“Death!/ Plop.”: The Instructive Power of Very Bad Art

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In the basement of three small theaters in Massachusetts lives a collection of some of humankind’s worst artistic efforts: the Museum of Bad Art. Everything in the collection is gloriously, earnestly bad (the curators reject anything that seems bad by intention). You can go there. You should. The photograph above is just a first taste. Sunday on the Pot with George will impress you with the richness of its detail. You won’t soon forget Lucy in the Sky with Flowers—those frolicking legs! Or Peter the Kitty, with his cluster of feet and unsettlingly human expression. Or Johnny McGrory and his spiffy hat. Or The Cupboard Was Bare (just look at it. I’m not sure what to say). You may in fact be seeing them when you close your eyes until the day you die.

The Museum of Bad Art has a literary cousin that has also brought me joy: the anthology Very Bad Poetry, edited by Kathryn and Ross Petras. It’s a treasury of fabulous failure. Julia Moore (1847-1920) seems to have had a poetic obsession with dead children (see “Little Libbie”). Solyman Brown (1790-1876) penned the educational “The Dentologia—a Poem on the Diseases of the Teeth.” The editors deemed “A Tragedy” by Theophile Marzials (1850-1920) the worst poem ever written in English; its first two lines read, in their entirety, “Death!/ Plop.” But my own favorite is “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese, Weighing over 7,000 Pounds,” by James McIntyre (1827-1906):

We have seen the Queen of cheese,
Laying quietly at your ease,
Gently fanned by evening breeze—
Thy fair form no flies dare seize.

All gaily dressed soon you’ll go
To the great Provincial Show,
To be admired by many a beau
In the city of Toronto. [...]

Of the youth—beware of these—
For some of them might rudely squeeze
And bite your cheek; then songs or glees
We could not sing o’ Queen of Cheese.

We’rt thou suspended from balloon,
You’d cast a shade, even at noon;
Folks would think it was the moon
About to fall and crush them soon.

The rhyme scheme is something, but it’s the actual addressing of the beloved cheese that gets me. And the cheek-squeezing/biting, and the whole last unexpected stanza.Continue Reading

Bring In the Old: The Writer as Collector

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There was a time in my mid-twenties when I was unhappy, for reasons that now seem ridiculous to me but were no less potent because of their ridiculousness. I wanted to be a writer, but I worked a business consulting job from home and spent a lot of time alone in my old Victorian in downtown Raleigh–a house once owned by a woman named Swannanoa Branch. We used to get Swannanoa’s mail–mostly evangelical pamphlets that talked about bathing yourself in the “fire of Christ’s love.”

When the realtor showed us the house, she was careful to point out that we would be the proud owners of the oldest in-tact outhouse in Wake County. I think this appealed to me more than to my husband, who opened the door with the sawed-out silhouette of a moon, revealing a rusted, cricket-infested toilet. It was an outhouse turned garden shed. I have always approved of adaptive re-use; take something old and make it your own. Abuse and honor it. Fill it up with your spirit. This is one way to make art.Continue Reading

Since Feeling is First: Elements of Craft to Express Emotion

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Emotions, feelings, desires—whatever you choose to call them—are central to writing. e.e. cummings wrote “since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you.” But how do we pay attention to syntax while retaining feeling?

There are countless elements of craft to aid the expression of emotion: sensory details, and the diction one uses to describe the world, can speak volumes about the inner landscape of a narrator or character, as can establishing background and setting the stakes.

Take, for instance, Paul Harding’s Enon. The novel follows Charlie Crosby for a year as he reels from the untimely death of his only daughter—an event revealed in the opening paragraph of the book. Immediately, Harding establishes this event, this background, and the reader waits to see how—or if—Charlie can recover. Knowing that his only daughter has died validates anything emotional the character expresses, ranging from numbness to excruciating physical pain. Grounded in what happened, none of his internal monologues wax melodramatic.

The landscape of the book also lends itself to Charlie Crosby’s grief. Enon is set in the fictional town of Enon, Massachusetts, where Charlie was born and raised. The rich bank of memories he has in this place confront him wherever he goes, re-experiencing and renewing the loss. His wanderings afford him reflections that lead to expression or repression of emotions. There is a depth and dimension to his grief because it’s inescapable.Continue Reading

Between Optimism and Pessimism: How to Set Our Baby Monitors?

Adolf_Hiremy-Hirschl,_Die_Seelen_des_AcheronPessimism is not particularly hard. I thought of this last month when I spent an hour in my brother’s kitchen near the baby monitor through which I could hear my poor twenty-two-month-old niece hacking up phlegm. After an hour I began to mistake this noise for the wind, or for my own thoughts. Moments of quiet could only mean she had stopped breathing. This might as well have been the soundtrack to pessimism, or perhaps a microcosm of how it overtakes anyone who has lived long enough.

