Saturday, January 30, 2010

Literature Has Died, Again

I’m so weary of the “fiction is dead,” the ‘poetry is dead” statements. I mean how many times have their deaths been announced? Here's the latest version by Ted Genoway in "Mother Jones." Sure, given the dearth of literary criticism, telling the dross from gold is difficult. Sure, given the plethora of small press publishers, do-it-yourself publishing, online publishing, e-readers and downloadable copy, it feels as though print publishing, whether in literary mags or by traditional publishing houses, is on the wane. But more books are being published than ever, more fiction, more poetry. Moreoever, I live in Israel, so I read a lot online and there is some amazing work being offered through that medium. Think of Narrative, Pedestal, Identity Theory, Stirring, Eclectica, Failbetter, and the list goes on. Most print literary mags are also publishing, at least selectively, online. By the way, The New Republic just launched a really fabulous book review site called “The Book” online. As to the statement in Genoway's article, “Indeed, most American writers seem to have forgotten how to write about big issues—as if giving two shits about the world has gotten crushed under the boot sole of postmodernism.” I also find much of what Tony Hoagland calls “the fear of narrative and the skittery poem (or story)” uninteresting, but I have only to turn to online sources Guernica, Words Without Borders, Poets Against War, Three Percent, International PEN, to find writing that looks behind the belly button to reflect the broader world including politics, the environment, international affairs.

It has always been tough for writers, especially emerging writers, to make a living writing. No one has figured out yet how to make the online model profitable and I’m sure that e-readers are going to push literature price points down further. Of course that’s the same concern raised when Gutenberg made printing pluralistic. Which brings me to the complaint raised in the article (as if I haven’t heard this one before) regarding the explosion of MFA programs—822 in the US alone. Well, all I have to say is, Thank God! Even if 80% of MFA graduates no longer write much at all five years after graduation, they are, I believe, more discerning readers and consume more literature. We certainly can’t rely on primary and even secondary education for that. And think of all the fabulous writers receiving decent paychecks at their expense.

I too mourn the loss of niche bookstores, the decision by many mainstream mags to eliminate fiction and poetry from their pages, the shaky financial situation of publishers, large and small, but I also believe that the technological shift represented by online publishing, printing, the literary communities created, are no less important than was Gutenberg’s printing press. Though the speed of the revolution has accelerated. Even ten years ago, this was not our conversation. I guess I am an optimist. I believe fiction and poetry, good and bad, will continue. As I wrote in my last blog, stories and poetry have the power to save your life. Where else will we turn?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Reason to Read Sinan Antoon

The latest issue of The New Yorker contains a lengthy discussion and review of literature from the Arab speaking parts of the Middle East translated into English. Why do we need to pay attention? As Claudia Roth Pierpont, the author of the piece, writes, “There is insight as well as information in these books. And then, considering the reduced size and the volatility of the world we share, we might recall the essential lesson of a very old Arabic book that everyone knows, “The Thousand and One Nights”—that stories can have the power to save your life.” The ways that people think and work and suffer and fall in love and make enemies and sometimes make revolutions is the stuff of novels (and of poetry), and it is the reason we need these books.

Of the authors mentioned, perhaps the one I am most familiar with is Sinan Antoon. When I was studying at Bennington a couple of years ago, Antoon gave a lecture on translation and read some of his work. As is standard in such settings, he was asked not about the conflicts he knew best—in Iraq and between Iraq and its neighbors—but about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. I was struck by the generousness of his response, not blaming either side, but recognizing the common desire for home and peace.

He writes both fiction and poetry. I have both his short novel, “I’jaam, An Iraqi Rhapsody,” and a book of his poems, “The Baghdad Blues.” In both, his work displays a desire to see behind the closed door of propaganda and dogma, and find the human emotion. Of course there are poems that portray human suffering, but even in those it is the mother, the child, though whose mother, whose child, remains mystery (see the short poem I included below and which is one of the two he reads in the clip above). His writing, particularly I’jaam (FYI, I’jaam denotes the practice of adding dots to letters of the Arabic alphabet to alter meaning), illuminates how we are all drawn into war, unwittingly, the trickery of language, how it can be turned against us even, and, how, it can save us.

