Author Archives: Manuel

Movie Night: Chang-dong Lee’s Poetry

Tucson isn’t the easiest places to see first-run art films, but I’m surprised by how often they actually arrive. I consider myself lucky to have been able to see two prime big-screen movies this year, Tree of Life and Melancholia, as they were meant to be seen, and while each of them held small disappointments, I found them absorbing enough to (sort of) wish for the days when I could attend films like that at a Sunday matinee at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in Manhattan, a nine-block walk from my old apartment, with a little stroll in Central Park to think about whatever it was I had seen.

I’m not that contemplative in Tucson and am not always eager to see something on the big screen in the same way. Walking back out to a parking lot just doesn’t have the same appeal. I’ve been better about movie-going this year, though, and maybe my habits will change now that I’m kicking myself over having missed Poetry.

I’m a sucker for films with prominent female leads, and after the Los Angeles Film Critics voted Yun Jung-hee as Best Actress, the film shot to the top of my Netflix queue. Offhand, I may have been dissuaded from seeing it when print reviews reduced the film to a sober drama about an older woman dealing with the onset of Alzheimer’s by taking a poetry class. The story is more complex and riveting than that. The film opens with the discovery of a dead girl floating in a river, and the revelations of how and why she got there are a surprising entry point to the otherwise small drama of Mija, the older woman who gets by a tiny government subsidy and some part-time work taking care of a disabled man.

It was difficult not to think about what some writers might have made of the film’s embrace of poetry and observation as a vehicle for self-discovery. “Writing isn’t therapy,” I remember hearing as an undergraduate, but the privilege of putting words to paper is, in this film, brought back to its humanistic root. It’s treated here as a human urge, mostly ignored, that could provide great solace for its practitioners. Sometimes, for writers at a particular level (especially those of us who teach), it’s easy to forget that the act of writing is, for many, the first experience with truly reckoning the self within the world. Writers might recognize the itch for pastoral as soon as the flowers and trees appear, but for Mija, the exhortation to look and involve herself in making meaning turns her into a sharp observer. While there were many shots of Mija looking up into the shifting leaves of a tree or the petals of a flower before she scribbles away, there were also many camera setups which showed her as a newly keen observer of human nature, perhaps even awed by the difficulty of describing what has always been before her.

Indeed, for many of her classmates in the poetry class—the very act of searching for a subject goes hand in hand with self-determination, if not self-worth. At times, the film cuts to various students defining moments of beauty in their own lives: some struggle, but most come up with something, the building blocks for the single poem each is asked to write by the end of the class. Mija’s own life, though, is filled with far larger complications than her silence can potentially hold; for all its quiet pacing, Yun Jung-hee’s performance is tender-hearted on the surface, but her questions about how and why poetry comes to be voiced become the basis for her startling meditation on how poetry can best serve not her voice, but someone else’s. It’s really quite lovely—and startling—to see her progress toward her final act, all the while with some frustration about how others around her fail to see the world with any complication.

The composition of a key confrontation at the kitchen table brought me back to Tree of Life and Melancholia: I may have been dazzled by the cosmos and an encroaching planet, but the small drama at the head of a meager kitchen table may have rewarded me just as richly if I had given it a chance on the big screen.

Posted in Recent News Tagged

What I Read When I Was Home: Dagoberto Gilb’s Before the End, After the Beginning

In late fall, I had dinner with a Tucson writer friend, Matt Mendez, and his wife, and we talked about the wait for Dagoberto Gilb’s new collection, Before the End, After the Beginning. The book pubbed in November—high-time for the literary world’s big-shot writers—but the end of the semester was getting in the way of my reading time. I was eager to start the book and told Matt that one of the joys of finding it in an actual bookstore rather than ordering it online was the sense of encountering the book as it took its place with its peers. I remember when Gilb’s Woodcuts of Women came out in 2000, with Denise Chávez’s Loving Pedro Infante not long after. I was living in Boston at the time and, in both cases, anxiously poked in various bookstores around pub date to see if the books had been shelved. When they finally appeared, I loved how they looked stacked against the rest of the new fiction. I bought the ones I thought hadn’t yet been cracked open by anyone and, each time, went off to a nearby coffee shop to sit and read them. (I still have my Chávez hardcover, but the Gilb was, sadly, borrowed and never returned, even when I asked for it back).

