Some poems about apples

Years and years ago, I started a writers’ group that met once every three weeks. We’d read and comment on a poem or a piece of short fiction written by one of us, which more often than not led to a piercingly intimate dissection of the bad breaks or bad lovers which inspired us. Then we’d drink several bottles of wine and play one or two silly writing games, such as “Dirty Napkin,” which yielded a great deal of wine-soaked laughter. These are very fond memories.

I still wrote the occasional poem in those days, when I was reading more poetry and the habit of it came more easily. Among them was a suite of poems inspired by René Magritte paintings–and also by a crushing break-up, which supplied the melancholy tone. I always thought about sending these to one of the food magazines I’ve written for, but since I don’t write poetry regularly it didn’t make sense to try to publish them. But then I put together a Magritte-inspired Food Music Playlist, and I thought, Why not? This is my blog, I can do what I want. Public and yet not published, here lies the fruit of a wounded younger version of myself.

apple1 apple2 apple3 apple4 apple5


Elsewhere on the Internet: Writing in Public

Did you know that it is NaPoWriMo? Last year I challenged myself to read a poem every day, since I knew I’d be too busy to write so many and too shy to share. This year I made no such committment, but fortunately I follow a few poets who are churning them out, so I am more or less reading a poem a day after all. Nicole Steinberg has been posting poems that riff off the headlines of posts and articles from high-traffic websites like The Awl and Salon; I like that they veer into territories I’m familiar with from her other poems, but they are their own strange new beasts. She plans to take them down after a week, so today might be your last day to read “Why are millenials so unfuckable?” which is my favorite so far, probably due to 90s video game references. Hannah Stephenson, too, posts poems at an alarming (to a slow writer like myself) rate. You’ll probably like “Let’s Have Class Outside Today” especially if, like me, you’ve been both the student and the teacher in that conversation, and the ever-so-slightly warmer sunshine of April makes you want to do everything outside.

Former museum colleague Kara linked me to this Museum 2.0 post about Hemingway, an online tool designed to help streamline your writing. I felt very wary at first–remembering too well my encounter with the unfortunately named Writer’s Diet–but 2.0’s Nina Simon makes a good case for the tool as a way to produce concise copy for exhibit labels or grant applications. I was intrigued, since right now I am rushing to polish up piles of catalog copy by the end of the month and a key element of that task is streamlining. I ran a couple of works-in-progress through the app and was unsurprised to see them both rated “bad” (too many “very hard to read” sentences plus passive voice and excessive adverbs); however, they are in pretty good form for copy which must appeal to a fairly specialized class of people and fit in a number of keywords to increase search relevance. You can’t please everybody!

Approximately a thousand years ago in internet years, I linked to an article in which two scholar looked at the question of “Should Academics Blog?” and came up with a resounding yes. Their evidence mostly comes from an quantification and analysis of the reception of an immensely popular article (also about academic blogging) which they wrote, promoted, and tracked through social media. I’ve been meaning to compile a longer post on the debate for some time, but I have to accept that I never will, so here’s a quick rundown.
First, my entrypoint to this argument is that I am an academic (sort of) who blogs. I blog because I read a lot about the topics that interest me, and my response to the reading tends to spill out of me in writing. The blogging platform has other benefits: namely, it has brought me into conversation with other thinkers and writers, which never ceases to surprise and gladden me since I began my research in comparative isolation. Blogging also has certain costs: mostly time, I think, as it takes a certain amount of time to write and briskly proof or factcheck the posts before I make them public and attached to my given name. It also takes a certain amount of time to engage with that broader community through social media–rewarding and pleasant time, but that’s time I’m not spending on further research or writing. But for me, there’s no question of whether to blog or not; it’s just something I do.

But the question is often posed to me by academic friends who’ve observed my blogging and wonder if it would be worthwhile for themselves and by first-time authors who ask me, as a university press marketer, what they can do to promote their book. And my answer is quite different from the post I linked above: only if you want to. The authors of that post (Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson) authored an extraordinarily successful article in terms of clicks and downloads for several reasons, and their social media platform was only one of them: they also had a much more broadly relevant topic than the average journal article can claim, and their work was available (non-paywalled) for much longer than a typical article for that academic journal. So while blogging can allow academics to seize a greater part of the “attention economy” (I am fascinated by this term, indicating that attention is finite and commodifiable), like any economy, you have to pay in to get payout.

