Speculations about Goodreads & Amazon (instead of eating lunch)

by Mark Cugini

I was going to go get Subway for lunch today, but then I started thinking about what was more important: eating or social media? I decided eating, but then I remembered that I used to be a social media consultant, so whatever, here’s some thoughts on this Goodreads/Amazon thing that a lot of people (thirty-five, maybe) are really worked up about:

  1. Amazon isn’t Google, which does a really fantastic job of buying the cutest startups at the pound and then leaving said startups on the side of the road after they get old and ugly and start pissing on the carpet. Jeff Bezos invests and improves his acquisitions–just look at how Audible integrated with Kindle so that users can switch back and forth between listening and reading. Nothing is going to happen overnight, but expect some serious changes in your Goodreads user experience.
  2. Mashable ran the headline “Amazon Buys Goodreads to Make Reading Experience More Social.” This sounds utterly terrifying, because the last thing I want to do when I’m reading is socialize. But I guess it also sounds gorgeous, because it might create some dystopian world where we  see status updates like “Fat Jim checked into His Bathtub, Bitch! (with Georges Bataille and A Diet Coke).
  3. All jokes aside, I’m actually trying to be excited about Kindle Integration: if my purchases are automatically added to my GR shelf, if my reading progress is automatically updated on my profile (important to me because I usually read 3-4 books at a time), and if there’s a “Friends are Currently Reading” feature, I could see myself using Goodreads more often and more dynamically. In theory.
  4. Another obvious thing: Amazon would not make this purchase if they didn’t think they could somehow monetize the “social” aspect of Goodreads. The concept of “organic” social marketing in a ruse, but Twitter has done a pretty decent job of 1) putting relevant content in front of the right users; and 2) making it easy for users to ignore/hide/flame the content they aren’t interested in. This is just a guess, but I doubt Amazon is going to be thoughtful in this regard: if they do experiment with social ads, I fully expect them to be as awful as Facebook’s promoted posts.
  5. I read a article on Forbes that claimed this move cements Amazon as the “No. 1 recommendation game in town,“ but are we really using Goodreads to discover new books? The people I’m friends with on there use it as a catalog, not as a resource for recommendations. Richard Thomas kicks ass, but it seems to me that the majority of people writing book reviews on Goodreads are the same schmucks that write soda reviews on Amazon, except on Goodreads those schmucks will sometimes argue about Chuck Klosterman like they’re in a freshman comp class. Maybe new features will change this, but I doubt it.
  6. Again, LOL at most Goodreads reviews. I cannot stress this enough.
  7. But really, all of the above romanticizing about social is just nonsense, because anyone who thinks this isn’t about eBooks is kidding themselves. I had no idea why this acquisition even happened, and then I read that Goodreads was thinking about getting into the selling game. Amazon sniffed a competitor (DATA! DATA!) and then it drank its blood.
  8. I can’t figure out what any of these means for indie publishers, but this whole thing makes Goodreads feel a lot less bootstrappy and a lot more corporate. This is all hypothetical (and based on what Adam said about “Big Ticket Items”), but if Goodreads made it easier for authors/publishers to sell their eBooks (and promise them a wider profit margin), there was an off chance that it could have turned into the Pitchfork of Indie Lit. Or something. OK, probably not. But still.

So yeah, do you care? Tell me if you care.

David Shields — How Literature Saved My Life

by James J. Fitze

literature_shieldsHow Literature Saved My Life
by David Shields
Knopf, February 2013
224 pages / $24.95  Buy from Amazon or Powell’s


Published last month, How Literature Saved My Life is both a boldly written love note to a most precious of subjects, and David Shields’s latest statute in his quest for “art with a visible string to the world.” Short of a true sequel to his polarizing 2008 “novel,” Reality Hunger, Shields’s latest work does devote more than a little page space to proselytizing for his vision of a world where fact and fiction combine and literary tropes like linear plot lines and fanciful character design fall by the wayside.

Sharing my current reading choice with friends — and an unsolicited suggestion that they look into it — it was a common to hear, But isn’t it just for writers and literature snobs?

Well, yes.

Casual readers may be able to sieve out the life lessons, but will likely find themselves drowning in a sea of name drops and literary in-jokes. Which is not to say that a novice reader couldn’t use the book to take studious notes and build a respectable reading list, but I wouldn’t consider that sort of parergonal use to be a huge selling point.

Truth is, how many summer readers are going to pick up a book called How Literature Saved My Life in the first place anyway? And it’s probably my fault for recommending it for a general audience, because it isn’t. Shields makes no bones about writing for a niche audience, one he can’t help but self-consciously wonder about with a market analyst’s zest, a fact of life for virtually any creative professional these days, whether we like it or not. Unabashedly, Shields probes this and other insecurities writers in the digital age run up against with far great frequency and impact than their predecessors.

Is literature worth writing anymore? Can it adapt without losing whatever attributes make it recognizable as “literature”? Who am I writing for?  Franzen: Why bother?

For literary types with similar doubts, Shields’s writing comes across prescriptive, offering answers to questions lie those raised by Jonathan Franzen in Why Bother? (originally published asPerchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels)and in one sense answering David Foster Wallace’s charge against forms of literature that have no remedy for the ills they diagnose.

That’s not to say Shields believes he holds all of the answers. For all his manifestoing, Shields comes off very much as the Sisyphean analog described in Camus’s famous essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” always climbing towards some semblance of meaning while remaining all too aware that the proverbial boulder will just roll right back down the hill. Make no mistake, this is an inner battle almost every writer faces on a regular basis; the difference here is that Shields has put it on the page for all to see, stripping away the layers of certainty and confidence that give a finished work its sheen and exposing us to the honest process.

“The notes are the book,” Shields wrote to a student having a crisis of literary form, “I promise you.”

This is going to irk those lit-department craftsman who will undoubtedly argue that the job of the writer is nothing if not taking the skeleton notes and fleshing them out into something whole, something virtually indistinguishable from pages of hastily jotted ideas. It would be easy to say that the approach Shields encourages is little more than compensation for a lack of narrative knack. But Shields — and I — would argue that the literary collage straddling the line between fiction and non is a more authentic reflection of real life, and particularly how our brains make sense of the real world, using ” the ambiguities of genre as an analogue to the ambiguities of existence.”

And that’s not an indictment of modern culture, which has done little more than to highlight the fractured nature of our realities. We don’t experience the world as a linear narrative, but rather as a constant influx of signals and information which our highly evolved frontal lobes then set about determining the priority and relevance of. The mistake previous generations of fiction writers made, Shields would argue, is that they’ve taken it upon themselves to do all of the interpretation, deciding for the reader what the important narrative is and turning down everything else. Here, Shields bucks against the tendency of writers to carefully guide readers along a pre-determined path of escapism, remarking emphatically that he finds “books that simply allow us to escape existence a staggering waste of time.”

What’s interesting is that Shields has managed to turn his pleas for a new form of literature into that very form of literature.  It wouldn’t be unreasonable for a reader to be exasperated by this, wondering when Shields will step down off the soap box and get to writing this next generation literature he’s spent two books extolling the virtues of.

The critic of metafiction’s self-referentialism won’t find much to love here. That wall has long since be reduced to ruble in Shields’s canon. The writing is about writing, is about reading, is about a lonely man trying to connect with a few other lonely souls out there. Great and powerful Oz, indeed. The façade of the writer is no more in Shields’s mind. He is unapologetically tied to the work, not as egoist but as “symbolic persona, theme carrier, host for general human tendencies.”

