Interview with Poet Brett Elizabeth Jenkins


Brett Elizabeth Jenkins is a poet and professor of writing who now lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.  She has recently published a chapbook called Over the Moon.  I posted the first poem of Over the Moon here.

Here is the second poem from that collection.

Layover on the Moon

I am the unluckiest traveler I know.
My flight to Pennsylvania has a six-
week layover on the moon.  It was one
of the cheapest flights, yes, but
not the least expensive.  The one I didn’t choose
had two layovers on two moons. Earth’s
moon and one of Mars’s. I didn’t even rea
to find out which.  I fear and panic
enough each day without a two-week stay
on Phobos or Deimos.  I also hear they don’t
even have moving walkways on Phobos,
the worst moon airport in the galaxy.

You can purchase a copy of Over the Moon here.   

I recently interviewed Brett about her poetry.  The following is a transcript of the interview.

Q:  Can you tell me more about what led you to write the poems in Over the Moon?  Why choose the moon as your focus? 

A:  The summer that I wrote all of the poems in Over the Moon, I was working as summer administrative help in an aluminum can-making factory in downtown St. Paul. I would take my breaks in the women’s locker room, which was usually pretty vacant, and write poems. The first poem I wrote from the book was “Sleepover on the Moon in 1998.” After that, I wrote “Layover on the Moon” and “Hangover on the Moon” and noticed that, by chance, all of these poems had the words “over” and “moon” in them. I started brainstorming other poem titles I could write based on this concept.

From this, a sort of narrative organically emerged. I was in a pretty weird place in my life that summer, and quite sad. Going to the moon kind of became this impossible way to escape all my problems, and that’s what the book became. A really incredibly impossible escape fantasy where I go to the moon and start a Denny’s franchise.

Q:   Tell me about your process of writing poems.

Whenever I tell another poet about my writing process, they’re usually a little confused and/or surprised. I very seldom revise or revisit poems. My philosophy is quantity over quality. I write a lot. Like, a lot a lot. Hundreds of poems a year, sometimes. In my adult life I have written over a thousand poems. This means, though, that many of my poems are absolutely terrible and many of them are abandoned and nobody but me ever sees them.

It usually takes me anywhere from five to thirty minutes to write a poem. Then it’s complete. If it’s good, I keep it and send it out. If it’s bad, I never look at it again. That’s my process.

Q:  How would you describe the kind of poetry you write?  

This is probably a difficult question for any poet to answer but for some reason it feels particularly difficult for me. I write weird poetry, mostly. A lot of my poems are based on things I obsess over, like my physical body or my teeth falling out. I also write a lot about dreams. My poems are rarely narrative. Lately I’ve been writing a lot of poems with the same title. In my most recent chapbook I have like, eight poems called “Moons Over My Hammy.Right now I’m writing a lot of poems where horses tell me how to live my life.

Q:  Are there particular poets who inspire you?

I read a lot and I read widely. Everything inspires me, which is a really cliché thing to say, but it’s true. I wrote a poem the other day based on a click bait title. Some of my favorite poets at the moment are Jack Gilbert, Catie Rosemurgy, Jamie Mortara, Ocean Vuong, Richard Siken, Amy Gerstler, Dorthea Lasky, Frank O’Hara, and really anything I can get my hands on that’s good.

Q:  How has your poetry changed over time?

When I first started writing poems in college, I think I relied too heavily on humor as a defense mechanism. I had trouble writing poems that weren’t funny because my craft wasn’t developed enough. This remained true even mostly through grad school. I guess I’ve been studying and writing poetry for about ten years now (!!) and I feel like I’m just getting a handle on writing poems that don’t cut too quickly to a joke to mitigate a strong emotion. So, that’s where I am right now.

Q: What are you working on now?

Now that I’m back working at the factory, I’m writing poems mostly every day again. When I can’t think of something to write about, I usually end up writing a poem where horses explain simple things to me. So I guess you could say I’m working on horse poems right now, which is weird because I was never into horses as a kid or anything. I’m also still writing lots of weird poems about the moon. My friend Erica told me that it’s the poet’s job to write about the moon, so I’m just doing my duty.

Aside from these daily writings, I’m also working on getting a full-length manuscript together. Or, actually, it is together. I’m just working on getting somebody to want it. Its working title is Confabulations, which is a word for the phenomenon of mis-remembering an event, but not on purpose.

A:  What else would you like to say about your poetry or poetry in general?

    Aside from the obvious: I think everyone should read more poetry. I think for most people that might just mean reading any poetry at all. Which is funny because I read almost exclusively poetry. Poetry and craft books. I went on a Joan Didion kick last year (I keep a log of all the books I read yearly), but even so, of the fifty-ish books I read last year, thirty were poetry. And weirdly, a good number of the others were kid’s books.

Anyway: read poetry.

Q:  What are some of your other publications?  

Aside from my most recent chapbook, Pockets Press also published my second chapbook, OH NO EVERYTHING, which I think is currently out of print but is available as an ebook here ( My first chapbook, ETHER/ORE, is also out of print.

I’ve published over a hundred poems online and in print magazines and journals, but some that you can access online are here:



Thank you, Brett!

Everybody else, I hope you check out some of Brett’s other poems.  Happy reading!






Brett Jenkins Sneak Peek

In the very near future, I will be posting an interview with poet Brett Jenkins.  Here is a sneak peek at one of her poems from her third chapbook Over the Moon.  

