Being A Writer
As my longtime readers now, I think Def Poetry is well worth watching, not to mention worth reviewing. It's the only television series featuring original poetry on any major TV outlet, period. The show isn't perfect, and can sometimes drag down into predictable spoken-word ruts. But there are always at least a couple of memorable performances during each half hour show, and you never know who'll show up to read a poem. Past performers have included Sharon Olds, Alicia Keys, Shappy from the Bowery Poetry Club and the TV debut, long before "Golddigger", of Kanye West.
I got a chance to meet Def Poetry mastermind Danny Simmons at a Brooklyn book festival this summer, and he was nice enough to invite me to a taping for one of this season's shows. I think I'll get in touch and see if I can interview him on LitKicks sometime soon.
I need some new literary hiphop thrills, because neither the new Jay-Z or the new Nas is pleasing me very much. But at least there's the White Rapper Show, in my opinion the best and funniest new reality show we've had in years. Literary? Hell, yeah -- the key challenge in the show involves composing spontaneous verse and reciting it from memory, usually based on a topic chosen by the show's host, MC Serch of 3rd Bass. If you've ever tried this, you know it's harder than it looks.
The inability to flow tripped up the show's best contestant, Persia of Far Rockaway, Queens, in this week's episode. She looked like a favorite to win the whole thing, and Serch clearly liked her best (I did too). But when it came time to stand and rhyme without paper, she couldn't do it. This is extra ironic because Persia's nemesis is Jon Brown, the dopey-looking "king of the burbs", who can't write anywhere near as well as Persia. But when it's time to flow he turns into Busta Rhymes, and that's why he's still on the show and Persia is gone.
Why is it so important to be able to rap or recite from memory? Well, that's the wrong question, because when you're flowing you're not going from memory at all. The purest freestyle comes when you feel comfortable enough to actually compose new verses in real time. If you can't hit that zone, reciting from memory is second best. But to "flow" is to be in a state of grace, as every rapper knows, as Jack Kerouac and James Joyce knew too.
Maybe this is why the Beastie Boys -- those other white rappers extraordinaire -- used to open every concert with this chant:
Let it flow
Let yourself go
Slow and low
That is the tempo
Earlier this week I was writing to a friend about a story I was working on and I said "My problem is actually having something happen in the story. I thought I had all my pieces lined up, but it turns out that I have no plan of attack. Perhaps this goes back to me being a horrible chess player, I don't know." (It all ends happily; I figured out what was supposed to happen and finished writing. I don't like the story much, but then, I can't have everything, I suppose.)
Anyway, I kept thinking about my lack of chess skills and the way I write. The reason I'm not so good at chess is that I don't think ahead. When I start, I have some vague idea of how I'm going to do things, but I tend to forget these things when I'm caught up in the game, until suddenly I'm looking at the board thinking "Oh, bloody hell. Checkmate." With writing, my method seems to be rather similar: I get an idea, I have a general idea of how things should go, I get too interested in the periphery (like whether something should be two sentences or if I should just go for the semicolon), and then suddenly I'm stuck with an irrevocable mess. The difference between writing and chess is, of course, that with writing I can always go back and fix things until they work, yet I think it's a fair parallel.
It could be dangerous to say so, considering how bad I am at it, but I think chess is a writer's game. (Along with poker, of course.) Strategic, deliberate, and novelistic in scope (each game is its own story), there's something inherently writer-like about it. Many writers have used chess in their work, from T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" (there's a whole section of the poem called "A Game of Chess") to Samuel Beckett, who was a fan of the game (makes sense then that one of his plays is named Endgame). Though all writers go about their craft differently (which we covered last week), I think there's something to be said for knowing where you want things to go and winding up in that exact spot. In the end, I guess writing is a lot like a game of chess, moving the words and ideas (and perhaps semicolons) around until you reach the end and there's nowhere else to go.
When you write, do you control the direction of things? Or do you follow the path that seems to be laid out for you by your writing? Do you lead it or does it lead you? And, of course, do you play chess?
Or maybe it's a daily practice. Sitting down at a computer or typewriter or at a table with a stack of paper and a cup full of sharpened pencils. Carving the words out of the raw blocks of space into something recognizable and -- you hope -- real.
