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
In 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
The first time I took part in an Exquisite Corpse, I was an undergrad in Lisa Russ Spaar’s workshop at UVA. I like to imagine she performed the exercise with her mentor, and he with his, and on and on in a long lineage of collaboration and gifting that befits the exercise itself. Here’s how one variation works: each student writes the first line of a poem on a sheet of paper. (Fiction and visual art are fair game, too.) The line can be long or short, full or fragmentary. Students are given a minute or so before passing the paper to the left; now holding her partner’s paper containing the first line, the student writes a second. Then – here’s the fun – that student folds the paper so the first line is concealed and only her line is visible. And the paper moves like this around the room, the classroom a factory of folding and writing, until our original paper comes back around as a poem to which each student has contributed a line.
The point is to create, not to publish what we’ve made. This exercise is vital for the writer who feels that the latter is master to the former. (Repeat after me, people: publication will not make me, rejection will not break me. Publication will not make me, rejection…) And the Exquisite Corpse is joyful creation. That’s reason enough for all writers to practice it. The only time my students have cried from laughter is during the Exquisite Corpse – even students in my prison class. Those kinds of tears, of course, are seldom shed in that universe. We laugh because we experience surprise, humor’s main ingredient. Afterwards we read the poems aloud to our fellow writers whose mouths are agape in waiting to hear with what clamor or harmony our lines speak to each other. Every poem should hold us this captive. A fresh image is an unexpected image, and a defied expectation transforms us, or should. A person caught off guard must reflect on their belief system – define what it was, and how it’s changed – and grow to fit its new shape.Continue Reading
“Craft” was a dirty word at art school, a subtle derogative. The college dropped “and Craft” from their name so recently that the signs on the highway still held those words. Once, in a class critique, a peer called a hand-painted map used to make a stop motion short “crafty,” and my face stung, as if slapped.
Now I deal with another kind of craft; not so much a dirty word but a kind of quiet discussion held among writers and readers. “Craft” is a fluid term; used in aeronautics and astronautics to speak of a single vessel, or the skill of deception, or a verb analogous to “make.” Craft in literature is comprised of narrative elements and literary devices: the nuts and bolts of what makes a story a story.
The first week in an MFA in creative writing, students were told they’d be studying craft and one student objected—said he couldn’t write a craft essay when the choices he made in a narrative were inherent.
They’re not, the professor argued; they’re studied and learned qualities, practiced until they become inherent, or second-nature. Craft in literature is the metaphorical and invisible toolbox you take with you. Like a filmmaker studies the nuances of cameras, microphones, and lighting to create a scene, a writer reads books for syntax, structure, theme, and studies the methods of employing devices like irony and metaphor as a way to point toward meaning, to elucidate a deeper truth. Jack Hart, author of Storycraft, said, “an awareness of all the different forms in which you can tell true stories using narrative techniques is important to succeeding with a broad variety of materials.” (Nieman Storyboard)Continue Reading
Here’s the story of my first and only encounter with Harold Bloom. It was the first week of a new semester, my last semester of graduate school, and I was waiting in a stuffy seminar room packed with sharply dressed undergraduates. The luckiest students had secured seats around the grand conference table while the rest of us stood in rows along the walls. Bloom arrived—looking exhausted, moving slowly—and took the vacant seat at the head of the table. He lectured for about fifteen minutes on Shakespeare. I don’t remember a word of what he said. What really stuck is what followed.
Enrollment, he explained, would be limited. There was no room for graduate students. (Disappointing, but expected.) Those undergraduates who were serious about taking the course should now take out a sheet of paper and write a paragraph or two making their case for receiving one of the coveted spots. In the meantime, he was going to wander Harkness Hall and find an empty classroom to sit in. Students could bring their applications to him there. Where? He couldn’t say. They would need to look for him. He would wait.
And with that, he left.Continue Reading
Brian Komei Dempster received the 15 Bytes Book Award in Poetry for his debut collection, Topaz (Four Way Books, 2013), which examines the experiences of a Japanese American family separated and incarcerated in American World War II prison camps. Through their interwoven narratives, his poems show us how the past never ends: it shapes and is in constant dialogue with our present lives, as our family histories are written into, and rewritten by, the lives of subsequent generations. Brian also edited From Our Side of the Fence: Growing Up in America’s Concentration Camps (Kearny Street Workshop, 2001) and Making Home from War: Stories of Japanese American Exile and Resettlement (Heyday, 2011). A professor of rhetoric and language and a faculty member in Asian Pacific American Studies at the University of San Francisco, he also serves as Director of Administration for the M.A. program in Asia Pacific Studies. Next month he will serve as a fellow at the Frost Place Conference on Poetry.
Matthew Thorburn: Your poems combine historical narratives, your family’s stories, and your own experiences, which gives your work a wonderful texture and density—while also illustrating how these narratives are always intertwined with and complicated by one another. Would you talk about how a poem starts for you and how you weave these different threads together?
Brian Komei Dempster: A poem starts for me with an image, a scene, a phrase in my head. I must keep my pen moving and rational mind out of the way so that the poem is an act of discovery rather than a predictable journey. Sometimes I make surprising connections between events.
