Tag Archives: summer 2005


by Tom Devaney

On April 10, 1989, James Schuyler wrote a letter to a young poet named Peter Gizzi. Gizzi had solicited poems from Schuyler for Gizzi's magazine O-Blek. In his previous letter to Schuyler, Gizzi must have asked, "What have you been reading?" Schuyler's reply included Frank O'Hara, John Weiners, Philip Whalen, and this item: "I've been enjoying Wm Corbett's books. He sent me a collected which is full of wonderful things: Que pense-tu, beau Sphinx?" Which is a line from the movie Les Enfants du Paradis. The letter is included in the new collection Just the Thing: Selected Letters of James Schuyler 1951-1991 (Turtle Point Press, $21.95), which Corbett has worked on for the past 13 years.

The connections Corbett draws, cultivates, and has with individual poems and poets, as well as individual paintings and painters past and present, are direct and personal and fully active in his person and work. He not only edited Schuyler's letters, but there is a feeling that he takes each one personally, as if each lost Schuyler letter is also somehow a missing piece of himself. Corbett's identification with the painter Franz Kline comes to him through his own his memories of the "thick black forms" of the Pennsylvania landscape and the coal towns where they both grew up. A marvelous raconteur, Corbett can recount all-nighters with the painter Philip Guston, wistfully remarking that "Guston would arrive for dinner at seven and leave at seven," which speaks volumes of the volumes Corbett has to tell.

Keeping the romance of art and life alive, which Corbett does with a graceful defiance, is not the same thing as being a Romantic. He is seasoned and unsentimental about the marginal status of poetry and the art he likes best—his own work included. In tune with a younger generation of poets, as well as many from his own, for the past six years Corbett has also been a small-press publisher, releasing books, chapbooks, and a literary magazine through the intrepid Pressed Wafer Press, which is housed in the basement of Corbett's house in Boston.

Corbett's own books include several works of poetry including Don't Think: Look and New & Selected PoemsAll Prose, which collects his writings on art; and an honest and artful book about his father and family called Furthering My Education, among many other titles. Asked about his work as a poet, his art writing, his editing and publishing projects, and teaching at MIT, Corbett replied: "My work is all of these things."

Tom Devaney: When was the first time you saw Schuyler's letter to Peter Gizzi mentioning you in a list of poets he was currently reading? Did you know that he liked your poems so much?

William Corbett: I knew that he liked my poems because he had written to me about them as well, but I thought it was wrong to put in letters that Jimmy had written me. He wrote me about twelve, and in one of them he was very generous in his words of praise. I didn't see the letter to Peter until Peter sent me his correspondence from Jimmy and I went back and forth about whether I'd print it. I thought: "Who wants to read a letter in which the editor is extolled?" On the other hand, he says things about John Wieners in the letter which might surprise people. And the letter seemed to be interesting from the point of view of what he was reading and responding to at that point, so I said the hell with it, and published it.

TD: So you have twelve letters Schuyler wrote to you?

WC: Yes, I met Jimmy first through letters. I admired him so intensely for so long that I had not wanted to meet him. I figured he's fine without me. And then we finally met at a reading he did for Michael Gizzi in the barn behind Melville's house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He read the poem he dedicated to me, and afterwards we went to dinner with a lot of people. It was a totally enjoyable evening for me.

TD: Why do you think you were asked to edit the letters?

WC: This is my guess. When Jimmy died, which was in April 1991, I wanted to have a memorial service for him in Boston, where he had, as I well knew, almost no audience at all, but I wanted to do it because I really loved his work. I got in touch with the poet Ed Barrett, who was at MIT—it was before I taught at MIT—and he said, sure I can get a room. And then I got in touch with Geoff Young, and said if I do this, do you want to go in and make a memorial booklet. Geoff said fine. Over the summer, we built the booklet. We got Trevor Winkfield to make a beautiful drawing for the poster. We had an all-star lineup. From New York, John Ashbery, Harry Matthews, Joe Brainard, Trevor, and Darragh Park. It was a fairly odd evening because I was teaching at Harvard then, and I could not be home for dinner, which Beverly, my wife, served to thirteen people. I knew Darragh, Schuyler's executor, only slightly at that point, and so did not prepare her for the man—he is a stunning looking man, and he showed up at the front door dressed totally in leather because he had ridden his motorcycle up from South Hampton. She was sort of, "Well, William didn't tell me about this!"

So we put together this memorial service, and it was a wonderful reading. Peter was there, Michael Gizzi, Eileen Myles, Frank Bidart . . . and then back at the house, had one hell of a party. Which, as somebody pointed out to me, was perhaps because everybody feels New Yorkers always see each other, and they don't. They were in Boston together, and they had a great time. But anyway, Darragh actually asked me to become the editor at Jimmy's memorial service at the Poetry Project. I think it was spontaneous. He knew I loved the work and that I knew the people involved. He wanted, obviously, to work with somebody who was not a professional editor; academic qualifications meant nothing to him, so he went with his instincts.

TD: Is there any one Schuyler letter, or a handful of letters in the book, that are your favorites?

WC: There's a love letter to John Button very early that seems to me to epitomize Jimmy—it's funny, it's smart, it's sad, it's just remarkable communication. The Miss Batie letter, which I use in classes a lot, the letter he wrote about his poem "February" to her—I don't even know if he sent it, because it has no signature at the bottom. Then there are short stories in the book; one of them deals with his breakdowns in 1972. There are about forty pages that I think will be powerful to any reader. Certainly the letters to Anne Dunn in which he gives an account of his first public reading, the one at the DIA Foundation. These stand out to me.

TD: With over a decade working on this project, it seems you should have been able to track down most of the correspondence. Were there any letters that you knew about that you couldn't lay your hands on?

WC: Jimmy's letters to Frank O'Hara. They were promised—Maureen O'Hara was standing there when Darragh asked me to edit the book, and she promised the letters then—but for reasons that she has not told me, she did not send me the letters until after the book appeared. In October 2004, the book arrived, like on a Tuesday morning; on Thursday, the letters arrived, FedExed with a note. I emailed and said, thanks for the letters, Maureen, but you knew what the deadline was . . . what else could I say? Since I've had a chance to read them, I would say that about twenty pages of the letters would have been in the book. What I expected to happen has also happened: letters have come up because the book has been published by people that I didn't get in touch with, or people would simply find letters. A friend of Fizdale and Gold's, the piano duo—Arthur Gold was Jimmy's lover in the early '50s, and Jimmy traveled with them on a tour of Europe—discovered in a trunk a number of letters to both Fizdale and Gold. Some of them are love letters, but they are also filled with talk about music and many of these would have gotten in. I ought to add that these letters emphasize how significant classical music was to the first generation New York School. O'Hara played piano, and he along with Ashbery and Schuyler were constant concertgoers.

TD: You have an appendix in the book to discuss Schuyler's post cards, which are not included in the volume. To do it right, it seems like publishing a book of postcards would require featuring the front and back of the cards, because you write that the image is almost always part of Schuyler's message or reason for sending the card in the first place.

WC: I'd love it if somebody would do it, but it would be expensive. He sent many postcards, and it would be a funny book, adding another dimension to Just the Thing. I doubt anybody will take on the project unless they want to sink a lot of money into something with very little possibility of return. I put the note in the back because Jimmy wrote a sufficient number of postcards, so I wanted them recognized as a major form of communication for him. The most I know of were the ones to Raymond Foye, who lived in the Hotel Chelsea, and is one of Jimmy's executors. Jimmy slipped between two and three hundred of those postcards into Raymond's mailbox. My god, say four to a page, image and message, we're talking about a huge book. Won't happen.

TD: Yesterday, when you were reading at Writers House, you said, "I write about what I see and hear." There are a number of poems in your New & Selected Poems, which, if they're not elegies, are at least elegiac, but those same poems also have a sense of wonderment. Is this a point of contact between Schuyler's poems and your own?

WC: That's a connection between our work, no question about it. The first poem I ever wrote—when I was twelve—was an elegy for the town Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania; the first line: "The gray sky sets on the gray hills." I'm twelve, walking through a town that I spent a lot of my youth in and knew I was leaving. All that you say about my work, about friendship, about family, the elegiac nature of it, is true. I wrote that way before Schuyler's work became so important to me. There are many other poets who I love with whom the connection is not so obvious, but to him the connection is that obvious and there's no way I could hide it even if I wanted to, which I don't. It's influence I guess, but more than that, it's a profound empathy.

TD: You also read some poems about Franz Kline that stood out to me as particularly charged and expressive.

WC: I wrote them two years ago, but I think it took all the years I've been looking at Kline for me to write those poems. They were set off by a show of drawings, at David McKee Gallery, on Saint Patrick's Day, and they go back to my childhood. Franz Kline grew up in Lehighton, which is the big town over from Jim Thorpe. One of the first times I saw his pictures, I absolutely recognized his thick black forms as coming from a landscape I knew. It charmed me that there's a picture of a small red house, an early picture of his, that I used to pass every year; I recognized it right away so there was an immediate I've been there connection. I've read and picked up information about him all over the place. There are seven poems forming a documentary poem. I think they're among the best poems I've ever written. Again, it's a question of empathy, of a close connection that finally evolved into poems. There's another poem like it to DeKooning, called "DeKooning"—again, a passionate enthusiasm. I tried to connect the same way with a number of other painters because I thought I was on a roll, but I wasn't. Or at least I dropped the thread and haven't been able to pick it up again.

TD: In the New & Selected there are some poems that seem to be directly addressed to a specific person, and those are some of my favorite poems. There's a certain intimacy there.

WC: I love the letter as a form of address, the letter poem. One of the most important poems in my life as a poet is Ezra Pound's translation "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter." That's the poem that made me want to be a poet when I read it at age fifteen; I said if somebody can do something like this with words, that's what I want to do. So that has been in me a long time. I like the idea of using poetry in a public way. The reason why you publish a letter-poem rather than simply leave it as a letter to somebody is that you're aware the intimacy in that address is also a way of addressing others. The intimacy will get across and that the content is communicable, precisely because it comes as a letter.

TD: Your poem "Tu Fu in English" shows another connection you have with the Asian tradition.

WC: I'd never use a phrase like Asian tradition. I'm in love with a few Chinese poets, and have been, as I said, since I was a teenager. Their clarity, what they draw from nature, the strong image, at least in Pound and others—Gary Snyder, David Hinton, Arthur Waley, Kwock and McHugh—there is a music I do not hear in other poetry. I'm not somebody who studied Asian religions; it's purely the poetry that struck a nerve early on. It's poetry that, often, when I feel the need to refuel, I go back and read. My eyes are clear because of it, my hearing is more acute, and I'm back in the world, and then sometimes poems occur.

TD: Yesterday you also spoke about Albert York, the painter. Do you see a relationship between your work and York's? I think you at least share what you called York's "becoming modesty."

WC: Well, thank you. I hope it's not the false aw shucks modesty of a Gary Cooper. I think that we both have an interest in what is called the ordinary and the everyday; so did Schuyler. I think we work the side of the street that values clarity and lucidity, and we hope that beneath clarity and lucidity of surface, there is mystery. I think we both make things easy. I couldn't love those paintings so much without there being something involved between me and them. As I'm sure is true with you, Tom, and your deepest enthusiasms.

TD: Yes, it is; in fact yesterday there were a few moments for me when it was simply beautiful to watch you up there next to the giant screen talking about these "small and strong" paintings you love. A few times a slide would come up and you would glow with admiration; at one point you said, "I just want to look at it, no great thoughts, I have great pleasure."

WC: This is the way I often feel about painting. Philip Guston liked to quote Leonardo's "painting is a thing of the mind." I guess one way to interpret that is that you're always thinking when looking, but I'm not aware of thinking; it does not feel like a state of thought, it feels like a state of absorption. And what I've learned in several slide lectures that I've given about Albert York is there are paintings about which I have nothing to say except, I really love looking at this one. I'm not saying it's profound, but it's very much directly what I feel. In a slide show I'm not interested in the art criticism that I do, the side work of translating Albert York for an audience. I'm interested in saying, here are the pictures, and the words that you're going to get are the words of somebody who feels this way about these pictures. Imagine it as a voice-over. Imagine it as a crawl underneath the image. But do not imagine it as an attempt to explain what's up there—it's operating in parallel.

Beyond that, I've always liked to look. When I was a boy I had to be cuffed in the head by my grandmother or my mother. "Billy, what's wrong with you?" I could be lost in looking, and sometimes it would be embarrassing to people that I'd be looking so hard at them. One of the pleasures of painting is that you can look hard at pictures and they don't mind—though sometimes they look back hard at you, and you're very aware of that.

