Edinburgh International Book Festival 2016

In additional to having the chance to be in the company of our literary heroes, many of us attend book festivals specifically to be introduced to writing that is unfamiliar to us. Shared events often give more bang-for-our-buck and are particularly good at letting diverse voices reverberate. With this in mind, two weeks from today on Sunday 28th of August at 17:00, I have the pleasure of chairing an Edinburgh International Book Festival event with Claire-Louise Bennett and Kelly Link: https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/claire-louise-bennett-kelly-link.

Bennett’s Pond has been on my reading list for longer than I should admit to. It’s published by Fitzcarraldo Editions who have been publishing smart, edgy literary narrative non-fiction including collections by: Eula Biss (who is also at EIBF with Chitra Ramaswamy: https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/eula-biss-chitra-ramaswamy-with-gavin-francis); Svetlana Alexievich (2015 Nobel Prize Winner); and Ben Lerner. Claire-Louise Bennett’s genre-defying Pond nudges much further into fiction and yet doesn’t quite settle fully into that space. It’s more exciting for that unknowability; the solitary woman of her stories is unfamiliar in a strangely familiar world and the stories surprise and entertain. Bennett was interviewed in The Paris Review  and you’ll find The Guardian’s review of the book here:

Kelly Link is a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her collection of stories, Get in Trouble, which is stunning, witty and, again, genre-defying. It’s literary, fantastical, and often has a touch of mystery and horror as well. The book has been praised by dozens of literary stars (as the covers – inside and out – attest to) and it’s a book that lives up to the hype. Link’s confident, fantastical stories wreck the comfort of the everyday with impossible houses, superheroes who play chess, and it raises all sorts of questions about the messiness of love. There’s something of George Saunder’s acerbic allegory as well as the horrifying and brilliant violence in Diane Cook’s debut Man V Nature (short-listed for Guardian First Book Prize) and yet Link, as we expect of the best writers, creates worlds we’ve never seen before. These are not always worlds I’d want to live in and yet I know her stories are so affecting because these are the places we already inhabit.

Link’s and Bennett’s characters are complicated, full of unease, and yet this troubling reflection of what it is to be human is also so very very satisfying. Please join us on the 28th of August at 17:00 to hear all about how these authors do what they do.

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My chapbook, one year, published by Essay Press; a few recommended essays

 

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This week Essay Press is publishing my chapbook of experimental and lyric essays, one year. Click the link and you can read the essays and see a bit of what I’ve been doing with my essaying. The essays are excerpted from a longer manuscript direction is the moment you choose.  I wrote the essays and then embarked upon an extraordinary collaboration with the artist, Amanda Thomson, and we worked together to see how we might visually explore the relationships between the essays, voices and themes.  The full m/s contains three distinct narratives and the format of the book, the way text and image work together, alters the relationship of these narratives and how they’re read.  It was an exciting foray into collaboration and has led Amanda and me to embark on a second project together.

As many people know, I’m a huge fan of the essay form and am interested in seeing if it’s possible to redefine and reclaim the essay.  I’ve written previous posts about this and so won’t wax lyrical again, here.

But as we all write into an ongoing culture, I’ve drawn up a list of some essays and essayists I love.

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (see my post from May 2015). Poetry and essay, image and text, these books work on me like few other texts have. First of all they are powerfully written and beautifully rendered. Rankine’s writing makes me consider race, gender, institutional and individual violence, mental health, everyday racism, and many other things we all should be considering every day.

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (& Bluets & The Art of Cruelty):  Nelson’s astute and concise consideration of gender, sexuality, family and motherhood is timely and timeless. She takes the essay form, shakes it up, and gives it a good talking to. Nelson, with the linguistic breadth and power of the poet she is, brings autobiography, observation and philosophy together in fluid, shocking, satisfying prose. Phrases/ideas like the ‘many-gendered mothers of my heart’ and ‘feral with vulnerability’ work on me in wonderfully agitated ways. Give me more. Yes, please.

Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist (see my post from May 2015). A brilliant, curious and honest consideration the biggest subjects of the day – race, gender, sexuality. Gay is a force here as well as in her equally hard-hitting fiction.

 And more:

Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know – a concise, clear meditation on gender, voice, race and writer/woman as subject. It is a response to Orwell’s ‘Why I write’. This book is quiet and subtle and builds to such a convincing, fully complex discussion. The cover of the Notting Hill Editions edition quotes Levy on how she’s come to her writing:  ‘To become a writer I had to learn to interrupt, to speak up, to speak a little louder, and then louder, and then to just speak in my own voice which is not loud at all.’ For me, her writing gains volume as I read; it is exactly through her sublimely written quietness that her writing booms.

Anne Carson. Well almost everything she writes. Her Short Talks stand out and build in plain, complicating short pieces that often draw our attention to how we pay attention and how we see and hear.  Carson’s ‘Kinds of Water’ is of pilgrimage of the most othering sort and breaks apart form before putting it back together in a way that stops breath and makes you scratch your head before you breathe again (a missed breath or a sigh?). My favorite single essay of hers is: ‘MOLY: Variations on the Right to Remain Silent’ published in A Public Space, which is all about silence and creativity and intentional ambiguity. Here she brings together Joan of Arc, Francis Bacon and Hölderline and quotes lines like ‘the light comes in the name of the voice’ and asks questions like: ‘And if there is a silence that falls inside certain words, when, how, with what violence does that take place, and what difference does that make to who you are?’

Ali Smith, the great genre bender. Reading Artful and How to be Both around the same time made me look at and see the world differently for weeks afterward (months, years).

Ta-Nehisi Coates – Between the World and Me – an impassioned letter from a father to a son on race, presence, violence and being a man in the United States today. An uneasy read and that’s good here where Coates is cognizant of his main reader, also of gender (tangentially), and so very focused on his subject at hand as he looks back in order to take us forward.

Max Porter – Grief is the Thing With Feathers – a fluid, witty, and sober genre-defying work. A book exploring subjects I find so compelling – death and grief – and including  a talking/thinking/mischievous/loving crow. What else could you want?

Theodore Adorno ‘The Essay as Form’.  Thick, intense essay on the form and what it’s capable of. The essay form rocks, basically, and is dynamic and challenging and full of almost anything we want it to be about and, if we work hard enough, we can make an essay do almost anything. Adorno writes about how the essay can prove that the assumption that the ‘unbroken order of concepts is not equivalent to what exists’ and indeed he goes on to write: ‘Discontinuity is essential to the essay; its subject matter is always a conflict brought to a standstill.’

Rachel Blau DuPlessis, ‘The F Word’ from Blue Studios, an interrogative and generative and gendered response to Adorno. One of her essays on essaying. ‘The essay is a way of representing struggle, crossings, and creolized exploration. Essays can be tested by the degree and tension of the struggles and passions with which they reverberate.’ And she also says, ‘The essay is restless. It is like a kind of travel writing, a voyaging, partial and never satisfied, always a little too hungry or full…a little too thirsty’.

John D’Agata: The Next American Essay; The Lost Origins of the Essay and The Making of the American Essay. ‘‘And by “Essay” I mean a verb.’

Philip Lopate’s introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay is excellent on the personal and familiar essay. ‘The essay is a notoriously flexible and adaptable form. It possesses the freedom to move anywhere, in all directions. It acts as if all objects were equally near the center and as if “all subjects are linked to each other” by free association. This freedom can be daunting, not only for the novice essayist confronting such latitude but for the critic attempting to pin down its formal properties.’

I’m also going to include Lydia Davis on this list. Although it could be argued that her essays are stories, I’d argue that her stories can also be considered essays. The best kind of essays. The shattering kind.

There are many others, including many still to discover, but this is a start, a teaser.

