June 5, 2009

Poetics Forum #2: Deviant Beach Reads

Click on the links below, or scroll down to skip this intro! This forum includes a DIY option. If you'd like to suggest a Deviant Beach Read, fill out the following form (take your liberties!), and post it in the comments field.

Title and author of your pick for Deviant Beach Reads:
Six words that describe this book:
When I first read this book, I...
When I finished this book, I...
This book will...
This book [verb]
This book is a [adjective noun].
A favorite quote from book:

Please write a blurb, endorsement, homage, imitation, or the like re: the experimental/innovative/feminist/deviant woman fiction writer of your choice. You may choose one of her works, or many. You may write about yourself if you write fiction. Has this work been important to you as a poet? As a feminist? Mother? Daughter? Partner? Human? Is this work right for the beach? Is it edifying? Should it be? Is it a destroyer of worlds? When did you first encounter the work? To whom would you give this work? What kind of noise in your head does this work produce? Etc.!

Monday June 1:
Michele Battiste on Emma Donoghue
Cara Benson on Marianne Apostolides
Mary Biddinger on Banana Yoshimoto

Tuesday June 2:
Michelle Detorie on Carol Emshwiller
Kate Durbin on Angela Carter & Joan Didion
Elisa Gabbert on Joy Williams

Wednesday June 3:
Brandi Homan on Selah Saterstrom
Becca Klaver on Miranda July
Kathleen Ossip on Jennifer Moxley

Thursday June 4:
Evie Shockley on Renee Gladman & Selah Saterstrom
Elizabeth Treadwell on Janet Frame

Friday June 5:
Erika Meitner on Marjane Satrapi
Sarah Murphy on Margo Lanagan & Maggie Stiefvater

Curated by Danielle Pafunda

Past Forums & Features:

May 2009: This is What a Feminist [Poet] Looks Like curated by Danielle Pafunda

December 2008: Advent Kalendar! curated by Susana Gardner

May 2008: Disarming, Destabilizing, & Creeping Out the Patriarchy a Conversation on the Gurlesque with Arielle Greenberg and Danielle Pafunda

February 2008: Dim Sum Being several & a few responses to the trio of "Numbers Trouble" articles in last fall's Chicago Review curated by Elizabeth Treadwell

Future Forums (subject to change and mutation):

July 2009: Summer break, no forum planned, read something deviant.

August 2009: TBA curated by K. Lorraine Graham & Becca Klaver

Fall 2009: Non-normative bodies,(pro)feminist men poets, and This is What a Feminist [Poet] Looks Like Part 2!

Erika Meitner on Marjane Satrapi

Erika Meitner is the author of Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore (Anhinga Press, 2003). She teaches creative writing (mostly poetry) in the MFA program at Virginia Tech (where she also teaches a course in Jewish and Muslim women's literature), and is simultaneously completing her PhD in religious studies at the University of Virginia in her extensive spare time.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood & Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return
by Marjane Satrapi
Pantheon Books 2004, 2005

Six words that describe this book: Badass graphic memoir extraordinaire (with snark).

When I first read these books, I stayed up all night to finish both of them. They were about complex, dangerous subjects (war, Iran, coming-of-age as a woman, immigration, alienation), but in comic book form, which made me feel like I was getting away with something naughty by flying through them in the time it might take to watch a few episodes of Law & Order SVU.

When I finished these books, I wanted to learn to draw, and was just a little sad that I hadn't grown up under a deeply oppressive regime.

These books will shatter every stereotype you ever had about Muslim women, Iranian women, and Iran in general.

These books would make excellent dinner guests.

These books are vast experiments with genre-bending that succeed wildly.

A favorite quote from book:

(Full panel, here.)

Or, here.

Trailer for the movie version!

I am currently writing this dispatch from the beach--the Riviera Maya, to be exact, in Mexico (see beach bed picture). Since I splotch, rather than tan, I'm tucked under a shaded cover between two palm trees, slathered in SPF 55 (cream) with an SPF 70 sprayed over the lotion, hoping for the best. If they made a gauzy beach chador, I'd be wearing one. My pick for Deviant Beach Reads is a set of graphic memoirs (duo? diptych?) by Marjane Satrapi: Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return. I first read these books far, far from the beach, when I decided to do an independent study in graduate school in women's literature of the Middle East and North Africa. Satrapi is Iranian, and her books tell the story of her life (starting at age 9) after the Islamic Revolution, when fundamentalist rebels overthrow the Shah. The first book covers her life in Iran through age 14, up until her very liberal parents finally send her to school in Austria to escape the danger and strictures of life under the oppressive Islamic regime. The second book tackles her adolescence abroad sans parents, a brief stint of homelessness, and her eventual return to Iran.