(You know you are curious and want to read more!  You can do so by clicking here. )


Sleepover on the Moon in 1998

I hope it doesn’t rain–my umbrella will float away.
My mom says it’s too far, will your moon mom
come and get me? I wrote you a secret note in code
and trick-folded it up but I’m not sure how much
moon stamps cost.  Do any radio stations come in there?
I don’t want to miss the Top 40.  Let me paint your
toenails on the moon.  Let’s eat Gushers on the moon!
I love you so much on the moon.  I dare you to
jump over that crater.  I am going to kiss you in that crater until
we can see the whole sun.  My love for you is reflecting
to the Earth and people point at us and sing songs. Every
movie with the moon in it incorrectly credits our love
(it isn’t credited.)  Here we are on the moon.
Wow!  Look at this view.  You are beautiful.



Louise Erdrich Finalist for National Book Critics Circle Award


I have been blogging frequently about Louise Erdrich lately.  For that reason, I thought I would share this happy announcement that appeared yesterday in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  Kao Kalia Yang is another wonderful, local writer who is also a finalist for this award.


Louise Erdrich. Photo by Paul Emmel.

Minnesota writers Louise Erdrich and Kao Kalia Yang are among the finalists for this year’s National Book Critics Circle Awards, as are Minnesota-reared writers Alice Kaplan, Michael Tisserand and Hope Jahren. “Blackacre,” published by Minneapolis’ Graywolf Press, is a finalist in poetry.

 The finalists were selected on Saturday at a board meeting in New York City and the winners will be announced in mid-March. The board also named Yaa Gyasi’s novel, “Homegoing,” as winner of the John Leonard Prize, which goes to the best first book. Critic Michelle Dean, who writes for the Guardian, the New Republic and elsewhere, won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, which carries a $1,000 cash award. And Margaret Atwood—novelist, poet, essayist, futurist, and environmental activist—will receive the board’s Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award.

Kao Kalia Yang's memoir, "The Song Poet," was about the life of her father, Bee Yang. Star Tribune photo by Brian Peterson

Here is the full list of finalists, with links to Star Tribune reviews, when available:


Marion Coutts, “The Iceberg.”

Jenny Diski, “In Gratitude.”

Hope Jahren, “Lab Girl.”

Hisham Matar, “The Return.”

Kao Kalia Yang, “The Song Poet.”


Nigel Cliff, “Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story.”

Ruth Franklin, “Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life.”

Joe Jackson: “Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary.”

Michael Tisserand, “Krazy: George Herriman, a life in Black and White.” (review forthcoming this Sunday)

Frances Wilson: “Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey.”


Carol Anderson, “White Rage.”

Mark Greif, “Against Everything.”

Alice Kaplan, “Looking for the Stranger.”

Olivia Laing, “The Lonely City.”

Peter Orner, “Am I Alone Here?”


Michael Chabon, “Moonglow.”

Louise Erdrich, “LaRose.”

Adam Haslett, “Imagine Me Gone.”

Ann Patchett, “Commonwealth.”

Zadie Smith, “Swing Time.”

General nonfiction

Matthew Desmond, “Evicted.”

Ibram X. Kendi, “Stamped from the Beginning.”

Jane Mayer, “Dark Money.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen, “Nothing Ever Dies.”

John Edgar Wideman, “Writing to Save a Life.”


Ishion Hutchinson, “House of Lords and Commons.”

Tyehimba Jess, “Olio.”

Bernadette Mayer, “Works and Days.”

Robert Pinsky,”At the Foundling Hospital.”

Monica Youn, “Blackacre,” (published by Graywolf Press.)

The awards will be announced on March 16 at the New School in New York City. The NBCC is made up of about 1,000 working critics and book review editors across the country.

Erdrich’s Multiple Narrators

In an earlier post, I noted that one of Louise Erdrich’s trademarks is her sense of humor—the way she weaves bits of broad comedy into a larger fabric that tends more often to the sad or tragic.  In this post,  I want to note another Erdrich trademark:  her use of multiple perspectives to tell her stories.   To be sure, I have not read all of her works.  In the ones I have, though, I’ve noticed that she prefer to tell stories from the perspective of a community rather than of an individual.

In her first published book Love Medicine, Erdrich tells us the story of two families:  the Kashpaws and the Lamartines.  She does so in fourteen stories that can stand alone as separate works, but that also connect together to work as a novel.   The stories focus on different characters and are told from different points of view, such as Albertine Johnson, Marie Kashpaw, Nector Kashpaw, Lulu Lamartine, and so forth.  Sometimes the stories are told from a third person limited perspective (such as “Crown of Thorns”).  Others are told from the first person perspective (such as “Saint Marie”).   This switch in perspectives allows readers to understand the characters more broadly.  For example, most people in the community think of Lulu Lamartine as a promiscuous woman who has no emotional attachments.  She sees herself differently, though, as she tells us in “The Good Tears.”  She notes that

“They used to say Lulu Lamartine was like a cat, loving no one, only purring to get what she wanted.  But that’s not true.  I was in love with the whole world and all that lived in its rainy arms.  Sometimes I’d look out on my yard and the green leaves would be glowing.  I’d see the oil slick on the wing of a grackle.  I’d hear the wind rushing, rolling, like the far-off sound of waterfalls.  Then I’d open my mouth wide, my ears wide, my heart, and I’d let everything inside.”

