Saturday, May 27, 2017

Denis Johnson, R.I.P.

     In general-education contemporary literature courses, I almost always taught Denis Johnson's "Emergency," and would often show the dramatization of the knife-in-the-eye scene with Jack Black as part of the film adaptation of Jesus' Son. I'd focus discussion on the three real or faux rescues or "life savings" in the story--the man with the knife, the rabbits, and the A.W.O.L. "boy" Hardee being driven to Canada, but I'd try to make time for Johnson's famous lines about the past as a rolled up scroll. Often I'd compare and contrast the role of substance use and abuse in the story to others such as Robert Stone's "Helping," Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," and Raymond Carver's "Cathedral." Once or twice I played the Lou Reed song "Heroin" that I assume the title of the Johnson collection came from. It wasn't until today that I learned that Johnson's story collection was partly inspired by Isaac Babel's Red Calvary stories, and, well, that is so cool. 
I like Jesus' Son and Angels, but Denis Johnson, great writer, was never my favorite. I believe I found Angels on my own as a Vintage paperback the winter I earned $8.00 per hour to be the manager of a remainders-only seasonal bookstore. I always enjoyed--and saw it as irony--that Philip Roth blurbed for the book because I don't connect Johnson with Roth, and I doubt you would either. I also found Exley's A Fan's Notes with his two others there, and the guy who trained me pointed out that I should grab a hardcover in a case of Chaim Potok's The Chosen, although I'm almost positive that to this day, I've seen the movie but haven't read the book.
Back to Johnson, I always thought it was somewhat of a cliche, all these 20-something MFA dudes high-fiving at AWP, "Drugs, confusion, and beautiful language. Man, Jesus' Son understands me." And I wonder if anyone who shows up online or at AWP as a publisher gets at least a dozen queries a year, maybe a month, that liken the possible collection to Jesus' Son.
Anyway, Johnson was a prolific major award-winner and seemingly financially successful, both as a writer and as a publisher, which makes it all the more bizarre, and makes me wonder if the guy even existed, or if he just showed up as our hallucination of what a writing life could be like in America.
I've never read Tree of Smoke, and I didn't realize that it would win the National Book Award when I read a superficial review trashing it as a joke, and I wonder if the writer of the review, B. R. Myers, is embarrassed to offer such a petty unjust reading of the book to the world. Or is this part of the price of fame? Was Johnson happy and successful enough at that point that he could laugh off a negative review? Or would it bother him even then? I don't know, but an online obituary says he never read them. It's tempting to track down Myers and see what's become of him. He's probably just working his ass off to survive as best he can.
Johnson: Great writer. Dead writer. . . what else?
Most likely a guy impersonating Denis Johnson once tweeted back to me something clever, but I can't remember what he said. Thankfully I can search, find, and add the link here. It's the two "n"s in his first name that leads me to believe he's a phony, and the response seems to have been to a Maurice Blanchot quotation: "This feeling of. . . uselessness of what I am doing is linked to this other feeling that nothing is more serious." But in fact, that was my response, and the original twonversation was about a typo, "distruption."
Somewhat in silly tribute, I'm reading and enjoying Train Dreams now, and Johnson, or our countrymen or even our ancestors, tortures an unlucky "Chinaman" in the opening scene, although the rail worker dangles, leaps, and survives. No doubt Johnson saw the United States very clearly. I'm glad the book is short, so I can do something to acknowledge his passing that doesn't take too much time away from the half zillion things I should be doing. Denis Johnson has passed on, but you and I are still here.

Friday, May 26, 2017

underground Persian poetry scene

Underground poet Iraj Fereshteh introduces us to ten voices from the margins composing poetry in contemporary Iran:

I slightly deviate from the routine of your page and, instead of providing a list of my favorite Iranian poets, introduce some contemporary Iranian poets less read in North America. My main criterion for these choices is how successfully the poets’ works have created space for new voices and expressive forms in Iranian poetics. What these writers have achieved is immense in that their contributions have occurred despite censorship at home and the discomforts of exile abroad. 

