Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Binge Reading (the joy of)

For me, reading fiction demands total immersion. Those novels dubbed ‘absorbing’? They are concentrated joy to me. On those rare and wonderful occasions whereupon such a book falls into my quivering hands I am held captive until the end. Yup, I am indeed a dirty binge reading fiend.

Last night sleep won: exhausted, I had to put my latest bundle of book joy to one side and resume once rested enough to give the finale the attention and love it deserved. Nothing is less satisfying than rush reading (‘binge’ is perhaps not the right word – I do not mean to imply speed. Quite the contrary; every sentence is to be relished - but relished now, not later.) It is pure compulsion. You cannot drag your tired eyes from the page.

But alas, there are so many pesky little things that impede upon the dream of a book-centred existence, shoving our precious reading time into a tiny little corner of the day, or (gasp) week. We must reclaim hearty chunks of time rather than feeble little slices. Escape from people, from distractions, from the constraints of your humdrum life.

Like any addictive pastime, there is of course the inevitable comedown. Common after effects include a penetrating feeling of emptiness, loss, despair. For a fleeting second you’ll wish you’d rationed your joy into lunch break bites, but deep down you’ll know it wouldn’t have been the same. If you’re lucky, you can bask in the afterglow and reminisce. Long-term regrets are minimal to non-existent. Go forth and get your fix.

Classic binge reads? Tell me yours. I need more, more, more.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Zachary Kluckman's "Exodus By Mass Transit"

Something unsettles me about Zachary Kluckman's "Exodus By Mass Transit", the first poem in Orgami Condom's recently completed eleventh issue. It begins with a description of a woman on a bus, the driver in fact, and, due to my experiences as a transit-dependent poet, it is easy for me to imagine the poet (or narrator) sitting on the bus scribbling down these details. With that beginning, when the poem moves into expressions of her thoughts and experience, it feels as though the speaker appropriates the woman's identity--makes her image his puppet--in order to get his ideas across. Phrases like "the cancer of cigarette glamour" drip with judgment; the narrator evaluates the woman he sees on the basis of what he imagines about her. He even manages to use her to embody abstractions: "It’s never about the stories, only the need to tell them." Not surprisingly, the stories she would wish to tell do not get told: only the poet's do.

This is, of course, what writers do: we see and reimagine. We are not seeking precise facts and truth. We may take the way you hold your head and make it mean the opposite of what it means to you. We choose which stories we tell.

What this poem does when the words of the author meet my personal experience is to create a reminder of the need for humility in the writer, especially when we write about subjects who may have less social or economic privilege than we do. To be or act otherwise risks using language in the service of an imperial gaze.

MFA Confidential: To Teach, or Not To Teach?

While Julie offered some insightful words of wisdom about post-MFA life last week, luckily, I am still mid-delusion, mid-torrid-affair with my graduate degree in creative nonfiction. And I know I should feel lucky:

I don’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn five days a week (only two this semester); I can still ignore “the real world” when it’s convenient to (and the bailout plan won’t affect my next paycheck); and I get to shoot the shit with fellow writers and publishing professionals on a regular basis. Talking about David Foster Wallace and his tragic demise for 48 straight hours seems normal, as does analyzing the choice of bug by Kafka in the opening of The Metamorphosis for 20 minutes. All in the name of becoming "literary,” well-versed enough in the heavy hitters of one’s field so as to someday be able to mock them in a list on the McSweeney’s website.

However, now that we’ve hit the fourth week of the semester, I am confronted by one of the less savory realities of grad-student-dom: I am a teacher of freshman composition at Emerson. And unfortunately, much as I like to deny it (and continue to deny it by blogging here about it!), I have to grade papers. Tons of papers. Terrible, badly phrased, ill-conceived, freshmen papers. (Some are fabulous, and they string you along just long enough to keep you going through the worst ones.)

Several of my colleagues have already embarked on the grading hamster wheel, one that ensures that for the next ten weeks or so, several of our nights, weekends, and otherwise free cell phone usage time will be consumed with thinking about our students’ papers: their subject-verb agreement, their overuse of passive voice, and their ability (or lack thereof) to convincingly analyze a text or persuasively present an angle on a topic.

