Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Rapid Review: Uncle Tom's Children by Richard Wright

Last week, I discovered a copy of Richard Wright's Uncle Tom's Children at a used bookstore. This is the third work I've read by Wright, in line with Native Son (fiction) and Black Boy (non-fiction). Like his other work, Uncle Tom's Children does not flinch from the violent and impossible labyrinth that is living in the United States as a black person.

Published in 1936, the book begins with a non-fiction piece, "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," in which Wright recounts his experiences learning the unwritten rules white people required black people to follow, from his first job in which his life is threatened because he referred to a white person in conversation without using "Mr.", to witnessing his white bosses beat a black woman in the back of the store--an event treated by his boss as a delicious matter of fact. After she wanders into the street, bloody, weak, confused, a white police officer arrests her for intoxication.

Starting the book with the non-fiction piece serves to authenticate the reality that all the following novellas take place in, and to establish Wright as the clear storyteller of the book. The reader cannot sink too far into a story without remembering its author and the first non-fiction piece, which is important since these fictions contain such vivid, awful violence many readers will shirk from it by trying to shrug it off as fiction. Nope. The organization of the book refuses this wish. Fiction is bound to reality, and any attempt to deny this reality is to be aware that Wright is watching and knows this impulse and will not have it.

Except the first piece, the rest of the book is comprised of short stories/novellas, each told in a series of small sections that typically culminate in a person trying to save his life, or her own, after breaking the white man's code which Wright illuminates as ridiculous, arbitrary, and impossible with a guaranteed violence built into it--not just violence committed to the body, which Wright shows, but also the violence committed to the soul, identity, relationships, and one's ability to grasp what reality is since so much of reality is maneuvering through illusion.

In the story "Big Boy Leaves Home," which might, from the title, seem like a coming-of-age story about a boy maturing into a man about to start a new life . . . is not. "Big Boy Leaves Home" is the story of a group of teenagers who skip school on a hot day and want to go swimming, but a white man owns the pond and will likely kill on sight. The teenagers go swimming anyway, which ends with a white woman screaming, a white man shooting two of them, and one of the teenagers (Big Boy) killing the white man in defense. Of course, as soon as the white man is shot, everyone, including the reader, knows that this is the certain death for the teenager. The rest of the story is the two surviving teenagers attempt to save their own lives, while white people follow in a mob that burns down houses and worse.

In the last novella, "Bright and Morning Star," a mother has raised her two sons to young adulthood. Now, she is made to witness the destruction of her sons, which coincides with the blossoming of their ideas and beliefs in a workers' revolution and unification of poor white and black people in order to gain any traction to better lives. Her eldest son has been put in prison for his ideas, and her next son is about to die for the same reason. And she knows it. And she tries to protect him and the group of people in the community who believe the same. This night, she summons courage to "talk back" to white men who come hunting for her son. "Bright and Morning Star" is an incredible story that, in little time, explains how religion had been used to quiet the woman to the tragedy of her life--and after her awakening to communist ideas, she begins to feel alive.

In sum, Uncle Tom's Children is a harrowing book full of beautiful lives caught in a wretched reality made by, and perpetuated by, people who control it and then claim ignorance about its existence. How I wish someone had taught this book, or any book by Richard Wright, when I was a literature student. But they didn't.

I don't wonder why.


Places to find Uncle Tom's Children by Richard Wright (click for links)
Reminder: If your library does not hold a copy of this book, you can request the book through Interlibrary loan, or request its purchase. Librarians are always looking to add books that community members believe will benefit the collection. 

Thursday, February 8, 2018

It's Atmospheric, I Suppose: An Interview with Julia Drescher

Tramping through, hunting in, being hunted in the many woods (“dark” “Horrible”) that are the terrain of this book, Drescher finds/makes a clearing where a “gwhirl” is “breathing freely” and speaks in blood. Here she, who is at once many female-marked speakers, whirls, turns back on, turns her back on the usual tellers, or hunters, in order to open the epic.
– Susan Gevirtz, on Open Epic by Julia Drescher


Open Epic (cover) by Julia Drescher,
Delete Press 2017
After finding ourselves graduated from the MFA program at Texas State University, Julia Drescher and I spent the next two handfuls of years teaching there. Most every day we'd meet by the brick wall outside and talk. About the rain, about teaching thesis statements, about the state of the world, and words, too, sometimes. 

Once, I found her hand-stitching cover artwork for a book her press was preparing to launch. Another time, she showed me the wallpaper samples she'd gotten from Kiki Smith, and I ordered some, too, immediately drawn to the work.

For years our friendship went like this, sharing cigarettes, miseries, teaching tips, and jokes, before we each moved to states further north--her to Colorado, me to Washington. And while we've both left teaching, we're still connected, somewhat like telephone poles thousands of miles apart. From time to time, we remember and write. More often, we forget but then, out of our blue, we'll exchange interesting objects.  

Most recently, a package appeared on my doorstep containing Drescher's newest book of poetry, Open Epic (Delete Press 2017). 

It's a handsome book: cover, shape, and binding. And what lies within is a rattling play of thought and language, of fairy tale but not. Of anger but not. A hunt, torn apart. Like kathryn pringle and kari edwards, Drescher moves through the atmosphere of language and meaning, questioning--and asking us to question--where language and meaning intersect, deteriorate, and shift like so many pieces of earth in water.  

After reading Open Epic, I sent Julia a list of questions and asked if she'd answer them. She did. That is what follows.


What interests you about the edges of language and meaning?

JD. Right now I am listening to Julius Eastman’s “Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc” & I can’t tell if what word’s being sung is “said” or “sad”. It’s awesome.

It seems like the typical turn in poetry happens in the line, but your poetry turns within the collision of language itself, which isn’t made to seem like a collision but almost part of a stroke—the reader swimming from word to word, made to trust but not trust what the next word will do to the previous. The experience of reading Open Epic, for me, is like swimming underwater above sharp rocks.

JD. The trust-not-trust of language – I have never thought of that before (for myself) but I can see it as perfectly true. I must get this from my mother, I think.

I do sometimes think of lines in (my) poems as wrecks – sometimes what gets in the way of the poem one moment & then is the way of the poem in the next (the former having to do with my tyrannical tendencies, I think, & the latter is maybe when the poem can exceed these)…As a reader, I can’t help but be absorbed by misreadings/mishearings & interminable associations (polysemy etc.) & that makes its way into my writing.

Too, I guess the ‘wreck’ of the line is tied to sound & rhythm – like, I am always off-beat, can’t quite get the senses of the sound arrangement  to “come out right” etc. This happens, as well, in reading the poems out loud – the voice in my head is not the voice that comes out of my mouth (sometimes, this is very frustrating & sometimes I find myself super-interested in this ‘gap’ more generally).

“Hilda’s Hunting,” the first movement of Open Epic, reads as a mourning song to a heroine who has been displaced by a (historical) focus on the men and their doings while simultaneously examining-through-fracturing The Hunt as a traditional, patriarchal activity. Was this originally your intention, or did one appear as you worked on the other?

JD. I very much began writing this poem from the line “Hunting is about / Completing the sentence”—& then, in some ways the poem develops out of a refusal of that construction (i.e. the reliance on – even faith in – sound & the slippery-ness of language as the means for not ‘completing the sentence’ (&, therefore, not ‘hunting’?) — ‘Hunting’ being, anyway, not quite the word for not having a wor(l)d that speaks to what’s going on, where it’s trying to get to, get out of, etc.

So—displaced in a certain sense, yes, & anger/rage (mourning) about that – but more so, I think, about being angry at oneself for being angry about that situation of being ‘outside’ of some (heroic-historical –therefore “important”, “legitimate” etc.) focus– like, what’s so great about it anyway? & then, too, that it feels like you are forced to continually inhabit that anger because, you know, the very real effects of other people acting out/on this fantasy of “placement” won’t leave you alone…(&/but then doesn’t the position of “displacement (from)” provide some things that are vital to living, that are absolutely invaluable, that the “(historical) focus” won’t/doesn’t?)

I would say (& other people have said it before & better than I) that one of the insidiousnesses of any—particularly white, particularly western—“patriarchal activity” is the fact of my own varying complicities in it even as, let’s say, I never gave (& never could give) consent to it being in the first place— which is the situation of everyone to a certain extent,  just some are more invested in it continuing to be the normative situation etc.

& so, then, thinking about whatever benefits befall from that when my whiteness is added to the mix, the construction becomes also how to give away, or refuse, what you have but never wanted in the first place…

I think the Hilda poem doesn’t seem to actually present, let’s say, “Men” as a completely physical presence as such (or, if they are there, they have already been consumed) – the speaker & Hilda are saturated in & saturate the “traditional/patriarchal” violence, trying (& failing) continually to find an out-place from that.

Do you think that a questioning of tradition/history, without a re-examination of language itself, is authentic? Is questioning itself limited if language itself isn’t also part of the questioning? It seems you’re after both these questions in Open Epic, if not to answer them then to raise them.

JD. I can’t answer this directly, I think. (It would go into that too-much-&-not-enough territory).
 So how about this:
  • After the “election” in 2016 (& surely some version/the same version of this has always been around) I saw a sign that said “IF YOU DON’T VOTE, YOU DON’T COUNT”. & it made me so very viscerally angry & exhausted at the same time. While understanding (perhaps) where it’s coming from, I find it just a completely horrible & brutal expression – As the list could be endless (&, frankly, does include most who do vote): “illegal” immigrants don’t count, trees don’t count, children don’t count, mountains don’t count, refugees don’t count, oceans don’t count etc.etc.etc.( don’t count)… all of which is unbearably true, has been true, under particularly political modes -- & so, to *repeat* this ‘logic’ of *literal & figurative* value like it will get you anywhere close to whatever beautiful better world you imagine -- is just fucked-up-sad to me…
  • I recently sent a friend of mine who’s a poet/lawyer the following query:

There's a lawyer here who's trying to get the Colorado River (I think) legally classified as a person (much like New Zealand, or that guy who's tried with chimps etc.) & I wanted to know: Has anyone ever tried to get themselves (re)classified legally as, like say, a *river* (or something)?      
  • Just yesterday I heard a story on the radio about a “Southern Accent Reduction class” being offered to workers in Tennessee. Its purpose was to help them acquire a “more neutral American” sound in order to ensure that people would “pay attention to what you say, not how you say it.” Being from Texas (& being a person who sometimes “loses” my accent, sometimes “finds” it (&, unintentionally, others!) – usually depending entirely on what person or people I am around), I cracked my ass up all the way home.
  • I think I have been in love with the word “ain’t” since before I was born.
Without knowing whose body the ghost belongs to, would it be difficult to discuss the ghost? Sometimes I feel this way in trying to write about your work, ask you a question about it, though when I am not searching for language, I do not feel at a loss in the same way. Respond how you will.

JD. It is difficult to discuss! So here is a (perhaps heavy-handed) collage:

(From Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects): “A bird detects the quantum signature of an electromagnetic wave, not the wave itself, by means of a quantum scale magnet in its eye. Birds perceive not some traditional material lump, but an aesthetic shape.”
Is there a “quantum scale magnet” in our ears, in our tongues?
(From Barthes’s “The Grain of the Voice): “am I hearing voices within the voice? but isn't it the truth of the voice to be hallucinated?”
Ghost = guest + host?
The roots being ‘fury, anger’, ‘ugly’| ‘to wound, tear, pull to pieces’ | ‘to give up, give away’
How it feels what it means to love ferociously
(From an interview with Clarice Lispector):
                                                                        CL: I’m a little tired.
                                                                        Q: Of what?
                                                                        CL: Of myself.
                                                                        Q: But aren’t you born again and refreshed with
     every new work?
                                                                        CL: Well. For now I am dead.
     We’ll see if I can be born again.
     For now I’m dead.
     I’m speaking from my tomb.
(Barthes again): “(it is not the psychological 'subject' in me who is listening; the climactic pleasure hoped for is not going to reinforce – to express – that subject but, on the contrary, to lose it.)”
(From Baraka’s “Hunting is Not those Heads on the Wall”): “And even to name something, is to wait for it in the place you think it will pass.”
. . .
Part of the visceral pleasure in reading your work is the rhythms that the language takes in/falls into, often through repetition of fracture:

she holds like these her hands
she holds
these like
her hands
like is to
pretend as

& in her hand some shine & in her hand some bruise

So not just repetition, but using repetition to cause an expectation and then, once the expectation is formed, avoiding resolution by making the language blossom differently—but then the pleasure still comes from this, from being denied resolution of our (readers’) expectations as created by repetition. Do the conventions of poetry hinder or help the questioning of language? Or is questioning itself unable to be done as thoroughly in prose? I guess I’m wondering how the conventions of poetry limit even poetry, limit language—if pleasure is a limitation. Perhaps it isn’t. Or is pleasure what is used to move the reader through the questioning, as plot is often used in prose? Your turn, speak however you will to any of this.
JD. I am glad if it does what you say.
I think very interesting things can generate & move in limits (which are or can be shape-shifting things themselves).
In terms of pleasure, this recently came out of (seemingly) nowhere:

It is as if we live
with other words—true

pleasure is always disturbing. That feeling

a body gets wanting
to follow the eyes over a ledge – no –,

I could not write a poem
to save my life. But

poetry (what’s disturbing)
is not for saving life—

it’s for giving it away

For the past several years, when I write, I’ve been in conversation partly with Flannery O’Connor. This hasn’t always been true, but it has been of late. Is there a writer you are partly in conversation with in your writing right now? What writer, or work, do you return to again and again as the years pass?

JD. It really is quite hard for me to separate or delineate reading & writing so I combined two of your questions because of this & I thought it would make it easier to respond. However, because I could go on forever about reading (who what when where why), combining these questions doesn’t make it any easier! The works I return to again & again (i.e. the writers who, when I first read them, I knew I would be a reader of theirs forever), I think, would be who I am always in a “conversation” with (though most, probably, would want nothing to do with me!)

The people I quoted in the ghost question are the most recent writers I have been reading/returning to, but with a few absences:

Literally every day I am lucky enough to be in conversation with C.J. Martin & his work.

I have been reading Akira Lippet’s books & also re-reading Lisa Robertson (& pretty soon, Norma Cole) & then, of course, for the last 10 years I am always reading/listening to Fred Moten.

How would you describe your relationship with words?

JD. My relationship with words is atmospheric, I suppose.

Since writers often find themselves in a writing workshop, whether that’s in a classroom or coffee shop, and the workshop has the possibility to humiliate/harass/wound writing that defies/questions/wonders about language and how it moves, what advice would you give writers who are compelled to write outside of convention, or in unexpected ways? Ideally, the workshop’s goal is not to humiliate/harass/wound writing, no matter its form/path/appearance, so what advice would you give readers who come across such a writer in a workshop?

JD. Workshops are weird, at best. & who am I to offer ‘advice’!!??
I can only say that my experience didn’t happen to be as horrible as I know they can be, probably because:
  1. The teachers I had always encouraged us to read read read – which I interpreted as permission to continue to be interested  over & above being (or presenting oneself as) interesting. I still think this is something to “live up” to. Also, making friends with people who were interested in reading, learning constantly, treating other people with respect etc. very much helped.
  2. When I was a kid & visiting extended family (which we did quite often), the general rule was that my sisters & I were to be seen & not heard—which meant we had to remain present at the dinner table long after we had finished eating, listening to the adults talk. On the one hand, I think this was actually really good training just generally for reading & studying, & then, more specifically, for having my poems “workshopped” (…the on-the-other-hands, I don’t even have time to un-pack:)
  3. I am stubborn as fuck. This isn’t a brag – it has caused me lots of problems & it is a problematic characteristic etc. but it did, sometimes, help me—I guess, in terms of deciding what not to listen to or, better yet, how to listen to someone who might be using the workshop to “humiliate/harass/wound”. I mean, really, it just boils down to the fact that if the position you have taken in a workshop is to be the one to “humiliate” etc., it’s just beyond pathetic & not helpful to anyone.

[&, as a silly side-note: given the *academic* workshop set-up – wherein no one has a clue as to what they’re doing most of the time but everyone feels like they have to act like they know *exactly* what to do etc.—aren’t workshops kind of like (in their best & worst senses) parenting advice books? LOL.]

What projects are you working on in either your writing, reading, or press-publishing?

JD. Through Further Other Book Works, & in conjunction with Cuneiform Press, C.J. Martin & I just published a book of the poet Helen Adam’s collages  (The Collages of Helen Adam). I just finished a long poem I had been working on awhile, so I got about a day of feeling something close to satisfaction & then I am flailing again. So now I’m in some sort of hibernation pattern (which involves lots of reading & collaging).


Julia Drescher

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Rapid Review: Tomorrow or Forever by Jack Kaulfus

Cover of Tomorrow or Forever by Jack Kaulfus,
due out this July by Transgress Press
I spent yesterday reading one of my favorite books of all time: Tomorrow or Forever by Jack Kaulfus (Transgress Press 2018). In short, it's fantastic, compelling, full of shadows and ghosts and ache and unexpected corners to endings. A plane crashes while a baby cries, but there is seemingly no baby; a teacher takes a bus of students to a haunting garden of sculptures; a woman assembles the bones of primates while her ex-husband won't accept the divorce; character after character struggles with time and its place in identity, or an identity's place in time--especially in relation to others. My favorite story is "When it Happens," a fictional speculation of the night Frank Goldberg disappeared. Deft, careful, kind, mournful.

Hopefully, Jack will sit down for an interview here pretty soon, and we'll go into more depth about the stories, the writing, the now and future.

Tomorrow or Forever arrives on shelves this July. Make a mental note. Because you'll want to return to it, so follow Jack on Facebook now so you don't forget to remember.

Like Jack on FB here:
Jack's website here:


Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Rapid Review: George by Alex Gino

Cover of the novel George by Alex Gino
I just finished reading the novel George, about a fourth-grade trans girl, Melissa, who is thought to be a boy by her family and friends, but who is trying to figure out a way to tell people who she is.

Much like last month's selection, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, our main character in George isn't struggling with figuring out who they are, but how to communicate who they are to people whose reactions will have a deep impact on how our main character moves through the world.

As for narrative and writing, George is a pretty ordinary story, and in the genre of Rite-of-Passage books. Outsider character not understood by those around her but with the additional complications caused by communities who don't easily identify with, or (try to) understand, the character's experience.

This is the second book of the Queerest Book Club Ever, a YA book club, that meets at Tacoma's King's Books. I follow it from afar, and am glad to read books about LGBTQ+ characters--characters who never appeared even as minor characters in the books I read growing up, much less studied in my children's literature courses (because, for the most part, they didn't exist--the books, of course, not the people).

If you're in or near Tacoma, the meeting to discuss George is February 12th at 7 PM.

More info here:

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

So There I Was: On the Radio Program So There I Was

Erin Pringle on So There I Was (December 2017)
As a kid, I would carry a small, pink radio/cassette player around town, to the diner, throughout the house--listening to 102.7 WPFR, which was the best radio station broadcasting out of Terre Haute, IN and that reached my ears in Casey, IL.

Eventually that station disappeared, and sometimes I listened to the local station, 104.3 FM, WCBH, and once or maybe twice, I volunteered there, ran the recording of Casey Kasem's Countdown, and learned more about how the radio worked.

Casey also had an AM station, WKZI, but I only listened to that once a year, when they held auctions on the radio and you could telephone in and bid. We won a large teddy bear one year, a carwash package another year. Flowers, maybe? My joy wasn't so much the object but the act of bidding, and hearing that we'd been the highest bidder--on the radio!

In sum, I've always been a bit of a radio lover.