I recommend reading:

Granaz Moussav as a token of thousands of women poets in Iran, who have created a formidable voice in the country’s literary scene.

Maryam Hooleh for her formalistic experiments, especially for her aggressive, impatient, fragmented flooding metaphors. Also, for the multicultural multilingual (Kurdish-Persian) fabric of her poetry.

Fateme Ekhtesari for her postmodern ghazal movement (along with other post-ghazalists): for her modernization of the aging Persio-Arabic form Ghazal, and as importantly for re-popularizing the genre among the youth and hence generating thousands of young poetry readers.

Leili Galedaran for her “action poetry” and dramatizing her feminist language poetics on stage.

Saghi Ghahraman as an example of tens of Iranian queer poets, documenting the experiences of the LGBT community and constructing a strong contemporary Persian queer poetics—contributing to a several-century-old tradition in Persian literature.

Mohammad Azarm for elevating the earlier schools of Persian language poetry to higher levels by underlining the spatial and visual aspects of language, both on paper and on stage in his “performance poetry”.     

Ali Ghanbari for his genre games, blurring the genre lines between poetry and prose, and creating new genre possibilities in Persian poetry. 

Sasan Sheibaninejad for his postmodern “collage poetry”, in which he re-mixes ancient Iranian poetry with today’s language and decorates his contemporary poetry by sampling old masters’ words.       

Ali Abdali for his digital poetry and for code-composing Persian poetry into thought-provoking multimodal forms.

Reza Pishro as a voice from the powerhouse of Iranian hip hop. And because he dropped out of primary school, had no formal education when growing up in the street alleys of homelessness and addiction, yet today his audio texts are consumed by thousands—if not millions—of youth men and women.              

Iraj Fereshteh is an underground Iranian poet composing digital and found poetry. Follow the links here and here to listen to his poetry.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Winter, 1965 by Frederic Tuten

I enjoyed "Winter, 1965" by Frederic Tuten, which I chanced upon collected in the O'Henry Prize Stories 2016 and read in the library on a rainy morning this past week. Although it's a cliche for writers to write about the sad doubting lives of literary writers, it's also a cliche to criticize these same stories about writers. In any event, in the right mood, I'm a sucker for such tales, particularly if they have mention of critics past such as Philip Rahv while unpublished, alienated writers read Celine, fret, and ponder their future. 

It made sense that "Winter, 1965" would find me because in the few days before landing on it, I'd been mulling over the opening paragraph of Celine's Death on the Installment Plan

Here we are, alone again. It's all so slow, so heavy, so sad. . . I'll be old soon. Then at last it will be over. So many people have come into my room. They've talked. They haven't said much. They've gone away. They've grown old, wretched, sluggish, each in some corner of the world.

But for now, not yet old, I move along to other literary things.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Top Ten Russian Novels!

L.U.S.K. is excited to feature a guest post from Aisha O'Connor-Fratus, writer, editor, parent, and blogger at Hell's Domestic Backside. Enjoy this list of Aisha's ten favorite Russian novels:

1. Anna Karenina (Lev Tolstoy, 1873 to 1877). Anna is rich and bored. Anna hates the way her husband chews his food. Count Vronsky—played by Christopher Reeve, so handsome) sweeps Anna off her feet! But things do not end well for Anna.

2. The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1880). Not about a traveling circus acrobatic troupe. Its sweeping explorations of God, free agency, and morality are timeless and haunting. My favorite part is Ivan’s reciting of the poem “The Grand Inquisitor” in which Christ is resurrected during the Spanish Inquisition.

3. Crime and Punishment (Dostoevsky, 1866). Life-long graduate student Rodion Raskolnikov tries to justify an unspeakably immoral act with eugenics and hey—a guy needs to eat.

4. Rudin (Ivan Turgenev, 1856). Dmitry Rudin talks the talk, but boy does he not walk the walk. Or is it talks the walk? Either way, he fails to get laid.

