Malone and Savoca Week (2): A Conversation with Matthew Savoca

by Adam Robinson

I enjoyed Matthew Savoca’s long poem, Long Love Poem With Descriptive Title, and for Malone and Savoca Week, I interviewed him about it and some novels he’s written. Our talk is almost 3400 words long (edited from ~6,000) and requires no preamble, so let’s get to it. Here is the book cover:

longlovepoem_front

 

Adam: OK, I want to ask you about Long Love Poem With Descriptive Title. Ready?

Matthew: Yes, let’s do it. I’m drinking a beer.

Adam: Okay, nice. First of all, can I call you the speaker?

Matthew: Yes.

Adam: Oh good. I feel like people make that very complicated.

Matthew: I am definitely the speaker, and I’m not trying to hide it.

Adam: Are you crazy?

Matthew: In what way?

Adam: Well, we should talk first about how much you’ve written.

Matthew: Okay.

Adam: How much have you written?

Matthew: If you count the first semi-shitty novel that only Kathryn Regina likes, then three. Three novels.

Adam: I’ve read most of Arthur and all of I Don’t Know, I Said. It is really good. [ed. note: both books are unpublished]

Matthew: Thank you.

Adam: Which is the shitty one only Kathryn likes?

Matthew: Arthur. [laughs]

Adam: [laughs] So what’s the third one?

Matthew: It’s called “String Theory.” I just kind of finished the 10th draft, but it isn’t done.

Adam: How many drafts went into IDK, IS?

Matthew: A year’s worth of editing drafts. First there was a rough draft. That took 3 months and was just pure writing. Then came a year of editing. Maybe 20 drafts.

Adam: So are you a writer?

Matthew: How are we going to define “writer”?

Adam: I just mean, like, is writing your main deal?

Matthew: Oh, yeah. Besides cooking dinner, washing the sheets, you know.

Adam: Do people call you “Matt” or “Matthew”?

Matthew: People always called me Matt up until I moved to Italy, then somehow I became Matthew. My grandfather used to call me Matty, and Matterats. I don’t know what that means.

Adam: That’s nice. It’s affectionate.

Matthew: Seems like it.

Adam: Father’s father or mother’s father?

Matthew: Mother’s father. He and I were tight.

Adam: Oh, is he dead?

Matthew: Yeah, he died when I was in high school. I was a pall bearer.

Adam: Wow. Were you very sad?

Matthew: I didn’t know how to be sad when I was 17. I learned later.

Adam: How to be sad? How do you do it? Do you, like, look at a lamppost for a long time?

Matthew: I maybe look at a lamppost to be calm.

Adam: Do you want to tangle your hair with someone else’s hair?

Matthew: That kind of is what I want, I think. That is the image that would describe what I want.

Adam: Well, in Long Love Poem you say the important thing is that you don’t understand this other person, and that makes you want to twine up your hair with hers.

Matthew: Yeah, I think that came from actually being in front of a mirror with that person.

Adam: And is this the same person from I Don’t Know, I Said and your other writing?

Matthew: Yeah, it’s the same person from all of it. Well, 98 percent.

Adam: Right. So, is she there with you?

Matthew: She is. She is typing on her computer. This is my life, she is 3 feet from me.

Adam: What is she? A writer?

Matthew: She is a ceramic artist, and a photographer, and a musician.

Adam: Okay, that sounds good.

Matthew: And a singer. She is Italian. She grew up there.

Adam: Oh yeah, you travel a lot.

Matthew: I guess I’m sort of like a neo Nomad.

Adam: So did you get her when you were over there?

Matthew: Initially. That was before I “moved” there.

Adam: Yeah, that’s right. I thought you always lived there or something.

Matthew: No, I lived in Philadelphia until 2007.

Adam: Why, that was only three years ago!

Matthew: I know. Then I moved to Italy and I wrote this book Long Love Poem the first summer I spent there.

Adam: So you wrote Long Love Poem in Italy in 2007.

Matthew: It was 2008 by the time I wrote it.

Adam: Then did you write the novels after that? Or was Arthur before that?

Matthew: I wrote Arthur at the same time, sort of.

Adam: Okay.

Matthew: Actually, I wrote Arthur first by a month or so but edited it heavily much after.

Adam: These seem like pretty American books, especially because Arthur hitchhikes around America, the USA.

Matthew: With LLP, I didn’t want to “color” it by mentioning Italy.

Adam: But you mention olive oil.

Matthew: Well, I’m Italian American anyway, so olive oil has always been in my life.

Adam: Right. Parts of LLP give me the sense that your relationship is so fraught. Like:

i don’t know what this really means i sort of know

i think it means that i think we are bored of each other

you’re so ornery in this picture, you said

stop yelling at me, i said

do you like my presence, i said

you never give me any presents, you said

no, i mean the presence of myself, i said

oh, you said

i want to stick my head into this bag of dirt, i said

then i walked back into the bedroom and wrote you an email that said

hello friend

i am using electronic mail to relate to you

i felt stupid pressing send

Matthew: It is. We’ve been churning this way for years.

Adam: I don’t mind saying that your writing is “honest” about it.

Matthew: I don’t mind you saying that either.

Adam: I think that if I was a relationship counselor, I might do a case study on it. On your honesty, I mean.

Matthew: Someone recently told me that they think it takes a lot of courage to be so open with such personal stuff, but the truth of it is that in person, I never am.

Adam: I think the courage is in recognizing how you feel. You’re not giving anything away in too much of a vulnerable way.

Matthew: I’m only open with personal things in writing. It’s probably unhealthy.

Adam: But really I think the most that your writing betrays is that you are confused by other people and you’re not sure what you want.

Matthew: I think you’re probably right.

Adam: Well, sometimes you say funny things about sex or communication problems.

Matthew: Like what?

Adam: Like:

let’s scare ourselves right now

how should we do it?

i know!

let’s have sex without a condom

just kidding,

i meant make love, and also

you’re on birth control

Matthew: Isn’t that so scary?

Adam: I guess. But as a reader I just think: “Matthew Savoca’s penis.”

Matthew: Right, it’s just to remind you that I have one, and I think about it a lot but don’t mention it too often.

Adam: Right, you put it in Italians, but you usually use a condom. I know all of this about you now.

Matthew: Actually, for a long time there was no condom and I was always terrified that the other methods wouldn’t work.

Adam: So you were baby scared not itchy scared?

Matthew: Totally.

Adam: Well, I don’t want to dwell on sex.

Matthew: Okay.

Adam: But I’m just saying that you are honest, but it’s not like, freaky honest.

Matthew: Okay.

Adam: But still it is Bedrock Honesty, you know, to the core.

Matthew: That’s good. I think I like that I come across that way.

Adam: Yeah, that’s the best. Okay, so that took a long time to say.

Matthew: It was worth it!

Adam: Let’s shift gears. Someone wrote a post on htmlgiant about something, It was a logical argument they were making. I don’t remember what, but I think you commented about how the logic was wrong. Do you remember that?

Matthew: Was it Chris Higgs?

Adam: Yeah, I think so.

Matthew: He was talking about surrealism and realism, and how reading realism was like someone telling him about what was happening in a Lakers game he was watching, and I said that it wasn’t.

Adam: Right. The thing that struck me about it was — I think this was the first time I ever really paid much attention to “Matthew Savoca” — was how logical it was, and how you made a logical argument. Like your response wasn’t about surrealism vs realism, right, it was just about the argument. Is that right?

