27 March 2010

Guest Blogger: Bradley Wonder on Metafiction

Bradley Wonder writes fiction and creative nonfiction, and he's currently dabbling in metafiction. He also reads, and he edits 5x5 literary magazine. Currently, he lives in Minneapolis where he rides his bike daily and is about to start training for his first marathon. Until any of these things start earning him money, he'll continue to work at your local grocery store.

My first experience with metafiction was Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five…and that book made my top ten list, where it remains. Don’t ask me to give it a specific number; I probably have twenty or so books on my top ten list, and I refuse to put them into any order.

Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter Night a Traveler also made the list when I read it a few years later. Way more meta, and more fiction as well. Or less nonfiction.

It turns out that I love metafiction. It can incite so many questions: Who’s telling the story? Are we, at any point, seeing the author, or is it simply the narrator? Or a fictional author, an author function?

I think when I read Slaughter-House Five, I felt that Vonnegut was coming outside of the fictional world, breaking the rules in order to speak to me. “Let’s cut the bullshit for a second,” he seemed to say, “This part is serious.”

But that was before I earned my degree in Creative Writing. The degree that taught me how to read and write as a professional but hasn’t helped me get out of working for various grocery stores.

Now I question things when I read. And when I watch. Adaptation is a great metafictional film. Metafilmic I suppose, but also metafictional. Charlie Kaufman writes himself into the film, and then he comments, in the film, about how he wrote himself into the film. We see Nicholas Cage as Charlie Kaufman typing away furiously, then throwing the paper away and starting over. He’s overweight, losing his hair, and he has a twin brother. A quick Google search will reveal that Kaufman is a skinny guy with a thick jewfro. And he doesn’t have a twin. Do we continue to believe that his real life writing practice in any way resembles Cage’s depiction? Or is it all fiction?

That’s the difference between film and literature: it’s much easier to Google it out and get to…well, get near the bottom of things.

There are many types of metafiction. In one type the author inserts him/herself into the story; in another, the author inserts a fictional version of him/herself. So how can we tell the difference? Most likely, we can’t. But that isn’t the point anyway.

What is the point of metafiction? Hack writers might use metafiction to explain the story when the more traditional progression of plot and character development are too difficult for them. I’m not going to be a downer and start listing books that I dislike, but anyone who’s taken a writing course has heard the mantra Show, Don’t Tell.

Metafiction tells. So why do I still love it? Because a writer is always telling something. That’s what words are for. Only visual arts can actually show. So when we say Show, Don’t Tell, we mean, figure out what the story is about, then figure out what you can tell the reader in order for them to envision a picture of the essence of the story.

If a metafictional writer is telling you about a fictional character: Tina has red hair. In my mind she has red hair because my first wife had red hair. Red like the fire when she burnt our doublewide to the ground. But Tina would have made it out alive. There are certain things here that the writer is telling you in order to show you something else.

I guess there are two main things that draw me to metafiction: one is how it seems that the author is speaking directly to me. It’s like going to see the author speak, except I’m still in my own home, so the author isn’t speaking to a crowd, just to me. The other is how simple it appears on the surface, but how complex it really is. For me, when a book can be enjoyed either as light reading or heavy reading, that’s a great book.

22 March 2010

Poems that Pack a Punch: Steve Scafidi and Robert Wrigley

Once in a while, poetry sucker punches me in the stomach. It reminds me just how visceral and rangy it can be. Poetry can make me laugh or bend my lips into a wry smile. I find myself thinking about the sounds of poems and the imagery, but a poem doesn’t often send a shiver across the back of my neck.

Sometimes a poem comes along and makes me realize that poetry still has a few quick kicks. They make me realize that language is still alive and that a good poem can be about almost anything. Two poems that still leave bite marks are Steve Scafidi’s “To Whoever Set My Truck on Fire,” and Robert Wrigley’s “Horseflies.”

I first heard Scafidi’s poem on the From the Fishhouse web-site. If I remember it correctly, the poet was recording the poem in his henhouse at night because he had a small child and that was the only quiet place he could find. The recording was punctuated by the occasional rolling grumble of a sleepy chicken. Hens or not, the poem was amazing. Here is the poet reading his poem (not in a henhouse): http://www.fishousepoems.org/archives/steve_scafidi/to_whoever_set_my_truck_on_fire_live.shtml

Wrigley’s poem is frankly, disgusting. Although there is a story being told, I was so overwhelmed by the sensations that the poem transmitted I had to rub my face while hearing it. A collective shudder ran through the audience when Wrigley read it at the Centrum Writers Conference in July 2009. Beyond the subject matter, the use of sound and metaphor are superb. If you want the “car-wreck-you-can’t-look-away-from” experience, you can listen to it here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/journal/audioitem.html?id=452

It is my hope that each of you has a poem or passage of prose that awakens language for you. Share them with your friends. Cherish the stabbing awareness they bring.

16 March 2010

Book Notes on Loving Mountains Loving Men by Jeff Mann

Paperback, 248 pages
From Ohio University Press
November 2005
ISBN: 9780821416501

What is queer culture? Is it Pride parades with the flotilla of Dykes on Bikes, drag queens, leather daddies and dance music? Is queer culture the collective body of bars, organizations, events and arts in large metropolitan centers? Queer is most often hitched to an urban environment, but reading Jeff Mann’s Loving Mountains, Loving Men calls that assumption into question.

The section, “Not Enough,” begins by reminding readers there are gays and lesbians everywhere:

“…as we pass through the hamlet of Ballard I will joke, ‘I hear tell a queer lives here.’ I say this because a friend of mine once corresponded via e-mail with a gay man who lived in Ballard, a lonely and closeted man looking for love on the Internet.”

Mann’s own life is a contrast to the queer he jokes about although their backgrounds are most likely similar. Raised in rural, religious Appalachia, Mann comes to terms with a sexuality that leaves him at odds with nearly everything about him. While the man in Ballard remains closeted, Mann makes a difficult journey toward openness and honesty.

Loving Mountains, Loving Men is not only a coming out tale—and with queer literature neck deep in coming out stories, this comes as a relief. The book is a love song to his Appalachian roots, the culture and landscape that continues to shape him. Mann’s prose illuminates the landscape and enlivens it for readers. He also continues the Appalachian tradition of storytelling by handing down the history of his family. And there is the food, much loved recipes prepared meal after meal, generations of cooking handed down as sure as blue eyes or black hair.

What resonated deeply for me in Loving Mountains, Loving Men was that it addressed a mostly unspoken difficulty for rural queers. Mann voices why many lesbians and gay men choose to stay put. “Sometimes it feels as if my Appalachian roots and my desire for men are two lovers I vacillate between. When I feel spurned by one, I take up with the other.” The central tension for Mann and many nonurban queers is how to reconcile both of these loves.

Another aspect that sets this memoir apart from others is its use of poetry. Mann intersperses the five major movements of this book with a poem and the final section is comprised entirely of verse. They tell Mann’s story in a language that prose cannot easily reach. The poems impart another view of the narrator, one that is not as evident in the prose.

I would encourage readers to pick up a copy of Loving Mountains, Loving Men regardless of where they live. It will cause them to examine their own landscapes more closely and possibly hunt down a treasured family recipe. Rural queers will find themselves nodding their heads at Mann’s observations while urban ones will begin to understand what can’t be found in the city.

11 March 2010

Book Notes on A Report from Winter by Wayne Courtois

Paperback, 280 pages

From Lethe Press
July 2009
ISBN: 9781590212356

Memoir moves at a different pace than fiction. Characters and plotlines push the narrative forward, usually toward an actual or emotional climax. A standard novel has a rise and fall. I am sure many of us remember the plot diagram from an English class in our pasts: Rising Action / Climax / Falling Action or “denouement” if you prefer the French term. But this is not the case for A Report from Winter.

