Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Multiplicanda Ah Um in SDR

Now and then in my life I have been aware of a shift in my writing. Right now I am finishing the final draft of my latest novel, The Whole Show, and I need to finish it before classes start in the fall, and I think I can. In the meantime I procrastinate a little by reading, and by revising poems and stories to send them out. During the semester I rarely have the time for the sustained period of attention the novel requires, so I write stories. 

I can't always locate the shift in my writing, and sometimes it seems false years later, but the latest two stories I've been able to publish seem like the beginning of a new phase. One, called "Another New Story," will come out in The Fiddlehead sometime in the next year, and this one, called "Multiplicanda Ah Um," is in the latest issue of South Dakota Review.

There is always a struggle between two poles, and this summer I have been caught between wanting to read essays and wanting to read graphic novels and memoirs, a genre that is completely new to me. So since I have a messy office and any picture I take of this beautiful new journal (cover photo by Lee Ann Roripaugh and design by duncan b. barlow) will take in some of that, I have two -- on one my stack of graphic novels and one beside another stack.

The shift in my own work might be located quite simply in the birth of my first daughter, but that was four years ago this December, and this story, "Multiplicanda Ah Um" is the first story in this new phase maybe, but I wrote it during the past year. Just before she was born I was listening to lots of instrumental jazz, because I knew nothing about it and it seemed perfect for writing my novel. No words to get in the way. Since then, I have fallen in love with many jazz albums, but of course Mingus Ah Um is where this title came from.

The two poles I have been trying to work between are simplicity and experimentation. My experimentation is in elision maybe at the plot level, maybe at the background level, and never at the level of syntax, yet I am always surprised by my work's inaccessibility. Both poles seem important--simplicity as in clarity that seems absolutely aligned with realism somehow & experimentation that acknowledges the lie in realism because it someone accepts the world right here right now as natural and unchangeable.

I saw Geddy Lee interviewed once and he described making Rush's breakthrough album 2112 -- they had decided the public and the record company didn't buy it anyway when they tried to anticipate the public's taste, so who cares, they would just make the album most like them that they could.

The desire to become what one should be is simple and strong, but its expression is complex. This story in SDR is about that.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Shadow Government

I meant to be able to post some kind of list of bet of last year, but cannot. Time is so odd to me now, since the children are born. The days seem to move so slowly and you just try to make it to bed time alive, but the weeks and months just speed by somehow.

However, back to work again after parental leave and there are many things to be excited about. Rediscovering the work of Judith Pond and Chris Levenson, discovering the work of Shane Nielson, through a submission to Ryga then reading his memoir Gunmetal Blue, and beginning to read his poetry. We're really excited to be publishing a chapbook by him as well. David Harsent's book, Night, is also something I'm reading a lot.

For fiction, I just started Les Plasko's novel No Stopping Train. What a horribly sad story his is, at least at the end. From the intro to the book, published posthumously after his suicide, it seems his life was good as he lived it -- committed to his art and within a community of like-minded people.

The story touches me for many reasons, because he was human, but one of the main reasons is that his case is not a solitary one. There is great work out there being ignored in favour of the latest historical romance or zombie novel, or whatever agents and publishers think may make a good movie or book club selection. Instead of elevating tastes and championing good writing, it seems easier to pander to the lowest level of reading sophistication and then try to elevate the poor writing that copies the last season's bestsellers, or genre writing, to the level of literature in the minds of arts commentators and prize juries. It's working, and I suppose there is nothing to be done about it, in a negative sense -- I mean I understand Grisham writes good stories, but I can't get through 3 pages in a row of that horrible writing.

So instead I have decided to start writing reviews and trying to bring attention to books I think deserve it. When I talk about writing with friends whose opinions matter to me, we are never talking about the books in the newspapers, when talking about writing that changes us, hurts us, or shakes us. It is always about other writers, whose texts live in some other space, forming a kind of shadow government, working against the sloganeering establishment that lives in the sunshine. Anyway, I will try it. That's why no real comments about these texts right now.

Monday, December 1, 2014

How Easy It All Is

Good news. I just saw a FB posting for a writing class offered by someone in the community. The outline of the course shows 6 classes, and here is the good news: It only takes 2 of those classes to get through the writing and then the 4 last classes are all about publishing and marketing.

And actually, you cover the "basics of writing" in the first class and the second class is all about "staying inspired."

I think what we should do is have musicians forgo learning their instruments as well, and skip right to costumes and makeup and the pose of the tortured artist for the twitter pics.

Anyway, I thought that was pretty stupid, but then the comments about it were all so sycophantic and ridiculous I had to follow it a little bit. I found one person who commented had recently posted on FB that she was excited about a new short story she was publishing through Amazon and to illustrate something (how excited she was probably, though I think it was implied this actually illustrated her commitment), she added she'd been working on it all morning!

To be fair, she might have meant the layout or the cover design, or many other things, but I kind of think she didn't.

It struck me as quite odd, of course, but then I realized it's not that different from how some writers who publish traditionally talk about themselves, too, and it recalled for me a bit from A Moveable Feast, where Hemingway wrote something like it made him sick to talk about writing. I understand that, because unless you're talking about a specific work then you are talking about "being" a writer, and that's ridiculous because so many people, talented and otherwise, claim that title, and then chatter about writing constantly, instead of writing.

And these are grownups, too, not the people I knew back in my undergrad who would introduce themselves as "poets" and then write inane and obvious observations about the world 6 inches in front of their face and how just observing it made them suffer so. Now, when they are grownups, it's pretty similar, but they write touristy things -- for instance, they are academics, writing 6 poems in 6 days because they went to a new location for a conference and must describe the injustices to everyone else in this world.

Now I was just going to write "They are heroes, really," but one problem these days is how to read things these days, how to find sincerity, how not to be bullied by a writer who appears instantly due to contemporary technology and whose uniform changes daily, one who responds to any sort of critique or engagement with contempt, implying the reader has mistaken satire for sincerity. So, we cop out all the time.

What all of this leads to is the notion that all writing is equal. There is another guy I know who is described sometimes as a journalist, though he does not investigate, or research, or discover new information -- all he does is write stuff that is meant to inspire. I suppose it is honest, but it's meant to inspire in the same way a motivational speaker does, or Jack Handy. He's not a journalist.

I was asked in the fall to read at the local library with some other local authors. It was pretty odd, because when I looked into it I realized that none of the authors aspired to write literature, and none of them had anything in common (aside from the fact that 2 or 3 were self-published). I asked the librarian who asked me to do it what his rationale was. He said he hadn't looked at any of the work by the authors. How does a librarian become a librarian without a bit of an aptitude for research, or even a tiny bit of curiosity? Anyway, he seemed annoyed that I did not want to be on a panel including self-published authors of self-help books, investment advice books, and books of religious inspirational stories.

Anyway, the message is you spend the morning writing, then publish it in the afternoon so you have time to market it the rest of the week, I guess.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Launching We Don't Listen to Them

I've read a couple of times this fall, and they both felt pretty good. I was down in South Dakota, returning to the school where I got my last degree, and it was a great time, meeting and talking to so many bright and committed writers, including the director of creative writing there, Lee Ann Roripaugh. (Of course I was not meeting her; Lee was one of the main people I learned from while I was getting my degree, and she turned me on to many great writers and also helped me put together my first collection of poetry. And just before I went down there, I received her latest book, which I had preordered what seemed like months before. The book is called Dandarians, and I was lucky enough to read much of it prior to its publication. What amazes me about Lee is the density of her work, and how the syntactic complexity and combination of diction from such a variety of registers always seems effortless--though that's probably the wrong word.) I read with Geoff Schmidt and got to know a little bit about him from dinners and drinks and so on, and his craft talk, which, as these things sometimes work, will help me a bit on my next novel, where I will use his geo-narrative ideas (or have one character use them . . . ) Then when I got home I was able to read Geoff's book of short fiction, Out of Time, which won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction. There are so many things to admire in that book, but the first story especially really sticks with me: "Man in Gorilla Suit by Midnight." It's one of those great stories where the external oddities entertain and amuse, and that amusement leaves a kind of space at the end where the reader is suddenly more open to the universal human relations at the heart of the story.

I came home with a few new writers to check out, including Brian Evenson. whose collection the Wavering Knife I am reading right now, and Laird Hunt, whose novel the Exquisite, I got in the mail last week. There is too little time to read right now, especially with all the new books, which seem to create an extra pressure so I skip from book to book without actually reading. Then I read with Karen Hoffman as part of the UBC Okanagan reading series and was especially grateful for the former students who came out in Kelowna. It seemed like a really great crowd, great energy. One of the highlights was meeting up with my former student Ryan the night before, and hearing about the work he's doing now and how his life is going. It reminds me, and I need reminding sometimes, that life is more than just reading and writing (though it sometimes isn't, of course) and feel a little less guilty about my lack of production while I am on leave with my second daughter.

Anyway, this all brings me to my next reading: Thursday, November 20th, at 7 pm. I am reading at the Bohemian Cafe in downtown Kelowna, with a friend of mine, John Lent. He's a poet, novelist, scholar, and singer-songwriter. It's a pretty humbling thing to think of all that has happened to me in the last 10 years, when I quit my job as a construction surveyor and went down to South Dakota to get my PhD, then was hired by Okanagan College and met John Lent, who has been instrumental in my recent development (who knows how much of this is visible in the work itself, but it's obvious to me; the conversations with John and with my colleague Jake about the writing that matters to them, and the writing that matters little, sustains me emotionally, that's for sure, but intellectually it is amazing to always be shown there is more to learn).

All this to say it will be a great pleasure to read with John and to hear him speak again about writing, and (I hope) hear from the work he is at now, which we have often spoke of, but which I have yet to read or to hear.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Another Award

I was really happy to learn that my first poetry professor, Christopher Levenson, is on the short list for the Governor General's Award for poetry. It's his book Night Vision, which I have yet to read.

