Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Final Top 10 for 2010

  • Fire to Fire, by Mark Doty
  • The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender
  • The Ticking Is the Bomb, by Nick Flynn
  • The Art of Description by Mark Doty
  • Name All the Animals, by Alison Smith
  • A Poetry Handbook, by Mary Oliver
  • The Wild Iris, by Louise Glück
  • Native Guard, by Natasha Trethewey
  • All-American Poem, by Matthew Dickman
  • Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, by Steve Almond
  • This has sat in my "drafts" folder for almost a year, waiting for me to come up with something else to say for it, and I'm giving up and moving on to 2011. 2010 was the year I started reading a lot of poetry, and I think for 2011 I will have separate lists for poetry and prose -- see the sidebar.

    Monday, December 5, 2011

    Monday Morning Quote: Steve Martin on Inspiration

    Through the years, I have learned there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration.

    I read this book after seeing a video of a conversation between Connie Willis and Neil Gaiman at the 2011 World Fantasy Convention in San Diego, CA (below). At the end of the conversation Ms. Willis, a favorite author of mine, suggested that they each recommend one book for the attendees to read, and this was her choice.

    Friday, September 16, 2011

    Hazards of Poetry, Automotive Edition

    This morning I was working on revising some poems. Line breaks are my nemesis, and I left one poem in a state that I was less than happy about. As I was driving to work I was thinking about that poem and suddenly had an idea about how to restructure my problem stanza. I'm not sure what I was looking at (OK, I think I may have been looking at the line breaks in my head), but the car ahead of me braked suddenly and I just missed a collision. But(!) I did not forget my new line breaks, and I'm going home now to make the change...

    Monday, September 5, 2011

    Monday Morning Quote: Kurt Vonnegut and Saul Steinberg on Two Kinds of Artists

    Who was the wisest person I ever met in my life? It was a man, but of course it needn't have been. It was the graphic artist Saul Steinberg, who like everybody else I know, is dead now. I could ask him anything, and six seconds would pass, and then he would give me a perfect answer, gruffly, almost a growl....

    I said, "I am a novelist, and many of my friends are novelists and good ones, but when we talk I keep feeling like we are in two different businesses. What makes me feel that way?"

    Six seconds passed, and then he said "It's very simple. There are two sort of artists, one not being in the least superior to the other. But one response to the history of his or her art so far, and the other responds to life itself."

    I said, "Saul, are you gifted?"

    Six seconds passed, and then he growled, "No, but what you respond to in any work of art is the artist's struggle against his or her limitations."

    —Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without A Country

    Monday, August 29, 2011

    Monday Morning Quote: Kim Addonizio on Art as a Response to Hopelessness

    Art is a way of dealing with hopelessness, with anger and despair and loss. It is a creative response. While there is a real distinction between art and therapy, the truth is that art is theraputic, It helps you to take something that is within you and make a place for it outside of yourself.

    Monday, August 22, 2011

    Monday Morning Quote: Ellen Hinsey on the Power of Poetry

    Contrary to a generally held view, poetry is a very powerful tool, because poetry is the conscience of a society.... No individual poem can stop a war–that's what diplomacy is supposed to do. But poetry is an independent ambassador for conscience: it answers to no one, its crosses borders without a passport, and it speaks the truth. That's why, despite talk about its marginalization, it is one of the most powerful of the arts.

    I owe this week's quote to Garrison Keillor's wonderful The Writer's Almanac. I find it invariably interesting and inspiring, and I highly recommend that you subscribe to and support it.

    Monday, August 15, 2011

    Monday Morning Quote: New Poet Laureate Philip Levine on Surprise

    [Y]ou have to follow where the poem leads. And it will surprise you. It will say things you didn't expect to say. And you look at the poem and you realize, "That is truly what I felt." That is truly what I saw.

    Monday, July 11, 2011

    Monday Morning Quote: Louise Glück on Poetry

    Poetry is autobiography stripped of context and commentary.

    —Louise Glück, Proofs and Theories

    Tuesday, June 21, 2011

    History of Haiku

    There's an interesting post today on the history of Haiku in's Braniac blog. Makes me want to try some collaborative poetry...

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011

    Massachusetts Poetry Festival

    I'm looking forward to the Massachusetts Poetry Festival this coming weekend in Salem. I went last year and had a great time, and things look even bigger and better this year—lots of great sessions and some wonderful poets speaking and reading, including Mark Doty.

    Or, as I emailed to my writing group, who know how much I admire his work: "Mark Doty! MARK DOTY!!!!" Can you hear the squeak? My fandom has reached a peak not achieved by anyone since Mike Nesmith of the Monkees (and there, I've managed to make myself look both old and hopelessly dorky in a single sentence). But Doty's Visitation is one of my all-time favorite poems; I regularly make friends and comparative strangers sit and listen as I read it. No matter how many times I do, the last lines still give me (and them!) the same jolt of surprise and pleasure that they delivered the first time. I'm seriously considering a tattoo.

    Anywho, the festival is a very well-run event with great poets, excellent workshops, and Mark Doty(!). There's still time to register and get in on the action. I hope I'll see you there!

    Monday, May 9, 2011

    Paul Lisicky on About-ness

    Sadye Teiser: In workshop, you were talking about the complexity of figuring out what a piece of fiction is "about," what aspects you want to focus on as you tell each story. Could you talk a little bit about this process? Have you ever, in your own writing, figured out what you want your book to focus on while writing and then had to backtrack?

