To read and write creatively is to live in a dreamstate, or so many would
Escape the Bear and Fall to the Lion
 *actively resists the urge to crest said ad on photoshop*
 One reason why I love poetry so much is that the subconscious is permitted to reveal itself in a less convoluted way in fragments and images without any need for context.
 FYI, your Moon sign is the second most important influence in your chart after the Sun and represents your emotions and inner mood.
I am not ashamed to tell you that I periodically look at job listings posted by all of the major publishing houses. This is a habit I started back in 2012, after graduating from college.
Despite being a massive cliche, I always wanted to be that young snappy bookworm in the Big Apple, drinking lattes at her desk and sifting through the manuscript slush pile for hidden gems. I still fantasize about this sometimes, and that is how I make my way to the career sections of publishing houses who will never take a second look at me.
Even when I was a magazine editor, I couldn’t get the likes of Simon & Schuster or Hachette Book Group to return my calls and emails about featuring their Naomi Judd books in our nationally syndicated publication (I’m almost over it guys, I swear.). So you can understand why I have never held out hope of actually getting a job at one of these places.
Even if such a prospect were to come to fruition, it wouldn’t be affordable or feasible in any way. Since 2012, every time I have checked these listings, the salary is the same: $40,000/year as an Associate Editor/Editorial Assistant living in New York City. I mean who in the H-E-double-hockey-sticks could survive off of that in a city with one of the highest costs of living? It’s pretty laughable, although not that shocking for a position in literary publishing. Funnier still are the job descriptions themselves, which toss around words like “managing” and other skills that are anything but entry-level.
But when I actually applied for several of these jobs after graduate school with both a master’s in creative writing and editorial experience at a literary press, communication was radio silent. Not even a thanks-but-no-thanks? Not gonna lie, that hurt my feelings a little bit. And, like a glutton for punishment, I still find myself perusing these job boards from time to time, which is how I came across something very unexpected (see image below).
I must have laughed for a solid 10 minutes at this. I mean, I’m just trying to picture my life as James Patterson’s editor (which, admittedly, is way too presumptuous). Like all I do, day in and day out, is read James Patterson while making line edits and coaching him through his manuscripts. After a good belly laugh, I began wondering what happened to the last editor? Seems like a pretty sweet gig so I can’t imagine they just up and left. There’s also something extremely meta about the mystery of James Patterson’s missing editor, don’t you think?
Part of me wonders if this has anything to do with the rumors swirling around Patterson’s writing technique, which allegedly involves a team of writers who formulaically churn out books like factory assembly lines. I have no idea if there is any truth to this gossip, but part of me wonders how anyone is capable of producing that much copy, going through the editing process, book design/layout, and having it out on the shelves so quickly (“up to 10 books a year”), but it’s certainly not impossible. I have witnessed as much on the production side of things.
Even though the listing came as a bit of shock, this is actually a great opportunity for any experienced mystery and/or thriller editors out there. What’s the weirdest job posting you’ve come across?
Something I’m asked fairly often is: “Why don’t you self-publish?”
In the moments following this question, I usually mumble some quick excuse and shrug the idea off because the truth is that my aversion to self-publishing is complicated. It’s not like I haven’t thought about uploading an e-Collection of work onto Amazon.com before.
I mean, why not, right? It’s modern, convenient, affordable, and you don’t need anyone’s permission or approval to do it. Nor do you have to fight through a massive slush pile to be noticed by publishers. Heck, you can bypass the publisher altogether, avoid book contest fees and months of waiting to hear back, and maintain creative control over your work.
As someone who has built a career in publishing as both an editor and as a writer, I believe my perspective diverges wildly from the majority of my peers, at least when it comes to legitimizing yourself as an author and legitimizing the work itself (both of which important are incredibly important to me).
So what exactly makes an author or a book “legitimate”?
If you’ve never sat down and thought about your own definition to this question, you should do so asap, and try not to overthink it either. Like snowflakes, no two responses are the same, and there is no right or wrong answer. Your beliefs and the standards you impose on yourself are completely subjective.
My personal journey through publishing and my lifelong academic pursuit in the field of creative writing have both come to define my somewhat high standards.
The truth is that anyone can publish an eBook, and I mean anyone. In fact, the first thing that comes to mind when I think about self-publishing is the endless wave of YA paranormal romance novels and sci-fi books with mediocre, redundant vocabulary as well as completely predictable story arcs, characters, and narratives, which began popping up after “50 Shades of Grey”. For writers in these genres, self-publishing makes absolute sense, and might even be the most optimal method of publication. What better way to get your work directly into the hands of readers in this incredibly competitive market?
Also, I don’t mean to knock these genres as a whole. I’m just not a paranormal romance novelist or much for sci-fi in my day-to-day writing. More importantly, for me to be taken seriously in the writing community I’ve built my life in, self-publishing just isn’t an option. Other people have to recognize your skill before you earn your place in the sun.
