Dewey Decimal Project: 226 BIR The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus

The Gospel of the LordThere is a tendency for writing about the Bible to fall into two disjoint camps: there are the literalists who take the naïve view that the text is to be read without concern for its original context or creation, who end up reducing Biblical studies to an absurdity since the literal reading is untenable, not just in reading the creation account, but in dealing with the frequent inconsistencies that have resulted from the texts having been compiled from a variety of traditions and intentions. On the other side of the coin, the textual critics will consider the origins and context of the Biblical texts, but seem to have forgotten that this is the foundational text of much Western religion. One pole of this can be found in the Jesus Seminar which denied the historicity of the eschatalogical in the Gospels and was skeptical of the miracles.

Bird takes a different tack here, looking to understand the Gospels in context, but at the same time never forgetting their religious significance. Bird supplements the historical-critical perspective of the Gospels that I’d encountered elsewhere with information from the early Church Fathers do help provide full understanding and context for how the canon was formed and why we ended up with the four Gospels that we have. Perhaps had I had a less eclectic education in matters theological, this would be familiar ground, but this served as an excellent introduction to being able to better understand how to approach the Gospels.

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Dewey Decimal Project: 211 ARM The Case For God

I’d heard of Karen Armstrong here and there and about this book, so I was curious to read a bit more about what she had to say. Alas, what I found was a lot of squishy theology of the all-religions-are-one variety. Having read God is not One a couple years ago, it’s clear that not only are all religions not one, but they really aren’t even asking the same questions (even the three Abrahamic faiths have dramatically different concerns underpinning their basic foundations). Add in that it’s been more than a few months between reading the book and writing this paragraph and I don’t really have much more to offer about it.

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An introvert at #AWP16—Day 3

Invisible to Whom?: Black Fiction Writers on Craft and the White Gaze

Cole LavalaisI had a long list of potential Saturday at 9a panels and realized that part of the reason that it was so long was that I wasn’t really excited about any of the options so I decided that this would be a good day for a late start to the day.

I woke up half an hour before my alarm was set and ended up getting to the convention center a bit before 9a anyway, so I took the time to rest a bit before my first real panel of the day.

We had a mix of discussion of general concerns surrounding the idea of African-American literature and readings by some of the panel members. Of these, by far the standout piece was by Cole Lavalais (pictured to the right. It was just a coincidence she was photographed on her own—I took pictures at the start of the panel and she didn’t fit into the frame for a group photo), who read her story, “A Lost Lesson in Evolution on the 3:16p from Chicago to Blue Island; Or Adaptation.” She is definitely an author to watch and her debut novel will be out later this year.

There was an observation made that often diversity panels such as these generally attract a completely or almost completely non-white audience but in this instance, they managed to avoid that problem. While the audience looked majority minority at least from my seat near the front, their were still a fair number of white faces in the audience.

I do think that there was a cultural thing happening when during audience question time, one person stood up and entered into a somewhat lengthy monolog that seemed to be mostly about his own writing (this is apparently a not uncommon occurrence at AWP panels) and another audience member interjected by saying, “is there a question here?” Thumbs up on that one.

Also, this ended up being a chance for some cultural education for me (and likely other white audience members). Andy Johnson talked about Sarah Bartmaan and said, that we would all know who she was (I, at least did not). I picked up a bit from his further remarks, and a bit more from wikipedia. The fact that this was someone well known to the African-American members of the audience and (I’m guessing) not so much to the others is itself its own interesting cultural commentary.

The other thing I learned was the use of “woke” as an adjective (along with assorted adjectival derivatives, such as the noun “wokeness”) meaning a state of awakening with respect to racial issues. I’m guessing that after this panel, I was a little bit more woke (although I’d like to think that I wasn’t completely unwoke beforehand).

