Full disclosure: I read FATHERMUCKER (HarperCollins 2011) the first time around in installments. As Greg wrote, I would receive these amazing sections in my inbox — smart, compelling, raucous, heartbreaking and wholly original. I would tear through those pages, enthralled by Josh Lansky’s stream of consciousness, his riffs on parenting, popular culture, love, sex, his wife and children, all set to a playlist ranging in taste from Zeppelin to the Magnetic Fields. As soon as I finished I would send Greg e-mails that contained only one word: MORE. The voice felt entirely fresh and new, unlike anything I had experienced before in contemporary fiction, and definitely not from this perspective. Josh Lansky, while a devout husband and father, was still a guy, and he held nothing back in what would surely turn out to be one of the longest days in his life. Experiencing FATHERMUCKER will leave you breathless and wanting more of what goes on inside Greg Olear’s head; thankfully, he agreed to answer a few questions.

A few years ago, I went to visit Michael Griffith at the University of Cincinnati, where he teaches in their PhD program. I was there in my usual capacity (i.e. to terrorize students of creative writing). But I was also there in my other usual capacity, which is to lunch with other writers in sad cafes and complain.

The Dream goes like this:

You write a book, a great book, and you send it out to whomever and a few weeks later, out of the blue, someone calls from New York City and says your name. Then the book gets printed and reviewed in the holy places and someone else calls, this time from Los Angeles, and says another name, one you’ve heard of, a movie star name, and the call gets put through and pretty soon there’s a major motion picture in production and your book is suddenly number one on the great list of What Matters. Then a third call comes from Chicago…

In the documentary film Bad Writing, filmmaker and one-time bad writer Vernon Lott culls the worst of his early poetry from boxes stashed in his mother’s basement and subjects them to the scrutiny of literary greats including Margaret Atwood, David Sedaris, Nick Flynn, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Lee Gutkind. That’s right.The likes of George Saunders, Steve Almond, Claire Davis, and D. A. Powell all sat knee to knee with Lott and reacted to the likes of this:

I met Emma Trelles more than twenty years ago, a fact that simultaneously amazes and depresses me. We were both members of an informal workshop run by the wonderful writer John DuFresne. Every Friday afternoon, Emma and I would ditch our day jobs and drive up to Florida International University and sit on a patio with a bunch of other wannabes and try to figure out how to make our bad decisions go away.

Emma must have been writing prose back then. But she was clearly another species -– an observer of the hidden signs, impractical and heartbroken, prone to brief bouts of song. A poet, I mean.

I had no idea how good a poet she was, though, until a few weeks ago, when her debut, Tropicalia arrived in my life. I’m on record as a bad poet, but I happen to be a good judge of the stuff, by which I mean that I recognize its essential mission, which is to reintroduce us to ourselves by reintroducing us to the English language.

Emma does this over and over in Tropicalia.

I spent about a happy week trying to figure out which lines to quote. I finally settled on these three, for no other reason than their devastating simplicity:

I keep asking if he’ll try and find me
after we leave this world, in the next place
whatever shining white nothing that entails

I’m sorry, but no one who’s ever been in love hasn’t hankered after this same mystery.

Emma generally works double shifts during National Poetry Month, but she was kind enough to answer a few questions for an old friend, on behalf of The Nervous Breakdown.


Let me start with the mushy stuff: Tropicalia blew me away. I knew you’d gotten better as a poet, but reading the book I got that strange I’ve come to think of as awenvy –- half awe, half envy. The thing that impresses me the most, though, is your patience. The poems here took a long time to reach. Was there ever a point where you were like: Ugh, this is taking too long. I give up.

I definitely felt like it was taking too long. Writing poetry, by its very amalgamating nature, is an art that requires as much dreaming as doing. But I went to work as a journalist right out of grad school. And that’s a devouring job. The only time you’re not working is when you’re sleeping. But I never considered giving up on writing poems. When I wasn’t, I was reading or thinking about them. I made little random notes, sometimes in the margins of my reporter’s notebook, which was the idea behind one of the poems in the book. Even just one  beautiful word or a lyrical phrase reminded me that I was also a creative writer, that I was once an artist and that I would be again.


I love that the book has an overt morality. One of my favorites was “Letter to the Right,” in which you write:

America, I don’t remember who you belong to
Even when I’ve smiled and said thanks, I’ve really meant shut up.

What I admire so much is the sense of sorrow and bewilderment you’re able to put across. It’s not a sermon, so much as a lamentation.

I wrote that around the time the health care debates were raging, and all that incredible bullshit about death panels was playing on right-wing television as if it was actually real. Alleged news outlets and commentators just pimping their lies with no remorse. It made me sick. I literally couldn’t sleep. One morning I got up feeling helpless and I remembered that I could always write a poem and that act might be my only weapon against demagoguery. Except for a word choice or line break, the poem pretty much appears as I first wrote it. I think I had been collecting some of its images in my mind for quite a while.


So you’re a first generation Cuban-American, and the book has several gorgeous poems about Cuban culture. But what interests me the most is how your family feels about your work. Do they get what you’re up to?

My family rules. My husband is a musician and a bookstore manager and my brother is an art director. Both of them support me in myriad ways, from reading my work to designing event flyers to simply cheering me on at my readings. And my mother is my crazy number one fan. She has a file stashed somewhere with newspaper cuttings, or even printouts, of everything I’ve ever written. I hope she’s not passing that thing around at parties.


You’ve got some amazing poems about what it’s like to be a reporter, the crushing artifice of seeing the world in that way. I’m thinking specifically about “Reporter’s Notebook,” which is written as a kind of news story gone awry. Please tell me you turned it in to some unsuspecting city editor.

Steve, that makes me laugh because I have no doubt you brought all kinds of little surprises to your own editors over the years. There is a part of that poem that was indeed the lede to a feature story I wrote when I was the art critic at a newspaper. My editor at that time, the blessedly cultured Robin Berkowitz, emailed me saying the beginning reminded her of a Tennyson poem. Can you imagine that? At a daily! Of course, it stayed with me, and a few years later when I wrote the poem, I worked in some of his lines from “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal.”


You write about music a lot, so I think you need to talk about your own work as a musician. Also, for bonus points, please explain what “noise music” is to the John Mayer fans.

Does anyone listen to John Mayer? I have been a big music fan (and snob) for many years now and I used to write a lot about local music. Eventually I wrote about Ed Artigas, a guy who ran an indie label down here and played music in great bands like Bling Bling and Map of the Universe. Ed convinced me to start a band with two other women. Even though I didn’t know how to play, I thought, why not? So I played a rather shitty bass, sang, and wrote songs. We performed at all the music holes in town, at a few festivals, and even in Austin. When our guitar player left the band, we asked another musician we adored to play with us. I wound up marrying him.

Noise music may be defined as a collaboration of instruments and players without any rehearsal, predetermined composition, or any inclination at blending sound or melody. A driving principle might include chaotic assaults on the inner ear, which, in turn, can cause auditory kinds of hallucination. Noise music is freaking loud and it hurts and the only people that can abide listening are the ones playing it.


The poem “Lorca Is Green” astonished me. Was he the poet who made you want to be a poet?

Lorca is one of the poets who keeps me writing and learning my craft. I read “Poem of the Deep Song” at least once a year. There’s always someone I come across at just the right time who rescues me from my own thinning language or subject matter; when I first started writing seriously, I was bowled over by Denis Johnson, Toni Morrison, James Wright, and Lorna Dee Cervantes. But there are a lot of factors that went into me wanting to be a poet: my friendships with musicians and artists, my evergrowing obsession with birds and the natural world. I grew up in South Florida, and as a girl, I drafted poems in my head whenever we visited the beach. I wanted to describe the ocean, the light, the sound of gulls and water slapping the bow of our boat. It was my way of remembering.


When I first met you, too many years ago, you were working for an insurance company (I think). As a poet, how do you make ends meet?

