What’s Wrong with Speculative Fiction? I Might Have an Idea.

What's wrong with speculative fiction? Nothing, really; it's just that too often, you can see the machinery underneath (Photo Credit: iO9)

So I was in class recently — Greg Spatz’s Form and Theory course, “Beyond Realism” — when I happened to peer over at a classmate’s book. Leisure reading, outside of our normal assigned material. Victorian-style cover art; dark hues and noirish, industrial overtones. Something steampunk.

“What are you reading?” I asked her.

The classmate shrugged. “Nothing you’d be into. Not really literary.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You know my first publication was science fiction, right?”

“Really?” She seemed puzzled. “Guess I didn’t see that one coming.”

As a group, we MFAers tend to be sensitive over our choices in reading or writing. We’ve been raised on steady diets of Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff, and anything that breaks from that minimalist tradition, we often feel the need to excuse. And why wouldn’t we? As both Tyler Evans and Greg Leunig have recently observed, such admissions can do great harm to the perception of one’s artistic credibility, and even to one’s career aspirations. I’m not saying I agree that such should be the case, necessarily, but then I’m also not super-defensive over it. If a given work can be considered good writing — that is, good in the sense of structure, characterization, use of line — it should hold up on its own, regardless of genre.

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Suburban Superego Meets Avant-Garde Id and Ego Takes A Beating

For the last four to five years of my kids high school education, I’ve participated in something utterly unique in terms of fund-raising.   It is an old fashioned (Norman Rockwellish “Let’s Put On A Show”) production, known as Ham On Regal.   And for the past 49, going on 50 years, this hodge-podge of skits and musical numbers has involved a huge commitment of time, effort and resources.  The committed consist of your ordinary middle-aged parents, parents of teenagers who attend the Joel E. Ferris High School on Spokane’s South Hill.   Next week, for example, roughly 300 of them will  perform dance moves (from the 1970‘s) that you thought were extinct.   In full costume, they will flail around in some semblance of rhythm and uniformity to the tunes of the Black Eyed Peas, Devo, Abba and more.   There will be scenes of three minutes in duration — fifteen to be exact — in which characters like Paris Hilton mingle with Rambo and Red from That 70‘s Show.   Yes, it’s all very entertaining.


But here’s my dilemma:   as a co-chair on the script committee for this year’s rowdy rumpus, I tried to do that double entendre thing.   That is, overseeing 18 other writers like myself, I tried to corral those who wanted to introduce a plethora of fart jokes and other assorted potty humor.   For the most part, we were successful and the dialogue for Ham Times At Ferris High is not half bad.   (You might want to check out a show.)  Unfortunately, what wound up on the cutting room floor were seemingly innocuous lines like “Shut up” (changed to “Be quiet”).   When Dick Vitale, an ESPN mainstay, says something about going “number one in the pool, but having Duke at #2 going all the way…,” instead of smiles, we recently got frowns of disapproval.   Moreover, when another hilarious personage complains that the Bible is boring, one individual asks us not to disrespect the Old and New Testaments.   I guess my point is this:   the suburban superego has gone into hyperdrive!


Or, to put it more succinctly, censorship in America shows no signs of abating.   And for a liminal poet like me there’s nothing to do but sigh…   Sigh and write my ass off!

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My Feet Are the Smartest Part of Me

High Speed: 140 Kilometers per Hour

I drove on the Autobahn for the first time this week. We rented a car to go to Gernsheim, a town about 160 miles from Nuremberg, where we checked out a Mini Cooper we might buy. Tracy was driving the Ford Fiesta and asking periodically when I’d like to take the wheel.

“Would you like to drive now, before we get to Würzburg?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t even know what Würzburg is. How do you know where it is?” I didn’t see anything about it on the GPS that kept falling off the window, off the dash, off of every place we thought to prop it. I was pretty nervous.

“I don’t mean to build driving up too much,” Tracy said and pulled off the highway at the next rest area. He got out of the car and I moved into the driver’s seat. I hadn’t driven in almost three months and was afraid I’d forgotten how. I looked down at the three pedals and couldn’t remember what they were or what my feet were supposed to do with them. Nevertheless, I looked up and my feet went to town, knew exactly where to go and when. Read more »

AWP 2012: making plans

It’s that time of year when the literary writers of America converge upon one (cold) city to drink beer, socialize (aka drink beer), network (aka drink beer), etc. I think it’s a rule that every Bark post in the coming two weeks or so must include a reference to the conference. I thought I’d get the ball rolling.

But really, I’m just wondering—pre-conference—about who I’ll be seeing this year, and what events/tables/panels/readings my fellow attendees are planning on, well, attending.

Myself, I’ll be trying to snag a signed copy of Cataclysm Baby (by Matt Bell), listening to Sam Ligon and Jason Sommer (and a host of others) at the Propaganda reading, and attending Gregory Spatz’s signing. I’ll also be on a panel Friday afternoon. What are your AWP plans?


Listen listen listen! Let's all listen! (drawing of bird by Cathie)

It’s Monday. You tired?
It’s February. You depressed?
It’s quiet. You wana listen?

For a limited time NPR’s First Listen is allowing you to listen to Andrew Bird’s new album Break it Yourself” over & over & over again.

Do it.  Read more »

Monday, Monday

Hold on to yer Monday pants, people. You know which ones I mean.