Don’t get me wrong: I love teaching. It’s strange, actually, how much I have taken to it over the past year, and how dry erase markers kind of get me hot. But now that I have embarked on the large-scale project that will become my thesis in May and actually want to work on it, I find myself returning to an age-old question that Emerson MFA-ers tangle with: should you teach in grad school? Why distract yourself from the writing time you clearly value and have staked a goodly sum on being able to engage in, in order to toil amongst freshmen papers?

I’ll return to this topic, surely, as the semester progresses and I lose track of friends, relatives, and everyone else except for the lovely 18-year-olds I have in class, but for now, I present a brief Pros/Cons list. Feel free to add to my list with a comment if you too, have considered the benefits and drawbacks of teaching during graduate school:

Pros of Teaching Freshman Comp:
- Resume booster (duh)
- An Emerson Copy Code (worth its weight in workshop crits)
- Ego boost
- Free paperclips (from the WLP front desk)
- Dry erase markers (see above)
- Liking your students
- Feeling like you’re making a difference in the world! (as opposed to the lack of instant gratification in revising that essay or story you’ve been working on for the last year but which hasn’t ever seen the light of day, let alone been “published” for an “audience”)
- Getting to work with John Trimbur (Composition & Rhetoric God)
- Ego rush of grading papers (beware: it wears off quickly)
- Not having to get a soul-killing part-time job at Barnes & Noble (or insert other hellish job here)… hopefully
- Getting paid to teach! (again, novelty wears off just after rent is paid)
- “Talking shop” with other faculty
- Increased chance of overhearing WLP-dept gossip
- 18 or more freshmen hanging on your every word (at least once or twice during the semester)
- Actually getting to test whether you ever want to do this again (priceless!)

- Less time to write
- Stress of wondering if you’re spending too much time/not enough time/no time planning your lessons
- Grading papers (the novelty wears off)
- Hand cramps from grading papers
- Deterioration of eyes due to grading papers
- Realizing you’re at the bottom of the academic totem pole
- Realizing you’re probably making less than minimum wage (Never divide your paycheck by hours spent teaching)
- Jealousy of writer friends who seem to be spending lots of time writing, while you are trying to figure out the best way to explain dangling modifiers
- Wondering if you’ll ever get another teaching job, or get stuck teaching composition for the next 35 years. Or until you go blind
- Sense of humor devolving into things 18-year-olds find funny (booze, boobs, hipsters)
- Receiving panicked emails at all hours of the day
- An intimate entrée into the personal lives and antidepressant cocktails of your freshmen
- Did I mention: less time to write?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Savvy Context: Technology for the Literate and Literary

I don't remember life before the PC.

There. I've said it. I hate revealing it for fear of losing credibility, but the truth is fairly simple: I'm a 22 year old blogger and have always had a computer. On the other hand, you are reading the blog of a forward-thinking online literary magazine; you, at least, might not immediately peg me as a Gen Y baby or a traitor to literature. Here, my childhood steeped in floppy disks might lend me some authority. After all, who better to investigate the role of technology in the world of letters than someone who neither remembers life without a computer nor deny her lifelong devotion to literature?

I hope that my work here at Fringe will reveal something more personal about the relationship between technology and the written word. How ready is the individual (and the independent company) to accept the increasingly costly deluge of technology as a tool for the advancement of publishing? How effective are the gadgets and tech trends in the lives of the literate and literary? And what demands on the publishing and technology industries will writers, editors, and readers voice to mold a literate future?

TJ's links to sites of note in his first post inspired me, so I'm including my own list addressing the state of the literate nation. You've doubtless heard the buzz around at least a few of these; feel free to add your own and fill in blanks.

Next time: The Writing Process. Ideas or thoughts? Comment!

