Over the Brink of Disaster: The Millions Interviews Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert didn’t know she would be living through a global pandemic when she sat down to write The Unreality of Memory, her latest essay collection, which takes great interest in how people live through disasters and process their experiences. But the book, which the poet and essayist began in 2016, could not be more timely.
Gabbert spoke with The Millions about what it was like to research some of the most harrowing moments in human history, what she’s learned about pandemics, how poetry leaks into her prose, and more.

The Millions: What is it like to have a book preoccupied with disasters and memory come out in the midst of numerous disasters across the world: rapidly worsening climate change, a flailing U.S. presidency, increasing fascist populism worldwide, flaring tensions between the world’s major powers, ongoing humanitarian crises in such countries as Yemen and Venezuela, the recent decimation of Beirut, and, of course, a global pandemic?
Elisa Gabbert: Well, I’m glad we still have books. Some days it’s hard for me to believe that anyone would want to read about disasters during a disaster, but multiple people have told me they found the book “oddly comforting”—which is exactly how I often felt when reading about the Black Death, or, even better, the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum, a mysterious sudden global warming period 55 million years ago. Reading about history and especially deep geologic time can provide a kind of momentary psychic relief from all the suffering of the present. And my hope is that it somehow helps us think through the present into the future, though I wish I knew how to fix these problems. I wish I knew how to save the post office or end voter suppression.
TM: This collection deals with major historical moments and trends and massive collective reactions to them, but also examines very personal experiences and intimate responses from both you and your loved ones. How did you strike a balance between these two magnitudes, and how did you find a way to weave them all together?
EG: Though I wouldn’t call this a book of personal essays, the essay as a form is inherently personal—a record of how I’m processing time and material through my particular perspective, this singular, subjective consciousness. When I’m working on an essay I experience a heightened consciousness: I notice what I’m noticing, I think about how I’m thinking. My approach as a writer has always been to make this stuff explicit, like the essayist (me) is there in the essay, almost as a character, doing this research, changing her mind. But I also get sick of myself, so my essays are rarely strictly personal.
TM: Your essay “The Great Mortality” is about plagues and pandemics throughout the ages—it even quotes Anthony Fauci and mentions attempts to predict the next pandemic on the level of the flu of 1918. What kind of lessons did you learn from studying thousands of years of human attempts to cope with illnesses their doctors barely understood? How does it feel to return to that essay now?
EG: Here’s a fun fact: my last pass edits were due in April, after lockdown had started. There was some question of whether I should update that essay with a mention of Covid-19. But how could I, really? What could I say about a pandemic that was still just beginning to unfold? Instead, I decided to annotate each essay with the year of composition. I wrote “The Great Mortality” in 2018; I wanted it to be clear to readers why there was no mention of the current pandemic.
You might think I was more prepared for the coronavirus than the average person, but I can’t say I was! Back in January or February, I remember my friend Sarah sending me links about the outbreaks in China and asking if I was worried. I’m embarrassed to say I was pretty cavalier; I think I said “We’ve lived through flu panics before.” I did exactly what everyone always does: I told myself the big disaster wouldn’t (or couldn’t) actually happen to me.
TM: During the research process for this collection, did you have to balance researching these grim topics with lighter fare? What was your reading process like at the time?
EG: I really loved doing the research for this book, and the truth is that being surrounded by library books, even if the books were about Hiroshima and Chernobyl, made me happy—I was just so interested in learning more about these things, I would fall into flow. But once the book was done I absolutely needed a break. I went back to reading lots of novels and poetry and writing literary criticism. I think the only essay I wrote last year that was research-based was about hair metal.
TM: This is your second collection of essays. Around the occasion of your first, The Word Prettyyou told Read It Forward, “I didn’t really start off thinking about writing a book of essays at all.” What made you decide to write a second? And does it come from a creative impulse similar to the one that drives your poetry?
EG: I didn’t set out to write my first essay collection because I didn’t have a sense that anyone wanted to read my prose. But what I discovered was actually a lot more people wanted to read my prose than wanted to read my poetry. I don’t think this is because my poetry sucks (though who am I to say), I think it’s just that prose forms have a much wider audience. Mary Ruefle, a poet whose essays are really popular, has said that poetry is private but prose is public; prose is public language. So certain things that I had thought of as not really for me, as a writer—things like having an agent, writing a book proposal—suddenly seemed like maybe they could be for me. But I am still writing poems, and poetry is a very different way of communicating. In my nonfiction I really am trying to tell the truth, but poetry is closer to fiction; it’s more like creating a speculative reality that the ideas can live in.
TM: What are some ways writing poetry informs your essay writing that surprised you when you recognized them, and vice versa?
EG: I really care about the tiny details of language and punctuation in both prose and poetry, and I really care about the sound of my sentences, the rhythm of the paragraph—I love the paragraph in isolation, the way it can feel like a prose poem, self-contained. I also like to think about what can be left out—poetry depends more on gaps, but the essay can make use of gaps as well. There’s an essay in The Word Pretty where I write about what I call “invisible transitions,” a kind of maneuver where the leap between two paragraphs or ideas is a little opaque, where you kind of spontaneously appear at point B rather than seeing a clear path from point A.
TM: The morning after the 2016 presidential election, you tweeted: “Life goes on, but at greatly reduced quality and not for as long.” Relatedly, you end the collection’s second essay, “Doomsday Pattern,” with “I feel this way all the time now. Nothing is safe. Everything’s fine.” Nearly four years later, do you feel the same way?
EG: In 2016, it felt like we were on the brink of disaster; now I’d say we’re over the brink. Of course, things were already very bad then, but the devastation of the pandemic is just overwhelming. If you think about it too much you’ll never stop screaming. So I guess you could say I do feel the same: the only way to get through time alive is to spend a lot of it pretending that everything’s fine.

Bonus Links:
Elisa Gabbert Wants Interesting Thinking, No Matter the SubjectInside Elisa Gabbert’s Notebook

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Who’s Afraid of Poetry in America?

Poetry and America have rarely been seen as the likeliest of bedfellows. In fact, the nature and stature  of poetry in the United States of America has been questioned pretty much since the latter first existed.
In his book Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville fired shots at the very concept. “I am not afraid that the poetry of democratic peoples will prove timid or that it will stay very close to the earth,” he wrote. “I fear that the works of democratic poets will often offer immense and incoherent images, overloaded depictions, and bizarre composites, and that the fantastic being issuing from their minds will sometimes make one long for the real world.” Within a decade or two, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman would prove him wrong.
The concerns over the form in this country continue today, in a very different way. Contemporary poets and poetry lovers often bemoan not the dizzying heights of the form but, rather, its marginalized status in modern times. Even the increase in poetry’s market share, thanks to Instagram poetry’s big sales numbers, isn’t seen entirely in a positive light. Instead, many poets feel that those sales are leaving the majority of poetic tradition behind.
And yet there’s another perspective on American poetry: that its history is rooted both in tradition and experiment; that it is for both the poets and the people; and that, contrary to popular belief, it still plays an important role in many lives—and could in even more, if given a chance. That’s where Poetry in America, the PBS television show created, directed, and hosted by Elisa New, the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard University, comes into play.

The show, which has returned for its second season, appropriately, during National Poetry Month, has begun airing on PBS stations around the country and will air nationwide on the WORLD Channel. The show will continue airing through the spring, summer, and fall, and episodes will also be available to stream on pbs.org and on the show’s website. Each episode focuses on a single poem, with New discussing works by Marilyn Chin, Elizabeth Bishop, Yusef Komunyakaa, Marianne Moore, Mark Doty, Stephen Sondheim, William Carlos Williams, and Walt Whitman, with guests including Katie Couric, Vice President Al Gore, Sheryl Sandberg, Bill T. Jones, Secretary of State John Kerry, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nas, John Hodgman, Tony Kushner, Justice Elena Kagan, Raúl Esparza, Maxine Hong Kingston, and more.
The concept for the show, New said, came out of a set of online courses she was creating at Harvard. “Just as they were going into online learning and they didn’t have many rules, I commandeered video crews and started making content that was more like documentary television,” she said. “In the beginning, it was really just going to Brooklyn and filming, say, the ‘A Song of Myself’ marathon and talking to people there.”
Soon, though, New’s access to great minds across the board gave her the opportunity to interview visitors ranging from Justice Kagan to hip hop artist Nas. After six months, she said, she had “filmed some extraordinary conversations with people not known as poetry experts,” and reached out to Boston’s PBS member television station, WGBH. And thus the show was born.
The hope, New said, was to help people get over their apprehension of poetry. “The show evolved out of my sense that people are afraid of poetry,” she said. “They don’t know how to navigate a poem. And I thought that bringing the resources of a group to bear would give them a glimpse into the joy that one can feel by discovering both what everyone has always seen in a line of this poem—how Bill Clinton and a kid in a Harlem schoolyard, upon reading a poem, see exactly the same thing—and the joy of seeing how our language is so plastic and so multivalent that we all keep seeing new things in it.”
The variety of guests on the show serves a number of purposes, including showing that all sorts of people read poetry and that each brings a very different understanding of the use of language to the work of reading. As examples, New pointed to Justice Kagan, trained in the art of legal writing, and Nas, trained in the art of the lyric. “Both of them brought to their conversations with me their own writing practices, and explained their writing practices to me, and those practices intersect, in many ways, with the practices of poets—and of course Nas is a poet, and an extraordinarily gifted one,” New said.
But even those who are not writers themselves, New said—such as Vice President Joe Biden and Shaquille O’Neil, who were guests in the show’s first season—bring their own different understanding of the power of language to reading poetry. New spoke of Biden using language “that is drenched in affect” as “a kind of emotional signaling system,” and of O’Neil being “so accustomed to the fast patter of basketball talk,” and bringing that understanding to bear on his reading of poetry. “Everybody brings their own theory of language, from the kind of precincts of language in which they most comfortably dwell,” she said. “And if you can sort of match that with the right kind of poem, they’re just experts at reading it.”
New’s objective is to help viewers feel comfortable in poetry’s arena. And by focusing on one poem in a half-hour of television, adapted to the screen visually and aurally, and accompanied by carefully-matched selections of music and images and historical context, she believes she can do just that—and not in the same way as, say, Instagram poetry.
“I think that for the inexperienced reader of poetry and viewer of the series, the idea is that the series will show that you can sit tight and have an experience that’s different from any you’ve had before, and that you might’ve been afraid of before, and that that experience will be rewarding for you,” New said.
The trick, of course, with creating a public access television series about such an art form as poetry, coveted and beloved intensely by its practitioners and students, and often considered arcane and unreachable by the masses, is pleasing both parties. And New knew that, too. But in the end, she knew where to draw the line.
“For the initiated reader of poetry, I of course want to enhance that, that reader’s experience as well—and I always have the voices of the experts in my ear, sitting on my shoulder, warning me: Don’t dumb it down, don’t cheapen it, don’t oversimplify it,” she said. “But I would like, actually, to restore to some of them, their original joy and wonder, and also help them think about poetry as a more common pleasure. Walt Whitman said, ‘I am what is easiest, cheapest, freest.’ And we in the poetry world can be a little bit precious. So, even as I want to be as rigorous as my most rigorous viewer, I want that viewer to bear in mind what Frank O’Hara told us, which is that poetry should be fun, right? It should be like having a cocktail. It should be fizzy and delightful—even when the subject is grave.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