It was also fascinating to hear about Dianca London’s experiences with workshop which would have been comical if they weren’t so tragic. With regard to one piece she had written about an albino black woman in the late eighteenth century, the comments included: “is this about white slavery?” “Can black people have albinism?” “Is this sci-fi?” Other workshop comments included a white professor (while dressed in an “ethnic” outfit), saying, “You don’t understand the implications of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.” Another student saying, “We get it. Slavery happened. Get over it.” In one discussion where a white student’s story used the N-word extensively, “Chill out. It’s the character’s conceit.” And then the general feedback of “too black, not black enough, pulling the race card.” London’s attitude was summarized well when she said that she wasn’t there to ease the discomfort of white literary privilege, “God grant me the privilege of a mediocre white straight man.” As one of said mediocre white straight men, I have to say that I recognize my privilege which includes among other things, having the freedom to write from other perspectives without being told that I need to stay in my own little box because that’s where I belong.  

There’s a lot more that I have in my notes, but I’ll leave it at any of the writers on this panel are definitely worth reading (and if by some strange chance an editor were to read this blog post, for God’s sake, publish these amazing writers and don’t shove them into a box not recognizing the complexities of the African-American experience).

Renee Simms, Andy Johnson, Dianca London

Applying for an Individual Creative Writing Fellowship

I had some high hopes for this panel that were quickly dashed as I began to feel like the presenters were telling us things that were also on the website. Add in some accessibility problems, viz, inconsistent mic usage, small print on the powerpoint slides, etc. and I was getting discouraged before it became clear that the “secret” to getting an NEA grant is pretty much the same as the secret to getting out of the slush pile: write good shit. The only notable thing was that it was clear that the writing sample was, at bottom, the only significant factor in the selection process.

Jessica Flynn, Amy Stolis, Mohamed Sheriff

Wild Equations: A Math Poetry Reading

Finally, the last panel I attended was a reading of “math poetry” which consisted of the contributors to a special math poetry issue of Talking Writing. The poems dealt with the mathematical content at differing levels of sophistication (two of the panelists are either current or former math teachers in edition to being poets). 

Carol Dorf, Katie Manning, Amy Uyematsu

Alice Major, Stephanie Strickland, Jennifer Jean

Odds and ends

Between panels, I skulked the floor of the bookfair like a vulture in search of carrion as I picked up free copies of journals that the day before would have cost money. My final loot (including one journal I paid my hard earned dollars for is pictured below.

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And I would be remiss if I were to omit the fact that my sojourn was partially underwritten (as in, they gave me my admission) by the MFA program from which I graduated at the University of Tampa, who had plenty of admissions to distribute thanks to their being the official lanyard of AWP2016.

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An Introvert at #AWP16—Day 2

I had originally penciled in a panel entitled, “You Sent us What?” on what readers and submission editors look for, but I decided to skip it because really, how many ways can they say, “send us your best work”? Instead, I spent some time revising one of my stories set in Los Angeles to submit it for an AWP contest being held by Northridge Review.

Fulbright Grants in Creative Writing

Our first panel of the day was short-staffed courtesy of what Robert Strong, the moderator, dubbed “AWP flu.” But with the two panelists, one who traveled on a scholar grant and the other who traveled on a student grant, and the moderator who is the Fulbright administrator at his school as well as having served on a screening committee, a great deal of helpful and useful advice was on offer.

Robert Strong, Janet Holmes, Michael Larson

Fulbright is always looking for arts applicants and there are some significant advantages to applying as an artist. Applying through one’s school (even if long graduated) can be helpful in the process although even more important is making an in-country contact to serve as the local sponsor. The more disappointing aspect of things was realizing that a key part of the program is wanting the Fulbright scholars to be actively interacting with the locals in the country of placement which is a bit of a challenge for an introvert like myself who would rather just be in his room with the door closed and something to type upon.

Two Sides of the Mirror: Writing about Body Image across Gender

I had my panels confused in my mind and thought I was going to “Invisible to Whom?: Black Fiction Writers on Craft and the White Gaze.”. When I saw the panel, I thought that either I was in the wrong room, or this was a panel about to go overwhelmingly wrong. I hadn’t considered the third option, that I had my memory of the schedule confused. But these people were not going to write about black fiction and the white gaze:

Cooper Lee Bombardier, Brian Oliu, Tabitha Blankenbiller, Jim Warner, Ray Shea

It turns out that this was also not the panel I was expecting. I had expected it to be panelists talking about writing about the bodies of people of the opposite gender of themselves. Instead, the across gender part of the title referred to the fact that we had writers other than women writing about body image issues. The diversity of the panel was somewhat interesting in this respect including a trans man. The winning quote of the panel belonged to Brian Oliu, “A successful essay confesses before the writer is ready.” And I was transfixed whenever Jim Warner spoke.

Should I Know Who You Are? Book PR for the Modern Age

Katie Freeman, Beth Parker, Leslie Pietrzyk, Kelly Davio, Lori A. May

Much like with the expecting the first book panel, I’m a bit ahead of the ball in attending this panel.

Leslie Pietrzyk was kind enough to provide links to most of the essential information from the talk which I’ll link to rather than provide my own half-baked notes. http://www.workinprogressinprogress.com/2016/03/bookpr.html

Literary Death Match

OK, they’ve hooked me, although I’m guessing that LDMs that aren’t the tenth anniversary extravaganza might not be so extravagant. They videotaped the whole thing so presumably it will be available to relive on the internet or something. Here are a bunch of pictures:

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An introvert at #AWP16—Day 1

Just like Disneyland

Showing Up

I discovered that my hotel’s breakfast was far from adequate, but knowing downtown L.A., I knew that there was a Denny’s between the 7th/Metro subway stop and the convention center so I stopped there for breakfast and a chapter of the novel I’ve been reading before facing the crowds. I expected to be able to walk up to a kiosk to print a registration badge, but of course it was instead a long line to get to the computers with a curvy line setup, just like Disneyland, which I suppose makes this the second-happiest place on earth. 

I had a bit of extra time and I was thirsty from the salty Denny’s breakfast so I bought a diet Coke from the cafe for the low low price of $4.50. Tomorrow, I’ll bring my own beverage.

I sat outside the panel room waiting for them to open the doors, solving the ridiculously easy Poetry Magazine crossword puzzle and listening to the people who know each other greeting each other while I was too timid to speak to any of the strangers who surrounded me. Eventually, they opened the doors and I took a seat.

Flash Fiction International: Readings from the Book

The panel was a bit delayed because one of the panel members, Peter Zaragoza Mayshle, was being held hostage at registration because they couldn’t find his name in the system. Finally, he was released at 9.15 while Robert Shapard was giving his introduction. The authors who read were all part of an anthology edited by Shapard which was so briefly introduced that I didn’t even get a glimpse of the cover, let alone catch the title, but some quick Google work identified it as, not surprisingly, Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories from Around the World. The central concern of the panel was what was happening with flash fiction from outside the U.S., with writers from Ireland, Mexico, Iran and the Philippines represented. Mónica Lavín’s “Volcanic Fireflies” was especially wonderful and I’d love to find the original bestiario where it was published.

Mónica Lavín, Peter Zaragoza Mayshle, Robert Shapard, Sholeh Wolpé, James Claffey

On the way to the next talk, I got to cross off the “hey, I know you,” square on my AWP bingo card as I bumped into Jeff Parker.

Write Me Right: Ideas and Resources for Writing Diverse Characters

Very different feel with this panel. A lot more reading prepared statements rather than free statements. There’s a palpable difference between reading literature and reading a speech. We opened with Yvonne Mesa giving a sort of state of the union of diversity in literature both in terms of authors and characters. One interesting point is that white ways of knowing are superimposed on diverse characters as a result of many of these characters being written by white writers. Diverse writing can actually reinforce monoculturalism if done poorly, e.g., all Latino characters portrayed as having the same sociopolitical status, diet, etc.

But then we moved to interactivity, and I ended up being one of four volunteers who were challenged to take six pencils to make four equilateral triangles. I felt a bit like a cheater as my math education background brought me to the solution rather quickly, by looking beyond two dimensions.

This was meant as a metaphor to bring us to researching diverse culture: First dimension: culture, second dimension: personal experience (in particular looking at narratives actually written by members of the group) and third dimension: attitude. The second round, from Tamara Gray was less read and more compelling looking at the second dimension a little more closely, pushing writers to go beyond the master narrative of a story, e.g., Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror as an alternative view of American history from the view of the non-Anglo peoples.