Matthew: Right, exactly.

Adam: Well then when I read your books, it seemed at odds with that. But in your writing, at times there is smart-guy, rational clarity, and I think, “Oh good, discord,” because usually I read you as a person without much investment.

Matthew: Oh I think I see what youre getting at.

Adam: Really? I haven’t gotten to it yet. This is going to be a tough one.

Matthew: Okay, go.

Adam: Okay. LLP begins with an epigraph or something about a Chinese guy.

Matthew: Japanese.

Adam: Oh, thanks, Japanese guy who says, basically, What’s the point?

Matthew: Totally.

Adam: And that bears itself out throughout the poem.

Matthew: I hope it does.

Adam: Because you are confused. Life is good, you say, right? But at the same time, you are confused by how much it means, so there is resignation.

Matthew: A lot of resignation.

Adam: Yeah, a lot of going back to eating.

Matthew: Cooking dinner saves me.

Adam: Is my characterization fair?

Matthew: To be honest, I don’t know if I would say life is good. Do I say that?

Adam: Maybe not. You say people are good.

Matthew: I do.

Adam: You say, “life has value, and purpose/ life is valid/ it makes logical sense to me that organic organisms exist.”

Matthew: Right. But I think some of that is talking it into myself, convincing myself by purposefully affirming it.

Adam: Right, that’s why you say next, “can I go to bed.”

Matthew: Yes, right.

Adam: Okay, that is good, I can see that.

Matthew: Good.

Adam: So then now I just have it that you are confused by how much life means, and resigned.

Matthew: I think I’m confused by how much life does and doesn’t mean.

Adam: Okay. Right.

Matthew: Okay.

Adam: I have always found this to be pretty clear in your work, even though I can’t express it, apparently.

Matthew: I think if it were easy to express, maybe my poem would be useless. It might be.

Adam: But there is strong continuity between your poem and IDK, IS.

Matthew: I agree.

Adam: In terms of your weltanschuung.

Matthew: [laughs]

Adam: Not sure of that word.

Matthew: Me neither.

Adam: Do your parents find you frustrating?

Matthew: I think so, but they love me unconditionally. They always have. They understand me very little.

Adam: Like, “Matt is a good kid but he is a little aimless.”

Matthew: I think that they worry about me a lot in some ways and not at all in others.

Adam: Condoms? Check. Internship at IBM? Damn!

Matthew: Well, something like that. My older brother works with computers and my younger brother is about to get a job at Ikea.

Adam: You are 28?

Matthew: I am.

Adam: Are you married to the authentic existence thing?

Matthew: I don’t think I am.

Adam: I mean, you seem uncompromising.

Matthew: In what way? In how I live?

Adam: Yeah, and in trying to figure things out.

Matthew: Yeah, I am definitely uncompromising in trying to figure things out. But I do make compromises in living. I do work.

Adam: You use a computer.

Matthew: If I were more uncompromising, I would be like that guy who died in Alaska, who starved.

Adam: He only starved because he ate poison.

Matthew: Yeah, true. Oh, that fits in with my book because I have little drawings of poisonous plants. I never thought about it before. Interesting.

Adam: No, I don’t think that is a connection. But I think it’s interesting that you’re making that connection.

Matthew: Yeah, only when pressed.

Adam: I mean, I wouldn’t have thought about you like that guy.

Matthew: Yeah, no. I mean, I’m only like him at my extreme, which I’m never at.

Adam: But I did wonder if you have a rigorous ethical system.

Matthew: I never thought I did, but it seems like I do, the more people I meet.

Adam: I mean, it’s not just your diet.

Matthew: What else is it?

Adam: I think, from your books, I get the impression that you are dissatisfied with the options available to you.

Matthew: I think its more that I was then. And I still am but maybe not so profoundly?

Adam: Because you are finding better options, or because you are changing?

Matthew: I think I’ve gotten better at resignation.

Adam: Ah, so. Okay, good.

Matthew: Yes

Adam: There are a lot of mundane things in your book, too

Matthew: For 3 months I was just a guy living in an apartment in a city and going to a desk in the corner of his room and writing about the days.

Adam: Do you worry that they are TOO mundane? Like, who cares?

Matthew: I do. But I feel terrible when I force myself to write things, and mundane things come naturally.

Adam: But perhaps they water down the pithy, revelatory parts?

Matthew: They do.

Adam: Is that on purpose?

Matthew: Only in the way that that’s how life feels to me.

Adam: Oh, huh. It’s not, like, to keep it from being heavy handed?

Matthew: Like, I wasn’t trying to keep it from being heavy or whatever, I just wanted it to be like how life felt to me, and life felt like a lot of mundane, with an occasional revelation.

Adam: So there is an intentional current to this poem?

Matthew: Only in the editing of it. When I wrote it, I wrote whatever and I never added anything, only took things away.

Adam: Did you move things?

Matthew: No, not significantly. I literally sat at the computer and typed something, usually not long after it happened, then I left the computer and I would come back later and hit the enter key as many times as I felt like, then start typing something else.

Adam: Okay, I see.

Matthew: And later I changed the spacing a little bit, but I kept it generally the same.

Adam: How much did you cut?

Matthew: I cut maybe 5-8 pages, but not one section or anything. Just lines here and there.

Adam: That is not many. How many pages was the manuscript?

Matthew: I think it was 70-ish.

Adam: I see a bit of lilting in the poem.

Matthew: Lilting?

Adam: Lilting, like a boat. Maybe. I could be wrong.

Matthew: Oh, yes.

Adam: I mean, there are three modes, and it is shifting between these modes. Or no, waves. I like waves.

Matthew: Waves are soothing.

Adam: I think it has a rolling effect. Low, soothing waves.

Matthew: I think that too. It’s like something you could almost ignore, but not quite.

Adam: It goes: nothing nothing EXISTENTIAL MUSING nothing nothing FUNNY JOKE.

Matthew: That’s accurate.

Adam: Yep, there you go. That’s your book.

Matthew: That’s my head. That’s my life.

Adam: Is this a poem? This book, I mean. Is that the best classification for it?

Matthew: Maybe not. Maybe its more like a platypus.

Adam: Sometimes I don’t feel like it’s a poem.

Matthew: Well, I think that’s just a problem of classification.

Adam: Go on.

Matthew: Like how the platypus had to be put in a category all by itself, because scientists split off species by certain characteristics that made them this or that.

Adam: Oh, I didn’t know about that. So the platypus fell in the gaps?

Matthew: Right, they said, “Oh, what about the platypus? It doesn’t fit. What is wrong with it?”

Adam: Is this from the Bible?

Matthew: And then someone said, “There’s nothing wrong with IT. You classified stuff the wrong way.”

Adam: Wait, is this from Douglas Adams?

Matthew: This is from my Bible. Not Douglas Adams. Not that I know of.

Adam: That was a joke.

Matthew: I was being too serious to get a joke. It’s from one of the only 2 books that I carry around with me.

Adam: Origin of the Species?

Matthew: No, Lila by Robert Pirsig.

Adam: What’s the other one?

Matthew: The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. I like the one about the old man with the animals. He’s at a bridge or something, I forget what it’s called. There are people bombing, and he had to leave his animals.

Adam: Is it Old Man and the Animals and he gets one but the other animals eat it?