Perhaps it's a series of stolen secret moments, notes hastily scribbled on desk calendars, scraps of paper, napkins, matchbooks, the back of your hand. The images and lines come at the strangest times, and you've learned from experience that you'd better write them down when they show up, because it's no good, trusting your memory to keep them for you to write when it's convenient.
Could be it's like this, or maybe it's entirely different, but each of us go about writing in our own ways. How do you do it? Longhand or typed? Late at night or early in the morning (or whenever you have time)? Do you write every day or just when the mood or need strikes you? Do you have any rituals for writing? Lucky writing shirt (or pants or socks or whatever) or do you write naked? Do you know what you're going to write before you start or do you start writing and hope your ideas catch up with you? Do you try your best to get everything down in one go or do you write in fits and stops? Do you edit when you're done or as you go along (or not at all)?
We talk a lot about books and what's going on with literature, and we talk some about different aspects of being a writer. But being a writer happens differently for each of us. How do you create? What's your process?
Anyway, since I am clearly drowning in review copies, here are just a few rules for anybody who is thinking of sending me something:
1) No audio CD's please. I don't review audio CD's. This place is about books.
2) Please send only one of your books. Not two. Not fourteen. How should you decide which to send? Send the best one. Doesn't take a genius.
3) I am happy to review either self-published, small press or large publisher titles. But it must be published. Please do not send me a stack of 8.5 x 11 paper, because I will not review it.
4) Please include the URL where readers can buy the book, so I can include it in the review. If you don't have the book for sale online, that can only mean you're not serious about trying to sell it, in which case I'd rather not review it.
5) No, I don't read every word of every book I review here. I have a day job, you know. I read the ones I like best, and I take a long hard look at the rest.
With that said, let's take it away with this month's batch.
1. Street Love by Walter Dean Myers
Jersey City poet and young-adult author Walter Dean Myers has a smooth, colorful style, and Street Love presents an appealing verse-dialogue collage of urban characters dealing with hard issues. The characters have names like Junice and Sledge and Damien, and the poems have titles like Junice and Damien, Kevin and Damien, Junice in the Supermarket and Junice with Damien and Melissa on the Bus to Memphis. At its best, this is hip-hop poetry, stirring and direct:
I have to open my sister's mouth
And fill it with thoughts as hard
As stones she can practice her lines
She needs to speek clearly
As she lies
"Melissa" I will say
"Miss Ruby will run the house
She'll make fried chicken and okra
Hamburger and broccoli
And when her mental hat flies
Off down some weird and wondrous
Street she will not chase it
Will not ramble as she talks
Or twist fragments of the past
Into a hopeless stew of
It's not always that good, and the street-chic imagery is occasionally overbaked -- but then, it is being marketed as a young adult book. I think this ultimately romantic book of story poems could make a great Valentine's day present for a grown-up too.
2. The Cat's Got Nothing On Me: How I Lived More Than Nine Lives by Conrad Boilard (as told to Sam Costello).
Truly, the cat has nothing on this spirited old codger, who is remembered by a delightful self-published book (and a classy website). Conrad Boilard served in the Army Air Force during World War II, raised a loving family back home, and battled lymphoma and other diseases as an older man. He has a great attitude, and this book truly serves to contain the spirit of a likable man. What better reason is there for a book to exist?
3. A Day of Small Beginnings by Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum
A Day of Small Beginnings takes place in a Jewish shtetl in 1905, where the spirit of a recently dead elderly woman is suddenly called up from the grave to help a young teenager in a horrible situation. This novel is very much in the tradition of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and the gorgeous cover art evokes Marc Chagall, a la Fiddler on the Roof. I admire the craftwork, but I can't get past the I. B. Singer/Sholom Aleichem connection. I've got at least two Singer books on my next-to-read pile, and how can I be convinced that a modern-day homage will provide me something the original won't? If you've already been through the old masters, though, you will probably enjoy this book.
4. City Woman by Linda Lerner
Linda Lerner, who I've seen and heard at many New York/East Village poetry readings, writes intense neo-Beat poetry with a driving urban vibe. Here, she confronts a hobo in front of a White Castle:
Damn you! your silence is asking too much ...
