Friday, June 26, 2015

Poem for the Weekend: Kobayashi Issa

Kobayashi Issa is one of Japan's most prolific poets; he left in his journals over twenty thousand "one-breath poems"—we know them as haiku. You can find a timeline of his life here, and at this site, you can search a database of ten thousand Issa haiku by entering a keyword, such as summer.

A haiku

by Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828)

from the treetop
gliding into midsummer...
bright moon

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Mid-Year Short Story Collection Round-Up

Two years ago, I was working on a new writing project, something undertaken just for fun and which was rapidly turning into a story collection of sorts. And I realized that for some reason, I had stopped reading short stories. So I made a conscious effort to stop that. I pointed out some of my early favorites on that new, improved reading path here.

What a great decision it has been. Now, I can’t imagine a reading diet lacking stories and I’m always on the lookout for something I may have missed in those years I was inexplicably remiss, or for something new on the publishing horizon.  

Three story collections made my 2014 Favorite Reads list, and as I finished another collection today, it seemed to me that I’ve read many more good ones so far this year. And so I checked. Of the forty books I’ve read in the first half of 2015, eight were story collections (that’s 20% for you math fanatics). I keep track of my reading on Goodreads (find me here), and I discovered that of the twelve books I’ve rated five stars this year, five are story collections. So yes, it’s been a good year for me and my lucky choices. And here are those five stellar collections:

Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor (2014)
My first read of the year, this started 2015 off with a bang. Minor’s lonely characters struggle for footing in a sometimes dark, always visceral world. These interconnected stories are unique in form and build one from the next, like a series of calculated punches.


The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story by Joan Wickersham (2012)

These seven love stories, however different in theme and execution, all relate in some way to the phrase “the news from Spain.” Although it was entertaining to see how this would play out in each piece, this was no parlor trick. These stories are strong and touching, reveling in human folly and faith. “A love story,”one of Wickersham’s characters explains, “can never be accurately reported, only imagined. It is all dreams and invention.”

See How Small by Scott Blackwood (2015)

Blackwood’s stories are told in different ways, through different perspectives, linked by the experience of a horrific event. Inspired by a true crime—the rape and murder of four teenagers—these stories explore the reverberations remaining in Blackwood’s fictional town. It reminded me of Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter, but its innovative form is something new altogether.


Stay Up With Me by Tom Barbash (2013)

Another collection of lonely folks, living under what is perhaps a perpetually gray sky. Yet like so many situations that reek of tragedy, we can’t look away. Barbash’s characters flounder a bit in what we might call “first world problems” and yet, empathy and the appeal of his wonderful prose will make you want to persevere and stay up with them anyway.

The Secret Lives of People in Love by Simon Van Booy (2010)
The eighteen very short stories in Van Booy’s collection are like bright, smooth stones in a pond. Vivid and immediate, each creates a moment (or moments) you can imagine into a full life; each story seems to hold enough potential for a novel. Touching and masterful writing.


Friday, June 19, 2015

Poem for the Weekend: Louise Glück


One of our finest and most decorated contemporary American poets, Louise Glück published her first book of poetry in 1968 and her most recent, Faithful and Virtuous Night, in 2014. You can find an article about her life and career here.

Grandmother in the Garden

by Louise Glück

The grass below the willow
Of my daughter’s wash is curled
With earthworms, and the world
Is measured into row on row
Of unspiced houses, painted to seem real.
The drugged Long Island summer sun drains
Pattern from those empty sleeves, beyond my grandson
Squealing in his pen. I have survived my life.
The yellow daylight lines the oak leaf
And the wire vines melt with the unchanged changes
Of the baby. My children have their husband’s hands.
My husband’s framed, propped bald as a baby on their pianos,
My tremendous man. I close my eyes. And all the clothes
I have thrown out come back to me, the hollows
Of my daughters’ slips… they drift; I see the sheer
Summer cottons drift, equivalent to air.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Poem for the Weekend: Stephen Crane


Yesterday I wrote a little something about my creative process, and today I'm sharing one of my favorite poems, which has always, to me, said a little something on the same topic. Its author, Stephen Crane, is best known for that high school English class staple, The Red Badge of Courage. He also wrote the naturalistic Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. And perhaps you've read his short story, "The Open Boat" (if you haven't, you should, here). During my immersion into All Things Crane this morning, I also came across his obituary in the New York Times, from June 6, 1900, which gives you a feel for his character and career. But for now, the poem I would bring along if pressed to choose only one for eternity:

In the Desert

by Stephen Crane (1871-1900)

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Writing as Philosophical Exercise

I listened to the author Samantha Harvey on our local university radio station yesterday. She spoke about her novel, Dear Thief, which received several awards, including being longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction this year. Harvey talked about her early studies in philosophy. She seemed to be headed for a life in academia, she said, but soon realized it wasn’t for her. She turned to fiction-writing as another outlet for her interest. Writing a novel, she claimed, seemed to be a comprehensive and longform way to work out a philosophical idea. She said that the inspiration for her writing is, at first, the idea and then, the way it can be expressed through the lives of characters. (I’m paraphrasing here, because I lost my notes or should I say…my notes vanished after an unnamed child used my computer. A podcast of Harvey’s interview isn’t available online as of today but it will be, eventually, and is certainly worth a listen. Check here.)

Dear Thief isn’t an easy read. As implied by the title, the novel takes the form of a long letter written over a period of several months. The letter-writer brings up memories and questions she’s brooded over the many years since she and the addressee have seen each other. There was a betrayal and much misunderstanding, a tumultuous friendship that eventually ended. Her letter deals not only with what actually happened, but also with her musings of what might have happened and what the ex-friend may be doing now. It is perhaps one of the more intimate things I’ve read, as the entire purview is this woman’s tortured mind and hurt feelings, and the gulf left by what the other woman has stolen from her. But there’s a sort of puzzle to be made of it and isn’t that the way with any memory, any impression? The twists between what happened and what we’ve made of it since, peppered with the perspectives of everyone else. I thought the novel was brave, engrossing, and metaphorically in line with the process each of us writers goes through to create a fictional world.

So that’s the novel. What really stayed with me after Harvey’s interview was her comments about philosophy and the initial spark for her writing. The exploration of a philosophical idea, manifest in the actions and minds of characters. This comes very close to how I’d describe my own process, and I felt a comradery with Harvey for what I know is a solitary, mind-draining experience. A moment of writerly sisterhood, if you will. And then I turned off the radio and went back to work.

"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka