A Review of Ander Monson’s Letter to a Future Lover

August 7, 2015 § 2 Comments

letterA review from e.v. de cleyre:

The sun seared skin, turned limbs pink, and I underlined: “This is what we hope for, to lose ourselves in stream and look up some hours later and note that the world has moved: the cat’s crept closer, following the sun.”

Except that today it was so hot, the neighbor’s cat crept closer to my shadow to escape the sun, while I hadn’t crept at all—a testament to the spell of a good book.

A similar sort of spell seems to have a hold on Ander Monson: purveyor of libraries, collector of marginalia, seeker of errata, translator between the past and future selves who inhabit pages. He asks, “If not of books, if not of boxes, if not of libraries or echoes, if not of lines of text paper-chained together, then of what are we composed?”

Letter to a Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries is composed of essays that Monson wrote in response to books that the author “spent an hour or more inside.” To answer his question with a series of questions: if I am composed of books, what does it say about me that I read Letter to a Future Lover in its alphabetical order, rather than skipping around, as is suggested on page five? And what about my reluctance to underline and make marks in margins with a pen? Or that the only time I ever use a pencil is when reading? Or that I refuse to read at all in the absence of a pencil? If I were someone else, I could be less careful—like the Defacers.

“I didn’t always care like this,” Monson writes. “Look what books have done to me.”

Look: the sudden urge to write in fragments, to underline in pen, to steal from libraries, to write letters to future lovers and leave them on the shelves, to incessantly question, to risk sunburnt skin if it means reading a few more pages, to feel like I could slip into the cracks beneath the pages and nest inside the binding, because it’s more than a book—it’s a conversation, it hums, it is the deepest, most thoughtful mode of communication: “Every sentence is a ping where I am from, bit pulse sent to test a circuit, check to see if someone or something’s listening on the other end. The response could be a year or a century from now, but we still make the call.”

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e.v. de cleyre is a semi-nomadic writer, currently residing in the Pacific Northwest. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from New Hampshire Institute of Art, and her essays and reviews have appeared in Ploughshares online, The Review Review, and ayris.

 

Media Cleansing for Writers

August 6, 2015 § 13 Comments

gila

Gila Lyons

A guest post from Gila Lyons:

In our culture of excess, cleanses are the new panacea. Cut out carbs, meat, wheat, plastics, microwaves, gluten, dairy, eggs, and you will glow with radiant health and well-being. There are juice cleanses, raw food cleanses, water fasts, the cabbage soup diet, and now, a media cleanse too.

Media informs, educates, and occasionally enlightens, but it also serve as an escape from one’s own mind, experience, ideas, and creative impulses. A writer’s mind can be refocused and sharpened in the absence of input just like a digestive tract can be reset and rejuvenated by a cleanse or a fast.

For a week this summer, the members of my Artist’s Way class were instructed to deprive ourselves of media – all books, newspapers, magazines, Facebook, and emails were off-limits. I extended the ban to TV, movies, and radio as well. In her book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron explains, “We have a daily quota of media chat that we swallow up. Like greasy food, it clogs our system. Too much of it, and we feel, yes, fried.” The idea is we must periodically cleanse from media to refocus our energy, attention, and insights on our own experience and into our own work. Cameron writes that without distractions, “we are once again thrust into the sensory world” of our own experience, and that reading deprivation “casts us into inner silence” in which we might reorient ourselves to our own inventiveness and inspiration.

I teach writing during the academic year, and I’ve designated this summer solely for my own writing. I’ve cleared my calendar of work and most social engagements and responsibilities to leave swaths of unoccupied time. This is a massive blessing and an unwieldy freedom, one that can result in unprecedented productivity and also an uninterrupted descent into overwhelm, doubt, despair, and isolation.

When writing, especially personal essay and memoir as I am, I dig myself into a deep hole. It’s a necessary seclusion, but the urge to distract myself is huge and strong and relentless. A quick Facebook or email break is a welcome respite from writing’s discomfort and loneliness. Scrolling the newsfeed, my mind is blessedly blank of my own thoughts, filled instead with flashy GIFs, witty memes, compelling cat videos, and bright photos of fish tacos and Margaritas on the beach. It’s like a little hit of anesthesia, a shot of whisky. It takes the sting out of the work, calms my pressured ambition and struggle and need. I feel connected to the world outside my mind and anchored to the people who know me. I receive Facebook ‘likes’ as silent encouragements, acknowledging nods. Go on, we’re here, we see you, you’re not alone.