Every week, Spokane community members Neal and Heather host a show, So There I Was, on KYRS Radio (88.1 FM/92.3 FM). The show covers local artists, musicians, actors, and everyone in between who is involved in events and projects around Spokane. The show's goal is to create a "portrait of Spokane, one story at a time."

I was lucky enough to meet Neal and Heather for the first time when we talked about The Whole World at Once, back in April of 2017, just before the book was released. Then I came back in August to report on how the tour went. They let me return in October to share urban legends for Halloween. Then, in December, I visited again, this time to talk about the Fuse Spokane Book Club, Book Your Stocking, and the books I've been reading.

Since I love the radio, and this show, I'll be back next week on So There I Was for a discussion on books, groundhogs, and valentines--and maybe a bit of love in there. First loves? Fifth loves? No loves, sure. Those, too. Victorian paper valentines with chubby cupid cherubs? I'll try to sneak a word in there about those, too.

I very much enjoy talking with Heather and Neal. They're kind, witty, and let conversations wind into interesting stories. Probably I should just invite them to dinner, but this is the best way to find them now. I hope you enjoy So There I Was as much as I do, or at least nearly as much, because I have deep feelings about the show.

Listen to past shows from the archive. Click to listen:

Neal, Heather, and Erin after August show 


Friday, January 19, 2018

Rapid Review: dôNrm’-lä-püsl by kari edwards (Joan of Arc Project)

I spent last night reading dôNrm’-lä-püsl, the last poetry manuscript by kari edwards, edited by Tina Žigon, and published posthumously by eth press (2017).

It’s the first work by kari edwards that I’ve read and, now, certainly not the last. This book is an examination/resuscitation of Joan of Arc, through her own and imagined voice and her experienced voices.

I’m wholly fascinated by the work. From its explorations/compressions of time, setting, language (thus, meaning; thus, now-ness). To the vivid, sudden imagery. Not to mention the turns of voice and directions of perspective. And humor, often the humor of frustration at the carnival created by bureaucractic-clinging to arbitrary definitions of what is, as Joan is being questioned about the authenticity of the voices when she has the more pressing matter of trying to save the world.

I’m so glad that Tina Žigon found the manuscript in the SUNY Buffalo archives and brought its flickerings to light. And the book begins with a useful essay by Žigon that frames the manuscript, from edwards’ interest in Joan of Arc to Žigon’s process in working with the manuscript.

I must reread dôNrm’-lä-püsl many more times and will be glad to do so. One of the best aspects of poetry is that it expects your return, and has prepared for it. While edwards did not envision this work being published in this way, she was certainly preparing for, and creating, a return to return to return such that a returning would no longer be necessary and language could expand.

Available here:

From kari edwards' dôNrm’-lä-püsl (eth/punctum press, 2017)

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Rapid Review: Bluets by Maggie Nelson

I am improving on decreasing the length of time between learning about a title and reading it. Last month, I read Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts, on recommendation from a friend who teaches a class focused on LGBTQ+ writers. (I'm still thinking about it and will read it again.) And on the front page, listing Nelson's other titles, was Bluets. And then, during the Book Your Stocking series, Michael Martone included Bluets on his reading recommendation list and as part of a course he's teaching in short prose. So, upon receiving a bookstore gift-card, I purchased it, found it at my door soon after, and began. Now, I've finished.

Nelson's writing, more so in Bluets (2009) than in The Argonauts (2015), reminds me of Carole Maso's writing. Though Nelson focuses less on the beauty of the line and the rising tension of using repetition to build movement and symphony. While Maso is more inclined to meditate on longing itself, to divulge in it and create it through language, Nelson is more inclined to question what longing is, to frame it and reframe it, using both her voice and the accumulation of voices such as Plato, Stein, Wittgenstein--though both Maso and Nelson are interested in the density of language and the use of silence for emphasis and weight.

I am thinking early Carole Maso. Ava. Aureole.

Perhaps it is less their writing than their interests.

Perhaps I think they would have a good conversation if they met, perhaps they have, but if they met without names and books and all of that, and sat, to talk, I think they would talk for a long time. 

Perhaps it's that they both like pockets of words, surrounded by silences. But C.D. Wright does, too, or did in Big Words (it's all I've read by her), and that does not remind me of Nelson. Off the cuff anyway.

Reading Nelson is akin to reading philosophy that is both interested in the ideas and the language used to consider the ideas, and the relationship between both. It is less like reading a poetry that relies on the trick of language unfolding to question an idea or create a new one.

The ideas that fascinate Nelson in Bluets revolve around the idea of color, desire, the body, longing, and heartbreak. She has fallen in love with the color blue, or the idea of falling in love with blue, or she has been collecting blue for a while now, promising a book on blue long before she writes one, and then she goes through a breakup and so begins the writing of the book. This is the premise, the impetus for all that comes after.

One of my favorite passages, Nelson defending Stein in her concern about color

She raises more questions than she answers, which I prefer.