Industry & Incest
The circles I am referring to here are chiefly comprised of two main groups:
1) Higher Education
This includes a) insular MFA communities which are somehow still connected on a national level that often feels downright incestuous and cult-like; b) overall holier-than-thou ivory tower poets, fiction writers, essayists, professors and intellectuals; and c) university presses.
2) Small Press
Anything other than the five or so major publishing houses like Penguin, Random House, and HarperCollins is considered “small“ press. Even if the press makes millions of dollars a year, it’s not considered a major publisher. This leaves a pretty wide range of presses. Many though, don’t make much in the way of profit and are run by professors and/or well-to-do writers that supplement the press with their income.
The kind of publications that come out of these circles are the kind of publications that have limited prints, big community and award prestige, as well as zero financial return. This is this type of work that is created out of love and is often the most rewarding to read.
Only a douchebag would self-publish in such circles. However, it’s perfectly acceptable to start your own press to publish work from other writers you enjoy but never for the purposes of packaging and distributing your own work.
One benefit of small press is creative freedom. Editors rarely try to push the work in any way. Manuscripts are, for the most part, published as-is. This is also a space where you can push the boundaries of genre hybridity, which is awesome. However, you pay between $15-30 in reading fees every time you enter a book contest. While 99% of these fees go directly toward producing the winning book(s), most can’t help but feel like they just bought into a pyramid scheme, one which they have no hope of reaching upper echelons of.
Given the unspoken rule about self-publishing, insular community, and competitiveness of it all, an insidious type of nepotism results, despite the best efforts of the community to prevent such conflicts of interest. You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours (i.e., you publish my book; I’ll publish yours). This is something I quickly grew tired of in graduate school. When you begin to notice how those who are published are connected to one another and who the heads of these presses are, it’s a little disheartening. But, in a way, it’s not much different from the highest form of publishing.
“No one said life would be fair.”
In grad school, it was insulting if you were dubbed a “career poet”, which implied that you were a brown noser intent on schmoozing your way to the top because your writing couldn’t stand on its own.
The serious academics in my program didn’t really care about this insult though because, unlike the rest of us, they knew that anyone who wanted to get ahead in this industry, like it or not, had to network; also, that this practice was critical to becoming a successfully published author. And yes, of course, there are exceptions to this statement, but not many.
This is a fact I never much cared for. I grew up with this grand fantasy of some freckle-faced editor at a major publishing house randomly picking up my manuscript from the slush pile and, within a few lines of reading, them exclaiming to everyone within earshot that they’d just struck 14ct gold, thus propelling me into my new life as the next J.K. Rowling.
Unfortunately, publishing is neither fantasy or based on merit. It’s based on sales. If you’re an optimist, maybe it’s a little of both.
You and I may look at a book like “50 Shades of Grey” and balk or wonder how the hell so many people enjoyed a book that was intentionally written as “Twilight” fanfiction. But here we are in 2018 the year of our lord still talking about it. After growing in popularity, it was picked up by a subdivision of Random House, not because it’s a good book but because it’s popular. 50 Shades was a smart business decision that drove sales through the roof and led to a three-part movie deal.
And I’m reminded of this shit-eating lesson every time I open up my HBO GO app and see the image of Christian Grey teasing a blind-folded and tethered Anastasia Steele.
What can we learn about publishing from pop fiction?
Over the years, I have done my research on some of my favorite and relatively popular authors and discovered that most of them were not classically trained in writing. Many of these writers didn’t bother with the slush pile, not in small press and not in any of the major publishing houses. Instead, most of these people grew an internet following, publishing their work online for free initially, then releasing eBooks that actually made money, which is damn hard when your book costs $0.99.
The first real-life example I saw of this was both unforgettable and way too close to home.
As part of earning our master’s degrees, we had to teach at least one ‘Intro to Creative Writing’ course per semester, and we often discussed our trials and tribulations in the MFA lounge. One day, a classmate, who was already well-established in the small press fiction community, told me she had a young student in her class who’d electronically published one of those YA paranormal romance novels on Amazon.com.
I rolled my eyes at this. But when we went to look at the book profile, we were both shocked to see that the student’s book had been purchased and downloaded thousands upon thousands of times. There’s a metaphor buried somewhere in this anecdote that I don’t care to parcel out. Just know that it stung.
While part of me feels against self-publishing and also that it is the downfall of literary quality and integrity, as it allows the market to be shaped by popularity, I can also see the appeal of it. Moreover, the act of self-publishing feels like a reflection of my generation, a generation characterized by instant gratification and ADHD (which I have btw). However, if you take a closer look at us millennials, we aren’t just a bunch of tech-hungry, selfish, pick-me jerks. We are brilliant entrepreneurs who constantly find new ways around a system that benefits from our mindless complicity and financial participation, like weeds refusing to be left under concrete to wither and die, always finding a way to the light. Perhaps, self-publishing is merely an extension of this resilience as well as a refusal to be buried.
It’s that time of year again, folks — National Novel Writing Month! Of course, I didn’t remember this fact until today with a third of November already underway. Pretty standard for me though if I’m being honest.
