I’ve loved a lot of books this year, relatively recent discoveries I’ve finally had time to dive into, or books I’ve re-read, like Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville, Barry Gifford’s The Roy Stories, Christa Parravani’s haunting memoir, Her. Reviewing a new biography of Stephen Crane (Paul Sorrentino’s Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire) sent me back to Crane’s poetry (“Because it is bitter/ and because it is my heart”) and prose. The Red Badge of Courage and his gorgeous stories remain immortal. The pulsing synesthesia that marked his writing emanates, controlled and rhythmic, in every graph. I’ve needed books this year, as the world and the Republic shudder and seem to devolve. Books can be visionary arcs of narration that soar beyond our time, even by penetrating the past. Alchemy and transformation are on my mind: the magic of character, the wonder of the sentence on the page, the spiritual ascendance of books that bear witness. James Agee’s A Death In The Family, with its searing gaze into the heart of identity, remains my Bible. My pantheon includes They Came Like Swallows, by William Maxwell, Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” William Kotzwinkle’s Swimmer in The Secret Sea, and Irene McKinney’s collected poems, Unthinkable. I love her single volumes: Vivid Companion, tightly bound as a silken correspondence, and her posthumous, Have You Had Enough Darkness Yet? Each of these books moves through death as though it were a mere worm hole in a celestial galaxy; each decodes a personal survival that made writing the work a necessity for the writer. History, personal or national, may tell us the facts, but literature tells us the story, and stories are immortal. Poetry is full of story. Louise Gluck’s Faithful And Virtuous Night is its own soaring novel; Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda imagines an adjacent constellation; “rows of ghosts come forth to sing” in Rigoberto Gonzalez’s Unpeopled Eden. Poems can break character into glittering shards and let us see it whole: Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke “sees” bigger-than-life boxer Jack Johnson; Van Jordan’s M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A imagines the life of 13-year-old MacNolia Cox, the first African American contestant in a '30s-era national spelling bee, disqualified by Southern judges with an unofficial word: “nemesis.” If character is destiny, memorize Leonard Gardner’s masterpiece, Fat City: a perfect novel about “allegiance to fate” in late-'50s Stockton, Calif. If you’re a reader who looks askance at the writer of the moment, don’t let that wariness warn you off Penelope Fitzgerald, suddenly awarded the attention we wish she’d had when she was nearly destitute, raising three children in a drafty houseboat on the Thames. She saw it all through to The Blue Flower, her own masterpiece, a book I read every year for sheer pleasure, with depthless thanks. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
“Elected silence, sing to me / And beat upon my whorlèd ear, / Pipe me to pastures still and be / The music that I care to hear.” In Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Habit of Perfection,” that “elected silence” becomes spiritual song. A Jesuit whose entire canon reveals the tension between artist and priest, between temptation and temperance, Hopkins found that silence could sing. In “Listening for Silence,” Mark Slouka considers the ubiquity of sounds, how “we’ve grown adept...at blocking them out with sounds of our own, at forcing a privacy where none exists.” He quotes Henry David Thoreau’s soft words of contemplation -- “I love a wide margin to my life” -- before admitting his own fear of a perfect silence. And yet “if silence is the enemy of art, it is also its motivation and medium: the greatest works not only draw on silence for inspiration but use it, flirt with it, turn it, for a time, against itself.” Tucked away in a quiet room or hunched in a hushed library, writers crave silence. Silence is an escape from daily noise, from frustrations and obligations and distractions. Silence might equal solitude, a residency of the mind, but often silence is analogous to the sense of control needed for writers to create and craft. These are romantic conceptions of art, but in both practical and creative senses, writers must discover conditions that support focus and production. For poet Catherine Pierce, silence reigns: “I don’t -- can’t -- listen to any kind of music while writing. I learned long ago that when I listen to music, not only am I unable to focus on language in the way I need to, but -- even worse! -- I also tend to get a false sense of the work’s quality. If I’m listening to Tom Waits, I think I’m writing a tough, gutted, whiskey-soaked poem; if I’m listening to Joni Mitchell, I think I’m doing something elegant, sad, and strange. Then I read the poems sans soundtrack and am sorely disappointed. I first learned this lesson in high school, when, in full-on angst mode, I churned out what I was pretty sure was a genius short story while listening to the Violent Femmes. When I read the story the next day in the quiet of my bedroom, I recognized that the story was plotless and, worse, toothless -- only the songs had any bite. These days I strive for total aural deprivation -- silence in my home if at all possible, white noise on headphones in the coffee shop if not. After