Saturday, June 27, 2009

Response to Erzebet: A Coda

Erzebet's question on the continuing allure of folklore and fairy tales, and the Bacchilegga quote in the previous post about the mutual influence of the oral and literary on and through fairy tales, sent me to my bookshelves for some examples. Anderson and Hesse, Tieck and von Eichendorff, Collodi and Calvino, Marguerite Yourcenar, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Tanith Lee, Patricia McKillip, Marina Warner, Jeanette Winterson...all obvious choices as exemplars of mastery of the literary form.

I remembered Erich Fried, whose poems--dealing with very modern themes in Germany in the decades after 1945-- often include allusions to fairytales: "The Tree Princess Speaks," "The Three Questions," "The Helpful Birds," "The Elf-Hill."

Here's Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni opening her The Palace of Illusions, a luscious retelling of the Mahabharata from the princess Panchaali's perspective:

"Through the long, lonely years of my childhood, when my father's palace seemed to tighten its grip around me until I couldn't breathe, I would go to my nurse and ask for a story. And though she knew many wondrous and edifying tales, the one I made her tell me over and over was the story of my birth."

And Aminatta Forna from her Ancestor Stones, drawing on her childhood in Sierre Leone:

"Hali! What story shall I tell? The story of how it really was, or the one you want to hear? I shall start with my name, but that is not as easy as you think. I have been known by many names. [...] ...we never change the names that tell the world who we are. The names we are called by, yes. These ones may change."

And here's Rabih Alameddine, starting his tale of modern-day Lebanon The Hakawati (which means "The Storyteller"), braiding the distant past with the immediate present:

"Listen. Allow me to be your god. Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining. Let me tell you a story.

A long, long time ago, an emir lived in a distant land, in a beautiful city, a green city with many trees and exquisite gurgling fountains whose sound lulled the citizens to sleep at night. Now, the emir had everything, except for the one thing his heart desired, a son."

"A long, long time ago..." The unspecified, translucent, cyclical time of fairy tale...I sometimes picture it as the cigar-smoke that a brandy drinker blows into the snifter, drifting slowly inside the glass, swirling within the curved sides above the sweet-stinging liquor.... sometimes I picture it the way Margaret Atwood does in the third paragraph of her novel Cat's Eye:

"But I began then to think of time as having a shape, something you could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You don't look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away."

Even when an author writes a "modern, realistic" novel, the "long ago" of fairytale is the default, the foil implicated, implied and always to be defined against, as in the opening of Joyce Carol Oates's You Must Remember This:

"Not once upon a time but a few years ago. Last year. Last week. Last Thursday. On Union Street, on Cadboro, up in the Decker project, up behind the high school in that alley. In Kilbirnie Park. Out by the reservoir. In the middle of the night, at six in the morning. In broad daylight."

Oates understands the power of fairy tale, framing her novel of family life in an industrial town in 1950s upstate New York as not-a-fairy tale ("don't think of an elephant"), thus triggering for the reader all the tropes known from before you could read on your own, the tropes learned as you listened to fairy tales. The novel's next paragraph includes rumours of abortion, incest, exile, infanticide and mass murder by a modern-day Blue Beard, a runaway girl, coerced sex, torture, a "living skeleton"....

The endless, horrified fascination with fairytale in a nutshell: because werewolves really do roam the woods, Bluebeards do build and populate bloody chambers, witches test for plumpness on children's fingers, princes bleed to death on thorn-trees.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Response to Erzebet: Fairy Tales

Erzebet's Question to Lobster & Canary:

When left to my own devices, my mind will always turn to my first literary love. In this jaded day and age, one might think that fairy tales are too quaint to be much of a force in the literary world, and yet they flourish around us. What is it about fairy tales that give them their eternal allure?

Lobster & Canary's Response:

I too turn constantly back to folktales and their literary cousins-- they're the aquifer feeding the lake of story. Many elements give fairy tales their evergreen allure; let me offer comments on just two: the form's plasticity, and its focus on the need to conquer the threat of intimate violence.

The fairy tale's deceptively simplistic plots, tropes and characterizations allow for a vast array of narrative twists and turns and even diametrically opposed outcomes upon each re-telling. Ironically, it seems that the more specific the detail, the more complex the characterization, the more mimetic the narrative altogether, the smaller the range of plausible interpretations a story can bear. Like the trickster, the hame-shifter, and the hob-trot, the fairy tale straddles boundaries, appears one way at dusk and another at dawn, at home everywhere while refusing categorization (pace Aarne & Thompson, and Propp).

As Cristina Bacchilega writes in Postmodern Fairytales: Gender and Narrative Strategies (p.3, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999):

"As a 'borderline' or traditional genre, it [fairytale] bears the traces of orality, folkloric tradition, and socio-cultural performance, even when it is edited as literature for children or it is marketed with little respect for its history and materiality. And conversely, even when it claims to be folklore, the fairytale is shaped by literary traditions with different social uses and users."

Fairytales deal above all with the most primal and horrific acts of familial and sexual violence. Fairytales force us to recognize and confront the Troll Within, the Witch lurking in our hearts, the Ogre housed within our marrow. I agree with Jack Zipes, when he answers the question about the enduring popularity of Little Red Riding Hood, this way:

"Simply put, because it raises issues about gender identity, sexuality, violence, and the civilizing process in a unique and succinct symbolic form that children and adults can understand on different levels" (p. 343, The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, 2nd ed., Routledge, 1993).

(See also Karen Rowe's pathbreaking essays: "Feminism and Fairy Tales," Women's Studies 6-1979, and "To Spin a Yarn: The Female Voice in Folklore and Fairy Tales," in Fairy Tales and Society, ed. by R.Bottigheimer, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986).

Likewise, Maria Tatar reminds us that fairytales-- far from being sweet and harmless-- are stark in their portrayal of horror: abandonment, cannibalism, rape, mutilation, incest, murder (see her The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales, 2nd. ed., Princeton University Press, 2003). Their unflinching focus on depravity, their refusal to ignore the bestial side of human behavior, are precisely what give fairy tales their moral power, is the source of their perennial appeal. That, and the fact that fairy tales show how humans can defeat our worst natures, can civilize ourselves. Yes, the fairytale insists on a happy ending but only after the hero or heroine overcomes genuine pain and danger.

Hence the power of the eerie, blade-within-velveteen beauty in Angela Carter's fairytales, and of Margo Lanagan's gruesome, viscerally demanding "The Goosle" (one of the most harrowing but authentic stories I have ever read). Hence the success of Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, telling the still-raw story of Spain's Civil War through the lense of the classic three tasks to gain the fairy-throne, sparing no wrenching detail of death and torture, recalling Callot's "Miseries of War" and Goya's "Disasters of War," whose peasant victims (and perpetrators) told the folktales that in turn influenced del Toro and del Toro's audience. Hence the glamour cast by the minatory whisper of Paula Bohince's "Disappearance" in The Fairy Tale Review's Green Issue:

"Crows dissipate when I shoo them
only to reappear, in minutes,
silent and silky as children touched and lurking
at the fringe, lingering there
outside the woods' honeyed doorway.

hurt spiraling through each
bramble and leaf where the raspberries live.

Some berries are too tender
for the wrestling of crows and children, their
limitless hunger. Thus the fruit
plunges heavily downward, and the children
also, into love's rabbit hole."

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

6 + 1: Interview with Erzebet YellowBoy

Erzebet YellowBoy is an artist, author, editor and bookbinder who works primarily in the fantasy genre. She oversees two small presses, edits two magazines (one in print and one online) and her second novel is scheduled for release in 2010. Her work is concerned with memory and transformation, and she loves fairy tales.

Question 1: Wrapped around the well of the knowledge at the end of the world (where one can see the moon and the stars half-shining in daytime) is a dragon of ancient reputation, armed with endless scepticism about human aims and desires. How do we overcome his scepticism and earn a drink from that well?

