03/31/10 2:30am

A Common Pornography
By Kevin Sampsell
Harper Perennial

In A Common Pornography, Kevin Sampsell presents his life story as a series of vignettes, some previously published, pulled together and fleshed out after his father’s death in 2008. After the funeral, Sampsell’s mother explained to him (at a Sonic drive-in) the details of her previous marriages and the extent of his father’s abusive behavior toward her and toward her older children, Sampsell’s half-siblings. Sampsell processes this information along with his remembrances of being raised in a mixed-race household, scattered part-time work, failed relationships, New Wave music, and his efforts to become a writer.

Sampsell’s introductory notes establish his posture toward the events he recounts—a position that includes, in particular, a view of his father’s familial transgressions (and, ultimately, Sampsell’s own) as crucial elements to a complete story, but not events that ought to be mythologized. In this way, Sampsell prepares the reader for the direct, unembellished tone of the memoir and makes it clear that he’s not looking to capitalize on his family’s hard luck; he places himself on the same moral plane as the other people about whom he writes.

While Sampsell’s story doesn’t fit the common mold of autobiography primarily due to its fragmented structure, neither does it partake in the indulgences that sometimes accompany lyric memoir. Sampsell presents his history matter-of-factly, keeping wandering reflection and suspect nostalgia to a minimum. The result is an impressively absorbing and difficult, yet not emotionally manipulative, collection of remembrances—one which seems true to the real functioning of memory.

Sampsell builds analysis delicately into his memories rather than roughly extracting it. In describing a visit back to his hometown during which he and his girlfriend stop to look at his childhood house, Sampsell notices a woman in his old yard and writes, “I wanted to say, ‘I used to live here and I’m writing a book about it.’ But I would have felt like a dork. Instead I just made it blatant that we were talking about their house by pointing to the window where my bedroom used to be.”

10/21/09 4:00am

Kevin Canty’s new collection, Where the Money Went, was published this summer. The collection includes “The Birthday Girl,” which was featured in this year’s Summer Fiction Issue of the L. Canty, who teaches writing at the University of Montana, answered some questions for us earlier this year.

The L: What do you think of the recurring assessment of your work as occupied with the underbelly of things? Do you think it’s a fair description? Is it something you consider while writing?
Kevin Canty: It depends on what you mean. I do love the dark sides and gray areas—the sunny surfaces of life I find pretty much uninteresting. I’m often working to bring to the page and make visible a feeling or thought that lies buried but present, just out of sight.

When I first started writing, I also felt a need to bring more working-class (and drinking class) characters into my stories; I’d spent a lot of time out of the middle classes and felt like there were a lot of stories that weren’t getting told. Lately, though—after all this time in the University—I feel like I’ve lost touch with those lives a little, and so more of my characters in this new collection have money, jobs, nice shoes.

L: So, as the places you’re looking to find and expose those buried thoughts and feelings change, is what you’re finding different?
KC: Well, obviously, the threads that make us all human are pretty much the same: love, death, fear of death, fear of love, embrace of death, the need for sandwiches, all these things are spread across everybody’s lives. I was going to say that perhaps these more privileged lives are less constrained by circumstance, but that’s probably not true. It’s just different manners and morals, different ways these primal dramas get acted out.

L: The stories in Where the Money Went seem as interested in physical landscape as they are in, say, alcoholism and troubled relationships. Your descriptions of the locations your characters inhabit are reverent, in a way, and beautifully wrought. Do you think there’s a balancing act in your writing between personal despair and external beauty?
KC: Interesting question. There’s always this kind of fake-ironic relationship between landscape and weather and inner feeling; the morning of September 11 was a beautiful day, which in the end really means nothing. But a lot of these stories are set in the West, and the West does attract people like me who feel a stirring at the sight of a mountain range or a trout stream, riffle and pool. The landscape does sometimes have the power to console, for those of us who look to nature for consolation.

L: After living in the West for so long, do you still feel moved by the landscape? Do you ever get the urge to run away to a big city?
KC: Well, I do run away to the big city, fairly often; we flew into LaGuardia on the evening of July Fourth this year, just as all the fireworks were going off. I love big noisy cities, rock shows, restaurants. I am moved by visual art, which is in short supply here in the Intermountain West. But I also love these trout streams and mountain ranges. It’s quiet here, and very convenient, and good for writing. An ideal life would have both in it.

