If there were a contest to name a literary wonder woman, I would without hesitation elect Elissa Schappell, who is never without wit or an incisive quip, who pens the Hot Type column for Vanity Fair, and keeps her hand firmly in the lit scene as co-founder and editor-at-large of Tin House; she is also a lit champion extraordinaire, an active proponent of women’s rights, and a mother. However, none of this should overshadow her literary accomplishments. Her first book, Use Me, was a runner up for the Pen/Hemingway Award, and her most recent, Blueprints for Building Better Girls, was named a best book of the year by multiple media outlets, including The San Francisco Chronicle and The Wall Street Journal. As a series of interlinked stories that depicts women across generations, Blueprints for Building Better Girls encourages a burning of old blueprints in favor of forging new paths. Schappell approaches the chronicling of women’s lives as a serious endeavor, but never fails to leverage darkness with humor. Schappell’s wit is one that allows her “to tell the truth and not die,” as she puts it. The conversation here extends in many directions, including approaching Blueprints as an anti-etiquette book, recent forays into cross-genre writing, and Grace Paley as a guiding light.
The Millions: The title Blueprints for Building Better Girls comes from a vintage etiquette book that the character B and her beau read for kicks in the story, “Aren’t You Dead Yet?” B thinks, “It was hilarious how clueless these women, teetering in heels, on the cusp of the sexual revolution were.” You’ve confessed that you share B’s fascination for etiquette books, and yet your stories are far from being proscriptive, cautionary tales. What role does the idea of the etiquette book play within your collection? Do today’s women need new guideposts for contemporary living?
Elissa Schappell: I liked the idea of the book being an anti-etiquette book. Because etiquette books reveal what a culture values most. They clearly delineate the behavior one must exhibit to be considered an acceptable member of society. My book pushes back against that in that it’s not proscriptive — and there is a book group in Arizona that is really pissed that wasn’t the case — it doesn’t tell you how to behave, but shows you how the reality of women’s lives are at odds with the labels the culture has slapped on us and the narrow roles the culture lays out as acceptable for women. As we know women who don’t conform to the dictates of society pay a much higher price than men. I wanted to show you the price women pay for not choosing to conform or being unable to conform.
Because of that I would argue that yes, women need new guideposts. (Let me crawl up on my soapbox here.) And they should create them for themselves. Because women have to stop letting people tell them who they are, and decide for themselves who they are, who they want to be.
For too long women have let the patriarchy dictate the rules, assumed the daddies would always be in control, always make all the decisions, when things are changing. Women are taking over the work place, becoming more educated than men, assuming more positions of power. (One only hopes we’ll soon be paid equally for our work.) Why shouldn’t women remake the world in their image? Men have had their shot, and they’ve left a hell of a mess. Thankfully, women have been cleaning up the messes men make since man first set fire to the hut by lighting one of his farts.
I don’t know if it’s Stockholm Syndrome or if in some way a lot of women feel inferior to men — our achievements always measured against the baseline of men, our work literally of less value to society, and to call oneself a feminist is to align oneself with a shrill and hairy and man-hating stereotype, when in reality — when you consider the definition of a feminist, “one who thinks women should be the accorded the same rights as men” — most women and men are feminists.
Short answer: Yes.
TM: Throughout the collection, the characters’ lives intersect in subtle, often tangential ways. I found great pleasure in connecting the dots. Kate, who had difficulties getting pregnant in “A Dog Story” makes a cameo as Charlotte’s uptight, inconsiderate, and childless boss in “Elephant.” Charlotte makes the most appearances, with each story providing a slightly different perspective on her character. The network of connections within your stories emphasizes not only the many roles that a woman plays over the course of her life but also underscores that she exists within a community of women — made up of mothers, sisters, friends, and daughters. Your stories begin in the late ‘70s, span over twenty year’s time, and deal with multiple generations. What was it about depicting a community of women that intrigued you? Was Grace Paley an influence?
ES: I wanted the book to depict a broad population of American women. Showing the universal experiences this community of women share but don’t necessarily talk about because we feel ashamed, fear being judged, or simply can’t articulate. How the rules society has laid out about how a woman must behave in order to be accepted by the culture have shaped this group’s identity.