This go-around I read Gilb’s newest book in my hometown of Dinuba, mostly at night after my parents had their fill of telenovelas. Half the pleasure of reading it in Dinuba was the reinforcement of Gilb’s locales (in his case, Texas and the Southwest) and their proximity to the lives and apprehensions I know so well. As much as I hate it when readers talk about “relating” to fiction (since the majority of American fiction gives me absolutely nothing to “relate to” on these easy terms), I felt a luxury of shorthand in just about all of the stories. “I never saw El Paso as poor,” says the narrator of “Blessing,” “and maybe that wasn’t the word, but you’d have to think something like it driving in this Albuquerque neighborhood, even if I didn’t like tract housing and really hated these adobe stuccos.” If tract housing signals “cheap” to middle America, it means something else entirely in places like the ones where Gilb’s characters live (and to a reader like me in Dinuba): it’s a silent signal of credit, access, and security. Home is truly a refuge.

It might be a bit of a stretch to argue that houses are working metaphorically in the collection, but very often Gilb’s protagonists find themselves unwittingly tangled in the lives of neighbors or inside the homes (and the privacy) of people not immediately close to them. Much of the drama spinning around Gilb’s characters comes from the dilemma of how to work back into a space that is one’s own, something to control fully. “I needed the favor because I wasn’t doing well and I’d run out of places to stay and mostly money,” says Billy, as he opens the story “Willows Village,” and right away I was treated to the clean introduction of conflict that every good story demands, if not an odd sentence construction that asked me to pay attention to how Billy would tell his side of things. The father in the brief “His Birthday” does his best to block out the din of the city to create a quiet, intimate celebration for his son on his special day. “Cheap” presents a protagonist who witnesses the overbearing manner of the boss of the two men hired to paint his rooms, and their exchanges become the genesis for a telling final act. Even the compact (and brilliant) “Why Kiki Was Late for Lunch” is built on intrusion: the narrator offers a ride to a complete stranger, only to find himself quickly immersed in the woman’s everyday drama.

For readers already familiar with Gilb, his trademark irony and his continued explorations of a very particular kind of Chicano masculinity are in great supply. Stylistically, the collection doesn’t offer the same verve of his woefully neglected 2008 novel The Flowers, but that’s hardly a complaint. The Flowers rolled the dice on a complex first-person voice for Sonny, a teenager maneuvering his way through a fiasco of violence and sex—the tones were mercurial, sometimes funny, sometimes shaky with Sonny’s lust, or even completely undone by Sonny’s rage. (It’s a novel I’m still waiting for people to read, if only to have a serious talk about its ending. A young undergraduate asked to read the novel with me as part of an independent study, and our discussion was long and fascinating: if you’re teaching, consider picking it up soon. Incidentally, the opening involves Sonny breaking into a house—not to steal, but to observe how other people live, the converse desire to so many of the characters in the new collection.)

But for those who have never encountered Gilb’s work, the entry point may be via a bit of his personal history. The odd typography of the first story, “please thank you,” alerts us to the physical limitations of Mr. Sanchez, recovering from a stroke, as he types out his experience. But while the easy thing might be to bridge immediately to Gilb’s own recent trauma, it may be wiser to listen to the character Gilb has breathed on the page. The draining experience of physical rehab is given no short shrift here, nor are the people who come in and out of Mr. Sanchez’s life as he puts it back together. Take Erlinda, who tells Mr. Sanchez an exasperating anecdote about shopping, then turns to him for a validation he can’t possibly offer. Mr. Sanchez wants out, to be over and done with the experience, yet his discovery is that he is trapped within a knowledge that he’s seemingly always had, maybe even from before the time he needed assistance: “i was someone who didnt matter, who didnt count much,” he tells us in the beginning. “in the large, i know its true. i am a name, just another, one they think is foreign even, when there are so many hurting. but then, so what? i accept it always, in my life, but now too?” Later, when Erlinda seems slighted by his lack of answer, the truth he tells may really be about himself. “you just…move forward. why dwell on that ugliness? youre fine now.”

What makes the line so moving is how accurately it matches the elegiac energy of the final story, “Hacia Teotitlán.” There’s a borrowed room there too, a space where the aging Ramiro returns to Mexico to reminisce and gather himself. If so many of the men in Gilb’s stories have often found themselves in exasperating situations of their own making, these two stories read as antidotes to that inability (or unwillingness) to avoid trouble. This time around, the men are weathered and bruised, and circumstances are demanding that they slow down. Whether it’s possible is another matter—the restlessness of masculinity is the theme of this great, tight collection, and it’s reflected in the urge to keep moving forward, as Mr. Sanchez told Erlinda. “Where will you go?” someone asks Ramiro and the pain comes from knowing the question is nearly rhetorical.