She is well read and not shy about it, which is how it should be, but will strike any reader who has (inadvertently?) become used to female voices who do not reveal their wisdoms with force (or without the maskings of metaphor), who feel free to converse with Plato on the page.

She has sex and speaks of it, which is perhaps more interesting than it should be--the fact of a woman having sex and being aware of the fact and discussing it. I think about this alot. I come from a small town where no one has sex, though the town somehow continues to repopulate. I come from a shaming of sexuality. I can say fucking, but to read Maggie Nelson write fucking and mean herself, yes, and that this is part of what she misses in her heartache. Well, it makes me blush, then pause and consider why.

How refreshing, I read in a male reader's review of The Argonauts, to read a woman speaking so honestly about her desires, regardless of her socialism.

It's more freshing, I think than refreshing. Her socialism is good, too. More, please.

In sum, Bluets is worth buying and (re)reading. It reads fast but dwells and wonders why you're reading fast when dwelling is what we ought to be doing.

Here: what I enjoy most about Maggie Nelson's work is that she is clearly and deeply fascinated by what she's writing, about the ideas, about how ideas open into other ideas, how those ideas make her reconsider, rethink, stop. She is interested in her participation with ideas and is aware she has interesting ideas, too. And I don't always find a writer so open about the act of thinking as worth fascination, a writer who believes in the importance of creating the act for the reader as well.

She begins this way,
1. Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke. It began slowly. An appreciation, an affinity. Then, one day, it became more serious. Then (looking into an empty teacup, its bottom stained with thin brown excrement coiled into the shape of a sea horse) it became somehow personal.
After reading two books by Maggie Nelson, I can say that whatever her brain falls in love with, and wants to write about, the result is a thought experience that I want to take part in.

Purchase Bluets here.
Check whether your librarian has put it on your shelves here.


Friday, January 12, 2018

Rapid Review: Martin's Big Words

I. Rapid Review of Martin's Big Words, written by Doreen Rappaport and illustrated by Bryan Collier

Martin's Big Words is an excellent book, from the narrative that moves from Martin as a child through adulthood, to the inclusion of Martin's actual words on each page, to the beautiful illustrations. Its focus age is likely elementary school, ages 7-10, but I shared this with children ages 2-6, and we all enjoyed the book and the satellite conversations it led to. The children who have learned to read had little trouble reading along when asked. We spent over an hour reading the book, talking, sharing questions and thoughts, and we made it only halfway through the book.

In sum, it's a wonderful book that, in spite of the ugliness, cruelty, and horror of the past and present, provides a way of learning about it that does not ignore these facts but helps create a dialogue with our children, ourselves, and history that is sometimes difficult to begin since language will suddenly fail us.

If your (grand)children's home, school, or community library does not yet have this book, please take the steps to rectify the situation--especially if you live in a place that is majority white. I do not have a single memory of books about, or by, MLK in my childhood home or the public library. And now, in reflecting on this, I feel cheated by that, not just in the knowledge and connection I could have had with history and its effect on a present that I could feel but could not name, but also cheated in the ways I was taught what beauty was, and I still do. You will be glad to have added this book to your shelves. I will be glad, too. Our community will be better for it, our childhoods, our art, our future poetry. Please.

II. Some thoughts on reading to children about topics that are not "pleasant" or may seem "impolite"

Now, I know that many parents have trouble approaching subjects that are uncomfortable, whatever uncomfortable is for their family, whether that's racism, religion, atheism, god, reproduction, sexuality, gender identity, death, war, hate--you name it. I know this discomfort exists not only because I grew up in a rural town whose way of relating to each other often seemed to necessitate avoiding anything considered "impolite", but also because I volunteered at the public library as a kid and encountered parents who censored their children's reading, and because I have taken, and taught, many children's literature courses and been privy to student concerns and debates about what children's books are "appropriate" for children and which books should be avoided, censored, or not even published.

Such discussions are, I think at the heart, about what kind of society we "should be" imagining. How will a particular book get us closer to utopia, or keep us in not-utopia? Should children read books that make them cry? Should children learn about poverty? What of children who are living poverty, and not in a place that is estranged from it? What of unhappy endings? What of only happy endings? What of books with parents who die? What of books that only represent disability when the book is about disability? Why does a family who lives racism and its effects daily have to discuss race every day while families who do not experience racism think they have a choice of when the appropriate time would be to discuss race?

These are important discussions to have, certainly, because these are discussions about what reality is, who we are, whether our experience of reality, or our perspectives on it, are created by what we learned or what we experienced or what is good or what is not "polite." They're also questions spurred by wondering what effects our parenting (and teaching and neighbor-ing and grandchild-ing) will have on our children, and what effects our own experiences of being parented have had on our lives today.

As a parent, I have found that I know so much more about my son, his thoughts, his interests, his concerns, and his way of approaching life, because of wonderful books and topics I've found difficult to initiate. I would not know him as well if I avoided wonderful books or avoided conversations that hurt my feelings, or conversations about issues that I don't feel fluent in, or conversations whose path I cannot imagine, or conversations on topics that I did not have as a child myself. I also would not know myself as a person or parent or community member if I avoided these discussions. I know this because every time my son and I speak openly and honestly about what troubles us, as we try to understand it together, I leave the conversation with new ways of finding myself and our family, friends, and neighbors in the world. And I wouldn't have otherwise.