I can still hear him quacking…

Do you think George Bush is watching as you walk into CVS to pick up your prescription for birth control? Maybe not literally, but figuratively he is. He is monitoring your actions and controlling your access along with the department of Health and Human Services bolstered by the Evangelical community at large. Hillary Clinton says this better, but the basics behind a new policy proposed by Health and Human Services allows any federally financed health care worker to opt out of providing necessary services, information or counseling to which he or she is morally opposed. The current law already provides room for the “conscience” of the provider in refusing to perform abortions; this new regulation is different in that it extends that right to also refuse “other medical procedures” thus broadening the law to include not only contraception but a myriad of other necessary services. This is a blatant attempt by the Bush administration to, yet again, further its moral agenda at the cost of women’s health and the quality of our healthcare system as a whole.

Does this surprise you? It shouldn’t.

The Bush administration is nothing if not opportunistic and has a way of sneaking past legislation, signing statements and high-ranking appointments when no one is looking. The long-winded presidential election has proved fertile ground for implementing policies that are hostile to the thinking of most Americans. Whether you’re banking on “The One” to save us all come January 20th or you are really jazzed about the mayoral budgetary choices of Sarah Palin, important, life-altering decisions are being made right now under our current administration. Just because he’s lame…and a duck…doesn’t mean he can’t continue to quack. So bring out that old Nintendo Duck Hunt gun and get shooting!

The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur Interviews EIC Lizzie Stark

The staff of Fringe already understands how wonderful our Editor-in-Chief Lizzie Stark is, but we always love to see her honored elsewhere, too. Check out The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur for a little snapshot into Lizzie's life as EIC.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Importance of Being Ernest About Your Viands

I got caught up in my past again today thinking of a favorite commercial, because, during the day, I am a drudge, making my mind mine, you see. And for you who know me, you will not be stupefied to know that my thoughts turned to food.

Dairy, in fact.
All wares milky, in fact, but particularly the rinded.  
(For the next paragraph, imagine it is being spoken in  Superman 3's narrator's voice. For those of you who, for whatever reason, lost the brain cells that made up your memories of the eighties, I offer an example:)

My hobbyhorse is writing and food, my fetish. Separately developed, it seemed that the twain were never to meet, but one fateful day, far in the past, as  Saddam
Hussein hung his jacket on the second floor coat rack of the Palace of Nebuchadnezzar for the six hundredth and sixty-fourth last time, as George W. choked on his pretzel Laura had slipped playfully into his mouth, the twain met and had cocktails. The liquor went straight to their heads and they copulated wildly on the bed of James Tate's poem, The Wild Cheese. My loves became one love and I became a creative monogamist.

Why am I telling you this?

Because this is the first posting of my new blog and I wanted to make a blogging covenant. I want to create a point of juncture between food and writing. I will bring in edible literary allusions and maybe some recipes, observations, a couple gripes, and the occasional food-based tongue twister. I hope you enjoy reading our blogs.

And remember that your Fringe is ran by our hlǣfdīgen and one or two men. Respect and show the love - visit the magazine, yo.

'The Bang-Bang Club'

I recently read a book, that challenged me as a journalist, and as a human being. This graphic and intriguing account vividly documents the lives of four South African photojournalists who cover the conflict of the Apartheid years and other war correspondence during the 1990’s. The self-told account follows their lives as they encounter the horrific violence of the township feuds, and as they battle the ethical dilemma of when to shoot pictures and when to intervene. Greg Marinovich relives the tales of war, the killings, the shootings. Both he and another colleague were shot in a township battle. He survived but sadly Ken Oosterbroek was killed.

Through the journey, you begin to get a taste for the depression that slowly invaded their minds, the nightmares that plagued their sleep, the emotional toll of their chosen career. As a photographer, I have begun to see pictures from a fresh perspective. I now understand how difficult it can be to get a good shot. I know what it is like to work with people, to get the right expression, the movement, to capture a moment, to stand steps away from the action. When I view pictures now, I think about the photographer, who they are, where they are, how they took this shot. I think about how that image must have looked, displayed just feet before them. The world takes on a certain distillation when viewed through the lens of a camera. It makes the photographer impartial, hidden, slightly removed from reality. But as I lower my camera, as I engage with my bare eyes, the creative mask is gone, and the harsh reality of life sits.

