Tag Archives: books

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.


Letter to My Future Self Before My First Reading

Brick Wall Portrait

Dear JK,

I’m writing to you because you are about to give your first reading as a published writer, because you stand on the edge of a stage or conference room with a book in your hand, one that you wrote. I don’t know if it will be a collection of poems, short stories, essays, a novel, or a memoir, but I hope it’s good. I want to remind you of a few things.

Right now, I write to you from a place of uncertainty. I’m surrounded by brilliant writers; the competition is tough, and my creative impulse waivers at a moment’s notice. Rejection is a constant, and probably always will be. So before you begin reading, thank the audience for attending. They don’t owe you their ears but you owe them gratitude, and more than that, you owe them a good show.

Remember to read like a presentable version of yourself. Be a performer. Slam your stories, sing your poems, dance your essays. Dig deep to make it memorable.

Remember everybody who brought you to this point: friends, colleagues, allies of your writing, advocates for your experimentation. Remember professors, agents, editors, and your family. They put you behind that mic, after all. Your enemies, hopefully, will show up and sit stroking their lap dogs and sneering at you from the front row.

Obviously your forty-seven lovers will attend as well, so give them a nod of thanks for the inspiration they painted across your body. After all, they gave you something to write about in the first place.

Please remember that you are not here because of you deserve it. You’re here because the world gave you a head start and you navigated forward. The world does not owe you this reading, nor the publication it celebrates. Anybody can write, but only a privileged few can publish. I’m glad that you’ve made it through the fire-branding scorn of rejection and the whiplash of criticism.

Keep one final fact in mind before you step up to the mic: this reading begins your afterlife.

I write to you from the position that getting a book published and reading it publicly, bringing it to life with my voice (ugly as it is) is only an impossible dream. After it happens, I can die happy. And now that you, future self, are going to fulfill this pre-death wish, you are about to embark on an afterlife. Nothing that happens after this first reading can ever hurt you, because you’ve already beaten mortality to your dreams. The time between the moment you begin reading and the moment you give in to the biological inevitability of silence will be the equivalent of Eternity. It will be heaven from here on out, no matter what hell the critics put you through. Nothing can hinder the momentous beauty of what you are about to do. So, I implore you, enjoy the reading. Even if it ends up being your last, even if you end up without a career or subsequent publications, you’ve already made it to heaven.

I hope it’s nice there.

Sincerely and forever writing forward,


P.S. I hope you’ll never forget how much of a hopeless romantic you really are, and that you spent so much time listening to Father John Misty’s “I Went to the Store One Day” while writing letters to yourself.

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.


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.


Banned Books, Incarcerated Poets, and a Week of Moral Exhaustion

Rad Lit

Today marks the end of Banned Book Week, a movement to recognize and counter the censorship of books and celebrate the value of literature. For me, though, the week brought what felt like an endless parade of bad news and ugly incidents: men going out of their way to make loud sexist and transphobic comments in a grocery store; discovering the frequency with which people of color, my own professors, are pulled over by cops here in Lincoln; a public lecture on human trafficking and modern slavery (about 21 million people are believed to be enslaved, mostly by businesses forcing them to work in sweatshops, on farms, or in fishing), and the tragic shooting in Oregon. It was a brutal week, emotionally and intellectually, making the censorship of books feel like a relatively petty issue.

Of course, banning books is a very serious issue. School districts have, at one point or another, banned authors ranging from Mark Twain to Kate Chopin to Toni Morrison. This issue is important, but in the United States, one’s life and liberty are not at risk while reading a banned book. This week has proven that the average American’s life and liberty are put at risk because of the failures of legislatures to protect students from violence, and the failures of those with privilege to refuse to participate in institutionalized sexism and racism. I can read To Kill a Mockingbird or The Tempest without fear of being imprisoned as a consequence.

