Tag Archives: reading pleasure

The Book I Read: Rock Star Fiction, Erasure, and Mother Love

(Books discussed in this blog: Wolf in White Van, John Darneille; Her Read, Jennifer Sperry Steinorth, and Paddock, Mary Lou Buschi)

In April of 2019 I thought I would begin a series of book review blog entries titled after one of my favorite early Talking Heads songs, “The Book I Read.” So I did that. The trouble is: that first entry was the only entry! You know what they say: the best laid plans something something blah blah blah. Today, two years later and some change, I still think it’s a good idea. I am a person that is perpetually in a state of dissatisfaction about how much I read; every year of my life since leaving a formal education program where I am pretty much forced into the endeavor, I vow to read more, and specifically, to read more for pleasure. “The Book I Read” series seemed to be a tidy way to hold myself accountable, both for the reading and for the other thing I’d like to be doing more often–writing. And, too, I think the review, while I know nothing about how to do one properly, keeps me engaged in an activity I have always found, as an English teacher, to be a pedagogically sound practice: Okay, you’ve read a thing. Write about that experience! And as a student, I always found that my writing about my reading helped me to internalize the experience and to remember more of what I read. Perhaps this practice is why I have a much better book memory than a film memory. All I can tell you about a film I saw two years ago, or even two months ago, is whether or not I liked it. Don’t ask me to tell you what it was about–except to say something like, you know, it took place in outer space, or in the future, or it was about a boy and a dog and some vampires.

Because I am a musician that writes, or a writer who makes music, I have a soft spot, or an affinity, with others like me. Some famous rock musicians are very good writers. My first experience reading a rock star who could really write was Bob Geldof’s autobiography of the late 80’s. I’ve read David Byrne’s stuff. Mark Oliver Everett, The Eels guy. I’ve got Ben Folds on the shelf waiting. With Wolf in White Van, I have my first experience reading a rock musician fiction writer. John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, a band I have been smitten with over the last two or three years, is the author of this gem, and this was my first summer reading project.

Here’s a quick gloss of the premise: a young man, terribly disfigured by an accidental gun shot to the face, makes his way in the world as a role-play game designer, the protocols of which are extremely lo-fi. For a subscription fee, his customers play his RPG through written correspondence–that’s right, letters. He sends them a scenario, they send him a kind of narrative account of the choices they make, and in return, he sends them options for their next “move.” There are a few key dramatic arcs in this novel–or, a few key questions that provide readers with the impetus to keep on trucking. One: how did he fuck up his face? Two: is he responsible for the deaths of two of his players–killed no less in the process of “literally” acting out the scenarios in Sean’s RPG? How does one so disfigured navigate the world? Why doesn’t he seek plastic reconstructive surgery? What’s up with his parents? Is a relationship between Sean and his childhood friend Kimmy possible post-accident?

I liked reading this novel. Darnielle can really craft a sentence, and the novel is evocative, poetic, sometimes funny, and philosophically engaging, cerebral. It can also be frustrating. The first big question, how’d he fuck up his face, is ultimately answered, but we are made to wait until the very end to find out–and the answer is not altogether clear or satisfying. The other seemingly big question about the deaths of his customers is answered rather economically before we’re really half way through the novel–it turns out for the reader to be a kind of dashed expectation–at least it felt that way for me, as I expected it to be a key plot feature. Perhaps neither of these questions are the important ones, and it seems that Wolf in White Van may not be a novel driven by plot–but rather, by voice, by character; and the thing that moves us through as we bip back and forth in time with our narrator should really be the psychology of this guy, unraveling and understanding his nihilism despite his privileges and gifts. Certainly, the key might be in the unpacking of this potential metaphor of the Role-Play Game. People spend a whole heck of a lot of time pretending to be in a world that doesn’t exist, in the same way that people who are not gamers at all spend a considerable amount of their time on the planet skirting reality.

This next thing, Jennifer Sperry Steinorth’s Her Read, is unlike anything I have ever seen. It is manifestly unique. The book, about 260 pages long, is a single poem–a poem in a form we call an erasure. We have an erasure, essentially, when a poet has taken an existing non-poetry text and created something new and unique through the process of blocking out significant chunks of the original. I have come to know it as a common teaching technique in writing classes where the goal is to have students thinking about language and the various choices poets make–while simultaneously easing the anxiety around the blank page–everything is there for you already; you just have to find it. It’s like sculpting–you remove stuff in order to discover the shape or the image or the meaning inside. Super fun. I’ve only encountered erasure poems by serious poets on a few occasions, most notably, Tracy K. Smith’s erasure poem from the Declaration of Independence, a poem that totally transforms and reframes our understanding of American history.

