Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Douglas Crase, On Autumn Lake: The Collected Essays


As another appraisal of the commonwealth, “Lake Superior” extends a tradition that seems particular American: it’s a tradition we honor only partway. For the truth is, when our poets start telling us about gneiss, or land and air, when they locate their story in stone or, as Niedecker does, in rock, I think we are likely to allow them the trope but not likely to believe they are saying what in fact they just said. They and their poems are made of land and air and rock. People who read poetry have always been alert enough to entertain the trope while avoiding the notion itself as sentimental, romantic, or worse, perniciously near to nationalism.
Get them away from poetry, however, and today’s readers are also alert enough ecologically to know that their own identification with the environment isn’t ipso facto proof of direct-mail mysticism or gang nationalism. (“Niedecker and the Evolutional Sublime”)

Moving my way through the stunning new collection On Autumn Lake: The Collected Essays (New York NY: Nightboat Books, 2022) by American poet and critic Douglas Crase, I had foolishly presumed I hadn’t actually heard his name prior to this, only to discover I’d read his essay “Niedecker and the Evolutional Sublime,” included as part of the late Lorine Niedecker’s Lake Superior (Seattle WA/New York NY: Wave Books, 2013) [see my review of such here]. As the press release for On Autumn Lake: The Collected Essays offers: “On Autumn Lake collects four decades of prose (1976-2020) by renowned poet and beloved cult figure Douglas Crase, with an emphasis on idiosyncratic essays about quintessentially American poets and the enduring transcendentalist tradition.” Some of the essays collected here, truly, are revelatory, and he writes repeatedly, thoroughly and thoughtfully on poets such as Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970), John Ashbery (1927-2017) and James Schuyler (1923-1991), among multiple other pieces on an array of literary activity, centred around his attentions across some four decades. I’ve read numerous works by Niedecker over the years, but admittedly paid little attention to the works of Schuyler and Ashbery (preferring, myself, the work of their New York School compatriot, Frank O’Hara), although Crase’s essays almost make one feel a sense of loss for not having paid enough attention. One doesn’t need an intimate knowledge of his subjects to fall deeply into these essays, and one is even reminded of just how poorly and rarely Niedecker’s work had been read for so long, only rescued from relative obscurity in later years, thanks to critics and editors such as Jenny Penberthy and Douglas Crase (fully aware that there are plenty of examples of women poets not given their proper due until later: Mina Loy, Anne Wilkinson, Judith Copithorne, etcetera).

Crase’s essays are deeply knowledgeable and intimate, managing to write critically about poets, as in the case of Ashbery and Schuyler, that he was personally close to for decades, allowing his friendships to open up, and not hinder, the possibility for clear critical examination. There is also something quite charming, and even unique, about Crase’s approach, as he offers in his preface to the collection: “You can emerge from your education by heroes and friends lacking a certain conventional balance, partial for the rest of your life to a set of values acquired when you were the fool in love. I wouldn’t have it any other way.” I find that kind of self-assessment quite wonderful, “a fool in love,” as Douglas Crase the critic/reader allows his thinking heart to fuel his examinations into the thinking and structure of any particular author beyond what might otherwise be possible. He continues, further on:

            Say you’ve decided to read all of a single author, as I did Emerson, or as Susan Howe must have done with Dickinson; read them as if no one had read them before, and only afterward consult the established critical writings on that author. You soon note that the writings generalize where they might be particular. They elaborate on their learnings, impressions, and at times their prejudice, until it appears eventually they have substituted the elaborations for what the author actually wrote. Jarrell cautioned his readers to remember that the criticism of any age, even the best of it, becomes inherently absurd. Sometimes it’s risible. And the conclusion is: if they got Emerson wrong, or Dickinson, how can I believe what they are telling me about Ashbery, or Niedecker, or the origins of the New York School?

There is such a delight in his examinations, offering a joyous and rapt attention and passionate engagement on very specific poets, poems and moments, while simultaneously able to see how the threads of his particular subject’s work fits into the larger fabric of literary production, culture and politics. As he writes as part of the essay “THE LEFTOVER LANDSCAPE,” “Much of art is the struggle to make emotion less embarrassing.” There is something quite staggering in that simple, short sentence that Crase manages to get, and get to. Honestly, go to page 135 and read the whole paragraph that sits at the bottom of the page. It’s breathtaking. And read the whole essay. And then read the whole collection. This is easily the finest collection of prose I’ve read in years.

Monday, August 15, 2022

Ongoing notes: mid-August, 2022: Adrian Lürssen + Ryan Stearne,

So there’s only two weeks left in the great above/ground 29th anniversary BIG SUMMER SALE, but you probably already know that. It also means that we’re leaning back up into fall, and most likely an announcement in a few weeks further for the 30th anniversary subscriptions. Can you believe the press turns thirty years old next year? Honestly, it seems strange, even to me.