For Qatari poet Mohammed al-Ajami, this is not the case. In 2010, al-Ajami was recorded reading a poem while in Cairo, where he was studying literature at the time. The poem made it to the Internet, and a year later, he was arrested in Qatar. Testimonies varied, the charges were vague, and some contend that a later poem about Tunisia and the early days of the Arab uprisings were the cause for his arrest. In either case, it was clear that al-Ajami was arrested because the regime believed his poetry posed a threat to their power. He was arrested when protests erupted across the Arab world, in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria. Originally, he was dealt a life sentence, but it was later reduced to fifteen years.

Fifteen years in prison for reciting a poem. Nevertheless, censorship is much messier than Banned Book Week advocates tend to portray it. This week also saw the CairoComix festival, a festival of comics and graphic novels in Cairo. Earlier this year, the Cairo Book Festival likewise celebrated numerous authors. At the same time, the Egyptian junta has allowed people to burn books supposedly belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. Writers have ample opportunity to express dissenting ideas about the regime, and the regime has ample power to suppress them. Writers could be thrown in jail if the regime disapproves of their work, or simply destroy the work, so writers will rely on scrupulous methods to write. Censorship is complex, and the writer-regime relationship is equally baffling, creating a space in which books are simultaneously heralded and demonized. Sometimes, however, regimes focus on the mere idea of an idea, rather than the idea itself.

The protests in Syria escalated because the Assad regime arrested fifteen children caught using a slogan used in the Egyptian uprising. Children were sent to prison for using a simple phrase: “Ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam,” or Down With the Regime. In the U.S., we can say that. Here in the U.S., I can proclaim that same sentiment without fear of arrest: Down with the United States! Down with the Republic! Start over and draft a new Constitution! The U.S. has failed to bring equality, so I say let’s shake it up!

I can type these words, stuff them onto the Internet the way al-Ajami’s poem was, and I will be safe. Maybe, if I’m lucky, the government will pick up on it, follow my blog, spike my stats, and put me on a list of people to watch out for. I can even type much more threatening things to the authoritarian regime I call home:

The U.S. is guilty of war crimes, for its airstrikes have killed innocent civilians in Afghanistan! The U.S. deserves to be put on trial for human rights violations! The TPP is a violation of basic human rights! It will dismantle national sovereignty and allow corporations to sue governments! It is a moral failure to let it pass! The Citizens United case creates corporate oligarchy! The regime has failed to combat climate change, another human rights violation! Down with the regime! Down with the regime! DOWN WITH THE REGIME OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!

And you continue to read these words, and I continue to write them, with no fear or hope of consequence. The relationship between a subversive writer and an oppressive state is defined by the audience between the two. Al-Ajami was arrested because his supposedly radical poem went on the Internet, where everybody in Qatar could hear it. It could motivate anybody, and clearly the regime has anxieties about its people’s attitude toward their rule. Unlike Qatar, the United States is not populated by people who want to shake up the government and end oppression.

I can easily get away with denouncing the U.S., partly because the U.S. is significantly less oppressive of its own citizens. There’s a reason Syrian writer Zakaria Tamer and Iraqi writer Dunya Mikhail, and many others, relocate to the U.S., Great Britain, and other western countries; for all the sins we’ve committed, we’re not burning books or imprisoning poets (based on the presidential debates, all that will change if we elect one of a dozen ignorant bigots). But the U.S. government won’t be afraid of subversive writers because there is simply no audience for them. Americans are too apathetic to pay attention to subversive poets, or angry writers. Americans do not quantify an audience that is willing to be swayed by authors trying to draw attention to very real problems, which is why I can identify so many and know, to my great sadness, that nobody will walk away feeling any different. Poets will only be incarcerated if there is an audience they can change, and sadly, American audiences are hostility resistant to change. For the love of God, we’ve had yet another shooting, and Americans are still unwilling to acknowledge the need for any changes!

