I attended a book reading and signing by Pete Dexter on Thursday night. It was a very entertaining evening. Dexter is an old newspaper guy from Philadelphia and he had a ton of great stories. One was about a guy he knew who would always invite people to punch him in the stomach. By flexing his powerful stomach muscles he was able to stop the puncher’s fist cold. Not the most impressive trick, but good for a few laughs. Well, all was going fine until one day he invited the then unknown Sonny Liston to slug him in the gut and was promptly sent flying across the room. Dexter had several stories like this which kept people in stitches. He also read from the beginning of his latest book, Train, which is very good by the way. I had him sign a copy of his National Book Award winner, Paris Trout, and while I was standing there I asked him which of his books he thought I should read next. He recommended both Deadwood and Brotherly Love. I’ll have to look for those.
Not really a literary item, but I thought some folks might be interested in a Web site I found recently. Postcrossing is a postcard trading site. When you sign up, you get the address of a randomly selected Postcrossing member. You send them a postcard, and when they receive it and enter it into the system, you get put into the queue to receive a postcard from another member. So far I’ve sent a postcard to Portugal and received one from Finland. For those with an interest in faraway places and/or postcards, Postcrossing is an extremely low impact but rewarding hobby. I’ve always liked getting postcards, but it seems like a somewhat rare method of correspondence these days given the ease and immediacy of electronic methods. In my travels I’ve often picked up postcards, not necessarily to send, just to have as keepsakes. I’m something of a map person, so I’ve often been drawn to postcards with maps on them. I’ve got a small stack of them filed away somewhere right now, but I’ve had this idea that one day I might display them all on a wall of cork in collage form.
Millions contributor Ben penned a post in February about a documentary called Operation Homecoming about the National Endowment of the Arts’ (NEA) program of the same name which is designed to help soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan put their experiences into words. (One participant in the program was Brian Turner whose book of poetry Here, Bullet was reviewed here a few months back.)As was noted in a comment on the original post, Operation Homecoming is also going to be covered as part of a PBS package called America at a Crossroads. That series is set to air beginning this weekend. The 11-part, six-night series covers “the war on terrorism, conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan’ the experience of American troops serving abroad, the struggle for balance within the Muslim world, and global perspectives on America’s role overseas.” The Operation Homecoming installment airs Monday at 10pm (check your local listings, of course.)
To paraphrase the critic Georges Poulet: a poet of written poems does not necessarily aim only to write a poem; he or she aims to become, and for those who read his or her poems to become. Becoming is an activity that many young African Americans are engaged in today — whether it be formal, revolutionary, or informal — and it is an activity that requires undivided dynamism. If Kendrick Lamar’s chant “we gon’ be alright” — four words that when repeated meld a fight song to a primordial moment in the foundation and the defense of a collective and its culture — is now considered the foremost musical expression of this era’s black activism, Nate Marshall’s poem “repetition & repetition &”, the very first poem from his book Wild Hundreds, should be considered the foremost articulation of contemporary blackness’s dynamism in literature. It’s an engine of becoming.
Our is a long love song,
A push into open air,
A stare into the barrel
With those three lines, Marshall begins an epic comparable to Robert Hayden’s renowned “The Middle Passage” and other black epics; but this is an epic of guidance and instruction. It’s built on the thesis that black “works,” as painful as it may be to be black. The poem begins by posing the question What do I feel as a black person, its title “repetition & repetition &” having given us the context. The opening of the poem removes any ambiguity we might attribute to the poem’s message, plunging us into the poet’s project.
We are a pattern,
A percussive imperative,
A break beat
“repetition & repetition &” quickly comes to feature the collective “we” as fundamental to the poem. Marshall uses the word “we” as the black community loves for it to be used. If “I” is modernism, and postmodernism, Marshall pushes it aside for the beloved “we” — the “we” of the hard road to salvation and joy. Sorry, he seems to be saying: despite claims that our sentiment is tribalism or that we are just Americans, the black community remains a place where a black “we” is a beautiful way of saying “me.” With “we” he expresses the blackness that has us all feeling, one that cannot be found in oh-so-many poems that center the lonely “I” or “me.”
“We” is brilliantly defined in the line “we are love.” We = love, in convivial crowds and effective political rallies.
Baby we are hundreds:
Wild until we are free.
Wild like Amnesia
This is an epic of identity. It proposes black identity (love, being wild) to its reader, as a written articulation of “black is beautiful”; it functions as a model of identity to adhere to and trust.
