Under the Influence #13

written by Kurt Baumeister August 12, 2019

Intro

Wherein Robert Burke Warren praises the magical minimalism of Alice Munro; Gregory Spatz reflects on the wild life–and still wilder work–of James Agee; Matthew Specktor muses on the wacky, baffling genius of Wallace Stevens; Nina Buckless discusses what she learned from Tolkien about gaining the reader’s trust; and Kurt Baumeister returns to the topic of literary courage, this time focussing on the iconic Vladimir Nabokov…


J.R.R. Tolkien

by Nina Buckless



I was searching for the keys and tools with which to build a fictional world, a world that, no matter how alien, gains the reader’s trust, actualizes her desires. In Tolkien’s collected essays, The Monsters and the Critics, I found the perspective I was seeking.

Tolkien reminded me that the fantastic can create treasure boxes, forming a bond of trust between reader and writer, that can later be opened; that language, whether real or invented, can invite the reader into trusted foreign spaces and open new worlds that welcome the human heart, for as Tolkien says, “Fantasy is a natural human activity,” and, to go further, “Fantasy is a human right.”

Nina Buckless is a fiction writer and poet. Poetry or prose have appeared in Santa Monica Review, Tin House, Unsaid, Georgetown Review, Absent, Burrow Press Review, Midwestern Gothic, Big Muddy Review, Turkish Literature and Art, Pangolin Review and Fiction Writers Review. Her short story “Deer” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is a graduate of the Helen Zell Writers Program and the recipient of a Zell Fellowship. Nina was granted a Civitas Fellowship and taught poetry with InsideOut Detroit in Detroit Public Schools. She received two scholarships to attend The Community of Writers Workshop in California. Nina is a veteran of Jim Krusoe’s creative writing workshop in Los Angeles, California. Currently, she is working on a novel.


Wallace Stevens

by Matthew Specktor

I first read Wallace Stevens when I was an undergraduate. The titles alone (“Someone Puts a Pineapple Together;” “Palace of the Babies”) summoned me, with their daffy undercurrents and disharmonious suggestions. The poems themselves, for a moment, baffled me, until I understood their fragrant invocations and tendency to freestyle on the edge of nonsense (“Cheiftain of Iffucan of Azcan in caftan…”) to be renderings of perception, rather than of reality. He was the writer who taught me–even ahead of Henry James–that writing is a stage for consciousness, rather than a place to represent the drab actual.

Matthew Specktor is the author of the novels American Dream Machine and That Summertime Sound, as well as a nonfiction book of film criticism. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Paris Review, The Believer, and many other periodicals and anthologies. He is a founding editor of The Los Angeles Review of Books.


James Agee

By Gregory Spatz

Poet, journalist, film-critic, novelist, script-writer James Agee died in the back of a taxi cab in 1955, age 46. I first encountered his final novel, A Death in the Family, in ninth grade. I’ve re-read it countless times since. My hunch is it took Agee his entire life to learn to restrain his notoriously “poetic” style so he could write straight into the most devastating event of his life—the death of his father when he was six years old.

Most of his life, Agee drank heavily, wasted time on work that didn’t matter to him, and sabotaged his writing in every way. He didn’t live to see ADITF published (final edits were done by a lifelong friend). But there’s a quality to ADITF that could only come from Agee’s having stored it so long, working and not working on it. It is raw, unfinished. But perfectly so—perfectly imperfect.

Gregory Spatz is the author of What Could Be Saved, Inukshuk, Fiddler’s Dream, No One but Us, Half as Happy, Wonderful Tricks. His stories have appeared The New Yorker, Glimmer Train Stories, Shenandoah, Epoch, Kenyon Review, and New England Review. Recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, Spatz teaches at Eastern Washington University in Spokane. Spatz plays the fiddle in the twice Juno-nominated bluegrass band John Reischman and the Jaybirds.


Alice Munro

by Robert Burke Warren

Alice Munro’s prose reminds me of certain humbly constructed, yet oddly incantatory folk and country songs, and quite a few Leonard Cohen songs, gems that deliver a wallop with short lines, unfussy words, rudimentary melodies. Minus the melodic aspect (although her prose is indeed musical), Munro does that, too. You step back and say, “How did she conjure that image? That feeling? That intensity? And reveal the exquisite beauty of that supposedly mundane bit of life? With just those words?” It’s inspiring to know it can be done, albeit also maddening in the best way.

Robert Burke Warren is a writer, performer, and musician. His work appears in Salon, AARP, The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Texas Music, Brooklyn Parent, Woodstock Times, Paste, The Rumpus, The Bitter Southerner, Chronogram, and the Da Capo anthology The Show I‘ll Never Forget. His debut novel, Perfectly Broken, is in paperback. His songwriting appears on albums by Rosanne Cash, RuPaul, and rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson. In the mid 90s, he portrayed Buddy Holly in the West End musical Buddy: the Buddy Holly Story. Prior to that he traveled the world as a rock & roll bass player.


