Etymology as Pedagogy: How Words Teach Me to Live

mapWhen I learned, not long ago, that the word “daisy” comes from the Old English word “day’s eye,” referring to how the petals open at dawn and close at night, I was delighted. Here was proof that the English language can be governed by a beautiful logic. It was a happy reminder, too, that what I thought belonged to me did not. The words I use have been elsewhere, passing from mouth to mouth, me just a mouth in between.

A little later I learned that the word “squirrel” comes from Greek words meaning “shadow-tailed.” More delight. This was evoking in me, I realized, the same adolescent wonderment of discovering that my parents were not parents all their lives, that they were proud participants of the sexual revolution and also shoplifted more than once. What I thought belonged to me did not. It became clear that words are very much like people.Continue Reading

Round-Down: The Black and White Business of Confronting Racism in Literature

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Like most Americans, I’ve been stunned the last few months by the verdicts in Ferguson and New York. Tens of thousands of protestors, black, white and brown, have taken to the streets and to social media to voice their protest and outrage at the implicit message received from these verdicts that black lives don’t matter—but who is putting pen to paper in attempts to record such moments in literature?

I ask this question as a young white poet at UNC Wilmington—a city that is no stranger to racial tension and violence. This semester, I took a graduate-level poetry workshop called “Gazing In, Gazing Out” where we discussed poetry under two lenses: that which speaks more confessionally and personally versus that which speaks more politically and socially consciously. The essential question that arose from that class—from, I couldn’t help but notice, a room full of young, white writers—was this: How can our art be political without being preachy? Rhetorical without turning into a rant? Sensitive to identities other than those we were born with?

But after reading a series of articles in the news lately about art and our current times, I can’t help but ask now: Who else has the luxury of debating this but white artists? And who else has more of a responsibility to step up to the challenge now more than ever?Continue Reading

The Narrowed Divide: Of Stylists, Shape-Shifters, and Multiple Aesthetics

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Our collective understanding of how a story, poem, or essay should operate remains in constant flux; every sentence is a new description of language, every piece of writing, a new commentary on art. In this sense, any shared definition of storytelling is best left unresolved, unless we are to say a story is simply something that will continue to surprise us again and again.

As examples of the boundless possibilities of language, here are five pieces of writing that embrace multiple forms, comfortably residing in the shadow space that exists between genres. In subverting tradition and synthesizing dual modes of expression, these shape-shifters offer the welcome reminder that aesthetic is always open for interpretation from unexpected vantages.

1. The Essay as Poem: “The Glass Essay,” by Anne Carson

Nominally essayistic and in appearance a lined poem, “The Glass Essay” resists easy categorization. Rather than offering a structure of comfortable familiarity, Carson invites readers to inhabit “an ungainly body stumping over the mud flats with a look of transformation.” Yet within this restless composition resides stunning elegance—a weave of confession, poems within poems, and thirteen visions called “Nudes” used to illustrate the end of an affair. While the resulting form is difficult to label, it retains moments of intense recognition: “It was not my body, not a woman’s body, it was the body of us all.” Call it a poem, argue it’s an essay—regardless, this work of art will keep you returning, offering new meaning with every reading. The same can be said for Carson’s other publications, including Nox—by turns poetry collection, elegy, and accordion book-in-a-box.Continue Reading

Round Down: When Books Are As Essential As Bread And Water

parisWhenever I drive to my real local library or the Barnes & Noble near my house, I’m always disappointed I can find a parking space so easily. Trust me, I love convenience. But where is everyone? What are they doing that’s more fun than browsing the shelves? Every man keeps a few secrets from his wife, and here’s one of my key ones: the line at the library checkout desk is never that long. Sure, I said I was just returning some of our kids’ books, but that shouldn’t have taken forty-five minutes. I’ll let you know, dear reader: I wasn’t really waiting that whole time. I was checking out three more books on behavioral economics, and I’m not even sure why. (But maybe there’s something in these books that can explain it!)Continue Reading

Holiday Book Shopping List: The TV-Lovers Edition

vintage Woolworth's Christmas‘Tis the season for gift giving, and what makes a better gift than an unforgettable book? 2014 has been a great year for books and television both, so here are some pairings to help you shop for the TV enthusiast in your life.Continue Reading

How Books Brought Me Back into the World

reading aloneMy parents worried about me when I was young. They clipped out articles with titles like “What To Do When Your Child Doesn’t Speak” and strongly encouraged me to interact with the other kids in my nursery school and kindergarten classes. When my kindergarten teacher suggested to my parents that I be held back a year, it wasn’t because I wasn’t smart. I was. It was just that I wasn’t social.

Back then, there weren’t listicles on how to care for and feed your favorite introvert. There weren’t books like Laurie Helgoe’s Introvert Power and Susan Cain’s Quiet to reassure people that introversion wasn’t a liability . . . It was just a different way of being.

So I was looked at as someone who needed to be fixed. And in a way, I internalized this.Continue Reading

Iguala, Ayotzinapa, and Why Carolyn Forché is More Relevant Than Ever

Carolyn_ForcheI went to Mexico City to write about it. But also to read a lot too. To slough off the rust of my own ignorance about this country my family came from. You can never read enough. Such is the shame of academia. But the beauty of being young and dumb is that there’s always something new you haven’t read yet, seen yet, heard yet. Do you remember the first time you heard the Beatles? Elvis? Everything new is exciting. Everything new feels connected if only by association: I learned about this stuff around the same time. But once in a while, there’s something oogie-boogie that happens when things we learn, when new things we’re exposed to, aren’t only connected but resonating with the moment we’re living in. That’s more or less how I found Carolyn Forché’s poetry just as the Mexican moment found me.Continue Reading

Giving, Not Taking: Expectations of Author Interactions

hal blockIn 2009, I was at the annual AWP conference in Chicago, heading into a panel session about flash fiction. Coming out of the room from the last session was Audrey Niffenegger who, even without her name tag, would have been distinguishable by her auburn hair.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Did you write The Time Traveler’s Wife?

“I did,” she said.

“I just wanted to thank you,” I said.

She thanked me for saying that, and then excused herself, saying she had to run to another meeting.

“Oh, that’s okay,” I told her. “That’s all I wanted to say.”Continue Reading