Archives

Carlos Gamerro@Grinnell

You might be forgiven for thinking this blog has become a Writers@Grinnell column, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but fear not, I can promise some more varied content soon. In the meantime, the next writer I saw at Grinnell was Argentinian novelist Carlos Gamerro, who is an International Writing Program resident at the University of Iowa this fall. He taught a short course at Grinnell on the vanishing narrator (which reminded me of Philip Pullman’s fondness for the omniscient narrator, which he touched on in this wonderful recent interview). As he explained it at the reading, Gamerro’s class was on the historical progression from omniscient narrators to forms of storytelling without a narrator at all.

At his Writers@Grinnell event, Gamerro read from his latest novel, Cardenio. In fact the excerpts he read were dialogues, so he and Dean Bakopolous of the English Department read them as though they were scenes from a play. Cardenio is a character in Don Quixote and presumably the eponymous hero of a play, Cardenio, written by Shakespeare and his contemporary, John Fletcher. The play was lost, but Gamerro’s novel centers on John Fletcher and the writing of Cardenio. The scenes they performed for us were mostly comic exchanges between Shakespeare and Fletcher, as Fletcher tried to convince him it was worth writing a play from this material, and between Fletcher and Thomas Middleton, another playwright who has written his own Cardenio in two days and wants Fletcher to buy it, lest Middleton have it released before theirs.

Gamerro introduced these lesser-known English playwrights with not a little enthusiasm. He described how Fletcher and his friend and collaborator Francis Beaumont lived together, wrote plays together, shared their clothes, and shared the same girl, Joan. All three lived together in a happy ménage à trois (this was how I interpreted it, at least) until Beaumont decided to make a good marriage and left. Gamerro made it sound like Fletcher was left bereft. Poor fellow. He also told us Fletcher had written a play, The Tamer Tamed (the full title seems to have been The Woman’s Prize, or the Tamer Tamed), a perhaps rather feminist follow-up to Shakespeare’s nowadays reviled The Taming of the Shrew.

According to Gamerro, there is evidence that Fletcher knew Spanish and thus read Don Quixote before his compatriots, though the first English translation was produced relatively early. Gamerro said you can hear the Spanish in this first translation. Interestingly, to prepare to write his novel, Gamerro immersed himself in primary sources of the time. He decided this was the best strategy after being frustrated by the clearly false generalizations being made in works of history on that era: “We want to think the past is much more homogenous than the present.” He consumed lots of English plays from the late 16th and early 17th centuries, till the language and the way people spoke began to come to him. He resolved to at least write a first version of his novel in English, even if he didn’t publish it. From what I can gather, the first edition of Cardenio is Gamerro’s own Spanish translation of the novel he originally wrote in English. The reading was from the English version.

I find it interesting when writers write in a language other than their first, or other than the language they typically write their original drafts in. There are so many reasons to do it. Jhumpa Lahiri writing in Italian comes to mind, and François Cheng. I’ve written a few original works in French, most of which I then tried translating into English, and I think I always preferred the French version. One example, from a long time ago, is “L’orchestre de Jénine,” which appeared with its English translation in an issue of Voyages, Swarthmore’s journal of original works and their translations. Writing in French isn’t something I do regularly, though; I think it has to spring from a specific impulse, and I don’t get many such impulses.

Kaveh Akbar@Grinnell

A couple of weeks ago, I went to another poetry reading. (I don’t even go to all the Writers@Grinnell events! Just…most of them.) It was in the evening; earlier that day I’d been to Kate Manne’s scholars’ convocation on epistemic entitlement, mansplaining, and gaslighting. Somebody I went to college with is now Kate Manne’s advisee and had always spoken highly of her, and the talk and, especially, the following Q & A were excellent. I am rather enjoying being at a small liberal arts college again, where I might see the same people at a philosophy talk in the morning and a poetry reading in the evening. But anyway!

The poet was Kaveh Akbar. In his introduction, we learned he writes an advice column for The Paris Review, in which he prescribes poems to suit the letter writers’ particular needs. He also told us early on that when he was young he read Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote thinking it was the novel on all those lists of Novels You Must Read.

That evening, he told us he would mostly be reading new stuff. He had a sheaf of papers in his hands. After the first poem, he added that by new stuff he meant work from the past couple of years or so. The first poem was entitled “How to Say the Impossible Thing.” He said it was the only poem he’d written in the last six months, and this was the first time he’d be reading it in public. So, how does one say the impossible thing? The first word of the poem was “plainly.” There was another line I noted: “I don’t trust myself.”

