On Generosity of Thought—a Writer’s Gifts

Wayne Brown sailing

On the June afternoon when I first joined Lesley’s MFA faculty, during a break between meetings, I carried my coffee to an outdoor table where several other faculty members were sitting and asked if I could join them. Wayne Brown, the Trinidadian writer I’d only just met, looked up. He said to me, solemnly, “When you are old and gray and your grief has become a steady joy, then you may sit with us.”

Then, seeing my hesitation, he laughed and gestured me to sit.

It was the start of a five-year friendship I came to cherish. Blunt, funny, opinionated, unflinchingly honest and disinclined to suffer fools, Wayne was a writer’s writer. That his work isn’t better known in this country has always struck me as absurd—his “Landscape with Heron” should, by rights, be in every undergraduate short story anthology between Anderson and Carver.Continue Reading

April Fools: Some Funny Novels (Seriously, That’s What the Post Is About)

Our valiant editorial intern, Sean Mackey, suggested this month that in honor of April Fools’ Day we recommend a few humorous books. He had this to say himself:

Humor is becoming more and more specific for different audiences, where a reader who laughs at I Am America, And So Can You might not find Pride and Prejudice and Zombies funny.  Two classics that have remained fresh for centuries, despite this audience segmentation, are Candide—Voltaire’s condensed epic tale bashing optimism—and Don Quixote—Cervantes’s satire on chivalry, knighthood, and what it means to fully “embrace” literature.

Sean’s absolutely right that it’s hard pulling off lowest-common-denominator humor these days, especially in a book—but you don’t have to go quite all the way back to Voltaire and Cervantes to find funny writing that everyone can enjoy.

The example that immediately jumps to mind is Douglas Adams’s oeuvre, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its many sequels, to Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and even his quirky non-novel project, The Meaning of Liff—a “dictionary” that bears a passing resemblance, in intent if not execution, to another classic humor book: Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. (One personal favorite from Bierce: “Corporation: An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.”)

Adams has plenty of company, too, in today’s contemporary humor writers: Jasper Fforde, for example, who’s most famous for The Eyre Affair and its sequels, and Tom Holt, a British novelist writing very much in an Adamsesque vein. (His most recent is Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Sausages.)


There’s a fuzzy line, of course, between all-out trying-to-be-funny books, and more literary books that happen to have funny components. Jincy Willett is one author who probably falls more on the latter side, most notably in Jenny & the Jaws of Life—though anyone in an MFA program may appreciate The Writing Class just as much if not more. I’d probably be remiss if I didn’t also mention Aimee Bender here, though in my experience her work—Willful Creatures, for example—is more of an acquired taste. (And speaking of acquired tastes, if you don’t laugh at the opening sections of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, you’re probably not alive.)

If you want to get really high-level about it, there are also some writers who arguably aren’t “funny” at all, at least not on the surface, but at which you nevertheless can’t help but laugh. I’m thinking here of David Foster Wallace—not a favorite of mine, but I can at least appreciate what he’s going for—or of specific books like Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, which takes place during a trip up an escalator, or Kafka’s The Castle. Follow K. to the end of that story, and you have to laugh if you don’t want to cry.

[A note from Akshay: I have to introduce one of my favorite comic writers, Flann O’Brien, who we somehow missed in our St. Patrick’s post. O’Brien recently received a boost when one of his books, The Third Policeman, showed up on an episode of Lost. You can start with At Swim-Two-Birdsone of the weirdest, wildest, and funniest books in English—and then pretty much read anything else. He is a magician. Also, this isn’t a novel, but no student of the language can be without “English As She Is Spoke,” which we read aloud with some friends during a long car ride. This is not recommended, as it results in some very unfocused driving.]

One final caveat: humor’s more subjective than even “serious” literature, and there may be books in the list that you think are hopelessly dull, or books not in it that you’re shocked we could overlook. If that’s the case, don’t just sit there fuming—tell us about it in the comments! We always appreciate new reading suggestions.

