I've been hearing & reading a recurring sentiment since the election: I can't read fiction right now. That I hear it most commonly from those I consider "serious readers" (those who don't read fiction strictly for entertainment or diversion), is cause for concern -- as I understand both the importance they place on reading and the mournful loss they're experiencing at not being able to do so.
I have a suggestion. It will sound so pithy that some of you will stop reading. But here goes: try poetry.
Let me stop you at the first all-too-common, immediate objection: "But I don't know how to read poetry." Nonsense. You're not dead. If you're this far into this post, you're obviously still breathing: that's all it takes. The rest is negotiable.
Some poems are meant to be read quickly, the ideas seemingly less important than their expression. I'm not going to tell you whose or which these are. Because like anything worth reading, poems beg to be read askew (I like that word): at different paces, in many places, and in enclosed (for a moment, like a photo) by as many frames as there are minds. The poem will tell you when to breathe -- but here's a secret, you can tell the poem, "No ... not just yet ... not here." The poet might object, but the poem won't suffer for it. It's really okay.
Some poems are stuffed with ideas. They're in a rage about something, even if you don't know quite what. You're not even sure if they do. The good ones are talking their way into a problem; beware the ones with solutions you immediately agree with. The ones that too quickly talk themselves out of trouble are usually not to be trusted. They're either a huckster or a friend -- though possibly both. Poets like C.D. Wright, my obsession this year, don't want to be your friend -- and the aces up their sleeves are clearly from another deck. They want you inhabiting the ideas. With or without them, they'll nudge you further along, in search of the last reference, until you're alone with it. From there, you're on your own. But only until the next page -- really, trust me, it's okay.
But why poetry at all, you might be wondering? There's political theory! There's philosophy! There's work to be done, Brad!
Because from time to time, you need to eat.
Who should you being reading now? I'm asked this from time to time. My interest and evangelism for the section at the store is known. It's usually a question asked by people who are not already reading poetry. Once you are, oh, you become the best browser ever! At Diesel, we don't carry a lot of multiple copies in our poetry section. I want to pack in as much as possible. Hulking epics flank the wispiest seventy-page masterpiece. You're going to miss things -- your eyes will not seize them that time around. Poetry readers get this -- it happens every time they open a book. Just as we read in order to re-read, we return to the shelves of our bookshops often. We keep discovering things that were already there. (Or, yes, sometimes previously sold out. The Revolution hasn't happened yet, we suddenly recall from that political theory.)
But seriously, who should you reading right now? Okay ... Some suggestions:
- Your local poets. Ask booksellers and librarians if you don't any know. Go to a reading. If it's not to your liking, sneak peeks at the books everybody brought with them. Here in Oakland, I'm fortunate to have places like Small Press Distribution, Commune Editions & Timeless, Infinite Light. Fortunately, for you, they all have websites.
- C. D. Wright -- There are so many places you can start with C.D. Or you can do like me, and just read it all. If you're not like me, grab what you can find. It doesn't matter if it looks more like essays or lectures either -- it's poetry all the same. What's more, it'll turn into an encyclopedia of poetry before your very eyes. Humane: it's such a dry, dull word. And yet the one I keep associating with her, and realizing it's become so foreign.
- Robert Creeley -- He is C.D.'s titanic lion ... and in many respects opened many ears (mine anyway) for the poets we so desperately need to be reading today.
- Daniel Borzutzky -- He won the National Book Award for poetry this year. I know, you don't trust award committees. (Maybe reassess that with poetry, by the way. There's not a ton of people reading it seriously [or at all]. Usually, I feel like Fiction prize juries really should hang out more with Poetry prize juries. Do some trust-falls at a camp or something. Grab a coffee at the very least.) There is a rawness to Borzutzky's anger (principally at a capitalist system not meant to fit the living world) that could, with a lesser writer, slip out of his control. It never does.
- Solmaz Sharif -- I thought her debut collection Look would win the National Book Award this year. I was wrong about that, but certainly not at its enduring place in our thinking about role language places in assessing, processing, admitting, and denying identity.
- Ari Banias -- There's a wonderful funny tenderness to a lot of Ari's poems in his debut collection, Anybody. But not in a facile sort of way. Rather, more like that of a body -- wonderful because it is so permeable and present, but precarious for the very same reason.
- Harryette Mullen -- A co-worker, a poet (naturally), got me to read Sleeping With the Dictionary. Oh my . . . some books change not simply the way you see the word, but the way it sounds.
- Dawn Lundy Martin / Tonya Foster / Robin Coste Lewis -- Again, lumping together for the sake of space. These three rocked my world, in the sense of opening it to each of theirs. They remind me that my greatest political contribution might be to shut up and listen.