Kevin Carter, a member of 'the bang-bang club’ (as they were dubbed by the media) won the Pulitzer prize for his photograph of a Sudanese child face down in the dirt, a large vulture lurking in the background of the frame. Despite being a brilliant shot, the picture has raised global controversy as to what happened to the child after the picture was taken. Kevin has received much scrutiny as to why he didn’t help the child? Did he scare away the vulture? Why didn’t he carry the child to shelter? His initial account of the story was that he chased away the vulture, and that he was sure the child made it to safety, however he couldn’t be sure. Leaving himself wide open for scrutiny.

I remember studying this photograph in a university ‘ethics in journalism’ class. Kevin Carter's photograph was used as a bench mark, symbolising when telling the story overrides a human responsibility to help a starving child. The way the story was told to me, was that as the picture was being taken, the vulture attacked and killed the child, whilst the stunned photographer did nothing to stop it. I recall being disgusted that a person could come across a dying child, photograph them, and leave them alone, to be eaten alive by a preying vulture.

In reality, this is not what happened at all. In a war zone, in immense poverty, there are often many starving children, so many children hungry and desperate for attention. In this particular circumstance, a plane carrying aid had just landed (upon which the photographers had arrived), a large group of mothers had set down their children and babies to rush over and collect food and aid. This child was one of many, for all Kevin knew, its mother would shortly return for him.

There are many unknowns to this situation, it is clear to me after working in the field, that it is not as simple as I once imagined sitting safely behind my university desk in downtown Auckland city. A journalist goes into these situations to tell the story, to expose the truth. They simply cannot save every person they encounter, but by telling the story, they can enable others to assist. This particular picture that Kevin took shed light on the famine in Sudan that many were unaware of. As a result of the picture, millions of dollars of aid was donated to the Sudanese people.

Kevin eventually killed himself. He had seen too much.

The book goes on to explore the effects such a job has on the mental and emotional state of a human being, the cost at which these stories are told. It is an incredibly interesting and honest first-hand insight into South Africa’s dark history, and has given me a greater appreciation for the people of this place I currently call ‘home’.

What really strikes me, is that the tale of South African history is told from an individual who was actively involved, not in the fighting but in attempting to gain understanding. A man who was aware, yet still had questions and still found himself caught between the controversy. So much of what happened during those years is kept hidden, people simply didn’t know what was going on in their own backyards. My respect goes out to these men, who subjected themselves to significant danger, in a battle to uncover truth.

("The Bang-Bang Club" Written by Joao Silva and Greg Marinovich)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Is this it?

When I enrolled in a creative writing MFA program three years ago, I did so with very few delusions. In response to the inane "What are you going to do with that?" question, I was clear: I'm going to devote two years to my writing. And then? See what happens.

It was the "see what happens" part that I didn’t give much thought to. While I certainly didn't anticipate a book deal post-graduation, I also didn't anticipate returning to the kind of mind-numbing cubicle life I had abandoned. Or the depression and despair that quickly followed.

Though the reasons for my foray back into cubicle land were obvious -- food, rent, health insurance -- this time my reasons for disliking it were different. I likened myself to Francesca in The Bridges of Madison County (two months in a cubicle and already my literary allusions were slipping). I had strayed from my safe, passionless marriage (first job) and had a torrid, all-encompassing affair (MFA), only to return to my boring husband (new job).

Though the program had warned me of long-term hardships as a writer, it hadn’t prepared me for the day-to-day indignities of the grad-school-to-working-world transition. And though I wasn’t alone in my strife -- many of my fellow MFA grads suffered from a similar downward spiral -- the question remained: Were our writing days numbered?

The answer, of course, is absolutely not. Whatever your MFA experience may be, it changes you. The key to post-MFA survival? Remind yourself that no matter the size or shape of your cubicle, your job is simply one stop among many along the path to your ideal writing life.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Dickens lives again in Alexander McCall?

Back in the day, Dickens novels ran in serial form in newspapers -- and apparently he was paid by the word, one of the reasons for his legendarily lengthy novels.

Now, the British paper the Telegraph has renewed the trend. No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency author Alexander McCall Smith is producing a novel called Cordouroy Mansions that will run for the next 20 weeks, with a new chapter -- available in audio form and written form -- each day.