Matthew: [laughs] Maybe I just read Old Man and the Sea wrong.

Adam: What were we talking about? Oh, classifications.

Matthew: Yeah.

Adam: I like this poem, and how it is not like other poems.

Matthew: What do you think LLP is?

Adam: I think it’s a poem. It’s a poem but it doesn’t have a lot of things that are poemy about it.

Matthew: You know, I received quite a bit of discouragement along the way from editors telling me that it was “too raw,” “too unrefined,” “too much of a confessional.” That last one kind of got to me. I thought about it a lot. But raw and unrefined I took as compliments. I took it as though people with MFAs thought I was just a regular dude who didn’t know anything about schools of poetry, and I liked that.

Adam: What’s the matter with confessions?

Matthew: I don’t know. I still haven’t figured out why the confessionals thing bothered me so much.

Adam: You don’t want people to think of you as a sloppy Plath.

Matthew: True. Maybe I just worried that everyone would think I was being self indulgent and narcissistic, while really this poem is altruistic. I think.

Adam: Why do you think so?

Matthew: I think it is because my motivation is to be like a cat that is lying on your chest. That doesn’t mean much. I think I just want people to read it and feel more okay about everything.

Adam: I think the solace, for a reader, comes from that openness I was talking about.

Matthew: And the simplicity.

Adam: The willingness to be explicit about all the things you aren’t getting in life.

Matthew: Simple openness.

Adam: Yes. Are you afraid that your writing will be compared to other people, like Tao Lin?

Matthew: I used to be. But my friend keeps telling me that I’m better than Tao Lin.

Adam: I’ve had a couple other people read your IDK, IS book and they characterized it as like Tao Lin but more more daring, doing more, more invested.

Matthew: That’s interesting.

Adam: That doesn’t frustrate you?

Matthew: It does, a lot, actually. It’s like two things happening independently that are similar. Like if you think of an idea that someone else thought of but you didn’t know, didn’t you still invent it?

Adam: Yeah, sure, I am okay with that. I mean, I don’t think it’s about credit.

Matthew: Right. It’s not that I want credit. Its that I don’t want not-it. Like, someone saying, “Oh, this is from Tao.”

Adam: Well, the similarities in both of your writing are there, but I think it is not a helpful comparison.

Matthew: When I sent IDK, IS to my friend Kendra, she read the first page and said, “This is like Hemingway plus Jean Rhys, I love it so much.” I think that made sense to me because I was very influenced by those two, but I was not at all influenced by Tao. He is influenced by Jean Rhys though.

Adam: Right! When I read it I thought, this is great, someone is not afraid of doing Hemingway.

Matthew: Hemingway was influenced by Dostoevsky, and he’s another one I love.

Adam: I just think making comparisons sets up the reader to limit their view.

Matthew: Sure, I think you’re right. I try to say as little about things as possible.

Adam: Yeah, maybe instead of writing about your book, I’ll just say as little as possible. Like that Japanese guy would do.

Matthew: Totally.

Adam: (It’s a good book.)

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On Freedom

by Jimmy Chen

I have qualms about contributing to the current hype around Franzen’s Freedom, the endless pop-noise which ironically is confronted in the book’s lakeside allegory; but I feel compelled to, having been so moved by the book, and apologize for attaching my name to this review.

Soon after a quick intro written in omniscient third person, the reader encounters a longish part (broken into 3 chapters, labeled as such) written by one of its characters Patty — and yet, this doesn’t feel like “meta-fiction,” or even the show off flourishes of an adroit author; it seems, while not essential, strangely relevant. The reader’s context, for those who know Franzen, is that he is weary of “difficult” fiction for its preoccupation with language and fragmented narrative/consciousness (he wrote a Harper’s article critical of William Gaddis’ infuriating/challenging techniques, yet strangely aligns himself with D.F. Wallace, also an instigator). So one asks, why the difficult-ish structure?

 

Franzen here stumbles upon a problem: voice. For continuity, Patty’s narration somewhat mimics Franzen’s, but the reader (at least I did), if we are to take Franzen’s conceit literally, is skeptical how a “non-writer” could write so “novelistically.” (James Wood, in How Fiction Works, a well-spirited book despite the didactic title, addresses this issue of authorial voice vs. a character’s — how the latter is an inextricable mouthpiece of the former, what he calls ‘free indirect style.’) Of course, we know this is a necessary, hopefully relevant measure which will augment the overall narrative.

Patty’s offering to the novel becomes essential when, back into Franzen’s third person omniscient account, the physical manuscript “collated” into the novel is actually integrated into the novel’s character’s lives, though, to my relief, not rhetorically like Barthe or Nabokov might have. This is a shocking moment which I cannot get into, for fear of spoilers, an incident which involves the triad of main characters, all of whom are irrevocably changed forever by it.

By this time, as with (sorry for the tiresome comparison) Tolstoy or Dickens, the characters are sofucking developed that the reader almost need not even continue reading, for they can viscerallyfeel (which is moral knowing) what each character will feel and how they will act, which I understand is the opposite of intellectual, but perhaps fiction’s place, if we have forgotten, is in the heart.

I cried at what happened at the end, because it was so bravely prosaic, almost trivial and boring: ridden with a fate that every human cannot escape, and hence, what every human can relate to, namely, the loss of love. To understand this book, you just need parents, a crush, a relationship, kids of your own, grandparents, neighbors, a job, a house, a life — to have fucked over, to have been fucked over. Franzen’s complexity is not linguistic, but moral. The realism is emitted with such verity, the words seem to breathe on the page. It’s as if he is not there, only the transcribed world at large.

The idea[l][ism] behind the “Great American Novel” is one that is socially cognizant of its time, and Franzen does well to include all the biggies of our contemporary plight: Israel/Palestine; rape, feminism; the Bush Iraqi war; Jews/Gentiles; gentrification; socioeconomic class; wall street fallout and recession; corporate yuppies and artist bohemians; liberals vs. conservatives; racism; the Environment; etc, etc. (he even awkwardly mentions Twitter in the last few pages, like a swansong tweet). I found these parts less interesting than “the story,” and almost annoyed by Franzen’s presumptive “responsibility” in documenting our most recent decade for his classic novel, though to give him the benefit of doubt, he has said to have been so angry at the world that it came out.

By the middle of the novel, the word “freedom” is mentioned sporadically yet consistently, in many different contexts: free-market economic freedom, religious freedom, democratic freedom, marital freedom, sexual freedom, (even cat/bird freedom, which serves as a grand metaphor), and most gravely, the existential freedom to fuck up your life — which will be explained by Patty in her crushing account. Freedom, for Franzen, is a formidable thing, a uniquely American thing which leads to grave consequence when not properly employed. It is, in this book, a bad word.

Franzen’s greatest asset is the moral clarity with which his characters are rendered; a tone often misinterpreted as smug, but I think it’s just the opposite. Franzen is humble enough to not have “style.” His world, however earnest and thoughtfully written, is almost just a journalistic account of ours — how we speak, how we feel, the mistakes we make. His novels are indebted to us, his own voice somewhat orphaned in the background. This is the mark of a great writer.

It’s not “cool” to love a book which will be on Oprah’s book club (incidentally cited in the snippet preceding this post) — a book that does nothing for the avant-garde (if such a thing does or should even exist anymore) — which is what got Franzen into trouble the first time around with Oprah. Freedom, per the incorrigible character Richard Katz (think “dick/cats”), is ultimately an indictment against “cool,” so let’s all not be cool together and read this brilliant, brave, and generous book.