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Chicago; 3rd novel; Essays

A Trip to Chicago; The Third Novel

We’ve just made a spur of the moment trip Stateside. We swung through Iowa and played ping-pong with family (there may have been some singing and dancing too) and then spent some time in Chicago. It’s April but the city seemed to have forgotten this and typical Mid-western weather welcomed us: ‘If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it’ll change.’ Including more than one blustery bout of snow when we walked Chicago’s version of the highline – the 606. We walked quite a lot in the cold, determined rain. We even braved the weather on an open top bus to tour Chicago neighborhoods run by the Chicago Architectural Foundation.

During February and March I worked to finish a full draft of my third novel, Those We Buried. In this book I not only create buildings but I burn them down and the highlight (or the most sobering bit) of the bus tour was seeing that Adler and Sullivan’s Pilgrim Baptist Church (which was destroyed by fire in 2006) had not been rebuilt at all and stood with its two thick stone and two thinner brick outer walls propped up by metal trusses.

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It was still just an empty shell and this in a city that seems to be in the midst of another building boom. Walking around Chicago and touring the neighborhoods reminded me why I chose to place my third novel in the heart of this city.

This trip was holiday and research and so, because one of my characters distils his own whiskey, we took a tour of the KOVAL distillery that’s on Ravenswood in the north of the city. I’ve been to a few whisky distilleries in Scotland, but KOVAL is a much smaller operation, and is an all organic, all kosher distiller of whisky, bourbon, white whisky and gin. Yes, there was tasting of some of their spirits. And I have pictures too.

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Here’s their original still, which whisky afficionados might note is very different from Scottish stills. It was quite heartening to discover that much of what I imagined to be true for Jackson (my character) plays out in the really quite radical developments taking place in bespoke distilleries in the States.

 

Essays, Forthcoming:

The winter has been busy on other fronts too. Anyone who knows me, who has taken a class with me, or even had a passing conversation about books or reading or knowledge or the weather has probably gathered that I have a quiet, intense passion for the essay – literary, radical, genre-busting.

The essay that excites me travels. It disobeys boundaries, resists definitions, and is slippery and sly and infinitely adaptable. Hybrid, multiple, the essay is the ultimate mash-up of novella, poem, philosophical treatise, art criticism, memoir, short story, index, marginalia, and it is often at its best when it digresses.

As readers we pick up dangerous little shards of the essay that are untranslatable and intended. Rachel Blau DuPlessis writes that the essay is restless, full of hunger and thirst. The essay is full of want. For those of us who love the essay it is an unfamiliar familiar. We come to an essay on almost any topic and, in a good essay, it’s the crafted combination of form, subject, ideas, context, structure and language that welcome us, even as we may need to learn how to read them.

The essay I’m talking about is so not the academic stricture that the word might conjure – constipated and often elitist. No, the essay I’m talking about is something else.

I feel the power of this impossible to pin down form whose name holds it back and somehow I’m not sure the essay cares. Sure, the essay tells us, call me non-fiction, but you know I seduce you with all the tools of fiction. Sure, call me poetry, give me prizes like I’m poetry, but you know there’s this little twist in your heart (mind), which means that even as my language is a powerhouse I want more, I want to be more, to seek more. Essay and poetry and fiction and memoir are kissing cousins and while we debate what to call them and how they work, they simply know they’re family.

So watch this space for a heads up of hybrid, radical, dangerous, exciting, entertaining, intense, palimpsested, playful essaying:

In mid-May, my chapbook one year (Essay Press, 2016)  will be published.  It’s an extract taken from my longer manuscript of hybrid essays, direction is the moment you choose. In both texts, words are mine and the fantastic design and images are created by Amanda Thomson.

Also forthcoming (Autumn 2016) will be an Essay Press Listening Tour I’ve curated. This book is all about the essay in the UK. In it you’ll find conversations I had with Max Porter (author of Grief is the Thing With Feathers, and a commissioning editor for Granta), Jacques Testard of Fitzcarraldo Editions, and the writer and essayist Carol Mavor.