    Paul Lisicky: About-ness is such a tricky thing. I don't think we ever want our work to be wholly explainable, or to support a thesis. We want it to be mysterious. We want it to move like music. But we also want it to be bound by meaning. A lot of that meaning is already embedded in our metaphors, whether we know it or not. The trick is to write toward a space that knows more than we do. And that often involves throwing out the original plan.

    Paul Lisicky, author of The Burning House, in an interview with Sadye Teiser for the UNCW Creative Writing Department newsletter, excepted on his blog.

    Monday, May 2, 2011

    Monday Morning Quote: Ira Glass on Getting Started

    What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

    —Ira Glass, host of This American Life

    Thanks to Kevin for sending this along. A longer slice of the interview from which it's drawn is here:

    Monday, April 18, 2011

    Monday Morning Quote: Nicholson Baker on Not Procrastinating

    And never think, Oh, heck, I'll write that whole poem later. Never think, First I'll write this poem about my old orange life jacket, so that I'll be ready to confront the more haunting, daunting reality of this poem here about the treehouse that was rejected by its tree. No. If you do, the bigger theme will rebel and go sour on you. It'll hang there like a forgotten chili pepper on the stem. Put it down, work on it, finish it. If you don't get on it now, somebody else will do something similar, and when your crack open next year's Best American Poetry and see it under somebody else's name, you'll hate yourself.

    —Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist

    Wednesday, April 13, 2011

    Poetry Critique at Our House

    Unlike almost all of my writer friends, I'm married to a non-writer. But Ben is still my first reader. This worked better—or at least was less fraught— when I was writing non-fiction. Reaction to my poetry seems to be limited to a discussion of its level of grimness. A recent example:

    Me: What do you think?

    Ben: It's pretty grim. You know that, right?

    Me: Yes, but can you see why I'm excited about it?

    Ben: It's ... evocative.

    Me: What does that mean?

    Ben: It evokes a degree of horror and dread greater than any of your other poems.


    Monday, April 11, 2011

    Monday Morning Quote: Gray Jacobik on Technique

    Principles of technique? My technique consists of writing the best sentences I can write, trying to vary type and length of sentences, adding as much rhyme, consonance, alliteration, and assonance as I can without sounding too obviously poetic. Then I spent a lot of time searching for synonyms that might be more interesting, more precise or more musical than my first word choices. I know that I stop myself a few times and ask whether or not I've got something to say; any central idea. The ideological level of poem making is important to me. I don't care for poems that carry only impressions or sensations and little or not thought. I try to make sure there's at least one line that aims at what I like to think of as the intellectual underpinning of the poem. Lastly, after everything else has settled down, I begin shaping the poem into lines and form, although some lines, as lines, form themselves from the beginning. This is a simplification, of course, since thousands of decisions, some conscious, far many more unconscious, are made while writing a poem; at least that's my sense of things.

    Gray Jacobik, interviewed in Brian Brodeur's excellent blog, How a Poem Happens

    Monday, April 4, 2011

    Monday Morning Quote: Nicholson Baker on Copying Poems

    One useful tip I can pass on is: Copy poems out. Absolutely top priority. Memorize them if you want to, but the main thing is to copy them out. Get a notebook and a ballpoint pen and copy them out. You will shocked by how much this helps you. You will see immediate results in your very next poem, I promise.

    —Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist

    Monday, March 28, 2011

    Monday Morning Quote: George Eliot on Being a Poet

    ".... I wonder what your vocation will turn out to be: perhaps you will be a poet?"

    "That depends. To be a poet is to have a soul so quick to discern that no shade of quality escapes it, and so quick to feel, that discernment is but a hand playing with finely ordered variety on the chords of emotion—a soul in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge. One may have that condition by fits only."

    "But you leave out the poems," said Dorothea. "I think they are wanted to complete the poet."

    —George Eliot, Middlemarch
    I started re-reading Middlemarch with a friend from work, inspired by Rebecca Mead's excellent piece in the New Yorker, and I'm very happy I did. Mead points out Eliot's universal sympathy for her characters, and I find it such pleasant company. It's not that Eliot's characters are universally good; in fact, none of them are. But their flaws are held up to the light with an understanding that does not excuse them, but also does not mistake the part for the whole. There is a glimmer of something to like or pity even in the most crabbed and self-absorbed of her characters, and something fallible in even the best. It feels so different from a lot of contemporary fiction, where we are so often invited to—or incited to—scorn for some characters, and sometimes for all characters. Eliot judges us kindly, as we would wish to be judged.

    Monday, March 14, 2011

    Monday Morning Quote: Nicholson Baker on Not Saving Up

    Another tip is: If you have something to say, say it. Don't save it up. Don't think to yourself, I'm going to build up to this truth I really want to say. Don't think, In this poem, I'm going to be sneaky and start with this other truth over here, and then I'm going to scamper around a little bit over here, and then play with some purple Sculpey over here in the corner, and finally I'll reach the truth at the very end. No, slam it in immediately. It won't work if you hold it in reserve. Begin by saying what you actually care about saying and the saying of it will guide you to the next line, and the next, and the next. If you need to arrange things differently later, you can do that.

    —Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist

    Although I haven't previously used quotes from fiction, I liked this one very much and you can expect to see other words of wisdom from the narrator of Baker's novel in the coming weeks as I try to revive this blog.

    Thanks to Cindy for recommending this novel (New York Times review here), which I am reading slowly but enjoying greatly.