I chose to write the stories from a range of point-of-views — some younger women, some older — because I wanted to show how what was considered acceptable behavior for each generation influenced the way each of these women defined themselves, and how wittingly or unwittingly these messages are passed along like a gene through further generations. How we can inherit the prejudices, beliefs, politics of previous generations, just as you might inherit blue eyes.
I also wanted the book to get micro. To show the more intimate connections — sometimes tenuous, that join a cast of female characters, in order to show how whether connected by friendship, acquaintance, memory, gossip — we live in other people’s lives. I wanted the reader to get various perspectives on these women. To have the experience of meeting a character, and — as in life — form an opinion of them. Judge them. I wanted to give the reader access to the interior life of a character, as well as show them how she exists in the stories of other characters we know. The varied points of view allow the reader to see the characters as others see them, view their personas, even as we have our own intimate knowledge of their lives.
I didn’t want the connections to be too tight because my desire was to illustrate on a broad scale the connections between the women who occupy this level of society and how despite the ways they might perceive each other they share a lot — sometimes it’s a landscape, sometimes it’s a body issue, other times it’s as slight as digging the same music.
At the end of the day all of these women’s lives are at odds with the scripts the culture presents to define them, and all of them pay a price for not choosing, or being able to conform to that ideal.
I admire Grace Paley enormously. She’s been a role model for me on and off the page. The way she combined the personal with the political in her work, as well as in her life, is inspiring. She was very sane about her career.
I thought a lot about her when I had kids. As you know the prevailing idea has always been that a woman must choose between being a first-rate writer and a mother. Which is of course bullshit. But at the time my kids were born I feared that I might have screwed myself out of a career (as it were) and it killed me. Then I read that Grace Paley wrote with her kids in a playpen by her desk. She has this great quote, “The word career is a divisive word. It’s a word that divides the normal life from business or professional life.” She rewrote the rules. Which is what women need to do.
You can’t imagine the level of focus it takes to write where there is a child next to you doing god knows what — I’d like to see Philip Roth do that — but she was passionate, the work mattered, and so did being with her children, so she made it work.
And she was a boots-on-the-ground political activist! When she said, “Let’s go forth with fear and courage and rage to save the world,” she wasn’t just talking about marching and protesting in the streets, she also meant on the page. That sort of fierce optimism sets me on fire.
TM: In “Elephant,” Paige asks how a woman could not want children — it’s “creepy” — and yet she’s ambivalent about whether motherhood is worth the sacrifices she’s made, including the toll on her marriage, the setbacks in her career, the lost sense of self. She gives voice to the verboten, a sentiment that Charlotte understands but also fears to admit. (The story’s title seems no coincidence.) Paige asks, “Is this what you planned on? Is this what you wanted?” She’s not the only female character left wondering. What is it about the contemporary blueprints for women’s lives that set these women up for something different than what they experience?
ES: For one thing there are only a handful of culturally approved blueprints distributed to young women. Not figuring in that each woman is an individual and each woman has different dreams and expectations for herself. “How to be a Good Girl” is the big one. It covers how to be good sport, how to remain chaste (and like it!), and how to be a good victim. There is also, “How to be a Good Friend.” This includes a list of acceptable friends (short) and unacceptable (long) friends, as well as appropriate topics for discussion, how to get rid of undesirable friends. The “Good Wife” includes ways to bolster your husband’s self-esteem, put his career first and 101 things to do with chicken thighs. Top of the “Good Mother” blueprint: Family First. Forget any aspirations you may have had beyond pleasing your husband and children, how to get your family to eat healthy, plus 100 ways to swallow your rage. The other blueprints: “How to be a Troublemaker/Revolutionary/Free Thinker/Artist or more simply, How to Be a Person — can be found in books, art, music.
For my generation, women who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, the blueprint had a rainbow on it. You’ve come along way baby, it said. And it said that a woman can, nay, should, have it all. To not have it all is to be a failure. It’s Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire does, but backwards in high heels, with a baby strapped to her chest, a Bluetooth in her ear, and a pot roast balanced on her head.
For a woman to admit that she can’t do it all, or doesn’t want to do it all is to invite criticism from both sides. “You’re the ones who wanted library cards in the first place!” Or, “We fought for your right to have a career so get in there and work!”