What others see as a lack of love, she sees as an overabundance of love.

In her novel Tracks, Erdrich continues with multiple narrators, although the chapters do not necessarily stand on their own as stories.  Pauline and Nanapush alternate telling the story, which features the character Fleur.  (Interestingly, Fleur is not given her own voice.)  In The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, the story is told mostly from Agnes/Father Damien’s perspective, but other viewpoints are interspersed frequently, especially Nanpush’s.

The Roundhouse is told from one point of view—that of the thirteen year old narrator, Joe.  Yet even in this case, other voices enter into the novel in the form of storytelling told by the characters.   Mooshum, an elderly man, sometimes talks in his sleep.  Rather than talking nonsense, however, he tells coherent stories taken from his tribe’s oral traditions.  These stories help the readers understand the history and cultural beliefs of the Ojibwe from the perspective of an elder—something Joe would not be able to provide on his own.

Erdrich’s reliance on multiple voices, multiple stories suggests that her interest is less in a single individual than on the relationships among a whole community.  She is suggesting that we cannot understand an individual character unless we also understand the community in which he/she lives and the history from which he/she comes.  Despite the American ethic of rugged individualism, we are all part of a larger fabric which helps to shape who we are, whether we like it or not.

Question:  What might be some of the drawbacks of writing from multiple points of view?

His Bloody Project

I was looking forward to reading His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet.  The crime novel is billed as a historical thriller and is set in the Highlands of Scotland in the mid-1800s.  Roderick Macrae is arrested for murdering three people. He admits he is guilty, and he is already in jail awaiting trial before the book begins.  We read his memoir of the events, along with other documents related to the crime, such as statements by people who knew him, medical reports, and so forth.

Bloody Project received rave reviews and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.  Critics called it “gripping,” “compelling,” a “psychological thriller.”  I enjoy psychological thrillers and was ready to be gripped and compelled.

However, I was disappointed.  Although I was impressed at Burnet’s evocation of the godawfulness of the life of crofters in 19th century Scotland, I did not find the book riveting.  Roderick Macrae admits from the beginning that he killed the three people and is ready to face the consequences.  His memoir explains what led to the killing.   Maybe I missed something, but I failed to see anything of a psychological thriller in his account.  His voice was devoid of emotion or any real depth.  He wrote in what a psychologist might call “flat affect.”  The life he and his family led was devoid of any warmth, affection, joy or anything to make life worthwhile.  The way Lachlan Broad treated them was brutal.  Given the circumstances of his life, I completely understand why Roderick murdered the three victims and why he did not much care whether he lived or died.  I guess that is a testament to the strength of Burnet’s writing.  However, because Macrae’s life was so grim, and there was nothing compelling about his personality, I did not feel affected one way or the other about the outcome of his trial.

To state it bluntly, I felt no thrill or mystery or much of anything except pity for the entire class of people who had to live this way.

Note to writers

From a craft perspective, though, I did find Burnet’s use of various documents to tell the story interesting. It is a different way to convey multiple perspectives on a character or event.   Tim O’Brien used this technique brilliantly in his novel In the Lake of the Woods, and I think it added layers of complexity to the story.

I also thought the inclusion of J. Bruce Thomson, the expert in the field of criminal anthropology, was interesting.  This character illustrates the real trend at that period of “experts” who were able to tell if a person was inherently prone to criminality by examining his physical features.  Criminality was believed by some to be something hereditary and innate rather than a response to circumstances.  Bringing in this character was a good way to help readers understand the intellectual currents at work in this period.

Question for my readers:  I know this was a critically acclaimed book.  What am I missing? 

15 Notable Arabic Books Forthcoming in English Translation in 2017

Arabic literature is one of my research interests. I hope to read all of these in 2017!


A look at a few of the Arabic books forthcoming in English translation in 2017:

Jan 2017

ascensionAscension to Death, by Mamdouh Azzam, trans. Max Weiss (Haus Publishing)

From the publisher:

Ascension to Death, which launches Haus Publishing’s new Modern Arabic Classics series, is the first work of acclaimed Syrian writer Mamdouh Azzam to be published in English. Set against the backdrop of a conservative Druze region of southern Syria, this is the tragic story of the orphan Salma, who falls in love with a boy from her village but is then forced into an arranged marriage.

The controller of Salma’s fate is her tyrannical uncle, who, as her guardian and a powerful community leader with governmental ties, is all too pleased to unload the burden of his brother’s daughter onto the first man to propose. As Salma desperately tries to escape the marriage, the novel follows her attempt to…

View original post 1,801 more words

Trademark Edrich: Humor

In the past few weeks, I have been binging on Louise Erdrich’s novels.

(Erdrich is the acclaimed Ojibwe author of so many books I can’t keep track–maybe 16 novels?   If you are unfamiliar with her work, here is a review of her latest novel by the New York Times. It serves as a good introduction to her work.)

These are the novels I have recently read (or re-read):

  • Love Medicine (1984)
  • Tracks (1988)
  • The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001)
  • The Plague of Doves (2008)
  • The Round House (2012)

Several years ago, I also read her Crown of Columbus, and I am now starting to read her Bingo Palace (1994).