We then had Valarie Budayr talking about the character’s attitudes and how that impacts them, looking at how their culture and religion impact their view of the world. What is the view on education in the home life of the character?

Valarie Budayr, Najiyah Maxfield, Tamara Gray, Yvonne Mesa

Visiting the Bookfair

My first stop at the bookfair was Journal of the Month. This is a wonderful project where readers can choose to receive four to twelve journals per year selected from a significant roster of publications. One of the things they did for the bookfair was offer a bingo game. The official rule was that one had to get eight stamps from visiting the various publications. I decided to just fill the whole thing in, which gave me an enjoyable way to cycle through a number of the exhibitors. Two of the journals had lost their stamps already so I got initials from one and had one of the booth people draw me a picture for the other. 

Journal of the Month bingo

I also made it to the Barrelhouse table to get my “Fucking Poets, Man” T-shirt, visited with the good people of The Southampton Review who were responsible for publishing my fiction for the first time. 

I had planned on going to a Claudia Rankine signing today, but apparently it was an error in the program. I did spot this close to where she allegedly was to be:

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I also saw evidence that I write in the wrong genre:

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The end of my bookfair visit on the first day left me quite exhausted. A bit too much interacting with people for one day.

First Books: What to Expect When You’re Expecting

My last panel of the day was a bit of jumping the gun as I’m still at the query stage of the novel (and have a significant expectation that it may never land an agent). Even so there were a number of useful tips offered up. I found it particular inspiring to hear Matthew Thomas talk about how when he thought about what success would mean for him and determined that, “Success would give me time to write,” which was, what he was doing at that point and helped feed the energy of the writing process. Chris Scotton talked about his editor seeded the sales staff with galleys and solicited their opinions about the work which in turn led to them being essential supporters of the work. Many of the writers noted how publishing a book led to them being pushed into being essayists in service of the book’s publicity.

Chris Scotton, Matthew Thomas, Tim Johnston

Tim Johnston, Aline Ohanesian,  Arna Bontemps

Social Time

After the last panel and a bit of downtime, I headed over the University of Tampa cocktail hour and had a chance to see a number of old friends from alumni and faculty.

AWP16 Keynote Address by Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine

This was the big event for me. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric was the best book of 2015 as far as I’m concerned. A work of genius. Not surprisingly, race was a central concern for Rankine in her keynote, talking about how the assumption that white is the default creates a climate of suppression for people of color. Looking back on my reading lists for my MFA, there are some disturbing numbers: Just 2 out of 51 works I read were by people of color and 12 out of 51 were by women. The two female mentors I had did much better on the gender front, but of the two people of color in my reading lists, just one was suggested by a mentor, the other was a writer whose work I had read before and wanted to read more deeply. I fear that my own recommendations to my peers were not much better.

There’s a tendency to view any recognition of race on the part of writers as moving their work into protest or politics or sociology, which is unfortunate as it ignores how much this is central to the experience of everyone, not just people of color. Being able to ignore racism is a luxury and one largely reserved for white folks. There was a lot in the “write me right” panel earlier in the day which helped inform my own reactions to Rankine’s talk.

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An introvert at AWP—Day 0

So here I am, an exile returned to Los Angeles. While I’m Chicago born and raised, I’ve lived a big chunk of my adult life in L.A. and it’s very much home to me. Perhaps because my time in L.A. has been very much outside “industry” circles (which is not to deny that, like many an Angeleno, I’ve ended up with a few famous friends along the way), I view the city rather differently, as a place defined as much by buses and trains as by automobiles, by working people as much as by actors and musicians.

My first stop after leaving the airport was In-N-Out. Since the FlyAway bus was going to Hollywood and Vine, I decided to go to the one near Sunset and Highland.  Seriously?It turns out, this may have been a bit of a strategic error given the crowds present. I’d hoped I’d be there off peak, but I’m guessing that this close enough to all the touristy stuff on Hollywood Blvd to be a big draw (not to mention having Hollywood High across the street). Still, one Double-Double and a Strawberry Shake later, I knew I was back in my town.