What I adore about these books is something sort of dorky and un-beachlike: the conversation between form and content. When women in Iran are required to don chadors, they're made invisible, turned into identical shapeless masses--negative spaces that move through the country's landscapes. But by the simple act of inserting women (both veiled and unveiled) in her work, Satrapi frames them and makes them explicitly visible. What was an erasure becomes bold positive presence in the black and white graphic memoir format. This visibility becomes even more subversive when Satrapi uses her drawings as x-ray vision, to show us the individuality that lies beneath each woman's chador. She paints public encounters with religious authorities by showing her readers the disconnect between her words (official, regulated) and her body language, facial expressions, or imagined thoughts (natural, snarky, irreverent). And she takes us Westerners inside her private worlds of girlhood and Iranian family life, and lets us see her characters (herself included) during their most undone moments. Satrapi is funny, head-strong, and rebellious, yet she isn't afraid to simultaneously show her readers some really loathsome moments in her life. This makes her both heroic and easy to identify with--a rare combination in a book.

Sarah Murphy on Margo Lanagan and Maggie Stiefvater

Sarah Murphy is a school librarian and works with students from Kindergarten through twelfth grade. She and Maria Falgoust founded the Desk Set, a community-building and party-throwing group for librarians and bibliophiles, in 2006. Sarah lives in Brooklyn. [Ed. note--if you're in Brooklyn, check out the fundraising Dance Dance Library Revolution party thrown by the Desk Set at Enid's tonight! Details here. Proceeds go towards Books Through Bars.]

No matter how young most of my adult friends behave/look/are, it’s generally only the librarians among them who ever touch Young Adult literature. The others are missing out on some very beachy reads: short, fast-moving, active. YA lit uses straightforward honesty to address subjects that adults tend to like wrapped in metaphor, irony or studied indifference. Subjects like sex, abuse, desire, discovery. The result often feels salacious, even –yes- devious. It’s good to know that kids are reading this stuff.

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan
Knopf 2008

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic to be published August 2009

Six words that describe these books: Girl on bear / Girl on wolf

I was surprised to read two YA books in about as many months that featured a thwarted love story between a young woman and a beast. In both books, men in nonhuman form (a bear in Tender Morsels, a wolf in Shiver) enter the worlds of our heroines and form a very human connection with them.

The love story is central to Shiver, in which 17 year-old Grace’s lifelong fascination with the wolves - and with one wolf in particular - outside her home turns into an affair with Sam, who must be called a werewolf (though not at all in a “Teen Wolf” sense). Grace is conveniently assigned to rather absent parents, allowing the relationship to progress quickly and without the hiding and lies most real teenagers depend on – even when they are dating humans. Grace’s confidence in her own sexuality is refreshing, and it’s very satisfying to see her get Sam, who is nervous about hurting her both as a man and as a wolf, to give in to desire with no guilt and no regrets.

In part a reimagining of “Snow White and Rose Red,” Lanagan’s Tender Morsels lays bare the brutal nature of a fairy tale without compromising the promise of magic, the power of dreams. Liga has lived through disgusting brutality in the “real” world, and emerges into a world of her own creation, one where bears and wolves make far gentler companions than men, and where her two daughters can live removed from both danger and shame. But as liberating as it may be to walk with bare shoulders and bare legs without accusation, a world that safe can’t sustain much in the way of life, and certainly nothing in the way of love.

Both books are really more suited to a forest than a beach, perhaps a lake, but certainly no ocean.

When I first read Tender Morsels, I read the first page out loud to as many
people as would listen. Which brings me to:

A favorite quote from book, page one, the Prologue:

There are plenty who would call her a slut for it. Me, I was just glad she had shown me. Now I could get the embarrassment off me. Now I knew what to do when it stuck out its dim one-eyed head.

She were a revelation, Hotty Annie. I had not known a girl could feel this too. Lucky girls; they can feel it and feel it and nothing need show on the outside; they have to act all hot like Annie did, talk smut and offer herself to the lads, before anyone can tell.

When I finished Shiver, I wondered. For a brief second I felt disappointed, but
was ultimately pleased that the ends weren’t all quite so tied as I thought they’d be.

These books will probably not fly off my library’s shelves, but I’ll keep recommending them.

These books tell good stories.

Tender Morsels is an anxious puzzle; Shiver is a young moment. Both will be found in the children’s sections, and heavily read by librarians and hopefully some curious others.

June 4, 2009

Evie Shockley on Selah Saterstrom and Renee Gladman

Evie Shockley is the author of a half-red sea (2006) and two chapbooks: 31 words * prose poems (2007) and The Gorgon Goddess (2001). Along with writing poetry, she co-edits the journal jubilat, writes prose about poetry, and teaches African American literature and creative writing at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. She is a Sagittarius, and this shouldn't surprise you.

1. The Pink Institution by Selah Saterstrom
Coffee House Press 2004

Six words that describe this book: Post-Faulknerian Southern Gothic for Smart Feminists

When I first read this book, I... wondered how this more than slightly disturbing text came from the brain of the sweet and lovely Selah.

When I finished this book, I... read it again.

This book will... unpack for you the phrase "southern belle."

This book amazes.

This book is a fucking keeper.

A favorite quote from book:
Willie called his daughters into the dining room. He picked up a dining room table chair and threw it into a closed window. The window shattered. He said, 'That's a lesson about virginity. Do you understand?' to which they replied, 'Yes, sir.'