Colum McCann knew this well before and more keenly than I ever did (and better-scarfed). In his masterpiece Let the Great World Spin, the preacher at young Jazzlyn’s funeral declared that “goodness was more difficult than evil.” Goodness “had to be fought for.” And the fight is difficult, indeed—it took a funeral preacher to speak the words.

Let’s face it: there’s not a single day that the flag of any sensible adult should be above half-mast. Which is why I think being called optimistic is a gentler way of being asked, “So are there just no newspapers where you live?” McCann tells Nathan Englander in their postscript conversation: “The cynics of this world—the politicians, the corporations, the squinty-eyed critics—seem to think that . . . it’s cooler, more intellectually engaging, to be miserable, that there’s some sort of moral heft in cynicism.”Continue Reading

Second Time’s the Charm

1153px-Roller_Derby_1950We’re better at most things the second time around. Poaching eggs. Seventh grade. Guessing which hand the marble is in.

Writers might not be better at things by the second book, but at least we’re better prepared. (And I’m talking here about the publication process, the “your book is out in the world” thing. The writing doesn’t get any easier. Sorry, love.) If you’re not on your second book yet—if you’re not on your first, either—you have time to learn from my idiocy. Here are some of the things you think you know the first time around, and the things you know you know going into the second book.

Book #1: You think you pretty much know your book’s flaws. You can guess what the negative reviews will say.

Book #2: You understand that people will take issue with things you never dreamed could be issues. The setting shift you worried so much about will never come up; but the fact that your character neglects to feed his cat in chapter six—that will prompt someone to write a one-star review about how they can’t root for characters who are cruel to animals.

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Is Anyone Reading Your Blog Posts?: Building a Literary Community in the Age of Facebook

1200px-Milwaukee_BundesturnhalleIn the creative writing for new media course I teach at the University of Iowa, we spend the first few weeks talking about ways in which technology has changed the way we communicate with one another, for better or worse. When it comes to Facebook in particular, it’s interesting to hear my students articulate the very real drawbacks far better than I could. A question I love to ask them–after we’ve all agreed that at least one of social media’s major boons is enabling contact with strangers across the world with whom we might never have had contact (and what is the goal of literature if not this?)–is, “Yes, but what about the quality of these interactions? The depth? The intimacy?”

“Sometimes I find myself ‘liking’ things just because they don’t have any ‘likes’ and I feel sorry for them,” one student admits.

“I ‘like’ articles sometimes without even reading them,” another confesses.

“People tell me happy birthday on Facebook and I have no idea who they are but it feels good to have so many friends,” another pipes up.

What they’re describing, of course, is the potential for superficial connections online. The internet’s vicious enabling of a kind of lazy and false authenticity.Continue Reading

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

All-Time Favorite Writing Prompts

To round out this year of blogging about writing prompts, I polled writers and writing teachers for their favorite writing prompts–generally, simple prompts that have been useful to them as writers, students, and teachers. One such prompt that I found extremely useful in my early days of writing was, “Write about an obsession.” From this straightforward suggestion, I learned a lot about what can drive a compelling story.

Some of these prompts are accessible and instructive; others offer wonderfully evocative images and ideas. For ease of reference, I’ve grouped the prompts into several categories, but certainly some would fit into multiple boxes. It is my hope that these twenty-nine prompts–some specific, some quite open-ended–will help you jump-start any stalled works-in-progress and generate lots and lots of new material.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

Seven Under One Hundred

Baby with a Goat CartThere are a lot of age-based lists of writers out there. A lot. Of. Lists. Here’s another one.

Jake Strand, 34, after twelve years in the corporate world, recently found the courage to apply to MFA programs. He didn’t think he’d get in, but he did. His writing is extraordinary. In six years, when his first novel, Lick the Toad, is published, it will tear your heart to little pieces. It will be your favorite book. Right now, he and his wife are figuring out if they can both afford to move to Iowa. If she stays behind to work, it would strain their marriage. He’s not sure this is worth it.

Gladys Hollinghurst, 82, was an English major until she met her husband. That was a different era, and although she’ll never regret the time she spent raising her children, she does wish she’d done something sooner with the novel manuscript she’s been writing and rewriting for the past few decades. Her husband would have been scandalized, of course. He died three years ago, and that’s when she decided to make a go of it. The publisher who finally took a chance on a debut by an eighty-two-year-old is, rather than hiding Josie’s age, making a bit of a fuss about it. She finds this slightly embarrassing.

Emma Lopez, 13, has just written her first poems, her first real poems, in purple pen in a Moleskine notebook, starting on the last page and working her way forward. She mostly writes in study hall. She will spend the next twelve years working on her craft, and will almost have a book-length manuscript ready before the MS diagnosis. Ten years later, she’ll be well enough to revisit the manuscript and submit it to a few contests. She will be runner-up in two of them. Her first collection will appear when she is 40 years old. It will, unfortunately, be her only collection. But my God, those poems.Continue Reading