A Moveable Famine


This is the story of a boy from working class Queens who discovers poetry, an unlikely obsession that leads him from a Jesuit college's all male, sex-starved campus to the St. Mark's Poetry Project, and then to the Iowa Writers Workshop. He makes up for his previous lack of romance while at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and goes on to teach at two colleges, with a stay at Yaddo in between. John crosses paths with Raymond Carver, Robert Creeley and John Cheever, and receives guidance from mentors like...
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A Moveable Famine

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This is the story of a boy from working class Queens who discovers poetry, an unlikely obsession that leads him from a Jesuit college's all male, sex-starved campus to the St. Mark's Poetry Project, and then to the Iowa Writers Workshop. He makes up for his previous lack of romance while at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and goes on to teach at two colleges, with a stay at Yaddo in between. John crosses paths with Raymond Carver, Robert Creeley and John Cheever, and receives guidance from mentors like Stanley Kunitz and strangers like Allen Ginsberg. A Moveable Famine is, ultimately, the portrait of an individual and an age. Above all, it is a book about identity.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 05/19/2014
Poet and Ploughshares editor Skoyles (The Smoky Mountain Cage Bird Society) launches this crackling autobiographical novel with a brash preface "bemoaning... the wasted lives of everyone who not see the world through the lens of poetry." This passion for the poetic life is treated with both mockery and sympathy, as we follow Skoyles from Queens, N.Y., to the famed Iowa Writer's Workshop in Iowa City; the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass.; and the Yaddo artist colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Witty vignette by witty vignette, drink by stiffer drink, this leisurely paced autobiography chronicles the peculiar codes of the "claustrophobic," competitive workshop culture and the "extracurricular activities at poetry's finishing schools." Its structure is pleasurably slack, casually zooming in on those writers living "grant-to-mouth." One mild-mannered poet plays with his food by stamping out dactyls (smashing one pea, leaving the next two untouched), a classmate's propensity for malapropisms energizes his verse, and a drunken Alan Dugan manages to throttle a graduate student and trip over a seagull in one action-packed night. Quietly emerging from this raucous, entertaining book is a portrait of the aesthetic education of a poet and a fond tribute to his "colony-hopping" fellows: "Many were eccentric, some were slightly mad, but all were thoroughly human." (May)
Library Journal
In the era of Allen Ginsberg, a working-class lad from Queens joins the crowd "hell-bent to become poets" and fends off his insecurities to find art, sex, and community at St. Mark's Poetry Project and beyond. The poetry editor of Ploughshares has an inside track on this story. VERDICT Not the dark and moody work you might expect but shot through with a sense of humor—and wonder.
Kirkus Reviews
Ploughshares poetry editor Skoyles (Writing, Literature and Publishing/Emerson Coll.;The Situation, 2007, etc.) turns in a third volume of memoir, this one taking him to the wilds of Iowa and beyond.Stealing a page from his fellow poet Kenneth Rexroth, Skoyles calls this an “autobiographical novel.” In Rexroth’s case, it was at the lawyers’ insistence to skirt libel laws; perhaps Skoyles merely liked the ring of it, for there isn’t much actionable in these pages, even if there’s plenty of good if mostly inconsequential dish. Some decades ago, MFAs were comparatively rare and writing programs few. Enrollees aspired to sleep with Auden (or, if he were dead, some other British substitute), a faculty wife or maybe some untouchable classmate, for, writes Skoyles, “[w]ith women, we were sensitive, bearing the burden of witnessing our nation’s militarism, the savage effect of the Dow Jones on the poor, the illusion of the comfort offered by religion.” In short, everyone was on the make while seeking to make good poems (and stories and novels), all careerists “hell-bent to become poets.” Some did: Skoyles’ classmates included David St. John and Larry Levis. Some dropped off the face of the earth. Skoyles survived the politicking, knife-concealing back slaps of the workshop and sexual shenanigans long enough to make his way through an interview (“Verna casually asked about my outside interests as she undid her scarf and shook out her raven hair”) to become a member of the workshopping professoriate—maybe not the carefree poet of his youthful dreams, but at least someone paid pretty well to analyze and write poems.Mostly entertaining but not terribly searching. Readers seeking a more exacting view of MFA literary careerism should turn to Tom Grimes’Mentor(2010) and its predecessor,The Workshop(1999).
Booklist - Michael Autrey
"Skoyles recounts a moving and uproarious literary journey. The title skewers Hemingway’s pretentiousness while signaling his narrator’s haplessness: poetry is serious, yet lust and longing keep interrupting, hilariously. Drinking with Raymond Carver or Robert Creeley, or listening to the story of how the beautiful girl he pines for refuses John Cheever’s weird advances, Skoyles’ prose is very fine, almost epigrammatic, and it’s hard to believe that a funnier novel will be published this year."
Foreword Reviews - Karen Rigby
"Skoyles presents a sharp snapshot of an era while employing thoughtful themes of self-doubt and the search for mentorship. Brushes with literary icons, including Allen Ginsberg and Raymond Carver, seamy anecdotes from the early 1970s and 80s, and everyday collegiality as well as rivalry merge to create an episodic tale of ambition. With a narrator who is seemingly shepherded along by luck, A Moveable Famine offers a gently satirical, funny take on a world marked by eccentricity."
NY Journal of Books - Mary Sharnick
"A series of anecdotes both laugh-out-loud humorous and searingly poignant, Skoyles' narrative is at once fast-paced and poetic. Skoyles is both modest about his accomplishments and adept at noting them in understated prose. Fame, or its more modest brothers, respect and admiration, pop like air bubbles above the narrative's ebb and flow. His narrative feels alive. And satisfying, too. If not a feast, no famine either. Recite his words aloud and a reader tastes them on lips, teeth, tongue. Yum."
Author of "Tumbledown" - Robert Boswell
"A Moveable Famine is a quick, sly, outrageously funny novel about poets and poetry. I laughed out loud more times than I could count. John Skoyles writes with great humility and wicked wicked wicked wit. I love this book."
Author of "Another Bullsh*t Night in Suck City" - Nick Flynn
"In this rangy, beautiful memoir, John Skoyles—page by page, word by word, paying close attention to the particulars of this world—becomes a poet before our eyes."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781579623586
  • Publisher: Permanent Press, The
  • Publication date: 5/1/2014
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 989,173
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

John Skoyles is the author of four books of poems, A Little Faith; Permanent Change; Definition of the Soul and The Situation. He has also published a book of personal essays, Generous Strangers, and a memoir, Secret Frequencies: A New York Education.
He has been awarded two individual fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as grants from the New York State and North Carolina Arts Councils. He teaches at Emerson College and is the poetry editor of Ploughshares.
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