2. To After That (TOAF) by Renee Gladman
Atelos 2008

Six words that describe this book: Introverted, But With a Come-Hither Look.

Complete this sentence: When I first read this book, I... smiled a lot, on my face and in my brain.

Complete this sentence: When I finished this book, I... understood better what Renee means when she says she is interested in sentences.

Complete this sentence: This book will... make you want to read more of Gladman's writing.

Complete this sentence: This book blisters.

Complete this sentence: This book is a fait accompli.

A favorite quote from book:
It sometimes does not matter what you do in actual space. You just go on writing. I find that we exist in language and we exist on the city street, and that it is possible to believe you are doing one without knowing you are doing the other.
When I say 'we exist,' I mean to be making a statement about urban living, how it goes on without one's full participation, how it insinuates itself in one's sentences. While I had been long aware that I was city living, I had not yet grasped that I was city writing too.

Elizabeth Treadwell on Janet Frame

Elizabeth Treadwell is at slow work on some long poems.

Towards Another Summer by Janet Frame
Counterpoint Press 2009

Seeing as the brilliance of her phrasing is my most worn path from the modernist novels of Barnes, Woolf, Rhys, Hurston & Stein --- her work shares amazing attributes with each -- to my readerly nowaday, I couldn't have been happier to find one last new Janet Frame book waiting on the shelf at Moe's the other month. She died in 2004; I've read every scrap. Start at the beginning, with Owls Do Cry, or round about the middle with Yellow Flowers in the Antipodeon Room or The Edge of the Alphabet, start with a last story published in The New Yorker last spring. Start with the poems, the autobiography. Start where you like. This 2009 book, Towards Another Summer, she felt too shy to publish while alive. Here's a bit:

The producer was crisp, the interviewer efficient. Both had notes; Grace held only a glass of water which she twirled in her hand, answering or not answering the questions, breaking off in midsentence, her mind blank. She sighed, repeated Sorry, Sorry in a whisper, shaking her head.

--I don't know, I don't know. What are my books about? How should I be able to tell? My style? What does it matter?

She wondered whether these accumulated stains that seemed so much a part of her essentially private ventures would in the end spread over most of her life, sink deeper and deeper, be absorbed as a poison which could be removed only if she swallowed a violent medicine which would force her to vomit her whole life -- all her treasured experiences and dreams -- and be left weak, unable to digest more of life, sitting, cramped with pain and lassitude, in a bed or wheelchair until she died and was buried here, in London, with a representative from New Zealand House taking time off to trim the frayed thread-dropping embarassments of untidiness woven when a stranger without next of kin dies ten thousand miles from home.

June 3, 2009

Brandi Homan on Selah Saterstrom

Brandi Homan is originally from Marshalltown, Iowa. She is the author of Hard Reds (Shearsman, 2008) and Bobcat Country (Shearsman, forthcoming 2010). She earned her MFA in Poetry at Columbia College Chicago and is Editor-in-Chief of the feminist press Switchback Books.

The Meat and Spirit Plan
by Selah Saterstrom

Coffee House Press 2007

"It's Like I Live That Song, I Say"

One of the saddest things I've noticed about living in the city is seeing the shoes. Not the ones that dangle in pairs by the shoelaces from telephone wires, although they're also sad, but the ones we aren't meant to notice. A grimy purple flat next to the curb, half buried by leaves and litter. A black pump tucked under the hedge. One soft leather loafer on the sidewalk and the next a few feet down.

I always wonder about these shoes and worry about the possibility of crimes committed against their owners who have left something so necessary so haphazardly. I mean, I'm sure that a significant number can be attributed to fairly mundane reasons... a drunken night (non-comfy shoes taken off), a drunken fight (taken off and thrown), or just simple transport gone wrong (dropped out of a box while moving). Still, the shoes could be remnants of unreported, unrecognized violent acts, small or large. In The Meat and Spirit Plan, Saterstrom unearths all manners of atrocity simply by following her female protagonist from high school through college and beyond. She quite literally shows the acts behind the single shoes.

I absolutely love this novel's straightforward, unabashed, deadpan, often hilarious voice. I wish I had more knowledge of issues of class in literary theory to be able to properly talk about this book, but for now I'll have to settle with giving you the gist of it. I do think this book couldn't have existed without writers like Dorothy Allison coming first—it's a kuenstlerroman following a girl with a junkie mom and noticeable lack of adult supervision from the small-town south through reform school, college both local and abroad, and her return to her hometown. This novel reminds me of just how close we all are to falling through the cracks. If you don't know this girl, you at least know of her: the one in the black death metal t-shirt at the back of the room that doesn't say a thing unless spoken to first. I know a lot of these girls. I am part that girl. Do you ever wonder what happened to her? Selah Saterstrom tells here how one woman gets through.

Six words that describe this book: Tempest of modern cruelties and hilarities.
When I first read this book, I wanted every woman born after 1970 to read it, and I’ve got the blog post to prove it.
When I finished this book, I wanted to write. And hug my sister.
This book will make you so angry.
This book shudders in the daytime.
This book is a conversation waiting to happen.

