Tag Archives: literature

A Sense of Place

Our guest bloggers are Betsy Draine and Michael Hinden, authors of the Nora Barnes and Toby Sandler Mysteries. The fourth book in the series, The Dead of Achill Island, was published this week.

Plains of Achill Island and Mountain

Photo by Betsy Draine

In planning a mystery, we begin by asking: where? Our first novel, Murder in Lascaux, was set in southwestern France. The setting generated the plot, which focused on prehistoric cave art. A sense of place has been important in each installment in the series: northern California in The Body in Bodega Bay, the French Riviera in Death on a Starry Night, and the West of Ireland in The Dead of Achill Island.

We first visited Achill on the advice of Betsy’s cousin, an Irish nun. The West of Ireland, she told us, is where the old ways are best preserved. The largest of Ireland’s islands, Achill (rhymes with “cackle”) lies offshore above Galway on the Atlantic coast, as far west as an Irishman can go. Today the island is linked to the mainland by a causeway and a bridge. Even so, Achill feels remote. Denuded of trees, the landscape presents flat vistas of bogs and grasslands, steep mountains, and treacherous cliffs. Its megalithic tombs attest that the island has been inhabited for millennia, while church graveyards with broken headstones recall the dead of recent centuries. A soft rain falls more often than not. What better setting for a mystery?

Cottage rubble with mountain backdrop

Photo by Betsy Draine

At the base of Slievemore Mountain lies a string of ruined cottages known as the Deserted Village. These homes were abandoned in the 1840s at the time of the Great Famine. Inhabitants fled to the island’s shore, where they survived by fishing. They left behind an Irish ghost town. As we wandered through the lonely village, we imagined discovering a body in one of the ruined cottages, and that became the opening scene of this novel.

The title refers not only to a fictional murder but also to the victims of two historical tragedies on Achill that gave rise to legend. It is said that In the 17th century a prophet named Brian Rua O’Cearbhain foretold that carriages on iron wheels would come to the island, belching smoke and fire—and on their first and last journeys, the carriages would carry the dead. The prophecy was fulfilled when the first steam train came in 1894, returning the bodies of thirty islanders who had drowned en route to seasonal jobs in Scotland. The last run of the train before the line shut down in 1937 carried the bodies of twenty-three local boys who had died in a fire while working away from home. The haunting legend attached to these tragedies colors the atmosphere of the novel.

A well-rendered sense of place can immerse a reader in another world. In The Dead of Achill Island, we hope the reader is transported to the West of Ireland alongside Nora and Toby.

Draine and Hinden author photoBetsy Draine and Michael Hinden are are coauthors of the Nora Barnes and Toby Sandler Mysteries. They also coauthored the memoir A Castle in the Backyard: The Dream of a House in France and translated The Walnut Cookbook by Jean-Luc Toussaint. They are professors emeriti of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

An Interview with Poet Rae Armantrout

As National Poetry Month draws to a close, we present three interviews with living poets, originally published in Contemporary Literature journal. The interviews are freely available to access until May 1.

Our final poet is Rae Armantrout, a central figure of the Language poetry movement of the 1970s and 1980s who was nevertheless somewhat separate from that collectivity, crafting her own flavor of poetry that over time has remained “distinctive and distinctively fresh, particularly in its allegiance to a honed version of lyric that brings to mind the poetry of Emily Dickinson or George Oppen, and in its attention to the degradations—and the surprises—of American speech that permeate our consciousness and infiltrate even our dreams,” according to interviewer Lynn Keller. The conversation presented here touches on everything from physics to religion to ghosts to feminism. Armantrout discusses her cancer diagnosis and how it has impacted the practice and content of her writing, leading her to write poems more quickly and to dwell on mortality (though she says, “I’ve always had an attraction to the dark stuff anyway. I used to say I was channeling Kali. (Not so funny now.)”). When Keller asks Armantrout about the religious imagery in her recent work, she replies that though she’s not religious, she sees a parallel between religious practice and the act of creating a poem or other artwork:

Who are we talking to when we write? I don’t really think, in my case, that I’m talking to a specific audience; I think I’m talking to myself, but when I’m talking to myself, who am I talking to? It feels very much like when I was a child and I prayed, so it’s not that I actually believe there is an entity called God who hears what I say, but there is this desire to somehow perfect utterance. But make it perfect for whom, you know? I think in a way we are making something for the gods that we don’t believe in.

Read the full interview here, and then go read Armantrout’s poems!


And check out our other poetry month offerings:

An interview with Marge Piercy

An interview with Myung Mi Kim

An Interview with Poet Myung Mi Kim

As National Poetry Month draws to a close, we’re presenting three interviews with living poets, originally published in Contemporary Literature journal. The interviews are freely available to access until May 1.

Our second poet is Myung Mi Kim, in conversation with Lynn Keller. Kim, a Korean-American, refers to herself as “as a poet arrived at an uncanny familiarity with another language—or more precisely, as a poet transcribing the interstices of the abbreviated, the oddly conjoined, the amalgamated—recognizing that language occurs under continual construction.” As Keller puts it, in Kim’s hands, language

is subject to fracture and disruption, excision and rearrangement. It functions not as a means of gaining an illusory stability but rather as a register of the often jarring instability of human experience in time, and of the stumblings, the incoherencies, the polyphonic complexity of the immigrant’s experience in and between several cultures.

The wide-ranging discussion presented here touches on the poet’s process, childbirth and family, documentary poetry, poetic forms that privilege visual impact, the pastoral, geological time, the slipperiness of nostalgia, the generative power of silence, migration, and loss and mourning. Kim and Keller’s conversation bounces among so many different topics in part because Kim’s vision of poetry is so expansive and all-encompassing. As she describes it, “Poetry invites a practice of language/perception that embraces mutability, undecidability, the motion underneath and around what’s codified in conventions of language, grammar, syntax, semantics, and so forth. Poetry produces new ways of participating in perception, thinking, historical being and becoming.”

Read the full interview here, and then go read Kim’s poems!


And if you missed yesterday’s post, check out an interview with poet Marge Piercy.

An Interview with Poet Marge Piercy

As National Poetry Month draws to a close, we will be presenting three interviews with living poets, originally published in Contemporary Literature journal. The interviews are freely available to access until May 1.

Our first offering features poet, novelist, and memoirist Marge Piercy. Interviewer Bonnie Lyons describes Piercy’s poetry in this way:

Valuing usefulness highly, Piercy writes poems that are accessible to ordinary readers without sacrificing rich imagery and subtle sound effects. Her poetry embodies her belief in the importance of attention in her precise word choice and acute perception. Tikkun olam, Hebrew for “healing the world,” is central to her poetry, which works to awaken her readers’ passionate recognition of all that could and should be changed through human effort.

To date, Marge Piercy has written nineteen volumes of poetry, seventeen novels, and a memoir. When asked how she navigates multiple genres, she characterizes herself as “a poet who also writes novels.” She describes the benefits of her chosen genre:

You can write poetry when you are dying. The Plains Indians would try to have a final utterance. You can write poetry in a prison cell—you can scrawl it on the walls. You can memorize your poems. You can carry them around with you. A novel is a far more artificial construction, and it takes huge amounts of time to write one. If you were fighting as a guerrilla, you couldn’t write a novel, but you could write poetry. A novel is far less portable.

Lyons and Piercy discuss the writer’s long history of social and political activism. Piercy articulates how she has created a balance between activism and writing—two fields of activity that are often felt to be in conflict with one another. Piercy explains,

When I was a full-time organizer, I basically gave up sleeping to write. In my life since then, because I have been able to reach people through my writing, I feel much less of a conflict. In fact, it’s all of a piece with me. I don’t divide things up that way. I don’t make a value judgment that one type of poetry is more important than another—neither my poems about Judaism, or poems about love, or poems about the war in Iraq or the environment.

The interview also touches on the usefulness of poetry, the importance of reading in order to write, poetry as an act of attention similar to a religious practice, making a living as a writer, Piercy’s reputation as an “anti-academic” poet and how poetry can thrive outside of academe, and writing about sex, aging, and the body.

Read the full interview here, and then go read Piercy’s poems!

Contemporary Literature Journal Seeks Articles and Interviews

Call for Papers and Interviews

Contemporary LiteratureContemporary Literature seeks scholarly essays on post-World War II literature written in English which offer scope, supply a new dimension to conventional approaches, or transform customary ways of reading writers. Additionally, CL welcomes interviews that focus on an author’s writing, pursue and elaborate a line of questioning and response, and provide insight into central aspects of the writer’s significance. Past interviews have featured writers such as Dorothy AllisonRae Armantrout, Edwidge Danticat, Rachael KushnerBen LernerViet Thanh Nguyen, Afaa Michael Weaver, and Charles Yu.

See the journal’s submission guidelines for more information. Questions may be directed to the editorial office at CL@english.wisc.edu.

About CL: Contemporary Literature publishes scholarly essays on contemporary writing in English, interviews with established and emerging authors, and reviews of recent critical books in the field. The journal welcomes articles on multiple genres, including poetry, the novel, drama, creative nonfiction, new media and digital literature, and graphic narrative. CL published the first articles on Thomas Pynchon and Susan Howe and the first interviews with Margaret Drabble and Don DeLillo; it also helped to introduce Kazuo Ishiguro, Eavan Boland, and J. M. Coetzee to American readers. As a forum for discussing issues animating the range of contemporary literary studies, CL features the full diversity of critical practices. The editors seek articles that frame their analysis of texts within larger literary historical, theoretical, or cultural debates.

To learn more, subscribe to the journal, browse the latest table of contents, or sign up for new issue email alerts.

A Reader’s Guide to Andrei Bely’s “Petersburg”

 

Today we present a piece written by Leonid Livak, editor of the book A Reader’s Guide to Andrei Bely’s Petersburg

 

Few artistic works created before World War I convey the sensibility, ideas, phobias, and aspirations of Russian and transnational modernism as comprehensively as Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1913), whose place and importance in cultural history have been often compared to those of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Yet Petersburg has not received its due attention from the Anglophone public and is rarely taught within the framework of literature and humanities courses, because like other hermetic modernist classics, this novel presents serious challenges to nonspecialist readers as well as to instructors in literature and general humanities. The essays collected in our volume strive to make Petersburg more accessible. They have been written with a broad audience in mind in order to help the Anglophone reader gain a better understanding of Bely’s novel and to facilitate its study in the college classroom. The volume’s contributors have been asked to refrain from new interpretations of the literary classic and to summarize instead what we already know about Petersburg, explicating it in the intellectual and artistic context that informed the novel’s creation and historical reception.

Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev (1880–1934), who used the penname Andrei Bely, was an intellectual omnivore drawn to the most diverse practices in art and thought. Petersburg is a virtual encyclopedia of European philosophical and aesthetic currents between the turn of the century and World War I. This makes Petersburg—originally written for an interpretive community that shared the author’s cultural knowledge—all the more difficult to understand today. Hence the structure of our book: each essay explores a particular aspect of Bely’s novel.

The first part treats Petersburg’s rapports with Russian and European intellectual life in Bely’s day. Lynn Patyk elucidates the historical circumstances informing Petersburg’s terrorist intrigue, with an eye on the range of meanings that intrigue had in Bely’s modernist circle and in contemporary Russian society at large. Maria Carlson draws attention to Bely’s fascination with Theosophy and with its offshoot—Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical doctrine, which freshly captivated the writer midway through his work on Petersburg. Bely’s interest in Friedrich Nietzsche’s iconoclastic thought predated his work on the novel. The formative role in modernist philosophies of art and life of Nietzsche’s intellectual heritage all but assured that Bely would engage with it in Petersburg, as Edith Clowes illustrates. Neo-Kantianism is yet another philosophical current informing the novel. As Timothy Langen explains, it shaped Bely’s thought in the decade preceding his Petersburg project, and it is present there as one of the novel’s competing philosophies. Henri Bergson equipped Bely with polemical tools for a critical reexamination of Nietzscheanism and Neo-Kantianism, whose philosophical virtues, Hilary Fink argues, the writer no longer took for granted during his work on Petersburg. Judith Wermuth-Atkinson shows that Bely’s modernist search for alternatives to the materialist understanding of the world and the human being led the author of Petersburg to heed the new science of psychology, as elaborated by Sigmund Freud. A special place in Petersburg’s imaginative universe is occupied by racial theories, whose narrative manifestations are explored by Henrietta Mondry. Closing the book’s first part, David Bethea demonstrates the centrality of eschatology—speculation about the end of history, framed as the demise and rebirth of the world and humankind— in Petersburg’s narrative and stylistic economy.

The volume’s second part examines Petersburg in the aesthetic context of Bely’s day. Keenly following the latest developments in Russian and Western artistic theory and practice, Bely poured his erudition into Petersburg as a medium for reflecting on and realizing modernist artistic philosophy. Steven Cassedy explores the role of music in Bely’s novel against the backdrop of modernist musical theories and their implementation in literature. Considering Bely’s novel as an exemplar of modernism’s embrace of performance practices and metaphors, Colleen McQuillen shows Petersburg’s place in the practice of “life-creation,” common among Russian modernists who turned their lives into artistic texts that were lived before they could be written down. Olga Matich treats Petersburg as an expression of Bely’s passion for painting, exploring the ways Bely uses verbal signs to create visual images. Taras Koznarsky shows Petersburg’s contribution to transnational modernism’s intense preoccupation with urbanism. Violeta Sotirova looks at Petersburg as a case study in the larger modernist turn to consciousness as the source of reality, placing Bely’s novel alongside literary experiments by his Western European peers.

Petersburg explores every level of spoken and written language in order to speculate about language as a source of what people perceive as reality but what might as well be an illusion originating in the psyche. That is why we open this volume with an essay by John Elsworth, the author of the most recent English translation of Petersburg, who endeavors to impart to Bely’s Anglophone reader a sense of the challenges inherent in translating the novel; and to give the reader an idea of the inevitable losses and distortions accompanying any such translation project.

Petersburg’s importance for the evolution of Russian prose writing in the twentieth century had no equals. Fifty years after the novel’s original publication, Vladimir Nabokov ranked Petersburg alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in his list of “my greatest masterpieces of twentieth century prose.” Like the other modernist masterpieces on Nabokov’s list, Petersburg makes for an intensely enjoyable but challenging read, for Bely expected his audience to actively participate in unraveling the work’s many meanings, narrative strains, and patterns of details. The present volume aims to facilitate that task by recreating for the general Anglophone public the sociopolitical, intellectual, and artistic context informing Bely’s novel.

 

 

Leonid Livak is a professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Russian Émigrés in the Intellectual and Literary Life of Interwar FranceThe Jewish Persona in the European Imagination, and How It Was Done in Paris: Russian Émigré Literature and French Modernism.

Honoring Mekemson era at Contemporary Literature

Mary Mekemson, hard at work editing Contemporary Literature

The Fall 2016 issue of Contemporary Literature marked the end of an era, the last to be edited by Mary Mekemson. Her nearly thirty years as managing editor with the journal were celebrated at a party in September, given in honor of her retirement. Mary received a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature in 1988 and took the position of managing editor with the journal in 1989. She has read, corrected, and revised every word in Contemporary Literature from 1989 to 2016. She was (and is) a superb editor. Her insistence upon clear writing improved the prose style and argument of many an essay. She regularly received praise and thanks from the authors with whom she worked, and her mentoring of the journal’s graduate-student editorial assistants was much appreciated. The editorial office staff of the journal and staff at UW Press wish Mary the very best.

 

 

Executive Editor Thomas Schaub, outgoing Managing Editor Mary Mekemson, new Managing Editor Eileen Ewing

Eileen Ewing is the new managing editor. “Having worked for Contemporary Literature for several years as its editorial and administrative associate, I am pleased to take on the role of managing editor. It allows me to continue my scholarly engagement with the literature of the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. I have a Ph.D. in English, with my dissertation focusing on twentieth-century women’s writing. I am particularly interested in the technical aspects of journal production and find the process of rejigging workflows for an electronic environment both stimulating and fun. I look forward to the challenges of manuscript editing and to carrying on the journal’s tradition of excellence.”

 

Pilgrims’ Pronouns: Reflections on “We”


5533-165wIn November, we published Inspired Journeys: Travel Writers in Search of the Muse, edited by Brian Bouldrey. Here Bouldrey 
reflects on the varied uses of the collective “We,” tying them to the impulse for pilgrimage.

we handA couple of times a year, I get together with several friends who all once lived in the same neighborhood in San Francisco. We were sitting around at a recent reunion, and one friend mentioned that our old neighborhood (still hers), full of expensive wooden Victorian homes, has a firetruck that patrols at all times, always out of the barn. “We sure do love our firefighters, don’t we?” she asked us. I told her that since I hadn’t lived in San Francisco for fifteen years, I must forfeit the right to use The Municipal We.

I’ve been thinking about the pronoun “we” a lot lately. Where do you usually see it?  Often in declarations, and in manifestos, the difference being that declarations declare, calling out something that is already there, plain as the nose on your face—our Declaration of Independence stands on the sentence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” There’s that “we” again, the Patriot We, the Nationalist We, the Pep Rally We. We got spirit, yes we do, we got spirit, how about you?

WE the PeopleThe manifesto differs, for a manifesto makes something manifest that never existed before: the statements of all those artists, the futurists and surrealists, the modernists who wanted to “make it new,” and all the crazy ones, from the Unabomber’s caution about industrial society to Charlie Sheen’s 11-point manifesto for winning. Manifestos are more I than We, and a noisy, hilarious We at times, like a misfiring car alarm on a Saturday morning, waking up the neighborhood even if the neighborhood is not ready to be awakened.

I have bad memories of being knocked down by grade-school bullies who linked arms and ran me down while chanting “we don’t stop for traffic.” And I’m a bit terrified of the “We don’t like your kind coming around here,” which has become a troublingly common We of late. I will chant the Creed We of “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty.”

we_areI am surprised at how choked up I can get when I declare an Alma Mater We, as in We will sing thy praise forever. Northwestern University, my alma mater, has two fight songs, “Go U Northwestern,” which we sing when we get a touchdown, and one called “Push On,” which is what we sing when we don’t get a first down. “Push on, Northwestern, we’ll always stand by you,” we promise, like a legion of battered spouses whose partners have substance abuse problems.

We-MeThere is the Royal We of queens and popes and threatening law firms.  The Nuptial We of married couples is, as Joan Didion described it, the classic betrayal. When my mother tells my father, “We need to redecorate the guest room,” she doesn’t mean we, she means you, and when my father asks my mother, “Are we out of beer?,” he doesn’t mean we, he means I. Sometimes, there was never a We involved in the first place.

And there is the Memorial We.  The Memorial We is a We that connects the present and the absent. I feel the Memorial We most strongly around Arlington or the Vietnam Memorial or the AIDS quilt, where most of the We are far away, but the multitude of names surrounds us, where pronouns become proper nouns, thousands of names. I felt the Memorial We when I placed my hand into the worn stone of the central pillar of the Portico de la Gloria in Santiago’s cathedral, thinking of the millions of hands that have also been there over hundreds of years. The Memorial We seems the closest kin to the paradoxical “Pilgrim We.”

We-Button-911x1024My name appears as editor on a book recently published by the University of Wisconsin Press, with twenty contributors far more vital than I, each writing about what I would call secular pilgrimage. Inspired Journeys: Travel Writers in Search of the Muse includes attempts by travel writers to make a sort of “we” between the “I” of themselves and the he or she of some secular saint, some great original generosity of spirit. They tell of their trips to all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “little house” homesteads, Robert Scott’s Antarctic huts, the villages of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, and the grave of William McGonagall, the world’s worst poet.

It’s not coincidental, I think, that most of the secular and sacred saints we venerate now went charging against the grain of the Municipal We. They are the mad ones who make the manifestos. The Little Rock 9 were threatened for daring to integrate Arkansas schools, but now the high school that hated them is a museum in their honor and a place to which civil rights advocates make pilgrimages every year.

I have, as a Catholic, thought quite a bit about the saints of my religion. I imagine that in those early days of the Church there must have been in every village an especially marvelous person, a person who helped the We of us, maybe led the community, maybe would fix your ox-cart and wouldn’t accept payment, gave extra tomatoes from her garden, told a good story. Then that person would die and leave a huge, gaping hole in the fabric of the village, and the people would miss her so keenly that they just knew that person was close to God.we-566326_640

Perhaps we don’t want more.  Perhaps we just want to give thanks.  That is the essence of the Pilgrim We, I suppose.

I dream of a place where the “I” and the “we” are at peace with one another, where the spiritual and the religious, the left and the right, the We and the They, can all hang together in a great inclusive old-school democracy. This might have been the dream of a secular nation that our founding fathers tried to create.

Bouldrey-Brian-2016-cBrian Bouldrey has written eight books, including Honorable Bandit: A Walk across Corsica, and edited six anthologies, including Inspired Journeys and Traveling Souls. He teaches creative writing at Northwestern University and gave the 2016 keynote address to the American pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.