But Steinorth’s poem is not simply an erasure–it is, as the cover announces, a “graphic poem.” It is a full color printing replete with drawings, photos, diagrams, and replications of the original source–a book originally published in 1931 called The Meaning of Art by Herbert Read–so that the reader can visually see Steinorth’s white out erasures, her doodling, her coloring, her stitching, her cutting and pasting, her manipulation of classic paintings–and the ghost of the original text, sometimes attempting to peak its way out from under the white-out, sometimes appearing vividly around the new poem, crossed out against Steinorth’s circled choices or otherwise as a kind of backdrop or wall paper out of which the new text or an art image leaps out. Without saying anything about the poem’s subject matter or themes, I must begin by just saying what a blast this piece is to read. It is tremendous fun. It gives new meaning to what folks sometimes say about any literary work–that the reader must learn HOW to read it. On almost every page, we are faced with a new kind of puzzle, sometimes a straightforward and easy adjustment, other times diabolically difficult. And, decidedly, it is just a beautiful thing, an art object as well as a literary artifact.

But what’s this poem about? And is it a good poem? I am a poetry lover, not a poetry scholar. I don’t think of myself as much of a critic–only that I know when I’m reading a poem if I’m enjoying myself or not, if I’ve understood the poem or not, or if I’m able to appreciate the various moves the poet is making. I’ve already confessed that I enjoyed myself thoroughly reading Her Read. But it is what I would call a difficult poem–in that it’s meaning is allusive–or rather, that my understanding while I read was tentative, slippery. I take full responsibility for that. I can say, though, that Eleanor Wilner’s introduction is astounding and astoundingly helpful, and the author’s preface, “Her Apologia,” is also edifying. Perhaps most helpful is the revelation that the source text, The Meaning of Art by Herbert Read, makes mention of exactly zero women artists–and in a subsequent edition from the fifties, only ONE. So–my biggest take away from this beautiful book is that the poem is a kind of reclamation of the history of art by and for women writers and painters and art enthusiasts. This is after all, her read, her reading, Steinorth’s illumination of what was missing in Herbert Read’s original text–and yet, present all the same! I just blew my own mind right there. I doubt this is accidental: the whole time I was reading I kept thinking of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I bet Steinorth would consider that pretty good company.

Finally, I arrive at Mary Lou Buschi’s Paddock, a volume of poetry so sparse and spacious, even at 64 pages, that it begs to be read more than once. So I did that. Outside of preparing for a writer’s workshop on a manuscript, I don’t think I’ve ever read a complete volume of poetry cover to cover more than once within the space of a couple of days. I felt it necessary perhaps to revel in its weirdness. That’s true. Or maybe I thought I’d understand it much better the second time around. That checks out, but still, I must confess, my understanding feels limited, superficial. Poetry like this makes one especially thankful for blurbs on the back covers, which, in the poetry world, are often little mini-essays in and of themselves. In the effort towards stepping away from Paddock with anything like an “understanding,” Patrick Donnelly’s blurb on the back cover was immeasurably helpful. He doesn’t have the answers either–but his speculating about what could be was a tremendous lifeline. Like Her Read, I found this volume to be a difficult but enormously rewarding reading experience. My own poetry, and (surprise surprise) the poetry I like best, is narrative in nature–where a story is being told or an experience is being described that is rooted in a comprehensible world–even if that world is exceedingly weird. I also enjoy lyric poetry that describes an emotional response or teases out a philosophical territory–and yet still is grounded somehow in a familiar world. The most rewarding reading experiences where neither of the above approaches, narrative or lyric, seem to be relevant or important, is in my deep reading over the years of Samuel Beckett. His disembodied voices, his gallows humor, his vaudevillian approach to the deepest existentialist questions, has been some of the most satisfying reading of my life. Paddock reminds me of Beckett more than anything else, and in particular, his play Waiting for Godot.