I forgot about that. I had a lot of dispiriting business jobs before I started writing. It literally changed my life. I pretty much make a living the same way I have for years now: writing articles, features, and reviews, editing, teaching, really whatever is tied to language. Juggling all these jobs takes effort and a sort of patchwork, faith-based approach to money, which is not an easy thing for a daughter of immigrants, or for anyone. But if you want the freedom to make art, you have to give up some security.  And, I might add, that this kind of toil all goes back into the same well from which my creative work comes.  I’m pretty much living and breathing letters.


What’s next?

Another book of poems, a book of non-fiction.  More writing and reading. As I type this I see it sounds monotonous, but it so isn’t. Writing is all about discovery, and in this way, it reminds me of hiking, especially through unfamiliar trails and woods.  I love wondering what comes next.


***

 



Emma Trelles is the author of Tropicalia, winner of the 2010 Andres Montoya Poetry Prize (University of Notre Dame Press, February 2011). She is also the author of the chapbook Little Spells (GOSS183) and the editor of OCHO: The Travel Issue and MiPOesias Magazine’s American Cuban Issue. She has been a featured author at the Palabra Pura reading series at the Guild Literary Complex in Chicago and at the Miami Book Fair International. Her work has appeared in publications such as Verse Daily, Gulf Stream, 3 AM Magazine, Poets and Artists, Newsday, the Miami Herald, the Sun-Sentinel, and Organica. She is a regular contributor to the Best American Poetry blog; read her rambles here.



There’s been a great deal of talk lately about women writers not getting their due in important literary magazines like The New Yorker, Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly. In this survey by VIDA, it’s pretty clear that women get short shrift in the high-brow literary world.

All this talk prompted me to count the number of book reviews I’ve written lately, and the gender of those books’ authors. I’ve reviewed four books in the past year, two by men, two by women.

Some years ago, I returned to Miami, where I spent the early Nineties eating Cuban and sexually humiliating myself. I was there to teach a seminar, the subject of which was –- if I’m remembering this correctly -– How to Never Sell More Than 1000 Copies of Any Book You Ever Write.

Of course, Valentine’s Day ain’t just about romance. Other kinds of love count just as much – or even more. In fact, I treat Feb 14th as a great time to remember those who’ve influenced my sexual life, which is why I thought I’d share a few of my heroes with you. Frankly, if it wasn’t for the folks below I probably wouldn’t be writing this column. So here we go. I’m sending a valentine to…

Betty Dodson

If you’ve ever read Betty Dodson’s work or heard her interviewed, you’ll know how grounded, warm and wise she is about sex. From singing the praises of solo sex to encouraging us to value friendship rather than searching for an “other half” (see the videos on her site), Betty speaks her mind with spirit and integrity. The following quotes come from Sex For One, her groundbreaking book that has transformed attitudes towards solo sex:

“We have been so brainwashed by romantic love that when I talk about the importance of couples continuing to masturbate alone, and learning to share masturbation together, some assume I’m against ‘regular sex.’ Not true. I’m all for any sexual activity that makes both partners happy.  What I don’t support is ‘compulsive intercourse’ as the only way to be sexual. Instead of assuming the word sex means a penis inside a vagina, we need to realize that there are an infinite number of ways to express our sexuality.”

“Organized opposition to masturbation, like opposition to pornography, is actually opposition to sexual arousal; to be turned on is somehow considered antisocial. In truth, it’s just the reverse: to be sexually repressed is antisocial.”

Stephen Elliott

Stephen Elliott is a sexual hero of mine because of how totally he owns his sexual identity. He also writes like a flipping genius. His story collection, My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up, contains stories about a sexually submissive guy who derives pleasure from pain and violence during sex. A friend of mine once complained that he’d gone to one of Stephen’s readings and noticed the writer was all cut and bruised. But I was impressed to hear this! By modelling pride, Stephen Elliott liberates others to do so, including my own kinky self. (Pass me that paddle, will you?).

The following is from the title story in Stephen Elliott’s collection, My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up.

“She keeps going. Spanking me really hard, tying up my penis and balls, dragging me around the apartment by my hair. And it’s hours later when we go to sleep and she’s missed her train home.