It would be an understatement to say that I am a fan of her work. The woman is a literary goddess.  Each of her novels creates a world unto itself.  However, most of them are connected to each other as well.  She focuses on a small (fictional) area of North Dakota and many of the same families are featured in each work.   In terms of her style, each work is unique.  Nonetheless, certain themes and stylistic traits recur throughout her work.  Taken together, the combination of these traits add up to a distinct Erdrich voice or “trademark.”

In this short series, I want to focus on a few elements of her voice, the things that mark her as distinct. Today I am focusing on her sense of humor.  In general, I would not classify Erdrich as a comic writer.  Taken as a whole, her fiction veers more towards the lyrical, the tragic, or even magical.   However, her vision is consistently punctuated with episodes of broad comedy.  Often the comedy is physical, even slapstick.  The humor provides some relief from the sadness of much of her writing, but it also expresses her view of the world—one in which the tragic and the comic cannot be neatly separated.

One example of trademark Erdrich humor can be seen in her first novel, Love Medicine.  In this work, Lipsha Morrissey accidentally walks in on his grandfather having an adulterous tryst in the laundry room at the senior center with his old flame, Lulu Lamartine.  In the context of the entire work, Grandfather Nector Kashpaw’s yearning for Lulu is portrayed as poignant, sad, touching.  In this particular scene, though, the perspective is one of broad comedy:

“There they were. And he was really loving her up good, boy, and she was going hell for leather.  Sheets was flapping on the lines above, and washcloths, pillowcase, shirts was also flying through the air, for they was trying to clear out a place for themselves in a high-heaped but shallow laundry cart.  The washers and dryers was all on, chock full of quarters, shaking and moaning.” (196)

This was an awkward scene for Lipsha to witness, to say the least.  But the awkwardness turns to hilarity when a wig is added to the equation:

“The Lamartine wore a big curly light-brown wig.  Looked like one of them squeaky little white-people dogs.  Poodles they call them.  Anyway, that wig is what saved us from the worse. . . . Turned out, though, in the heat of the clinch, as I was trying to avert my eyes you see, the Lamartine’s curly wig jumped off her head.  And if you ever been in the midst of something and had a big change like that occur in the someone, you can’t help know how it devastates your basic urges.  Not only that, but her wig was almost with a life of its own.  Grandpa’s eyes were bugging at the change already, and swear to God if the thing didn’t rear up and pop him in the face like it was going to start something.  He scrambled up, Grandpa did, and the Lamartine jumped up after him all addled-looking.  They just stared at each other, huffing and puffing, with quizzical expressions.”  (197)

This sort of broad comedy intermingles with scenes of great sadness and even tragedy throughout her works.  We can see another example of her slapstick humor in her 2012 novel The Round House.  This novel focuses on the rape and attempted murder of the narrator’s mother (Geraldine).  The perpetrator is known, but cannot be punished by the legal system because of complex and blatantly unjust issues of jurisdiction on Native reservations.  Not surprisingly, the overall tone of this novel is serious, even grim.  Still, Erdrich manages to interject scenes of pure slapstick, such as this one, in which a teenage boy  named Cappy confesses to a Catholic priest that he has been having sex with his girlfriend—in the church basement.  The confession does not go as well as expected though.  Father Travis, an ex-Marine, was in excellent physical condition and had a temper.  Rather than forgiving Cappy, he explodes in anger and starts chasing him:

“There were arcane sounds—the slide of the priest’s window, the whispering back and forth—then the explosion.  Father Travis burst from the wooden door of the confessional and would have caught Cappy if he hadn’t rolled out from under the curtain and half crawled, half scrambled along the pew.  Father ran back, blocking the exit, but already Cappy had sprung past us, hurdling the pew toward the front of the church, landing on the seats with each bound in a breathtaking series of vaulting leaps that took him nearly to the altar.”  (232)

The ensuing chase scene lasts for three full pages of slapstick adventure reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner.

“Cappy had those good shoes, but so, I noticed, did Father Travis.  He wasn’t running in sober clerical blacks but had perhaps been playing basketball or jogging before he dropped in to hear confessions.  The two sprinted hotly down the dusty gravel road that led from the church into town.  Cappy boldly crossed the highway and Father Travis followed.  Cappy cut through yards he knew well and disappeared.  But even in his cassock, which he’d hoisted and tucked into his belt, Father Travis was right behind him heading toward the Dead Custer Bar and Whitey’s gas station.  We marveled at Father’s pale thick-muscled calves blurring in the sun.” (233)

I am not a Catholic, but I am pretty sure that’s not how confession is supposed to work.

Certainly, Erdrich is not the only writer who combines humor and tragedy.  Many southern writers, for example, are famed for their tragic-comic vision.   William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor come to mind.  I think Erdrich’s humor is particularly broad, even cartoonish.  The combination of this slapstick humor with serious, even tragic, themes is one of the more striking elements of Erdrich’s voice.

I will discuss other elements of her voice in future posts.  Stay tuned!


The Year’s Best Overlooked Books


This is a reblog of a post that originally appeared in Literary Hub.  Let me know if you have read any of them and what you think!

December 28, 2016  By Literary Hub

The Clay Girl is a novel imbued with the language of childhood, tangled by fears and fantasy, into a painfully brutal fairy tale. Ari too often has to face tragedy with her brave strong heart as she is repeatedly ripped from her home, sometimes landing in a better place, sometimes in a broken place, she never stops hoping for a place to belong. This unforgettable debut is as full of grace, spirit, and tenacity as Ari, and like Ari faces uncomfortable truths with tenderness and imagination.