Wayne Courtois weaves a story of great introspection. Set in the harsh January climate of Portland, Maine the reader enters into the insular world of the narrator. He returns home after a decade-long absence to be with his mother who is dying of cancer. If you think that the weather is severe—Courtois’ relations put the snow and ice to shame.

Two things were immediately clear to me as I read A Report from Winter: Courtois has an incredible eye for detail and an incisive, almost surgical sense of humor. The narrator’s snarky comments had the ability to lighten the prose when they became oppressive and also wound those around him. Humor served as both shield and sword throughout the memoir.

The greatest struggle I had with this book was its singular, almost needlelike point of view. While memoir is almost entirely told from the perspective of the one writing it, Courtois’ narration was sometimes suffocating. Much like the snow globe on the cover of the book, I was unable to escape the grinding weather and family interactions narrated from only one voice. This is one of Courtois’ strengths; his voice is powerful and convincing, but it also tipped the memoir into a place where the speaker overshadowed everything else.

Courtois’ writing is at its most luminous and open when he uses flashback to punctuate the book at several points. The memory of another snowbound night allows the other family members in the book to breathe and interact. It is one of the few places in A Report from Winter where I can hear the other people speak in their own right without too much of Courtois’ perspective drowning them out. Perhaps the short duration of time recounted in the book has to do with the disconsolate weight that is laid upon the reader.

A Report from Winter is not a light read to take with you on vacation. It is a hard book to plow through emotionally. The family’s rough edges and glaring flaws are present and at times stepping into their world makes you want to step out of it just as quickly. It is a well written book that I wish was given more space to speak beyond Courtois’ short trip back to Portland, ME.

06 March 2010

Poetry on Quiet Quiet Feet...


I want to talk about poetry.  Remember poetry?  Oh yes, the kind of writing that I supposedly do.  Well, to let you in on a small secret, I haven’t been writing very much poetry of late.  There was a vast and barren field where the seeds of poetry lay sleeping underneath the ragged brown stubble of old drafts and the heavy snows of lethargy. 

But I am spending more time in the sun and reading poems and taking walks.  I feel the quickening of words dividing like cells until they form phrases or whole golden lines.  Lines of words I tell you!  That may not seem like much, but lines form the well-ordered rows of stanzas and the plowed fields of entire poems.

Do all of my analogies and metaphors about writing return to nature because I was raised in rural Montana?

Today I discovered the books The Tomten and The Tomten and the Fox.  Their illustrations woke my wonder of the world again.  Is there a Tomten prowling through the barn on a winter night feeding my tomcat milk?  When I wake up will I be able to count his tracks in the snow among the field mice and rabbits? 

To me, the Tomten is a kind of poetic muse.  He goes about unseen on silent feet.  He whispers the shivering of spring and its green leaves into the ears.  Tomten sees what is hidden in the dark because he travels forgotten tracks and by ways that remain obscure.  Poetry does the same thing.  Through words, metaphor, image and the very music of language a poem transports us into secret places.

I hope that poetry will come to me in the deepest hours of sleep and whisper to me like the Tomten says to the barn cat, “Of course you may stay with me, and of course I will give you milk.”

01 March 2010

An Interview with Writer Steve Fellner

Steve Fellner’s first book of poems Blind Date with Cavafy was released by Marsh Hawk Press. It won the Thom Gunn Gay Male Poetry Award. His new memoir, All Screwed Up (Benu Press), centers on his odd relationship with his mother, who was once a champion trampolinist, and now a champion of the unpredictable. He currently teaches in Brockport, NY.

Jory Mickelson: It seems to me that there is a growing trend among poets to also write memoirs. Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast and Thomas Lynch’s excellent Undertaking come to mind. As a poet who has written a memoir, why do you think this is? What led you from poetry to writing a memoir?

Steve Fellner: I was very sick when I decided to write a memoir. In fact, I didn’t plan on my scraps of memory ever becoming a full-length book. This is the truth: I was very sick and lonely at the time. I’ve never had many friends.

