A David Bowie of Literature?

Is there a David Bowie of literature?—such an asinine question, as dumb as asking, “Is there a Virginia Woolf of music?”—arguing against it arguably as asinine as answering it at all, even on its own terms, which is to say, which “David Bowie”? which “literature”?; not to mention the problem of even locating a “there” with any kind of certainty, and of establishing what and/or where or whatever “Is” in this case is.

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Writing On It All: Governors Island, June 2013

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Alex Chasin, who has been featured a few times as a guest contributor at Big Other, is spearheading a site-specific collaborative writing project at Governors Island called Writing On It All.

It begins this month and it looks unusually good–so sign up for a session, donate, and/or spread the word!

In a series of seven sessions, invited artists and writers, along with interested members of the public, collaborate in writing on the interior of an out-of-use house on Governors Island. Writing On It All enacts the physical as well as social nature of writing, with a materialist twist on contemporary conceptual art practice. Just as writers are embodied, so do we write with concrete tools, in and from particular locations with particular histories and functions. Mindful of this materiality, Writing On It All takes place in an early 20th-Century house that used to serve as senior officer housing when Governors Island was a military base.

Writing On It All puts these ideas and this history into play with a number of poets and visual thinkers, a graffiti artist, and a movement improviser, who will facilitate sessions designed to invite different forms of engagement with the empty old house, from listening to dancing to a range of collaborative writing activities. The project foregrounds process over product, which means that we don’t know quite what to expect, and that our collective focus is on acts of writing rather than on the texts we produce – nevertheless, the house will be available for viewing after each session. Ultimately, the texts themselves are ephemeral; they will be painted over, rinsed or sanded off, and the house restored to its original condition, at the beginning of July.

EVENTS

June 15 – Kundiman Poets – Writing Race & Belonging: A Live Monument
June 16 – Al Diaz – WET PAINT PROJECT 2011-2013
June 22 – Wendy S. Walters – Out of Regiment, a Project in Personal Mapping
June 23 – Carla Gannis and Justin Petropolous – legend / legend
June 23 – Jovanina Pagano and Rachel Levitsky – Against the Wall: Migration / Habitation / Erasing / Tracing
June 29 – Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture
June 30 – Anne Carson, Robert Currie, and Ébauche

Books lost between California and England. (Also on Head-On, Birol Ünel, blood, Pierre Loti, Lea Salonga, appendicitis in Paris, flirtations, transoceanic accents, impossible eulogies, Patroclus and Achilles, lost things, holes, giving yourself up.)

Nearly two years ago, when I moved to England from California, I had a box of books shipped over from California to England. The box was full of books, some of which were my most beloved books, and some of which were books I needed to finish the novel I was writing. At the same time, there was a Royal Mail strike going on. The box of books never arrived.

Now I don’t live in that London flat anymore. I don’t know if those books will ever find their way to me. I desperately hope the striking workers opened the box up and read the books. Took the books for themselves. I hope they found something in them. Fell in love with them. With the life in them.

Have you ever lost books like that? These are the ones I lost.

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Contemporary Verse Novels: Carson, Saterstrom, Conrad, the Roubauds, Boully, and Ruefle

What is a beginning? What is an ending? What makes a particular grouping of words become a poem or a story or a fiction or a non-fiction? And do these labels, these distinctions, even matter?

For anyone who does not know, I’ve been reading and thinking about books that may or may not fit into the category of Contemporary Verse Novels. In attempting to define “contemporary verse novel,” I turned to several presses, books, and authors that I wanted to study and better understand.

 

Contemporary Verse Novel

vs.

Novel in Verse (vs. Novel vs. Poetry)

I first looked at Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution, and C. A. Conrad’s The Book of Frank. In grouping together these three books, I examined the role of family as both familiar and unfamiliar to readers. I spent some time discussing the mother/son relationship in Autobiography, the abusive father in Pink, and the strange mother who keeps jars of fetuses in Frank. In better understanding the families, readers also gain further entrance into the lives and minds of the protagonists. Whether fiction or non-fiction, poetry or short story collection, family is a solid theme that many authors write about.

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Contemporary Verse Novels and Anne Carson’s AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF RED, Selah Saterstrom’s THE PINK INSTITUTION, and C. A. Conrad’s THE BOOK OF FRANK

I’ve been reading and comparing Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution, and C. A. Conrad’s The Book of Frank. What these three books have in common (besides being among my top favorites) is that they offer, through short, fragmented sections, isolated snapshots of a family. It isn’t until the reader finishes the book (or perhaps we could call it an album) that s/he gains an overall sense of what these families are and how they operate. Additionally, these books are all verse novels; they deliver the pleasures of reading a novel while also paying an incredible amount of attention to sentences, lines, and syntax. There is as much to learn from these books’ white space (what’s left untold) as there is from the stories they do reveal.

For this post, I’m interested in the idea of family. All three books provide narrative from or about the child or children protagonist. It is the family that the child struggles against. For instance, Autobiography of Red provides this snapshot of little Geryon and his mother:

“Every second Tuesday in winter Geryon’s father and brother went to hockey practice. / Geryon and his mother had supper alone. / They grinned at each other as night climbed ashore. Turned on all the lights / even in rooms they weren’t using. / Geryon’s mother made their favorite meal, cling peaches from the can and toast / cut into fingers for dipping. / Lots of butter on the toast so a little oil slick floats out on top of the peach juice. / They took supper trays into the living room. / Geryon’s mother sat on the rug with magazines, cigarettes, and telephone. / Geryon worked beside her under the lamp. / He was gluing a cigarette to a tomato. [. . .] / He had ripped up some pieces of crispy paper he found in her purse to use for hair / and was gluing these to the top of the tomato. [. . . ] / She put her hand on top of his small luminous skull as she studied the tomato. / And bending she kissed him once on each eye / then picked up her bowl of peaches from the tray and handed Geryon his. / Maybe next time you could / use a one-dollar bill instead of a ten for the hair, she said as they began to eat.”

What I love about this passage is we learn so much about Geryon, his creativity, his preoccupations while his mother is on the  phone. But we also learn about his mother. She doesn’t get mad, she encourages his little project, and it’s clear she loves and appreciates him. This is how, later, we understand why Geryon is so attached to her. And I love that so much about these characters is so clearly portrayed in such small sections (or chapters).

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Over Forty Writers Over Forty to Watch

Writing the title of this post actually felt very silly; it seems such an arbitrary way of gathering a list of writers to look out for. What could be sillier than singling out writers in this way, according to their age? Surely, there are more worthy criteria. Well, there is an answer to what could be sillier than singling out over forty writers over forty to watch, namely, singling twenty writers under forty to watch, especially largely mainstream writers writing, for the most part, conventional and redundant fiction. And the New Yorker has done just that. But this isn’t surprising. Theirs is an idea once again institutionalizing, reinforcing our decayed culture’s obsession with youth, not to mention its eyes wide shut wallowing in mediocrity. So, not only have they missed, for the most part, who are the best fiction writers under forty to watch, but, with their unapologetic valorization of youth, they missed entirely. The following writers (and I include poets, essayists, and theorists among them) are writers who have consistently written great work. I anticipate great things from each of them in the years and years to come. With full awareness of how a corrective sometimes ironically and paradoxically legitimizes what it seeks to correct, here, in the order in which I thought of them, are over forty writers over forty whose work I will be busy watching.

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