For those who are unfamiliar with National Novel Writing Month, more commonly referred to as NaNoWriMo, this is an annual event held during the month of November that encourages creative writers to complete a 50,000-word manuscript in exactly 30 days, the equivalent of 1,667 words per day.
Now is when I confess to you that I have never participated in NaNoWriMo in any official capacity. The organization website has determined rules, deadlines, achievement badges, and so on. I merely adopted the concept some years ago and have since adapted it for my own creative purposes. However, if you struggle to write everyday and need that extra level of accountability, it may be useful to register with the site.
I tend to personalize my restrictions for the month of November around my desired goals with realistic expectations. As a full-time editor and part-time poet, it is not always feasible for me to write an extra 1,667 words per day. Sometimes I come home late too mentally exhausted to do anything other than stare into the abyss that is Netflix. Sometimes my partner wants to spend quality time with me and talk about the day. Sometimes I have to make dinner or go to roller derby practice or run out to the store or walk my dogs, etc. I think most of us lead incredibly busy lives, which is why many of us don’t write regularly or as often as we would like to in the first place.
To make matters worse, I am the type of person who will stop trying altogether if my goals are ridiculously unobtainable. It’s just who I am as a woman living with diagnosed ADHD and almost no free time. Sometimes I expect too much of myself. I am also in the habit of pushing the limits of my physical and mental capabilities. At my core though, I am my writing therefore this is one area of my life I refuse to ruin through exhaustion.
Being a poet is a factor in my self-imposed month of writing as well. For instance, 1,667 words per day is doable for most fiction writers, novelists, essayists, and those who write long-form pieces, but for poets — who tend to focus almost exclusively on the quality of words versus quantity and who spend hours agonizing over every single word choice/pairing — this can be excruciatingly difficult or even impossible to achieve.
Still, cultivating the impetus to write every day for an entire month, come hell or high water, is useful in creating new habits and making the follow through on deadlines less intimidating. “One day, I’ll finish that novel,” transforms into, “Today, I will finish that novel,” and this monumental shift in thinking is crucial to manifesting your dreams no matter who you are or what you write.
For poets, this may become an exercise in letting go. It is easier to edit/whittle down pages and pages of lines than it is to pull the perfect sequential line out of thin air while writing a poem.
A few years ago, after a particularly bad case of writer’s block, I decided to try writing from stream of consciousness during the month of November. The goal was to write as quickly as possible without pausing — the opposite of my writing practice at the time. The biggest problem I had then was my inability to forget the reader/audience while writing, which led to the belief that everything I put down on paper was garbage; if it wasn’t ready to be published the moment I wrote it down, I tossed it. This is why I decided to try something new, something that would help me bypass the part of my brain intent on shouting, “This sucks!”
I got the idea from Gertrude Stein who, early in her career, performed experiments on “normal motor automatism” — the practice of simultaneously dividing one’s attention between two intelligent activities, such as writing and speaking — which was theorized to reveal one’s subconscious in a literal “stream of consciousness.”
In the end, Stein didn’t believe “automatic writing” was possible, but her work often reflects a sort of primitivism in the repetition of phrases, unique linguistic patterns and experimental forms she chose that feels reminiscent of a stream of consciousness.
I thought about how Stein might have come up with “Tender Buttons” (one of my favorite works) and concluded that I couldn’t allow myself to stop and analyze what I wrote down under any circumstances. The result was a 70-page collection of poems that became key to my final thesis. In this way, NaNoWriMo can be utilized as more than just a way to create consistent writing habits or to finish that long-put-off novel; it can also be used as a period of exploration and evolution. I encourage anyone who missed the beginning of November to participate anyway. It’s never too late to begin a new writing practice.
Did I ever tell you about the time I did a writing workshop in Oaxaca? It was the week of Halloween, roughly two weeks after the students missing and the atmosphere was wild.
Oaxaca is a big destination for Dia de los Muertos to begin with. On top of that, the political unrest grew each day I was there. Near the end of the trip, I received an email from the US embassy saying Americans were being evacuated 7-8 hours away in Acapulco. When I woke up the next day, the building across the street was covered ingraffiti about the students. As the Day of the Dead drew closer, there seemed to be more and more police presence, and, consequently, more and more human-sized guns.
But before that, Oaxaca took my breath away. There were old churches, colorful buildings, and mountains everywhere. The food tasted like nothing I’ve ever had. Not once did I come across anything with preservatives. Juice was nourishing and fresh squeezed. Raw tomato was practically orgasmic. Yes, I did get a touch of Montezuma’s revenge, but it wasn’t anything a few shots of Mezcal couldn’t fix. Best of all, it wasn’t overpopulated with Westerners, and I ended up gaining some Spanish by the end of it.
The workshop (U.S. Poets in Mexico) itself was extremely valuable. I enjoyed working with Anselm Berrigan and Catherine Wagner the most. Wagner, in particular, had completely unconventional writing practices that shook the foundation of how I conceptualized craft at the time. This experience begged many questions I still ask myself today.
1) How many of us actually use our environment to write?
