Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Year in Review, pt. 5: Exhibitions

A very good era for visual art that draws the viewer into mystery.

As Siri Hustvedt puts it: “...I have never loved a painting I can master completely. My love requires a sense that something has escaped me” (from “The Pleasures of Bewilderment,” Yale Review, 91:4, October 2003).

Here is our list of unmastered and unmasterable favorites from recent times.

Kara Walker’s After the Deluge show at the Metropolitan (2006). The Great American Novel in visual form.

William Blake’s World: “A New Heaven is Begun” at the Morgan (2009). Always reaching for the angels while Urizen bellows in the deep.

Robert Rauschenberg’s Thirty-four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno, displayed in full by the MoMA to mark his death in 2008.

Devotion in South India: Chola Bronzes at the Asia Society(2009). Each of these c. 30 pieces is a masterpiece—I do not believe we retain the bronze casting skills to make their like again. Depicts the Shaiva poet-saints of Tamil Nadu, including my favorite, Saint Sambandar, who burst into song as an infant upon drinking divine milk.

George Stubbs (1724-1806): A Celebration, at the Frick in 2007. I have come to realize that when I see a horse in my mind’s eye, it is usually a horse by Stubbs. See, for instance, his 1762 painting of the bay filly “Molly Longlegs.” Also, experience the terror of the horses in his paintngs of lions attacking.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi at the Cooper-Hewitt (2007-’08). Taking us beyond his well-known carceri images, this show revealed Piranesi as an influential interior designer. I was particularly taken by the chimney piece he did for John Hope.

The new Greek and Roman Galleries opened in April 2007 at the Metropolitan. A museum within the museum, a bounty exquisitely displayed. Leading revelation: how much color the Romans used (see the wall paintings from the reconstructed Pompeiian villa)!

Walton Ford’s Tigers of Wrath at the Brooklyn Museum (2006-’07). Blood, malice, oppression, cruelty all lurk within Ford’s luscious renderings.

Fata Morgana: The New Female Fantasists, curated this spring by Pam Grossman at Dabora Gallery in Brooklyn. Grossman has a very keen eye, assembling 15 up-and-coming artists in an eye-catching show. Grossman’s next act is a show on shamanistic art and practice, opening at The Observatory space in early 2010: watch for it.

We posted earlier this year about the summer, 2009 group show Drawings at McKenzie Fine Art (NYC). We keep tracing back in memory to works displayed there by Julie Evans, Ruth Marten, and Karen Margolis.

We also posted earlier about the Unica Zurn show this year at The Drawing Center (NYC). We keep getting entangled in her veined, multi-eyed, paisleyed creations.

Kathy Ruttenberg’s arresting sculptures at Gallery Henoch (NYC) in 2008. I have drafted scraps of poetry trying to capture the mood of her figures. Pan, Titania...and Bottom...move through her work.

Herbert Pfostl’s All Sorts of Remedies show at The Observatory (Brooklyn) this winter. Singed-looking small scraps of paper, mournful odd things delicately framed. Sort of the visual equivalent of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. I regret missing his gallery talk on “Art as Magic and the Cold Hard Facts of Life.”

Ranbir Kaleka’s multimedia Reading Man installation at Bose Pacia (NY). Like walking into a deeply hued capsule, and then finding you cannot find your way back out.

Dustin Yellin’s exhibitions at Robert Miller Gallery (NYC): Suspended Animations (2007) and Dust in the Brain Attic (2009). A taxonomy of almost-creatures, vertebrae, sinous fronds, embedded in resin.

The African and Oceanic Art from the Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva: A Legacy of Collecting show at the Metropolitan (2009). I have already noted the Ejaham head crest. Look long also at the Mblo twin mask (Baule, Cote d’Ivoire) and the female head (Ife, Nigeria).

Various textile pieces and fabrics exhibited by Cora Ginsburg LLC at the Winter Antiques Show in the Park Avenue Armory each January.

We’ve already blogged about the James Ensor retrospective at the MoMA(2009). Long live the danse macabre... and pass the pickled herring, please.

Daniel Merriam’s imaginary realist watercolors at Animazing Gallery (NYC). Something sly in his mannered approach.

We already blogged about the Spectrum: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art show at the Society of Illustrators (fall, 2009). A great portal into the best work by artists who self-identify as treading the light fantastic. The show selected a picture by Joy Ang as its headliner—we keep looking at a postcard of this picture, watching the hyena-tiger-lion carousel go up and down.

Julie Speed’s witty, whimsical figures (all vaguely Breughelian to my eye) displayed by Flatbed Press at the 2008 Editions & Artists’ Book Fair in NYC.

Richard Fish’s “four-dimensional clocks” at the 2007 International Contemporary Furniture Fair (NYC), especially the elegantly geared “Then and Now,” and the curvaceous “Cellist.”

Myung jin Kim’s ceramics exhibited by the Ferrin Gallery at the New York SOFA show, April 2009.

Of course, the list of shows I could not attend is much, much longer! The Web whets insatiable appetites. Here is a short list of exhibitions I viewed online and would gladly have visited if only I could have:

Joseph Hart at David Krut Projects (NYC), Mandy Greer at the Bellevue Arts Museum (WA); Rene Alvarado at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas; Julie Mehretu at the Guggenheim in Berlin (but we’ll get to see it this spring at the Guggenheim in NYC); Rina Banerjee & Raqib Shaw at Thos. Gibson Fine Art (London); Sergio Vega at Galerie Karsten Greve (Paris); Textual Rhythms: Constructing the Jazz Tradition- Contemporary African American Quilts at the American Folk Art Museum; The Conversation Piece: Scenes of Fashionable Life at The Queen’s Gallery/Buckingham Palace; Telling Tales: Fantasy & Fear in Contemporary Design at the V & A; Sacred Spain: Art and Belief in the Spanish World, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art; Seven Stories: The Centre for Children’s Books in Newcastle; Venice in the Age of Canaletto at the Ringling Museum of Art (Sarasota) & the Memphis Brooks Museum; Kehinde Wileya at various locations; Adele Sypesteyn at Soren Christensen Gallery (New Orleans); Lisa Kaser at Beet Gallery (Portland, OR); For the Blind Man in the Dark Room Looking for the Black Cat That Isn’t There, at the Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis; Kate MacDowell at the Sante Fe Clay Gallery; The Dark Monarch: Magic and Modernity in British Art at the Tate St. Ives; Toys Designed by Artists, at the Arkansas Art Center.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Year in Review, pt. 4: Poetry

A delightful overflood of poetry in recent years—below are just a handful of favorites, some avowedly fantastical, some marvelous in their effect upon me. A personal list with no pretensions to authority. Write a comment on this blog, or write us at drabuzzi AT earthlink DOT net...query, comment, challenge, add your own favorites.

Special thanks to Erzebet YellowBoy and the team at Cabinet des Fees/Scheherezade’s Bequest, to Amal El-Mohtar, Jessica Wick and Oliver Hunter at Goblin Fruit, Kate Bernheimer and the team at the Fairy Tale Review, and Mike Allen at Mythic Delirium for curating many wonderful treats. Also to Matt Kressel for making poetry such a big part of Sybil’s Garage, and to Tim Green at Rattle and Jennifer Van Buren at Mannequin Envy for being champions of the fantastical.

In a super-special category of its own is Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, a love letter of a novel to and about Poetry.

Eye of Water (2005) by Amber Flora Thomas. “Lost in the philosophies of the Bible, / a flower pressed more than a decade ago/ slips its closure: purple crepe/ with brown veins flattened into flaw” (“Harvest”); “...It could be, a tongue held in the ear hears better/ / the bitter lore: the clatter of stones under a wave, the deluge/ of flies in the beach grass.” (“The Divined Shore”).

Sonya Taafe consistently takes us beyond the fields we know. Start with her 2005 collection Postcards from the Province of Hyphens. “Kaddish for a Dybbuk,” “The Geneaology of Dreams,” “Milochael,” “Harlequin, Lonely,” “Prophesy”...

Lobster & Canary posted earlier this year, with great enthusiasm, about Nathaniel Mackey’s Splay Anthem (2006).

Reaching back to Jabberwocky 2 (edited by Sean Wallace, 2006) for two that I keep pondering: “Sir Walter Raleigh in Guiana” by Veronica Schanoes, and “Ouroboros Time” by Yoon Ha Lee. Formally they could not be more different, but each causes me to think long and hard.

Another strong collection in 2006, the first Mythic anthology (ed. Mike Allen), for Theodora Goss’s “Beauty to the Beast.” (Goss’s prose is lush as well—if you haven’t already, read her 2006 story collection In the Forest of Forgetting.)