Erzebet: Simply appearing at the dragon's side should overcome his scepticism. After all, according to him we should never have got that far in the first place. If that doesn't work, counter his attack with some scepticism of your own - tell him you don't believe in dragons and see what happens. Maybe he'll vanish! Actually, I'm a big fan of scepticism. I don't believe it dulls wonder, I believe it can add to it. How can this be? Why is this so? Very often, the answers to these questions are more marvelous than the object of the questions themselves. Perhaps if the dragon can be made to see how fabulous he is, he'll drink from the well with us.

Question 2: You are a polymath, in the tradition of Blake or Morris. How does your work as a visual artist influence your writing, and vice versa?

Erzebet: At the most basic level, I wouldn't bind books if I didn't write stories, nor would I write stories if I couldn't bind them into books. I'm not sure how this happened or which came first, they both sort of developed together and are now inseparable. On another level, my work as a visual artist gives me insight into the creative process in general, which is a theme I think one can find in most of my writing. I like to think that my characters are engaged in the process of creating themselves. It's all the same really. We start with a foundation and add to it, building it up until we have a finished piece. It is often in the process of gathering physical material to work with - leaves, bones, etc. - that I come up with things like plot and characters, and sometimes my characters reveal new ideas concerning the making of books. It is almost impossible for me to think about writing and visual art as two distinct things at this point. It's a symbiotic relationship between the visual work and the writing and sometimes I'm sure I am only a tool of my art.

Question 3: In your debut novel, The Bone Whistle (written as "Eva Swan"), you used Native American imagery and ideas. Tell us about the connections between various tale traditions and the differences, and your experience writing these into a fantasy novel.

Erzebet: First I must make it clear that I used Lakota imagery and ideas, as opposed to the more general "Native American". That novel was inspired by my years on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where if you listen closely to the stories being told, you will notice that the line between what we think of as fantasy and reality is very thin, if it exists at all. We often think of "fairy lands" as existing sort of beyond the fields we know, in another place and time, separate from our own. That idea is in opposition to a worldview in which otherworlds aren't "other" at all, they are simply an extension of this one. In The Bone Whistle, I tried to combine the two, revealing an otherworld that lies beside this world. Most Lakota stories that I know are cautionary tales, old stories designed almost solely to aid in the survival of a family or group of families. I can't say The Bone Whistle falls into this category; it is more a story about accepting yourself and your culture, issues close to the heart of what it is to be a young Lakota today. I believe stories exist for two purposes: to instruct and/or to entertain. All stories have one or both of these at their core, so in that we can find similarities between Native American and European tales. What are sources of wonder in one set are often commonplace things in the other, but both sets hold to these purposes.

I have to say that any more of a comparative study is impossible for me. My experience with European tales comes primarily from written works that have a more global appeal. My experience with Lakota tales is almost entirely oral, in that I spent hours listening to family members tell me stories about (usually) other family members. In the true oral tradition, these tales were embellished with all sorts of fantasies, but only occasionally did the storyteller bring the tale out of the realm of the personal by adding in some of the more "tribal" elements. The one thing I tried very hard to do as I was writing The Bone Whistle was to treat the characters and their cultures with respect - some of those characters were modeled on my own family and the events that befell certain of the more adventurous of them. Other ideas, like the "ghosts", were removed from their cultural context and given a more European flavor, but even in that I tried to remain true to Lakota tradition.

Question 4: Prime Books is bringing out three of your novels: Sleeping Helena, Land of Dreams, and Grandmother's House. We'd love a preview!

Erzebet: Sleeping Helena is based on the tale of Sleeping Beauty, set in the Bavaria of King Ludwig II. It opens:

"Kitty was a tall woman, wide at the shoulder and heavy of thigh, who kept her white braids curled on top of her head, held in place by an army of pins. Her skin was a deep shade of sepia and she wore lipstick the color of those halfling cherries found lurking at the bottom of canned fruit-cup. She was sometimes forgiving and sometimes not. On the day of her grandniece’s christening she was not, and she knew just whom to blame for the grave insult.

The eldest of eight sisters, Kitty had been born blind. At the age of five she fell from a horse and into a coma that spanned seven long days. When she woke, Kitty could See. The spells that revealed the future to her were dreadful episodes, but none were as awful as she became as the years passed by. Kitty’s sisters often wished she’d never woken from her coma at all. Even so, none ever slighted her as they had done now. Kitty did not need an invitation to the christening, of course, but it still would have been nice to get one. It would have been right to get one. She was one of child’s grandaunts, was she not?"

Sorry, that's all you can have!

Question 5: What is your absolute dream project for Papaveria Press?

Erzebet: This is not an easy question to answer - there are so many! It would be a very selfish project in that I'd like to gather a collection of original stories from each of my favorite authors who deal in fairy tales, as well as illustrations from my favorite artists who do the same, and make a big book of fairy tales with an outrageous binding. Leather and brass and feathers and gems, medieval style, or perhaps I'd create my own style. I would like to make a book that acts as a source of wonder both outside and in. I do have a project underway, slow as snails, that is also very dear to my heart. I am working on a very limited edition of Thomas the Rhymer, with text from both the original ballads and from Ellen Kushner's book of the same name. The covers will be made of bark, the pages of leaves, and I've been gathering up the materials for this book for ages. As there is no real time in Fairyland, I can't say when this book will be done, but it certainly does qualify as a dream project - one dream that will eventually come true.

Question 6: At the end of your story "Moonstone" (in Mythic, ed. by Mike Allen), the wizard is the only one at court not shocked by the rebirth of the willow grove, since he "knew true magic when he saw it." From your vantage point as editrix of Cabinet des Fees and Jabberwocky, and a guiding light at the Interstitial Arts Foundation, what do you see as some of the "true magic" current and upcoming in fantasy and spec fic?

Erzebet: Magic can and will always be found in the stories being published. The true magic I am seeing is in the way authors today are embracing new media and using it to create methods of storytelling unheard of before the internet changed our lives. One of the reasons I fully support the work the Interstitial Art Foundation does is because it supports and encourages marginalized artists and authors and provides them with a forum which breaks the confines of genre and type. The arts, and by that I mean visual, performance, literary - all of it, are too often hindered by the more traditional methods of exposure and promotion, avenues which often remain closed to those of us whose work doesn't meet the expected criteria. Look to the Interfictions anthologies, I and II, for some of today's magic in the speculative fiction field.

Beyond all of that, another place I am seeing some real magic happen is in our authors' use of language. Writing has always, obviously, been a craft of language, but as far as I can tell most of the modern experimental writing (until recently) was happening outside of our field. I don't always agree that experimental writing equals good writing, but when it does we have something special on our hands. More speculative authors, I think, are playing with language, seeing where it can take them and their tales, and the results are some of the most interesting stories available. I'm going to show my bias now and admit that when it comes to "true magic", I see most of that happening in the realm of speculative poetry. It is there that I find the most heartening and mind-blowing works being published today.

Erzebet's Question to Lobster & Canary:

When left to my own devices, my mind will always turn to my first literary love. In this jaded day and age, one might think that fairy tales are too quaint to be much of a force in the literary world, and yet they flourish around us. What is it about fairy tales that give them their eternal allure?

Lobster & Canary is still pondering...and will answer Erzebet in tomorrow's post.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Quarterly Conversation editorial: "Demise of Publishing"

The Quarterly Conversation produces very intelligent and wide-ranging commentary on literature--it's required reading, along with Rain Taxi and Bookslut.

