March 15, 2013 § 4 Comments
This Friday, we have a very special jokealong: the AWP 2013 edition! I was lucky enough to spend all last week in Boston attending this wonderful conference, where I met old friends and new, learned about writing and publishing, and bought more books than I could fit in my suitcase on the way home. While there, I was also on the look-out for the best literary laughs to bring back here for our jokealong.
This was my fourth time at the conference, and it seems I’ve finally learned a few things, as I didn’t stress myself out trying to cram as much in as possible; in fact, I never even made it over to the convention center in time for the 9am panels. In previous years, I felt I had to be at each panel so I didn’t miss the “secret” to writing a masterpiece or getting published or getting 100 followers for your twitter, but this year, I tried to be more open what found me instead of what I might be looking for.
This worked in my search for humor, as well. For example, one of my biggest laughs of the week came when I sat around in a conference room for half an hour with a bunch of other awkward writers quietly wondering if the presenters would ever show up. They never did. In past years, I would have been frustrated by the time wasted and knowledge missed. But this year I just had to laugh; it makes perfect sense that none of the panelists for “Authors Who Rock Social Media to Sell Books” would bother showing up in person.
One of the most enjoyable hours of the conference for me came when my fiance dragged me along to “A Muriel Rukeyser Centenary.” Never having encountered Muriel’s poetry before, I was expecting some sort of somber remembrance, not the spirited celebration I found—but then that was the sort of surprise I was waiting for. And there was quite a bit of serendipity at play in the discussion as well: to ensure the room didn’t fall into the eulogistic tone I’d been fearing, the poet Olga Broumas started off by encouraging us all to clap for Muriel—raising her hands above her head to make sure our applause stayed up for a long span—until I’d been clapping so long, I felt a little crazy. After that, we all laughed. And then we clapped some more, a giddy wave you could feel coursing through the room. When Olga finally started to read a poem Galway Kinnell had written about how Muriel once suffered a stroke while reading but wanted to persevere with the show,she only made it a few lines in before a loud but ghostly applause could be heard from some adjacent room. Olga said, open-mouthed, “The podium is rising!”, and we all laughed some more.
My choice for best joke of the conference came from the very same panel, as Sharon Olds explained her time in a workshop led by Muriel. Apparently, Olds wasn’t yet the master of the lasciviously literary, because she’d brought in an erotic poem to workshop that was all “milky this and creamy that.” Another member of the class, maybe a little scandalized, struggled to find the words to discuss the poem: “It’s too… too…” “Too dairy,” Muriel suggested.
In any event, I know I only took in one hundredth of what the conference had to offer, so if you were there and heard or told an even better literary joke, please do share it below. And if you didn’t make it out to Boston, I hope these few anecdotes brought some of the inspiration to you.
March 12, 2013 § 2 Comments
I just got back from Boston last night, feeling flush with a sense of literary community and possibility, and what’s the first thing I see online this morning? The full line-up for the Cracked Walnut Reading Festival!
As you’ll see on the poster below, I’m reading at the Angry Catifish Coffee/Bike Shop in on Tuesday the 19th of March, but I want to encourage you to check out as many of the festival dates as possible. They are a great chance to bring all the great parts of the Twin Cities literary community even closer together, forcing curmudgeonly fiction writers such as myself to share the stage with outgoing essayists, erudite poets, and spoken-word slammers. It’s all being organized by the incomparable Satish Jayaraj, who’s taking time off of promoting his awesome first novel to give this incredible gift to all lit-lovers in Minnesota.
If you aren’t from Minnesota, I hope this post entices you to come visit; there’s really no better time (messy spring weather aside) than March 18th-April 12th to get a feel for all we have to offer. And if you are from Minnesota, I’m looking forward to seeing lots of old friends and making new ones over the next month, so please do say hi.
And I’ve just got to say, I’m overjazzed to have my name on the same poster as Charles Baxter.
You can see the full schedule, with directions to each event at the Cracked Walnut Website.
March 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
This week, The Oldest Jokes in the World is coming to you live from Boston, where I’m attending the AWP Bookfair and conference.
As promised, I’m not just here glad-handing publishers, soliciting chapbook submissions, and getting craft notes—I’m also searching for the greatest literary anecdotes and one-liners for a special AWP JOKEALONG next week. So far, though, the biggest joke has been me thinking I’d get much blogging done while here—one day in and I’m already feeling burnt-out and overwhelmed. Plus, it is tough blogging on and iPhone with these fat fingers of mine (I’ve already accidentally published this post half-finished twice now). So I’ll leave you with a few photos of my fiance and I enjoying the festival and see you next week.
March 1, 2013 § 1 Comment
I’m very excited to be heading to the A.W.P. Conference and Bookfair in Boston next week. For those that don’t know, AWP (The Association of Writers and Writing Programs) is an awesome organization that does all sorts of great things for writer/educators. They publish a magazine, run an awards series, and provide many other means for writers to connect—but their biggest event every year is the annual Conference and Bookfair.
