Category Archives: Reading

Reading and Road Trips

Crested ButteTwo weeks ago, I graduated from UNL with a Master’s degree in English. It is the result of two years of reading, writing, and writing about what I read. More importantly, I had the pleasure of spending time with the friends and colleagues I worked with this past year. To celebrate the end of the semester and our program, several folks in my graduate cohort took a vacation by driving from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Crested Butte, Colorado, for a weekend next to a river. Soon, we will scatter and go our separate ways, and the slice of time we gave one another without responsibility, without the need to work for someone else, without tasks to fulfill, was a small slice of heaven (which is, as we all know, a place on Earth).

Right now, I have a summer of road trips planned ahead of me. I have been accepted into the MFA program at the University of Idaho, in Moscow (the fun Moscow). I’ll be driving there from Lincoln soon with part of my family, then through Montana and Idaho to visit a variety of relatives, then back to Flagstaff, Arizona, before driving back to Montana and Idaho a month later. I’ll be spending a lot of time in a car.

When a handful of English Majors go on a road trip, they take books with them, and for me it’s always been that way. As long as I can remember, I’ve taken long road trips every summer from Arizona across the Rockies to Montana, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and California, and I’ve always taken a book with me. One summer, I read On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Another summer, I read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. On this most recent road trip, I read The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara, and to continue my step in the left direction through summer reads, I think I’ll take along Terrorism and Communism by Leon Trotsky, which I hear is a pleasant beach read.

I’ve spent the last two years reading more books than I expected, various novels, historical texts, books on theory, books on the Russian Revolution of my own volition, craft essays, and several Nigerian plays. It is telling that, on my first break from grad school, I continued to read. The same is true of my friends who went to Crested Butte.

I have a lot going on this summer, much to look forward to and much to fear. I could blog about going to a new graduate program in creative writing or the college-industrial complex after surviving it for two more years or moving to a new state again. But right now the only things I want to do are read and spend time (reading) with my friends. I even hear talk of a Kafka/Marxist reading group in the making.

-jk

All the Great Writers I Don’t Want to Be

Stay in Designated AreaNaturally, writers compare authors’ works to one another. This is useful in workshops, reviews, and literary criticism, and I think it’s inevitable. Writer friends of mine draw inspiration from Ernest Hemingway, others from Cormac McCarthy, and others from detective fiction, and I can see this inspiration in their writing, not as plagiarism but as influence.

More and more, stories I’ve written have been compared to writers I have never read. At a recent conference reading, my nonfiction was compared to Stephen Wright and George Saunders, and I had to embarrassingly admit that I was unfamiliar with their work. Multiple friends, whose opinions I love and respect, have compared my prose to that of David Foster Wallace, another I have never read.

To my surprise, nothing I’ve written has ever been compared to those who inspire me. Maybe that’s a good thing. I know the writers I love, but peers haven’t identified that influence, even when I’ve quite consciously imitated their styles.

My earliest literary influence was Douglas Adams, whom I read in middle school and spent the next four years mildly stealing from. I’ve also been inspired by Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Lately, I’ve found inspiration in short story collections like Monique Proulx’s Aurora Montrealis, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, and Pamela Painter’s The Long and Short of It. I also draw inspiration from John Steinbeck and David Eagleman, who blend science, philosophy, and fiction, and the science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke. Tiphanie Yanique’s How to Escape from a Leper Colony never ceases to inspire me, and neither does Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes.

It’s not that I want to be compared to these writers. Such a request would be too pretentiously egocentric, even for the pretentious ego-driven beast I so obviously am. But I am surprised.

I’m also distraught by the frequency with which my work is compared to David Foster Wallace. I don’t want to be compared to yet another depressed white male author who died by suicide, because it’s too close to home for me. What will I get from a writer I’m apparently so similar to? If I read Infinite Jest and hate it, what will that say about my own writing? Even worse, what if I love it without question? I want what I read to challenge my style, not reinforce it.

Was David Foster Wallace a perfectionist like me? Did he worry that he would die without making an impact, like me? Did he secretly resent himself for being a writer because such a profession requires both ego and humility, both of which are difficult for an introverted perfectionist to simultaneously possess, like me? I don’t know. I don’t want to know.

I also don’t want the comparisons to stop, because I want my friends and colleagues to be honest about my work. But so many comparisons to a writer that some of my heroes love and others hate has made me want to avoid reading anything by DFW. I can’t change what others see in my writing, but I know what writing I find pleasure in, and so far I find the most pleasure in being surprised. Maybe I’ll sit down and chug through Infinite Jest, but it won’t be anytime soon.