Vladimir Nabokov

by Kurt Baumeister

The fact that a writer could be so audacious as to write Lolita’s prose in his third language–the opening paragraph of which still stands as my model for the poetic in English fiction–is chastening enough. But to follow that with the literary gymnastics of something like Pale Fire, a “centaur-work” as Updike called it, is almost incomprehensible. Taken as a piece, these books reveal a literary intellect with few modern equals and a literary fearlessness that is, in some ways, more admirable because of his success. Nabokov wrote what he wanted, whether that meant a book he knew would be banned based on subject matter (Lolita) or one far enough outside the mainstream that his literary reputation (and perhaps that of his sanity) might be damaged, the poetry and imagined literary criticism hybrid, Pale Fire.

Under the Influence #11

written by Kurt Baumeister June 13, 2019

Intro

Wherein Constance Squires shares how Iris Murdoch taught her not to be afraid of plot, Michael Gillan Maxwell discusses how Gary Snyder’s writing turned him on to philosophy, Sean Beaudoin lauds the life and work of cultural icon Jim Carroll, and Dr. Nancy Hightower explains how Kafka taught her about “the elasticity of truth.” There’s no outro this month, or, rather, there’s a different type: I will be back at the end with my own submission on the great Martin Amis. Please read and enjoy.


Franz Kafka

by Nancy Hightower

I had always appreciated Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and The Trial, but I could not escape the nightmare world of his short story “A Country Doctor.” Kafka has an uncanny ability to collapse landscapes and rooms, but the concrete details of unearthly horses, supernatural groom, and eerie village are what shows the power of the surreal, which can infiltrate reality to the point where the reader becomes destabilized and cannot argue against the logic of the text, no matter how illogical. The boundaries we try to draw around “truth” or “reality” become frighteningly elastic in Kafka’s world, and we see just how fragile our own narratives are. In my flash fiction, I want readers to get lost in this tangle of the familiar and the strange; I want them to experience the most fantastical parts of the story as the most true.

Nancy Hightower‘s work has been published in JoylandEntropyGargoyleSundog LitSojournersFlapperhouseVol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. She is the author of Elementari Rising (2013) and The Acolyte (2015), and currently teaches at Hunter College.


Jim Carroll

by Sean Beaudoin

When I was 13 I wanted to be a power forward for the Knicks. Then I found The Basketball Diaries under my sister’s mattress and wanted to be a power forward for the Knicks who did lots of heroin. What was it like being a tough street kid from the Bronx in the late 60s? Fortunately, there’s a record so vivid it’s almost Studs Terkel. I spent years stealing from Jim Carroll, and then years trying to write sentences half as hilarious and vivid. Oh, yeah, he also sang in a great art-rock band, wrote one of the best dead-buddy homages of all time, appeared in Tuff Turf with James Spader, penned a lot of pretty crap poetry, and for a while was Mr. Patti Smith. Now that’s a life. The Catcher in the Rye gets all the bluster, but for the hip set, everyone knows Basketball Diaries is the best book about disaffected youth ever written.

Sean Beaudoin is the author of The InfectsWise Young Fool, and the short story collection Welcome Thieves. His latest novel, This Unlovely Monster, is due imminently from Algonquin Books.


Gary Snyder

by Michael Gillan Maxwell

I’ve been under the influence of Gary Snyder since the early 70’s. I was obsessed by the Beat writers and infatuated with the colorful portrayal of him as “Japhy Ryder,” a central figure in Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. Snyder’s seminal collections Rip Rap and Cold Mountain Poems, The Back Country and Regarding Wave cast a life-long shadow along my own path as a potter, visual artist, musician, writer, educator, environmental activist, student of Eastern philosophy and as a seeker questioning our purpose and role in the universe. “Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.” – Gary Snyder

Michael Gillan Maxwell roams the Finger Lakes Region of New York state. Maxwell is a visual artist and a writer of short fiction, poetry, songs, reviews, essays, lists, recipes and irate letters to his legislators. A teller of tales and singer of songs, he’s prone to random outbursts and may spontaneously combust or break into song at any moment. His hybrid collection of visual art and prose, The Part Time Shaman Handbook: An Introduction For Beginners, was published by Unknown Press. Maxwell’s art and intermittent ranting and raving can be found on social media and Your Own Backyard http://michaelgillanmaxwell.com.