How to Live the Writing Life

Mary Gannon and Kevin Larimer, the two most recent editors of Poets & Writers, want you to know how to be a writer. That means understanding every step of the process, not just when to pick up the pen (or put it down) or open up the laptop (or close it shut). Their new book, The Poets & Writers Complete Guide to Being a Writer, includes tips on finding and entering writing contests, applying for and taking writing retreats, navigating the seas of self-publishing, finding an agent and working with an editor, and building a sustainable career.
Larimer said that the duo “tried to balance practical, no-nonsense tips and insights from successful authors and publishing professionals with a decidedly more human, humane, and emotional approach to the writing life.” Their hope, Adler said, was that the book would “reflect the hearts and souls of the writers we’ve worked with and come to deeply admire over the past two decades as much as their boundless creativity and bright intellect.”
The effort, according to some of the biggest names in writing and publishing, paid off, with Graywolf publisher Fiona McCrae calling the book a “teeming compendium” and Riverhead Books associate publisher and director of publicity Jynne Dilling Martin adding, in a blurb for a book published by a rival company, that she found the book “lucid, lively, [and] enormously helpful.”
To help distill some of their knowledge for the masses, The Millions asked Gannon and Latimer to round up six pieces of advice from the book they found both representative and particularly helpful. Here are six shortened selections they sent us:
1. Read literary magazines—and subscribe to them, too.
This seems like a no-brainer, but not all writers take the time to do it. Reading literary magazines not only demonstrates good literary citizenship, but it also provides essential information about the field and the chance to discover the work of writers you wouldn’t otherwise find. You can take note of where your favorite authors are publishing their work, hone in on particular magazines’ missions and aesthetics, and support the very magazines you hope to be published in one day. And as writer Yuka Igarashi says, “A literary magazine puts a writer in conversation with other writers and, depending on the magazine, with a community, with a lineage or tradition.” — chosen by Mary Gannon
2.Write a fan letter to an author.
All writers, even the most established, need a little love. And you’d be surprised to know how meaningful receiving a fan letter can be to a writer. Plus, carving out the time to think through and articulate why a book or piece of writing moves you, what you found important, and possibly even transformative, gives you a gift as well—the opportunity to understand what you value most and why. This clarity can inform your own writing practice in significant ways. —chosen by Mary Gannon
3.You don’t need an MFA to be a successful writer.
Pursuing a master of arts degree in creative writing has become a well-travelled path toward becoming a published writer, but it’s not the only path and it can be expensive. (If you do choose to pursue an MFA, we highly recommend researching programs that offer full funding.) What the MFA provides—the time and environment for refining your craft with like-minded people—can be achieved through other means. Think writing conferences, writing groups, and DIY retreats. Talk to any agent or editor, in New York City or elsewhere, and they’ll all say the same thing. If given a choice between a mediocre manuscript from a writer with an MFA and a remarkable one from a writer who never even went to college, they will always choose the best writing. —chosen by Mary Gannon
4.Don’t feel guilty if you’re not writing.
Too often we hear the advice that all writers really need to do is force themselves to sit there and write. As Mary Heaton Vorse purportedly said to Sinclair Lewis over a century ago: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat on the pants to the seat of the chair.” While it’s true that nothing was ever written without a significant amount of time spent, you know, writing, you shouldn’t feel a constant sense of guilt if you’re not in that chair writing at every available moment of every day. Some authors talk about how they’re able to plant themselves in the writing chair on a strict schedule, which can be inspiring, but it can also give beginning writers the impression that everyone works that way. Or that everyone should want to work that way. So, in the book we wanted to guard against the assumption that if you don’t keep a rigorous writing schedule you must not want it enough, that you must not be serious about writing if you aren’t dedicating a set number of hours to the act of writing. This is nonsense. It ignores the reality for many of us—the reality that is composed of varying levels, degrees, and amounts of responsibility, of inequality, of privilege, of access. Your level of passion and commitment to writing is not commensurate with the number of hours per day that you write. Being a writer is about more than just writing. There’s a reason we refer to it as “the writing life.” An important part of being a writer is living—and truly living is ensuring that you’re not chained to a desk staring at a computer at the expense of lived experience (which will, of course, inform and enliven your writing). —chosen by Kevin Larimer
5.Be proud of yourself.
Too often, especially for writers, pride can sound like a bad word. Many of us downplay our contributions and accomplishments, forgetting to take a moment to feel proud of what we’re doing on the page. Having grown up on a farm in the Midwest, in a family where modesty was held up as a kind of unspoken principle, I can find it difficult, even under the sheen of social media, to take time for the good, healthy, valuable feelings of accomplishment that come after a long writing or editing project is finally complete. We wanted to make sure that our book included some reminders to writers to take a moment and give yourself permission to brag a bit. Don’t automatically dismiss what you’re doing if someone brings up your writing over dinner or in casual conversation. You’re a writer; you’ve written something unique. And there are millions of people out there who cannot say that. It’s a special thing you’re doing, unique to you. Go ahead, be proud of yourself! —chosen by Kevin Larimer
6.Feel your post-publication feelings.
Honestly, this is something we were able to write about only after our own book was well on its way to being published, and we added it as the last chapter because the feelings we were writing about were so strong. Not a lot of writers talk about it, at least not publicly, because unless you’ve been through the process yourself, you likely wouldn’t know to ask an author about it. And so many writers hold publication as a top marker of success; it makes sense that authors wouldn’t want to be perceived as complaining about how emotionally difficult it can be. Plus, it’s kind of personal. It can be a little embarrassing when your eyes well up with tears when you hit send on the final manuscript to your editor. There are so many emotions—joy, relief, excitement, and happiness, yes, but also fear, sadness, exhaustion; heck, maybe you’re feeling a little let down after the rush leading up to deadline. All of these things are normal. So don’t be embarrassed of your feelings. You’re engaged in something really big. This work involves every part of you, and there are highs and lows at every step. We want to remind writers to feel it all, and use every piece of it to fuel and empower your next writing project. —chosen by Kevin Larimer
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Breathing New Life into Old Books

