Monday, March 31, 2008

IR on Facebook & Myspace

In case you didn't know: Indiana Review is hip on the web-net-dot-com-www-backslashed new century -- and we have both a Facebook profile and a Myspace account. So please stop on by and add us. If we ever meet you in person, we'll take cute pics together, with the camera being held in one hand at an angle above our heads.


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

IR on the radio!

Wednesday, Wednesday, Wednesday!

Tonight, from 7-8pm, Indiana Review (well, we representatives of it) will be on WIUX's creative writing show. We will be reading work from this summer's featured funk section, including pieces by Terrance Hayes and Honoree Fanonne Jeffers, among many others. We'll also be promoting the Variations on Funk reading that's going to happen a week from today--Wednesday, April 2nd at 7pm, at the John Waldron Arts Center. Variations on Funk will feature poets Aracelis Girmay, Tyehimba Jess, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and Patrick Rosal.

You can listen to tonight's radio show by going to WIUX's website and clicking in the upper right corner to stream. We do hope you'll listen in!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Three Questions with Naomi Shihab Nye

Naomi Shihab Nye, our 2008 Poetry Prize judge, took a second to chat:

Who are your favorite writers (poets or otherwise)?

William Stafford, Lucille Clifton, W.S. Merwin, Ted Kooser, Hettie Jones, Grace Paley, and many others.

What works of theirs are touchstones for you?

Every War Has Two Losers, William Stafford on Peace & War, never leaves my travel bag.

What are your current projects?

I'm working on a book which will somehow thread together some of my late beloved father's unpublished notes and my own words. He wanted to do a book of dialog with me before he died, and we could never get it together!

Right now I'm here in DC with SPLIT THE ROCK poetry festival, which is all about activism against this five years tragedy of an invasion. I am feeling strong about poetry's voice!

Thanks and Cheers.

Pittsburgh Tribune Review also did a nice profile on Naomi and her work. Check it out.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Notes from the Slush Pile: Persimmons are the New Pomegranates!

Poets sure love fruit. Think of Robert Hass's blackberries and Pablo Neruda's lemons. Here at the Indiana Review slush pile we encounter a lot of poets writing about fruits, and for some reason, over the last couple of years, we've seen a lot of pomegranates.

And why not? There's pomegranate martinis, pomegranates in Hades; it's a mythical, sensuous fruit. But too many pomegranates can become a cliche.

And now there seems to be a new trend toward persimmons. I approve of persimmons. After all, they grow well in Indiana, and persimmon pudding is a traditional Hoosier dish.

But now I fear persimmons may one day go the way of the pomegranate...and become a fruit poem cliche.

Do not excise all fruits from your poems; that would be foolish. But use them sparingly and with caution!


Monday, March 17, 2008

Review of Gate of the Sun from IR 29.2

Elias Khoury, Gate of the Sun. Trans. Humphrey Davies. Brooklyn, New York: Archipelago Books, 2006. $26.00 cloth (ISBN 0-9763950-2-9), 539 pages.

Reviewed by Nathaniel Perry

Khalil, the narrator of this sprawling epic, is a storyteller. Well, he doesn’t call himself that; he is a doctor. Though he is not really a doctor anymore and has no formal medical training; he is more a nurse. However, he doesn’t do a lot of nursing either at Galilee hospital, which is not in Galilee, but is outside Beirut in the shattered Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila. Khalil nurses just one patient, the comatose body of a legendary Palestinian resistance fighter, Yunes, who Khalil keeps alive through regular feedings of honey and milk, baths twice a day, and, more than anything else, telling the unresponsive Yunes story after story after story. The situation, as another reviewer has noted, is a kind of inverse of Scheherazade. Here, the stories keep the listener alive. Though, as the reader is plunged further into the thicket of narratives, we come to believe, as Khalil (and the author) insists, that it is primarily stories that keep us all alive. And stories, as they are told in this novel, refute themselves, retell themselves, undo themselves, reinvent themselves, and become themselves. They are breathing entities; they are people. And without stories, a people, a person, has no meaning, no life.

The author of Gate of the Sun, Elias Khoury, was born in Beirut, and early in his life, after visiting the refugee camps that surround that city, he became deeply committed to Palestinian human rights. And Khoury’s commitment, one surmises from the novel, has developed into a pledge not only to help the refugees, but also to get their story straight. The book brims with historical detail—anecdotes from the expulsions of 1948 through to the horrors of the Lebanese civil war in the late 1970s and 1980s. Khoury, however, tells the Palestinian story not from an abstract and widened historical vantage point, but through the intimate personal stories of hundreds of individuals. Khalil tells Yunes, and us, of his own travels to China, of the loss of his grandmother (and the pillow stuffed with rotting flowers she left to him); he tells Yunes the stories of Yunes’s own life —his great love affair with his wife Nahilah, the death of his son Ibrahim, the months he spent hiding out in the wilderness, his sleeping inside giant olive trees. Khalil tells stories of people he barely knows—a young mother who sews together a piece of pita bread to please and quiet her wailing child, that same young mother moments later forced to murder the child, a former hero turned madman and caged in an asylum, a troupe of French actors come to Shatila for research, a man whose herd of buffalo is massacred by Israeli gunners at the Lebanese border, the cattle’s “blood splashing the sky” as he stands among them dumbfounded and ruined.