The conference features keynote addresses and readings by famous authors every night, as well as an exhausting schedule of interactive panel discussions every day. Even better, in my opinion, is the bookfair: conference hall after conference hall filled with presses, each with their own table covered in hardcovers, trades, chapbooks, and swag. Too big to be called a dream, it is more of a bibliophile’s inescapable visionary coma.
I have attended each of the last three years, and it keeps getting bigger and crazier, so I’m looking forward to what it will look like in Boston. My main goal this year is to research self-publishing and self-promotion options for the serial novel I’m going to start publishing this September, but I always end up learning something by surprise when I am there as well.
For example, at the conference in Chicago last year, I attended a panel on jokes featuring Stephen Goodwin, Richard Bausch, Robert Bausch, Jill McCorkle, and Alan Shapiro, and their hilarious discussion of humor in literature (which quickly turned into a joke-off) inspired me to start this blog.
As a result, I’m going to dedicate the next few weeks of blogging to an AWP jokealong. While at the conference, I’ll be on the hunt for the best obscure literary puns and writerly anecdotes, and I’ll update you on my progress on Friday. Then on the Friday after, once I’m home, I’ll compile my findings in an official jokealong post.
That said, if you’re going to be in Boston, too, we should meet up and trade a joke or two. I’d love to meet some of you blogging-buddies in real-life, so drop a comment if you’re going to be there!
And since I don’t want to leave you without a Friday laugh, here’s one of the funnier anecdotes I heard at last year’s conference, told by Richard Bausch:
The novelist Jon Hassler was working on a book in a cabin up in the woods somewhere north of Duluth, Minnesota, and something very bad happened to the sump pump. There was a kind of methane explosion after the toilet backed up awfully and so he had to call a plumber. The plumber was wiping raw sewage off the walls and standing in it up to his ankles. “People told me you were up here working on a book or something? I mean you’re that writer guy from Minneapolis, right?”
“Yes,” Hassler said.
The plumber shook his head almost wistfully, with a kind of pity. “Don’t know how you can do that kind of work.”
February 22, 2013 § 1 Comment
I just added a new “page” to the blog, collecting the last few months worth of posts I wrote on the dichotomy between spontaneous wit and prepared jokes under the title “Why Did Kerouac Cross the Road?”
I didn’t start out planning to include much Kerouac, but after he worked his way into the high school anecdote I started the discussion with, I quickly realized he was almost the pure human embodiment of the spontaneous side of the argument, so I kept referring back to him. Plus, it was fun playing around with the “Why did the Chicken Cross the Road?”/On the Road connections. In any event, writing these posts helped rekindling a long-smoldering love for Jack, so I’ll included his “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose: List of Essentials” here as our final thoughts on the art of spontaneity.
BELIEF & TECHNIQUE FOR MODERN PROSE
LIST OF ESSENTIALS
- Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
- Submissive to everything, open, listening
- Try never get drunk outside yr own house
- Be in love with yr life
- Something that you feel will find its own form
- Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
- Blow as deep as you want to blow
- Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
- The unspeakable visions of the individual
- No time for poetry but exactly what is
- Visionary tics shivering in the chest
- In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
- Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
- Like Proust be an old teahead of time
- Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
- The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
- Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
- Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
- Accept loss forever
- Believe in the holy contour of life
- Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
- Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better
- Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
- No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
- Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
- Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
- In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
- Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
- You’re a Genius all the time
- Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven
Thanks again for reading. I’m not sure what my next big series of posts will be on, but I do have an extra-special jokealong planned for the next month, so check back for more details next week!
February 1, 2013 § 3 Comments
Unfortunately, we’re going to skip the jokealong this Friday. I jumped into the third draft of a novel this week and feel I’m too deep into the problems with the old draft to do much other creative work for the next few days. Luckily, I have a guest post up on Ross Gale’s blog this week so you won’t have to miss me. Just click the image below to check it out.
Ross runs a great blog full of thought provoking and creativity inspiring content for writers. Ross was one of the first people to reach out to me when I was still struggling to start this blog, making me feel like I was part of a community when I was wondering what the point of it all was; he has a great way of fostering dialogue when so much of blogging feels like a bunch of writers who aren’t willing to read. As a result, I was thrilled when he asked me to participate in his Writers Series about how writers with day jobs persevere.
“One Day at a Time” is a little more serious (and juicily personal!!!) than what I normally write for The Oldest Jokes in the World, so if you came here for laughs and only feel somberer, you should check out this cool interview of George Saunders from The Colbert Report—he talks about how short stories are like jokes!
December 19, 2012 § 1 Comment
I was crammed into the bitch seat of a Ford Festiva, the closest I ever got to perfection.
It was the winter of my senior year of high school, and I was pretty sure I had it all figured out: I’d read a bunch of Kerouac the previous summer.
Kerouac made me want to be a writer. He made me want to be an intellectual rebel. He made me want to be a spiritual searcher. He made me want to be a Buddhist. He made me want to be a weeping angel of hangdog grace.