I Learned Important Things in School

by Roxane Gay

abonly2

 

I have been in school for nearly 32 years with a few years off during my twenties to solve existential crises and the like.  I don’t know much but I do know school and I have gone as far as one can possibly go. In a couple weeks, I will defend my dissertation and I have already started working as an assistant professor at a university in the middle of a cornfield so it’s safe to say that I will probably always be in school in one way or another.

Education is not something that has to happen in the classroom. I often tell my students they will learn just as much, if not more, beyond the classroom, by living life and losing at life and learning what to do with the critical thinking we try to instill in them. Anyone with a library card can get a valuable education. Self-taught scholars abound. Education is also a privilege. To be adequately prepared to succeed in college and to be able to afford college, either through financial aid or having your family pay for your education is a real gift and one not available to nearly enough of the people who want a college education. I believe the education system harbors an inherent bias to people who are white and/or middle class or wealthy but I also believe a good formal education has helped more people than it has harmed. Whenever a student complains about something like the amount of reading or writing I assign (to be fair, quite a bit), I like to remind them that they choose to be in college and if they don’t like it, they can move on to a different opportunity. They can also drop my class. I don’t mind.  There are all kinds of things wrong with the education system but I don’t think there’s enough talk about what that the education system does right or at least I would like to talk about what a good education has done for me.

 

There’s not much for me to say about pre-school through 8th grade. I ate paste and used dull scissors and learned to add and divide and write in cursive and I was pretty much a dork the entire time which is basically what we are during those years–barely sentient and deeply concerned with things like juice boxes and orange wedges after soccer practice. I had other things going on like the Duran Duran club I founded with three other losers in fourth grade but mostly, I was just bumbling along trying to keep my head above social leper waters.

My high school used something called the Harkness Table which is simply an oval wooden table that allows the students and teacher to be able to see everyone from every vantage point. Most classes never had more than twelve students and everyone sat around this table as intellectual equals or at least we tried to be intellectual equals and once in a while we succeeded. Sometimes, it really is the smallest detail that makes all the difference. In every class from Biology to Architecture to French, whatever the subject, we had to look at each other and stand up for our opinions. We had to contribute. There was no hiding in the back of the classroom where we could fall asleep or doodle or otherwise fuck around. You had to be prepared to participate in every single class or you had to be prepared to be awkwardly humiliated when you couldn’t do your part in a class discussion. I often say I learned more in high school than I have in the eighteen years since I graduated. Yes, I am old. That’s not the point. My high school experience taught me how to actively engage with my education. I learned that there’s a responsibility attached to being a student. So often, we’re taught to resent education. That attitude was not indulged in my high school. I also loved how we were allowed to do really interesting things in each of the four years of the program. Physical education was mandatory so I played field hockey and rowed crew and fell on my ass during ice hockey. It was throughly humiliating because I have not been blessed with athleticism at any point in my life. Still, I learned how to participate on a team and how to get off my ass once in a while. I suppose that’s important. I also learned how to wash dishes because my parents made me get a job in the dining hall. You haven’t lived until you’ve spent two hours a night in a humid dish room with surly old ladies who hate your face and stand around watching you spray discarded institutional food off of plates.

Service learning was encouraged so we often did projects that could also benefit the local community. I learned that the world does not revolve around me. (It kind of does.) During Upper (Junior) year, everyone writes an essay for a program called Reporter at Large where you follow a professional of some kind then write an essay about their work. I followed a doctor who was a neighbor of my parents. The good doctor let me watch him operate and I thought it was the coolest thing ever to see all that grossness and the scrubs were so adorable. I very much wanted to wear them all the time and he gave me a set. That experience led me to believe I wanted to become a doctor until I took College Biology with a professor who made it clear from day one that he was out to destroy anyone who wasn’t serious about joining the medical profession. I was, apparently, not serious. I failed that class, spectacularly. The teacher may as well have been delivering course material in Latin. His class was incomprehensible. I was able to participate in the theater program building sets, then designing sets, then becoming a technical director. I wrote and produced a play. I worked with people who would later become sort of famous, the fuckers. In Architecture class, we had to build a device out of styrofoam, rubber bands, paper clips,and some kind of adhesive, to protect an egg dropped from the roof of one of the campus buildings. I am happy to say my egg survived because I used the rubber bands to build a bungee type situation where the egg would bounce in the middle of a larger styrofoam frame. I felt terribly smug and clever. This modest success led me to believe I should major in architecture after the pre-med thing didn’t work out. After a year as an architecture major, I realized in order to be an architect, one must be able to draw and master subjects like physics. I could do neither, though I did design a gorgeous new entrance above ground for the underground library on my college campus. That entrance would have promptly collapsed, murdering any number of students but it would have looked good while doing so. I suppose the most important thing I learned in high school was that I could become anything I wanted until my intellectual limitations proved otherwise. Those limitations often remind me of what I can never be. Becoming an astronaut is completely off the table at this point.

I shamelessly wasted the first two and a half years of college. I spent all my time doing Dramat, which was the student-run theater organization on campus. Theater was very serious business and it took all of my time. Sometimes, I skipped classes to work on a set. I got down and dirty on the regular and put everything I had into an extracurricular activity instead of my coursework. I once drove with a guy for hours in a Ryder van to go pick up a section of chain link fence from an all boys school in Massachusetts. The show was West Side Story and we hung that fence from a fly bar and it would fly in and off stage as needed. Actors were even able to climb the fence during the show. It was awesome. My Romantic Poetry professor did not share that opinion nor did my Urban Planning professor. I did not retain a great deal of school-related knowledge from that time but I did learn how to be passionate about and committed to something and I can build a mean canvas flat. Seriously,if you need a flat, I am your woman. I had my first drink at the end of my freshman year during an annual drinking competition called TANG. I learned how to drink two eight ounce glasses and a pitcher of warm, flat beer very fast. I won the individual drinking competition. I was a world conqueror. At the same time, I had very little appreciation for the amazing opportunities available to me and I hated almost everything about the school other than Dramat. I am embarrassed, now, by the time, opportunity, and money I wasted but I was young and stupid.

I decided to take some time off to find myself. I searched in California and Arizona and Minnesota but was largely unsuccessful.Two years of working terrible, sometimes humiliating jobs made me realize college was a vast improvement over working retail, bartending, doing telemarketing or other jobs I cannot discuss in polite company. When I returned to college I had a bit more common sense and was far less wasteful because I had a better understanding of the value of money and the relative misery of not having any. I decided I would keep going so I got my master’s degree in creative writing (MA, not MFA because I knew I would go all the way eventually). My parents were rather concerned about the utility of that choice. I’m pretty sure they continue to worry. I was still young and stupid and I thought my English degrees would serve the greater good. I would make a massive contribution to literature. Those degrees did not quite achieve the grand plans I laid out for myself. I did, however, learn how to read critically and how to critique the writing of others and how to be critiqued. I learned how to be a lowly grunt opening envelopes at a literary magazine and sending out little paper rejection slips and doing all the menial work befitting my lowly stature as a graduate student. I also learned a bit about what it takes to sustain excellence in a literary magazine and how to maintain an aesthetic when there’s a new staff every few years. I learned humility and that I was not nearly as awesome as I believed myself to be. I also learned how to write a full length book that only kind of sucked and I learned how to defend my work and stand up for my creative choices. These are great things to learn. I didn’t really learn humility very well.