The problem with Banned Book Week in the U.S. is that it allows us to take our liberalism out for a walk, brag to our friends about how radical we are, and then return safely to our communal, private silences. Meanwhile, a poet will remain in prison for a decade, because he recited a poem. Banning books is irrefutably bad, and reading those books can likewise be an exercise in resistance. But all too often, it’s a resistance of distraction; a resistance that keeps us from having to confront larger structural problems in our own regime; a resistance that makes us think real change will come from simply reading, when the truth is that reading is only the first step, and there’s a hell of a lot of work to be done.

I will not give into cynicism, though. Please do not mistake me for a cynic. To me, cynicism is a privilege. It’s emotionally expensive, and only those who can afford the extra emotional toll required to be a cynic can look at the world with hopelessness. I’d rather spend my emotional energy on compassion. It’s like the difference between freshly picked berries and a can of creamed corn. Compassion is simply healthier for you; hopelessness, like creamed corn, makes me want to puke. Even if hope is unrealistic, it’s a fixture of the kind of motion necessary to work harder to improve ourselves.

I am struggling to improve myself, forever and always. I internalize the suffering of others well, sometimes too well, and the result is overwhelming guilt. That guilt is good. It fuels compassion, and it continually forces me to reconcile my shortcomings, my complicity in institutional oppression, the ways I benefit from modern slavery in the products I purchase. I’m proud that I struggle to improve myself, that I a strive to define my actions, my writing, my mannerisms, all that I do by compassion. I do so through literature, which saves my soul, but also through investigation and inquiry into what I consume, into where it comes from, into who benefits and who suffers in production.

I implore you, I beg you, I order you to do the same.


The Great Summer Reading List


The Summer Reading List is a staple of summer vacations. Like beaches, fireworks, and barbecues, books are a necessity for good summers. I’m sure countless psychologists, anthropologists, literary scholars, and social scientists have devoted hour after hour to calculating the best equation for a summer reading list. It should be filled with books one has meant to read but hasn’t had time to yet. It should be diverse in genre, not just balancing poetry, novels, and plays, but adventure, drama, comedy, romance, or any combination of the reader’s personal preferences. Often they have new releases paired with classics. My summer reading list is hefty; it has books I’ve been meaning to get around to for over five years, as well as books I just discovered months ago. Some come recommended by friends, others I picked up off the shelf on a whim. However, it is most important for a summer reading list to be leisurely and enjoyable. I’ve certainly enjoyed my list so far, and have no intention of slowing my reading until I have to get back to work in the Fall.

My list is as follows:

The Iraqi Nights by Dunya Mikhail (Iraqi poetry)

A Dog About Town by J. F. Englert (murder mystery narrated by a dog)

The Long and Short of It by Pamela Painter (short stories)

The Theory and Practice of Rivers by Jim Harrison (poetry)

With a Strange Scent of World by Víctor Rodríguez Núñez (Cuban poetry)

The Propheteers by Max Apple (historical fiction novel)

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (novel)

The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry

Literature from the ‘Axis of Evil’ by various authors (anthology of works from Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Libya, Sudan, and Syria)

The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry 

Fall 2014 edition of Cardinal Sins (literary journal)

Book of Grass by J. V. Brummels (Midwestern poetry)

They Came to Jerome by Herbert Young (Arizona History)

Salt by Earl Lovelace (Trinidadian novel)

Our Father Who Wasn’t There by David Carlin (Australian memoir)

Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka (Nigerian play)

Volume 35, No. 1 of Mid-American Review (literary journal)

Healing Earthquakes by Jimmy Santiago Baca (poetry)

Aimless Love by Billy Collins (poetry)

Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee (South African novel)

The Blizzard Voices by Ted Kooser (Midwestern poetry)

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque (WWI novel)

The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck (novel)

The Business of Fancydancing by Sherman Alexie (poetry and short stories)

Emails from Scheherazad by Mohja Khaf (Syrian-American poetry)

What books are on your summer reading list? Any favorites? Leave a comment and let me know what you’ve been reading.