06/24/09 4:00am

Graywolf Press

Available now

Fugitive Visions, Jane Jeong Trenka’s second memoir, takes as its
subject Trenka’s harried assimilation to life in South Korea as a
returning transnational adoptee. Having been raised in rural Minnesota
by white parents, Trenka reconnects with her biological family in her
early twenties and eventually moves — in fits and starts —
back to Korea. Fugitive Visions explores the disconnected emotional and
social space Trenka inhabits as a non-native speaker and relative
newcomer to Korea.

In this memoir — which is more a creative analysis or
reflection than a straightforward narrative — Trenka works with
transnational adoption as a concept, and with the inevitable emotional
consequences suffered by those raised in cultures vastly different than
those of their biological families. To that effect, she discusses her
disparate feelings of estrangement from and longing for her childhood
home, a place where her ethnicity was not a topic of conversation
amongst her adoptive family, even though Trenka grew up as an obvious
minority in a white, rural community. Residing in Korea, however,
provides Trenka scant relief, as her gaps in language immediately
identify her as a foreigner and require her to justify her origins to
everyone with whom she speaks. The result, Trenka explains, is an
existence devoid of a sturdy national — or even ethnic —
identity. She writes, “The sight of a middle-aged white woman on a
Seoul street — a stranger, who, to my perpetual surprise, never
recognizes my own whiteness — brings up memories of hamburger
hotdishes with kidney beans, white bread and grape jelly…”

Trenka peppers her prose with excerpts from psychology texts,
vocabulary exercises and creative self-tests, all of which contribute
to the physically disjointed yet thematically cohesive space in which
her tale exists. In this way, she keeps interesting what otherwise
might be a difficult stream of reflection to follow. Ultimately, Trenka
delivers a self-analysis of impressive emotional weight and insight.
Her investigations of race, culture and self-identity reach to the
core; Trenka is unafraid to reveal those depths to readers who do not
necessarily share her experiences, and it is a task at which she

06/10/09 4:00am


Available now

In the first piece of her collection of lyrical essays, The
Winter Sun
, Fanny Howe defines her task plainly: “This collection
of notes and memories is an effort to resolve the question: What was
this strange preoccupation that seemed to have no motive, cause, or
final goal and preceded all that writing that I did.” To answer the
question, Howe pulls together a mixture of memoir and musings,
interspersing explorations into the nature of faith and the torrential
relationship between the past and future with memories of her formative
years and stories from the lives of people she found inspirational.

Despite a huge range of topics, Howe manages to wrangle her various
recurring themes into a fairly cohesive, remarkably crafted whole. Her
ability to draw connections across an expanse of events and thoughts
impresses, as does the way in which she mines those connections for
meaning. The culmination of this intricate structure comes in a section
titled “Waters Wide” which includes the only full poem in the book
— one that touches upon almost all of Howe’s themes. Reading the
poem, one realizes that the roving path of the collection — which
at times seems lost in its own digressions — offers a guide to
the poem, which, in turn, functions as both a window into Howe’s poetic
psyche and a reflection of the knowledge aggregated in the book.

What makes The Winter Sun sometimes frustrating to read,
though, is Howe’s refusal to analyze rather than simply reflect. When
discussing theories of time, self-identification and reflection, her
conclusions often read like platitudes from a survey course in
humanities. Howe does not really engage with the theoretical ideas she
floats; rather, she takes advantage of the dreamy quality that affixes
to a philosophical idea when glanced at from a distance. Because they
are not investigated or explained, lines like “The future is only the
past recognizing itself at another location” and “People who are
destabilized by historical forces are more intelligent than the secure
ones who have got the formulas in place” often lack true content. Had
Howe steered clear of such window-dressing statements, her work could
have been left to speak, clearly, for itself.

05/13/09 4:00am

Collections of selected works necessarily reflect the biases of
their editors, and in his picks, August Kleinzahler aims to highlight
the work of Anglo-American poet Thom Gunn — who died five years
ago last month — which support his contention that Gunn’s mastery
brightened rather than dimmed over a half century of publication. While
Kleinzahler is not entirely successful in his endeavor, his selections
do show Gunn at his best, addressing life with metrical dexterity and
lively, yet controlled wonder.

