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Big Ups

In honor of finishing the edits on my first book, I'm taking a challenge posed to me by my dear friend Emily Carroll and rattling off, in no particular order, the ten writers Pelican couldn't exist without.

Emily Dickinson

We share a first name, and a history of secretive behavior, and our hearts' burial in Amherst. Dickinson is the first poet I loved as a child, specifically and especially for her "I'm nobody" poem. I went through a phase circa middle school when I was convinced I was from outer space, and feeling connected to another "nobody" is probably what inspired my impulse to record--I wanted to be like Emily: bent over her desk, claiming space through language.

Sylvia Plath

I read The Bell Jar for the first time much earlier than anybody would've let me had they known how I was spending my pocket money. I still have that copy, all my favorite passages underlined in pink, then black, then green, as I read and reread again and again. I became a huge admirer of Plath's poetry in college, but my connection with Plath will always be rooted in her prose and how simultaneously delicate and hysterical she was in her descriptions of a girl too deep into her own mind. I was that girl at 11; I'm that girl now. I go back to The Bell Jar time and again, and I always find some new moment where she shakes me by the shoulders saying you are only seen so far as you can see yourself.

Virginia Woolf

I was nineteen, forgive me

I was nineteen, forgive me

I have a now-illegible text tattoo of a quote from Woolf's Orlando on my ribs: "if we survive the teeth, we succumb to the waves." It's pulled from the passage when Orlando wakes in the night transformed from man to woman, where the narrator steps back from the narrative to muse on the difficulties of accurately telling a story. No matter how you write, your biases will always get the better of you. But Woolf goes beyond her biases by asking more questions that she can possibly answer before the end of an essay or novel or life. In my mind, her prose is unparalleled in excellence, but her heart is what matters most to me. Her characters are so frequently overtaken by the world around them, and I see myself in that surrender every time.

Ali Smith

If you haven't read Hotel World, begin there. My beloved fiction professor and thesis advisor Nell Arnold gave me this book as an assignment for one of her classes and I think about it constantly. Smith's play with tense and perspective is a joy for any admirer of experimental writing, but the true joy of her work is that she doesn't sacrifice earnest for technical backflips. If anything, her talent for manipulating mechanics only makes you feel more deeply for the scenes and stories she makes.

Rebecca Lindenberg

Love: An Index lives beside Hotel World as the only other book I urge all of my writing students to read. Both experiment with narrative in surprising and satisfying ways, but Lindenberg's poems are unique in that they are at once an archive of a personal story and a meditation on memory as the most personal of all storytelling acts. For us to remember anything, we must mark it somehow as ours, and Rebecca's poems are just the right marriage of the deeply personal and the curiously intellectual.

David Foster Wallace

Since we're talking indices and intellect, Foster Wallace seems a natural place to go. The summer my father died, I read Infinite Jest during interminable shifts manning the espresso machine and crepe griddle at a truly horrible cafe that very few customers ever patronized. All of our food was rotten, all our espresso pre-ground, and I had all the time in the world to flip back and forth from main text to endnotes to main text to earlier passage to next chapter to why the hell am I reading about puppets for this many pages and then suddenly I was crying into my coffee. People criticize Foster Wallace for being willfully inaccessible, but I really enjoyed the novel because it forces you to remember that a book is a narrative made physical--that you must interact with an object to access the story you're trying to understand, and that the object might end up being as difficult to deal with as the people it is cataloging.

Leo Tolstoy

It's getting awfully pretentious in here, but hear me out one second more: my first year of college I took a class called "The Bodies of Leo Tolstoy" taught by Polina Barskova, who also happened to be my advisor. The course was gorgeous--we talked about the physical descriptions of war, aging, family, and sex in his work--but the fact that my presence there gave me Polina as an advisor is the true reason Tolstoy makes this list. My father was having health problems again and I was thinking about dropping out of school. Polina frowned at me during one of our dozens of meetings that semester and said, "If you leave, you will never come back." It felt very Russian, but she was also very right. That small push for me to stay put kept me in the community I was beginning to build for myself as a writer, the one that made me a poet and pushed me to the point of telling a lot of really scary stories about myself in my work, many of which produced early drafts that ended up (after countless revisions) in Pelican.

