Judging a Book by Its Cover

Whoever first coined that phrase was not in the business of selling books. Authors and editors pay for and applaud effective book design. Readers expect to know at a glance who wrote the book and which genre it fits. The all important title may do the job, but often a sub-title helps to categorize the book. And given that we have probably hundreds of Book Industry Subject and Category (BISAC) codes that help sellers, librarians, and publishers sort books, genre is a very big deal.

I don’t often read noir or romance, and the typical dark or décolletage covers usually tip me off, so I don’t need to see the BISAC. The author’s name, if he/she is someone whose work I know, will tell me if I’m likely to read the book, but I am suspicious if the author’s name glares at me in gold 100-pt font and the title is squeezed in at the bottom of the cover. Says something about marketing and ego.

Some books lie. They pretend to be what they are not. Recently I saw one that had no identification on the cover, front or back. Not even the author’s name. Quite a ruse, as I then had to pick it up and open it to find its DNA. Not one I could relate to.

Of course, the physical properties of the book matter. I don’t expect Stephen King’s latest novel to be printed on heavy stock like a baby’s first book. For one thing, King’s book would then require a fork lift to get it to the register.

I’m about to design books I’ll publish this year and I won’t allow the fiction to look like poetry. Nor will I shout out my name and override the title, thus robbing the work of its own appreciation.

Climate Facts & Fiction

How can I convince you to read Climate of Hope by Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope? Maybe the credentials of the authors will tempt you. Bloomberg is a famously successful business man and philanthropist and a former mayor of New York City (2002-2013). Pope, a former head of Sierra Club, led a successful Beyond Coal campaign to shut down a number of dirty coal-burning energy producers. Fortunately for readers, both are talented writers who offer a promising approach to surviving ominous changes in Earth’s climate. And a way to thrive in the decades to come if we are smart, aware, and ambitious.

According to Pope and Bloomberg, as their subtitle declares, “cities, businesses and citizens can save the planet.” Given the revitalization of New York City under Bloomberg’s leadership, I  believe this claim. And in our divisive and paralyzing political situation in the U.S, that’s a gift.

Before you start to sweat about reading science, let me tell you that this book is full of well-documented data, but not intimidating. Plain language and engaging style make it a good read. I couldn’t put it down and my notebook is full of info which I will use to challenge my local government to develop a more robust sustainability plan. I believe we need to act locally, despite the overwhelming attention the press gives to Congress.

Why would a novelist/poet read such a book? I refuse to be defined by a narrow concept of writing. I am not an ivory-tower, head-in-the-clouds romantic. I write climate fiction and poetry, and I want to know what’s real. I’m tired of empty-headed pessimism that allows us to throw up our hands, swear and wail, and do nothing to clean up our mess.  What these two authors have done is art in the guise of good advice. Or it’s good advice masked as good writing. Either way, it’s a good, good book.

Poems for Poetry Month

I tell other people to write, write, write, even if it’s practice rather than product. And here’s what happens when I tell myself that. Probably these are more dabbles than haiku, but they are of that family. I’m flummoxed with the spacing, so pretend they are single spaced.

Totally modern

woman with a phone, no calls

Smartest phone of all

 

It’s hair dye or else

new brand of agent orange

That hair could kill us

 

Cold bottled water

thirst quenching throw away

Plastic assassin

 

Dying of boredom

killing time again today

Guilty as charged

 

Reader gasping hard

near me in the coffee shop

takes my breath away

Play Nice with Reviews?

We now know more than we ever wanted to know about speaking truth to power. But what about speaking truth to other writers?

Part of my work is to critique manuscripts, and assessing those darlings can give me hives, gastric reflux and headache. What if I tell the truth?: “This story lacks conflict. What I see here is not a poem, but a confession and I am not a priest to grant absolution, these characters are cardboard, the theme of the essay is unidentifiable.” Fortunately, that rarely happens. But the child in me says, “Please, don’t hate me. Like me, like me, like me.”

Do critics such as Harold Bloom, Dana Gioia, and Helen Vendler care if other people like them? I suppose they feel secure in their judgment and know that I’m out here–anonymous, but engaged–relying on them to tell me the truth about a book, a poem, another writer! Even when the truth makes me squirm. What if they were to say bad things about my work? (Would that they know my work.)

Ah, there’s the knot in my shoelace. Every negative review or critique scrapes skin off the writer. The idea that any publicity is good: I question this idea. I don’t much care for Billy Collins’ latest book, The Rain in Portugal, and I doubt he would see any criticism I set loose in the world. But you never know. Recently I tweeted a compliment about W.S. Merwin’s Migration. And, whoa! The next day there was a “like” from The Merwin Conservancy. Liking what I like and saying so publicly is, I’ve decided, more helpful than whining and snarling about what I don’t care for. Or maybe I’m a thin-skinned coward operating on the theory that if I don’t say anything negative about you, you won’t send me to my room for a decade.