I’d say that most people write inside with their heads down. We cram our bodies into uncomfortable positions and rigidly pull on the depths of our imagination. Even if you sit outside to write or go to a different location, this stiffness is often still with us.
2) Now out of those of us that deviate from standard writing practices, how many of us use, really use, our bodies or movement to write?
It might sound counterintuitive, but that was the entire focus of Wagner’s workshop. Although it made me uncomfortable initially, this redirection opened up something in my writing I had never experienced before.
This came at a point in grad school when I felt myself repeating the same things over and over again in my work. I was at a standstill, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to write for another year.
A lot of grad-level worshiping involves crafting in private until you’re ready to show it to your peers who then evicerate it, which is valuable in many ways. But after a while, can make it impossible to forget about the audience during the writing process and make you lose touch with your love for it altogether. That changed for me after the workshop.
The first thing we did was engage each other by siting in a circle and playing word games. Someone would say a word and the next person would have to pick out the middle sound to begin anew. This is where I got my thesis title, “Louisiana Alchemy.” Later, we walked around the courtyard describing what we saw in our perspective notebooks.
My favorite exercise though went a little further when Wagner asked each of us to write a sonnet (14 lines). However, we had to incorporate a number, a color, a piece of architecture, and we could only write one line for every block we walked, and we were all sent in different directions.
Something about the timing of the block and being in this foreign landscape brought forth a well of inspiration. I stopped caring about the reader and felt that spark I used to get when I first started writing poetry in college. Some of my favorite poems (see 2 at the end of this post) came out of this experience.
Being a big fan of Wagner, it was also interesting to glean up-close insight into her writing practices. I had always wondered how she came up with such unique, phonetic verse. Everything for her was about movement.
This is also why I recommend finding a workshop where one of your favorite writers will be teaching or one that is put on by a press you love. Not only is it a great way to network, but it’s also a great way to learn exactly what you want to learn from the people you admire most.
Make it a goal to go somewhere you’ve never been before for this as well. As a writer, life experience is necessary for you to do what you do.
Although I went on this trip with a classmate and met up with an old friend who lived nearby, plenty of people go it alone and are ready to meet new writers. A friend may not have the same interests and may want to go to different workshops during this as well. You will also have the advantage of dedicating your time to the writers you came to see.
Where are your favorite writing workshops and what techniques do you still practice from them?
2 poems from the workshop:
The Big Bad Block
Writer’s block, listless lingua, poetic impotence—whatever you want to call it—I’ve been forcing myself to write through it for years now. After all, one of Hemingway’s most famous works, The Old Man and the Sea, came directly out of writer’s block.
But after years of writing through it, the results—a ton of first chapters, hundreds of unfinished poems, and a slew of half-hearted essays—are less than desirable.
Never in my life have I experienced writer’s block. I was always that ambitious student in the front row who could spin a tale from any assigned prompt, always volunteering to read it out loud at the end of class. So how did I get to this place?
- Exhaustion from professional reading, editing, and writing
- Writing endlessly through past trauma for creative purposes
- Pushing emotions down instead of using them as creative fuel
- Only looking at work through the lens of the reader
- Writing extensively sans passion/inspiration to beat the block
Hemingway may have been able to write through his soul-numbing creative drought, but I simply couldn’t do it anymore. Somewhere in the middle of grad school, the blank page became my enemy, reading felt like a burden, and I hated everything I managed to put into words.
What I’m talking about here is not your run-of-the-mill writer’s block. If it were, writing prompts, coffee shops, family squabbles, people watching, and a number of other random things would pull you out of it quickly.
I’m talking about something much more sinister. It is recurring exhaustion, disillusionment, existing in a mechanical or automatic state. It is going full-speed into Self-Deprecationlandia without any hope of resurfacing. It is the inability to find inspiration over prolonged periods of time, despite your dedication to “write through it.” It is losing touch with why you became a writer in the first place. No, what I’m talking about is longer and darker than standard writer’s block.
So how do you write through numb periods like this when the act feels on par with vacuuming a staircase or cleaning the toilet?
The simple answer is—you don’t!
When one of my undergraduate professors gave me this advice seven years ago, she changed my whole perception of writing and how it should be done. She said she went through periods of consumption and regurgitation. In other words, she took time to ingest lots and lots of media and mull over her thoughts before entering a long writing phase or working on a book project. This method is both obvious and sacrilegious at the same time.
So often as writers we are told to carve out a practice and stick to that schedule every single day, to write through writer’s block, and to, above all, never stop. In reality, I think this can be damaging to some of us.
At the upper echelons of academia, passion is inadvertently stamped out, while the pressure to publish, contextualize, and evolve reign. Production is never-ending. Some find this challenging and fun; others feel drained. Either way, you keep moving.
This professor’s advice permitted me to take a break from writing. And this professor is the only person ever to do so.
Rethinking Writing Practices
After so many years in this discipline, I no longer see the practice of writing in terms of black and white. Instead, I see it as a natural cycle or fluctuation. There are times when forcing yourself to write is helpful, even healing, and should be done. But that force can also reach a point of killing your passion for the craft altogether.