Posted in Recent News Tagged

A January Roundup (So You Don’t Have to Go Click-Click in All Sorts of Places)

Manuel Munoz, Portland, OR Oct 2011

Here’s a quick rundown of some interviews, articles, reviews, and other media for What You See in the Dark, all in a handy-dandy list:

VERY CHOICE BITS

An alumni profile in Harvard Magazine (for all the dirt on how Manuel came from dirt).

A radio interview with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s Bookworm (if you want to hear Manuel quiver in front of a genius).

A review by the film critic Charles Taylor at the IFC film blog (if you’d like a beautifully argued observation of the novel’s chief aims).

A review by the film critic Miguel Rodriguez at KPBS’s Cinema Junkie (if you’d like a consideration of why Psycho is used as the novel’s cultural touchstone).

An invited blog post at the Library of America (if you’d like to see the debt Manuel owes to the great mind of Gwendolyn Brooks).

Manuel’s Juror Favorite selection from the 2011 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories (if you’d like proof that Manuel’s literary taste includes something other than his own, and also if you’d like to say you appreciated Matthew Neill Null before everyone else did).

Some pictures of Manuel’s work space (in case you’re curious like that).

SOME INTERVIEWS

An interview conducted by fellow writer Jenny Shank over at New West (if you want the scoop on why the hell Manuel did the second person thing).

An interview at TimeOut Chicago (if you want a precise rundown in a glossy, classy mag).

An interview with the lovely Creosote Journal (if you want some more about how Manuel ran across the Petula Clark/Harry Belafonte moment).

An interview with the very popular film blog, The Film Experience (if you want to hear Manuel go on about Robert Altman and the glory of Nashville again).

An interview with Houston’s OutSmart Magazine (if you’d like to get a read on Manuel’s sometimes testy relationship with queer literature).

A video interview with Park City TV in Utah (if you want to judge how jazz-handy Manuel is on camera, or to admire his scuffed boots).

An interview at La Bloga (if you’d like a take on small-town transgressors and a little cachetada at Obama’s tip-toeing).

SOME PRINT AND MEDIA REVIEWS

They loved it at NPR.

They loved it at Publishers Weekly.

They loved it at O Magazine.

They loved it in Cleveland.

They loved it in Philly.

They loved it in Austin.

They loved it in Chattanooga and in Edmonton, Canada (no, really–there are just no links anymore!)

SOME BLOG POSTS

A playlist of film scores is posted over at Largehearted Boy.

A pairing with Chuck Palahniuk at Beverly in Movieland.

A review by Laura Marris at CultureMob.

A review by Lisa Peet over at Open Letters Monthly.

A review (for realzies!) from the very well-read Backlisted.

A review over at Three Guys, One Book.

Posted in Recent News

Pauline Kael Was Gangsta!

From this week’s New Yorker article on Pauline Kael: “In 1970…Kael conned a UCLA assistant professor, Howard Suber, out of publishing an essay on Citizen Kane: she promised a collaboration, vanished with Suber’s proprietary research, and ultimately used it for an extended piece of her own, ‘Raising Kane’ (1971). It’s seen today as one of the defining works of her career.”

She will knock you down...

Kael is great fun to read. She was wrong about a lot of films, but she often wrote about them in a way that was at least half-convincing, if only for the bon mots circling those convictions. Never a fan of Streep, her take on her in The Deer Hunter at least doesn’t confuse the character with the actor: “It’s a testament to Meryl Streep’s heroic resources as a mime that she makes herself felt–she has practically no lines.” And she’s fair in puzzling over why Diana Ross never became a bigger movie star: in reviewing Mahogany, she laments the film’s use of old showbiz tropes and outdated melodrama, and flat-out says that Ross “deserves better than white hand-me-downs.” Her essay, “Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, the Numbers” from 1980 seems sadly parallel to the demise of the book business. (I try not to read it too often.)

I have a battered copy of her For Keeps: Thirty Years at the Movies, which I bought from the remainder shelf of Borealis Books in Ithaca years ago, so I may not go in for any of the books that are about to come out in this fall’s Kael revival. But I do have high hopes that we’ll get film critics with renewed interest in her as more than just a figure in their background (some reviewers would do really well to just read her).

