A Case of Identity

Statue of Holmes near the Reichenbach Falls.  Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Statue of Holmes near the Reichenbach Falls. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Continuing the theme of persistent pop culture trends established by last week blog’s post, we turn now to a subject nominally more realistic than zombies and monsters: the impossibly perceptive detective whose greatest power seems to be his ability to remain relevant over a hundred years after first coming onto the scene.  After only the briefest time out of the public eye, Sherlock Holmes has returned in full force, with not one but two big-budget television shows undertaking the task of bringing the Victorian detective into the twenty-first century world of DNA tests, forensic evidence, and relative societal intolerance for the original’s opium habit.

Many people have speculated on why Sherlock Holmes remains such a compelling figure, but none have yet provided a fully satisfactory answer.  Les Klinger, editor of the Holmes-inspired anthology A Study in Sherlock, argues that his appeal comes from his status as an outsider, telling NPR, “He is driven by a pursuit for justice, but it’s his own brand of justice, and I think part of us yearns to be like that: strong, independent, above worries, above how we fit in with society.”  Philosopher John Gray, in a fascinating piece for the BBC, describes Holmes as “a servant of reason” who is also “a romantic hero ready to defy authority in order to stand by his sense of morality.”

But perhaps even more than his anti-authoritarian leanings, what truly defines Holmes in the mind of the public is his rationalism.  Paradoxically, Holmes’s intelligence both gives him a timeless appeal and marks him as a creature of the Victorian era.  Bear with me as I turn briefly to a book not about Sherlock Holmes: Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, published in 1907 but set in 1886.  The events of that narrative are set off when the subversive Mr. Vladmir orders his agent provocateur Mr. Verloc to attack the Greenwich Observatory.  When Verloc questions the merits of attacking an observatory rather than a more politically relevant target, Vladmir responds,

The sacrosanct fetish of to-day is science [ . . . ] Any imbecile that has got an income believes in that. He does not know why, but believes it matters somehow [ . . . ] They believe that in some mysterious way science is at the source of their material prosperity [ . . . ] The [bombing] must be against learning—science [ . . . ] The attack must have the shocking senselessness of gratuitous blasphemy. (Conrad 21-22)

Though Mr. Vladmir is obviously a dubious individual morally, he does accurately describe the elevated position that science occupied in the Victorian psyche.  The effects of the Enlightenment were in full swing, Darwinism was radically reshaping how humans viewed their relationship to the natural world, and reason was seen as the answer to all problems. Holmes is almost a personification of that era’s belief in the infallibility of reason: with nothing more than his eyes and his brain, he can solve any crime and set every injustice to right.  While the horrors and tragedies of the last century have somewhat taken the shine off of reason’s power to satisfactorily explain the world, people still wants to believe that the world can be figured out through intelligence and attention to detail, and Holmes offers us a role model in that regard.

Another aspect of the character’s endurance that I feel is not properly appreciated is the simplicity of the elements needed to make an authentic-feeling Sherlock Holmes story. Because everything that is distinctive about the Holmes canon is internalized within its characters, his stories take better than most to contemporary updates.  Compare, say, the mythos of Arthurian legend or of Robin Hood: so much of what makes those stories distinctive lies in their setting and time period.  Take Arthur out of Camelot or try to set Robin Hood in the twentieth century and it just won’t work.  You have removed a vital part of what made it an Arthurian story or a tale about Robin Hood.  In contrast, the only elements one needs to retain to have an authentic Holmes story are a detective named Sherlock with a friend named Watson, who together solve mysteries with little more than their wits.

Of course, it is impossible to talk about Holmes’s enduring popularity without acknowledging the ways in which the character has changed and adapted over the years. Entire books could be written exploring these changes, so I’m just going to touch works from the last few years.  The Holmes-related media of the twenty-first century have each reflected contemporary trends in their own ways.  The abominable 2009 film Sherlock Holmes and its sequel, A Game of Shadows, tried to capitalize on the superhero craze by casting Robert Downey, Jr. and turning Holmes’s analytical prowess into the superpower of pinpointing his opponents weaknesses during the many brawls into which this Sherlock blunders.

