Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category


» March 25th, 2020


by klipschutz
Hoot n Waddle, 120pp., $16.00

Premeditations is a poet’s ode to poets. With wry nostalgia, klipschutz (the name author Kurt Lipschutz goes by), a San Francisco poet and songwriter (who works closely with the musician Chuck Prophet), opens his paean to poetry by defending the increasingly endangered sacred space where one typically discovers words that fuel the spirit: a bookstore. “North Beach Threnody,” the volume’s opening poem, leads with this stanza:

A landmark, registered, and us inside it,
folded up in folding chairs, with
everything outside moving
fast in another direction.
Looking around from
sign to handmade
sign, I dreamt
the lot of us
had heard
an SOS
an evil hour,
keeping faith
to make our stand,
in the last bookstore in town.

Those (of a certain age) committed to literature might quickly intuit the meaning of the stanza’s inversion. A cultural institution gets eroded from the center inward, enduring an attack on its countercultural tradition while nonetheless taking a stand (even if that stand is pacific and delivered from folding chairs). It’s an act that seems particularly appropriate for the Bay Area, a misty nirvana currently under siege by slick tech giants.

So klipschutz’s ode comes with urgency. It’s an urgency marked by memory and fueled by the terrifying prospect that we might choose not to resist. Books are precarious, loving them more so. Dedicating a life to text is an expression of defiance in a culture that’s increasingly gutted by commerce and intellectual indifference. And so on.

It’s good to be reminded of this truth. Its necessity. The experience of browsing shelves for hidden gems, with the faith that something critical depends on it, stands in empowering contrast to “everything outside moving / fast in another direction.” And thus one pleasure of this volume: klipschutz winks with those of us who know just how subversive this position can feel, a rare and therapeutic empathy we didn’t know we needed, until it came at us, poem after poem.

Charm leavens klipschutz’s nostalgia. He writes poems that remind us how, like most weapons of the weak, great poetry evokes the inner glow of living well, of exploring deeply, and of taking reality neat and straight. This book honors old souls with the fortitude to equate worlds and words, knowing intuitively that language does not represent so much as embody those “regions / scientists will never map.” klipschutz accomplishes all this while reiterating how precarious the space remains between real readers and their increasingly precious, tightly bound, potentially explosive weapons.

Read more here

February Reading Overview

» February 28th, 2020

Michael Cuddihy began his gem of a “little magazine” in 1972, in Tucson, Arizona, and for over 15 years ushered remarkable poetic talent from relative obscurity to global attention. Known for his exacting if sometimes maddening editorial standards, he published Charles Simic, W.S. Merwin, Czeslaw Milosz, Frank Stanford, George Oppen, Ai, Jack Gilbert, Donald Hall, and many others.  This book, a kind of autobiography of working life, chronicles Cuddihy’s connection with the poets he published, his interpretation of their work, and the nuts and bolts of putting together a journal in an age before digital publishing. Ironwood, Cuddihy’s journal, embodies a lifetime of work, 32 issues dedicated to publishing rare talent. Cuddihy’s own voice is measured, although it sometimes sometimes rises and falls above the norm. A rise: about a speech by the poet Robert Hass he writes, “So powerful was the impact his words made that had I been standing, I would have staggered.” Cuddihy was not standing because he couldn’t stand. Polio confined him to a wheelchair. And as for the falls, there’s a bit too much “I then had lunch with so and so important poet here and there” but it’s a small complaint for a book that consistently reminds us how deeply words matter.





C. Vann Woodward is a hero to me. I’m a historian (officially at least, although I rarely act like one) and he’s my model of what a historian should be. Why? Primarily because he understands the legacy of racial injustice, and condemns racism, while also remaining a proud, even defiant Southerner. This has been my lifelong struggle. My formative years were in Atlanta, Georgia and thus my identity was forged in the South. This regional association has stuck with me enough for me to get touchy when below-the-Mason-Dixon line slurs are uttered. Woodward goes after highbrow 19th-century northerners who went gaga over a murderer turned martyr named John Brown; he notes that the “American exceptionalism” that so many patriotic northerners have long sought was best reflected in the South; and he points out, rather bluntly, that the northerners who condemned the South as uniquely racist erupted in race riots the moment African Americans migrated to their turf: Chicago, New York, Detroit, and so on. Essentially C. Vann Woodward lets nobody off the hook when it comes to the legacy of race and racial injustice in the United States and that’s how it should be.






