What We’re Reading

WHAT WE’RE READING: AWP 2017 EDITION

In early February, more than 12,000 writers, editors, teachers, and publishers descended upon Washington, DC for the annual the 50th Annual AWP Conference and Bookfair. Taking a break from the action (read: filling tote bag after tote bag with new books), four UNCW MFA candidates stopped by the Lookout + Ecotone booth to share with us those titles that carried them into the new year.

Station Eleven was suggested to me by a trusted reader friend after hearing my complaints about literary depictions of post-apocalyptic worlds that leave civilization in a survivalist state. The narrative follows Kirsten, a traveling performer, twenty years after a viral outbreak killed most of the human population. She tours with a band of actors and musicians who perform in the villages and settlements they rest at within the Midwestern United States. The troupe’s go-to performances are Shakespeare plays. I had my copy of the book signed by Emily St. John Mandel at last year’s AWP, even though I hadn’t finished it at the time. What I admire most about Station Eleven’s narrative is its devotion to the survival of the arts instead of just that of humans. It defines being human as preserving these arts, which make up our culture. Without drama, music, writing and art, what would our existence be?

—Will Dean, MFA candidate in fiction


George Harrison said, “Music should be used for the perception of God, not jitterbugging.” In Robert Ostrom’s latest collection of poems, Ritual and Bit, we see an artist not only challenging us to perceive a God but also talking directly to a God in prayers, an artist inserting himself into the story of creation. What is it to be homesick with spiritual memory, being fully aware that we’re reconstructing our memories every time we retell them? Ostrom leads us through with intimacy: “Trust me, says what you’re about to read to your beautiful ear.” He takes us to a place where words are relics—each one holding a little life, beauty, loss. And we leave haunted, but in a good way. We’ve felt an exquisite purpose.

—Ashleigh Bryant Phillips, MFA candidate in fiction


Over the summer I began reading What About This? Collected Poems of Frank Stanford. Stanford was a Southern writer who, because of his early death by suicide in 1978, was not widely read during his lifetime. This collection was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2015 and includes previously published and unpublished fragments of poems. His poems are relatively short, usually less than thirty lines, but because of their cryptic language they speak above and beyond any single moment. Stanford has the ability to talk about these strange characters from the South and Midwest without being anchored in an exact time or place. I read his work and know that whatever sense of understanding I glean could still be so far from the vast map of meaning he had in his head at the time of writing, and that is the exciting part. I am left with raw emotional data every time I read his work. His poems are like circus freak shows moving through the night on an open train; there is a history in each word but the reader only can glimpse it for a passing second.

—Graham Irvin, MFA candidate in poetry


I’d been meaning to read Eula Biss’s first book, The Balloonists, since reading her essay collection last year. The Balloonists works as a series of prose poems, one long poem, or a lyric essay; her Anne Carson-like genre defiance is one of the reasons I keep returning to her. She studied nonfiction under three poets and after reading this book—about married couples as people “not especially interested in intimacy, who somehow ended up married,” and about Biss’s mother, who tells her that she is “not a liar, but that she is not what [Biss] writes about her”—I think poetry may be the most insistent way to learn how to write in prose.

—Rachel Castro, MFA candidate in nonfiction

 

What We’re Reading: First-Year MFA Student Edition

Having survived the first few jam-packed weeks of grad school, the first-year MFA candidates are already looking back on August with a nostalgic glow, remembering a different era when they could read purely for pleasure. We asked two fiction students, one nonfiction student, and one poetry student to discuss the books that they were reading and re-reading as they started the MFA program, the ones that made them excited and inspired, and the ones that perhaps they’ll pick back up in December.

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I’ve been working my way through a small pile of pastoral literature as research for a piece I’m working on. All were set before 1950 and I wanted to add something more contemporary to the mix. I picked up Evie Wyld’s All The Birds Singing and found a realistic, harsh, yet beautiful rendering of surviving on a farm. The story traverses landscapes, from a small British Island to the Australian Desert, connecting place to the narrator’s personal history. It’s a story that doesn’t shy away from cruel or vulgar situations. Instead, it embraces them and pinpoints the beauty that can be found there.

—Suzzanna Matthews-Amanzio, MFA candidate in fiction


A particularly bookish friend told me I must read Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Feathers, so off to the bookstore I went. The setup to this 114-page novel is fairly straightforward: a recently-widowed father and his two young sons are visited by a shape-shifting, mischief-loving Crow (the titular “thing with feathers”), who takes up roost in their London home while they grieve. What isn’t straightforward is how Porter chooses to tell his tale, mixing poetry, prose, play, and essay, cycling frequently between the viewpoints of the father, his boys, and the crow. It’s a bizarre and deeply beautiful book, and left me wondering how a happily married, thirty-something, first-time novelist can so masterfully capture what it’s like to be ensnared in such crippling grief. But also: where was this voice and what will it say next?

—Jeff Oloizia, MFA candidate in fiction


I’m reading A Field Guide to Getting Lost, a book that first intrigued me as a fan (read: President of the fan club) of Rebecca Solnit, but also caught my attention for its title, posing as a type of manual for losing oneself. Solnit seems to peer so deeply into moments that feel undiscovered, or unnoticed, or simply ambiguous in their beautiful, human complexity, that she actually gives these ideas a type of directional clarity. But the way in which she muses on the idea of being lost itself allows her readers to lose themselves with her, to feel a comfort in what we don’t know or have yet to discover, and to rejoice in where we arrive together as the exploration unfolds. And we trust her as our guide because she so eloquently blends her personal narratives with cultural and historical examples, finding nuance and meaning in our shared human experience. This book feels important not only for the strength of her craft, but for the value in what we can take from it, as writers and thinkers, delving into uncharted territories of our own.

—Nicholl Paratore, MFA candidate in nonfiction


This summer I reacquainted myself with Larry Levis through The Widening Spell of the Leaves. The title is an effective metaphor for the way his best work operates, beginning in scene and then expanding imagistically outward and ever-outward to include politics, place, and history. Like the visual trope of the molecule that expands into a galaxy that expands into a molecule as the perspective widens its scope, the poem eventually leads us back into a single moment, with all new layers and resonances. Instead of a poet’s usual sonic tricks and repeated symbols to create patterns, Levis creates rhythm from scenes and images in precise, journalistic writing that recalls Carver’s “Cathedral” and Didion’s Salvador.

—Elliot Smith, MFA candidate in poetry

What We’re Reading: The Graduation Edition

In honor of the MFA students graduating from our program at UNCW this semester, and because we think National Poetry Month should be every month of the year, we found four graduating poets and one professor to share the poetry collections sitting on their bedside tables. What we discovered is a delightful array of poetic bounty that is sure to help inspire through the long days of summer–or life in the “real” world.

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photofrom left: Pernille Smith Larson, Jacob Bateman, Christina Clark


I’m reading Ron Rash’s New and Selected Poems alongside The World Made Straight. I’ve become obsessed with his North Carolina/ Appalachian lexicon and how his masterful prose lines sometimes read like poetry. I’m beginning to see that he operates much like Carver in that some of his narrative poems reincarnate in his novels, and I’m always a sucker for genre-stealing/genre-complicating. Up next is Above the Waterfall, which I hear is even more lyrical. At this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised if I read him outright by summer’s end.

Elizabeth Davis, MFA candidate in poetry


I’m currently reading Chloe Honum’s poetry collection The Tulip-Flame. Initially, I picked the book up because it was chosen by one of my favorite poets, Tracy K. Smith, for a first book award. The Tulip-Flame includes different narrative strands with thematic connections: a mother’s suicide, a failed romantic relationship, the art and practice of ballet, and the growth, decay, and resurgence of a garden. These poems are stark, short, and gorgeous. They are both emotionally restrained and deeply moving. Not too long ago, I heard a writer tell an audience that writers should read outside of their comfort zone, by which s/he meant reading the kind of poems, stories, novels, etc., that you do not write yourself. I’m reading outside of my comfort zone by reading The Tulip-Flame, and it’s an inspiring and pleasurable experience.

Pernille Smith Larson, MFA candidate in poetry


Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, by Franz Wright, was one of those books I’d been told to read about a half dozen times, but had never gotten around to. The poems are brief and clear. You can read them very quickly—they have that kind of accessibility, which generates interest in what comes next. Moving back through them it became clear that they work just as well if you take each poem slowly and seriously. I remember a professor once saying, of some poem we’d read, that it was unimposing in its artfulness. I thought of that often reading this book. I think it’s the kind of work most poets would really love to be able to generate.

Jacob Bateman, MFA candidate in poetry


I first heard about Anne Sexton’s Transformations via Pernille Smith Larson, one of my MFA classmates. I had been working on a fairy tale series, and the collection was mentioned as a good potential reference for inspiration. Transformations is striking in that it haunts and at the same time manages humor. It retells old Grimm fairy tales while also redefining and refining them into modern poetry. Sexton accomplishes this in part through her use of more modern diction and imagery. Prior to reading this, I had also read a handful of Sexton’s most famous poems, “The Starry Night” and “Her Kind” come to mind, as well as her award winning collection Live or Die. Transformations lived up to and has exceeded my expectations as a collection. It manages to breathe new life and adult themes into stories that have been around for centuries–stories that we’ve known in some version since we were children. I would really recommend this book to anyone interested in fairy tale lore or anyone who is a fan of Sexton’s other works. Especially if you are inclined—as I am—toward weaving fairy tale imagery and concepts or themes into your work.