Jennifer Maier’s Dark Alphabet (2006) contains several of the poems I have re-read most: “Blue Willow,” “The School of Weeping,” “The Mergansers.” Elegant, spare, with a word or three in each one that lodges with you forever. I eagerly await her second collection.

Yet another from 2006 (Lobster & Canary compress time for the sake of poetry, don’t you know?): Terrance Hayes’ Wind in a Box. For a taste of his work, read “The Blue Bowie” from jubilat nr. 6.

Still in 2006, clearly a bumper year: After by Jane Hirshfield. “What is Usual is Not What is Always.” Her critical thoughts about poetry move me too.

Bring Me Her Heart by Sarah Getty (yes, from 2006). Another example of why the small presses matter so dearly—in Getty’s case, it’s Higganum Hill Books. Getty captures the dread and beauty of myth and fairytale.

Jynne Dilling Martin’s “Reasons to Consider Setting Ourselves on Fire” (in the New England Review, 27:4, 2006) has one of the best opening lines I’ve recently read: “Maybe, pilgrim, if I let you sleep on my floor tonight, tomorrow/ every house on this block will burn to the ground except mine.”

Graywolf in 2007 bundled many of Alice Oswald’s poems into Spacecraft Voyager 1. Oswald’s voice is riverine like her subjects—fluid, smartly shimmering, hiding its source, running on beyond the reader. Reading Oswald, I am Smith of Wootton Major...on the marches of Faerie, unsure if the crows I see are birds or messengers from the Elven-King, or both.

Putnam did us the same favor in 2008 with Linda Bierds’ Flight: New & Selected Poems. I love the warmth of her poems, the melodies, and her use of historical subjects.

Ausable did likewise in 2008 with Eric Pankey’s The Pear as One Example: New & Selected Poems 1984-2008. I am still getting to know his new poems but keep coming back to, for instance, “Splendid Things” and “Unfortunate Things.”

In “The Green Issue” of the Fairy Tale Review (June, 2007), Paula Bohince’s “The Little Moths”: “ swimmers or silk puppets, milky/ and dreadful as phantoms/ in stark daylight./ / Sister, are we the only ones/ who see them?”

Sandra Kasturi’s collection The Animal Bridegroom (2007). Sandra is co-founder (with her husband Brett Savory) of Chizine Publications/CZP, who published my first novel. I am very proud to be published and edited by someone with Sandra’s remarkable gifts. Neil Gaiman introduces The Animal Bridegroom—Sandra deserves all the praise he gives it.

Sharon Dolin’s poetry teaches me more about form and prosody than anyone else’s. I love her latest, Burn and Dodge (2008). I also love Serious Pink. I keep thinking about “Theater of Memory” from Heart Work. Dolin can sound more like Marianne Moore than Moore does, which is a very good thing for Lobster & Canary because they love Moore.

Albert Goldbarth astounds me always (he had one that I must find again, from Poetry I think, about Renaissance pigments and their ingredients—he made music out of civet musk). In “The Arc” from Poetry Daily (May 12, 2009) he refreshes Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Eleanor Rees’ Andraste’s Hair (from Salt Publishing, 2007), with its many lines like these:

“Arms raised to hug the sun
eyes like sods
ratchet-nosed, craggy
hatchet arms creak and clank


sleeping under sunless light

another sun gone

reaching obedient: she dreams.”

Rita Dove’s Sonata Mulattica this year was a tour-de-force (I am surprised that it did not get more attention). I love how she makes the 18th and early 19th centuries stand up and rouse themselves, with her gift for weaving together ancien regime idioms and our own without anachronism on either side. She had me from “A Prologue of the Rambling Sort”: “This is a tale of light and shadow/ what we hear and the silence that follows/ Remember this as we set out/ across sea and high roads.../ ...This is a story/ about music and what it does to those/ who make it, whom it enslaves...yes/ slavery of all kinds enters into the mix...”

JoSelle Vanderhooft’s The Minotaur’s Last Letter To His Mother (2007 from Ash Phoenix). Intense, dynamic, vivid. Vanderhooft deserves a wider audience.

Scott Cairns’ “Speculation: Along the Way” in Image nr. 60 (Winter, 2008-2009). Softly unexpected, restrained in its description of wonder.

Averill Curdy’s “To the Mysterie & Company of Merchant Adventurers for the Discoverie of Regions, Dominions, Islands, & Places Unknown” in SubTropics nr. 6 (Spring/Summer 2008). “As you slept/ A tin & brackish twilight/ / In the ward’s white estuary, ten thousand wings/ Of the great night migrations/ / Shadowed the bound earth, but I’d finagled away/ Your grey peregrine suit.”

Meghan O’Rourke’s “My Life as a Subject” in Poetry (June, 2008). “We also had a queen,/ whetted by the moon. And/ we her subjects,/ softening in her sight.”

Victoria Davis had her first two poems published last year, in Epiphany’s summer/fall issue. Read “Your Dames Blanches.” I look forward to her first collection.

Catherynne Valente’s A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects (2008). Valente brings her storytelling skills to her poetry—these are tales told in verse.

Clayton Eshleman’s long, ekphrastic piece “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe: On Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights” in Jacket nr. 36 (2008) is stunning. A poem fit for its subject: endlessly fascinating, macabre. One of my favorite of favorites the past few years. You can read it in its entirety here.

Sarah Lindsay’s Twigs & Knucklebones (2008). Her Kingdom of Nab is a strange place indeed. Visit it often. Start with “Unreliable Narration.”

Imtiaz Dharker’s “The Missing Piece” in "Unmapped: The Indian Poetry Issue", a special number of The Literary Review, edited by Sudeep Sen (Spring, 2009).

Alex Dally McFarlane’s “The Wat” in Sybil’s Garage nr. 6 (May, 2009).

Jonathan Monroe’s “Demosthenes’ Legacy” in Drunken Boat nr. 10 (Spring, 2009). Here’s the premise: “Recently recovered on the shore of an unnamed island off the coast of Crete, the following selections from Demosthenes’ Legacy—once thought to be an anthology of dictionary entries disguised as homophonic fragments or misplaced maxims, interspersed with a series of biographical accounts—have since been verified by a panel of scholars as the long missing core of the collection of “word-pebbles,” or “pebble-poems,” which the oracular orator rolled round on his tongue, overturning, with dogged determination, the caustic condition to which he was born, which denied and defined him, his destiny.” Read more here.

Richard Jeffry Newman’s translation “The Teller of Tales Tells You This” in The Dirty Goat nr. 21 (2009) from Abolqasem Ferdowsi’s 10th-century Persian (world!) classic The Book of Kings. See Zahhak “on his ivory throne, his turquoise crown upon his royal brow,” see Feyradoun battle the usurper, feel the hammer strokes of Kaveh the blacksmith as he makes the weapon that will allow Feyradoun to “deliver that dragon to the dust.”

Elise Paschen’s forthcoming Bestiary (Red Hen sent me an advanced copy). I am still getting to know these creatures. My notes read, in part: “Paschen finds the mythic in the mundane; shows us miracles we make without knowing”; “Flycatcher’s Fall”; “ ‘The dome contains jungles’ ”; “ ‘His words like fish swim through my bones’ ”; “she transforms private grief.”

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Year in Review, pt. 3: Translation

Translation demands the utmost dedication to craft. Charon must place the oars with intimate care as he ferries his cargo across the river. Anansi must weave precisely so the web spans the gulf and withstands the winds that riffle across it.

Fantastical art is inherently liminal, ambiguous, defying by design easy understanding. The Friar’s Lantern leads us a merry dance over the bog.

Locus (November) reported on science fiction in Brazil. The New York Review of Science Fiction examined French, German and Danish contributions. Dedalus Press – which claims to have “invented its own distinctive genre, which we term distorted reality”—does a great job bringing smaller languages to the fore, e.g., Estonian, Finnish, Flemish. Levine/Scholastic brought out Karlijn Stoffels’ fantasy Koningsdochter, zeemanslief in English (translated by Laura Watkinson) as Heartsinger. Check out The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, edited by Rakesh Khanna & Pritham Chakravarthy.

Several small presses (those indies again!) specialize in translations into English, and include many works that will appeal to lovers of the fantasy. Examples: Host Publications (try Maria Rosa Lojo’s Awaiting the Green Morning, translated by Bret Alan Saunders) and Archipelago Books (try Eric Chevillard’s Palafox, translated by Wyatt Mason).

More important than individual translations is the analysis and interpretation of underlying categories, the attempt to translate entire genre-constructs, even to translate the concept of translation itself. Two good places to start: Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark; Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), and Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “Thick Translation” (Callaloo 16:4, 1993). Nnedi Okorafors’ “Is Africa Ready for Science Fiction?” (posted to The Nebula Awards blog, August 2009) is likewise required reading. Also valuable is Bliss Cua Lim’s Translating Time: Cinema, the Fantastic and Temporal Critique (out this year from Duke University Press).

