Monday, August 30, 2010

Some Words I Might've Said

Hey there, friends! I'm official Rutgers MFA propaganda. Click here to go to the Rutgers-Newark MFA blog and read the interview.

That's more or less why I made the decision I did. Enjoy!

After the Storm

Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast and claimed about 1,800 lives. President Obama has astutely pointed out that the disaster was both natural (a storm, duh) and man-made (a combination of poor planning and even poorer engineering). The BBC--my usual news source, I know--has done a pleasant write up of this anniversary.

But it's important to remember that this isn't only a natural or a political disaster; it's a conflict that tears at human life, that generates a tempest of emotions and troubles, and it's this element that makes the remembrance worthwhile. Although we mourn those who are lost and the districts of New Orleans that suffered, we celebrate because, out of the driftwood and wreckage, an existence gets hammered together. But it's also an opportunity for us to delve into the soul of America and see exactly how this country relates to itself.

So how do we keep those sentiments relevant while performing this investigation? You guessed it--literature.

Unfortunately, the body of Hurricane Katrina fiction (and I hate that I'm actually posting this link) is meager, and admittedly, I've read almost none of it--perhaps because the Hurricane Katrina stories don't get the hype that the burgeoning genre of the 9/11 novel gets. 9/11 appears to have been the seminal event of the current generation--America brought to its knees and its hegemony threatened--but Hurricane Katrina actually offers a more poignant portal into American self-discoveries. Instead of just the crashing of the American dream, Hurricane Katrina provides an opportunity to explore how the gears of our society grate against one another and if it's possible to make this great machine move forward again on a personal as opposed to a nationalist level.

The worst of the Katrina novels would be like the worst of the 9/11 novels: focusing only on stasis and inability to cope. But this isn't the reality, as some novelists (and here I have to praise my mentor, Porochista Khakpour, and her novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects), have cleverly observed: Regardless of the extent of catastrophe, life continues, one step at a time. And as Porochista's novel shows us, tragedy--large scale or not--is always personal, and it's an opportunity to recast notions of identity. Disaster is a porthole for discovery.

There's another thing a Katrina novel could do: explore the race relations in American urban centers. Most of the Katrina stuff I've read (most notably, Katie Ford's poetry collection Colosseum, which I suggest you pick up) studies how life is going to pick up again afterward the crisis. The past has been destroyed, now we rebuild.

Though Ford's collection gets the whole bit about tragedy being personal (her poems are somewhat confessional in that they conjure images from her own experiences in New Orleans during Katrina) this rebuilding idea remains far too facile. It's practically preemptive nostalgia. Perhaps soon we'll get a Katrina narrative that's focusing on the spirit of the Katrina recovery--but also on the spirit of America and the souls of those people who have lived through the crisis.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Little Women, Big Fanfic

First of all, I highly recommend that whenever you see bargain books, you skip on over to that aisle and make friends with all of the $5 hardcovers you can find. It's a better buy than the $5 movie bin.

A recent excursion to the bargain book section in the Altoona, PA Barnes & Noble opened me up to a gem that shows that fanfiction--a reader writing an independent extension or re-imagining of a work, in short--is actually a viable literary mode. The book: the 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner, Geraldine Brooks's March.

Granted: most fanfics are the product of obsessions with pop culture (think animé, Harry Potter, comic book characters, and fans re-shaping those worlds), and many fanfics are flaky or juvenile in writing style (or raunchy in terms of content, but that comes with the territory). But it's a genre that gets unnecessarily maligned, simply because people believe to be the antithesis of serious literature.

Geraldine Brooks spins a fanfic out of a plot hole in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women; she takes the mention that the girls' father, Chaplain March, has embarked on the Civil War with Union soldiers. The novel follows March from a moment early in his tour of duty to the injury and illness that call his wife from Concord to his bedside in Washington, D.C. From here, Brooks investigates the moral complexities and ambiguities of war, and by filling this gap in the narrative, Brooks's fanfic adventures into the silences of Alcott's classic children's tale.

Fanfic or not, though, Brooks crafts an elegant novel that is literary in tone and voice yet remains "canon" (not "canon" in the sense of "literary canon"; I mean "canon" in the fanfic sense, that her story fits the author's original narrative). And the book isn't pastiche, either; Brooks isn't simply sliding into Alcott's voice and writing a blasé authorized sequel. It's a novel that delves into March's unspoken tour of duty, into the darkness of war, into the vileness of human prejudices, and into the philosophical bargaining that accounts for our personal philosophies.

If you're a fan of Little Women, I encourage you to look into Geraldine Brooks's March. It's evidence that fanfics are more than just creative speculations; fanfiction is a viable genre waiting for exploration.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: "Author's Prayer," by Ilya Kaminsky

"Author's Prayer," from Dancing in Odessa, by Ilya Kaminsky

If I speak for the dead, I must leave
this animal of my body,

I must write the same poem over and over,
for an empty page is the white flag of their surrender.

If I speak for them, I must walk on edge
of myself, I must live as a blind man

who runs through rooms without
touching the furniture.

Yes, I live. I can cross the streets asking "What ear is it?"
I can dance in my sleep and laugh

in front of the mirror.
Even sleep is a prayer, Lord,

I will praise your madness, and
in a language not mine, speak

of music that wakes us, music
in which we move. For whatever I say

is a kind of petition, and the darkest
days must I praise.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Ghost in the Story

Recently, I've been [attempting] to work on writing short fiction again, so I've delved into the usual suspects--The Best American Short Stories, the O. Henry Prize Stories, and all of those intimidating and over-sized fiction anthologies (The Art of the Tale, the Norton anthology, et cetera).

Of course, this is no way to decide what a short story is--there are far too many modes, voices, and styles to be so reductive about encountering any literary form. But it can be a decent way of seeing how other writers work within the confines of the form. The short story, by its very nature, is like the Campbell's condensed soup version of fiction. It takes all the stuff, packs them into one narrative can, and then lets the reader's imagination do the rest (easy as just add water!).

In my recent investigations, though, I've noticed an alarming trend in a number of the "best" short stories of recent years. Simply, it's as if the innards of the story aren't actually present. There's exposition--so we get facts, certainly, and we're just told what has happened--but it's as if the short story has gone intangible on us.

I started to get this feeling when I was reading Daniel Alarcón's "The Idiot President" in the 2009 Best American. Alarcón tells us the story of an actor's two-month tour with a theatre company, and--despite the information ("pop reworkings of García Lorca, stentorian readings of Brazilian soap-opera scripts, always with a political edge")--there seems to be hardly anything there at all. It's simply encyclopedic, a listing of what they've done. Where are the details?

What we don't get--even from Alarcón's first person narrator--is a hint as to what this environment is. So we're in "the anxious years of the war, when [the theatre group] was known for its brazen trips into the conflict zone, bringing theater to the people, and, in the city, for staging all-night marathon shows." But the words are haunted by the fact that there ought to be something visible and physical behind it. The words are acting like the plyboard blocking off a construction site. Alarcón is trying to build something, but he won't let us see it.

This is the trend I've noticed in recent short stories: There's a temptation to pass off information for detail, which betrays what the short story does best. That is, taking a moment and making it visceral and personal. Perhaps this is why other genres--the novel, the movie, the graphic novel/comic book--continue to get more public attention than the short story. Those other forms understand that human experience isn't simply a recounting of lists. There has to be something to interact with, not necessarily something visual but at the very least sensory.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Once upon a Time, There Was a Ralph Lauren [stereotype-laden] Fairy Tale...

Well, Ralph Lauren has decided that apparently there's something to all the hype about children's lit. After all, their most recent children's catalogue is an interactive Flash video modeled after a storybook.

Harry Connick, Jr. narrates The RL Gang: A Fantastically Amazing School Adventure, which puts stylish kids in Ralph Lauren designs against backdrops that appear as either paper cutouts or chalk drawings. And if one listens to the stories, they're...well, hardly fantastic.

Willow, the first child shown in the video, represents the extreme of this back-to-school fantasy; she resembles a modern day Robin Hood with her hat--a style that, no doubt, is not about to earn her any props on the playground. (It may, however, clinch her the lead in the elementary school's production of Peter Pan!) The other children in the video become less stylized and seem poised to sell Ralph Lauren's brand of cultural and ethnic identities to school children.

Clothes--yes, they certainly can be exciting, especially for fashionistas and those who enjoy a nice, new sweater. But these kids are being dressed up like their 20-something equivalents. There's Jasper, whose polo shirt, baseball mitt, and wavy blonde hair make him look like he's about to go recruiting for TKE. (Thank your lucky stars that his collar *isn't* popped.) Then Mae, the Asian girl, who wears a sweater over a collared shirt; it's as if the RL ad department has already relegated her to a life of crunching numbers and whipping out laptops or TI-83s whenever a problem appears. The worst of the lot, though, is Zoe, an African American girl with large, frizzed hair forced under a knit cap; her hair sags down around the sides of her face like Snoopy ears, and she's dressed in a flannel shirt under what appears to be a black, pleather bomber's jacket.

Ralph Lauren is dolling kids up as stereotypes before they're even old enough to understand what they're lampooning. But--if that weren't enough--you can click on each child's image and open their closet, which can help parents foist these fashions (er, stereotypes) on their kids. Or, just buy the hardcover book!

All this from the world's "first shoppable storybook," a narrative catalogue in stereotypes. Respond as you will.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: "Of Nicolette," by e.e. cummings

I've been gone from this far too long...but I'm finally "settled" (mostly) into Newark, and I've got the books all shelved and made plenty of places for my cat to hide and scurry! Upcoming posts--which will happen, I promise--include a glance at the American short story and whatever else happens that I find of interest.

But let's ease things back in with a bit of Wednesday Poetry...

"Of Nicolette," by e.e. cummings

dreaming in marble all the castle lay
like some gigantic ghost-flower born of night
blossoming in white towers to the moon,
soft sighed the passionate darkness to the tune
of tiny troubadours, and (phantom-white)
dumb-blooming boughs let fall their glorious snows,
and the unearthly sweetness of a rose
swam upward from the troubled heart of May;

a Winged Passion woke and one by one
there fell upon the night, like angel's tears,
the syllables of that mysterious prayer,
and as an opening lily drowsy-fair
(when from her couch of poppy petals peers
the sleepy morning) gently draws apart
her curtains, and lays bare her trembling heart
with beads of dew made jewels by the sun,

so one high shining tower (which as a glass
turned light to flame and blazed with snowy fire)
unfolding, gave the moon a nymphlike face,
a form whose snowy symmetry of grace
haunted the limbs as music haunts the lyre,
a creature of white hands, who letting fall
a thread of lustre from the castle wall
glided, a drop of radiance, to the grass--

shunning the sudden moonbeam's treacherous snare
she sought the harbouring dark, and (catching up
her delicate silk) all white, with shining feet,
went forth into the dew: right wildly beat
her heart at every kiss of daisy-cup,
and from her cheek the beauteous colour went
with every bough that reverently bent
to touch the yellow wonder of her hair.