Shields’s strength, what makes him an effective writer in spite of a resistance to traditional narrative, is his brave insistence on embarrassing himself on the page; a laying bare of himself runs appropriately parallel a laying bare of the form itself. We find out about his secretly reading the diary of a girl in college in order to better woo her and hear his ruminations about growing up in “post-hippie” California in a family he called a “horrific regime.”

Perhaps the most important moment of the book, though, comes early on, as Shields uncomfortably compares himself on a point-by-point basis to George W. Bush, noting their similar propensities for outsourcing as much work as possible, their shared love of football and pretzels, and their shared, secret disdain for their mothers. What Shields is ultimately getting at here is one of psychology’s dangerous ideas, which is simply that we’re not all that different when it comes down to it.

To bring it all back to Camus, who is cited regularly in How Literature Saved My Life, I think Shields’s boulder is ultimately not meaning but a relief from human loneliness. In a wise but weary final line, Shields shares his desire for ­”literature to assuage human loneliness, but nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn’t lie about this— which is what makes it essential.” It may not exactly be a happy ending, but still, you must imagine Sisyphus as happy.


James J. Fitze is a writer living and working in New York City. His debut novel, The Atomist, is due out in early 2014.

25 Points: Gerald McClellan vs Nigel Benn

by Mellow Pages Library & Reading Room (Matt Nelson & Jacob Perkins)

sampinkGerald McClellan vs Nigel Benn
by Sam Pink
Wormblanket Press, 2013
$10.00 buy from Wormblanket Press


1. Who are these people. I picture Gerald McClellan in a ring with Nigel Benn but maybe they’re just labels on a whiskey pint, they’re on the shelf next to each other like “Hey, we made it,” and maybe they have. Shelf life for life.

2. Sam’s Chicago doesn’t require much “game” or at least if you’re pretty for a white boy it kind of seems like the junkies are all thinking like a bunch of teenage girls.

3. I felt the distinct possibility of having teenage girls want to/pretend to want to fuck me to be alluring but not in a sexual way. All those big eyes with mascara and vodka and older brothers smaller than me. Everything would ride on those brothers being smaller than me, though. They’ve got retractable batons. My little brother once had a friend named Erin that I wanted to like me because she was going to art school in France according to my mom.

4. I worked in a warehouse once. So did I. The people in Sam’s warehouse seem like chillers. I want to throw a jammer with these chillers, and then they do. Same thing about the feeling in “Nice Job”. I would have never said “Nice Job” to anyone driving a forklift. Thought about it though.

5. Limited death types/options on pursuing boxing as a future.

6. Every story has a choice. Listing choices is easy. Spending the night outside of your girlfriend’s apartment because you have no other choice, even if you think the rats are sweet, is a hard choice to make. The movements of Sam’s characters feel both arbitrary and necessary, but always made by one person alone.

7. No matter what, the homeless will always have more friends than you.

8. G’be k’n me is something I’d like to incorporate into my regular speech.

9. If my grandfather always said, “Hey, now who’s this little shithead?” I would be okay with it because my grandfather has Alzheimers. Mine are all dead.

10. Just went to the movies last night. Didn’t question why no one talked to me. Kind of want to move to Chicago.

11. I saw a guy today that had a massive face tic. Thinking of Sam, I wanted to call him Tick. But then I remembered there was already a comic and then two TV shows called “The Tick” and I felt unoriginal.

12. What is this fruit flavored malt drink. Anyone? Seems to only exist in Chicago. We’ll order it if you want to drink it in the library.

13. Sam seems to understand the human desire to separate and exclude others, including himself. But he goes further by relating to those who dislike him because, according to Lacan, we are originally separated from ourselves. Or because we all suck. There aren’t a lot of mirrors in Sam’s stories. I’d like to come together with someone on a shared distaste for myself. I’ll be that someone.

14. Is there any type of oral trauma that would make a person pronounce J’s weird? Like J’s=Th’s? Probably. That would make the whole Jesus thing funny, at least to people who hate school and Jesus.

15. Sam will make streets and places like Fullerton and Pilsen Neighborhood famous. People will go there and try to replicate something. Not sure what you’d do other than post up in the park.

16. If I lived above Sam, I would play Fifa 2013 because I hate that game and I hate the people who play that game because they’re all better than me because I don’t have a TV or a PS3 so the scenario doesn’t make sense anyway and I would stomp and yell and throw shit just because.

17. Next time I burst into a single bar bathroom I’ll be ready for anything.

18. One day, you will be able to purchase a Sam Pink Personality Shield 6066.

19. If I were Sam’s girlfriend I’d probably be pissed. “He talks about me like twice and both times he throws a chair at the wall or says ‘fuuuuhh-cuueeee’ in his head.” That’s what I would think.

20. I want to try and die and then have someone stop me. Then I want to go on the internet where people will have already typed, “I want to try and die and then have someone stop me,” and type, “why don’t you fucking do it,” in all caps. Then I will laugh and google some more.

21. Sam has a good sense of what to include and what not to include in a story. Never did I feel like, “easy there,” during a car driving out of a gas station on hydraulics.

22. Keep picturing myself as the LumberJack on the subway, though I don’t necessarily know what drug I’m on. I went over to the end of the car to find more maybe.

23. Sam notices a lot of little gestures that somehow I can picture easily but they also don’t seem like things I’d notice in real life.

24. Yesterday on the subway, I wanted to fall on the floor and start crying. I thought that Sam would think that that was funny. So did I.

25. There are no page numbers and that feels good. They way you should read this book is all the way through and then after that flip. Flip. Everything is worth reading multiple times. It will make you feel things that are entirely positive.


Librarians’ Note: We received two copies of this limited issue book (39 and 43 of 50, respectively) through a kind donation from a tumblr friend/publisher wormblanket. Find him. Upvoteworthy fellow.


You can check out Gerald McClellan vs Nigel Benn here at Mellow Pages in Bushwick, right above the Morgan stop. Or if you don’t like Sam (he’d like that) then check out the tons of other goods we’re housing, open daily 11-8. http://on.fb.me/WJgv1B and http://bit.ly/13dctU3

Dressing Up Anne Frank

by Seth Oelbaum


Anne Frank is one of the most fortunate creatures to ever be compelled to live on earth. If I wasn’t a boy – that is to say, if I was a girl — she’d most likely be included in the Top 5 Girls Who I’d Want to Be. And it’s just not me who admires Anne so. Angela Chase, the moody heroine ofMy So-Called Life, envies her too. When Angela’s high-school English teacher asks her to describe Anne’s predicament, Angela answers, “Lucky.” Maggie Nelson – a one-percent poet – is fascinated by Anne as well. “But who can guess / what Anne would have said / about the last place she went,” Maggie speculates, with fantastic suspense. There’s plenty more examples – including a significant sample of sexualized feminists who harp on Anne’s clitoris – but that’ll do presently.

What’s of primary importance is that Anne’s life was preponderantly sensational and romantic. Her setting was one of a studio movie (the Holocaust), but, being confined to a secret annex, it was also one of a stormy Victorian romance novel. She kind of resembles Bertha Mason. Both were concealed from external society due to dark, devastatingly charming forces: Hitler and Lord Rochester. Then Anne’s also sort of like Harriet the Spy (Paramount Pictures). Both Anne and Harriet meticulously record their thoughts, especially their mean ones: Harriet is contemptuous of Sport’s (one of her BFFs) lack of money; Anne. meanwhile, puts down her future one true love, Peter, by declaring: “Can’t expect much from his company.” Yes, Anne’s disposition is commendably catty and literary. But a famous literary boy, Harold Bloom, says:

A child’s diary, even when she was so natural a writer, rarely could sustain literary criticism. Since this diary is emblematic of hundreds of thousands of murdered children, criticism is irrelevant. I myself have no qualifications except as a literary critic. One cannot write about Anne Frank’s Diary as if Shakespeare, or Philip Roth, is the subject.

Uh-uh, Shakespeare was probably bisexual, or, according to rumors, an average person whose name was usurped by a member of Queen Elizabeth’s court (or the Queen herself) for a pseudonym. There’s nothing special about liking boys and girls, nor is there anything worth noticing about the middle class. As for Philip Roth… well, we know what Baby Adolf would say about him.

A more marvelous evaluation comes from Girl Land author, Caitlin Flanagan:  “Anne Frank is an imp, a brat, a narcissist, a sulker, a manipulator, a manic talker, a flirt, and a person who insisted on the rapt attention of everyone around her at one moment, and on the pure privacy that all misunderstood people demand at the next.” Anne is moody and mysterious. She might possess some relationship to Fiona Apple or Lana Del Ray. These girls contain conflicting traits too. Conflict is quite entertaining, and entertainment should look lovely, and Anne Frank shall be just that since I shall dress her up.


As with most great girls, Anne is inevitably entranced by boys. “One simply can’t seem to avoid it,” declares Anne. Boy are adamant about not avoiding her as well. According to Anne, “As soon as a boy asks if he may bicycle home with me and we get into a conversation, nine out of ten times I can be sure that he will fall head over heels in love and simply won’t allow me out of his sight.” The transition to the secret annex did not squash the spell that she had over boys and vice versa. Peter, a boy who she shared the attic with, is initially dismissed as “gawky and shy.”  But two years of sharing the same hiding spot with the boy modifies Anne’s mindset. Indeed, it’s as if Cupid had flown into the Holocaust and flung one of his bows into Anne’s heart. The crush is considerable enough for Anne to fuse Peter with the identity of a former pre-secret annex crush Petel. “Will I ever feel his cheek against mine, like I felt Petel’s cheek in my dream?” laments Anne. “Oh, Peter and Petel you are one in the same. They don’t understand us.” That’s true, most mommies and daddies fail to comprehend grand romances. They’re too busy turning money into commodities and then back into money again. But Anne’s mommy and daddy also possess justification for trying to constrict her access to her humongous crush. Of course, boys are big, tough, mean, and aggressive, and you want them to do so many things to you; yet, conversely, it’s because boys are big, tough, mean, and aggressive, and they can do so many things to you that they should be kept away from you. Boys are, alas, a contentious contradiction. So when Anne wants Peter/Petel to be near she should wear this John Rocha Fall 13 flowery dress. Smelling splendidly is what flowers do, and everyone with any principles whatsoever wants to be near flowers. But when Anne doesn’t want Peter/Petel to be near her (even though she probably really does), she should sport this Meadham Kirchoff dress. The veil will prevent any kisses and the apron-like middle will alert Peter/Petel that she aims to be a dutiful housewife, not the kind of girl who goes around kissing any boy who happens to be hiding in a secret annex with her due to the fact that an Austrian boy wants to kill almost every single human on earth beginning with the Jews.

John Rocha Fall 13

John Rocha Fall 13


Meadham Kirchoff Fall 13

A dilemma that academic feminists are dealing with is also one that Anne had to face – that dilemma is the dilemma of reverence for your elders. According to J. Jack Halberstam, elder feminists are peeved at the lack of appreciation they receive from younger feminists, while younger feminists are frustrated with the confines created by previous generations. Anne, too, brims with disgust for her mommy (her actually mommy, though, not an adviser or a speaker that heard at a conference). “I’m boiling with rage,” announces Anne. “I’d like to stamp my feet, scream, give mommy a good shaking, cry, and I don’t know what else.” Anne abhors her mommy’s mocking glances and sly digs, and she certainly condemns how her mommy is more understanding towards her big sister Margot than to her. Anne’s distaste for her mommy is such that she refuses to permit her to listen to her prayers. According to Anne, she and her mommy are “exact opposites; so naturally we are bound to run up against each other.” But a collision would be avoided if Anne was attired in this angelic pantsuit from Comme des Garcons. An ensemble such as this would furnish Anne with wings, and then she could fly away from her archenemy to some place pleasant, like Disney World, which invariably smells of vanilla or peppermint.

Comme des Garcons Fall 13

Comme des Garcons Fall 13

On 29 March 1944 (a Wednesday) an MP on the Dutch News from London announces that they “ought to make a collection of diaries and letters after the war.” The news starts Anne’s mind speeding down the path to fame. “Just imagine how interesting it would be if I were to publish a romance of the ‘Secret Annexe,’ ” speculates Anne. “The title alone would be enough to make people think it was a detective story.” A couple of entries later, Anne declares, “I know that I can write. Anyone who doesn’t write doesn’t know how wonderful it is.” Though Anne isn’t a Christian, she shares the same faith for the recorded word as John Milton. Milton, based on his evaluation, is the “strongest Christian.” To him, Christianity and God are entwined with knowledge. One of the primary ways one bestows knowledge is through books, which, to Milton, contain the “precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” Even if you’re dead you will still be alive because your spirit will reside in your books. This is quite ghostly, so Anne should wear this white, billowy dress by Giles.

Giles Fall 13

Giles Fall 13

The dress is also perfect for Anne’s final destination: Auschwitz. Anne will die here, but, since she spent her earth time dishing out insight, she’s pure, so she should have little to no vexations acquiring access to heaven.


by Erik Stinson


The Internet taught children to design themselves in a white space. Now, they are to create in that space. This burden. Laughter.

Appropriation was the first mimetic. The late remix, post-DJ culture of the 20whatevers sidevolved into a romance of the weird and origin-less. Repeat, offend, react. Horse eBooks, PT Cruiser, drugs, fetishes about whispering, shitting, looking into a new blank digital void. But it lasted only as long a generational breath. Weird Twitter rose and fell like a bird in a harsh wind.


Music had been like this, for a few years, when music production became free with any expensive computer. Was Nathan Williams not a sort of weird twitter, phased out of punk so as to appear totally original, freshly rancid, cultural buoyant? A few sub-genres had this playful weirdness, this digi-abstraction. It barely menaced the margins of culture, before liquifying.


The latest Twitter comme poetry technology is the word painting, the absurd poetry of quick vernacular, caddy, open-ended retorts.

Imagine that poetry could become a studio art.

Image an OS desktop as a studio, imagine your space to create. White walls, high ceilings, no mass or time.

Sit quietly and wait for a violent spasm of cool. It’s isn’t about why, or intentions, or impressing yourself.

You are the eCig champion truth sayer, deliciously distracted by sex, food, and malaise. You only speak when spoken through. This is gestural poetry. Enter the mood artist.

The New York Timeless has written lately about the primacy of mouth feel and corporate food art. Companies want to know about feelings. People want to have them. Poets will invent them, out of pure, lush incompetence. Casual compulsion. Gestural Poetry is flavorful because it cannot be focus grouped. Its political and economic inscrutability is excused; because it is the pure truth of now, the expressive selfness, uncompromising, whimsical in the old sense. Whim (v). Sip. Puff. Radically boring, with the kind of motion that means very little, to so many.

