last in LA – I’m not running a successful Music PR firm nor do I have an easily definable “career.” I felt a twinge of “imposter-itis” when I gave a copy of my latest poetry chapbook (w/Mary Ellen Sanger) to a favorite poet of mine – she’s published with more than one reputable press, I’m not. I also felt the same “imposter-itis” when meeting with former colleagues (now friends) in LA: am I still the punk rocker they knew or am I just another pseudo-punk rock/academic? I’ve been thinking about “punk rock” a lot – both in connection with a current fiction project and for a large research project for my Ph.D. focused on the structuring of female image in punk rock. Leaving the novel aside for now, or this paper, I’ve had to read volumes of academic work on punk, women in rock, and pop culture. Most of it either misses the point (written by outsiders) or lacks academic rigor (written by insiders). I’m struggling with definitions of “punk rock” – what do people mean when they use the term and what do I mean? Questions I never would have asked “back in the day” when I helmed my own PR firm and proudly called myself “Punk Rock Bitch.” Am I still punk rock now? Can one be punk rock without the outward trappings? Can one be a writer without a book out? Can one be a poet if one isn’t published on a major press? What makes an “imposter” (or to use the old punk rock term “a poser/poseur”)? And why does any of this matter when there are books to read, words to write, and LOUD guitars?
Another December has come and gone and with it the anxieties and joys of travel, family, holiday traditions, and of course the annual (nightly?) “taking stock of my life” that I’m prone to. I finished up another semester of grad school with two final papers – one on the importance of Irish/Irish-American women in the American Labor movement and one on the “eviction” photographs of Robert French (19th C. Irish photographer). I celebrated the end of the semester by going to see the new Star Wars movie – Han Solo was killed which pretty much ends that story for me. I then packed up and headed for Northern Arizona to spend a week with my parents and other assorted family. The N.AZ Unitarians put on a good Solstice celebration as well as a good service on the 24th. My mom sang in the choir on the 24th and it was great to see her up there singing and to see how full of energy she is after a year-long fight against Cancer. It snowed on Christmas Day which was made that much nicer as I didn’t have to commute in NYC through the resultant slush. While in AZ I read a lot, watched some football with my dad, walked some, and wrote less. Back in NYC for a few days, I divested myself of several pounds of books and paper, read more books and caught up with friends. On Jan 2nd, I headed out to Washington State to attend the ArtSmith Residency on Orcas Island. I hadn’t been to the San Juan Islands since I was a kid but had vivid memories of that gorgeous ferry ride from Anacortes. A high school friend picked me up at the airport and I was soon on the ferry. I met fellow residency attendee – Alaskan writer Nancy Lord at the ferry station – a great writer and a true pleasure to spend time with. After a gorgeous (albeit very grey) ferry ride, we arrived on Orcas Island. I was given a HUGE room (by NYC standards) and spent the week enjoying the space, reading, getting to know my fellow residents, and most importantly, writing. The mornings I spent drinking (too much) coffee and staring at the Salish Sea and the mountains will stay with me for a long, long time. I spent one afternoon and night in Seattle catching up with old friends and walking around the Market and its environs. Seattle was my first “big” city, it’s the place I was born, and the place I first discovered much of the music and literature and lifestyle that is integral to who I am. It no longer feels like “home” but it does feel like a place I could live. While deep in the woods (or out on the beach) on Orcas, I felt the strong pull of “home” – the “right” ocean, a more sane pace of life, a space to think and write and breathe.
While in Seattle, we got the news of the death of David Bowie. Others have written much and more eloquently than I could of the importance of Bowie in shaping taste, personal identity, and self-expression. I’m glad I heard the news while I was with a long-time friend in Seattle. NYC is full of good, sensitive, creative humans but I didn’t spend my childhood here and it will never really be “home” for me. Now that news has come out that CD Wright and Alan Rickman have both died of Cancer and of course remembering the huge presence that was John Trudell, I have to wonder if I wasn’t better off on that island, cut off from news of the wide world and instead studying trees, and tiny shells, birds and patterns of words. Perhaps life would be better away from the brutal stress of life in NYC, and away from the huge sadness of the world at large. NYC can be a beautiful and inspiring place to live but just two weeks away is enough to change my perspective. Whether or not I finish the work I started and edited at ArtSmith, I hope to hold onto that changed perspective as I move into another academic year, another work year, and another year of living. I am thankful for what I have, for those who are still with us, and for the gifts of those who are gone.
