9/6/12: At about 85 pages in to this dense, yet riveting history of the waning days of the British Empire (and their colonial escapades in India and T...more9/6/12: At about 85 pages in to this dense, yet riveting history of the waning days of the British Empire (and their colonial escapades in India and Tibet), horrifying pages on the warfare of WW I, and the beginnings of the initial attempts to ascend Everest...(less)
Fredericksburg was a battle that was a resounding defeat for the Union. Rable's book is an excellent, in-depth analysis of the whys and hows of the fa...moreFredericksburg was a battle that was a resounding defeat for the Union. Rable's book is an excellent, in-depth analysis of the whys and hows of the failure.(less)
Paula Bomer is a master of subtle touches, of choosing the precise word or image or idea to capture the difficult emotional truth of her characters. I...morePaula Bomer is a master of subtle touches, of choosing the precise word or image or idea to capture the difficult emotional truth of her characters. In depicting people at the very edge of their known limits, she shows how thin the line can be between civility and hostility, and the yeoman efforts required to preserve one’s own dignity in the face of revealed truth, hard and unsparing.
Her scenarios are often deceptively prosaic: a man confronting the stasis of his marriage and ugly feelings about family and fatherhood; a woman at the moment she realizes a friendship is not what it seems to be…but in those situations, she comes at the reader from startling and unusual angles, and writes with unremitting frankness on these oft-trammeled environs, with a bluntness about unpleasant emotions, revealing the currents hidden, oft unbeknownst to their host, just below the surface.
And in much of her writing, there is that: the insistence to reveal, and the struggle we all face when deciding, for ourselves, for those we love and care for, as she puts it in one of her most moving short stories: “Everyone, yes, everyone, was wrestling with it all, with rage and love, with want and fear, with the lies, with how to appear one way when feeling another. What to show, what to hide.” In her able hands, Paula Bomer makes us want to see, to feel, to recognize ourselves in her struggling, striving, suffering, sometimes transcending characters.(less)
My late mentor, Allen Hoey, read at KGB Bar in January of 2010. I was pleased to be able to introduce him and his work to new readers, sadly, and of c...moreMy late mentor, Allen Hoey, read at KGB Bar in January of 2010. I was pleased to be able to introduce him and his work to new readers, sadly, and of course unbeknownst to anyone, for the last time. This was my spoken introduction:
In “Once Upon a Time at Blanche’s” you’ll hear certain phrases and references repeated. Perhaps at first you’ll think this a flaw of the poet, a lack of imagination, but after experiencing the world contained in these pages and in the bar, you realize that it is Allen Hoey’s astute and telling way of evoking the “same old, same old” of Blanche’s--the oft-repeated stories, the soused score settling, the re-starting of arguments that weren’t worth fighting in the first place. Men taunt and ridicule, then, sometimes with malice, most often not, get put in their place.
But Allen’s accomplishment is to get you to bend in and listen. Long conversations occur where seemingly nothing much happens. Hard details are patiently drawn out, showing how the world these men inhabit--and they are almost all men at Blanche’s, Blanche herself excepted--is dying, with the things they depended upon--work, family, a sense of home and place--irretrievably lost. Thus they wind up sitting next to each other, the warmth of the bar and drink against the coldness of the world outside.
Allen makes a canny decision to have the narrator be somewhat anonymous--although it is made clear who it is--which allows those he meets and listens to at the bar to fully detail their stories, and us to be right there with them.
There’s a terrific tension throughout “Once Upon a Time at Blanche’s,” where the poems on the one hand find the bar, the drinking, the grumpy camaraderie of the place romantic and even necessary in order to have some escape from the doldrums of that very same work, home, family. But in between lines of what could simply be romanticized snapshots of the “drinking life” we get stunningly clear glimpses of our own mortality, of the fragility of existence and the way we try, never completely successfully, to forget, to banish with drink and denial, what we’ve seen, and hard lessons we’ve learned. Allen Hoey’s poetry is a necessary, clear-eyed reminder.(less)
Susan Wheeler read as part of my Visiting Author's Series on 6/3/2005. This is a version of my spoken introduction for her:
I love how Susan Wheeler cr...moreSusan Wheeler read as part of my Visiting Author's Series on 6/3/2005. This is a version of my spoken introduction for her:
I love how Susan Wheeler creates such clear, identifiable, believable voices for the main characters, despite the fact that one of main characters, Acie, is literally larger than life. That the two main characters, Acie & Cindy, could not be more different is one of the main “points” of the story. But if that were all “Record Palace” was: a tale of two opposites--it would be a failure.