If it trickles over into book reviewing, all the better, since so much of it is flat and uninformed. Maybe if you come to a reading some day, dear reader, I can tell you about a particularly lazy one–the rehash of the publicity material that was sent out with the galleys and re-edited as an “interview,” just by adding “said”! And she got paid for it! It’s a great story…

Posted in Recent News

Why the National Book Awards Are Still Relevant (Part Two)

Did any of you read it?

It isn’t the first time that the National Book Awards have been compared to the Oscars, and while that comparison is simply for the sake of dreaming about how books could reach a wider audience, it misses the fact that books take longer to consume, longer to circulate, and longer to assess. The wonderful thing about following smart film blogs like Nick’s Flick Picks or The Film Experience (or the sorely missed *StinkyLulu) is the currency of both the posts and the people reading them. The strong debate about a divisive film is usually had by people who have seen the films. Books rarely have that kind of undivided attention, and even when they do (like last year’s big stink about Franzen), it’s still a conversation largely involving the participation of people who have yet to pick up the title. Who wants to follow that?

So we’re back to reviewers, and we’re back to our dependence on them to do more than react to publishers’ main titles. Over at NPR, Rachel Syme at least asks about book reviewers’ responsibility about “dropping the ball” (though the question ends up being rhetorical more than anything else). One look at the page and you’ll see the book being advertised is Obreht’s. What a surprise. Why not feature Krivak? Or Otsuka? (Why not read Krivak? Or Otsuka? And preferably without a knife out?) When Syme brings up the example of Jaimy Gordon’s reissue of Bogeywoman by Vintage, she describes it as a “fizzle,” insinuating that the NBA’s choice of the McPherson title Lord of Misrule last year was primarily a boost to the little guy. The question (and the ire) here should be on Vintage: did they advertise? Or on reviewers: did anyone pick up Bogeywoman and reassess it in light of Gordon’s new novel? My guess is no, on both counts—that “fizzle,” that failure to catch fire, should reflect on neither Gordon nor the awards, and more on the people who can stoke the flames.

Ultimately, these complaints about the relevance of the Awards have more to do with the shortlist failing to validate the admittedly hard work of the reviewers. I’ve seen the interior of a reviewer’s den: the stacks of publicity envelopes, the galleys, the author info packets. It’s a miracle for a reviewer to cover 30-40 a year if he or she is lucky. I get it, okay? A prize list ends up making that work look futile. But let there be no confusion that a reviewers’ choices about what to cover have little to do with quality or what we should rewarding with culturally significant prizes.

I’ll trust a judge like Yiyun Li or Victor LaValle over a reviewer any day. I’m teaching Yiyun Li’s A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and the day my undergraduates came back after having read her story “Immortality,” I knew something had clicked. Something changed in their perception about what a story could do, what it could offer, and even what they might expect from other stories from here on out. Prize lists function in the same way to a lot of readers—we’re ready to try something new. I’m excited to read Jesmyn Ward and Andrew Krivak and I’m thankful the NBA slate made me aware of them. As for reviewers, yes—you missed these. Look harder next time.

*Film fans should click through on StinkyLulu’s Supporting Actress Sundays, which was once a monthly feature asking readers to revisit and reassess Oscar performances in this particular category. Film nerds like me will find it deeply fun and engaging. It almost inspired me, at one point, to do it with past NBA slates. While the 2001 slate was considered a cakewalk for Franzen at the time, I know a lot of readers who ignored the book pundits for a while and took up some of the other four books on that slate. Dan Chaon, for example. Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me. Those nominations brought them needed readers, and it most assuredly got reviewers, on the next go-arounds with new books, to open the galley package and just give them a goddamn try.

Posted in Recent News

Why the National Book Awards Are Still Relevant

You go along with this?

The sad thing about Laura Miller’s slapdash effort to take down this year’s slate of National Book Award finalists is that it sounds like the same argument made last year, the year before, and the year before that. Miller calls the “head-scratching” about the fiction slate a “frustrating impasse between the press and the public,” but fails to take responsibility for how she and other book reviewers—not the prize juries—are largely responsible for that impasse.