There is a timing and balance to writing that cannot be forced, which is why we find ourselves writing about childhood trauma decades later. You need enough emotion to power you through the act itself and enough distance to craft that feeling into something worth sharing with the world. You need time to analyze your emotions and the events in your life to fashion art from that.
Some write solely from raw emotion and experience, which many describe as reopening an old wound and letting it bleed. This type of writer also needs time to heal or practice self-care from time to time.
Even creative writing/lit professors take sabbaticals every few years to nourish their minds and spirits. While this suggestion goes against everything we’re taught as writers, I think it is necessary to say aloud. It’s okay if you have nothing to say right now. It will come to you later, and when it does, it will flow out in bursts. It will feel natural. It will not feel like a chore.
Most creatives have multiple interests, skills, and hobbies. Every time I put a pin in writing, I find it helpful to play piano, paint, crochet, draw, record songs using old poems as song lyrics, make gifts for upcoming holidays, take my pooches to the dog park, go hiking or to somewhere I’ve never been, research something I’ve always wanted to know more about, or take up a new hobby altogether. This provides a respite from the blank page while channelling other parts of your creativity, building your confidence back up, and giving you ample inspiration for your current or future projects.
It took three weeks of vacation for me to finally shake the last three years of writer’s block.
Spending time with my family, sleeping in my teenage bedroom, not pounding out copy/edits eight plus hours a day, watching my favorite sci-fi/fantasy films, and reading captivating books for the first time in ages all reminded me of why I do what I do and inspired a novel I truly care about finishing.
Forcing myself to write isn’t so bad—when I have something to say. Ultimately, inspiration and restfulness are paramount to my creativity and maybe to other’s creativity as well. Like medical treatments, writing practices aren’t one-size-fits-all. The most important thing is to listen to yourself and protect that well of creativity with everything you have. Don’t be afraid to experiment and find what’s best for you.
I’ve been reading dystopian YA for as long as I can remember…well, 2008. I used to find such pleasure in these types of books, but lately, I can barely make it through the first few chapters. The Hunger Games, of course, holds a special place in my heart, but I can’t shake the feeling that this niche has run its course.
A few weeks ago, I started The Selection by Kiera Cass. After all of the hype and best-of lists, I could barely contain my excitement when I opened to the first page…and then I began reading. It felt familiar. Too familiar. The book starts with an impoverished, female protagonist explaining the caste system in her world mid-manual labor. Her mother relies way too much on her, and a handsome, hardworking, family-oriented guy is in the picture. It’s at this point in the book that I decide to stop reading.
The next book I picked up is almost identical. Red Queen begins with a young, female protagonist pickpocketing for survival. Hot-guy-friend tension right out of the gate. World-building exposition.
While The Selection‘s cast system is defined by numbers (District 12 anyone?) and Red Queen by colors, it’s impossible to ignore the similarities. To be fair, I haven’t given either of these books a fair chance or read enough of either to know exactly how different they are – but I don’t really care.
The disappointing thing about this genre is how overtly formulaic it is now. In a sea of Twilight (2005), The Hunger Games‘ (2008) felt like a breath of fresh air. I remember thinking, “The writing isn’t all that great, but damn, I haven’t read anything like this before.” Yes, you can draw comparisons to Lord of the Flies, Battle Royal, and so on, but Suzanne Collins took the Twilight love triangle and smashed it to pieces.
Twilight was a particularly disturbing YA phase. While it isn’t a dystopian novel, it is a bleak look at the future of relationships. The female protagonist, Bella, is helpless, in an arguably-abusive relationship, and her biggest life decision is choosing between two guys.
Katniss, on the other hand, is completely self-sufficient, strategic, selfless, brave, and she doesn’t have the luxury of getting lost in her love triangle.
Pretty kick-ass protagonist, right? Not in 2017. Everything I once loved about The Hunger Games is what I now hate about the genre. There are a million Katniss Everdeens in unfair class systems with two hot guys, a crappy mom, and some kind of competition/game/selection to win.
All of this is a far cry from where dystopia started, which begs the question: at what point are these books making real, thoughtful commentary on society? Or are they merely capitalizing on the genre’s popularity and rendering dystopia meaningless?
Dystopia sort of makes sense for young adults. When you’re young, everything feels like the end of the world.
You may have noticed that in every YA novel the parents are either dead, abusive, absent, or flawed to the point that the protagonist must become self-sufficient, which is meant to reflect children’s disillusionment with their parents and the desire to grow up. And while the use of class as a conduit for teen angst is highly questionable, I can understand why teens connect so deeply with dystopia.
But can we please do something different?
As fun as Mardi Gras is, Louisiana has much more to offer in terms of entertainment.
Louisiana has been home to many celebrated authors, such as Anne Rice, Tennessee Williams, Kate Chopin, John Kennedy Toole, and Truman Capote. But there are some lesser-known authors and works that capture unique facets of this mystical state, which is marked by an incredible resilience, breathtaking swampscapes, and a long list of past traumas from the slave trade to the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina.