Books are constantly being made into movies, but rarely is a movie actually about books—let alone the people who sell them. Earlier this month, The Booksellers, a documentary on the antiquarian book trade and the buyers and sellers of rare books, hit theaters to overall acclaim, and while the film is very much about its characters, it’s also about the trade as a whole, and how it’s surviving in an era of dizzying technological advancement.
We spoke to the film’s director, D.W. Young, about how the movie came about and what the future of the rare book world looks like to him.
The Millions: How did this project come about?
D.W. Young: The very first idea for the project came from our producer Dan Wechsler, who is also a prominent rare book dealer. He has also done some film work, and he and Judith Mizrachy, our other producer and my partner and my wife, and we’ve worked together on lots of things over the years. She had worked with Dan on something, we’d all kind of worked together on some projects like eight or nine years ago and become friends. We were talking about future projects and he mentioned he’d always thought a documentary about the rare book world would be a great idea. It had never been done. And from his perspective from inside the book world, he had a lot of ideas. And Judith and I immediately agreed that it was a great idea. We each had some peripheral sense of the rare book world, we’re both people who love books. So we enthusiastically agreed. But we were all tied up in other projects at the time and we didn’t really get to it until about three years ago when we were actually working on something else which hit a standstill. So at that time I said, you know what, I think this would be a great moment to pursue the rare book idea. And so we did.
TM: How did the process of reporting it go?
DWY: Dan provided some shortcuts. He got us to some people sooner and easier and kinda got the ball rolling faster than it might’ve. I think we would’ve gotten to the same place in a lot of respects left to our own devices. But it would have been more work and taken longer. And in a few cases he helped get some people on board who might’ve been reluctant or taken a lot more cajoling. But in terms of the reporting, I think with something like this, it’s a kind of organic process where you have things in mind but you also need to be receptive to it being a learning experience and kind of discovering things as you go. I was doing research on my own and, and talking to people also, and that’s kind of how I was acquainting myself with this world. So first, I think we wanted to talk to a certain base of people and from there, certain connections started being made about what was possible and a sense of how many aspects of the trade we could fit into a movie started to clarify. Then it gets a little more interesting when you start to try and fit people in a more specific way. That became about thinking of a further set of dealers—certain collectors who would be complimentary to what we already had, and a few external voice, Fran Liebowitz being one and Susan Orlean being another. It’s a building process.
TM: What was one of the things that you learned along the way that surprised you or changed the way that you were looking at the rare book world, or even just how you would frame it in the film?

