27 April 2010

Aimee Bender and Amy Hempel Dazzle and Disturb my Senses.

I sometimes wonder if I am missing the boat about short stories.  What I know about writing fiction could fit through the eye of an oarlock.  Some rules on writing apply across the board, but I feel that fiction takes a certain knack that I lack.  Perhaps writing poetry and essays, I can always anticipate an ending.  I imagine writing fiction to be akin to following Ariadne’s thread through the labyrinth while hoping not to bump into the Minotaur.

I have been reading the short stories of Amy Hempel and Aimee Bender.  This Amy double-header has left me refreshed and enervated at the same time.  I feel as though I’m listening to pop songs in another language—that if I listened just a little more closely, I could make out the words in English.  I strain and I strain, but in the end I just shake my head.

If poetry has taught me anything, it is to lean into mystery.  Often there is no making direct sense of the words and sounds that surround the hearer of a poem.  It is a complete sensory experience.  The brain stretches between images, metaphor, simile and narrative.  Poetry displays a page of dots and lets the reader connect them as he or she thinks best.  What I like best about poetry is the way it breaks open language to give it new vitality in both sound and meaning.  Understanding is secondary to pleasure.

Perhaps if I take what I have learned from poetry and apply it I will not be so befuddled.  Of course I want to know what the painting that the woman stares at in the last paragraph of the story means, but it doesn’t mean that I have to dissect every sentence.  Cutting open writing and rooting around for the “real” meaning just gets blood on the carpet.

So if any of you would like to explain the hidden mechanics to reading the auguries of modern short stories, I would be grateful.  If not, I will try to enjoy the fog and hope that it eventually clears.

22 April 2010

Why Amos Lassen Needs to Learn the Lyrics to a Song Written by Carolyn Leigh

I just ordered a copy of The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered for the bookstore where I work. It’s been garnering good reviews. After I saw the table of contents posted on the Band of Thebes blog, I knew that there would be an audience for it in Bellingham, WA.

In the process of reading about The Lost Library, I came across a review by Amos Lassen on Amazon.com. At first, I nodded my head by what he had to say:

“Many of us came out because of the writers in this volume and for even more of us they were our first association with gay life. They made us feel like there were others like us in the world and that there was a bigger family of man then we knew about.”

When I first came out, I was hungry to read about other men going through what was happening to me. A Boy’s Own Story, The Lost Language of Cranes, Faggots and Dancer from the Dance were all on my reading queue. Although these books reflected another generation’s experience, I was friends with many of the men from that generation. Their stories and the literature interwove themselves. Both became part of the map I navigated my fledgling gay life by.

Amos Lassen’s next sentence made me uneasy:

“Now that we are almost part of the mainstream, our roots seem to have been forgotten.”

Initially I want to agree with Lassen. Watching RuPaul’s Drag Race (Season 2, Episode 8) I was horrified when one of the queens didn’t know who Oscar Wilde was. In the words of an older man being made over on the show, “There are a constellation of people that one must know.” I accept the fact that I am out of step with gay men ten years younger than I am. I was gay before Gay.com.

While my cultural reference points are different from those of up and coming queers, I don’t believe that we are mainstream yet. Queers have gained visibility, but I would argue that mainstream implies a kind of banality. The man beaten outside of a gay bar in Missoula, Montana last month wasn’t mainstream.

What stopped me cold in Lassen’s review was the statement:

“The 'golden age of gay fiction" is no more and we find that the term gay literature is at the point of becoming extinct and we will soon only have literature.”

I agree the “golden age” of gay men’s fiction is over—that the works Lassen refers to were revolutionary and relevant to the time in which they were written. That era is gone. Many have withstood scrutiny and time to serve as examples for readers and writers to come.

Where Lassen goes wrong is by claiming that gay literature is nearing its death and will somehow seamlessly blend with “mainstream” literature. There are fewer exclusively queer publishers. There are less LGBT bookstores every year. Many queer authors have had their books moved into the respective genres in which they write on bookstore shelves.

Although these things are happening, it doesn’t mean that we are living in a post-gay world. Put all that gay men you want on television and into military uniforms. It won’t change the fact that most straight readers continue to ignore gay literature. It doesn’t stop queer authors, especially those writing dangerous and original work from being marginalized.

Lassen confuses the facts. Gay men’s literature has grown past its propaganda and coming-out stages. It has managed to enter into new territories, but it isn’t about to go the way of the 8-track. There is a new generation of gay male writers who are hungry to make their own literature. Despite the challenges they face, I have hope. Like the lyrics of Carolyn Leigh’s famous song, I believe “The best is yet to come and won’t that be fine.”