Akbar had told us he’d also be reading some poems by Not Him, and the first was one by Suji Kwock Kim. I had to look up the title, but it’s “Fugue.” The poem is about the birth of a child, and I was struck almost from the beginning by the magic of wordsmithing, how the right words combined the right way, by their sound and their meaning, create the most perfect phrase or image. That “skull-keel and heel-hull” is almost tactile. And then there was the line, “Memory, stay faithful to this moment, which will never return”; I doubt I’m the only one to relate to wanting to hang on to a beautiful moment, to be assured of never forgetting any detail of it, because it’s already so precious as it’s happening.

The last poem he read was a long one, “The Palace,” and so he invited people to lean their head on a neighbor’s shoulder (with enthusiastic consent, of course). Danez Smith issued a similar invitation to hold hands when he read his last poem of the night. The lines that struck me most in “The Palace” were: “Mistyping in an e-mail I write, / I lose you so much today, / then leave it” and then the reprise at the very end: “Lose me today, so much.”

In the lovely Q & A that followed the reading, somebody asked Akbar about writing as a lonely pursuit. He said, “I am a person who can be lonely at a table of friends.” Then he said (and I’m passing over swaths of his answer) that art is defamiliarization, and that loneliness, that not-being-among, gives one a vantage point that’s really useful to an artist. Some amount of loneliness is essential, but you have to learn how to harness that loneliness (and also take care of yourself).

A religious studies major asked him about religion in his poems, and he talked about praying in Arabic with his family as a child, reciting in a language that none of them spoke. Today, he sees poetry as having the same function as those prayers did, namely, thinning the membrane between oneself and the divine (however that’s interpreted). Someone else asked him how he viewed the poems in his first collection now, and he said that anyone who’s ever written a book will tell you they’re not the person who wrote that book by the time it’s actually a book. He sees his older work as a portal to a person that he was. I’m not sure I feel that as strongly, but certainly I can see how the stories I’ve written in the last couple of years reflect facets of my life in that time.

Danez Smith@Grinnell

One of the perks of being at Grinnell is getting to experience Writers@Grinnell, the English department’s visiting author series. The first visitor this year was the Minnesotan poet Danez Smith. I’m often not much of a poetry person (whatever that means), though occasionally I’ll stumble upon a poem that really resonates with me (see Gina Myers’ “Memorial”), but I was interested in Smith’s visit because 1) they’re from Minnesota and 2) their next poetry collection, coming out next spring from Graywolf Press, is about friendship.

Another new professor told me she was going to the afternoon roundtable, so I decided to go too, though I wasn’t sure what to expect (I was hardly going to participate in a craft discussion about poetry!). It turned out to be a Q & A with mostly students (as it should be). Now, going in, I thought I’d never heard of Danez Smith before, but as they opened the roundtable by reading one of their poems, I was suddenly certain that they had written a poem I’d discovered a few years ago and loved. It was about being in California and missing the Minnesota cold (and something deeper). Later I checked, and I was right (but I’d been certain); the poem is “I’m Going Back to Minnesota Where Sadness Makes Sense.”

Smith kept reading, and the poem mentioned Hague St., and I started because when I lived in St. Paul I lived on Hague Ave., and Smith was from St. Paul. Was it…?

After reading one more poem (with audience participation), Smith fielded questions from students. The following are some bits of answers I liked best or found most intriguing (filtered through my memory):

  • Joy is hard to make special. So maybe this is why there’s less writing about happiness?
  • You should write about the things you think you’re avoiding because good writing is dangerous.
  • At the same time, while you find your voice in the place that scares you, you also find it in the spaces where you feel safety, love, and intimacy.
  • Your best work should surprise you.
  • Poetry is about being immortal, not inaccessible. (That is, poetry shouldn’t be abstruse work produced by members of a small elite for one another.)
  • They said they were excited for their next book, Homie, because it was going to force people to ask them about their friends (among other things).

In the evening, I went to Smith’s reading in the auditorium at Hotel Grinnell. It was very well attended, and this being a small town and a small college, I recognized all sorts of people I’d met in the less-than-a-month I’ve been here. They came from all manner of departments too. (I think this reading encapsulated exactly what I meant when I tried to express what appealed to me about small liberal arts colleges to faculty search committees!)

The reading was lively, powerful, alternately raucous and still, and Smith had no trouble engaging us all. Among the most memorable poems was “my president,” about all the people they would be proud and happy to call their president (celebrities, family members, and so on). Sometimes I felt like Smith was not talking to me, that I was on the outside looking in, because I’m not black, but this felt right in a way, because not everything we say is for everyone.

The most moving moment of the night, for me, was the reading of the last poem. Smith said they’d posted on social media asking people to give them a very brief description of when they knew their best friend was their best friend. I believe the responses fed into the poem, which is entitled “acknowledgments.” It was funny and beautiful and poignant, and I loved it.