When I was torn by war

I took a breath
Immersed in death
And drew a window
On war’s wall
I opened it
For something
I saw another war
And a mother
Weaving a shroud
For the dead man
Still in her womb

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Dark Horses and Poetry

I almost always enjoy John Gallaher’s blog, and on the days I don’t enjoy it, I find it provoking. As in his blog from a couple of days ago, when he seems to imply that all a difficult poet needs is someone to explain it to the rest of us…

And then there’s the strong critic who needs the strong poet to talk about. The great example of that in recent memory is how much Harold Bloom had to do with John Ashbery’s ascendance, and, in so doing, Harold Bloom’s ascendance. Helen Vendler, likewise, was instrumental in the late 80s, early 90s reception or Jorie Graham. And, more recently, I think Stephen Burt has been as helpful as Ron Silliman in the ascendancy of Rae Armantrout. Poets of a certain difficulty, or, as I dislike the word “difficulty” in reference to art, poets of a certain unfamiliarity, need, if they are going to be read by a larger community than the already introduced, someone to herald their presence. (And here’s the rub, of course, as that herald will also be heralding his or her presence . . . which brings up all those questions of intention and motivation that any such herald instantly gets smeared with.)

Ron Padgett, for example, could be more popular than Kay Ryan, if only there was someone to wave his work in front of the large audience, and point to it, and say a few introductory remarks.

If history serves me correctly, Ashbery didn’t need anyone to herald his presence. He got it beginning with his first book of poems "Some Trees" (for which he won the Yale Younger Series Award). I’m not so sure about the Vendler/Graham symbiosis Gallaher talks about though do think that Rae Armantrout didn’t need the applause of Stephen Burt to be read. Meanwhile, Kay Ryan’s work took yeaaaaaaars to receive any sort of wide attention and I wouldn’t categorize her poems as “difficult.” For a long time, Ron Padget WAS more popular than Kay Ryan if readership is any metric. I think these are just talented poets, some of which took a long time to reach a wide audience. While I think critics can ignite interest in particular poets, and picking a dark horse in a big race can win a bit of cash, in the long run, winning races still depends on the character and speed of the horse. I'm just saying...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

And the Winner IS.....


Yes, Philip Gross won the T.S. Eliot Prize, the UK’s most lucrative prize for poetry, for his book "The Water Table," beating out two past winners and, the only American on the 10-poet shortlist, Sharon Olds.

All the reports I’ve read comment on his veritable anonymity though he is the author of six (6!) books of poetry as well as ten (10!) novels for young adults. Though I do own one of his books, I admit I am not a close follower. Doesn’t Mr. Gross look a bit like one of those garden gnomes? But then I say that about a lot of middle-aged English men. I think it’s the teeth.

But, back to Gross, here's a sample of his work. It's not from his latest book, but one I like.

The Key to the Kingdom

It's not exile, homes and families behind
us, where we meet. It happens anywhere,
now: a stateless
state of no name, quietly seceding
from the crumbling empires round us,

without stamps or Eurovision entries.
No-one does it with a rough guide in a week.
You inhabit it
or nothing. Like this: in a pavement cafe
you blink and you seem to surprise them,

the crowd, all its separate faces at once,
coming out of solution like crystals,
like a rush of starlings
or the breeze that lifts the canvas awning
now and dents your cappuccino froth

with a crisp little sound. And that's it:
between breaths, just between you and me
as if; yes,
QED. You are received. This is
the freedom of the city, and the key

to the kingdom, and its borders ripple
outwards like a frill of breaking wave
onto flat sand,
a wavering line already fading leaving
spume-flecks high and dry,

a prickling on your palm; you're five
years old, looking up at the whole sea,
will you laugh or cry?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Quick Look at the T.S. Eliot Contenders

In case you were looking for short reviews of the ten books shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize, The London TimesOnline just released brief synopses…The shortlist includes the following:

The Sun-fish by Eiléan Ní Chuilleánain
Continental Shelf by Fred D'Aguiar
Over by Jane Draycott
The Water Table by Philip Gross
Through the Square Window by Sinéad Morrissey
One Secret Thing by Sharon Olds
Weeds & Wild Flowers by Alice Oswald
A Scattering by Christopher Reid
The Burning of the Books and Other Poems by George Szirtes
West End Final by Hugo Williams

Interesting mix of Brit, Irish, American writers including transplants from Budapest and Guyana. Only one American on the list—Sharon Olds. I was just a bit relieved to see that Mark Doty (a perennial favorite for this prize and who won in 1995 with his, I think, best book "My Alexandria") was not on the list.

Monday, January 11, 2010

More Introverted Than We Knew!