I think it's a brilliant idea to bring back this old form. People are used to going to websites every day to get an update on a story, whether it's the story of a forum, a graphic novel or a blog. I know I do.

And think of the writer! Instead of spending 8 billion years writing the manuscript and getting a book deal, she or he could write in small installments. Now, thanks to the Internet, authors can get feedback from their writers immediately.

I've gotta hand it to the Telegraph and to McCall Smith -- way to take it back to the old skool.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Teh Internetz: social booking networks

Hello writers and other assorted lovers of the written word,

You may look at the heading of my humble blog post and say, "Internet! P'towie!" ("P'towie" being the sound cartoon characters make when they spit; if you can actually spit while making this noise, please record it and e-mail it to me. I would be most delighted.)

Anyway. I understand your spitting anger.

The internet represents to many of us the fast-paced tide of time, a death march whose tempo is meted out by that annoying hamster song, a flurry of hyperlinks and hyperactivity. This new future we find ourselves in appears to be devoid of art, love, beauty, and most distressingly, well-written novels published to deserving nationwide acclaim. Children don't read anymore, you might cry. No one cares about books, you might groan. They only care about cats with captions and the myriad ways failure can be captured on camera and then blogged about.

To you I say: don't despair, Negative Nancy. The internet is content, and content is your product! Writers and teh series of tubes go together like lions and the circus (minus the cruel abuse in most cases).

I may be biased because I'm an online/interactive book marketer (which is a fancy way of saying: a synapse between the nerves of publishers, authors, and bloggers) but I truly believe that books and the internet are the greatest technological advances of their respective ages, and they can help each other in ways that we haven't quite gotten around to dreaming up yet.

But we're already on the right track! So my tiny contribution to this blog will be regular updates on the online world and how it can help inform your writing, your career, your understanding of the publishing industry, and your life's general betterment.

No need to thank me. It's my job.

So as a gentle way of guiding you into the online book world, please feel free to dip your cautious toes into the following pools. These are social networking sites, like Facebook and MySpace, but for books and book lovers. Many of these sites allow authors to create special profiles and connect to their readers. Check them out.

Good Reads


Shelfari (Owned by Amazon)

Book Jetty


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Beer Steins and Frauleins: THIS Sunday, Sept 21

Just thinking about the reading this Sunday is getting my dirndl in a twist! If you've somehow missed the buzz, consider yourself invited. Fringe is teaming up with other local presses as The Dirty Water Reading Series, to present "Beer Steins and Frauleins: A Dirty Water Readingtoberfest", an Octoberfest-themed reading at the Grub Street Headquarters on Sunday, September 21. The reading will feature authors Rauan Klassnik, Amy L. Clark, Aimee Pokwatka, and Fringe contributor Francine Rubin, whose work appears in the current issue of Fringe.

For this particular reading, Fringe is in charge of decorations. How fun is that? Does anyone have any suggestions or ideas of how we can decorate the Grub Street space? Anyone have a dirndl or some lederhosen, maybe a few beer steins lying around, waiting for a chance to shine?

Beer Steins and Frauleins: A Dirty Water Readingtoberfest
FREE ADMISSION (free beer and free food too!)
Sunday, September 21
7:00 p.m.
Grub Street, 160 Boylston, Boston

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Mark DeCarteret's Feasts/Week 17

The seven poems of Mark DeCarteret's recent Beard of Bees chapbook, Feasts/Week 17, take saints' names so that each represents a different feast day, as if the short collection were a week out of church calendar with brief, 3-line explications of each day's saint. Strict adherence to a 5-7-5 haiku structure leads to a degree of condensation that, together with sparsity of punctuation, makes these verses function less as explanations than as objects for consideration and meditation. Uncovering the meanings of the lines and their relationships to the saints of their titles (whether legitimate Catholic saints or otherwise) requires conscious acts of interpretation by readers. They must consider these poems as the devout consider the mysteries of the rosary.

