At the Contemporary Museum of Art in Montreal, Ragnar Kjartansson’s “The Visitors” plays on nine screens in a dark theater. Each screen features a single musician set to the backdrop of a room in a chateau, which is in disrepair: one woman in a pale lace dress plays cello with a French door open to the outside gardens, one man plays guitar in a claw foot bathtub. All nine musicians chime in to sing: “Once again, I fall into my feminine ways.” In the theater, museum-goers experience all nine screens at once: a simultaneous narrative. In a second theater, which exhibits Kjartansson’s “World Light,” four screens play different scenes from a Halldor Laxness novel at the same time. In the same moment, viewers watch a woman pull on her dress and stockings in the morning, while across the room she fights with her future lover. The presentation of “World Light,” a Nordic story told in its entirety in one moment, calls into question the sequencing of narrative—that is, that a narrative should be read from beginning to end, or that those components should be separate at all.
From a film adaptation of Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State to robots writing fiction, here’s a look at this week’s literary news:
- Author, essayist, and editor Roxane Gay can now add another title to her list of credentials: screenwriter. It was announced last week that Gay’s novel An Untamed State will be made into a movie. Gay will co-write the script with director Gina Prince-Bythewood.
- Robots writing novels? It’s happening in Japan. A novel that was co-authored by an artificial intelligence program and humans made it past the first round of the Nikkei Hoshi Shinichi Literary Award. The AI program authored about twenty percent of the text. The book did not end up winning the final prize.
- Thousands of writers will descend upon Los Angeles this week for the 2016 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. This three day event will host some great speakers and panels, as well as a book fair. Plus, we’ll be there! Stop by and see us at booth 600. We’ll have discounted issues, poster giveaways and more! Follow us on Twitter to find out everything we’ll have to offer.
A few years ago at a conference, I read a section from my long poem “Sublimation” in which the speaker describes a miscarriage that, in its vicious pain and effusions, wakes her up in the middle of the night. After the reading, as I was mingling my way toward the wine, two women approached me. They were kind and complimentary, and I was surprised and admittedly flattered. I thanked them, but then one of them said, “I’m so sorry about your miscarriage. Are you okay?” I hadn’t indicated whether or not the poem was based on my own experiences; for me, it wasn’t relevant if I had a miscarriage or not. This poem, like others about trauma and loss, has incited the life–art collapse more often than not, seemingly inviting others, strangers even, into intimate, if not silent, conversation with my life.
Working at poets from the other end is a phenomenon I’ve come to call “sieving” or “mining,” which I first noticed when I was in my MFA program, when there was a great deal of pressure on us to produce one or more poems a week, when we needed the wine-bottle crack of an idea to begin our voyage. Any time we would tell one another about something odd we’d seen, something interesting we’d read, or something from our past, someone would say, “That’s a poem” or “Have you written about that?” or “Title!” I thought perhaps that this life/art equation here would leave my life after graduation, but since then there have been numerous times I’ve posted something on Facebook or caught up with an acquaintance at AWP when someone has said only “poem” in response to an anecdote or phrase.
In tenor, this kind of comment sometimes comes across as a gesture of enthusiasm or an “I hear you,” but other times it feels like that person is insinuating themselves as the long-sought-after Rosetta Stone capable of translating my life into good poems. Perhaps I should be flattered—they want to see me write about these things—but I can’t help but feel annoyed when I’m engaged in conversation, and someone interrupts to say, “That would make a great poem,” as if they would much rather engage me through the filter of the page.
According to Wikipedia, a keystone is “used figuratively to refer to a central element of a larger structure […] that locks the other elements in place and allows the whole to be self-supporting.” With a stone archway, the form is inherent, or predetermined. First, there is the abutment, then vertical supports, then voussoirs, and finally, crucially, the keystone. Ander Monson, in a 2008 interview: “in considering form, I think we immediately run up against expectation.” We, as readers, expect a certain order to things, and as writers, we learn the conventions of form and structure. We are taught that you can’t place a keystone without the voussoirs, yet you can start an essay without first deciding what form it will be, where the keystone will reside.
Leslie Jamison‘s essay, “Morphology of the Hit,” admits, “I never know how to start this story. I just don’t. That’s why I need functions.” Specifically, the functions of Vladimir Propp, author of Morphology of the Folktale, which provides Jamison “a map for storytelling, a catalog of plot pieces arranged into thirty-one functions: commencements, betrayals, resolutions.”
The abutment that supports the arc or form of an essay is a question, a problem. For Jamison, it’s the problem of how to begin a story, the story of being hit while traveling in Nicaragua. How does any woman or man begin to tell the story of unexpected violence? How does any writer begin? Beginning can be such a problem in and of itself, Barbara Abercrombie’s A Year of Writing Dangerously commences with the problem of starting, the terror of that first line, of not knowing the way in. Eula Biss, on a panel at AWP Minneapolis, said, “I feel like in almost all my work, I find form, and I have to write my way into it.”