Here are the pros of academic blogging, near as I can make out: Blogging is in most cases a free public forum; this is less of an issue in the States, one of the last bastions against mandated Open Access, but in many overseas publications, it does or will cost scholars money to have their work published. A blog can be a broad forum, reaching many more people than a journal, and it may be linked up with social media to exponentially increase readership if social media is handled effectively. An author’s existing social media platform is very appealing to publishers. On the web, scholarship can become much more of a conversation, since your feedback and response can be instantaneous. And–this is more important for some authors than others–you can reach a broader range of people, nonacademics as well as fellow scholars. (However, Mewburn and Thomson note that the academic-general reader dynamic is not usually what’s at play: “While arguments are made for blogging as an outreach activity, where academics ‘translate’ their work for a non-academic audience, in our sample we saw more evidence of conversations happening between academics – and much of it about academia itself. This led us to conclude that the blogging discourse, is similar in purpose, if not necessarily in form or content, to the academic discourse happening in journals: academics talking to academics in an effort to advance knowledge and understanding.”)
The cons include: blogging and social media promotion is just one more example of unpaid labor that the young academic is expected to perform in order to compete in the academic economy. It takes time–a valuable resource to the busy academic–and the time you spend is not always repaid. Managing blogs and social media effectively is a skill: it’s one that many of us develop to some degree in our personal lives, but deploying social media savvy for promotion is a delicate business of getting the relevant information to your target readers without annoying them. And there’s nothing more annoying–and sad–than an author who signs up for Twitter or WordPress for the first time just to promote their work; tweeting is a genre, blogging is a genre (or a collection of subgenres), and promotional writing is too; it takes time to learn and adapt to writing in those modes. (Which can be a pro as well, if you are invested in reaching nonacademic readers.)
Those of my readers who are also blogging academics, I am deeply interested in your thoughts on this.

Finally, just to make this a truly eclectic linklist, here is an adorable infographic to breakdown the effectiveness of serif and sans serif fonts in print and electronic contexts.

A note on #readingwomen–and other underrepresented authors

As noted, I am a fan of the push to #readwomen2014. Now that VIDA has released their Count for 2013 (a breakdown of how many male or female writers are published or reviewed by leading literary publications), it’s clear that calling for change in concrete terms (such as quantity of reviews and reviewers) can indeed be effective, and considering the way the #readwomen2014 hashtag has taken off, I am very excited to see the numbers–for book sales as well as for VIDA’s count–this time next year.

But I would be remiss not to mention Roxane Gay’s count, brought to my attention again in a recent essay by Aimee Phan. In 2012, Roxane and her graduate assistant combed through book reviews in the New York Times–just the Times, because it took an enormous amount of time and energy to research–to see how many non-white writers were reviewed in that extremely-difficult-to-get-reviewed-in publication. Their results:

We looked at 742 books reviewed, across all genres. Of those 742, 655 were written by Caucasian authors (1 transgender writer, 437 men, and 217 women). Thirty-one were written by Africans or African Americans (21 men, 10 women), 9 were written by Hispanic authors (8 men, 1 woman), 33 by Asian, Asian-American or South Asian writers (19 men, 14 women), 8 by Middle Eastern writers (5 men, 3 women) and 6 were books written by writers whose racial background we were simply unable to identify.

If you need a visual, she provided a pie chart that makes the point astonishing clear. Aimee Phan’s article elaborates on the problem–reviews can play a critical role not only in publicizing a book but showing readers [at least one way of] how to read it. If writers of color aren’t getting reviewed, then they aren’t getting read as often or as well.

The bulk of my reading these recent years have been wallet-friendly free Kindle classics–my already-read-by-women-2014 list heavily features 19th century lady authors–but I really love new fiction. I love reading a book that was written in the now, and I love reading a book that is accompanied by a little splash of publicity, so I can share the experience of having read it with others. When I am looking for a brand-new book to enjoy, deliberately choosing books written by women comes easily and naturally to me. Deliberately choosing books written by writers of color sometimes requires more work on my part, as the abovementioned statistics plus my own media intake cottoned by privilege make it less likely that I will come across publicity for these books.

All the more reason, then, to share with my few readers the books by writers of color that I have loved in the last year or two.  If these books aren’t being reviewed, then let me tell you about them so that you’ll want to read them. If you’ve read them, then let’s talk about them.