TQC's issue number 16 just came out, but I am still mulling the excellent note from the editors in issue number 15: "On the Demise of Publishing, Reading and Everything Else." They offer the most succinct yet nuanced overview of The State of Letters that I have seen. Here's their conclusion:

"As with previous predictions of the demise of reading, it’s probably too early to tell. Reading on the Rise [L & C: the recent NEA survey] might be indicating a renewed interest in reading, or it might be statistical noise. Wait until 2014. Still, with Amazon, Sony, and other interested parties battling to sell you an ebook reader, with Google courting lawsuits in a headlong rush to digitize the world’s great treasure trove of books, and with American publishers churning out something on the order of 200,000 new titles in 2008, reading seems to not be in the perilous straits that some melancholics might believe."

Well said indeed!

For longer treatments of the same theme, see Geoffrey Nunberg (ed.), The Future of the Book and Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies. Related: Nicholas Carr, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?," (Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2008), Jamais Cascio, "Get Smarter (Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2009). The long view: Robert Darnton, Elizabeth Eisenstein, Roger Chartier and Alberto Manguel on the history of publishing and reading.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Answering Jessica's Questions

All day Lobster & Canary wrestled with Jessica's questions-- Lobster favored the one, and Canary the other, so of course in the end, we decided to answer both.

Jessica: 1) Someone suggested recently that literary bloggers would make great facilitators for author interviews, book clubs, or other events that could bring the virtual and physical book community together in a bookstore. Do you have any ideas or thoughts on ways that bloggers and bookstores could work together?

Lobster & C: Bloggers and bookstores are natural partners. Bookstores will, of course, blog on their own behalf, but third-party endorsement is always best. In practical terms, I think bloggers can provide the prep and the follow-up for live events at the store itself. Obviously I think the Web is wonderful...but ultimately nothing replaces an in-person reading, an in-person roundtable. We are primates: we need all the body language, the facial cues, the heat and the rhythm and intonations that only comes through in person.

Let's say that Colson Whitehead and Jhumpa Lahiri are scheduled to interview each other one evening at the Greenlight. Imagine if several bloggers were given the opportunity/right to help the two discussants prepare in advance, with input from blog readers. Imagine if the conversation then continues in cyberspace after the live event.

At the end of a year's worth of interviews, Greenlight and the bloggers could publish a book (paper and digital) of the series highlights...which could then be sold at Greenlight and other stores...which could itself become the object of blogging discussion, and so on. Literature is, after all, one endless conversation with infinite digressions.

Jessica: 2) CLOUD ATLAS is literally my favorite book, and I love all of the others you mention in question #3 [see yesterday's 6 + 1 post] -- so what have you read recently in that vein, and can you give me some reading suggestion?!?

L & Canary: Ah, why am I not surprised about your fondness for Cloud Atlas? Let me start by hoping that Greenlight will stock titles from the small presses that specialize in books that toy with, subvert, and straddle traditional genre boundries: Overlook, Coffee House, Small Beer, Archipelago, Chizine Publications, Senses Five, McPherson to name just a few. As for specific authors (some of whom I have not read recently but am prompted to re-read now that you ask): Wole Soyinka, Manohar Malgonkar, Cees Notteboom, Aminata Forna, Nalo Hopkinson, Harry Mulisch, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Nnedi Okarafor-Mbachu, Julio Cortazar, Emily Barton, Giorgio Manganelli, Jeanette Winterson, Alice Hoffman, John Crowley, Gregory Feeley, Jeffrey Ford, Jeff VanderMeer, and Kelly Link. Reaching back, I would include Angela Carter, G.K. Chesterton, Leonora Carrington, Oskar Kokoschka, Tristan Tzara. Oh, and let's make sure Ursula K. Le Guin is just about everywhere on the shelves!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

6 + 1: Interview with Jessica Stockton Bagnulo

A very happy full disclosure: Lobster & Canary is proud to be a Founding Patron of and (in a very small way)a Community Lender to Greenlight Bookstore. Read on!

Preamble: Jessica Stockton Bagnulo is a big nerd about all things books and Brooklyn. She has worked in independent bookstores in NYC since 2000 and currently works as events coordinator at McNally Jackson Books in Manhattan. In September 2009 she will celebrate the long-awaited grand opening of Greenlight Bookstore, her very own bookstore (with fabulous partner Rebecca Fitting) in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. She is a member of the board of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association and a founder of the ABA Emerging Leaders Project for mentoring young booksellers, and often speaks at book industry events on digital media, graphic novels, and author events. She blogs at The Written Nerd and the Greenlight Bookstore blog. She lives happily in Park Slope with an adorably literate husband.

L & C question 1. In A Voyage to Arcturus (published 1920), David Lindsay imagines and describes the colors "jale" and "ulfire." What color or colors would you discover for us, where would they fit on the spectrum?

JSB: Hmm, how about "efflorescent" (like yellow highlighter with champagne bubbles)? I should think of something greenish, for Greenlight... perhaps Greenlight itself could be a color, though I'm not sure if it's the exact quality of light through a tree's leaves at noon in full summer, or the tantalizing dark light at the end of a dock in West Egg.

2. What is the impetus behind Greenlight? What will differentiate Greenlight from other bookstores?

Greenlight is the culmination, for me, of a very long process that began when I realized that being a bookseller was the only job I would ever love, and somewhat of a calling for me. In trying to figure out how to make a living at that, I realized that I had a lot of ideas about how to make a great independent bookstore, and that I wanted to be a Proprietor someday. Since I had no capital whatsoever, I set out to learn everything I possibly could about the art and business of bookstores, about starting a business, and about the communities of Brooklyn where I wanted to open my store. Along the way, I wrote a business plan that won an award from the Brooklyn library, got in touch with the wonderful Fort Greene Association, and eventually connected with Rebecca, who had a very compatible vision of the perfect bookstore, and the nest egg and get-up-and-go to get things really going. All of these serendipitous factors, as well as my absolute certainty that this was what I was going to do with my life, were part of making it happen.

Greenlight won't be entirely different from other bookstores. Rebecca and I have 25 years of experience in the book business between us, and we're interested in bringing the best practices of the indie bookstore tradition to life in this store: well-read staff, great customer service, curated book selection, an emphasis on the local. At the same time, we intend to take advantage of every opportunity that the new retail environment offers, including smart design, e-commerce, social media, electronic books, etc. And we have the sense that the future of the bookstore is partly as a gathering place for the community of readers, whether it's around an author reading or a book club or a casual conversation. So Greenlight aims to bring together the best of the old and the best of the new, with an emphasis on community. And of course, we'll be different because of the community we serve: Fort Greene, Brooklyn, a diverse, literary, vibrant small town in the midst of the city. We love this neighborhood so much and can't wait to see how it shapes what Greenlight becomes.

3. How will you shelve the "genre books"? Conversely, where do you put fantastical tales by folks like David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas), Richard Flanagan (Gould's Book of Fish), Bharati Mukherjee (The Tree Bride), not to mention the perennial border-crossers such as Calvino, Eco, Borges, Kafka...?

I'm so glad you asked! Rebecca and I have this crazy idea that all fiction is created equal -- that it's nearly impossible (and essentially counterproductive) to separate mystery from "high literature" from science fiction from experimental fiction. There's so much good work that's being done using all kinds of conventions, fantasies, trope, and combinations that we'd rather just carry it all. So we're creating one giant fiction section that will shelve every non-nonfiction book alphabetical by author -- if Neil Gaiman ends up next to William Gaddis or David Mitchell ends up next to Margaret Mitchell, so much the better! We hope the joy of discovery (and the ease of finding things) will justify our quixotic quest to de-ghettoize genre fiction, and we'll be quick with recommendations if someone is looking for a certain type of author. We'll see how it works.