While I’m still slogging away at NaNoWriMo (and about now it DOES feel like a “slog”)…I’m also trying to get through the last of this semester’s course work and final papers, etc. As a Ph.D. student with more than one Master’s Degree behind me (I have 4 if you’re counting), I’ve learned to separate “emotional” responses from “critical” responses. Despite this ability, since 2012 when I was first diagnosed with PTSD, one of the struggles I’ve had is responding “appropriately” to images, sounds, and texts. In other words, when I see violence, I “over” react. But what does this actually mean? This week’s reading for a course I’m taking on the history of documentary photography – Susie Linfield’s “Cruel Radiance” – focuses on images of “political violence” and responses – critical and personal – to these images. It’s rare that my academic reading aligns with specific “real life” events but reading critical discussion of how “we” should respond to images of human suffering while the events in Paris unfolded was both apt and also, incredibly difficult. To be clear – my suffering is not as “personal” as that experienced by those who lost loved ones or were direct witnesses to the Paris attacks (or those in Lebanon) – I’m not claiming that. One of the worst symptoms of PTSD is the way it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to view violence and achieve that distance necessary to “process” it. But is this really what we should be doing? I don’t want to feel the debilitating pain that I feel when I view new footage, photographs or read about human suffering (torture, war, famine, etc.) but I also agree with Linfield that we have an ethical obligation NOT to turn away. But how do I get past the feeling of shock and helplessness such viewing causes? How do I process these images (or in the case of my class assignment – write an “appropriate” response paper to an academic text) without internalizing the fear and despair I feel at witnessing the suffering of others. Linfield suggests that it is through the viewing of images of suffering that we become inspired to be active in human rights efforts. But for those of us who suffer from PTSD and who don’t have the “proper” filters for viewing such images, is it ethically wrong to turn away? How can we learn to empathize without descending into the deadly cycle of flashback-anxiety-hopelessness that PTSD can cause? No answers here, just questions.
I meant to post these a few at a time over the past few weeks but as is often the case, life got in the way…So quickly and off the top of my head…Here are some of my favorite spooky reads:
- The Bloody Chamber/Angela Carter
- Dracula/Bram Stoker
- The Haunting of Hill House/Shirley Jackson
- Collected Ghost Stories/Le Fanu
- Something Wicked This Way Comes/Ray Bradbury
- Poe. all of it.
- the Call of Cthulhu/HP Lovecraft
- the Hellbound Heart/Clive Barker
- Salem’s Lot/Stephen King
- The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All/Laird Baron
Some of my favorite spooky viewing:
- Dracula (1932)
- Don’t Look Now
- Nosferatu (1922)
- The Hunger
- The Shining
- The Others
- Nosferatu: the Vampyre (1979)
- Shadow of the Vampire
- The Hunger
- Near Dark
And some of my favorite spooky music:
- Saint-Saens: Danse Macabre
- Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique
- Liszt: Mephisto Waltz No. 1
- Bauhaus: Bela Lugosi’s Dead
- Rolling Stones: Sympathy for the Devil
- Nick Cave: Red Right Hand
- Sisters of Mercy: Alice, Body & Soul, Temple of Love
- Christian Death: Only Theatre of Pain (entire)
- The Cramps: TV Set, Voodoo Idol, so many more
- The Misfits: Skulls [and too many others to list here]
“The night was sweet with the dust of autumn leaves that smelled as if the fine sands of ancient Egypt were drifting to dunes beyond the town.” Although I first read it when I was very small, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes remains one of my favorite books. I recently gave a copy to a young friend who is reading his way through a lot of Sci-Fi and Fantasy classics (and not so classics). He said he “really liked it” but that it was “too short.” I remember when I used to judge the weight of a book by the number of pages but I’ve learned since that a book can be “short” and still have immense weight. Without turning this into an essay on Jeanette Winterson or Angela Carter or Shirley Jackson, I’ll turn instead to the season: when the door swings open between worlds [to paraphrase Carter] and the leaves start to fall. Today is the first day that’s really dipped below 60 and the air has that specific sharp taste that means summer is gone. The leaves are changing to gold and crimson and most shop windows in my neighborhood are decorated with badly painted zombies, wolfmen, and of course, there are pumpkins everywhere. I’ve lived in this city so long, I’ve forgotten how we carved our pumpkins when I was a kid and what we did with all that pumpkin flesh. Most of the brownstones in the West Village are decorated for Halloween and it’s one of the joys of working in this neighborhood though, really, this time of year always makes me nostalgic for New Orleans where people REALLY know how to dress up and celebrate this best holiday of the year. Reading AO Scott’s predictably snarky review of “Crimson Peak,” I’m reminded why for much of my teen years (and well into the decades after), I lived with the conviction that “normal people don’t get it.” Because they don’t. You can watch zombie dramas on TV and dress up in Day of the Dead masks from Rickys NYC once a year but you still won’t get it. There is a certain slant to the way some of us view life: the way we like to scare ourselves with movies and books and ghost stories, the way we find beauty in dark and shadowed places, and it’s a way of viewing the world that you can’t buy. Certainly, I’m happy that it’s so much easier now to find like minds than it was when I was a quiet, shy kid obsessed with all things gothic and I’m not going to join the ranks of crabby old people complaining about “kids today.” Instead, I want to acknowledge a few of the books and movies that reflect that certain sensibility I mean when I use the word “gothic” and that I will likely be watching and reading and enjoying this time of year. In the days to come, I’ll be posting brief lists or reviews or what-have-you because, for me, Halloween isn’t just one day a year. And for anyone who’s read my fiction, that should be pretty obvious.