(We need to explore these themes more fully. See below at the asterisk for additional citations.)

One example of how crucial and how fragile translational operations are: this year Fordham University Press published the first critical edition (by Saussy, Stalling & Klein) of The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, the late-19th-century notes by Ernest Fenellosa that Ezra Pound edited and published in 1920. Jess Row, reviewing the critical edition in the current issue of The Threepenny Review, notes: “Pound’s invocation of the ideogram as an exact analogy to Imagist poetics essentially created an agenda, if not the agenda, for American poetry after the 1920s. The translation of Chinese poetry evolved largely, if not exclusively, in step with that agenda.”

The problem with Pound’s authority was that he was wrong. Jess Row again: “The Chinese Written at best an incomplete and skewed ‘picture’ of how classical Chinese actually works as a language...,” its analysis “largely, but not entirely, a figment of the Western imagination; we might say it’s a tool Westerners have used to conceive of the concepts of Tao, or emptiness, or self-sufficient existence, which English words can’t fully explain.”

The Tower of Babel falls from its brittle plinth, mortar slaked and casements spalted.

Museums are also becoming more self-aware of their translational responsibilities, including how they order their categories of knowledge (an entire cohort of curators presumably having grown up on Foucault). Some exhibitions this year that caught my attention along these lines—I regret not being to view these in person: ReVisions, Indian Artists Engaging Traditions at the Peabody Essex Museum (Salem, Massachusetts), and Global:Lab—Art as Message; Asia and Europe, 1500-1700 at the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna.

* Some additional resources: Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms (East African Educational Publishers, 1993); Binyavanga Wainaina, “How To Write About Africa,” Granta 92 (Winter, 2005); Ruth Franklin, "After Empire; Chinua Achebe and the Great African Novel," The New Yorker (May 26, 2008); Steven Mailloux, “Interpretation and Rhetorical Hermeneutics,” in Machor & Goldstein, Reception Study: From Literary Theory to Cultural Studies (Routledge, 2001); Gregory Rabassa, “No Two Snowflakes Are Alike: Translation as Metaphor,” in Biguenet & Schulte, The Craft of Translation (University of Chicago Press, 1989); “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent: Anne Carson Contemplates Translation,” Public Space # 7 (February, 2009); Gillian Lathey, editor, The Translation of Children’s Literature: A Reader (Multilingual Ltd., 2006); Ming Dong Gu, “Theory and Fiction: A Non-Western Narrative Tradition,” Narrative 14:3 (October, 2006); The Global Art and the Museum project begun in 2006 at ZKM/Center for Art & Media, Karlsruhe. More generally, listen to the words of Laila Lalami, Zhang Longxi, Sangeeta Ray, Anthony Yu, Edith Grossman, and Suzanne Jill Levine.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Year in Review, pt. 2: The Artisanal Turn

Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman (2008) makes a powerful and learned case that we have lost—and must bring back—the artisan’s tactile connection with the material to be worked. (I also recommend Jed Perl’s “The Artisanal Urge” in American Craft for June/July, 2008 , and Paul Harper’s “The Poetics of Making,” which was the keynote address at the 2008 annual meeting of The Furniture Society.) In a March/April 2007 Print magazine interview with Steven Heller, Nik Hafermaas (chair of graphic design at The Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena) discussed re-introducing drawing to the curriculum: “I saw an alarming lack of drawing skills in some portfolios. Sketching is both a way of seeing the world and of communicating your ideas.”

(For more on visual artists and the return to the traditional skills, see my note below at the asterisk.)

Writers are expressing similar concerns. John Freeman, former president of the National Book Critics Circle and now acting editor of Granta, worries in a forthcoming book that instantaneous electronic communication erodes thought and thoughtfulness: “We need time in order to grasp the political and professional ramifications of our typed correspondence. We need time to shape and design and filter our words so that we say exactly what we mean.”

Sven Birkerts, whose The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age was an eloquent, early (1994) warning, quotes in Agni (nr. 69, spring 2009) a personal letter to him from David Foster Wallace: “ ‘ I’ll tell you why I dislike writing on a computer. It’s just as you say: it makes each line too easy, too provisional. There’s none of the pressure to perfect a line before moving on to the next that script and typewriter enforce. And so on a p.c. I find myself writing way faster, more facilely...’ “

(Musicians are grappling with the same issue—see my note below at the double-asterisk.)

This is the Bauhaus question revived: how do we remain aesthetically and spiritually connected to our art while embracing new technologies? (Back to Aristotle, and a reunification of techne with its telos of moral wisdom.) Who among us will give up his or her computer? Not I, says the lobster. Not I, says the canary. But what’s the computer for? Ah, breathes the lobster, murmurs canary...

We want the ideal workshop of Aldus Manutius in 15th-century Venice or Christophe Plantin in 16th-century Antwerp, the ideal forcing ground for innovation found in Harlem’s jazz lofts of the mid-20th-century, where new technologies are wedded to traditional technique.

Fortunately, speculative fictioneers have never strayed too far from this ideal: the rich ecosystem of conventions, writing groups, ‘zines, blogs, and readings sees to that. (For a good impression, see Kate Wilhelm’s Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, from Small Beer Press, 2005). Locus is a central hub for shoptalk, especially the interviews—those in 2009 with Michael Swanwick, Cory Doctorow and Connie Willis stick in my head.

Perhaps the spec fic infrastructure is what has caused—or at least abetted—the current wave of superb craft-oriented writers in the field. Yesterday I suggested we are in a Silver Age (at least!) for fantasy—here is my main evidence: the sheer number of active writers who are deeply knowledgeable about their literary forebears, conversant with a wide sweep of tropes and genres, and fiercely dedicated to sculpting their prose. To list just some out of many (reflecting only the taste and time of the lobster and the canary!): Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, Ellen Kushner, John Crowley, Greer Gilman, Peter S. Beagle, Michael Swanwick, Delia Sherman, Jack Vance, Jeffrey Ford, Patricia McKillip, Neil Gaiman, Carole Emshwiller, Nalo Hopkinson, James Morrow.

These established figures are remarkably generous mentors to the next wave, whom I call “the New Stylists”—who are in turn very supportive of one another: Sonya Taafe, Cat Valente, Nnedi Okorafor, Theodora Goss, JoSelle Vanderhooft, Stephanie Campisi, Jeff VanderMeer, Veronica Schanoes, Jay Lake, Claude Lalumiere, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Hal Duncan, Cat Rambo, Sarah Micklem, Naomi Novik, David Anthony Durham.

Which misses, of course, the protean Kelly Link. And Maureen McHugh. Elizabeth Hand. Susanna Clarke! Further afield, but not so far away that we cannot see them: Andrea Barrett, Hannah Tinti, Z.Z. Packer, Michael Chabon, Alice Hoffman. Karen Russell, whose St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is a book-of-the-decade for me.

[*Stop* sings canary, *stop now!* Lobster, with rimy truculence, curtails his list-making.] [?but you get my point? *Toni Morrison. Joyce Carol Oates,* he mutters. *A.S. Byatt.*]

Individual voices all, yet at least one thing unites them: their evident passion for and ability with the craft of writing. The artisanal urge and poetics of making are alive and well. These wonderful writers who write about wonders are the counterparts of the Slow Food Movement. (I read an interview recently with the founder of Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station, California, whose definition of “artisanal” was simple and brilliant, and mutatis mutandis applies to the writers I list here: knowing when the cheese is ready by testing it with one’s finger.) They’re the equivalent of dining at Chez Panisse or at Felidia. They’re the savor of hand-roasted coffee hand-served in a quietly busy coffee-house, one well stocked with...

....books from Small Beer Press and Chizine Publications, from Prime and Senses Five...

* More on visual artists: Brian Dillon, editor of Cabinet magazine, addresses the topic of overcoming the decay in drawing skills in The End of the Line: Attitudes in Drawing (Hayward Gallery, 2009). Feel also the uneasiness in Joanna Fiduccia’s “Original Copies: Images in the Zero Dimensions,” in Art on Paper, 13:5 (May/June, 2009). The Drawing Center in NYC and The Drawing Room in London are great antidotes to anxiety felt about the future of drawing.