The online site Three Percent, launched in 2007 with a focus on international literature and affiliated with the small press publisher Open Letter, maintains a database of books published (or distributed) in the US that are translations from other languages. If you remember I blogged a bit about Open Letter and Three Percent earlier this month…anyway.

The site named itself after the oft-cited statistic that 3% of books published in the US are in translation (which as we all agree is a pretty small number). If their database is as comprehensive as they say, well, 3% should be something US readership can only aspire to. Book industry tracker Bowker states that in 2008, 47,514 new (i.e., not reprints) works of fiction and another 10,538 works of poetry were published in the US. Three Percent notes only 280 newly-translated works of fiction and 82 newly-translated works of poetry published OR distributed in the US for the same year. This leads to the abysmal translation statistics of .59% and .78%, respectively. Less than 1%! Bowker hasn’t released 2009 stats, but Three Percent’s database only lists 283 works of fiction and another 65 works of poetry in translation for 2009, so, unless publishing experienced a tsunami-size drop in numbers, it’s hard to see how the stats changed much.

Perhaps I’m not comparing equally weighed apples to apples, but it does seem a really small number. I mean 65 poetry books for an entire year—that’s just a little over one a week!

And, not surprisingly, most translations are from Europe with France, Italy, Spain, and Germany dominating. I was kind of surprised to see so few translations from Russian, but then again, I’m hard pressed to think of a recent translation of new work (Valzhyna Mort is Belarussian!) I know, I know, does Turkey belong with the Middle East?

In case you were wondering the most prolific publishers of translation (at least in 2009) according to Three Percent are as follows (the numbers and percentages are of the total, fiction and poetry, translations for 2009):

Dalkey Archive   19   5.46%
New Directions   13   3.74%
American University at Cairo   11   3.16%
Europa Editions   11   3.16%
HarperCollins   10   2.87%
Green Integer   9   2.59%
Penguin   9   2.59%
Bitter Lemon   8   2.30%
Open Letter   8   2.30%
White Pine   8   2.30%
Archipelago   7   2.01%
Knopf   7   2.01%
Northwestern University Press   7   2.01%
Pushkin Press   7   2.01%
Aflame Books   6   1.72%
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt   6   1.72%

I really feel most of these publishers are doing a service. God knows US readers just don’t have a big appetite for ‘foreign’ literature. And big-house publishing is, for the most part, profit driven (are there still profits in publishing anything but Sarah Palin and Dan Brown?). I guess we should be thankful that the big publishing houses do manage to squeeze out a few translations given the miniscule chance that any will be bestsellers let alone profitable (OK, brand names like Orhan Pamuk and Roberto Bolano excluded). Not surprisingly, the biggest publishers of translated fiction and poetry are non-profit and small presses, which don't have to answer to shareholders.

Anyway, as an addendum to my 2010 reading list, I’m going to add some recent poetry translations. I need to do a bit of research, but at least a couple by poets who are still among us, put out by one of these small presses, and, definitely a couple by poets of whom I’ve never heard.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Yay for Incestuous Poetry

This from Tim Green's blog (one of the editors of the lit magazine Rattle) regarding the small circular world of poetry:

This is the disconnect. Virtually all readers of poetry are writers of poetry themselves. Poetry isn’t a passive interest, it’s an active passion. Rattle keeps a large database of everyone we’ve ever had contact with. There are tens of thousands of entries in the database, and 80% of them also have the label “rejected.” We have 3,000 subscribers, and almost every one of them has submitted their work at one time or another. When I find a reader of poetry — any poetry, not just Rattle – who doesn’t try to write it themselves, I want to run up and shake their hand, then reach in and examine their psyche. It’s a rare species.

Well then, thank goodness for writing workshops, craft classes, MFA programs…without them how would we churn out more writers (aka readers) of poetry? I am weary of the endless moaning about the volume of bad poetry being written by the thousands of poet-wanna-bes that wend their way through the plethora of such programs. As though the sheer volume of poetry being written, submitted, published, read is indicative of some loss of quality. And anyway, so what? Bring ‘em on. Writing bad poetry is so much more preferable than no poetry at all. And, if out of the pile of coal, a few diamonds are pressed, well, how wonderful. Based on historical precedent, we probably won’t know the good from the bad from the really ugly for a long time.

I’ll also add that writing poetry makes, I think, one a better reader, which, I think, makes one a better writer. So I want till the end of that really long time, more people writing poetry, reading poetry, submitting poetry, posting poetry on their blogs, starting poetry magazines in their living rooms. Perhaps we’ll all end up just sending it to each other, but at least the circle feels like it’s getting a bit larger.