The BBC’s excellent Sherlock is more true to the heart of the character, though thanks to changing laws regarding smoking in public, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes has to slap on nicotine patches rather than smoke a pipe.  Reflecting changing awareness of and attitudes toward homosexuality and gender, Sherlock makes a running gag out of Holmes and Watson being mistaken for a romantic couple.  Interestingly, whereas Holmes is essentially asexual in the original stories, both Downey’s and Cumberbatch’s respective Sherlocks both nurse explicitly romantic interests in Irene Adler.  (On some level, it makes sense that a Victorian audience would be more comfortable with an asexual hero than contemporary viewers.)  The CBS show Elementary takes the prize for the most out-there treatment of Adler, however.  Spoilers ahead: in Elementary, Adler and Holmes are former lovers, but in this adaptation, Adler is also Jamie Moriarty, and she is eventually revealed as Holmes’s arch-nemesis.  Even before this reveal, Elementary made waves by casting Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson.  Given the paucity of important female characters in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, I feel that we now have a Sherlock Holmes television show in which both one of the leads and the show’s greatest villain are women says a great deal.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

No blog post can possibly do justice to the questions of why Sherlock Holmes has proven so enduring or how later adaptations reflect their time periods.  I have not even touched on other noteworthy Holmes-related works, like Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution, or the Basil Rathbone movies that defined Holmes for a generation.  What’s clear, though, is that the sleuth is here to stay. As we get ever farther away in time from the Victorian world that gave birth to Holmes, I for one will be watching with interest to see what contemporary and future artists do to keep Holmes relevant to the modern world even as the modern world rapidly changes.

What do you think, fellow readers?  Do you have a favorite Holmes story?  How about a favorite parody of the sleuth?  Have you encountered any particularly fascinating permutations of the Holmesian mythos?

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Highbrow Horror and American Literature


Halloween is fast approaching, and with it all of our favorite standby nightmares; ghosts, werewolves, witches, vampires, and zombies lurk around the corner, waiting to thrill us with their wickedness. When I was little, I used to regard Halloween with a mixture of apprehension and excitement− apprehension for the inevitable ghost stories that would keep me up at night, and excitement for the candy I could binge eat to pass the sleepless hours. Halloween holds less anticipation for me now. This may be partially because of my increased cynicism and decreased sweet tooth, but is also due in no small part to the fact that those familiar Halloween monsters no longer belong solely to that one October night.

Of course, America has had a long love affair with monsters, and I do not mean to imply that we have only just discovered a penchant for the macabre. But our relationship with the creatures that go bump in the night seems to have developed beyond what it once was. The horror stories of the past have often been limited by their genre. Elvira’s Movie Macabre may have had its fans, but the fact cannot be avoided that it was considered gimmicky and enjoyed only a niche audience.

Blockbusters like the Twilight franchise and 2009’s horror-comedy film Zombieland have proven that monster movies can be more commercially successful than ever before. Furthermore, Twilight’s choice to portray a vampire as its dreamy love interest indicates a new attitude toward the old, recognizable ghouls. Novel-turned-Hollywood film Warm Bodies goes so far as to cast a rotting zombie as its romantic protagonist. It’s almost as if our childhood nightmares are the new “cool kids”.

Besides garnering the commercial success that goes hand in hand with their new popularity, monsters are also breaking through previously strict barriers of genre, attaining in some cases critical acclaim; television shows such as The Walking Dead and American Horror Story, which can only be classified as monster stories, have received many accolades, including nominations for various Golden Globe Awards. Even more remarkable than this is the appearance of well-regarded and literarily relevant works of fiction dealing with the monstrous and fantastical.

walking dead zombie

We have been discussing this trend in my 21st Century North American Fiction class, and recently read an article by Joe Fassler published in The Atlantic, entitled “How Zombies and Superheroes Conquered Highbrow Fiction”. In it, Fassler writes:

Discounting a few notable (and unclassifiable) isoladoes like Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Don Delillo, our literature unfolded in diners, standard issue automobiles, and the living room […] But now, only eleven years into a new century, American literary culture has undergone a sea change. A group of high-profile literary writers have fled what we call “real-life”− and their numbers are growing. Literature shelves now commonly feature Halloween party staples: Zombies, werewolves, and vampires […]

Fassler’s chosen example of this change in American literature is Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, a novel following a survivor of the zombie apocalypse as he and his fellow humans attempt to rebuild. The novel’s status as a piece of literature rather than a piece of valueless entertainment is indicative of our shift in attitude toward monsters.

Fassler seems to believe that our new fondness for “Halloween party staples” is not merely a fad, but promises to be a lasting trend in New American Fiction. Undoubtedly, their popularity has already lasted longer than expected. This leads us to wonder why monsters and their like found their way into the limelight in the first place. What is it about them that fascinates and attracts us?

Perhaps it is has something to do with Fassler’s assertion that literary writers are rejecting “real-life” in favor of the fantastic. Doing so certainly leaves them the possibility of representing the issues they deal with in a more metaphorical way. For example, in his collection entitled Thinking Dead: What the Zombie Apocalypse Means, Murali Balaji compiled a series of essays speculating on the reason for our obsession with zombies. His introduction says of zombie apocalypses:

There are social and psychological ramifications as well, particularly as they relate to our fear of Others, insecurities over self-reflection and the deep-seated paranoia over the possibility of an apocalyptic event.

