Sharing, investigating, and celebrating the unreal, the surreal, the strange, and the amusing in contemporary literature and culture


Sunday Night Special pre-chanukah edition, December 14th, 2014

Friends — this has been a difficult, discouraging autumn, here in the United States and elsewhere. In the middle of this moral and political melancholy comes Chanukah, the so-called festival of lights — a celebration filled with fried food and nightly presents, behind which lurks the complex historical shadow of a rebellion against foreign occupiers. How are progressive Jews, or indeed progressive anybodies to think about this story in the context of our lives today?  I don’t know. But I think about it. And I usually do my best thinking in a poem. So here is one, or rather 6 short linked poems.

 chanukah haiku

kindle graceful states

Light for peace, open borders

Ignite a threshold.


The first night is big

The second diminutive

Three’s spacious. Empty?


Four asks the question

How long will where we stand last?

Five flickers not long.


Six tapers toward truth

Seven’s light prays for insight

Eight‘s says I can’t see.


The miracle burns–

Manifests only one night

How to move past it?


Molten wax darkness –

What next? What lies before us?

The red wicks glow. Look.

* * *

To read about why Jews should care about Ferguson, click here

To read about Religious Leaders’ reactions to the Senate Torture report click here

To read about Rabbis for Human Rights and their work in Israel and Palestine, click here 

To read about about the American Jewish World Service, click here

To read about Doctors without Borders and their work with the ebola virus, click here

Tiny Writers’ Conference, Week 2: Rights, Rights, Rights

Stephanie Barbé Hammer:

A fantastic, clear presentation of some basic copyright and publishing rights information that you may not know.

Originally posted on Kelly Davio:

One of the fun things about going to writers’ conferences as a publisher and editor as well as a poet is  that I often get to give talks on the publishing end of literature. Of course, I love talking about the craft of writing, but I’m an odd duck in that I also happen to love the arcane details of publishing. One of the topics that writers typically want to discuss at conferences is that of rights. What are they, anyway? How do you know if you’ve used them? How does a writer protect her work?  

View original 912 more words

Tiny Writers’ Conference, Week 1

Stephanie Barbé Hammer:

Tiny Writing Conference advice from Kelly Davio part 1!

Originally posted on Kelly Davio:

Last week, I was reflecting on the various writers’ conferences I’ve presented at over this past year or two, and was thinking about just what it is that writers want to learn when they travel to these kinds of events. When I think about the questions writers ask me, whether in formal Q&A sessions or even in the hall after a class, I realize that there are a handful of themes I hear over and over again.

I decided that, if NPR can have a Tiny Desk Concert (What? You don’t know about Tiny Desk Concerts? Please watch this fabulous set with the Pixies immediately so that you may join the civilized world), I could throw my own Tiny Writers’ Conference, answering one of these greatest-hits questions here on my blog during each week of December.

To kick off the month, I’m going to start with a question I…

View original 520 more words

Story Time Sunday, 11/30/14 — A true story


My friend Harvey

Last weekend, I went out to Riverside to do two book events. On the way, I went to a rehab hospital and visited my colleague Harvey. I know Harvey because he was a Linguistics professor in my department at the university where I used to work.

Harvey turned 91 last October. He retired a long time ago from the university, it feels like, but I remember his retirement party well. I remember in particular how snotty the Dean was to Harvey – saying very little to him directly, making a very short, ungenerous speech in his “honor”, and staying just a short while afterwards. He even refused to eat a piece of the cake!

I think the Dean was so mean, because Harvey never made it to Full Professor – which in academic circles marks you as something of a loser. Of course getting to be an Associate Professor at all means you have been “awarded” tenure (great expression) and that certainly signifies something valuable. But staying at the Associate Professor level for too long means that you lost your nerve or your verve or your ability to do research or YOUR AMBITION and are regarded therefore as a somewhat lesser intellect.

