Big Event:
Riggio Student Reading
Spring 2010 Opening Night!
Lang Cafe
65 W. 11th Street, ground floor
6:30 pm

This Friday, your fellow students are hosting a reading in the Lang Cafe at 6:30 pm. Come support your fellow students. Have a slice, sip a drink, clap for your friends and, if you’re a Riggio student and want to share your work, step up to the mic! Write to Rebecca Melnyck at melnr992@newschool.edu if you are interested in reading.

Reading Committee:
Liz Axelrod, Sarah Finch, Rebecca Melnyk and Jennifer Sky Band

On behalf of the 12th Street staff, we look forward to seeing you there.

Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer
In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver

I know it’s been said before, and I’m not here to raise the picket sign, ‘MEET YOUR MEAT!’ I love my beef, pork, lamb, and seafood. But after reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I am left frustrated as hell for living in a country that dismisses the truth about the farming industry, sweeping it underneath a corrupt and glorious media of bad (yet absolutely incredible) advertising frenzy.

You’ve heard the stories: what they do with so-called chickens, their beaks cut off, keeping them in their own waste in a perimeter the size of a Harry Potter book cover, soaking them in brine to fatten them up. It’s cruelty. Jonathan Safran Foer gets into details and testimonies about the farming industry in America, and yes, it’s frightening. But reading his book was like lifting the rug in the living room. We know there’s dust under there and we procrastinate cleaning, but the day finally comes when we lift it up, and the sight disgusts us. You cough, you sneeze, you immediately get the broom out and clean. But unfortunately, this mess, this abused identity of what we ‘think’ we’re eating as opposed to what we are eating, is bigger than any broom or mop can clean up. The book is heart-wrenching, at times pushing the ethical lever a little too hard. But facts are facts. 99% of all meat that Americans consume comes from the farming industries talked about in this book. Difficult to swallow, but good medicine to digest.

I read In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan after Eating Animals and it appeased some of my discomfort about slaughterhouses and corporate giants, letting me know that, Okay, this isn’t the end of the world. Things are bad up but we can get through this. Michael explains the historical trajectory of, what he calls, Nutritionism: the conscious lifestyle of staying healthy by taking vitamins, calcium, iron, Vitamin A, B, C, D, and E, getting our Omega-3s, and so on, which we must admit, is occasionally fashionable. He explains how scientists have studied and researched what all vegetables, grains, and fruits contain, and once they’ve come to an arguable conclusion, they find ways to put those nutrients and vitamins into our cereal, our juices, our water, steering us away from food itself and leading us towards consumer products that are, fundamentally, imitations of food. He ends the book with eight helpful tips to stay away from highly processed, scientifically engineered products. One tip: Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Loved that one.

Reading Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was a healing way to end my mad onslaught of food reality. An acclaimed writer, she shares her story of an entire year living on a farm in Virginia with her husband and two daughters. They grow pretty much everything: peaches, tomatoes, spinach, kale, melons, pumpkins, cherries, you name it. The youngest daughter raises her own flock of chicks while Kingsolver herself raises turkeys and also makes her own cheese; her husband bakes bread daily. The experiment: to see if she could feed her family for one year with food from her own garden. Does she succeed? Yes, she does; they all do, including the soil. It’s a wonderful book, inspiring, especially after learning about the agricultural slaughter this country is going through. It reminds you of what seasonal actually means, and puts into perspective how illogical it is to eat strawberries during winter.

For epicures, I’m concluding with honorary mention of two great cookbooks that promote healthy, natural eating and an eco-conscious lifestyle.