–Luisa Smith, Book Passage


Marina Abramovic, Walk Through Walls

marina is fearless
in her writing just as in her art
to the
all the while clutching scraps of life’s poetry
in both fists
flinging them here
flinging them there

marina is a spiritual cousin to the great isabelle huppert
terrifying in her focus and dedication to the truth

walk through walls

–mr. frank sanchez, Green Apple Books

the kingdom

Fuminori Nakamura, The Kingdom, tr. Kalau Almony

Like all of Nakamura’s taut and addictive books, the anti-hero of The Kingdom flirts with the criminal underworld but tries to stay out of its reach. Which she of course fails to do and which sends her life spiraling into confusion. Nakamura is starting to get some attention in the US, but he’s still criminally underappreciated here and that’s a shame, because he’s definitely on a par with Jo Nesbo or Don Winslow.

–Tom Roberge, Riffraff


Horacio Castellanos Moya, Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador, tr. Lee Klein

What do you say about a book by a writer you love who is imitating a writer you love (albeit the imitation itself achieves something wholly new)? This slim book, a stylistic tip-of-the-hat to Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, earned Horacio Castellanos Moya death threats in his home of El Salvador (as well as a book Moya has been trying to live down ever since). It is a bitter, angry, diatribe that happens to be hilarious; a man fuming to a friend at a bar in El Salvador about, well, everything. He’s returned home after decades to bury his mother and settle the estate with his brother and you can almost feel the protagonist’s skin burning from the discomfort of being back home, a country he calls vomitous. The biting eye of the protagonist lands on every social and political aspect of El Salvadorian culture, from its food to its government, and through this poetic vitriol we find the brilliance (and grace) of a first-rate author giving his regards to another first-rate author. Through imitation, a hybrid gem of fiction is born. A side note: the acrobatics of translator Lee Klein are worth the price of admission.

–Mark Haber, Brazos Books

Charlotte David Foenkinos

David Foenkinos, Charlotte, tr. Sam Taylor

Though a massive bestseller in France with over 500,000 copies in print, Charlotte created a relatively small splash when it was translated into English earlier this year. Foenkinos calls his account of Charlotte Saloman, an emerging artist who was only 26 when she was sent to the gas chamber at Auschwitz, a novel but it is the type of book that defies such easy categorization. Charlotte lives somewhere between history and the stories we tell to make sense of that history, a gray space where facts and obsessions meet.

–Emily Ballaine, Green Apple Books on the Park


Paula Lichtarowicz, The First Book of Calamity Leek

This, my friends, is a hell of a book. It takes one of my favorite aspects of science fiction—being thrust into a whole new world and having to struggle to understand it and its dialect—and marries it to the creepy children of horror lore. And it’s fabulous. Narrated by Calamity Leek, a teenage girl and an unreliable narrator if ever there was one, the world she describes is vastly different from the one we know to be true, and it becomes only more chilling the deeper we dive into it. I don’t want to give anything away; this is a novel best discovered as an untouched country and experienced unexpectedly. Lichtarowicz packs a huge emotional and richly plotted wallop into less than 300 pages, gifting us a work of unparalleled originality. This is a book I’ll be thinking about for a long time to come.

–Elayna Trucker, Copperfield’s Books

Idra Novey, Ways to Disappear

Idra Novey, Ways to Disappear

While the rest of the world closes itself off, the literary world attempts to become more and more open. Publishing houses are now devoted to translated texts and it sometimes feels like an embarrassment of riches. But what about the translator? That oft-over looked and underpaid individual who works so hard to give us something special. Novey asks this question and answers with a book that is both fun and also a reflection on what will we do for the authors and books that we love.

–Sam Goldstein, Skylight Books


Jim Harrison, Dead Man’s Float

Published just five days into 2016 and mere months before his death, Jim Harrison’s final collection of poetry Dead Man’s Float, deserves extra attention. It wasn’t unusual for him to walk thirty miles in the wild expanse of the Upper Peninsula, trek out for days hunting and camping with his bird dogs, and spend months isolated in his remote cabin. So it’s no wonder that this selection of poems, primarily focused on his declining health and unavoidable mortality, grasp the heart with a particular beauty and sadness. “I envied the dog lying in the yard / so I did it.” When the news came that Harrison had died, I found myself crying for a man known only to me through words. I reached for Dead Man’s Float that Easter afternoon, reread the whole thing, and cooked myself a beautiful meal with the dog at my feet. Just like Jim would have wanted.

My work piles up,
I falter with disease.
Time rushes toward me—it has no brakes. Still,
the radishes are good this year.
Run them through butter,
add a little salt.

–Kristina Bauman, Farley’s Bookshop


Brad Watson, Miss Jane

One of my favorite books this year is Miss Jane by Brad Watson. Yes, it was long listed for the National Book Award, but nobody seemed to be rushing out to buy it despite that endorsement. It is a quiet, thoughtful book with gorgeous writing. I found myself underlining passages and going back to linger over the language, even months after I finished reading it. Watson fictionalizes the life of his great-aunt, who is born with a genital defect in rural Mississippi in the early 20th century. Despite being seen of as a kind of “other” by her community, she lives her life with a sense of dignity and grace. The book is an attempt to understand a single person’s being and their loneliness, and the different ways that loneliness is chosen or imposed on one’s life. A great recommendation for any fan of Marilynne Robinson.