However Miller might want to define “public,” a little more honesty about the nature of that public would be in order. It matters very little to me, as both a writer and a serious reader, what the American public might be buying in droves. (I worked in publishing and I know the answer to that question—you really don’t want to know.) If Miller wants awards to function as tools for readers to “sort out the most important books of the year,” they’ve got plenty of other ways to do that, from ubiquitous best-of-the-year lists from loads of sources, to the latest movie trade paperback tie-in (the ones with your favorite book cover suddenly replaced with a garish movie poster and stacked all over Walmart). That alone should suffice for the four or five books that Miller guesses the average American reader takes on over the course of a year. And if that’s not enough, Miller is welcome to revive the now-defunct Quill Awards if she’d like a People’s Choice Award equivalent to selecting our country’s finest.

But for the rest of us who truly take reading seriously, a National Book Award finalist slate is something we approach with two key elements most book reviewers are missing: curiosity and generosity. My impulse is not to sniff at a writer like Jesmyn Ward, but to read more about her and what her book might offer me. Readers like us end up glad to learn of “obscure” writers like Bonnie Jo Campbell or Joan Silber or Kate Walbert. Edward P. Jones was alerted to many not with The Known World in 2003, but way back in 1992, when his fantastic (and classic) short-story collection, Lost in the City, was a finalist for—you guessed it—the National Book Award.

For Miller to carp about the slate ignoring writers like Ann Patchett or Amy Waldman is disingenuous. As a reviewer, she’s privy to the big-house publicity for these books, and she responds in kind by reviewing a handful of them. She chooses, and in doing so, is a judge of sorts. Talk about irrelevant: it’s no wonder so many book reviewing venues have gone under. When reviewers like Miller grant the same paltry number of titles all the attention, you’re damn right that we, as serious readers, start to depend on prizes to do the work that reviewers should help us do. I doubt very much that Miller even cracked open the package that contained Andrew Krivak’s small-press offering The Sojourn. Why would anyone trust her dismissal of a book she chose to ignore? Remember when Tinkers won the Pulitzer? The “holy goddamn” New York Times (to borrow Robert Duvall’s lovely phrasing from Network) issued the weakest apology about how they “missed” it. Lots of readers (and booksellers) are grateful that the Pulitzer prize jury did not.

Prizes like the NBAs have never been designed, first or foremost, as sales tools. They are efforts to build and sustain our national literary culture. Granted, time ends up being the harshest judge of all, and books move up or down as readers consider them in their own eras and spaces. But the efforts of organizations like the National Book Foundation, the PEN/Faulkner, the Pulitzer board, etc., are much too important to dismiss, much less by people who have failed to read the books they are prepared to rail against. With the demise of so many outlets for book coverage, we truly have become a nation of book reviewers in the worst sense: the re-packagers of the publishing industry’s major “pushes,” with little filtering. We used to have book critics, people who assisted the whole of American literature by alerting the public to good books. And they did so with the spirit of generosity and curiosity, nothing more. We could really use a little more of that.

Posted in Recent News Tagged

The Pleasure of Prizes: Edith Pearlman and the National Book Awards

Binocular Vision

I love when the major American literature prizes get announced: I gripe very little about omissions or snubs. With only five slots (three for the Pulitzers), no list will please anyone. Instead, I take the prize list as a personal invitation to take up a writer with whom I might not be familiar. I wish newspaper reviewers and columnists would approach the lists the same way, rather than wonder about this or that book that they bothered to take note of only because a major house was really pushing it.

In poetry, the prize lists always serve me well: since I’m not of that world, I need a guide of some kind. The National Book Awards brought me to Alan Dugan, for example, when he was a finalist (and eventual winner) in 2001 for Poems Seven. They brought me to Ben Lerner’s beguiling Angle of Yaw and Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler and Linda Gregerson’s Magnetic North. My poet friends usually have plenty more to tell me about what I don’t know, but I hang on to the pleasure of discovery. It isn’t very much different from my bookshop days in the 1990’s, when I’d scour the Lambda Literary nominations (back when they sort of meant something), then went looking for those titles at Wordsworth. It helped me build a reading list.

In fiction, the pleasure is even deeper, maybe because I take so much heart and inspiration when the major prizes lift someone out of the fog. This morning, I literally jumped out of my chair when I read that Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories was nominated. I’m thrilled because she’s a short-story writer—a very dedicated one—who has been published widely and yet modestly. It’s Lookout Books, a small press out of North Carolina, that published her title this year, and they get to join Bellevue Literary Press and McPherson as presses (those two that brought out Tinkers and Lord of Misrule) that clearly privileged merit over market value and, in doing so, have been richly rewarded in other ways.