My other must-do was a visit to the Los Angeles Catholic Worker for their Wednesday night mass and dinner. It was a chance to see some old friends from what I like to refer to as the radical left-wing fundamentalist fringe of the Catholic church, the people who take the words of the Sermon on the Mount seriously. One of the community members, Jeff Dietrich published a book, The Good Samaritan: Stories from the Los Angeles Catholic Worker on Skid Row, last year that I finally got around to buying and thrown in was a copy of Daniel Berrigan’s A Sunday In Hell: Fables and Poems. So my first two book purchases of the week took place without even making it to the convention center.

Tomorrow, I face the teeming hordes and try not to flee in terror.  

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2015 in reading

Continuing my goal of last year to diversify my reading, I’ve boosted the goals for reading women writers and non-white writers. My statistics improved in both categories, with women accounting for 51.4% of my reading (compared to 39.6% last year and a target of 50%) and non-white authors accounting for 14.8% of my writing (compared to 13.5% last year and a goal of 15%). I did find myself choosing my next book to boost my diversity numbers 37.5% of the time (compared to just 10.8% last time). Dead white men were responsible for 10.7% of my reading up from 9.9% last year and non-US authors were 41.9% of my reading up from 30.1% last year. The total number of books read was 88, down from 101 last year.

In other categories, 11.4% of my reading was in translation, 1.1% in Spanish, 1.45% were by authors I’ve met (finishing my MFA program pulled this number down quite a bit), 3.7% were re-reads and 76.9% were by authors new to me. Fiction was a smaller fraction of my reading this year at only 53.4% as was poetry down to just 3.9% from 5.9% last year.

With the statistics out of the way, my favorite reads of 2015 were (in alphabetical order by author):

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich 

Narratology by Mieke Bal 

Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball 

The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus by Michael F. Bird 

Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son by Peter Manseau

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami 

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov 

Living with Saints by Mary O’Connell 

The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock 

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine 

No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch 

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2015 in rejections (and acceptances)

2015 rejection graph

My submissions in 2015 dipped somewhat as did the favorable-ish rate which dropped from 27% last year to 24% this year with just one acceptance which was a hangover from my 2014 submissions. I’m closing the year with 20 pending submissions with the oldest having gone out on 5 May.

I also, per my goals for 2015 completed work on the novel and started querying which has, so far, served as a reminder of just how much I suck: nothing but form rejections thusfar (10 as of this writing).

2015 shall be a year of revision and submission. My goal is 200 rejections for the year and maybe even an acceptance or two.

Dewey Decimal Project: 202.11 WAU God: The Biography

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It was the name on the spine that caught my attention. I discovered the writing of Waugh’s grandfather, Evelyn Waugh when I was in college after encountering a mention of him in Graham Greene’s Ways of Escape.

The elder Waugh, like Greene, was notable as an author who had converted to Catholicism and who had brought a great deal of religious sensibility to his work. The faith, however, did not continue long in the family with Waugh’s son Auberon growing detached from the church and Alexander appears to be even further estranged from the faith.

The resulting book is irreverent, although its attempts at humor often miss the mark with Waugh taking aim at the simple apparent contradictions of the Bible, choosing his citations in a way to emphasize the absurdity of God. From the blurbs on the book, I had expected something more nuanced and compelling, but instead it came across as being something at the level of a clever college student writing on the topic. Perhaps Waugh should have taken the offer his father made to pay him the amount of the advance to not write the book.

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Dewey Decimal Project: 198.9 KIE Parables of Kierkegaard

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I first learned of the parables of Kierkegaard from a reading a short story a friend asked my to critique. I was intrigued enough that when I spotted this slender volume among the 190s, I picked it up to add to my project.

The parables are drawn from throughout Kierkegaard’s writing. In context, they were used to illustrate various points he was making in his philosophical writing, but many of them make for delightful reading on their own, shining light on Kierkegaard’s warm Christian humanism. 

I do, however, wonder whether having pulled the parables out of their context in Kierkegaard’s writing whether some violence may have been done to their meaning.I suppose this means that I’ll have to read deeper into Kierkegaard to know for certain.

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