TD: It's not a formal concept in aesthetics.

WC: No, it isn't, no.

TD: Still, when you say the word "look," I think there's a way to talk about your own poetry in connection to activity, which you've certainly cultivated and I feel has numerous meanings for you, more than merely looking.

WC: Oh yeah, but I can simplify it. I'm a poet of consciousness, of consciousness in the world, as it goes by. I'm a poet of attention to that world, attention by ear, attention by eye. I write what I see and what I hear. That comes in the context of my feeling that I've never had an enormous amount of imagination. My poetry has often felt like anybody could do it; I happen to do it in my own way. I like to think of myself as somebody—and this can be a pain in the ass to other people—on whom nothing is lost. I could also say, and no sympathy is required, that when you look, you often see too much. And when you don't, when you miss something, you feel your powers of attention are not as great, and so, like anything, there's an element of a trap to it. But for people who value those virtues in poetry, I think they may find them in my poems. They're not the only virtues that poetry is capable of by any means. Of course, like everybody, I write the poems that I can write.

TD: Could you say a little about what Philip Guston meant to you?

WC: I seem to have talked about his importance to me until I'm sick of hearing myself, but in this context . . . well, I might have come to write art criticism had I not known him and sat at his feet, but I doubt it. My art writing continues, for me, my conversations with him, some of them all night conversations at our kitchen table, so that in my mind I often think when I'm writing about painting I'm writing to him and what would he say. And, of course, now that I'm the age he was when we met, I can talk back to him.

TD: You're a poet, you write art criticism, you edited this book of letters, and you're a small press publisher. Last night you said you used to think that your real work is the poetry, but through experience and time, you're seeing it now as all of a piece.

WC: Yes. I was wrong, I was making some hierarchical value. I was saying, well, the prose, the memoirs, they are all something else. No, no, it's not something else. It comes out of the same head, the same concerns. I value poetry enormously, so much so that I don't feel it's necessary to rate it above anything else. It's so present in my life, how could it be otherwise? But so are the movies. I wouldn't mind someday writing a movie script. I'd love to write a biography. This is partly an understanding that the here and now is what I have. Whatever the future does with it, I have no idea. Earlier you were talking about Joe Brainerd's I Remember and about teaching Edwin Denby's essay "Dancers, Buildings and People in the Street," and of course about Jimmy's book of letters. These texts are thought of as somehow secondary, but they're not to me; my imagination and my memory tell me otherwise. I'm not going to rate them below novels and poetry and plays. I'd love to write a detective novel, I just can never seem to come up with a plot. The fact is that all writing interests me, and I've drawn inspiration and pleasure from a wide variety of books. And that's begun, slow learner, to teach me that the poetry is the poetry. That it takes care of itself. When I sit down to write, I'm not saying to myself, well, this book review is just a book review; it doesn't demand the same thing from me that poem does. No, I want to get the book review right, too—am I saying the book review is faultless? No, but I'm not sure that the poems are either. It's not my call.

TD: How did you come to name your collection of Schuyler's letters Just the Thing?

WC: For many years, I didn't have a title. And then when we signed a contract with Jonathan Rabinowitz, the publisher of Turtle Point Press in New York, he took to calling the book Love, Jimmy, because Jimmy invariably signed himself that way. I knew that wasn't going to be the title. Every January, I teach a course in letters at MIT in which people write letters, we talk about letters, and I usually devote part of it to letter poems. I was teaching Jimmy's poem "A Stone Knife," and I was reading aloud this section: "it is just the thing / to do what with? To / open letters? No, it / is just the thing, an / object dark, fierce / and beautiful in which / the surprise is that / the surprise once / past is always there: / which to enjoy is / not to consume"—and I knew I had the title, "Just the Thing." I liked the bareness of those words, I liked the fact that he's asking a question here and answering it. It's a letter poem about getting a letter opener, a public poem in that it's a thank you note—again saying, poetry has practical value and this is what it can be used for—but don't be fooled into thinking that the intimacy of expression is only between two people. That intimacy of expression is the best possible language lined up in the best possible way. Also, it is a poem to Kenward Elmslie, and I already knew that the introduction of the book was going to start off with something that Kenward had said to me about Jimmy's letters, so it simply seemed perfect, and I enjoy the way it sounds still.

TD: I do not remember the title of the poem you read last night, but you have a line, which is just so straightforward and so wonderful: "Is it the romance of life and art that has me hooked?"

WC: Yeah, it's an ongoing wonder to me. When I was a boy I would make things up and embellish and tell stories, and my grandmother would say, "Oh you're fibbing, don't do that." I think a lot of kids had this experience where what we come to see as imaginative, taking whatever had happened in the day and juicing it up, souping it up like a car, was part of the pleasure we were getting out of language, the pleasure we were getting out of being alive in the world. I still have that, but of course, I took to my heart my grandmother's admonition, and I wonder sometimes if my passions about things are not just carrying me away into some romance of life and art. I believe the imagination is a real thing, as real as any other thing but sometimes I wonder whether I'm just fibbing, and maybe I am. It is a question, which perhaps the poem answers only by its existence, and it's an ongoing question I feel I will always ask.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005

MEDIATED: How Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live In It

Buy this book at Amazon.comThomas de Zengotita
Bloomsbury Books ($22.95)

by Weston Cutter

Thomas de Zengotita's Mediated will fundamentally rework the way you see the world, which may in turn lead to fundamental reworkings of how you live in it. Perhaps the easiest way to describe what de Zengotita means by "mediated" is to say that everything in the world—every car color, perfume scent, and variety of corn chip—is there for you: The world as presented to us by media revolves entirely around us consumers. Couple this with the fact that everything operates simultaneously as thing and as representative—there's McDonald's, the actual place where you can buy fries that taste the same in Minneapolis and Madrid, and there's "McDonald's," which is the fact of McDonald's in the world—and de Zengotita's argument becomes clearer: there's nothing that isn't mediated. For example, when you're introduced to someone and you shake their hand to meet them, you also meet yourself meeting them—you mentally gauge yourself, the firmness of your grip, and if your smile is that perfectly practiced mix of earnestness and wisdom you've seen so often in the media.