The result of this multiplicity of tales is not just the creation of a world, a frequent concomitant of any lengthy novel, but the creation of the world. The stories, as Khalil sees it, are his only option for making sense of the untrustworthy chaos of history. “We have no alternatives,” he says at one point, “and no masks, and even war no longer provides enough of a mask to conceal the whirlpool in which we’re drowning.” Khoury, I think, agrees. The catalogue of historical events in this novel is not what has happened to the Palestinian people. Rather, what has happened is the sum of smaller things—each uncle murdered, each child born in a field, each glass of sugared rosewater lifted in celebration, each ghost seen among the ruins of a village, each olive stolen from what was once a family’s own orchard. And each story that isn’t told and retold wipes a portion of that people from existence. Thus Khoury, through Khalil’s desperate and unorthodox means of keeping Yunes alive, is making an equally desperate and real attempt to keep a people alive.

Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun is now in at least its second printing and has received much attention here in the U.S. and abroad. But it deserves more readers. The book is a masterpiece, yes for its wildly impressive technique and wonderfully complicated narrator Khalil, but even more so for its deft handling of emotion, both pain and love (which might here be the same thing), and for its damning insistence that we, its readers, keep our ears open to its stories, to all stories, to all people. Near the novel’s end, in a final address to Yunes, Khalil says, “I tell you, no, this isn’t how stories end. No.” Khoury, in this Palestinian epic, has done his best to keep the story from ending, and he seems to be asking, maybe quietly begging, his readers to do the same.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Review of The Virgin of Flames from IR 29.2

Chris Abani, The Virgin of Flames. New York: Penguin Books, 2007. $14.00 paperback (ISBN-978-0-14-303877-1), 291 pages.

Reviewed by Megan Savage

Acclaimed novelist/poet/saxophonist Chris Abani is known as much for his startling personal history (thrice imprisoned in his native Nigeria for his writings, sentenced to death, tortured), as for his impressive literary credentials (four books of poetry published, three novels and a novella, awards from Hurston/Wright, PEN Hemingway and the Lannan Literary foundation among others). In Abani’s latest novel, The Virgin of Flames, he turns his attention from Nigeria to his most recent home, Los Angeles. Abani’s Los Angeles is a kind of mecca for the exiled. Providing an ersatz family for the book’s central figure, Black, a muralist who entertains visions of the angel Gabriel, are Sweet Girl, the transsexual stripper on whom Black fixates; Bomboy, wealthy owner of an illegal Halal butcher shop and ex-child soldier in his Rwandan homeland; and Iggy, Black’s landlord/mentor, proprietor of the Ugly Store and Jewish trance tattoo artist who hangs by a set of silver rings in her back while she etches her clients with visionary tattoos. This band of outsiders might as easily be the set-up for a joke as the cogs in a heartwarming tale of kinship across cultural divides. To Abani’s credit, the book is neither; Abani consistently frustrates both mockery and redemption in order to create a portrait of an artist searching for something akin to truth: not merely the answer to the riddle, but the riddle itself.