years of trying to trick myself into believing I could have music while writing, I’ve finally learned my limitations.” Yet from the days of poems accompanied by lyre, verse has always been wedded to music. Poets have written about music, and they have considered songs that can compliment their art. Some, like Terrance Hayes in "Liner Notes for an Imaginary Playlist," see songs as locations for the insights of poetic narrative. But I am most interested in how poetry relates to composition; how some poets, like Pierce, require silence, while others are fulfilled by sound. In my own experience, sound complements prose well; in fact, while writing and revising my novella, “Ember Days,” I listened to Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” on repeat. I wrote after midnight, and that looping contributed to a somber atmosphere; the story is about atomic bomb testing and opium trafficking, but it also follows how one man’s lust for a woman leads to betrayal. Lightfoot’s guitar opening sets a folk-ominous mood, and the lyrics follow suit. After a few times at the desk, I needed Lightfoot’s music to sustain the story. It was a way to return to the words I'd left during the previous darkness. Poet Michael Earl Craig has explained to Zachary Schomburg that he is “too engrossed and/or confused for music in the beginning stages of a poem.” Once he gets a “handle” on the work, when he can see a sense of “direction emerging,” he can later return to the poem with music “not distracting but more like a breeze at my back.” He has written with the soundtrack to David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me playing, and doesn’t listen to it in “any other context. I don’t put that on while driving, or chopping parsley. The feel of that album just suits me perfectly. Poems should be dipped in it.” I have never written a poem while listening to music, but am curious about the intersection of those artistic worlds. Poetry and music share a word of process -- composition -- and are linked by negotiations of melody, harmony, rhythm, proportion, and discord. I contacted some of my favorite poets and asked if they listen to music while planning, drafting, revising, or finishing poems. Here is a poetry playlist: 10 poets offer their composition soundtracks. Enjoy their reflections on craft, and links to the poems and tunes that formed beautiful marriages of word and sound. Track 1 Rebecca Gayle Howell “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” by Stevie Wonder [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUqVmulfXfk?rel=0] While I was writing Render /An Apocalypse, I listened to a lot of old Motown -- The Supremes, The Jackson 5 -- it's that beat, that drive, that hammer. It doesn't quit. Doesn't let you quit. But this Stevie Wonder song is the one. The man rides the climax until he falls off. He’ll scream before he’ll pretend something’s over when it’s not. Render is a Southern agrarian myth. The protagonist wakes up in a landscape he's forgotten how to survive, and the poems act as his instruction manual. “How to Kill a Rooster.” “How to Kill a Hog.” “How to Be a Man." Mostly what the protagonist has forgotten is tenderness, but the animals try to remind him of it, even as he slits their throats. Reviewers have called the poems “brutal,” “gruesome,” “religious.” Maybe so. Unrequited love often is. “How to Cure,” from Render / An Apocalypse (Cleveland State University) Track 2 Terry Kennedy “The Only Living Boy in New York” by Paul Simon [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAJfMHh6RJw?rel=0] This song contains the epigraph to my collection of poems, New River Breakdown, and I listened to it a lot while composing the book, a collection of poems dealing with a couple who are, at times, separated by both physical and/or emotional distances during the narrative. We often hear about the difficulties of long-distance relationships, but what really resonates with me in “The Only Living Boy in New York” is the line “half of the time we're gone but we don't know where” because it also speaks to how we, as people, can be “with” each other but really apart, and not even realize it -- like when you come home from work, but you're really still at the office in your head -- making lists, reliving arguments, remembering paperwork you didn't turn in, etc. “The Surrendered” from New River Breakdown (Unicorn Press) Track 3 Kerrin McCadden "One More Time with Feeling" by Regina Spektor [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysuns_3Qweo?rel=0] Regina Spektor was ambient in my new house just after my divorce. My daughter decreed her music the soundtrack of our new life. Spektor’s music was jarring and beautiful at the same time -- which was sort of like our lives. I’m serious -- whenever music was on, it was Regina Spektor, or the Regina Spektor Pandora station. The tone of her song “One More Time with Feeling” resonated with me, so I stole a line to use as an engine for a new poem, thinking I would later cut the line. “Breathing’s just a rhythm” stuck, however, and appears, slightly altered, in my poem “How to Miss a Man.” Both deal with the loneliness of the other side of something -- the slogging. My poem appears in PANK, and in my collection, Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes, with permission of this great artist, who arguably helped my daughter, and me, gain footing. “How to Miss a Man,” from Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes (New Issues Poetry & Prose) Track 4 Tomás Q. Morin “Christo Redemptor” by Charlie Musselwhite [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UDJSy2zyz0?rel=0] I usually don't listen to music when I'm writing or revising. I'm very easily distracted so I prefer silence. However, once I think a piece is done or I'm going over a book manuscript for what feels like it should be the last time, I will listen to Charlie Musselwhite's "Christo Redemptor." I've listened to this song so many times that I can enjoy it and yet it can still be the equivalent of background noise that won't distract me. The interplay between harmonica and piano is fantastic and it feels like the song could go on forever without ever losing any of its potency. One way in which the song helps me during this final, final stage of editing is that if anything seems off in the poem/book then it'll immediately interrupt the spell of the song and I'll have to stop the song and examine what's going on. If I can play the song uninterrupted throughout the whole editing process then I know the piece is done. “Miles Davis Stole My Soul” from A Larger Country (American Poetry Review) Track 5 Erica Wright "Up to the Mountain" by Patty Griffin [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8ZC8VZLk54?rel=0] I listened to Patty Griffin's album Children Running Through -- specifically her tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., “Up to the Mountain” -- on repeat while writing “Greece Is This Run-Down.” Something about Griffin's understated lyrics and soaring voice made it possible to confront my own fears at the time, specifically the escalation of the Iraq War and whispers of reinstating the draft. Listening to the same music helped me get back to the same mood each time I worked on the poem, my longest to date. “Greece Is This Run-Down” from Instructions for Killing the Jackal (Black Lawrence Press) Track 6 Adrian Matejka "Gymnopédies No. 1" by Erik Satie [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-Xm7s9eGxU?rel=0] For me, poems begin as combinations of sounds -- words or phrases that are sonically magnetic and eventually attach themselves to some kind of meaning. Erik Satie’s elegant Gymnopédies work the same way. The pieces subvert traditional piano composition by giving preference to individual notes -- and the atmosphere created by the order of those notes -- over conventional melody. In my poem “Gymnopédies No. 1,” I tried to connect words in narrative and imagistic shapes that emulate Satie’s arresting phrasings in the Gymnopédies. “Gymnopédies No. 1” appeared in the January 2014 issue of Poetry. (I also highly recommend Matejka’s most recent collection, The Big Smoke, a finalist for the National Book Award -- Nick). Track 7 Tyler Mills Tchaikovsky's “Violin Concerto in D major,” 1st movement [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JM8erHpNJ2Q?list=PLDD42E4BDC8816EAE] YouTube compresses some of the sound and splits the first movement into two parts. But my favorite moment occurs at right around 8:17, where you can really hear the sound of the violin and the orchestra hitting the back wall of the concert hall. When I’m drafting poems, I most often don’t listen to music. But when I do, it can be pretty eclectic: anything from Jay-Z to Beethoven is fair game. When I’m working on prose, I listen to music constantly. Sometimes I play a game where I type bands into YouTube and see what is recommended to me. (That’s how I learned of Kid Koala, a DJ that dresses in a koala suit and spins records: I found him because I was listening to Emily Wells.) However, the piece that I listen to most -- because I am obsessed with it, capital O -- and that influenced many of the poems of Tongue Lyre (but one in particular) is the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, performed by the 20th century violinist Jascha Heifetz and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Fritz Reiner in April 1957). I wrote “Performance” when I had a fever: I drafted it in bed, and I remember that in between reading, naps that led to bizarre dreams, drafting this poem, and tea, I listened to this piece. There is a Johnny Cash reference in the poem, so it might be surprising that I wasn’t listening to the Man in Black. But no. “Performance” was influenced by Heifetz’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, the first movement in particular. The poem moves rapidly through constructed spaces: “I would be caught, like now, when I am nowhere but pretending to be / standing in the Pittsburgh Aviary watching flamingos.” When I listen to Heifetz playing Tchaikovsky, I am amazed at how quickly and elegantly he makes and re-makes the landscape of the concerto -- as though conjuring it out of nothing. I wanted to try attempting something similar in a poem. “Performance” from Tongue Lyre (Southern Illinois University Press) Track 8 Wendy Chin-Tanner “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” by The Beatles [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3cxkYu4NyA?rel=0] There’s a recursive quality to the song both in its lyrical and musical motifs that fed into the dialectical structure I was developing in my manuscript overall and that captured for me something specific about being the new mother of a baby girl. The poem “Through the Bathroom Door” is a direct consequence of listening to “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” on