They are your words to ignore, to hold, to menace with attitude. Send it off to CMS.

We minted new pale blogs for an unfolding era of therapeutic screen breaks.

25 Points: Dear Jenny, We Are All Find

by Michelle Sinsky

dearjennyDear Jenny, We Are All Find
by Jenny Zhang
Octopus Books, 2012
116 pages / $12.00 buy from Octopus Books or SPD









“keats was married to vladimir nabakov

they gave birth to my aunt who spoke no Spanish

and colonized all of western Europe

and that’s why michael’s dad ate my left toe leaving me


(“Lifestyle: I Think I Had a Nice Life and Then I Was Doing Weird Things Like Talking About Having a Bad Life”)

2. I started following Jenny Zhang on her blog Fashion For Writers, back in 2007 or something when I made my living selling vintage clothing to places like France for too much shipping and attempting be less insular by people taking photos of what they were wearing in other places. She was in Iowa wearing coats that made me feel like I could survive winter in Ohio and Montreal, where I was planning to move next.

3. Broke and preoccupied with trying to survive winter by books and digging my car out with hot water to get to the thrift store the morning of 50­cent tag day, my Canadian neighbor didn’t own a shovel. “Why doesn’t your city know how to buy salt for their streets?!” I stayed mute and poured water and felt mute that winter, representing a city I had exclusively lived in and identified with and clutched at matryoshka dolls from antique malls lining my shelves and wanting to chuck one at my car for living somewhere that made it requisite.

4. I think I owned, like, 10 vintage coats at one point. I got pretty disgusted with myself that winter.

5. A couple weeks back, Heather Christle re­posted the caddis fly larvae works of Hubert DuPrat in Cabinet Magazine and posited the idea that poems are analogous to sheaths, constructed from details of our shifting environments. I didn’t set out to write a companion essay review, but 25 bullet points are hard to extract from concepts this immaculately presented as external, when poetry is thought of as a “internal” and “emotional” when it communicates a lot like clothing. Here’s the traditional review reaction I had if I felt differently:

6. “Dear Jenny makes me feel so many more creepy­voyeur­fangirl things, like ‘yikes oh yikes I’m exceedingly aware of how we’re reading ancestrally and seeing the sheaths in their past and future relevant form reading anything, into love poems to things and people and continents dead for centuries!!!!!’” Genuinely felt, but I sound twelve.

7. “Family members are resurrected for a second and then blown back to poppy fields before you can say ‘twat.’ Zhang’s incurably dynastic and reads prosaically in its turns and forms, and they’re bratty and fleshly corporeal in each syntactical bowel movement.” Blurb suited for an
Amazon review: discarding.

8. “We are all find she says

bonjour well because

well she is Chinese and anyway

we don’t use R’s”

(“My Mother Leaves Me a Message Where She Pronounces All Romance Languages in a Deep Voice”)

The semiotic problem of “Asian-­American” is the book’s seppuku, which I mean gesturing with misappropriation like Zhang does in so many poems. The inherent difficulty of language in relation to identity as ­American is as blatant as asking “what are you?” to your face, language can answer that anything but in part. If the audiences of the speaker’s voice heard I was from Ohio, they’d think definitely lived near cows and should have a twangy Gummo accent. How many times did I cringe at Harmony Korine’s decision to film in Nashville? Each and every time I moved.

9. It would be better to use a dung beetle analogy instead of the silk casings Octopus Books gives to its larvae. Dear Jenny’s concerns and permutations of scatology is made legitimately profound, or find its profundity is pointed at without making the profane pornographic. Example:

10. “. . .I’ve been coursing through the finite rivers

the smudge of black on yr fingertips and I’m yrs

ya cunt, I’m yrs, yr the cuntiest

cunt I’ve ever cunted” (“Key Phrase”)

11. The kiss­offs to encounters with re­ and mis­appropriation are not just “pardon my French” (“French” dressing is a bastardization of the larger vinaigrette); “Asian” in place of “Chinese” is an obsessive confusion that vomits food imagery to demonstrate this throughout. By the time weget to LA FRANCE the streets are littered with new dirty words like “bloodturds” and “comefarts.”


Clips poems-­as-­text messages apologizing for inadequacies and validate their recipient, digressing into surrealities that prove the only way to potentially pseudo-­articulate love-­feelings when you’re in the froth of infatuation or a relationship and writing about it. The talking oxytocin stretches excerpts like “Gluing Sprinkles on My Hangbags” to limits of its hyperbole, but the affection reserved for devotionals to and around their target is presented for the figures populating the other poems at an equal volume.

13. A fingernail polish indulgently pained or an expected moon image is intimate and immediately self-­effacing to spite vanities, reminding me of the cringe moments writing text messages and spot with “little punctuation marks / to say / ha ha / ha ha / my humor is good / this is a poet’s poem / written by a degenerate / illiterate / literal / piece of crap.” (“Being Jealous For the First Time Since Waking Up a Millisecond Ago”)

14. Affection for lines and stanzas text messages read like a recent relationship, the apologies we forgive hearing prefaces at reading, how we reflexively want to perforate the discomforts of approaching truths we were creating along the way with a “just kidding!” with self-­deprecating quote-­mark maggots hacking me and my typing, habitually.

15. This section cites jealousy as illness, where the healthy / unhealthy tropes in relationship to relationships where it feels gauzy and necessary and you want to be the scissors cutting his hair and floor touching his hair and how self-­conscious and unself-conscious you are that you will only be this one singular thing to this person. New York itself will make you this way, when you’re with someone, someone from somewhere else and going to someone else or somewhere else, but it has nothing to do with it the way you’re indoors and you’re not in a city.

16. Not to say love poems on jealousy aren’t typical, but it isn’t casual here, which is why the connection to Zhang seems as tangible as the reader in the speaker’s clothes, or vice versa:

“I was stunned by these dreams where she appeared as beautiful as 观音. This was when I did not know s/he was a queer. . . you’re dependent on the idea that we ought to ignore jealousy because of how embarrassing it is to say, “Is she nice? You never talk about her.” This, I agree with. This, I am aware of. Though I tell you it’s like a flower blooming from the largest and most useful vein, you must be aware that I’m only attempting to convince myself of ancient nostrums—the low whispered lie, the printed delusion.” (“St Vitus’ Dance”)

17. The contradictions are not so banal as I describe them except where they’re meant to be. I’m jealous of what she’s articulating, the “Jenny” as she appears in the book, with sensations that don’t have verbal translations in our tongues; the uncensored consciousness of orifices and the body before it acquires our blathering self­-consciousness and the more vulgar workings of the brain contorting itself into speech. Dear Jenny lives in the space between a bed and a ceiling in a room in each place it’s occurring, and digs to something else ancestral or muted where it winds until there are approximate words, and the forms digress into another and another to dictate and be shaped by and economize ramblage and subject after subject. “…they cut down my legs. I was too small to fit in the metal box they built to stunt me.” (“St. Vitus’ Dance”)

18. Is it completely inappropriate to consider the poet as the speaker in all cases? If a poem has an ethnic or gender identity, do I have to ignore that? Can I ignore that? How am I ascribing these things to the poet, who I know nothing about past my version of them?