San Francisco CA: I was curious to see a chapbook from Bay Area poet Adrian Lürssen, his NEOWISE (Victoria BC: Trainwreck Press, 2022). As the acknowledgment offers: “HUMAN IS TO WANDER, the full-length manuscript from which this chapbook is excerpted, was selected by Gillian Conoley for the 2022 Colorado Poetry Prize and will be published by The Center for Literary Publishing in November, 2022.” Lürssen’s poems and poem-fragments float through and across images, linking and collaging boundaries, scraps and seemingly-found materials. “She would say bees or blood,” he writes, as part of “Landscape No Longer In a Mother Tongue,” “he said. / Out of earshot is a river, she said.” There is something of the fragment and fractal to the assemblage of his poems, writing a map around the narrative “I,” through the way they fit together; and I’m curious to see how the larger book-length structure presents itself. And yet, in certain ways, the structure here is less of collage or fragment than the swirling of a fractured lyric around a central core. There is something going on here worth very much paying attention to.



The feather at the opening is also a ring around a cause: to enter means to empty pockets of insects and arms. Noon is the action against the enemy – night, a way to say “Uncle” or argue the difference between troop and troupe. The name and the rifle: a system, like a river leading away from home.

“Expect the yam and you’ll get the rhyme.”]

Calgary AB: I’m really taken with Calgary writer Ryan Stearne’s reworking on Ernest Hemingway through OLD SEA (Calgary AB: The Blasted Tree, 2022), produced in an edition of sixty copies (complete with metal hook embedded in the cover). In an “Author Statement” nearly as long as the short story (okay, not really, but close enough), Stearne offers:

            Is it possible to recreate style based on computational analysis. That’s what “Old Sea” is at its core, an attempt to use data to rewrite Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea as a short story. Hemingway’s immediately recognizable and brusque style made him an immediate candidate to test my stylometry-based hypothesis. When you read Hemingway, you know you are reading Hemingway. Yet, his simplicity is also an exercise in literary slight of hand, resonating emotionally in a style that seems effortless. What I mean is that Hemingway’s deliberations encompass an exercise in both inclusion and excision. The omitted words are equally as important as those set in the final type.

Procedural work, for the most part, can be seen as a way of either stripping bare or altering altogether, allowing the source material to purely feed the possibility for something entirely different to emerge, but Stearne’s project suggests, instead, a way of retaining the flavour of a particular work through its stripping down. As the opening of Stearne’s short story begins:

            The old man sat with the boy on the terrace where they could smell the faint odour of the distant shark factory on the wind, talked about baseball and fishing, and had beers. He hadn’t caught a fish in eighty-four days and was salao, the worst kind of unlucky.
“You will be successful tomorrow,” the boy said.
“Maybe,” the old man said.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Emily R. Austin

Emily R. Austin was born in Ontario, Canada, and received a writing grant from the Canada Council for the Arts in 2020. She studied English literature and library science at Western University. She currently lives in Ottawa. Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is her first novel.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

Thanks for chatting with me, rob! My first novel, Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead came out last year. A few years before it, I wrote a novella, “Oh Honey.” In terms of how the works compare I’d say my writing has become a little more earnest and a touch less focused on apathy.

Everyone In This Room
changed my life in that it’s what connected me to my talented literary agent (Heather Carr with the Friedrich Agency), as well as publishers, editors, publicists, other writers, booksellers, librarians, and readers. Day to day, my life doesn’t look too different. I get more messages than I used to. I feel a little less coy referring to myself as a “writer.” I’m also a bit more motivated to write now, I think.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

When I was thirteen, my high school English teacher gave me a short story assignment. Before high school, I was weak in English. I had a learning disability growing up (and still do, presumably.) I was never told what it was, but I’m pretty sure it’s dyslexia. Because of that, I performed poorly in English growing up. So, I was surprised to get an A+ on the story I wrote when I was thirteen. My teacher moved me from the college track English to the university track English, entered my story in a contest, and it won first place in Ontario. I got a fancy plaque. So, I got into writing fiction because my little thirteen-year-old heart was given the confidence to do so by a very kind English teacher.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

It takes me a while to write an entire book, but I can write the beginning of a book pretty quick. I have lots of ideas, though most are bad. In terms of how the drafts look, I edit while I write. I don’t think you’re supposed to do that, though. Because I do, my first drafts have already been pretty painfully edited. After they’re done, I action the notes from people like editors or my agent, and the story shifts a bit. So far, you’d be able to tell it’s the same book, though, I think.