- Susan Howe / Tess Taylor / Etel Adnan -- Wildly different, all three, but I thought of them together. They all orbit that brilliant star called by the scientists "Emily Dickinson," and contain multitudes. .
- Mary Ruefle -- Ah, dear Mary! Quirky and funny, until you realize she's gone pitch black dark on you in a second. Kind of like life.
Okay . . . that's enough right now, I think. There's so many more -- Fred Moten, Nathaniel Mackey, Douglas Kearney, Eileen Myles . . . somebody stop me.
Basically, the answer to "What poets should I read now?" is simple: read the poet who at any given moment doesn't so much take your breath away (again, you need to keep doing that if you want to read poetry at all) . . . but rather seizes it, holds it but for a moment, and returns it, changed into oxygen.
The fiction you're not able read right now builds worlds; poetry breathes.
When we made our big announcement about East Bay Booksellers, we had an idea it'd make a bit of news. We never would've imagined that two weeks after the big reveal, it'd be mentioned in the New York Times.
The press continues to be great, but the best part about all this so far: your response! You crowded in, pie and apple cider in hand, for the informational meeting after our Customer Appreciation Party in Oakland; you listened; and you keep telling us, "I'm in."
East Bay Booksellers still has a ways to go before it reaches $200,000 in pledged loans, but every day makes us all the more confident that you're as excited about this as we are!
In addition to a short email answering some Frequently Asked Questions, here's a short word from Brad talking about the project:
Your enthusiasm means everything to the success of what we have cooking in Oakland, and can help us find eyeballs and ears of people we otherwise might not on our own. Please consider sign up for EBB's Mailing list ... following them on Twitter ... liking them on Facebook ... or simply share news of what we're up to on all your social platforms (even face-to-face!). In short: keep in touch!
There's been lots happening in DIESEL-land lately. We're always buzzing about this time of year, in preparation for the holidays -- the shelves burgeoning with beautiful books. That's unchanged, but . . . well, let's face it, it's been a, let's call it "weird," year. We've lost musical legends. Political heroes. What's more, though the social and political landscape is always changing, the abruptness of it all this year has left many of us reeling. We won't just remember 2016 as weird or tough -- we'll be dealing with its consequences for a while. In short, we believe we need more than ever stable cultural institutions like independent bookstores that honor and guard free expression.
So when we announce, as many of you may have already heard -- either from us or from your newspaper -- our intentions (with your help!) to change the ownership of our Oakland location to one of its present managers, Brad Johnson, as well as its name, to East Bay Booksellers, we do so in a celebratory way. In an unexpected twist to an unpredictable year: we think this may very well be the best possible time to make such a change. We love that the vision Brad is casting -- which the entire DIESEL family has had a hand in molding -- has been a ray of hopeful, exciting light to so many already!
DIESEL has never been opposed to experiments. We keep our management structure as horizontal as possible, and have been built from the beginning on the idea that mutual respect for one another, for the store, and for the community is what sustains the good times and gets us through the bad. East Bay Booksellers will be built around the same core value. Brad is a talker -- oh, is he ever! And his commitment to conversation is a downright passion. "Conversation changes everything -- which is why so many forces seem intent on getting in its way -- and it is the engine by which mutual respect becomes mutual regard and care."
We also think he's got a good head on his shoulders for business!
But here's the thing: he also needs your help to make East Bay Booksellers a reality. Remember what we said about experiments! The transition from one store to another has its costs -- right around $200,000, in fact. He's not looking for donations (though he certainly would not turn them away either!). On the contrary, he's hoping his friends and neighbors in Oakland and beyond might share his enthusiasm so much that they invest in it. Details on the community lending program are at East Bay Booksellers' website.
Brad will be talking with all who are interested, about DIESEL's transition and how you can help achieve it at an informational meeting at the Oakland store immediately following our Customer Appreciation Day, on Sunday, November 20th at 5pm. If you cannot make it, please feel free to contact him directly.
There's been lots happening in DIESEL-land lately. We're always buzzing about this time of year, in preparation for the holidays -- the shelfs burgeoning with beautiful books. That's unchanged, but . . . well, let's face it, it's been a, let's call it "weird," year. We've lost musical legends. Political heroes. What's more, though the social and political landscape is always changing, the abruptness of it all this year has left many of us reeling. We won't just remember 2016 as weird or tough -- we'll be dealing with its consequences for a while.
It's a busy, anxious time, we know. Perhaps some top-notch book recommendations will take your mind momentarily off things electoral. See the link for the picks, but here's a word or two -- from the top to the bottom of the newsletter -- from John and Brad. (Reminder: you can use the links on the bottom-left of this page to sign up all our newsletters!)