Basil Bunting was an English poet who worked in the shadow of Ezra Pound, and occasional managed to escape it and find his own voice. He’s a modernist. But, as stubbornly inaccessible as his poetry can be, he’s warm at heart and periodically able to elicit a throb of insight. BB was enamored of both youth and losing it, and once you appreciate this anxiety his Complete Poems bring you on board and perhaps serve you a bit of tea before the tears start to flow. The core advice of saving yourself from the perils that the hipper modernists feared was perhaps best stated here by Bunting:

Aye, tether me among the maniacs,

it’s nicer to rave than reason.

And it sure is. But it’s when Bunting thinks small that you might be better likely to connect with him. Such wisdom, for example, in this:


To cross a river 

boats and rudders

to keep the empire in order

poets and sages


Dare to dream, huh? Okay one more, I saddened my self with idealistic philosophies And another: Whose steps wake your delight?

I could go on. And so should you.


“Perfect,” a reviewer wrote in the New York Times. “Perfect,” a reviewer wrote in the Washington Post. This much hyped novel–about an adrift young woman who finds herself after being hired by an old friend to care for her stepchildren–delivers some touching insights into the ineffably difficult task of raising children. To highlight the deeply personal and emotional nature of the relationship between children and those who care for them, Kevin Wilson makes a couple of interesting choices: First, he sets the novel in the era just before the Internet, a choice that requires adults and kids to actually interact rather than lose themselves in screens; and second, he has the kids catch fire when they get overly excited. You heard that right. So, for me, a reader who prefers my reality straight with no chaser, the test was obvious: would I be able to keep reading once a kid spontaneously combusted? The answer was an assured yes. Wilson’s touch as a writer is swift, sometimes too breezy, but ultimately effective and trustworthy. I stuck with him, and while some characters are drawn as caricatures, and others under drawn, the protagonist, Lillian, is fully formed and deeply lovable; and while having kids catch fire still seems gimmicky, it accomplishes more than I thought possible. So the book is hardly perfect, hardly close to it, and does not go after any big game, but it’s an entertaining and well told tale. Bring it to the beach.




We all have gaps in our reading and Frankenstein was one that always bothered me. So when my daughter had to read it for school I thought I’d join her. It’s a page turner! Mary Shelley wrote it as a teenager, something that’s hard to fathom given the profound insight she offers into the human quest for technological control over nature. This book goes after big game indeed, so big that it may have more relevance now–200 years after it came out–than then. The age of AI would benefit immensely from a close reading of this text. Perhaps most shocking to me was how the monster that Frankenstein creates evokes such sympathy in the reader, as does the fear–gut wrenching as it is–that Frankenstein experiences when his powerful invention turns on him. References to Genesis, Rousseau, and Hobbes underscore much the text but what’s astounding is how equally interesting it is to think about the novel in the framework of Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud, all of whom came after Mary Shelley. Many it’s this last observation that qualifies a book as a classic.






Frank Stanford is a poet before anything else. But he did write short stories. They were nowhere near as impressive as his poems, but some of them are gripping, in a dark and carnivalesque  kind of way, and they nurture a theme that defines so much of Stanford’s work–deep empathy for the marginalized and grotesque. Wisdom resides in the downtrodden, and the very few elites who enter the scene are taken down many notches for their ersatz erudition. “Where I come from strangers are welcome”–the line opening one of the stories–could be Stanford’s motto. These strangers are usually damaged seekers who you root for. But the real highlights for me are when Stanford brings a poetic touch to his stories. “The tangle of an old chandelier hung in one room like a clump of roots” is a line that only a poet could write. And so I’m happy to think of Stanford, even more so after reading his prose, as a poet.