** A note about similar fears among musicians: Jay Z’s “Death of Auto-Tone (D.O.A.)” on his newest album this fall is a forceful repudiation of voice-altering/enhancing technologies. Jazz artists are outspoken about the need for craft and a focus on detail. For instance, alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett spent time in China, learning the language and observing Chinese ways, before he produced his fabulous 2006 album, Beyond the Wall. (He talks about his stringent attention to such details in the current issue of Downbeat.) Musicians of all sorts are finding that live performances are once more becoming the end, instead of the means to sell recordings—audiences hunger for authentic experiences, as unintermediated as possible, where craftsmanship is immediately, nakedly evident. Slow Music, if you will. Somewhere in all of this walks, and chuckles, the ghost of Walter Benjamin.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Year in Review, pt. 1: Preamble

For lovers of speculative and fabulistic art, 2009 was a very good year. Lobster the librarian and canary the connoisseur offer here their favorites, making no claims other than to defend their own categories and taste.

As historians are wont to do, we stretch time just a little, reaching back into 2008 (and on a few occasions into ’06 and ’07). Call it “The Long 2009,” along the lines of “The Long Sixteenth Century” and “The Long Eighteenth Century.”

We’ve already this year interviewed, reviewed or otherwise noted work by Cat Valente, Laird Hunt, Cindy Pon, Lisa Kaser, Marie Brennan, Kate MacDowell, Les Bartlett, Tim Green, Zina Brown, Delia Sherman, Sharon Dolin, Antonio Preciado, Angela McAllister & Grahame Baker Smith, Shona Reppe, Ken Scholes, Nathaniel Mackey, various artists at the McKenzie Gallery (NYC). Greer Gilman, Matthew Cheney, Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, Erzebet YellowBoy... seek out their work, experience it, buy it, tell others...

In the coming week, we’ll post on many others who have spurred our heart this year. We may be in the midst of a Silver Age for fantasy. We contemplate a Wunderhorn of art that is well-conceived and well-executed. Art that opens the way to the unknowing from which we learn the most important lessons. The lobster and canary want art that we don’t fully get, that makes time slow down as we delve ever more deeply for meaning just outside our grasp... Kara Walker’s After the Deluge at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006 or Robert Rauschenberg’s drawings for Dante’s Inferno (the entire series shown by the Museum of Modern Art last year to mark Rauschenberg’s death)...

....the visceral horror of Margo Lanagan’s “The Goosle”, the bizarre matter-of-factness of Vandana Singh’s “The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet,” the raw beauty of Sarah Micklem’s Firethorn, the layered politics of David Anthony Durham’s Acacia, the savagery of the world created by Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games...

...the filigreed images in Sarah Lindsay’s Twigs & Knucklebones.... words and the river becoming one in Alice Oswald’s Dart (2002, reprinted 2007)... the MoMA retrospective, James Ensor's skeletons squabbling over herring and warming themselves at a wood-burning stove...

...a head crest made by the Ejagham people of Nigeria, on special display at the Metropolitan...Ranbir Kaleka’s Reading Man installation at the Bose Pacia Gallery (NYC)...

The established, large museums and publishers continue—despite serious challenges to their business models—to house much of the work Lobster & Canary likes best. But the big story of the past few years is the emergence of the independents, especially on the print side.

Robust, here to stay, devoutly innovative and interdisciplinary, increasingly transcultural: Chizine Publications (CZP), Senses Five, Small Beer, Tachyon, Aqueduct, Pyr, Graywolf,Norilana, Wattle & Daub, Copper Canyon, Tir Na Nog (thanks for saving Realms of Fantasy), Subterranean, Sarabande, Nightshade, Prime, Omnidawn, Mythic Delirium, Orca, Candlewick, Overlook, Hotel St. George, Red Hen, Coffee House. Keep an eye on Thiele, Cleon, kunstanst!fter, and Loewe in Germany, Bragelonne in France, Per Kofod in Denmark, Picnic Books, Dedalus, Salt and Alma in the U.K., De Geus and Nieuw Amsterdam in the Netherlands. I suspect similar good things are happening in other countries, and would love to hear about those.

A trait broadly shared by all of the above is a deep devotion to superb design and construction. Similar attention to the aesthetics of reading is prominent in newer periodicals too: Sienese Shredder, Cabinet des Fees, Shimmer, Conduit, Kaleidotrope, Electric Velocipede, Jubilat, Goblin Fruit, Rattle, Epiphany, Neon, Ideomancer, Sybil’s Garage, Cabinet, Mannequin Envy, Fairy Tale Review, Subtropics, Perigee. Let’s call this “the new artisanal turn,” evident in certain areas of the visual arts as well. (Include Weird Tales in the list here--it is hardly a newcomer but it feels new in its current incarnation.) Lobster & Canary will talk more about this in 2010.

Another shared characteristic: blurring or denying traditional genre expectations, working across and against the grain, pitching ephemeral tents of welcome in arroyos that belong to no one but everyone. The newly founded Interstitial Arts Foundation is a prime example, and prime mover, of the trend. The IAF’s two Interfictions anthologies to date are exciting exemplars of cross-fertilization, as are their salons—where musicians and visual artists mix with writers. Also founded recently in NYC is The Observatory, another group determined to unite word, image and music.

No isolated instances either: JoSelle Vanderhooft’s Ossuary is a tribute to Erzebet YellowBoy’s bone-anchored art pieces (2007), Cole Swensen and Thomas Nozkowski collaborated on Flare at Yale, Green Cardamom in London and White Box in NYC experiment with boundaries, Trinie Dalton dazzles with her phantasmagorical compilation Mythtym, Mary Robinette Kowal’s professional puppetry skills influence her writing, some thirty poets and visual artists have collaborated on Somewhere Far From Habit, on tour now...other examples abound.

The trend looks set to continue with leading U.S. art schools such as RISD, Parsons, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, SCAD, Otis, and the San Francisco Art Institute promoting interdisciplinary programs. Best of all, the art schools themselves are returning to artisanal basics, re-emphasizing drawing and other traditional studio skills.

(All that's old is new again: ekphrasis is an ancient genre, and the dream of a Gesamtkunstwerk is venerable.)

So: tomorrow we’ll start our review of 2009 with a look in more detail at the artisanal turn.

Friday, December 25, 2009


Another round of favorite songs that celebrate the season, and the season after.

---The wheel of the sun has turned; spring will come again.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Importance of Imaginary Friends

Fascinating article by Shirley Wang in today's Wall Street Journal: "The Power of Magical Thinking; Research Shows the Importance of Make-Believe in Kids' Development."

She quotes Paul Harris, a professor of developmental psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education: "The imagination is absolutely vital for contemplating reality, not just those things we take to be mere fantasy." ["Mere"?]

And Marjorie Taylor, psychology professor at the University of Oregon and author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them: "This is a strength of children, their ability to pretend. They can fix the problem with their imagination." [A strength of children only?]

Everyday now it seems findings from the cognitive neurosciences further elevate the primary importance of imagination, of fantasy and make-believe, for human development and well-being.

We're also learning that the brain is far more plastic than we understood it to be. Most impressive to me so far is last week's announcement by Carnegie-Mellon's Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging that, for the first time, we have evidence of the brain rewiring itself, creating new white this case as a result of intensive work on reading skills by 8- to 10-year-olds.

Deep processes affecting complex and complexly mutable structures...something wondrous breathes down our synapses...forces at work that dance within our minds, dancers creating the very stage we dance on...

Two books published this year suggest the nature of those forces, and their crucial importance in our human uplift: Brian Boyd's On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction, and Dennis Dutton's The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution.

Imaginary friends...or at least imaginary beings...horses and bulls gallop and thunder on the walls of Lascaux...a trickster turtle talks on the shores of Africa...a great bird calls out in the original Australian dreamtime...

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Delia Sherman: New York Between

Delia Sherman's second exploration of "New York Between"-- the wondrous parallel city she introduced us to in Changeling-- was published this year: The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen. (See Delia's website for details.) Lobster & Canary's youngest nephew will receive this book under the Christmas tree next week!

Delia kindly spoke with the Lobster & Canary about "New York Between":

Lobster & Canary: We believe in Neef's "New York Between"-- wood woses, gargoyles, and other creatures of myth and legend festoon the facades of many older New York buildings, while our skyscrapers at night look like dream palaces and the towers of faerie riot. When did "New York Between" first appear to you, and when did you decide to depict it in story?

Delia: I grew up in New York, two blocks from Central Park. When I was little, my idea of a day in the country was sailing my toy boat on the Boat Pond, rowing with my father on the Lake, or getting lost in the Ramble. I also grew up reading myths and fairy tales. I’m just surprised that it took as long as it did for the two to come together in my fiction.

The precipitating factors were a speech given by Brian Froud at a Faerie Symposium at the Omega Institute and Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s anthology The Green Man. I’d been asked to submit a story for it, and was having a hard time coming up with an idea. When Brian said that he didn’t think fairies could exist in a city, my immediate response was an indignant (and silent) “Of course they can!” It was a real Eureka moment.