A Cupcake Zine and Maia Kobabe at Book Soup

Last Sunday was the July zine workshop at the West Los Angeles Regional Library. Last month I mentioned I was working on a new zine that I hoped to reveal soon, and this month I finished it! A Cupcake ATM Misadventure tells the true story of what happened when I tried to use the cupcake ATM at USC at this year’s LA Times Festival of Books.

From the zine workshop, Isabelle and I took the bus to Book Soup, a bookstore on Sunset Blvd. Maia Kobabe and Samuel Sattin were there to talk about their recent comic books. They were joined by their respective collaborators, Phoebe Kobabe and Ian McGinty. Maia and Samuel met as members of the guinea pig cohort in California College of the Arts’ comics MFA program. Isabelle and I had discovered Maia’s zines at Comic Arts LA in December, and I was interested in eir debut book, the graphic memoir Gender Queer.

The event was pretty intimate, and the authors seemed to know a lot of the attendees. Maia and Samuel kind of interviewed each other, with Ian and Phoebe contributing their thoughts. They discussed the genesis of their books, the comic making life (taking care of your body is important too!), time management, themes (identity, climate change, anti-capitalism), and trusting that the time you’re investing in creating art rather than, say, registering voters is still worthwhile. (Or is it? Sometimes I wonder… Sarah McCarry’s diamond-sharp expression of a certain kind of hopelessness hit home this week.)

Afterward, I asked both Maia and Phoebe to sign my copy of Gender Queer, and I gave Maia a copy of my just completed A Cupcake ATM Misadventure. By the way, this zine, with all the others, is available to be printed under Other Writing.

Kittens and Commencement

Earlier in June, Adam, Iara, Isabelle, and I visited the Tiny Beans Kitten Lounge, a summer pop-up offshoot of our local cat café, in downtown Los Angeles. The kitten lounge, just a few blocks from the Last Bookstore (which Isabelle and I stopped by beforehand), was very small and decorated like the bedroom of a small child who loves pastel colors, rainbows, unicorns, and cotton candy. It was also full of two- to three-month-old cats of every stripe and color. Some were playful while others just wanted to snooze next to our bags. Though I tend to prefer adult cats, I had to admit they were pretty cute. And since it was a Monday afternoon, the four of us had the lounge to ourselves.

Kitten

A few days later, I walked in the UCLA Doctoral Hooding Ceremony and graduated with my Ph.D. After 10 years of postsecondary education, I am no longer a student! It’s funny to think that, of all the schools I’ve attended, UCLA is the one I spent the most time at. My parents, brother, aunt, and cousin came to Los Angeles for the ceremony and met my committee.

Me, a newly-minted doctor, and my brother (photo by my aunt)

After commencement, we explored LA, visiting many of our now favorite haunts (the Getty Center and the Getty Villa, Topanga State Park, the Huntington). My parents and I went to the Griffith Observatory and saw Foucault’s pendulum and took in the panoramic views. With my family and a couple of friends, I also visited Mission San Juan Capistrano and Laguna Beach again.

A water lily at Mission San Juan Capistrano

My time in Los Angeles will be coming to an end this summer, and amidst all the busyness I hope to fit in some last firsts and bucket list items. The most interesting should find their way to this space!

Agave Baroque, Etc.

Summer is here! What have I been up to since spring break, besides defending my dissertation? Well, I can safely say I’ve finished my doctorate; I graduate tomorrow! I also went to the LA Times Festival of Books and YALLWEST, which were fun, but I wonder whether I’m starting to get author paneled out… I went on a couple of top secret trips to the Upper Midwest; sooner or later the outcome of those trips is likely to become clear.

In between said trips, Isabelle and I went to a wonderful concert at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, which is part of UCLA but is located in the West Adams neighborhood. The Clark houses a rare book and manuscript collection and hosts UCLA’s Center for 17th- & 18th-Century Studies’ chamber music concert series. We had actually been to the library before, for a performance combining piano pieces and personal storytelling. This time, the performers were Agave Baroque, a San Francisco-based ensemble, and the countertenor Reginald Mobley. Apparently it was the first time a singer had ever participated in this concert series.

The Clark Library (check out that theorbo!)

The program was devoted almost exclusively to the extended Bach family. I’m a big Baroque music fan, so I enjoyed the whole concert, but I was especially excited for the penultimate piece, the chaconne “Mein Freund ist mein” from the cantata Meine Freundin, du bist schön by Johann Christoph Bach. I had stumbled upon this piece on Youtube, searching for music by J. C. Bach, as one does, and I loved it. (Amusingly, for the title of the cantata Google Translate gives “my girlfriend you are beautiful.”) I should’ve realized sooner the text was from the Song of Songs. The organist told us the cantata had been composed for a Bach family wedding, but it was a Lutheran wedding, so the piece was in G minor. In any case, it was as wonderful as I’d hoped to hear the chaconne performed live. I was surprised to understand some German I had never caught before, just listening to a recording.