19. “if you record us / we will find your books / tear out the pages / devoted to strange oriental lives / we’ll live in graves and make you eat / the still living gizzard / the still living spleen / the heart and the choking and the right brain / we leave and enter the circle when we wish . . . if not that then at least a gesture that your people are sorry / cannot stand it / and will no longer loot from us / when bored (“Founder”)

20. To answer the problem of poet as speaker: I have to address that Dear Jenny is Chinese and American and bodily and profane and female and it’s those things all in the same line. Reading some of her work, this book included, I have to keep in my the (sometimes forcibly) logic-­lit regions of my brain Owen Pallett’s response to his work: “As far as whether the music I make is gay or queer, yeah, it comes from the fact that I’m gay, but that doesn’t mean I’m making music about it.” (in 2005, a year before releasing an incomprehensibly genius, Dungeons & Dragons ­themed concept second record, He Poos Clouds).

21. Paradoxically, a lot of the time, Zhang is making music about it, but it’s not up to me to dissect where and how, and not because I’m not Chinese or didn’t have an identical education, or because I’m able to trace blood to a country that bordered and pulled at the borders of China or because we both live in a country that keeps racial identity in and out and in and out of everything, like all countries physical and metaphorical.

22. “intriguing/ while noticing my age as I fell into a dazzling pit of coal/ a year later/ I still hadn’t taken up any fights/ I’m still in a process of recalibration/ the recovering of my own self was difficult when faced with so many great people/ the ones who spoke well/ the ones who walked well/ the ones who moved well/ I envied every one/ who was well/ here I offer my arm . . . solemn as ceremonial wreaths/ . . . here I offer my hands/ feet/ and knees to have Tony’s superior alienation”

(“A Science”)

Preoccupation of the erosion of the self and sediment shift of continent-­jumping happens in macro twice and in micro with sections.

Ultimately, by the time we’re in


23. “I stand over the seas now, minor as a natural hairline
discovered suddenly after a shower, the pitiful waning:
I plan to march to the seas, I plan to make more plans
the megrims of a carefully recorded life, I will save these pages—
Don’t forget me, I languish between the knots and you stay furrowed.”

(“Relish This Moment. Hope It Will Comfort On This Raining Day”)

The impact of place organizes and disorganizes the sense of what you are and are not. My own family’s history disintegrated in a house fire that consumed the wooden trunk brought over from Russia and this stanza gonged in my head and the sinuses behind my eyes considering it.

24. And always I’m aware of the awareness of my gender here: the world hurling itself up on my gender to reach and grab at the anatomical and subatomic parts of my gender and Rorschach my gender to my abdomen like an x­ray machine. It tries to deduce things before you can swat its pink away. An inkblot is merely an inkblot, but the “reproductive anxiety” attached itself like an arterial rope to hang myself with, an umbilical cord to my identity asking where I attached and might I feed in some way from this? and should I be thinking about my gender because I am instructed to? and why do I sense magnetized blood of me marionetting from the book’s bundle of veins and nerves demanding attentions to judgements of gender when I want to forget my gender and be neuter in the world of poetry that is so slender and away from the hand-­grabby world?

25. “How does human activity / affect landscape?” Through identity and its inevitable attempts and abandonments of the body and the self? Migration carries families with pickled lambs and small funds into a new beginning devastation makes a cracked-­open mouth for a starting point. All self-­contained mythologies result from the effuse of earlier generations. When it lands a first-­generation on a foreign coast, we overlooking the ocean separating the continents and see the gigantic impossibility of reconciliation with a putrid bubbling of its core; the poetry of it’s crust oozes when we call it out for the frazzle-­dazzle it all is.

Michelle Sinsky is a writer, interdisciplinary artist and MFA candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, with recent work in ANOBIUM, Bitch Magazine, Red Lightbulbs, Requited and Everyday Genius. She writes frequently on the subject of feminism, popular culture, visual arts and performance and is a co-founder of the forthcoming Matter: A Monthly Journal of Political Poetry and Commentary. @pommespommes

Germs and Ideas: An Interview with Joshua Mohr

by Weston Cutter


Josh Mohr‘s the author of a trio of fairly heavy duty fiction—Some Things that Meant the World to MeTermite Parade, and Damascus, each of which was published by the fantastic Two Dollar Radio. They were published in ’09, ’10, and ’11, if years and chronology mean too much. The years those books were written and published in end up mattering, to a degree, given the following, which is an email interview with Mohr about his latest novel, Fight Song, out presently from Soft Skull Press. You’re welcome to note the fact that Mohr’s got a different publisher for this book than his three previous ones, and if you read/know Mohr’s stuff, you’ll note pretty quickly that Fight Song is a vastly different beast than any of his three previous ones (though an argument could be made about similarities, style-wise, with Damascus, but that’s for some other reviewer and venue). I don’t know how much more info’s pertinent to what follows, which is the transcript of a series of emailed questions and answers. As ever: you’re much better off reading the book than anything *about* the book or author, but we all need our cavemarkings and arrows.

– – –

I guess the first big question is: how did Fight Song get its start for you? I’m most curious about style, or tone. This one’s quite different from the earlier trio, and the difference reads/feels to me almost sum-uppable as: Saunders. There’s a sort of sort of hijinksy despair to this that reads, at least to me, as very like him. Where’d the tone come from for this?

My first three books all dealt with addicts and artists in the Mission District of San Francisco. I had great fun putting those books together, but I felt like I needed to push myself artistically—needed to completely dismantle my comfort zone. That’s when we do our best work as authors, when the potential to fail is at its greatest. I definitely could have written DAMASCUS 2.0, but what would be the point in that?  I don’t want my career to resemble a glam metal band, just writing the same song over and over again. Plus, I don’t own very much spandex, I’m out of hairspray, and my cocaine days are in the rearview.

I decided to try my hand at satire this time, which is probably where you’re getting the Saunders. It’s almost impossible to write social satire in our era and not see some Saunders. He’s our most recognizable writer working that terrain. His influence wasn’t conscious for FIGHT SONG. He’s never written a novel. Conscious influences were satirists that work in the longer form: Donald Barthelme, Angela Carter (specifically “The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman”), Thomas Pynchon, and one Delillo book, “White Noise.”

I reread a lot of their writing during FIGHT SONG’s germination. A lot of writers tend to shy away from revealing influences, but nobody works in a vacuum. We’re all participating in the same dialogue that’s been happening since scribbles on cave walls and I like to pay homage to my forebears. In fact, I stole the end of FIGHT SONG from a children’s book, “If you’re afraid of the dark, Remember the night rainbow.”  It has a perfect closing image that I wasn’t going to top, so I ganked it.

What do you hope your books do? Your earlier work is pretty recognizably tougher, and gets into some weirder darker stuff, and it reads as if you’ve gotten lighter–not as in *insubstantial*, but as in less heavy, less fist+stick prose.

I love that you’re seeing my work moving more toward hope, openness. I was an addict/alcoholic when I wrote my first couple books, so my worldview is much different now. As artists, evolution is important. Learning and growing is important. I want to have the kind of career where I give myself permission to explore all kinds of aesthetics and styles. I want to keep myself off kilter, off balance, almost falling flat on my face with every subsequent book. That’s the kind of thing as authors we can wear as badges of honor: Push ourselves to attempt things that might lead to public humiliation. And you’re going to misstep along the way. We all are. It’s inevitable. The question is what we do about those missteps. Do we get stodgy, safe, conservative?  Or do we say fuck you! and keep being reckless on the page?  I hope that we all go the route of the latter.

When DAMASCUS came out, the headline for the Washington Post review said “Mohr is drunk on clichés.”  And that was probably the nicest thing they said. It was a 700-word skull-fucking. But you can’t worry about that stuff. All we can control as artists is the next book.

You mentioned Oz earlier in corresponding about this book, but I’m curious about how you feel that particularly applies. I can sort of imagine it, or feel it at peripheries, but I’m curious how it manifested itself for you. Is it just that, aside from Jane, everyone in this book’s got an obsession that is in some way about unreality, or another reality? Bjorn and his wizardry, the kids and their mediated living, Bob himself and the just-like-but-not-at-all-like-real-life games, etc.? 

I like books that straddle realism and un-realism, and FIGHT SONG has its share of “magic.”  “The Wizard of Oz” was another cultural influence, one of the driving conceits in the novel’s conception: what would happen if I tried to tell “The Wizard of Oz” set in a 21st century American suburb?  I doubt anyone will see it without me mentioning it, but its presence was a part of the scaffolding I used as I started to scale this unruly beast.

As the novel goes on there’s more and more of the unreal. We start in a place that’s recognizable, but slowly we sink deeper into images that challenge what we recognize as plausible. If I’ve done my job right, there’s Oz, and yet it’s mixed with some Dante’s “Inferno.” Suburban malaise can be interpreted as a modern notion of hell. I shook all these influences up and hopefully made a cocktail that a reader’s never tasted before.

Less on the book: you seem in a good and unique place to talk about small presses, having had 3 out from Two Dollar Radio, and now jumping to Soft Skull. Is it a good time to be an author with books being released from indie presses? Using you as an example, it sure seems to be the case.

Well, now indie titles have the potential to be reviewed just as widely and thoroughly as Big 6, conglomerate authors. We can be in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, etc. Indie writers always had hubs online where we can find out about strange books. Shit, we’re talking on one of the mainstays right now!  But our odd novels are getting mainstream coverage. It’s a glorious time to be publishing with an indie press.

My first book, which is pretty deranged ended up making O Magazine’s top ten reads of 2009, and I remember saying to my editor, “Jesus, I wrote the book and I never believed a rag like that would like my filth.”  We just don’t know as artists. Our jobs as authors is to write the best, most original stories we can. Who knows what will happen when it’s bound and placed on the shelf?

I teach in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco, and I tell my students that their imaginations are as unique as their fingerprints. Nobody on earth has an imagination quite like theirs—or better yet ours. It’s our ultimate currency and we have to play to that strength with every sentence we construct.

I want to try again on the first question a little, and maybe this is silly or frustrating, but I hope not. I’m curious about why you chose to tackle satire—what you chose that for, aesthetically and artistically. I get that you don’t want to cover yourself, but so why satire, then? There’s a pretty large variety of structural options for novel-writing, and a large variety of structural options that would’ve led you far afield from the aesthetic work you’d plied/established in your first books. So, again: why satire?

I’m pushing at this specifically because I finished the book wondering what was being satirized, or, maybe better, wondering at the limits of satire (insert the line from whoever/wherever about how satire’s tough at present in the US because real life’s always leapfrogging satire). I finished FS believing the satire was about the sort of broad-swath general stuff: suburban living/middle-age vs the gravity of youth/days gone by, attention paid to digital devices vs. attention paid to lived experience, etc. The wife treading water’s this perfect example of this. And it’s not that that stuff didn’t work–it actually, I felt, sort of worked *too* precisely at times, or that’s how it felt. Of course the wife’s trying to break the record for treading water–that’s the perfect ha-ha appropriate activity, you know? The stuff I ended up feeling deepest was the less overtly satirical stuff–a woman talking dirty at a taco stand’s drive through, for instance.

Basically: I don’t know. I respect and am fine with your first answers, but the big question, for me, still remains: why write a satire? Why was *that* the next move, aesthetically, for you, after the first three? Does that make sense? Who knows.

Also: I didn’t know you were an addict during the writing of the first books. I’m really, really curious about the difference in writing, as a felt thing, between those written during addiction and those not. Maybe this is a not okay question to ask, in which case: I’m really sorry. But I’d be curious. I guess the thing I’m most wondering about is: it’d seem, to me (who’s been addicted to nothing harder than cigarettes), that writing would offer totally different releases to an addict and to someone who’d recovered from that addiction. Again: if this is not an okay thing to ask, I’m really sorry.

I finally think I understand what you’re asking, and it’s—I think—more about drugs and booze than books. So let me start there.

When I wrote my first three novels—the trilogy of bar books—I wrote them in a blackout. Seriously. I would start writing about midnight and work until… well, I don’t really know how long I’d work. But when I came to the next afternoon, the first thing I did was to go back and read last night’s writing, having little to no idea what I’d done.

Some of it was god awful. Hell, most of it. But there were germs and ideas that I knew I could build around. My writing back then was tied to self destruction, doing lines and popping pills and swigging whiskey in between clacks on the laptop.

Yet I knew my run of booze and drugs was coming to an end. It had to. There were too many fist fights and a busted marriage and my health was failing. It was time to try something else.

For the first year of being clean, I didn’t write any new content at all. “Termite Parade” and “Damascus” were both finished but hadn’t yet been published when I went to rehab. So I was still sort of editing them, but I wasn’t coming up with any new ideas. In fact, I was petrified of coming up with new ideas!  What if I can’t write sober?  What if my books all suck now?

Those questions paralyzed me for almost a year. At the same time, I was learning to live sober, which is one of the biggest mind-fucks people can endure. Like many addicts, I’d basically been loaded since I was 12 or 13 and had no idea who the fuck I was when I wasn’t high. I didn’t have an identity outside of the dive bar.

Early sobriety is really hard for a variety of reasons. I’m not saying it’s harder for artists; all I’m saying is we have some extra concerns: mainly, what if the thing I love doing most in the world requires me to get high?  What will I do then?  Relapse to write?  Quit writing?

The mind-fuck continues…

Finally, I just said, fuck it. Fuck it, I’m going to try and write a book. Fuck it, I’m going to see what happens when I write with my head clear. Fuck it, I don’t care if it turns out shitty, at least I’ll know for sure.

So instead of a cache of booze and party favors, I armed myself with coffee. Sometimes intentionally not eating for too long, starving myself so I got all woozy, initiating a different kind of altered state. It’s probably not a healthy way to peck out a narrative, but I guess it’s a step in the right direction.

And honestly, there was no conscious moment when I said my next project will be satire. There was a disconnect between sober-me and my previous books. I barely felt like I’d written them. I wasn’t that sad or angry anymore. I hated myself way less. I want to say that I was actually happy. Yeah, I was happy. I wanted to try and have fun at the computer, wanted to enjoy the process. I only knew the opening image of FIGHT SONG, and then I just sort of followed those people around. The story grew from getting to know their consciousnesses and a suburban ecosystem, which is way far away from my status quo.

So maybe if you’re seeing something new in my work with FIGHT SONG, it’s because somebody else wrote the first 3 books. That’s sort of how I think of it.