Without overbearing their differences, Susan Wheeler reveals her characters slowly, gradually, with the reader coming to know them--especially Cindy--as she slowly comes to know more about herself. There’s such a lovely sense of opening in the story; what, in lesser hands, I think, would be cornily obvious coincidences coming home to roost remain exquisite mysteries here.
And the language!! “The want of a drink, mosquito at my ear!” Just leaving out the “a” in front of “mosquito” moves a simple sentence into a revealed state of mind. How she elegantly captures in his thoughts the disgust Acie feels toward his family; you can see the taciturn shake of his head in paragraph after paragraph. She writes of a simple, city snowstorm scene: “a car rolling down State sounding like someone slowly ripping velvet.” And as a reader, you say “Exactly.”
When Cindy, coming down from a drunk, goes to a jazz club with Acie, Susan Wheeler writes “I was alert now, my high cleared, killed by cold, pretzels with the chasers. And then: I, fine.” Again--perfect. And there are dozens of other examples, all testament to Susan’s background as a poet--the economy of language, the explosiveness of the description…all contributing to making “Record Palace” an effortless read.
“Record Palace” is a book where at the end the temptation is to go back and start over--like with the great jazz records referenced throughout--you want to give it another spin, to recapture the initial, magical experience.(less)
Vijay Seshadri read as part of my Visiting Author's Series on 9/9/2005. This is a version of my spoken introduction for him:
In “The Long Meadow,” many...moreVijay Seshadri read as part of my Visiting Author's Series on 9/9/2005. This is a version of my spoken introduction for him:
In “The Long Meadow,” many of Vijay Seshadri’s poems take simple ideas or observations, and stretch them backward and forward seemingly beyond what should be their breaking point. But, because of Vijay’s strong guiding hand, he manages to give us regular, powerful shocks--of recognition of ourselves in things, and recognition of the essence of the things themselves, never before considered.
A poem that begins with a furrow in a hill gets linked not only to its physical beginnings as “a notch in a sheer cliff,” but also eventually to the very fact of human existence, all the while never unnecessarily calling attention to the momentousness of the poem; it sneaks up on you, and takes your breath away.
Vijay writes of moments where great choices hang in the balance; a life may lead one way to hope and possibility, or another to danger or despair. But also, especially in the second section of “The Long Meadow” he reveals a lightness, wit and easy humor, which does not lessen in any way the dramatic power of the poems elsewhere, but reveals the astonishing breadth of the author. His range simply confirms what those who have encountered his poetry already know: In sports parlance, he seems to be able to do it all, and mightily well at that.(less)
Joan read as part of my Visiting Author's Series on 11/2/2007. This is a version of my spoken introduction for her:
The form of Joan Cusack Handler’s “...moreJoan read as part of my Visiting Author's Series on 11/2/2007. This is a version of my spoken introduction for her:
The form of Joan Cusack Handler’s “GlOrious” never distracts; on the contrary, it forces the reader to really concentrate, the effort--and with the force and beauty of the words as they are, it’s not a struggle--amply rewarded. Her lines expand and contract like breath, like how the word “ghost” floats in “Satan Comes In,” reflecting emotion, contain a sense of movement not possibly within standard form, the poem’s lines getting wide or wild. She might leave spaces between words to give a hint of distance between people, between a person’s conception of themselves, of those close to them, or bring everything together, like in the entirety of “Sad, “ or in “Confession,” where in the next to last stanza, she stacks the lines, creating an absolutely tangible sense of speed.
Joan manages to choose the perfect presentation of one word or phrase: the description of her brother’s face as “heartattackred,” all one word, or the repeated visual presentation of the word “kneeling.” In each case, she roots the reader to something familiar, archetypal, without ever losing the specific moment and emotion she is aiming for.