The story that came out of that particular insight was “Grand Central Park,” which gave me the Green Lady (although I didn’t know her very well yet) and the first inklings of a parallel fairy New York. I first visited there in “CATNYP,” and have been exploring ever since.

L & C: Many reviewers comment on the wit and verve of Changeling and now The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen. Do you start with satirical intent, or does the humor emerge organically as Neef's adventures unfold?

I like reading humor, when the humor is based on character and language. I like reading tragedy, too, and I enjoy writing it in my adult fiction. But even then, I find myself veering into comedy from time to time. I can’t help myself. People say and do funny things, even when things are grim. Characters do too. Or at least mine do.

L & C: Thank you Delia!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

What we all lose when languages die

From "Schott's Vocab: A Miscellany of Words and Phrases," in today's New York Times:

French linguist Claude Hagege writes:

"Interesting conceptions of reality are embedded in dying or dead languages and their grammar, which should be saved from extinction (cf. On the Death and Life of Languages, Yale University Press, 2009 (pp.191-203):

• Initiatory languages (for example Damin, the initiatory language of the Lardil tribe in Mornington Island (Northern Queensland, Australia) ) exhibit a sophisticated blend of abstraction and concern for concrete details, which assumes a whole body of subtle mental activities, very suggestive for present research in cognitive sciences. The same applies to the existence of three or even four past or future tenses in certain endangered languages in Africa and Papua-New Guinea, each of these referring to a precise moment in time."

Monday, December 14, 2009

Sharon Dolin: Serious Pink

Words, words, words that keep coming back to me, that I keep returning to...

... words like butterflies en pointe over flowers in an endless meadow...

By Sharon Dolin, in her collection Serious Pink:Ekphrastic Poems:

"Let spectacled be speckled
and strips become tipples of stripes."

{from the poem "Day Dreams"}

"Robin's eggs, unhatched, fly up
orange drowns tongue blue"

{from "Writing Painting: A Ghazal"-- with a score-mark through "Painting," which the clumsy lobster cannot do on this computer}

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Brillat-Savarin: Violet Flames Feeding

Brillat-Savarin, in "Meditation XIX" of Physiologie du Gout (The Physiology of Taste, published 1825, just before his death), writes:

"Dreams are singular impressions that work upon the soul without the aid of external objects."

As one example, he records awakening in the midst of a "charming tingle (une espece de fourmillement plein de charmes)running across my skin from my feet to my head, coursing in the marrow of my bones; a violet flame danced upon my brow."

Then comes the kicker: "Lambere flamma comes, et circum temporo pasci."

A quote from the Aeneid, book II, referring to the sacred fire that gently caresses the brow of Ascanius, son of Aeneas, as Aeneas resists his wife Creusa's and his father Anchises's pleas to depart Troy. Aeneas wants to fight on, but the Greeks have emerged from their horse and are sacking the city...his wife and father are calling on him to lead the survivors to safety.

The sudden appearance of cool flames "gently feeding on the temples of Ascanius" is understood to be a sign from the gods that the boy is destined for greatness, that Aeneas must leave, that doing so means no loss of honor.

What precisely do the flames tasting at his own forehead mean to Brillat-Savarin?

I like to think that the gastronomic gods are prompting Brillat-Savarin to re-found Troy yet again, this time in the bistros of Paris. That they bless his odyssey through the kitchens of France, and signal their love for his stories of culinary wonder. That they presaged for him his own apotheosis, with a shimmering but innocuous flame, a "delicious quivering" ("fremissement delicieux," as he puts it), engulfing his body like the liqueur ignited over cherries jubilee.

....and now it's time for breakfast.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Antonio Preciado: "Espantapajaros"

Deep in his watery grotto, the lobster mulls a poem by Antonio Preciado (of Ecuador). A poem called "Espantapajaros," which is "Scarecrow." It speaks of betrayal, the abyss, sin...angels bare-backed and angels with wings, and the author's fear of all angels (an echo perhaps of Rilke?)...

The poem ends this way:

"así que ¡salgan de mis pronto
el ángel desde arriba
y el ángel desde abajo!
que aquí se salva el mundo
pues yo me quedo al pie de este poema
como un descomunal espantapájaros"

Which, in my weak Spanish, is a cry to be quit of both the angels of heaven and the angels of hell, creating the gap within which lies the world's salvation...

"Because I rest here at the foot of this poem
Like an enormous scarecrow."

There's the gap made real...salvation in our inability to understand, because understanding is larger than our mortal minds?

The lobster does not know the answer, but he savors the final sentence, imagines himself an enormous scarecrow at the foot of the poem, extraordinarily large and rag-pied at the foot of the poem.

He's been savoring that mysterious sentence for weeks now...and hopes you will too.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

6 + 1 Interview: Ken Scholes

Ken Scholes is one of the best new speculative fiction talents this decade. The first two volumes of his five-book The Psalms of Isaak appeared just this year: Lamentation (February) and Canticle (October). Find out more at his website by clicking here. (Disclosure: Tor sent me a free advanced reader copy of Canticle; I bought my own copy of Lamentation.)

Lobster & Canary: You've located the missing sections of Rufello's Book of Specifications ... what might those include?

Ken Scholes: Schematics for mechoservitors, drawings of metal wings, sketches of the prototype Ship that Sailed the Moon from the Czarist Lunar Expedition.

L & C: Several reviewers have called Lamentation and Canticle a hybrid of science fiction and fantasy. The lobster and the canary won't let genre analysis get in the way of a damned good story, but we are interested in your take on literary classification. Incidentally, we applaud the references to Elric, Solomon Cane, and the Gray Mouser in Canticle's dedication... and the spirit of Jack Vance that you gently invoke.

Ken: Thank you. Oddly enough, I've read very little Vance though I suppose that makes the invocation more powerful. Since writing Lamentation I've been urged by many to tackle his Dying Earth stories...after I finish the series. But those mentioned in the dedication are certainly mighty influences, along with the characters and worlds of Cordwainer Smith and Frank Herbert.

I think literary classification is largely to help booksellers know where to place a book on a shelf so that readers can find it. With The Psalms of Isaak, I'm really not trying to write to a particular genre. I'm just telling the story of the people in that world and how their lives were changed by the unfolding events. I know that's discombobulated some because those expecting epic fantasy are surprised by the robots and those expecting science fiction are surprised by the magick.

L & C: Your plot so far is a masterwork of intricacy, bluff and double-bluff, truly a "Whymer's Maze." Like the Bene Gesserit with their breeding program in Dune and the science of psychohistory in Foundation, some power appears to be controlling the fates of individuals and destiny of nations. Even more subtle, some (like Vlad Li Tam) may be less in control than they (and the reader) originally thought. Talk to us about the role of free will and personal choice in The Psalms of Isaak.

Ken: I think it's certainly a key exploration in the series for me. Along with the intentional manipulation of both environment and people to preserve and protect the leftovers of humanity in a world that's seen cataclysm after cataclysm. In this series, I'm also exploring the duality of our propensity for self-destruction and our tenacious will to adapt and survive...and the lengths that people will go to in order to protect what they believe in or destroy what they fear.

L & C: The story after two volumes is a grim one: it starts with the destruction of an entire city, and continues through betrayal, torture, warfare, suicide and so on. Many malicious acts, yet no character is wholly or simply Malice Incarnate... unlike the "dark lords" and their ilk in countless fantasy novels. The lobster & the canary see your work as something far more nuanced and much more thought-provoking, an attempt to grapple with serious issues of morality, the nature of evil, theodicy. (As Gandalf remarks, even Sauron was not evil in the beginning.) Tell us more about motivation, morality and the use of power in The Psalms of Isaak.

Ken: I appreciate your kind words. I'm not sure that I started out intentionally grappling with these things -- it's largely been beneath the surface and surprising me as it shows up. But I think these are natural explorations for many of us in the wake of 9/11. I think villains often see themselves as guardians, patriots, messiahs and heroes...and truly, I'm not certain that the concept of villains and heroes is much more than perspective in many instances, though certainly not in all instances.

I think we're critters who like to attach labels to things and to people and that sometimes it's simpler to ascribe good to what we love and evil to what we are afraid of, disagree with or do not understand. But Real Life is more complex than that. I'm not suggesting that there isn't good and evil but I'm suggesting that often we attach that judgment without necessarily asking ourselves all of the hard questions about how our perceived enemy in turn perceives us.

Particularly in this series, I've created a society of survivors who have evolved a morality that emphasizes survival at all costs with the ends justifying the means. I think you're correct that many books in our genre have more clearly delineated lines of good and evil and I suspect that's appealing because at the core of us, we wish it were that simple and when we read for escape and entertainment, we want to escape into a world that makes more sense than the one we live in. However, I think by exploring these concepts in fiction it can give us a safe sandbox to explore different thoughts and feelings and ideally still be entertained and feel as if we're participating in a good story.

