The Emperor of All Maladies hastens The Long Goodbye

But first: The Massachusetts Poetry Festival begins tomorrow! The poetry world will descend on Salem and it will be awesome. (Aside: I was researching parking etc on Google, and, as I began to note the many paranormal/witchy shops, wondered, What’s up with that? Yeah, that’s me, just a little slow on the uptake.) Saturday is the small press fair, my favorite event of all. If you’re planning on being there, be sure to stop by and visit me at the Tupelo table!


I read The Emperor of All Maladies in the fall, but never talked about it after, though I meant to. It’s a perfect counterpoint to The Long Goodbye. The first is a fat compendium of all things cancer — the history of its discovery, the evolution of our understanding of it as a varied disease, the progress and perils of cancer research, as well as the stories of researchers, doctors, and patients themselves. The second is a memoir of love and loss of a mother to cancer, intimate, exquisite, and painful. Both are essential reading.

Cancer is a topic you’re only allowed to discuss within a certain framework. You must be positive, talk about fighting it, be plucky. What we don’t consider by blithely subscribing to this terminology is how doing so proscribes a value judgment on the way patients handle their diseases. Every cancer is different, and while being optimistic may be a good way to get through a shitty day, it’s not the liminal factor in survival. A patient who receives his diagnosis with depression and despair isn’t weak, just realistic. My mother was cheerful and determined, but that didn’t keep her alive; her handling of cancer was an extension of who she’d always been, and we should accept that of whoever is dealing with illness, not demand that a life-threatening diagnosis suddenly effect a personality transplant, and then blame the patient when that doesn’t happen. Folks are dying, the last thing they need is our expectations, or worse, directions, on how that should proceed.

One of the things I love about The Long Goodbye is how honest M O’R is about her and her family’s flaws as they fumbled through her mother’s illness. The mistakes, the flares of pettiness or just plain selfishness. Because we can’t always be our best selves in the best of times never mind the worst of the worst. Illness is hard work, caregiving is hard work. Brutally elementary and elemental. This is life, this is death, and while there are moments of amazing transcendence, losing your mother is permanent, final, and nothing less than awful.

Raina Wallens has a piece over at The Rumpus that wonders why 5 grief memoirs in a few years is considered so notable. For those of us in its grip, these memoirs of grief are vital:

Ask anyone in mourning and they will tell you how alone and isolated they feel. They will have countless stories about inane and insensitive remarks, or other peoples’ avoidance of them altogether – the death cooties. Too often, people in mourning are made to feel like they must worry about appearing too sad so as to make others uncomfortable. You always need to be pressing on, firmly in one of the designated grief stages. And if you haven’t “gotten over it” in a year, well, what’s wrong with you?

Live long enough, or not! — death touches us all. And, statistically speaking, cancer as well. The Long Goodbye hurts to read. It should, the story it tells is deeply human. But it’s funny, too, and anyway, isn’t reading about opening ourselves to the wider experience of what it means to be human? M O’R marshaled her inner resources to tell this story, and in the telling, honors her mother’s memory. To read it is to lose her mother with her, and your own as well, the emotion is that palpable. But what a mother she was, and how glad I am to have met her, even though that meeting was in the pages of a book. And the conversation M O’R has started about grief is long overdue.

The nature of cancer is as protean as the nature of grief. If you take only one thing away from The Emperor of All Maladies (though there’s so much more), it should be that there can be no cure-all. This is a critical shift we need to make in our thinking about cancer — we’re so obsessed with magic bullets. But cancer is wiggly, and adaptive, and endlessly varied. Cancer isn’t even cancer, but cancers. The most we can hope for is cancer as something we live with, but don’t die of. Cancers as chronic diseases, akin to diabetes, or COPD. Not curable, progressive even, but treatable, not immediately fatal. Not any more of a death sentence than life itself.


I’m not afraid to remember my mother as she was at the end of her life, weakened and frail. She wasn’t less just because she was sick. Any moment more was precious. Her smile still lit her careworn face.

I mention this because many people said to us that they were sorry they hadn’t visited my mother as she became ill, but they couldn’t bear to see her “that way.” I understand, but.