This is frustrating. Feminism was about giving women choices, and some women choose not to work outside the home. Not my choice, but it’s a valid choice.
Any woman who doesn’t cop to having had some second thoughts — felt the shadow of ambivalence or resentment pass over them is either brain dead or lying.
One thing all the women in my book have in common is the imperative to put the needs of others before their own. They all want at some point to please someone they love, but to please others requires them to betray themselves in some fundamental way. It’s reality.
TM: Your wit dazzles me. The stories in Blueprints are not “happy” stories. There’s a wealth of sadness dealt out in the form of rape, eating disorders, ambivalence, loneliness, abandonment, and death, and yet the quick wit and levity make the stories so pleasurable to consume sentence to sentence. What role does humor play for you in writing? In life? What comic writers do you channel?
ES: You’re very kind.
Oscar Wilde said, “If you want to tell people the truth make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” That’s all I want to do. Tell the truth and not die.
My characters use humor for protection — to deflect pain, diffuse awkwardness, beat back their demons. They use it like a shield and a sword. It’s no different for me as a writer. I use the humor to protect and expose both my characters and the reader. I use it to disarm the reader into letting down their guard. The laughing reader doesn’t feel the knife until it’s in his chest. The reader who is laughing at something they don’t think they should be laughing at, but wants to, needs to laugh about, experiences a catharsis. I’d argue that’s more valuable than providing someone with an orgasm. It’s much harder to provide a catharsis for the reader. The ability to laugh in the face of terrible trauma and pain is empowering, and you know what, it’s human. We all do it. I want readers to feel like they’re not alone in that.
As to channeling, I love Lorrie Moore and Amy Hempel’s work. The way they spin humor and tragedy — and the economy of language. I’m in awe. And I love to read P.G. Wodehouse because he’s so witty, but clearly I’m not channeling him, just enjoying him.
TM: Last winter you wrote about the abundance of recent genre-bending novels in your Vanity Fair Hot Type column, and specifically, Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon. It’s such a curious book — part biography, part fiction, part memoir, part writer’s manual. It seems like the internet may also contribute to the growing plasticity of forms and mash-ups of genres. Do you think the ways that we read and write fiction is changing due to the internet, and/or a cultural obsession with nonfiction? In that sense, what are some of the biggest challenges facing contemporary fiction? And, to counter the inherent pessimism of the previous question, also what are the most enticing developments?
ES: Good questions.
First, to my mind, anything that is pushing the form, reinventing the way we tell stories, use language, process information, is fantastic, and should be encouraged.
As to how it might be influencing the way we write, judging from the stories I see teaching workshops and coming into Tin House, I’d say that the internet is definitely informing the sensibilities of new writers, in relation to subject matter. They seem to find their lives less interesting than what they see on their screens, and that’s unfortunate because the tendency then is to take someone else’s experience and in my experience, in the hands of someone who can’t make the material their own, the result is always flat and phony. You can smell the shit on their shoes. It’s unfortunate too because too often the writer is not as engaged with this story they found on the internet, as they are when they’re tapping into their own life. For as narcissistic as writers are, too many of them aren’t willing, or maybe it’s confident enough, to dive down deep enough in themselves to pull up the truly original and authentic material lurking on the bottom.
I know that the obsession with nonfiction and memoir has certainly had an adverse effect on readers of fiction. Many readers seem unwilling or incapable of imagining a writer is capable of creating a fictional world. It’s really sad because the pleasures of reading fiction and the pleasures of reading non-fiction are very different. In non-fiction the writer creates a world that already existed, there is safety in that. The reader is not the subject of the book, and thus there is a wall between them and the story.
Fiction is dark magic requiring a willing suspension of disbelief. The author casts a spell and vanishes. The reader forgets themselves, they enter this world the writer has conjured and become part of the story, they identify with the characters, experience what the characters experience. There is some risk in that. You don’t know what will happen. You don’t know what your reaction may be. Maybe worst of all, the fact that memoirs make more money than fiction has lead some good writers to publish lousy books.
TM: You, like the women in your stories, juggle many roles. You’re not only a fiction writer, but also the editor-at-large for Tin House, a teacher, a mother, and you pen the monthly Hot Type column for Vanity Fair. How do you juggle it all, and do you ever have time to read merely for pleasure?