According to Balaji and many of his essayists, the zombie apocalypse becomes something of a metaphor, representing anything from the fright of the destruction of the traditional American family, to tensions felt toward and by the gay community, to fear of the usefulness of a white-collar workforce in the face of economic turmoil. Some of these connections may be a little tenuous, but the general message remains that one can use the fantastic to more creatively address otherwise difficult themes. At the end of his “How Zombies…” article, Fassler articulates a series of points, collected with the help of several fantasy writers, detailing some reasons why what he calls “genre fiction” has gained popularity in recent years. They are as follows:

  1. Our day-to-day lives becoming more science-fictional.
  2. For writers, pop-culture influences are now as important as literary influences.
  3. Literary tastes are increasingly global.
  4. Stories with mythic dimensions are timeless.
  5. Financially− and aesthetically− genre pays.

Michael Chabon, in the introduction to his essay collection, Maps and Legends, argues that the fantastic−monsters, magic and science fiction− is the direction in which American fiction must head. He proffers that this new writing, “haunts the boundary lines, the margins, the secret shelves between the sections in the bookstore. And that is where, if it wants to renew itself in the way the novel has done so often in its long history, the short story must, inevitably go”.

What do you think? What is the reason for our newfound fondness of the fantastic and morbid? Will it really last, or has the monster (and particularly the zombie) fad already played itself out? Is Chabon correct about the next phase of American Literature?

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Found in Translation


The Playhouse Theatre in London.

If you ever want to provoke an English major to physical violence, express your opinion that an adaptation (whether in filmed or stage form) of a book is equal or even superior to the literary source material.  For most lovers of the written word, it is heresy to suggest that the intellectual meat of a work of fiction can do anything but suffer in the process of translation to another medium.

To some extent, this view is understandable.  In the majority of cases, one is simply able to pack more meaning into a narrative conveyed in written form, where the length of the work is determined by the content, as opposed to a movie or play that must keep its run-time below certain parameters.  But I fear that we lovers of literature may be too eager to dismiss all adaptations.  In a few rare cases, new adaptations of existing works have allowed the translators to use the original source material to explore new and artistically exciting themes and ideas.

Last May in London, I had the opportunity to see the Playhouse Theatre’s production of George Orwell’s 1984.  The Playhouse Theatre’s adaptation by and large keeps the dialogue and plot intact, but they have added in a few choice elements that I found to be phenomenally intelligent additions.  My favorite part ended up being the play’s closing scene, which is not found in Orwell’s original but is entirely the work of the playwrights.  After the Party finally breaks Winston’s spirit, the narrative jumps forward a hundred years to show a group of people discussing how Big Brother fell after Winston’s death.  The audience begins to think that maybe this play will end happily until one of the women wonders, “But, I mean, wouldn’t they. . . If the Party. . . How do we know the Party fell?  Wouldn’t it be in their interest to just structure the world in such a way that we believe that they were no longer. . .”  Just then, a child comes up to her, singing “The Bells of St. Clemens” (a symbol of impending doom in both the book and the play) and leads the woman off-stage.  It is a thought-provoking and phenomenally powerful way to end the play, and in my opinion it is just as intelligent and artistic as anything Orwell wrote.  By adding this scene, the playwrights touch on themes that the book does not.  They suggest that overt violence is not the only kind of oppression and offer a more nuanced reflection that is even more applicable to today’s post-PATRIOT world than Orwell’s original.


The logo for Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The best other example I can recall of an adaptation substantially adding to a work in a way that enhances the final product is Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, his masterful reimagining of Macbeth.  In Throne of Blood, Kurosawa moves the narrative from Scotland to medieval Japan.  Even beyond the setting change, Kurosawa makes a few choice alterations to the base story that allow the famed director to explore themes that are different from those in the original Macbeth, but that carry just as much intellectual weight as those in the Bard’s best work.  Several of the changes that Kurosawa makes serve to convey the director’s own pessimism about authority figures and the inescapable cycle of violence in which rulers are eternally trapped.

Whereas Shakespeare presents Macbeth and his cruelty as the exception rather than the rule, Kurosawa goes out of his way to stress that the brutal warlord Washizu, his Macbeth stand-in, is far from unique among would-be sovereigns.  In the Scottish play, Macbeth’s predecessor and eventual victim Duncan is a blameless ruler who “hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been/ so clear in his great office, that his virtues/ Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against/ The deep damnation of his taking-off” (1.7.17-19).  In Throne of Blood, Kurosawa indicates that Washizu’s ruler, the Great Lord Tsuzuki, had come to power himself by murdering his own predecessor, thus making him guilty of the same crime as Washizu.  This detail may seem small but carries significant moral ramifications.  By placing Washizu’s treachery in a context where usurpation is the norm, Kurosawa expands the narrative’s focus from simply being the tale of one man’s madness into exploring the violence that rulers utilize to gain and maintain power.

The Bard’s Macbeth ends relatively happily, with the titular villain being slain by Macduff.  In contrast, Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood climaxes with the murder of Washizu by his own archers, and closes with a scene of enemy troops approaching the castle as a thick fog falls—and when the cloud lifts, the entire castle is gone and an unseen chorus wails, “Look upon the ruins/ Of the castle of delusion.”  Shakespeare’s play ends with the restoration of the rightful order and the proper monarch, but Kurosawa does not seem to believe that the cycle of violence and treachery is escapable through any means but the release of death and total desolation.

I won’t go so far as to declare that any version, either original or adaptation, of 1984 or Macbeth is the superior work of art, but I do wonder if we are doing ourselves a disservice by taking it for granted that an adaptation must be an inferior product.  Rather, we should acknowledge that the changes that often come with the adaptation of a literary work into another medium are not necessarily a bad thing, but can, in the hands of capable artists, be an opportunity to take the story into new intellectual terrain.

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Shenandoah’s Noir Issue Logo

SHENANDOAH_NOIRI’ve been working with the Shenandoah literary magazine for a while now, and next week they launch their noir issue. The editor, Rod Smith, asked me to try and come up with a logo/ad for Poetry Daily, and given it’s design week in ds106 I figured I would share what I did here.

If I were to be counting stars, this would be a one, maybe 2, star design assignment. Rather than creating my own logo, I went to The Noun Project and found this “Smoking” icon by Martin Vanco. It oozes noir, so I simply paid $1.99 for the rights to use it without attribution. After that, I grabbed the free Pulp Fiction font from dafont.com and combined the two in GIMP. In just a few quick steps,  I had myself a quick and easy logo that looks fairly professional. All I had to do is arrange the pieces.

I think this is valuable lesson you might take from ds106: part of being to be an artist of and on the web is knowing where to find and how to recombine things. Making art isn’t only about creating, it’s also about knowing, connecting, and recombining what’s already out there. I should get at least 2 stars for knowing, right? And so should you if you now know :)

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In Defense of Memoir-ish

lenaaI have had a love affair with the nonfiction essay for quite some time. There is just something about the look of first-person prose on the page, or the sound metaphorical curtains make, as they are ripped ajar, exposing a window into the author’s personal exploits. Yet, in recent years I have witnessed the collection of fellow admirers grow increasingly fewer. The memoir genre has become synonymous with pretension, self-promotion, and less associated with the finer literary arts. I speculate this has much to do with the current generation’s fascination with what some might term an “over-share” culture, where nothing and no one is sacred, a culture for which baby boomers have nearly perfected a disdain.

For the millennial generation, the writer most known for putting it all out in the open is twenty-eight year old Lena Dunham. Dunham shook the celebrity world almost overnight with her success as writer-director-producer-actor of the hit HBO series Girls. On Tuesday, Dunham’s rumored 3.5 million dollar book deal hit the stands, as well as my Amazon shopping basket. The world got a sneak peak in early September when The New Yorker published an excerpt entitled, “Difficult Girl: Growing up, with help.” It is on all accounts a well-crafted essay: her prose is neat, quippy, and always subtly (if not habitually) self-effacing. She weaves a series of experiences neatly together, all reflections on her lifelong relationships with psychiatric therapists and the significant, strange bonds that can manifest from sharing the intimate details of your life with a professional, a stranger. Each glimpse into the personal life of Dunham’s psychologist, Margaret, provides her with thrill and validation for their one-sided relationship. She ruminates on the smallest details,

Then there is the autumn day I come in to find her with a shiny black eye. Before I can even register my shock, she points to it and laughs: “A bit of a gardening accident.” I believe her. Margaret would never let anyone hit her. She would never let anyone wear shoes indoors. She would always protect herself, her floors, her flowers.

The irony is not lost on me. Dunham learns the art of self-exposure from a young age, draws on this in her professional career, and now her literary one. In the many anticipatory reviews surfacing over the last few weeks leading up to the release of her book, Not That Kind Of Girl, I have heard Dunham’s work categorized as a memoir, a collection of personal essays, an autobiography, self-help, and something akin to an advice column. These diverging critics, unable to decide which genre to pigeonhole Dunham into, got me thinking. What does the leap from nonfiction essayist to memoir look like? Dunham is by no means capable of reflecting back on a long life of mature experiences, tying the knot of her life into a neat bow of profound meaning. She uses moments from her youth and young adulthood she finds potentially interesting as inspiration for creative prose. Which raises the consideration, if a twenty-eight year old can write a memoir, then maybe there is more to this dreaded genre than meets the eye.