Identity is an old and persistent question in black life, to the point where passing, pretending that one is not black or not claiming one’s blackness, has been a theme of many black novels (see Nella Larsen’s Passing). Faith in blackness and in one’s own blackness is a feature in our age of contradictions: of a black president, of interracial marriages, of a growing middle class, of foreclosures of homes owned by blacks, of predatory and racist practices, of the killings of young black men and women, of Black Lives Matter. It’s an age of youthful comic modernities, where tragedy is not the sort of thing that co-workers of other races want to talk about. Should I be happy in public? Who am I in all of this? Marshall answers these questions and others with an epic that can guide, in terms of how to think about blackness or being black.
The black identity being proposed is not a simple one. As John Edgar Wideman wrote as a blurb for Mitchell Jackson’s novel The Residue Years, it embraces the English language as a means of expression, saying loud and clear, Despite my difference, I am culturally a descendent of the English language and of poetry in English. It is perhaps the most complex aspect of the poem — the poet does not want to settle for blackness as some sort of noble savagery. His language tells us that a black person can read French theory and find solace in Modernist English poetry all the while feeling the pain and rage that comes from seeing a dead black child on a television; all of it combined being who “we” are or “I” am as a black person.
In the end, Marshall offers an engine for the pursuit of self that can only be the undercurrent of black production — ranging from Beyoncé’s Lemonade, or Greg Osby’s many great yet unknown albums of genius Jazz blackness, or a teacher’s persistence with children — but also a vehicle for any non-black person to think about the blackness of co-citizens and friends. His poem is an epic of strength in love and in numbers, where in despite “a stare into the barrel,” and “repetition,” as he ends the poem, ‘we are 1’ and will remain it.
One of my roommates moved out last summer, but he hasn’t changed his address so we still get a lot of his mail. Every month or so he comes by to pick up another mound of ephemera. It seems mostly to be junk mail and cell phone bills, but the occasional magazine can be found jutting from the pile. Today, in fact, I couldn’t help but notice the corner of the most recent issue of Esquire peeking out from under envelopes and circulars, and on that corner of glossy magazine cover I could see the words “The Best Books of 2003,” so, naturally, I took a gander. It’s not much of a list. They asked eight of their writers to name their favorite book of the year, so there are eight random books on the page, each with a blurb. Still, it gives us something to talk about. Here they are (with my comments, of course): Stagolee Shot Billy by Cecil Brown: I had forgotten about this book, but I remember when it came out it sounded very interesting. In the book, Brown, a literature professor at UC Berkeley, tries to discover the truth behind the legend of Stagger Lee, a quasi-mythical figure who is the inspiration for hundreds of versions of the seminal blues song of the same name. It sounds like a really interesting book, full of folklore and roots music. The book’s official website offers up a couple dozen versions of the song (along with a neat map showing when and where they originated) for your listening pleasure.Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis: I feel like I spent most of the summer talking about this book. If you’ve been lurking around here for that long you’ll remember. Several folks have called it “the book of the year,” and it’s hard to argue otherwise. The book is extremely compelling on many levels, even for a non-baseball fan, as it delves into psychology and economics and business. For a baseball fan the book approaches divine.What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller: I think I’ve mentioned this one, too. It was short-listed for the Booker Prize. In it, a prudish, old schoolteacher recounts the indiscretions of a younger colleague’s dalliances with a 15-year-old student. What starts as a clearcut case, slowly turns itself inside out.Life of Pi by Yann Martel: Hmmm… didn’t this book come out last year? Anyway, this one won the Booker in 2002 and has been a slow burn sensation. It was released to modest acclaim, began to sell well on word of mouth, won the Booker, and never looked back. The paperback edition still appears on many major bestseller lists. I, for one, am still dying to read it, but haven’t gotten to it yet. Everyone I know who has read it (including my grandmother who is one of the “best” readers I know) adores this book about a boy and a tiger.BBQ USA: 425 Fiery Recipes from All Across America by Steve Raichlen: Mmmmm, BBQ. Actually, BBQ is a major American cultural artifact, with countless versions (at least 425) betraying the rich regional diversity of American cooking, which reminds me, some friends of mine have been working for over a year now on a BBQ documentary called Barbecue is a Noun. Sounds pretty tasty.Platform by Michel Houellebecq: Somehow it seems inevitable that Esquire would name this among the best books of the year. I know that there are some serious Houellebecq fanatics out there, but I’m afraid I don’t get it.Rumble, Young Man, Rumble by Benjamin Clavell: Released last spring to stellar reviews, this book surely ranks among the top two or three short story collections released this year.Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers by Katy Lederer: I hadn’t really heard of this one, but it’s one of those “f’d-up-childhood” memoirs, but this time it’s not about being the child of shrinks or mobsters, but gamblers instead. This sort of book has really become a genre of its own and is therefore getting somewhat tiresome; on the other hand, the jacket of this particular book features a blurb from none other than the late, great George Plimpton so it must be good.Actually, that list turned out to be pretty fun.
