THE NEUTRAL CORNER: Nicholas Fox Weber’s “The Bauhaus Group”

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The neutral corner is one of the two corners of the ring not used by boxers between rounds. It is also the corner a boxer must retreat to after he has floored his opponent. The Neutral Corner was also a bar in Saratoga Springs, New York, that I frequented when at Yaddo in the late seventies. Framed photographs of famous fighters, signed to the owner with effusive greetings, covered the walls. They would have been impressive except that the handwriting on each was identical.

This blog series, the Neutral Corner of Ploughshares, will bring attention to new books, mostly poetry, and to older books that have recently given me pleasure.

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The outer part of Cape Cod, where I live, contains numerous examples of modern architecture, almost all of which appear in Cape Cod Modern: Midcentury Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape by Peter McMahon and Christine Cipriani (Metropolis Books, 2014). This beautiful book contains exquisite color plates of houses designed and built by Marcel Breuer, Serge Chermayeff, Olav Hammarstrom and engineer Paul Weidlinger. A vibrant community gathered here which included Walter Gropius and many of his Bauhaus faculty.

weber_BAUHAUS GROUPA few years ago, I attended a panel discussion at the Wellfleet Public Library led by McMahon on that group of architects and artists. It featured painter Peter Watts and Walter Gropius’s daughter, Ati, who was approximately 82 at that time. She was asked how her father managed to keep the Bauhaus faculty in harmony, considering its many distinct personalities, including Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Johannes Itten, who was a member of a fire cult. She said whenever there was a strong disagreement about policy or practice, her father canceled all classes and declared a three-day party. At the festivity’s end, she said, everyone forgot what they had been fighting about. She added that Gropius provided the same solution to academic strife when she was a student at Black Mountain College and he was on the Advisory Council there. She said that he gave a costume party where everyone had to dress as a favorite tree. “It worked,” she said. “It was impossible to stay angry at someone who was covered in branches and leaves.”

The talk led me to Nicholas Fox Weber’s book, The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism (Knopf, 2009). He discusses Walter Gropius, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, Anni Albers and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In clear and lively prose, Fox Weber defines and characterizes each person and his aesthetic.Continue Reading

“If I could I would cut off my lovers’ heads” : Eunice De Souza’s Nine Indian Women Poets

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“Anthologists invariably make enemies,” Eunice De Souza notes in her introduction to Nine Indian Women Poets. This anthology is unlike most anthologies, as De Souza takes up her editorial role to rally against universality, mapmaking, and flattery. De Souza isn’t seeking to make enemies, but she realizes that all choices for anthologies suggest other choices: those poets who are left behind.

For Nine Indian Women Poets is itself a corrective volume: here are Indian women writing poetry in English who have not only gone unrecognized by white canonical anthologists or critics (save the rare reader like Bruce King), but who have all written for upwards of twenty years without such recognition.

What makes these poets’ work strike sharply together? They all write in English; all own or disown this language, exploring its twists, barriers, and perpetuations. Kamala Das, the oldest poet in the anthology, draws English as: “The language I speak / Becom[ing] mine, its distortions, its queernesses / All mine, mine alone” (10). For Das, queernesses enable a crucial ownership of the language. The language allows one to name herself and others, so that Das, by the end of the same poem, proclaims: “I too call myself I” (11).

Mamta Kalia, the poet placed immediately after Das, writes: “I am no longer Mamta Kalia” (26). By contrast, Kalia’s poems revolve around a radical empathy that practices negation: “How close we felt / discussing our dislikes / sharing a few hatreds” (22). The venom of an evil actually engages us: it brings together those who feel invariably shunned by an unjust and misogynistic world.Continue Reading

Review: IN MY SKIN by Brittney Griner

brittney griner_IN MY SKINIn My Skin
Brittney Griner with Sue Hovey
itbooks, 2014
216 pages

Buy: book | ebook

No matter how un-invested an athlete is in the production of their own book—no matter how transparently the ghostwriter has sat down with their subject for as few hours as possible, then hurriedly stretched the transcribed interviews into something like a narrative in as few weeks as possible—a book is always long enough that something meaningful-feeling about the athlete’s true self feels shared, even if—especially if—done so unwittingly. The resulting portrait can be wickedly unflattering. Sacrifices endured and relationships suspended in pursuit of victories can fade, chapter by chapter, from the dedicated to the maniacal. The athlete’s account of perceived slights and hardships can betray a tectonic-sized ego, a self-started requirement to be eternally pampered.