And for the quote, here's a cento composed from Selah's lines (the title is also Saterstrom's). Please note that the books' characters are conflated to suit the poem's purposes. Also note that the poem doesn't come anywhere close to doing the book justice.

We Are Trying to Have a Picnic but No One Knows How

Listen, I am in love.
Hello Ginger Rogers.
Who couldn’t like a girl in a bikini.
If you are over twelve you can purchase alcohol.
Before I can answer she says: Are you a hooker?
No I say. I’m a movie star.
Parents should never name a girl Chastity.
Were you the girl doing it in the shower, she says.
The way her hips sink into chairs I know she had grace before it got used up.
She is like a pencil drawing that is slowly being erased.
She grips her beer until her knuckles go white.
I say: I used to know these guys.
She is looking at me, amused and horrified by my shaven head.
Well kiddo, she says, we try and sometimes we fail.
It was like if you had any talent you had to leave.
I cry in the parking lot of the Kmart waiting for the bus.
Furniture can be a witness.
You weren’t pregnant, he says.
Eventually, he becomes my boyfriend.
If you’re good, he said, matching ring for Christmas.
I do not get the shoe back.
It smells like ashtrays and the curtains are drawn.
His work boots are on and I don’t care that they are in the bed.
I feel something that may be my childhood.
I cannot help the tears streaming down my face.
I finish my smoke but don’t leave.
I could write anything.
Good-night Ginger Rogers.
The woman in every movie comes together in one woman.
Fucking cramps, she says as she flicks a cigarette.
Where was I going when I was going to go?

Becca Klaver on Miranda July

Becca Klaver was a Filmic Writing major for two years and has a story forthcoming in The Literary Review, but is pretty much a poet. You can find her at beccaklaver.blogspot.com.

A Fanzine


A) The Binet-Simon Test (album, 1998)
B) Joanie4Jackie 4Ever (video chainletter, 1998)
C) Me and You and Everyone We Know (film, 2005)
D) No one belongs here more than you (short story collection, 2008)
E) Contessa


For a while I was the only one I knew who’d heard of Miranda July. The year was 2001, and the Joanie 4 Jackie 4ever VHS tape was the first thing I’d ever asked a professor to borrow. I took it home to show my roommates July’s video “The Amateurist,” in which a “professional” woman watches an “amateur” woman (July plays both) on a television set, the former tracing the latter’s body movements and “scientifically” (“arbitrarily”) assigning them qualities, such as numerical value or shape (What might it mean to be a four?, ‘The Amateurist” wonders convincingly). The video made me laugh and made me think; it made my jaw drop; it kind of scared me; it made me want to make art.

Eight years later, July might be the most famous video artist in the country, since she is by now also a successful filmmaker, fiction writer, curator, and more. Here, I won’t presume to introduce you to her, but I’ll say a bit about why it’s so gratifying to have been a fan of hers over the last decade.


Miranda July is as weird as you can possibly be and still be popular. This is no small feat, being weird and popular. It makes other indie auteurs resent her (if playfully—see DVD liner notes to Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation, which had the misfortune of being another terrific film cruising the festival circuit the same year as Me and You). It makes mainstream critics use the work “quirky” a lot. (A lot.) It makes her an “indie darling.” (No, Andrew Bujalski, guys cannot be indie darlings—but you can be an “indie gallant”!)

This paradox (oddball/popular) has its root in July’s feelings about audience. As she says in a Pretty Cool People interview: “Since I started making art, I’ve always had some kind of project that was really about and for other people, because I think I just need that balance to feel sane myself, you know?” Not every artist heeds the desires of—or even deigns to think about—her audience. Perhaps because of July’s experience as a performance artist, she’s constantly considering the people who are watching, listening, and reading, often addressing us via the “you” in her titles (besides Me and You and Everyone We Know and No one belongs here more than you, she also co-curated the collective art project website Learning to Love You More ).

A true multimedia fan, I would’ve forgiven July if her short story collection, No one belongs here more than you, had tanked. I knew it wouldn’t, though, because I’d already knelt on prickly bookshop carpeting to read her story “Birthmark” in The Paris Review from start to finish; I’d already debated stealing my neighbor’s New Yorker to read “Something That Needs Nothing” (I went inside and found it in an academic database instead). The magic of these stories comes from July’s ability to render her strangeness so crystal clear: she lets her characters and narrative turns gleam in all their oddity until the writing seems to disappear. The prose moves with a filmmaker’s pace and a performer’s assurance, as if the medium were beside the point. But, of course, it isn’t: the prose is driving all of it, limpid, exact. This is no ingénue expanding her portfolio. July is a writer as much as she is any other type of artist.

I could never choose a favorite MJ medium, but her stories give the most pleasure in certain ways. Anyone who’s read a book and then watched the film adaptation knows that while a work of fiction can exist in pure psychological interiority, a movie demands externalization via conflation, symbol, objective correlative. No one belongs here more than you luxuriates in interiority; much of the pleasure of it grows out of July’s ability to successfully portray all the twists of a mind in turns surprising and true. It’s much harder to do this in a film—though she does gets away with letting her Me and You protagonist talk to herself, and manages to make things like pink flats and hope chests characters unto themselves.