Kleinzahler takes a different view of Gunn’s canon than most, and he
admits this in his introduction: “The truth is that the trajectory of
Gunn’s career can be easily enough charted and does not at all resemble
what the self-perpetuating notions contend.” Those notions claim that
Gunn peaked as a young poet devoted to Elizabethan aesthetics, but as
he became increasingly enamored of LSD, crystal meth, and the San
Francisco bar scene, his work suffered.

For his selections, however, Kleinzahler focuses primarily on Gunn’s
work post 1970, with only two poems drawn from Gunn’s acclaimed debut
collection, Fighting Terms. Despite this directed gaze, many of the
included mid-career poems — e.g., “At the Centre,” which
describes a rooftop LSD trip — do nothing to dispel Gunn’s
popular reputation.

Still, the collection also houses some lovely reflections. “Last
Days at Teddington” describes, in iambic quatrains, a summertime
domestic garden. Gunn’s great strength as a poet, as evidenced in this
poem and throughout the collection, was, perhaps, his understated
sincerity; Gunn deemphasized his ego despite his engagement of
intensely personal subject matter. In this way, Gunn avoided the
grandiose while maintaining emotional weight. Even with his
descriptions of friends dying of AIDS in his 1992 collection The Man
with Night Sweats, his focus remained outward rather than on the
internal turmoil which no doubt accompanied the events he

In the poem “On the Move” from The Sense of Movement, Gunn writes,
“One joins the movement in a valueless world,/Choosing it, till, both
hurler and the hurled,/One moves as well, always toward, toward.” Gunn
did seem to be moving relentlessly toward, even if the destination was
not always apparent — and this is what Kleinzahler makes most

04/29/09 4:00am

Graywolf Press
Available now

It seems unavoidable that the assemblage of a time capsule would
release a sense of unabashed sentimentality and nostalgia in its
creator. Poet Albert Goldbarth has not been spared this fate with To
Be Read in 500 Years
, his take on the Golden Records that were
blasted into space aboard the Voyager spacecrafts in 1977. This lengthy
collection surely displays a whole-hearted attempt to distill the
intangibles in which human joy resides. However, with so much attention
paid to the largeness of his self-assigned task, Goldbarth neglects to
provide engaging analysis of what he’s collected.

Goldbarth’s ponderings resonate like guest lectures practiced in the
shower; at best, they’re quirky — a happy reminder of comfortable
memories and the potential for goodness to come — and at worst,
they’re self-important. His observations run a well-trodden path of
everyday experience, yet his conclusions rarely scratch the surface. A
particularly egregious example of this comes in a lengthy poem in which
Goldbarth (amidst all his playful diction, enthusiastic scare quotes
and historical digressions) repeatedly implores creative writing
students to “keep a dream journal” to “battle against

“Rereading Attempts at Poetry from My Earliest Teenage Years”
presents a self-deprecating yet sentimental review of young work. While
the poem attempts to pass older-wiser judgment on the topics of
childhood poetic musings — noting that “only great ignorance”
tackles the grand themes that young poetry often takes on — the
poem is simply too pleased with itself. Referring to the younger self,
it begins, “Frankly it amazes me/—how urgently he talked about
death,/this sweet blank flan of a boy.” But is that really an amazing
revelation, or just the ordinary stuff of teenage musing?

In the end, the problem with To Be Read is not that it
attempts to draw everyone together through shared experience, but that
it does so in isolation from meaningful conversation. If Goldbarth’s
poems entered a dialogue with outside ideas, the result could be
something that pushes our understanding of humankind further rather
than simply pointing, albeit enthusiastically, at what we already know.

04/15/09 12:00am

Graywolf Press • Available Now

Bernardo Atxaga’s The Accordionist’s Son follows, primarily, the childhood story of David, a boy growing up in Spanish portion of Basque Country shortly after the Spanish Civil War. While the small events of adolescence—friendship, love, school—loom large for David as they do for anyone his age, he’s also confronted with the residual impact of the war. Specifically, David must come to terms with the Basque separatist movement that infiltrates even his sleepy rural hideaway, and the murky degree of his father’s involvement in wartime executions.