For example, “Transaction” started as a poem about the narrator’s mother receiving her redress check for her wartime incarceration in Topaz prison camp. As I wrote, this vignette intertwined with others: the narrator’s exploration of sexuality at a strip club; Detroit autoworkers blaming Vincent Chin for the loss of their jobs. In revision, I found it exciting to jump cut between the three narrative strands. Moving between historical injustices suffered by his family, his role perpetuating female commodification, and details surrounding Chin’s racially charged murder, the speaker shows the exclusionary and inclusionary nature of race and gender, money and power.Continue Reading
1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Seven-Word Summary: Women enslaved by tyrannical dicks with dicks.
Excerpt: “Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it really isn’t about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.”
What It Can Teach Us: Recently I overheard a male student say feminism was really trending right now, as if it were a fad that would pass sooner or later, as if it were not inalienable, unimpeachable, and incontrovertible. At a time when prominent feminists are forced to cancel lectures because they receive death threats, in which women still make just 78 cents for every dollar earned by men, while action flicks like Mad Max: Fury Road are boycotted for having a feminist agenda by “men’s rights groups” (an oxymoron befitting of morons), as women continue to fight for control over their own bodies, and shirts like this one still exist, it’s easy to see the relevance of Atwood’s dystopic novel. The cruelty of subjugation against women is taken to the extreme, stripped of all subtleties, as women are kept as “concubines” to serve an Old-Testament, ultra-conservative regime. Not as far from fiction as one might think, The Handmaid’s Tale remains more necessary today than ever for its dramatic reminder that inequality is not just an abstract concept but a living reality, one that does irreparable harm to women everywhere.Continue Reading
I always knew that if I made it to Paris, one of the first places I’d go would be Rue Jacob, the former residence of Natalie Barney, a place that when I first read about it, inspired me as almost no other place had done.
In fact, I can trace the roots of my last book, Almost Famous Women, to an afternoon ten years ago. I was taking a writing class at Oxford University, picked up a biography of Barney in a used bookshop, and read it over a beer at the low-ceilinged White Horse Pub. That day I learned about the independently wealthy Barney who, when faced with the fact that the French Academy only recognized male writers, put forth her own L’Académie des Femmes, and promoted the work of female artists such as Romaine Brooks, Colette, and Djuna Barnes. Central to this endeavor was Barney’s Temple of Friendship, or Temple d’Amitie, an actual Doric temple in her courtyard.
As a new writer, I was just learning the feel of inspiration: your jaw clenches, your blood warms, and your brain is flooded with fascination. There’s a locking on of sorts, a barbed wire that sinks its metal teeth into the material. It is often, for me, the beginning of an obsession, a passion I can then translate into a gift for the reader. While a non-writer might amass a passing knowledge of a subject, a writer in the throes of inspiration-mode will strangle it, circle it a thousand times so that it can be known in some way, and what is not known will begin to come forth in the form of imaginary play in the subconscious and on the page.Continue Reading
One day eighteen years ago, a senior colleague at the small South Carolina college where I taught found more than $300,000 worth of stripped Penguin paperbacks at a local thrift shop.
Other than the piece of each cover that had been sliced off, the books were in excellent condition, but the prison to which they had been donated couldn’t accept them and the store where they’d ended up couldn’t legally sell them.
They were being hauled to dumpsters, not to be pulped and recycled, but to be burned.
That is, until English professor Ann Moorefield stumbled upon them. She was horrified at the prospect of the destruction of perfectly good books. Within a few hours, she had administrators, maintenance staff, faculty members, and students filling their cars and delivering boxes of books to an old house used for hosting social events on campus.
There was a buzz of excited energy in the air as we rallied to save those books, unloading them haphazardly onto tables, mantels, windowsills, and countertops.Continue Reading
Placed after a mention of death or dying, Kurt Vonnegut’s “So it goes” refrain throughout Slaughterhouse Five utilizes repetition to explore the inevitability of death. Early on in the book, Billy Pilgrim writes a letter to a newspaper about his experiences with extra terrestrials, and explains the origin of the phrase:
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’
The phrase simultaneously dismisses and accepts the inevitability of death. “So it goes” seems so detached as to be irreverent and inappropriate. An incredibly simple three word sentence—so informal it catches the reader off guard in its plainness—is striking in juxtaposition to death. The phrase is so casual, it smacks of false familiarity and dismissiveness. It feels unceremonious, yet becomes ceremonious through its repetition, like the refrain of a song. It is so much more complex than just those three simple words; it admits the inevitability of death and offers a pause for the reader to truly consider the weight of what is written.
Only the candles and the soap were of German origin. They had a ghostly, opalescent similarity. The British had no way of knowing it, but the candles and the soap were made from the fat of rendered Jews and Gypsies and fairies and communists, and other enemies of the State.
Removing the repetition of “so it goes” from the text alters the book—note how the omission of it from the above paragraph makes the sentence so dark and depressing it’s almost impossible to read. Stripping the informal refrain of “so it goes” makes the book too formal, too gloomy; it robs the deaths their due attention, their pause, and removes the carefree yet careful acceptance of the uncompromising inevitability of death. Nothing can be done about death, and Vonnegut’s cool acquiescence of it serves as deeper advice than at first glance—a mantra of sorts.Continue Reading