However, in the defense of poetry readers, I do know a few that actually enjoy poetry without writing it. All of them though have other very creative outlets—they paint, photograph, write in other genres, build intricate multi-level play houses for their dog,…Granted, there aren’t a lot of them, but perhaps being creative lends itself to appreciation of any of the arts. Certainly, I’ve yet to meet a Wall Street banker (and I know a lot of them) that knows Yeats from Keats. Then again, maybe those so-called rare species do write poetry, they just don’t tell.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Reading Books I Hate for 2010

I hate New Year Resolutions. How many do we actually keep? According to a 3,000-person survey by Brit psychologist Richard Wiseman, 88% of all resolutions end in failure. And who, I ask you, needs more reason to feel guilty? Not me. So, forget about running a marathon, giving up my secret stash of Kellogg Poptarts, calling my brother more than once a month, I am taking up just one resolution for 2010: I’m going to read a book I think I’ll hate (or that I’m afraid of) in 2010. In this I’m following Laura Winter, who writes in

We all have our little biases, and far be it from me to suggest that people force themselves to read books they don't like, but sometimes that's all these preferences are -- prejudices. Getting out of your rut can lead to unexpected and exhilarating rewards. I once had "ironclad" rules against novels about stage magicians or rabbis in Prague (you'd be surprised how many of these there are), but if I'd stuck to that, I'd have missed one of my favorite books from the 2000s, Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay."

Who can argue with that? And even though I consider myself a lover of literature, I admit an aversion of some genres. Included in my list is any novel that takes place in the American West (I couldn’t even watch “Lonesome Dove,” much less read it), memoirs longer than an essay, German novelists (OK, I lived in Munich for two years and perhaps I just had enough of Germany), and reading, all the way through, some of the great epic poetry. I did read Dante’s "The Inferno" last year. Until then, I admit my reading was basically a case of Canto I and random sampling. I think I’m a little bit afraid of those ancient epics even in modern day vernacular, but the "The Inferno” was fabulous and I feel a better person for reading it.

But, bad habits are hard to break--and they're impossible to break if we try to break them all at once. So, I’m not adding Larry McMurtry or Jack Schaefer to my reading list (and for those of you who don’t know who these guys are, well, according to some polls, they are the top novelists of our great mythological ‘West’) and I just don’t see myself suddenly interested in most people’s true life stories. Fiction is usually so much better!

However, I am going to try and read two novels by German writers (perhaps Thomas Mann and our latest Nobel winner Herta Muller). I am also going to read, not skim, not read critiques, and definitely not (just) listen to on audiobook, “The Aeneid,” Robert Fagles translation. Anyway, after "The Inferno,” I just want more Virgil. It doesn’t seem a lot and certainly easier than giving up Strawberry Frosted Poptarts.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Jetlag, Global Literature, and Pamuk at Midnight

Suffering from jet lag, which is the usual punishment for those trying to live across multiple time zones, I spent some time listening to the always-fabulous (though sometimes too ingratiating) Michael Silverblatt and his interviews of also always-fabulous writers on KCRW’s Bookworm. A two part interview of Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel Prize winner in literature, is well worth ceding a bit of sleep. And sorry, but I had to include these pictures of Pamuk--he is adorable.

Their conversation used Pamuk’s most recent novel (The Museum of Innocence) as a starting point to discuss the problem of national versus global literatures. Reacting to last year’s comments by one of the Nobel panel that the US “does not have a global literature worthy of winning the Nobel Prize,” Silverblatt said that perhaps it is because in the writings of US authors such as Don Delillo (e.g., "White Noise"), “the city has become a place full of images and slogans rather than people,” implying that a lack of specificity is part of the problem. I was confused by his statement as it seemed to run counter to the complaint that US literature is too inward looking. Pamuk disagreed, however, saying that “the human heart is the same everywhere,” and that “American literature is not so different than other literatures; it captures the essence of American life.” Though I'm not sure this was an endorsement given Silverblatt's characterization. They did agree that novels (and I suggest poems) are ‘museums of everyday life’ and ‘handbooks to a life that is and was.’
Anyway, Pamuk also said that to consider your audience, whether local or global, is to “poison the work.” Do the work. Ignore the audience as best one can, especially those hailing from Sweden. Anyway, I can only ask myself as I type this blog and my poems in the middle of another Israeli night, what audience are they talking about?