–Hilary Gustafson, Literati Bookstore

The Hero's Body_William Giraldi_cover

William Giraldi, The Hero’s Body

This is the most literary book on bodybuilding and superbike racing you’ll ever read! Giraldi’s contemplative coming-of-age memoir is also an elegy for his lost father, a rumination on grief, and a nuanced critique of masculinity. Searching for a sense of self within the macho surroundings of his Jersey family, sensitive, literature-loving William recounts his years of bodybuilding and steroid use. However, after his father’s sudden death during the family’s traditional Sunday motorcycle races, he begins dissecting the toxic “code” of manhood with which he grew up. An incisive take on how becoming a man means leaving behind the trappings of masculinity.

–Keaton Patterson, Brazos Bookstore


László Krasznahorkai, Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens, tr. Ottilie Mulzet

With László Krasznahorkai winning the Best Translated book award for his novels Satantango and Seiobo There Below, not a lot was said about his beautiful travelogue from Seagull Books this year.  This is a subtle meteorite of a book. Krasznahorkai’s details and his haunting read on human nature are exemplified as we follow him up mountains in and out of temples and the homes of prominent figures in China. He sees the world and translates it for us, like no other can.

–Nick Buzanski, Book Culture

The Nix

Nathan Hill, The Nix

I realize The Nix got some attention, and is a finalist for the NBCC first novel award—but I thought it was one of the most fabulous books by an American writer—a distinctly and richly American novel—to have come out in a DECADE, not just this year, and its absence from the NBA long list—really?—seems a very special shame, and many of us here, and our customers, agree.

–Richard Howarth, Square Books


Claire-Louise Bennett, Pond

This book is such a treat! Meticulous in its ordinariness and lyrically acrobatic, Bennett gently reminds us that life can be living and breathing prose.

–Cassie Duggan, City Lights Bookstore

Christodora_Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy, Christodora

Christodora is the story of a building and its inhabitants, a city and its citizens, a country and its crisis. In elegant prose spanning several decades, Tim Murphy has crafted an incredibly detailed portrait of the AIDS epidemic and its devastating effect on a whole host of characters. Murphy, who has covered the outbreak and fallout for years now, also creates a moving portrait of a couple and their adoptive son—cataloging their struggles through the New York art world and beyond. Readers will find a story complete with heart equaled by its overall significance as a historical artifact to our culture at large.

–John Gibbs, Green Apple Books

The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz

Basma Abdel Aziz, The Queue, tr. Elisabeth Jaquette

This foreboding, Kafkaesque/Orwellian novel depicting a bureaucratic state run by an authoritarian regime in the aftermath of an uprising in Egypt deserves a place beside novels like 1984 and Brave New World and is becoming increasingly prescient.

–John Cleary, Papercuts J.P.

Coyote America_Dan Flores_cover

Dan Flores, Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History

The coyote should have been TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year. This deeply engrossing study is part scientific, part mythological, and part personal observation. It is fully fascinating.

–Katie Eelman, Papercuts J.P.


Sarah Maria Griffin, Spare and Found Parts

A book we’re universally obsessed with at Booksmith is Spare and Found Parts by Sarah Griffin. It’s a near-future dystopian romp through a post-technology Dublin, in which a young genius named Nell with a ticking clock for a heart lives in the shadow of her father. It’s time to figure out where she fits in the world and how she’ll contribute. Her father’s job is to fix people using mechanical parts. So, when Nell finds an arm, she attempts to build a boy to hold hands with. As her new friend takes shape, she finds out there’s more to the world, and more to her family, than she one believed. It’s technically YA, but don’t let that influence you. Spare and Found Parts is gorgeous and lush, cheeky and clever, and aching with a longing we all know too well.

–The staff at The Booksmith


Kenward Elmslie, The Orchid Stories

A gloriously bonkers excursion into the possibilities of narrative prose, The Orchid Stories flows toward the reader like a fevered nitrous dialogue between J.D. Salinger and John Ashbery. This is Elmslie at the height of his linguistic mojo—always in control, presiding over the goings-on like a giddy wizard conducting a ceremony of syntactical sex-magick. Not for the faint of heart, but also not to be missed.

–Jarrod Annis, Greenlight Bookstorehere comes the sun nicole dennis-benn

Nicole Dennis-Benn, Here Comes the Sun

I devoured this book on the beach and highly recommend the experience. Set in Jamaica, and told through some of the most compelling characters I’ve witnessed in fiction recently, this book explores sex work, the ganja trade, skin whitening, and homosexuality in a country still very unaccepting (the author’s own marriage was the first reported lesbian marriage in Jamaica). Unforgettable, eye-opening, and unputdownable.

–Kate Layte, Papercuts J.P.


Kaya Doi, Chirri & Chirra

Positively my favorite picture book of the year—a bicycle journey through a magical land that will bring genuine happiness to everyone’s bedtime routine.

–Jenn Witte, Skylight Books

leena krohn

Leena Krohn, The Collected Fiction

Leena Krohn has earned comparisons to Calvino, Roald Dahl, Borges, and Ursula Le Guin, yet until now has remained virtually unknown to English-language readers. Thanks to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, we now have access to a singularly captivating storyteller. This omnibus collection of novellas, stories, and novels displays the capacious and entertaining imagination of this wonder of Finnish fantastic literature.