Rare book dealer Adam Weinberger appraises books at a residence in Manhattan in The Booksellers.
DWY: One thing that I really was not so aware was how much the trade handles material that’s not just books or paper, although that’s still the dominant component of what people in the rare book trade transact with. But I didn’t realize how much ephemera and other historically relevant material could fall under the umbrella of the rare book trade. We saw 19th-century board games from France and enigma machines from World War II, certain photography, and other material.
TM: Did you find the breadth of the trade surprising?
DWY: Absolutely. I was super enthusiastic when I realized that hip hop magazines and that kind of material was starting to become part of the rare book world. And I was very excited to bring it into the film, because hip hop is an enormously important cultural factor. But I think the very key point is that it’s not albums themselves as musical collectibles, as music, that it’s relevant to the rare book world. It’s historical significance. The magazines that Syreeta Gates collects, many of them haven’t even been digitized yet. You would think they would be, but even so, they haven’t. The understanding of the historical context of say the eighties and the nineties is important. To further enhance the context of our historical understanding of that period, there’s great value to collecting that stuff. I needed stuff like that for the film, the more recent stuff, the zines and stuff like that. It seems like it was just yesterday, but it’s kind of in the rear view mirror already. And it weirdly falls into the rare book trade.
TM: The rare book business is heavily white and male, even today. But the types of books being collected are obviously not just about the history of white culture, but about the history of everything. Knowing that, do you think there’s a possibility for more diversification in this side of the business?
DWY: I think so, and I think that’s really the position of a number the younger dealers, who are very smart, and they really advocate that belief, and I think it is expressed in the film. From what I’ve seen, I think it seems to have a lot of merit. The rare book trade is not an institution. No one’s in charge of it. It’s comprised of just a bunch of individuals. Most of them have a shop that’s just them or maybe one other person or a couple of helpers. So there’s no clear path to adding diversity to the trade at the higher end. We focused on established dealers who were generally fairly established in the higher echelons of the market. Adding more diversity there, it’s not like some of those dealers who are now older have not been at the forefront of providing access to a lot of interesting material that is diverse. They’ve helped bring new collectors and new institutional interest to all kinds of material. That said, I have to clarify that I feel like I’m still very much an outsider’s perspective on this. But I think that’s one of the things with Syreeta collecting hip hop magazines, or some of the stuff that Arthur Fournier collects in the film, that’s clearly speaking to a different generation than your traditional model collector from the past. I think that there’s good reason to believe that the more that material stretches out into encompassing more and more kinds of things that will hopefully lead to some more diversity in the trade. There’s a potential I think for a broadening of the trade—who engages in it—that could go hand in hand with a broadening of what’s collectible.
TM: What’s something you weren’t able to explore in the film that you wish you could have?
DWY: One thing I never got a satisfactory answer to, and I don’t think there is a right answer, but I kinda think is really interesting as far as institutions are concerned—and also collectors, but even more so institutions—is, to what degree do the dealers influence what’s considered new and interesting and collectible, by being at the forefront, and what degree are they responding to the institutions and the collectors and their own groundbreaking interests. I think, ultimately, it’s a two way street. Both things are happening simultaneously, and each instance is different of why and to what degree. The dealers of course probably feel a little more strongly about what they’re bringing to the table, and I’m sure the librarians feel the opposite. But I think it’s interesting that there’s a kind of dialogue that’s going on there. It’s kind of too complicated a thing to get into a documentary, but in other kinds of discourse, it would be interesting to delve into further.
In terms of a specific scene, one dealer who appeared in the film, Dave Bergman, showed me these amazing catalogs from the late 1800s, I’m guessing, of fittings—like, the brass and other fittings—for caskets and funeral materials. It’s just an entire catalog of brass fittings and stuff. There’s no comparison for today. That doesn’t exist anymore, a lot of what’s in this catalog. And no one 30 years ago likely thought that this was very interesting at all. But we’ve changed our appreciation for how that could speak to us historically, or be collectible. I looked at that and thought it was really interesting how something can go from being literally something someone would throw on the fire to having value. It’s just a question of people seeing it differently.
TM: At the end of The Booksellers, the rare book sellers weigh in on how they see the future of the trade—some are hopeful, some are not. How do you feel about the future of rare bookselling?
DWY: I feel like I’m somewhere in the middle. That said, I choose to feel positive, insofar as it is a matter of choice. I think at the end of the day, having to go one direction or another, I would choose to take the positive approach. If your experts are that down the middle, sometimes I think just the act of believing is what tips the scales. What’s more interesting to me is how little anyone agree on this point in the book trade. You could get book dealers talking about this endlessly. The degree of uncertainty in the moment is kind of the most compelling factor in the end. We’re really in this moment where everyone is so uncertain about this. It’s reflective of the technological zeitgeist as well. Everything in our world is in flux at an increasingly rapid rate. The rare book trade is certainly not a mirror of society as a whole, but it’s undergoing many similar changes to those that are happening elsewhere. It’s interesting, I think, to compare that experience of this one very specific world to the larger world beyond. Where are they similar? Where do they diverge in their responses to some of these changes. Regarding diversity and the book trade, for instance, I think it’s interesting to see how that relates to questions and issues of diversity in society at large, and the push for that. For the younger dealers, there is a great sense of passion and importance placed upon that. One of the functions of a documentary is to exist as a historical record of the time and place in which it’s being made. Obviously that’s something we hope the film does.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

“Cancelled” Is Canceled

Welcome to Do You Copy, a semi-regular column on copyediting (copy editing? copy-editing?) that investigates some of the editorial life’s deepest mysteries. When is an en dash a better hyphen than a hyphen? Why are there so many stylebooks? Should we give a dang about the interrobang!? Learn the answers to these questions and more, and prepare for punctuation pedantry.

The word “cancel” is very popular these days. So-called cancel culture has been in full swing for a while, and with the new coronavirus affecting pretty much everything in our world right now, all kinds of things are getting canceled. Yep. That’s right. One “l.”

Circumstances, therefore, demand that your favorite friendly neighborhood copy dork—eat your heart out, Benjamin Dreyer!—speak up to settle things once and for all: If you are writing in American English, “canceled” and “canceling” are spelled with one “l,” but “cancellation” is spelled with two. This is, of course, unless you work at The New Yorker, where the style guide is both a sexy renegade and very incorrect.

That’s right, folks! Whether it’s a bad man or a public event you’re canceling, be sure to do it with impeccable spelling and fewer wasted letters. And if you disagree, please feel free to challenge me to a duel, to be held sometime when all the events aren’t getting canceled. (One “l.”) We can even film it, and call it L-raisers.

Or, of course, you can ignore me and go ahead spelling it “kåñçèŁ’d” or some such madness. It’s just copy, after all. Go nuts! Who cares!? Just please stay inside!!

Image Credit: Pixabay.

