Sunday, December 28, 2008

Yay for water, nay for whimsy

Behold AQUARIUM: Fuselit's 13th issue of poetry, short fiction, artwork and musical trinkets from amongst the likes of Pomegranate’s Richard O'Brien, Steve Himmer, Chelsea Cargill and Brittle Star’s David Floyd.

So yes, it’s small and cute and oh so pretty, but do its lovingly bubble-painted pages caress innards of satisfying substance? It’s a worthy question, to which the heart warming answer is yes, yes, yes; this is a delightful collection of prose and poetry that also happens to fit neatly in the palm of one’s hand.

As you might hope to expect, the writers offer an impressive and diverse array of bite-sized slithers of word joy, varying from witty and absurd to slyly understated and sneakily sinister. You can but marvel at how this particular rabble of writers has taken the theme and run, rolled, skipped and swam with it. This really is a tiny chest of treasures just waiting to acquaint themselves with your trembling, greedy, grateful fingers.

This issue also comes with an equally dinky CD, as well as a super fun mix and match poetry booklet: the pages are cut into three, allowing the reader to mess up the various stanzas in order to create confections that the editors promise will vary from the ‘alarmingly incongruous’ to those which make ‘unexpected sense’ – and, of course, the best results will often be a heady combination of the two.

Just be sure not to spill coffee on it (or anything sticky/corrosive/stain-inducing, really).

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Christmas For Christmas's Sake!

In the U.S., political correctness has steered us toward saying "Happy Holidays!" instead of "Merry Christmas" because not everyone should be assumed to celebrate Christmas. In the legal arena, the Christmas debate is playing itself out with lawsuits against placing nativity scenes on government property as well as petitions to do so, resulting with Christians, atheists, Jews, Muslims, etc crying "discrimination!" What a mess.

On the other hand, in Malaysia because I am Caucasian everyone assumed I was celebrating Christmas, and in almost every shop I visited this past week, I was wished a sometimes awkward "Merry Christmas," which seemed ironic given the turmoil of that phrase back home. I thought of the wish as an acknowledgement that I decorated my condo in red and green and was dreaming of a white Christmas. But on Dec. 23 I was at the gym making small talk with the Muslim woman on the treadmill beside me, and she asked me what I was doing for Christmas. I told her where my husband and I were thinking of going for dinner, and she said "Oh, and then church?" I was taken back. "No, we're secular Christians" I replied, pretty sure that I'd made the term up, although "secular Muslim" is a common phrase around here, so I knew she'd get the idea. But her assumption that I was celebrating this Christian holiday as a religious holiday wasn't unreasonable in context, since an atheist wouldn't celebrate Hari Raya, etc, so I asked myself if I am not celebrating Christ's birthday, what am I celebrating?

I have never celebrated Christmas as a religious holiday, but I have celebrated it with a religious fervor. My family has long-standing traditions of homemade cinnamon rolls, opening gifts at 4:00 a.m., Christmas eve dinner with Granny, Christmas day dinner with Mamaw. Any deviation from our Christmas ritual would be treated as sacrilege. This year, however, I am away from home for the first time, and I didn't do any of those rituals. I put up a tiny tree and a wreath, wrapped presents for my husband and our cats, and we played the Starbuck's Christmas CD, but this holiday wasn't an orgy of desserts, shopping, and parties. There was really nothing to celebrate except my nostalgia for those things, and I think the Christmas crisis in the U.S. has nostalgia at its roots as well.

If you take out the sentimentality and nostalgia, you have a meaningless "Merry Christmas" which should cause no more offense than joy, a manger that should inspire no more loathing than love. Just something that some people do, that means different things to different people, a signifier that's lost its universal meaning but not its wide appeal. Perhaps Christmas can transcend its religious roots (which of course historically have pagan roots), making itself into another altar altogether, and to that I say "Cheers!"

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Writing on the Fly

Former Fringe Blogger and Redivider Fiction Editor Matt Salesses has pioneered a new project he calls "Live Essays: An Experiment in Up-to-the-Minute Nonfiction." The tagline: "I have decided to post this essay as I am writing it, and to write it as it is happening. We'll see what comes of this. Other essays coming soon?"

It's an interesting approach, for a couple of reasons: 1. Matt is primarily a fiction writer. 2. Matt is living in Korea, teaching English. 3. The immediacy of the writing tends to create a sense of intimacy that we wouldn't normally get from an essay, as we feel we're reading as the action is happening.

This breed of insta-writing is popping up elsewhere, as well--the cell phone novel has become one of the most popular literary forms in Japan, according to this week's New Yorker article by Dana Goodyear. Sites like the Japanese Maho I-Land cater to young writers who can tap their tome as if texting on their cell, and then upload it directly onto the site, where readers can follow the installments as quickly as they're written.

It is a phenomenon both thoroughly modern and a bit antiquated--popular novels were often serialized in newspapers in the days of Dickens, letting readers easily digest stories in smaller chunks.

The idea of "instant nonfiction" posted online does raise a couple of questions, though. Where is the line that separates an "essay" from a "diary" from a "blog"? If we consider that an essay is typically a structured piece, building on a central theme, with a defined question and exploration of that question within, does this method leave room for that kind of analysis? Or is this the "new, new, new journalism"--instant, easy to swallow bits of information, delivered to the reader daily and free of charge?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Self-Publishing Part I

Some writers are skipping the traditional publishing channels these days and are getting their writing out on their own. While few can claim the success of Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader—which she released and marketed on her own and then received a book and film deal—writers are using new resources and methods to publish and release their work. In this first part of a two-entry look into self-publishing, I’ll highlight some innovative book-building sites.