“I sleep on the inside of the spoon. She’s my abusive boyfriend and I feel safe, her arms wrapped around me. She looks wonderful in her underwear. Her skin is warm, brown, and smooth. She smells so good. In the morning I don’t want her to leave. I slide my face between her naked legs. She opens her eyes and looks down on me. It’s only six and the alarm will soon ring. “What do you think you’re doing?” But she doesn’t make me move. She grabs my hair and closes her eyes.”

Susie Bright

Susie Bright, the famed feminist sex educator, is one of my heroes because of the ways she speaks out about sex. She takes sex seriously, but can also laugh about it. In her fabulous, worldly wise audio show, In Bed With Susie Bright, she is open about sexual politics while also encouraging others to speak their mind. Perhaps what I love most about Susie is her absolute commitment to helping us explore our sex-lives with compassion and excitement.

The following quote is from Born-Again Virgin, an essay in The Sexual State of the Union, by Susie Bright:

“The openness of lust, of sexual attraction, is often the way we learn to love somebody, and that’s no small feat. It is very difficult to love people, even though our communal evolution and ego lead us there in many ways. It is so much easier to be impatient, to discriminate, to draw as many lines in the sand as we can. For even the awareness of not loving someone, of one’s loss, is compassionate compared to the demands of shame and blame.”

So Betty, Stephen and Susie, you’re all getting valentines.  And I’ll also be sending a heart-shaped box of thank you’s to:

  • Anais Nin, who I have raved about recently at Erotica For All.  If she were alive, I’d have a massive crush.
  • Violet Blue, who, as you may well already know, is the famous pro-porn feminist and expert on sex and the web.
  • Steve Almond, who is master of the emotionally meaningful sex scene.  Check out his delicious little chapbook This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey.
  • Jennifer Lyon Bell, who makes beautiful erotic movies at Blue Artichoke Films and has a wonderfully wise and feeling attitude towards sex.
  • Freud, who, as we know, was a sexist old bugger, but he was one of the first people to state that our sexual identities matter and are utterly linked to our holistic health. In Victorian society, that must have taken balls of steel.

Do you have sexual heroes of your own? Movie stars? Directors? Sex activists? Artists? I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.

Hearts and flowers, all. Enjoy Feb 14th, whether with others or alone.  Mind you, the 13th has particular potential if you’re a solo lover… Plus if you want to create romance without necessarily having it, join me for some romance writing here.

The picture on the main page is by Fecuop, via Wikimedia Commons.

On the subway last week, the man sitting opposite was ranting about his groin. “See this?” he asked me, pointing at himself. “Think I don’t have anything? Well, you’re wrong. This is mine.” As he continued to spout I got out my book (Anais Nin’s Fire, since you ask) and walked to the other end of the train, before I heard him move on to the next poor soul. He was right, of course. He does own his groin. But how sad that he had to announce it.

Like it or not, there’s often a sexual vibe on the subway. Of course, sex on the train is a classic fantasy, which, during rush hour, can give rise to as many furtive looks as you’d find in a busy bar. I suppose being sealed into a compressed space and traveling superfast is a recipe for lust, particularly when you find yourself face-to-crotch with a stranger. (Depends on the stranger! Depends on the crotch!). And perhaps being in the underbelly of the city releases all those urges we attempt to suppress. In London the subway is called the Underground, a word that also connotes spycraft – rather fitting, considering the amount of watching going on.

As it happens, I’m all about sex on the subway, but there’s a context. I use my commutes to catch up on my reading, which is often about sex and sexuality. The written word offers us a wonderful way of revitalizing and nurturing our sexual imagination, broadening our erotic focus and challenging our assumptions.  As an activity that can be solo, reading is also a great reminder that our sex lives lie within ourselves – we can still experience rich sexual worlds when we’re alone, and beautifully at that.  So, seeing as I love book recommendations, here are some quotes from great sex books/stories I’ve been reading on the train:

From “Dumbrowski’s Advice” by Steve Almond, in This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey:

“At the hospital, you told Dumbrowski: I met a girl, which might have been the truth from time to time, though really you dreamed of the waitress, your waitress, sweet greasy onion rings on her fingers as you lay in a pool of your own heat.”