Lucid Food, by Louisa Shafia
Super Natural Cooking, by Heidi Swanson

Reviews by Mario Zambrano

Death Becomes Them by Alix Strauss
Reviewed by Liz Axelrod

Did you know that one person attempts suicide every thirty-four seconds and one death occurs for every twenty-five suicide attempts? In America eighty-six people succeed at killing themselves every day. Divorced men are 400 times more likely to kill themselves than women. Men favor guns; women favor pills and razors. These and more tidbits can be found in Alix Straus’s clever and compelling Death Becomes Them. Ms. Straus does not go deep into the reasons or despair involved in the celebrity suicides she unearths, but she gives us insight and illustrates the methods and morality involved in famous suicides such as Sigmund Freud, Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Sylvia Plath, Michael Hutchence, and Kurt Cobain.

These dark days of winter are the time of highest suicide rates so, dear reader, pick up the book instead. Get engrossed in the lives and the interesting and sometimes shameful details of the deaths illustrated here, such as Virginia Woolf’s first attempt at suicide – she tried to jump out a window but failed since it was on the first floor. Hemingway bought the gun for his own self-inflicted death from Abercrombie & Fitch (OMG!!). And after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, his wife, Courtney Love, found a piece of his skull on the floor and washed it, then later clipped off a swatch of his pubic hair as a memento. This well researched collection makes no statement in defense of or against suicide; it merely heightens our collective wonder and offers us a chance to live through some of our idols’ famous deaths.

Alix Strauss is the author of the award winning short story collection, The Joy of Funerals (St. Martin’s Press), and the editor of Have I Got A Guy For You, an anthology of mother-coordinated dating horror stories, (Adams Media.) Her latest book, Death Becomes Them: Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous and the Notorious, was released by Harper Collins and has been optioned for TV. Her second novel, Based Upon Availability, is due to be released in June 2010, also by Harper Collins. Alix lives in New York City. For more information please visit her web site: http://www.alixstrauss.com

The Writing Program is hosting a couple of keen events this week, so don’t miss out.

Tonight, Laura Cronk will be moderating a discussion with Catherine Bowman. They will be talking about Catherine’s new book, The Plath Cabinet. This is a must for Plath devotees. Bowman is also the editor of Word of Mouth, an anthology of poems by poets she has reviewed and featured on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. Her poems have appeared in six editions of Best American Poetry.

On Wednesday, Greil Marcus is hosting a Riggio Forum with David Thomas, the lead singer and founder of the legendary avant-rock band Pere Ubu. Pere Ubu were an innovative force during the rise of punk/new-wave in the late seventies and early eighties.

Remember, these events are free for students and faculty, so be sure to check them out.

Tuesday, December 1
Poetry Forum: Catherine Bowman
Laura Cronk, moderator
6:30 p.m., room 510

Wednesday, December 2
Riggio Forum: Ghost Line Diary
A conversation with David Thomas
Greil Marcus, moderator
6:30 p.m., Alvin Johnson/J. M. Kaplan Hall, 66 West 12th Street, room
510, $5; free to all students and New School faculty, staff, and
alumni
with ID

12thst_fullcover_031609

Editor-in-Chief: Zoë Miller

Managing Editor: Liz Axelrod

Fiction Editor: Mario A. Zambrano

Poetry Editor: Marisa Frasca

Non-Fiction Editor: Luke Sirinides

Interview Editor: Patrick Hipp

Editors-at-Large: Anna Utevsky & Kathryn Waldron

Faculty Advisor: Rene Steinke

And I am your complaisant On-Line Editor: Tony Grassi

Brief biographies of this year’s staff will follow shortly.

To be considered for 12th Street Magazine, Volume 3, please submit your work to Julie Carl at juliecarl13@yahoo.com by November 15.

Be sure to visit 12thstreetonline.com for more updates coming soon.

Best,
Tony

Yesterday was Wednesday, so I of course read the NYT Dining section.  I generally read it online, but since I was Long Island-bound, I got myself a copy for the train ride.  Eventually I found myself at Section A, with the International, National, and Local stories, followed by the Op-Ed pieces.  I always read this section from back to front, and once I passed the Op-Eds the last page of local news contained 2 articles.  Above the fold a sad girl, seemingly in her late teens, stared out at me, and below the fold was a photo of three 30-something people standing around a turntable.