And now, to end with some truly sophisticated humor:


Matthew Thorburn

Matthew Thorburn’s poem, “A Field of Dry Grass” appears in our Winter 2011-12 issue, guest edited by Alice Hoffman. “A Field of Dry Grass” opens with these lines:

Hard to imagine Bashō
died here in a rented room above a flower shop
in 1694, as I pause today
on Dōtonbori Street, shoppers brushing past
on either side, to gaze
at the giant red mechanical crabContinue Reading

Exit Strategy

In six weeks, I’ll be done with my MFA. No more workshops, no more craft classes, no more hanging out in the creative writers’ house, no more external structure or deadlines. It’ll be back to the years B.P.S. (Before Poetry School): making my own schedule for writing, revising, and submitting work, and not being accountable to anyone other than myself.

I’m excited, a little nervous, and a little sad.

For the past two years—and for the first time, really—I’ve had the benefit of a community of working writers, a physical hub for my writing life where I can go to work on and revise my writing, and the opportunity to take classes with some of the most talented poets and writers in the country. While I’ll be glad to downgrade to a less hectic existence come May, I’m going to miss having all this input and reinforcement. Writing poetry is generally a solitary exercise, and earning my MFA introduced me to the social and collaborative aspects of the craft for the first time. Continue Reading

Minuet For Guitar

Minuet For Guitar (In Twenty-Five Shots)
Vitomil Zupan, trans. Harry Leeming
Dalkey Archive, December 2011
400 pages

Scope: microscopic to galactic
Tones: philosophical, dark, sarcastic
With: tiny flecks of the bucolic

Concerning: Slovenian partisan Berk, fighting in World War II
As well as: former German soldier Joseph Bitter, meeting Berk at a Spanish resort in 1973
With lots of: grenades, starvation, liceContinue Reading

Drifting House: an Interview with Krys Lee

For this blog post, I am interviewing Krys Lee, author of the short story collection, Drifting House, published this year by Viking/Penguin. Drifting House follows the lives of Koreans both in their homeland and in the United States. According to the book’s website, “Alternating between the lives of Koreans struggling through seventy years of turbulent, post-World War II history in their homeland and the communities of Korean immigrants grappling with assimilation in the United States, Krys Lee’s haunting debut story collection Drifting House weaves together intricate tales of family and love, abandonment and loss on both sides of the Pacific.”

TL: First of all, congratulations on the publication of Drifting House. The reviews have been deservedly positive, and it is generating buzz and praise rarely seen for a short story collection. Many Ploughshares readers are writers of short stories who, like me, are submitting to literary journals with the hope of publishing a short story collection some day. I’ve noticed that you have published in several prestigious journals, i.e. the Kenyon Review, Narrative, and Granta (New Voices), prior to publishing Drifting House. At what point did you think you had more than just a group of stories? When did the stories you were writing start to gel together in your mind as a collection that could be published together in a book?Continue Reading

The Physics of Fiction, the Music of Philosophy: an Interview with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s astonishments as a philosopher and as a novelist are too numerous to list here. Already launched in her career as a philosophy professor, she reached a moment in her own life when philosophical inquiry no longer felt like a broad enough arena in which to explore the full range of human experience. In response, she began writing fiction—asking, from the perspective of her philosophical training, what seemed “the most ‘unprofessional’ sorts of questions”.

These unprofessional questions have propelled her through six novels and a book of short stories, even as she’s continued producing philosophical texts. Upon granting her a fellowship, the MacArthur Foundation stated that her works “emerge as brilliant arguments for the belief that fiction in our time may be the best vehicle for involving readers in questions of morality and existence.”

Her fiction, though, feels anything but theoretical.

Continue Reading

Nicholas Samaras

Nicholas Samaras’ poem, “I Like to Live with Hermits,” appears in our Winter 2011-12 issue, guest edited by Alice Hoffman. “I Like to Live with Hermits” opens with these lines:

Let me practice silence with you.

You have an extra room in your hut
and a wooden balcony overlooking a ravine in moonlight.

I can sleep in this bare corner, on the floor-planks
with a blanket and a stone for a pillow.

Here, Samaras describes his writing process for the poem:

Honestly, this poem literally began as a total joke. I was serving as a summer Faculty member at the Frost Place Writers Conference:  while giving a poetry reading that evening in Robert Frost’s Barn, I began to introduce a poem from my new manuscript focusing on pilgrimage and a personal confrontation with silence, with one’s self. Out of nowhere, I spontaneously said, “Everyone has hobbies. I confess I have a hobby:  I like to live with hermits.”