4 - Where does a work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I’m an anxious person who feels a weird illogical desire to be always working towards something, so if I’m writing—I’m hoping for it to become a book.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

Everyone in this Room came out during the pandemic. It was very shortly before covid that I found my literary agent. It was near the beginning of the first lockdown when I got the book deal—so, no, I’ve not done many public readings. None, in fact, besides a few virtual events. I used to intentionally select classes in university based on whether they had a presentation component. I’d have chosen a class with a forty-page essay over one five-minute presentation.

I’m about ten years out from university now, and miraculously, I’ve overcome a lot of that. I went through a period of feeling deeply apathic, and one of the few benefits to apathy is that it made it possible for me to speak publicly without caring. I am no longer an apathetic person, but I managed to get a number of speaking opportunities under my belt while I was, and unintentionally overcame the fear. Somehow, I actually teach classes now. That all said, it would still be a lie to say I enjoy any form of public speaking. I am certainly able and willing to readings, though.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

The main reason why I write is because I like to. I don’t sit down to write thinking of the concerns I have, or the questions I want to get to the bottom of. I am just sort of acting on a compulsion. Questions usually do come up as I’m writing though. It depends on the characters, I think. In Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead the questions relate to, “What’s the purpose of life?” and “Why not kill yourself?” I guess generally, I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of other people to understand, and foster empathy maybe.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I think writing can be important. It can do things like entertain, offer hope, or make you think. Though, it doesn’t always do that, does it? I don’t have a strong opinion about what the role of a writer should be. I guess I think everyone should be whatever they want.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I really love working with editors. I think having other people involved in your writing, who prompt you to improve it, is extremely fortunate. For me, I also find it’s often easier to action feedback from other people because I have a lot of self-doubt, and when there are editors involved in your writing whose judgement and skill you trust, it makes writing easier. I was lucky to have a very talented editor, Daniella Wexler, work on Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead. I can say, for sure, that book is much better because of her. My literary agent, Heather, also edited, and she significantly improved that book too. There were others involved too. I think having anyone involved in your writing who cares about it enough to want to make it better is lucky.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Write pretending no one is going to read it but you.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (novella to novel)? What do you see as the appeal?

Genre wise, I’d say my novella and book were pretty similar. I like to write about women, mental illness, and dark humour. I tend not to write very long stories.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I should probably start a writing routine. I have multiple day jobs in addition to writing, and while I think I’m somehow managing to create the façade that everything’s organized—the behind the scenes of my writing is a mess. I write in my note’s app a lot. Usually, the bulk of my books are written over a handful of frenzied weekends, where I did nothing but write, and then picked at for half an hour here and there. All to say, I’m probably in no position to offer any advice regarding this.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

If I feel stalled, I try to get away from it. I go for a walk. I read something. Or, usually, I start something new and come back later.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

There’s some wild plant that grows around Southwestern Ontario (and probably Ottawa too) that I smell sometimes when I’m outside. I don’t know what it is, but every time I smell it, I simultaneously remember being a teenager working at a summer camp, playing at my aunt and uncles farm, and laying in the grass in my parent’s backyard. It’s some sort of weed, I think. It has a distinct smell. I want to say it’s juniper, but I think I just like the word “juniper.”

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Music definitely does for me. I’m a big fan of the band Muna, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus. Every time I hear a song I like, I imagine a story around it.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Ottessa Moshfegh, Brandon Taylor, Kristen Arnett, T Kira Madden, Sam Pink, Jean Kyoung Frazier, Steven Rowley, Casey Plett, Zoe Whittall, Sylvia Plath, Leonard Cohen.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I’d like to find ways of being a more helpful person to other people. I’m looking for opportunities to contribute more to the well-being and happiness of other people.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Outside of writing, I’ve worked as a librarian, a college professor, and an information architect. I might just be a little burnt out, but I’m becoming one of those “I don’t dream of labour” types. It might be fun to just be a writer someday.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I am into visual arts too. When I was a kid, I thought I’d do something with that. When I was going to university, I felt like I had to pick between being an English major or go into visual arts. I picked English. I planned to be an English major, to go to library school, and to try to be writer, but I didn’t think the writer part would actually happen. It’s nuts that has to be honest. I felt sad about not going into visual arts though. I got a tattoo of this doodle I used to draw on all my notes on my side as a sentimental way of remembering I wanted to get into art once.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The Swimmers by Chloe Lane. It’s about a twenty-six-year-old woman named Erin who is spending a holiday weekend with her aunt, uncle, and terminally ill mom. Over the weekend, she learns her mom is planning to end her life the following Tuesday. It’s very sad and very funny.

I watched Drop Dead Fred recently which is a black comedy from 1991. I watched as a kid and re watched recently. It’s about a woman’s imaginary friend named Fred. It’s got 11% on rotten tomatoes, but I love it. 

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a couple things. One is a book about a woman with a phobia, and the other one about a girl who failed twelfth grade English.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;