When I finished my MA, I started working as a writer for the College of Engineering at that same university and it was a good job. I worked hard and did well but faculty always talked to me like I was a complete moron. Even when I was right, I wasn’t right because I didn’t have three silly letters behind my name. The faculty I worked with didn’t have to work 9-5 (or as it turned out, 9-7 or 8 or 9) and they had summers off and they made decent money.  I thought it would be nice to be like them (minus the asshole part) so I decided to get my PhD in Technical Communication. I learned how to live in the middle of a forest and more about how universities work than anything else but I had plenty of time to write. I learned how to teach and deal with over involved parents and students giving me the same bullshit excuses I’ve given to teachers over the years. Alas, the poor grandmothers. I learned how to design academic journals and set up open source submission systems and how to edit a literary magazine. I learned how to write an academic book and conduct research. I learned how to kiss ass without being gross about it. I learned how to be useful and I became less young and stupid or at least, less young.

Everyone learns something different from their education but the best thing about an education is that it affords you the time to be young and stupid. A good education is forgiving and I needed that forgiveness as I tried to get my shit together. There were plenty of things that sucked in each of my educational experiences but the benefits far outweigh the liabilities. Ultimately, I learned how to learn and ask the right questions and that’s a really powerful thing. Learning how to learn has to be guided and cultivated and I have been lucky enough to have amazing teachers help me with that. I always feel like anything is possible (minus that astronaut thing) and I know that confidence comes, in large part, from my education. I also became a doctor, sort of, anyway, so take that evil biology teacher!

What have you learned from your education?

On hipsters, hoodrats, and fitting in

by Lily Hoang

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If it’s one thing hipsters hate, it’s being called a hipster. A couple weeks ago, I met this very nice hipster guy who told me a great story about how he was accused of being a hipster, and he was totally pissed, told the guy who called him a hipster that not all white guys who have tattoos are hipsters, which is true. However, a white guy with tattoos who wears vintage clothes who is vegan who rides a fixie, well, nope, the shoe doesn’t fit.

But the truth of it is that I’m guilty of calling people hipsters out of jealousy. I mean, I don’t have the style to be a hipster, nor do I have the money or general sensibility. My taste in music is about five years late, and that’s a generous estimation. I mean, I rarely intend to say the word in a derogatory way. It’s a compliment undercut with jealousy, which makes it sound like an insult, sure, but I’m not fooled.

YesterdayReynard started a conversation about the word hoodrat, which is funny in its own way, because the stated definition of hoodrat seemed to imply that a hoodrat is just a hipster of another color, maybe a specific geographic location based on socioeconomics.

Except, except, I just looked it up. Surprise, it’s not in the OED. But the top ten or so definitions on Urban Dictionary (valid source of information, I know I know) says that a hoodrat is generally gendered female, one of a promiscuous sort, one who likes to engage in promiscuous activity. (Not necessary Urban Dictionary’s word choice, obviously.)

I always thought (wrongly) that a hoodrat was someone who affects ghetto, irrelevant of his or her ghetto experience. My nephew, for instance, I’ve on more than one occasion called a hoodrat. He affects like he’s from the “hood,” even though the closest he’s come to any “hood” is his gated neighborhood, which is a hood in itself, given that hood is short for neighborhood. His once perfect grammar has shifted to some bastardized south Texas ebonics, and his pants quite literally start at his knees. (Fuck: I sound like some old grandma.) But it takes hard work to be a suburban hood. (Note: I’m using “hood” instead of “hoodrat” from here on out, because ultimately, he’s performing “hood” as opposed to “hoodrat” which is a ghetto girl with a certain sexual disposition. It’s interesting how these terms have become interchangeable, how a bunch of ostensibly privileged people—myself included—have misappropriated it, redefining it, etc.) It takes effort and money, a conscious subversion of a language you’ve grown up speaking, to affect like you’ve had a different upbringing. I mean, it’s a guise. That, and his amazing shoe collection, his amazing hat collection, all for the purposes of fulfilling the role of hood.

And here, I’ll draw my connection between affecting hipster and affecting hood. Both roles—and let’s be clear here that these are roles to be acted and enacted, forced and reinforced—require a certain amount of liquidity of finances. (Think here of the episode of The Wire were one of the cops goes undercover, goes into “the hood,” which in this instance means the projects, which is not where many of my nephew’s hoodrat friends live.) It costs money to dress and act the way they do. Both roles require great attention to detail. The worst thing that can happen to either hipster or hood (Note: Isn’t it funny that hipsters wear hoodies? It’s all too fitting in the context of this discussion!) is to be revealed as “normal.” Because ultimately, it’s like we’re still in middle school. Except the popular kids who used to be preppy—good god I remember stealing my brother’s Polo shirts, jesus, the 80s, what an embarrassment—are now hipsters, and with the same cultural capital. You get what I mean. It’s like we’re all still so insecure we have to role-play in order to feel accepted, like dressing a certain way or other automatically gives us credence, instant popularity. I wonder if I wouldn’t be better off going back to my Magic cards or my theatre geeks.

Of course, I’m only speaking about people who affect these roles, but I’d argue that even people who do live in the very real projects work to fulfill their role as hood. They buy clothes they think will allow them to fit in, listen to music that will allow them to fit in, etc. And of course, even people who live in Williamsburg or Montreal (note: I think that you must be a beautiful hipster to live in Montreal, they won’t let you in otherwise, maybe as a tourist, but jesus, the most beautiful, put-together people I’ve ever seen in one place!) have to buy clothes that will allow them to fit in, find the most indie music to give them their music cred, be vegan to a pained fault, etc.

All this being said, I’ll admit again: part of this critique comes from a place of jealousy. Even to affect hipster or hood is to find instant community, instant acceptance. Even if it comes from a space of insecurity, at least they find acceptance. Probably, this doesn’t even make sense. Probably, I should just get back to work now.

One last thing: I propose to get rid of the term hipster altogether. Let’s resurrect the dandy!

McNorway: An Interview with John Erik Riley by Audun Mortensen

by Blake Butler

[The latest issue of McSweeney’s features a section on Norwegian writing, edited by John Erik Riley and Mikkel Bugge. One of the featured authors, Audun Mortensen, author of the newly released novel Roman, recently conducted an interview with Mr. Riley (whose own novel Heimdal, California is forthcoming soon) in which they discussed: “sly stallone, per petterson’s personal brand, mcsweeney’s, ‘norwegian lit scene’, celebrity chef breakdown.” – BB]

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AM: we attended a ‘corporate literary party’ in oslo last week and got alcohol for free. could you outline some american equivalents, in terms of commercial success and literary style, to five of the most ‘prominent’ norwegian authors you spotted at this party?

JER: Hm. Erm. If by prominent you mean interesting and/or awesome, I spotted the following five writers:

Erlend Loe (= Douglas Coupland + Andy Warhol + Dave Eggers)
Roy Jacobsen (= Jonathan Franzen + Jack London + John Irving)
Anna Fiske (= Charles M. Schulz + Chris Ware + Dr. Seuss)
Stig Sæterbakken (= Edgar Allen Poe + Antony Hegarty + William T. Vollmann)
Audun Mortensen (= Stephen Malkmus + Facebook + Ramona Flowers)

AM: interesting… in 2008 you co-wrote an interview book, titled ‘amerikanske tilstander’ (‘american states of mind’), comprising interviews with thirteen american authors. could you say something about why you decided to interview david foster wallace, lorrie moore, william t. vollmann et al., and from your experience with american writers, what seem to be common questions/misconceptions/assumptions re norway/norwegians/norwegian lit?