ES: Not very skillfully. If I were juggling torches, my hair would be on fire. I find that the only way I can succeed at all is to compartmentalize as much as possible. Meaning, on days when I teach I only teach, on days when I have Vanity Fair work to do, I only do that. And, no, I am not able to read — at least at much length — for pleasure as much as I’d like. Although I try.
TM: And last, but definitely not least: Tom Wolfe once wrote an essay, “Tom Wolfe’s New Book of Etiquette,” that provides a tongue-in-cheek etiquette “update” for New York society that included instructions on topics of import (circa 1968), such as The Cocktail Party, The Social Kiss, and The Etiquette of Pot. If you were to write your own Elissa Schappell book of etiquette, what would make your list of critical updates, and also, worst contemporary faux-pas?
ES: Off the top of my head:
The Google. Is it appropriate to google a person before you meet them? Are you obliged to tell them you googled them? Is it acceptable to ask someone if they googled you? Should you be offended if someone didn’t google you?
Children’s Birthday Parties. Under what circumstances is it appropriate to drop your child off at a birthday party when other parents are staying. Is it wrong to ask if the host is serving booze and could you please have some. At parties where alcohol is provided for the parents, how drunk can you get?
Megan Kaminski’s first book of poetry, Desiring Map, revels in landscapes and ecosystems — both natural and manmade — as well as the disturbances that assault them. Her poems are often characterized as quiet, but they’re wrought with a subtle violence, such as where, according to poet Dan Thomas-Glass, the “jet set’s excesses and the bleak horizontals of the mid-country clash to great effect.” Joshua Clover calls Desiring Map, “a book that approaches us cannily, drenched in form, never word-spent and never without cocktails; a 21st century pleasure with a keen eye on the terrain and something to say.” Since I first encountered Megan’s poetry, I’ve been drawn to the intelligence, the linguistic precision, and the fascination with systems — ecological, financial, neural — that inform her writing. Megan teaches creative writing at the University of Kansas and also curates The Taproom Reading Series in Lawrence, recently named one of the top 10 reading series in the Midwest. Megan and I corresponded via email about Desiring Map, in a conversation that touched on “our very weedy human appetites,” the slippery boundaries of “I,” catastrophe theory, and admiration for “unflinching and unapologetic” female writers.
The Millions: The idea of place is central to so many of your poems in Desiring Map. From the prairie to the coast to the Florida wetlands, your language revels in site-specific spaces. Could you talk more about the role of landscape in your poems, as well as the ways that desire is evoked by environment? And also, having lived in many diverse locations, ranging from exotic (Casablanca) and cosmopolitan (Paris, LA, NYC), to the prairie (Kansas), could you speak to the ways that your physical environment informs, invades, and influences your writing?
Megan Kaminski: Yes, place and especially the “natural world” (and we can talk about how we want to define that) is very important to my creative project, and it’s a tricky thing to write about in certain ways. As a writer, sitting at my desk or at a table typing away on my computer and looking out the window, I am always looking at the landscape — here in the town where I live in Kansas, or in Oregon looking out at the ocean or the gorge, or in Paris looking down on the tree-lined street — and of course its beauty inspires me, but there are problems with writing from that perspective. I’m wary of the tradition of the poet who stands outside of the natural world, observing it with some sort of special authority and then seeing it primarily as a site for personal transformation. I’m not interested in the kind of poetry that Evelyn Reilly describes as the “aesthetic use of nature as mirror for human narcissism.” I think that sort of rendering of landscape — as background or as subservient to human demands and desires — does real violence to the natural world, a world which we surely exist in, rather than outside of. That said, I am very interested in our very weedy human appetites, such as longing and desire.
Along with that exploration of human possibility in nature came questions of subjectivity in the questioning of the lyric “I.” This questioning played out in the form of a slippery subject, an “I” that is fixed momentarily in a time/space, but then becomes quickly dislodged. I’m not willing, or perhaps even able, to abandon the lyric “I” in my poems — at least without taking on a subject voice that has its own equally problematic implications — but I am very interested in challenging and chipping away at the “I”’s authority. It’s this beautiful thing, the way pronouns work — the ease in which a person can slip into and out of the subject position. The “I” in my work that isn’t necessarily the “I” of Megan Kaminski/poet.