17 April 2010

Writing a Poem a Day or Setting Up a Writing Practice

During the month of April many websites and organizations challenge poets to write a poem a day. Thirty days hath September, April... so thirty poems hath the poet.

In an ideal world there would be no cheating or doubling up. A poet, never suffering from a hangover; all night romantic trysts; a twelve-hour shift at the Gas-N-Go or eight loads of laundry that need to be washed, dried and folded would produce a poem every day. Ideally, it would be a verse that shines like one of the golden apples of the Hesperides. Every day the poems would grow more perfect and certain--better than the day before.

Whom are we kidding? The world isn't ideal and neither are those who write poems. The poem-a-day challenge is not a challenge to produce your best work.  It is a challenge to create a daily writing practice. Can't produce a ballad  a day, can you settle for a haiku? Setting the goal for one poem a day is a measureable amount of writing, even if that poem is gangly and unsteady.

One question I always ask writers is what kind of writing they practice.  I don't bother with speaking about ideals. I often set outlandish goals for myself and then fall short. Writing is hard work and I want to compare notes with other authors about their workouts.

Two poets have said in interviews that they get up at four every morning to write. While I applaud them, I hope their pens don't scratch the paper too loudly. I am not a morning person. Getting up an hour early puts the lives of those in my household at risk. Knowing your patterns and habits is key to creating a writing schedule for you.

Being a night owl, I am usually at my best in the late afternoon or early evening. Teatime is the right time for writing (for me.) Writing takes practice and if I am serious about it, I can't wait for the muse to call on me. A writing practice allows me to knock on her door several times a week. Sometimes she answers and other times she draws the curtains and pretends not to be home.

Writers love to give advice about writing especially if it sounds clever.  Just remember it takes some time to tune your writing schedule to real life.  Allow for turbulence and improvisation.

But remember I want you write every day. I don't, but I hope you will.

12 April 2010

Book Notes on Advanced Elvis Course by C.A. Conrad

Paperback, 112 pages
Published by Soft Skull Press,
June 1, 2009
ISBN: 9781593762438

This book defies even the broadest of categorizations. I want to call it poetry or flash fiction, but it is more. Each piece could be called an anecdote and although many are entertaining, they are not trivial. Story, by poem, by list, by letter the weight of C.A. Conrad's work becomes a kind of testament and a working field guide to Elvis Presley.

Conrad begins his Advanced Elvis Course with a series of prose poems interspersed with dialogue between him and others while touring Graceland. Although Conrad is the main speaker in this collection of literary forays, numerous other characters lend their voices. Friends, family members and other Elvis-ites create a chorus that draw readers under the Presley spell. Make no mistake; Conrad has an agenda. He is on an "Advanced Elvis Course" though to what end remains to be seen.

One thing that I love about this collection is that it is a kind of devotional. Growing up Catholic, I was exposed to small booklets of prayers or devotions. Each had its own theme. One book might be dedicated to angels. Another may outline a series of prayers and actions for the first Fridays of the month. Conrad gives the reader his own personal devotions to Elvis. There is "Priscilla Presley's Memoir Elvis and Me as Divination" where questions are posed and answered by bibliomancy. There is also the SATOR magical square of protection from the ancient world contrasted with Conrad's ELVIS square.

One of my favorite sections was "The Elvis Was Ben Interview" in which Conrad interviews a Ben Franklin scholar and seeks to make a connection between the two great men. Another was "If Elvis Could Hear You Now!" in which posters were plastered across Philadelphia that stated callers could leave a message for Elvis. Conrad takes his favorite fifteen calls (from the hundreds he claims to have received) and shares them. The diversity and creativity of the pieces in Advanced Elvis Course is considerable.

If you don't love the King and Conrad before this book, you will after reading it.  Perhaps my only criticism for this book is that I wanted more.  Although we see the outline of the "Advanced Elvis Course" we can only assume what the end result will be.

The day after I finished the book, I dug out my record of Elvis Presley's movie "It Happened at the World's Fair" and put the same film on my Netflix queue. Conrad's writing makes me want to love Elvis as much as he does--which just might be the point.

06 April 2010

April is National Poetry Month

 April is also National Poetry Month. If you are like the average American, you’re able to shrug it off pretty well. You might even complain that there seems to be an awful lot of verse on NPR lately. If you hunker down, it will all be over in thirty days. But this month, I want to get you worked up a little bit. I want you to do more than grimace and roll your eyes when someone brings up poetry.

