Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Shorts and Poetry

Okay, so I was probably a little hard on Pushcart XXX in my last post. While it's true that on balance the editors seem to favor "well-told," character-based stories, normative stuff that isn't the first thing I look for, at least in short stories, the stories (to say nothing of the poetry and the non-fiction) in this anthology are actually quite diverse.

Jack Pendarvis's "Our Spring Catalog" was a lot of fun and just the right length (really short) for its conceit: a story told in the book catalog entries of a jaded and cynical copy-writer. Just to give you an idea: "In this luminous collection of sparkling stories, former newspaper columnist Bird makes a stunning fictional debut with a wry look at the state of modern commitment. A lot of the time I'd get to the end of one of the stories and turn a page like, 'Huh?' Like, 'Where's the end of it?' Like, 'What happened next?' But nothing happened next. You know, those kinds of stories. Luminous."

In the wince-inducing "Samantha," Robert Boyers does for race what David Mamet did for gender in Oleanna. Only Boyers also sort of does it for gender. Whatever. Point is, this angry, somewhat lost, young black woman is T-R-O-U-B-L-E. I thought the intensity and the almost claustrophobic point of view in this one were really impressive.

And you know how I was complaining about most of the stories just a few paragraphs ago, sneering at them and condescendingly calling them "normative?" Yeah, I liked some of those too: I really dug "The Widow Joy" by Rosellen Brown--spot on emotional observation, virtuoso movement through time. And I thought Steve Almond's "The Darkness Together" was creepy and eccentric, like some of the really good parts of Slacker.

There are tons more good stories in there. And I liked a lot of the poetry and non-fiction too. Some of the non-fiction pieces were especially interesting. Good stuff.

I just finished reading Edward Hirsch's How to Read a Poem. I think the title (which is the worst thing about the book) asks that the book be read as a demonstration, i.e. this is how I read a poem, not Step 1, light a clove cigarette . . . . Anyhow, this is a cool book, exploring themes common to poetry and notions about poetry common to poets. It introduced me to a number of poems/poets I'd never looked into before. I should say this isn't hard to do, as I'm not well read in poetry, especially contemporary poetry. Has always seemed a little intimidating to me. I can honestly say, a little less so now. Hirsch makes poetry seem more approachable, and his enthusiasm is catching. Like all good criticism, this book lets you try on the writer's brain for a while, maybe picking up a couple of facts along the way. More fun than it sounds. My favorite find was James Wright's "Hook". Reminds me of a Denis Johnson short story, only, uh, shorter.

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