lenaA New York Times book review labeled Not That Kind of Girl a “Memoir-ish” literary exploit, “a kind of memoir disguised as an advice book, or a how-to-book (as in how to navigate the perilous waters of girlhood) in the guise of a series of personal essays.” But this explanation is incomplete. Dunham’s essays are nonfiction, but manipulated. Her prose is confessional, yet imaginative. She admits within her pages that she is an, “unreliable narrator,” fabricating details as needed. Her work, like the author herself, refuses classification and points to the beginning of a contemporary motif that might be here to stay: celebration of the eccentric, the unabashed. Many have criticized Dunham for putting a magnifying glass to a culture saturated with privilege and the benign dilemmas that ruffle the feathers of the white, middle/upper class. Less controversially, others have wondered why a young person, who has had so much success in the booming market of premium television, would take the risky shift into the print medium, especially as book sales have come under attack with the emergence of eBooks and Kindle. But there is one moneymaking trend that seems to prevail over all, which Not That Kind Of Girl takes very seriously: shameless self-exploitation. Dunham exposes her flaws and turns them into entertainment, rather than leaving them as idle sources of ridicule for others to deploy. The New York Times Magazine summed up their praise rather poignantly,

She is perhaps to the millennials what J. D. Salinger was to the post-World War II generation and Woody Allen was to the baby boomers: a singular voice who spoke as an outsider and, in so doing, became the ultimate insider.

In the wake of such admiration, the literary world sits poised, ready to accept a new function of the nonfiction memoir genre: the cultural observer. A celebrity wrote Not That Kind Of Girl, but this is not a tabloid rag of celebrity gossip. In the weeks to come readers and critics will decide whether Dunham’s ascent into literary recognition will land amongst the Bad Feminist Roxanne Gays of the world, or in the sale pile next to Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? — no offense Mindy. I think it is possible, and about time, personal essayists trade in such unsightly trademarks as “narcissistic” or “hack” for the nobler pursuits of creative freedom and prose that probes at the pulse of modern-day life. It is time for some nonfiction light to shine on contemporary talent, and that talent might look a lot like Lena Dunham.

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Shakespeare Lives Here

Last Sunday, I attended the first session for a one-credit course I am taking called Cross-Cultural Theatrical Experiences. Professors Holly Pickett and Shawn Paul Evans both taught classes abroad last spring term studying theatre and developed this new course as a reflection on our experiences abroad.

My class, Shakespeare In Performance, travelled to Stratford-Upon-Avon and London, UK to study several of Shakespeare’s plays and see them performed at some of the most prestigious theaters for Shakespeare in the world. Some might ask, why is it important to see Shakespeare’s plays in performance? Why not just read the plays? Before the course, I found myself wondering how it would feel to walk the streets Shakespeare walked in Stratford, see the home where he was born, and walk across the Thames towards Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

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Students from Professor Pickett’s “Shakespeare In Performance” in front of the Globe Theatre in London

Our reintegration Cultural Theatrical Experiences course seeks to reflect upon the experiences we had abroad and especially how theatre can still be relevant to our lives. After our conversation in class on Sunday, I started thinking about what it was like to see Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus at the Globe Theatre in London. Really, I shouldn’t use the verb “see.” It was an experience. As a groundling at the Globe, the play is really more like a rowdy sporting event. This was especially true for Titus, which is Shakespeare’s most gruesome and violent play. This week I have been thinking more about how written works translate into theatre, and ultimately how they relate to our lives and the world. To read Titus is one thing – you see violent descriptions and stage directions revealing murders, rape, and mutilation – but to see it, to be there amongst the victims, is an overwhelming and shocking experience. I was struck ultimately by the role of women in Titus Andronicus, and how the performance amplified the written word in this particular play.

The Globe’s performance of Titus Andronicus certainly opens up a lot of questions about society, especially war and violence. I found the role of women particularly important and extremely shocking in this production. Women in this production are almost always victims of violence, sometimes participate in violence, and are almost always sexualized in Titus Andronicus. In Act I Scene I of Titus Andronicus, the Romans sacrifice Tamora’s son’s life. Tamora, Queen of the Goths, begs Titus for mercy and pleads with him to spare her son’s life. Indira Varma’s performance in this role highlights the immense pain that haunts a mother after her son’s slaughter.

Tamora’s sons, Demetrius and Chiron, attack and rape Lavinia. Following this act, the brothers cut off Lavinia’s hands and cut out her tongue so that she could not speak of her attackers. Flora Spencer-Longhurst’s performance as Lavinia was extremely traumatizing, but also moving. It was incredible how shattered Lavinia’s character seemed when she came out onto the stage, mutilated, unable to move, unable to speak. It was not even the blood coming from her body that disturbed me, but the pure emotional trauma that Lavinia endured. Her innocence destroyed, her body ravished. The physical manifestation of this pain was apparent, despite Lavinia’s inability to vocalize the brutality of it the way that Tamora does in the first scene.

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Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia at the Globe

Although these violent events are the same in the written play as they are performed live, it leaves the viewer with a completely different feeling in her gut. Several audience members fainted and many of us felt sick to our stomachs watching the gruesome acts performed in this play. There’s something different about seeing things on an actor’s face and in her gait and her voice (or for Lavinia her lack of voice) that shakes your bones and gnaws at your heart. Shakespeare wrote his plays for performance for a reason – he knew that they would have more power to influence the audience when they were acted, lived almost, rather than only read.