De Zengotita, a contributing editor at Harper's, is probably the best mass media critic out there, if for no reason other than that he's simultaneously dead serious, funny as hell, and he actually uses vulgar language in the truest sense. He uses "like" in the way you and I use "like" (as in, like, a lot), and he begins sentences that become questions halfway through. His writing never gets mired in academic terms, never makes you feel like if you missed the Ph.D. train, you'll probably miss his point, too. Best of all, de Zengotita wonderfully refuses to allow that there's some simple, clear way out of this; as he carefully articulates, there are few scenarios other than emergency or chaos that can snap us from our bubble of mediation (and sometimes not even then—when we respond to the late-night, desperate phone call, is our response informed by all the late-night, desperate phone calls we've seen on television?). His conclusion especially is not the self-congratulatory closure that our mediated selves desire—which is, of course, precisely de Zengotita's point.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005

CANONS BY CONSENSUS: Critical Trends and American Literature Anthologies

Buy this book at Amazon.comJoseph Csicsila
University of Alabama Press ($38.50)

by Raphael C. Allison

These days it may seem fair to say that the great war of canon studies has subsided at last. Major combat operations are over; the world, or at least one very carefully policed corner of it in the university, has been made safe for textual democracy. The battle was not about fictional WMDs, of course, but against DWMs who wrote fiction, the imperial Dead White Male militia who maintained their grip on power through force of habit, repressive politics, and canny PsyOps. Over the past number of decades troops of all colors, chromosomes, and creeds have joined forces in this war, and now women authors and writers of color from across the spectrum of class positions are routinely researched and taught. What's left to do but maintain the new order, skirmish with rear-guard reactionaries, and get on with the business of running the state?

Despite this sense that victory has been achieved there are still unanswered questions about what has come to be known as "canonicity." What unstated rules and ideologies, for example, guide canon formation? After decades of attacking the mere fact of canonical prejudices against women and writers of color, this is still unclear. Feminist critics in the 1970s established an alternative history of women's writing, and as a result women now pretty reliably staff the syllabi. Yet this apparent victory does not mean that we fully comprehend the subconscious or hegemonic power relations that structure not simply who's "in" and who's "out" of a literary canon, but also how to conceive of who's a "who" in the first place. In what was once a controversial claim but now seems quite obvious, Judith Butler argues on the very first page of Gender Trouble (1990): "For the most part, feminist theory has assumed that there is some existing identity, understood through the category of women, who not only initiates feminist interests and goals within discourse, but constitutes the subject for whom political representation is pursued." The idea of fairly "representing" all races, classes, and genders in the canon relies on a faith in the individual subject, one that has been duly shaken by the minions of Big Theory, of whom Butler is a notorious example. Without the individual subject to do and die, fighting for a canon that represents all constituencies seems like the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Another area of the canon wars still in need of examination concerns how the material production of texts themselves has contributed to who gets read and who does not. Scholars like Jerome McGann, Cary Nelson, Michael Davidson, and George Bornstein have made a good case for the ways in which the material packaging and distribution of poems, plays, novels, and the like greatly affects how they are read, by whom, and in what ways. Adding to this list is Joseph Csicsila, a professor of English at Eastern Michigan University. His book Canons by Consensus makes the case that literature anthologies have played a significant role in the construction of canons, and that criteria for selection of texts have been guided not by bias or prejudice but by prevailing trends in academic criticism. It is a welcome contribution to the debate on canonicity.

Csicsila asks two crucial questions about what anthologies can tell us about the canon. The first is empirical: what "actually appeared in college-level anthologies since their inception soon after World War I?" It is often suggested that women authors have been neglected due to the prevailing misogyny of anthologists. Does the record bear this out? As Csicsila argues, no. We find, rather, that "college-level anthologies of American literature regularly featured the word of female writers." It is only a failure to actually read the bulk of anthologies out there—and Csicsila has read about 80 for this study—that leads to these kinds of mistaken generalizations. In this sense, Csicsila's book does crucial legwork, gathering hard facts and numbers about how marginalized writers have been represented. His findings are often surprising: we learn that "racism" wasn't responsible, after all, for African-American writers being excluded from canon-building anthologies. Csicsila cites various other factors that contribute to neglect of Black authors in the canon of American literature, including simple ignorance of Black-authored texts. He also unearths five anthologies from earlier in the century that do present "certain African American writings," though they have been overlooked because they appear "in chapters devoted to the broader categories of folk songs and spirituals."

One might detect in these claims a reactionary agenda. After all, Csicsila rejects the logic of what he calls the current "multicultural" age to argue that women and Blacks were far more present than current literary historians care to admit. Politics aside, methodological questions immediately arise: is quantification of texts in anthologies really the best way to measure women's or African-Americans' role in the canon? For example, just because women writers appeared in anthologies in greater number than had been supposed, were they taught as much as male writers? Were they discussed in print as much as male writers? Were they valued in the same way as male writers? One might argue by Csicsila's logic that women poets were more "canonical" than men in the 19th century because they published the greater number of poems, which they did; 150 years ago the lyric was a women's genre. Yet in the gross economy of 19th-century literary culture, one poem by Bryant outweighs a brace by Fanny Kemble. Does sheer number really tell us anything?

Csicsila's second major question is more complex: what are the "factors that determined what did and did not appear in these textbooks?" This is, after all, the heart of the matter: what are the criteria for inclusion? His finding is that "prevailing trends in academic criticism" are far more influential in determining what gets included in anthologies—and thus canons—than "personal biases" of editors. To this end he traces a host of authors (including Irving, Poe, Melville, Whitman, Dickinson, Sidney Lanier, James, Twain, Harriet Jacobs, Charles Chesnutt, and Willa Cather) over the course of the century. He finds that writers who display "a range of versatility within a sizable body of work" have a tendency to become and then remain canonical because they accommodate a particular trend in literary criticism.

Mark Twain is a perfect example: today Twain is read almost exclusively for his "masterpiece" Huckleberry Finn. According to Csciscila, that's because in our "multicultural" age of scholarship, which values issues of race and identity, Huck Finn demands attention. Yet Csicsila points out that most anthologies until the 1940s were guided by ideas of "literary historiography," an approach that saw literature "as a portal to the American mind and spirit" rather than of inherent aesthetic value. Since these anthologies read literature more as history than belles-lettres, "from 1919 until the late 1940s, anthologies of American literature concentrated almost exclusively on the early phase of Mark Twain's writing career," focusing on texts like Roughing It (1872) and Life on the Mississippi (1883), works that serve primarily to document American culture. The rise of the more aesthetically driven New Critics after the War thrust a number of well-crafted short stories into readers' hands, stories that exemplified Twain's effectiveness as a literary craftsman. In this way, academic trends lead to the politics of anthologizing, which ultimately maintain a writer's place in the canon. Twain's wide variety of texts—some "literary," others "historical"—keep him circulating in the canon because he can accommodate a variety of trends. This argument goes some way toward accounting for the relative absence of a once major poet like Sidney Lanier, whose work does not have Twain's range and thus more easily fell out of critical fashion.