If I could make someone
rise up from his ashes
unmyth the phoenix
If I could do it & believe it is happening
I could give you the things that
hurt too much for words ...
Linda Lerner is an expert poet, and this is one of her better books.
5. You Are A Little Bit Happier Than I am by Tao Lin
What more can I say about Tao Lin, who I've written about before? There is only one word to describe his style, and it's French: faux-naif. He pulls it off very well, and sometimes he's very funny:
I'd like to see a movie and kill someone
I need to check my email then kill myself
I know that good news will arrive only by email
I'd like to see a movie with you then go home and check my email
can we kill someone in a supermarket
That's my kind of poetry.
6. Nam Au Go Go by John Akins
Okay, well, John Akins broke my second rule; he sent me two books. One is Nam Au Go Go, a raw prose account of his years as a Marine in Vietnam. The other is On The Way To Khe Sanh, which revisits the same territory in blank verse.
I like the way the two formats work together, the poems much more sardonic than the prose, which often takes off into tough-guy storytelling:
As I kneel filling the first canteen, a whoosh thuds into the bank just to my left. It's a dude, enemy, 92 mm mortar round. The barrage erupts up the slope and the 82 mortar rounds and 152 artillery roundswalk along our position. I light up in terror. Do I stay put or run for my hole?
Between the verse and the prose, a disturbing undertone of anger and anomie animates the author's true-life tale, which rings with poignant truth.
No, you didn't hear that, because the music industry isn't dumb enough to sabotage their profits by making audiences wait a year to buy new releases (that's right, even the music industry isn't that dumb). The book publishing industry, on the other hand, is that dumb.
I wrote last year in these pages that two-tier book pricing has got to go. Many people agreed with me that the common practice of publishing new books in expensive hardcover editions for the first year is archaic and elitist as well as an obvious buzz-kill for curious potential readers. But some people close to the industry explained to me why we are stuck with two-tier pricing despite the system's obvious flaws: publishers are addicted to the sugar rush of automatic library and book club sales, and they won't sacrifice the hardcover profit margin even if it means missing the chance to connect a great new book with an eager buying audience.
I think the "addiction theory" explains a lot, and I wonder if it's time for an intervention. For now, let me just state an obvious fact as simply as I can: $28 for a book is absolutely ridiculous. We live in an age where hit singles cost $.99 and new albums cost $9.99. Publishers wish that literary authors could be as popular as top bands, but they price their best talents out of that market.
I see it happen over and over: promising new writers who should be marketed directly to collegiate and alternative audiences are instead forced to cool their heels on the "rich people shelves" for a full year (the year in which the book might be getting great reviews and endorsements). By the time the paperback comes out, nobody remembers that it got great reviews. It really doesn't take a genius to see that this system doesn't work for either readers or writers, and it doesn't seem to work very well for publishers either.
Here's the good news: many publishers do get it, and we're seeing more and more literary paperback originals (like Scarlett Thomas's compelling The End of Mr. Y, which I am enjoying now). Some books are also being published in simultaneous hardcover/paperback arrangements (like Jason Shinder's Howl: The Poem that Changed America), a smart move that allows the best of both formats: sturdy premium editions for libraries and collectors and affordable editions for eager readers, both available at the same time. This is a solution that works.
But change isn't coming fast enough. Maybe it's the writers themselves who need to speak up and request affordable pricing (but this won't work for many of the first novelists who would most benefit from inexpensive books, because they are least likely to demand control over packaging and pricing). I hope more and more writers will speak up about this, and maybe some bloggers like me can make some noise about the issue and make a difference too.
I've always stood against the idea of literary criticism as a lofty or accredited profession. I like to think of critics and "regular readers" as similar animals in the literary ecosystem: we all talk about books we like and dislike, but some of us have bigger audiences than others. Going by this theory, since regular readers can and do spout opinions about books they haven't finished, I don't see why I should begrudge a writer for Newsweek the right to do the same -- as long as it's a good article, and as long as the writer tells the truth.