JER: Let’s see … I’ll try to answer the second question first. When it comes to Norwegian literature, the vast majority had no idea about what is going on now. We started working on the book almost ten years ago and Per Petterson had yet to make his big breakthrough. Most American author’s are painfully well read, however, so they were certainly aware of Hamsun and Ibsen. Vollmann, as it would happen, is a huge fan of Sigrid Undset’s, a fact that surprised us. In hindsight, though, I can see that his Seven Dreams series draws ideas from her historical fiction. With few exceptions, the writers were curious about contemporary Norwegian fiction and poetry. This was particularly true of Vollmann, Dave Eggers and Richard Powers. Now, you asked why we did this book, a collection of interviews with fiction writers from the U.S. Well, my co-authors and I had been reading contemporary American fiction for some time. We were curious about themes and forms we saw there that seemed to be absent in much of Norwegian fiction at the time. In addition, we wanted to introduce lesser-known writers to Norway, shine the light on them so to speak. This is true of Lorrie Moore and Joan Didion, who are big names in the U.S. but not exactly famous over here. We also chose to ignore some writers that are already widely read in Norway, such as Paul Auster, who is a borderline movie star over here. My co-author Henrik Langeland is a huge fan of Tom Wolfe and Mattis Øybø couldn’t imagine a book like this without Jonathan Franzen, so they had to be included as well. In short, the book is written from two perspectives: 1) that of the philologist and 2) that of the fan boy. By the way, we also have an interview we did with Philip Roth after the book was published. We hope to include it in the paperback some day.

AM: at some point i considered asking you which norwegian writers you would choose to introduce for an english speaking audience, but you’ve already done that to some degree, most recent in the latest issue of mcsweeney’s. you and mikkel bugge edited ‘a portfolio of stories from norway’ with prose and poetry by thirteen norwegian authors. why, when, and how did you begin collaborating with eggers/mcsweeney’s?

JER: Well, it was all a matter of happenstance, I guess. I interviewed Eggers at the House of Literature in Oslo and Bugge interviewed Vendela Vida. At some point, we got to talking about Norwegian fiction. Eggers seemed particularly curious about the sudden upsurge of small presses in Norway. He was also surprised by how experimental a lot of Norwegian literature is, especially with Per Petterson’s realism in mind. So we spoke loosely of collecting some stories in McSweeney’s. As luck would have it, I was in San Francisco a few months later and had the chance to drop by the McSweeney’s office. I met with Dave, Eli Horowitz and Jordan Bass. Great people. After that, the project morphed from whimsical idea to hard pragmatism. We sent some material — really rough translations — to McSweeney’s and they gave us some pointers about what they liked and didn’t like and we moved along from there. They were particularly interested in the small presses, which is where you and some of your colleagues come in. Flamme forlag edited a collection of newer poetry and prose and McSweeney’s really liked it. We also received a generous grant from NORLA, an organization that gives support to Norwegian fiction in translation. The whole project was a hair-raising amoung of work, but I’m happy with how it turned out. It’s satisfying to see so much good Norwegian work out there, ready to be discovered by American readers. And I feel that the work really speaks for itself. One interesting side-effect of the McSweeney’s issue, by the way, was that we saw themes and affinities that were more obscure to us before. Take, say, the section that Flamme forlag put together. It feels really new and fresh and modern — very now — and I’m glad that it could be included.

AM: american friends of mine have referred to the norwegian author per petterson as ‘very famous’ in emails, possibly due to ‘powerful’ blurbs by the new yorker, new york times book review, time magazine, newsweek, npr, the philadelphia inquirer, and entertainment weekly. why do you think his novel ‘out stealing horses’ (2005) has gained that kind of recognition in us, and could you select a musical genre [via allmusic.com/wikipedia.org] to describe his personal brand and/or literary tone/style?

JER: With regard to Petterson’s success, I think he does something very rare indeed: He writes in a simple tone and style, but in a way that resonates deeply. In Norwegian you have a saying that loosely translates as “the quietest lakes are the deepest”. Like all sayings, this one is only partially true at best. But it does work as a description of Petterson’s work and style. W/r/to a comparable musical genre, I’m not sure what to say. I guess it would have to be the blues. And by that I mean some rough-hewn blues, the kind where the vocals crack and groan in a sublime way. (In other words: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blues.) But it’s hard to find comparisons. Petterson really has such a unique and clear voice that it’s hard to find something to compare it to. I don’t know if you have met him yet, but he is the sweetest man on the planet. He had a small farm (maybe he still has it) and lives a pretty simple life. According to one story, he gives half a lamb (sic.) as a Christmas present to two old Norwegian writer friends: Kjell Askildsen and Dag Solstad. I don’t know if the story is true. But frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me. He’s the kind of guy to give home-grown food to his favorite writer friends.

AM: recently when someone told me that your new novel, due in october, is about some weird restaurant owner in california, i pictured sylvester stallone or bruce willis. why or why not did you decide to write a novel about sylvester stallone/bruce willis?

JER: Ah, it’s not about a restaurant owner. We’re talking more celebrity chef. He’s on television one day and has a breakdown of sorts; is unable to remember the recipe he’s supposed to be using. Much of the plot does take place in California, however, in an area I’ve researched heavily. I started the book after living in San Francisco for a year. I was struck by how similar to that part of the U.S. is to Norway, at least culturally (obviously, the climate is very different). In a word, our country is quite heavily californicated, especially within the middle class, which just keeps getting wealthier. From that came another idea: What would have happened if Norwegians had emigrated from Norway to California instead of to the Midwest. There’s a Danish town along Highway 1 called Solvang, so why not a Norwegian town? Once this idea was in place, I was free to do so many things: my chef could be an environmentalist in oil-producing Norway, my Norwegian could be infused with American English and vice versa. I could also build on my own background as a first generation Norwegian-American, someone caught between two cultures. When I peruse newspaper debates about “immigrants” v. “Norwegians” — which can often be quite ascerbic — I am often left with the distinct feeling that I don’t exist. This novel gave me the opportunity to create a world that mirrors the experience of belonging to two or more cultures. Unfortunately, the novel came down with a thyroid condition at the same time, in part fed by my own inner need to describe the world I see. It has grown to an ominous size and is full of all sorts of craziness: interviews, images, English, Norwegian, wikipedia entries, cultural mishmashes and so on. I just spoke to the publisher, who tells me that Heimdal, California will be about 850 pages long. The whole thing is strange and new to me; before this, I worked in the short form. Hopefully, some of the fun I had along the way will transfer over to the reader. But to your question: Why didn’t I write about Sly or Bruce? Never say never. But I think Dolph Lundgren would be a more interesting character, at least for me, for many of the reasons mentioned above.

———————

John Erik Riley (born in Portland, Maine), been living in Oslo, Norway since the mid-1990s. Editor at Cappelen Damm, he has written several books of fiction and non-fiction, and his new novel ‘Heimdal, California’ is due in October.