While literature can have powerful implications and reactions, I find something valuable in a dramatic experience that is very different from reading the words on a page. We still relate to these issues in life today: the power-hungry characters, the violence, the tragedy, the treatment of women – that’s the reason so many people felt faint or actually fell to the ground in the Globe Theatre that day. Shakespeare wrote a play that meant something to his audience and continues to mean something to us today. Seeing this on stage and putting a face to a name and seeing a real woman as a victim makes us feel these implications on a grander scale. For now, I’ll continue to read what I can and see literature performed whenever possible to gain that extra perspective.

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Revisiting Home through Literature

blog2On this day in 2013, I was in Scotland. Last fall I studied abroad at the University of St. Andrews, and I couldn’t have been more delighted. Aside from the natural thrill of traveling to a foreign country, I was especially excited to see the United Kingdom. It was my first visit, and as an avid reader of British literature, I’d dreamed of going there for as long as I can remember. Reading stories set in Britain was intrinsically tied to my desire to be there in person – whether because of my fondness of the books that took place there, or because the authors made it sound so appealing. Which exactly I couldn’t say, but both probably played a large part.

I do know that some of my excitement to see Scotland in particular came from a novel I’d recently read – Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, a historical romance set in Scotland (now a series on Starz). I would have fallen in love with Scotland without any outside help, but visiting specific places I’d already read about and envisioned certainly heightened my anticipation and enjoyment.

Now that I’m home again, I’m experiencing the flip side of that kind of enjoyment by reading a book set in a place I know well: St. Andrews, Scotland. One of my professors at St. Andrews had told me that there was a medieval murder mystery series set in town, and as I love mysteries, my interest was piqued. I hunted down the first book in the series, Hue and Cry by Shirley McKay, at the local bookstore, absurdly pleased that the price printed on the back cover was listed in pounds, not dollars.

I never got around to reading the novel while I was at St. Andrews – I was too busy doing coursework and exploring Scotland – but now that I’m back in the States, I’ve picked it up again. I’m enjoying the story of Hue and Cry, but I’m primarily reading it because of blog4its setting, which I’ve never done before. When I read it, I almost feel like I’m back in St. Andrews. Granted, it’s set in the sixteenth century, so it’s not an exact recreation of the town I know. But I read about the protagonist walking the town’s three main streets (North, Market, and South) with pleasure, and I can even recognize the names of smaller lanes and wynds. It shows the cathedral now in ruins at the beginning of its decline, and although the seaside it describes is bustling with fishermen, it makes me recall my own peaceful walks along the chilly beach. Reading Hue and Cry takes me back to the place I called home for four months. It’s bittersweet as nostalgia always is, and can make me miss Scotland all the more.

Never before have I read literature as a way to revisit a place where I’ve lived and left. For me, it’s been much more common to learn about and envision places I’ve never been from authors’ descriptions, although I don’t always want to go there. I know I’m in the South now, and I’m sorry, Southerners, but reading Faulkner and O’Connor didn’t make the South especially appealing. But I imagine Southerners can appreciate the sense of place in those works best for the same reason I’m enjoying Hue and Cry, though I’m no Scottish native, and McKay is no O’Connor. The familiarity and truth in the writer’s description of place adds a whole other dimension to their work, which I’m only now beginning to appreciate.

For me, Hue and Cry has a kind of escapism I’ve never encountered before – one founded on real experiences. Instead of picturing somewhere I’ve never been but where I want to go, I’m remembering a well-loved place where I once lived. It’s a new way of reading for me, though I’m sure it’s familiar for many others. In time, as I continue to travel and explore new places, I expect I’ll come across it more and more. Maybe in the years to come I’ll search for literature set in Lexington, longing to recall those good old college days. But for now, I’ll be in St. Andrews.


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The Trade

sarah1Professional conferences. We’ve all been to them, and I’ve probably attended more than my share. When I was in graduate school and then on the job market, the Modern Language Association (MLA) conference created both excitement and dismay as we newly-minted PhDs sent out our many applications and then compared notes on our interviews. In our first positions as assistant professors, we continued to attend, hoping to make our names as scholars and writers. Soon after I got my first tenure-track job, I returned to writing poems, and the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) annual meeting quickly eclipsed MLA, where writers could hear panels on the craft and individual readings, meet editors, find books from new or small presses, and connect with other poets and fiction writers. I would go to meet other poets and to seek out editors of journals I liked, had been published in, or aspired to be in. The book fair in those days was a highlight, because, well, we were there because we loved books and writing, right?