Zadie Smith

Her narrators mytholigize like no other, and of that I'm so envious I could scream. But specifically, she ranks on this list because of The Autograph Man. The novel is about the rituals we take on in memory of what we've lost, and also the ways we sabotage ourselves instead of finding healthy ways to process grief.  It's a beautiful, hilarious, essential read for anyone who's lost a parent. I read most of it on the commuter rail back and forth from Providence to Boston and wept openly, glaring at any stranger who dared interrupt my very intimate relationship with the book.

one of my own fever dreams

one of my own fever dreams

Haruki Murakami

I would follow a cat down a well for this many an day. I don't care if you can make bingo cards from his personal vocabulary of tropes. I don't even care that I couldn't finish 1Q84.  I love him for dropping the surreal into the most normal of circumstances.  I love him for manipulating the same conditions and coming up with endless fever dreams. Hardboiled Wonderland and The End of The World is one of my favorite novels of all time for how deftly is rediscovers the human mind. Can our own memories lay dormant inside us? Certainly. Can we admit those dormant memories are ciphers for all we see and know about the world? That's much harder to face, but a concept important to me beyond words. I wish I could've given that book to my father. He would've adored every page.

Art Alexakis

Yes, I am blaming my debut collection on the frontman of Everclear. I said it in an interview for a forthcoming issue of Profane, and I'm going to say it again here: listening to Everclear as a grouchy adolescent made me realize that it's possible to be angry at your family while still loving them ruthlessly. You can expose the pain they've caused you and claim them and you won't tear yourself in two with the effort of either. Seeing the whole picture--the mess and the joy of being bonded by blood--is what makes family so important. I know that there are plenty of poems I've written that make my family unhappy or uncomfortable. I've already had countless conversations about many of those poems as they slowly see the light of day. But I also know that my family is proud of me for telling our truth, even the ugliest sides of it. Which isn't to say I'm not terrified of my book's birthday. I know there are more hard conversations to come. But I'm willing to have them, because telling the whole story is worth all the hard conversations in the world.

Recognizing Writers

I had an incredibly bizarre dream the other night about attending a David Foster Wallace reading.  He stood atop a massive pile of trash, bloated to a massive girth (were it not for his ubiquitous bandana, I wouldn’t have recognized him), and read from a new collection of short stories.  I was completely overcome by the experience.  His prose has wormed its way into my top ten list over the past few years, so as far as the writing was concerned, I was un-surprised.  But beyond the writing, I was annoyed at everyone else in the room.  They were listening, but impatient.  I could tell none of them knew who he was, simply because he did not look like his author photo.

D avid Foster Wallace, as found  here .
David Foster Wallace, as found here.

The dream went on to other strange places, but once I was awake again, the thing that still bothered me was how no one had wanted to listen to him because he simply did not look like a writer.  He looked like a slob.  He was wearing dirty clothes that did not fit, he had not showered in some time; in stark contrast, everyone standing around his trash podium was well-heeled and deeply skeptical.  But what is a writer supposed to look like?

Often, especially when talking to strangers, people act surprised when they find out I am a writer.  Their level of shock increases when I mention the publishing success I’ve been blessed with.  Granted, I am pretty young to have done as well as I’m doing right now.  But I don’t think age is the main factor in their surprise.  My appearance is a good-sized leap away from average; I look more like a bartender than a bard.  I think the strangers seem uncomfortable that I’ve done well for myself in a highly competitive and often deeply academic field because  a woman in her early twenties with more than a few large visible tattoos and facial piercings isn’t someone they typically take very seriously.   But that’s where my empathy for their confusion ends.  Maybe this is due to my lifetime of friendship with crusty misanthropes, tattooed barflies, and other such misfits, but it really gets my goat that appearance and “refined” language are seen as requirements for a successful writer, or an intelligent person in general.  Show me your stuffy, elbow-patched ideal of a poet, and I call probably show you five writers just as talented who might be mistaken for carnies.   Even if you think they don’t or can’t exist, they do.  And they are no less brilliant at writing because of their unconventional appearances.