Meanwhile, the fourth novel is underway, as is another collaboration with Amanda Thomson. We head into the summer semester at Uni and we have plans to visit Sheltand, Spain and perhaps a few other places in the coming months.

 

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Spring 2015 – a brief catch up AWP, family and a MacDowell Colony residency

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I just spent the morning working in my studio.

I’ve been on sabbatical since January, which I can recommend without hesitation.  Now, I’m on a creative residency at the MacDowell Colony in the USA and the joy is unbound.  We are fed well, the Colony understands makers and making completely, and we are given all the resources and space we need. We work in these generous studies where we have free reign to work into, through and beyond our selves – to dance, sing, meditate, wail, fling ourselves and our thoughts out against the walls or trees, and to sit and just write.  To write.  And such neighbors I have out here in the woods and at meals and in the magnificent (so light) library. Yesterday, I did yoga  in the company of 7 artists amidst walls and walls of great books.  Residencies like this are highly recommended, if you can find them.  Today it even snowed.

This comes after three productive months in Scotland, writing, teaching, performing, traveling and reading.  Then I was in AWP in Minneapolis, which was full of talk, sun, curries and this immensity of words (many of which I bought and am carrying around with me across the country)

I was lucky enough to squeeze in a week with my friends and family who are all are amazing and the kids were such fun – arm wrestling, playing board games, cabaret and soccer watching, and doing 18 holes of mini golf.  Thank you to all for putting me up and for driving some distance to see me.

On Tuesday I opened and titled a new document – the next novel has been begun.

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Some of the Best Books I Read This Year (so far)