It’s interesting—I appreciate the answer. On the one hand, I suppose the question had something to do with booze/drugs, but I was/am much more interested in directional stuff, which I think you somewhat got to. Maybe I’m just asking for something not quite articulable. Here’s what I mean: I happen to know Wallace’s stuff fairly well, critically, and when he talked about Jest as the book that came after his first novel [and his first collection of stories, which he mostly didn’t love], he was very clear that he wanted to write something big/with a lot of characters, and he wanted to write something sad [unlike Broom, which was neither]. I don’t believe *all* writers have [or should] some clear way of talking about the paths they’re taking as they’re taking them, but that’s sort of where the questions on this form come from: a matter of how much you were aware of the territory as you set out into it [lots of this has to do with my own writing too, I guess, which is very much based on exhaustion or binaries—I’ll write something dense and gnarled and then write something easier, stuff that’s got more fingergrips to it, and so was/am curious if that was at all part of your operating pattern].

But, at the risk of being obtuse or a dick or whatever, I’m still curious, and I want to ask again. Your answers are somewhat equivocating: you say you followed other satirists during FS’s germination, but say, later, that you only knew the opening image of FS. I can square those, but you’ve still, in various ways, sort of danced away from saying why you chose satire, why this book became this book. Again: maybe it’s not something that’s doable. Maybe it’s better left unaddressed. But given the shift in style/subject from the first three, even considering the change of mental/chemical state of their author, there’s a huge change. And that’s what I keep (maybe stupidly) trying to hammer at. Put it this way: Dean Young, one of my favorite poets, two years (I think) back came out with Fall Higher, which was the first book of his to feature rhyming. Lots of rhyming, in fact. It was sort of shocking to see this guy who’d done so much whiplashy, wordplay surrealism do this other thing. People felt about it how they did. But if I got the chance to talk to him and I asked him why’d that change happen, and he were to tell me of the life changes that’d had something to do with it (and this is a dude who’s had some for real changes, like literally getting a new heart), I’d keep asking: well, but why rhyming? Because there’s an almost infinite way of changing things, writing-wise, aesthetically, artistically. And Dean Young choosing rhyming, and you choosing satire, are choices. They may not be things deeply thought through, but they are choices.

And so far I’ve asked you about the changes in your work, and you’ve talked about dismantling your comfort zone, and about sobriety and its effects, and the need for artists to push themselves and risk failure—all of which, in a way, partly answers the question. But the other aspect (for me, anyway) remains: why satire? Saunders, simply because his name’s come up before, has basically said (recently in that big NYTMag spread) that he uses satire to show the corrosive dangers of capitalism. I’m sure he’s got other reasons, but I just am interested in the why of Fight Song. In the above, the second big question set I sent, there’s a long middle second-part of the question that didn’t much get touched on, and which I don’t think has much to do with sobriety or anything. I’m pasting it below because I’m still curious about it.

I’m pushing at this, specifically because I finished the book wondering what was being satirized, or, maybe better, wondering at the limits of satire (insert the line from whoever/wherever about how satire’s tough at present in the US because real life’s always leapfrogging satire). I finished FS believing the satire was about the sort of broad-swath general stuff: suburban living/middle-age vs the gravity of youth/days gone by, attention to digital devices vs. attention to lived experience, etc. The wife treading water’s this perfect example of this. And it’s not that that stuff didn’t work–it actually, I felt, sort of worked *too* precisely at times, or that’s how it felt. Of course the wife’s trying to break the record for treading water–that’s the perfect ha-ha appropriate activity, you know? The stuff I ended up feeling deepest was the less overtly satirical stuff–a woman talking dirty at a taco stand’s drive through, for instance.

This is pretty arcane, emotional, often subconscious stuff where chatting here, and the answer won’t be clean: It will be a big tangle of all these things. Yes, a change away from writing about bars, yes, blowing up a comfort zone, yes, learning to live sober, and, yes, I also agree with you that there must have been a reason “why satire.” I just don’t know what it is—or I didn’t know until sitting down to answer this question—and I feel like I’m wrapping my head around why I went this way.

Those bar books took a lot out of me. I was mining some incredibly personal stuff, working through years of chaos and terrible decisions. Especially “Damascus,” the culminating piece in the cycle: that one left me almost dead. Working through my dad dying so young—working through all the different faces of my seeming love for self destruction, when I finished that story I felt like I’d mined that material so thoroughly that there wasn’t anything much else to say.

I’m a voracious reader and (subconsciously) I probably started making some mental lists about where I’d like to go next. Barthelme is someone whose work I go back to fairly often. And also film influenced “Fight Song,” specifically “Being John Malcovich.” I wanted to do something more in those veins—the Barthelme veins, the Kaufman veins, and sure, the Wallace and Saunders veins.

So those influences led me to black comedy. In the book, somebody is building a bestiality video game to get fired. Someone runs an intercom-phone sex operation through a fast food drive through. These sorts of prurient gags run throughout all my books. I’m pretty childish. The difference with “Fight Song” as opposed to the bar trilogy is that the main character isn’t overtly hurting himself or the people who love him. In my other novels, that’s one of the dominant motifs: people who say they love one another are doing horrible things. Why do we do that?  What’s that error in human programming?  The first books were all direct investigations. I really wanted an answer to that question, which I never got. So I twisted the prism a bit and peered through it again.

I’m really thankful that you’ve sort of cornered me about these things because I’m thinking about these issues for the first time. “Fight Song” still has that core of people not doing their best, not being as nice as they should to people who care about them, but it’s more of a passive violence. There’s no physical abuse or substance abuse or pedophilia (unless you count what happens to that poor dog in the video game) in “Fight Song.”   But there are examples of people passively not living up to being the best partner/parent/friend. There are other ways to be cruel or malicious that never make us bleed.

One of the reviews of my novel “Termite Parade” said that I wrote like “John Milton living in a garbage dump.” I think that still sums up my writing. We’re still sifting through people’s trash. But the refuse in “Fight Song” is from Whole Foods.

And maybe Weston, to come full circle, maybe the book isn’t really satire. I might be totally wrong, and this is why doctors don’t self-diagnose. Maybe it’s merely an allegory, in the tradition of Milton, specifically in “The Divine Comedy”: in “Fight Song” we meet Bob Coffen in his own suburban hell and he journeys to break out of his self-imposed incarcerations. Hopefully, by the end he finds his remix of paradise.

Rise in the Fall by Ana Božičević

by Carrie Lorig

Screen shot 2013-02-24 at 6.29.03 PMRise in the Fall
by Ana Božičević
Images by Bianca Stone
Birds, LLC, March 2013
80 pages / $18  Buy from Birds, LLC







Mary (Feng Sun Chen) and I are sitting in a bar on Friday afternoon. We are simple about asking. We are asking: What the fuck is a sad poem? What the fuck is a joyful poem? Bettye LaVette is pushing into the air a version of “I’m Not the One” that I like better than the original by The Black Keys. Soot everywhere. “You think that I’m normal. / All these years / I’m just trying to warn you.”

I go home and look the song up and find out Lavette is quoted. “I don’t know what’s he’s [Dan Auerbach’s] saying, but I’m saying don’t fuck with me.”

Sometimes a book of poems finds you, and you type out an email to your friend describing it as, “Now I have found the Winter of my Disco Tent.” Ana Bozicevic’s book, RISE IN THE FALL, pulls at how a woman might be when she has difficult and exhausting and hard things to write about. It pulls out at how she is a speaking, loving thing who must demand from us and and rub against us, despite the fact that she knows we still might miss it, that we might not hear her. (We’re not great listeners.) Also, the book knows that can still be fun. Also, the book knows that she can die and come back and die and come back shooting out breath she made powerful herself.