Here are 10 stunning books of poetry set in Louisiana(ish):
1. Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith (Coffee House Press, 2008)
While Smith isn’t a Nola native, Blood Dazzler remains one of the best poetry collections on Hurricane Katrina to date. With quiet fury and expertly crafted tension, Blood Dazzler takes the reader through the utter terror of wading and waiting through the storm. The cadence of the language and stunning imagery will blow you away too.
“Scraping toward the first of you, hungering for wood, walls, unturned skin. With shifting and frantic mouth, I loudly loved the slow bones
of elders, fools, and willows.”
2. Missing the Moon by Bin Ramke (Omnidawn, 2014)
A few years ago, I reviewed Missing the Moon for The Volta blog. There was a point in time where both Ramke and I lived in Denver. I approached him after a reading one night when his poetry struck me as familiar. “Are you Cajun, too?” I asked. “Yes, how did you know?” he said, and we proceeded to chat for the next few hours about our shared history.
Missing the Moon perfectly captures the insidious encroachment of Americanization that nearly destroyed Cajun culture after the Red Scare. Forced into the swamps, Ramke shows us how Cajuns belong on neither land nor water, speak neither French nor English, instead, remain displaced between worlds.
“I translate myself into myself—
sane phrases, words and words
Returning into Sabine Bay we would
stare forward into a horizon the dark
smear of cypress and palmetto not
yet arisen to separate sky from water
the shape of the boat a word…”
3. Book of Southern and Water by Emmalea Russo (Poor Claudia, 2013)
I stumbled upon this treasure when I was really homesick. In the midst of a 3-year masters program in Boulder, CO, over 1,300 miles away from LA, everything around me made me feel dislocated. The climate and culture could not be more different.
Reading this felt like coming home. Like being wrapped in humidity and warm rivers. Russo captures the Louisiana landscape the way one photographs someone they love.
“this is the bottom this is the bottom
the bottom of the country moist crowded
something like safe inside
the time it takes for skin to dry…”
4. Smoked Mullet Cornbread Crawdad Memory by Rain C. Goméz (Mongrel Empire Press, 2012)
When I first saw the name of this book, I thought: A) Could you repeat that? And B) A redneck definitely wrote this. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Goméz, a Ph.D. working within TransIndigeniety and Diaspora in Literary and Cultural Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Creative Writing, is a self-identified, Louisiana Creole mestiza with a stunning perspective. These prose poems illustrate a unique and underrepresented intersection of Louisiana. Plus, the book took home the Native Writers Circle of the Americas’ 2009 First Book Award in Poetry.
“The layers of my skin are made
From story and memory.
I am fashioned from the experience
I move in constant awareness that
This act of being was not easily won. “
5. Slab by Selah Saterstrom (Coffee House Press, 2015)
Originally from the Mississippi Gulf Coast (and the MS/LA border), Saterstrom was deeply affected by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. While post-Katrina Louisiana is often used as a backdrop for dystopian works, this collection of experimental, political, playlike, prose poems is undeniably one of a kind. Slab is a meditation on disaster. In it, we follow Tiger, a southern woman turned stripper. The decay left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina she must overcome represents the lingering post-Civil War deterioration of these Gulf states and serves as a call to action. Bottom in education, healthcare, infrastructure, crime, and overall quality-of-life, Slab refuses to romanticize or hide our wreckage.
6. Boy with Thorn by Rickey Laurentiis (Pitt Poetry Series, 2015)
“It’s the experience of being from a place and then, suddenly, that place being caused to changed—radically, quickly—such that in some ways it’ll never be what you remember it as again. So I want to say, like the military child, I’m at work to get back to this remembered home that, in some way, doesn’t anymore exist.”—Rickey Laurentiis
“Rickey Laurentiis’ debut poetry collection, Boy with Thorn, arrives at a crucial time in American literary discourse, engaging the oppressive and harmful legacies of our nation with clarity and intelligent critique. Laurentiis’ collection as a whole is honest in recognition of a life lived through violence. The reader must praise the landscapes in this collection, in the midst of its terror and destruction, for also producing Laurentiis’ lyric beauty and wisdom. His relentless recognition of personal truths and reclamation of narratives formerly silenced is an example of poetry at its highest form.” Yael Massen, MICROREVIEW: RICKEY LAURENTIIS’S BOY WITH THORN, Indiana Review.
7. One Big Self by C.D. Wright (Copper Canyon Press, 2007)
Louisiana is the prison capital of the world. “Compare Louisiana’s rate of 816 people per 100,000 with Russia’s 492, China with 119, France with 100, and Germany with 78…Louisiana has long been much more severe in sending black people to prison than whites, at least after black people were no longer slaves…Angola Penitentiary remains the largest maximum security prison in the United States. There are over 5000 prisoners at Angola alone. The average sentence for prisoners there is 93 years. About 95 percent of people serving time at Angola will die there under current laws.”—Bill Quigley, Louisiana Number 1 in Incarceration, Huffington Post.