TM: Could you talk more about the way that words function as landscape in your poems? There seems like an overlap between word and place for you, linguistic terrain and landscape. One specific passage that comes to mind is, “I put the words on the page / pulled from beneath skin / for what passes as something / simplified and promoted bilaterally / we exist for many reasons / concentrated on small pieces / of production and landscape.”
MK: I think that sense of overlap starts with the sense of landscape becoming language — the movement from the world to the text. But there is also a sense in which language becomes landscape, too. I am very much interested in the dissolution of these boundaries between language and the outside world. And this all also very much relates to neural patternings, which also become landscape in the book (and vice versa). Much of this has to do with the nature of cognition on a very basic level. If all human thought occurs in language, then we are constantly dissolving in and out of language. I experience the prairie — I see it before me, around me; I perceive it with all my senses — and while this is happening my brain is also processing it all. The prairie is taken into my neural pathways and taken into language — it translates and dissolves into my body, my thoughts, my tongue when I speak it. And at the same time, when I write about and talk about the prairie, it spills out of me into the world.
TM: There’s a subtlety and quietness to your writing that’s dually menacing and alluring. Like in the second poem of “Across the Ruins:”
Tracks carve through Florida florid wetlands
wilderness breaks down my estuarial intent
he fell in love with the s-curve of her neck to spine
could explain the reappearance of other things too
do we all dream of swash-buckling adventures
and text anxiety mothers sharpening knives.
I admire how the domestic and wild as well as the textual and physical are in dialogue here and elsewhere throughout your work. What are the crucial tensions that pervade and inform your work?
MK: I am definitely interested in the tensions between wildness and cultivation, both in the natural world and in our own human natures. I just proposed a course for next year entitled “Weedy Appetites and Feral Longings.” (Actually, that’s my own secret title for the course — I was afraid it would be confusing to students, so I officially called it “Literary Wildness and Incivility.”) Anyway, that is a long way of saying that I am continuing to think about what it means to be wild and uncivil, specifically as a rejection of cultivation.
One of the texts that weighs heavily in my imaginative considering is Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, which presents a kind of feral domesticity. There is, at least at the beginning of the novel, very much a sense of a domesticity that entails keeping a home spiritually and emotionally for one’s family in the face of loss. Even though Sylvie is obviously a horrible housekeeper in the traditional sense of keeping things clean and tidy, there is a sense of care and looking after. Of course, that all kind-of falls apart — but there is that seed of an idea. And maybe this is part of the reason why I keep being interested in and coming back to this tension.
There is something beautiful about providing a home and comfort, something beautiful about the domestic arts. But there is also this sense of having been mastered, of women being responsible and unrecognized for performing all sorts of affective labor, of performing domesticity as a way of submitting. This is all complex and tricky, though, because I do think that mothering (as well as other sorts of care-taking) is important work — that kindness and nurturing has its own value. I’m more interested in gentleness, though, than in gentility.
And, of course, I am also interested in cultivation and wildness in the natural world. Weeds and feral animals cannot come into being without humans. Weeds were just plants before their growth became counter to productive agriculture, and animals have to have been domesticated at some point in order to become feral. So conceptually, weeds and feral animals reclaim the wild. I am also interested very much in the greening, both planned and unplanned, of Detroit and other post-industrial spaces around the world.
TM: In Desiring Maps, your long poem, “Carry Catastrophe” is made all the more delectable because it’s such an unlikely elegy for the financial markets. Could you talk more about its roots in catastrophe theory and the economic crisis?
MK: In some ways it might seem conceptually strange to have a long poem about the economic crisis in a book that is largely concerned with a revision of the pastoral genre and of human possibility within nature. I think these things are all very much connected. The first poems in the book came out of my research and thinking about enclosures, both contemporary and historic. John Clare’s enclosure elegies were a source of inspiration, as were readings about contemporary enclosures and forms of resistance to this privatizing of the commons in Africa and South and Central America. Also playing into this were contemporary works like Lisa Robertson’s Debbie: An Epic (which in some ways revisits and revises Virgil’s pastoral mode) and Stephen Collis’s The Commons.