Christina Clark, MFA candidate in poetry


I have two very different books next to my reading chair. One is just out from Emily Carr, a former student and UNCW alum: Whosoever Has Let A Minotaur Enter Them, Or A Sonnet from McSweeney’s Poetry Series. It is bold, fresh, fractured and surprising, trying to approach emotion through language in new ways. The other is Tugs in the Fog, selected poems by Joan Margarit, the Catalan poet. Margarit has written some beautiful, direct poems about ageing, grief, and memory. I find myself moved by both books, in different ways.

Mark Cox, MFA faculty in poetry

What We’re Reading: The Pub Lab Edition

Six of UNCW’s MFA candidates in creative writing get the opportunity to work as teaching assistants in our Publishing Laboratory during their three years in the program. They assist with all kinds of design projects–from spread design for Ecotone to posters and broadsides for readings and events. In addition to their writing, that work makes for a busy schedule. So we wanted to find out what they are reading, when they have the time to read. Here’s what three Pub Lab TAs have on their nightstands.

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A friend of mine told me that the book he was reading had Colonel Sanders, Johnnie Walker, and a talking Siamese cat in it, so I asked him to mail it to me when he’s done. I finished Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore two days after opening it up. The book is cinematic, containing multiple themes that speak to you at once. It’s sad and visceral and stocked with human will. It will make you want to start speaking to inanimate objects and teach you how to forgive them when they don’t talk back. Plus there’s blood, all kinds of blood.

Jane Molinary, Pub Lab TA, and MFA candidate


I am reading a collection of short stories called Mother Tongue, written by Karen Lee Boren. It is impossible to put down as character after character is assaulted by the complexity of life and how to exist in it. I find myself thinking of the characters as I drive, wash dishes, fold laundry, cook dinner, or any other activity that allows my mind to wander. It examines the beautiful violence that every day holds. Each story is uniquely engaging and surprising. The overall effect is the feeling that Boren took a magnifying glass to the female experience and laid the image bare on the page with the mastery of a poet.

Renée Labonté, Pub Lab TA, and MFA candidate


Over winter break, I read Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, All The Light We Cannot See, while I traveled through Germany and Eastern Europe, where much of the story is set in the years surrounding World War II. The pages are full of music, and because one of the protagonists is blind, the descriptions are especially rich with sensory details. Doerr’s prose painted a sad yet human portrait of the cities I toured, illuminating the humanity in their dark history of Naziism, destruction, and intolerance. Despite its well-crafted plot and stunning language, the book, to me, had the nostalgic quality of those charming stories I read and become forever attached to in childhood, perhaps because the main characters are curious children.

Morgan Davis, Pub Lab TA, and MFA candidate

What We’re Reading: the SIBA Edition

This fall the Lookout team headed to the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Discovery Show to talk up our titles and to highlight our debut novel, Honey from the Lion, to hundreds of smart and enthusiastic bibliophiles. After allowing them first dibs on all the galleys (of course!), we couldn’t help nabbing a few for ourselves. In this special SIBA edition of What We’re Reading, Lookout staff members share the new books that caught their eye.

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I’m reading Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, which just came out (October 20) from Harper Perennial. I listen to the podcast and enjoy the part-Lovecraft, part-Scooby Doo, and part-psychological thriller world that they’ve created. Books are easier for me to digest than podcasts, because I’m a visual learner. So I’m excited to see how I interact with Night Vale as a reader rather than as a listener.

Megan Ellis, MFA candidate and Lookout intern


While wandering the trade show floor, I was able to get my hands on a galley of Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson, due out in January 2016 from Harper. I met Sari at the AWP conference last spring, so I was thrilled to find her new novel about a young ballerina coming of age in 1970s NYC. Sari was a Provincetown Fine Arts Center fellow, keeping good company with Lookout’s novelist, Matthew Neill Null, who now coordinates the writing program there. “She’s one of ours,” Matt said when he saw me holding the book. Girl Through Glass no doubt marks the beginning of her bright career.

Bethany Tap, MFA candidate and Lookout intern


I first read about Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dover (FSG) on Kirkus’ list of books that shouldn’t be overlooked this fall, full as it is of new books from literary heavy hitters. The description of the book’s ten stories—each told from an animal’s point of view, during human conflict, spanning the last century, and connected somehow to a writer—was so strange, so audacious, that it rose above the other books on the list and took up lodging in my head. In a lesser writer’s hands, the stories could feel gimmicky, sentimental, overwrought. But the reviews I read said otherwise, and I wanted to see the concept pulled off. When I noticed its stunning cover at SIBA, it absolutely sealed the deal. I wasn’t going home without it.