I wouldn’t take such serious issue with this line of thought if it didn’t show up across the board in academia.  Anyone who’s gone to college has had at least one “wacky” professor who exists beyond the norm, but for the most part, academia is pretty inhospitable to those who do not exist within that elbow-patched brainiac norm.  (Not that I don’t like elbow patches, but they have certain connotations.)  When I was finishing up my last semester at school, I had a few wonderful professors encouraging me to continue my studies, and a big reason I didn’t is because of judgments people made about me based on the way I look.  I wish I’d handed every skeptic of my intelligence level a book by Daphne Gottlieb or Rachel McKibbens or Nick Flynn or any number of hard-swaggering, big-brained rock-n-roll poets.

When I finished college, I had a teal mohawk, a septum ring, several large (and visible) tattoos, and a serious chip on my shoulder.  Anytime I spoke eloquently about literature or politics, people seemed genuinely surprised that I was not only a reasonable person, but a well-educated one fully capable of putting them in their place in spite of my somewhat-wild appearance.  It made me almost as angry as people assuming that because I am a woman, I couldn’t possibly have anything interesting to say.  To think that these kind of stereotypes exist when we close our eyes and picture our favorite writers makes me sick.

This disconnect between what the general public assumes writers should look like and what we actually look like isn’t only a poet’s problem.  Isabel Slone writes very eloquently about why spending most of her freelancer’s day in pajamas does not disqualify her from being a worthy fashion writer:

Frankly, it doesn’t matter what I look like, as long as the work gets done. …The grand dame of fashion journalism Cathy Horyn, is also a really boring dresser. Horyn may be fashion critic for the New York Times, sitting front row at fashion shows, but she isn’t there to be seen. She is there to have an unobstructed view of the collections being presented, so she can write about them with honesty and clarity.

Unfortunately, when it comes to stereotypes about appearance, things are rarely honest or clear.   The assumptions made about appearance are not only vehicles for racism, classism, and sexism; they make writing into an elite club that can only be accessed by those who “have the look.”  In Sloane’s article on the homogeneous nature of street style fashion blogs for the Toronto Standard, she discusses how the sameness is really just another form of advertising:

I started blogging before Susie Bubble, before Tavi, and I have never achieved insider status or anything close to it. For example, in October 2011, FLARE.com created a slideshow with 22 bloggers wearing Canadian fashion. Picture after picture featured a blandly “fashionable” aesthetic that appeals to people with too much money, not enough taste and a charge account at Holt Renfrew. …I remained embittered that none of the creative Canadian fashion blogs that I read and love (Nice and ShinyPull TeethCalur Villade) were included either. Whoever is creating this content seems to be aiming for mass appeal over unique perspectives.

Slone’s criticism can be applied to the larger writing world, in that the day we start having expectations about what a writer should or should not look like is the day we are deaf to innovative voices simply because they do not fit our idea of what a writer needs to be.  What should a writer look like?  What should an artist look like?  I know plenty of people who belong to both categories, and there is no one visual trend I could describe for you.  Every race makes art, as well as every permutation of gender, every political background, and every level of intelligence.  They all wear different clothes, listen to different music, have diverse vocabularies of both words and experiences.  There is no one-size-fits-all image of an artist we can use to recognize the creative class on the street.  It is not unreasonable to have expectations, but you need to be willing to question why those expectations exist.  Does stature or speech pattern tell us much about the capabilities of somebody’s mind?  Not even close.

David Foster Wallace came to me in a dream for a posthumous book release and I knew it was him because of his words on the page, their cadences, the thematic concerns.  When a writer has found his voice, that is how he can be recognized.  Not by height or weight or style of dress, but by the words he makes.  That is how we know writers.  Because they put words in rows on a page.  That is the face of a writer that should be the one most important to their audience: the face that changes and becomes more whole with every chapter.