–Stephen Sparks, Green Apple Books

The Art of Revision

Charles Johnson

They say that when buying real estate, the most important considerations are “location, location, location.”  This adage can be modified slightly to apply to writing.  As a writer, the most important thing you can do is “revise, revise, revise.”

I tell students this all the time and they usually ignore me.

Maybe if they hear it from Charles Johnson they will believe it.  This post is a reblog of an article that originally appeared here in a book blog called Lit Hub.



December 20, 2016  By Charles Johnson

–Prosper Mérimée

It is in self-limitation that a master first shows himself.

A classic is a book that doesn’t have to be written again.
–Carl Van Doren

The late John Gardner, my writing mentor more than thirty years ago, once told a story about revision that has stuck with me. He said he gave a reading, and during the Q&A a woman raised her hand and said, “You know, I think I like your writing, but I don’t think I like you.” His reply was memorable. “That’s all right,” he said, “because I’m a better person when I’m writing. Standing here, talking to you now, I can’t revise my words. If I say something wrong or not quite right, or maybe offensive and it hurts someone, the words are out there, public, and I can’t take them back. I have to rely on you to revise or fix them for me. But when I’m writing, I can go over and over what I think and say until it’s right.”

I think Gardner captured the heart of the creative process. We often hear that 90 percent of good writing is rewriting. We also know that writing well is the same thing as thinking well, and that means we want our final literary product—story, novel, or essay—to exhibit our best thought, best feeling, and best technique.

When I compose a first draft I just let everything I feel and think spill out raw and chaotically on the page. I let it be a mess. I trust my instincts. I just let my ideas and feelings flow until I run out of words. It’s fine for an early draft to be a disaster area. I don’t censor myself. When I have this raw copy, I can then decide if this idea is worth putting more effort into. If so, then with the second draft, I clean up spelling and grammar. I add anything I forgot to include in the first draft and take out whatever isn’t working.

Then the real fun begins with the third draft. (Despite its importance, art should always be a form of play.) That’s where I work on what I know are my creative weaknesses. There are many, but let me focus on just one—poetic description, achieving what Gerard Manley Hopkins called inscape, and a granularity of specifics and detail. As a cartoonist and illustrator, I think visually first. Like most writers, my images overwhelmingly represent sight, what I see. We do have a built-in bias for visual imagery. We say we “see” (or hear) the truth. Never do we say we touch or feel it. So, in that third draft, I work consciously to include whenever possible imagery for the other senses—taste, smell, touch. If need be, I’ll resort to synaesthesia, or describing the experience of one of our senses using the language of another. Or onomatopoeia. With taste and smell, for example, my goal would be to describe odor as well as Upton Sinclair did in the “Stockyards” section of The Jungle; and sound as well as Lafcadio Hearn handles it. A book in my library that helped me much with this when I first started writing was The Art of Description by Marjorie H. Nicolson (New York: F. S. Crofts & Co., 1928).

Another problem I often have, personally, is at the idea stage. I sometimes start out with too many ideas. Before I begin to write, my thoughts are bursting with possibilities for the stories, multiple layers of meaning, things I’d love to include, all of which I jot down as quickly as they come to me. But then at some point I realize that less is more when one is plotting a story, if one wants it to be an economical, efficient, and coherent aesthetic object. Inevitably, I always have to scale things back, to search for and find the simple action and structure that creates suspense, causation that feels logical and inexorable, and a clean, uncluttered emotional through-line, i.e., what to emphasize and what to mute. With that decided, I then know how to place the discarded idea in a new way in the composition.

In that third draft, I begin to polish sentences and paragraphs for style. I always need a minimum of three drafts before I have anything worthy of showing to others, and that’s only if I’m lucky. (Don’t get me wrong: my drafts are not separate entities completed from start to finish. They flow into each other. I’m constantly rethinking a story’s beginning as I work on the middle and end.) Sometimes my ratio of throwaway to keep pages is 20:1. From the third draft forward, I work at varying sentence length (long, short) in every paragraph, and also varying sentence forms (simple, compound, complex, loose, periodic). I see each sentence as being a unit of energy. The music and meaning of each sentence and paragraph must carry into the next and contribute to a larger rhythmic design.

I try to make sure each paragraph can justify its being on the page. That is, each paragraph should have at least one good idea in it. Or do something to advance the story. Or enrich the details of the world in which the story is taking place or the characterizations of its people. I work at being as artistically generous as possible. I work to amplify a strong narrative voice. I want intellectual and imagistic density. And I want to achieve, of course, the feeling of organic story flow. I rewrite and edit until the piece has no waste or unnecessary sentences whatsoever. Nothing that slows down the pace of the story. Any sentence that can come out should come out. (“Kill your babies,” as the saying goes, unless, of course, you absolutely love that sentence.) There should be no remplissage (literary padding) or longueur (long and boring passages). No irrelevant postcard details in background descriptions. I want every detail to be “significant,” i.e., revealing in terms of character, place, or event. I work to get music—rhythm, meter—between sentences and paragraphs, as if the prose composition is actually a musical work, one pleasing to the ear. The way to test this is to read it out loud. If I stumble when reading the piece, I know those sentences that tripped me up (that were hard to say or recite) need to be rewritten. Also, I try to be generous with concrete language, and to write always with specificity. (The Devil is always in the details.)