Beth Staples, Associate Editor of Lookout Books

What We’re Reading: The AWP Edition

The annual AWP conference, held this year April 8–11 in Minneapolis, featured more than 700 exhibitors, making it the nation’s largest pop-up bookstore for independent literary presses and magazines. In this edition of What We’re Reading, four savvy Lookout staffers pick the books that caught their attention this year. (Read on, and you just might detect a pattern: compelling cover + dynamic author reading + good story behind the book = sale.)

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride  

I was first intrigued by Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing because of the title. Then I saw the cover, and my curiosity increased. Then I heard the story behind the story: McBride, at twenty-seven, had written this daring, difficult, Joycean novel in just six months, and spent the next nine years searching for a publisher. Then I passed the Coffee House Press table and saw it again—the wonderful title and alluring cover now representing a glowing success of art over industry—and opened to the first sentence, which is, of course: “For you.”
Anna Coe

Hum by Jamaal May

Friends had suggested Hum to me, but like with most books, I’d not gotten around to reading it. Then, I attended a panel on poetic extremes and emotion—love and ecstasy, violence and agony, a poet’s favorite things—because Nick Flynn and Tarfia Faizullah were on it, and I’d waited a long time to hear them read. Though I didn’t know when I arrived that Jamaal May was also on this panel, two lines into his first poem, I was hooked. He was such a dynamic reader and compelling speaker that, after the panel, I immediately headed to the Alice James Books booth to buy Hum. (I was not the only person who did this.) I started reading it on the plane home, and I’ve been thinking about it all week.
Katie Prince

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The lovely Kate McMullen models our AWP bounty.

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What We’re Reading

We’re celebrating Thanksgiving week with another installment of What We’re Reading. As Anne Lamott writes, “Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of the things that you don’t get in life … wonderful, lyrical language, for instance. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention and this is a great gift.”

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Lookout intern Becky Eades is reading Space, in Chains by Laura Kasischke.

Space, in Chains vibrates with memories of Kasischke’s youth, coupled with wrenching poems about her father, to form a narrative of both celebration and grief. The surprising image in “Hospital parking lot, April,” for example, tells us everything we need to know: “These seagulls above the parking lot today, made of hurricane and / ether, they // have flown directly out of the brain wearing little blue-gray masks, / like strangers’ faces, full // of winged mania, like television in waiting rooms.”

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What We’re Reading

Today we kick off a new category, in which we reveal the books on our nightstand. Each week we’ll tell you what a few of our staff members are reading, or we’ll offer a peek at the stacks of our authors and friends. We may have disparate tastes, but the one thing we all share is a love of books.

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Katie O’Reilly, Ecotone’s managing editor, is reading Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay.

This week I had the pleasure of starting Bad Feminist, Gay’s recently released essay collection. Beyond bearing my favorite nonfiction qualities (i.e. being wryly funny and painfully honest and entertaining), Gay’s subject matter speaks to pop culture sensibilities. She also explores society’s tenuous relationship with feminism, detailing how she is “a mess of contradictions,” how most of us are. Although she doesn’t wrap anything into a tidy conclusion—another quality I respect in an essayist—I feel better already about being a member of that “messy” camp of feminists, those of us who fall subject to hypocrisy, who can’t always keep the rules straight, but who understand the importance of engaging in the kinds of conversations that Gay presents.

—Katie

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What We’re Reading :: Poetry Month Edition

Lookout celebrated National Poetry Month by releasing John Rybicki’s When All the World is Old last week. The book of raw and wise poetry pays homage to the brave love John and his wife, Julie, shared during her sixteen-year battle with cancer. If we do say so ourselves, it is a collection for every kind of reader. To continue to honor Poetry Month, some of the Lookout interns would like to share the other poetry currently on their nightstands.

“I just finished reading Rocky Dies Yellow by Michael Lally. Fantastic poems, but I may have some kind of a bias because Lally is a Jersey boy, too. Read it through one sitting, and plan to read it again before giving it back to my professor, Mark Cox. A+ for teachers who lend students awesome poetry all the time!”

(Rocky Dies Yellow is out of print. It was published by Blue Wind Press.)

– John Mortara, Lookout Intern

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What We’re Reading :: Staff Profile

Every once in a while, we will profile what’s currently inspiring a particular staffer or intern at Lookout. Today’s victim is intern Toni Blackwell. This girl does it all: design, grant-writing, promotion, and more. Here’s what she has to say about what’s on her nightstand.

“Right now I’m reading One Morning in Sarajevo by David James Smith. It is a history of the events of June 28, 1914, surrounding the actions of Gavrilo Princip and the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which kicked off WWI.

The design of the book suits the topic: the cover is grainy and uses actual photographs of the involved parties and the assassination. There are another two sections of photographs, four glossy sheets with pictures of the assassins, their relatives, the guns used, and the memorial to the assassins (who are regarded by some as heroes).

The writing style is functional — no frills — but it gets the job done. It may not be the most artistic or creative, but this topic is so rarely addressed that Smith still comes off original.”