Sometimes Csicsila's arguments only beg the question of determining factors further. His reasoning can be, in short, tautological. In his chapter on African-American writers, for example, he argues that editors' "ignorance" of Black writers, rather than deliberate prejudicial exclusion, may have prevented them from appearing in anthologies. Yet what accounts for this ignorance? Later he says that there was a "scarcity of scholarly studies of African American writers earlier in the century [which] meant that these critically neglected authors would rarely have been considered for inclusion" in anthologies or canons. Again, what accounts for this scarcity? The problem with Csicsila's reasoning with respect to race and gender is that he imagines that misogyny and racism are personal, intelligible dislikes exercised consciously with intent and malice by peccable editors. This ignores the more probable explanation that "racism" is an invisible ideology that works systemically throughout a culture. How can one claim that editors were "ignorant" rather than "racist" without acknowledging the "racist" causes behind a cultural refusal to learn about Black-authored texts? "Until recently," he claims, "authors of slave narratives were also overlooked by academic literary scholars because of the problematic genre . . . in which they wrote." This is true, of course. But what forces stand behind a genre's dismissal by the unspoken rules of cultural aesthetics? Simple ignorance, or a vast system of coded values that masquerade as objective criteria for literary excellence?

Csicsila's book is valuable at this moment in canon studies because it calls into question the material history that contributes to canon formation. What we read, and force students to read, depends in large part on what gets disseminated and in what ways, and anthologies are arguably the most common and influential form of textual dissemination. Csicsila makes many helpful observations about ways in which material production of anthologies contributes to canon formation. For example, after the advent in the 1950s of that translucently thin paper now used in anthologies, not only did anthologies swell in size, so did the canon itself. Yet complete understanding of the consequences of anthologizing literature will require an approach that takes into account not simply one thread woven into the web of causes for canon formation. We can't rest with the assertion that individual prejudices play less of a role than academic trends because the latter is an unsatisfactory answer to the former.

It seems, after all, that the war is still on.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005

DIGITAL STORYTELLING: Capturing Lives, Creating Community

Joe Lambert
Digital Diner Press ($25)

by Will Clemens

In 1994, Joe Lambert, Nina Mullen, and Dana Atchley founded the Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS) in Berkeley. CDS helps people use digital media to tell meaningful stories from their lives through workshops held monthly in Berkeley and annually in a few other cities; the group also provides a clearinghouse of resources on storytelling and new media.

Lambert's Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Community lacks a sole definition of digital storytelling, so some may finish the book still questioning the difference between a digital story and a documentary film. Not until Chapter 4 do we get this clue: "If the writing is no longer than the front and back of a 4 x 6 card (about 1 double-spaced typed page), it insures that the writing will lead to a two- to three-minute story when narrated. Just the right size." In Chapter 5, Lambert announces his preference for "the frank admission of responsibility that the first-person point of view provides." Information like this allows us to piece together a definition of a digital story as a two- to three-minute film that holds personal meaning for the storyteller, who, whether technophile or not, can easily use Photoshop, Premiere, and desktop video in a production context to create the story on his or her own. Compared to a documentary film, a digital story seems a smaller, shorter production and a more overtly provocative form.

Definitions aside, new digital storytellers and digital storytelling facilitators can benefit from lessons in Lambert's accounts from ten years' experience with the process. At least five chapters touch on how one might make a digital story (using storyboards, soundtracks, etc.) and use it for personal or professional needs. Chapter 10 has a useful section on how to tell an organization's story. Lambert pretty much withholds the details of making a digital story, perhaps in hopes people will enroll in CDS's workshops. On the other hand, he doesn't overwhelm readers with step-by-step instructions to the kind of technology often rendered obsolete in the time it takes to publish a book. At least another five chapters, which include excerpts from digital stories and interviews with experts in the field, discuss how digital storytelling has been taught and applied. Appendices provide web resources and a bibliography.

Lambert acknowledges the ironies of using the cutting-edge technology of digital media to encourage the ancient values of oral culture; still, as a self-proclaimed Berkeley liberal, he argues that digital storytelling is rooted in the notion of democratized culture that was the hallmark of the folk music and cultural activist tradition of the 1960s. "Where a mainstream culture provided glamorized and idealized lives of the movie star-perfect people living in dramatic and exotic situations," he writes, "the populist artist in the folk traditions sought not just to portray, but to empower." When he connects this phenomenon to how story is at the core of human activity, Digital Storytelling resonates with purpose.

He describes how "modern culture . . . has clear-cut away our use of story as cultural glue." "In traditional cultures," he writes, "the intermingling of personal stories, communal stories, myths, legends and folk tales not only entertained us, but created a powerful empathetic bond between ourselves and our communities." Lambert is drawn to the idea of "re-storification": "a painful but critical process to find ways to integrate story back into our lives." Invoking educational and artificial intelligence theorist Robert Schank, Lambert argues that the road to understanding human intelligence is built on story, that the process of developing complex levels of stories and applying them to specific situations offers a map of human cognitive development. "Stories," Lambert maintains, "are the large and small instruments of meaning, of explanation, that we store in our memories. We cannot live without them." Moreover, Lambert asserts that the idea of restorification was validated by the unapologetically reflective and sincere storytelling that occurred in America after 9/11.

Lambert holds that "the only real way to know about someone is through story." In this way, digital storytelling holds so much promise for disability and intergenerational connectivity, identity and diversity awareness, and reflective practice. In Chapter 10, Lambert addresses these and other applications of digital storytelling—as applied in activism, career development, curriculums, futures thinking/scenario planning, job preparation, journalism, professional reflection, team building, and technology training. Just think of the possibilities digital storytelling may hold for adult learners at community colleges and job training centers. Instead of writing a traditional essay about one's community, one builds a digital story. If the story never gets published on the web or elsewhere, at least the adult learner has gained a marketable skill for today's workplace: how to use digital media in a production context—just one way in which digital storytelling is an empowering narrative form. Despite its occasional awkwardness and frequent typos, this book serves as a first glimpse into a new wave, not just in form and narrative, but in a variety of fields interested in social well-being.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005


Click to buy from Amazon.comEd Sanders
Thunder's Mouth Press ($21.95)

by Brenda Coultas

The Wild Women of East Tenth taught me a valuable lesson that carried me all the way through the rest of the decade. I tended to be morose and always worried about things. Events, projects and decisions swirled around me in terrible turbulence. Nobody had any time to sleep. Everybody had five careers. What I learned from Sanders's fictional women was the Dickens Principle—it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, but it was our time, and we owned this moment with our youth, our energy, our good will, our edginess. So let's party.