San Francisco based Blurb is one of the more popular self-publishing sites, allowing users to download its fancy schmancy software called BlurbBookSmart and to lay out images, text, or just about anything in a variety of esthetically-pleasing templates made by professional book designers. Users have made cookbooks, books of photography, personal family histories, and traditional texts, as well as graphic novels, brochures, and marketing materials. This is also a great service for artists or designers looking into portfolio options. A four-color softcover starts at $12.95 (for up to 40 pages), and hardcovers of the same page count start at $22.95. For more pricing info, go here.

Blurb also offers a heavier, 100-pound premium paper option and allows members to make their work private (to be viewed or purchased by invite only) or public—meaning searchable and available openly for purchase. You’re even able to set the profit you’d like to make on each book sold and you retain the rights to your content (They do have a license to print your work and display it should you wish to have it public. This is fully-paid but royalty free).

Lulu offers a similar service, publishing self-arranged content and shipping them on demand, but they charge a commission on any titles sold. Xlibris and iUniverse follow the more traditional publishing route and charge fees, provide editing, marketing, and distribution services, and pay authors royalties.

My follow-up entry will be an interview with author Mike Heppner and his experience with two self-released novellas.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"For man is a vain thing…"

O momentary grace of mortal men,
Which we more hunt for than the grace of God!
--Richard III, Act III, Sc. v

The above quote was spoken by Hastings upon learning he was to be beheaded in one of the many twists of fate accorded the characters of what is reportedly Shakespeare’s most popular and enduring play.

Imagine my surprise as I read Eliot’s Choruses from “The Rock” and stumbled upon Eliot talking of art: “You, have you built well, have you forgotten the cornerstone? / Talking of right relations of men, but not of relations to GOD.”

As a preamble to The Four Quartets, “The Rock” is a spiritual search, yes, but also a meditation on the role of art: “Much is your building, but not the House of GOD.” In other words, where is the purpose or our art, our writing, our films? To what are they delivered, and why? What are we doing here on earth as it is in London?

According to Eliot, and Shakespeare, we are building a temple of our acts, and most certainly of our words. “God” in this day and age, as a concept, is irrelevant, but certainly not irreverent. Choose a mode of addressing the spiritual and write for that. Is this possible anymore?

Before the secular humanists get their hair all up in a fuss, let me say that I am, if anything, a secular humanist. And yet the more I read the humanists—Rabelais, Montaigne, Cervantes, and Shakespeare—the more I see that we are, indeed, the creators of our temple of community. Who among us will argue with Don Quixote, or even the dirt-brown wisdom of Sancho Panza? Who will come between the arguments of Panurge and Pantagruel?

In the current trend of art/literature-as-gnosis, be it from Jack Spicer (“Poet be like God”) or Harold Bloom (“Where shall wisdom be found?”), there is some sort of longing for wisdom, if not in the intellectual sense then in the practical sense—in the Confucian, Aristotlean sense.

Wisdom is only as good as it will build a life of sanity. Or as Eliot puts it, “The good man is the builder, if he build what is good.”

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Reading Aloud Makes a Comeback at My House

In three short weeks I'll be getting married to a physicist. Needless to say, our tastes in books are wildly different.

As an MFA, I'm required to at least say that I prefer experimental literature, the less comprehensible, the better, with added points going to literature that references french existentialists, incorporates snatches of Urdu poetry or contains sentences which require footnotes.

The fiance prefers genre fiction -- anything with aliens, gadgets, supernatural phenomena or Nero Wolfe.

Lately, we've found a peculiar middle ground: the Southern Vampire Series by Charlaine Harris, which stars Sookie Stackhouse, a young cocktail waitress cum telepath who has grit, brains and beauty. Recently, the series was made into an HBO show called True Blood. The books combine vampires, mystery and a little romance novel sensibility.

Rather than watch TV after dinner, we've been reading these novels aloud to each other, and it's proven a wonderful way to spend time together. I find it soothing to listen to his voice, or to talk myself. The act recalls many dinners of my childhood -- my mother used to read to me all the time. We talk all the time about whether Sookie will end up with Bill or Eric (both vampires) and who is behind the latest hijinks that Sookie has stumbled into.

The Sookie Stackhouse books are perfect for reading aloud because they're plot driven. Now that my life is busy with work and book-writing and Fringe, I appreciate being able to simply let a story unfold without exercising too much of my brain power.

We've gotten ourselves in trouble several times by staying up to 2am, desperate to find out what happens next, but it's totally worth it.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Art of Concision

Or – ‘That agonisingly elusive skill I used to possess but somehow lost, leaving my powers of persuasion hopelessly, painfully, pathetic.’ I’d say ditto to being witsome as well, but that would imply I’ve ever being blessed with such a hallowed gift. Anyway, I’m reminded of my fall from grace by a recent challenge urging succinct scribblers to submit a six word memoir in the form of a suitably pithy postcard.

The shortlist is not as impressive as I’d hoped, but having morphed into a rather long-winded buffoon of late, it’s not as if I would have had anything better to offer myself. My personal favourite is, ‘Divorced, broke, spinal tumor. Otherwise fine.’ However, pollsters have been seduced by the rather more romantic, ‘I made everything up, except you.’

I can happily swallow such sentiment only if I feel it’s sincere - this particular slither leaves me torn; I want to like it, but it’s a muddled sort of like. Remember when PostSecret offered touching, funny revelations... and then got inundated with unashamedly contrived cheese? The superior stuff lives on; it’s just that now it’s mixed up amongst the slush. Such is the way of these things, I suppose.

But yes, back to my original point: fellow Fringers! Show me what you’re made of. Make every one of those six words count. I await them with a silent shiver of anticipation.