But I dread realizing I’ve squandered my summer on Facebook once September descends and it’s back to the halls of the college where I teach. As we all know, anesthetizing ourselves from our overwhelm and anxiety with Netflix or ice cream or reading or sex rarely satiates for long. What satisfies and fulfills in a deep and lasting way is that which is hard: creating something from nothing, giving expression to that which we didn’t realize we knew, the arduous work of digging up and straightening out thoughts, setting them down still squirming and supple on the page.

Quitting Facebook and TV for a week makes obvious sense. But reading? Cameron writes, “For most blocked creatives, reading is an addiction. We gobble the words of others rather than digest our own thoughts and feelings, rather than cook up something of our own.” It’s so much easier to read than to write, to consume than to create. Reading can be the prefect procrastination tool for those who need to feel productive. It’s entertaining and it educates, connects, informs, and relates to the craft. It’s an escape hatch, a distraction from the writing process, a numbing agent for intensity and strain. When I read I’m lulled into passive thought by the cadences of someone else’s syntax, they are thinking for me, they’ve done the deep digging, I just have to let my eyes drift across the page and imagine.

In fact, I worried about how I would fall asleep without reading before bed. Reading was my nightcap, my elixir towards oblivion, the transitional activity from lively engagement with the world to being unconscious to it. I can’t just write or create or converse, all my synapses firing, and then close my eyes and drift off. I need a sedative. So I modified the plan, I would allow myself one New Yorker article per night.

After just a day of media deprivation I felt my productivity increasing. Within a few days, pulling back to receive more, creating a vacuum for inspiration to rush into, I had more ideas, finished more essays, and reached out to editors and fellow writers to whom I’d been meaning to respond. I had more energy for my own writing since directing it less towards the work of others. When I needed a break I didn’t scroll down to the bottom of my screen and bring up Gmail or Facebook. I kept going. I read over what I had. I tweaked here and there, or left a chapter alone and worked on another. When I really needed a break, when my mind was overstuffed and sluggishly drunk on its own words, I watered my plants, checked on the progress of my tomatoes and peas, climbed to the top of the hill near my house and ate white mulberries from an old tree.

This is not a habit I want to adopt forever, I don’t think it’s responsible to live in a world in which I avoid books and the newspaper. It’s important to me to be an informed world citizen, and to understand and be moved by the work and experience of others. But I will take something of this week with me, mostly the understanding that consuming media can be used not only to inform and engage with the world, but to ignore and detach from my own.

When this week is over I’m looking forward to delving back into the pile of books next to my bed. I stare at others reading the way a dieter must watch diners sink into a burger – envious and hungry. But sometimes to write well, as to live well, less is more, deprivation leads to abundance, and quitting an addiction, even one as wholesome as reading or as prevalent as Facebook, can untether a blocked mind.

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Gila Lyons‘ work has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Morning News, Tablet, The Forward, The Berkshire Review, and other publications. She lives in Boston, where she teaches writing and is at work on a memoir. Links to her work can be found at gilalyons.com

 

A Review of Robert A. Rubin’s Going to Hell in a Hen Basket

August 4, 2015 § 8 Comments

henA review from Dinty W. Moore

In his new book Going to Hell in a Hen Basket, Robert Alden Rubin, a diehearted defender of grammar and true believer in the inherit goodness of proper usage, runs the gambit to perform do diligence and give us a load down on how common words and phrases are so often horribly mangled, offering readers a pain staking but hilarious journey amidst the strings and arrows of language misfortune.

Girdle your loins, because Rubin looked off the bat and path in an effort to track down each and every mind-bottling nugget of homophonic excess, every instance of linguistic confusion reeling its ugly head.