-jk

Getting Over the Beats

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“We’re all golden sunflowers inside, bae.” -Allen Ginsberg, probably

In high school, I took a creative writing elective, and the teacher assigned numerous Beat Generation authors. We read sections of Dharma Bums and “Howl” and numerous Jack Kerouac poems. It turns out that the influence of the Beats on a youngboredsmallwhitemale is that he starts wearing black button-up shirts and fantasizing about expensive liquor. After reading On the Road the following summer, I spent a great deal of time fantasizing about drinking absinthe on road trips through the desert at night while listening to something called bop. I bought used jazz records that I listened to once, maybe twice.

I thought about rebelling, but I was convinced that the key to rebellion was originality, and just about everything had been done before. I learned the value of originality from the Beats, who were apparently the very first people to realize that dharma and karma fall under the category of “hip.” I learned more from various articles summarizing the Beat Generation that I found online to save time, and it was there that I discovered how powerful single  arbitrary out-of-context half-cited quotes can be, even with no subsequent explanation. I thought about growing out my hair, learning how to sculpt with metal, driving a motorcycle, making out with trees, but they had all been done before.

As time went on, I encountered other writers and poets who influenced me in more nuanced, healthier ways. Had I kept up with my Beat fixation, I might have grown up to the kind of person who uses Kerouac quotes to make myself feel better about spending fifteen dollars on one local IPA at a bar I frequent only because the regular server is an aspiring country saxophonist named Cynthia. Or I could have become the kind of teacher who wears skinny dungarees and Pink Floyd T-shirts with holes in the front and sits on the desk telling his students that Jesus and Steinbeck were both Zen masters who shared some sweet flashbacks to one another.

I still dig the Beats sometimes, but that scene has passed. I’m still not sure what kind of writer I am, but I can’t be a Beat, or any other writer from the past. It’s better to write for and from the present. I’ve almost entirely moved on, man.

-jk

In the Tradition of Poems for Dogs

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Recently, I read Andre Alexis’s novel Fifteen Dogs. Among the many delightful things in the novel (that it starts with the gods Hermes and Apollo in a bar in modern-day Toronto, that the characters are mostly sentient dogs, that it’s filled with excellent descriptions and dog-drama) is that one of its main dog characters, Prince, becomes a poet who uses a unique poetic form intended to make sense to both humans and dogs.

The French poet Francois Caradec invented this form of poetry for dogs, and Alexis lends him credit for its invention. The form requires the sound of a dog’s name to be embedded in the poem. In this way, dogs will hear their name if the poem is read aloud, and respond in their dogly way by wagging their tails and analyzing the poem from a critical dog studies perspective.

An example from the novel, for the dog named Prince, is as follows:

“Longing to be sprayed (the green snake
writhing in his master’s hand),
back and forth into that stream–
jump, rinse: coat slick with soap” (Alexis 81)

The name Prince can be heard in the words “jump, rinse,” and supposedly a dog named Prince will hear it in the poem. The rest, apparently, will be the usual human nonsense Prince is used to hearing by now.

I wrote a poem in this form for my own dog, Pete, who has seasonal allergies and enjoys scratching his face on various surfaces, including people:

Rough carpet scratches
snatch up every face-itch
on the floor, sensations
to make easy sleep. Eat, sniff, dream
until the next itch, then scratch.

Do you have a dog? A pet? Write them a poem and see what they think.

-jk

Alexis, Andre. Fifteen Dogs. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2015

Reading at the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association Conference

In other news, I read some poetry at a big fancy academic conference.

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This week, scholars, musicians, writers, film critics, professors, fans of The Grateful Dead, zombie fanatics, pop culture critics and lovers (one in the same, here) flocked to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to discuss their ideas, share their theses, their creative works, their analysis of other people’s creative works, and generally enjoy the spirit of popular culture.

In one day alone, I’ve heard scholar/fans discuss the relationship between Rick and Morty in Rick and Morty, compare Jurassic World and the TV series Zoo, analyze countless horror movies (from Poltergeist to The Babadook), explore various media’s fixation with underage serial killers, give two different interpretations of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, explore the role of nature as a setting in The Walking Dead, critique consumer culture in prepper magazines and the capitalist frenzy to buy things before the coming apocalypse, and read a variety of poetry.

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Reading my own work for an audience was not entirely new to me; I’ve made use of open-mic nights and poetry slams now and again. This venue certainly was new to me, though, but I don’t want readers to assume that I think a conference is somehow better than a slam. Poetry is meant to be read out loud, and all venues are equally worthy and professional; poetry slams are just as important as big fancy academic conferences. But here, my audience differs, and the tone is more critical, more focused on poetry within popular culture rather than poetry alone. Where else can I backup a poem about the end of the world with information I’d heard half an hour before?

I’m centered in the academic world, and this is an academic pilgrimage that I’m honored to take. Reading in front of a live audience, of course, is terrifying, but also thrilling, and I hope to enjoy that thrill again soon.

There are still plenty of days left in the conference, and there is more to come.

