When the lights go on in the library

We go to the library three times a week most weeks, some days more than once. It’d be more, but the library’s only open three days a week.

This schedule is something my husband can never keep straight in his head, but we live so close to the library that he’s bound to look out the window and say, “Hey, the lights are on in the library — it must be open!”  Eureka!

We love our library. And our librarians, Laurie and Susie. And interlibrary loan. What a fantastic system!

My current borrows include The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry, coming to me all the way from Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove, IL; and Mentor and Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets, sent  from the Illinois State Library (And thank you to the blogosphere for alerting me to this book. Unfortunately, I can’t remember whose blog in particular wrote about this — I’m sorry! It was Jeannine! — thank you!).

And then there’s the book that belongs to my library itself, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. What an ambitious book, so clearly, intelligently written! I picked it up on Saturday, and am already almost done. Because there are so many threads to the history that Mukherjee is weaving together, there can be a fair amount of repetition from section to section, but it’s the perfect amount I think; we lay folks could otherwise find it impossible to follow the different terms and concepts as the author travels from researcher to patient to cancer cell and back.

I’d be interested in this book even if my mother weren’t ill. Who knew that such a disparate and far-ranging history could be so suspenseful?

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A Life of Plenty

Gennady Privedentsev, “Still life with horn of plenty”


Spell to Be Said upon Waking

Trout’s maculate body,
delible house of the wasps’ nests,
white face of the horse —

Draw close.
A shadow closes your foxgrass,
lichens your boulders.

Cloudy the vow of the leaf in the water.

Lion, where is your hunger?
Come tortoise, come river, eat.

Desire, walk easily now through the wild net
of birchwood in rain,
on mountain-back carry the brindled immeasurable day.

— Jane Hirshfield, from The Lives of the Heart (HarperPerennial, 1997)

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Giller Kerfuffle & the Challenges of the Small Press & Carmine Starnino

There’s nothing wrong with making money, not a bit, but if you’re looking for a fat profit, the literary world, and the world of the small press, is the wrong place to be looking. So let me begin by acknowledging all the brave hearts who put their all into publishing necessary books in beautiful editions for very little, if any, monetary reward. [Yes indeed my colleagues at Tupelo Press among them.]

So it’s especially gratifying when books and authors published by small presses receive big prizes, as Paul Harding and Bellevue Literary Press did by winning the Pulitzer for his novel Tinkers. It was hard to find a copy for a while thereafter, but eventually stock caught up with demand. Cash flow is a continual trial for the small press, and coming up with the wherewithal to publish tens of thousands of copies of a book can be a real struggle. And that’s just if you’re a traditional publisher who farms out the actual printing.

But some publishers are printers, too. And fine printers at that. I’m specifically thinking of Gaspereau Press, in Nova Scotia. Sewn bindings, hand-printed letterpress covers, thick cream-colored pages. This sort of labor-intensive printing makes for beautiful books. But not a fast turnaround rate if one of your titles, say, wins the $50,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Which The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibsrud (Gaspereau Press, 2009), did last week.

The Sentimentalists is Skibsrud’s first novel, but she’s published two collections of poetry as well, both with Gaspereau Press.

I mention this as a reminder that small presses are loyal to their authors; it’s not about the profit margin but the quality of the work.

Gaspereau Press invested its time, effort, skills, and yes, money, in three books by Skibsrud. Because that’s what they do. As Jack Illingworth says at the National Post here, “While publishing is usually discussed as a business, or an industry, all of the finest small press publishers practice it as an art form. The books that they choose to publish aren’t chosen to fill out a season with a handful of products that stand a reasonable chance of selling. Their lists are cultural projects, embodying a few individuals’ ideas of what literature can be.”

When The Sentimentalists won the Giller last week, it should have been a boon for both Skibsrud and Gaspereau Press, and for the holistic book-as-art from text to type view. But almost immediately the brouhaha began. Because at the uppermost limit of 1000 books a week, there was no way that Gaspereau Press could keep up with the I-want-it-now-and-by-now-I-mean-last-week demand, and pressure came down on them from all sides to get help fulfilling that demand.

As they reported on their blog today, that’s exactly what they’ve done in contracting with the Canadian publishers Douglas & McIntyre, who’ll produce a $19.95 trade paperback, with first shipments going out at the end of the week, while Gaspereau Press will continue with their fine $27.95 edition. It’s a neat solution, and I commend them for it.

I only wish they’d been allowed to find it without all the accompanying ballyhoo accusing Gaspereau of robbing its author of beaucoup sales through arrogance and pride.

I’m all for writers getting paid for their work, no question. And the prospect of losing sales because an impatient and amnesiac reading public can’t wait, well, it just sucks, we can all agree. But may I please interject that the author’s getting a tidy $50,000 prize, so she’s not exactly getting skunked here. And if  Skibsrud  goes to a large publisher offering a large advance, maybe even Douglas & McIntyre, with her next novel, that’s the way of the world, and congratulations to her.

But  after all this, I’m more interested in her poetry titles from Gaspereau Press. I know from personal experience how beautiful their books are. Gaspereau is the publisher of two poetry collections by Carmine Starnino, and back in the winter after I wrote a post on my fandom of Carmine Starnino, Gaspereau sent me those books. I am shamefully overdue in mentioning this, but it’s been that kind of year — I am overdue mentioning too many books I’ve read & loved.