January Reading Overview

» January 13th, 2020


Marquez is a masterful writer. Sentences soar and float with ethereal beauty. Example: “Little by little, listening to her sleep, he pieced together the navigation chart of her dreams and sailed among the countless islands of her secret life.” Lovely, but: Find that a little creepy, too? This is where Marquez gets complicated. He immerses readers in the romance of unrequited love and tender passion while allowing his elderly but remarkably virile protagonist to blamelessly sleep with a 14-year old girl whose prospects, as a result of this abuse, do not end well. Trust me that nobody will be reading this in high school English these days.  Or in college English for that matter. The novel makes Lolita look tame.  But then again Nabokov never did this: “He played, murmuring the words, his violin bathed in tears, with an inspiration so intense that with the first measures the dogs all over the city began to howl, but then, little by little, they were quieted by the spell of the music, and the waltz ended in supernatural silence.” Works for me.




For years, when I had a Twitter account, I used as my photo that famous image of Abbey leaning on the rifle with which he had just bullet-holed his television. Real good pic. I’ve read Abbey’s work for years, and have generally been a huge fan of his nonfiction (naturally, Desert Solitaire) although less enthused by his fiction (still, The Monkey Wrench Gang is an exception to my skepticism). His life was always vague to me, but–as I’m reading a lot of literary bios these days–I thought I’d take on James M. Cahalan’s Edward Abbey: A Life. There are flaws to this biography but it’s generally quite well done. The best proof of this claim is that by the end of it I really did not care for Ed Abbey as a person. In fact, I think he was largely full of shit, a man who invented himself as cheap caricature. But the crank had his insights that, jejune as they were, were also, if you want to get down to the lick log, funny. When he learned he might die, he quipped, “At least I don’t have to floss anymore.” Yeah, funny, but not enough to compensate for how badly he treated so many people, starting with himself. For the record, I no longer use his photo on my Twitter account, in part because I shot my Twitter account. You should, too. Abbey would approve.

Given it’s status as a longtime #1 NYT bestseller, given the vast positive commentary it generated, and given the author’s rise to stardom, Hillbilly Elegy came to me with elevated expectations. God what a horribly confused book. To be sure, it’s a page-turner. I mean, a real page turner. I started to read it while on a brief trip to the Florida Keys, where, on page 100, I dropped it, full immersion, into the bathtub. The paperback sunk like a cinderblock and then swelled to the size of a phonebook, so I did the natural thing: I got dressed and went right back to the bookstore and bought a second copy.

But by the time I finished it I wish I hadn’t padded the profits of this truly deceptive and manipulative book. The upshot is that the author is an incredibly impressive person who overcame some horrific early childhood experiences to make it to the Marines, Ohio State, and Yale Law School. The trajectory alone makes for the story.

But in that last hallowed venue he became preoccupied with class privilege. Others had it and he did not. Even as he rose in the ranks–law review, job offers, etc–he victimizes himself as unworthy, uncouth, unprepared, out of the LOOP. Not buying it, JD. What Esq. Vance never realizes is that the unique nature of his experience–seeing the class spectrum from so many angles–does not privilege him to draw the sweeping conclusions that he draws about class status, work, and upward mobility in ‘merica.

Unless he wants to invest his law degree with an authority he finds so vacant, he is only qualified to draw conclusions about one subject matter: himself. I wish he trusted that that would be enough. But, as a result of his deterministic insistence that once an Appalachian hillbilly always an Appalachian hillbilly, he ends up, due to this essentialist notion (and the false confidence of his credential), entirely ham-handing class in America. When a guy from such poverty insists that the government cannot help the poor folk he seems to know so well, you know something has been skewed for ulterior motives. When a Yale Law grad complains that nobody ever taught him that a belt and shoes should match, and deems that ignorance as genuine cultural oppression, I’m sorry, but I have more sympathy for the “welfare queens” he condemns.

My word, dear lord, hail mary, this Kurt Lipschutz (byline klipschutz) is some wonderful combination of smart, fun, irreverent, flippant, and beat. The single best thing about reading his new book of poems–Premeditations– is the thrill of witnessing a poet’s love of poetry. I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon with klipshutz looking at art, and learning that he writes songs with the musician Chuck Prophet. Well, yeah he does. This volume is somehow both a personal testament to poetry, a history of poetry, and poetry all in one junket. Example: Ginsberg’s Howl is poetically cast as “the poem that changed America’s diapers/brought Walt Whitman’s barbaric yawp out of the closet.” Amen. Who needs more than that. [sic]

Zest (#2)

» December 7th, 2019


My daughter made some updates to her blog and somehow lost all her subscribers. I know some of you kindly signed up for her posts so, if you are inclined, please re-subscribe here. Many thanks.