But it hasn't been easy for me. How to explain reproduction to my three-year old who wants to know?
But then I say the word uterus and the word nest, and cup my hands to show him. And isn't there beauty in that?
How do I explain god when he asks? And I say some people believe, and some don't, but god is an idea that people have to explain who made everything. It is a beautiful idea, I realize, though I don't believe it.
How did Martin Luther King die? he asks one day and then another day and again at bedtime, and yesterday at the coffee shop. And I say, People killed him. A group of people decided to.
How? he says.
With a gun, I say.
What's a gun? he says, and I find myself holding my hand like a gun, my finger aimed away from him while he eats his blueberry muffin. I show him pictures of guns on my phone, explain to him what bullets are, how they work while behind us, the barista makes espresso drinks for people on their way to work.
Bullets put holes in people, I explain. And I think, Bullets put holes in people. What? How is this true?

We live in a world where we put holes in people. So do our children. And I need people to explain this fact to me as much as he needs me to try to explain this to him. So, I try.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Fuse Spokane Book Club: Winter-Spring 2018 Book Selections and Dates


Where We Meet:
Spokane Downtown Library (906 W. Main)
Topmost floor, north end
Level-Up Classroom

6:00 PM - 8:00 PM

Join us


About Fuse Spokane Book Club: 
An arm of the Immigration and Inclusion Action Team of Fuse Spokane, we meet the second Wednesday of every month to discuss the stories, histories, and voices that have traditionally been ignored, repressed, ridiculed, or made invisible. We want to expand our knowledge of each other, deepen our understanding of ourselves, and thereby create a more inclusive and knowledgeable community to live in. You do not need to be a member of Fuse to participate in the book club. 

About Fuse: Fuse is the largest progressive organization in Washington State. Learn more and other ways to be involved by visiting their website:

The event is free, inclusive, welcoming, and open to the public. The group is facilitated by Fuse council member Erin Pringle/Toungate. You are most definitely invited. We have regular readers and new readers every meeting. Please come prepared to discuss the book.

Note! Book club members receive a discount at Auntie's Bookstore, so please call and reserve your copy of the book(s) today! Click on the individual titles above to find them at Auntie's, or visit their homepage here:

Rapid Review: The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey

The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey
In November, I joined a book club begun by the director of the Montessori school my preschooler attends. The first book we read, and finished discussing last night, was The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey (Harper, 2016).

The actual subtitle of the book is "How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go so their Children can Succeed." That works, sure. I would subtitle (or sub-subtitle) the book "The Ways You are Micromanaging Your Child's Life, Why You Must STOP, and How to Begin Supporting Your Child's Independence with an Eye on Autonomy, Whether Your Child is 2 or 17."

Or, maybe, "How to Stop Doing Everything for Your Child because How will they ever Learn: Magic isn't a Thing"

Or, maybe "Eventually, Your Child Will Resent Your Overreach, so Let's Take a Moment and Reflect"

Or, "How to Encourage Growth, Independence, and Autonomy in Your Child through Learning and Goals, and the Necessary Mistakes that will Come with Them"

Clearly, I'm not in the publishing-side of the writing business, but these pretty much sum up the theses of the book and why the book is super useful, and I love it. I have a tendency to micromanage everyone, not just my child. Evidently, I'm not alone.

Our family has always been Montessori-minded in our choices of how to support Henry's growth, so this book falls in line with that parenting and educational style. A reader who has not yet embraced, or touched toe in the ocean of encouraging child autonomy (and doing it), would likely find this book overwhelming. But to be overwhelmed isn't as uncomfortable as wondering how to encourage a child's independence and not knowing how to.

The Gift of Failure is written by an educator and mother, and while its primary audience is middle-class (or, parents with time and money privilege), any reader can absorb the teaching philosophy and adapt it to their lives. Sometimes, the writer gives an overview of the history of education, or refers to it, and it's always the history of the education of white families; the history of education for people of color, people with disability, and people in the working-class are not included. So, any history of education is generic New England-centered. Which is typical, I guess, but I think should be noted. While the book is not a definitive history of education in the United States, I do wonder why a historical overview of education is even included if it's to be so generic and limiting in whose education is overviewed.

In the same vein, I didn't grow up in a middle-class home, so I felt more aware of/outside of some of the cultural norms/assumptions of the middle-class. But, frankly, I was glad to learn them and it helped me better understand other parents I interact with.

From The Gift of Failure
In terms of style, the writing is clear and accessible. The book improves a great deal, after about Chapter 3, once the writer has fulfilled the genre expectations of a book on education (historical overview, applicability, etc.). As soon as she starts providing specific anecdotes to illustrate her points, from her own parenting experience and in the classroom, she's in her element. Don't skip the first three chapters--just be patient.