I kind of didn't know there was such a thing as a creative writing class when I saw Chris's introductory workshop in poetry among the offerings at Carleton while I was there studying Journalism in the first half of the 90s. It was a class that changed my life in many ways, like a great workshop should, and like I hope some of my own classes do. Some of that has nothing to do with the teacher, really -- the kind of engagement you get from the students and how they work together and continue to work together after the workshop is over, that's often luck. But you had to submit a portfolio to get into Chris's class, which I don't think anyone does anymore at the level.

However it happened, there were a number of people in that class who would push me and encourage me and give me new poets to admire from their own group of books (that's the thing that was marvelous, really -- that all these people read on their own, outside of courses, and found poets to love and to hate and sometimes to imitate and then reject later).

Though Chris was above us in ability and erudition, he was like us in that his enthusiasm had not dampened, it seemed. This stuff, even in an undergraduate introductory class, mattered to him. I remember visiting his office and being encouraged by the clutter and amazed that he could pull a photocopy of a poem relevant to our discussion immediately from a stack of papers somehow.

He started me taking my work seriously and then I fell in with a great group of people and I can't remember all of their names, but Craig Carpenter, Jim Larwill, Warren Fulton, Malcolm Todd, and Rocco, I remember. I think they're all still working and reading,

Then suddenly one time in Vancouver he appeared at a reading I gave from my first book of poetry, and joined me for a drink with a J-School friend who now works as an editor, and one of my first creative writing students from Vernon, who studies now at SFU, I think.

It's enough to make a man sentimental. It really is beautiful to see him shortlisted for this award and remember what he started in my own life. His workshop led to my next workshop, one taught by Tom Henighan and Rick Taylor on short fiction, the form that has become my favourite. I met Jeff Ross there, and was introduced to the work of Par Lagkervist and Tobias Wolff.

Jeff and I would argue until closing time at the pub after class, and to meet someone who cares so much about writing and literature to talk so long and so passionately, it was amazing. It was a thing I didn't know would become rare in my life once I left school. I miss it.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Ten Books

There are these things going around on FB and so I thought I would list the 10 books that changed my life here. In no order, and off the top of my head, as, I think, the rules state:

1) Lord Foul's Bane, by Stephen R. Donaldson. I was a fantasy fan in my teens and this character Thomas Covenant seemed so real and flawed. It was a revelation and was great for me at the time so I could understand that morality is not simple.

2) The Foundation Trilogy, by Asimov. Not sure why. I feel like Dune and The Empire of the East by Saberhagen changed me too, but back in those days every book or record did, like when the Cult's Love came out.

3) Pastoralia, by George Saunders. This one is just so good. "The Barber's Unhappiness" is one of the best stories ever, so honest and so hard to read at times.

4) What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by Raymond Carver. I hadn't read Carver long ago when I started writing short fiction in a class taught by Tom Henighan during my undergrad. He was a model and I didn't know it. I think he'd changed things so much I was copying his copies.

5) Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, by Grace Paley. I still think she is horribly underrated, like she should be mentioned before Carver every time, and before Saunders, and before all of them except maybe Alice Munro (who is not on this list because I don't remember her books, just some stories. I've read her books so many times I feel like her work exists just like short fiction should -- as a life-long collection of discrete stories. Anyway, back to Paley. It was so great to hear her name from Gish Jen when she read with Tobias Wolff at the last AWP.

6) Swarm, by Jorie Graham. For better or worse, changed the way I read and write poetry, and led to my finding her other work, like the poem "At the Cabaret Now."
7) 60 Stories, by Donald Barthelme. "The Glass Mountain," "The School," "See the Moon?" "City of Churches," "Me and Mrs. Mandible," the one with Paul Klee in the title . . . they are all so good. Somehow he manages to be so clever and so funny without being cold.

8) Nine Stories, by J. D. Salinger. I cannot get enough of "For Esme, with Love and Squalor." Every time I read a book about war, or a book where characters try to live after some kind of trauma, I cannot help but think of this story.

9) The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker

10) Coming Through Slaughter, by Michael Ondaatje

Short Fiction from the Car Wash

My new book, We Don't Listen to Them, will be published in a few short weeks.

It's a book that's taken a long while to write. I know some people write collections from the outset, knowing a book will result. I really believe short stories must stand alone, so the timeline of this book's composition is hard to be sure about, but I know have been writing short stories all along, and my first book of stories was published way back in 2002, so that's a while.

I am trying to look at them objectively right now. That's hard, for some reason, until the physical book is in my hands. But it is nice to see this little review.

Also nice was a great review of my previous Thistledown Press book, The Ditch Was Lit Like This, published in the Fiddlehead.

The process of publishing and promoting can be demoralizing in some ways, so the see a one of your books read so attentively years after its publication is a great encouragement.