And I love these books. Starnino writes poems at once accessible and rich with sound and sense. These poems think and feel with equal weight, in form and without. And they’re fun. In With English Subtitles, he writes a series of “Worst-Case Scenario” poems, with titles like “How To Escape From a Car Hanging Over the Edge of a Cliff” (“The thing to avoid is a front-row view”) and “How To Survive a Sandstorm” (“your flesh more grist for the gust”). In the same book, “Six Riddles” is a numbered sequence difficult enough to give your mind pause, written with great invention and wit. Even in these short pieces the poems pay delightful care to sonics:

II

I hatch, wind-spanked, and grow effervescently.
….I’m wet but do not dry in the sun.
I froth on sand. Sailors use “yaw”
….to remember me by.

He doesn’t provide the answers either, because the answers aren’t the point, and besides, if you let the images do their work the answers are obvious. But I still had a wonderful time reading them out loud to my husband.

This Way Out uses language just as inventive and lyrical, but with titles like “Heavenography,” “Tale of the Wedding Ring,” and “Four Months Pregnant,” it’s clear his concerns have shifted. “Ducks Asleep on Grass,” a prose poem in the book’s second section, captures both some of the tone and control of this with “heartbeats like clocks set ten minutes ahead.”

These are both wonder-full collections, and, as Gaspereau Press titles, they’re pieces of book art as well, with pages that are a pleasure between my fingers. Having been introduced to Gaspereau Press and seen the fruits of its labor, I give them what is the aim of every small press: my trust. A Gaspereau Press book is a treasure worth seeking out and waiting for.

CPS: Notes Toward a Report

A poet will read to an audience of one if necessary, and do so with thanks for the opportunity, but nothing beats the energy of a full house — we continue to be so grateful for such great attendance. Great poets, great audiences, etc. etc. etc..

Melody Gee has a sweet smile and conversational reading style.  The perfect amount of patter & prologue to her poems. The poems she read were all from her book, Each Crumbling House, and showed off her skill at varied voices and subjects. I introduced her, so I spent a lot of time with her book prior to her reading, time richly spent. Melody’s a 7 months pregnant, ebullient presence.

Jennifer Sweeney’s reading of “Today’s Lesson: Landscapes” from How to Live on Bread and Music I found particularly meaningful and relevant as the mother to at least one wildly imaginative child. It details an academy-minded art teacher’s instruction to a room of second-graders, and illustrates a common failing of well-meant adults: an almost compulsive need to direct a child’s creative process.

One of my favorite parts of the night was when Tricia introduced Jennifer. Tricia is a friend I met through SheWrites, who turns out to (kind of) live in my neighborhood of western Mass., and happens to be friends with Jennifer from a lifetime ago! All my galaxies colliding.

Barbara Ras‘s poems are capacious, intelligent, funny, great fun to read and and even more fun to have read to you. Her wit bolted warmly through the room, what a delight, the perfect closing note. Then I had the good fortune to talk shop with Barbara at dinner later (we went to a fab new place in town, the Blue Rock Restaurant, loved it!) — she directs Trinity University Press — I love discussing the book business anyway, and books especially. The night ended all too soon.

If you haven’t visited our website, maybe you don’t know: we’ve been compiling a video archive of the CPS readings, little by little. So if you’ve lamented having to miss any of our wonderful guests, check it out.

Next month we have Aracelis Girmay and Ross Gay — even though that will mean it’s December already (ACK!), I can’t wait!

*

Couple posts back I talked about prose poems and mentioned one anthology; here’s another that’s been on my radar that I wanted to mention, too, especially as it’s described as “half critical study and half anthology” on the website. It’s The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice, edited by Gary L. McDowell and F. Daniel Rzicznek. Looks comprehensive and eminently helpful, with a terrific cover to boot. I’ll order it from my library and let you know what I think.

Barbara Ras, Jennifer K. Sweeney, & Melody S. Gee (via The Collected Poets Series)

Barbara Ras, Jennifer K. Sweeney, & Melody S. Gee Thursday, November 4, 2010, at 7:00pm, poets Barbara Ras, Jennifer K. Sweeney, and Melody S. Gee will read as part of the fourth season of the Collected Poets Series. ($2-5 suggested donation)     Barbara Ras is the author of the poetry collections Bite Every Sorrow (LSU Press, 1998), chosen by C. K. Williams to receive the 1997 Walt Whitman Awar … Read More

via The Collected Poets Series

Squared

Holy smokes, it’s November. This is when I really began to panic. Not because of the holidays or shopping — we simply don’t participate that way — but because of what it all represents: the end of another year, the lightning passage of time. If you haven’t noticed, it’s speeding up. Someone needs to look into that — time’s spindles are wound too tight — what’s faster, time or the speed of light?

In an effort to take my mind off my rapidly aging self, I attacked the accumulating piles in my wee office. I found an old file folder beneath one stack, and within its pages of dreck, treasure: an older poem I haven’t been able to find (My computer’s crashed 3 times since summer, 2 times in spring, and although I’ve been backing up important items regularly, one of those times I lost the file containing most of my older, unfinished poems. Not a big loss for the most part.) which I’ve been thinking about.

It was one of those instances where you put the poem away, flawed but recalcitrant, until it bobs back up to the surface of your consciousness, and you can suddenly see its possibilities like little doors with glowing knobs. I love that.

Because what I ended up working on was a prose poem — a form that feels mystifying and ineffable to me — I’m especially interested in this new book from Firewheel Editions edited by Brian Clements and Jamey Dunham, An Introduction to the Prose Poem, and this review of it in the new issue of Cerise Press.

What appeals to the autodidact in me about this collection is that, from what I’ve gleaned in the review and description on Firewheel’s website, it attempts to offer some sort of understanding about what a prose poem is. Not to be definitive or monolithic about it, but to help the helpless (me!) gain more of a handle on what makes a prose poem a poem. Can you say? It’s harder than you think.

Thanks, everyone, for your kind thoughts and good wishes. Also mysterious and ineffable, but it helps, and I’m so grateful.