How to Do Things With Readings: After Cave Canem’s 20th Anniversary


Photos by Davon Clark. Clockwise from left: Camille Rankine, Danez Smith, Tyehimba Jess, Duriel E. Harris.


Like any literary form or rule, the poetry reading raises questions regarding subjectivity and context: whose conventions are these, what do they enable, and how do they suit the projects at hand?

Get beyond the beret-sporting, bongo-peppered cliché of what constitutes a poetry reading, and most writers still anticipate adherence to a conventional form: a reader will be introduced by a (hopefully) truncated version of their C.V. Said reader will say the name of their piece and an optional bit of information (e.g. explication of a particular non-literary concept, the origin of their title, a dedication/acknowledgement/epigraph, a framing anecdote), then read the piece itself, likely in a distinguishable poem-reading voice, after which they’ll pause, or possibly say thank you. Maybe there’s a dribble of audience applause but even here, what’s most typical is the falter: do we clap now or at the end? Do we snap, talk back, or remain silent? What is respectful? What is celebratory?

Pittsburgh has been home to some of the dearest literary events I’ve experienced. I was lucky to land here before the Gist Street series shuttered, a recurrent reading/potluck in a converted attic, distinguished by homemade ice cream and a line down the block. I went to MFA readings in the second floor of a since-closed dive bar, where listeners sat at poker tables while undergrads bought $1 Long Islands downstairs. These readings felt as much like parties as performances, adapting spatial practice to close the distance between a reader and her audience.Continue Reading

People of the Book: Mara Mills

People of the Book is an interview series gathering those engaged with books, broadly defined. As participants answer the same set of questions, their varied responses chart an informal ethnography of the book, highlighting its rich history as a mutable medium and anticipating its potential future. This week brings the conversation to Mara Mills, a professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University who engages with disability studies and new reading formats.

Mara Mills at Life’s Work: Tom Phillips and Johnny Carrera, MASSMoCA, November 2013

Mara Mills at Life’s Work: Tom Phillips and Johnny Carrera, MASSMoCA, November 2013

1. How do you define a “book”?

I wrote to some of my colleagues at the Library of Congress to see if they had an answer to this question, and none of them did! It’s much easier to characterize a book or reading format. Blind and other print disabled readers have long understood books to come in different forms: inkprint, embossed print, braille, and Talking Books. (A current list of accessible reading formats can be found on the website of the San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired.) Digital reading technologies have prompted a widespread acknowledgment of the heterogeneity of books.

Artists like Tan Lin are particularly expansive with regard to “the formats and micro-formats of reading.” His Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking is a book about paratext and meta-data; books as commodities; translation and machine reading; “ambient textuality” and “non-print forms of reading.” Among many other things, 7CV contains English and Chinese text, machine code, found photographs, scanned clothing tags, and samples from other books. It exists as a print book, an RSS feed, and a pdf available through; there’s also a Flash video of the first chapter. The appendix can be found on TUMBLR.

11 ancillary books have also been released by Edit Publications (University of Pennsylvania), including a critical reader, a compilation of technical documentation, and three Chinese editions. I haven’t finished reading 7CV; there may be other formats. “There is really no such thing as a book from the perspective of a reading system,” Lin says.

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The Suburbs: A Multimedia Extravaganza!

suburgatoryOkay, for my final post about the suburbs (probably), I say enough about books. Let’s talk about what’s really important: TV, movies, music, and even a little art.

On The Tube

TV is lousy with images of the suburbs these days, but of course it always has been.  Recently, shows like “Modern Family,” “The Middle,” “Suburgatory,” “The New Normal” and “The Neighbors” all offer visions of suburbia in varying degrees of reality and/or absurdity. Hapless parents half-successfully improvise their way through child rearing, while children—be they precocious, clueless, nerdy, or self-absorbed—propel plots that force the families to come together in awkward not-quite-harmony. The essential message of these shows is, “This ain’t your grandparents’ suburbs.”

The only problem is that it still pretty much is.Continue Reading

Close Watching: Tech + Text = The Reading Paradigm of the Future?!

When it comes to good ol’-fashioned reading, the influence of new-fangled technology is rarely construed as “positive.”

A recent Pew Internet Study suggests our that our brains are being “rewired” for attention deficiency by nonstop, rapid-fire access to information. Adbusters’ Micah White accuses the Kindle of “mimicking the external traits of a book while destroying the essence of the book: the trace of the author, the community of readers and the call to deep, meditative reflection.” And according to Nicholas Carr’s infamous polemic in The Atlantic, Google is making us stupid:

“I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading…My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

But listen up, luddites: it’s not all bad news. Because today I spent two full minutes reading a single sentence. On my computer screen. On the Internet. If that ain’t close reading, I don’t know what is.

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REDACTED: Experiences with Digital Americana’s Interactive Literary Magazine

This post was written by John Rodzvilla, Emerson College’s Electronic Publisher-in-Residence.

There has always been somewhat of an unrealized promise of interactivity with digital literature. It should be more than an enhanced experience of the print original, but still reflect the intentions of the artists. The Electronic Literature movement has tried to legitimize and broadcast new formats from a variety of different artists and authors that expand the experience of literature. Authors of interactive fiction and alternative reality games have also taken the idea of story to a more immersive and interactive level.  While these art forms are supported by a vibrant and active community, there the perennial question on monetization and distribution.