Nick Flynn

» December 1st, 2019



Years ago I remember being thrilled by Nick Flynn’s memoirs Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and The Ticking is the Bomb. Because I liked them so much I resisted reading his poetry, perhaps fearing that his skill in one literary venue might not transfer to the other in a way that sustained my admiration. So I waited a decade and, having just finished his latest book of poems,  I Will Destroy You, am pleased to note that my fears were unfounded.

Flynn’s poetry centers on addiction, nature (and ecological destruction, but not in a pedantic way), the child inside every adult, and, most successfully, the limits of language to articulate the power of emotion. This last accomplishment is most evident in “Saltmarsh,” a poem that opens with the image of a book “facedown in the flattened/grass . . .” and then declares “I want all/language to dissolve, to/become    (again)    salt . . .” By the end of the poem words have exploded, the meaning they intend to represent unrecoverable. Strangely, though, the feeling is not one of loss or destruction, but faith in the feelings that words can’t signify.

In Flynn’s world, what accounts for the limits of language are both the depth of human feeling and the ease with which we allow language to be commodified. To get at the latter, Flynn develops numerous metaphors around birds and nests. In “God’s Will,” a woman struggling with the pain of her brother’s overdose is juxtaposed against the bower bird’s habit of collecting “blue/things–bottle cap, rubber band/bits of broken  band,/bits of a broken/cup–to make an elaborate, sparkling/blue nest on the ground.” The message stresses how an instinctual love can drive us to protect others but, no matter how beautiful and even magical our efforts–a blue nest–can still be inadequate, and may be even nothing more than a symbolic move really designed to protect ourselves.

In “If Only They Could Bottle This Feeling,” Flynn pits language against the forces of commodification that all too easily gut it of its power, most of it in an attempt to make humans supposedly happier. It opens: “Pages torn from magazines/taped to the walls–a sunset,/a puppy, a tree in/ a field–all of it more real/than these words.” Then comes a kiss so consuming that “if I/was made of paper I’d have/burst into flame . . .” With the flame leveling a forest of words you think, again, about the limits  of language.

But in a twist, Flynn shows how, instead of accepting those limits, a commercial culture that is limitless in what it promises inevitably intervenes: “If only they could/bottle this feeling, I thought/&then they did.” The sadness is in the reminder of how what’s really being commodified is not language, but rather the emotion that language cannot grasp, thereby making our feelings graspable and cheap. One wonders if this is where sentiment and nostalgia derive, how much of our emotional reaction to life is genuine and how much if fabricated, and a lot of other worthwhile considerations that great poetry can evoke.

Sally Rooney’s Conversations

» November 28th, 2019

When I was in Dublin last summer I picked up a thin volume called Mr. Salary by the Irish author Sally Rooney. She’s a big deal in Ireland. I read it before going to bed and thought “what’s all the hype with this young woman?” I was in Boston soon after and I tossed it to a friend I said here, but no need to bother. I dismissed Rooney along with so many other contemporary writers who strike me as not good enough to read in lieu of so many great dead writers.

But then I heard Rooney interviewed on a podcast. Something about her made me think I should give her novels a try. What impressed me was her awareness that she should not, as a writer in her 20s, attempt to say more than she knows. What Sally Rooney knows–and what she knows she knows– is how young adults talk to each other and, as they do, how they feel inside as they converse. She covers a lot of Millennial social terrain (a bit of polyamory, open relationships, Tinder sex), and there is at times a forced effort to let us know (through her characters’ reading habits) that she’s fluent in a lot of philosophy and history and politics. But what her novels ultimately offer is a forensic investigation of how people form relationships and, once in those relationships, talk to each other. In this ambition, few writers I know of can compete.

Searching Normal People and Conversations with Friends for passages that demonstrate Rooney’s facility with dialogue, I got stumped. The reason I cannot find a passage to quote is that the conversations in her novels are so situational, so rooted in the specific drama of the moment, that it’s nearly impossible to isolate highlights. There are no highlights. Anything I excerpted would, in isolation, seem mundane to the point of irrelevance. The reason for this is important: In real life conversation, as we all know (but never really think about), a common phrase can mean radically different things depending on the person and the context and the tone. Rooney is so sensitive to her characters and their precise context that the only way to appreciate their conversations is in the framework of the entire book itself.