(On an unrelated note, I came across an interesting book-to-screen article today, perchance anyone is interested in what screenwriter David Hare has to say about translating Bernhard Schlink's The Reader into something cinematic. And, um, yes; I am shamefully aware that I read far too much Guardian. Only yesterday I resolved to branch out into other bringers of newsworthy goodness.)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Freedom From, Freedom To: A Debate on Singapore

My husband and I just returned to Kuala Lumpur after taking a mini honeymoon in Singapore, which is just an hour away by plane. My frame of reference for Singapore was that it was supposed to be very clean and safe, but ruled with an iron fist that famously stuck to its guns and caned the American teen, Michael Cain, when he committed vandalism there in the 1990s. I was sympathetic to Cain during his trial, and with Singapore's executing a person roughly every nine days, I felt confident that no amount of cleanliness was worth such harsh penalities.

But when I spent some time in the city, I saw that the city's peace is not just about graffiti or litter. In Singapore no one ever made the obnoxious kissy noises at me that Malaysian men prefer over some American hoots or whistles. No cars honked at me to let me know they had power right then and I was a sex object. In fact, there were lots and lots of women walking alone to and from buses, subways, and shops. Unaccompanied women, at least not without another woman, are rare in KL because then you are even more likely to be the victim of a mugging, or "purse snatching" as the police frivilously categorize such crimes if you try to make a report. We even had a woman taxi driver, which is unheard of in KL because it would be like a roulette game with male passengers.

The downside of this utopian depiction of a city with four million people is that there were cameras probably every twenty-fourty feet or so on all the sidewalks, outside the entrances to buildings, etc. On Clarke Quay, there was a fine of 1,000 S$ for littering or riding a bike in the tunnel. Sure, that's a lot of money, but people shouldn't litter anyway, and bicyclists should assume responsibilty not to injure pedestrians, right? And in a broader sense, whatever the penalities for stealing, stealing is wrong, right? I might object to the strict drug laws, but then again, in such a lovely city what's there to escape from? Unless of course you are LGBT, and I do think that's not right because if everyone isn't free to love, then love is not free.

But there's no lack of art museums and small contemporary galleries, and there was far more nightlife in terms of live bands and friendly clubs and bars there than in KL. Not that KL doesn't have bars, but I've never seen one where the patrons looked entirely comfortable with each other the way people were in Singapore where I took such liberties as putting my purse in the seat next to me, walking on the sidewalk alone, and smiling at strangers. I am not kidding that you can't do those things safely where I live. Singapore does have gay bars, which the city tolerates, and I hope it continues to move in that direction. I would say that a lack of gay rights was the only discernible major problem, and that's not okay, but it's a great place to start in a country that has legal abortion and sex toy stores amidst the bustles of Orchard Street, the major shopping thoroughfare.

I am still against the death penalty in the U.S. for lots of reasons unrelated to this post, but what I like about a general enforcement of penalties and strong police protection is that if it works, you actually are protected, and you are free to do anything that's not against the law, which is like a civil liberty to me. In the U.S. women organize Take Back the Night, but in many other parts of the world, we'd need to start with Take Back the Morning and Afternoon. Not true of Singapore, and for that we'd do well to take note.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

This artist likes to eat

Sometimes I wonder if I'm too practical to be a writer.

Upon graduating from my MFA program, while some of my peers continued their part-time teaching jobs, or supplemented their income by working retail, I struggled to find a full-time position with benefits.

"I'll teach a few classes next semester and work at Kaplan [teaching SAT prep] at night," one of my friends told me when I asked him what he planned to do next. "That'll give me more time to write."

My first thought in response to this should have been, "Great! Keep the writing alive, man!" But instead I worried about his health insurance. How would he get it? How would he pay for it?

Even as a kid dreaming about literary greatness, I knew that this particular brand of greatness wouldn't pay. I've never expected to make a lot of money, nor do I need a lot to be happy. But I do need stability. Maybe it's my Midwestern upbringing; or my control freak tendencies; or my strong desire for children, whom I'd like to support. But I worry about things like insurance and savings and 401(k)s. I want to be one of those responsible people who has these things. At the same time, however, I want to be a writer.

It's a dichotomy I struggle with more and more. My current unemployed status merely adds fuel to the fire. On the one hand, I'm writing more than I have in a long time. Awesome! On the other, I've been living without my sinus medication for a month now, and cereal has become breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Not so awesome.

Though I know it's not a black and white issue, I can't help but wonder if a writer has to be financially risky in order to succeed. Or, to phrase the question less practically, must artists really starve, at least for a little while, in order to make it?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Dirty Water Reading THIS Sunday!

Nothing says "Happy Holidays" quite like lewd mad libs, spiked eggnog, and literary offerings from four Boston lit journals: Fringe, Redivider, Quick Fiction, and Black Ocean.

Hear Sean Lanigan, Oni Buchanan, Pamela Painter, and Fringe's own Kim Liao as they share tales of family cheer so dysfunctional, you may actually find yourself grateful for your own family this holiday season!

As always, each reading will be punctuated with interactive Mad Libs (in the form of classic carols), a raffle, and free snacks and libations.

Come for the readings--stay for the eggnog.

Dirty Water Reading Series
Sunday, December 14, 2008 7pm
Grub Street
160 Boylston St, Boston MA 02110
$1 Suggested Donation

The Wednesday Wars-- A Minor Literary Campaign

Meet 13 year-old Holling Hoodhood: the only son of the only Presbyterian family in a neighborhood divided by Jews and Catholics. In other words, he’s the only kid who has to stay behind with his teacher on Wednesday afternoons while the rest of his classmates go to Hebrew school or Catechism class in Gary Schmidt’s 2007 Newbury Honor book, The Wednesday Wars.

The novel's title is inspired by Holling’s insistence that his English teacher, Mrs. Baker (who is a little testy, thanks to her husband’s serving in the Vietnam War), hates his guts, because she now has to spend her Wednesday afternoons alone with Holling, instead of enjoying afternoon tea with the her “Wives of Vietnam Soldiers” club. Holling’s proof that she hates his guts? In addition to assigning him such lowly tasks as banging erasers and cleaning the cages of Sycorax & Caliban (the class’ pet rats), she also forces him to read and perform Shakespeare (the horror)!