I am very much interested in poetry as a sort of linguistic/creative commons and also as a method to think about the world, so it seemed essential to me to include a consideration of the economic crisis. And, yes, it is in some ways an elegy for the financial markets and perhaps late capitalism as well. As Joshua Clover said in a recent interview, “Late capitalism is terrible and ruins people’s lives but it also produces astonishing, beautiful things.” “Carry Catastrophe” is certainly filled with the beautiful stuff of late capitalism, but it also has a sense of impending collapse. The use of the imperative, which had more of a sense of imploring and seducing earlier in the book, becomes a little tyrannical here.
As for catastrophe theory, I’m sure that a mathematician could explain it better than I can, but I will give it a try. An early version of “Carry Catastrophe” was published as a chapbook by Grey Book Press, and in this version the cover depicts what is called a “cusp catastrophe.” The classic example of a cusp catastrophe, or at least the example that I was offered by a mathematician once, is that of a stressed dog who smoothly transitions from obedient to angry when subjected to moderate stress. However, with higher stress levels, the model changes, and there is a “fold point” where the dog becomes angry and will remain irretrievably angry even if the stress level is reduced (on the old model we would expect him to become obedient again). That’s the basic thought behind it — the sense that once something/someone — people/the economic system — gets pushed far enough, his/her/its behavior is suddenly and permanently changed.
TM: You also write essays, and were just on a panel of women who write creative nonfiction for a literary conference in Seattle. You read your essay “Chatterbox Confessions” (forthcoming on Puerto del Sol), where you out yourself as a reformed chatterbox. You discussed how women are conditioned to be more aware of dominating conversations than men are, and also how the personal essay as a form has been less open to women (or, at least that comparably fewer women essay writers have been acknowledged). You cite Chris Kraus when you speculate, “Perhaps it isn’t that women lack the ability to coolly analyze and reflect on their personal experiences, the issue is instead discomfort on the part of readers and critics when they do so.” Could you speak more about this and strategic ways for women writers to approach this?
MK: Wow — I’m definitely still working through this one myself. In some ways I think that writing is tricky business. In general, it is considered to be completely open to women. There are so many women writing and so many readers picking up their work. On the other hand, though, many major awards and prestigious publications are still very much dominated by men — and, in my opinion at least, this does not reflect talent in the actual literary landscape. Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young wrote a terrific piece, “Numbers Trouble,” which does a better job of exploring this subject than I could do here.
When I think about these issues, I keep going back to Deborah Tannen’s assertion that “there is no unmarked woman” — that every decision that a woman makes about how she presents herself is one that marks her, that conveys something about her. And I think this carries over into writing as well. One of my good friends is a very successful novelist. I was with her when she was approached by another (male) writer who was attempting to deride her work: “Aren’t all your books about the same thing?” My friend asked him what he meant by that. He replied without missing a beat — “Well, aren’t they all about women?”
Seriously, how many times have you heard books dealing almost exclusively with men — and there are a lot of them, referred to as “men’s fiction.” But if a woman writes about women — who, by the way, make up half of the world’s population — then that is a choice and the writing often gets ghettoized into categories like “women’s writing” or “chick lit.”
I also think that there are parts of our society (and in academia and in the literary community, too) that are still very conservative. There are some men and women who are still very uncomfortable with strong women and women’s voices that are unflinching and unapologetic. For me, though, these are some of the most vibrant and interesting writers. I’m thinking of some recent books that I have read that really stuck with me — Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Elissa Schappell’s Blueprints for Building Better Girls and Use Me, Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, Roxane Gay’s numerous essays (on her blog and other journals), and Lidia Yuknavitch’s gorgeous and brave essay, “Explicit Violence.”
TM: You’re very active within the literary community — you run a reading series, The Taproom Reading Series in Lawrence, Kansas, you teach at the University of Kansas, and you recently finished a month-long stint as guest editor at Adam Robinson’s Every Day Genius. Basically, you have your hands many pots. Would you talk more about poets, presses, and ideas that deserve more attention, and give us some pointers on who should be on our radar?
MK: Sure. I’m going to apologize in advance because I am sure that I am leaving a lot of people out, but here are a few people and presses who are on my mind right now.