Not always. I found, as the years went by, that these conferences became monstrously rats-trapped-cagelarge and that the presentations on offer were too many in too short a time. Too many panels, too many readings: I couldn’t see them all and often ended up frustrated and exhausted. Rats in a cage. It wasn’t the mood I wanted to return to my writing in. And the book fair, especially at AWP, was so sprawling that finding anyone or really seeing anything among the packed tables and narrow aisles was practically impossible. Like MLA, AWP seemed to devolve into just another “look and veer” meeting, at which attendees encounter others, look quickly at their nametags, then veer away rapidly if the person isn’t famous enough.

This weekend, I found myself at a new kind of conference, the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association meeting. I sat at the book fair table of Knox Robinson Publishing, with whom I’ve published two novels, The Altarpiece (2013) and City of Ladies (2014). My third, The King’s Sisters, comes out next August. My previous books were all poetry collections, and I had no idea how different it is to market a novel, but I had sat at tables during AWP and thought this wouldn’t be too different.

sarah2The book fair was full, to be sure, but all of the publishers could fit into one large ballroom. Even though Knox Robinson is a small independent, we were given a good spot near a couple of the big publishers, and instead of being squeezed together, we could all see—and walk—easily across to the other side of the room. The fair was only open for one Saturday, which was perfect, as it concentrated all of the energy into a short time. Our table held Dana Robinson (founder of Knox Robinson), as well as KR authors Victoria Wilcox, Michael Oates, Hilary Holladay, and me. Booksellers kept us busy, and we talked to a steady stream of store owners from the eastern seaboard. We handed out advance review copies of our books (ARCs) as well as copies of our earlier novels to anyone who was interested, and they shared with us stories of the independent bookstore business. We talked history (Knox Robinson specializes in historical fiction), business, travel, and, of course books.

It was pleasant, friendly, yes, a bit hectic for a while, but energizing. I was having a great time, but it wasn’t until the middle of the afternoon that I was struck with the reason. We were all talking frankly and openly about the reason we were there: books and the business of books. There was little posturing and less pretentiousness. It was all about the books and not about who seemed personally cool and who did not. People certainly checked each other out, and introduced themselves to people they wanted to talk to, but they did it without the charade—so obvious to anyone who’s been at these meetings—of pretending to be too important to need to ask someone’s name.

Nobody who writes, publishes, or sells books needs to be told that the industry is hierarchical, but at this conference that stratification didn’t seem to govern the social interactions at meals, panels, or the book fair. I spoke to everyone I wanted to—and met many people who tirelessly work at promoting books in their stores. Many of them received their first Knox Robinson books from us—but they remembered who we were later that day and wanted to talk more about our books. Colleagues of our distributor, Midpoint Books, came over to say hello and meet the authors of the books they help get into the market.

NAIBA was informative, exciting, and (there’s no better word) fun. We didn’t have a big dance and no one got sloppy drunk and misbehaved. We didn’t pack the hotel. What we did, however, was talk, plan, and work toward our mutual goal of getting new hardcovers and paperbacks to readers in the most sensible, mutually beneficial ways possible. And in these days of talk about the death of print and the inability of American children to concentrate, I found the conversation both stimulating and optimistic. Publishing is a business, yes, but the product is unique—the source of our ideas, fantasies, and information—and many small bookstore owners are little short of heroic in their efforts to connect authors with their customers. This weekend, I saw that the business is thriving, and readers do still exist. They’re mostly not at conferences, however, either academic or “creative.” They’re mostly at home, curled up quietly in chairs, enjoying their books.

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SHENANDOAH Considering Fiction, Non-fiction Submissions

slogoAs of Monday, September 22, Shenandoah will be considering submissions of fiction and non-fiction for the spring, 2015 issue.  Manuscripts should be submitted through our submissions management program, which can be accessed by selecting SUBMISSIONS tab on the top tool bar on the homepage and following instructions from there.  This window should be open until early December.

The site will open to submissions of poetry and flash fiction in early October and will remain open until early December.  In November we will conduct our annual Graybeal-Gowen Contest for Virginia Poets.  See contest rules at our website (shenandoahliterary.org).


feathersSHENANDOAH is a 24-7, no-fee journal, but we do pay out contributors, with a minimum of $50 for non-fiction features, flash fiction and poetry and an overall maximum of $200 per piece.  Exceptions are made in circumstances where an extended essay is assigned.


[cover art by Suzanne Stryk]

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Where’s Archie?

ammonscoverWhen A. R. Ammons died in 2001 he was widely considered (by Bloom, Vendler, Lieberman and other heavy-hitting critics) one of the half dozen most significant and original poets writing in English. By turns unflappable, faux naïve, authoritarian, wry, oracular, jocular and naughty, he was a master of melding vernacular speech with scientific jargon and even better at finding colloquial and seemingly inevitable phrases to clarify the intricate natural and technical world while making the invisible seem tactile and visual. His poems might span half a dozen words or cover the length of a collection. He was shifty, adroit, eccentric and humane. He was an experimentalist escaped from the lab.