repeat and reflects my thoughts about the existence of the child in the adult and the adult in the child, the shifting but omnipresent shadow of the past upon the present, the constant vigilance that is necessary in marriage and parenting to separate the self from the other, and the fact that vigilance is an inadequate safeguard against living. The lines, “Didn’t anybody tell her? / Didn’t anybody see?” just kill me. “Through the Bathroom Door” from Turn (Sibling Rivalry Press). Track 9 Mary Biddinger “I'm Waiting for the Man” by Velvet Underground [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MOmZimH00oo?rel=0] I write about memory and from memories, so I need to listen to music that takes me back. “I'm Waiting for the Man” grabs me by the shoulders and commands me to write a poem, and pushes me into the gritty landscape where poems come from. At first this poem, “Risk Management Memo: Here Comes Your Man,” might appear to allude to The Pixies, but in fact it is an homage to “I'm Waiting for the Man” by The Velvet Underground, and was written in attempt to imitate the song's arc and pace, as well as relating to its subject. It also includes the title of a fake Velvet Underground song, as a wink to the reader. “Risk Management Memo: Here Comes Your Man” from her forthcoming book, Small Enterprise (Black Lawrence Press) (Fans of this poem will also enjoy Biddinger’s previous books, including O Holy Insurgency -- Nick). Track 10 Sara Eliza Johnson Elgar’s Cello Concerto, 1st movement (Jacqueline du Pré’s performance) [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UUgdbqt2ON0?rel=0] I listened to Jacqueline du Pré’s rendition of this piece often while writing the poems that would become the “Archipelago” sequence in my book, Bone Map, which is a group of poems inspired in part by the seafaring pilgrimage Saint Brendan undertook in the 6th century. The atmosphere of the piece is, for me, oceanic, and powerful in that way, like great swells of water rising and falling through the ear, threatening storm, and then shipwreck. In the video, you can see the way Jacqueline throws her whole body into the cello, and I think you can hear that in the intensity of her performance; while writing I tend to listen to music with intensity, with whatever will get me fevered and feeling unreal, and transport me away from thoughts of obligations and deadlines. In that way I suppose the practice is escapist. Three “Archipelago” poems from Bone Map (Milkweed Editions) Image Credit: Flickr/MaxiuB
For the past four years, I’ve kept a list of what I’ve read. I don’t have a list of what I plan to read, because I invariably swerve away from my preconceived notion of 'What I Should Read' for 'Hey, This Looks Good,' which pops up over the course of the year. I do however keep a list of books that I hope to one day read, the kind of books one might find in the canon, and try to pick my way through that when I’m uncertain where to go next. One of my favorite books from this past year is from that list: Light in August. I somehow managed to go through both my undergraduate and graduate educations without once being assigned William Faulkner. Several years ago, I spent a summer trying to read Faulkner and Nabokov because...well, I’m not sure why I had that idea. It wasn’t a fun a summer. Anyway, I read several Faulkner novels with rigorous determination to understand and appreciate books that, for the most part, I found tedious. Why I picked up Light in August this year, I don’t know. It probably has as much to do with me being more mature than anything, but I was amazed by such a dark, stunning masterpiece of a novel. Set in Yoknapatawpha County in the 1930s, the novel is about race, sex, class, religion, and murder, told in a majestic, lyrical voice. This is the Faulkner readers rave about it, and I feel as if I have discovered it for the first time. I’d argue this is Faulkner’s best novel. The other book I loved this year was a collection of poetry: The Big Smoke by Adrian Matejka. This finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry is about Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion of the world. This collection is a polyphonic narrative -- Jack Johnson, of course, but also his first wife, Etta Duryea, and two of his mistresses, Hattie McClay and Belle Schreiber. Jack Johnson’s fights, his training, his violence, his flash and glamour, his love of opera, all of it is on display. Unlike many poetry collections that feel like a loose “best of,” this is a collection far bigger than the greatness of the individual poems. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