Also, Malcolm Jones is dead on when he pleads with writers like Vikram Chandra to stop punishing us with ridiculously lengthy books. I feel the exact same way about Sacred Games. 928 pages? Go away.
2. Valerie Trueblood, author of Seven Loves, is visiting the Litblog Co-op today.
3. I haven't made my way into a Carl Shuker novel yet, but this interview increases my motivation.
4. Here's Richard Nash of Soft Skull in a superb 3 a. m. Interview about the financial realities of indie publishing. A must-read if you run a small press or are thinking of running one.
5. George Plimpton has hit the web in high fashion with a hyperactive but undeniably impressively designed new website. I've always liked Plimpton, and my interest increased recently after I watched the 1968 film version of Paper Lion. I hope this website is an indication of much Plimpton-based activity to follow.
6. Bud Parr has a new blog, dedicated to social networking! One blog just isn't enough anymore.
A novelist named E. Howard Hunt died today. Of course, E. Howard Hunt won't go down in history as a novelist, despite the fact that Amazon lists six (6!) pages of spy thrillers and non-fiction books he wrote, like Maelstrom, a potboiler from 1948. Howard Hunt will be remembered because he, along with G. Gordon Liddy, planned and executed the break-in at the Watergate national democratic headquarters in 1972 that eventually brought down the Nixon Presidency.
E. Howard Hunt, a dapper but dour CIA agent, lived an interesting life. The fight against Communism was his obsession, and in this capacity he holds the remarkable distinction of being involved in not one but two (2) major failures of American politics, having also played a leadership role in the disastrous anti-Castro Cuban invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Looking back, it's fairly clear that he should have stuck to writing novels. But history had its way with him, and today we can only reflect on his death.
How were his novels? I've looked at his later ones but none caught my interest; I'd love to look at one of his earlier pulp-style novels but you can't even find a title with a cover image on ALibris's long list of his books. The earliest one appears to be called East of Farewell, published in 1942 -- if anybody out there has read any of these books, please share your observations by posting a comment below.
Only in the ancient Hindu sense of all-universe acceptance can I say that I think E. Howard Hunt was a good man. But he did America a big favor in the summer of 1972: he got caught. As anybody who's read All The President's Men knows, he and Liddy were across the street at the Howard Johnson hotel watching with binoculars as the police burst in on the spies, and one of the men arrested had E. Howard Hunt's name and phone number at the White House listed in the phone book in his pocket. Thus did a President fall.
Coincidentally, Howard Hunt died on a day when Watergate is on many people's minds. If you haven't been paying attention, Dick Cheney's former chief of staff Lewis Libby is on trial for obstruction of justice in a case related to the pre-war search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Libby's defense is pointing a finger at President Bush's close advisor Karl Rove, and it's all starting to remind me of those good old days of John Dean, Bob Haldeman and ... E. Howard Hunt.
Farewell to a hard-working American patriot and writer, E. Howard Hunt.
Since I have this attitude toward writing, it was with great interest that I read Zadie Smith's essay "Fail Better" that appeared recently in the Guardian. (Or chunks of it, rather, since it's pretty long and lost me in places.) Smith's essay touches on what it takes to make a writer great, and argues that beyond the skill at craftsmanship that good writing takes, it also requires the personal element of the writer's own truth to give it that necessary X-Factor needed to push something above the fray. I had problems with this notion right away; I'm not such a big fan of personal truth in writing (whatever that means, anyway), though I do believe in the importance of honesty. I think there's a big difference between the two things, though this might be an issue of my own definitions and my problem could just come down to a quibble over words. I guess what I mean is that truth, this thing that colors the writer's work, has become so watered down by our postmodern inability to believe in any absolutes, and therefore makes us all unimpeachable authorities on our personal experience. While I believe that there's room to be unimpeachable authorities on our personal experience, I hope that anything I create is bigger than my personal truth, as grand or mediocre as it may be, because once it's shared with other people I lose control over it anyway. Honesty, on the other hand, means that the creation is true, whether or not it has anything to do with the truth. This is, to my thinking, what fiction is all about -- making stuff up and being honest about it. Perhaps at this point, I should say that I've never been a fan of "write what you know" because I prefer to crawl into unfamiliar spaces and make them as real as I can.