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’ve raved about this book before, but since there were several commenters in a recent Toast thread who claimed that they hadn’t yet started the book due to its imposing size and subject, let me tell you what I told them: it is great fun to read. It is thoughtful and painful, but it is also engaging and accessible, with sex and romance and enjoyable snapshots of intellectual (and pseudointellectual!) life and more. (Also, as I was writing, this post in praise of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie appeared in my feedreader. She is deservedly on fire)
  • I am going to include Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi because I re-read it in the last year, and because I pre-ordered her forthcoming book Boy, Snow, Bird the second I heard about it. Her books tend to dwell in abstract, archetypal themes that are well-suited to the folklore and fairytales she draws on. Mr. Fox‘s narrative skips gleefully between mid-20th century and once-upon-a-time, and between Europe and Africa. She genderswaps characters when she feels like it (I particularly enjoyed the finishing school for husbands); the fluidity of identity is part of her point.
  • A Tale for Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I don’t usually enjoy when writers write about writing, but I do when Ruth Ozeki does. Like me, main character Ruth finds writing painful and foggy and frustrating, and she gets lost down rabbit holes of Googling for answers, but she can’t stop because when you get there, you can create something that has a measurable impact.
    I also often recommend My Year of Meats, which is a treasure box of textual and imagery gems. I’m so glad she introduced me to The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagan, and I often think about her Midwestern host family pouring two liters of Coke over a roast and her Japanese assistant preparing a light batter out of the kudzu that has conquered Mississippi.
  • Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith. This is a book of poetry but as I noted on my Books By Women post, I read it like a novel. I got interested in her work by way of this lovely simple reflection on living paycheck to paycheck, but the overall arch of the book is one of nostalgia.
  • Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorakor. You have most likely enjoyed at least one (but probably several) series of books starring a young person who realizes his or her latent magical powers and goes off to some kind of school to learn how to use them. That happens to Sunny, but her story takes place in Nigeria, and her magic is a rich mix of ideas I recognize from other magical fiction and some I recognize from research for my voodoo tour in New Orleans. This is YA fic and a fast read.
  • The Geometry of God by Uzma Aslam Khan. A Pakistan paleontologist and his granddaughter who finds a key fossil in the identification of an ancient whale species struggle to pursue their scientific passions as the Creationist party gains power.

Special mentions: I read The Book of Salt by Monique Truong (which Aimee Phan mentions in her essay) quite a few years ago, but it is one of my all-time favorite novels and was great fun to teach in class. Unrequited love and the loneliness of being an expat in Paris, cooking for Gertrude Stein! Gorgeous, gorgeous descriptions of cooking and communicating across cultural lines. I also taught Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat in that class; Danticat, like Oyeyemi, started writing fully-grown books at an insanely young age, and just about anything you pick up by her will be lovely and lonely and moving. Breath centers the struggles of a young ex-pat woman with her overbearing mother, her national identity, her eating disorder, and her sexuality–conflicts inseparably connected.

Another few special mentions. Today is International Women’s Day, the hashtag is all about celebrating women writers, and as Roxane Gay’s count shows, woman of color are being reviewed less than white women and less than men of color. But I know a fair number of my peers are interested in science fiction and speculative fiction, so these novels by gentlemen of color are worth mentioning. You’re into the genre of young people discovering latent magic or the mystical powers of the universe unseen by the average human? So what if instead of young people they are older black ex-cons and ex-addicts trying to correct the mistakes of their past, and they band up in a rich man’s house to do paranormal investigation, and then they have to save the world? I don’t know, Big Machine by Victor Lavalle is hard to explain but I ate it up. If you love Poe except for the racism, you might get a kick out of Pym by Mat Johnson. To be frank I didn’t love the execution of this book as much as I love the premise, but it does pose a tragihilarious answer to the mystery of what happens at the end of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. And if you’d like a searching, philosophical take on the zombie apocalypse or just want to read about New York City in ruin, you might enjoy Zone One by Colson Whitehead. I never miss a chance to rave about Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, an alternate history which imagines midcentury culture if the elevator had been considered America’s crowning technological achievement (with all its metaphorical resonances of rising up) instead of the automobile. That’s the kind of Big Idea book I will never come up with, and it is well-written and extremely teachable to boot.

Books by women I’ve read in 2013

At Flavorwire, Lilit Marcus explains why she only read books by women in 2013:

I’m a writer. When my book, Save the Assistants, came out in 2011, all I wanted was for other people to read it. So it seemed only logical to repay the favor. Most of my favorite writers – Iris Murdoch, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf – are women, albeit dead ones. So, with nods to Joanna Russ and Tallulah Bankhead, I vowed to spend 2013 being an audience. An audience for female writers only.