A few very free comments about these books and why I’ve taken the time to write about them.
Citizen: An American Lyric  by Claudia Rankine.
Beautiful, poetic and perfectly constructed. This powerfully astute book draws our attention to those things we should pay attention to, like everyday acts of racism and sexism, of bias and race and racial violence, and this book has only become more important in the wake of Ferguson.  This text remembers that images and words are essential to each other, and this poetry remembers that writing is a revolutionary act.  See also Rankine’s first book, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely.
Heroines by Kate Zambreno.
A smooth and hard-hitting account of how some women’s ambitions as writers have smashed into those same ambitions in men, and this book tells us quite unabashedly what this has led to in the past.  Building a quick-paced narrative and essay, based on excellent research and close-readings, Zambreno places her own push to write amidst the historical perspectives of Zelda Fitzgerald, Jean Rhys, Vivienne Eliot and others.  And to many of us who feel this quiet, persistent and powerful suppression of female ambition (and ways of being in the world) – in ways that can feel outrageous, at times, to even mention – this books says clearly and with emotion too, these things that many know to be true but have not known how to (or had the time to) put into words.
How to Be Both by Ali Smith
My first recommendation is that you start with George, definitely.  My second is to read this book co-currently with Smith’s Artful.  With both texts ingestedyou’ll pay attention to the world differently, walk in the world differently.  Art and literature are not separate here but, rather, art and literature are all about how we look, experience and interpret, and both give space for vast, fertile imagination in our creation and reception of knowledge and critical thought and evocation of emotion.  Ali Smith is amazing for how she does what she does.  It’s true that I resist her worlds for a good few pages, on some days, and then, they play in this wordless really compelling way in my mind and thinking for days and weeks after.  Smith continues to be a daring, smart wordsmith and storyteller who re-frames the possibilities of narrative and crossover with each new book.
Double Game by Sophie Calle
Calle is a female artist who is (role)playful, ambitious, self-confident and always aware of her place as subject and object.  Her art again and again records moments of the lives of others, exposes our small habits, the signifiers in all our lives, and creates tantalizing glimpses of what is witnessed (what she draws attention to and frames). She has a tremendous eye for the drama of small narratives and, this book – a playful call-and-response to Auster’s appropriation of her (into a character, Maria) – is a willful assertion of her authorship and her role as subject first, foremost and most lastingly.
The Queer Art of Failure by Judith/Jack Halberstam
Queering failure, queering quest and ambition with no small amount of writing on the revolutionary nature of animated narratives.   Those rumours about Frozen you’ve heard about, well, in some readings they might just be true.  This book is fearless and bold and reset something in my brain.  Failure is a key subject for all makers: the exuberance of it, the catastrophic bummer-ness of it.  Halberstam explores something else too – the otherness of failure as something to not only acknowledge but to seek out: failure not just as process but as a valuable place itself.  Halberstam’s book is not an easy read nor are some of the concepts included within its covers those I’d call-out about, and there are some things in here I disagree with, but as a way of re-considering the world and making, it’s a great place to spend some time.
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay writes clear, deceptively plain prose (‘she said plain, burned things’) that reads the world and exposes our paradoxes, problematics and creates this really authentic, troubled and possible place for us to call out the BS  and then get on with the business of living while knowing and seeing just a bit more wisely than before.  Gay is uber astute and concise and I’m thinking few could write in the no-nonsense, totally effective way she does.  Implicitly, if we learn to read the world just a little as Roxane Gay does, we’ll be smarter and more capable of dealing with all the crap that’s out there and get on with making some good shit happen.  As an aside, her tweets are quick-witted and full of immediate reaction to the events in the world around us.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
So, it’s a bit long.  Get over it.  I put it on my list with AM Holmes’ May We Be Forgiven.  These texts are not perfect, but they certainly are exuberant and entertaining.
The Last Novel by David Markson
Well, it’s simply not the last novel, nor is it really a novel at all.  But a lovely pairing with Heroines for looking at the mess of creativity and success and being a writer (and in this case, an old, dying writer). If Shields’ deaf-ear-prose cut-up of Reality Hunger left you feeling like there must be a better way to agitate how we connect things, then this book does that.
Friend of My Youth by Alice Munro
The title story.  Amazing.  The narrative voice and story structure is stunning like a great cake – layer upon layer of storytelling.  A exhilarating read, and this is a story to close read in order to figure out complex first person narration.
And What’s Next?
I have books I wasn’t so keen on, sure I do.  But the world and web are filled enough with vitriol and personal opinion masquerading as fact.  Face to face I’ll talk about those, but here, you get what has made me think, feel and act.
As I’m on research leave in the new year, the next eight months will be filled with reading, writing, walking, eating and traveling.  I’ve enjoyed writing this short post on my slow-web-time blog and I might do so again.  Watch this space, but maybe just occasaionally as it’s not a place I hang out too often.
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paradoxical frog

A few weekends ago, I was on an intense residency at Cove Park with PAL labs where we considered paradox.  I found I liked paradoxical humor:

‘A paradoxical frog is a frog that is one-third the size of its tadpole. This is a paradox you can touch.

This is not a paradoxical frog, but was at the residency with us:

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REM sleep is called paradoxical sleep because the electric brain patterns of this deep sleep most closely resemble those of our waking state. This is paradox you live.’

This week is writing and reading week and I’m reading Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Innoculation and Leslie Jamieson’s The Empathy Exams, and a friend’s work-in-progress essays.  I’m writing one novel: my own, my third. To work.

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am writing

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This summer I cleared the decks and made room for writing.  And that’s what the last five weeks have been:  mainly writing and some travel.  While on residency, I realized I needed to take out 1/3 of the novel – an entire storyline.  A week later I overhauled the narrative structure and now, a month further on, I have 79,000 words, which is my first full draft.  It’s been fabulous and full days of writing have been matched with full days of walking, because that’s what summer is like.  Slowly teaching will take hold with its seasonal reliability and autumn is the perfect time for honing the next draft and turning to new projects.

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