Would it surprise you to know that Associate Professors are quite often the hardest working tenured faculty at a university? They concentrate on mentoring students and on administration, because someone has to actually work closely with undergrads and all those MA and Ph.D. students who teach lower division courses and somebody needs to help run the place while everyone else is being brilliant.

Speaking of being brilliant — a lot of people thought Harvey was weird because he talked so fast and changed the subject so quickly. In this he was like another colleague of mine in Anthropology, Steve. Steve does the same thing. But Harvey and Steve talk so fast and move so quickly through topics because they are geniuses. Most of us – me included – can’t quite keep up with them and so the switches seem strange…until we review the number of topics covered at our leisure and realize – yeah, these guys are just super smart.

People kind of forgot about Harvey after he retired. All but my friend Greta, who stayed friends with him. Greta was also an Associate Professor until she retired a couple of years ago. She was exactly the kind of teacher/administrator I am talking about. In fact we couldn’t stay long at the hospital because she had to hurry home to write a bunch of recommendations. She is still helping students even though she doesn’t work at the university any more.

Anyway, it was Greta who brought me to the hospital to see Harvey, because she wanted to be sure I saw him. I think she must be worrying that he’s going to die.

Objectively speaking, Harvey is not doing very well. Over the past month he’s had a terrible infection that resulted in a colostomy. Then his blood circulation to his legs got messed up and the doctors amputated his right foot up to the shin.

I don’t think I mentioned that Harvey also has macular degeneration, and is legally blind. And, right before they chopped off his foot, the doctors  gave Harvey a tracheotomy so he talks through a little radio device implanted in him.

I saw the stump of his leg, when the technician came to measure him for his prosthesis.

“They did a good job,” said the technician, who I think was named Frank. Frank took Harvey’s protective stocking off.  I kind of took a deep breath, getting ready to be horrified. But the stump looked a bit like a child’s arm. The skin folded around the end neatly. It was oddly beautiful.

“Great,” said Harvey. “It’ll be good to get a foot.” He smiled. “I need to be able to stand up again so I can work in my garden.

When Frank left, Harvey told Greta, and me “You know this is quite an adventure. I’ve never been old before and so everything is new.”

Then I went to do the two book events.

On the way to the first event at a bookstore, Greta drove by the campus while I looked out the car window. I saw a student who was walking very fast and very hunched over with his backpack on the street. He kept looking over his shoulder. That’s when I remembered an essay a student in one of my classes wrote last year right before I retired about what it was like to be a black male student here, and how afraid he was to walk on the street alone in Riverside. He was so afraid of being arrested, he wrote. Or worse. It really worried him.

Then I came home.

And then the Ferguson Grand Jury decision happened.

Thanksgiving came around. As I got ready to greet my relatives I thought about what Harvey said; how I had never been this old before either. I had never lived in this moment before and it all seemed very new and strange. I wondered what I could do as a middle aged white poet/novelist to contribute to a more just society in the United States. Frankly I felt discouraged.

But that feeling passed. After alI, I can see ok, and I still have both my feet and my own original voice box. And I have a Ph.D. And yes, I made it to Full Professor.

And I don’t feel scared just walking down the street either.

I am hoping that I can get older still and see new and better things between people in the United States. I hope I can – in some small way – help them to happen.

Then, perhaps we will look back at these wounds and we will value both those who lived through their hurts and those who did not. And perhaps when our society heals, what remains will appear oddly beautiful.

Inlandia Thanksgiving Ashberrian Haiku Invitational — a special Magically Real extravaganza

Dear Friends –rti_inlandia-logo

If you attended the wonderful Inlandia Book Fair held this past Saturday at the Barnes and Noble, Riverside, you will remember that I invited participants and guests to try their hands at the Ashberrian (or is it Ashberryian?) haiku: 5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables in each line of your poem. Make as many lines as you want for your Thanksgiving oeuvre.

Here’s an example of this sort of poetic line:

Thanksgiving turkey? Yes, it can be fabulous — if I don’t cook it.

Please keep your poems free of extremely dirty words, and of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, classism, ageism and the like.