Laying Cromwell to Rest: The Millions Interviews Hilary Mantel

With the publication of Wolf Hall—the first book in what was to become a trilogy chronicling the life of Thomas Cromwell, the lowborn man who became one of Henry VIII’s closest advisers—in 2009, novelist Hilary Mantel became a global superstar. Three years later, its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, cemented the deal. Now, Mantel wraps up the most critically acclaimed and widely-read historical fiction saga of the 21st century with The Mirror and the Light, which begins with the death of Anne Boleyn and ends with the death of Cromwell himself. On the eve of the book’s publication, we asked Mantel about the challenges of writing historical fiction, what it was about Cromwell she found so fascinating, and what tricks of the trade she relied on.
The Millions: You recently told The New York Times that, now that you’ve finished telling the story of Thomas Cromwell, you’ve finished with historical fiction and will pivot to writing plays. What is it about Cromwell that made his story irresistible where others were not?

Hilary Mantel: I’ve had Cromwell in view all my writing career. It seemed like a story with endless ambiguity, which is what sustains a writer. You can’t completely account for Cromwell and you can’t add him up. There’s so much we will never know, and what attracts me as a novelist is the combination of documented fact—the heavily-inked paper—and what’s missing and unknown—the white space.
TM: Which characters in the Court of King Henry VIII were you surprised to find yourself drawn to throughout your research, besides Cromwell?

HM: I try to see my characters through Cromwell’s eyes—that’s the essence of the enterprise. So I find Thomas More endlessly intriguing. Among less famous figures, I’m drawn to Rafe (or Ralph) Sadler, Cromwell’s apprentice, who grew up in his household. Rafe survived Cromwell and survived Henry, and was still working for the Tudor dynasty in his 80s.
TM: What do you think it says about your readership in the U.S. that so many were drawn to a nearly 1,800–page trilogy chronicling 16th-century English politics?
HM: Perhaps it shows that it’s about more than 16th century politics—that it addresses certain lasting truth about power and sex and love, public image, and private dreams.
TM: Setting aside the work of Mary Robertson, which you’ve often cited as a major influence, what sorts of works did you find yourself drawn to: primary or secondary sources? narrative or scholarly histories? historiographies? Why?
HM: I found myself drawn to the sources. I like to get as close to the 1530s as I can. One of my tasks was to reappraise Cromwell, who has not been well-served by biographers or popular historians till very recently. Now there has been a new interest in him, a return to source, and an end—I trust—to the rolling forward of some of the old mistakes and misperceptions.
TM: What’s a skill you developed over the course of writing the series that is specific to adapting a historical saga into a work of fiction?

HM: I think I developed my skills in handling information when I wrote my first big historical novel, A Place of Greater Safety, set during the French Revolution. I’m old-fashioned, and believe in a card index—or a series of them, as needed. The making of them is what puts the data into your head. But only time and imagination makes that data personal and useful.
TM: What are some works of historical fiction you find extraordinary that have flown under the radar and that you hope readers of your series will find and read?

HM: Barry Unsworth had a robust historical imagination, and won the Booker prize for Sacred Hunger, but less famous is his novel Losing Nelson, where a present-day observer interrogates the legend of the 18th-century admiral, and has to rethink his hero worship. It’s this questioning attitude that speaks to me.
TM: This book was initially due to publish in 2018, and the British press hasn’t let you forget it. Is this a case of journalists not understanding how, or the pace at which, novelists and historians work?
HM: The press has all sorts of fantasies about dates when books are due. (I have even seen announcements of books I have not started, and perhaps never will.) But as you imply, novels take their own time, and my publishers in every country were willing to let me have the time I needed. But it is mildly irritating to be told you are “blocked,” when you are writing every day of the week.
TM: What’s harder for you: finding the right fact, or turning the right phrase?
HM: The first needs some luck and the second needs plenty of practice.
TM: What one fundamental aspect of history do you wish readers, or the culture at large, knew that you now know after years of researching the period you’ve fictionalized?
HM: The past has to be respected and valued for its own sake. It is not a rehearsal for the present, and its people are not us in a primitive form.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

All Poetry Is Political: The Millions Interviews Olivia Gatwood

Author Olivia Gatwood’s debut collection of poems, Life of the Party, was a hot ticket at last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, and was published by Random House last month. In addition to being an accomplished poet both in spoken word and on the page, Gatwood is also a Title IX Compliant educator in sexual assault prevention and recovery, and her new collection interrogates issues of the body and sexual trauma. The Millions spoke with Gatwood about the process leading to her first published collection, the distinction between poetry and spoken word poetry, and the importance of feminism and politics in art—and asked for a recording of her reading a poem from the collection as well.
The Millions: Was there one poem, or a few, in this collection that was harder to write than the others? If so, is there a story behind that you’d be willing to share?
Olivia Gatwood: The Babysitter poems and the No Baptism series were both really difficult for a variety of reasons. One, because they both unfold throughout the book, so I had to consider their narrative arc of the specific series as well as within the individual poems and how I would weave them in conversation with the other poems in the book. But also because they are both deeply vulnerable, personal stories that, to be honest, I don’t remember quite well but affected my life in significant ways. I felt like I was investigating my own life, forming a hypothesis based on what I remember and how I felt, then throwing my findings into the hands of other people.
TM: Do you distinguish at all between slam and written poetry in your work? Do you write differently when a poem will be published in print before it’s spoken, or vice versa?
OG: Slam poetry is a competition in which I am no longer active. The only distinction I make between spoken word and written word is that one is spoken aloud and one is not. When a poem is read aloud, no matter where or in what way, that poem is spoken word. I know that seems obvious, but I think a lot of people (often those who don’t perform) enforce this very strict boundary between spoken and written word in order to preserve some understanding they have of what makes something “literary”. Which is often just rooted in racism and misogyny. Anyway, I do think it can be important for poets like myself who were brought up in slam to learn how to consider their work on the page—can your poem still stand up for itself when you’re not there to give it life? That came later for me and when it did, it drastically changed the way I understood my craft. I think poets who haven’t historically performed their work should challenge themselves to do the inverse, too. Now when I’m writing, I’m considering both (performance and page) equally and in constant conversation. I don’t want people to rely on me to read my poems aloud to them. But also, when people come to my shows, I want them to leave feeling like that was exactly how they needed to experience it.
TM: How did you work to strike a balance between the more traditionally lyric verse in your book and the more prosaic?
OG: I studied fiction in undergrad so I think it’s pretty natural for me to tell stories in prose. I love how much permission poetry gives me to write a story, to honor the form that it takes despite genre. I wish I had a more concrete answer but that’s really it. I write the poem how it’s asking to be written and rarely do I try to sculpt it into something else.

