12/12/20: Ensconced in MacDowell

It is such a pleasure to be back at MacDowell after a 5-year hiatus. The walks, the turkey and deer, the staff, the other residents (after a 10-day test/lockdown), and of course, some time to write and think and breathe after a never-ending semester. Thinking good thoughts about the world and about the novel-beast!

10/23/19: The Transformation of Versal

Many of you know that I was the fiction editor, and later the co-editor, of the Amsterdam-based literary journal Versal from 2005 to 2017. It was a super, and meaningful run. I left this position, one I dearly loved, only because of the exigencies of a tenure-track position, coupled with Versal‘s re-centering in Amsterdam (along with the live series Verso). So I’ve been waiting to see what Versal would become. I’m happy to say that Versal is transforming from literary journal to press, with their first book coming through an inaugural contest. This is a great step, and I can’t wait to see what manuscript they select.

Info on the transformation: https://www.versaljournal.org/news/2019/title

Info on the book contest: https://www.versaljournal.org/call-for-work

9/2/19: Saltonstall Residency Week!

Saltonstall is beautiful. I’m here for a two-week residency. What to say? It is gorgeous here, in late summer, with all kinds of wildflowers, out in the countryside, 8 miles from the utterly charming Ithaca. Deer, chipmunks, mostly deer. I learned that wasps can have underground nests. I love my studio, which looks out onto a meadow, south-facing, the clouds rolling languorously by. It’s an intimate residency, with 3 artists and 2 writers. Each morning, I walk, check out the abandoned barns and fenced-in gardens, make coffee.

As for writing: I’m finishing off the longest chapter in the book, Countermapping, and cross-referencing that to another chapter, while trying to create various maps and research Missouri gun laws and Voltron. A typically eclectic me writing week!

I have four amazing talented companion residents: here are their names and web sites:

8/6/19: On Toni Morrison

I was lucky enough to see Toni Morrison speak in Amsterdam, some 10 or 15 years ago. I hope that she did not suffer. There will be no new books or lectures from such a talented and powerful writer, talented and powerful person, and that is a sadness for us all.

I have Professor Abdul JanMohamed to thank for introducing me, in 1988, to Toni Morrison’s novels, to their beauty and sadness and joy and complexity, particularly The Bluest Eye and Beloved (which won the Pulitzer that year). From my earliest days writing, I wanted to tell emotionally powerful stories in different ways, using unusual structures and languages. I have Toni Morrison’s radical forms and lyric sensibilities to thank for this: the ways in which Manichean allegories (one of Professor JanMohamed’s fields of study) inflect Morrison’s work, the ways in which the ghost story and the stories of American slavery are entwined.

So thank you, Toni Morrison, for everything that you are. You have had a huge impact on me, and I can only hope to pay your influence forwards in meaningful ways.

7/12/19: Chautauqua Institution

Fortuitous last-minute opportunities: I’m excited to be reading/teaching/crafting next week at the Chautauqua Institution‘s Literary Arts Program. I’ve always loved their programming, their commitment to writing and justice. Looking forward to spending some time with Atom Atkinson and chatting about the tyranny of linear time! It’s also curious to be self-reflective about my own processes, how to think, in particular, about revision in creative ways. I wish the binary opposition between creation and revision didn’t exist!

4/17/19: George Saunders, Kleinhans Auditorium, Buffalo

I was expecting – hoping for – some kind of multi-vocal reading of Lincoln in the Bardo from George Saunders. After all, the audiobook has like 5 trillion different voices. Instead, he spoke about the relationship of writing to life, to compassion. Some of the processes of fiction writing, he suggests, revolve around the writer’s ability to inhabit one’s characters. No, not inhabit: that’s too unidirectional. He doesn’t call fiction, as many do, an empathy machine; he uses the word compassion. A compassion machine.

This, in itself, is not new. What seemed clear to me is that one’s ability to create successful compassion machines (in whatever medium) comes not strictly from the development of craft, but from a long-term investment in their creation. Saunders didn’t talk much about craft. Instead, he talked about a writerly commitment to an inhabitation of otherness, however limited, defined loosely as anything outside one’s own consciousness. The 10,000,000 hours, then, are spent not simply on writing, but on inhabitation, which, through practice, loosens the dangerous racial/gendered/classed/abled imaginaries.

Question: how can we teach empathy specifically in a creative writing class?

  • Classroom dynamics – workshop, communication, and critique models
  • Adichie’s “The Single Story” – which stories get told, and how
  • Craft strategies – collective narration, 2nd person?

There’s a conference panel here somewhere – not simply about how to teach empathy in a creative writing classroom, but also how to work with the limits and misuses of empathy. Thoughts?

2/5/18: “The Last Remembered Intersection” in the Los Angeles Review, out now!

I’m so pleased that the Los Angeles Review has published “The Last Remembered Intersection” While TLRI functions as a standalone story, it really comes from the novel, which brings up really odd challenges about how to write both for a novel and for a discrete story entity. The exigencies of academia, which require regular publishing, must weigh heavily on such aesthetic decisions, and I wonder how many academics write novels that could be considered tightly coupled stories, not simply as a response to the demands of larger marketplaces, but as a response to the professional need to publish small projects while concurrently working on (and publishing) big projects. Thoughts?

Encore: Against Simplicity as a Paradigm

re: Matthew Zapruder’s oversimplistic championing of democratic, simple poetry, and Johannes Göransson’s smart and urgent take down: what seems to be at stake is not simply Zapruder’s incredibly reductive view of language and poetics and what constitutes a quality poem. It’s so much more. It’s not even the reduction of pleasures that we can gain from such a blinkered version of poetry. It’s his terrible assumption that we, regardless of background, are not all capable and often incredibly facile with and sometimes delighting in the unraveling of complex sentences, thoughts, words. As if only smart, or academically trained people are capable of working with Gertrude Stein. It’s the way in which his dumb-down approach, in perhaps an attempt to make poetry more accessible (of course it already is accessible, precisely because it models our human capability of letting language taking multiple and divergent forms) puts anything deemed as “difficult” under the bus of pretentiousness and academic elitism. It tells people not to think hard, only to consume poems written in simple language, not to try to piece things together in ways that are wired differently from “plain speech”, and it tells people not to spend time on poetics that ask for your attention, that ask you to, as Apple says, think differently.

This is, I’m afraid, one of the primary reasons we got to this point in the first place: our anti-intellectual climate, and a failing set of educational systems which are not teaching people how to think critically. In the end, Zapruder’s argument employs a super-pernicious binary. The deployment of an “easy to read” vs “hard to read” (and who gets to decide, anyway?) opposition sets out anyone who writes things differently as an enemy of the people: either we think ourselves above the people, or we engage in the same kinds of obfuscating tactics that have so radically devalued any version of truth. Quite frankly, this binary, and the prioritizing of the simple version of poetry, lets people off the hook. It tells them that they shouldn’t bother honing the precise skills that might help end this dumbed-down regime

There is indeed a problem with the New Criticism model that Zapruder critiques – there are terrible issues with a pedagogy wrapped around unlocking the poem, of finding the single meaning, of mastery. And it’s true that many teachers still employ New Critical methods – but many don’t. The solution, here, is to create new pedagogical models, not to limit the definition of poetics to simple words, correct syntax, digestible meaning.

Links to Zapruder’s original article and to Göransson’s response: