Simone Muench/Photo: Joe Mazza/BraveLux
By Jarrett Neal
I sat down to dinner with Chicago poet Simone Muench to discuss her new collection “Wolf Centos,” a dazzling yet haunting volume of poems crafted in the Italian tradition of the cento: poems comprised entirely of lines from other poems. Employing the wolf as the primary symbol, these poems address and, indeed, awaken the primal sensibilities in all of us. Muench, whose previous collections include “Orange Crush” and “Lampblack & Ash,” shared the details of her craft, what excites her as a poet, and what makes “Wolf Centos” such a distinct collection.
What was the inspiration for “Wolf Centos”?
Brandi Homan led me to the form; Vasko Popa, Gabriela Mistral, and my childhood malamute Zach, helped guide me to the wolf.
What was your process in writing these poems?
I gleaned through numerous single-authored texts as well as many world anthologies and, in a similar manner to erasure, when a line would light my eye, I’d highlight it. I would go through texts and underline lines and phrases that sparked my attention. Once I was done underlining various lines that “called” to me, I would then transcribe them in a Word document, until I had hundreds of lines. From there I would start the act of stitching the lines together, tailoring something that made sense to me in terms of atmosphere, associative imagery and sonic latticework. Read the rest of this entry »
Amanda Palmer’s “The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help” is not about crowdfunding. Her TED talk covers that just fine. It is a love story about art, audience and the business of both, starring two men (a mentor and a husband), and one woman, Palmer herself. The indie cabaret pianist is not everyone’s darling. The internet routinely critiques Palmer’s privilege, patriotism, ableism, feminism. One person’s read of her as genuine and sassy is another’s self-absorbed and tone-deaf.
Palmer wrote a portrait of an artist in real time, an artist flailing in front of us, and when an artist flails, we can either point and laugh or we can learn something. Palmer’s book is a segmented essay of varying brilliance, covering an intensely rough year where her best friend and mentor Anthony is diagnosed with cancer and she deeply questions her marriage to Neil Gaiman because of his emotional distance and lack of dancing ability. Read the rest of this entry »
The first half of Miranda July’s novel, “The First Bad Man,” is fascinating and fresh. Cheryl Glickman is an eccentric loner with a rich imagination. She imagines the outcome of a romantic life she and a relative stranger might share. She feels a special connection with babies she calls “Kubelko Bondy,” and she has globus hystericus, an actual affliction that causes the sufferer to feel they have a perpetual lump in their throat. The gradual exposure of Cheryl’s lifestyle and inner thoughts is amusing and joyful. July infuses her writing with love and sympathetic humor. Cheryl says, “I didn’t explain that I was single. Therapy is for couples. So is Christmas. So is camping. So is beach camping.”
When Cheryl’s bosses put her in the uncomfortable position of playing host to their unemployed, ill-mannered daughter, Cheryl’s life is turned upside down. Her homelife is controlled by her “system” which is a complicated means she’s worked out to avoid devolving into despair. Largely, it involves extreme simplification. As Cheryl explains, “Before you move an object far from where it lives, remember you’re eventually going to have to carry it back to its place—is it really worth it? Can’t you read the book standing right next to the shelf with your finger holding the spot you’ll put it back into? Or better yet: don’t even read it.” Her unwelcome houseguest, Clee, throws this careful existence into chaos with her own slovenly practices, which mostly involve laying on the couch surrounded by trash and dirty clothes. Imagine how Cheryl recoils. Read the rest of this entry »
Jonathan Eig/Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux
By Toni Nealie
When you’ve had reliable contraception all your life, it’s easy to take it for granted. Now that politicians and religious groups are contesting women’s access to reproductive health care, “The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution” is timely. Jonathan Eig has written a compelling, frustrating and enraging account of activist Margaret Sanger, scientist Gregory Pincus, heiress Katharine McCormick, and Catholic gynecologist John Rock, and their race to discover a miracle pill. The group wanted to stop women dying from dangerous contraceptives, abortion, childbirth and exhaustion. They aimed to help couples plan their families and enjoy sex.
Eig, a former reporter and the best-selling author of “Luckiest Man,” “Opening Day” and “Get Capone,” was captivated by the individuals and the important story behind the pill. Crusader Margaret Sanger believed sex was good and that women should have more of it, but it needed to be separated from procreation. That’s where her lifelong quest began. Sanger and her supporters had to invent and test a workable hormone formula, raise money, build alliances and work their way around repressive laws banning information about birth control. Read the rest of this entry »
“Made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, imported to the USA” is how Richard Blanco describes himself in addition to being the fifth inaugural poet of the United States, and therefore, “the youngest, first Latino, first immigrant, and first gay writer to hold the honor.” After delivering three prizewinning poetry collections, he is now the author of the funny, humble and moving memoir, “The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood.”
Told through seven chapters, each focusing on a specific memory—a strategy that allows one to navigate very briskly through time—“The Prince of Los Cocuyos” is sheer delight. The setting is Westchester, a Miami suburb, during the 1970s and 1980s, and the Blanco household is a vibrant one, filled with rambunctious personalities: a father, an older brother and a grandfather; a brutally thrifty and domineering Abuela (a bookie for Cuban mafiosos) who is often at odds with a kinder, but no less fierce, version of herself—the author’s mother. These two women run the household, frequently sparring over housework, money and childrearing. Our little Riqui, in particular, is cause for concern. Abuela is determined to make “un hombre” out of him by driving his artistic spontaneity underground. She disapproves of his taste for architecture, confiscates art and coloring books, shames his affection for animals and keeps a constant watch for any signs of his burgeoning queerness: “(…) it’s better to be it but not act like it, than to not be it and yet act like it. By being it she meant being gay—un maricón.” Abuela means well, of course. Years of a hardscrabble existence as a Cuban exile have thickened her love but nevertheless, she causes great harm to her grandson’s psyche. Through the years, this relationship moves in and out of love and hate but there’s no denying that they need each other. Read the rest of this entry »
When Vivian Apple goes home after a Rapture’s Eve party, she finds two holes in the ceiling of her parents’ room, as if they were yanked out of this mortal coil, much like Bugs Bunny running straight through a door. “Vivian Apple at the End of the World” is yet another apocalyptic tale, but offers a fresh spin in this popular genre.