After C.D. Wright, a renowned poet from Arkansas’ Ozarks, was invited by photographer, Deborah Luster, to Angola Prison, she felt moved to write One Big Self. Part prison portraits, part poetry, “the discrepancies between the photographer, writer, viewer, and inmate are multiple, blaring” (Wright). Many of these haunting images resemble Civil War-era, tintype, portraits of slaves. The message is clear, and the evidence—hard to deny.
8. The New Testament by Jerricho Brown (Copper Canyon Press, 2014)
Dripping with biblical nomenclature and gospel-like lyricism, The New Testament is an incredible, original collection of poetry. It is almost impossible to separate Brown, a self-identified gay man of color and Shreveport native, from the book’s narrator, which perhaps is the point. The text is imbued with intimacy, exile, ambivalence, struggle, and passion. Like Lucifer, the narrator is cast out of heaven, yet he finds small ways of coping, replacing the omnipotent “He” with a lover. “In the best moments, Brown weaves together strains of religious invocation with his uneasy identity as a southern, gay, black man into a beguiling self-myth.”—Craig Morgan Teicher, A Collection Of Poems That Offers An Unlikely Kind Of Hope, NPR
Psalm 150Some folks fool themselves into believing,But I know what I know once, at the heightOf hopeless touching, my man and I holdOur breaths, certain we can stop time or maybeEliminate it from our lives, which are shorterSince we learned to make love for each otherRather than doing it to each other. As for praiseAnd worship, I prefer the latter. Only memoryMakes us kneel, silent and still. Hear me?Thunder scares. Lightning lets us see. Then,Heads covered, we wait for rain. Dear Lord,Let me watch for his arrival and hang my headAnd shake it like a man who’s lost and lived.Something keeps trying, but I’m not killed yet.
9. You Good Thing by Dara Wier (Wave Books, 2013)
This collection doesn’t explicitly mention Louisiana or Katrina, but it is implied by the abundance water imagery and wild chaos of the text. Wier is originally from New Orleans. “Many of Weir’s stanzas draw a reader away from a recognizable world into one in which women waltz with bears, houseflies chat with colonels, and the absence of sound makes a material presence.”—Harvard Review
“You took the boat onto flattened waters./ White wall of blue morning fog to slip into./ You withstood what is was that was wailing you through./ There you were standing on nothing, looking down at two/ Blackfeathered slashes your two hands held on to.”
10. Flood by J. Bruce Fuller (Swan Scythe Press, 2013)
“Written by current Stegner Fellow J. Bruce Fuller, Flood is the kind of read that sticks with you, like the lingering floodwaters of a rain storm, like the water lines you can see when they recede. The book is split into two parts “1927” and “2005,” each indicating a different year when water altered the landscape and lives of the people of Louisiana. Fuller reaches into his family and personal history to tell stories of what is lost when waters rise, but also what one learns from experiences like this, such as in “The River Is In Us”: “Each of us is planted / in the earth for a time / when the river inside us / mouths open to the sea.”—Kimberly Ann Southwick, 3 Chapbook Reviews: Loving and Living in Louisiana, Ploughshares
And if she is angry
her belly constricted
by our levees
she will erupt
silt like ash
Most of us don’t start out reading Nietzsche, Kafka, or Joyce and with good reason—it isn’t fun!
When I was in middle school, I was obsessed with trashy romance novels (also, Harry Potter). My trashy tastes have since moved on to paranormal teen romance, which is weird because I essentially went from being a historical-adult-romance-reading teen to a paranormal-teen-romance-reading adult (funny how that works sometimes).
Now I don’t mean to put classic writers like Joyce down; after all, he gave us this gem: “The sea, the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea” (Ulysses). And he was one of the biggest literary pioneers of the 20th century, along with fellow modernists Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Kafka, and Lorca.
Yes, arduous reads are absolutely worth the effort. After all, these are the texts that transform you from ‘just proficient’ to master. These are the texts that make you reach and pull and grow intellectually. I don’t think anyone would bother to argue against their value. Yet, plenty of people like to police reading habits if they happen to include garbage books.
This is something I would never have admitted to my classmates in grad school, but I don’t think I would have ended up with an MFA had I not taken an interest in salacious lady-porn-trash in the 5th grade. That was the catalyst for my love affair with reading. Despite this knowledge, I found myself asking this question during and after grad school quite a bit:
Is it okay to read unchallenging, garbage simply for entertainment value?
Fuck yes it is, and here’s why:
1. Challenging reads never go away.
Academic track or not, you will have to read taxing things you don’t care about for the rest of your life. It’s just a part of our existence, so you might as well enjoy what you read in your free time.
2. It will keep you inspired.
All of us avid readers/writers got here somehow, right? Maybe it was trashy romance or some cheesy, predictable mystery series. Whatever it is, I believe deep-down that everyone loves to read, and I’ve found successful ways of getting adamant, self-proclaimed non-readers to love it. It’s just a matter of finding something you connect with. There’s a reason 46% of romance readers read 1 book per week compared to the 5 books a year the typical American reads.