Put them in a comment, and I’ll post — subject to moderation.

Happy Thanksgiving!

PS — please support Inlandia by buying books at Barnes and Noble and using the special INLANDIA code: 11484482 — good through 11/28!




da Literary Arts Collective Presents STORY Time Sunday NaNoWriMo prompts and tips

Hey there NaNoWriMo buddies!

How full is your novel?


  1. Do you have enough things?
  •  Make an inventory of every item in your wallet/backpack/purse/briefcase. Write 3-5 sentences for each item: what it looks/smells/feels/tastes like, where you got it and from whom/how long it’s been in said location and anything else that leaps to mind
  • Put at least 4 items in your novel. Put ALL of them in if you can
  • Make one of them into a weapon and USE it successfully AND unsuccessfully in 2 different scenes.


Variation a:

Your protagonist’s bag of groceries:

What’s in it? At least 12 items

Write a scene where she or he or they cook an unspeakably horrible dish with the ingredients


Variation b:

What’s in your antagonist’s closet? 6 items minimum

Write a scene in which your antagonist’s secret clothing fetish is revealed


2.  Do you have enough other Art Forms?

  • Make one of your main characters a bad poet.

Write 3 poems and put them in a scene. Formal poetry is best for this. How about a terrible sonnet or a string of truly horrendous haiku?

  • What play/musical/film are your characters producing/starring in/performing the music for/filming/ushering? Write at least 1 scene where something goes disastrously wrong or ridiculously, unexpectedly right. Or both.


3. Do you have enough points of view?

  • CHANGE Narrators

Make someone else tell the story from her or his or their or its point of view. Pick a scene that ISN’T crucial to the main narrator/protagonist. Open it up and see what’s there.


4. Do you have enough Death and Mayhem?  

  • KILL somebody and/or stage a natural DISASTER


5. Do you have enough stories?

  • Have someone in the book tell a completely different STORY about SOMETHING ELSE





Story Time Sunday just barely on Monday, 11/17/14 — a NaNoWriMo tale of Jellyfish, robots, and our strange interests

Once upon a time there was a girl who loved jellyfish. She loved them because they reminded her of a visit to the aquarium with her mother. Her mother said the jellyfish looked like dresses. The little girl never forgot this.

This is not my story. This scene is the beginning of Princess Jellyfish, a manga – Japanese comic book novel — that became a tv show and will soon be made into a live-action movie.

courtesy wikipedia

courtesy wikipedia

Manga has a way of being at once cute and deeply poignant – using childlike naivete as a powerful weapon for getting past our censors, and hitting on something deep.

I loved manga ever since I watched a tv show on local television called Astro Boy. The cartoon was based on a famous manga by the Japanese artist Osamu Tezuka. Astro Boy was a robot, who was a kind-hearted person with kind robot parents. He worked for a scientist, and he always tried to help. His stories were not like the stories I saw elsewhere on television. They were generally philosophical and often very sad. I remember one episode that featured a planet where Astro Boy was imprisoned by this oversized, but rather dopey robot that kept on taking his temperature, and putting him in bed. Astro Boy discovers a diary in which it is revealed that the robot has mistaken the robot boy for his human companion – a female astronaut, The pair had crash landed on the planet, and the astronaut had gotten sick and died.

This misguided caregiving – that looked at first so frightening – touched me, and now 50 years later, I still remember it and the accompanying suggestion that things are not necessarily what they seem, and that a behavior that looks at first like something brutish, repetitive and invasive, may be in fact an attempt to express the exact opposite.

courtesy wikipedia

courtesy wikipedia

Jelly Fish Princess makes a brief entrance in the manuscript that I am writing for NaNoWriMo. A Japanese woman from the distant past buys the manga and glimpses what the future holds for women and girls. This vision inspires her to take actions that she would never have undertaken under normal circumstances.