Fortunately, there’s a healthy proportion of athletes—in this way sports is just like any other business, or any other slice of the world—who can’t not be cool people, who induce your sympathies just by presenting themselves. Brittney Griner, 6’8” wunderkind of women’s basketball, shows herself to be one of the latter types of athletes in her 2014 memoir, In My Skin—even though her career has endured enough scandalous downs you’d think, just to follow the headlines, that she’d be one of the former.Continue Reading

Round-Down: Are BOGO Books A Good Thing?

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Many businesses have sought creative ways to keep customers incentivized to return because there are so many options for shopping around. Publishers are no different. Harlequin, the famed romance novel imprint of Harper, is turning to a new reader rewards program as a way to keep readers loyal in the ever-growing book marketplace.

Unlike a lot of rewards programs out there (I’m looking at you, American Express), consumers will not have to wait a long period of time before their points are redeemable. Rather, readers will earn two-thousand points simply for creating an account during this trial period, presumably while Harlequin collects data and perfects the model. Participants will also have the option to grow their accounts by participating in surveys wherein readers get to share their preferences and ideas related to romance novels. Right now, the rewards range from free books (print or electronic), gift baskets, and, the real high-ticket item—a Skype interview with a favorite author.

At first blush, it sounds like a wonderful idea. Who doesn’t want to be rewarded for reading (even if–especially if– it is for steamy romance novels with a preponderance of “quivering” and “ocean pool eyes” metaphors)? Who wouldn’t want to be more involved with authors and publishers than a fan?Continue Reading

Interactivity and the Game-ification of Books

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As an undergrad studying creative writing one of the first things I remember learning was the sin of gimmickry. Readers, I was taught, would see through your cleverness—it would be vile to them and they would hate you. But as a kid and teenager my favorite books employed some pretty neat sins and I don’t remember ever hating those authors. I relished a novel approach to novels and welcomed those books that didn’t just swim in standard conventions. Some of the most memorable artifacts of my youth, in fact, were more bound riddles than books, and each riddle taught me how to open myself up to uncertainty, ambiguity, and irresolution (all concepts more true to life than your traditional cut and dry, happily-ever-after tale).

More specifically, the books I tended to gravitate toward were texts in which the role of the reader could more aptly be described as that of a player, or collaborator. (Though one could argue all books are collaborative in nature, the ones I tended to flock to were especially open-ended, demanding a higher degree of interactivity.) I would remain captivated by these books infused with a sense of play/collaboration and it would eventually become an important element in my own work.

I first devoured picture books like the Where’s Waldo series, for instance, less interested in the eponymous red and white striped protagonist than in the sheer overstimulation of colorful characters and anachronistic situations swirling in the background. They might have been my first writing prompts, actually. I remember writing little stories about the wizard and how he came to be lost in the scene, or what events must’ve transpired to rip a Viking out of time and space to plop him smackdab in the center of a bustling mall.Continue Reading

Telling the Stories of the Dead: Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery

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My own ancestors are interred in austere Midwestern cemeteries with small flat stones or rounded markers decorated with the occasional “Beloved Mother” or laser-etched photo. But Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, I discover on a field trip with Spalding MFA students to write about art and place, makes much more elaborate use of art, narrative, and poetry in attempts to summarize and pay tribute to the lives of the dead.

I’m fascinated by cemeteries and often disappointed to see lives reduced to names and dates. So Cave Hill, at once a burial ground, arboretum, and sculpture garden, is a treasure trove of stories told in glass, granite, concrete, limestone, and bronze. Here, George Keats, brother of the poet John Keats, is buried, along with the two collaborators who wrote the “Happy Birthday” song, “Colonel” Sanders, and the composer of a confederate song called “Think of Your Head in the Morning.”

Less notable people are also immortalized by elaborate tributes, like a woman named Saundra Twist. An elegant statue of her presides over a stone tablet telling the story of her career as a fashion model followed by the realization of “all of this world’s bountiful wonders,” a husband and three daughters, before she died in a car accident. The grave of a magician buried nearby features a sculpture of him, with a long cape and hollow eyes that catch the sunlight and glitter creepily.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Shifts” by Dan Reiter

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Aldous Huxley once wrote, “There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.” In Dan Reiter’s “Shifts” (WhiskeyPaper), we’re introduced to a character in conflict over how to accurately perceive a series of strange events, as shown through the narrator’s language and structure.

In the opening sentences, Reiter presents us with the inciting incident, a cup on the protagonist’s desk moving seemingly on its own. Notice the language.

“Hollow sound. Clat. Juke on the desk. Two-inch shimmy. Slip the pencils out, expecting a lizard. Empty, then. Indonesian piece. Carved, bas-relief delphinium. Smell of oil, deadwood. Wag the cup to your ear. Listen for termites.”

