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About the Author
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Q: You work in both poetry and aphorisms. Presumably the two come from different mindsets — how do you decide whether a subject, or a state of mind, is better suited to a poem or an aphorism?
A: We all have strength enough to bear the troubles ... of others.
La Rochefoucauld recalls truisms about life never giving us more than we can handle, but then (I add a stand-up comedian's pause) veers into something both darker and lighter. An aphorism, maybe, is a blend of proverb and joke. Porchia, too, starts on proverbially, on The Chosen Road of Life
Before I traveled my way ... I was my way.
But he deepens into something before and beyond choice. His twist isn't funny, but it shares with jokes a sensitivity to sequence. Punchline last, please.
I traveled my way before I was my way only flatly states a fact.
Aphorisms, that is, are re-definitions. In the greguería this is spectacularly obvious. "Milk is whipped sleep" (Ramón). But more frequently it's visible in twists, particularly in the repetition and re-seeing of a key word. "All work is the avoidance of harder work." The aphorist has the alert perversity of the punster, waiting for a word or idea to pressure, to mis-hear, to change. Looking for poems is the opposite: an unfocused gaze. James Merrill has likened it to fishing.
Short answer: one starts with a mindset, which is essentially a genre, rather than with a subject, and categorizing what results turns out to be much less of a problem than coming up with anything at all!
It takes more than one life to be sure what's killing you.
Worry wishes life were over.
Minds go from intuition to articulation to self-defense, which is what they die of.
I am saving good deeds to buy a great sin
Some things, like faith, cheer, courage, you can give when you do not have them.
Why should the whole lake have the same name?
How much less difficult life is when you do not want anything from people. And yet you owe it to them to want something.
If I can keep giving you what you want, I may not have to love you.
Idolaters of the great need to believe that what they love cannot fail them, adorers of camp, kitsch, trash that they cannot fail what they love.
No criticism so sharp as seeing they think you need to be flattered.
Time heals. By taking even more.
Competition and sympathy are joined at the root, as may be seen in the game My grief is greater than yours, which no one can keep himself from playing.
How fix the unhappy couple, when it was happiness they loved in each other?
After a while of losing you, I become the one who has lost you. Did the pain change me, or did I change to lessen the pain?
Experience tends to immunize against experience, which is why the most experienced are not the wisest.
The mind that's too sensitive feels mostly itself. A little hardness makes us softer for others.
You who have proved how much like me you are: how could I trust you?
Believe stupid praise, deserve stupid criticism.
I need a much larger vocabulary to talk to you than to talk to myself.
Determinism. How romantic to think the mind a machine reliable enough to transform the same causes over and over again into the same effects. When even toasters fail!
No use placing mystical trust in the body. It is perfectly adapted to life a million years ago. Eat while you can, flee, strike. But what does it know about cities, love, speculation? Nor will evolution change it, since failure now leads not to death and subtraction from the gene pool but merely to misery.
If I didn't have so much work to keep me from it, how would I know what I wanted to do?
It gets harder and harder to be free. Every time I need a larger labor to be at the end of.
While everyone clamored at the god, I kept aloof, scorning their selfishness. Now that he has ascended, I hate him because he does not guess what I want.
When you laughed at me, I could have been free, but instead of laughing with you, I clung to my imprisonment.
I could explain, but then you would understand my explanation, not what I said.
I keep glimpsing the loneliness I want, my thoughts without me.
The best disguise is the one everyone else is wearing.
Pleasure is for you. Joy is for itself.
The dead are still writing. Every morning, somewhere, is a line, a passage, a whole book you are sure wasn't there yesterday.
The happy and the suffering probably understand life equally well, but the sufferers may see a little more clearly how little it is that they understand.
Everywhere he looked Nerval saw a black spot. That one's easy, but where the optic nerve enters the retina there is another one, quite literally a blind spot. We never notice: the brain, like a mother softening the bad news, continually fills it in, never letting us know there is nothing there. O, spot I never see, from you I learn my landscapes are movies, my words a greeting card, my memories an official explanation!CHAPTER 2
Q: Frequently, there is an element of surprise in your work, an unexpected response, an unforeseen coincidence, or an irony of circumstance. Do your stories ever surprise even you?
A: Sometimes a story is born of (inspired by) that surprise, unexpected coincidence, striking pattern of behavior or circumstance. In other cases, there is a sort of opening proposition in the story, which I then develop with only a rough or general idea of where it might go. Where it actually does go is always a surprise in its details, and sometimes also in its overall trajectory. I do think one has to be very open to what the less consciously controlled parts of the brain may suggest or even require. This is happening right now with a story I am in the early stages of. I was clear about the title and the general idea, but very quickly the nature of the story changed so that the title was no longer a good one. In this case, the title was a bit smart-alecky. But the story, and the main character, wanted to be more serious, more human, and the title in turn needed to be more subdued, more serious. One can absolutely never be rigidly faithful to one's first ideas, in the process of composition.
