Tag Archives: AWP

Finding Again the Fire, AWP 2012

9 Mar

Vouched Lit Party 2012 Table Team

There is an energy at AWP I don’t understand.

I tap into it as soon as I first arrive in the bookfair. It enables me to stay up 3 nights straight until 4:30 in the morning. It enables my feet to withstand miles upon miles of walking and hours upon hours of standing. It enables my liver to oxidize more alcohol than I should ever ask it to, my throat to endure more whooping and laughter and conversation than its cords were ever built for.

It’s the books and the readings and the panels, sure. Ten thousand people who care about the same thing in the same place creates a glow. But it’s also all my friends being there, a sense of belonging I feel few other places ever. It’s knowing I won’t see the vast majority of them for another year.

* * *

For the last 2-3 months, I’ve had few fucks to give about books. Every single Vouched table or post I’ve done since early December has had to push through a wall of misanthropic inner monologue, of guilting myself out of obligation to keep caring about Vouched and words and people. The effort to get me to show up was huge, and I can only thank Tyler, Layne, and Ashley for wanting to hang out at the last few Vouched tables, for giving me the reason and energy beyond a table of books to keep showing up.

If I’ve vouched something of yours these past few months, I want to tell you it was no small thing for me to have loved and enjoyed your work enough to cough out a couple hundred words here and maybe tweet or post about it on facebook to draw some traffic to your work.

Sometimes what we love takes more energy from us than it gives. If we can’t find energy elsewhere to reallocate to what is draining us, burn out happens. This happens no matter how much you love someone or something. Sometimes, the more you love something the quicker you burn out, because you naturally give more to that love and sometimes that love can’t give back in equal amounts. Sometimes, this is no one’s fault. Sometimes this is no one’s fault but our own.

* * *

Books can’t give us anything we aren’t willing or able to give to them. If you’re in the business of writing, publishing, or bookselling, and you forget this, God help you. God help us all.

For some people, books can sustain them. If you are one of these people, fuck you. I envy you in a way you can never understand. For me, it’s the people behind the books. I have to make it about people. Or rather, 25% the books, 75% the people. I love you people, because let’s face it: I don’t always love the books, and I feel terrible about that because I want to love them; you, a person I love, poured yourself into this thing. But I hope it’s enough that I love you.

I love my contributors here at Vouched, the publishers I work with. I love Jim and the Big Car crew for giving me a space to hold readings and being excited to work with me. I love the authors whose books I sell. I love the people who’ve believed in Vouched from the start: Roxane and Adam and Bell and Burch and Wickett and Young and Heavener and Housely. The people I get to see once a year at best, I love you: Koski, Straub, Seigel, Sirois, xTx, Jesus, Etter, Gaudry, Tyler, Salesses, McNamara: I am always so glad and dumb to see you. New friends: Devan, Boots, Hannan, the Akron crew, KMA, Kleinburg: I’ve cried 9 times since we left. And my old BSU profs who believe so much in Vouched: Neely, Lovelace, Christman, Scott, Barrett, Davis: thank you, thank you, thank you.

It is all of you, more than your books, that sustain me. I eat so very little at AWP, but feel full to bursting.

* * *

I miss buying your books. Last week, KMA Sullivan offered me a free review copy of I Don’t Mind If You’re Feeling Alone by Thomas Patrick Levy, a beautiful beautiful book, and I almost cried, I said, “Please let me buy this book.”

I’m sorry if this sounds ungrateful. The review copies that show up on my doorstep, thank you thank you, but I can’t take them anymore. I am drowning in them.

God, that sounds so ungrateful, and I’m sorry, I really do appreciate them so much, but they’ve become 2 entire shelves full of guilt: guilt that I’m a slow reader, guilt that I want to love them all but don’t, guilt that I have bought very, very few books this past year, books that I’ve wanted so much to buy, but haven’t been able to justify because I have 2 shelves full of books at home waiting to be read.

Please let me buy your books again, or at least swap it for one of my own (I have one now, and it’s incredible, this small wonderful thing). I miss it so much.

* * *

I already miss you so much.

* * *

I have no pictures of AWP except the one up there from the Literature Party, compliments of Glitter Guts. I can’t thank the table team enough for their work Friday Night. I can’t thank Zach and Gene and Adam for letting us be a part of that event. That night, like the rest of the weekend, needs no pictures. I brought my camera. I could’ve taken hundreds of them, but what’s the point. I’ll remember you all always.

* * *

I’ve woken early every morning since returning from Chicago. I have things to do. I have Vouched Presents: Heather Christle, Ben Hersey, and Tyler Gobble next week. I have the Over the Top Reading Tour next month. I have to contact Housely and book a flight to DC for the Conversations conference. I have to unpack.

I have energy to give. Thank you.

My AWP Haul: FJORDS Vol. 1

6 Mar

Like many of you, I spent an exciting and exhausting weekendish at AWP in Chicago. I read stuff, took in readings, slung books for the first time with the Vouched crew(!!) saw old friends and new friends, ate way too much food and drank way too much beer, talked until the wee hours of the morning about literature and books and movies and music, and cleaned up at the book fair. It was magical.

I took a couple of extra days off work after I got back on Sunday to just chill, detox, be inspired, write, and read. And I’ve been thinking–what better way to drag out the magic that is AWP than to talk about all the books I bought there, little by little by little? Yes, bittersweet. But also rewarding, in a way that I think you will like, too.

  • So, first up: Zachary Schomburg’s FJORDS vol. I. I have to admit, the Black Ocean table was the first one I hit up at the book fair. I was laser-focused, looking for this book like a questing knight. When I got it home, I immediately devoured it, and found it so painfully sad, so beautifully made, so original and funny and insightful and so even better than anything else he’s ever written, that I kind of wanted to just give up writing and buy a hundred copies of this book and hand it out instead, everywhere I go. The book focuses on a bunch of “little deaths” that live on the fjords of the title, coming for Schomburg slowly but surely, and concentrates on disappointment, loss, death, love, and the beauty in all of the sadness. The joy in all of the blackness. Schomburg keeps writing these things that just break your fucking heart, over and over and over, into little tiny shards of glass that glimmer and gleam in the light like his poetry. Things like this:

I don’t know how best to tell you about the angel, about what death really is. It seems so implausible until it happens. You start to sweat and you get swallowed into the dark. then you’re swinging on a rope over a beautiful cliff, only there’s no such thing as beauty.

Or this:

The truth is there is no such thing as spells. The world is always as it is, and always as it seems. And love is just our own kind voice that we whisper into our own blood.

The only thing to do with poems like this is absorb them into your body. Or the only thing to do with poems like this is to sit back, apart, and watch as they try to make you feel something. And be amazed and breathless and struck dumb when they succeed, utterly, completely. Ouch. And wow.

All I’ve Learned, I’ve Learned From You, An AWP Wrap-Up

5 Mar

Feeling is an extremely unavoidable, but perhaps not entirely necessary, part of AWP.
Sleep does not equal rest.
Elders needn’t always act like them.
Cab drivers like listening to poetry, too.
Also, cab drivers are sometimes adorably nosey.
If there were a way to avoid having a “real life” that required coming home to, we would all avoid it.
Facial expressions which you believe to be neutral but can actually be interpreted as full of a desire to kill are best avoided.
Free shots are dangerous.
Situations for which the emotional reaction is a foreign conclusion are an easily avoidable, but perhaps entirely necessary, part of life.

Darwin and the Art of the Three Star Review

30 Jan

This is not a review. It’s, at best, a contemplation of a phenomenon I’ve yet to pinpoint. Or which may not even exist. In any case, I’m impelled to expand.

By now, most of us understand the basic tenet of Darwinian evolution: those species that are best suited for survival—sometimes by no fault/grace of their own—pass their genes onto the next video game level that is life. Their chromosomes win a 1 UP. Those that aren’t “chosen” die out with an X over each eye. Pretty simple. But does this theory work for aesthetics? Does it work for literature and poetry?

Do the best move on and serve a greater purpose, find a bigger audience, earn the hard work? Does it matter?

This is what bothers me.

I read a lot of reviews online: in magazines online and off, in book blogs, in newspapers, in Vouched, and in books themselves. And, finally, be honest, Kyle: Amazon. Good god. I read googols of Amazon reviews just for the smell of it. Let it be known that I probably read more reviews of books than the books themselves under review. It’s a filthy habit, I admit. Pathetic, really.

Ah, but there’s an inscrutable pattern of my review-scanning I can’t help noticing: I’m tantalized by the middling review, better known to me personally as the Trivalent; the Trident; the Trinity; the Tripod. The Three Star Review.

On Amazon, they are Legion, but everywhere else, this species is like unobtanium. More often than not, the book reviews on websites tend to give the author the benefit of the doubt, to cock the critical head and daren’t wake the sweetly sleeping work for fear of scaring or hurting it. Don’t believe me? Try the major book blogs. Yes, there will be some negs. But the percentage will overwhelmingly favor the positive. This has to be a case of what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. There’s something about a review with teeth that sets the world on edge, as if the reviewer has a chip on his shoulder. E.g., B.R. Myers or Dale Peck. I don’t revile these two examples, nor do I praise them. They are extremes, surely.

Because I’m not suggesting rampage, ravage, and slaughter. I’m talking about a more even-handed consideration of art, one that tries to explain the juxtaposition of the acne on aesthetics. We all love poetry and fiction and essays, but really? Can all this stuff that’s printed and published be the dog’s balls and the bee’s knees?