“GlOrious” is also filled with humor, oft presented in raw and cutting language,..unashamed. Joan has a willingness to explore what some would consider “base” cravings, untidy feelings, to not accept the surface of things as their essence, but to risk pain, embarrassment, suffering, to get at the core, the messy splendor of living. This is utterly fearless poetry. Describing the events in many of these poems would intimidate a less brave poet. But she never blinks, no matter how hard moments get. It is not without struggle; the struggle to let in, or let go, to come to honest terms with what really is. It acknowledges the necessity of taking control of your life, while also accepting the reality of how little control we sometimes have.
In the end, “GlOrious” is poetry that truly questions everything, from one’s family, one’s own body and its frailties and glories, God...everything.(less)
Baron read as part of my Visiting Author's Series on 11/2/2007. This is a version of my spoken introduction for him:
Though his eye for telling detail...moreBaron read as part of my Visiting Author's Series on 11/2/2007. This is a version of my spoken introduction for him:
Though his eye for telling detail is always present, Baron Wormser’s poems detail the experience of being, as opposed to merely observing or theorizing. He focuses in on the deceptive nature of things; how what we perceive might not be what is actually there, and how it takes courage and forbearance to accept that fact. And throughout his work is the warning against taking things for granted.
He draws unlikely, un-remarked, yet remarkable links between things, like in “A Quiet Life” where we go from a boiled egg to a persuasive argument for God. Baron’s poems finds the perfect point of exposure and show how nothing is quite random, how everything arrives in its moment at exactly the right time, for good or for ill, whether we fully understand or not.
He also, in poems like the book-length sequence of poems “Carthage,” injects acerbic humor, character assassination, really, the absurdity of the poems never reducing the disgust at the core, the poet’s power to stand back, and judge.
His subtle use of language, like the four gentle alliterations in the first four lines of “Abandoned Asylum, Northhampton, Massachusetts,” along with understated internal rhymes, and his unerring sense of when to let a line breathe, and when to ratchet up the tension. Because of this control, he is able to, in the jazz sense, take the reader “out,” with his language’s beauty, if only to bring them down, on the hard ground of simplicity and straight-forwardness.
Baron Wormser’s poems reckon mortality and loss; giving each their due, but never surrendering to despair or hopelessness.(less)
The late Jack Wiler read as part of my Visiting Author's Series on 11/2/2007. This is a version of my spoken introduction for him:
Jack Wiler’s poems p...moreThe late Jack Wiler read as part of my Visiting Author's Series on 11/2/2007. This is a version of my spoken introduction for him:
Jack Wiler’s poems put us where things are coming apart--lives, logic, the ability to know where one stands not only with the world, but in one’s own skin. Using everyday language, Jack’s poems convey righteous anger and indignation, sharp-edged humor and an almost unbearable longing. In much of his work there’s the exasperation with those who waste the beauty and possibilities presented them, whether in small ways, like not simply acknowledging another’s existence, not noticing beauty in one’s midst, or in a larger sense, as a country, a world, seems to descend into madness around him.
He expresses all this not just with barely-controlled rage, but also with a withering wit that would make a Mencken proud.
There is real intimacy in Jack’s writing, his daring to engage the world, to delve deep into all he encounters, sometimes not happily, not even completely willingly, but in the spirit of “if there’s no good reason to say no…say yes.” Jack’s poems are plain-spoken and direct, but like the lives embodied inside them, never, ever simple. And then the longing: In a poem like “Running the River,” he vividly brings each moment to our senses, better then to feel for ourselves the great reaching out that occurs there, and in the best of his work. Jack Wiler’s poems are efforts to appreciate what we have; in “Spring at Little One’s,” he evokes this finally accepting what is, and the ever-ongoing effort to let go of the unattainable with the beautiful lines:
“...in New Jersey. Stars. Not millions but enough”(less)
(Cat Doty read as part of my Visiting Author's Series at the West Side YMCA on 11/2/2007. This is a version of my spoken introduction for her)
The poem...more(Cat Doty read as part of my Visiting Author's Series at the West Side YMCA on 11/2/2007. This is a version of my spoken introduction for her)
The poems in Cat Doty’s “Momentum” have the ability to communicate hard-earned satisfaction and solace without becoming saccharine, and to generate ache without ever becoming maudlin. She has the ability to connect everyday occurrences to something more singular, more vivid, how an old beater of a car tells the tale of a whole life, or a famous canal the hopes for a future.