When critics groan that July’s work is too “quirky” or “precious,” a red flag goes up, telling me that I might be dealing with a reviewer who is queasy around vulnerability, who prefers his emotion brusque or repressed or cowboy, who would rather his artists not look him in the eye. Across media, July creates stories that show the forces that keep people apart and the bizarre, uncomfortable, ecstatic scenarios that can ultimately bring them together. There are people who find this cloying. To me, it’s a powerful aesthetic based on an ethics of compassion and connection, of laying oneself bare in hopes of being recognized, being loved more. In some ways July’s “quirkiness” is a spoonful of sugar that helps her benevolent vision go down; in many ways, I think we need more artists like her in the mainstream.

So, I include the following excerpts for those of you who have suspected until now that July is either too kooky or too laurelled for your tastes. On the contrary, I suspect that no one belongs here more than you.


I was the kind of coach who stands by the side of the pool instead of getting in, but I was busy every moment. If I can say this without being immodest, I was instead of the water.
Always running and always wanting to go back but always being farther and farther away until, finally, it was just a scene in a movie where a girl says hello into the cauldron of the world and you are just a woman watching the movie with your husband on the couch and his legs are across your lap and you have to go to the bathroom.
It was a new experience to walk across the city in tiny shorts and a half-shirt that said HONK. People honked without even seeing the shirt. I often felt that I would be shot in the back with an arrow or gun, but this didn’t happen. The world wasn’t safer than I had thought; on the contrary, it was so dangerous that my practically naked self fit right in, like a car crash, it happened every day.
It was not immediately obvious who Ellen was because we did not play any name games at the start of the class. Past a certain age, they give up on name games, which is regrettable for someone like me who loves anything that involves going around in a circle and saying something about yourself. I wish there was a class where we could just keep going around the circle, around and around, until we had finally said everything about ourselves.


Raid more MJ loot & keepsakes:

Kill Rock Stars albums

Sleater-Kinney, “Get Up” (music video)

Atlanta (video)

Getting Stronger Every Day (video)

Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody? (video)

Kathleen Ossip on Jennifer Moxley

Kathleen Ossip is the author of The Search Engine, which won the APR/Honickman First Book Prize, and of Cinephrastics, a chapbook of movie poems. She teaches at The New School, where she's an Editor at Large for LIT, and she is the Poetry Editor of Women's Studies Quarterly. She has received a fellowship in poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

The Middle Room by Jennifer Moxley
Subpress 2007

The Middle Room is a mammoth (633 pages) addictive memoir, tracing Moxley's development as a poet and a sentient being amid a group of fellow artists at San Diego State University in the 1980s. It reads like a 19th-century comic novel (Moxley refers repeatedly to her “nostalgic longings”): a tale where you can't wait to find out what happens next (will they/won't they get to bed is one of the repeated dramas, as well as will she/won't she find poetic integrity), plus habitual explorations of the heroine's mind-states (“There was a secret force deep in my psyche which, like a Cold War double agent, worked in tandem with my insecurity, a sort of wicked interior spy that emerged at the most inopportune moments to make sport of all my fears and fill me with crippling self-doubt as regards my natural fitness to live the life of the mind.”) It's hilarious and moving and intellectually rigorous, and takes the reader up only until, at the age of 26, she moves to Providence after her mother's death with Steve Evans, her longtime crush.

Six words that describe this book: big profluent elegant complex-minded true re-readable

When I first read this book, I sat in a beach chair for five hours and entrusted my daughter's continued existence to the teenage lifeguards at the town pool. A deviant pool read, for sure!

This book will send you to Moxley's poetry, I hope. (See link below.)

This book records the interior and exterior experiences of a super-conscious individual, with lots of poetry and sex.

This book is sonorous precision.

A favorite quote from book:

It was but three days after my breathless sprint from Steve's student apartment to the safety of Jo's Renault when I returned to campus to attend the George Oppen symposium. Against the muted sun of dusk even my mind's eye had difficulty recreating the brilliant light that had blazed atop Helena's Mont Blanc, bathing the evening of my twenty-second birthday in a glow as seductive and otherworldly as had been the light from that hug Thornfield refrigerator when it momentarily turned my friend into the quiet image of a contemplative Vermeer.

Bonus link to three prose poems by Moxley - they take the depression out of despair, making it every bit as vivid and full of possibility as joy.

June 2, 2009

Michelle Detorie on Carol Emshwiller

Michelle Detorie lives in Goleta, CA where she edits Hex Presse and Womb. Her pamphlet about humans and animals and seabird rescue, How Hate Got Hand, was recently published by eohippus labs. She is currently working on a series of synesthetically coded visual poems that investigate the question of women and animals and whether or not they are real. She blogs at ovariessequins.blogspot.com.

Carmen Dog by Carol Emshwiller
Mercury Press 1990
Small Beer Press 2004

Six words that describe this book: Beast :: woman :: change :: body :: memory :: song

When I first read this book, I felt it confirmed things I suspected but had not allowed myself to believe.

When I finished this book, I thought about the work I wanted to do and wondered at the possibilities made real through the fantasy, the transformations, the acts of radical imagination, the solidarity among creatures.

This book will change the ways you look at animals and women and men and babies and science and institutions.

This book slips.

This book is a fierce puppy.

A favorite quote from book:

On the ground floor of the motherhood building there is a shop with updated motherhood items. In one section: straps, harnesses, leashes, pens, gates for doorways, tranquilizers, etc. In another: flow charts, comparison charts of how other children do at equivalent ages, record-keeping books…all the software of motherhood.

It is a fantastic and funny story of women who become animals and animals who become women. It is not fantasy in the wished-for sense, but fantasy in a way to say it sense. This story of women and animals isn’t real, but it is true. The fantasy in the wished-for sense is the way the creatures’ transformations becomes a protest. A transformation that resists invisibility but also uses invisibility to achieve its goals. The women and animals easily camouflage themselves so that they may gather and organize. Suddenly the master-men, doctor-men, and priest-men must concern themselves with the world of animals and women, and they wish to locate the creatures who they have often overlooked: the furry, the matronly, the disheveled. When they do see Pooch, the main character who is somewhere between setter and human, it is because they wish to sleep with her. The question of the offspring these hum/animal females will produce -- will it be human or beast? -- runs parallel to Pooch’s quest to express herself through song. It is a profound romp with an ending that will surprise you. Highly recommended for lovers of operas, beasts, and optimism.

Kate Durbin on Angela Carter and Joan Didion

Kate Durbin's first full-length collection of poetry, The Ravenous Audience, is forthcoming from Black Goat Press/Akashic Books. Her chapbook, Fragments Found in a 1937 Aviator's Boot, is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. She lives in Whittier, California.

The Deviant Woman

(Not So Much an Endorsement As a Femfight)

I am not so much concerned by the problems of what you might call our day but I am burdened by the particular, the mad person who writes a letter.
-Maria, Play it as it Lays

Angela Carter loathed Joan Didion. She called her “an alien from another planet.” She abhorred her female characters even more, stating in an interview: “Although I am a card-carrying and committed feminist, what I would like to see happen to Joan Didion’s female characters is that a particularly hairy and repulsive chapter of Hells Angels descend upon their therapy group with a squeal of brakes and sweep these anorexic nutters behind them despite their squeaks of protest…”

Carter was known for being “spikily outspoken,” as Salman Rushdie coined her in the introduction to Burning Your Boats. Her ferocious, funny statement above does not end with the wreaked havoc of the Hells Angels. Carter provides two more colorful ends for Didion’s female characters, one involving the rape of the Sabine women. As with most judgment statements made about other people, this reveals more about Carter’s person than it does about Didion’s characters, here cruelly caricatured. And yet, Didion was no fan of feminism, at least not in the 70’s. Here’s a statement from her at the time, also from an interview: “The feminist analysis,” she said, “[denies] one's actual apprehension of what it is like to be a woman, the irreconcilable difference of it—that sense of living one's deepest life underwater, that dark involvement with blood and birth and death."

This is typical Didion—frank, though less gaudy than Carter. And her statement is just as troubling. For one thing “the feminist analysis” she refers to is vague—whose feminist analysis, and what specifically is that analysis all about? Then there is the “irreconcilable difference” she speaks of—but the difference of what to what, precisely? What are we comparing here, and to what end?

Instinctively, however, I feel Didion is speaking of a real contradiction, not so much in the sense that Carter is a hypocrite in her statement above by calling herself feminist and then wishing wild demise upon women who deviate from her agenda, though that touches the surface of it. But the inherent contradictoriness of being a person—no, not a person—in being a woman, which has to do with “that dark involvement with blood and birth and death.” A dark involvement, it seems, that feminism, at least to Didion, had not completely come clean about.

There is plenty of involvement with “blood and birth and death” in “card-carrying feminist” Angela Carter’s works. The Bloody Chamber is a glorious example. And yet, Carter’s involvement, for all its grotesque decadent darkness, is ultimately a very redemptive one, even if it’s a pagan or animal redemption. There is little malice in the stories beyond that malice of the patriarchy. Carter’s women are rarely self-destructive, and if they are ambivalent about themselves, then narrator/Carter swoops in quickly to tell us exactly how they have been manipulated by the patriarchy into being so. Carter’s women are feminist heroes—complex and sexual and insatiable, and forever feminist—and we love them for it.

Didion’s Maria is no feminist hero. Maria spends the bulk of Didion’s classic 1960’s Hollywood novel Play it as It Lays driving the desert aimlessly or flipping through Vogue magazines by the pool. She is filled with ambivalence about everyone around her, and herself (particularly her body). She barely eats, gets her hair done for no reason, sleeps all afternoon. She is infuriatingly, willfully passive. Try and count the number of times in the novel where “Maria said nothing” and “Maria did nothing.” You will get sick of counting. Like Carter’s, though, this book, for all its praised “aridity,” is actually very bloody. Maria bleeds for fifty-one days straight from a botched abortion, refusing to go to the doctor when she is obviously hemorrhaging. A male character says to her, after she is arrested for stealing a car and vomits on herself: “There’s something in your behavior, Maria, I would almost go so far to call it…a very self-destructive personality structure.” This man is an ass, but he’s right.