Iris Murdoch

by Constance Squires

Iris Murdoch came into my life in a lit class in which ten 20th century novels were assigned. We only had time for nine, and for whatever reason, Under the Net was the one cut. I kept it, despite being willing to sell just about anything else for beer money. When I read it, she showed me a way out of my deepest insecurity about being a fiction writer: I didn’t think I could write plot. I’d been trained as a poet, so I was good with language, image, and psychology. But, plot? That was too much like math. Murdoch’s novels, though, are suffused with the patterns of the Greeks and Shakespeare that she recombines, modernizes, and redeploys with total freedom. I didn’t have to invent plots, I only had to know how to work with the deep structures of storytelling that have always been there. And that did it for me.

Constance Squires is the author of the novels Along the WatchtowerLive from Medicine Park, and the forthcoming short story collection, Hit Your Brights. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in GuernicaThe AtlanticShenandoahThe New York Times and others.


Martin Amis

by Kurt Baumeister

The son of a famous novelist who became, himself, a famous novelist, Martin Amis writes black-comic fiction heady with language; multi-layered, often nihilistic symbolism; and subtle metafictional conceits. A dark moralist, Amis’s work focuses on the class system and mass culture and is filled with acid wit and unlikable, sometimes grotesque characters. For me, his magnum opus is his sixth novel, London Fields, a book which I have, coincidentally, read six times.

An apocalyptic murder mystery narrated by a dying writer, London Fields brims with unforgettable scenes and characters, erudition, comedy high- and low-, and countless turns of linguistic brilliance; perhaps the book’s most perfect line coming as it ends with the confession of a literary killer Nabokov would surely have appreciated, “So if you ever felt something behind you, when you weren’t even one, like welcome heat, like a bulb, like a sun, trying to shine right across the universe – it was me. Always me. It was me. It was me.”

Under the Influence #4, Nabokov’s Hyperbole

written by Kurt Baumeister September 12, 2018
Published initially by Entropy

Intro

Wherein you will learn of David Leo Rice’s ten mental locks, Marcy Dermansky’s ability to see romance in the confluence of pierogis and roaches, how Stephen Dunn’s poetry makes Kenzie Allen feel at home anywhere in the world, Kevin Catalano’s thoughts on semicolons and Faulkner, Pam Jones’s envy for Jeanette Winterson (and, really, who doesn’t have a little of that), and, finally, Darin Strauss’s musings on the great V.S. Pritchett. Enjoy….


V.S. Pritchett

by Darin Strauss

Pritchett is a great writer—admired by masters as different as Eudora Welty and Martin Amis—but he’s not the best writer in history. He happens, though, to be the writer in whose “rainbow” I “oscillate,” to paraphrase Melville on Hawthorne.

Brad Leithauser talks about there being, out on the shelves of the world, a “book of your life.” That’s Pritchett’s Collected Stories for me, as it’s probably some other writer for you—the person whose work sends out a message you receive perfectly, as if it was aimed at you alone.

The cadence of Pritchett’s sentences, the empathy in his dialogue, the gentle humor activates in me some feeling of kinship—some frizzle of recognition—that let me know who I was, or wanted to be.

Darin Strauss is the author of the bestselling novels Chang & EngThe Real McCoyMore Than It Hurts You and most recently the NBCC-winning memoir Half a Life. These have been New York Times Notable BooksNewsweek,Los Angeles TimesSan Francisco ChronicleChicago TribuneNPR Best Books of the Year, among other honors.  The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and The National Book Critics Circle Award, Strauss has been translated into fourteen languages and published in nineteen countries. He has a novel, a limited comic book series—Olivia Twist—and a graphic novel coming out in 2018-2019 and is the Clinical Professor of fiction in the NYU graduate writing program.


Deborah Eisenberg

by Marcy Dermansky

In my first fiction class as an undergraduate in college, my writing professor assigned short stories by Deborah Eisenberg from her first collection Transactions in a Foreign Country. They just blew my mind. I loved these stories, the smart and troubled young women she was writing about. There was a girl from New Jersey (just like me) who was going blind, who falls in love with an older guy she meets at a bar across the street from her eye doctor. And the unhappy college graduate, recently dumped, who moves to the East Village to an apartment unseen, living that sort of on the edge of bohemian New York City life I one day aspired to have. Even the roaches on the pierogi had a kind of romance to them. At that moment in time, Eisenberg’s short stories were exactly what I wanted to read. And maybe even more important, they were stories I hoped that one day I would be able to write.

Marcy Dermansky is the author of The Red CarBad Marie, and Twins. Her new novel Very Nice will be released next year. Find her at www.marcydermansky.com

 

 


Jeanette Winterson

by Pam Jones

The best thing, I think, is when I come across a writer who brings about envy in me. I have read Jeanette Winterson’s novel, Written on the Body, at least once a year since I was seventeen. The narrator is stripped of name, gender, age, description of any kind, save for their effect on those they have seduced and those who have seduced them. There’s a tricky balance here, knowing how much or how little you need to make a work act as a mirror, a reflection of the reader that is both humorous and humiliating. I envy Winterson’s talent. And when I envy someone’s work, I know it’s good.