5. The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (Vladimir Voinovich, 1969). A peasant drafted into the Red Army is forgotten by his unit in a remote village (every Russian village is remote, natch) because he’s just not that memorable. The fellow takes care of a garden instead. Slapstick hilarity ensues.

6. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1962). Life in a Soviet prison labor camp is not as fun as you think it is.

7. Moscow 2042 (Vladimir Voinovich, 1986). A utopian-dystopian future in which Moscow becomes the communist epicenter of Russia. Like Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale), Voinovich has called his novel “prophetic.”

8. Hope Against Hope: A Memoir (Nadezhda Mandelstam, 1970). Not a novel, but personal memoir forms the backbone of modern Russian lit, in my opinion. The wife of exiled poet Osip Mandelstam details the unthinkable hardships she endured during the Stalinist era.

9. Fathers and Sons (Ivan Turgenev, 1862). Like A River Runs Through It, but without the boring fly fishing, Brad Pitt, and Robert Redford’s droning voiceover. All the cool kids are embracing nihilism, but Pavel Kirsanov is having none of it.

10. War and Peace (Lev Tolstoy, 1869). Has anyone actually finished this book? I have not. Napoleon invades Russia. Beyond that, I have no more to say. 

Be sure to check out Aisha's blog and enjoy our earlier list of favorite Russian literature from Daniel Kalder.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

new five-star review for Auggie's Revenge

This new five-star review of Auggie's Revenge at Goodreads lifted my spirits:

"I don't often read comedies (or watch them for that matter. I haven't watched a sitcom in years). I'm much more drama oriented. That being said, this book was wonderful. Dark humor is my favorite style of comedy, and this book certainly fits into the dark humor genre. 

"This is a much different book than Fight for Your Long Day. . . In fact, I enjoy this book quite a bit more than the first novel (which is saying something, because I liked that book a lot). I started out reading slowly because my schedule didn't allow much time to read, but by the middle, I couldn't stop. I kept staying up late to get further and further into the very engrossing tale. Watching Michael's life unfold in the way that it did was morbidly fascinating. 

"There's a bit of absurdity to the humor, especially as the novel progresses. Michael's situation, already bad because of his job as an adjunct, spins somewhat out of control. It is all of his own making, of course. No one can undo a life better than the person living it. There's a fair bit of philosophy imbued within the novel (relevant because Michael is a professor of Philosophy). In a way, Michael's path in the novel follows a philosophical path, from simple existentialism to an almost Dada like life near the end of the book. All in all, I would highly recommend reading Auggie's Revenge.

"This is very much a book about Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. They are both characters in this novel. Fairly current events, though fictionalized, play a large role in the novel, especially near the end. As someone who has made Pennsylvania his home, and who loves Philadelphia, I was glad this was the case."

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Zen and the Art of. . .

Because I recently checked out a copy of the 25th anniversary edition, I could pull a Fred Exley and commemorate Robert M. Pirsig's passing as Exley did with Edmund Wilson's writing after Wilson died (see Pages from a Cold Island). Exley made reading Edmund Wilson a religious experience after his North Country neighbor passed on. Although I appreciated Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I wasn't as completely enamored of it as Exley was of Wilson's work. All the same, it's a death worth noting, and Zen is a great book I may reread this summer. has a nice obituary.

And here's a Pirsig quotation that the writer Jenny J. Chen found among a selection at Literary Hub:

"Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you are no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer. These are things you should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow."
- The Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Rest in peace, Robert M. Pirsig

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Sontag and Hem on solitude and the writing life

Thanks to an Annie Rose Facebook share, I read Ernest Hemingway's thoughts on solitude and the writing life from his 1954 Nobel Prize speech. The entry begins with Susan Sontag:

“One can never be alone enough to write,” Susan Sontag observed. Solitude, in fact, seems central to many great writers’ daily routines — so much so, it appears, that part of the writer’s curse might be the ineffable struggle to submit to the spell of solitude and escape the grip of loneliness at the same time.

Follow the link for more.