The Article up top was about how kids age out of the foster system. With unemployment climbing in the city, many of their advocates are concerned they are now effectively on the fast-track towards homelessness.  They are the forgotten children, bounced around their entire lives and then cast off to fend for themselves.

The other article was about a bunch of recently unemployed people who have decided to become DJs, and who have gone to school to learn how to spin records and mix music digitally.  The undercurrent has a whiff of people becoming unbound by the falling economy: with little left to lose, they can now pursue their youthful dreams. The top note, however, was about the rise of enrollment in DJ schools and the semi-lucrative opportunity DJing affords people who are slowly whittling away their severance packages.

At first I was taken aback at how the foster youth article was essentially buried in the paper, hidden. They are the forgotten ones, indeed. I am aware of the hierarchy of newspapers, the way stories are prioritized based on what sells the most papers—but still. This story made it sound as if foster kids definitely don’t have the dollar and change to spare for their daily NYT.

But what the page really made me think of is the characters we give voice to in fiction and the worlds we illuminate in our stories, and if in shedding that light we create portals of opportunity for our readers.  When we write about marginalized people, or show a kaleidoscopic (and often grim) view of humanity, are we in effect helping to make the marginalized more mainstream?  Should that be the duty of a writer?  Or should we avoid such subjects at all costs?  If so, are we then effectively marginalizing ourselves as authors?

But to come back to my trip to Long Island: I was headed there to visit my Grandma and spend the day making gefilte fish and matzoh ball soup for the Passover meal. Over the course of the day somehow my uncle’s dog came up in conversation.  That dog has been dead at least 20 years, but Grandma’s stream of consciousness can wind in unexpected ways. She asked me if I knew the dog was born a hermaphrodite.  I said that perhaps I did, but who could really say whether or not that was true? 

While I don’t mean to place aspiring DJs, foster children and hermaphroditic dogs all on the same plane, maybe it is important to create pointed characters.  Perhaps we should make an effort to carve out places in literature for those who cannot afford to buy the books written about them.

All this is by way of me asking: Where do your characters come from?  What do you ask them as you write their stories?  Is literature salvation for “lost” peoples?     

The blog has been quiet as of late. The print journal has been shipped back and forth, from New York, to California, to Canada, then back around again. The next time I see it, it will be in its finished form, ready for the shelves of Barnes & Noble, ready to be found on my bookshelf, and this year I am going to work hard to place it on the shelves of other booksellers too. (Should anyone have any suggestions, or advice, it would be greatly appreciated.)

While getting the journal ready to go has been time consuming, I don’t think it is actually the culprit for my lack of blogging. I went back and looked at old blog entries and realized how heavily influenced they were by my restlessness last fall—restlessness that I think stemmed from anticipating the election. Unease at the thought of certain governmental policies being continued, rather than dismantled. And now my mind is a bit calmer. It isn’t that I am writing less; it’s just that I have been less inspired to blog.

We talk a big game about how reactionary and responsive blogging is, but I’m not sure I knew what I was saying until I watched my interest both wax and wane. I don’t think I am any less interested in the world around me, but I may be less worried about it. Does that make sense? I don’t know if I am blind to how the economic problems will effect my future, but I find comfort in the idea that the problems are communal. I think that makes the pain less acute.

Or maybe I am growing complacent and should be worried. Perhaps we all become complacent when we are happy with who is at the helm of our government, and that is why every 4 or 8 years we see major party shifts. While one side sits and fumes for 8 years, it galvanizes them to go and win an election, and the other side gets comfortable and finds itself without enough steam come election time.

I know our readership doesn’t all share the same politics, but do you find your investment in the current climes waning post-election? Was the constant noise of the campaigns just so exhausting that you are taking a bit of a break? Or am I just making up excuses for being lazy?

The Adriana Trigianni and David Baldacci event, Wine and Words, at the Virginia Festival of the Book last week, was held at a Charlottesville wine bar called Enoteca. It’s a knock off of the wonderful Bar Veloce in New York (2nd Ave, between 11th and 12th); they even have the slim menus, the high chairs, and the tea candles in small glasses.