In Paddock we have three primary voices, girl 1 and girl 2, and a chorus. The chorus does what choruses do: sets the scene, provides commentary, maybe helps interpret the proceedings, lends a kind of mythic aura to the whole. The girls are our main characters–but in actual text real estate, their lines and their conversations are clipped, truncated, brief, and, like the conversations between Vladimir and Estragon from Godot, strangely surreal, comical, absurd. And like their Beckett counterpoints, they are on a mission it seems, not one of waiting, but one of looking, searching–and of trying at one and the same time to leave and to arrive. What are they looking for? Who are they leaving or hoping to join? Mother. And this, thankfully, is given us right out of the gate by the chorus: “Once, as there are many,/time stretches infinitely,/2 girls set forth,/to find a mother,/who is she,/who is I,/who is Dear.” Now the mysteries of this collection, similarly to the mysteries of Godot, are questions the reader may have that the text of the drama does not answer explicitly. Where are these two girls? In what state? Are they dead? Are they about to be born? Clearly, (I just said “clearly”) they are in some kind of liminal space. How are the girls related, or are they? What trauma has their “mother” experienced and by whose hands? Do they have the same mother or different ones? Is “mother” literal or metaphorical, symbolic? These are huge unanswerable questions–but again, like in Godot, the pleasure and the meaning is in NOT getting the answers you seek, but instead, more questions. In the end. . . No, I’m not going to give away the ending!

Paddock is not just a collection of poems–it is a singular and difficult drama. The more I think about it, the more likely I am to give it a third reading. It is beautiful and weird, nightmarish and strange, puzzling and profound.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a wrap on my second attempt in two years at a blog about books I am reading in the series I have called “The Book I Read.”

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Filed under Literature, Reviews, The Book I Read, Writing and Reading

Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: December 9, 2017

I realize now that it might be possible to misunderstand the title of this blog series. I just want to make clear right out of the gate that our narrator is not talking about his penultimate year on the planet. Nope. He’s pretty healthy, save for some high blood pressure (which he is working to alleviate), so he certainly has more than another year to live! Phew! Glad we got that out of the way. No, with “penultimate,” he’s referring (why am I writing about myself in the third person?) to the possible or potential year before his last year as a teacher in a public high school classroom. In other words, he may retire soon. And he’s being deliberately wishy-washy and vague. Is he sure? Mostly. Can he envision putting it off? Yes. If the circumstances are right, he could see very well putting it off. Maybe the title of the series should be Diary of an English Teacher in His Possible Penultimate Year. Peter Percival’s Pet Pig Named Porky Loved Pie. Anyone?

All right then. This is what I really want to talk about today.  I had a conversation yesterday with a student that blew my mind, and not in a good way. Here it is, quite simply. In my English 10 class, we’re reading Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey. A student, at the end of the class, turned the book over and looked at the back cover. He saw something there that surprised him; no, he was shocked. He came up to me and he said, “Mr. Jarmer, is this book really worth $16?” I answered in the affirmative without a lot of thought. He couldn’t really be surprised by this, could he? Then he said, “Do you mean, Mr. Jarmer, that if I lose this book, I will have to pay $16 to replace it?” Again, I answer in the affirmative. He’s incredulous. “No way. There’s no way this book is worth $16.” Afterwards, I tell him some secrets, such as, if he were to buy a brand new hard cover first edition from the bookstore, he’d pay upwards of $30 or $40. His jaw drops. “Who would pay $40 for a book?” Well, I say, I have. Many, many times. Sometimes a lot more. I tell him how much I spent on my Folio editions of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. He appears to be absolutely blown away by my stupidity. And I am absolutely blown away by his . . . underestimation of what a book might be worth.

I realized some things. There are billions of young people out there who have never ever in their life purchased a book. So of course, how would they know the value of a book, monetarily speaking? Not only are there billions of young people out there who have never bought a book, there are other multitudes of young people who have never checked a book out of the library, have never attempted to read a book that was not assigned to them. And there are scads of young people, I know, who manage through years of schooling somehow to avoid reading ANY of the books that have been assigned to them, who might be even proud of the fact. So there is an epidemic, I think, among young people, of book ignorance and book devaluation. Not only have they avoided reading anything of substance, they have no idea and no interest in finding out what a book is worth. And I’m not really talking about kids whose level of literacy precludes them from reading. I’m talking about the literate illiterate. Kids who can but don’t.

It’s painful to think about what they are missing. They’re not all lost causes, though. I read as a young person what was assigned to me, but I was not a reader. After my homework was done, I spent all my free time listening to music, playing music, and if I read I was reading about music, and I spent a lot of time with the high school theater department. I did not read books. I did not really become a reader until I was about 19. But then I became a fiend for reading. Not a voracious reader (I was slow), but an enthusiastic, close reader. And that’s when I began also to take myself seriously as a writer. But as an adult, I had friends who were perfectly literate who only started reading seriously in their 30s. So again, this boy who couldn’t believe that a book was worth $16 may one day start reading.