Okay the season is upon us. No, not the election season, but the season of gathering together for large meals with extended family and friends. The season of gift-giving. This is so much fun in the bookstore -- readers looking for the finest, most unexpected, most desired books to give as gifts. The bounty of cookbooks that are released this time of year are filling our shelves awaiting readers' attentions for making delectable meals. Great gift books of all varieties abound in the store -- come in and peruse them!
I wanted to also draw a little attention to some writing that's been going on at DIESEL (please see Editor's Notes, below, for more). DIESEL bookseller and professional writer Aaron Bady has penned two worthy pieces recently: one was posted on Lithub -- Did Imbolo Mbue actually write the Great American Novel? (Lithub, by the way, is a great source for all things literary.) The other was an op-ed in the L.A. Times.
Check them out, along with all the other creative and imaginative events, book selection, display, and reviews radiating out of DIESEL this season.
John and all DIESELfolk
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Literary Hub published a piece of mine this week in their Bookselling in the 21st Century series, “From the Seminary to the Bookstore.” I feared what I’d submitted was overly confessional / personal. You who know me are maybe wondering: “Do you write anything else?” That’d be a fair question.
The response, however, has been as surprising as it has been moving. Readers seem (happily!) mostly to be looking past all the me in the story I tell, and are finding parts of themselves and their stories . . . whether traditional confessions still slip their tongues or have long done so between their fingers. Its publication coincided with a trade show in San Francisco, which occasioned people I barely knew — some not at all — to thank me for having written it. The clear emotional (or whatever) connection some have found in the piece has prompted me to throw braggadocio caution to the wind and tell others about it. Perhaps you, too, will find a bit of yourself in it.
I don’t like horror. I don’t read horror novels, I don’t watch horror movies and if I played video games, they wouldn’t be called Resident Evil. As a genre I find it boring, derivative, and generally lacking in imagination. “How is [insert murderous psychopath] going to gore, or mutilate, or terrorize the (flat and poorly written) characters?” Frankly, my dear…
And yet, as so many afflicted with the Netflix virus, I sat transfixed as the Duffer Brothers unraveled their nostalgia-horror story, Stranger Things. How clever! How Weird! “It’s like, if Spielberg [80’s Spielberg] gave David Lynch [any-era Lynch] a script and told him to go wild, but the whole thing still had to make sense, it would be Stranger Things!” I loudly shouted at baristas and joggers and other unfortunates in my neighborhood. Being late to the game, as I tend to be, I’m sure my already unasked for insights were even less interesting to people who had watched, talked about and moved on to the next thing weeks ago.
And now, what would otherwise have been a minor, behavioral aberration is starting to feel like a pattern. First I watched Stranger Things, then I read Slade House by David Mitchell. Before you judge me, I promise, I didn’t know it was a horror novel before I read it. Sure the summary on the back jacket says things like, “A stranger will greet you by name and invite you inside,” or, “For those who find out, it’s already too late…”, but that could mean a lot of different things. It could be a sci-fi story about a house that transports you to another dimension, or a sword-and-sorcery tale of beleaguered knights becoming entrapped by an evil magician, or a whole host of others things it is decidedly not. For, as much as it pains me to admit to liking this type of thing, Slade House is a horror story. And a damn good one.
As far as I can tell, David Mitchell is a master of character writing. The quick and frequent changes in tone and voice he employs in Cloud Atlas make it a bewildering and delightful novel. The ability to embody so many different bodies, and ones that are fully realized, with all their depths and flaws and desires, is extremely difficult, especially when done in the space of a single novel. In Slade House, Mitchell pulls an even niftier trick and does the same thing in an even tighter corner, that of a novella. In fewer words, he is able to put us inside the heads of his menagerie of characters: a boy on the autism spectrum, an unsavory policeman, an awkward fresher and quite a few others. Each are real, in that they have histories from before the story began; they have motivations and behaviors which fit their own internal logic and never do their voices overlap or become confused; each are singular and clear. This is of course not even to mention the story’s baddies, a truly horrifying pair of siblings Mitchell must have borrowed from a Hannibal Lecter fever dream.
David Mitchell is a wonderful storyteller, and in Slade House he has taken the trappings of a stale genre and baked a delicious bread pudding; something reminiscent of its former self but chemically transformed into a sweeter (or more savory, if that’s your thing) version, better in smaller, infrequent servings.
This Halloween don’t be surprised if you see characters from Stranger Things traipsing through your neighborhood, if you happen to live in a neighborhood that 20-and-30-somethings frequent for nighttime festivities. And this evening, don’t be surprised if terrifying images make you question your perception of reality, if you happened to have read Slade House. -- David