Tag Archives: Got a Good Book and Got All in It

Our Man in New York: The Triumph of Eduardo C. Corral’s Slow Lightning

Let’s get one thing out of the way: the first Chicano poet to win the Yale Younger.

Depending on whom you ask, it’s either an enormous point of pride or yet another qualifier. Personally, I go for the former, because the cynics out in the literary world (and there are many) need a sharp reminder that the most prestigious poetry prize for a first book has never—never—in its nearly ninety-year history gone to a Chicano/a poet. Not to Gary Soto’s 1977 The Elements of San Joaquin. Not to Lorna Dee Cervantes’s 1981 Emplumada. Not to Alberto Ríos’s 1982 Whispering to Fool the Wind.

After 105 volumes, the 106th finally went to one of ours.

I say ours because one of the deepest pleasures of reading Eduardo C. Corral’s Slow Lightning was witnessing its balance, not necessarily between Spanish and English, but between literatures that have historically been indifferent to each other (or, at least, one side certainly has). Carl Phillips, who chose the book for the prize, writes of this as “estrangement,” an apt word to describe the sense of broken family that comes to mind when I think of Chicano literature and its repeated effort to be recognized as inextricably linked to the national conversation.

“The conflation…of Chicano material and traditional material (i.e., white prosody),” writes Phillips, “is an argument for (and enactment of) reconciliation and a reminder of differences…” While Phillips is speaking specifically about a sonnet sequence, the phrasing reminded me all over again of the particular challenge the Chicano/a writer has in reaching a national audience. The indifference toward the material of our cultural lives is so heavy (and downright poisonous in Arizona, where I live) that the pressure put on language and technical mastery can sometimes become all the more difficult to bear.

It’s a rare book that can withstand such a withering scrutiny, and Chicano/a texts get more than a hard once-over before they’re allowed into the spotlight. I think that’s one of the major achievements of this volume: if it’s the command of English you want, [1] it’s the command of English you’ll get. The book’s formal energy dictates its success; each poem is rigid in what it might wring out from its attention to various strategies, from the lyric to the elegy. A constellation of terrific ekphrastic[2] poems (based—quite noticeably—on works by artists of Mexican heritage) signal how deeply wedded the book is to a sense of homage, to its very existence as reliant on the hard, groundbreaking work of previous artists.

Take my favorite poem in the collection, “Variation on a Theme by José Montoya.” From the opening lines, the poem privileged me—a reader of Chicano literature[3] , a person who could recognize the sonic referent to Montoya’s “El Louie”[4] immediately, like a song I hadn’t heard in a while. The rhythm was right at the surface of memory; not a line later came “Mister / No Contaron Con Mi Astucia.” Slow Lightning is going to be talked about as a breakthrough book for its audacious and bold placement of Spanish on equal terms with English, and though the code-switching is, in itself, a little dazzling, the real thrill for insider readers is the attention to a Chicano pop vernacular, for lack of a better phrase. Where else in American letters will I get such a generous helping of El Chapulín Colorado, Ester Hernández, ranchera song titles that drum up my own version of Robert Hayden’s Sunday mornings, and Jean Valentine (who I hereby declare an honorary chola)[5]? It’s an eclectic and decidedly curious mixture but, at least to my eyes, utterly within my understanding, and it’s been a while since a book of poems has assumed I was already on the page (rather than letting me in, as most books tend to do, no matter how good they are).

I read the book on a plane ride from Peoria to Dallas [6], thrilled at reading a book I’d been anticipating for a while, but knowing, too, that it had come with a validation very few books get. I would stop after a few poems and reread some, asking myself if some were already jumping past the book and straight into the arms of an adoring audience (on the order of Lorna Dee Cervantes’s “Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway,” for example, or Sandra Cisneros’s “You Bring Out the Mexican in Me.”) “Self-Portrait with Tumbling and Lasso” might be one of those (it reads so defiantly, yet with a humorous bravado, an ars poetica in showgirl drag).

But my eye settles on page 38, the middle of the Montoya poem, and its breakdown of every father figure who’s ever strutted through a page of Chicano/a literature, bold and breaking, but yearning and conflicted, too. It’s a poem I know my dad could read and make immediate meaning of that assemblage. It’s almost entirely in Spanish—his language!—with just enough English intrusion to remind him that, despite where he is, his words come first. It’s not every book that can do that.

Munro...Murakami...ni modo

  1. [1] I was recently corrected for enunciating the word our as hour. “Just say are,” I was told. Okay, then.
  2. [2]At a recent reading at the Tucson Poetry Festival, Corral generously defined ekphrastic to the audience, recognizing that those very formal energies are often exactly what make a general reader assume poetry exists in too-lofty heights. The word refers to a poem created in response to another work of art, like this.
  3. [3]I am clean and articulate.
  4. [4]Montoya is a well-chosen subject for homage, given his historical significance to many a Chicano/a writer, yet Corral’s poem also stands as marvelous and sly defense. I’ve trolled my fair share of online poetry debates on what, exactly, political poetry meant, and someone always had a backhanded way of acknowledging Chicano/a “production” from the 1970s, as if the sheer inspirational possibility of hearing someone like you speak from a stage could mean so little. Well, it’s 2012, and now we have some proof of just how vital those poems actually were. Gracias, Don Montoya!
  5. [5]She’s not quite on the level of Chicano adoration as Morrissey, but give it time. Corral is a fan and so am I and surely other Chicano/a writers will start coming out of the woodwork. Orale, La Dream Barker!
  6. [6]I bought my two copies (one for my sister, Elisa) at the Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City. Not that they had my books in stock or anything…que gacho, Prairie Lights! But no hard feelings. I still spent over $140 there on about eight books. Because you’re an indie. And I believe in you. Will you believe in me?
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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.

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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.

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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.

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