Sunday, August 23, 2009

Mary Kinzie makes me feel stupid. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. I often appreciate it, coming from her. I don't appreciate it coming from the poems in the new issue of Poetry.

I'm reading Kinzie's book A Poet's Guide to Poetry. She actually explains everything quite well, and she chooses wonderful poems to scan and unpack. However, her sentences often have one or two more terms in them than I find helpful all at once (I find this on reading science, especially physics), and I have to reread and then mentally paraphrase. This is pretty much how I approached the study of German in college (a woefully unsuccessful venture, but Northwestern made students in the College of Arts and Sciences take a foreign language).

I had Kinzie as a teacher at NU; she was brilliant. Some students feared her. I vividly recall a young woman saying something utterly uninsightful in a class on women poets and having her severed head handed to her without ceremony. I didn't take Mary's poetry writing classes—I was in the fiction seminars—but I did take her women poet's class (Moore, Bogan, Bishop, Gl├╝ck and . . . hmm . . . Dickinson?). Great class. She was, in addition, my advisor for three years.

As for the latest issue of the journal Poetry, I can't figure out why the first writer was given space for four poems, two of them quite short (as the journal won't print more than one poem on a page, and the print seems smaller than it used to a few years ago, this is particularly galling). The first poem, I couldn't judge. I have no clue about it. Two of the others seem simply bad.

I do reread poems; I don't simply give something one look and judge it. However, if there's no way in to the poem on first reading—either narratively or imagistically or through beauty of the language—then it's likely I'm not finding anything the second time. Wallace Stevens is a poem who often befuddles me, but he does so in good ways, hitting at least one if not two of the conditions above at first blush. This lets me return to him in hopes of more. If you're not offering any of those three, I have no idea what you're doing, because I can't respond.

Just sold a piece of fiction, though I won't say anything more about that here, yet. But I'm trying to return to poetry as well, and when I find poetry that simply stymies me—and yet was deemed publishable—I'm left feeling stupid, as we do in a dream when we find ourselves in a game with unknown rules.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

I've read some great short fiction over the past few days, alternating between Shirley Jackson and Jean Thompson.

Jean Thompson's quite a surprise. In the two stories I've read so far from her collection Throw Like a Girl, Thompson uses an omniscient narrator who clings very closely to one character's point of view, setting the reader deep inside their consciousnesses. Both characters, female, are trapped, one by her age (she's 12), the other by her passivity in the company of her boyfriend. Such accurate portraits, and such interesting--though not unexpected--turns the stories take. I have to read more to get a broader sense of her.

I first heard about Thompson when Alan Cheuse reviewed her latest book on NPR. He talked about her as if "Of course you know who she is." No, I didn't. Thank you, NPR!

The Jackson stories are mostly those I've read before. I don't think I've ever read so many at once, however, and doing so lets me see what's constant about her stories: a preoccupation with social discomfort. Often, people can't speak up or simply don't know how to respond; rather than epiphanic moments, characters face moments of existential dread--though they don't recognize then as such.

This makes me think I've been missing one of the key elements in "The Lottery" when I teach it: What does Bessie Hutchinson's reaction to getting the black dot tell us about her as a person? The way the story shifts from the quotidian to the ultimate is actually a distraction from this character whose behavior is built on the expectation that life will continue to proceed in a certain way. Her horror is not about her imminent death--at least, not in terms of Jackson's larger social preoccupations. Rather, her horror is that events have unfolded in a new way, which forces her not to question the lottery itself but the physical and social mechanics of the day's ceremony.

I flipped through Nebula Awards Showcase 2005 (I got it from the library to copy Karen Joy Fowler's outstanding "What I Didn't See" for a colleague), but couldn't find anything of interest. The introduction to Harlan Ellison's story sucked most of the potential joy from it; nevertheless, I plowed ahead, but found that the writing itself, trying so hard to be, in his own word, "antic," drained away the rest of the story's potential.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

I accomplished some writing this weekend, mostly on a new story, "Untimely Ripped." It's interesting to me, for now. Also still working on "Design." "Design" is definitely SF; I don't know what the other is.

Read two short stories. "Saving Tiamaat," by Gwyneth Jones (from The New Space Opera, eds. Dozois and Strahan), is an impressive far-future story of humanity. It apparently links to some of her novels. She's a smart writer, highly imaginative, and writes well. I ordered one of her books from the library. "Nawabdin Electrician" is the first story in Daniyal Mueenuddin's collection of linked stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (a reference to Capote's "Other Voices, Other Rooms"?). An entertaining tale of an enterprising man with too many mouths to feed, it didn't end satisfyingly, but I'll give the other stories a try nevertheless. Mueenuddin is a New Yorker darling, and I don't tend to care for their fiction choices; we'll see.

I also started Molly Haskell's classic study From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. First published in 1974, the book was revised for a 1987 edition--and I wish there were an even newer edition so I could hear her analysis of the current state of affairs. There do seem to be more roles for middle-aged women, and more flexibility in how roles are conceived, though many of the problems she identifies with Hollywood's (and America's) view of females are even more firmly and disturbingly entrenched.