Pearlman has been published by Eastern Washington University Press, Sarabande Books, and University of Pittsburgh Press via the Drue Heinz Literature Prize in 1996 (which is how I discovered her, reading the titles that had won the prize, back when it seemed like the Drue Heinz was the only short-story prize contest around). These are smaller presses with modest distributions, but more important is how they collectively contributed to what big publishing houses always claim to do, but seldom accomplish: nurture and support the growth of a writer.

I’m thrilled to see someone like Edith Pearlman receive recognition like this. It reminds me very much of when Gina Berriault’s Women in Their Beds came out from Counterpoint and ended up winning both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Faulkner. I was about twenty-five years old at the time, but I remember sensing even then that some writers are asked to wait in the wings for a long time before being invited out to the national stage. I’ve been irked, too, as I posted this morning on Facebook, that this phenomenon happens most frequently to women writers. But no matter. Pearlman’s nomination means so many good things: more readers for her, some more attention to yet one more small press fighting the good fight, and perhaps even some new converts to the great pleasures and mysteries of the short story.

Posted in Recent News

What I’m Reading in the Morning: David Trinidad’s Dear Prudence: New and Selected Poems

David Trinidad, with morning coffee

When I worked in publishing, I was always puzzled about “the fall season,” as if anything the book world could unleash was on par with Hollywood’s “Oscar season,” which starts right after Labor Day. In publishing, the fall books are geared to release and ship just in time for holiday shopping: hence, the glut of big books by big names releasing by mid-November, all of them vying for the same review space, but only a handful getting any sort of consistent traction. It always made little sense to me, especially with big open spaces in other parts of the year, like early summer or January. Take Jayne Anne Phillips’s Lark and Termite, which Knopf wisely released right at the beginning of 2009. Apart from being a good book, it competed with very little in the bright white of January’s nothingness (at least in the review sections), and that tactic helped sustain attention for the novel all the way through October and the National Book Award nominations.

This year, the fall season in the book world has brought two titles I really have been anticipating. Book glut be damned, I’ve got my eye on Dagoberto Gilb’s new short-story collection Before the End, After the Beginning, which pubs on November 1st from Grove. The other is already out: David Trinidad’s wonderful Dear Prudence: New and Selected Poems, from Turtle Point.

Trinidad’s volume is the latter of his stunning one-two punch this year. In addition to this volume, he edited A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos for Nightboat Books, a definitive edition for any young poet, but also one imbued with a moving, elegiac, and ultimately instructive quality. Trinidad’s introduction to that volume speaks to his dedication in preserving Dlugos’s work and legacy—the poet died of AIDS at forty—and the extraordinary patience with which Trinidad arranged and ordered Dlugos’s output, awaiting the right publisher. It translates into an act of literary rescue, one poet devoting energy and mind to another who can longer speak for himself—an act, really, of community in the truest and deepest sense.

I said the Dlugos volume was “instructive,” but Dear Prudence has the same feel. To carry each volume is a nod to persistence, to the value of a writer producing poems that, consciously or not, speak to each other across years, across forms, and across subjects—there’s literal weight to this work. The selected poems come from a variety of small presses that published Trinidad’s earlier books before he began being published by Turtle Point in 2000, and I had a hard time not skimming through to revisit poems I knew from Plasticville or The Late Show (books I remember from the late, lamented Wordsworth Bookstore in Harvard Square).

Dear Prudence starts with a section of new poems titled “Black Telephone.” In them are some of Trinidad’s recognizable preoccupations—the allure of sub-narrative in film, the refractive quality of pop music on one’s emotional history, the continual reshaping of the personal past the more one digs into it. But something new (to me, anyway) is the affirmation of influence. A clever framework is a series of poems around Sylvia Plath, a poet whose singular fury functions as a baseline for most of us in our early reading, but whose real power comes only later (mostly in reading her terrible imitators). But seeking models or idols or mirrors in poets like Plath is hardly anything to snicker at. In “Underlined in Sylvia Plath’s Copy of Tender Is the Night” comes a testimony to the power and need for reading, a writer’s ever-present search for the arresting and the startling, often in another writer’s work. It’s no surprise when Anne Sexton, another of those poets who serves as a timeless first-gate-keeper to poetry for many, shows up to comment on all of this in “Anne Sexton Visits Court Green.” Half the fun of the poem is giving over to its authority in depicting Sexton as the cool, serenely acidic woman her pictures suggest she might be, and this blends in perfectly with Trinidad’s lifelong obsession with the movies, with performance and public masks, but also with the spell woven by the mythology of art and its producers.