Rooney’s recognition of her own limits has a drawback, at least for a reader like me (in his 50s). Her Gen X characters are about as developed as the parents in a Charlie Brown episode. In contrast to her Millennial characters, her fully adult characters are without character; they are props. In a way, this is reassuring. Rooney’s antennae reaches only so far as reaches. She’s no George Eliot. But she’s Sally Rooney. She knows it. And I like it.

A Confederacy of Dunces

» September 30th, 2019


I’d been wanting to write this essay for many years, so was thrilled when Public Books answered my query. By journalistic standards, it’s a lengthy piece, with the introduction excerpted here and a link to the full article appearing at the end. 

Thelma Toole, the mother of the novelist John Kennedy Toole—author of the extraordinary almost-unpublished novel A Confederacy of Dunces—delivered one of the most irresponsible accusations in American literary history. But responsibility really wasn’t her thing. Instead, it was to ensure that her son’s genius would be acknowledged: preferably by the world and ideally by means of Robert Gottlieb, a kingpin of New York publishing.

So when Gottlieb, a young but virtuosic editor at Simon & Schuster, opted not to publish Ken Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces in the mid 1960s—and then when the 32-year-old author killed himself in 1969, 50 years ago this past March—Thelma mixed correlation and causation, sending up a full-throttled J’accuse from New Orleans to New York. Gottlieb—she stated publicly1—by rejecting Toole’s manuscript, had effectively killed her son.

Gottlieb’s restraint in the face of Thelma’s behavior was more than heroic. He stayed silent, recognizing that a grieving mother will do horrible things to assuage her suffering. But Gottlieb cannot be so easily exonerated from another charge leveled against him. This one came from the broader literary establishment and was backed by the Pulitzer Prize Board, which awarded A Confederacy of Dunces a Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Certainly by then, if not before, this accusation could stick: Gottlieb, like much of the New York publishing world at the time (eight other presses would pass on the manuscript), misunderstood Toole’s book.

Today, 50 years after the death of Toole, during a technological era when social media intensify and publicize our status anxieties, and at an ecological point in time when the city where the novel originated—New Orleans—is under seasonal threat of Armageddon, it has never been more important to revisit Toole’s masterpiece.

If only as a critique of late capitalism, A Confederacy of Dunces uncannily identifies the deep ennui that accompanies today’s rat race, questioning what it means to do as the protagonist’s mother begs her son: “Make good.”

Keep reading here.










A Fast Life

» September 6th, 2019

Tim Dlugos is a poet that a friend introduced to me by reading a poem of his into my phone. I was enchanted. But it was a hectic day and all I could remember was that the poem was perfect and the poet’s name started with a D, not followed by a vowel.

A year later, at the library, I searched for him, D…g? . . l?… and eventually I landed on his collection A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos. I can’t really summarize the poems other than to say they track the intricacies and love and lust through the jungle of AIDS and death. Dlugas seemed incapable of a dull line.

Like a lot of great poetry it’s what’s left out that captivates:


It’s cold, you note

(correctly) as we walk

to the train


It’s midnight, it 

will be colder 

when you leave 

6 a.m. or so . . .


This is such a wonderful poetic somersault, with the flip left out. You head home with a potential lover you know might be an actual lover.  To fill the space he says “It’s cold.” The forced nature of the comment makes the anticipation between the walk to the train and the bed palpable. The clock strikes midnight and, suddenly, you are, as the voyeur/reader, curtained off. This is a private moment. But then morning threatens and we’re let back in. The sky is pale blue with dawn and what thrilled to the core six hours earlier is a now source of ineffable sadness. Sadder than a petite mort.





» August 18th, 2019

Today’s New York Times‘ Magazine issue was based on the single and profound conceit that slavery began in the American colonies in 1619. In terms of editorial packaging, it was an editor’s dream. Consider: the 400-year anniversary of the defining scar on our nation’s past–slavery– coinciding with a white supremacist president who has revived the racism our better angels have tried, however inadequately, to resolve and redeem. You’d be a fool not to make the most of this anniversary.