    The introductory section of The Accordionist’s Son spells out the central trope of the novel. Joseba, a childhood friend of David’s, narrates this section from the few days in 1999 following David’s death in Three Rivers, California. He explains that before he died, David wrote a memoir in the Basque language and that he, Joseba, will be using David’s story as the skeleton for his own retelling of the events of their growing up. That said, Joseba promises to be faithful to the spirit of David’s tale but suggests that he will take creative liberties if he deems them appropriate: "I wanted to write a book based on what David had written… in the spirit of someone finding a tree, on which some long vanished shepherd had left a carving, and deciding to redraw the lines so as to bring out and enhance the drawing and the figures."

    The story of David’s teenage years, as reinterpreted by Joseba, follows this introduction, but not before a cluster of relatively lengthy dedications—from David’s point of view—to David’s wife, daughters, and childhood friends. After the story of David’s adolescence comes a series of short sections recounting the last few days of David’s life—complete with Joseba’s visit to Three Rivers—which are themselves interrupted by three "confessions" written by Joseba about a brief portion of the time they both spent working underground with a militant Basque separatist group in the ’70s.

    While the novel in its entirety is not nearly as confusing as its framing device suggests, the story-behind-the-story layering proves distracting when its stitching shows. It’s relatively easy to let go of the who’s-telling-this-story question while immersed in the sections of the novel that describe David’s growing up, but it becomes troublesome when present-day reflections resurface near the end.

    The problem lives in Atxaga’s refusal to deliver a straightforward, fictional memoir. Instead we have a fictional character, Joseba, telling the story of another fictional character, David, from David’s point of view, and that story may or may not be an accurate representation of the “real” fictional David’s life. Not to mention the added ambiguity when one considers that Bernardo Atxaga himself grew up in Basque Country and his given name is also Joseba. Atxaga undercuts the reliability of the narrator of the main portion of the novel in this way, but the reason for doing so remains cloudy. Why do we need Joesba’s "David" to tell the story? Why not have Joseba tell his own story? Or, why not remove Joseba altogether and go with David’s story sans middleman?

    Structural concerns aside, Atxaga’s descriptions of Basque and Californian landscapes are lovely, and he treats discussion of the Basque language with equal reverence. Beauty and fragility go hand in hand here; whether it’s the spotting of an unusual butterfly or the way the Basque name for that butterfly rolls off the tongue, the threat of extinction necessitates that these things exist in a delicate balance and creates an almost otherworldly glow about them.

    In his final days, David writes, "Love takes on different forms when we know that death is hiding behind the bedroom door: sweet, almost ideal forms, oblivious to the frictions and conflicts of everyday life." But we know that without those everyday frictions, the ideal forms would not exist. While David tends to analyze the personal and political events around him without actively seeking them out—he lives, to an extent, in a self-contained emotional bubble—his ruminations and internal conflicts would cease to exist without external turbulence. 

    Perhaps the layers of telling of The Accordianist’s Son mimic the inherent inaccuracy of memoir. Even if David were retelling his own story, we could not be entirely sure that the events he recounts occurred just as he remembers. Or maybe Atxaga means to spur us to wonder what’s survived intact through the variations. It could it be the very things that seemed so fragile—language, place, and childhood.

03/18/09 12:00am

Graywolf Press • Available Now

Given current official reconsiderations of our country’s stance on torture and the Iraq War, J. Robert Lennon’s newest novel, Castle, seems an apt examination of the effects of violence, both on those subjected to it and those who administer it. While Castle isn’t really an “Iraq War novel” per se, it establishes our country’s detention and interrogation facilities as specters hovering around the main character, Eric Loesch, as he returns to his small, upstate New York hometown to purchase and renovate a large plot of wooded land.

As Eric — an eerily emotionally detached, acetic Iraq War vet — moves into the property’s farmhouse and begins work, he senses a haunting threat resonating from a small piece of land in the middle of his property where sits a rundown, castle-like compound that, as it turns out, does not belong to him.

Eric’s initial interactions with his new property are frightening in their mystery and supernatural undercurrents, but when certain events of Eric’s past come to light later in the novel, Lennon’s story loses its otherworldly momentum. The story becomes less engaged with the intellectual machinations of fear, power and violence, and more focused on providing a somewhat uninspired psychological cause and effect narrative.