I’ve been reading a few Oakland poets recently — and their work has really been sticking with me. I’m in love with Kathryn Pringle’s latest, fault tree (Omnidawn 2012), and also (perhaps, especially) her first book, RIGHT NEW BIOLOGY (Factory School, 2009). I’m working on a poetry manuscript and also some scholarly work about the body and the city/an ecopoetics of the city and so loved thinking about these things as I have been reading RIGHT NEW BIOLOGY. I am also very much enamored by Tiff Dressen’s chapbooks Messages and Because Icarus-children. And Juliana Spahr’s work continues to be some of the most important writing in terms of shaping my sense of possibilities both in terms of poetry and in terms of seeing/living in the world. I’m teaching her book Well Then There Now (Black Sparrow 2011) in my poetry workshop next semester, and I am super enjoying revisiting it in preparation for that class.
I’m also really into Jordan Stempleman’s latest, No, Not Today (Magic Helicopter 2012). Jordan just read at a house reading in Kansas City, and I was reminded of how much I love his work. I don’t know where or when the new work he read that night is coming out in book form, but I am certainly looking forward to it.
Also: Evie Shockley, Erín Moure, Bhanu Kapil, Carmen Giménez Smith, Joshua Clover, Lisa Robertson, Joseph Massey, Dan Thomas-Glass, Hanna Andrews, Ji Yoon Lee, Gina Myers, Chus Pato, Jen Tynes, Danielle Pafunda, Lee Ann Roripaugh, Mike Sikkema, Sampson Starkweather, Shanna Compton, CA Conrad, Bruce Covey, Kate Greenstreet, Michelle Naka Pierce — the list could go on and on.
As far as presses go, I would be remiss not to mention my own much beloved publisher, Coconut Books. I love the new books that they released this fall — from Jenny Boully, Emily Toder, Hanna Andrews, and Christie Ann Reynolds. I’m also a big fan of Dorothy, Bloof Books, Birds LLC, Letter Machine, Ugly Duckling, Omnidawn — really, there are so many wonderful small presses putting out great work.
So far this year, I’ve read 56 books, an unpublished manuscript, and 100 pages of Moby-Dick. I loved many of them, although not Moby-Dick (Sorry Herman Melville/Amanda Bullock.). But the reading experience I feel most evangelical about was one of those brief passionate affairs, red hot and over too soon.
I bought Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close from the front table at Word Brooklyn on the Sunday night of Memorial Day weekend and read it the next day, in one sitting, on a flowered blanket in Madison Square Park. It’s honest, sharp, enjoyable and unnerving. It’s witty but it isn’t cute. It creeps into your stomach and makes you dizzy — at least it does if you’re a 32-year-old woman trying to figure out life and relationships and where the last 10 years went and where the next 50 are going.
While this book certainly covers floral bridesmaid dresses and date dissection over cocktails, it has a darker and more resonant undercurrent. It gives voice to my quiet suspicions that the decade following college graduation is one of loss after loss; a time of people you once loved immensely peeling away into parenthood or panic attacks or bad marriages or sudden religiosity or the suburbs. It captures those strange mixed feelings of trying to be happy for friends when they choose things you think you know will never make them happy; the helpless panic as the strongest and most ambitious feminists give up and give in or maybe just grow up and learn to compromise and who are you to judge anyway? It displays real wisdom about the ways that, over time, paths dead end and options disappear and life can feel like a narrowing of possibilities when you always thought it would be an ever-broadening horizon. Also, it’s funny.
When I finished, I did two things.
1) I wrote a blog post calling it “a perfect book” and recommending it thusly: “If you have ever been in your 20s or 30s, ever lived in New York or Chicago or D.C., ever been in a relationship that was good or bad or probably both, ever been politically engaged or diamond-ring engaged or had a baby or not wanted a baby or been an assistant or found out your ex married someone you both went to college with, oh my God you guys.”
In general, my favorite literary genre this year was what I like to call “women-processing-their-shit books,” in which I also recommend Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell, The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld, The Fallback Plan by Leigh Stein, Boys and Girls Like You and Me by Aryn Kyle, and anything by Nora Ephron or Cheryl Strayed.
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