The reference to Joanna Russ is in regard to her book How to Suppress Women’s Writing; the nod to Tallulah Bankhead for the line “Don’t be an actress, darling, be an audience.”
It’s a good read; Marcus name-checks some of the books that particularly moved her (several of which I also read and loved) and describes the subtle ways this literary diet impacted her worldview, leading her to vow to read books by other similarly under-sung authors next year.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me (especially anyone I’ve dated) that reading books by women is my usual modus operandi. I don’t refuse to read books by men, but at some point in college I just got weary of the overcelebration of white male authors, and being of a contrary nature decided not to bother with the John Updikes and Philip Roths of the world. Eventually I had to read some books by them for my qualifying exams, and came to a similar conclusion as Marcus does in her piece: I wasn’t missing much. You can’t read all of the books, and I choose to primarily read books by women.

Anyone who wants to see what I’ve read and reviewed is welcome to my Booklikes shelf, but half the fun of these year-end lists is in revisiting the pleasures of reading all over again. Thus I present, in chronological order, some of the best books by women I read in 2013:

  • The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg, which I write about in more detail at my food blog.
  • The glorious Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, hot on the heels of having read Bring up the Bodies. So many retellings of Henry VIII’s reign amount to no more than a tittering reanimation of starcrossed love and political intrigue. Mantel is interested less in scandal than in what it meant to be a subject in this period–literally a subject of the king, yet also a sovereign individual self who desires and dissembles. And the writing is so precise and so good!
  • Bloodroot, by Amy Greene, was spell-binding. One tires of reading novels about domestic abuse, particular those that sanctify the victim and imagine violence an inherent quality of Southern Otherness, but this book does neither. It tells its particular story with intensity, beauty, and a little magic.
  • The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. Coming of age after environmental disasters have knocked Earth’s rotation off-kilter, causing the days to lengthen incredibly and the Earth to wither under an intense sun.
  • I loved every single short story in Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell, which is an astonishing record for me. She writes fantastical worlds and uncanny hungers that are quite realistic and compelling.
  • I re-read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights shortly after getting an e-reader several years ago, but somehow I’d never read anything by Anne Bronte until now. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a great discovery!
  • I enjoyed the final book in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, though if you haven’t read Oryx & Crake, I strongly, strongly recommend getting that one first. Much of the fun of the last book is in the loose ends it ties up for recurring characters.
  • Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker was a tough read for someone who has or is struggling with depression and/or academia. Stories of unfinished dissertations are the worst, except when they are the best. (See also Middlemarch, below.) But it’s also a story of family and love and self-definition and what we have the right to expect from others, and quite beautifully written.
  • I read Life on Mars, a poetry collection by Tracy K. Smith, as though it were a good novel: cover to cover, enjoying every minute.
  • Likewise, I was excited to get my copy of Getting Lucky, poems by Nicole Steinberg, even though I had seen many of them before; they are great fun and quite smart. Blogged about it here and here!
  • A Tale for Time Being by Ruth Ozeki had that same elegiac, pastiched feel that I enjoyed from My Year of Meats, but a little more magic.
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is epic in scope and various in texture. It encompasses the arc of Ifemelu from growing up in Nigeria to attending school in America and eventually returning home a changed woman; excerpts of her blog about race in America, in a quite different tone from the lyrical narration of her story; and the arc of her high school sweetheart Obinze as he travels to England and back, also told in a quite different tone, almost sepia as if Ifemelu’s narrator is retelling Obinze’s story from memory. This book was riveting and I cannot recommend it enough. It would be an incredible literature course assignment too, I think.
  • Finally, although I read it for the first time not long ago, I started re-reading Middlemarch by George Eliot after enjoying the banter of The Toast’s Middlemarch book club. I meant to read section by section, not getting too far ahead of the book club conversations, but I literally cannot stop. I love this novel so much.



So that the male authors do not feel left out, I read and kind of liked Freud’s Sister by Goce Smilevski and The Dinner by Herman Koch–both translations of foreign novels, interestingly–as well as The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. One male-authored book I truly loved this year was A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy O’Toole. But those guys don’t need my help in promoting them; the apparatus is already calibrated toward their advancement.

Words and Pain: two poems by Miroslav Holub

This post is modified from the original on Peachleaves.

When I was teaching an introductory literature course organized around the concepts of comedy and tragedy, one of my toughest sells was that it is possible–desirable, sometimes–to take apart a joke to see what makes it funny. Thinking critically about humor really brought home the overarching point of my course–which was that language is instrumental in constructing how we understand the world, and that while we surely do construct sentences and create meaning, sometimes the meaning is already there before we get there, meaning all kinds of things above and beyond what it sounds like. (Undergrads hate this, at first.  “Aren’t we reading too much into it?” they plead.  Once they start noticing patterns themselves, they’re all over it.)

And yet it’s even harder to break down the perception of the tragic. Our impulse to laugh that feels so instinctual that we resist breaking it down into smaller parts, but it’s easy enough to get a roomful of undergrads to giggle and then to talk about how it’s done. It’s rather less desirable to lead them into a bodily experience of sadness or pain.

Around that time, I was scanning a book about modern drama and came across this beautiful poem, used to illustrate a point about the difference between the way we understand language in novels vs. plays. The title is translated as “Brief Reflection on the Word Pain,” by Miroslav Holub, a Czech immunologist who also publishes poetry.

Wittgenstein says the words ‘It hurts’ have replaced
tears and cries of pain.  The word ‘Pain’
does not describe the expression of pain but replaces it.
Replaces and displaces it.
Thus it creates a new behavior pattern
in the case of pain.

The word comes between us and the pain
like a pretence of silence.
It is a silencing.  It is a needle
unpicking the stitch
between blood and clay.

I sought out Holub’s collection, Vanishing Lung Syndrome, much of which continues to play on the tension between scientific knowledge and visceral knowledge, and between the metaphors of language and the metaphors of (yeah, I said it!) science.  This is the first poem in the volume, called “1751.”

   That year Diderot began to publish his Encyclopedia, and the first
insane asylum was founded in London.
So the counting out began, to separate the sane, who veil themselves
in words, from the insane, who rip feathers from their bodies.

Poets had to learn tightrope-walking.
And just to make sure, officious dimwits began to publish
instructions on how to be normal.

Get Excited, and Get Lucky

Hello friends. Have a poem for this hot, hot summer day:

Getting Lucky With Jamie

by Nicole Steinberg

If you want to go a tiny bit hipster, here’s how:
Grab a romper and go to town on the all-natural train
from Jackson Heights to lower Manhattan; mask
any contempt for the matchy-matchy girls under
your straw fedora and un-meltable hair. Always
have Kate Moss’s precise address and phone
number at the ready; indulge in vanilla soft-serve
and run wild through dressing rooms, completely
guilt-free. Hide your arbitrary fears and Connecticut
weakness; call forth your tough, punk rock shine.
Stay pretty in the heat of the New York chill
you’ve dreamed of since you were a teenager, even
after you’re no longer new. Lick your black pearl lips,
telegraph a dose of danger. Let it come, dripping wet.

This poem, like the other poems in Nicole’s Lucky series (here’s a few with audio at Moonshot Magazine), lifts language from the pages of Lucky magazine. I always find myself imagining pages covered with cut-out words like a cartoon ransom note, wondering where the scissors snipped–did Lucky ever recommend a black pearl lip for a dangerous look? Is “Connecticut weakness” a verbatim or collaged phrase? But obviously the poems tell their own stories, create their own characters. That’s what I like about them so much: they use the language of fashion and shopping in a way that sounds both familiar and strange, expressing both the power and self-expression that style can offer as well as the yearning and lack that drives the industry. The poems are critical of the kind of femininity constructed by fashion, but they are also of and inside that discourse–as are we all. The candy-lipped and ballerina-skirted women who emerge from these poems tempt us to identify and aspire to them even when we recognize their impossibility.

Cool, right? Luckily (sorry!), you can now contribute toward a fund to help bring a whole book of these poems into the world! The publisher, Spooky Girlfriend Press, has just about met their goal for publication, but it was a modest goal. The more poetry-lovers contribute, the better exposure and circulation they can get for the book.

If you follow the IndieGoGo link, you’ll also see a short book trailer, featuring a mash-up of several different lines from different poems, read by a number of friends of ours. That’s me jamming gigantic false eyelashes onto my lids, for example. It was great fun to film–and I’m very excited to see this collection get published, since I’ve been reading the poems and hearing them read since I met Nicole a few years ago. I hope you enjoy them too.