My wife and I arrived twenty minutes early and the place was already full. We brought down the mean age by thirty years. We found two chairs across from each other, away from the crowds, but too far away from the wine. Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green” was playing overhead, and I smiled.

The two authors were easy to pick out, not just from their dust jacket photos but also by the group of people surrounding them and the name tags on their lapels. There was no organization to the crowd, just people mingling, the sound of many conversations.

I was disappointed with the fact that each person only received one drink ticket.  After the first glass of Montepulciano I would have to start paying. One of the bartenders was overheard saying, “I should’ve known to order more white wine.”  To eat, there were big green Cerignola olives, fresh crusty bread, Pecorino fresco, mild Manchego and Grana Padano.  baldacci

A white woman with flat hair and glasses, in her sixties, came back to the table near us with two signed copies of Very Valentine. She was beaming. An older gentleman who sat next to me asked her what she thought of Trigiani’s books.

“Well they’re not deep, but for women they are very enjoyable,” she said.

Baldacci was leaning against the bar, drinking the same Montepulciano, making smug mannerisms and laughing, surrounded by old men who were jealous of his perfect part.

A fat lady had to lean on my chair to get onto hers, and she kept her feet on my rungs the rest of the time.  “It smells like pancake syrup,” she said to her equally overweight friend. A group of women were in the corner near the window, laughing loud enough for everyone to hear. “I guess, some people just came for the wine,” the lady with her feet on my chair said.
trigiani Finally, there were some introductions. Baldacci stood in front of the group, thanked everyone for coming, and spoke a little bit about an organization that he and Trigiani helped start, Feeding Body and Mind, where they take book donations and send them to a food bank to be handed out along with meals. He also spoke of how much he enjoyed the festival. He has participated in every one since its inception, fifteen years ago. “There’s smething for everyone at this festival,” he said, in a voice that was almost too soft to hear.

Trigiani came up after him and killed it. She’s a boisterous woman, with a big voice and an even louder laugh. She introduced everyone she had brought with her, including her mother, three sisters, her fifth-grade French teacher, and her in-laws. The crowd loved her, and she loved them back. “This is my home state.  I love me some Virginia.”

On February 26, 2009, Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times of Philipp Meyer: “American Rust announces the arrival of a gifted new writer — a writer who understands how place and personality and circumstance can converge to create the perfect storm of tragedy.”  The reviews for this first-time novelist have been rave, with comparisons to Richard Russo, Salinger and Steinbeck. This pressure on a writer brings excitement to readers.american-rust

It was the first day of spring and I was excited to attend the event, Fateful Acts: A Fiction Panel, with authors Valerie Laken (Dream House), Katharine Davis (East Hope), and Philipp Meyer (American Rust).

Katharine Davis discussed the difficulties in briefly describing her novels. “It’s the complexity that makes [novels] interesting.” Valerie Laken described how the idea for her novel came from a personal experience. She and her husband had bought a rundown house in an up-and-coming neighborhood in Ann Arbor. Soon after, they learned that a murder had occurred years before in their fix-it-up home. A young man had shot his mother’s boyfriend in the house, then walked down the street to the ice cream shop, set the gun on the counter and asked if someone would please call the police. “Stories come from mistakes,” she said, getting a laugh from the crowd.

American Rust, Mr. Meyer described, starts with a killing in a town where the steel industry went under. “It’s about how much people are willing to sacrifice for their friends.” He said he’s hesitant to call it a crime novel because throughout the book the reader always knows more than the characters.

“It’s set in southwest Pennsylvania, which is very beautiful, and very remote, with a lot of wildlife. It’s a place so depressed that a job at Walmart is coveted.” He described the place as having a “certain sense of loss, both human and material.”
philipp-meyer
He’s held many unique jobs, including working in a trauma center, driving an ambulance, and doing years of construction work. When Mr. Meyer was 16 he dropped out of high school and got his G.E.D. “I didn’t understand at the time how it would change me. It’s a social handicap. The decision was more significant than I first expected.”