TM: This collection mines personal experience very explicitly, in ways that would seem to encourage readers to see its author as the speaker in many of its poems. Do you see yourself as a “confessional” poet? Why or why not?
OG: I don’t really know what it means to be “confessional.” To be honest, I just had to google it. Okay so it means the poet uses “I” versus I guess, writing about what is happening outside of the self. In that case, I’m extremely confessional. Or maybe just a narcissist.

TM: In addition, this collection is strongly feminist and takes a stand against patriarchal values and the representations of domestic violence in pop culture. Do you see yourself as a “political” poet? Why or why not?
OG: All poetry is political. Even the freedom to be indifferent is political. Poetry by white, cis, straight men that doesn’t explicitly talk about politics is political because white, cis, straight men feeling unburdened enough to not talk about politics is political. So yeah, I’d say my work is political.
TM: Which poets working today whose work you see as similar to yours do you most admire, and why? Similarly, what poets do you see as writing very different poetry from yours whose work you admire?
OG: Melissa Lozada-Oliva and I are super close friends and came up alongside each other in poetry—I admire her work so much because she is bending genre in really interesting ways. She’s merging comedy and poetry and performance and challenging her audiences to come with her, which they are. I see a lot of similarities between my work and Kim Addonizio’s. When I came across her book, I read every poem aloud to myself and was overcome with how much of myself I saw in it. I’m endlessly inspired by Ada Limón. Discovering her work taught me more about writing than any class I’ve ever taken. Same goes for Lucille Clifton, Ross Gay, Kristin Chang and Carrie Fountain. I love Remy Ma, Amy Winehouse, Lorde. All of their work is super different from my own, because of genre but also lyrical content, but I turn to their work and their careers for guidance all the time.
TM: What did you find to be the hardest part of putting together a book of poetry?
OG: Building a clear, narrative arc with a bunch of soundbites that you didn’t write in chronological order. Every wall in my house had poems taped to it.
TM: What can you tell us about the poem you chose to read and why you chose it?
OG: I chose this poem because it functions as a kind of retroactive disclaimer for the entire book. It explains something explicitly that I think I’m trying to explain all along.

This Is the Right Way to Capitalize Headlines

Welcome to Do You Copy, a semi-regular column on copyediting (copy editing? copy-editing?) that investigates some of the editorial life’s deepest mysteries. When is an en dash a better hyphen than a hyphen? Why are there so many stylebooks? Should we give a dang about the interrobang!? Learn the answers to these questions and more, and prepare for punctuation pedantry.

Headline writing is a mug’s game. In print, there’s rarely much space to play around. On the web, there’s too much space, and readers don’t click on anything interesting. And no matter how hard headlinese writers may try, they’ll never beat Variety headlines from the 1940s. It’s rough out there.

But when a hed is finally finished after much hemming, hawing, and editing, writers and editors are faced with an even tougher challenge: knowing which words to capitalize and which to keep in lowercase. There are just so many parts of speech! And so many words with multiple uses! Recalling all the ins and outs of proper headline capitalization is a daunting task indeed.

Which is why, after being shackled to a table adjacent to a whiteboard with nothing but pamplemousse La Croix to hydrate him for nearly an hour, Publishers Weekly managing editor Dan Berchenko laid out for me a strategic plan for capitalizing correctly in headlines (and in any titles, actually!) in the remixed and modified University of Chicago style that is PW’s own. It has been birthed in the form of this handy flowchart, the product of the blood, carbonated sweat, and grapefruity tears of an expert grammarian. Use it wisely.

But wait, you say. Surely there must be exceptions. What about the phrase take on, for instance? Or team up? Surely both those words would be capitalized! Well…. “The word up in team up is not a preposition—it’s an adverb,” Dan clarifies between gulps of sweet, sweet seltzer. “It modifies team as a verb—‘I teamed up with X.’ If it were a preposition there, you’d literally be talking about teaming above something, which is nonsensical. Almost all short words have multiple functions, and you have to think about the function, not the word. In other words,” he clarified, “it’s not an exception.”

Exactly. There are no exceptions in copyediting. Except for all the exceptions, of course. Check some of those out in our next Do You Copy column, in which we’ll dig a bit deeper into the knotty world of names and how, exactly, to denote them.

Image credit: Unsplash/Amador Loureiro.