The point is, it’s words, and so’s
death. Even in that silence
there’s bird calls or meteors or something hurtling
through space: there’s matter and light. I’ve seen it
through the theater of the trees and it was beautiful

It cut my eyes and I didn’t even care.
-Death, Is All

The speaker of the book, the I, the queer she, is full of energy and sex and wit. She says alongside LaVette, “Don’t fuck with me.” She knows that never ending longing is never beginning to give in to what tells you to contain yourself, to get a hold of yourself, to get a masters on your complicated feelings.

Let’s drag our robes back to one of the questions: What is a joyful poem? What if your body is not a body that can experience joy unadulterated by politics, by war, by racism, by misogyny. What if you don’t have a choice, the luxury?

“The inside of a rainbow
is brittle. A kind of waiting room made
out of marzipan
& an air of exclusivity.”
-Paris Pride Parade

RISE IN THE FALL reminds us that happiness is not always a decision. The title of the book itself comes from a sentence that casually heaves in the experience of powerlessness right at its tail, unsettling the eager readiness of its initial impulses. “We’ll rise up/ next fall, when they can no longer deport me” (Rise in the Fall). Happiness can depend heavily on what access codes you have. Or rather, why is the best joy joy is capable of often described as pure? Why can’t there be some kill in our joy? Some complexity in place of purity? In a poem that parodies/odes to (This is possible. This can be both at once.) both the New York School and Frank O’Hara’s poem, “The Day Lady Died”, Bozicevic’s I unleashes in a fury and in a frenzy,

“But you,
you don’t want to hear that part, you just want me to keep having sex
among the politics.Fuck you: all I want to write about is
bumblebees, bumblebees.New York School is because
you have to name things in New York.
Otherwise, too much exists.”
-The Day Lady Gaga Died

When my students read Juliana Spahr’s Well Then There Now, a book dedicated to digging into the decidedly fucked up power of being able to name things like University buildings and streets in Hawaii (and uh, everywhere else.) after dead, upper class white men over and over and over until no one can never ever forget them or their important conquering of lawns, they were mad some of the poems in the book got poisoned by a computer translator machine. (The poems are translated back and forth between French and English several times.) “THESE ARE NOT HERS,” they cried.

“What if she was actively trying to not own the poems?” I asked them. “If she owns 51% of the poem, is that enough to “give” her the power to name the poem? To put her name on top of the poem?” I asked them. “What if she wanted to be part of something bigger than herself? Is that possible?” I asked them. One of my favorite students was clearly thinking about it with an expression on his face I would have to call, “pained.”

What is a sad poem? I’m probably putting my answers in the wrong place. I’m probably not even trying to make an answer. Because I want to answer by saying radiation storms off RISE IN THE FALL’s poems. I want to answer by saying that the Winter of my Disco Tent stick its head out of the car and loudly reads lines like, “And I / am crying, crying, crying, crying, crying. / Like I’d come to the end of / some cruise on which crying was not allowed” (Controlling the Weather) into traffic. I want to say it is the darker parts of the book that make my sparking cells feel like building log horses everywhere. A poem can be described as _____ or ______, but who knows what it causes.

RISE IN THE FALL asks a question I’ve been thinking about for most of February, “What is the difference between loving something and being loving?” I think, at times, the difference might be huge in a way that frightens me, and that we might be underestimating how these political forces (war, racism, misogyny) are keeping this gap open, even on the smallest levels of what happens between you and I. “my little girlfriend Mojca and I said to each other/ we were raping each other, because/ we didn’t know a different word” (Poem). I think we know how to be in love with people and things, how to want them, to want what we see of ourselves in other people and things. “I’m so fucking tired of the sound of “sexy”/ of me being sexy, muse-body” (War on a Lunchbreak). To be loving though, is to give something, to transfer something over for absorption. Being loving is considerably more dangerous, more of a risk, and I understand it less, though I know I desire it more.

“the world gave itself to you
but you didn’t give
you, grasshopper, back: ah so. This is suffering. Is it also a kind of gift?”
After the rapture, amid the lions and the limns
you’ll see me and know that
me being into you
was me being into the world. Are you as into the world
as the world is into you? No, I’m not being weird.
What I’m saying is, there is a sustainable energy.
-”The Mystery of Seagulls”

“No, I’m not being weird.” Bozicevic denies the reader a way out. There is no room for dismissing her. You face yourself and the way you language your touching of others. However, even if this means deeply engaging in lack, or death, or pain, or sadness, or what is tiresome and exhausting, “there is a sustainable energy.” There is something alive, a new green gathering of “Bitch heart rain,” (We’re the Aliens We’ve Been Waiting For) in every way we give into try.

Some of Bianca Stone’s illustrations:




(Thanks to Amelia and James for letting me use their hands.)


Carrie Lorig is a poet living in Minneapolis, MN.

Quick Thoughts on the Penguin Random House Merger

by Adam Robinson


Hi, this post was in my drafts. For some reason I was too shy to post it. So it’s old news as of like February 20. So sue me.

Naturally Dennis Johnson has some dreadful things to say about the Penguin Random House merger, calling it “one of the most important publishing and cultural stories of our lifetime.” He points to the lack of coverage in the news as a big downplay, and the scandalous lack of government oversight as something that’s hard not to see as a conspiracy.

The first page of André Schiffrin’s The Business of Books discusses how, when Random House acquired AA Knopf in 1960, the DOJ started looking into the merger—until they realized that the combined companies would be worth only $15 million. Why’d they take an interest? Because it was front page news, which isn’t the case anymore (though the combined value of Penguin Random is $3 billion). Why is this Times article, about the US regulator’s approval of the merger, so short?

Johnson speculates that Penguin Random House will be putting out 50% of the literary fiction that makes it into bookstores. I’m like, “What are bookstores?” He also notes that the merger has shut down Penguin’s case against Amazon with that whole Agency Pricing thing for eBooks (which is an important but confusing subject—in a nutshell, Penguin and MacMillan were the last holdouts in a DOJ antitrust suit against the Big Six publishers and Apple for colluding to set prices on their ebooks, as a line of defense against Amazon).

There’s a lot to wring your hands over. But here’s an old (Nov 2012) NYTimes article by Adam Davidson that compares book publishing to the route of the envelope business—more mergers and consolidations. There were still be publishers, just like there are envelopes, but they will be produced by subsidiaries of larger companies that do other things. The crux:

it’s difficult to imagine how, in the digital world, publishers could ever monopolize the sale of written material. Even if there were only one house left, it would compete with every blogger and self-published e-book author. Eventually, it’s likely that book publishing will embody both conflicting visions of digital-age commerce — lots of small businesses and a few massive ones that handle big-ticket items.

That phrase “big-ticket items” reminds me of the way the music industry has reshaped itself around indie bands (you need Ticketmaster to see the Stones but just pay at the door at the cool bar down the street). In response, people who (try to) run small presses (try to) emulate indie rock’s business models somehow, or at least like to wonder why small press books can’t be as successful. Which, like, whatever.

I haven’t been worried about this, or even about the ways Amazon is reshaping publishing, because these huge shifts are nothing if not historical, and life goes on kinda okay maybe. But I’m feeling more and more like this is naïve. What are books, after all, if not one of the last best places that our ideas come from and go into? Oughtn’t we be concerned about who controls that, especially if 1) they only care about the bottom line, and 2) they aren’t even mothafuckin’ publishing companies?