Reading, watching, listening after the non-apocalypse

Inauguration, schminauguration—what we’re all truly excited about is HEARING RICHARD BLANCO’S POEM. And then digging up the two other poems rejected by the president’s staffers (the New York Times says Blanco offered them three), and blogging about how those dumb politicos eschewed the more risky, exciting options.

Anyway, that’s what I’ll be listening to this week, along with the Lumineers, on heavy rotation at the Wheeler-Gavaler dinner table lately. I won’t be reading much beyond what I’ve assigned for classes: spoken word in print from Rattle’s excellent 2007 Tribute to Slam issue for my senior seminar; Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Thomas Sayers Ellis for tomorrow’s workshop; Wilfred Owen for my British and Irish poetry class. In a three-course-term, with brilliant medievalist job candidates rotating through and lots of conference and editing deadlines, there isn’t a lot of time for consuming art purely for pleasure’s sake—or for blogging. I will try to write in coming weeks about the inauguration poem and other matters, but in the meantime, here’s a quick update and a re-posting of my December blog for Aqueduct Press.

What I’ve read/ watched since then: I hallucinated my way through the Gormenghast books for the first time over my flu-heightened Christmas break. They’ve really stayed with me—beautiful and strange. I’d like to watch the BBC series now but haven’t yet; we just finished catching up with the first two seasons of Homeland. Spoiler alert, in case you’re even behind me: I’m really happy they didn’t kill Brody, because for reasons I can’t understand, I am bizarrely fond of the lying murderous terrorist bastard.  The last fat novel I’ll probably read for a while is the new J.K. Rowling. 100 pages in I was tweeting “all Dursleys, no Hogwarts.” I eventually changed my mind, in part because of how vivid and important all the teenage characters came to be. It’s dark and long, maybe not a journey you want to take during a northern-hemisphere January, but Casual Vacancy does invoke a vivid, complicated world inhabited by vivid, complicated characters coping with the blistering awfulness of life, occasionally gracefully. And, while I’m a Harry Potter devotee too, I have to say that in this venture Rowling’s sentences are a LOT better.

Poetry: I’m now in the middle of Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec. Deborah Miranda, it’s just as terrific as you promised.

Here’s my December venture for Aqueduct’s “Pleasures of Reading, Watching, and Listening in 2012” series, but really, read it on their website, and then check out all the other awesome postings by authors much hipper than I am.

 Picture 12***

I can’t decide what metaphor to use for genre-betweenness: borderlands? The noise or static between radio stations? Twilight has been co-opted. At any rate, while I consume my share of fantasy novels and anyone-would-agree-this-is-realistic television—this year, for example, my winter Game of Thrones reading binge and summer of watching The Wire could represent those poles—I do a lot of my reading-listening-viewing in the gloaming. In fiction, this zone has many labels: slipstream, Fabulist, the New Weird. The same edgy neighborhoods exist in all the arts, though. A poem, play, or song may or may not claim a relation to speculative fiction but still present a version of human experience that feels strange, skewed, maybe magical.

I’m working on an article about speculative poetry that no one really notices is speculative, so I’ve been seeing weirdness everywhere. This year I loved Tracy K. Smith’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Life on Mars: she writes about her father’s death and I read the book right as I was coping with my own father’s final illness (I blogged about it here). I also cackled through weird volumes by Thomas Sayers Ellis, Bill Manhire, and Jeannine Hall Gailey (many of those books are a few years old). I find both David Wojahn’s The World Tree and Paula Meehan’s Painting Rain spooky and brilliant; I’m enjoying dipping in and out of Ursula K.

Le Guin’s New and Selected; and I’m entranced by the poem-by-poem emergence of a Peter Pan series by Sally Rosen Kindred through various magazines. I prefer single-author collections to anthologies and journals, but it’s been interesting to see so many mainstream mags putting out calls for speculative writing. I was frustrated that the New Yorker’s otherwise engaging speculative issue didn’t even try on the poetry front (Paul Muldoon, I admonish thee!). At the time, I forecast that the forthcoming Tribute to Speculative Poetry in Rattle would do better (again, see my blog on the subject), and I’ve just had the pleasure of reading that folio (Number 38, Fall 2012). The poems by Burt Beckmann, Amorak Huey, John Philip Johnson, John Laue, Aimee Parkison, Marilee Richards, Claire Wahmanholm, Natalie Young, and several others—few of whom I’d ever heard of—are fantastic in multiple senses. I’m grateful to receive Richards’ revelation about how God adjudicates competing prayers by athletes at sports games; Johnson’s “Stairs Appear in a Hole Outside of Town” is haunting me.

In fiction: this was My Year of Finally Reading Kelly Link, which, I know, reveals that I’m years behind everyone else (in case my Game of Thrones/ The Wire reference didn’t already make that clear). I was riveted by Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf and Talulla Rising. In YA, I admired Julianna Baggott’s Pure—it’s surprisingly disturbing to identify with a protagonist who has a plastic doll for a hand (I’m glad it’s doing well because the dystopian premise was alienating enough that my own kids, voracious readers, slunk away from it). I recently finished Louise Erdrich’s National Book Award-winning The Round House, too. I’ve read her books religiously since the first novel and I’ve never noticed anyone calling them speculative. After all, notions of reality are culturally specific, and in her view ghosts, visions, and totems are well within the bounds of realistic representation. (This is a huge problem in defining speculative lit. Who decides what’s strange?) Erdrich is an extraordinary world-builder, though, and the narrator of the latest book even has an obsession with Worf from Star Trek’s Next Generation. I wonder if it would be fruitful to start thinking of her work in relation to slipstream.

A lot of what I listened to in 2012 was the vinyl I bought as a teenager, once the adult me finally got a record player set up in the kitchen. David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix composed some pretty weird song-universes. I love the free podcasts from The Moth and am looking for the poetry equivalent, in case anyone has any tips. An ephemeral voicing that recently charmed me was a reading by Lev Grossman from his book in progress, a sequel to The Magicians and The Magician King. He offered a passage from the recurring character Eliot’s perspective, a hilarious description of a Narnian-style battle involving magical creatures and Grossman’s pseudo-Viking answer to Lewis’ Calormenes. The reading slayed us all, so stay tuned for the book.

My small-town location, compounded by parenthood and a massively absorbing job, means that I only see good theater a few times a year, at best. On our latest urban-fix-weekend, though, we scored tickets for David Grieg’s “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart,” a bizarre and funny musical staged in a pub. The main character is a female grad student obsessed with Scottish border ballads, so the work begins surreally with a parody of academic papers, but then she meets the devil and things get seriously crazy. It’s not a perfect play but the damn thing is in verse, it’s all about the boundaries of the fantastic, and it works. The Washington, D.C. run is over but if a portal opens near you, it’s worth entering.

Otherwise, the stuff in my “watching” category isn’t surprising. I’ll end, though, with what I wish I could see. After my fiction-writing superhero-obsessed spouse Chris Gavaler mused aloud about this, I can’t get the idea out of my head. Why can’t Doctor Who visit other BBC shows/ universes, like Merlin or Sherlock? Neil Gaiman, episode-writer-extraordinaire, if you’re listening, here is my challenge: in 2013, presuming we all survive that long, I am looking forward to sipping eggnog in front of “A Very Special Doctor Who Meets Downtown Abbey Christmas Special.”

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