Audun Mortensen (24) is a Norwegian writer, currently living in Berlin, Germany. His latest book ‘Roman‘ was released in August by the Norwegian publisher Flamme Forlag.

First Book Interview with Keith Montesano

by Blake Butler

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Keith Montesano is the author of the newly released and stunningly black and bracing Ghost Lights, his debut from Dream Horse Press. At his First Book Interviews blog, he conducts a series of interviews with writers upon the publication of their first book, detailing the experience and the feeling of the completion of a first work, and I asked him to do the same with his own questions.

How often had you sent out Ghost Lights before it was selected for publication by Dream Horse Press?

I sent the book out 60 times before I received an email from J.P. Dancing Bear telling me that I was a finalist for the Orphic Prize and that the press was able to publish the finalists that year.

Was the title always Ghost Lights? Did it go through any other changes?

A good chunk of the book was my MFA thesis at Virginia Commonwealth University, when it was called About Ravishment. I remember sitting with some friends at a bar near VCU, and when I told them the title of the manuscript I was sending out, which they knew was the title of my thesis, I got some weird looks. I was asked if other titles were kicking around, and I told them I’d been thinking aboutGhost Lights. Then I got the looks that said, “I think you found your title.”

 

It seems like there’s a possible misconception among some poets who are trying to get their first book published: that they must win a contest. Were you concerned about winning a contest at any point? What advice would you give to poets sending their book out now regarding contests versus open reading periods?

Like most folks sending their books of poetry out, I would’ve liked to win a contest, but it was never a must for me. You see contest-winning books ignored, and you see small press non-contest-winning books become well-reviewed and extremely popular, so you never know. There are so many presses now with contests, also, so I think it’s become something that really only guarantees you some money in the end. In my case, $500 or $1000 wouldn’t have covered the cost of postage and fees for every contest and open reading period I sent to anyway, so that didn’t really matter.

There are many open reading periods for poets who are looking to publish their first book, which I wish I’d known about more at the time I was sending out mine. A lot of folks have blogged about this, so if you do some googling, you can probably find some. I would mostly say: send to presses that you’d ideally be thrilled to be a part of. Sometimes this is impossible to know of course, but that’s always an excuse to buy books to see what kind of authors and books certain presses are publishing, and how the book-as-object looks and feels. I did just that, and a few presses I immediately ruled out because I wasn’t thrilled about any number of things—from the design, to the poetry, to the font used. Sometimes desperation can lead to regretful decisions for poets, so you always have to keep that in check.

What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?

 

It went through a lot of variation and versions. I tried to do it all in one section. I tried two sections. Then three. Then back to two. Then three. I cut poems. I did a lot of work editing within the lines of poems. I did most of the editing after my MFA ended—I took a year off to adjunct and apply to PhD programs, so there were many late nights on the balcony with candles, white string lights and a pen, and me reading the poems out loud from the binder.

I don’t know exactly how many versions it went through, since I used to save a new .doc file every time I changed anything from a line break to an entirely different structure of a poem, but there were many.

How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?

Ghost Lights went through eight different sets of galleys, which may seem like a lot for a book of poetry—I’m not sure. That was mainly due to so many of the poems not being left justified—there are only a few in the book that remained that way. Also, many of my lines are long. So there was a lot of adjusting, font size switching, font changing, etc., until we found what would be suitable for the book.

However, when I say “we,” I do have to say that Bear was insanely patient and pretty much handed me the reigns to do, within reason, whatever I wanted as far as the interior design. I made the final decision regarding the font and size, which he was also happy with.

Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?

 

The cover painting was brought to my attention by an undergrad professor of mine, Christopher Bakken, who knew the artist, Felicia Van Bork. I remember him writing, “I think you’ll like these, but Smoke Map seems especially fitting.” The more I looked at it—the colors, the strokes, the smoke—the more I said to myself, “I like it so much that there’s no way this will happen.” But Felicia was awesome and completely into it, and she let me use it right away.

Bear and his team did the eventual cover design with the text, and I’m thrilled how the whole thing turned out in the end.

What about the publication of the actual poems prior to the book being published? Was there ever a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?

 

I consider myself extremely lucky to have every poem in the book published elsewhere. Was this a point of necessity for me? No. But I work extremely hard at sending poems out—organization, good records, emailing journals I simultaneously submitted to as soon as a poem has been accepted elsewhere, etc. I try to remain disciplined at doing this, and hope I always will. As I was sending out the manuscript, I was also sending out the poems—some that later would be cut, and some that later would be in my second manuscript.

Overall, I don’t think having many of the poems previously published makes a monumental difference whether someone wants to publish it or not, but I think of it has a cohesion barometer of sorts—the more poems editors are willing to take a chance on that are in the same manuscript, the better you feel about them going together, which means the harder you work to make the manuscript into an actual book. At least that’s how I dealt with everything.

I’ve never been a screener for an open reading period or contests, and though I imagine that having many of the poems in a book published would at least be a catalyst to getting out of the first “round,” or whatever the name for it is, I’ve seen many books where only a handful of poems in the book were previously published in journals.

How much work did you do as far as editing the poems from the day you knew the book would be published to its final proofing stage?

 

I spent so much time on the aforementioned balcony with the poems, and I tried to edit and edit and edit until I couldn’t do it anymore, that I pretty much had my final version ready to go by the time Bear accepted it.

There were a handful of last-minute edits as I read through the galleys many times, but overall, the book didn’t change that much from acceptance to publication.

What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?

I had just returned from seeing the new Nightmare on Elm Street remake, and the book proof was sitting in the envelope Bear had sent a couple days before.

Luckily, this was the proof, so I was able to comb through it to see if there were any mistakes that still needed to be corrected before it officially went to print. I admired the cover and how the blurbs looked, checked out the spine, and then read it cover-to-cover, finding one small mistake—two page numbers that were accidentally left out—that got corrected later on.

Through it all I had a smile on my face. I was glad the hard work paid off.

What have you been doing to promote Ghost Lights, and what have those experiences been like for you?

 

Recently I was part of the Dream Horse Press First Book Tour with Kyle McCord. We did seventeen days in a row, with only one day where we didn’t read, through the Northeast, Midwest, South, and we finished in Cambridge, close to our starting point in New Jersey.

That’s been the biggest thing. It was a blast, but I’m not sure if I could do it again. But knowing that I would most likely never be able to do anything like that again, I decided to go for it, and thankfully, my wife also supported me, even though she wasn’t thrilled that I’d be gone for almost three weeks.

Other than that, I’ve been trying to get the book into the hands of people. I’ve been selling signed copies through my blog, I sold a good amount on tour, and I’m doing my best to send review copies to places and editors that I think would review it. Hopefully as time goes on some more reviews will pop up, and hopefully those folks like the book.

If you struck up a conversation next to someone seated on an airplane, and after a few minutes you eventually told them that you were an author who had a book of poetry published, how would you answer their next question: “What’s the book about?”

 

I didn’t want to answer this question, but I figured if I’m going to give it to the poets that I interview, then I have to.

I would probably focus on the elegiac nature of the book and try to keep the description fairly simple—poems about people who are now gone, whether that means friends, people I knew in high school, people who used to live down the street from me, neighbors I never knew in apartments, musicians, celebrities, characters in films, etc. There’s also a lot of destruction and decay. Like many writers these days, I’m pretty obsessed with the apocalyptic nature of the world, which seems like it’s getting closer every day, so there’s a lot of that in many of the poems also.