Frankly, I’ve been chomping at the bit to get my hands on a copy of To Hell in a Hen Basket: An Illustrated Dictionary of Modern Malapropisms. Not only does Rubin bare witness to these word-garblers who seemingly grew up speaking pigeon English, but he sets the goal standard, by honing in on the etymology of these linguistic egg corns, whether it be a case of pesky sound-alikes or deep-seeded hearing difficulties.

By enlarge, the wholemark of these words and phrases we misuse or misremember is that they sound “almost” the same as the expression we mean, so in a weird attempt to parrot phrase, we end up with tortured constructions that fail to pass the mustard.

For all intensive purposes, Rubin reveals our mush-mouthed tendencies in one fowl swoop.

Off course this bags the question, why would Rubin collect a full wheelbarrel of erroneous utterances into a hansom book?  Well, the result is the perfect gift book for word nerds, and he has to make ends meat, does he not?

I’m a ten-yeared professor of English, so I certainly found some of these misused phrases so tone deaf that they through me for a loop. Or another words, they gave me a language-lover’s mind grain headache. I felt as if my brain had suffered most dramatic stress disorder, or as if I was having an outer body experience. At times, I wanted the author to seize and desist.

In our modern world, these misspoken phrases are branded about willy-nilly, creating a brunt force trauma to our eardrums, certainly encouraging severe cognitive dissidence. But this is not altogether new. For instance, in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, there is Dogberry’s off-quoted announcement that he has just “comprehended two auspicious persons.” Or Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop, who once praised a man for being “the very pineapple of politeness.”

I am tempted to say that if Shakespeare can do it, so can we, but I am also tempted to take it all with a gain assault.

Before you get your nipples in a twist, know that this book is chalk full of philological humor, leaving you thinking, “My word, Rubin’s clever tome is as funny as (explicative deleted).”

Rubin, an instructor at Meredith College, a former editor at Algonquin Books, and author of previous books on contemporary poetry and the Appalachian Trail, seems to be a jack of all traits, but from his unique vintage point on language and how we fail to express ourselves clearly, he has it down packed.

How does he find all of these goofy examples? He must have a photogenic memory.

I am internally grateful to Rubin for unearthing these jar-dropping tongue jumbles. My favorite of all is probably those folks will cut off their nose despite their faces, but the constellation prize goes to all of us who compete in our doggy dog world.

Trust me, you’ll double over into a feeble position at some of these not-so-bon-mots.

Time to batter down the hatches and buy this book.

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Dinty W. Moore, founding editor of Brevity, is deathly afraid of polar bears.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: His Essay is a Slam Dunk

July 29, 2015 § 6 Comments

Keysha Whitaker

Keysha Whitaker

By Keysha Whitaker, guest blogger:

Can a professional basketball player write anything except a check?

I didn’t think this exactly, but shamefully that was the spirit of my side-eye when I heard Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on CNN discussing a recent column he wrote for Time Magazine. But as he talked to anchor Poppy Harlow about how some female athletes, in particular those of color, are often body-shamed because they don’t conform to Western ideals of beauty, I knew that any American man who is self- and culturally-aware enough to identify and analyze the errors in our socialization, deserves some of my attention.

The essay “Body Shaming Black Female Athletes Is Not Just About Race” uses a hybrid introduction technique. He opens with a story that reveals a surprising fact. Abdul-Jabbar explains that though Serena Williams just won her 21st Grand Slam title in Wimbledon and holds the record for most prize money earned by a female in the history of tennis, she’s still second place when it comes to money earned from endorsements. He notes that in 2013 Maria Sharapova (whom Williams has beaten 17 times in a row) earned $23 million in sponsor revenue while Williams only earned $12 million.

I didn’t know that, wouldn’t have ever suspected it, and surely wanted to read more to see what other injustices he might uncover. But at the end of the first paragraph we learn the article isn’t about financial wrongs. He explains the women’s sponsorship earnings gap is because endorsements “. . . often reward the most presentable according to the Western cultural idea of beauty.”

A declarative statement like this might put off readers whose ears and eyes have crusted and glazed over from “the national conversation on race” and Abdul-Jabbar knows. In the next two sentence graph he writes, “I know, you think this article is about racism. It’s not.”

That graph also functions as another hook, a sort of tease to keep the reader going because if the article is not about racism, then what is it about?

He follows with Misty Copeland, a second example of a female athlete who was shunned from the ballet world at 13 for her supposedly incongruous body type. Copeland and Williams, he poses, “seem to endure more body shaming than their white, less successful counterparts.”

And now Abdul-Jabbar is running on a freshly waxed court. He’s compared two brown women to the great white ideal and race-weary readers surely might click away. But using a bit of humor and a four-word paragraph, he won’t let them. Abdul-Jabbar writes:

“(Still not about racism.)”

The parentheses feel like a elbow-nudge, the informal tone of the phrase is like an under-the-breath right-in-your-ear mutter that is not meant to distract but to focus. This article is on a mission. We’ll get there.

And we do, but not before Abdul-Jabbar uses literature to wax on the concept of physical beauty. After quoting Toni Morrison in The Bluest Eye, he writes, “Morrison’s assessment of social ideals for physical beauty as destructive is harshly accurate. We have established a definition of beauty so narrow that almost no one can live up to it.” The next sentence tickled me in a way that maybe it shouldn’t have: “Women struggle to fit within the constrictions of social expectations of thin, youthful, sexuality as constricting as a Victorian corset.”

In a recent conversation with a friend, we lamented the 20 magic pounds that appeared in the last year and contemplated purchasing the newly popular waist-trainers — essentially modern-day corsets under the guise of fitness gear. We too were “in a futile effort to fit this mythical ideal of beauty . . . an imaginary ideal they didn’t even create.”

Abdul-Jabbar’s “they” means women, and as I inferred, in particular brown women. This time, Abdul-Jabbar doesn’t shy away.

“OK, I lied:” he writes, “Some of the body shaming of athletic black women is definitely a racist rejection of black women’s bodies that don’t conform to the traditional body shapes of white athletes and dancers” but he goes on to the “bigger issue” which is “public pressure regarding femininity . . . a misogynist idea that is detrimental to professional women athletes and to all the young girls who look up to these women as role models because it can stifle their drive to excellence, not only on the playing field, but in other aspects of life.”

If I were editing this piece, I would have asked him to cut and rearrange some of the points he makes over the next six graphs and quickly bring the reader back to the great sports examples he then gives of a female tennis player whose coach wants to “ ‘keep her the smallest player in the top 10’” and Sharapova’s own admission that she wishes she were skinnier.

But once we get here, Abdul-Jabbar hits his stride again and ends that Sharapova paragraph with this succinct and snarky observation: “Does she want to be the highest-paid female athlete or the best one?”

After a quote from Walt Whitman — which I think could have been great to play on as a title for Abdul-Jabbar’s piece — he ends the essay with a definitive call-to-action. He writes, “By broadening our ideals of beauty, we can encourage females of all ages to confidently strive to reach their full potential. We can, and shall, overcome.”

Abdul-Jabbar’s column broadened my own ideals of the athlete as writer and left me wishing more men and women athletes would write themselves onto my writer’s radar too.

___

Keysha Whitaker is a lecturer of English at Penn State Berks and produces Behind the Prose, a podcast for writers. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School.

SolLit: A Magazine of Diverse Voices — Call for Bloggers

July 28, 2015 § 1 Comment

From our friends at SolLit:
In the wake of the tragic church shooting in Charleston, SolLit: A Magazine of Diverse Voices has launched a new blog series — Dialogue on RACE, CULTURE & CLASS. As a literary magazine promoting diversity of all types, we must have a voice in times of crisis.

We have recently posted our third guest blog submission and  are looking for more writers to add to the conversation. You can read the blogs as well as our full blog submission guidelines here (all submissions go through Submittable).

In addition to these blog entries, we publish nonfiction and welcome flash nonfiction submissions as well. (The submission period for the magazine itself will begin again on September 1.)  Please share this call with anyone who you think might be interested. Thank you.
 

Review of Sonja Livingston’s Queen of the Fall

July 27, 2015 § 4 Comments

By Debbie Hagan

fall“The assignment is to write what we’d like to be someday. One of the most regular questions of childhood, yet it seems I’ve never been asked it. Maybe because I’m one of seven children in a family headed by a woman without a husband or a career and we live in a neighborhood brimming with similar women, people who did not plan as children to wait tables or clean hotel rooms or stand on porches and corners, watching as the world passes.”

Reading Sonja Livingston deliberating the perennial childhood question—What do you want to be when you grow up?— in her new collection, Queen of the Fall: A Memoir of Girls and Goddesses, I’m taken back to Mrs. Dowdy’s class. I’m ten years old, chewing my pencil, trying hard to picture myself setting out at sunrise, swinging a metal lunch pail, going I don’t know where. All the adults in my life labor with their hands, trudge home at night tired, sweaty, and miserable.

“You can do anything,” Livingston’s teacher urges her. “Don’t limit yourself.”

Mrs. Dowdy says more or less the same thing. I think of my father imploring me, “Go to school. Be something.” If I’m not to be a mother, farmer, seamstress, mechanic or upholsterer, then what will I be? My classmates write, but my hand remains rigid.

Livingston also stares at a blank page. Mr. Coyle coaxes, “Think of what you most enjoy.” She likes checking out books from the library and reading mysteries, travel stories, and myths. “And just like that,” she reflects, “I make up my mind about my career: mythologist.”

She’s proud and expects praise from her teacher. However, “Mr. Coyle does not touch my paper, does not lift it to the class, saying ‘Listen to this, boys and girls.’ He only returns his glasses to his face and says, Well, now, that’s a new one. He smiles, but the way he says it, his surprise—Well, now—tells me that mythologist is no kind of career.” Embarrassed, Livingston places her hand over her dream career and listens while classmates boast of becoming fashion models, astronauts, or the next Michael Jackson. “Their goals sound impossible, but must be correct because they include no job anyone I know has ever done.”

Maybe Mr. Coyle can’t imagine a career in writing myths, yet Livingston grows up to be a fine storyteller (and isn’t that what a mythologist is?).  She possesses keen ability to magnify small moments and shape their telling, weaving in unlikely images that connect cleverly and underscore the quirkiness of real life. For instance, she contrasts Mr. Coyle’s formal classroom with the fun class next door taught by a Hawaiian-obsessed teacher who grows a flowering hibiscus in the classroom and teaches girls to hulu dance.

Livingston’s essay collection revolves around the lives of women, be they French nuns whose chants of the rosary hum across the radio or the buckskin and beaded belt maiden who graces the Land of Lakes butter box or Livingston herself, a woman so desperate to conceive a child, she undergoes painful fertility treatments that lead to further disappointment.

Her lyrical writing offers a fresh look at women growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, struggling to pull themselves above the poverty line. She collages period snippets and braids narratives that form rich layers with yet enough room for readers to wriggle in.

In Mrs. Dowdy’s classroom, she sees that I’m struggling and prompts, “Think of what you’re good at.” I love to read, and I’d just won an award for a citizenship speech I’d written. My hand scrawls: writer.

I can’t remember Mrs. Dowdy’s reaction, though I distinctly recall my grandmother’s. She remained quiet for a moment, her tired eyes looking me over, then solemnly said, “Well, I didn’t know you had to go to college to learn to write.”

Her words stung, but in time I’d realize that a woman who’d spent her whole life struggling on farm, raising nine children, surely regarded my dream as frivolous, if not impossible.

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Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and writing instructor at New Hampshire Institute of Art. She is the author of Against the Tide, and her essays have appeared in Brain, Child, Art New England, and the anthology Dime Story.

 

 

Southside Sukrungruang Selebration

July 23, 2015 § 2 Comments

iraCongratulations to Ira Sukrungruang whose memoir in essays, Southside Buddhist, has been named a winner of the 36th Annual Before Columbus Foundation American Book Awards.

Two essays previously published in Brevity appear in the book: “Chop Suey” and “The Cruelty We Delivered: An Apology.” We would have been happy for Ira in any case, but the appearance of these two excellent Brevity essays in the book make us both happy and proud.

The American Book Awards were created to provide recognition for outstanding literary achievement from the entire spectrum of America’s diverse literary community, which is a darned good thing.

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