4. Any thoughts on how to make Greenlight a really great place for young readers (with or without their parents in tow)?

We've put a lot of thought into this, and are still doing so -- neither Rebecca nor I specialize in children's/young adult literature, though obviously we both grew up as readers. We're designing the store to have a large children's section, somewhat separated from the rest of the store, where parents and kids can browse together or sit and read. The young adult books will be between the regular fiction section and kids, so that teen/tween readers don't have to go into the "little kids" section to get the good stuff! We'll also have YA next to the graphic novels section, a particular favorite of mine and a great gateway drug for teen readers. Beyond that, we hope to offer young readers the same thing we do for any browser/buyer: books that are easy to find and easy to get lost in, plenty of seating for perusing at length, and a staff that can answer all their questions (we intend to hire a crackerjack children's book buyer). I'd love to work with local schools and other groups on programming for kids and teens, too -- we will most definitely have a weekly story hour, but that's just the beginning of the possibilities.

5. What sequel are you most hoping gets written?

Hands down, Susanna Clarke's sequel to JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORRELL -- not a month goes by that I don't wish I could read that novel again for the first time, and rumor is that Clarke is at work on another novel that takes the characters from the first in a different direction and and adds others.. The short story collection THE LADIES OF GRACE ADIEU was a morsel of goodness from that imaginary England, but not nearly enough.

6. Greenlight is a project rooted in the Fort Greene community-- tell us more about that.

As I mentioned, I hooked up with the Fort Greene Association after my business plan got some media attention. As it turned out, they had recently done a survey of neighborhood residents asking what kinds of retail they thought the neighborhood needed -- and the number one choice, across all demographic lines, was a bookstore. I love this because it demonstrates not only what a bookish neighborhood Fort Greene is, but also that the neighborhood is making choices to grow in a conscious and sustainable way and avoid some of the pitfalls of gentrification. Anyway, the FGA folks threw us a party last September just to introduce the bookstore project to the community and demonstrate their support -- over 300 people came, and we made connections with architects, authors, designers, and a lot of folks that became our community lenders. Take a look at the Greenlight Bookstore blog for details on how the Community Lender Program works ( -- essentially, people support the business by giving us small loans to help with startup capital. We've raised nearly $65,000 that way -- amazing!! (We got approved for a biggish small business loan, too, but we'd rather owe money to people we can thank personally.) In the meantime too, neighborhood excitement about the bookstore is fevered -- the other day Rebecca and I were in front of the store and were hailed by a passerby who enthused about how much he was looking forward to the store's opening. I've never seen nor heard of this level of support from a community for a bookstore that doesn't even exist yet -- we feel incredibly lucky to be a part of this neighborhood!

7. Jessica's turn to query Lobster & Canary:

Okay, I'm giving you a choice of questions to answer.

1) Someone suggested recently that literary bloggers would make great facilitators for author interviews, book clubs, or other events that could bring the virtual and physical book community together in a bookstore. Do you have any ideas or thoughts on ways that bloggers and bookstores could work together?

2) CLOUD ATLAS is literally my favorite book, and I love all of the others you mention in question #3 -- so what have you read recently in that vein, and can you give me some reading suggestion?!?

L & C: Oh, Jessica, great questions. Pity the poor Lobster & Canary having to choose which one to answer...stay answer (answers?) forthcoming in tomorrow's post...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Woden's Day (post-Bloomsday, pre-Juneteenth)

Today is Wednesday.

Comes every once a week.


Today happens to be one day after Bloomsday-- the 105th Bloomsday in fact. A grand celebration.


Today is two days before Juneteenth this year. Another great celebration.

But not on Wednesday.

Wednesday's child is full of woe.

Wednesday. Wounds day. Wasn't day.

Which is Woden's Day.

Few remember that it is his day.

Fewer still would give what he gave for a draft of wisdom at Mimir's Well.

Woden, whose name derives from roots meaning "rage, madness, excitation," but also "melody, poetry, spiritual arousing."


"Woot, woot!"

The furious wodewoses, tamed into woodhouses. Gave up their eight-legged horses for prams and bicycles.

The runes brought down by Woden-- screaming after nine days transfixed by his own spear on the spine of the world-tree -- are shrunk down now into the glyphs on the subway map.

But the poets remember: lurking under all change dwells still the original, waiting for a rent in the times or a slip in the sky to come forth again.

So Marianne Moore's "Wood-Weasel":

"The inky thing/ adaptively whited with glistening/ goat-fur is wood-warden. In his/ ermined well-cuttlefish-inked wool, he is/ determination's totem."

And even more so Ted Hughes from Wodwo:

"The bear is digging/ In his sleep/ Through the wall of the Universe/ With a man's femur/ ...[from "The Bear"]," while

"The lark begins to go up/ Like a warning/ As if the globe were uneasy...Like sacrifices set floating/ The cruel earth's offerings/ /The mad earth's missionaries./ ...[from "Skylarks"]."

Ah, Woden's Day.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Passage of Giants: John Hope Franklin, Ronald Takaki, Philip Curtin

We lost three of our most influential historians this spring: John Hope Franklin (died March 25th, aged 94), Ronald Takaki (died May 26, aged 70), and Philip Curtin (died June 4th, aged 87).

Franklin was one of our most important public intellectuals, in the mold of W.E.B. Du Bois. Franklin held an endowed professorship at Duke University, having been central to the emergence of African-American historical scholarship beginning with his landmark 1947 study, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans.

He was a key adviser to Thurgood Marshall on the Brown v. Board of Education case, and he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King at Montgomery in 1965. He headed President Clinton's national advisory board on race in 1997.

"The specter of color is apparent even when it goes unmentioned," he wrote in The Color Line: Legacy for the 21st Century (1994), "And it is all too often the unseen force that influences public policy as well as private relationships."

For more, click here.

Takaki pioneered ethnic studies, starting with his 1972 course at the University of California-Berkeley. Two of his books are especially widely used in college courses and have had great impact: Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19th-century America (1979), and A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (1993).

Don T. Nakanishi (Director of UCLA's Asian American Studies Center) is quoted in the Los Angeles Times obituary of Takaki: "Ron Takaki elevated and popularized the study of America's multiracial past and present like no other scholar, and in doing so had an indelible impact on a generation of students and researchers across the nation and around the world."

For more, click here.

Curtin helped create the modern field of African studies in the U.S.A., with his colleague Jan Vansina at the University of Wisconsin. His The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (1969) is one of the most important books in this field.

Moving to the Johns Hopkins University, Curtin became (in the words of Hopkins history department chair William Rowe) "a proselytizer for a kind of world history that treated every human society with equal dignity and equal weight."

I had the privilege of listening to Professor Curtin around the seminar table on many occasions and can vouch for Professor Rowe's characterization. One of the books in my personal library to which I return most often is Curtin's Cross-Cultural Trade in World History (1984). He called it "somewhat unorthodox...historical economic anthropology is as convenient a label as any." He insisted that the "world" in "world history" avoid Western ethnocentric approaches.

He captured the world's complexities and independencies of culture, as well as its underlying similarities, with a vast but succinct erudition. For instance, from Cross-Cultural Trade:

"...the office of wakil al-tujjar [in Cairo]...Some wakil also owned and operated funduq or lodging houses for foreign merchants, recalling the combined functions of the landlord-brokers of West Africa" (page 113).

"As early as 1519, the Ethiopian court at Gondar sent an Armenian envoy to Portugal, by way of the Portuguese posts in India" (page 130).

For more, click here.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Playlist for Emily Dickinson: Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Fiona Apple, Erykah Badu, P.J. Harvey

A playlist for the week.

Mos Def honors the memories of others who have held the power of the word, coming to us through "the speakerbox (freaky radio everywhere on the dial)".

As Kweli says, "The beautiful thing about hip-hop is it's like an audio collage."

Erykah: "If you look at all the cultures in America, this is a great opportunity for us to really get acquainted with the rest of the world."

Fiona wants to be the "patron saint of reality."