What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?

 

I was actually conducting first book interviews—and had read every one Kate Greenstreet did—before Ghost Lights was accepted for publication, so I feel like I was able to gain a lot of valuable advice from reading and re-reading those interviews. You really learn a lot about experiences, presses, how hard it is to get a book published, the luck involved, etc.

Mostly, though, it’s doing your best to get the book out there—whether it’s touring, having the funds to be able to send a ton of review copies out, selling it through a blog, giving local readings, trying to get interviews, etc. Whatever you can do to make sure you don’t go broke.

 

What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing?

I have a second manuscript that I consider “finished,” if that word has carries any weight at all with a manuscript anymore. It’s gotten a few recent finalist and semi-finalist nods from contests, so I’m concentrating on editing as much as I can, while still sending it out.

And I also feel like I have the kernel of the third manuscript started, even though that seems pretty lofty at this point.

Mostly, I just never want to be in that place where I’m satisfied with what I’ve done. I always want to keep writing and working toward new projects, even if some of that writing ends up in the trash.

Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?

Honestly, I’m not sure that I do. Poetry’s something I hope I’m able to write until the day I die, but it seems like there are other things that need to be changed in the world rather than hoping whether poetry will do it or not.

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Buy Ghost Lights here.

BIO:  Keith Montesano is the author of the poetry collection Ghost Lights (Dream Horse Press, 2010). His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry ReviewAmerican Literary ReviewThird CoastRiver StyxCrab Orchard ReviewNinth Letter, and elsewhere. He currently lives with his wife in New York, where he is a PhD Candidate in English and Creative Writing at Binghamton University. He blogs at http://kmontesano.blogspot.com and has and runs first book interviews with poets at http://firstbookinterviews.blogspot.com

What Matters, What’s Remembered, What We Care About

by Roxane Gay

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Bear with me. People have opinions about Jonathan Franzen. These opinions are rarely mild. There’s something about his personality and the way he negotiates his public image that invites discussion. I thought I had an opinion about Jonathan Franzen but the more I think about it, the more I realize he is  not part of my literary vocabulary. If I never read another book of his again, my life would not come to an end. I loved The Corrections. That seems like a contradiction. I thought The Corrections was a great story, meandering and sweeping and engaging. But I’ve only read it once. I loved it but have never felt compelled to pick the book up again so maybe I don’t love The Corrections. Maybe I just really like it. I am excited to read Franzen’s forthcoming novel,Freedom, which I will be enjoying with The Rumpus Book Club. On Facebook, I think, I saw someone (Kyle Minor?) observe that people seem to enjoy taking down successful, ambitious people in reference to a lot of the recent commentary in various outlets about the VQR “situation.” I do not necessarily disagree. Successful, ambitious people are easy targets because we see them plainly and we have opinions about what they do and how we would do what they do and whether or not they deserve to those things they do and the privileges they enjoy because of how well or the public perception of how well they do the things they do.

 

Freedom received a glowing review in the New York Times. I did not read the review. I suppose I should but I don’t care enough. I know I’m going to read the book, regardless of what the Timeshas to say about it. Jodi Picoult had an opinion about that glowing review. Jodi Picoult writes books, often dealing with contemporary themes. I have read The Pact. It was engaging, if not a bit predictable. I’ve also read My Sister’s Keeper which was about as good as the movie, enjoyable but not life altering. Is her writing talent relevant here? Perhaps.

The older I get the more accepting yet less tolerant and patient I become.  I love popular culture. I enjoy blockbuster movies that are formulaic advertisements for beautiful people where meaningful dialogue is discouraged and the plot is generally forwarded through the murder of key characters or large explosions. I enjoy trash television and reality television and mass market paperbacks. I’m excited that Tyra Banks is “writing” a book. I don’t think entertainment for the masses is the harbinger of doom for our culture and the sophisticates among us. I don’t know why we always treat popular culture and artistic or literary endeavors as binaries, as an either versus an or, as if to choose one, we must forsake the other.

I love the word sophisticate.

Sometimes, I get tired of opinions. Sometimes, I do not care what you think. I do not care what I think. I do not care what Michiko Kakutani thinks. I do not care what Jodi Picoult thinks.

Jonathan Franzen received a rave review in The New York Times. That is a big deal. Most writers dream of such a thing. You can judge it and and say you wouldn’t care and that’s fine. I would get a copy of a New York Times review tattooed on my face. I care. Please don’t hold me to that.  Jodi Picoult cares. She is a novelist with eighteen books to her name. Her books have been made into movies that have debuted in theaters across the country and on Lifetime, that latter accolade which only improves her standing in my heart. Picoult’s books aren’t quite “chick lit” but they aren’t considered literary fiction. You can buy her book while checking out in a grocery store. We should all be so lucky. Upon reading the Franzen review, Picoult took to Twitter. That’s what we do these days. We purge our righteous anger in 140 characters or less. Sometimes all we need is that small, contained (or is it constrained?) medium to vent our frustration. She wrote, “NYT raved about Franzen’s new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.” People picked up on this random, fairly innocuous statement and it quickly became a Statement and then Picoult said other things and Jennifer Weiner (whose books I rather enjoy) said some things and soon this became about race, gender and the white men taking over the world. People reacted. There was a defense of literary fiction, as if one were needed. There was some statistical analysis demonstrating that over the past two years, white men have been practically discriminated against in the New York Times Best Book category. Poor guys. These things snowball. They become completely removed from what they began as. (Lincoln Michel has a good discussion of the kerfuffle here.)

I don’t know that Jodi Picoult was railing against white male literary darlings as much as she was expressing disappointment. I think Jodi Picoult dared to show that she cares very much about whether or not her books will be not only reviewed but critically adored by the New York Times. Disaffection is all the rage. We are not supposed to care because accolades are not important. It is the writing that is important. It is the craft that is important. And yet, accolades are not important until they are. They matter to me. If I had written as many commercially successful books as Picoult with nary a positive mention in the NYT, I’d be pretty pissed off. When her books have been reviewed by the Times, those reviews have rarely been… kind. That said, I cannot say those reviews have been wrong. Of course, Picoult can always console herself by regularly appearing on the Times bestseller list. Financial acclaim has its own rewards that critical acclaim will never pay.

I don’t know what literary fiction is but I do. I read a Tom Clancy novel and I know I am not reading great literature. I know his 527th book reveling in the glory of American military might will not leave its mark. That book will not be remembered. Not every book that is remembered is literary nor is every literary book remembered but I’m sure there is some kind of correlation between longevity and that literary quality that gets a book reviewed by The New York Times. I think Jodi Picoult is like most writers in that she wants to be remembered. She wants to feel like she writes books that matter.  I think she believes the stories she tells about middle class families and the painful dramas in their lives are as important as the books Franzen or any of the elite literati write about middle class families and the painful dramas in their lives. I do not know what makes a book important. I do know I enjoyed The Corrections more than either of the Picoult books I have read even though I have never revisited the book. I imagine it’s hard to write a book that matters when you’re churning out one or two six hundred page novels a year. At the same time, Picoult is laughing all the way to the bank. On a balance sheet, I’m certain a publisher would point to Picoult’s books as books that matter even though in the grand scheme of things, I have to wonder why any of this matters.