For some inexplicable reason, all these hives started to appear on my body; they wouldn't go away. I had no one to talk to. I had no idea what to do. I thought I was going to die. Several weeks went by and things got worse, and I assumed I had AIDS. So I got a test and everything came out fine. Which made things even worse. I was left to my imagination and that can have fatal consequences for a writer.

Convinced that I had an unknown disease, I decided to tell the people who I loved that I indeed did love them. The first one was my greatest love: my mother. I didn't know to do it. And I couldn't concentrate, as scared as I was. So I wrote a fragment, a single self-contained memory. It was a paragraph long. And then I wrote another. And then another. And that's how it continued. Until I had a book. A book which was nothing more really than a warped love letter for my mother.

JM: Your memoir came out in June 2009 from Benu Press, what have you been working on since then?

SF: After the memoir, I had a breakdown. A very bad breakdown. I don't want to go into the details. But I felt hopeless; I felt I had nothing more to offer the world. I didn't know what to do. So I decided to write something that had nothing to do with me. And that thing was a blog where I would write about the books and poems of other gay men. I figured if I wrote about the men in my own community it would undoubtedly be read. And it is being read. It makes me very happy and gives me a feeling that words matter--something I had forgotten.

JM: One question I always have for writers is how do you know when a poem, story or manuscript is done? Does an editor say, “Okay Steve, really, that is enough now” or do you have some intuition that your work has come to completion?

SF: Something is done when I'm bored. I get bored easily. If I'm not having fun, then I figure I might as well stop. If I'm bored, my reader will be.

JM: What are you reading right now or what is waiting to be read on your nightstand?

SF: I'm going to rip off something that O'Hara said. I wish I could remember exactly what it was. I've always want to be one of those people who can recite quotations on demand. But I can't. Breakdowns mess up your memory even more. It's something he said about movies. I've been much more into movies. I just watched Jane Campion's "Bright Star" about Keats and loved it.

JM: You work as a creative writing professor. What has being an instructor taught you about your own work?

SF: If I had to choose between teaching and writing, I'd choose the former. It's fun to see someone improve. And that one-on-one interaction has become even more important, having gone through the psychic pain I was finally forced to confront.

JM: Living in a larger city on the East Coast you have greater access to a queer arts culture. What would you tell gay poets who live in small towns far away from large cities and urban centers? Or since we are actually talking about my situation…how can gay rednecks like me get involved with a wider queer writing community?

SF: I know it might not be the same thing. But I live in Brockport, a village about 45 minutes away from the city. Most of my peers live in the city, and in the winter, I rarely see them. I have a debilitating fear of driving--it was crucial that I live in walking distance to the campus.

I've never had that many friends. I'm awkward and weirdly shy. I think the most important thing is to find one super close friend--not a boyfriend, but someone platonic. And to talk regularly, if not every day, enough so that when you hear about their life it becomes somewhat tedious. It's important to know peoples' patterns. You can help them identify things they might not have noticed if left to their own devices.

JM: With gay bookstores folding like…well independent bookstores, there are fewer places to see gay books on the shelf. Queer people are losing visibility for their work. Is this the price of wider acceptance?

SF: I only think certain sorts of gays with certain sorts of identities are getting wider acceptance. So I think the loss of gay and independent bookstores is fatal. For example, at a queer bookstore, I just bought Tim Dean's scholarly book "Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking." This is probably one of the most important ethical issues in our community. Would I find that at Barnes & Noble? I doubt it. Would I find the works of queer rebel David Wojnarowicz in Waldenbooks? I doubt it. Everyone's favorite David Sedaris has always pretty much bored me--not that he hasn't had wonderful essays. But lately he's a queer Erma Bombeck. And how many people in their mid 30's remember who she is anymore?

JM: Are we going to all be jaded twenty-something post-queers someday?

SF: I don't plan on being jaded. I think that's one of the personal missions of my blog: to see what's new and exciting. I'm the sort of person who only rents New Releases. I like to see what's out there right now. And there's always something that makes me happy.

JM: Any last words?

SF: I just want to thank you for doing this interview with me. People like you keep me going and help me resist the temptation to be cynical and, yes, jaded.


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