Telling Toni Morrison’s Story: The Millions Interviews Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

A new literary documentary, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, which chronicles the life and career of the prolific author (and, less famously, influential book editor), hit theaters last week.
The film touches on a number of milestones in Morrison’s wide-ranging career: fighting for a salary equivalent to those of her male colleagues at publisher L.W. Singer; editing, among others, Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, Quincy Troupe, and Muhammad Ali; and the backlash from the white male publishing and literary zeitgeist following her Nobel Prize in Literature win. The Millions spoke with the film’s director, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, about what he hopes his film will achieve.
The Millions: How did this documentary come about?

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders: I first met Toni Morrison in 1981 when she sat for a portrait in my East Village studio. Tar Baby was just out and I shot her for a cover story of the Soho News. Our friendship continued, and over the years I photographed her for book jackets and press images. As the years passed, I split my time between portraiture and documentary filmmaking. It was a 2006 conversation with Toni in my kitchen that sparked the idea for my film series on identity. Toni was the first to sit for HBO’s The Black List, which ultimately featured 50 leading African Americans. It became clear to me then that Toni deserved her own feature documentary.
TM: Morrison is known for being extraordinarily perceptive. How did she make for an interview subject?
TGS: The key to any great interview is trust. Toni trusted me to make this film and, consequently, was very open about her life. Additionally, Toni is a master storyteller, and the camera loves her. Her warmth and wisdom come through…and she is blessed with a magnificent, mesmerizing voice. As filmmakers, you could not ask for anything more.
TM: How did you strike a balance between portraying Morrison’s family life, her publishing career, and her writing career?

TGS: We wanted audiences to see more than just Toni Morrison the Nobel laureate. She had a huge career at Random House, where she edited bestsellers like Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story and published voices that might have been lost without her support: Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, Lucille Clifton. She “cracked the ivory tower” of the publishing world and did all of this while she was writing her own incredible novels, teaching college, and raising two boys as a single mother. We wanted to show all of Toni’s hats and how her life of books had all of these lesser-known facets among her many achievements.

TM: How did you come to choose the other voices from the publishing and writing worlds that appear in the documentary? How did Hilton Als, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Robert Gottlieb, Walter Mosley, Russell Banks, Fran Lebowitz, and Sonia Sanchez get involved?

TGS: We started with a long list of names, and a very sharp pencil to cross most of them off! We became very specific about what each interviewee would bring to the narrative. For example, Oprah, the Book Club and Beloved; Gottlieb, his experience as her editor; Lebowitz, her humor and long friendship with Toni, etc. I didn’t want too many other voices, so there would be plenty of room for Toni. Visually, my idea was to shoot Toni direct-to-camera and the other interviewees looking off camera. This way, Toni talks directly to us and the others talk about her. It was a risky decision because once you go down that road, you’re stuck with the format. It did work out beautifully.
TM: Writing is not an activity that’s visually interesting. How did you manage to tell Morrison’s story on film, considering this challenge?
TGS: There are more than 600 archival images and video clips in the film. Our editor, Johanna Giebelhaus, was also the researcher, and she pulled remarkable material from the Library of Congress, the National Archives, Howard University, archives in Toni’s hometown in Ohio, the Random House archive, and Toni’s personal archive at Princeton. Toni’s old interviews with Charlie Rose, Dick Cavett, and Bill Moyers were also important elements. Additionally, we incorporated stunning fine art paintings from a wide range of African American artists such as Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, Rashid Johnson, Lorna Simpson, Jacob Lawrence, and Faith Ringgold, to name a few. These artworks help illustrate the themes Toni explores in her writing. Mickalene Thomas came onboard and used my images of Toni to create a spectacular opening credit montage.
TM: Were there any interesting publishing tidbits you chose to leave out of the film? If so, can you share one?

TGS: The one person we interviewed, who sadly didn’t make the final cut, was Peter Sellars. Toni and Peter worked together at Princeton in the atelier program that Toni created and had many debates about Shakespeare. Peter challenged Toni to write an answer to Othello and Toni’s play Desdemona, which focused on the female characters, was the result. We edited a riveting discussion of Toni and Peter’s artistic collaboration, but ultimately didn’t have room for it. Hopefully, this will be in the DVD extras. Toni’s thoughts on writing about sex for her book Jazz was also cut for time. Fascinating stuff!
TM: In what ways do you think this film, through telling Morrison’s life, gets at a fundamental truth about American publishing and literature?
TGS: An important section of the film explores the mostly white and predominately male world of 60’s and 70’s publishing. Toni describes how she navigated that. Her own writing and her publishing had profound impact, and fundamentally changed the canon by introducing African-American writers to a large audience. We also show how she brought to publishing her experience as a teacher, which gave her a critical insight into what literature and books were missing from the “catalogue.” It was a heady time, and while people were demonstrating in the streets, Toni’s mission as an editor was to create a permanent record of the ideas percolating outside—most importantly about race and the American experience.
TM: What do you hope audiences will take away from your film?
TGS: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am presents Toni as the person that I know…and I think one that her other friends will recognize too. That’s a rare achievement for a documentary. Audiences will see her as the brilliant, strong woman that she is. They will also love her more than ever. I also hope the film introduces Toni and her writing to a new generation that might not have read her books.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

How Do You Like Your Copy?

Copy editors are a serious bunch to whom excitement comes slowly and furor over a misused semicolon comes quickly. At least, that’s what the popular narrative would have you think. Enter “comma queen” Mary Norris (of The New Yorker) and Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer, both of whom have written whole columns or books (or both!) about copy that were, believe it or not, riveting. Literary Hub has brought the two together to discuss their love of editing, copy mistakes writers often make, and more. It is technical. It is also fun.

Image Credit: Pxhere.