This morning, the bowl of hot cooked cornmeal, set under a transparent plate and left there, has covered the underside of the plate with droplets of condensation: it, too, is taking action in its own little way.
CAN'T AND WON'T
I was recently denied a writing prize because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance, I would not write out in full the words cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can't and won't.
THE LANGUAGE OF THE TELEPHONE COMPANY
"The trouble you reported recently is now working properly."
A WOMAN, THIRTY
A woman, thirty, does not want to leave her childhood home.
Why should I leave home? These are my parents. They love me. Why should I go marry some man who will argue and shout at me?
Still, the woman likes to undress in front of the window. She wishes some man would at least look at her.
Into how small a space the word judgment can be compressed: it must fit inside the brain of a ladybug as she, before my eyes, makes a decision.
SHORT CONVERSATION (IN AIRPORT DEPARTURE LOUNGE)
"Is that a new sweater?" one woman asks another, a stranger, sitting next to her.
The other woman says it's not.
There is no further conversation.
MY CHILDHOOD FRIEND
Who is this old man walking along looking a little grim with a wool cap on his head?
But when I call out to him and he turns around, he doesn't know me at first, either — this old woman smiling foolishly at him in her winter coat.
OLD WOMAN, OLD FISH
The fish that has been sitting in my stomach all afternoon was so old by the time I cooked and ate it, no wonder I am uncomfortable — an old woman digesting an old fish.CHAPTER 3
ALAIN DE BOTTON
Q: Your longer nonfiction and fiction have a deeply humane and compassionate streak. Your aphorisms, though, tend to display a more satiric, ironic vision. What is it about the writing of aphorisms that changes a writer's point of view?
A: Aphorisms reward a clean upturning of an established truth. When one flips sentimentality, out comes cynicism.
Bitterness: anger that forgot where it came from.
Insomnia: the mind's revenge for all the thoughts you were careful not to have in the day.
The best cure for one's bad tendencies is to see them fully developed in someone else.
Mental health: having enough safe places in your mind for your thoughts to settle.
It takes a serious lack of imagination to have an entirely clean conscience.
A key goal of parenting: to try to ensure a child grows up with no wish to become famous.
The constant challenge of modern relationships: how to prove more interesting than the other's smartphone.
Tweets; to literature as Lego is to architecture.
The difference between bitterness, confusion, nostalgia — and resilience is ... a plan.
Hope is a muscle — and like any muscle in constant use, needs rest.
Inviting someone to marry you may not be the kindest thing to do to someone you claim to love.
We don't fall in love with those who will make us happy so much as with those who feel familiar.
Anyone who isn't embarrassed of who they were last year/yesterday probably isn't learning enough.
Bookshops are the best destination for the lonely, given the numbers of books written because authors couldn't find anyone to talk to.
A strong desire not to be alone: a sure sign one is incubating a difficult message to tell oneself.
Marriage: to focus on the inherent difficulty of the project, not the alleged drawbacks of its participants.
Sustaining a relationship is largely about being disloyal to the Romantic emotions that got you into it.
Definition of a failure: someone who needs other people to fail.
The difference between hope and despair: a way of telling alternative stories from the same facts.
Most of what makes a book 'good' is that we are reading it at the right moment for us.
You have to be bashed about a bit by life to see the point of flowers, pretty skies and uneventful 'boring' days.
The internet is to this generation of writers as alcohol was to previous ones: anxiety suppressant, enemy of talent, challenge.
There are people we'd long ago have forgotten about if they hadn't started to ignore us.
There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.
Change begins when the fear of not acting at all at last outstrips the paralysing fear of making a mistake.
To stand any chance of choosing a partner wisely, it helps to be utterly reconciled to being alone all one's life.
Hypochondria: an above-average imagination applied to the deeply improbable nature of being alive.
An epidemic of loneliness is created by the misguided idea that the only cure to loneliness is a romantic relationship.
We believe we seek happiness in love, but what we may actually seek is familiarity — which can complicate any plans for happiness.
Two ways to feel more successful: achieve more. Or surround ourselves with people who have achieved less.
Wanting to be famous: an attempt to shortcut the arduous business of making friends.
For paranoia about 'what other people think': remember that only some hate, a very few love — and almost all just don't care.
The possession of a tortured soul is, sadly, simply no guarantee of also being a great artist.
The best way to be a calmer and nicer person is to give up on everyone, realising one simply is, where it counts, irredeemably alone.
Deep charm: despair lightly, humourously (non-accusingly) worn.
The cure for infatuation: get to know them better.CHAPTER 4
Q: In Citizen: An American Lyric, you use multiple forms to make many points — long-form essay, micro-essay, personal anecdote, video script, poetry, photography, visual collage, itemized list. The forms accumulate into a montage of moments that distill the shattering experience of being black in the U.S.A. How did you arrive at this formal approach, as opposed to a more traditional book-length essay or collection of poems?
A: Muriel Rukeyser, in her poem "The Book of the Dead" includes twenty sections of testimony from Washington hearings, stock market reports, x-ray analysis, and letters. Regarding her formal break with lyric conventions, Rukeyser wrote, "I think very strongly that this is the material of poetry for us now, that it is our business to extend the document."
The activity of extending the document beyond the limit of its genre contains, in my view, contaminated fields of possibility (contaminated because the habits of that genre are disrupted and generative because the perceived sense of unity contained in the habits of that genre are disrupted). Reading, as defined by Juliana Spahr, in her "connective poetics," becomes "a negotiation rather than a conquering, an exchanging rather than a fixing," when one is willing to navigate the broken form.
At the end of a brief phone conversation, you tell the manager you are speaking with that you will come by his office to sign the form. When you arrive and announce yourself, he blurts out, I didn't know you were black!
I didn't mean to say that, he then says.
Aloud, you say.
What? He asks.
You didn't mean to say that aloud.
Your transaction goes swiftly after that.
And when the woman with multiple degrees says, I didn't know black women could get cancer, instinctively you take two steps back though all urgency leaves the possibility of any kind of relationship as you realize nowhere is where you will get from here.
A friend tells you he has seen a photograph of you on the Internet and he wants to know why you look so angry. You and the photographer chose the photograph he refers to because you both decided it looked the most relaxed. Do you look angry? You wouldn't have said so. Obviously this unsmiling image of you makes him uncomfortable, and he needs you to account for that.
If you were smiling, what would that tell him about your composure in his imagination?
Despite the fact that you have the same sabbatical schedule as everyone else, he says, you are always on sabbatical. You are friends so you respond, easy.
What do you mean?
Exactly, what do you mean?
Standing outside the conference room, unseen by the two men waiting for the others to arrive, you hear one say to the other that being around black people is like watching a foreign film without translation. Because you will spend the next two hours around the round table that makes conversing easier, you consider waiting a few minutes before entering the room.
The real estate woman, who didn't fathom she could have made an appointment to show her house to you, spends much of the walk-through telling your friend, repeatedly, how comfortable she feels around her. Neither you nor your friend bothers to ask who is making her feel uncomfortable.
To live through the days sometimes you moan like deer. Sometimes you sigh. The world says stop that. Another sigh. Another stop that. Moaning elicits laughter, sighing upsets. Perhaps each sigh is drawn into existence to pull in, pull under, who knows; truth be told, you could no more control those sighs than that which brings the sighs about.
The sigh is the pathway to breath; it allows breathing. That's just self-preservation. No one fabricates that. You sit down, you sigh. You stand up, you sigh. The sighing is a worrying exhale of an ache. You wouldn't call it an illness; still it is not the iteration of a free being. What else to liken yourself to but an animal, the ruminant kind?
In line at the drugstore it's finally your turn, and then it's not as he walks in front of you and puts his things on the counter. The cashier says, Sir, she was next. When he turns to you he is truly surprised.
Oh, my God, I didn't see you.
You must be in a hurry, you offer.
No, no, no, I really didn't see you.
You wait at the bar of a restaurant for a friend, and a man, wanting to make conversation, nursing something, takes out his phone to show you a picture of his wife. You say, bride that she is, that she is beautiful. She is, he says, beautiful and black, like you.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Short Circuits"
Copyright © 2018 James Lough and Alex Stein.
Excerpted by permission of Schaffner Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction James Lough 5
Preface Alex Stein 27
James Richardson 31
Lydia Davis 37
Alain de Botton 41
Claudia Rankine 47
Charles Simic 51
Jane Hirshfield 59
Joy Harjo 61
Sarah Manguso 65
Maggie Nelson 69
Karl Jirgens 75
Don Paterson 79
Charles Bernstein 89
Sharon Dolin 97
Gemma Gorja 101
Alex Stein 103
Dinty W. Moore 107
H. L. Hix 117
Michael Martone 125
Ana Maria Shua 129
Eric Jarosinski 139
George Murray 145
Yahia Lababidi 151
Elisa Gabbert 155
Stephen Dobyns 161
Daniel Liebert 173
Margaret Chula 181
Michael Theune Austin Smith 185
David Lazar 189
Sami Feiring 193
Aaron Haspel 197
S.D. Chrostowska 203
Richard Kostelanetz 209
Lily Akerman 215
José Angel Araguz 219
Ashleigh Brilliant 227
Irena Karafilly 233
Patrick Carr Clayton Lamar 239
Hart Pomerantz 245
Meg Pokrass 249
Eric Nelson 253
Holly Woodward 259
Marty Rubin 261
Mike Ginn 265
James Guida 271
Denise Hayes 275
DR. Mardy Grothe 281
Olivia Dresher 287
James Lough 293
Lance Larsen 299
Isaac Fellows 303
William Pannapacker 307
Karl Kempton 311
Charlene Deguzman 317
Paul Portugés 321
John Bradley 325
Tom Farber 329
Kevin Griffith 333
Steven Carter 339
Brian Jay Stanley 343
Bhanu Kapil 347
Emily Peck 355
Zara Bell 359