While working in construction he knew several people who had been to jail, and what he learned from them made its way into the novel. “Most had some awareness that people are interested in them as ex-prisoners. When they realize that you’re not afraid of them, they’re willing to tell you anything.”

Researching the novel he “did a lot of walking in the town, and so in the book there is a lot of walking. Sometimes I would go to a bar and buy someone a beer. You’d be surprised, everyone wants to talk about themselves.”

Mr. Meyer admitted that American Rust is the third novel he’s written, but only the first one published. He was writing for eight years before he had a single story published, but now he’s had stories in McSweeney’s and on Salon.com. “I’ve always been a big reader,” he said. “I don’t remember learning to read, I just remember always reading.”

I climbed up the creaking stairs, 10 minutes late, as Jeffrey Renard Allen read from hisholding-pattern story “The Green Apocalypse” from his collection Holding Pattern. I was immediately reminded of how much I enjoy the way he pronounces the word “particularly”: it comes from his mouth like a rubber ball in slow motion, that then bounces gently down the stairs. Jeffrey Renard Allen, who is a professor in the Riggio program, was one of the most intelligent and kind writing teachers I’ve had.

Mr. Allen was one of three men reading from their short story collections. Following Allen was James Matthews who read from Last Known Position. He is a veteran of the Iraq war, having done two tours. Following him was David A. Taylor, author of the collection Success: Stories. After reading, each of the three authors took questions from the small audience of 20 people.

On how he starts writing stories, Jeffrey R. Allen said, “Every story is different.” He went on to describe how  when he was once in Chicago, riding the El, he saw an older lady playing a guitar on which there was a picture of a younger boy, assumedly her grandson. The image stayed with him and found its way into the end the story “Bread and the Land.”

jeffery-r-allen

“Characters take you to place you didn’t expect,” Allen responded to an additional question on planning stories in advance to actually writing them. “Every story dictates its own terms.”

Someone asked Allen about his poetry, and how he came to it. He said that in school, he had always considered himself a fiction writer until a professor told him that his writing used mostly plain words, which he did not take as the compliment that it was intended. So, he started reading and writing poetry “as a way to better understand how to use the language.”

Up Next: Wine & Words with David Baldacci and Adriana Trigiani

This week in Charlottesville is the 15th annual Virginia Festival of The vabooks2Book—five days of literary events to honor book culture and promote reading and literacy. This year 12th Street will be in attendance, so look forward to several postings from events. Jeffery Renard Allen will be reading from his new collection of short stories, Holding Pattern. David Baldacci, author of 16 novels, including Divine Justice, will discuss Italian wines. And if we’re lucky, we’ll get to discuss the novel American Rust with author Phillip Meyer.

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There is something to be said for a change of environment. For the past couple of weeks my writing has been stuck, stagnant. The answer was to get away.

I am a creature of habit. Every morning I make coffee and then eat breakfast while I check my e-mail. After eating, while drinking my second cup, I start looking over my writing and create a list of things to work on for the day. All of this is done at the same desk, sitting in the same chair, looking at the same view. But the habits have not spawned much creativity as of late, so it was time to shake things up.

Last Saturday my wife and I got in the car and drove to Longwood, Florida, to spend a week at a house on a lake with a gorgeous view of the sunset and a kitchen full of good food. Since our arrival, I have been able to relax and have gotten a renewed excitement for my writing. The fresh air, the warm pool, the food—they have given me a clear mind and have helped me make substantial progress. The words are coming easier now, and the end appears in sight.

Traveling has always sparked my creative energy. How has your traveling affected your writing? Has your writing affected your travels?

Julie Sheehan reciting “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by W. B. Yeats.

Justin Taylor reading “I See Tiny Mouths” by Anthony McCann from the Agriculture Reader.