At the other end of the spectrum, trade literature has only just started to test the waters of enhanced content. For example, Michael Chabon’s latest novel, Telegraph Avenue has an enhanced digital edition that comes with an author interview, audio excerpts, a custom map of the locations within the novel, special designs from the artist Stainboy and an original theme song. The material is fun and enhances the reader’s experience, but it still controls the experience because, let’s face it, interactivity can be scary. The notion that authors should give up control of their world so that readers can interact and create new material is not something every wordsmith wants. There has always been this implicit relationship between artist/ writer and reader: I make. You buy and/ or experience.

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Nick Flynn: Q&A and Reading (with videos and blurry photos!)

Spring guest editor Nick Flynn stopped by Emerson last night to read, introduce the issue, and chat with Ploughshares poetry editor John Skoyles. He was introduced by poet and novelist Pablo Medina and Ploughshares editor-in-chief Ladette Randolph.

Nick read his Introduction from the Spring issue and also pages from his work-in-progress, The Reenactments, about seeing himself and his family portrayed in the film Being Flynn. He then dipped into his memoirs (Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and The Ticking Is the Bomb) and his collections of poetry (Some Ether and The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands).

Nick also discussed sending out his first collection of poems, Some Ether, to contests that he kept losing. He finally sent the manuscript to Graywolf, and one of the editors, it turned out, had just read a poem that Nick had published in Ploughshares. Graywolf ended up connecting Nick with Fred Marchant, the man in the picture below, a poet and professor at Suffolk University who worked to improve manuscripts for Graywolf. Apparently Fred laid out what was working and what wasn’t in that first collection, and put Nick on the road to eventually having the collection published.

Nick Flynn and Fred Marchant

Now that he’s got several books under belt, Flynn also talked about how he “steals from himself,” and read pages from his poetry and memoirs that worked off the same images and experiences.

You can watch Flynn read at our Livestream site (actual non-podium related content begins at 6:30 mark).

#AWP12 – What you don’t want to miss before heading out

Well, it’s Day 3 of #AWP12 in Chicago, and I’m ready for a nap. BUT! If you’re tempted to go nap, don’t do so, or leave AWP, before checking out these quirky booths and tables, which were chosen for their one-of-a-kind nature.

(And for those of you who can’t be here, you should definitely check out what these folks are doing when they’re not at AWP by going to their websites, where they can tell you about themselves in their own words.)

#1: Barrelhouse, table #R13

Here we have Tom McAllister, nonfiction editor, and Joe Killiany, a fiction editor, at the Barrelhouse booth. As you can see, they have a fun little carnival-ish game to play. Some valuable prizes up for grabs, including 30 seconds of awkward silence, which is what I got. They also have some insider-y t-shirts available for purchase, plus issues of their magazine, and info about their online fiction workshop.

Go check them out before you go!


#2: The Rumpus, booth #623

What you’ll find at The Rumpus booth can be summarized in the video below, but definitely stop by so Isaac Fitzgerald can sell you a mug. I guess they also can tell you about what they do at The Rumpus and their new letters in the mail subscription, but it’s mainly about the mugs.

#3: Idiots’ Books, booth #722 (I think, something like that)

Idiots’ Books drew me in with their baby, but they kept me with their charm. This writer and illustrator duo, comprised of married couple Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr, publishes lovely little books with titles such as “This Baby is Disappointing.” Here they explain who they are and briefly explain what they do:







Of course a post about what to check out before you leave AWP wouldn’t be complete without a reminder to stop by the Ploughshares table, N23. 


Here’s Ladette Randolph, our EIC, talking with a young writer from Nebraska. We are also taking votes on potential t-shirts — I’ll have a post on this next week once we get back from AWP, and those of you at home will have a chance to vote too.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a great last day at AWP12!

Some Slam Poetry I’ve Enjoyed

The first time I heard slam poetry, I was 17. My high school literary magazine “Aporia” threw a coffee house event at the hippest place we knew of. One of the participants performed “Love” by Beau Sia.

Needless to say, I loved it. It was passionate, honest, and raw. I’ve read the same poem on paper, and it’s just not the same; the meaning only comes through the performance. You get to hear the author’s intended inflection, and something powerful often exists in the physical space between a performer and an audience.

I have come to understand that slam poetry is not particularly well-respected in academic circles. I read this essay by slam poet Jack McCarthy, which was originally published in 2004 in The Worcester Review, which discusses the similarities and differences between “academic” and “slam” poets. McCarthy quotes former Ploughshares guest editor Thomas Lux, who defended slam poetry as an art:

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We turned 40 and all we got were these awesome videos

To celebrate our 40th anniversary, Emerson College (where Ploughshares is housed) made some lovely videos about our previous 40 years of history, what we’re doing currently, and what we’re thinking about for the future.


(P.S. If you live in the Boston area, and haven’t heard about our 40th event yet, it’s happening next Monday, November 14th. We’re still selling program tickets to the event for $50 general admission, $10 for students. Visit our website for more information, or purchase your ticket at the Paramount Theater box office at 559 Washington St, Boston, MA 02116. Monday through Saturday, 10:00 am to 6:00 pm.)

A video about how the blog sausage gets made:

More videos after the jump

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Ploughshares Joins the Radical Left

Ploughshares has entered the culture wars! In the middle of an attack on people warning that the flooding of Japan’s nuclear plant might be a serious concern, Glenn Beck takes on the Ploughshares Fund, a nuclear disarmament group, and what should pop up but an image of our humble magazine, now an honorary member of the radical left.

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Watch the video here:

Apparently we are funded by billionaire George Soros – that check has yet to arrive, unfortunately – and work to spread nuclear paranoia through Emerging Fiction Writers contests and poetry readings.
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