Still, there is something else about Maria, deviant Maria. Something easy to undervalue, because it’s inexplicable: Maria, for all her evasion and self-damaging (in)decisions, seems to know the “irreconcilable difference” of herself. And in the face of this awful knowledge, she chooses to live on. Maria is a scarred survivor, in the sense that only those women who have experienced impossible paradox—stared straight into the empty pit where the eye should be—can be. This seems valuable, a necessary message in a language I can’t comprehend.

But what is it really, you ask—this mysterious “irreconcilable difference?” The question, of course, is impossible. It is, as Didion says, “the sense of ones deepest life being lived underwater”—the very darkest of “dark involvement[s].” You cannot understand it by reading about it. Maria calls it “nothing.” At least, in the light of its darkness, nothing is all that applies.

What do you do with the woman to whom “nothing applies”? The woman whose deviancy comes not from resisting patriarchal structures and attitudes but from believing that resistance to such structures and attitudes does not ultimately matter? Who has no interest in returning to the woods and feral, life affirming ways, but who knows only the way of the desert, the brutal truth of “the rattlesnake in the playpen”? Angela Carter clearly did not know what to do with these women, which is why she wanted to sick the Hells Angels on them. Interestingly enough, Maria does encounter the Hells Angels twice in the novel. Both times she comes out surviving. So Carter’s wish—which is really a wish that these women would not exist at all, since they complicate the way of progressive feminism—is a fantasy, and underestimates the endurance of the deviant woman.

There are women who, like it or not, cannot or will not reconcile their contradictions. There are women writers are hostile or ambivalent to their female characters because this is how they see themselves. This was as true in the 60’s and 70’s as it is now. But is it solely because they’ve swallowed institutional bias and cannot figure how to heave it back up, or is it because they know that if they begin to throw up, they won’t be able to stop? There are truths women know only in nightmares. Maria’s nightmares are of plumbing stopped up due to “hacked pieces of human flesh” stuck in the pipes, of fetuses floating in the East River. The patriarchy’s power, so blatant in the waking world, is less direct in dreams. At times there seem to be other, elemental forces at work. What are they? Where do they come from?

These are questions for which I venture no answers, and Didion would likely say there are no answers. Carter, I suspect, might not have found the questions relevant.

As for Maria, she sits in front of a mirror “picking out her mother’s features. Sometime in the night, she had moved into a realm of miseries peculiar to women.” During the day, she watches a woman walk across a parking lot with “slow mincing steps.” The woman is “the dead still center of the world, the quintessential intersection of nothing.” After more nightmares, of both the dreaming and waking sorts, she concedes only this: that “there would be plumbing anywhere she went.”

One thing in my defense, not that it matters: I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what “nothing” means, and I keep on playing.
-Maria, Play It As It Lays


Interview with Angela Carter
Interview with Joan Didion

Elisa Gabbert on Joy Williams

Elisa Gabbert holds degrees from Rice University and Emerson College. Her recent work appears in Colorado Review, Pleiades, Salt
, The Laurel Review, Eleven Eleven, Meridian, Washington Square, and Diagram, and her collaborations with Kathleen Rooney can be found in Boston Review, Coconut, Caketrain, jubilat, No Tell Motel, and other journals. A chapbook, Thanks for Sending the Engine, is available from Kitchen Press, and a second, My Fear of X, is forthcoming from Kitchen Press in 2009. In addition, That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness, a collection co-written with Rooney, is available from Otoliths.

The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams

Knopf 2000

Six words that describe this book: Poignant, mystical, taut, quirky, wicked funny.

When I first read this book, I ... savored it in small chunks like expensive chocolate. I reread many sentences and paragraphs, like skipping back to the beginning of a good song. I read one chapter aloud to my boyfriend as though it were a self-contained short story.

When I finished this book, I ... was sad it was over.

This book will ... make you want a little daughter-child even if you hate kids.

This book ... unfolds like the best conceivable miniseries inside your brain.

A favorite quote:

Gratitude flooded Stumpp’s tired heart. Little precursor. Wee mahout. Form the mover of all things. Time mixed up, almost flew right past, the whole shebang. No need for time to be dark, could be bright, transcendent. Pickless, was it …

June 1, 2009

Michele Battiste on Emma Donoghue

Michele Battiste lives in NYC where she teaches for Gotham Writers Workshops and raises funds for Helen Keller International, a global health organization that fights blindness and malnutrition. Her first full-length collection, Ink for an Odd Cartography, was released in April by Black Lawrence Press.

Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins by Emma Donoghue
HarperCollins 1999

My friend Vanessa loaned me Emma Donoghue's Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins back in '99. I kept it. I wrote my name in it. I wasn't giving it up. Ever since I read Anne Sexton's Transformations, I've been a sucker for the re-telling of fairy tales, from Jon Scieszka's Stinky Cheese Man to Anne Rice's erotic Sleeping Beauty series (written under the pen name A. N. Roquelaure). But Donoghue does more than re-tell the 13 traditional fairy tales included in the collection, she reclaims them from the terrifying omniscient narrator (who always dictated just how a girl was supposed to behave as well as the miserable consequences of any deviation from that proscription), and gives the heroines their first-person voices.

Discussing the first night of the ball, Donoghue's version of Cinderella notes, "I refused a canape and kept my belly pulled in. Under the thousand crystal candelabras I danced with ten elderly gentlemen who had nothing to say but did not let that stop them. I answered only, Indeed and Oh yes and Do you think so?" It seems Cinderella also knows how a girl is supposed to behave, but she, like each of Donoghue's heroines, has the option to reject the patriarchally appropriate and to choose her own fate.

Even better than Donoghue's intent is her facility with gorgeous, sensual language. Opening a page at random, I come across, "I remember nothing of my early childhood except the odd glimpse of rust on a gate, butter in a churn. I knew what a town was, and a plough, and a baby, though I couldn't remember ever having laid eyes on these things." Luscious. Simple. Unapologetically possessive of the story (in this case, Rapunzel). The Brothers Grimm can suck it. These are my fairy tales.

Cara Benson on Marianne Apostolides

Cara Benson edits the online journal Sous Rature. Her book (made) is forthcoming from BookThug.

Swim by Marianne Apostolides
BookThug 2009

If ever there was a feminist beach read, Swim is it. Get ready for a Lacanian submersion in language as a swimming narrator seeks through strokes and breath a metaphor for her failing marriage. As slippery as water is the chronology as story surfaces and dialogue - did someone say that? - folds in the waves of the lines. Subconscious rises at great risk. Birth, betrayal, bite. Consider yourself warned.

1-blush astonish surrender pulsing count laps


3-rolled over to hug my partner

4-cause you to count your breathing

5-swims [I know it’s obvious, but boy…

6-blue wave

7-“Shush, she’d say, then read a story - spoken, soothing - the words not grasped as logic - discrete, defined - but rather as sound with rounded intention - offered as maternal/love, directly onto the body.”

Mary Biddinger on Banana Yoshimoto

Mary Biddinger is the author of Prairie Fever (Steel Toe Books, 2007). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Copper Nickel, Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, The Iowa Review, The Laurel Review, North American Review, Ninth Letter, Passages North, Ploughshares, Third Coast, and many other journals. She is the editor of the Akron Series in Poetry, and Co-Editor-in-Chief of the independent literary magazine Barn Owl Review. She teaches at the University of Akron and is the new director of the NEOMFA. She blogs at The Word Cage.

Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto
translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich
Grove Press 2002

Six words that describe this book: Japan, seaside, family, memory, intrigue, endings/beginnings (that’s one word, right?)

When I first read this book, I became startled when anyone spoke to me. Yoshimoto’s prose enters the reader imperceptibly, giving the sense that someone is whispering the story into your ear.

When I finished this book, I immediately reread the last third of it. I was not ready to let go. I’m still not ready to let go.

This book will make you hungry for things you never knew existed, and will put the uncanny echo of ocean waves in your head.

This book transports you to the seaside, even if you are thousands of miles from the shore.

This book is a pickled vegetable, the kind consumed by Yoshimoto’s characters. Impossible to judge through the packaging, vibrant when experienced, striking in its lasting impression.

A favorite quote from book:

The rocky shore was lined with little stands and shops that only stayed open for the summer. They were all boarded up, with an aura of emptiness about them that made you think of ghosts. Way out in the water the flags on the buoys were swaying vigorously back and forth, in time with the roar of the waves. The slight nip in the wind cooled our burning cheeks. We all bought sodas. The clunking of the vending machine in the night seemed to send a shiver of surprise across the entire pitch-black expanse of the beach.

Deviant Beach Reads

For all of us who learned, in retrospect, that a particular summer was the best summer ever, Banana Yoshimoto offers Goodbye Tsugumi, a novel of deceptive simplicity and lively intrigue. Like all of Yoshimoto’s novels, the world of Goodbye Tsugumi is strikingly real, even if the reader has never visited the Japanese seaside that serves both as backdrop and character. The protagonist of the novel is Maria, daughter of a single mother and a father who has just divorced his longtime wife. Upon leaving her seaside resort town home for the bustle of Tokyo, where her family will at long last be complete, Maria realizes how much she values not only the landscape and spirit of her hometown, but her enigmatic cousin, Tsugumi. Half sickly waif, half hell-in-a-handbasket, Tsugumi smashes onto the scene with a foul mouth, a penchant for cruelty, and a weakness for newcomer Kyōichi. As Maria returns for one final summer by the sea, Goodbye Tsugumi chronicles a last chance at reconnecting with family before adulthood fully sets in, with unforgettable characters as our guide. Always atmospheric and never dull, Yoshimoto’s prose is the ideal beach read to lose yourself in. Prepare to be hooked, and stash a copy of Kitchen, NP, or Lizard in your beach bag just in case.