Although the book is geared more toward parents of children in kindergarten through high school, it has positively affected our family's parenting style, almost immediately, we have become more nuanced and purposeful. I had not realized that Henry (newly age 4) was ready for the next level of independence and we had inadvertently been restricting him by supporting an independence he'd grown past.

For example, while reading the book, I realized that our tendency to think Henry was stubborn and lately grouchy was not true--exactly, he was but not because of a growth spurt or new changes to his personality but the logical effects of his having his independence restricted and his decisions undermined.

Now, I no longer make Henry's lunches. We're in month two of this and going strong. He has a lunch-making station in the kitchen (small table, food and container supplies within his reach and area), and he prepares his own lunches, from selecting the food, to storing it, to packing it (including installing the freezer bag each day). He has found this task incredibly enjoyable and well worth the time, patience, and effort he has had to summon in order to do this on his own.

The result is that he now eats with more zeal at school, looks forward to discussing his choices with his friends and teachers at lunchtime, and takes part in creating grocery lists. He loves taking his own cart to the grocery to select his food from the shelves. This is unwittingly supported by other shoppers who have never seen such a thing.

Now, he's learning how to ration his food, and the effects of eating all of his applesauce in two days and, thus, not having applesauce for his lunch for the rest of the week. It has been pleasurable to support this as a parent, has made our mornings easier because he understands what tasks need to be completed, and that time is part of that. Now, I am able to complete my own chores in the morning alongside him. The first day was jaw-clenching for me, but by day three, I was acclimating. He has learned how to cut strawberries, take freezer bags from the freezer, make a sandwich, and select what he thinks will satiate him at school.

After reading this book, I have taught Henry how to mop and how to set the table for dinner. At school, he was already setting his own place at the table for lunch, but I was not continuing that skill at home. Now, he sets the table, enjoys selecting placemats, and lighting a candle. He has begun making dinner as well, and we hope he will have one day a week he makes dinner for all of us.

And the joy he gets from controlling his own world is SO worth everything. But this is only working because I read The Gift of Failure. Henry isn't a unique kid, just a four-year old who thrills in controlling his own life to the extent he can.

This is the sort of book that will divide your life into how you parented before and after reading it, even if you've already endorsed a style of parenting that is independence-oriented. It will inform decisions you make, give you the patience to keep your mouth shut when your child is about to make a "mistake" or "fail," help confirm or disavow ideas you had or had inherited from your own parents, and overall, support your own independence as a parent. The writer "thinks through" phases of learning that you might not have encountered yet, or fully considered, and so it's helpful in that way, too.

Of course, you won't find everything in the book applicable to your own family and children, but that's to be expected and not the point. While H is our only child, other parents with multiple children found this book worthwhile, too (maybe because independent, self-sufficient children make a larger family function much more smoothly than overly dependent children whose inability to do tasks overwhelms the adults or older children). 

As a former teacher of college students, I'd recommend the book even to parents of a college-aged person if you act on the desire to control their lives, from their living decisions to homework outcomes, to interactions with their professors; please read this book--even if you are paying for part, or all of, their tuition. It's also a useful read for educators (from preschool teachers to college professors), as it will help you better understand why your students have certain behaviors or expectations, ways to encourage independence in learning in the classroom, and how to approach parents (or help the student approach their parents) so that everyone is sharing in supporting the child's growth and learning.

Other topics discussed in the book:

  • A parent's role in homework: why you might be frustrated and how to solve this
  • Effective ways to communicate with your child's teacher and when to begin bowing out of classroom-related communication and give your child the helm
  • Paying your kid for good grades? What?!
  • Friendships: how to support your child in learning how to navigate friendships and promoting healthy friendships, even if you yourself would not have chosen these friends
  • Why it's not too late to transform your parenting style, and how the author did it
  • Forgotten homework: on how to teach your child the skills required for remembering what to bring to school and why it's not heroic on your part to drive forgotten homework to school (you're not saving anyone)
  • How to deal with the problem of grades, and why shifting to creating goals is better for learning, growth mindset, and pleasure in the study process
  • How to avoid being a surveillance state your child lives within, and why you shouldn't be
Some satellite discussions that occurred in our book club:
  • On gratitude: how to encourage it in your child without forcing them to say "I'm sorry" like a script
  • At the dinner table: "I don't like it" and other complaints that unravel us and how to shift the focus to enjoyment
  • That time I yelled and other confessions about patience
  • How it works that every child in the family, from age 5 to 15 prepares dinner each day and have begun learning how to create recipes on their own
  • The problem of raising children in a majority white city
  • To compete or to play: children in athletics, and the commodification of sport and child, and what to do about all of that

Here are some snapshots of pages that stood out:

On fostering a positive relationship with your child's teachers

On grades
(so GLAD to read this in writing after teaching for 13 years)

On the problem of material rewards and inauthentic praise

On how to cope, and you must, and it's hard, with a child testing limits

On failure and executive function
Making errors is not a pointer on the intelligence yardstick

On parent-teacher relationships
On learning: your enthusiasm leads to your child's + a reading tip