Pam Jones is the author of The Biggest Little Bird (Black Hill Press/1888Center, 2013) and Andermatt County: Two Parables (The April Gloaming, 2018). Her short fiction has appeared in Boned and The Cost of Paper. She lives in Austin, TX with her husband.

 


Felisberto Hernández

by David Leo Rice

I picture my mind having ten locks. Any author whose work I enjoy opens two or three, any whose work I love opens five or six, but only a few open all ten, thereby entering the chamber where my DNA is stored. One such author is Felisberto Hernández, who also played piano in the silent film theaters of Uruguay in the early 20thcentury. All of his stories, and in particular “The Daisy Dolls,” descend into a netherworld where waking and dreaming overlap, and objects (pianos, mansions, dolls) take on uncanny life. What I love most is how familiar this netherworld comes to feel, inducing an eerie sense of déjà vu.

David Leo Rice is a writer and animator from Northampton, MA. His stories, which often strive to merge the real and the surreal in small American towns, appear in Black ClockThe CollagistThe RumpusHobartCatapult,Birkensnake, and elsewhere. His first novel, A Room in Dodge City, is the first in a trilogy and was published in 2017. He is currently working on a standalone novel inspired by reclusive artists such as Joseph Cornell and Robert Walser. Its main thematic question is: where, if anywhere, is the line between the cool-weird and the weird-weird in art? His work is online at: www.raviddice.com.

 


Stephen Dunn

by Kenzie Allen

I can’t carry much with me, continuously crossing oceans, but Stephen Dunn’s Different Hours always makes the trip. There’s much to be said for the cadre of artists sometimes referred to as “wisdom poets,” whose quiet revelations rendered in bright narrative never fail to bring me to tears, to longing, to a sense that I’ve come home (even in a time when, for me, “home” is increasingly elusive). I believe in poetry’s power to build community, and I admire poets like Dunn for inviting a broad readership; his work is no less complex than the poems we sometimes puzzled over in English Literature classes, but ultimately it feels welcoming—and funny, and wrenching, and yes, wise—and, above all, generous.

Kenzie Allen is a descendant of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. She is currently an Advanced Opportunity Program Fellow in the English & Creative Writing PhD at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, where she teaches in American Indian Studies. Kenzie received her MFA from the University of Michigan, and she is the Managing Editor of Anthropoid. She was born in West Texas, lives in Norway, and tumbleweeds wherever the wind takes her.

 


William Faulkner

by Kevin Catalano

Because you young college man raced to chase that tail of the interminable sentence that vines like kudzu tangled in the nooses of history hanging from too many willows that weep blood on Sutpen’s Hundred, you tried all the tricks, like the semicolons–that mixed race of punctuation, the Eulalia Bon of pauses–an Absalom here and an Absalom there, a ten-year mimicry that could pass like Charles Bon, but with one indomitable exception: you’re a Yankee appropriating a tangled-up South you’ll never understand; so finally, you wise up, but your blood’s been syntactically infected and you’ll spend a lifetime repudiating it.

Kevin Catalano is the author of the novel, Where the Sun Shines Out. His other writing has appeared in PANK,FanzineGargoyle Magazine, and other places. Find more at www.kevincatalano.com.

 

 


Outro

“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book; one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.”

— Vladimir Nabokov (Lectures on Literature)

Pam Jones’s devotion to Winterson’s Written on the Body has me thinking about the nature of rereading, why it’s so essential and how intimately it’s tied to this whole Under the Influence project, which in turn sent me back to Nabokov’s famous quote.

As he was prone to, Nabokov makes his case in hyperbolic terms, the reality being that of course one can bloody well read a book, that there is indeed quite a bit to be gotten from that first pass. As writers, however, we read not just for pleasure but to learn and in this way, from this perspective, Nabokov is dead on.

We reread, obviously, to increase our conscious understanding of a text, but also to embed it in our psyches, to make our relationship with it subconscious. Yes, we achieve some of this effect even with a first read, but not much of it. By rereading, by committing more and more of the text to memory, we create a stronger relationship with it, one that passes into something like the metaphysical.

The text travels, in our heads, through our lives, emerging sometimes years or decades later, not just in the odd syntactic tic, but in the cadence of our prose, the rhythms of our dialogue, and often, in the themes and architecture of our own work. This deeper, subconscious knowledge is the gift of rereading, one so great maybe it really was deserving of Nabokov’s hyperbole.