The title given in the program for the final piece, also by J. C. Bach, wasn’t familiar to me. It was “Es ist nun aus mit meinem Leben” (Google Translate: “it’s over with my life now”). The organist said the song was about death, but it was happy (can anyone say shape note?). As soon as Reginald Mobley began to sing, though, I recognized the piece, which I knew as “Welt, gute Nacht.” It’s very beautiful and soothing, and I was delighted to hear it performed live too.

The next evening, I got to see Rachel Hartman (of whom I am unabashedly a fan) and Fran Wilde at Children’s Book World, the bookstores where I held my Los Angeles release parties. I’d enjoyed Fran Wilde’s Updraft, and she was touring for her newest book, an MG novel with a protagonist named Eleanor! She also had a stamp of a witch ball, which she was using in signing books. It was lovely to see Rachel in person for the second time and catch up a little. She was promoting her extraordinary Tess of the Road.

At the end of May, Isabelle and I went to the LA Zine Fest at the historic Helms Bakery in Culver City (the official baker of the 1932 Olympic Games). We discovered some new-to-us zinesters, saw artist Maggie Chiang in the flesh, ran into Jackie Lam, whom we knew from the West LA Burrito Project, and donated some zines to other branches of the LA Public Library.

Speaking of zines and the public library, last Sunday we went back to the zine workshop at the West Los Angeles Regional Library. I kept working on my latest zine, which I hope to finish and reveal soon, and we found that some of our previous zines were now on shelves in the library’s collection!

Mobile Museums and Rare Books

Earlier this month Isabelle and I went to the Mobile Museum Fair at the Los Angeles Central Library downtown. The fair brought together a couple dozen exhibits and libraries, from the International Printing Museum‘s printing shop on wheels (which we’d once seen in front of our building on campus) to the Feminist Library on Wheels to a native plants pop-up seed museum. The trucks were lined up outside the library on 5th Street while other exhibits were scattered throughout the library’s halls and meeting rooms.

We’d heard there would be tours of the Rare Books Room, and we were lucky enough to snag the third and fourth spots out of twenty for the second and last tour. After signing up, we visited the Connecting Cultures Mobile Museum, which featured a large collection of masks and musical instruments from around the world. On a table in the middle of the room were a handful of instruments you could play, including a few thumb pianos, a guitar, and something Isabelle thought was a guzheng. She showed me how to pluck it. On the walls were many more instruments: balalaikas, an erhu, a kora, a hulusi, a banjo, a violin… There were also the masks, but I was more into the musical instruments.

Part of the instrument collection, including Scottish highland pipes and the violin-like hashtar from China

We checked out the museum trucks outside and visited the Department of Recreation and Parks’s eco trailer, with stuffed wildlife from the Santa Monica Mountains. Inside the library, we also saw the screen printing station in the courtyard, a couple of mobile libraries, a mastodon skull, and volunteers cuddling a tegu (a very big lizard) and a snake. Later on, after the Rare Books Room tour, we arrived in the rotunda just as the inflatable planetarium was toppled. We examined the seeds and seedpods at the seed museum and then took a quick look around the 21 Collections exhibit in the Getty Gallery.

Fox in the eco trailer

At four o’clock, those of us who had signed up for the tour were taken up in an elevator to the Rare Books Room, where we were welcomed by Xochitl Oliva, Senior Librarian of Digitization and Special Collections. Now, I received Susan Orlean’s The Library Book for Christmas, and I had finished reading it shortly before the Mobile Museum Fair. Orlean’s book is about the history of the Los Angeles Public Library and, in particular, the central library, the building that houses it, and the 1986 fire that destroyed hundreds of thousands of books there. She also writes about a number of current library staff, and Oliva is in her book! Reading it also gave me much more context for this visit to the library; the only time I’d been before was with Mike the Poet over two years ago.

Alice in Wonderland, illustrated by Salvador Dalí

Oliva oriented us to the library and then spoke about each of the pieces from the collection that had been selected and set out for display on two wooden tables in the center of the reading room. There was a large-format edition of Alice in Wonderland with illustrations by Salvador Dalí. There was the oldest book in the collection, a 13th century Latin manuscript from the priory of Nostell in England. There was a Shakespeare Fourth Folio, a page from a Gutenberg Bible, a map depicting California as an island, a Sumerian temple dedication cone with a cuneiform inscription (the oldest item in the collection), and samples from the library’s collections of menus and fruit crate labels.

The oldest book in the special collections, a 13th century Latin manuscript from England