To complicate things further, Holling’s troubles do not end with Mrs. Baker. On the home front (better known as the “Perfect House”), he is forced into playing the unwitting peacemaker in battles between his budding flower-child sister, his stereotypical 1960’s housewife mother, and his overbearing, small-business owning, Walter Cronkite-loving father.

The novel progresses in a predictable manner, with Holling eventually coming to realize that not only does Mrs. Baker not hate his guts, but that there is actually more to her than he initially thought. Same goes for Shakespeare. The slapstick comedy scenes (think, “American Pie” for ‘tweens), is balanced by sobering reality checks from the Vietnam War. The end of the novel, though expected, is just the right combination of silly and sentimental to save it from the banality with which it dangerously flirts.

All in all, the book just didn’t do it for me (making me really wish I had read this book before I agreed to make it a part of my 6th graders’ curriculum). But, if you’re looking for a quick read, a few chuckles, and a good message, The Wednesday Wars will deliver--no Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome strings attached.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Finding that oh so hard to find motivation and time

I have been a procrastinator since birth, and also a pack rat, but the latter is for a different piece. I was the person in college in the computer lab until the early a.m. working on papers due that day (with a lot company I should mention so you don’t judge too harshly). I met my college roommate (that I still live with) by pulling all-nighters. She holds the record in our group of friends for consecutive nights without sleep.

But the difference between myself then and now is that I don’t have the energy to pull it off. And I’m old. Or, older. But the thing is that I work best in the middle of the night. It is usually when I get my best ideas to write, and something about the quiet—of everyone else sleeping—makes it the perfect environment.

When I lack the motivation to write, I take classes, go to readings, and just to try to surround myself with inspiring writing. But similar to many I imagine, my job is becoming increasingly demanding and finding the time to write or to be inspired is difficult at times. Staying late at work just isn’t enough anymore, and I’m beginning to take it home with me. The line between my office cube, and futon in my apartment with papers strewn across my coffee table is becoming increasingly blurred.

In my downtime, my creative juices do not flow at will. I come home and applaud myself for actually making dinner and avoiding trashy VH1 television that helps me calm down after a long day. My time off becomes my time before sleep to not get things done, and to try not to think about work. All I want to do is relax, and my writing takes a back seat. Maybe I need to set a schedule for myself. I have been sitting on the same short story for over a year, not sure of how I want to revise (even though I have been given excellent suggestions through workshops). I’ve tried to set aside entire days for writing, but the vast resources of Hulu have gotten the best of me. I find that like in college, I write best when I have little time. Not rushed that is to say, but when I have pockets of time.

So I’m going to try to set a schedule of “pockets,” and let you all know how it goes. Please feel free to leave comments with suggestions, or locations where I may find or steal your motivation.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Fringe 17: Large and In Charge

The last issue of Fringe for 2008 is live--check it out for your quarterly dose of innovative and evocative writing and art from our impressive list of contributors.

As winter begins its descent, we (Bostonians especially) often begin to feel imprisoned by nature, chained by the shackles of snow, ice, and bitter winds. Much of the work featured in this winter's issue deals in some way with our universal struggle to overcome those boundaries (whether it be our social phobias or a giant glass bottle) imposed by the world around us:

  • Cati Porter's multimedia poem "Fructify" is a quiet, almost haunting, verse about a woman who "wants to scream/but her mouth has become a honeycomb"
  • Jean-Michel Buche's artwork is clean and organic; tightly organized and meticulously detailed, it's reminiscent of cells and science--of the things it takes to build a life.
  • In "Some Things I Just Can't Talk About," Casey Wiley tells the story of Tim, a man who can't quite seem to get over the pain a certain Uno's manager caused him, as he goes through his days railing at the world.
  • It's no secret that small town America is becoming not much more than a fairytale our parents tell, but Kelley Calvert renders the gradual death of her hometown in her essay "Somewhere Between Everywhere and Nowhere" so poignantly that you find yourself yearning for a trip to the local drive-in after a burger and shake from the malt shop.
  • Tisha Nemeth-Loomis's first in a series of 3 poems is titled "As if constriction was our first allegiance": "hankering I am little kernel too corpulent/for the husk"
  • Following the nature theme, Geoffrey Detranis' 3 Electra poems also draw compelling parallels between our bodies and the natural world: "She coughs fruit, a plum in the larynx."
  • Megann Sept's short short, "Flash Flood" intricately layers the story of a close call during a hiking trip, a mesmerizing painting, a childless art collector, and a young introvert who "would love to be known as the girl who says inappropriate things."
  • "Notes from a Man Trapped Inside a Giant Bottle" is a chain of pleas for help from Robert Ebenhoe, a man who is quite literally trapped. Mark Brinker's story is at turns hysterical and pathetic, so much so that we don't quite know whether to root for Robert's rescue, or hope that he stays in there so we can read more.
  • Anna L. Cates' criticism, "The World Comes Together: Dual Identity in the Poetry of Sam Hamod" examines the duality of the American immigrant experience as expressed by the poems of Lebanese contemporary poet Sam Hamrod. Even while immigrants may yearn for the quintessential American experience, they can never fully leave behind their roots, thus creating new dimensions in their writing.

    Remember: Fringe is here, to provide an escape when you're beginning to feel caged in by the cruel, cruel winter.
Art: "Mopti" by Jean-Michel Buche

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Teh Internetz: Lessons from Winning NaNo

As I emerge into a new world where I guess we're going to get a real president and stuff, I can't help but feel nostalgic about my NaNoWriMo experience. As I shared with you weeks and weeks ago, I participated in an online push to write 50,000 words in 30 days. And I did it. Whee, confetti.

