Stephen Elliott, the author of seven books including The Adderall Diaries, and the Editor of the online literary site, The Rumpus, sat down with 12th Street’s Jennifer Sky to discuss the politics of writing and the lure of the website for the literary world.  This is the premier interview of 12th Street Online’s monthly author series.  Enjoy – Liz Axelrod, Editor in Chief

12th Street Online: What was the catalyst to starting your online literary magazine, The Rumpus?

Stephen Elliott: I was done with The Adderall Diaries—that was my seventh book—and I didn’t really have the urge to write another book. I wanted to do something else. I thought, “Well, I should get into editing,” because that’s kind of what I know how to do. If you write long enough, eventually you learn how to edit because editing is such a huge part of writing. So I thought I would start editing somewhere.

I was actually talking to Arianna Huffington about joining The Huffington Post. I had all these ideas—pages and pages of ideas—about how I wanted to build a book section for The Huffington Post and all these cools things I wanted to do with it. Then at some point I thought, “Well, it’s just a website. If I have all these ideas why am I giving them to Arianna Huffington?” You know, I’ll just do it myself. So I started The Rumpus. I didn’t know if I was going to make any money or if anyone would read it. That’s the same way I write. You start it and see what happens. It’s like I do everything.

12th: The Rumpus has already carved out a pretty invaluable place in the online literary community. How do you account for its popularity?

SE:  Huh… “invaluable.” I don’t know about that description. Can a literary website really be invaluable? The Rumpus is good. There’s a lot of good content. It’s updated frequently. So if you have some shit job and you want to distract yourself and you want a website that is updated all day long, there are a lot of options, but there are also not a lot of options. There’s Gawker, which is really mean and kind of spiteful. There is The Huffington Post, which is so stupid, so full of so much overwhelming idiocy. There’s Slate and Salon, which are pretty good but they are writing about the same things. They’re chasing clicks all the time; they rarely introduce us to something new. They always have stories about Obama or whoever else is the popular person for that day. They are kind of always behind what’s happening, as opposed to setting the agenda. There are not that many options for somebody if you want a site that is about literature, smart, updated frequently, and is going to introduce you to new people—that strives to have some integrity. We never do any pop culture on The Rumpus. We never do any smart essays about Britney Spears. It’s a Britney-Spears-free zone. There’s no Paris Hilton on The Rumpus, ever. And even though we love Obama, we don’t do anything about Obama because he’s over exposed. We try to introduce people to new culture, to culture they wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. We are trying to take that role of curating a little more seriously than I thing people are currently taking it. And so I think that’s why The Rumpus is popular.

12th: Does The Rumpus have a mission statement? Do you operate under any specific guiding principles?

SE: If you go to the website, there’s a post describing what The Rumpus is, which is available from any page on the site. It talks about that, while the web was supposed to diversify content, it hasn’t; it has just focused attention on the same few things. It has become the lowest common denominator, in a lot of ways, and that The Rumpus is the place you can go to get away from pop culture. It’s okay if someone’s popular. We will write about Dave Eggers, Malcolm Gladwell, Joan Didion—these are popular writers—but we won’t write about mass-produced culture, culture that is created by marking executives.


“…I became curious about things and my curiosity kept me going.”

The Adderall Diaries, S.E.

Note: Adderall is a brand-name medication intended for people with ADHD. It increases alertness, libido and concentration, and, because it affects the mesolimbic reward pathway in the brain, it is as addictive as cocaine and methamphetamine.

Stephen Elliott’s memoir is a cocktail of sadomasochistic sex, hardcore drugs, emotional abuse and the altering perceptions on self, culture and the fine line that disguises the outcome of truth and fiction. But it’s more complex than a list of what it is and what it isn’t. As he mentions in the middle of the book: This book begins with a suicidal urge. If I was going to kill myself anyway, I could write whatever I wanted. And that’s what I started to do. He begins by mentioning that his father may have killed a man—a fantastic beginning. We follow the unraveling story, but then detour towards a murder trial set in San Francisco where Hans Reiser is accused of killing his wife, which Elliott has committed to write about. Through this suspenseful, edge-of-the-seat prose that pulls the reader along, underneath lies the tender and raw exploration of self that truly makes this work worthy of literary attention.

In a world where he finds comfort hogtied and abused, Elliott is an honest and straight-forward narrator. He is as sharp as a paper cutter in his approach to contemporary culture, like in moments when he amalgamates Paris Hilton’s incarceration with the Iraq War, showing the irony of how the media’s attention glamorized the beauty of a caged celebrity while war continued. He takes us through the detailed account of the murder trial throughout the book, and as he does so overlaps it with his tumultuous relationship with his father. By the end of the novel he confesses that it’s the most important relationship he’s ever had, even though his memory of it is terrifying: It wasn’t the handcuffs or the beatings or his shaving my head. That was nothing. It was the terror.

A denouement never arrives, only in regard to the trail in which Hans, the accused, finally confesses to the murder and is sent to a minimum of fifteen years in prison. In the last chapter Elliott refers to having read Robert Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance numerous times as a teenager, hooked by Persig’s sense of resolution, trying to make it feel true to him. But he felt it was too much, too sweeping. The last line of the book can’t possibly be true, he felt. Instead: Neat conclusions do nothing for me. I write to make sense, to communicate, to connect, which is the overall sense you feel when reading this work.

The Adderall Diaries is an excellent, deft and provocative meta-memoir that becomes a strange, beautiful thing by the time you reach its last page.

Reviewed by Mario A. Zambrano

Editor’s Note: Look for 12th Street Online’s interview with Stephan Elliott, coming soon.

‘I wanted to be judged on what I did with my life, but now I will be judged by how I described it.’ – Great House, Nicole Krauss

Sensibility veils the language in Nicole Krauss’ new novel Great House, not in the way that obscures the images of life on the other side of the narrative, but in a way that perceives a character’s past—reflecting on loss, the inheritance of one’s history —in a sort of nostalgic embrace that finds poetry in meditation: ‘When at last I came across the right book the feeling was violent: it blew open a hole in me that made life more dangerous because I couldn’t control what came through it’/ ‘…my mind went to it like a tongue probing the tender spot of a missing tooth.’

All the narrators that compose this orchestrated collection share a poet’s sensitivity and point of view. Two of these characters are writers: Nadia, a middle-aged novelist in New York City who has a brief affair with a Chilean poet named Daniel Varsky, who gives her a wooden, nineteen-drawer desk, once owned by Lorca, to look after when he goes back to Chili, and Lotte Berg, a former Kindasport chaperone (her story his narrated by her husband Arthur Bender) who writes elliptical stories in the privacy of her attic studio, on the same desk Nadia looks after years later⎯the desk being the object that threads together all four narratives. Other participants in the trajectory of ‘the desk’ are Leah and Yoav Weisz, children of an Israeli furniture dealer who specializes in retrieving heirlooms lost to the Nazi’s during the war. And finally, there is Aaron, a man writing to his estranged son Dov after his wife’s death, trying to piece together the puzzle of their relationship that has been obscured by misunderstanding. Dov, who left Israel and went to London to become a judge, is alluded to as the connecting line to Nadia, who narrates her story to a judge, ‘Your Honor’, whom she has fatally injured in a car accident in Israel.

Reviewed by Mario A. Zambrano

*Editor’s note – there’s so much more to this review – click more and keep reading.


The Abracadabra: A New Poetry Game

I invented this game during Paul Violi’s poetry workshop “Romantic Rebellion.” Two examples of the Abracadabra—“Four Reviews” and “Four School Subjects”—are presented below. Read the rules, check it out, and play along!


The player chooses a general topic and four subjects within the topic (e.g. Critical Reviews: Theatre, Book, Food, Film and School Subjects: Math, History, English, Science.)

The player writes four poems—one for each subject (these together make the Abracadabra.)

The poems are written in Dactylic meter—each foot has three beats: Stressed, unstressed, unstressed. ONE, two, three, ONE, two, three. It’s like waltzing. (NOTE: This rule can be broken. If you find a meter better suited to your purposes, you must use that one.)

The rhyme scheme is ABCB. You may write as many quatrains as necessary—but less is more!

The player must use each letter of the alphabet in order throughout each of the four poems. You do not have to use one letter per line, only in order.

In the A-Z words, you may not use the same word twice in the Abracadabra. (This rule can be bent. For example, using “X” to mean “crossing out” is not the same as using “X-” as the prefix for “X-axis.” But try and stay diverse.

* Editor’s note: Click MORE to view Luke’s poems and play along – leave your magic poems in the comments box.  Have fun!


On Sunday, September 26, New School Professor Joseph Salvatore gave an amazing and ardent reading at Googies Lounge. The room was filled with a community of readers and writers, former students, friends, and literary admirers sweating in the oppressive humid heat while anxiously waiting to hear the piece from his upcoming book of short stories, To Assume a Pleasing Shape. The story he chose to read “Whatever, Forever” kept the crowd rapt and dramatically raised the temperature of the room. The passion, torment, beat, and gothic sensibility mixed with just the right amount of pathos moved the crowd from gasps to laughs to audible sighs. Not often does one get to witness a master in peak form entertain and enthrall with such brilliant use of language.

Here’s an excerpt:

“… she wouldn’t mind a nice set of claws, claws like her winged friends have, claws that could hold onto ledges of dizzying height — like the stone belfry of Old Salem Church, from which foggy perch she could peer down upon her entire Witch City, peer down upon Salem Harbor with the hillside cemetery of Marblehead off across that dark water, peer down upon the old lighthouse overlooking the salty mouth of the Atlantic, down upon the dry-splintered eaves of the House of Seven Gables, down even to Swampscott, to the gallows there where, contrary to popular knowledge, were hanged the wise women of her township, the women who did not need men — claws that could act as protection, as weapons, while she flies through the night air, her outstretched wings a dark sail billowing behind, the moon above a flaming penumbra; claws that could scrape down a lover’s back, down even (yes, she wasn’t afraid to say the name) Angie’s back, Angie Kosinski’s freckled back …”

To Assume a Pleasing Shape, will be published in 2011, from BOA Editions.

Reviewed by Liz Axelrod

The East Village was alive this past Wednesday night with both those who haunt and those who need to be haunted

In St. Marks Church on 10th Street, hundreds of people filed into the Poetry Project’s Memorial for the poet Peter Orlovsky who died this past May. His name becomes more recognizable when it precedes the fact the he was Allen Ginsberg‘s lover and life-long companion, immediately positioning Orlovsky as a shadow amongst the great Beat poet. He never howled as loudly as Ginsberg, but he was bursting with creative energy and feelings so dynamic that when Ginsberg encouraged him to write, it was only natural that he did so.

Throughout the evening, music, poetry, storytelling, and memories compounded in unraveling Orlovsky as a true poet. Some friends, like Patti Smith, recalled “always being in the same room with Peter, but never speaking a word to one another.” They bonded through the unspoken – from being surrounded by an intellectual circle of those who were accustomed to speaking.


Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go is that rare book that eludes categorization. Is it literary fiction, or sci-fi? A thriller or a quiet rumination on the human condition? Is it a dystopian tragedy, or a coming-of-age love story? Astoundingly, the answer to all of these questions is simply “yes.”

It’s difficult to review the novel without giving away some of its more surprising plot points—discovering the world of Never Let Me Go is both its joy and its sorrow. (The film adaptation is premiering this Oscar season, so read the book before the movie hype spoils it for you.) I’ll reveal only as much as the first ten pages do: The novel is narrated by Kathy H., who works as a “carer,” in England, in the 1990s. She and her two best friends, Ruth and Tommy, grew up and were students together at Hailsham. Kathy H. has had a chance to reconnect with her friends after many years apart, since they were both “donors” she “cared” for. Hailsham, which seems very much like a boarding school, was much better than any of the other places. We see the “guardians” there are interested in art and creativity—the students take classes in drawing, poetry, music appreciation …and little else. One “donor” shudders when Kathy asks where he went, however, “he wanted… not just to hear about Hailsham, but to remember Hailsham, just like it was his own childhood.” Indeed, Kathy’s observant yet naïve reminiscences allow it to become our memories as well (though we learn in Chapter One that she’s not exactly sure where Hailsham is.)