Is there anything more head-smackingly awkward than asking favors of other writers? You might never have experienced writer’s block in your life, but sit down to compose a 200-word email to the friend you need something from, and find yourself twelve hours later with nothing but a vacuumed carpet.
And yet it’s totally necessary. And anyone you’re writing to has definitely been there, wondering how they could possibly ask something so huge from such a busy person, and wishing they’d been to that one magical conference that would have hooked them up with all the contacts and favors ever. You know, the one everyone else went to.
Lucky for you, I’m here to help. Simply use the following form, and you’ll never be pen-tied again.
I’ve always felt that AWP* could be livened up by a conference-long game of Paintball Assassin. Until that happens, here’s some other stuff to try:
The Book Fair Bartering Game:
Start with free swag. Something cool, like a box of matches with a chapbook cover on it. Find the bored grad student tending another booth. (A booth with better swag, preferably swag that costs something. Like magnets. Magnets always cost more than you’d think.) Trade the matchbox for a magnet, then trade up your magnet for a hat, and so on. There is at least one booth with a bottle of bourbon. You win the game if you get the bottle when it’s still half full.
The Start-Your-Own-VIP-Party Game:
You don’t have to be a VIP. You just have to convince all the VIPs that the real VIP party is in the back room of Potbelly’s. Then you lock them in there and don’t let them out until at least five of them have written you blurbs.
The Intentional Misidentification Game:
Approach any writer who is clearly not Junot Diaz but could maybe, in a dark alley, pass for him, and excitedly shout that you loved Drown. You win the game when someone goes along with it. Bonus points if he signs your nametag as Junot Diaz.
Writer’s Butt is a real and tragic thing. You might be making great progress on that novel, but is your seat getting wider with every word count goal? Is your back so tight that when you stand up your arms are permanently locked in that T-Rex typing position? Time to stretch out and get the blood flowing with these specially designed exercises. (As always, consult your physician before starting any vigorous training regimen.)
Bind together seven copies of literary magazines that rejected you, and impale them on the end of a sharp stick. Now do the same with seven more mags on the other end of the stick. Now it’s time for the free lift! That thing must weigh at least ten pounds.
Sitting in your rolling chair, use your feet to propel yourself away from your computer in disgust. The sudden motion and rush of oxygen might give you a new idea. If it does, tiptoe-crawl your chair back to your desk, because you’re too far away to grab the edge of it with your hands. This uses your abs more than you’d think.
Switch to an old-timey manual typewriter. After a few weeks, your fingers will be strong enough to curl your own ironic handlebar moustache.
There are writers to watch for, and then there are writers to watch out for. A sampling of the latter, for your safety:
10) Jack Hogue is a great guy, but if you listen to him for more than five minutes, you’ll believe the publishing world, if not the world itself, has come to an end. Do you know how much he made on his last collection? Negative seven thousand dollars, because he tore his ACL carrying around bags of his own books to conferences his publisher wouldn’t pay to send him to, and also our insurance system is broken. He’ll probably never write again, but at least he has tenure now, so he can pretty much just drink all day in his office. Here, let him buy you a gimlet. Follow him into the abyss.
9) Warby Graham is kind of shocked that you haven’t heard of all these incredibly important twenty-two-year-old writers who live in his building in Williamsburg, but then maybe that’s because you’re super old. No offense but aren’t you, like, thirty? Yeah, that’s probably why. They’re all into something called Metaflarf, which it’s amazing you haven’t been following, because it’s probably the most important literary movement since that thing where you make paper hats out of David Foster Wallace’s endpapers.
8) Denise Cuhaj has no boundaries. She will put your hand on her tattoo and make you feel it with your eyes closed. She’s a close-talker, which wouldn’t be so upsetting if she weren’t telling you how you were in her dream last night, carrying her around in a blanket.
I’m in that small and shrinking group of writers who don’t have MFAs. Which I think makes me uniquely qualified to start my own MFA program. Haven’t most education reformers come from outside the system? My program will, for starters, involve napping and swimming pools. And the course offerings will be much more practical than “Problems in Modern Fiction.” We’ll cover the things you need to know. (The writing part you can figure out on your own.) I herewith present my 2015-2016 course catalog.
I wasn’t expecting my friend D to smash the green anole with a rock. But he did, and the lizard’s insides smeared red against the concrete driveway. Its eyes, black and bleeding, sunk into its tiny skull. We were nine.
I’d caught the green anole in the tree down the street. We caught brown ones all the time, and sometimes giant Cuban anoles, bumpy and long as our forearms. But the finger-length green anoles—those were something to celebrate. They were what we deemed rare. Before D smashed the lizard, we sat, he and my brother and I, passing the anole around, letting it slip over our browned knuckles. It was beautiful: bright green, white-bellied, soft. And then the rock came down. D broke the squirming lizard in one swift move.
Lucas Southworth’s short story collection, Everyone Here Has a Gun, the winner of the 2012 Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, packs a similar punch. The stories are tense, gritty, and dark, full of sons raised to kill fathers and boys nailing chipmunks to walls. These characters hover at the edge of disaster. They exist in the unsettling shadows between innocence and violence.