Vivian’s parents were “Believers,” followers of Pastor Frick, who predicted the Rapture. About 3,000 people disappeared on the predicted night. Vivian’s parents tried to convert her, but despite being the model daughter, she never believed in the teaching of the Church of America. “Believers” and the rest of the left behind assume that quickly following the Rapture of the most faithful, society will fall apart and the world will end. Amid the chaos and confusion as society does start to crumble, Vivian has the wits to follow her instinct and investigate what might have happened. She begins a cross-country road trip with her best friend, Harp, and a boy she met at the Rapture’s Eve party, Peter. Vivian and Harp’s friendship is the kind that inspires readers. Theirs is a fierce loyalty, the kind where one seventeen year-old can say to another, “I don’t want to be meek anymore. I want to be unstoppable.” The kind where they jump in the car and drive moments after the suggestion of the journey is made. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: John Freeman
By John Freeman
Newspapers may be dying, our publishing industry is at war with Amazon, but a bright spot remains in U.S. letters: the literary essay. In the past decade, writers known for other books and other work have begun working in the form that gave birth to the New Yorker.
These new essayists—from John Jeremiah Sullivan to Elif Batuman, Aleksandar Hemon and Daniel Alarcon—don’t come from the same boys club as the writers of the last heyday of the essay. They are unglossy, smart, deeply stylish and, with her debut collection of essays, “The Empathy Exams,” Leslie Jamison proves she will probably write her way into their company.
Jamison is hardly an underdog. She grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of a prominent economist, niece to the psychotherapist Kay Redfield Jamison. She attended Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is currently studying for a Ph.D. at Yale. Her debut novel, “The Gin Closet,” the tale of three generations of women and their tortured family history, received high praise when it appeared in 2010.
And yet it did not prepare readers for “The Empathy Exams.” Written over a period of many years, the book examines how pain both defines and defies us, and meditates on its role in empathy. The title essay recalls a period that Jamison spent as a medical actor, faking ailments in scenarios meant to test doctors of their diagnostic skills and their ability to demonstrate empathy. “Empathy isn’t just listening,” Jamison writes, “it’s asking the questions that need to be listened to.” Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Michael Lionstar
By Amy Friedman
Immigration is a hotly debated topic, though more often through the lenses of policy proposals and the scoring of political points than about the very real people involved. Cristina Henriquez’s new novel, “The Book of Unknown Americans,” works to bridge this gap by exposing the immigrant experience in first person, giving voice to those who are frequently spoken about or spoken for without actually being spoken to. The unknown Americans in her book narrate their own chapters, and in doing so speak to their unique cultural traditions and backgrounds that too often become muddled in the minds of native-born citizens. This narrative technique allows for the immigrant experience to come alive with a richness and complexity that routinely goes unsung in third-person accounts that have a tendency to cast immigrants as menacing outsiders rather than as integral members of the American landscape. Read the rest of this entry »
We’re all going to die, apparently. I’ve known enough of death to assiduously avoid thinking about it until it’s too close to ignore. The other week I visited a friend in hospice. He spent his last days holding court and watching herons stalk frogs in the wetlands beyond the windows. His room seemed more like a hotel than a hospital, with floor-to-ceiling glass and plush lounge chairs. A few weeks earlier he’d had a cough checked, now he was dying—or at least, now he knew he was. There would be no heroic efforts to prolong his life, just medication to enhance its quality. He talked about what he valued. He felt at peace. The next week, he was too tired for visits, so we talked by phone. Then he slipped into death. It was timely to pick up “Being Mortal” by physician writer Atul Gawande a few days later.
We all know the quip about the certainty of death or taxes, but still they creep up and catch us unawares. We don’t consider our life’s end thoroughly enough, asserts Gawande. He writes to “lift the veil” on the whole ghastly institutionalized business of illness, aging and dying, in order to refocus on what he believes to be most important—sustaining meaning in life. He wants us to have an urgent conversation about issues of autonomy and maintaining the integrity of one’s life, so we don’t lose ourselves at the end. Read the rest of this entry »
With the holiday season already in full swing, “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens’ yuletide story about surly old skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge, will once again be brought to life on stage and in countless TV movie adaptations. Yet most workers, in the wake of the Great Recession, can’t help but identity with Bob Cratchit, literature’s most put-upon worker. Given the devastation of both the national economy and the global economy, having a job and keeping a job, any job, has prompted many individuals to re-evaluate not only their work life but the very meaning of work itself. Creative writing has always provided fertile ground for such inquiries: fiction (“The Jungle,” “The Grapes of Wrath”), plays (“Death of a Salesman,” “Glengarry Glen Ross”) and the ragtag poetry of Charles Bukowski, Frank O’Hara and others, question our capitalistic system, the Scrooges who run it, and the value of what all workers do each day to earn a buck.
“Résumé,” Chicago poet Chris Green’s latest collection, takes readers on a contemplative journey through his hardscrabble employment history, which includes stints as a janitor, landscaper, adjunct poetry instructor, security guard and other wage-slave positions. The poems that comprise this slender collection explore the highs (such as they are) and plumb the depths of the catch-as-catch-can world of unskilled labor. Read the rest of this entry »