I think Emily Dickinson (see previous post) would have listened carefully to Badu, Harvey, Kweli, Mos Def and Apple, if there had been a radio or the Internet up in that room of hers in the house in Amherst.

Mos Def: "Champion Requiem"

Talib Kweli with Hi Tek: "The Blast"

P.J. Harvey: "Down by the Water"

Fiona Apple: "Paper Bag"

Erykah Badu: "On and On"

6 + 1: Interview with Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is an anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material.  Her short stories have sold to more than a dozen venues.  Her Onyx Court series of historical London fantasies includes Midnight Never Come and the recently-released In Ashes Lie, with two more to come.  More information can be found on her website,

Question 1:  I am silent and then I'm not/ You fear me but I feed you/ I am everywhere but always scarce: what am I?

. . . I have no idea.  I think I left my brain somewhere during this past month, when I was traveling, but I was in so many places that I have no clue where it might be.

Question 2:  The new Onyx Court novel, In Ashes Lie, comes out now, in June.  Tell us about the novel and about the two new ones you are writing.

More backstabbing faerie politics beneath London, this time with bonus explosions!

Ashes covers the period of the English Civil War, leading up to the Great Fire of London in 1666.  Like its predecessor, it concerns itself with the Onyx Court (the faerie court hidden beneath London) and the ways in which the fae interfere with mortal history, but each book shifts its focus a bit, as the world changes around them.  Midnight was in many ways about the royal court, whereas Ashes has more to do with Parliament and the City itself, and that trend toward more ordinary people is going to continue.

They're all set roughly a century apart, so the upcoming two are in the 18th and 19th centuries, respectively.  I'm starting work on the first of those right now, mashing together alchemy and the Enlightenment and the first predicted return of Halley's comet.  Next year, it'll be steampunk faeries in the later Victorian period.

Question 3:  In your essay "Frazier's Goddamned Golden Bough," you forcefully reject the notion that fantasy writing is an exercise in nostalgia or avoidance of the future.  I agree strongly and would like to see your essay read more widely.  Any thoughts on updating/expanding the essay, and/or bringing it to a broader audience?

Well, it helps when people like you bring it up!  I've posted it on my website, of course, but haven't really made any plans for pushing it further; I'd republish it if someone offered an appropriate circumstance, but that depends more on other people than on me.  And I'm not sure if I could expand it, though I might polish it a bit -- the whole thing was very much an explosive reaction that I flung out in one go, and having said my piece, I was done.  There are related issues I could talk about, but they seem more the kind of thing I'm going to unleash on some poor fellow panelist at a con someday, rather than anything I could formulate into an essay, at least right now.

Question 4:  One of your strengths is your focus on craftsmanship, e.g.,  your study trip to London for In Ashes Lie, your essays on grammar and narrative devices.  Tell us more about how you attend to the details of creating great stories and the worlds they portray.

It goes in cycles.  At the moment, I'm thinking a lot about characterization; the next Onyx Court book features an honest-to-god extrovert, a guy who wears his passions on his sleeve and doesn't think as much as he should before opening his mouth.  That's very difficult for me to write, so I'm having to be very conscious of how it works.  For another book, it might be a more complicated plot, or a specific prose style.  You can't think about everything at once, but you can pick specific things to focus on at specific times.

It's mostly an issue of awareness: instead of letting things be invisible to you, passing under your radar, you have to stop and think about them.  Sometimes it also helps to look at books or stories which do that thing particularly well, *or* particularly badly -- you might think you should only look at good models, but the odd truth is that you can often understand something much better when you see it break down.  A successful example can be harder to pick apart.

Question 5:  Thinking of the fight and dance scenes in Warrior, for instance, I characterize your descriptions as "kinetic, gracefully flowing."  Do you have dance or music training?  Do you storyboard the sequences before you write them?

I have both, actually -- thirteen years of ballet (plus assorted years of jazz and modern lyrical during that same period), piano from the age of six, French horn starting in junior high.  I've also done some fencing and dabbled in martial arts, though I didn't really commit to learning karate until long after those novels were written.  It always pleases me when readers say they really liked those scenes, because I think conveying movement is quite hard to do in prose.

I don't storyboard them per se; that's really a film technique (or, in a different sense, a comic-book one), and while I'd be happy to see that book turned into a movie, I'm not writing with film in mind.  You've got to craft everything for the medium you're working in *now*.  I do, however, often sketch out a rough map of the space the fight is happening in, and label it with stage directions -- stage left, upstage, etc -- so that I can map out the flow of movement and keep track of where everyone is.  (Because if the writer can't keep it straight, the reader doesn't stand a chance.)

Question 6:  Yoon Ha Lee has written a lovely theme song for Onyx Court.  How did the collaboration come about?  Any thoughts about working together on an entire suite, perhaps you writing the libretto for her score?

It was a pretty simple thing, actually.  There was an online charity auction called Live Long and Marry, raising money to fight Prop 8 (a ban on gay marriage) in California, and Yoon offered an original composition to the buyer's prompt.  I leapt on the Buy It Now price the instant the auction opened, and sent her a copy of Midnight Never Come as my prompt.  There was a bit of back-and-forth about what kind of piece I was looking for, and a tweaking of a certain passage in her first draft, but mostly she just went with what the book inspired in her.  As to whether we'd ever do more, I hadn't really thought about it -- though I can tell you I'm unlikely to write a libretto.  I was not born under a rhyming planet.

Question 7:  Your turn!

If "forty-two" is the answer to life, the universe, and everything, what is the answer to death, the void, and nothing?

I am just back from my trek to Helicon, where I put your question to those who dwell there. The nine could give me no distinct answer, disagreeing gently amongst themselves. Urania spoke of Hubble's Constant and the Lambda-Cold Dark Matter theory. Thalia, laughing as she wandered the heather-clad mountainside, tossed back over her shoulder in reply: "goodbye and thanks for all the fish!" Dear Clio expostulated with her sisters, citing the Olmec Long Count Calendar and the origins of the Jain Lokavibhaga.

Erato, strumming on the lyre, said nothing 'til all the others had opined. Then, at last, she sang forth the best answer I can offer:

"Great streets of silence led away
To neighborhoods of pause;
Here was no notice, no dissent,
No universe, no laws.

By clocks 't was morning, and for night
The bells at distance called,
But epoch had no basis here,
For period exhaled."

(--Emily Dickinson, "Void," XXXVII in Time & Eternity)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Interstitial Arts Foundation: First Salon

The Interstitial Arts Foundation held its first salon on Thursday evening (see my May 16th post)--what a great idea, perfectly executed. Deborah and I were very glad we participated, and look forward to the salon becoming a regular happening.

K. Tempest Bradford organized the event, held on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, with Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman co-hosting. The space was completely packed with interstitial creatives of all stripes, conversation was suitably imbricated with admiring reviews of artist portfolios, good live music, and references to all sorts of liminal and slipstream works.

Authors from the IAF's first anthology, Interfictions I, did short readings and then we got the "world debut" of Interfictions II, with readings from several of the contributors. Interfictions II comes out in November-- buy it.

The IAF is emerging as an important nexus of imaginative, inter- and trans-disciplinary thinking. Plus, the members are warm-spirited, the discussions jargon-free, and a current of humor and whimsy runs through the proceedings. Serious play. Reminds me of the cat in Gaiman's Coraline, slipping effortlessly from one world to another, native to both, archly observing the goings-on around it.

Huge props to Tempest for making this happen, hats off to Ellen and Delia as well. Too many fine folk in attendance to mention them all, but I do want to single out Matt Kressel and the many colleagues from his Sybil's Garage/Senses Five Press universe.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Libraries of Timbuktu

We are in danger of losing one of the world's great storehouses of knowledge, as the medieval libraries in and around Timbuktu suffer from encroaching desertification, termite infestations, and high humidity during the short but intense Malian rainy season. UNESCO designated the libraries of Timbuktu the first site within its Memory of the World Program.

Some one million manuscripts--up to five hundred pages each--are threatened. The manuscripts, most stemming from the 12th to 16th centuries (Western reckoning), include copies of the Koran, sermons, explications of Islamic law, other Muslim religious texts, treatises on mathematics, medicine, optics, geography and astronomy-- many of the latter predating Galileo and Kepler.

An international preservation and cataloging effort is underway, led by universities in Norway and the Ford Foundation, working closely with Malian organizations and scholars. Click here for the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project and here for a report from the Ford Foundation. Both sites include a great deal of documentation plus several videos.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Grotesque in Antwerp; Manu Katche

I suppose most art lovers wish they could be in Venice for the Bienniale right now or at Art Basel, but if I could I would hurry to Antwerp to catch the last days of the Ensor/Goya/Redon show at the Royal Museum of Fine Art.

Then I'd head off across the Old Continent on trains and trams, inspired by Manu Katche's pensive song "Number One," chasing an ever-receding horizon into lilac-grey space. (For some reason the link is not working right now, but if you go to YouTube, type in "Manu Katche," you'll get the video for "Number One," and then you'll hear and see what I mean. Bon voyage a toi!)

Monday, June 8, 2009

MoCCA Festival, Part II

So many great things at the MoCCA Festival--I have space to mention only a few:

* Sara Antoinette Martin: Welcome to Sara-Land, you know, where skulls abound.

* Templar, Arizona: "This is a slightly irregular Arizona that fell off the back of a truck somewhere, and now all the power outlets are a weird shape and a couple of wars never happened."

* Is It Justus?: A very worthy successor to the Boondocks (taken from us far too soon!), this series combines great graphics with trenchant social analysis. Reginald "RNB" Butler is the creator. This should be required reading in schools.

* Zuda Comics: Lots and lots of stuff here, created by users, voted on by readers.

* Stef Lenk: Get her graphic novel The Details . I especially like the "Teatime" segments: eerie, moving, wordless, echoes of Alice down the rabbit hole.

* Theo Ellsworth: Another favorite. "He has a miniature city inside of his head that is overrun with funny monsters..." This appears to be true, judging from the overgrown, densely populated pictures he produces, vaguely reminiscent of the seas through which the Yellow Submarine floats.

* Matt Kindt: Atmospheric backgrounds, very individual characters, and check out the 3-D glasses. Kindt is widely recognized for his work (Harvey winner, etc.), deservedly so.

* Sho Murase: Elegant, stylish, delicious use of color, lines like the bold tracings of a feather.

* The Bazaarium: "Your Victorian inspired emporium." A fabulous conceit, superbly well executed.

*David Mack: Mack is one of the giants of the field. And there he was taking all the time in the world with each and every one of us at his booth, animated, warm, enthusiastic about being with the fans. Mack is a mensch on top of being one of the best draftsmen and designers around!

* Tara McPherson: Another one of the giants in the field, and, yep, there she was conversing with each of us. I bought doubles of several of her postcards ("How They Fly Away So Easily"), to give away to friends.

Special mention to two great comix stores who were present: Desert Island in Williamsburg (Brooklyn) and Jim Hanley's Universe in midtown Manhattan.

Super-special kudos to two art schools training up the next generation, whose students and professors were represented in force: School of Visual Arts, and Parsons The New School for Design.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

MoCCA Festival, Part I

Visited the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) Festival at the 25th Street Armory in Manhattan on Saturday.

The armory was transformed into a caravanserai for pictorial merchants from all over the globe, including Romania, Japan, Israel, South Korea, Norway, Sweden, Canada and more. Every sort of purveyor was on hand at the bazaar, from DC and other sleek and classic superhero houses to DIY self-proclaimed alternative indies, from manga in wild profusion and grrl series to the Katzenjammer Kids and Where the Wild Things Are. Comix, the funnies, graphic novels, zombie-romance-biker stories, sequential was all here, along with a large, enthusiastic crowd and a line to buy tickets running out the door and down the block.

Kudos to MoCCA for hosting the event. Special plaudits for the festival guide, which had a whimsical cover by Molly Crabapple. Also in the guide: an excellent, succinct essay by Kent Worcester ("Academy Embraces Comics") in which he notes that "the number of cartoonists who have written with insight on comics history and theory is mind-boggling... [T]he last thing academics should assume is that the comics world is an isolated tribe that has no awareness of itself as an object of inquiry."

In my MoCCA Festival part II tomorrow, I will report on some individual favorites, a few choice dishes from the great feast.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Music New and Old: Etkin and Hancock

Music to take us to realms beyond, dance like dolphins in the inner sea:

Oran Etkin's album Kelenia drops this month. Check out this live performance of his group, a sort of klezmer-Malian blues fusion, with Makane Kouyate on percussion, Joe Sanders on bass, and Lionel Loueke sitting in on guitar (I saw Loueke a year ago at the Jazz Standard-- no one can imitate his spare and quirky style).

Some classic Herbie Hancock: "Hang Up Your Hang Ups," originally on Man-Child (1975), here in a superb live version from Tokyo Jazz 2005, with an incomparable line-up including Marcus Miller on bass, Roy Hargrove on trumpet, Lionel Loueke (again!) on guitar and --most tasty--Wah Wah Watson back again with that insinuating rhythm guitar. Hancock is such a protean force in modern American and global music!

Toni Morrison: A Bench by the Road

Last July Toni Morrison led the way to memorializing the enslaved Africans who entered the North American colonies and the U.S.A. by establishing a site for remembrance at Sullivan's Island at the entrance of the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina. (Here is Felicia R. Lee's New York Times article on the event, "Bench of Memory at Slavery's Gateway").

"It is never too late to honor the dead," Morrison is quoted as saying. "It's never too late to applaud the living who do them honor."

An estimated 40% of all enslaved Africans who entered the U.S. were landed at Sullivan's Island.

Our standard high school history textbooks tell us about Ellis Island (you can find my great-grandfather's name in the records there), and latterly have included mention of Angel Island in San Francisco Bay (which was used primarily as a detention center, given the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882--so Angel was a kind of mirror-opposite of Ellis). Now we need to be sure Sullivan Island is included too. Ellis, Angel, Sullivan: three points on a compass, with the fourth along the country's broad southern tier, all while we continue to seek our True North.

Friday, June 5, 2009

6 + 1: Interview with Timothy Green

I introduce a new feature, the "6 + 1" interview. I ask my guests six questions, and they get to ask me one question in return.

My first interview is with Timothy Green (blog and full bio here), editor of the poetry journal RATTLE. Thank you Tim! His poems have appeared in The Connecticut Review, The Florida Review, Fugue, Mid-American Review, and Nimrod International Journal, among others. Green has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and is winner of the 2006 Phi Kappa Phi award from the University of Southern California. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the poet Megan O’Reilly Green.

American Fractal is his first book-length collection, just out from Red Hen Press.

RATTLE is a biannual print journal, based in Studio City, CA. Founded in 1994, its simple premise is that poetry is something everyone can enjoy—it doesn’t take a scholar to be moved by the written word. Lawyers and landscapers, nurses and professors all share the pages in what’s become one of the most-read literary journals in the U.S.

Lobster & Canary: What is your favorite cloud formation, and why?

Timothy Green: Definitely cumulonimbus. Since moving to Los Angeles five years ago, I haven't felt a good rainstorm. I'd love to see a nice angry anvil looming in the distance, and then the electric in the air and the subsequent burst of rain. All this sunlight is getting boring.

L & C: Paul Muldoon starts his study of the relationship between Plath, Hughes and Moore ("The Literary Life" in his The End of the Poem) this way: "In my discussion of W.B. Yeats's 'All Souls' Night,' a poem written in Oxford in 'Autumn 1920,' I tried to suggest that it was difficult to read it without a proper regard for its intertextual relations, in particular the links between it and a series of poems by John Keats, including 'To Autumn,' published one hundred years earlier, in 1820." Do you think poets and poetry readers are as intensely aware of (and familiar with) our literary antecedents as Muldoon argues we need to be? Should they be?

TG: I think I’d argue against the words “should” and “need” wherever they’re applied to poetry. “Should” and “need” have driven what is really a fundamentally human art form to the fringes of society over the last 100 years. Poetry doesn’t have to do anything other than move you – “you” being anyone who happens to pick up and enjoy a poem. Of course the vast majority of poetry readers are much less familiar with the literary canon than Paul Muldoon – I know I certainly am, and that’s probably why I find Muldoon’s work to be a little dry. (And why he’d probably find my work to be pedestrian.) But the knife swings back to defend his opinion, too – I’d never say a poet or reader shouldn’t be aware of history. As it happens, I’ve read and enjoyed “All Souls’ Night,” but I’ve never read its corollary Keats. Would I get more out of Yeats if I was familiar with “To Autumn”? And would I then recommend the poems be read of together? Very likely. But I think almost any citizen of the modern world would recognize the absurdity in a mandate that I must. Exclusivism leaves a bad taste in the mouth, and it’s very unfortunate that it’s become the primary flavor of poetry for most people. How often have you heard someone dismissively say they “just don’t get” poetry, as if poetry is something that needs to be gotten? Suddenly we’re talking about a puzzle instead of what it really is – a pleasure. Who is Paul Muldoon (who am I? who are you?) to dictate how someone else should find their own pleasure? If Muldoon finds his in literary allusion, I’m happy for him. Personally, I find too much emphasis on the past to distract from the experience of a poem – and when I’m writing on my own or selecting poems for Rattle, I tend to keep the admission price relatively low; if there’s somewhere specific to go I want to guide you there. The only way I think either of us could be wrong would be to say that either of us are right.

L & C: You studied not only English but also biochemistry, psychology and philosophy. Do you feel the rift between "the two cultures" famously identified by C.P. Snow, or is the rift overstated and/or superseded?

TG: If I’m being honest about my experience, and am sure to make the appropriate disclaimers about biases and a small and non-random sample, I’d have to say that there is a rift, but that it’s one-sided. There’s a wall between arts and sciences, but poets tend to pass through it easily. Poets, I think, just tend to be interested in things, and one of those things is often science. Given my background and some coincidence, I’m still in touch with many active researchers, mostly molecular biologists, but it’s always the poets who I find talking about The Elegant Universe and Michio Kaku and particle physics. It’s the poets and painters who ask for my back issues of New Scientist. Few engineers have ever asked for copies of Rattle, and when I showed a postdoc on my softball team a copy of my book, he didn’t know what to say. There are plenty of poets who are scientists, but no matter how irrational, it doesn’t seem to follow that there are as many scientists who are poets. We could speculate on reasons for the division – the overblown pop-science of left brain vs. right brain, or hyper-specialization as a response to modern life’s increasing complexity. Or maybe, since only 14% of the population reads poetry anymore, it’s just the odds. So there’s a gap, but poets cross it easily as they use imagination to explore the world. Poe solved the dark sky paradox and presaged the big bang theory by 80 years – that should tell you something.

L & C: Rattle's stated interest is in "accessible" poems that "have heart." Delve into these descriptors for us--how does a particular poem show its heart, how do you feel the language to be accessible?

TG: Accessibility mostly refers to what we talked about before – Muldoon and the admission price. We tend to avoid poems that rely too heavily on allusion, and if they refer something from the past, then at least they point you in the right direction to research, maybe with an epigram or just by spelling it out. We never publish those poems that are so unmoored from reality that you feel lost within them. Of course the word “accessible” immediately becomes a slippery slope – accessible to who? The college-educated middle-class? Speakers of English? Nell? Basically, we want the average person to be able to pick up a copy of Rattle and find something in it that they’d like to take with them. That has more to do with clarity than any restrictions on language, but I suppose if we have to look up an inkhorn word, we want to be happy that we did. Heart is harder to place, but like Potter Stewart, I know it when I see it. Some poems are technically strong, intellectually interesting, linguistically pleasing, but lack a sense of purpose, or the feeling that the poet is really engaged in the subject matter. The goal is always to provide a transformative experience, and to do that the poet has to be transformed.

L & C: Each issue of Rattle has a "tribute theme." The June issue, for instance, has an African American theme, including interviews with Terrance Hayes and Cave Canem co-founder Toi Derricotte. How do you select the themes...or do they somehow select you?

TG: The sources are as varied as you’d expect. We more or less chose the African American theme, to fill in a gap after Filipino, Chicano and other similar issues found us. But it also had to do with Barack Obama’s presidential run, with Cave Canem appearing in a lot of bios, and specific requests that we interview Terrance Hayes. There was a confluence of reasons that it seemed to fit. With the Greatest Generation issue, we just happened to notice that we’d accepted work from a half-dozen poets in their 80s, so it seemed like it’d be interesting to find a dozen more and try to listen to their collective voice. Other times themes come directly from reader suggestions – we work hard to be an approachable journal, and listen closely to the feedback we receive. So if you have any ideas, send me a note.

L & C: Rattle's tagline is "poetry for the 21st century." What will Rattle look like, how will it sound and read, in five years, in fifteen years?

TG: We always strive to be eclectic, and in a way, diversity is slow to change. We’ll keep publishing poems that are readable and moving, in as wide a range of styles and subjects as we can find. That won’t be any different in 15 years – though I think we publish a bit too much narrative free verse, as a result of the kinds of submissions we tend to receive. Hopefully we’ll print a little more formal poetry, and a little more experimentation. As far as production goes, I think we’ve hit our stride – 200-page issues twice a year, beautifully constructed to be saved, plus a strong and free online component that continues to expand. More people will have e-readers and maybe we’ll end up print-on-demand, but otherwise I’m not going to predict any flying cars. Books have plenty of shelf-life left, and so do we.

The Seventh Question. TG: You write speculative fiction, and your novel is coming out with a spec fic press. I’ve always felt like there’s a deep affinity between poetry and speculative fiction – poets who write novels tend to dive into the surreal, personally it’s the main genre of prose I read, and prose poetry has become such a natural hybrid of the two. What do you think that link is? What are the differences, and what do they have in common as artistic works?

L & C: Great question, Tim, one we should explore with colleagues on a panel sometime. Due to limited space here, allow me to focus on the links and come back to differences in another posting.

In the beginning, poetry was the language of speculative fiction, and the fantastic was the heart of poetry. The mimetic mode intervened in the West, but, nevertheless, the best speculative prose embeds within it the poetry that is our birthright. (I am not surprised that our New Stylists, e.g., Valente, Goss, Taaffe, are accomplished poets as well as writers of prose.) Our common ancestor is the Singer of Tales, whose stories and images were-- and are!--isometric with the language he or she used.

The Singer of Tales and his/her audience viscerally understood--and understand!-- the magic inherent in the power of words. (Interesting: the singer is called the "jeli" in the Mande languages of West Africa, i.e., their own word for what the French called "griot"--my understanding is that "jeli" is etymologically related to the Mande word for "blood.") To pick just one from many, many examples: in the Finnish epic Kalevala, Vainamoinen defeats Joukahainen in a duel of song-spells, the power of words both the point of the action and the means by which the action is sung by the teller. "I find my power in a chant," sings the singer as Vainamoinen, sings Vainamoinen through the singer, "I win my magic from a song."

And so our modern poets do the same.

"The stone had skidded arc'd and bloomed into islands/...curved stone hissed into reef/ wave teeth fanged into clay/ white splash flashed into spray/ Bathsheba Montego Bay/ /bloom of the arcing summers..." (Kamau Brathwaite, "Calypso").