3. You will discover what sells.
I will never forget this life-changing advice a professor handed down in graduate school: Don’t be too high-brow to find out what sells. Part of his success as a famous novelist is attributed to reading best-sellers. As a writer, it will benefit you to have a grasp of what readers and publishers alike want. And if you happen to enjoy the “research,” so be it.
4. It provides you with sweet, sweet relief.
There are tons of psychological benefits to reading what you like. Stress relief is at the top of the list. Other benefits include natural memory loss prevention, increased empathy, sleep aid, improved writing skill, plus it’s a cost-effective form of entertainment compared to movies and certain outdoor activities.
5. You learn from it.
Even trash has an editor. If you want to ingrain grammar, spelling, and new vocabulary into your brain, keep reading that trash. You’ll also pick up naturally on the formula of the genre you like, which will make it easier for you to plan and write your novel.
6. It helps you escape reality.
“There is no frigate like a book.”—Emily Dickenson
Escaping reality might sound a lot like running away from your problems, but it’s the exact opposite. How many of us have turned to reading and writing after trauma? Your parents’ divorce, a family member’s death, surviving a natural disaster, undergoing physical or emotional abuse—even the necessary act of growing up is traumatic to some extent. Reading helps us look outside of ourselves and process these emotions and experiences. It lets us travel through space and time when we’re destitute. It keeps us from feeling alone, even if we are.
7. It empowers us.
All sorts of sexist tropes exist in trashy romance novels, and yet tons of women feel empowered by them. In Why Smart Women Read Romance Novels, she says:
“Our society feels threatened by women having sex. Romance novels present the opposite view. Authors use sex scenes to present a healthy activity shared by two consenting adults who (in the end, if not at the moment) fall in love with each other. Heroines are sexually satisfied during each encounter. There’s a safe space to explore your fantasies and figure out what turns you on. Nothing dumb about that.”
This also goes for sci-fi novels with people of color protagonists, YA novels starring gay teens, and books like Crazy Rich Asians—one of the few novels straying from tokenism and asian stereotypes with western success. It’s kind of like Gossip Girl, but these kids put Serrena Vanderwoodsen’s and Chuck Bass’ fortunes to shame. The cool thing though, is that the book allows a large cast of asian characters to be vapid, hot-mess pieces of shit, which is pretty absent from mainstream media in the US. It also begs the question: Why are these types of works really considered trash in the first place?
8. “Good” is subjective.
What qualifies a book as “good”—or “bad” for that matter? You can check out the Goodreads and Amazon reviews or hit up the NYT bestsellers list to see what a whole bunch of people you’ve never met think. Perhaps, you should go with the literary canon pounded into you most of your life by people who’ve also had the literary cannon pounded into them?
Few acknowlege the gaping issues in the literary canon as well as the Modernist Movement I discussed earlier, which excluded black writers of the New Negro Movement (Harlem Rennaissance) at the time and appropriated West African art without citation because white writers considered this art “primitive.” (Yet they thought it was good enough to steal, lmao.) Yikes.
The point though is that it lacks inclusivity. When you can’t relate to a book, or you know your particular demographic is subjugated or excluded entirely, it makes it that much harder to enjoy. Make things simple and think for yourself. Just because your professor thinks it’s “good,” doesn’t mean they’re looking at the big picture.
9. Haters gonna hate.
If you’re in graduate school or a literary community, those in your coterie will try to shame you for reading trash. The high-brow, art school mentality is an unwitting tool of colonialism that ultimately limits the hater. But I digress. Don’t let other people decide what you should like because it will make you fucking miserable.
Let’s be real for a second though. Carrying trash around is embarrassing in these spaces. Can you imagine walking into an MFA student lounge with Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey in your hand? Or any space for that matter? Hell no! You might as well tape a “make fun of me” sign on your back.
Still, you like what you like so if you want to avoid embarrassment, do what I do—cover that shit up with a false book cover from a more revered title that no one will want to talk about. E-books are probably the safest option, but personally, I need to hold a book in my hands.
10. It’s fun!
There is no greater joy in life than reading a book you can’t put down. So engrossing you carry it with you around the house, the office, or wherever you go “just in case.” Or you dream about going home all day to be with it. So good you lock yourself in a closet with a flashlight so you can soak it all in without interruption. This kind of reading isn’t a fun acticity so much as an addiction—and it’s a high worth chasing to the very last drop.
Q: What are you reading?
A: Currently, I’m on Book 2 of the Hex Hall series, which follows Sophie Mercer, a teen witch in her first year of boarding school. Only it’s not your average school.
Hecate Hall, or Hex Hall (as it’s been renamed by students), is full of magical beings. Sophie isn’t sure how she feels about sharing space with werewolves, fairies, shifters, and vampires—but she doesn’t have much of a choice.
Aside from being banished to Hex Hall for the rest of high school after accidently revealing herself to humans, Sophie’s situation becomes more unpromising when young witches begin turning up dead. And there are no leads as to who the killer might be.
What’s your favorite trash? Comment below to tell me what you’re reading!