Apparently procrastination is the perfectionists’ way of getting out of achieving perfection, because they’re afraid they’ll fail. Wait until the last minute, and they have an excuse for not being perfect. And yes, I did get paid for them to write a study about me. In Skittles, but hey.

I want to read this book.

Somehow I got on an email list that fires urgent updates at me about where/when Girl Scout cookies are being sold. Do you think they used my Target shopping habits to determine the likelihood that I’m a fat kid? The cheap side table and bath mat I bought at Target must have screamed Thin Mints.

I’m a little disappointed you guys didn’t let me in on the awesomeness that is Dropbox. Am I the only one who is light-years behind on this? This tool could have saved my office a fair amount of time over the last six months. I thought there was a reason I surrounded myself with nerds.

In case you missed it, Ann Patchett was on Stephen Colbert talking about independent bookstores and the evils of Amazon. I’d never watched an interview with her. Most times authors are pretty awkward on Colbert and can’t get any banter going. She was the complete opposite. My fan-girl writer crush grows.

Just found out this hotel in Chicago is supposedly haunted by a guy named Peg Leg Johnny. Knowing the four people I’m rooming with in Chi-town makes me confident we’ll be able to get at least 32 jokes out of Peg Leg Johnny references. Read more »


Because this title entertains the crap out of me.

I once went three years in high school without cursing.

I can’t for the life of me remember why.

I do remember riding to Wendy’s with a friend when an Eminem song come on the radio, and suddenly I was emphatically exclaiming, “Just get your drunk ass off that fucking runway, ho!” And I remember deciding that this was ok. This wasn’t a true violation of my decision not to curse. This was, after all, art. I could say whatever I wanted to in the context of song/rap.

These days, I’m happy to say whatever the fuck I want to in general. I used the phrase “Jesus balls” in a text to my boss yesterday. That’s how I roll now. In real life. In poetry, however, I realize I’m still a bit self-conscious.

Although there are plenty of successful poems I admire that feature some form of cursing, it rarely even occurs to me to use that as an option. Maybe I’m so used to hearing in workshop that you have to “earn” your foul or naughty words, and that’s not the kind of risk I’m interested in taking in my poetry. I’d rather earn a crazy ass turn or an unsettling surreal move.

I mean, I have used the word “damn” in two of my poems and last year I submitted a poem to workshop that featured the word “cock,” which prompted an interesting discussion. One of my peers wrote that he felt like the three lines that came after the word were my way of subconsciously apologizing for using the word. And he was right. Read more »

A day in MFA life

It’s a Friday and it’s raining when you wake up at 7:30.  You meant to get up at 5:30 to get an early start on work, but the rain sounded so nice and your bed and partner were so warm that you drifted off, thinking it’s Friday, that you’ve got all weekend to finish your work. At that gray hour you don’t remember the mound of graduate school homework you’ve got, and it seems reasonable to close your eyes again. So you sleep in, and the kids actually wake you up.  You make chocolate milk for one, coffee for yourself, and tell the oldest there’s instant oatmeal, or they can ask their father to make Malt-O-Meal when he gets off the toilet.


She wants to know can she have chocolate chips in her oatmeal.  Yes, you say, because you’re feeling indulgent after receiving some food stamps.  She wants to know how many.  You think for a moment and then say “Nine.”  You’d been down to a couple freeze pops and a few items that didn’t really make a meal of any kind when your case had finally gone through the system.  You felt like shit that you couldn’t buy your daughter any new clothes for her first day of Kindergarten, but she looked good anyway and didn’t seem to mind.  You’re glad your kids remain young enough to be comforted by a chocolatey after-school snack, that they’re too young to know what it means to live below the poverty line.  To say you are grateful for the public assistance is an understatement. Read more »

Love in the Time of Facebook

I'm unlucky in facebook love

I had a really dramatic idea of what I wanted Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera to be about, something between a Fabio paperback and literary fiction. What I got instead was the reality of love. Dirty, dirty love.

 I was in a relationship with the same person twice at two different times in our lives. After the first breakup I went back and deleted any and all photos of us together. This was way back in the stone ages before Facebook changed its privacy settings ensuring that any photo ever uploaded became the site’s property. But the photos I uploaded the 2nd time popped up like dead bodies Read more »

When Bots Battle, Amazon Eats Itself

Bot courtesy of Creative Commons, Mattie B

Amazon gets stranger by the day. Robots are in the middle of crazy bidding wars while we sleep. These “bots” are dropping the price of books to $0.01 or raising them to $2,198,177.95 while we mess our way through discussions on how much a cup of coffee should cost if you bring your own mug. But while the market (well, the cafe here) isn’t listening to customer opinions on cost, it (well, Amazon) is following the advice of the algorithms or bots.

It’s not new that Markov chains collect information from Wikipedia, curate the articles, and sell the finished books on Amazon. Betascript does this kind of publishing all the time. Narrative Science kind of does the same thing with basic sports/business articles/reports.

One computer program, donning the human name Lambert M. Surhone, created and sold such a book about computers pretending to be human. And I don’t think it was a memoir. The Lambert bot was selling its book new, print-on-demand, for $47. Before you knew it, there was a used/like one available for $46.99. The bot bidding war had begun.

Last year a human software engineer at Facebook, Carlos Bueno, wrote  a children’s book where the main character, Lauren Ipsum, meets the Wandering Salesman, fends off Jargon, etc.  Even though you can read it on a tablet, it’s “a computer science book that doesn’t involve a computer.” He self-published as print-on-demand and set the price to $14.95. Enter the bots. Read more »

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