"An unseen rivulet,/ thick as tar distilled/ [...]/ ...and it joins the oily stream/ from the elephants' graveyard-/ / the secret of whose map-defying location/is that it's everywhere./Slower than oblivion,/the river winds past/buckled roots of mountains,/..." (Sarah Lindsay, "From the Elephants' Graveyard").

"Nothing is in my own voice because I have not/ Any. Nothing in my own name/ Here inscribed on water, nothing but flow/A ripple, outwards. Standing beside the Usk/You flow like truth, river, I will get in/Over me, through me perhaps, river let me be crystalline/ As I shall not be, shivering upon the bank./ A swan passed. So is it, the surface, sometimes/ Benign like a mirror, but not I passing, the bird." (C.H. Sisson, "The Usk").

"A field, a sea-flower, three stones, a stile./ Not one thing close to another/ throughout the air. The cliff's uplifted lawns./You and I walk light as wicker in virtual contact./ / Prepositions lie exposed.../" (Alice Oswald, "Sea Sonnet").

"I am the hunted king/ Of the frost and big icicles/ And the bogey cold/ With its wind boots.//I am the uncrowned/Of the rainworld/Hunted by lightning and thunder/ And rivers./ [...]/I am the maker/Of the world/That rolls to crush/And silence my knowledge." (Ted Hughes, "Robin Song").

Coda: The relationship of poetry to fiction and of reality to fantasy are, of course, not simply matters of concern to the spec fic community. Nabokov started his Lectures in Literature by stating that "Mansfield Park is a fairy tale, but then all novels are, in a sense, fairy tales." Borges, Calvino and Eco, to name just three others, devote enormous energy both in their fiction and in their literary criticism to exploring, and playing with, the nature of language poetical and otherwise. But further conversation about their project(s) will have to await another posting.


Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (orig. 1946).

Jorge Luis Borges, "The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights" (trans. Esther Allen), in Lawrence Venuti, ed., The Translation Studies Reader (2000, orig. 1935).

Italo Calvino, "Levels of Reality in Literature," in Calvino, The Uses of Literature (1978).

Umberto Eco, "Languages in Paradise," in Serendipities: Language & Lunacy (1998).

John Miles Foley, Traditional Oral Epic: The Odyssey, Beowulf, and the Serbo-Croatian Return Song (1991).

Thos. Hale, Griots and Griottes: Masters of Word & Music (1999).

Lauri Honko, with Chinnappa Gowda, Anneli Honko & Viveka Rai, The Siri Epic, as Performed by Gopala Naika (1992).

Kathryn Hume, Fantasy & Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature (1985).

John W. Johnson & Fa Digi Sisoko, The Epic of Son-Jara: A West African Tradition (1986).

Ursula Le Guin, "Stress-Rhythm in Poetry and Prose," and "Rhythmic Pattern in The Lord of the Rings," in Le Guin, The Wave in the Mind (2004).

Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales (orig. 1960; 2nd ed., 2000, ed. by Stephen Mitchell & Gregory Nagy).

Michael Moorcock, Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy (2004, with intro by China Mieville, afterword by Jeff VanderMeer).

Vladimir Nabokov, "Jane Austen: Mansfield Park," in Nabokov, Lectures on Literature (1980).

Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (orig. 1970).

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

BEA, part III

One of the many things I love about the BEA is that it brings together all members of our far-flung, disparate literary family: the giant publishing houses-cum-media conglomerates, the one-person presses held together by passion and a willingness to disbelieve in gravity, and everything in between.

So, at BEA we had a banner covering the better part of an entire wall-- which at the Javits Center are not small-- announcing Elizabeth Kostova's The Swan Thieves: "a novel of historical intrigue with a secret at its heart...a story of obsession, history's losses, and the power of art to preserve human hope." I loved The Historian, so eagerly await Kostova's sophomore effort.

And we had large kiosks at the Little, Brown booth proclaiming "the BIGGEST new series launch EVER" for Witch & Wizard by James Patterson.

I have a note scrawled to the effect that Scholastic had something in their (tastefully understated) booth about the sequel to The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins...but I cannot find anything about that on their site or elsewhere. Perhaps I am just trying to wish the sequel into quicker appearance, since I devoured the first of this trilogy in one gulp.

HarperCollins imprint Greenwillow Books gives us Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia, the debut by painter Cindy Pon. "Seventeen-year-old Ai Ling becomes aware of a strange power within her as she goes in search of her parent." The circumstances under which so many of our best stories begin--given the vivacity of her paintings, I imagine we are in for a treat with her prose.

Orca issues Salt, the first of a trilogy that has won an award in New Zealand for Maurice Gee. "The Whips, as silent as hunting cats, surrounded Blood Burrow in the hour before sun-up and began their sweep as the morning dogs began to howl." We may have a new member of the predatory tribe that includes the Ringwraiths, the Terminators, and Randall Flagg the Walkin' Dude.

London-based Capuchin Classics is devoted to bringing back lost gems, such as Shirley's Guild by David Pryce-Jones. Originally published in 1979, the novel takes place "in an otherwise quiet village, [where] a little girl with red hair and freckles named Shirley inspires a chain of events that cannot be explained by reason or scientific enquiry...becomes responsible for scenes unimaginable since the Dark Ages."

Finally, I want to read Finding Creatures and Other Stories by C. June Wolf, brought out by Canadian publisher Wattle and Daub Books. I say this because I enjoy her blog--her thoughts are round, warm, and witty--there is a humane and gentle strength that runs just below the surface of her sure words. For their part, Wattle and Daub is apparently a one-woman labor of love, with a goal of putting out three books a year.

This then is our miracle: superb books can emanate from the steely matrices of the corporations or be found nestled in the felt weft of the tiny independent. Who cares the provenance, so long as the tale is a good one!

Monday, June 1, 2009

BEA, part II

Fairy tales! Timeless themes retold and rewoven to meet our current needs--the pulse of our common humanity.

Little, Brown (Hachette) is bringing out Malinda Lo's debut novel, Ash, a lesbian retelling of Cinderella. "'I have a favorite tale,' Kaisa said, and she did not seem to think it was anything to be embarrassed about. 'Do you wish to hear it?' Once again Ash was surprised, and the paring knife slipped and nicked her finger, leaving behind a thin line of blood. 'Be careful," said Kaisa..." I am putting Ash at the top of my reading list for fall.

Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic) gives us Heartsinger by Karlijn Stoffels, translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson. "The spare, lyrical fairy tale revolves around Mee, a singer of sorrows, and Mitou, a merrymaker. ... The novel not only chronicles Mee and Mitou's travels, it also threads together the tales of the various characters they heal with their music."

Inner City Fairy Tales publishes its first book, The Three Princesses and the Lud-Dud Tree, by Lee Leavy, with illustrations by Sarah Carlson. Judging from this first effort, Inner City Fairy Tales will do well--I will follow their progress with interest.

Tin House Books offers The Little General and the Giant Snowflake, a seemingly H.C. Andersen-esque adventure by Matthea Harvey with illustrations by Elizabeth Zechel. "Meet a little general who is so fastidious he has different slippers for different days..." Got me right there. Can't wait.

Simply Read Books has some of the most sumptuous books I know. This fall from them we get Dragons Love by Stephen Parlato (breathtaking illustrations, like burnished metals set with gems), and a "unique boxed set of wordless picture books captur[ing] the magic of dreams" entitled Three Little Dreams by Thomas Aquinas Maguire.

New York Review of Books Classics deserves high marks for reissuing classic picture books of Norse myths and trolls by the D'Aulaires. A five-year-old boy bearing my name fell in love with those books, and through them the world of myth and fairytale...I wish the same happy fate on many other young readers today. Thank you NYRB.

Part III of my BEA report on Tuesday.