Much critical attention will be paid to Abani’s take on Los Angeles, that most fabled of cities. Abani’s portrait diverges from those that focus on the seedy underside of Hollywood glamour or its socioeconomic stratification. In Abani’s Los Angeles, the iconography of Hollywood and the struggle of the marginalized dissolve equally into the nexus between artistic and religious vision, allowing Los Angeles to become, purely, a city of angels. In this way, Abani’s Virgin is a Kunstlerroman in the tradition of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, tracing the development of an artist to his prime. However, whereas in the former book, Stephen Deadalus must cast off the family and religious influences of his youth in order to grow as an artist, Abani’s asks, what if the process were reversed?
For Black, artistic evolution is predicated on the unspooling of his mysterious past: a Salvadoran mother who is convinced he is visited by the Virgin, and an Igbo father whose belief in a family curse causes Black to be dressed as a girl until he is seven. Black is convinced that somewhere in this childhood lies the pattern for his confused sexuality and the inspiration for his life’s work. Yet this unraveling is a dangerous process that leaves Black blind to the complexities of his present. Iggy, concerned with Black’s tunnel vision, warns, “There is no core to anything, Black. It’s like an onion; if you just keep peeling away you will disappear.” We hear the voice of the trauma survivor speaking through Iggy, cautioning that if we rely too heavily on the notion that we are the sum of our pasts, those pasts may reach into the present to drown us.
One of Abani’s strengths as a writer is the arresting image, and there are a number in The Virgin of Flames, seemingly designed to haunt: a row of anatomically incorrect Barbie dolls with newly attached “clay penises hardening in the slow heat;” blood running in a “steady stream” from Bomboy’s boucherie into a culvert of the L.A. River; the dogs Black arranges into a cairn in the river to ease their deaths. Ultimately, however, the most arresting images in the book have to do with Abani’s theme connecting childhood trauma to inspiration. Over the course of the novel, Black paints a 50-foot high image of Fatima, a composite goddess, part Virgin, part veiled Muslim woman, part Sweet Girl, crushing a dove and holding an AK-47. No sooner does he paint it, however, than he strips it from the wall in front of a group of schoolchildren, whose witnessing of the event Black imagines will contaminate them just as his own childhood contaminates him: ”for years after,” we are told, “those boys and girls, even when they grew old, would never be satisfied with any love they had, because they, like Black, became infected by the desire for Fatima…, it would fill every pore in their body and drive them crazy” (238-9).
Abani’s book opens and closes on the Los Angeles River, “iridescent in its concrete sleeve…losing faith with every inch traveled.” Abani weaves the river through the book and in the end explicitly evokes Heraclitus, assuring us that the River “is never the same twice.” This might be thought of as a comforting image, one that suggests renewal, rebirth. And yet Abani denies us this reassurance when he immediately replaces the image of the river with a much harsher image, that of man-made “spines of freeways” that “like blood, circle in hope.” Similarly, even as he assures us that “permanence is this River…” Abani states “there will never be no more River.” In other words, we all must make our own peace with the past. For Black and his fellow survivors, for we who are all in our way, survivors of the traumas of our time, the consolation of any kind of permanence has become as impossible as it is necessary, and transcendence from the past has become as ephemeral as it is absolute.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Sherman Alexie: Stop bringing that weak stuff to the hole

Truehoop is one of my favorite NBA blogs to visit when I'm finding great reasons not to write, and just recently I stumbled on a post about (IR 25.1 contributor) Sherman Alexie getting used on a basketball court in. Apparently, Alexie was playing a former NBA player and ended up getting his shot blocked into a river. No, really, the guy actually blocked his shot so hard it landed in the Green River. Alexie even wrote a poem about it.

The best part is in the comments section where people critique the veracity of both the poem and the story.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Great Moments in Funk history: Gamble & Huff

Yes, yes, I know that Madonna is being enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but excuse me for being more interested in the inclusion of two Funk/Soul giants: Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the architects of the Philly Sound. What's the "Philly Sound," you say? Do you know the O'Jays? Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes? The Stylistics? Patti LaBelle? Teddy Pendergrass? Have you heard "Me & Mrs. Jones," "Backstabbers,""Love Train," or "For the Love of money"? If you answered no to all of those questions...

...smack yourself. Not hard, but just hard enough to make sure it doesn't happen again. Then, go to your nearest record store and treat yourself to some old school Philly grooves.
All kidding aside, it's nice to see Gamble and Huff getting some recognition. Their house band, MFSB, was one of the funkiest ever put to wax.


Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Review of A Garden Amid Fires from 29.2

Gladys Swan, A Garden Amid Fires, Kansas City, Missouri: BkMk Press, 2007. $15.95 paper (ISBN 978-1-886157-58-3), 158 pages.

Reviewed by Jackson Brown

Not all titles are created equal. Perusing shelves, I generally shy away from titles that seemingly seek to evoke a visceral response, especially by invoking nature or the body. The words “water,” “fire,” “bones,” olfactory expressions such as “scent” or “smell,” immediately get passed over. Like Thoreau, if I’m seeking illumination or catharsis through nature, I’m going to turn to the forest, not a book. Admittedly, I only picked up A Garden Amid Fires after my third or fourth time scanning the IR fiction shelf, but from the first page, Swan’s subtle and controlled prose kept me engaged. The storytelling remains confident enough throughout the collection to allow stories to blossom, seemingly on their own, without employing an overly intrusive narrative voice.

It’s this same sort of artistic subtlety that is the “garden” constantly under fire in these nine pieces. Whether portraying the challenges to creative integrity or the deceptiveness of beauty, these stories suggest that a fresh face can’t always be trusted. Two stories, “The Orange Bird” and “Exiles,” take on artistic expression explicitly as their topic—not a particularly easy subject to write about given the metafictional hurtles, but Swan approaches it adeptly. “Bird” features an aspiring Midwestern painter whose boss coerces him into setting aside his own work in order to produce knockoffs of garish but trendy still-lifes as a means to avoid financial ruin. “Exiles” follows three ex-patriots—a sculptor, a writer, and a novice watercolorist—in Spain who face implicit threats to their various fine arts, symbolized through the locals’ fanatical enthusiasm for the boorish—as the protagonists see it—art of bullfighting. Far from unspooling sentimental musings on the “good old days” of uncorrupted art, though, Swan’s fictional portrayal of personal aesthetics faces the encroaching flames of callous commercial societies not with resignation, but with hints of the artistic evolution necessary for her characters’ integrity to survive.
As recurring motifs, land and property set to be sold have the most potential to draw Garden into the realm of sentimentality, but Swan’s narrative acuity won’t allow it. As with the vulnerability of aesthetic subtlety addressed in “Bird” and “Exiles,” the threat of the loss of land in stories such as “On the Island” and the title piece becomes merely a backdrop for the more salient concerns of coming to terms with the finitude of life, learning to secure those things that are truly sacred, and being willing to part with everything else.
Arthur, the first person narrator of “Island,” confronts these existential concerns as he reflects on his childhood and debates whether to sell his stake in the island he grew up on off the coast of Maine. His memories dwell on the pursuit of his desires, namely in high school when attempting to court Trudie, an attractive local girl who humors herself by going out with him once and, years later, by getting into a string of ill-fated marriages for the sake of money or adventure. In an interesting restaging of Updike’s “A&P” at the end of the story, Arthur witnesses the toll time has taken on his high school crush when she returns to the island looking to buy land nearly fifty years after she’d left for college. Unlike Updike’s Sammy character, though, a mature Arthur is finally able to distinguish between fleeting physical attraction and long-term intrinsic value.
Swan’s attention to the grand themes in this collection, however, left me wanting more resolution to specific plotlines in a few places. While stories such as “Traveling Light” and “Women Who Don’t Tell War Stories” strike me as tightly written, multi-layered pieces, the narrative positioning of secondary characters in “Cochise” and the title piece feel, to me, a bit unresolved. To Swan’s credit, however, this dynamic is only noticeable because of the generosity and nuance she uses in rendering her primary characters. Regardless, A Garden Amid Fires builds to a strong cohesion with themes that echo through all nine of its stories: the loss of history, the redemption of selfhood, the resuscitative qualities of community, and the persistence of art. Garden invites us to explore that boundary between novelty and obscurity, being itself a fresh text with an out-of-step, somewhat cryptic title. Swan’s capable narration guides us through this territory where good art, if it is to survive, must reside.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Uh, see what had happened was...

That's me channeling the voice of Margaret Seltzer explaining to her editor why she fabricated her memoir, Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival. The book details Seltzer's upbringing as a foster child in a Black family, and her eventual employment as a drug mule by the South Central Bloods . In reality, Seltzer grew up in Sherman Oaks and wrote her tome in a Starbucks in South Central. I know everybody is going to be wagging their fingers at the Penguin editors who should have "known better." But, after reading this piece in the Times, I'm going to pile on.

1. Seltzer said her foster mother's name was Big Mom. Big Mom. BIG MOM. Little White girl-Big Black Woman. Didn't anybody notice the racial stereotype? Why not just call her Big Mama? Or take a risk, how about Big Mammy? Even if it was true, somebody should have stepped in and told that woman that her life was a tired ass trope. The sad part is that looking at that book cover makes me think the trope is exactly what they were going for.

2. Speaking in a previous interview with the Times, Seltzer said, “one of the first things I did once I started making drug money was to buy a burial plot.” That should have been a red flag right there. Come on now. She said she started making drug deliveries at thirteen and the first thing she bought was a burial plot? What kind of nonsense is that? The first thing she would have bought: an iPod. Second thing: a family pack of Skittles.

3. Why did she feel the need to say she was half-Native American? I guess being half-Black would have been too ambitious, and being half Native was just tragic enough to be believable.

4. Quote: “For whatever reason, I was really torn and I thought it was my opportunity to put a voice to people who people don’t listen to,” Ms. Seltzer said. “I was in a position where at one point people said you should speak for us because nobody else is going to let us in to talk. Maybe it’s an ego thing — I don’t know. I just felt that there was good that I could do and there was no other way that someone would listen to it.” Yeeeah.


Monday, March 3, 2008

Naomi Shihab Nye Reads Rumi's Father#1

In 2004, an arts organization out of Austin, named Texas Nafas (according to their site, Nafas means "breath" and is a metaphor for life), hosted a reading by Naomi Shihab Nye and Robert Bly of Persian poet Rumi. In the clip, Nye (who is judging our 2008 Poetry Prize) reads while Bly plays hype man.

There are a couple other brief clips in this series, but you can find the entire video on the Texas Nafas website. Check it out.