I never expected the entire audience to crack up laughing that hugely. It must have been one of those not-to-be-repeated, perfectly-timed moments. Everybody but my wife thought the ad lib was hysterical. Since then, I’ve always remembered the line and, recently, finally had the chance to use it as a poem-title, prompting me to be able to address the concept of what it might actually be like to share a hermitage with an ascetic (which I’ve done numerous times during my literary research in the monasteries and sketes of Greece—the silver rain and blue air of that century coming into this century were very real). I loved the tension of the line, the oxymoronic truth.

To me, the poem is a transformation, as all poems must be. The poem becomes transformed from humour to the depth of seriousness. And I found myself deeply transformed by the experience of this poem. In my heart, the implied dialogue of the poem speaks of shared struggles, shared solitude, shared strivings for expression, connection, contemplation, achievement, personal confrontation for any silence of truth. If we are alone in our struggles, can we then be alone together? I designed the form of the poem and its laden white space to embody that silence, that confrontation, that focus on each thought and progression. It’s hard to put into words, and I can only trust the silence of the poem to say it better than I may do so here.

Dear Dr. Poetry…

The Louisiana Purchase
by Jim Goar
Rose Metal Press, Nov. 2011
80 pages

Dear Dr. Poetry,

I’ve been a middle school art teacher for twenty years, but thanks to budget cuts, I’ve recently had to begin teaching history, too. I’ve done my best to engage the students, assigning everything from presidential fusilli portraits and traditional macaroni necklaces to linguini costume design and rigatoni performance pieces, but I worry that I’m not properly equipped to engage them in historical discussion on a deeper level. Is there a better way I can use my art background to satisfy the curriculum?

–Patient Artist Seeking to Teach Effective Lessons

Fortunately for you, PASTEL, poetry has the appropriate noodle to solve this problem, and it’s called the prose poem. Similar to a regular poem but without all the showboating of line breaks, the prose poem is conducive to relaying history with an absurd narrative arc—one that might strike your fancy as a visual person and engage your students on a deeper level.

For example, The Louisiana Purchase by Jim Goar, a bizarre blend of Americana and surrealism that reads like an expeditionary journal documenting the events following President Jefferson’s historic acquisition: “President Jefferson walks off the mound. The / cardinals take the field. Ozzie Smith falls over dead. / The crowd falls silent.” Such anachronisms drive Goar’s poems into an unmanageable territory where all of America’s history resides simultaneously—where “The dust like a good / boy slaps his girl and Missouri gets buried.”

The landscape of the Purchase is at once thrilling, dangerous, and oddly comforting, like a nonsensical dream that feels profound, and where any misstep could have drastic repercussions:

I’ve forgotten how to serve a moon and ask the bird. It
flies away. Worthless drunk. The moon begins to burn. I begin
to panic. I try to remove it. It falls through my spatula and into
the fire. I feel I’ve committed a great sin.

The speaker fits in but not quite, trying to live alongside an elephant, an unruly moon, and the bird that claimed squatter’s rights in the tree that sprouted from his penis. There is no end or beginning to this history, only how the speaker interacts with it and what he can take away from it. In other words, PASTEL, history in Goar’s work is an enormous macaroni necklace—small incidents stringed together, informing each other, yet each making an independent statement—not unlike the individual prose poems within this anthology. This feels like a better way to conceive of history; if we put it on a timeline, we limit the possibilities for interaction and interpretation.

Goar’s young America exists as lore. By calling on a time when vast areas of the country were unexplored, Goar is free to mythologize America and create a country in his mind. The lesson for you here, PASTEL, is that you should make up whatever history you’d like and teach it however you’d like. Ultimately, teaching your own imaginative lore can’t be any more harmful than educational budget cuts.

Pro Forma, Pro poetica

Some of you would accuse me of never having had any formal instruction in Latin. Some of you would be correct!

If you crack open an issue of a nationally distributed literary magazine these days, you’re unlikely to see a lot of traditional sonnets, villanelles, ballads, or other formal poetry that at one time dominated the art. Most creative writing courses don’t actively encourage the writing of formal poetry (or any strain of poetry in particular, which is probably a good thing), and few teach students scansion—the analysis and visual representation of poetry’s metrical qualities.

I think poetry suffers from this inattention, though.Continue Reading