L & C: Another facet of your work's complexity is the learning the characters undergo, often quite painfully. The lobster & the canary see The Psalms as a crossing of medieval mystery plays and Pilgrim's Progress with The Sorrows of Young Werther, laced with the practical, rooted wisdom that Le Guin gives us in the Earthsea cycle. Share with us a sense of the trajectory (the path of Bildung, if you will) for the major characters in the next three novels.

Ken: I think character growth, particularly through conflict, is an important part of storytelling. The trajectory for all of the characters is that they will change, stretch, and grow as they adapt to new lives and new roles after the Desolation of Windwir. The details may shift a little but I have most of it in mind. I try to keep my characters all on the dual journey of internal conflict brought about as they stand or fall against the external conflict they encounter along the way.

L & C: Bravo for the special mention of the cover art in your introduction! We fully agree that the covers by Greg Manchess capture the somber mood and dramatic tension of the story. Will you be working with Greg on the final three covers? Hmmm, we wonder if Irene Gallo (Tor's art director) might consider a special illustrated volume or some kind of Scholes-Manchess collaboration in web format.

Ken: Irene is brilliant at what she does. And I'm deeply impressed with Greg's work in general and specifically with my covers. I really have little say in that and truly don't feel I need to. I did have some unexpected input into the second cover (which can be read about in an article at but that's pretty rare and I really trust Tor and Greg to figure out the best art to catch a potential reader's eye. My job is to write books.

I'd love to work with Greg on other projects if that opportunity comes up and I would love to see an illustrated edition someday. But for now, I just can't wait to see what he dreams up for Antiphon's cover.

L & C: Your turn to ask the lobster & the canary a question!

Ken: If you were going to interview one of the main characters in the series who would it be and what questions would you ask? And I'll throw in a second question: Is there a minor player in the series that you'd like to see and hear more from?

L & C: We're still pondering these two good questions...the lobster has one idea, the canary another (another two or three actually, as is his wont, being more mercurial)...we'll reconcile water and air, posting our joint response as a coda shortly.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Cindy Pon: Interview

Cindy Pon is a writer and artist, whose first novel, Silver Phoenix, was published by Greenwillow/Harper Collins in April this year. An enthralling YA fantasy, Silver Phoenix has garnered great reviews. Its sequel is due in 2010. (Disclosure: Cindy sent me a free copy of the book; I do not believe my critique was affected by the book being free.) Learn more at her site-- click here.

Lobster & Canary:

1. You enter a garden filled with azaleas, hibiscus, tall ginkgo trees swaying in a jasmine the middle of the garden is a large koi pond....the largest koi comes up to the surface, red and black splotches on its shining white speaks to you...what does it say, and how do you answer?


Koi : "Are you where you want to be?"

Me : "I most certainly am."

Lobster & Canary:

2. You're an artist as well as a writer. I see your visual and graphic skills evidenced throughout Silver Phoenix. Your detailed descriptions of food throughout left me hungry! The details of your settings are equally vivid-- to take one example from many, I could see the courtyard at Master Tan's with its ancestor altar and the opalescent lamps. How do you think the artist in you influences the writer in you (and perhaps vice versa)-- and what might the Silver Phoenix picture book look like?


This is always a very difficult question to answer--about one's own prose. I'm simply too close to it to label it anything other than it's definitely *my* prose and *my* voice? Ai Ling, as a brush artist, sees the world very much as I do (this made it easy for me to write as my first heroine!) I'm attracted to color and flowers and nature. I think this comes across in my prose? My picture book will be paintings of things I adore,critters and flowers and more color, I hope!

Lobster & Canary:

3. Ai Ling is a strong character, a real contribution to young adult literature. She may be fated, but she is very human as well-- full of doubts, remorse, jealousy, weariness, anger. She has to make real decisions in the face of very palpable enemies. When and how did Ai Ling first come into your mind?


I had always wanted to write a novel, but it had been some amorphous goal that I put on a "life's to do list" and never bothered to even attempt to cross out. I think my first inkling of Silver Phoenix was a few scribbled words in my journal in 2004 or so? Words like : betrothal, journey, friendship, snake demon. That was all. It wasn't until two years later that I even attempted to write the novel. I did know from the start that it would be a heroine's journey and inspired by ancient China.

Lobster & Canary:

4. You address sexuality frankly and honestly, including the potential for sexual violence against girls and women. How have your readers responded to these themes in the book?


Honestly, I haven't had too much straight reader responses regarding sexual elements. It was made note of by nearly all the critics, but not in a negative way. they were all quite positive reviews. The sexual elements in my book tied in so much with the expectations of a girl within xia culture. You come of age and are expected to wed and make babies. I liked that she ran away from a betrothal only to be challenged in the climax in that way. It came full circle for me.

Lobster & Canary:

5. The demons are truly frightening, the more so because so many come disguised initially. Tell us more about how you created "the red-faced Spirit Eater," "the Life Seekers," "the night-worm fiends," the serpent that was Lady Zhou," and the others.


All that you mentioned, with the exception of the snake demon,were formed by my own imagination. I was definitely looking to create monsters that would be more fitting to the xia culture--familiar perhaps but also not to the average fantasy reader.The snake demon is very much rooted in chinese folklore. Toward the end of the novel, when Ai Ling and Chen Yong wander through various lands, those are inspired by my reading of a very old Chinese book that most aren't familiar with any longer.

Lobster & Canary:

6. Chen Yong is heading to Jiang Dao, without Ai Ling... any hints as to what the sequel holds?


The sequel will have two story lines :
Ai ling and Chen Yong
Silver Phoenix and Zhong Ye (three centuries before)

The two stories will come together somehow. That is my vision for it anyway! These two stories will be much personal, now that you've already been introduced to the characters in my debut!

Monday, November 16, 2009

6 + ! with Laird Hunt

Laird Hunt is a marvelous talent who defies easy categorization, except to say that he is very good. You can find out more about him at his site here. Coffee House Press published his fourth novel, Ray of the Star, in September. (Disclosure: Coffee House Press sent me a free advanced reader copy of the novel; I don't believe my critical faculties were compromised or obscured by the book being free, but I will let readers decide that for themselves.)

1. If you could be a living statue on the boulevard that is virtually a character itself in your novel Ray of the Star, what/who would you be?


I don’t adequately describe them in the book, but for my money the loveliest statues on the boulevard (and its actual analog, Las Ramblas in Barcelona) are the tree statues: a small grouping of oaks and maples who sway and shiver in the breeze, who drop their leaves in“autumn”, who sometimes get chopped down by errant woodcutters, who crash to the ground out of boredom or fatigue. I wouldn’t want to try to be one of these marvelous trees. I’d like to be the living statue who loses his/her way in their little forest and lies down to rest in their shade.

2. Ray of the Star is a tour-de-force, managing to be simultaneously difficult and accessible. (I thought of it as an oblique jigsaw puzzle that I nevertheless felt drawn to complete, which then rewarded with a series of revelations both painful and true.) Martin Amis's Time's Arrow is the last book I read that was similarly successful in wrapping a clever conceit around an exploration of profound questions. Let's talk first about its structure--you have said that the novel's central preoccupation with grief and loss prompted you to borrow "the formal mechanism of propulsive, single-sentence chapters from Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Assignment." Tell us more.

I have long had an interest in unusual and effective textual structures and mechanisms: Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch with its alternate itineraries and expendable chapters; George Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual with its clock stopped at a single instant in the life of a large French apartment building (stopped until the last page of the book); the chorus that animates Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. That all of these books (and the list could go on and on) put their structures and constraints at the service of the toughest questions — questions to do with madness, with being bodies that die, with being bodies that die and that nevertheless love, etc. — can not be separated for me from their highly apparent constructedness. I’ve been asked if the interest in using the mechanism of the long sentences (borrowed, yes, from Durrenmatt) preceded, say, the living statues or the great coastal city or the sense of loss that saturates the entire surround, and the answer I’m forced to give is that I can’t remember what was in place, really in place, before I began actually drafting the book. I am certain though that the long sentences, with their rather stubborn, even exasperating tendency not to go quickly and/or easily, made it easier for me to tackle the aftermath of terrible loss I had set my main man lose in. They also, perhaps oddly, required me to be highly economical and relatively moderate in my digressions the sentences are long but are meant to rush forward (not to writhe and uncoil slowly in the manner of Proust or James). I started out in writing, seriously writing, by trying to do haiku in English (I once got second prize in a contest for the following Basho mutation: “the silence/in the bamboo/of butterflies”) and my natural inclination is to be brief. Not the best disposition for a novelist, but awfully nice to get to tend to it with this book.