The poems are artfully crafted visions of a whole, yet the reader can still relish perfect individual lines and phrases like “On Monday the whole first grade crayolas a farm” Cat uses sound by choosing a word like “wimpled,” or the artful alliteration of “soap slivers curl from the knife like the wake of a wave,” from “The Baby Book.”
There’s surprising absurd humor that comes out of these poems, whether it be thematic, like the icon-altering “Lassie Comes Home,” or in the startlingly unexpected vulgarity that closes out a poem like “Eggs” or the wonderful “Mrs. Vooren’s Calendar” which takes the reader out of reverie, and into the world of unlikely connections.
Cat Doty’s poems are equally able to convey grief and gratitude (the title of one magical piece), by never settling for the easy path of thinking one can ever exist without the other.(less)
(Jessica read as part of my visiting author's series at the Writer's Voice/West Side YMCA, on November 18, 2004. This was my spoken intro)...
It would...more(Jessica read as part of my visiting author's series at the Writer's Voice/West Side YMCA, on November 18, 2004. This was my spoken intro)...
It would be too easy to sum up Jessica Grant’s “Making Light of Tragedy” by referencing its title. Yes, there are stories that use suicide bombing as a punch-line. Yes, characters laugh at the death of many thousands of people--even if they occurred long ago, and were only undertaken by the person a character is dressed as for a party at a Toronto club. Yes, there are stories where pitfalls that undermine characters are sources of humor.
It would be too easy. There is great sadness in this book unrelieved by laughter. There is also great humor in this book, added on to moments of pure joy--where characters find they have arrived at a point they’ve desired; and find themselves as surprised, and uplifted, as we are, with them all the way on their particular, and in some cases, seemingly directionless journeys.
And it is a tribute to Jessica Grant that when her characters arrive at their destinations, it seems as much of a surprise to the characters in many cases, as it may to us, and perhaps, even to the author. These stories emerge, whole, almost seeming to show up on the page as we read them, like a photo slowly revealing itself in the developer.
These stories are filled with cutting, precise wit, astonishing, original imagery--I particularly love some of the seeming throwaway lines, like “The sky on the other side of the ceiling threatened rain,” from “Tuan Vu”--and despite the idiosyncratic nature of many of Jessica Grant’s characters, true one-to-one human connection, over and over again, in situations where connection would seem unlikely, if not impossible. She manages a wonderful, delicate balancing act--making us laugh, and enjoy, while never letting us off the hook. It’s a superb work.
Nota: This was also an event that taught me one of the most valuable lessons I've ever learned.
Because the Y was not really in a position to adequately promote the reading series--or perhaps was not interested at the time--I used an e-mail list (in those pre-Facebook days!), and attendance could be great...or not so great. If an author had a local NYC following, that, combined with the folks who came to the series regularly because it became a quality place to hear an author, would insure a good turnout.
Jessica was reading at Princeton the next night as part of a Canadian Studies program event. Her Canadian publisher found out about my series, and contacted me. I loved the book, so said..."sure!" I did my due diligence, promoted the event...and one person other than me showed.
I was devastated. I really liked Jessica, really liked MLOT, and to have NO ONE turn up...I felt terrible. We went on--as the show must--and Jessica read a couple of stories with the three of us just sitting around a table. There may have been some wine.
I expressed my disappointment to her--in addition to of course thanking her profusely for showing up. When she returned to Canada she wrote:
Safely back in Calgary. Just wanted to thank you for making me feel so welcome and for your enthusiasm about the book. I know you were disappointed about the attendance -- but don't be, at least not on my account. Sometimes you meet one really great reader who gets what your writing's all about, and that reader is worth two hundred. You're that reader. So thank you."
I had never taken that view of a reading, and having her take the time to point this out radically changed how I approached the events I continued to host through early 2008. I read each book. I wrote a personalized introduction--which I'd always done. I let everyone I could know about the event. And then...I let it go. I realized if you do everything within your power to make something "work," and it doesn't...you have to be able to take the good from it, no matter what. Trite, but true, and it's saved me acres of ~agita~ ever since! (less)