Riki Wilchins in Genderqueer, ed. Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins:

“…I am speaking, of course, of intersexed infants. Such children, who are not clearly male or female, occur in about one in every 2000 births. Because anything that is not male or female is not a true sex, we pronounce them ‘abnormal,’ fit them legally into male or female, and fit them physically into boy or girl by cutting them up at a rate of about five a day. Thus are ‘natural’ males and females maintained…”

From “Lina” in Little Birds by Anais Nin:

“She bought herself a black lace nightgown like mine. She came to my apartment to spend a few nights with me. She said she had bought the nightgown for a lover, but I saw the price tag still fastened on it. She was ravishing to look at because she was plump and her breasts showed where her white blouse opened. I saw her wild mouth parted, her curly hair in a wild aureole around her head. Every gesture was one of disorder and violence, as if a lioness had come into the room.”

It turns out that 2011 may be a good time for us bookish types to bask in the limelight. Sex expert Petra Boynton predicts this will be a year of sexual introspection: “…I think we’ll see the idea of self reflection and sexual diary keeping become more of a mainstream phenomena.” Self-help, philosophy, guided explorations…these may well be the kind of texts we’ll see reflected in print and online. In fact, Susie Bright recently brought out a 2011 sex journal, entitled Love & Lust, which provides prompts and guides for exploring your sexual self – my copy’s on its way and I’m excited to get started. So we don’t have to shag in public to be sexual while we commute…though maybe a few of us will get to do both! But as sex-positive readers with a mischievous streak, we can always tell our friends, “I had sex on the train today…” before pausing for effect, and adding, “vicariously, of course.”

The photo on the main page is by By Étienne ANDRÉ

Until his fateful first post at TNB, I had never heard of Steve Almond.This is embarrassing, and probably inexcusable, given that a) he’s well-known in fiction writing circles, circles which I like to pretend include me, b) by then, he’d already submitted a self-interview (easily one of the stronger entries in that particular archive), and c) I was, not two minutes before clicking on “Five More Bands For Joe Daly to Hate,” in the middle of reading an article on self-publishing he wrote for Poets & Writers.

I once watched Bruce Machart teach a class. It was a humbling experience. Machart was eloquent and funny and inspiring. He made me think about fiction –- the mechanics of plot, specifically, but all of fiction really -– in an entirely new way. When the class was over, I asked, only half-joking, if I could audit.

“Nevermind will forever be remembered as a vehicle for ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ and its subversive effect on mainstream culture. It’s periodically brilliant, but half of the material on Nevermind is filler.”

-Chuck Klosterman

Okay. So. Part III.

One rule I set out for myself on my quest to vindicate Cobain from the evil clutches of Klosterman: I will not use the “you had to be there” argument to justify any of my feelings for Nevermind. Yes, much of the greatness of Nevermind lies in its social context, and especially its relationship to music that came before it like The Youngbloods, Aerosmith, Husker Du and so many more. But there is enough musical greatness within its contents not to need to resort to arguments relating to Nevermind’s “subversive effect on mainstream culture.” This is not a post about culture. It’s a reassessment of a great album 20 years later to see–with all of that other stuff out of the way–how great it really is, especially in relation to Appetite for Destruction, which I examined at length in Part II.

Tommy Stinson, former bass player of the Replacements and also Axl Rose’s bass player-for-hire, once told reporters that Axl Rose is much easier to work with than Replacements’ lead singer Paul Westerberg, to which Westerberg’s responded, “Wouldn’t Van Gogh be more difficult than Norman Rockwell?”

I’m reminded of this dig whenever I see more evidence of what’s becoming a decade-long trend in rock lit to laud Axl Rose at the expense of Kurt Cobain.

Two of my favs, Steve Almond and Chuck Klosterman, are guilty of this charge.

Recently, in the fine media tradition of griping about how sick everybody is of talking about something—and thereby talking about it more—I read a tweet that quipped, “Can we stop talking about the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 already?”

The answer is no.

*”Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”- A quip about music journalism variously attributed to Frank Zappa, Laurie Anderson, Steve Martin, and Elvis Costello.

Think of the sections at your local bookstore: romance, history, science fiction, fantasy, western, chick lit, erotica. How big are these sections? Where are they located in the store?

And how does the section on rock literature compare?