I try, as I rework and revise, to remember a note I made to myself in my writer’s notebooks: “In great fiction the main element of importance is the fusion of character and event, their interplay, the way the latter reveals the former, and the way the former leads inevitably to the latter. One must also see how event transforms character even as it is produced by character.”

Character, then, is the engine of plot, and over the years I’ve come at the creation of characters from a few different angles: (1) basing them on an idea or principle; (2) drawing them from real people, specific individuals (or several) as my model for a character; (3) basing them on myself; and (4) basing them on the biography of a historical figure. Quite often, my characters combine all those approaches. So for me, revision is a combination of cutting away (like sculpting the sentence from stone) and also a constant layering of the language (like working with the sentence as you would clay). The palimpsestic layering part of the process often leads to sudden surprises—puns, oracles, and revelations—that I’m always looking for. And these discoveries often redirect the story away from my original idea or conception. Back and forth, adding and subtracting, like that. You know when a piece is finished, because you can’t pull out a single sentence or change a word or syllable. If you do extract that heavily polished sentence, you create a hole in the space between the sentences before and after it, since you have altered not only the sense but the sound that links those sentences. (It’s like ripping an arm off a human body, an act that affects everything else in the organism you’re creating.) Achieving this requires (for me) lots of thrown-away pages: 1,200 for Faith and the Good Thing, 2,400 for Oxherding Tale, 3,000 for Middle Passage, and more than 3,000 for Dreamer. I use this same method for short stories. I guess I don’t so much write stories as sculpt them. I love the sustained focus this requires, for it is so much like the first stage in formal meditation, called dharana (or concentration).

I started keeping a diary when I was twelve; my mother suggested the idea, mainly so she could read it and learn what feelings and secrets I was keeping from her. I remember her asking once at dinner, “Why don’t you like your uncle So-and-so?” and I thought, Dang! She must be a mind reader, then I realized she’d been reading the diary, and from that point on I had to hide it from her. In college the diary transformed into a journal in which I wrote poetry and brief essays to myself, and (as with a diary) tried to make sense of daily events. (These old journals fill up one filing cabinet in my study.) When I started writing fiction, the journals moved in the direction of being a writing tool and memory aide.

I use cheap, unlined spiral notebooks, each page like a blank canvas. Into them go notes on literally everything I experience or think worth remembering during the day; I jot down images, phrases used by my friends, fragments of thoughts, overheard dialogue, anything I flag in something I’ve read that strikes me for its sentence form or memorable qualities, its beauty or truth. These writing notebooks since 1972 sit on one of my bookshelves 30 inches deep, along with notebooks I kept from college classes. (I save everything; it’s shameless.) After 43 years of accumulation, the notebooks contain notes on just about every subject under the sun. When I have a decent third draft, I begin going carefully through my notebooks, page after page, hunting for thoughts, images I’ve had, or ideas about characters (observations I’ve made of people around me), carefully selecting from my notebooks details like someone arranging a Japanese rock garden. Although it can sometimes take five days (eight hours a day), and even two weeks, to go through all these notebooks and folders (since I add something new to the current one every day), I can always count on finding some sentence, phrase, or idea I had, say, 20 or 30 years ago that is perfect for a novel or story in progress. The literary journal Zyzzyva used to publish a feature called “The Writer’s Notebook.” If you look at the Fall 1992 issue (pages 124-43), you’ll see reproductions of my revised pages and an early outline for Middle Passage, as well as character notes for Captain Ebenezer Falcon that I wrote on hotel stationery (the Sheraton-Palace Hotel in San Francisco) when I was on the road.

When I tell students the anecdote about Gardner, I emphasize his feeling that the result of this painstaking revision process is that for at least once in their lives, here on the page, they can achieve perfection or something close to that, if they are willing to revise and reenvision their work long enough. And then I say: Where else in life do we get the chance—the privilege and blessing—to lovingly, selflessly go over something again and again until it finally embodies exactly what we think and feel, our best expression, our vision at its clearest, and our best techne?

Or, as Jeffery Allen said in an interview about his novel Song of the Shank, “I really tried hard to get it right. Art may be the only form of perfection available to humans, and creating a work of art might be the only thing in life that we have full control over. So we might ask, How is great measured? Craft is certainly one thing. I would also like to think that certain works of art transform the artist.”


charles johnson book


Excerpted from The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling by Charles Johnson. Copyright © 2016 by Charles Johnson. Published by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Reprinted with permission.



Interested in learning more about the craft of creative writing?  Check out Concordia University St. Paul’s new online MFA in creative writing program here.

WWW Wednesday: What are you reading?

Welcome to WWW Wednesday! This meme was formerly hosted by MizB at A Daily Rhythm and revived by Taking on a World of Words.


The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

  • I am currently reading The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich.  I teach Erdrich’s The Round House in Introduction to Literature, and lately I have been on a bit of binge with her other works.  They are almost all related, so it is almost like reading one huge series.  The Plague of Doves features, among other characters, Antone Bazil Coutts, who also plays a big role in The Round House.
  • I just finished reading Tracks  by Louise Erdirch.  I had read it a long time ago, but did not remember much.  I love it!
  • I am not sure what I will read next.  I am surrounded by piles of books to read!  One book I just bought is Teju Cole’s Open City.  I have heard a lot about it and want to check it out.

What are you reading?  Let me know in the comments!


If you are interested in developing your skills in creative writing, check out Concordia University-St. Paul’s online MFA creative writing program here.