I like to think that the art that moves us also makes us braver. Princess Jellyfish is ultimately, to quote Lillian Behrendt, about what we love, and how important it is to love something. Bravely and unashamedly. The show’s misfit women who populate the broken down apartment building in Tokyo do just that. They are all people with strange expertises and enthusiasms. But the manga celebrates their fascinations and their talents.

The point is that without these interests, we are not truly human. Our odd hobbies and obsessions are grounded in our most sincere childhood loves, and these loves are the basis for all our creativity and our ability to connect with others.

This week, as we have rounded the corner on the middle of NaNoWriMo, I invite everyone to remember something they loved as a child as well as the person or persons you shared it with, if there was such a person.

Put that moment or moments in your book.

And let the love of that thing push you forward.

Happy creating.

Story Time Sunday 11/09/14 — let the other stories live too — a true tale and a request

Once upon a time there was a woman, who took the train to East Germany. She went there 3 times.

The first time she was a college student and she barely spoke German and she had a bad experience at the border when she didn’t understand that her passport number had been called.

The second time she had just gotten married and she went to the place where the two famous authors that she had studied in graduate school lived and taught. She went to their graves and saw their houses. She met poets who lent her books wrapped carefully in brown paper. On the 4th of July her hosts gave her carnations to mark the anniversary of her revolution. “Because,” the head teacher of the place she was studying at said to her.

“All the revolutions matter.”

The third time the woman went to East Germany, she met an editor who was married to a doctor, and she met writers, and other doctors. They discussed ideas and politics and travel and art. The woman’s new friends gave her beautiful books wrapped in brown paper. To protect the covers.  Because books are precious. Books are — to quote Mukoma Wa Ngugi’s mother — wealth.

Once long ago, the woman’s aristocratic grandmother whispered to the woman when the princely grandfather wasn’t listening. “The Russian Revolution saved Russia. The people were…” the grandmother sighed. “Destitute. Desperate. Their lives are better now, even if Communism is the enemy.”

There are many stories to tell about power and powerlessness. About what is good and what is evil. These all must be told.

But the story of empire is not necessarily about these things. That story is always a story about winners.  As such it is necessarily a story that self-congratulates, seeks to share its victory. Reproduce. Multiply.

Also simplify. In the stories of nation and empire, there is also the wish to make it all very simple.

The writer feels the tug of this simplicity. The wish to streamline, to use the dominant view, because after all, that view won.

Please don’t let the tug pull you over. Because in the other story may be something, there certainly is something, that needs to be considered. That needs to be suggested.



To read one person’s memory of East Germany, read Jenny Erpenbeck’s piece “Homesick for Sadness” in the Paris Review.

Story Time Sunday, 11/02/14 — a true fairy tale about novel-writing and NaNoWriMo

Once upon a time there was a woman who wrote a novel. It was weird and scary and she liked it and her family liked it and some friends liked it and her teacher liked it, but she couldn’t sell it because it was too violent and too sexual and then it had this big hole in the middle that didn’t make sense so she had a hot-air balloon and 3 graffiti artists and some Welsh separatists from Orange County invade in order to take up the slack.

courtesy Ann Brantingham

courtesy Ann Brantingham

Then she wrote another novel. This one was better (and funnier) and still quite strange and some nice people who lived in a farmhouse said they’d publish it.

So that was and is awesome.

But then it was time to write another novel.

Oh dear.

Novels are hard because they are big and when things go wrong in a novel, they go wrong in a big way. It’s not like in a short story where the last line doesn’t work or a sentence in the first paragraph doesn’t quite grab the reader. When things go wrong in a novel it’s like the whole first half of the novel is wrong, or the point of view is wrong or the time period is wrong, or the hero is wrong in the sense that you’ve picked the wrong person to be the protagonist. Which means you basically have to retrofit the building, which entails –as you know – tearing it down to the so-called studs. And we all know what’s going to happen.  A lot of expensive building material (aka words) are going to go into the narrative dumpster as the general contractor — you – talks to the home owner – also you – as well as to the architect – who is unfortunately, most definitely you – and says, “this is not going to work.”

“So why do it?” Her spouse and friends would ask her. “Why try to build this big thing when it scares you to do it, and a part of you doesn’t like to do it, and even when you like it, you may have to tear the whole thing down and start all over again?”

“I don’t know,” she said. She thought but did not say. “I just want to.” She thought but did not say she wanted to because novels – when they work – are still magic. Sexing the Cherry, and An Invisible Sign of my own, and The Fall, and African Psycho, and The Wind up Bird Chronicle, and My Life In Men, and White Oleander, and The Parable of the Sower, and The Diviners, and The Enormous Room, and Almost Dead, and so many other books that she just loved are these novel-thingies. And who wouldn’t want to come to the dinner party that those novels are going to? Short Letter, Long Farewell is bringing the appetizers. The Vagabond is bringing the dessert. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is bringing a brisket and the Mists of Avalon is bringing some incredible French fries. Hot dogs will be provided by – who else? – A Confederacy of Dunces. Gangsterland is bringing the gangsters and The Night Watch is bringing in security. Those books and others are all talking away to each other. Harry Potter and Meursault in a corner saying they don’t care. The Virginia Woolf of The Hours talking with The Invisible Man about how they DO care. The Character of Rain chatting with the Angel’s Game, Spirits of the Ordinary and Fahrenheit 451 about who knows what.

“Hey,” you say “– that’s a steal from that last book! Those books all talking to each other!”

Yes, I know.

But as the woman entered NaNoWriMo, she could hear those voices – the published, the unpublished, and the unpublishable; the good, the bad, the problematic, the silly, and the absolutely terrible – all squawking. She decided that the only way to create a little stillness, was to let the voices inside of her out. And to try to give them narrative coherence. Which won’t be easy.


But still – she had to try.


To join NaNoWriMo, click here.


Story Time Sunday on Monday — 10/27/2014 — Dreaming of Basements

Once upon a time there was a girl who dreamed of bongos in basements. She’d seen a tv show about beatniks. They were strange people with sunglasses and berets and they beat on drums and they spoke weird sentences. The girls looked sharp in tight pants and long hair. They wore interesting jewelry.

The girl who was the dreamer thought “how different these people were from the people on American Bandstand!” The ABS people had great clothes – especially the girls. But they all looked so frozen. They seemed very unhappy. The people called the beatniks seemed – something – maybe not happy in a Leave it to Beaver kind of way. But not unhappy in a desperate Ben Casey sort of way. They seemed intent on something – on their music, on their speaking poem things that they were doing. They seemed intent on each other. There was this energy. And it made the dark basement they were in seem light.

In the girl’s dream, she was friends with the men who were smoking and the girls in their tight pants. She sat in the audience when they got up to sing their songs or say their pieces. She was a part of their gang.

She woke up thinking – “I wish I could do that. Whatever it is these people are doing.”

She went to a dance in a church basement a few years later. A boy she knew was in a rock band and he played the flute. He was better than the Jethro Tull guy. He could really play. She had that same feeling about basements. She wished she had a talent she could share.

Years went by. There was no money. So the girl became a teacher. And then finally, there was health insurance and enough money to live on and a place to live in and a man to live with in it and a child who lived in it too and who then grew up and moved away.

The girl who was by now a woman and an older woman at that heard about this basement near her house. It was a famous basement where rock musicians played and where important artistic people got their start. She went with a friend and sat in the dark and heard people say their pieces. Heard a young man play guitar and talk about his family. She looked at the light bulbs, glimmering in their shades on the sidelines of the room. She thought about the book she wrote with poems in it. She thought about the book she wrote with a big story in it. A man she knew well got up and read a scary funny story about a hit man killing a doctor. A beautiful girl came up and read a scary funny story about axe murderers. Another man told about how big cities can hurt you but that teaching who you are can help everybody.

The girl watched the people from her table. The friend that she brought was an artist. Siting on the other side of her was a famous poet wearing jeans and interesting jewelry.

All that was missing were the bongos.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 45 other followers

%d bloggers like this: