The Golden Age of Dirty Talk
Published on October 27, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at The Awl, Lili Loofbourow bemoans "the sorry state of sexual expression."

She writes:

"When did we forget how to talk dirty? Sexting transcripts are criminally boring. Craigslist ads read like chimp-generated remixes of the same five words. Is it the Internet? Why are Americans so bad at writing and speaking the thing they love thinking about and doing? You can measure a civilization's cultural capital by how it encodes its basest operations. By that yardstick, we're broke.

So, what would good bad language look like? Luckily, there was plenty of it in early modern London, where vulgarity had a vast vocabulary and even indecent proposals were decently couched. For an example of the latter we can look to a cheeky little pamphlet written in 1656 called the Academy of Pleasure. Author unknown (he knew better than to sign his name), it's an etiquette book for the morally flexible. What it offers is a) practical guidance in the art of preying on others (and, pretty broad-mindedly, how to avoid being preyed on) and b) criminal panache. If a 17th-century Londoner tried to scam you, he'd do it by announcing (grandly, irresistibly): “I have a task worthy the pregnancy of your spirit.”

I have a task worthy the pregnancy of your spirit: Save the slangforest. Breed dirty words. Bring synonyms back. Or just enroll in the Academy of Pleasure."


Cool-looking Moby Dick Book Covers
Published on October 25, 2011 by Sara Foss

"Moby Dick" is one of my favorite books, and the New York Times Sunday Book Review features a cool slideshow of "Moby Dick" book covers.

The book covers come from the collection of Albany resident Bill Pettit, who owns 180 versions of the book.

Earlier this year, Pettit talked about his collection with All Over Albany; click here to read the interview.

Click here to check out the book covers.

A Found Poem on Costumed Dogs
Published on October 19, 2011 by Sara Foss

This post at the Albany Times Union, about whether dogs should wear Halloween costumes, inspired some snickering at work today.

"I really need to stake out a position on that," I said.

"Maybe the Republicans can discuss it at their next debate, along with Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan," someone else said.

Apparently my colleagues and I aren't the only people who thought the post was hilarious.

The writer Daniel Nester, who teaches at the College of St. Rose, has transformed the comments inspired by the post into a found poem, which you can read here.

Notes On Poetry, Online And Otherwise
Where Are the Poetry Blogs?
Published on October 18, 2011 by guest author: Dan Schneider

A couple months ago, I was considering starting a blog, perhaps about poetry. And though I had always considered creating a site to promote my own work completely self-indulgent, I was beginning to reconsider. Perhaps blogging has become more acceptable, a way to get one’s work out there, connect to fellow writers, or start a conversation.

But before I engaged in such an act of shameless self-promotion, I wanted to see some other poets’ blogs that would show what was possible and help me decide on a format. Would it be better to post my poems or others’ poems I like and admire? Would it be interesting to write about day-to-day life and include ideas for writing, or keep discussion limited to poetry and poetics? Would there be a way to combine the two? How could one make interesting use of the internet as a medium?

As I fired up Google, I figured everyone must have a blog by now, so I started by looking for blogs of my favorite poets. I searched "Billy Collins blog," "Thomas Lux blog," "Stephen Dobyns blog," among others, but came up surprisingly short. Jean Valentine? No blog. Charles Simic? A quick scan of searches revealed that he’d written articles for the New York Review of Books blog, but I didn’t come across a blog he was writing himself.

Finally a search for ‘Mark Doty blog’ revealed an entry into the vast world of poetry bloggers.


Poetic Interlude
Published on October 12, 2011 by Sara Foss

I'd never heard of the Swedish writer Tomas Transtromer until last week, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Here's his poem "The Outpost." (For more information about Transtromer, check out this article in Slate.)


I’m ordered out to a heap of stones
like a distinguished corpse from the Iron Age.
The others are back in the tent sleeping
stretched out like spokes in a wheel.

In the tent the stove rules: a big snake
that has swallowed a ball of fire and hisses.
But out in the spring night it is silent
among cold stones waiting for day.

Out in the cold I begin to fly
like a shaman, I fly to her body
with its white marks from her bikini -
we were out in the sun. The moss was warm.

I flit over warm moments
but can’t stop for long.
They’re whistling me back through space -
I crawl out from the stones. Here and now.

Mission: to be where I am.
Even in that ridiculous, deadly serious
role – I am the place
Where creation is working itself out.

Daybreak, the sparse tree trunks
are coloured now, the frostbitten
spring flowers form a silent search party
for someone who has vanished in the dark.

But to be where I am. And to wait.
I am anxious, stubborn, confused.
Coming events, they’re here already!
I know it. They’re outside:

a murmuring crowd outside the gate.
They can pass only one by one.
They want in. Why? They’re coming
one by one. I am the turnstile.

The 50th Anniversary of "The Phantom Tollbooth"
Published on October 11, 2011 by Sara Foss

At The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik considers a classic of children's literature.

Here's an excerpt:

"Our cult of decade anniversaries—the tenth of 9/11, the twentieth of 'Nevermind'—are for the most part mere accidents of our fingers: because we’ve got five on each hand, we count things out in tens and hundreds. And yet the fifty-year birthday of a good children’s book marks a real passage, since it means that the book hasn’t been passed just from parent to child but from parent to child and on to child again. A book that has crossed that three-generation barrier has a good chance at permanence. So to note the fiftieth birthday of the closest thing that American literature has to an 'Alice in Wonderland' of its own, Norton Juster’s 'The Phantom Tollbooth'—with illustrations, by Jules Feiffer, that are as perfectly matched to Juster’s text as Tenniel’s were to Carroll’s—is to mark an anniversary that matters. (And there are two new books for the occasion, both coming out this month from Knopf: 'The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth,' with notes by Leonard Marcus; and a fiftieth-anniversary edition, with a series of short essays by notable readers about the effect the book has had on their lives.)

This reader, from the first generation, received a copy not long after the book appeared, and can still recall its curious force. How odd the first chapter seemed, with so little time taken up with the kind of persuasive domestic detail that fills the beginning chapters of the first Narnia book or 'From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler' or 'Mary Poppins.' We’re quickly introduced to the almost anonymous, and not very actively parented, Milo, a large-eyed boy in a dark shirt—a boy too bored to look up from the pavement as he walks home from school. Within paragraphs, a strange package has arrived in his room. It turns out to be a cardboard tollbooth, waiting to be assembled. Milo obediently sets it up, pays his fare (he has an enviable electric car already parked by his bed), and is rushed away to the Lands Beyond, a fantastical world of pure ideas. The book breaks the first rule of “good” children’s literature: we’re in the plot before we know the people."

Edward Gorey's Letters
Published on September 21, 2011 by Sara Foss

I'm a huge fan of macabre illustrator Edward Gorey (who isn't?), and so naturally I enjoyed this recent article, courtesy of Brain Pickings, about a new book on the correspondence between Gorey and author/editor Peter F. Neumeyer.

The book, titled "Floating Worlds," is "a magnificent collection of 75 typewriter-transcribed letters, 38 stunningly illustrated envelopes, and more than 60 postcards and illustrations exchanged between two collaborators-turned-close-friends, featuring Gorey’s his witty, wise meditations on such eclectic topics as insect life, the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, and Japanese art," according to Brain Pickings.

Click here to read a little bit about book and also see some of the drawings featured in it.

Poetic Interlude
Published on September 1, 2011 by Sara Foss

Last week the New York Times printed an obituary for Nazik al-Malaika, one of the Arab world's most famous poets. Here's an excerpt:

"In a country riven by sectarian strife, her life and work as a poet and a literary critic were poignant reminders of Iraq’s cultural renaissance in the mid-20th century. Baghdad was then considered the Paris of the Middle East, and poets and artists flocked here to work.

Ms. Malaika was one of a small group of Iraqi poets who broke away from classical Arab poetry, with its rigid metric and rhyme schemes. Influenced by the writing of Shakespeare, Byron and Shelley as well as by classical Arabic poets, these poets took up modern topics and used lyrical language that spoke with the immediacy of life on the Arab street."

The Times also printed al-Malaika's poem "To Wash Disgrace," which the paper describes as a "searing poem about honor killings." Here it is:


Oh mother, a rattle, tears and darkness

Blood gushed out, and the stabbed body trembled.

“Oh mother!” Heard only by the executioner

Tomorrow the dawn will come and roses will wake up

Youth and enchanted hopes will ask for her

The meadows and the flowers will answer:

She left to wash the disgrace.

The brutal executioner returns

And meets people

“Disgrace!” He wipes his knife

“We’ve torn it apart.”

And returned virtuous with a white reputation.

Research for the Apocalypse
Published on August 24, 2011 by Sara Foss

Curious about what to read to prepare for the coming economic apocalypse?

The website i09 has helpfully compiled a reading list "packed with novels about what happens to the world after total or partial economic collapse."

I haven't read any of these books, but they all look pretty good.

I'd also recommend "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy, which seems to suggest that no amount of preparation can help stave off the terrible effects of societal collapse. It's unclear what causes the apocalypse in "The Road," so perhaps the end of the world isn't rooted in economics so much as technology or environmental disaster. Regardless, I think "The Road" is good preparation for the economic apocalypse, because it makes it clear just how bad things could get. Read it at your peril, though - it will make you horribly depressed and possibly give you nightmares.

Lists of Books
Published on August 18, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I consider which great books I think are overrated, which books I think are awesome and which books I feel kind of blah about. For example:

Overrated: To Kill a Mockingbird

Awesome: Catch 22

Kind of Blah: My Antonia

Also, I still love Stephen King's "It" and John Irving's "The World According to Garp."

I simply can't help myself.

Poetic Interlude
Published on August 15, 2011 by Sara Foss

I was flipping through an old high school literacy magazine today, and it made me feel a little bit like writing poetry, or at least reading poetry.

During college, I pretty much gave up poetry. I felt like I couldn't really understand it, and that prose was really my medium. Perhaps I lost something when I made this decision, because poetry does things that prose simply cannot do. As I was pondering poetry, someone mentioned the poet Russell Edson, described as the foremost prose poet in America, and I thought I'd post his poem "The Reason Why the Closet-Man is Never Sad."

This is the house of the closet-man. There are no rooms, just hallways and closets.
      Things happen in rooms. He does not like things to happen. . . . Closets, you take things out of closets, you put things into closets, and nothing happens . . .

      Why do you have such a strange house?

      I am the closet-man, I am either going or coming, and I am never sad.

      But why do you have such a strange house?

      I am never sad . . .


A New Take on Beijing
Published on August 11, 2011 by Sara Foss

I enjoy Tom Scocca's writing. He's sharp and sarcastic, and unafraid to challenge mainstream reporters and assumptions. His new book, "Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future," about his experiences living in the city at it prepares to host the Olympics, has been released, and Deadspin has printed an excerpt, which you can find here. In the meantime, here's a taste:

"Getting to know Beijing was like doing archaeology with someone shoveling new dirt and rubbish down into the pit on top of you. Old Beijing itself was a phantasm—a name for certain elements in an ever-churning city: hutongs, poverty, eunuchs, public lavatories, cabbage piles, bicycles. Constituent parts of something inherently unstable. Two hundred years ago, a courtyard house was an aristocrat's mansion; now, it was cluttered with the possessions of fifteen families at once. Real, bustling life. Or you could see another house on another lane, restored, its gate repainted, a garage door set in the wall for the new owner's Audi. The huddled former inhabitants moved on. Or you could go to the Wangfujing shopping street downtown and see a replica of Old Beijing, with mannequin inhabitants and real goods for sale, in the basement of a shopping mall."

Our New Poet Laureate
Published on August 11, 2011 by Sara Foss

The Times has helpfully compiled some poems by new poet laureate Philip Levine, whom the paper describes as "the voice of the workingman."

Here's Levine's 1991 poem "Fear and Fame." 

"Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots,
gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet
like a knight’s but with a little glass window
that kept steaming over, and a respirator
to save my smoke-stained lungs. I would descend
step by slow step into the dim world
of the pickling tank and there prepare
the new solutions from the great carboys
of acids lowered to me on ropes — all from a recipe
I shared with nobody and learned from Frank O’Mera
before he went off to the bars on Vernor Highway
to drink himself to death. A gallon of hydrochloric
steaming from the wide glass mouth, a dash
of pale nitric to bubble up, sulphuric to calm,
metals for sweeteners, cleansers for salts,
until I knew the burning stew was done.
Then to climb back, step by stately step, the adventurer
returned to the ordinary blinking lights
of the swingshift at Feinberg and Breslin’s
First-Rate Plumbing and Plating with a message
from the kingdom of fire. Oddly enough
no one welcomed me back, and I'd stand
fully armored as the downpour of cold water
rained down on me and the smoking traces puddled
at my feet like so much milk and melting snow.
Then to disrobe down to my work pants and shirt,
my black street shoes and white cotton socks,
to reassume my nickname, strap on my Bulova,
screw back my wedding ring, and with tap water
gargle away the bitterness as best I could.
For fifteen minutes or more I’d sit quietly
off to the side of the world as the women
polished the tubes and fixtures to a burnished purity
hung like Christmas ornaments on the racks
pulled steadily toward the tanks I’d cooked.
Ahead lay the second cigarette, held in a shaking hand,
as I took into myself the sickening heat to quell heat,
a lunch of two Genoa salami sandwiches and Swiss cheese
on heavy peasant bread baked by my Aunt Tsipie,
and a third cigarette to kill the taste of the others.
Then to arise and dress again in the costume
of my trade for the second time that night, stiffened
by the knowledge that to descend and rise up
from the other world merely once in eight hours is half
what it takes to be known among women and men."

Writerly Food
Published on August 4, 2011 by Sara Foss

My friend Seattle food writer Hanna Raskin recently blogged on the eating habits of great writers, which are actually pretty weird. For instance: Lord Byron drank vinegar. And F. Scott Fitzgerald ate tinned meat.

Check out Hanna's post here and the New York Times illustrations that inspired it here.

Poetic Interlude
Published on August 4, 2011 by Sara Foss

I've never been one for romantic poets, and I'd heard mixed things about the 2009 Jane Campion film "Bright Star," which tells the story of the uncommumated love affair between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne. (Keats died of tuberculosis at the age of 25). The title of the film refers to one of Keats' poems, which was written for Brawne. Here it is:

"Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art--
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors--
No--yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever--or else swoon to death."

The film itself is pretty good. It even manages to make sewing seem sexy.

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