Literature


On a panel about memoir at the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference this past March, Stephen Elliott loosely quoted Michelangelo:

I carve to set the angel free.

And now, months later, the quote—which originally read “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free”—finally makes sense.

A few years ago, I kept trying to write (the one)(the only)(the one to negate a need for any future) essay about my complicated Russian-American identity, my dual nature, about growing up as the only American-born child in a Soviet émigré household. Around the same time, I was trying to write (the one)(the only)(the one to negate a need for any future) essay to explain my complicated relationship with Judaism.

In Boston (the host city for this year’s AWP), our conference hotel was off the Green Line ‘T.’ Like that line—sometimes more like a surface-running bus, sometimes more like a train—I can pass in two worlds. Yet I (often)(always) feel like an outsider. A writer watching on the sidelines. Eileen Myles once told me, “In all your travels, you feel like an alien, don’t you?”

It occurred to me that there (doesn’t have to be)(can’t be)(shouldn’t be) only one essay from me on either of those subjects. Those are stories that need to be told, like an angel clawing its way out of marble. I need to carve away at them little by little, from different angles, with different tools, to set some stories free. New anecdotes and pieces of evidence will surface and accumulate as I live longer and find new ways to write.

I feel freed and a bit unbound.

“Experiment, play, dare to be really bad, fool around, and just notice what an incredible luxury it is to be in this formative, uncertain, experimental phase, one where you learn and discover new things very rapidly but also haphazardly – you don’t know when and how it is going to happen so it is crucial that you try different things and weird things, and that you read very unexpected things and glom onto influences that are uncomfortable but fascinating. Because you know, later, if you persist and become a writer, the rate of change will slow down, expectations that you produce from within and expectations that are produced from without will tend to slightly concretize this task for you, it will become something more professionalized, so make sure you relish this period that won’t come again. It belongs only to you, for the time being.”

Jonathan Lethem. From an interview at Days of Yore. Lots of other gems over there, from the likes of Lauren Slater and Kate Christensen, so check ’em out.

Over a year ago, I wrote:

There are hundreds of small presses cropping up all over the country, publishing in small volumes, often using handmade or letterpress technologies…One notable example is Ugly Duckling Presse (UDP), a Brooklyn-based small press that makes chapbooks, broadsides and artist books in their one-room studio. They’ve published over 200 titles in the last ten years and many of the ones they put out have some handmade element, whether it be a letterpress cover or a hand-stitched or rubber band binding. UDP books are well-made objects that encourage you to read more slowly, to really look at each page.

Last month, The New York Times shot a video about small and independent literary presses in Brooklyn, NY, and they featured Ugly Duckling Presse:

Go support UDP now, and you can say “I knew them when they were still underground…”

Photo og "Nancy" by Harry Gamboa; Cover of SUmmer 2012 issue of The MAssachusetts REviewMy translation of a personal essay by Andrei Krasnyashykh just came out in the Summer 2012 issue of The Massachusetts Review. The essay “On the Dream Within a Dream,” is about dreaming about dreaming, about not being able to wake up, about trying to escape from a dream trapped inside another dream. The essay is funny, fantastical, and strange. Typical Krasnyashykh. The cover (left) is a gorgeous photograph by Harry Gamboa. Here’s an excerpt from the essay:

In Kafka’s fantastical nighttime world, the everyday logic of daytime suddenly invaded. Nightmares became a combination of delusion and logic, or more accurately, the delusion, without rhyme or reason, suddenly stopped playing by its own rules and discovered an internal everyday logic. Reality within the unreal (by the way, in magic realism, though it often feels dissonant, it’s the other way around: the surreal is within the confines of reality, and the experience of reading Kafka is noticeably different from reading García Márquez. The latter isn’t scary, and, after all,—I keep getting further and further away from the subject of my piece, but there’s nothing I can do about it since it’s already happening—the first story of García Márquez, “The Third Resignation” (written in 1947), is considered Kafkaesque because he writes about the feelings of a dead person, not as the subject matter but rather as the atmosphere of reality within the unreal).

Read the full first page below the fold, or buy the issue for $10.00 to read the full text. This issue also includes fiction by Tabish Khair and poetry by Lawrence Raab, among others.
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Cover of the Spring 2012 Issue of The Literary Review

My translations of Russian/Ukrainian prose writer Andrei Krasnyashykh’s work appear in the latest issue of The Literary Review (an international journal of contemporary writing). I couldn’t be more thrilled to be published alongside Mary Jo Bang, a poet who is translating Dante’s Inferno, and others.

The pieces I’ve translated are from a series called “Machinations of the Genre.” Krasnyashykh invented a form he calls the intrigue, short little breaths all wrapped up in pun, wordplay, and confusion. They are something like a prose poem or flash fiction or just ruminations on a word that only lasts a sentence or two.

I am happy these translations have found a home in TLR, especially since the theme of this issue is “Encyclopedia Britannica.” These pieces are almost like short entries in a reference book, new definitions for words and thoughts.

Krasnyashykh lives and works in Ukraine but writes in Russian, a member of the Russian-speaking literary community in Kharkov. His book of short stories, The Park of Culture and Relaxation, was published in 2008 and short-listed for the prestigious Andrei Bely Prize. I am working on translating stories from that collection, after initially discovering him while studying under Idra Novey and Matvei Yankelevich at Columbia University’s literary translation program.

I will be doing a reading with TLR contributors Cindy Cruz, Martha Witt, and Geoffrey Nutter on August 2nd at Unnameable Books in Brooklyn. NY. More details forthcoming.

The full text of “Machinations of the Genre” is below the fold. His original Russian text can be read online here.

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There are some beautiful books out there. But the ones that leave me cold are the ones where I feel—it’s that postmodern thing—it’s more experimentation with language than it is a deep compassionate falling into another human being’s experience.

Andre Dubus III, via Practicing Writing, via Writer’s Digest.

Saaaame.

“A stone thrown into a silent lake
is—the sound of your name.
The light click of hooves at night
—your name.
Your name at my temple
—shrill click of a cocked gun.”

— Marina Tsvetaeva, from “Poems for Blok, 1,” translated by Ilya Kaminsky and Jean Valentine (via Russian Literature via proustitute)
For translators out there, consider entering the 2012 Marina Tsvetaeva Compass Translation Competition (winner gets $300 and publication).

It is a rigidly controlled book. It came at a time in my life when I’d been in therapy and analysis for years and just beating at the whole thing. I wanted to know what my culpability was. I literally had this fantasy of a pie graph of all the players involved, and this much is your fault, this much is your fault. I wanted that. I wanted to know exactly how bad I should feel. At some point, God bless my analyst, I hit the wall. I realized that all of this cerebral going around and around and around was not only failing to produce the desired effect, but was preventing me from approaching my own history. There was one moment, where I thought, there’s only one thing I can do with this, and that’s to tell the story. I know how it happened.

From a Days of Yore interview with Kathryn Harrison, author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, The Kiss. In the quote above, she’s talking about the process of writing that book, which is about her incestuous relationship with her father. It’s a daring book to say the least. I guess at some point, she had to just tell her story in book form instead of talking around the issue in circles. There is no neat resolution to one’s own past, no solid answers that can wash away a trauma.

The interview was conducted by my friend and former classmate Kassi Underwood, herself a talented writer.

Screen capture of Nick Ripatrazone's essay at The Millions

Nick Ripatrazone writes “On Getting Paid: Literary Magazines and Remuneration” over at The Millions. He doesn’t say very many new things about making a living as a writer, or about the struggles of a literary magazines and a larger system that is not financially sustainable, but there were a few choice quotes, especially in the comments. Allow me to be your summarizer and highlight what was awesome, in case you didn’t get a chance to read:

  • David Lynn (of The Kenyon Review): “Many authors today hold academic positions… promotion in the academy often depends on generating vitae with lists of publications that otherwise have earned them little beyond the price of a meal or two…”
  • From “John” in the comments: “Only on rare occasions do my individual poems ‘make’ money, and when they do, it’s usually $30-$60 that I receive 3-6 months after publication. In other words, it has little impact on my lifestyle, but a huge one on my confidence…One payment of $30 could help offset costs of printing paper, envelopes, and stamps. An additional $30 would buy me a printer ink cartridge. It sounds frivolous but these expenses add up. If 2-5 poems published a year brought in on the average of $50 a piece, I would probably use that money to fund book contest fees (which are high), thus the money would be recirculated within the industry…”
  • Comment from Roxane Gay (awesome contributor to HTMLGIANT, among other things): “Part of the problem is saturation. There are 2,800 literary magazines because there are too many people who want to be an editor instead of a member of an editorial team. There are too many people who think, ‘I have a literary vision that must be shared with the world,’ and not enough people who find ways to get involved with existing magazines…Magazines, even small ones, receive 8,000-15,000 or more submissions a year because writers would rather be published than subscribe to those same magazines. We have somehow spawned an environment where we equate publication rather than subscription with participation in literary culture because there are so many magazines and it is so easy to get published.
  • Nick Mamatas: “The comments about editorial imagination are spot on. People can huff all they like that editors do try—but clearly the overwhelming majority of them don’t. That’s why there are endless identical-looking print journals out there, often named _____ Review. The few exceptions: McSweeney’s, Black Clock, etc. look different, feel different, and have a different quality of reading experience. And they likely are more financially stable.

I’m most interested in the book which is completely un-sellable on the basis of a proposal or contract. One of the reasons so many nonfiction books are so boring is because what they’ve done, very diligently, is fulfill the terms of their proposals—they’ve written up their proposal, long-form, and often what this does is then set up a sort of serial deal, where the whole book can essentially be reduced back to the size of the original proposal! What I really like about this book is that the proposal would be turned down instantly: there’s nothing to propose. Nicholson Baker talks about the way in which the most successful nonfiction books are those that can be boiled down into an argument so that everybody can wade in with an opinion without having to undergo the inconvenience of having to read the book itself. The more you can condense it, the better. Malcolm Gladwell is the supreme exponent of this: Blink—oh yeah, I get it! “Blink.” That’s all you need to know.

Quote from an interview at Guernica.

This sounds a lot like advice I got from my favorite former professor Paul Elie. Elie actually just quit his full-time job as an editor at Farrar Straus and Giroux to finish a book about J.S. Bach. He’d always tell us about authors who would just take their book proposal synopsis and turn that into the prologue or first chapter. Don’t give it all away!, he’d say.

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