Like I said, though, my argument with Smith's use of the word "truth" might just be a problem with the word itself and not so much with Smith's point, because sometimes I'm too argumentative to move beyond my own argumentativeness. Smith writes, "Style is a writer's way of telling the truth. Literary success or failure, by this measure, depends not only on the refinement of words on a page, but in the refinement of a consciousness, what Aristotle called the education of the emotions." Does honest writing, the kind that -- for lack of a better word -- rings true, really depend on some kind of an emotional intelligence? I'll have to think about it more, but I'm inclined to believe that it has more to do with a sharp observational skill and an intelligence of human behavior, personality of the writer be damned. But maybe these two things are really the same and I'm just tangled in semantics.
In any case, Smith gets to the famous essay by T.S. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (this was actually once the seed for an October Earth question). Eliot's much-argued point:
"The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all. And emotions which he has never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him. Consequently, we must believe that 'emotion recollected in tranquility' is an inexact formula . . . Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things."
Apparently, I'm inclined to agree with Eliot, which, despite my love of "Prufrock" kind of bothers me. It's not that I don't think that writers don't sneak themselves into their work, but I also believe that at some point, if there's any maturity to be had as an artist, it's important to move beyond ourselves into something broader. Otherwise, no matter how well we craft our sentences into paragraphs or our lines into stanzas, don't we just kind of remain stuck at that "angst-filled teenager scribbling in the margins" phase? It's an important phase; it gets many of us going, but it shouldn't be the end. At least I don't think so. Obviously. Because that's what I've been going on about for some time now.
Anyway, it's an interesting essay with all kinds of things to think about contained within, and it may be one of the only things I've ever really read by Zadie Smith. I do believe that writing is an approximation, but in the end, I think this has more to do with the shortcomings of language and our inability to manipulate it fully than it does with not being able to get to the truth. But then, maybe that's why I'm not writing any novels, I don't know.
It was a lyric I loved when I was a teenager, from a song called "Gettin' In Tune", an off-track on the Who's album Who's Next:
I'm singing this note 'cause it fits in well with the cards I'm playing ...
I understood this as songwriter Pete Townshend's admission of his own guile as a creative artist. This admission is different from the common attitude of self-consciousness, often found in meta-fictional works, in which an author pins his or her self like a butterfly on the corkboard of their prose as an ironic alternative focus of narrative awareness. You can find that stuff everywhere (Auster, Eggers, Wallace), but lately I'm more interested in meta-fiction where the author's self is not passive but active, where the writer is openly plotting to attack us (the readers) as we read.
I'm talking about the endless poker match between reader and writer. This is the game we play as we read. What is the writer holding back, what is the writer bluffing, what is the writer about to lay down? And how far will the reader ride, and when will the reader fold (as I've folded many books) and how far can the writer go before the reader will catch a fatal bluff? It's in this spirit that I loved this lyric. "I'm singing this note 'cause it fits in well with the cards I'm playing". I assumed Townshend was talking about his techniques, his "power plays" as an author, which in his case seemed to include the following: emotional vulnerability (Tommy), humor (A Quick One), bluntness (My Generation), spirituality (Pure and Easy). It thrilled me to hear the artist refer to these "cards", to admit that his process of songwriting was not only an act of sincere expression but also an act of creative, manipulative guile.
2. G-Unit Books? Yes, indeedy. Considering the fact that my birthday isn't until September, it may be too early to mention the fact that I've got my eye on The Ski Mask Way, but, you know, keep it in the back of your mind until fall. Also, in other Fiddy news, 50 Cent will be introducing a line of condoms. This is literary because you have to be creative with safe sex like you have to be creative with getting kids to read. I just can't make this stuff up.
3. Literary theory vs. biology in a steel cage. Who do you think would win?
4. Feministing picks a bone with a recent Bookslut item, We Don't Need Another Anthology.
5. Remember your adolescent shame? Of course you do; you're still trying to live it down. Well, instead of that, how about submitting examples of that really earnest and intense poetry you wrote in your math notebook for publication? The Cringe book will be published next year and is accepting submissions.