Let me ease you into this. If you absolutely refuse to read poetry, then you might be able to read one book around poets. A great place to start is Nicholson Baker’s novel The Anthologist (ISBN: 9781416572442). It’s great fiction, but you might pick up a few good tidbits about poets in the process. If you think that all poets are coo-coo, then a good place to confirm your suspicions is the hilarious novel Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter (ISBN: 9780061916045).

Perhaps you are the kind of reader that feels reading fiction is a waste of time. If you are a nonfiction junkie, I suggest that you start at the “softer” end of things with The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade by Thomas Lynch. (ISBN: 9780393334876) His memoir about being both a poet and undertaker is surprising. If you want the hard stuff, then I suggest you dive into Edmund White’s biography, Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel (ISBN: 9781934633205). This well-muscled book trims away all the fat from often-overstuffed literary biographies.

Okay, if you haven’t snatched up one of these books—then maybe you just want to read one good book of poems for National Poetry Month. I can keep a secret.

If you only read one book of poems this year make sure it is an anthology. Anthologies don’t guarantee that every poem is a winner, but they give you a little taste of a lot of work. Give yourself a wide range of poets to mock and disparage.

The very best anthology I have read in several years is It’s Not You, It’s Me: The Poetry of Breakup edited by Jerry Williams. (ISBN: 9781590202821) I will ignore your choking sounds. Yes, this poetry is all about what happens when people crack up. Divided into three categories: One Foot Out the Door, In the Middle of the Storm and the Aftermath, this anthology gives you the entire range of human emotion from rage, guilt, adoration to relief. Best of all, most of these poems are excellent. I would buy the entire anthology for Amy Gerstler’s “F*** You Poem #45” alone.

So this month, give poetry a chance. Check out one of these books. I promise not to tell anyone that when you suavely pass this book off as a gift for someone else—you were really getting it for yourself.

01 April 2010

Singing Out the Notes: An Interview with Author Alyx Dellamonica

Alyx Dellamonica writes novels and short fiction. Her work has appeared in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, SciFi.Com, and Realms of Fantasy. Her first novel Indigo Springs was released in October 2009. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia with her wife Kelly Robson and is hard at work on the sequel to Indigo Springs.

Jory Mickelson: I am currently reading an essay by Durs Gr├╝nbein in Poetry Magazine where he talks about the questions that writers are always asked after a reading. He states that the question, "How long have you been writing?" is really a search to see what made someone into a writer. Do you feel that you were inclined to write from early on or were there factors that shaped you?

Alyx Dellamonica: Writing is very much something I am compelled to do--if I go more than a few days without writing fiction, I become restless and unhappy. This began, for me, in early childhood. I wrote my first Doctor Seuss-inspired doggerel when I was five. As a kid, I wasn't a gifted athlete or especially graceful socially. The first thing I learned to do at all well was read, and I ran with it, as fast and as far as I could.

Does that mean I think it was all nature, no nurture? No. My surroundings in those years utterly reinforced my bookish tendencies. My parents were deeply involved in Community Theater and were producing shows for adults and kids. My home was full of books and scripts, actors and singers. It was a very arts-identified atmosphere. I have trouble imagining what it might have been like to grow up among people who were actively hostile to creativity, or even one that was simply focused on elsewhere... say, on becoming a dentist, or serving a church community, or being outdoors-y.

JM: I know that you sing in the Vancouver Lesbian and Gay Choir. Do you feel that singing has informed your writing? And conversely, has your writing given you any insight into singing?

AD: I haven't written anything long with choral singing in it (though I've had a novel idea on the back-burner for awhile that would use this experience, if I ever manage to write it.) VLGC are among my biggest supporters--they sang at my November book launch--and they are an inspiration. Indigo Springs has a bisexual main character whose mother is a Trans man, and I think they're both more convincing, as people, because I get to spend time with this wonderful, diverse group of singers.

My other artistic pursuits do creep into my writing, definitely. I have written about photography, and I've written a couple stories about my having been in a concert band, in high school--there's "The Riverboy," for one. I've also just finished the draft of a book called Daughters of Zeus, which is set in a small-town community theater company based heavily on the acting and technical theater I did in the Seventies and Eighties.

I love learning new things, and weaving those new experiences into my writing is a form of research I particularly enjoy.

JM: Rebecca Brown said that her nonfiction essays were the justification for her obsessions. She said it became "research." Do you listen to music when you write? Did your novels have soundtracks as you write--any CDs or artists that helped you enter into the space you write from?

AD: The sequel--and the two books I've drafted since--definitely have a soundtrack!