But the problem is that 1619/slavery connection is wrong. It’s factually not the date slavery began in what Jake Silverstein, the magazine’s editor, implies was “our nation.” There was no “our nation” in 1619. There was England. And her colonies. “The country’s true birth date” was not, as Silverstein tells us, 1619. It was in fact 1776. But the problem here is not with the ridiculous ahistorical implication that the US was somehow accountable for what happened a 150 years before its founding. It’s rather with the more complicated origins of North American slavery itself.

I’m not going to belabor things too much here. But I only want to make two quick and essential points: a) the arrival of 20-30 slaves in 1619 cannot be characterized as having “inaugurated a barbaric system of chattel slavery”; and b) it does the world of elite journalism, much less those of us who want to trust it, no good to hinge its truly noble commitment to righting historical injustice on bad history.

Now, to succinctly elaborate the former claim: The 20-30 Africans who disembarked in Virginia might have been slaves on the ship from which they disembarked. But when their feet hit Virginia soil they were by no means slaves, at least in terms of what slavery would become. There were as yet no slave codes in Virginia, only an array of contractual agreements dealing with indentured servants. It was into the wide framework of these indentured arrangements that these 20-30 Africans were incorporated into Virginia’s tobacco economy. These black servants–not slaves– enjoyed some level of legal protection on par with white indentured servants. As Edmund Morgan has shown, black and white servants toiled together, sued their masters’ together, escaped together, and even made it through their servitude and owned land together. Indeed, Anthony Johnson, a black servant who fulfilled his contract, eventually grabbed up land and worked it with white indentured servants!

The origin of American slavery actually came in 1676, when black and white servants linked arms and rebelled, quite violently, against their masters, in an event known as Bacon’s Rebellion. Tidewater masters, realizing that racism could diffuse the class tension that almost left their heads in a pile of rubble, began to impose slave codes as the dust of the this massacre settled.  Perhaps slave codes might ensure that the poorest whites would no longer unite with blacks. Rather, due to legal designations, those whites could feel a sense of superiority to blacks, and even some affinity with the rich whites. Slavery could pull that off.

Trump’s race baiting makes a hell of a lot more sense in this more accurate narrative. But–and to point b– I imagine the NYT Magazine wasn’t willing to wait another half century to get history right. Upshot (a word the journos love): the 1619 gambit is a darling that should have been killed.



» August 17th, 2019




A.R. Ammons was a southern poet who grew up poor on a Carolina tobacco farm owned by his Pentecostal parents. He scratched his way to that sweet spot between total immersion in and angry disownment from parental influence and majored in science at Wake Forest University. Poetry snuck up on him as he stared into the South Pacific as a soldier during WWII–”The whole world changed as a result of an interior illumination”–and he wrote like a demon on weekends and evenings while making a living in his father-in-law’s glassware business. In 1977, his poem “Easter Morning” recollected a visit back to North Carolina:

. . . . I cannot leave this place, for

for me it is the dearest and the worst,

it is life nearest to life which is

life lost: it is my place where

I must stand and fail . . .

As a resident of Austin, Texas since 1994, and having grown up in Atlanta, where I make obligatory and frequent visits to family, this quote spoke up to me. Both places have been transformed by untethered greed and creativity. The physical landscape has been altered so drastically under these not incompatible influences that the only continuity that I can positively identify is the literal longitude and latitude measures that mark these homelands in Google space.

In Atlanta, I now get lost in the same stretch of three miles between my home and high school. In Austin, if you leave for a week, it’s as if someone took a giant weed whacker to blocks of old structures and saturated the earth with Miracle-Gro for boxy big-windowed buildings. The whole  transformative project seems catered to an odd but fierce millennial-inspired dedication to “lifestyle” and “quality of life” and it’s as shallow as a kiddie pool full of warm piss.

Yet “I cannot leave this place.” It’s the darnedest and dearest and the worst. I stand here, for sure, and even more for sure, I fail here. Cascades of failure. My homeland cuckolds me on a daily basis and yet I remain, obediently and with disarming loyalty, loyal to her turf. Explaining this adherence to place would likely require going deeper into my psyche than I wish to do in this public forum, but there seems an easy explanation: Austin is where my friends are and Atlanta is where my family is. I know, yawn. But time ensures this tyranny. We abide our geography if we want to be grounded in a way that matters, and in the way that Ammons so brilliantly understood.