Foremost, it was Sanders's time, most certainly—Tales of Beatnik Glory proves it. As the owner of the Peace Eye bookstore, publisher of the legendary Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts, and founding member of The Fugs, Ed Sanders was a central figure and originator on the beatnik-hippie scene. This new edition of his mammoth ode to the '60s, written over a 30-year span, contains two new volumes in addition to the earlier two volumes published in 1975 and 1990, and brings the "interlocking story-flow to the end of 1969."

It is both sweet, thrilling, and sad to be reading the completed work in my apartment in the East Village, Sanders's old stomping grounds, where four-room tenement apartments sell for $400,000 and up. Diners and cheap eats have been replaced by faux Belgium bars hawking steak frites that, if it were 1965 again,would set you back thirty bucks in rent. Idling bulldozers sit next to 19th-century buildings, waiting to bring down the old Bowery and replace it with glass-walled condos that start at three million. Who has replaced the artists, poets, and lower income residents of the East Village and Lower East Side? Whose times are these?

Tales of Beatnik Glory is a history lesson, activist primer, and an innovative hybrid of both prose and poetry and fiction and memoir. Set mostly in the Lower East Side of New York City, the stories are populated with real citizens (such as underground filmmaker Jonas Mekas, fellow Fug Tuli Kupferberg, and poet Allen Ginsberg) mingling with Sanders's composites of local characters. Part of the pleasure in reading the work is recognizing real places that still exist (like the Catholic Worker), and imagining ones that should have (like the Total Assault Cafe, the House of Nothingness Cafe, and the Luminous Animal Theater). In the beatnik universe and cosmos, everyone is a poet and artist, coffeehouses are packed, heaven is a used bookstore, and Auden a local hero. One character makes a living by displaying his unwashed "beat feet" for tourists in Washington Square Park. This is Goof City, a place that Sanders defines as "a city of freedom for all to relax, where poverty was banished and wealth truly shared."

Sander's epic belongs on bookshelves next to other classics of New York City life, such as Luc Sante's Low Life and Joseph Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel, though it is a singular achievement and a necessary one—no one else has captured the optimism and the glory of the '60s on the page the way Sanders has. Full of hyphenated words and utopian ideas, the prose is a delight to read, as in the sentence, "But now, as he heard the Words of Life as performed by the anarcho-SkyArt dharma-commie jazz church of the New York Streets and pads, he felt the purest Hieratic Vastness, felt plugged into the Ladder. Greed ceased as a possibility, and the eyeball on the pyramid's apex, back of the dollar bill, rolled out of the park, through the Holland Tunnel, all the way to Minneapolis where it made a blind person see again." The constantly thrilling hyphenated beat lingo—e.g. "bazooka-spews of hostility," "lust-spackled muscle," "just-before-groinflash oblivion," "living stash-of-grass-gobble"—reflects a belief in the power of language to challenge the power structure and to change realities.

The tales are set up in chronological order, and each chapter is self-contained. Sanders traces the evolution of his characters as they mature, and each volume takes on major events of the decade. The characters experiment with communal living, drugs, group gropes, and political action; on a personal level, each one deals with her/his own diminished ambitions and the end of the '60s dream. Threatening and underlying this utopia is the dark, paranoid heart of America featuring the F.B.I., an evil sheriff, and the Klan. These encounters force the hippies to confront social injustice and the war machine.

Sanders's autobiographical stand-in is Sam Thomas, who on the eve of the 1960 execution of Caryl Chessman is outraged into political engagement. Sam, later the publisher of Drugs, Social Change and Fucking, evolves into an accomplished filmmaker who refuses to recline into middle-age and middle-class comfort. When he could be basking in academic glory, he undertakes a ritual in honor of Samuel Beckett, an on-the-knees crawl up the coast of California. Later, he ends up evading fame in the homeless encampment at Tompkins Square Park during the early '90s, and even as he is arrested in a round up, he remains true to his values by documenting his own arrest, then making his only free phone call to FedEx for film pickup and shipment to his office.

Another pleasure are the female characters who fully enjoy sex and retain their own identities—feminists and artists like Claudia Pred, creator of the Luminous Animal Theater, who in her pursuit of perfection in avant-garde dance becomes obsessed with dancing on the moon; and Annie, who loves nothing more than to bring discipline to hippie men by teaching them to pitch in, peel vegetables, and make their beds. Later, she becomes a designer of swimsuits, a self-made woman. Representing the spirit of Emma Goldman is Rose Snyder, a.k.a. Farbrente Rose, a 70-year-old socialist and union activist who relates her involvement in the labor movement to the beatniks who now live in the apartment where she grew up.

There is sex o' plenty in these tales, of course, and it serves as a binder, creating cohesion among the group in this pre-AIDS time. At Hempune, a commune and freedom farm, the communards gather in the Kissing Tepee for a release: "There could be some measure of petting, but no actual intercourse, or, in general, exposure of genitals, although if you arrived nude, you could stay nude." To deal with the less unlightened souls that show up, they house them "in a refurbished pig barn out back which some dubbed the Mooch Hut. The idea was to keep them engulfed in one another so that they swirled in a ghastly interactive gnarl like mosquitoes above a cow pond."

In the final volume, as the '60s come to a close, the characters must say goodbye to each other and their dreams, and face "the victory of Grasping and Greed and War." Readers will close the book with some sadness at leaving behind the optimism and joy, the utopian possibilities of that decade. Tales of Beatnik Glory is a valuable record of an era when young people believed they could change the world and buy what they needed with their good looks. It was their time, and they made the best of it.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005


Click to buy from Amazon.comJeffrey Ethan Lee
Many Mountains Moving Press ($11.95)

by Marj Hahne

Invisible Sister, Jeffrey Ethan Lee's first full-length collection of poems, is a daring act of language that delivers with grace the self inescapably splintered by language. In the book's prologue, Lee names some of the things that betrayed him, such as "whiteness," "pretty blonde," "beautiful doll"—terms of race and gender that indelibly constructed and confined the self: "I could've been anyone / if only the cells of the self / would've let me out." This fragmented self ("all the hiding selves who seek") takes the reader through the book's core, a long poem broken into chapters from the life of Iris, the "invisible sister" of the title.