3. I use the jigsaw puzzle imagery advisedly...everything in Ray of the Star fits together precisely, from individual word-choice at the sentence level to the darting of the plot. And you accomplish this in less than 200 pages. Tell us something about your drafting process. Do you build back to the granular from the broad strokes, or do you start with individual words and images? Or maybe you start somewhere in the middle...?

When I was still smoking cigarettes, wearing cut-off jeans and working on an MFA at the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics, I got to hear Michael Ondaatje, at the Naropa Summer Writing Program, talk about how he worked. He described the process for writing The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (laid out all the sections on the floor and walked the alleys between them seeing the whole was key) and mentioned in passing that he never built plots, etc. ahead of time, that having a sense of what was to come next/ had to come next would kill it for him. Ondaatje was and is a major writer for me. I’ve never done the laying out the whole manuscript on a barn floor thing, but until very recently I have taken that second bit of process on as my own. I’ve adhered to this on both the macro and the micro level. Meaning that, in the case of Harry Tichborne, I not only did not know that he would end up figuring in a kind of quasi-endless (well, they all wear out before long even if he at least would like to keep running) feedback loop at novel’s conclusion, I also had no idea, when I started each sentence, where it was going to lead me. I did have a sense of when it was going to lead me, as I tended to fit the sentences into the time envelope I had available. If I had an hour, then the sentence would be an hour long, so to speak, then stop. Pretty soon though it became clear to me that if I didn’t give myself a little to go on for the next session it would be difficult (read damn near impossible) to get started on the next sentence, so I took to running a little ways past the full stops and into the next set of commas. I suspect that helped my mind to chew away a little at what it wanted to tackle next as I went about my workaday life.

I don’t think I answered your question. Here is the thing for me whatever image I think I may have in my head, it’s worth nothing if I can’t build it effectively into words. When I’m working well the so-called image is actually a phrase. I see phrases. That’s what I aspire to start from.

4. Many critics have noted the cinematic qualities of your earlier novels, qualities much in evidence in Ray of the Star as well. Lynch, Bunuel, Fassbinder, Kieslowski spring to mind. Do you find the comparisons apt?

The short answer is yes. The shorter answer is no. I love film but write books. I love books more than I love film. But what wouldn’t I give to have made something like Love Is Colder Than Death or Inland Empire or the 400 Blows or The Gleaners. But the truth is I would as lief love to be able to lay claim to have written Apollinaire’s Zone, or even just one of Dickinson’s poems or Pound’s Cathay. By that I suppose I mean that to my mind there are just as apt analogs in the world of poetry to what I would like to think I am doing with my work. But we’ve become a profoundly, if not irrevocably, visual culture, and although I frequently get the old next to meaningless (and usually pejorative) “poetic prose” comment about my writing, the comparisons, say, to Bernadette Mayer’s Memory, or to Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette (both of which were huge for me as I started to get a sense of myself as a writer) just don’t happen. This is almost a propos of nothing, but I just thought of Godard’s comment — which I read somewhere some years ago — that if he could have had any other job at any other time, it would have been as something along the lines of a 2nd or 3rd assistant to Diderot as he worked at building his extraordinary Encyclopedia: the 18th century’s much more manageable and elegant answer to the internet.One wants to have one’s hand in. And to keep one’s eyes and ears open. No other way to get it done.

5. The oddities you conjure up in the novel's nameless city have the feel of Magritte's paintings, of Ernst's Une Semaine de Bonte, Frisch, Calvino, Edward Gorey. Digging further back, Ray of the Star is a fairytale of sorts. Likewise, some of the other most successful literary experimenters currently writing (e.g., Kelly Link, Steven Millhauser, Maureen McHugh, Karen Russell) are also updating and refining both the fairytale and the tropes of surrealism and modernism. Speaking for yourself, why the "new fabulistic turn"?

I’m an admirer of the French novelist, Jean Echenoz, who often makes use of the engines of genre (to borrow a phrase from the writer Greg Howard) in his books. He has used aspects of both noir and ghost story to great effect, as have many other contemporary French writers (Mary Ndiaye in La Sorcière comes to mind). There is nothing terribly strange about this. I mean that contemporary French writers are interested in what genre can lend to their writing. In France, and in Europe more generally, there hasn’t been the divide between genre writing and so-called literary fiction that we’ve had, much to our detriment, in the U.S. Meaning that when Echenoz, Ndiaye and others brought the powerful tools of genre to bear on their fiction there wasn’t any collective wow about it the way there has been here about Lethem and Link and all the others who have gotten up to promising things with detectives and haunted houses and ray guns and so forth. I’m of course interested in the “discovery” of genre by writers carrying the standard of literary fiction in this country (I mean, thank god it doesn’t all have to be about quiet domestic disintegration and/or car wrecks and bar fights and/or depressions meds or whatever), and am not unhappy to imagine that I’ve written something that might stand alongside some of the work being done, but I’m far too schizophrenic a writer to imagine that I could keep regular company with the new fabulists or the Interfictions gang. In Ray, a man who has lost everything that has meant anything to him embarks on the long climb out of hell, or at least thinks he has done so: it just made deep sense to have the boundaries between life and not-life waver a bit as he climbs up through the rubble.

6. I've cited mostly European parallels and possible influences, and commentators on your first novels have largely done the same. But what first struck me reading you was: "Mark Twain! This is fantastic...Twain on speed!" For instance, in "Three Tales," your entry in the Omnidawn ParaSpheres anthology (2006): "I fell. Eyes first. Ears and mouth and whole remaining portion plummeting afterwards. I fell so far that when I woke I didn't. Not perfectly. The hole was still there." And so on. The talking, self-possessed running shoes and the paper-mache Yellow Submarine in Ray of the Star are two other quick examples. Talk to us about humor, Twainesque or otherwise, in your writing...and humor's place in the fantastical genres.

For a time I worried that the turn toward humor in much of my work was fueled by a desire to please the crowd at the readings everyone was always doing in New York when I lived there in the 90s (so many readings that it was a little like the constant spamming of each other that happens on Facebook and Twitter). You know how this works: as an audience member you basically get two ways to demonstrate appreciation during a reading: you can let out little moans/and or nod your head or you can laugh. When you read, the moan thing coming at you is okay, but the laugh stuff is better and seems to equate to more patting on the back afterward (which young writers not only dig but probably need). So there was (I’m not being entirely fair here) an awful lot of playing it for laughs around St. Mark’s Church. Or so it seemed to me around the time my stuff started to make people laugh at fairly frequent intervals. On the one hand this bothered me and on the other my readings went better and so I was confused. Now I would like to give myself more credit and imagine that my time living as a prose writer among narrative-hating (or so many of them put it to me in those days) poets, coincided with a broadening of my interests and abilities, and that it wasn’t just about doing what I thought I had to to get a kind word. Be that as it may, it’s very hard to be really funny in writing. Twain, to me, is funniest when he is working against a determined counterpoint of fear, desperation, loss, estrangement (I’m thinking about Huck Finn). Kafka’s humor explodes against the darkest backdrops. Walser, who is often very funny, was always walking toward that bank of snow that eventually, literally, swallowed him up. One of my quibbles about some of the new fabulist writing is that the jokes and jokeiness seem never to stop, like little fake fireworks firing away from the first line to the end. I often find the work of Brian Evenson to be very funny, and this is in large part because his humor so often blooms up out of the greatest horror.

+ 1. Your turn to ask the lobster and canary a question!

You mentioned my piece, “Three Tales,” in Omnidawn’s Paraspheres… With the exception of the regular, anonymous roughing up that my books get from certain trade publications, that story received some of the nastiest critique I’ve ever had the pleasure of receiving and it tended to come from the direction of folks who love genre writing and write regularly and passionately about it. I had an interesting exchange with the excellent Matt Cheney about this that helped shed some light on the, um, enthusiasm of the smack downs. And about some of the probably well-deserved (oh so now ghosts are okay!) suspicion on the part of seasoned genre veterans about all this encroachment from new fabulist and neo-noir, etc., dabblers. Definitely leaving aside the particularities of my experience with “Three Tales”, I wonder what you might have to say about said encroachment. Do you see it as such? Does it bother you? Any thoughts?

Lobster & Canary:

The lobster waved his claws and the canary trilled out a tiny thread of notes:

Not at all, not at all, and oh contrariwise... All streams pour forth from the same headlands and flow together in the end, no matter how widely (and wildly) they may diverge in between... we don't see the river encroaching, only merging and watering and validating... a stream that is enclosed is no longer a stream but a ditch filled with turbid water... we see it as a wonderful marriage when the engines of genre (a marvelous phrase indeed!) are wedded to new hulls... You mention Matthew Cheney: as on so many other topics, he is an astute analyst of genre and its malcontents... We also like the thoughts on genre from Umberto Eco, A.S. Byatt, Jeff VanderMeer, Michael Chabon...and many others all the way back through Pope and Dryden to Apuleius and Herodotus.