For the excellence of his work, Ammons received the National Book Critics Award, the Bollingen Prize, two National Book Awards and a MacArthur Fellowship. An explorer of the natural world, he was the ultimate peripatetic; not even Wordsworth would have gone so far as to declare and argue (even tongue in cheek) that “A Poem Is a Walk,” as Ammons’ essay of that title does. No one could make sentences more sinuous, organic, surprising but coherent than Archie. He was also an accomplished pianist and water colorist who could construct an elaborate a joke or write a botanical manual . . . in a poem.

In person he could be quick, erudite, acerbic, cracker barrel punny, mercurial, owlish or foxy. When he died at seventy-five, he was still writing poems nearly every poetry lover would want to read for the puzzlement, the wit or the exhilaration. But after he passed his reputation began to fade, his work ceased to be essential to any conversation about American poetry. Or so it has seemed to me. James Dickey, another of my favorites, died four years before Ammons, but his work still appears in anthologies that declare themselves “contemporary.” Is his work more alive than Archie’s? What I hope to do here is to awaken the curiosity of younger readers and provide older ones with a reason to look again at the spiraling, elegant, jittery, rattletrapping, challenging and rewarding poems of A. R. Ammons. First, I’d like to indulge in a touch of personal reminiscence, then to offer one of his poems I keep returning to, not because it’s typical of his work – what would be? – but because it’s irascible and indelible, daring me to be offended or bewildered, but never allowing either to happen.

Almost forty years ago I was one of twenty poets invited to a two-week retreat at the Reynolds family’s historic homestead near Critz, Virginia. I was still green, next-to-youngest in the cadre, which included Kathryn Stripling Byer, Ann Deagon, James Applewhite and other poets who had published books, won prizes, made a name. And Archie. The rest of us stayed in a one-room barracks bisected by a long curtain for gender segregation. Mosquitoes, noise, involuntary proximity – when the sponsoring foundation decided to pull together an anthology of participant work, they called it The Gritloaf Anthology. Archie stayed in a cottage with his family, and twice a day we sat in a circle and talked of poetry. It was the closest to a workshop I’d ever be in, but when most of the participants have creative writing degrees and are poetry teachers, the ante goes up, the games and dynamics become byzantine. Nuance and innuendo occupy every pause in the talk. I was way out of my depth.

Two moments from one particular afternoon provide me with the benchmarks of what I would come to know of Archie in our correspondence and few encounters over the next thirty years. First: on my way out to meet the other the merry campers for volleyball, I walked by Archie, who was sitting at the piano staring at his hands. When he asked me where I was going, I responded, “Out to create a sequel to Sphere.” (One of Archie’s award-winning and very demanding books was Sphere: The Form of a Motion). He scowled and said, “Not in this life.” He was in a raspy mood, and I felt, well, scolded but not quite scalded.

Later that afternoon we were sitting alone discussing one of my poems. I was discussing; he was listening. When I realized I was wasting a great opportunity and shut up, he began to anatomize in detail the opening stanzas, in which the narrator sitting on a diving board high above a lake at night marvels at the stars, both above and reflected in the water. I had written something like, “I can watch constellations twice, once in natural sky, once caught false,” and Archie raised his eyebrows and said, “What if you said ‘truly caught false’? How would does that mesh with the overall project of this poem?” The proverbial light bulb came on, and after a couple of other comments he winked and said the rest was up to me.

A dozen years later he was (unknown to me) judging an annual contest for the best poetry collection by a North Carolina writer. When I learned he had chosen my From the High Dive for the prize, I wrote him expressing my gratitude but also said that I thought that an eligible book by another of the Critz Gritloafers was probably better. He responded that he’d made mistakes in his life, but that prize wasn’t one of them. I could imagine his grin and his gentle Eastern N.C. voice, as well as a twist of ironic mirth.archie

More importantly, though, I remember his poems, which were often daring and introspective but also alert to the nuances and wonders of the natural world. Here’s a keeper with a tasty pun in the title and a periodic sentence even John Lyly would envy:

The City Limits

When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold
itself but pours its abundance without selection into every
nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider

that birds’ bones make no awful noise against the light but
lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider
the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest

swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,
not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider
the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue

bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped
guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit in no
way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider

that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen,
each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then
the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the

leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark
work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes
and fear lit by the breath of such calmly turns to praise.

[from Briefings: Norton, 1971]

Try that slight-of-hand anaphora, diagram that sentence, say that paragraph with quiet precision and feeling, feel “the dark work of the deepest cells,” see how much light will accept you and “consider that radiance.” Reading him will reward a wide audience, for despite Yeats’ claim that things fall apart, Ammons as Puck, Caliban and Prospero could make poems that hold in any wind.


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