Still, Lennon’s character development impresses. Eric is scary and believable in the repressed, mechanical ways by which he conducts the to-do list of his life. Though ensconced in a veil of self-assuredness, Eric ultimately lacks real agency, and this mix of firm resolve with heavy predetermination makes for a chilling yet empathetic character — one aware of his weaknesses, but glad for the freedom from responsibility that they can afford. 

Had Lennon allowed Eric’s pathology a bit more uncertainty instead of importing past traumas to tidily explain his personality, Castle could, perhaps, have delved deeper into the concept of violence itself and surfaced with an insight. As it stands, the story seems to get distracted by the activity of explaining exactly how Eric became the way he is instead of focusing on what it means now that the damage has been done.

06/18/08 12:00am

Alice Fulton is best known as an acclaimed American poet, but her first collection of short stories, The Nightingales of Troy, cements her place as a first-class fiction writer. A series of connected narratives, Nightingales chronicles a century in the lives of women in the Garrahan family.

With a natural sense for narrative and for the peculiar, Fulton constructs a thoughtful framework to connect her main characters. While the Garrahan women endure as individuals, history, genealogy and a curious connection to the proposition of sainthood bind them together. Mamie, a tough, pregnant farm-wife, begins ‘Happy Dust’ with the statement, “In the 20th century I believe there are no saints left, but our farm on Bog Road had not yet entered the 20th century.” Later, after the early-morning birth of her new daughter, Annie, Mamie describes her room as “full of 20th-century light,” thus placing Annie’s very existence somewhere between sainthood and the impossibility of such a state.

The question of sainthood blooms inside these stories, though not necessarily as a theological manifestation. The sainthood Fulton investigates is rife with transgression, earthly stumbling blocks and stubborn love. The Garrahans deal with questions of sacrifice and self-preservation, of persevering as individuals while bearing the weight of the past and the forces of fate and personality.

Fulton’s prose thrives on the tactile, and, as in her poetry, the language is brilliantly precise. While often rooted in the physical, Fulton’s narration frequently moves beyond the immediate, both powerfully and subtly. In the story ‘Queen Wintergreen’ she writes of her main character, an Irish immigrant in early 20th-century New York dealing with widowhood and relocation, “The heat weighed like a basket of wet seaweed on her back. Peg Flynn had never lived far from water.”

With such carefully wrought sentences, Fulton speaks volumes about the inner workings of her characters while maintaining a coherent and magnetic narrative. For a writer who has accomplished so much in another genre, it’s a very happy (if not altogether surprising) thing that Fulton’s fiction is as perceptive and rich as her verse.

06/11/08 12:00am

John Darnielle, much-beloved singer-songwriter of the Mountain Goats, recently saw the release of his latest effort — not the new album, but rather a novel inspired by Black Sabbath’s seminal release,
Master of Reality. The book is part of Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, which invites writers of all stripes to interpret a favorite album however they see fit. Darnielle’s story investigates and pulls together the nature of passion, resentment, heavy metal and Roger Painter, a teenager trapped in a youth psychiatric ward in 1985. We recently emailed John Darnielle to talk about the book and what it means to take adolescent experiences seriously.

The L:  First off, can you give us the story of how you got involved with the 33 1/3 series?

John Darnielle: 
I think somebody at some point asked me if I was going to pitch something — I hadn’t really thought about it much until then. I mean, during pitching season, if your friends are music geeks it seems like everybody’s gearing up to pitch, and I’m not really cut out for trying to write the most bleeding-edge pitch or anything. But I did have a little chip on my shoulder about how most of the albums were pretty safe — no metal, little really that belonged to, you know, outsiders. I don’t know how much Sabbath really belongs to outsiders anymore — they’ve sort of aged into respect — but I wanted to write from the perspective of somebody other than a guy who knows all about all the cool music and so forth.

The L: 
Your devotion to metal — and pretty diehard metal at that — is well-documented. How did you choose Black Sabbath as your subject for this project?  Were there any other albums or bands that you considered before landing on Master of Reality?

JD:  Trying to think, but I don’t remember anybody who really stands out — I mean, Sabbath seemed like a glaring omission to me. Easily one of the best bands of all time. I think maybe …and Justice for All should get a volume, but I’m not the man to write that one. As far as actual death metal goes, there aren’t so many records that’re properly canonical as to merit a 33 1/3 volume — maybe Napalm Death, probably Carcass, but I’d want to leave those to people like Albert Mudrian or Anthony Bartkiewicz or Adrian Begrand — dudes who’ve got the history of this stuff tattooed on the insides of their eyelids. Me, my favorite stuff is too footnotey and small to merit whole books — offbeat death metal like Nocturnus or Aeternus or straight-up, get-you-called-a-poseur-for-loving-it, woman-fronted power metal like Epica or Nightwish.