And Pliny, barks the lobster, Pliny the Elder...what genre is the Natural History ? The bedrock text of zoology for 1,500 years, sober-minded, realistic, purporting to pry the truth from obdurate myth...and it includes reports of eight-foot lobsters sunning themselves on the banks of the Ganges... oysters sipping the dew of moonlight from ocean waves and spinning it into pearl... and so on...and on...

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Greenlight: A Great New Bookstore in Brooklyn

New York City-- more specifically, Fort Greene in Brooklyn-- has a wonderful new independent bookstore: the Greenlight! (Full disclosure: I am a "community lender" to the Greenlight, i.e., I have a financial interest in the bookstore's success.) Hurrah!

Yesterday the Greenlight officially opened its doors at Fulton and South Portland in Ft. Greene...and what a grand opening it was. The place was thronged, and folks waited patiently in a drenching rain outside, a testament to the community's hunger for a quality bookstore.

Well designed, airy, with a very reader friendly vibe...and a great selection of fiction. One very interesting decision by owners Jessica and Rebecca: to shelve all fiction together, Proust next to Cherie Priest, Philip K. Dick by Dickens. Well done!

The lobster and canary wish all the best to the Greenlight. Greenlight is the first NYC indie bookstore to launch in quite a while, in the midst of a recession that is utterly changing the entire publishing/bookselling sector. I guess that it is one of the very few indies to start anywhere in the country over the past few years... bucking the trend, the Greenlight is a beacon in wintry times, a return to artisanal, impassioned bookselling and the creation of a close-knit but welcoming community of readers, authors and vendors.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Soulages: "Black is the Color of Painting's Origin"

The Pompidou Centre in Paris is mounting the largest show (October 14- March 8, 2010) it has ever done for a living French artist: Pierre Soulages, who turns 90 in December.

Soulages said this to Tobias Grey in the Financial Times last week (October 10/11):

" 'A cousin of mine, who is 100 years old, told ...the curator of this exhibition, that when I was a boy I dipped my paintbrush in the ink-well and began to paint swathes of black on a white sheet of paper. When my family asked me what I was doing, apparently I replied, "Painting snow." Of course that made everyone laugh. But I was a shy child and not trying to show off. Looking back now, I think I was trying to make the white paper appear whiter by laying down the black.'


'It astounded me that for 340 centuries men have been painting in black in some of the most obscure places on earth, caves pitched in absolute darkness...I wrote once that black is the colour of painting's origin. I don't think it's possible to refute this.' "

Monday, October 12, 2009

Matthew Cheney on Plot and Story in Strange Horizons

Matthew Cheney, one of the most astute commentators on speculative fiction (and much else besides), has a good essay in Strange Horizons on the relationship between plot and story. He riffs on some recent statements by John Grisham, who apparently feels that "literature" lacks plot or at least a respect for plot. Cheney offers words from Aristotle and the Russian formalist critic Shklovsky to suggest otherwise, and then demonstrates his points nicely with a quick reading of Peter Straub's work.

Strange Horizons is a must-read... and so is Cheney in his usual haunt, The Mumpsimus.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Why Ensor Still Matters: Buffy, Dawn of the Dead, and the Werewolf of London

A friend of mine--whose views on art I respect--said she thought the James Ensor show that just closed at the MoMa in NYC (and soon to open at the Musee d'Orsay, Paris) revealed just how "old-fashioned" he now appears. Her sense was that Ensor exemplifies Modernism grown long in the tooth, dingy old ivory compared to the Ron Arad show running on the MoMA's top floor.

I beg to differ. Ensor still has bite. Most famously, Ensor brought the ravenously inhuman, the bestial, to the surface of his bourgeois subjects. Beneath the imperial splendor and self-congratulatory rituals of European society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries lurked the demonic. Precisely Ensor's portrayal of the demonic sheathed in human form or stripped down to the skeletal is what drew the crowds to his paintings at the MoMA.

Deep inside, below our own smug rituals and American splendor, is a slithering queasiness that our humanity may be a mask slipping askew. Why else our current obsession with vampires, zombies and werewolves? Buffy, Twilight , the countless "dawn of the dead" retellings, werewolves of London, Lestat, the deluge of "urban fantasies" by Butcher, Saintcrow, and their many imitators....the undead, half-living and half-beast move within us...Ensor captured them 120 years ago as surely as our authors and cineastes do today.

For a superb multimedia presentation of the MoMA show, click here.

For an excellent discussion of the show, click here to read Sanford Schwartz in the September 24th New York Review of Books.

Lobster & Canary viewed the MoMA exhibit in July. They scribbled notes: "presages Nolde," "flattened foreground," "The Frightful Musicians, one holding a skull like a clapper," "delicate lines, skeleton in the mirror," "black chalk, hippogriff, a flea layered on top," "The Devils Dzitts and Hihahox, Led by Crazon, Riding a Wild Cat, Leading Christ into Hell," "reworking the paintings," "Steinberg," "My Aunt Dreams of Monsters," "danse macabre," "skeletons warming themselves by a stove," "masques," "chalky whites, jagged blues, reds."

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Cinderella by Shona Reppe at the New Victory Theater

Lobster and Canary were entranced yesterday evening by Shona Reppe performing Cinderella as part of the New Victory Theater's Scottish Festival.

In the Duke on 42nd Street's intimate black box theater, Reppe had a full house completely enthralled from the moment she walked on. Somehow she transformed one simple hand-held puppet, one pair of gloves, and an ingeniously designed counter-top (with lots of pop up drawers) into the world of the ash-girl and her nasty stepsisters. The audience-- mostly very small people aged 3-7 and their parents-- oohed and aahed, we blew on the magic handbag to produce Cinderella's dress, we clapped and laughed. When Reppe, using just phosphorescent cut-outs in the dark to depict Cinderella dancing with the prince at the ball...well, then we were all of us in fairyland.

Reppe's sly,impish performance was-- to put it shortly-- brilliant.

Her collaborators also deserve applause: Ian Cameron, Tamlin Wiltshire, and Gill Robertson (founder and artistic director of the Catherine Wheels Theatre Company, which is putting on Hansel & Gretel as part of the New Victory's Scottish Festival).

Special kudos to the New Victory Theater, the groundbreaking organization dedicated to the best in children's theater from around the world, and also to the Jim Henson Foundation for its support of the production.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Leon and the Place Between

Here's the perfect holiday gift for the youngest readers in your life, especially those who love to curl up on your lap as you read to/with them:

Leon and the Place Between, story by Angela McAlister, illustrations by Grahame Baker-Smith (designed by Mike Jolley and edited by Libby Hamilton), published earlier this year by Candlewick Press.

The story is elegant in its simplicity: Leon and his siblings go to a traveling magician's show...and Leon is transported by very real wizardry into the Place Between.

"With a ripple of gold braid...the curtains slowly parted..."

"Up jumped a barrel organ monkey, all made of wood and tiny hinges, He beckoned the moon to light the mechanical toys..."

McAllister's evocative words are embodied, brought to life, and made to sing by the wondrous art of Baker-Smith. Pages are die-cut to reveal mysteries, side pictures collide with sprouting flowers, birds and oddly fonted letters, colors leap off the page in gold, magenta, the deepest blue.

For a preview go here on the Candlewick site.

When you read (and frequently re-read) this book, you will ask as Leon's younger brother does at the end:

" 'But where did you go?' asked Little Mo.

Leon smiled.

'I went to the place that magic takes you.' "

Thursday, September 24, 2009

W.H. Auden, A.S. Byatt: The Danger of Words

W.H. Auden in his foreword to Owen Barfield's History in English Words (1953):

"We can only cope with the dangers of language if we recognize that language is by nature magical and therefore highly dangerous."

A. S. Byatt in an interview with Sam Leith in The Guardian (April 25, 2009):

"I don't understand why, in my work, writing is always so dangerous...People who write books are destroyers."

P.S. When Odin wanted to bring the art of poetry to the gods (and to mankind as a gift on selected occasions), he sought out its jealous guardian, the giant Suttung son of Gilling. Taking the name of "Baleful Action," Odin proceeded to cause nine serfs to slit one another's throats, tricked Suttung's brother into betrayal, slept with Suttung's daughter, and finally stole all the poetry in the world, which took the form of a pool of mead. Odin held the mead of poetry in his mouth as he flew in the shape of an eagle back to Valhalla, hotly pursued by Suttung. In short, the giants lost possession of poetry through trickery, bloodshed and theft. Of course, the giants themselves only gained poetry by coercing it from the dwarves... and so it goes.