The contenders for the 2013 National Book Award were pared down to a five nominees in each category today. Winners will be announced in New York City on November 20. Fans of Jhumpa Lahiri will be excited to know that after missing out on yesterday’s Man Booker Prize, the Lowland author is still squarely in the running for the National Book Award. Of course, in order to attain the honor she’s going to have to beat out former Millions Top Ten member George Saunders and Millions favorite Rachel Kushner – as well as previous NBA winner Thomas Pynchon. On the nonfiction list, Millions readers should recognize George Packer’s The Unwinding, which Chris Barsanti called an “awe-inspiring X-Ray of the modern American soul.” At the final awards ceremony on November 20, each finalist will receive $1,000, and each winner will receive an additional $10,000. Additional awards will also be goven to E.L. Doctorow and Maya Angelou, who will be receiving the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and the Literarian Award for Outstanding Contribution to the American Literary Community, respectively. The National Book Foundation has also announced that free e-books will be released containing excerpts from each of the works on the shortlist. (We’ll have more on that when it’s available.) Edit: The new e-books are now available for the Fiction Finalists, Nonfiction Finalists, Poetry Finalists, and Young People’s Literature Finalists. (E-books for other platforms are available here.) Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available: Fiction: The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Millions review, Millions interview) The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (excerpt) The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (excerpt) Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon (first page, excerpt) Tenth of December by George Saunders (Millions review) Nonfiction: Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore (review) Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields by Wendy Lower The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer (Millions review) The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 by Alan Taylor (review) Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright (review, excerpt) Poetry: Metaphysical Dog by Frank Bidart (review) Stay, Illusion by Lucie Brock-Broido (review) The Big Smoke by Adrian Matejka (excerpt) Black Aperture by Matt Rasmussen Incarnadine by Mary Szybist (review) Young People's Literature: The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt (review) The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata (review) Far Far Away by Tom McNeal Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang (review)
This year the National Book Award finalists were released in a series of four longlists consisting of ten books apiece. Five finalists in each category will be selected by October 16, and winners will be announced in New York City on November 20. Last year, the fiction finalists included far more male authors than female, however the count is even in 2013. Millions readers will be delighted to find George Saunders’s latest story collection on the fiction list. The former Top Ten member was reviewed on our site last May. Saunders is joined by Rachel Kushner, whose second novel “operates outside — above? — many of the current arguments about the novel,” according to our own Bill Morris. Likewise, Millions readers should be familiar with George Packer’s “awe-inspiring X-Ray of the modern American soul” on the nonfiction list. Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available: Fiction: Pacific by Tom Drury (excerpt) The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver (excerpt) The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Millions review, Millions interview) The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (excerpt) A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra (excerpt) The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (excerpt) Someone by Alice McDermott (excerpt) Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon (first page, excerpt) Tenth of December by George Saunders (Millions review) Fools by Joan Silber (Millions interview) Nonfiction: Finding Florida: The True Story of the Sunshine State by T.D. Allman (excerpt, audiobook excerpt) Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami by Gretel Ehrlich (excerpt) The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son, and the CIA by Scott C. Johnson (excerpt) Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore (review) Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields by Wendy Lower Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861–1865 by James Oakes (review) The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer (Millions review) The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 by Alan Taylor (review) Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington by Terry Teachout (review) Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright (review, excerpt) Poetry: Metaphysical Dog by Frank Bidart (review) Bury My Clothes by Roger Bonair-Agard (excerpt) Stay, Illusion by Lucie Brock-Broido (review) So Recently Rent a World, New and Selected Poems: 1968–2012 by Andrei Codrescu (interview) Seasonal Works With Letters on Fire by Brenda Hillman (author reading) The Big Smoke by Adrian Matejka (excerpt) American Amnesiac by Diane Raptosh (excerpt) Black Aperture by Matt Rasmussen Transfer of Qualities by Martha Ronk Incarnadine by Mary Szybist (review) Young People's Literature: The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt (review) Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by K.G. Campbell (review) A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff (excerpt) The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson (review, excerpt, audiobook excerpt) The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata (review) Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan Far Far Away by Tom McNeal Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff The Real Boy by Anne Ursu, illustrated by Erin McGuire Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang (review)