-jk

 

Reflections on a First Semester in Grad School

AcademyI’m twenty-five percent of the way finished with my Master’s Degree in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Most of what I’ve encountered is unsurprising: the workload is tough, the Midwest is flat. However, there are certain things I’ve learned, perhaps unique to my own situation, that I wish I’d known earlier this summer.

  1. Maturity is a state of mind. I’m the youngest person I’ve met in the creative writing segment of my department, and I’m often made to feel like a little kid, like I don’t quite belong, among the adults (at least among most of the writers I’ve met). Many are PhD students with an MFA or an MA. In truth, I don’t quite fit in with most of the other writers stylistically, humorously, or aesthetically. Both my writing and self are plain weird, and I’m surrounded by tradition and formality. I don’t want to sacrifice my identity to fit in, though. I’d rather be a transplanted weirdo in the Midwest than a converted Midwesterner. Growing up isn’t about leaving behind parts of myself that don’t meet others’ expectations; it’s about maintaining myself in increasingly diverse and challenging situations.
  2. Discussions of craft are not as important as craft itself. Every discussion of craft I’ve had so far consists of an extensive mythology of what other writers did to keep themselves writing, followed by the refrain, do what works for you; coffee, rum, fishing in the Missouri River, whatever will help crank out a daily three to four pages. My own method involves writing for those who inspire me, unhealthy amounts of caffeine, and hikes in nature (which I’ve yet to find near Lincoln).
  3. Nothing is more important than the writing. I came to graduate school to write, and to publish, and to understand literature and improve myself intellectually, but my primary goal is to crank out three to four pages a day, no matter what.
  4. Friendship is more important than the writing. Friends are increasingly hard to come by the higher I climb into academia. Allies are nice, but the few friends I’ve made are crucial to my survival. Without them, I’d have no support for my experimentation. Plus, writing can be lonely, and being cooped up all day is a good way to get cabin fever.
  5. Contradictions are okay (and inevitable). Graduate life, much like undergraduate life, is complex and full of numerous contradictions. Some are basic: a free ride still requires one thousand dollars of student fees per semester. Some are more complex: writing depends upon time and inspiration, but inspiration usually comes from things requiring time not spent writing (loved ones, caffeine, hiking). Fortunately, I now have the benefit of knowing exactly what I need to survive the next seventy-five percent of my degree: writing, friends, coffee, a place to hike, more confidence in my weirdness, and a few more publications would be tolerable, I suppose.

Look out, 2016, here I come.

-jk

After Two Years of Blogging, Your Guess is Still as Good as Mine

toastWordPress reminded me that today is my two-year blogiversary. I missed last year’s for the obvious reasons (grad school applications, Macbeth, mud wrestling, etc.). Today, though, I slide two years into the past when I was surrounded by the mess of my education: Beloved, essays on the Holocaust, a textbook on linguistics, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, and drafts of my own poetry. The liberal arts defined my life, but lacked definition; in a confused fervor I wrote my first blog post asking simply, why get a liberal education in the first place?

Two years have gone by. I created this blog to explore the liberal arts generally, the life of a wannabe writer specifically. At varying times, it has served as an open journal, editorial, bully pulpit, and archive of my writing. I started out posting short vignettes satirizing myself as a freshman, but moved on to better creative writing, philosophy, travelogues, history, and humor. If my blog feels eclectic, it’s only because my brain is eclectic. I move rapidly from Steinbeck to colonial Egypt to writing a short story. This blog is one part journal, one part art, and one part scholarship, with three extra parts marked “miscellaneous.” I strive to make sure no two posts are alike, which may be a bad idea when blogging is supposed to be about consistency and ritual, two qualities I lack.

I’ve explored numerous moments in my life on this blog: I mourned Pete Seeger, challenged myself to write a poem every day each April, founded a photography business, announced publications, had breakfast in Ireland, lunch in Jerome, dinner in Wisconsin, went to my first big fancy writing conference, broke up with my hometown of twenty years for graduate school in Nebraska.

For the most part, though, I’ve read, and written about what I read, and read what others wrote about what I wrote about what I read. An endless reading list is the bedrock of any good liberal education.

Liberal Education

On this blog, I’ve also reached many half-baked conclusions, but one thing has remained clear post after post: a good liberal education is worthless if it stays inside the classroom. Sitting around reading and writing is no way to be a writer, if it’s all I do. I have to experiment with baking or acting, work for a charity, travel, read for a literary journal. I should traverse the gridlock of cities, the innards of bars, the vast organs of campsites. My blog may be ineffectively unconventional; the only binding theme is the continual mess of my lifelong education and my desire to be a writer. But I know blogging has made me a better writer, a more considerate reader, a more confident thinker. It’s been an eclectic two years. I hope the next two will be even more eclectic.

jk

Why a liberal education? Your guess is as good as mine, and I mean that. If you’re engaged in the liberal arts, especially outside of academia, let me know in the comments what you study or write or create, and why.

-jk