Iris, named for the eye's light regulator; for the rainbow and its goddess; for the plant of sword-shaped leaves and variously colored flowers. No wonder, then, that eyes, rainbow, sky, sun, light, shadow, and leaves are among the words and images that reverberate throughout Invisible Sister. Also echoing throughout are words of color, weather, phase, and extension: white, blue, rain, snow, ice, flame, roots, limbs, branches, lines. Fragments of lines unfold a story told in two voices (his and hers), the overlapping of which conveys this certainty: Iris' being heard is key to her visibility, to the whole self's seeing the multicolor truth.

The resounding of all the fragments of phrase, image, and music—like a soul's insistent presence—is striking, convincing us of the self's triumph not only despite, but perhaps because of, its fragmentation:

A higher wind carried
in recesses
straggler voices
of white
behind us


You lifted your face
the soul
the mask of self-
could hold the flesh
inflicted histories
made of
a shed chrysalis--

These are the last lines spoken in the two voices, harmonizing finally to speak as one, "to sense the whole horizon / through one gleaming leaf / unfolding for the returning sun." Invisible Sister affirms that "even if we walked across the if / that strands between us // and the if is us," we can find the courage to forgive our betrayers, to honor our multiple selves in all their uncertainty, to let their voices speak simultaneously—and in so doing we can emerge fully in communion with ourselves.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005


Buy this book from Amazon.comRavi Shankar
Cherry Grove Collections ($16)

by Neil Kozlowicz

In "Fabricating Astrology," the second poem in Ravi Shankar's Instrumentality, he writes that the firmament "seems plotted / Along three axes: love, labor, time." And so it is here. Shankar's poems often begin by stopping time, by pausing in the face of life; from that stillness, labors and loves find meaning through voice and rhythm. As stated in the poem's conclusion, "Really they move / Towards annulment in a proof I cannot / Prove. Soon enough, pattern dissolves. / Let me replace them with these words." This early poem is in many ways an ars poetica. From the first poem's quiet moment of contemplation, where we hear "Breaths go in and out of many lungs," to Ella Fitzgerald singing Misty Blue in the closing poem, Shankar transforms what he cannot understand into a music that we all can feel.

Instrumentality refers to "an artifact (or system of artifacts) that is instrumental in accomplishing some end." In the title poem it is handschumachers, or glove-makers, and then all forms of physical trades which define our new humanness, which first arrived "when the first basalt flakes were chipped from boulders // To make hand-axes that could dismember most carcasses the hominid / We once were might have hunted down." This poem delights not only because of its language but by its reach, stretching back into the moments where work and words grew side-by-side, to the struggles that gave birth to literate, technological humanity. And so, by analogy, poetry is also a trade, maybe the first trade, that one can lose oneself in and concentrate on the artifacts to transcend the ego. To make something else.

For Shankar, that something else becomes a process of reduction. In "Contraction," he writes, "Honest self-scrutiny too easily mutinies, / mutates into false memories. . . . I tried to live / Twenty lives at once. Now one is plenty." The loss he talks about here is love of another, but is only resolved and understood by working on the self, by building one thing at a time so self-esteem is no longer raised on "wobbly beams." But this is not poetry as self-help—or if it is, it is because something new has been forged, because the self, perhaps, cannot be helped or saved, only set aside.

There are occasional bumps in this first collection—when a poem uses a different form, for example, or the language flattens while covering a narrative bridge. However, a true and dynamic craftsman is at work here, and even the rough material contains a richness and texture that would be missed. This bodes well for Shankar's future work.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005


Buy this book from Amazon.comGerald Stern
W.W. Norton & Company ($23.95)

by Maureen Picard Robins

Disquieting, rattling, and turbulent verse fills the pages of Gerald Stern's latest book. Everything is Burning romps through the usual Sternian suspects: lovers (current and former), sex, wished-for-sex, sexual prowess, imagined sexual prowess, bad sex; paradise, pear and apple trees, birds, gardens; friends (dead and alive), music, a lost cultural world, politics, Judaism, survivor guilt, and his dead sister, Sylvia.

Stern's poetic persona, however, has evolved from that of rural groggy affection with big wet kisses, as seen in The Red Coal's "Cow Worship" ("I love the cows best when they are a few feet away,") to one which more pointedly celebrates the complexities and poignancy of human love, as in this volume's "Tenderness" ("The whole idea of tenderness, she says, / should be tried out on the redbud first, she says"). Stern, in these 65 poems, wends his way into rant, outburst, and defiance in the hope of needling some sort of epiphany.

The prosaic character of Stern's language and line has never been more freewheeling—so much so that one might imagine that these poems were dictated into a tape recorder and simply scribed: "I meant the personal and the social, / or call it the historical if you like, / I mean I meant there was a personal paradise / and there was a larger one . . ." ("E.P. III"). The poems ramble, stuff lines with unexplained personal references, become splotches of words that make worlds emerge whole; the reader leaves the poem with a sense of having experienced an enormous emotional range and a disorienting feel of time travel.

Emblematic of this is the poem "Never Went to Birdland." In his vestigial Yiddish-inflected American English, Stern simulates that act of remembering and the inner dialogue that often accompanies it: "Never went to Birdland, so what, went to the Y, / danced all night for a quarter, girls sat down / on bridge chairs, can't remember if they were smoking . . ." Then he remembers a particular girl and says, "I'll call her Doris—that was her name— / her grandfather was a rabbi from Bialystok . . ." The poem closes with a clear and unflinching portrait of this man, who worked to build the railroad in the Urals: "He was only / five feet tall, his hands you can't imagine / nor what the sofa was like and what our struggle was." There's the time travel in poetry that Stern pulls off.