Have you ever been around a terminally happy person? It’s disquieting. It’s suspicious.

From what I’ve gathered, especially on Amazon, when one arrives at a book that has lots of five and/or one star reviews, one should silently consider the situation. Perhaps both sides are right. Both wrong. But it makes most sense to start in the middle. These in-betweeners marry the conflict into a nuanced consideration of art, and I appreciate this stance way more than a slobbering love letter or a scathing broadside. Lord. Listen to me: nuanced? What am I? 50 years old and reading The New York Review of Books? [I actually like that periodical.]

The short answer of the above question is no. Not everything can be aces. Most likely everything falls into mediocrity. A writer friend of mine once said he didn’t fear failure. He feared mediocrity. I understand all too well that position. Want to hear a horrific word? MIDLIST. The barb of wasted effort stings worse with mediocrity. “You tried hard, and it’s sort of OK, but it’s not bad! But…it’s not great, either.”

“So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16, KJV).

Even the Christian God isn’t crazy about three star reviews! I get it. It’s hard to reconcile.

The nuanced position is the agnostic stance, in a way. Not yet ready to believe in greatness, not yet ready to throw it all away in despair. And I think, just maybe, the lauding and the back-patting is a deferment about the possibility of mediocrity within the reviewers themselves.

Or! Maybe I’m totally effing wrong. I hear a voice saying, “Kyle, I’m swamped with greatness in writing from all over. I’m not delusional; I just really like all this stuff that’s out there. The embarrassment of riches! Quit moaning, you curmudgeon! Enjoy the talent!”

I see your optimism and enthusiasm, and I raise you practicality and judiciousness. I’ve seen the results of the open-door policy. It welcomes everyone. That’s good for some systems, but I don’t think it works for reviewing writing. The non-nuanced review goes forth in bad faith. Worse, it ignores the depths of art. When I teach my composition classes, and I hear one student tell another that their peer’s paper is fine, and they find nothing wrong with it, I cringe. 99.9% of the time the peer reviewer acts out of laziness and fear. Sometimes they are ill-equipped, and I take the blame. But it comes down to not having the common decency to respect the author enough to take what they’ve done seriously.

And the core of that decent seriousness is to consider all aspects, all blemishes, all figurations of beautiful geometry. The suppurations, the scabs, the scars.

John Updike used to have rules for reviewing a work. And one of the rules was that he’d meet the work on its own ground: “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” Updike went one further for the author under review and threw in another avenue of empathy: “If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?”

Sure it’s his and not yours?

Wow. Kudos, John.

Reviewing is tough business. You handle another’s hard, hard work by giving them a concentrated audience and essentially pass judgment on the art by analyzing the innards and kicking the tires. This is probably why I don’t review as much as I’d like. Is my own mediocrity in the wings, beating the rugs, preparing my middling existence, looking handsome as a valet, hair-slicked, hands begloved and waiting to pull me off the stage and sit me down with a pipe and a toddy and say, “You’ve had enough, sir. Sit. Rest. Watch the parade from your highback.”

I won’t quote from the kind of reviews I’m extolling here. Why? Because it’s uncouth, and I’m not trying to engage in digital fisticuffs. Besides, it’s easy enough. Check it out for yourself. Amazon is a good place to start.

At this point, you may wonder: why’s he mentioned evolution in the beginning? How do evolution and literature interact?

I know the life of literature doesn’t reflect the evolution of the human author, but I suspect that the whole long process of surviving got me thinking about how we pass on what we love or hate. The world is more literate than ever, so I hear. There are more writers in the world, more readers. Are more writers and good writing directly proportional? I don’t think so. Related point, if you’re into that sort of thing, I also hear that AWP is sold out. Chicago’s Hilton will be, for three days at the beginning of March, a throbbing mass of writerly hopes and dreams. And if you’re there, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear the singular thought of everyone there: “Please don’t let me be mediocre, please don’t let me be mediocre, please don’t let me be mediocre.”

It’s humbling and heart-breaking and true.

Five star and one star reviews won’t pass on or kill the work under consideration. Books can’t reproduce. Their ideas can. Their styles can. I wonder if all reviewers know this. That sounds dumb, but I mean it. We must be careful what we recommend and pass on.

Life is short, death is long, and time a fart in the middle.

I’d rather like to make the fart count.

I’ll end with two quotes, neither one of which I fully endorse.

Jean Rhys: “All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”

Flannery O’Connor: “Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”

Kyle Winkler: “Everywhere I go, I’m asked if writing is a huge lake. It is. A huge stifling lake of writers. My opinion is that there are great rivers that feed the lake. And then there are mere trickles, like Kyle Winkler. All that matters is the stifling. If I can make it past that, then I feed the lake. You must keep feeding the lake.”