I do almost all of my draft-writing and a good chunk of my revision at Cafe Calabria on Commercial Drive in East Vancouver. It's a big, noisy family business with lots of writers and no Internet, and the music is programmed by the patriarch of the family that owns the place, Frank Murdocco. Frank is from Italy, by way of Montreal. He speaks half-dozen languages fluently, and he loves to make mix CDs. He favors Italian pop, including cheesy covers of well-known pop songs (think ABBA or the *Grease* soundtrack, in Italian), French chanteuses, obscure Fifties rock and roll, a bit of country, and the occasional pop rendition of an opera classic, like "Va, Pensiero."

You never know what you're going to get at Calabria. You can walk in to comfort music, something like Ben E. King's "Stand By Me," and ten minutes later Joe Dolce will be bellowing "Shaddup You Face" or Dalida will croon "Ti Amo" at you. Or some unrecognizable tenor will sing something simply gorgeous and heartbreaking. I've made some great musical discoveries there, though it's sometimes hard to identify the songs--for some reason, Frank will rarely tell you who you're hearing, and his sons claim not to know. As I type these words, he's playing a French version of Kenny Rogers' "Lucille."

About a year ago, it looked like I might move away from Vancouver, and I immediately started assembling a Calabria mix--I was that worried that I might not be able to function without my random cafe tunes.

I rarely write to any of my favorite bands, the material I think of as "my" music. I find it draws too much of my attention, because part of me is trying to actively listen to it.

JM: The Cafe sounds like a lot of fun; I love the Commercial Drive neighborhood. Your book Indigo Springs features a bisexual main character and a transgendered character. The sci-fi and fantasy genres have traditionally been set within heterosexual paradigms. Were there any challenges for you in creating these characters or the world in which they interacted?

Also, who do you think handles queer characters and ideas well in the sci-fi and fantasy genres?

AD: I didn't have much trouble with Astrid's sexuality or with Ev's transition, really--they seem very much like so many of my friends, or people I've, to some extent, been. I'm further from my comfort with other subcultures--Olive is a practicing witch, Patience is one of the last survivors of a (fictional) First Nations band, and the military world of Colonel Roche is very far from my day to day existence. Giving these characters authenticity was a lot harder, for me, than writing about a bisexual gardener or a working-class Trans guy.

One book I'm currently in love with is Elizabeth Bear's Carnival, which reunites a pair of guys whose relationship fell apart because of heterosexist politics in a very creepy and well-realized far-future universe. It's messy and complex and heartbreaking, a really terrific book. Jo Walton's Small Change series, which is alternate history, is amazing too. And then there are Nicola Griffiths Aud Torvingen mysteries: The Blue Place, Stay, and Always, which are so beautifully written; they really soak you in Aud's unique worldview.

JM: You are a Canadian and legally married to your wife. Do you feel that the lack of civil rights for gays and lesbian in the United States colors queer literature there? The larger question being do you think oppression shapes a body of literature?

AD: Interesting question! I have read more than one essay where Canadian SF writers try to define what it is that makes our fiction different from that written by U.S. authors. I don't know that I've ever seen a similar piece that focuses on queer writing.

It's fair to say, though, that any artist is going to be affected by oppression, and that most of us probably couldn't keep that out of our work if we tried. For me, every little thing tied to the legalization of my marriage was profoundly affecting and memorable: the moment I realized the law was going to change within my lifetime, hearing the Supreme Court decision on CBC Radio, getting to go into a drug store a few days later to buy a marriage license for two women (like any other ordinary human being!) and of course the day itself, when Kelly and I exchanged vows with our family and friends present. I could go on and on. Everyone's wedding is earth shattering, unforgettable, and deeply emotional to them, I know. But being told you can have something that has been arbitrarily forbidden you your whole life, being allowed to exist... it's mindboggling.

Does that have something to do with the fact that "The Riverboy," which was written before my legal marriage, has a gay-bashing in it, while "What Song the Sirens Sang," which came afterward, has an upbeat vision of a futuristic queer community? It's impossible to say. So many other things go into any given piece; we're never just one experience.

JM: Many times in interviews with authors I ask what kind of advice you would give to others queer writers. Let's mix it up. What advice or guidance would you give to queer readers?

AD: Besides a hearty "Thank you!", for being into books and stories when there's so much else out there, mediawise? In my own reading, I know how easy it is to just hit 'my' sections of the bookstore--the history and political and SF shelves--and to fall into the rut of only looking for things that match my expectations. I'm not always delighted by what I find when I range out of my comfort zone, but I have made some of my best discoveries that way. So, on the theory that what works for one may work for more, that's my advice: prowl beyond your favorite shelves, at least now and then. You might find something new and remarkable.


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