Stern is one crafty, seasoned verse-maker, and his use of everyday speech is so disarming as to be nearly deceptive. Despite the appearance of a weak inner grammarian, he plunders meaning and achieve a rattling affect with the use of enjambment and commas to keep his beats—and his reader—off-kilter.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005


Buy this book from Amazon.comCole Swensen
Alice James Books ($13.95)

by Erik Anderson

The structure of Cole Swensen's latest, Goest, functions much like a single page: the book's three sections—entitled, "Of White," "A History of the Incandescent," and "On White"—mirror the format of "margins" surrounding "substance." Only there is nothing marginal about Goest. The book explodes the assumption of the "empty" portion of the page while equally exploring the nature of the "filled" portion of it. What emerges is an absence that is really present around a poem, almost haunting it as its lines jut out into space, inventing a language as it goes:

so that with a single downward glance you can be
the infinitesimal:
if in pieces
we are accurate
here the we accrues.

The book's central section, "A History of the Incandescent"—which, as its title suggests, brims with references to vehicles for, and materials producing, light—is its most substantial. It is also, unlike the other sections of the book, organized around factual, or seemingly factual, material (Swensen tells us it is based on John Beckmann's 19th century A History of Inventions, Discoveries, and Origins). But while the poems contain facts ("In the early 18th century, London hung some 15,000 lamps"), they are not, as has been suggested, arrangements of found materials. As Swensen relates in a recent interview, she does not "take other texts and collage or mix them"; rather, her method is to read and to write "in response to words that stand out on the page." Any facts the poems contain are diving boards for pools of rhyme and pun, distortion and song:

For the fabrication of artificial tears, John Christian Schulenburg, 1695,
sent a bitter silicate
to brittle it              to thin air
And dropped from there to fusing water
the entire
seventeenth century tier after tier

The book as a whole rotates around the details of light and invention in "A History of the Incandescent," but Swensen isn't making heroes out of the inventors or their inventions—she's celebrating inventiveness itself. Truth, i.e. the "facts" the book contains, are less important than the spirit in which they are conveyed. That which is presented as true is often distorted by the end. In "The Lives of Saltpeter," as in much of the book, there are two seas running parallel: in one, there exists the "true" story of the invention of glass by sailors; in the other, there exists the inventive story of the invention of glass:

Glass made its first appearance
on the shores outside Belus
when sailors placed blocks of saltpeter under cooking pots
causing the sand to fuse along the entire edge of the sea
ran another sea that refused to move

has been proved false. It simply wouldn't have worked.

The title of the poem presents itself as a similar sort of double: how easy it would be to read "The Lives of Saltpeter" as the "The Life of Saint Peter" (as easy as reading "Ghost" for "Goest"). And why not be reverent? The poem is at play.

The margins, the sections "Of White" and "On White," in keeping with their nature as margins, are parallels of each other: both contain serial poems entitled "Five Landscapes," and poems in response to a Cy Twombly exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. (a portion of which is available online at http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2001/twombly/twombly1.shtm). These sections are airier, not as concerned with the world as fact. Like Twombly's sculptures, they are "about" their interaction with, and invention of, the space around them. At the same time, the poems invoke a sense that what is being presented is subject to change:

Niepce's first photograph,
which was the first photograph,
was of a scene of roofs so blurred they were often mistaken for sails.

One clause follows another, distorting or appending the one before it; language becomes like a haze over the very words in employs: "in pieces or entire; its presence / veneers over want; in all its moving parts, it could be something else."

But "Of White" and "On White" are different sections. For instance, in the first "Five Landscapes" series there is little movement, as the poet watches through a third-person haze: "the air across the valley is slightly hazy though thinning though patches remain...A child...is turning to walk down to the lake." In the second series, however, an "I" is moving through landscapes on a train on a vibrant summer day:

There's a wedding in a field I am passing in a train
a field
in the green air, in the white air, an emptier here
the field is everywhere
because it looks like something similar somewhere else.

What was objectivity and inertia in the first series has transformed to color and movement and expression in the second—perhaps as the mind is transformed after crossing the poem's line from the left hand margin to the right.

Although the first and the last section of the book, as opposed to the central section, are obsessed with fields, presences, spaces, hazes, they are so while retaining a sense of playfulness and music: "and of all he touched it is said / the Red Sea is white, and the Dead Sea, dead. Is a thread / seen end on." The margins aren't empty: they form the space in which the inventiveness of the central section is sung into place ("it's called solidifying—to solmizate in the infinitive; transitive: to sing / any object into place").

There's no shortage of material here; and no matter how minimalist some of the poems may be, they are carried by their rigor, wit, and song. Like most of Swensen's work, and most good work in general, Goest may require a few readings, but the reader will find no shortage of pleasure and reward in them, given a little time:

defined as that which,
no matter how barely, exceeds
what the eye could grasp in a glance:
intricate woods opening out before a body of water edged
with a swatch of meadow where someone has hung a bright white sheet
out in the sun to dry.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005


Buy this book from Amazon.comJohn Green
Dutton Books ($15.99)

by Cindra Halm

James Kirkwood's Good Times, Bad Times, first published in 1968 and now tragically out of print, set the bar high for the "I went to boarding school and had a life-altering adventure" novel. John Green's Looking for Alaska meets the challenge: it modernizes the fish-bowl context of the teenage drama, foregrounds the essential confusions of peer influence, and asserts the voices of smart, flawed characters to build a compelling narrative.

Miles Halter, an observational, philosophical, and bored 16-year-old, asks to transfer to his father's alma mater boarding school to experience, in Rabelais' dying words, "a Great Perhaps." When he meets Alaska, a troubled, fetching, feminist rebel, the concept becomes engaged in reality. Miles, for better and worse, immerses himself in hive-mind schemes of personal and group upheaval. Though the action centers on how individuals interact with and resist the dynamic of the collective, the psychological conflict here is primarily internal, as each character struggles to find his/her own integrity within the bonds of relationship.

That a pivotal event occurs is built into the structure's "before" and "after" sections. The reader may feel the tension of time ticking both toward and away from disaster; the strategy contributes a sense of continuum to the teen world's impulsive, invincible perspective. Add to that pranks which veer into danger, booze-and-cigarette induced choices, and first forays into romance and sex, and a passionate portrait of present moments as well as anticipated fantasies develops. Green is especially adept at pulling back from the flashing action of the instant to reveal the characters' reflective insights and their vulnerable, full-spectrum emerging consciousnesses.

Like many similarly-themed stories, Looking for Alaska may vacillate between the adult and the young adult bookstore shelves. Although anyone 16 and older will likely enjoy the book, it may especially touch the adult who has more diverse, complex memories of both personal and literary experiences with which to welcome it.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005