The L: 
Your lyrics, as it’s often been noted, brim with story-like qualities, but how was the switch to working on straight fiction?  While you were working on the book, did it affect your songwriting in any way?

I don’t think the songs really communicated much with the book, no. What songs on the new album were written while I was working on the book? About half of them. I do think maybe that when the narrator would say what he thought was cool about a song, I’d maybe cock an ear in that direction and think a little while writing a song: “How would your narrator feel about this?” Because that kid has a pretty good bullshit detector. But then again, you know, I like stuff a little romantic, so I can’t really just let a dude who’s all aggro call the shots for me.

The L:  I can’t help bringing up your song, ‘The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton’. Any relation between Roger, from Master of Reality, and the two kids whose heavy metal dreams fall under fire in that song?  Is Roger an outgrowth of an earlier conceived character?

JD:  No, no. Those two kids are sketches, really — I mean, it’s clear from the end of the song that they don’t deserve to have been hospitalized. Roger complains a lot about having been sent to the hospital, but it’s also clear he has real problems — he didn’t just scrawl a logo on a notebook and encounter overreacting authority figures, and he’s also not the kind of guy to really act out the way Jeff & Cyrus do.

The L:
  Before becoming a full-time musician, you spent some time as a psychiatric nurse in a state facility in California. How much, if any, of the book was informed by that experience?

  Well, the technical aspects of how stuff works is the main thing: how a patient’s first day, if he’s on a locked unit, is often spent in a robe so he can’t run from the facility. Rules, regulations, protocol. The physical layout of the unit, the workings of the daily routine. The way a young patient will usually trust the doctor more than the floor staff. Stuff like that.

The L:
  In a lot of ways, your take on Master of Reality is universally relatable. While it’s about Black Sabbath specifically, it also seems highly concerned with the intersection of nostalgia, self-identification and the loss of youth. That’s a tough area to broach without losing the story in a sentimental bog of teenage memories, especially since most of Roger’s story is driven by thought rather than action. Was that at all on your mind as you were writing?

Yeah, I mean, I am downright allergic to adults romanticizing adolescence. I get really angry when I think about it — how an adult will tell an adolescent, “You’re going to remember these as the best years of your life.” Inside I am still an adolescent when I imagine an adult having the gall to tell a teenager something like that, you know? I worked with children and young adolescents a lot in the late nineties and early 00’s and my experience of them is that they’re rather smarter than adults — maybe adults have an edge in the sort of wisdom that comes with experience, but kids are quicker and sharper and generally haven’t yet decided that holding back your emotions is the best way to live your life. And, I mean, the way I feel about young men and women is that sentimentalizing their position is destructive — and, really, kind of rude, you know? So, as much as I could, I wanted to try to honestly articulate what it’s like in a young man’s head when it seems to him like adults are, one, pretty stupid, and, two, maybe kinda evil.

The L: 
You mentioned in a recent interview that your book is “criticism masquerading as a novel.”  That’s an interesting statement — can you expand on it?

  It’s a story, but there’s a critique of Black Sabbath and maybe of pre-death/black metal running through it: something about how that music has an emotional value that gets discounted because the feelings are a little knottier or less traditionally musical. Like, sad songs tend to be about great romantic sadness. But what about when a person is bummed out because maybe there’s no God? Those feelings are valid too, and metal addresses it and gets called “cheesy” — I think that’s a little weird, and so does my narrator.

The L:
  In a different interview, one from 2004 with The Believer, you said, “listening to music and making music are two almost totally discrete activities.” Do you think, though, that listening to, identifying with, or just really getting into music leads to the need or want to create music?

Don’t really know — maybe, I guess — not really for me. I started making music as a way of setting words down somewhere where they might maybe get heard — if poetry weren’t such an insular and weirdly academic scene, I’d probably be writing poems instead of songs.

The L: 
And finally, have you been reading anything good while on tour?

  Last tour I read, of all things, a biography of Black Sabbath. Go figure!