This was the first time I had done NaNo, and it was a crazy month. My days were full of hurried writing. I took my new teeny tiny laptop everywhere I went. I wrote in coffee shops, in wine bars, in grocery stores, in Union Square, and on the subway. I wrote during lunch breaks and before work and after work and on the weekends. I wrote lots and lots and lots of stuff.

Maybe 20% of what I wrote is actually usable.

The structure of NaNo is unique because you get so worked up about hitting your word count, you'll write anything. You go from day to day, trying to dig yourself out of the hole you created yesterday when you decided to watch House instead of write. You're throwing in adjectives and adverbs and flashbacks and background information just to stretch the words out. The vast majority of it? Complete crap.

But the point of NaNo isn't to write something fantastic. The point is to get in a safe zone where your creative brain is forced to produce. There is no second-guessing, no self-editing. There is only your fingers and your keyboard and no filter in between. And that is a precious thing to experience.

Imagine what we could write if we weren't worried about writing well. Imagine how freeing it would be to write without the expectation of defending your creative choices to a class of fellow students or a writing group of clove-smoking colleagues. Imagine writing something that came straight from your neural synapses, the primordial ooze of thought. Something proto-fictional. Something raw.

And yeah, okay, chances are it sucks. But for every 2,000 words of suck, there might be a glimmer, a phrase, a sentence of pure, unadulterated genius that you would have never arrived at unless you'd gone through this concentration camp approach to writing.

I may not have a great novel right now, but I do have a 50,019-word framework from which to fine tune my great novel. And that sure as heck beats writing nothing for years and years. So maybe NaNo isn't for you. But maybe locking yourself away and just forcing it to come might be the way to go for some of us.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Black Friday, or Death on the Blitz Line

You’d have thought by the news we were in a recession. You’d have thought people were beginning to be frugal, what with gas prices soaring in recent months, food prices skyrocketing, green peppers selling for $2 apiece.

Then what was poetically and accurately described as a group of “animals” and “savages” stormed and surged into a Long Island Wal-Mart, intent on $28 vacuums and $9 copies of “The Incredible Hulk”, unceremoniously trampling a temporary holiday worker to death. Despite recent hard times, can any of us admit to genuine surprise?

I understand that people likewise jostled the very medical crews trying to revive 34-year old Jdimytai Damour (who died of "positional asphyxiation") and kept shopping, even becoming irate when the store was closed on account of sudden death. “I’ve been waiting in line for days,” they said. And they weren’t talking of bread lines.

I recently learned that things were largely as they are today during the Korean War. People went about their business, more or less ignoring the news from the front, blithe in their new found prosperity. NPR reminded me that we have been at war this time around for seven years.

Last night I saw films of Iraqi children with their legs blown off by cluster bombs. Baghdad streets divided by razor wire, and the crumbling houses in Palestine. I am reminded of a story a few years ago, I believe it was in Texas, where free computers were given away at some fairgrounds one day. People attacked each other with folding chairs, an old man was clobbered, another man drove his car over the crowd.

It’s been said before, but now we are clear: America has gone insane.

The country is sickened by materialism. This is capitalism's inevitable end: that we kill each other for HDTV plasma televisions. The fact that 2,000 people are willing to stand in line for days on end--and in winter--to enter some warehouse-sized shopping center is enough to prove the fact. Maybe it began with the Cabbage Patch Kids. Maybe with Alexander Hamilton.

A friend in the Peace Corps in Gambia recently wrote that the Gambians love the idea of Thanksgiving--being with family, talking, a big meal--but the idea of spending all day shopping made absolutely no sense to them. In a country where Supermarkets are brand new, they were understandably confused.

Perhaps it’s only a start, wholly inadequate, but shouldn’t we put ourselves in those shoes? Instead of attacking each other for cheap sneakers?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Cinematic Poetry (it can happen)

The other evening I had the distinct pleasure of encountering the delights of Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg. Since it’s been winging its way around the US festival circuit since April, I shall shunt my lyrical waxings elsewhere, and instead talk about something shiny and new, but nonetheless related.

Winnipeg does what film should aspire to: using the medium to create something personal, distinct and engaging – and, not being a literary expert in any shape or form, I can, in my relative naivety, squash the words ‘cinematic’ and ‘poetry’ together in celebration of what Maddin’s film achieves. Whether the words and phrases used in the film hold much poetic weight on their own matters not, since the overall experience comes from the layering of image, sound and narration.

I’m not the only one throwing around this particular label; the UK’s foremost pithy critic, Mark Kermode, has recently sung the praises of Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City (‘lyrical’ and ‘transcendent’ being the key words). Davies speaks of his love of the small things that reveal ‘the greater truth’ of loss, nostalgia and the city. This rendering of what critics have described as both a love song and a eulogy was achieved through initial mute edits, to ensure that the images ‘speak’ on their own terms; extracts of (very carefully) chosen music and poetry were added later as a counterpoint. Whether this approach renders the end result less of a personal expression than Maddin’s film remains to be seen. I’m not sure how much I can love a snowless snippet of docu-memory, but Kermode assures us all that Davies’ mesmerising tones will more than make up for this oversight. It makes its US debut in January, so if you liked Winnipeg, be sure to track down ‘Liverpool’ - and let me know how the two compare.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Global economic downturn is bad news for women's shelters

I normally think of large corporations as necessary evils (but mostly just evils) of a capitalist society, and although I care about the daily employees, I've felt a bit smug about some of the collapses in a nostalgic Fight Club sense--until seeing that the global economic crisis means less money for charities. And that as the Arlington, VA Doorways women's shelter rep says, "domestic abuse spikes during hard economic times — driving more women and their children to the shelters and safe houses." Doorways is looking at possibly losing only a fifth of its budget, which is bad news, but compare that to the Women's Aid Organization in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which has a shortfall of $200,000 USD, less than the Doorways shortfall, and yet that amount is 2/3 the total budget. The WAO shortfall is also due to the global recession, and if the money can't be raised soon, they will have to close the Child Care Center which allows abused women to bring thier children with them.

It's a commonly held fact that women and children need charity and social services more than men, but lately I felt that such a coversation topic was too divisive, given the broad range of people suffering right now from job loss. But even if men and women were losing jobs at the same rate, women would still be holding the shorter end, because as Susan Faludi so effectively argues in Stiffed, a whole new wave of violence against women is likely to occur, brought about by men who feel emasculated by not being a breadwinner, who can't handle the powerlessness that is intrinsic to suffering consequences of the actions of people more powerful than oneself. And those more powerful in this case are the hedge fund managers, CEOs, deregulationists in congress, and every small investor and motgage holder who attempted to hop onto that bandwagon once it looked unstoppable. And some of those people will also be increasing violence.

So, what the heck is this blog about? I am concerned about how the fall of these major employers will statistically raise incidents of domestic abuse and then concerned that the lack of corporate donations is causing women's shelters to be crippled at the time they are even more in demand. In my naive Fight Club fantasy wherein multinationals crumble because of overexpansion, it never dawned on me that the "extra" of women's well-being would be compromised in such an event. More than this, it never occured to me that of course in a global recession, women in nonwestern countries wherein feminism hasn't nearly made the impact it has in the west will suffer disproportionately; in KL the police are still just as likely to tell a battered wife to go home and cook her husband his favorite meal or ask her "What did you do to make him hit you?" as they are to refer a woman to services like WAO's. In such a climate, clearly the lack of education about violence against women makes fundraising and forming alliances even more challenging for groups like WAO. I'm not saying that charity groups in the U.S. have it easy, except by comparison. And what a sad comparison. Women and children deserve more, and so do men. Men could help by proving the statistics wrong and not increasing violence in the first place.

Roll up your sleeves, friends of women. It's going to be a long winter.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Writing and Open Heart Surgery: Totally the same

Two weeks ago, I was laid off. (And no, it wasn't because I wrote about my job dissatisfaction on this blog.) The organization I worked for lost $1.6 million -- don't you just hate it when that happens? -- and had to cut 30 jobs.

As soon as they announced this tiny deficit, I knew I was a goner. Not only was I a relatively new hire, but my position was also a newly created one. Also? I'm a writer; the work I do is not valued.

I don't say this bitterly (well, maybe a little) or to evoke pity, but rather, simply to state a fact. In the business world, and often in the world at large, writing is not valued.

There are many reasons for this, but the one I want to focus on today is: Everyone's a Writer Syndrome.

We all use words, and most of us know how to read and write them. Because of this, many people -- some of whom I've had the pleasure of working with -- believe that they are good writers. And while I would never walk into an operating room and claim that because I know how to cut things open, I am therefore a qualified surgeon, these people actually believe that they can do what I do, and well.

It's an insulting yet all-too-frequent assumption. Case in point: The co-worker who designed and manages the agency's Web site is now additionally the writer/editor for the organization. To him I would say "good luck," but he probably won't need it.

Neither will I when, later this evening, I perform my first open heart surgery.

[Note: I am writing this post from my rightful spot at Panera.]

Friday, November 21, 2008

upcoming challenges to CA's prop 8

It's been a busy couple of weeks here in San Francisco since the November 4th election when a slim majority of Californians voted to overturn queer marriage rights. An
impromptu march, organized primarily through Facebook, Twitter and other internet sites, took place November 7th from SF's City Hall through the Castro to Dolores Park. Just over a week later, Join the Impact unified queer communities and their allies across the nation in concurrent protests.

Navel-gazing, angry San Franciscans examined any and all election results available to see what went wrong. A good 25% of the city's residents voted in support of prop 8; the SF Chronicle recently published a citywide map that allows users to determine the percentage of voters in each neighborhood who supported--or opposed--the proposition. I was pleasantly surprised to see that my neighborhood, where older Asian families rub up against houses packed with twentysomethings, voted 70-90% NO on 8. Some neighborhoods voting YES were obvious, such as Chinatown, but other districts, like SOMA, a semi-affluent loft playground for upwardly mobile suits, were surprising. The Chronicle also has a searchable database of donors to either side of the proposition 8 campaign. While such technology is necessary for any future fight, by allowing us to see where we need to create change, they also raise the prospect of community boycotts or hateful attacks. The community here has already spent a lot of time inaccurately blaming the black, latino and asian communities for passing prop 8, while few of us have been honest about our own efforts prior to the election. Most people I know, gay or straight, assumed 8 would never pass and did no work on the NO campaign. Sure, there is still work to be done within communities of color, but queers need to be mindful of scapegoating tactics.

In many ways, the fight over proposition 8 is the Stonewall of our generation. Over two weeks after the election, opposition to prop 8 is still making daily headlines, and Join the Impact continues to plan nationwide events, such as December 10th, aka Day Without A Gay. Want to follow the debate? The California Supreme Court has recently agreed to hear several challenges to prop 8. One such case examines the status of marriage rights of the 18,000 queer couples legally married in California. Will the state be forced to nullify those marriages? A second case focuses on the manner in which prop 8 was passed, arguing that a measure that strips a minority group of rights held by others needs to be passed in the legislature and not through a ballot initiative. This is the first instance of using the state constitution to rescind minority rights. A third challenge seeks to prove that prop 8 limits the scope of judicial power and violates the separation of powers guaranteed in the Constitution. Equality California has information on the challenges to proposition 8 for readers looking for extensive explanation of the cases going before the court as well as information on how to stay involved.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Savvy Context: Editing with Technology

A few years ago I was pretty sure I knew everything about Microsoft Word. Of course, the day I hit the "Track Changes" button, I realized I'd been missing out on something huge. Those of you in the publishing world might have had a similar revelation, but in my short time in the field, I've realized some people are still missing out. For the sake of my own sanity--not to mention yours--I'm not turning this blog into a Word tutorial. If you're looking for instructions, head over to Microsoft's website.

The benefits are pretty easy to identify. You can
  • literally record everything you change while you type
  • insert comments and queries just like you would while line editing a manuscript
  • and keep track of multiple reviewer' comments.
Of course, Word isn't the only program out there, and track changes is native to most word processing applications (or maybe all? I admit I'm not an expert across platforms). The editing process can be started, tracked, and archived using these programs, and where editorial assistants had to print tens of thousands of pages a week (yes, an accurate estimate), they are now capable of simply managing one soft copy as it progresses through the ranks of editors and proofers.

An individual editor who switches to a strictly electronic review process can only make so much of a dent in the practices of an entire company. Unless entire work-flows shift to make use of technology, the costly inefficiency will continue. While I entirely respect the creative process and some writers' need for paper, I just don't think editors should continue working without electronic editing and work-flows. Undoubtedly the transition will be tough and we'll all have to get better at working with the programs our companies chose to use. The thought that we can do away with time consuming copying, bulky print-outs, and all the energy we currently spend manually tracking changes in a manuscript just outweighs the work we'll do changing our habits.

Next blog, I'll be bringing in some real life examples of how technology has helped the editing process (beyond the copy-paste revolution, of course) and hopefully have thoughts from people getting the most out of their electronic resources. Until then, I'd love to hear what you all have to say: any EA's out there dying to stop copying? Or any that think it'd be impossible to switch?

Teh Internetz (But Not Really): Recycling Someone Else's Blog Post

As I said before, I am deep in the trenches of writing a novel in 30 days or less, or the whole book is free. So this post comes to you from the sort-of distant past. I write this one day before the election, so I am still beautifully in the dark. I can still worry about silly things.

Like grammar.

My nerd and language hero, Stephen Fry, has just written a new blog post about the nature of language which is a must-read for any writer. Especially writers who (whom? no, no, I think it's okay) are freaking out about vomiting up a minimum word count every day, regardless of whether it's grammatically correct or even makes any sense.

It's a beautiful argument against Language Nazism, and a lovely mantra to keep in mind as you attempt to break through your block to get words down on the processor. Here's a snippet:

Sadly, desperately sadly, the only people who seem to bother with language in public today bother with it in quite the wrong way. They write letters to broadcasters and newspapers in which they are rude and haughty about other people’s usage and in which they show off their own superior ‘knowledge’ of how language should be. I hate that, and I particularly hate the fact that so many of these pedants assume that I’m on their side. When asked to join in a “let’s persuade this supermarket chain to get rid of their ‘five items or less’ sign” I never join in. Yes, I am aware of the technical distinction between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’, and between ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’ and ‘infer’ and ‘imply’, but none of these are of importance to me. ‘None of these are of importance,’ I wrote there, you’ll notice – the old pedantic me would have insisted on “none of them is of importance”. Well I’m glad to say I’ve outgrown that silly approach to language. Oscar Wilde, and there have been few greater and more complete lords of language in the past thousand years, once included with a manuscript he was delivering to his publishers a compliment slip in which he had scribbled the injunction: “I’ll leave you to tidy up the woulds and shoulds, wills and shalls, thats and whiches &c.” Which gives us all encouragement to feel less guilty, don’t you think?

It does, sir. It does.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Finding Beauty in a Broken World by Terry Tempest Williams

Last month I met one of my idols. A writer that was introduced to me before I ever thought of myself as one. A woman with a multifaceted voice that comes from a landscape very different from my own but who has an outlook on family and tragedy that brought me in. When I learned that she would be at my local bookstore to read, I screamed and danced around my apartment. I realized I would get to hear her voice, reading her words, and that I might even get to speak with her. I still get sick thinking about the fact that I did.

Terry Tempest Williams
came to Porter Square Books, a small but powerhouse independent bookstore in Cambridge, MA, in late October to read from her latest publication Finding Beauty in a Broken World. TTW found her inspiration as she lost her sense of self in a post 9/11 country broken and at war:

We watched the towers collapse. We watched America choose war. The peace in our own hearts shattered. How to pick up the pieces? What to do with the pieces?

It was the “pieces” that inspired Williams to look closer at our fragmentation and the potential to not only rebuild but also for beauty. Her journey takes her to Ravenna, Italy, a town famous for its bejeweled walls, to lean the craft of mosaic and then to Bryce Canyon National Park where she studies endangered prairie dogs for two weeks day and night in what she calls an “ecological mosaic.” Her journey comes full circle when she travels to Rugerero, Rwanda, with a group called the Barefoot Artists to meet with survivors of the 1994 genocide, serving as their scribe and telling the world what many countries, including America, tried to pretend was not happening.

My main concern is that while showcasing the prairie dog for its ecological importance and complex language system (something this blogger admits being completely ignorant of), Williams loses her readers at times discussing political action and detailing her days observing the animals in excess. That is not to say, however, that this section does not hold merit, but it is difficult to get through. (TTW told attendees at the reading that her father claimed he would pay anyone $1 who could get through this portion.)

Finding Beauty in a Broken World finds its voice and journey’s purpose with the tale of the genocide survivors and their ongoing battle to rebuild their country and to find semblance in their everyday lives. There are few words to describe what these people have been through and continue to deal with. Yet there is so much hope and want for progression. Williams captures this essence describing the villagers as they work with the Barefoot Artists—a group experienced with rebuilding and uniting communities through art. Bleak, government-built houses are painted with designs from orphans and a mosaic memorial is built from rubble and overlooked material. Together they create something beautiful out of their destruction and show what humanity is capable of (good and bad).