The barrage of sensory details, thoughts, and movements written in clipped phrases and short sentences gives immediacy to the paragraph. This is a stream of consciousness. We are deep in the character’s perspective, experiencing it as if moment by moment.Continue Reading

“Poets should always take public transportation”: An Interview with Maureen Thorson

MetroDCIn her second book of poems, My Resignation, Maureen Thorson immerses us in the story of two people figuring out how to start a new life together. Her poems are finely textured, moving, and often humorous. She has a keen appreciation for the quirky natural detail or odd snippet of conversation that perfectly captures a moment—and her work shows us again and again how those moments add up to our lives. Maureen is also the author of a previous book, Applies to Oranges, as well as a number of chapbooks, and the founder of NaPoWriMo, an annual project in which poets attempt to write a poem a day for the month of April.

Matthew Thorburn: Would you talk about your process for writing the poems in My Resignation and putting this book together?

Maureen Thorson: The poems grew out of little notes and quotations that I jotted down in the months after my husband and I first moved in together. I knew I wanted to make something out of them, but I also wanted to preserve their “present-ness” by not reworking the individual snippets very much. So I ended up typing all the notes into 11×17, four-column sheets, trying to preserve as much as possible the formatting of the original, handwritten notes. Once I had four sheets filled, I printed them out and started drawing circles between bits and pieces that felt emotionally or narratively connected. I refined the poems by adding interstitial stanzas, or remixing bits of separate snippets together. For the final section of the book, which takes place three years after the moving-in period with which most of the poems are concerned, I relied less on this collaging process, but wrote more directly.

It took about five years to put the book together. Many of the first drafts I discarded, or folded together in trying to get a narrative arc that wasn’t forced, and which felt true to the sometimes fractious emotional process of becoming a couple.Continue Reading

Borders

Pittsburgh smog

We moved to Pittsburgh from the Northeast almost two years ago for my husband’s job. I tell people here I’m new to the city, usually as a way of explaining that it’s new to me, that my mental map is hazy and lots of references still slip right past. Before we came to house-hunt two summers ago, with our then-five-month-old in tow, I hadn’t been here in conscious memory. I grew up in New England, and when I pictured Pittsburgh I saw a vast, Midwestern flatness. (This turns out to have been as wrong as it gets—I thought I knew about hills before I lived here, but I did not know about hills.)

Yet whether Pittsburgh and I are actually new to each other depends on your definition. My grandmother now lives in Ohio, but she grew up here. Her parents lived here their entire lives. My great-grandmother was from the Troy Hill neighborhood of the city. She worked in a Pittsburgh glove factory once she left school after eighth grade. She met my great-grandfather, who’d just returned from World War I, here. She lived to be one hundred, and she was a talker, and I remember her telling us how the air in the city used to be so thick with smoke that the streetlights would come on in the middle of the day.

Pittsburgh for me is a strange doubling, then: known/not-known. I have roots here, but they’re buried beneath several decades and not actually accessible to me. I think a lot of us experience this kind of doubling in the places of our past or the pasts of our parents and grandparents—since more and more of us have left those places. They’re familiar to us, but in another sense, we’ve lost them.Continue Reading

Artistry is a Kind of Citizenship – Ploughshares Interviews Allan Gurganus

gurganusI’ve been aware of Allan Gurganus since I was a few years old; we hail from the same small town, Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and his books lined the shelves of homes I visited, and the local library. Turns out his name was also in the New Yorker, and when I was nine, his book The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All spent eight months on the New York Times Bestseller List. I’ve always admired Allan’s willingness and ability to dig in to the mess of life, rarely saying what “ought” to be said, but what is genuinely felt, and plumbing uncomfortable subjects like race and sexuality before doing so was common, especially in the south.  His first New Yorker story “Minor Heroism,” published in 1974, was the magazine’s first story to feature a gay character, and his work has continued to be elegantly radical, erotic, and full of eerily good sentences. Moreover, I continually find bewilderingly great and generous advice in Allan’s interviews, and knew I must ask my own questions.

Megan Mayhew Bergman: When you look back on your career as a writer, are you able to see a single moment where the clouds parted, momentum changed, and your career began? (Perhaps with the publication of your first New Yorker story, “Minor Heroism”?) Do these moments happen or are they made? What do you make out of the alchemy of talent, luck, and hard work when it comes to a writer forging a long-term career?

Allan Gurganus: Readers sometimes praise a writer’s self-discipline. They say, “I know I couldn’t wake up at six and make myself type about the same characters all day.”

A writer’s discipline should simply be called “obsession”. That word literally means “To sit before.” The way some pilgrim must bow daily to Mecca. Maybe our obsessions choose us. Obsessives tend to think that anyway! And writing is surely a better addiction than most.

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