I feel kind of shitty. I see it, as part of my gig, that I must try to inspire students to read, to instill a desire to read. How do you DO that? Well, in part, you do it by modeling (you can’t help it) your own enthusiasm about the words on the page. That works to a degree, maybe even to a large degree. But I know that one of the other ways, maybe a more effective way, to inspire readers is by giving them choices about WHAT they read. This is a no brainer. They will want to read more when given opportunities to find the kinds of books that speak to them. Why do I feel shitty? It’s been a long, long time since I found myself in a situation where I felt free to give students choices. The curriculum has become less flexible. The scope and sequence of most of the classes I teach require certain books to be taught. When the district spends thousands of dollars to adopt a new text, there’s an obligation to teach that text. When the district emphasizes and/or mandates the sound idea that teachers not work in isolation, that they plan together and create common assessments, to look at data that will inform their teaching, there’s just simply less room for student choice. Or at least that’s how it feels. I don’t think that it’s true. If more of my colleagues were committed to student choice, it’d be an easy fix. I feel a little bit alone. I feel a little bit sad that my teaching is maybe not as progressive as it once was. When I was a new teacher they basically just gave me a room and said GO! A part of me pines for that kind of freedom again.

Meanwhile, the question is: $16 for a bloody book? And my response, falling on deaf ears: the worth of a book is immeasurable, invaluable, priceless. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

In closing, and in a completely different vein, because teaching kids to love reading is not the only thing I’m thinking about today, the furnace is down. It’s cold in the house. We got the obligatory Yuletide tree, and today would have been my mother’s 88th birthday. First birthday without Mom. First Christmas and New Year without Mom. My mother, who read very little until her later years, and who preferred raunchy romances, even in her 80s, over anything literary, nevertheless, encouraged me as a reader and writer. Cheers to the memory of Mom and to the promises and riches of reading.

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In Celebration of My 100th Blog Post

It’s a milestone, don’t you think? It seems so to me. This blog post right here, the one I hope you are currently reading, is the 100th blog entry by Michael Jarmer. It took me two plus years to get here. So help me do the math. What is it? 50 posts a year? That’s 4.166 posts a month–but that wouldn’t be accurate, really, because there have been months at a time when I posted not a thing, and I’ve never posted less than a whole post, a fraction of a post, unless you consider a poem as something somewhat less than a full post, but then you’d be in some hot water with the poets. I wouldn’t want that for you.  But, to be truthful, the 45 poems I’ve posted, 30 of which were composed one-a-day as part of National Poetry Writing Month in  April, did enhance my numbers, productivity speaking. So, suffice it to say, I’m pleased with myself and I hope you are too–and to all of you who have made this blog site a regular stop of yours, I thank you from the very depths of my being.

Other than just to make a celebratory statement about my 100th blog entry, I’m not sure what to write about here.  Perhaps I could just muse a little bit on the effect blogging has had on my life and on my writing.  That might be good.  Perhaps, I could talk about the pros and cons of blogging.  At the very least, there may be some learning about the whole process that I could discover and then articulate for your reading pleasure, that is, if you find that kind of thing pleasurable.  Let’s have a go at that, shall we?

Blogging has made me more productive.  I’m a fiction writer, primarily, but I find that to write fiction, I need sustained amounts of time to immerse myself in the fictive dream, so to speak, sustained amounts of time that don’t occur for me on a regular basis–so my fiction composition is as slow as mud;  it took me ten years to finish Monster Talk and probably another ten years before the start of that project to finish my first novel, the one that’s been sitting in a box on my desk now for the better part of the last decade, yeah, the one about Spontaneous Human Combustion. Outside of my fiction writing, before blog (B.B.) I’d find myself writing poems every once in a while, sometimes in flurries far and few between, and sometimes I’d write a little bit of something in the context of my teaching for my colleagues, and whenever I could I would write alongside my students. But never could I say, that over the course of a year or two, that I had “finished” 100 pieces.  I’m still writing my fiction, slowly, I’m still doing odd writings here and there at work for colleagues and students, but on top of that, I have completed 100 blog entries. Perhaps, embarking on this endeavor, I have written more, finished more short pieces than I ever did B.B.