They lost out. They lost their chance to be with her and be there for her.

And I want to urge you (all three of my readers): if you’re ever in that position, go. Go often. You’ll be needed, in a thousand little ways, and you’ll be making memories, memories you’ll draw on in a thousand little ways later, after.

As I’ve said, critical illness has a way of burning away the inessentials. Visiting someone you love, someone who’s dying…really, what could be easier?

Mum with her oncologist at the cancer center's St. Patrick's Day party, 6 days before she died.

Favorite Lines from The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry (get it? Lines!)

  • “I’ve always felt that line breaks would destroy the drifting and circular intelligence of these poems, the way they move through thought and into silence, from rumination to description and back again. For lack of a better term, they feel horizontal in their rhetorical designs, like waves rushing up the beach, slowly flattening out into foam and a thin sheet of water, then receding back into the depths.” — James Harms, on Killarney Clary
  • “For me, the prose poem is capacious and interior. Like a mirror, it holds as much as the world it reflects. I love to step inside. Things are a little strange in there, yes. But you don’t have to stay in that one room, or even that house. You can keep walking, and find all manner of thing. The ocean, for example, is right outside the door.” — Jeffrey Skinner
  • “…form and voice within the prose poem are not separate; they are seed and tree.” — Alexander Long
  • “If for human beings the most crucial division is that between life and death, and the original genre division is that between poetry and prose, then matters of life and death must lie very near to what makes the prose poem. …The prose poem sits close to the rot.” — Mark Wallace
  • “I tend to head instinctively into prose when a poem has become too much about line breaks or some insisted-upon metaphor keeps shrugging its shoulders. There’s something about the writing of a prose poem that seems to promise open land and distance in which you can lose yourself.” — Nancy Eimers


    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?

    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:


    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.

    Children are all about imaginary time…

    …as in, any time not spent with them is strictly imaginary and illusory, or, in fact, altogether nonexistent.

    These warm sunny days, while energizing & welcome, make the perennial juggling of daily life an even harder challenge. When it’s cold, wet, and dark, it’s nice to stay indoors, easier to interest the boys in pseudo-crafty projects (I say “pseudo” because I am not even a little crafty. But the boys are too young to have made that determination for themselves, and are happy to be allowed to make big messes in the service of “art.”), baking — dough-kneading was a big success this winter — and thus easier for me to simultaneously work on my various projects.

    Now, though, they want to be out out out. They zip around the apartment like mice hopped up on crack until a collision with some stationary object ignites a firestorm of tears. Hysteria, sniffle, repeat.

    Or, Vincent says he does not want to be out, and proceeds to systematically destroy his room in a fit of stir-craziness.  This is not hyperbole. I, who am shameless when it comes to poor-housekeeping, would be mortified to show a snapshot of the current state of Vincent’s room, accomplished in five minutes this morning.

    If we had a yard with a fence this would not be an issue, but as it stands, when we go out, I have to abandon any hopes of multi-tasking and spend all my time keeping the boys from clubbing each other with rocks or dashing into traffic.

    (“Vincent, when you sit on Aidan’s head/push Aidan down/ poke Aidan in the eye/ stab Aidan with a pin Hey! Where’d you get that pin? Give that here right now!, it hurts him. That’s bad. Why would you do that?”

    “Well, Mommy,” he replies, hands out as he explains in his most thoughtful, reasoned manner, “bad things always seem like a good idea to me.” Oy.)

    Not that I haven’t written at all since the fair weather began, but I spend more time muttering lines to myself in an effort to remember them when I’m again near writing implements than I do actually writing. It’s frustrating — we’d had a nice workable rhythm to our winter days. Makes me long for nothing so much as a string of cold rainy days…

    The Winners!

    Because, wow!, there ended up being so many entrants, my original plan of just putting names in a hat went right out the window. I took one of Kelli’s suggestions and used the True Random Number Generator over at

    The first winner will receive my chapbook, the second Longing Distance by Sarah Hannah, and the last winner will receive a subscription to Cave Wall:

    1.  Sherry Chandler

    2.  Stephanie Goehring

    3.  Amanda Yskamp

    Congratulations to the winners, and thank you all for participating!