What’s the Use of Poetry?

In W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” we find the line “For poetry makes nothing happen …” but we also find this: “Let the healing fountain start,/ In the prison of his days/ Teach the free man how to praise.” Assuming that the free man might be man or woman, we need right now a healing fountain. Today poetry will make this much happen: nine people will drive to Longmont, CO, from Denver, Broomfield, Erie, Lafayette, Louisville and Arvada in pursuit of healing; if not healing, at least thought about the uses of poetry. Like a flight of wine, we will taste a variety of what some call political poems, others label poems of witness or protest.

I doubt we will reach consensus over the value of these poems, but we will listen to the considered opinions of others. Over lunch at The Motherlode Cafe, we will talk about poems that react to war, violence, bigotry, and abuse of power. In these strange, divisive times we thirst for language to express our angst, our shared fears and hopes. Here are the poems we will wrestle with: “The Last Election” by John Haines; an excerpt from the prelude to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forche; “Some Advice to Those Who Will Serve Time in Prison” by Nazim Hikmet; “On the Steps of the Jefferson Memorial” by Linda Pasten; “The Second Coming” by W. B. Yeats; “Listening to Distant Guns” by Denise Levertov; “Why I Don’t Mention Flowers When Conversations with My Brother Reach Uncomfortable Silences” by Natalie Diaz; and “Explanations” by Stephen Dunn.

These poems are meant to disturb complacency, to cause reaction in troubling times, and there’s always trouble, so I see no end to the need for poems and poets who struggle to wake us up.


			

Writers Awake

Bad enough that the national news this week startled us and that people are taking to the streets in protest. That we have had another presidential election that thwarts the popular vote, the direct voice of the people. That my dear dog is fading slowly into infinity. That my daughter is dealing with her father’s serious illness. That my marketing of the new novel has been upended by someone else’s faulty scheduling. It’s been a tough week. My phone died, had to be shocked back to life by a new battery. Leonard Cohen died.

 So pour another cuppa joe and settle in. We need to talk.This week I heard Richard Russo (one of my favorite writers) comment on NPR that good writing is increasingly important in troubling times. I had had the same thought. More than ever we desperately need honest, accurate, thoughtful journalism, fiction, poetry, and essays. I am not interested in celebrity opinions or sensationalism, never have been. I want clear reporting and reflection about the people, their actions, and their plans that affect our local, state and national governments, our collective life. I want people to pay attention, not homage. We need good writing more now than we did even a week ago, whether it’s 140-characters on social media or an in-depth editorial in a balanced print source. We must read from Left to Right, and not rely on a single source.

I want, need, a diet of more than verbal popcorn. I want the hearty protein of research, investigation, and clarity, not a fast-food reading list, but an organic garden plot that I tend daily, weeding, harvesting, feeding my need for facts and careful reportage. I plan to be thoughtful and thorough. I’ll be skeptical but not cynical. I’ll be a good citizen, alert to false accusations and political shenanigans. Please join me, no matter what you write or what you habitually read. Or how you voted. You did vote, didn’t you? Please write from your heart, read with your head. Stay awake.

AND READ FOR EQUALITY

LaRose, a novel by Native American writer Louise Erdrich.

Commited?

For the past hour I have committed myself to solitaire instead of posting this blog. Why? Because my dog is sick, because the news of yet more shootings sickens me, because . . . because . . . because. Because the world is too much with me today, not getting and spending as Wordsworth said, but because there is no time out for peace. Life has historically been a violent enterprise. Plagues, war, abuse–a hellish place this world. But it’s the only one we’ve got. We will not colonize a new planet, although we seem bent on destroying this one.

How to shake this ennui, despair, meanness? Yes, I feel mean. I want politics to go jump off a cliff–oh, wait, that’s already happened. I want to regain my usual calm and get on with my day. The weather is mild right now. I have a poetry group on the agenda. The dog is not going to die today. And I am committed to my life as a writer, a truth teller, a scribe. Today the truth is that I’m scared. Scared for our country. The violence, racism and hate have percolated into my cells and I want to play turtle, draw back into mindless digital games until the despair blows over. But here’s the thing: my distress won’t pass unless I face it and commit to doing what I can to be a better citizen. I have to vote. I have to work at equality among the people I know and respect. I have to give the dog his medicine and pay the vet bills. I have to go take a shower and be glad for that simple opportunity. Commitment starts now, again, with gratitude for hot water on demand, for eggs in the frying pan, and for the safety of home.