Blogging has widened my repertoire. I’ve written here essays about teaching, essays about parenting, essays about music, essays about writing, essays about fashion for crying out loud (thanks to Betabrand), autobiographical essays, cultural criticism essays, and blogs about blogging.  And I’ve written poems about 45 different things.  First off, my non-fiction output has shot up from no thing to 100 things! And secondly, none of those things are the things for which I think I am truly skilled and for which, as evidence of said skill, I have a piece of paper and a book! So blogging is helping me come into my own, I hope, as an essayist.

Blogging is spontaneous, improvisational in nature, at least it is for me, and that’s helpful because it has enabled me to explore things about which I have questions.  I choose a blog topic simply by intuition.  I’ve got lists here and there, but I don’t often refer back to them.  Rather, an inspiration will hit, stick with me for a day, an hour, or a few minutes, and I kind of know right away, I get a kind of temperature, and if it’s hot, if it sticks with me, if it compels me to sit down and begin typing, I go for it.  I rarely abandon a piece that I’ve started writing.  So blogging has also brought me a level of commitment toward finishing the things I start.  I appreciate that.

Are there any negatives in my blogging experience?

There’s a part of me that says ANY writing I do is a good use of my time.  Writing is something I want to do, so if I’m doing it, that’s a good thing.  But I have to ask myself, if all the time I devoted to creating blog entries over the last two years had been spent on fiction writing, how much further would I be toward the completion of a new novel–and wouldn’t that have been a BETTER use of my time?  My gut response is to answer no to that question.  When I think about the pleasure I have found in blogging coupled with the productivity and the way I feel like it’s broadened my writing, I am glad to have started the blog site and glad to have kept at it for two years.  I wouldn’t want to undo that progress in exchange for a draft of a new novel.  And what’s to stop me from blogging progress on the new novel?  What’s to prevent me from blogging fiction?

Now this is a difficult and dicey proposition, one that I have explored a little bit in an entry I wrote after National Poetry Writing Month.  There’s something scary and negative and offensive to me about drafting fiction in public.  I’m not sure exactly why–but I kind of feel like it demeans it somehow, and I’m guessing real poets feel the same way about publishing poems on a blog site.  I’m not sure I consider myself a real poet.  No, that’s not true.  I’m as real a poet as any other poet. Maybe it is that I have a different relationship to my poetry than I do with my fiction.  My poetry is kind of offhand, not meticulously crafted, and doesn’t have behind it a piece of paper and a book.  I know that and accept that about my poetry, so I’m not as guarded about it or as protective.  And the comment earlier, that I’m not a real poet, is only an effort to honor those poets who are guarded and protective about their work,  who feel like publishing their poetry in a blog post would somehow be demeaning or disrespectful to the work.  I’d love to hear other writers’ takes on this.  Ultimately, I think it’s all in my head.  That’s the truth of it.  And that leads to another potentially negative aspect of blogging.  This stuff in my head, emerging, not quite perfectly formed, sometimes even faulty, frail, wrong–it’s all right here on my blog site.

Blogging has made me a kind of statistic blip addict.  And that’s not a good thing. It’s something I want to work on–not being so needy about that. Part of the beauty and conversely the danger of blogging is the experience of instant publication and often instant feedback. How many visitors, likes, new followers, new comments, did that entry receive and what does it all mean?  This is something bloggers should be interested in, I suppose, but not obsessing about.  Only once have I obsessed–and it was terrible. Long after its original composition, a blog entry I wrote entitled “English Teacher Math: Teaching 200 Students How To Write” was posted and roasted on the Reddit social network  site.  It resulted in the busiest single day or two ever on my blog, and it resulted on Reddit in some pretty good conversation, some of it smart and helpful, but it also resulted in a number of absolute looney tunes posting comments after that blog entry on my site–all of which culminated in a near complete and total TIME SUCK in my life and in my head.  You know, hatred from strangers will have a tendency to do that–unless you have developed a strategy for dealing  with it, which I had not. I was a complete basket case for three days.  I got over that, and I have never had a repeat performance.  If another one comes up, I hope I will deal with it more effectively.  Blogging should not be a stress producer–and I’m thankful to say that exactly 99% of the time it has not been!

So there you have it, for now.  A meditation on my first 100 blog posts.  If you got this far, I thank you.  If you have been a regular visitor or a follower, I thank you.  If you would purchase my novel Monster Talk, I would be forever grateful.  It’s been a good trip, thus far.  I think I will continue doing this thing.  Cheers.

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