I first experienced ennui while solving a crossword puzzle — no, not the actual feeling of listlessness or dissatisfaction; rather, that’s when I first encountered the word. My adventures in a new tongue had begun, a strange language called Crosswordese, which consists of words used often by crossword makers but rarely experienced in the real world. (By the way, in Crosswordese, a crossword maker is known as a cruciverbalist.)
Do you speak Crosswordese? When you lose a button from a shirt and can’t find the sewing kit, do you ask your partner where the etui is kept? Might you sometimes mischievously refer to margarine as oleo? Have you ever stridden into a church just to point out what a great apse it has?
I started a life of crossword-solving as a teenager, almost three decades before my first novel, Black Chalk, was published, and I give credit to the world of puzzles for helping foster my interest in language.
But crosswords are about more than accumulating words: crosswords are about having fun with words; crosswords are, in fact, about loving words.
Among my favorite crossword clues are the following (answers at the bottom of this piece in case you want to solve):
HIJKLMNO? (5 letters)
Site of unexpected change? (4 letters)
Where there’s a Will? (12 letters)
See, crosswords encourage you to play with language. And, as a novelist, I get to play in the sandbox of words every day. But more than just aiding in a love of language, more than just encouraging you to have fun with words, crosswords also stimulate skills such as lateral thinking, humor, and synonym use. You could say that crosswords are the ideal training tool for a novelist.
But the ways in which puzzles have affected my life as a novelist go deeper than the mere enjoyment of solving crosswords. In my early 20s, having discovered that I absolutely loathed Law (the subject of my college degree and subsequent training, and the area in which my parents wished me to work), I needed to find a job. I had known for some time that I wanted to be a novelist, but at that tender age I think I felt too young to write fiction. (And I know I felt considerably too scared.) So instead of turning to novels right away, I got a job in another area I loved: puzzles. And for years, I edited and compiled all sorts of puzzles — crosswords, logic problems, word searches, sudoku, riddles, spot the difference…How could all of this fail to leach into my fiction?
If Black Chalk reads like a puzzle (and many reviewers have stated as much) then it is as much because of my work in that field as it is because I enjoy challenging myself — I really do like tormenting myself with plot problems, it seems. As a writer you sit on your own in a small room for a very long time — and one of the ways I like to keep myself entertained, it turns out, is by constantly pivoting and twisting my plots like the pieces of a Rubik’s Cube until I come across a pattern I find particularly pleasing.
It feels to me that staring at the blank page is a lot like staring at a blank crossword grid. When I make up a crossword, I have, say, a theme and 10 or a dozen answers that I want to place in the grid. And when I set out to write a novel, I have a theme and 10 or a dozen plot points or developments that I want to place in the story. And so the challenge, in both cases, becomes one of getting everything to interlock, of making everything work together, a matter of filling in the gaps in the most pleasing way possible.
Because, let’s face it, what better way is there than solving puzzles to stave off the feeling of…I’m stumbling for the right word here…It’s something like boredom…Dammit, I’m supposed to be good at synonyms…Ah, that’s it: ennui.
⅄∀M∀H⊥∀H ƎNN∀ ؛∀ℲOS ؛(¡O oʇ\ᄅ H) ᴚƎ⊥∀M :sɹǝʍsu∀
Image Credit: Flickr/Chip Griffin
If you hear kids throwing the word “book” around a lot more than you’re used to, don’t assume that a new literary craze is sweeping the land. According to some cultural observers, “book” is becoming a substitute for “cool” thanks to the pervasive influence of text messaging.As some of you are no doubt aware, when the “T9” predictive text function is activated your cell phone will try to guess the word you’re typing as you key it in on those frustrating number keypads. As it turns out, when you try to type in “cool” – that is, 2-6-6-5 – phones will, by default, suggest “book,” and, according to some, the kids are running with it, and “book” has become another word for “cool.” So, all you teachers out there, your work is officially done. Books are now cool, literally. (via Zorn)