Most Anticipated Small Press Books of 2016!

Few exceptions aside, the most compelling, challenging, absorbing literary art is being produced by small presses and their respective writers. I asked a number of writers, editors, and publishers to send me a list of small press books to look out for in 2016. Below you’ll find my own list, which is informed by Kate Angus, John Cayley, Lauren Cerand, Samuel R. Delany, Rikki Ducornet, Andrew Ervin, Lily Hoang, Sean Lovelace, Scott McClanahan, Hubert O’Hearn, Jane Unrue, and Curtis White.

Below you’ll also find lists from Jeff Bursey, Tobias Carroll, Gabino Iglesias, Janice Lee, Dawn Raffel, Nick Francis Potter, John Reed, Adam Robinson, Michael Seidlinger, Terese Svoboda, Jason Teal, Angela Woodward, and Jacob Wren. All the abovementioned people are small press heroes and great writers in their own right. My thanks to all of them.

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How I Wrote Certain of My Books

[In which I elaborate on an earlier post, “Slow Writing?“]

In thinking about my earlier contention that writing ought to be slow, I decided to examine my own process. Specifically, I wondered if I, a man with two books coming out this year, was living up to my own lofty standards. I thus constructed a mental timeline for one of those books, Critique of Pure Reason, out this fall from Noemi Press.

Critique is a collection of essays and fictions, and so already has the patchwork frame of an occasional book built into it. But I had the concept of it in mind at least since 2009, when I gave my Master’s thesis that title after thinking (at absurd length) about what to call the heterogeneity that was to be contained therein. (It should be noted that, of the seven stories in that thesis, only three will appear in the book, and one of them has been completely overhauled. The rest, it transpires, were not meant for posterity of a more public kind.)

The oldest story in the book, “The Behavior of Pidgeons,” was begun in 2006. I won’t bore you with “VH1 Storytellers”-type information here, just the (boring) facts. It took me another year to get it into shape. I began another story, “Play,” around the same time, but it was put aside while I was in grad school, and didn’t get finished until two years later, a sort of book-end for that experience. While I was in grad school, I began two other stories from the book, but neither were “finished” at the time of my graduation. 2009 was a relatively productive year for me — I finished “Play” and one of the stories I had started in school, I pushed forward with a third, and I started and finished a fourth. In 2010, I wrote four of the remaining stories in the collection, start to finish, and started another two. But last year was the worldbeater. I finished those last two, finally finished overhauling the one from school that had been languishing, and wrote four more, start to finish. But I had an advantage I hadn’t had before: a project. I was thinking about this loose shape or constellation of creative work as a book, and seeing for the first time its bounds and its gaps. With a proper map, I could explore the remainder of the territory, free from worries of unprofitably covering the same ground or taking the long way from point to point.

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Reading Caponegro’s The Complexities of Intimacy: “The Son’s Burden”

This 113-page novella is the centerpiece of Caponegro’s book of stories. As in the first stories (articles here, here and here), it again presents a family, but a family fragmented by misconceptions and hatred. After a prelude, most of the work takes place on New Year’s Eve and gives off the air of Long Day’s Journey into Night.

The story is narrated by the son, Thomas Edward Smalldridge, a toiling inventor. His father is a bullying railroad worker who has long tormented his son and daughter (Eleanor) by making them learn and recite obscure facts about inventors, inventor’s birth dates, their patents and patent dates. At some point early on the father’s harpist wife went to live in the attic of the house, never coming down to the family except for New Year’s–the day when Thomas is to reveal his new invention. But Thomas’s inventions never satisfy his father because they aren’t practical enough and he, along with Eleanor, seemingly insult him every chance they get. Thomas, meanwhile, has an attachment to his mother–he grieves her and her harp, which she held against her womb and played when he was inside her, as well as when she breastfed him. On this night as well, Thomas has brought Cecilia, his finance, to meet the family and will ask his father to give him money to buy a wedding ring–a request denied. Thomas introduces the characters and story this way in the fourth paragraph:
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Reading Caponegro’s The Complexities of Intimacy: “The Father’s Blessing”

“The Father’s Blessing” is the longest story in The Complexities of Intimacy so far, and it’s a major comedic turn, albeit a dark one. Whereas the first two stories are told from the point of view of a daughter and a mother, respectively, the third (told from the perspective of a priest, an unreliable narrator who wreaks all kinds of psychological mayhem) might be considered a kind of fracturing of the nuclear family, one of the collection’s primary themes, if not a theme, generally, in Caponegro’s work. Caponegro was wise to change it from its original title: “The Priest’s Tale.” This might be a stretch, but his name, Faraday, suggests “faraway” to my eyes and ears, and it also suggests that he’s “far from a day,” that is, the current time in which the story is set, his sometimes rather stiff language and antiquated ideas underscoring his temporal displacement. Being “far from a day” also suggests that he may be closer to night, that is, darker things, making him more menacing than he might at first appear. Speaking of displacement, I was surprised upon reading about the Polaroid photograph (51), since I had been thinking that the story was set in much earlier times, particularly because of the priest’s description of how “The road to the rectory is seldom plowed in winter, and in spring the potholes impede smooth travel. When it rains, the roads turn almost instantly to clay, so that only in a skilled driver’s hands and at high speeds can they be traversed successfully” (44). These things, of course, can be true, even now, but this description, in tandem with the priest’s old-fashioned rhetoric transported me back in time.

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Reading Caponegro: “The Mother’s Mirror”

The more I delve into Caponegro’s art, the more I see an anthropologist at work–a Joycean scientist who curls bright, unexpected words (like “obnubilating”) around common and uncommon questions of heritage, soul and civilization. Anthropologist but also philosopher–a Plato with the vocabulary of Keats. Consider this sentence of “The Mother’s Mirror,” a story of a family, but more an investigation into how the family keeps itself apart (written in first person plural, an incredibly apt tense for Caponegro’s investigation):

Perhaps we keep our disappointment to ourself or perhaps we voice it, and once articulated, it is all too seductive to make a ritual of the words, as if they were beads of a rosary and we gathered by each repetition indulgences instead of alienation. (32)

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Reading Caponegro: “The Daughter’s Lamentation”

Lamentation in Art: Giotto's "Lamentation over Jesus" 1305-6

The first story in Mary Caponegro’s book we are reading for February is “The Daughter’s Lamentation.” Caponegro follows the word to its root, as this “story” is more lamentation; that is a song, poem or piece of music that laments–expresses grief or regret.

The daughter, unnamed, is a women who has returned to her family house on the largest of the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York. She is the only “loyal sibling” to her father, a widower and architect of some renown. The woman spends a good part of the story recounting her childhood: her sad and weary mother, as well as the pedantic father who took the family all over the world to look at architectural wonders, including Stonehenge, the Pyramids and the Eiffel Tower. Early on she says, “It is customary, is it not, in times of loss or instability, to cultivate an intimacy with memories?” (12)  But there is a tint she cannot take from these memories and  Caponegro subtly builds a menace into the story. Throughout she also recollects her early history as a ballerina and soon images from that past pop up: “…one is always leaping up from or into the arms of a man who sex is trapped in a stocking, like the squeezed face of a thief.” (15) Something else is going on as the story seesaws between paragraphs about the now quiet and decaying house on the lake the father built (and his loneliness in old age as he roosts there) and a childhood with a man part bully and part something much more terrifying.

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