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Nobel, the Zeitgeist, and the All-American Poem

Dear Lents, dear 82nd avenue, dear 92nd and Foster,
I am your strange son.
--Matthew Dickman, "Lents District"

When the Nobel Academy's permanent secretary, Horace Engdahl announced that U.S. literature is "too isolated, too insular," he wasn't so far from the truth as we'd like to believe. Sure, Slate Magazine is right to suggest that the Nobel committee has no clue what's going on in American literature—despite its enormous presence, especially among young writers, on the World Wide Web. But even then, what you find in American poetry, at least, as well as its fiction, is the pervasive influence of PoMo theory, self-referential language deconstruction, and the politics of Identity. Some of it is readable, some dull to the point of tears. I often find myself reading this stuff and saying, "So what?"

I recently finished reading Virgil's Aeneid and found it a kind of hack-job of Homer, nothing new in the world of criticism, but I found it out for myself. What is important is that I arrived at this conclusion only after a careful examination of Virgil's forebears—Homer, Sophocles, Aristotle, and the rest of the Greeks—as well as his fellow Romans—Horace, Ovid, et al. Thus, I've learned for myself that the only way to approach literature is through a careful refinement of the sensibility, through being informed of the entire history of literature. Taste is something different, but even within its confines I realize that Virgil is important, but he doesn't suit me.

It is in this state of mind that I recently attended Portland's literary festival, Wordstock, solely to hear Matthew Dickman read from his APR-winning first book, All-American Poem. Dickman has all the elements of the current American zeitgeist: the humor, the French-styled imaginative flourishes, the stream-of-consciousness machine-gunning of images building and building upon one trope or another. Just look at his poems on the Boston Review.

But whereas other contemporary young poets offer detailed maps of their imagination, or contemplate their undependable self and voice, Dickman charges into his poems with an inherent sense of both hope and the human condition, as well as the desire to communicate. Rather than relying on self-referential feelings, Dickman looks outward to the neighborhoods he grew up in, to the people in his life who have suffered, and in this way he resembles Whitman. Still, he does look inward, but to his own faults, cruelties, and blindsides. Even in this self-regard, he rises above it to offer a vision, a kind of unity, no matter how unstable, and he's careful enough to say, as he says in the poem "Trouble", "I want to be good to myself."

The Nobel committee knows nothing about a poet like Dickman, of course. As Marvin Bell has said to students, "I don't care about the poems you're writing now, I care about the poems you'll be writing ten years from now." As Dickman says in his poem, "V": "maybe this is not a giant leap / into the science of compassion, but it's something." And so, it is exciting to think where Dickman will take this all, his sweeping themes, his adherence to tradition. If we're lucky, we may see a writer like Dickman wearing a ribbon in fifty years, rising as all good cream does to the top, singing the "all-American, broken in half and beautiful."

Monday, November 17, 2008

YOU Make the Difference

Fringe loves you. You love Fringe. But that's not all.

Sure, Fringe has a website that looks good, but did you know that each slick issue of Fringe takes more than 20 hours to code and load? We'd like to reduce that time and give you a product that looks even more suave by upgrading our site. But it won't come cheap -- we need $10,000 to get the job professionally done and to get our weekends back from HTML.

We wouldn't ask you to do anything we aren't willing to: In addition to lavishing time on our issues, each Fringe editor donates $10 per month, or $120 per year to keep your favorite online journal afloat.

If everyone on our newslist donated $25, we'd have more than enough to get a new website and pay our extra operating costs. We are a federal nonprofit, so all donations are tax-deductible. You can donate here --

And, if you donate $50 or more by the end of the year, we'll send you a Fringe shot glass! Guaranteed to start lots of fringey conversations.

As always, thank you for your generous support of Fringe. Keep indie publishing HOT!

The Editors of Fringe

Fringe Magazine

Curious about what we spend our money on? Take a look at our 2008 operations budget:

$ 48 Cost of web space
$ 488 Legal filing fees associated with maintaining nonprofit status.
$ 120 Dirty Water Reading Series
$ 300 Marketing budget
$ 200 Miscellaneous expenses, including web consulting
$ 375 For a table at the American Writing Programs conference. (This year a gracious donor paid our way.)
$ 75 Membership in the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses
$1,231 Total Budget vs $1,180 in 2008 donations ($800 from Fringe editors and $380 from readers)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Struggling would-be writer master class

Lesson one: define yourself

Compulsive - ‘If I don’t scribble down my insightful slices of wit/genius/woe right now my mind will literally implode in a sticky, angst-ridden mess.’

Dreamer – ‘I want to write, but I just don’t know what about...’

One-time wonder – Breaks through with a lifetime’s labour of love. They may only have one novel inside them, but they have the sense to make it a damn good one.

Memoir miserablist - Taints the literary world with details of their (possibly fabricated) abusive/difficult childhood and/or time in rehab. A self-righteous tone is essential. Ditto details of horrific depravity coupled with triumph of the human spirit.

Obsessive - Unlike the compulsive, the obsessive enjoys writing for its own sake. They have clocked up their 10,000 hours of genius-making time before puberty, whilst their peers were still lost in the follies of navel-gazing. Once their genius reaches its inevitable peak, they will be forced to publish under a myriad of jazzy pseudonyms so as not to flood the unsuspecting market.

Good poet – Expresses various elements of the human condition in an array of elegant and quietly affecting musings.

Bad poet – Believes that they are doing the above simply by omitting punctuation and capital letters.

Glory hound– Unavoidable. Gain respect by not pretending that your work is nothing more than a twee hobby for which you partake for your own amusement/therapeutic reasons. You’ve already rehearsed your interviews numerous times already – more reason to get it right whence that hallowed day arrives.

Be clear in your own mind as to which type of writer you are going to become and hope for the best. Your journey is sure to be long, arduous and largely unfulfilling, but that’s pretty much the point. There is absolutely no point in styling yourself as a writer if you can’t bitch about it every step of the way.

Not found your type? The full list can be found here.

Next week: Discover your 'process'...