That world of art can appear anywhere, as suggested by the look Sexton gives to the laburnum in Plath’s garden, the poet’s subject often within striking sight. So it’s no wonder to me that Trinidad finds something worthwhile in producing a haiku for each of the episodes of the Peyton Place television show DVD reissue (“Peyton Place: A Haiku Soap Opera”) and that, embedded in the strange curl of Dorothy Malone’s hairdo, is yet one more space still untouched and undefined by a poet. This book starts to serve, in moments like that, as a testament to maintaining and holding true to a remarkable vision, however idiosyncratic it may seem to the rest of the world. “Fame not necessary,” he writes in “Pink Button,” “for the poems / each word / eye candy / for the literary / pilgrim.” Damn right.

Posted in Recent News Tagged

Fall 2011 Readings

Manuel Muñoz

Manuel Muñoz

Manuel goes back to teaching for Fall 2011 at the University of Arizona after a spring semester of book tours and lectures. But you can catch him:

Thursday, September 1st, 7:00 pm:
At the University of Arizona’s glorious Poetry Center, along with colleague Barbara Cully. (With thanks to the editors for linking to Manuel’s guest post on Gwendolyn Brooks at the Library of America.)

Friday, September 23rd, 3:30 pm:
At the weeklong Fall for the Book Festival, sponsored by George Mason University and the city of Fairfax, VA

October 6-9, with details to come shortly:
At Portland’s fantastic Wordstock Festival

Friday, October 21st, 3:30 pm
At Kansas State University in Manhattan, KS (note who will be visiting in September…)

Posted in Events

An August Roundup (So You Don’t Have to Search and Then Click-Click in All Sorts of Places)

Manuel Muñoz

Here’s a quick rundown of some interviews, articles, reviews, and other media for What You See in the Dark, all in a handy-dandy list:

VERY CHOICE BITS

An alumni profile in Harvard Magazine (for all the dirt on how Manuel came from dirt).

A radio interview with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s Bookworm (if you want to hear Manuel quiver in front of a genius).

A review by the film critic Charles Taylor at the IFC film blog (if you’d like a beautifully argued observation of the novel’s chief aims).

A review by the film critic Miguel Rodriguez at KPBS’s Cinema Junkie (if you’d like a consideration of why Psycho is used as the novel’s cultural touchstone).

An invited blog post at the Library of America (if you’d like to see the debt Manuel owes to the great mind of Gwendolyn Brooks).

Manuel’s Juror Favorite selection from the 2011 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories (if you’d like proof that Manuel’s literary taste includes something other than his own, and also if you’d like to say you appreciated Matthew Neill Null before everyone else did).

Some pictures of Manuel’s work space (in case you’re curious like that).

SOME INTERVIEWS

An interview conducted by fellow writer Jenny Shank over at New West (if you want the scoop on why the hell Manuel did the second person thing).

An interview at TimeOut Chicago (if you want a precise rundown in a glossy, classy mag).

An interview with the lovely Creosote Journal (if you want some more about how Manuel ran across the Petula Clark/Harry Belafonte moment).

An interview with the very popular film blog, The Film Experience (if you want to hear Manuel go on about Robert Altman and the glory of Nashville again).

An interview with Houston’s OutSmart Magazine (if you’d like to get a read on Manuel’s sometimes testy relationship with queer literature).

A video interview with Park City TV in Utah (if you want to judge how jazz-handy Manuel is on camera, or to admire his scuffed boots).

An interview at La Bloga (if you’d like a take on small-town transgressors and a little cachetada at Obama’s tip-toeing).

SOME PRINT AND MEDIA REVIEWS

They loved it at NPR.

They loved it at Publishers Weekly.

They loved it at O Magazine.

They loved it in Cleveland.

They loved it in Philly.

They loved it in Austin.

They loved it in Chattanooga and in Edmonton, Canada (no, really–there are just no links anymore!)

SOME BLOG POSTS

A playlist of film scores is posted over at Largehearted Boy.

A pairing with Chuck Palahniuk at Beverly in Movieland.

A review by Laura Marris at CultureMob.

A review by Lisa Peet over at Open Letters Monthly.

A review (for realzies!) from the very well-read Backlisted.

A review over at Three Guys, One Book.

Posted in Recent News