Take the first poem, for instance: "st george". The majority of educated anglophone readers have likely heard of this dragonslayer and so, assuming they can make the leap from dragon to serpent, should feel some sense of connection between the first line and the title. The serpent, however, is not killed. In fact, an act of interpretation is required to determine whether anything at all is done to the serpent. Is "sound" a verb (as parallelism suggests) or a noun (the more common usage)? Are the three lines a series of instructions or a description of actions accomplished (or being accomplished) being told via an atypical verb tense?

In creating these objects for contemplation, DeCarteret repeats certain themes. Medical imagery--"lip's herpes", "aspirin-white", "anesthetized type"--appears in the first three poems. Then there are the twists on cliches: "this world’s last gasp", "unsigned dotted line", "...or else". Unfortunately, in the italicized lines of "st peter mary chanel" there's a little too much cliche and not enough twist. Despite the cleverness of the title, the verse itself seems dull.

One of the greatest dangers of writing in such a short form is that, no matter how dense the writing, the reader may reach the end and feel as if they have read nothing substantial. Challenges to interpretation such as this chapbook presents are one way to overcome this, one way to slow the reader down. Such a technique also requires that the poems raise the desire in the reader to linger over the poems. The aforementioned "st peter mary chanel" fails for me in this regard; the other poems succeed to varying degrees with a smattering of onomatopoeic lines being the most powerful in this regard. Such judgments, of course, are necessarily subjective. Do these poems draw you in?

Young? Adult? Literature?

My favorite comedian, the late Mitch Hedberg, once cracked: “Every book is a children’s book as long as the kid can read!”

Clearly, this statement is little more than an uninformed generalization with the singular goal of eliciting a chuckle. But, I must admit, as a card-carrying member of the “Make ‘em laugh any way you can” brigade, the silly one-liner actually gave me pause. Because, more and more, Young Adult Literature that I see as a middle school teacher is taking on content and themes that, often, is more “adult” than “young.” The ensuing internal debate has become a sort of “Chicken or The Egg” conundrum that I’ve yet to resolve.

Then, upon being invited to write for Fringe, I was referred to another column in a popular blog on YAL. And, I totally dug the snarky, “I love the 80’s”-style reviews of books from our collective childhood, having consequently been inspired to unearth lots of dusty paperbacks in my basement. And, while it’s most certainly been quite a trip to revisit these characters and stories through grown up eyes, as I read, something strikes me. Though I feel very close to these books out of nostalgia, I can’t remember ever being to relate to them as a moody, lower-middle class kid, coming of age in the neon nineties.

And so, it is in the same spirit with which I immediately removed the archaic Where The Red Fern Grows, and A Wrinkle In Time from my sixth-graders’ required reading curriculum, that I have decided--for the purposes of this column--to stick to YAL. and authors from the last two decades. But I promise—no annoying little wizards. Ever.

Be back in two weeks, with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever, 1793.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Danny Treacy's 'Them'

The Photographer’s Gallery

until 20 September (make haste!)

Danny Treacy’s fantastic life-sized portraits display the artist in an array of bizarre outfits cleverly assembled from clothing and materials found abandoned on the streets, ranging from a soiled sleeping bag to an indefinable animal costume – occasionally embellished with something sparkly; a sequined glove, a tattered veil. The glorious detail in these shots brings out the contrasting textures of these various pieces, mixing faded glitz with pure grime.

Treacy’s stance is bold, poised, aggressive. His face remains hidden, which adds to the underlying threat. Yet at the same time, these masks also make the figure appear vulnerable and sightless, constrained and bound.

Mythical creatures; grubby superheroes; urban warriors – however you decide to label them, the overall effect is unsettling, eerie and deeply intriguing.

If you don’t happen to live in or be stopping by London this week I insist you stop by to gaze at Treacy’s array striking creations (they’re taking them away after Saturday so be swift and speedy). And if you happen not to be in suitable proximity, worry not, for the artist has arranged a rather nice online space to display all sorts of fascinating photo joy, just for you. Oh yes.

And in case you’re itching to read more about Treacy’s intentions and my delightful musings, the full review can be found on my humble blog (shameful, I know, but had to be said...)