And since I was still in high school, I could be all those things just by saying so.
So what if you’re on the football team? I’m a writer. No, I don’t have a book published—I’m only 18—but I’ll show you my moleskine if you promise not to read it.
And I’ve got to say, I find your suburban Lutheranism dogmatic. I prefer the spiritual freedom of Buddhism. No, I guess I don’t pray, or meditate, or go to temple, or whatever—but I assure you, I am a Buddhist: notice, please, the Alan Watts paperback that has accidentally slipped out of my backpack beside your foot.
I hope it is clear that I’m poking fun at myself here—not those beliefs. While I consider myself a Christian now, I still feel there is a wealth of beauty and wisdom to be found studying Buddhism, and I truly have no idea who I would be if I hadn’t read On the Road and Dharma Bums when I was 17. But in a comfortable suburban life without too many opportunities to test and prove my beliefs to others or even myself, I spent a lot of time on symbolic gestures I hoped wouldn’t just communicate, but also cement and validate, the changes I felt going on inside me.
And for some reason, there was a week during that February when I thought tying a karaoke microphone to my belt-loop and wearing it like a fashion accessory was the perfect representation of everything I wanted to believe about myself.
I had a tight group of friends growing up, 5 or 6 guys who all hung together every weekend of high school, playing videogames and listening to music we were sure everyone else at our school was too stupid to like. We certainly weren’t cool—there were no girls anywhere near us—but we weren’t such big losers that we couldn’t fool ourselves into thinking we were actually cooler than everyone: that the pop squad in our school didn’t actually know what cool was, that once we got to college, we’d already have all the right indie rock and avant garde electronica CD’s and it would be clear who was actually cool all along.
R was one of the first of us to get a car, and we’d all cram into that tiny, wheezing Ford Festiva like pubescent clowns: blotchy faces, awkward physiques, and big smiles all around. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as simply happy as I did in the back of that car as we all traded off making fun of each other and the dolts we went to school with, always rehashing and adding to our history of inside jokes. As integral as the seemed to my life at the time, I’ve forgotten most of these little witties—and like most wit, they aren’t as funny when removed from the elements that inspired them—but here’s one example to give you an idea of where our heads were at at the time: one of the most famous and re-referenced of our jokes had to do with the time B made a point of vowing to all of us that he would lose his virginity on his upcoming trip to Steamboat Springs; it only took K a few seconds to come up with the term Fornication Proclamation, which took years and years for B to live down.
It was with this feeling in mind that I picked a karaoke microphone out of the back of R’s closet and wore it out to Cheapo Records, Blockbuster Video, and Granny’s Donuts that night. I mostly kept it tucked into my pocket, but would pull it out at moments when I felt seized by wit, raising it to highlight how important the pun or that’s what she said waiting on my lips was, then turning it on my friend for his reaction.
At times, I’d wondered if it wasn’t wrong to be mean to each other all the time, but I’d extrapolated a nearly religious reverence for wit from what I understood of Kerouac’s spontaneous writing process: if some force beyond my control and consciousness plopped a funny into my head, it was my duty to say it out loud; wit was worth so much more than the sort of contrived statements most people made when they thought before speaking. Taking the microphone around with me was my way of showing the world this deeply held belief: this shared experience between my friends was something of holy import. Like Jack and his crew of Desolation Angels, our lives were a matter of precious record.
I wanted to start my posts on the dichotomy between wit and prepared humor with this anecdote, firstly, to remind myself that there is no bigger fool that someone trying to take humor too seriously. I think the me back then would be happy to be called a fool, and I must not mind much either, because I keep groping around for something profound to say on this blog despite never getting hold of anything better to show than my own ass. Being a fool is unavoidable, but I hope that by grounding the discussion in proof of my follies, I won’t be tempted to many quick, sweeping judgements.
As I mentioned last week, my original impetus for these posts was a quick, sweeping judgement; within moments of pondering the question, I wanted to prove that wit was always the superior form of humor. My main reason for beginning with the above real world example of humor in use, then, was to use it’s details to complicate that simple thesis while enriching our understanding of the issue.
As you can see in the example, wit can’t exist without relatively tight connections between the speaker and the listener. We were like a gang back then, with little life to speak of but the life we shared at school and on the weekends; I couldn’t see it at the time, but the other kids didn’t laugh at the same jokes we did, not because they were stupid or because we were the chosen witty few, but simply because they didn’t spend as much time in R’s basement laying the groundwork for all those connections as we did.
Further, it requires a relatively strong sense of comfort to be receptive to a witty idea—they come to us less often in unfamiliar or threatening situations—and an even stronger sense of confidence to share it. It was these benefits the group afforded us, I see now, and not any holy calling, that made us such exceptional jokesters.
I had good intentions, I think, in espousing a philosophy that was open to anyone, but in practice, I was just drawing thicker lines around our group: we needed the microphone because it set us apart in a way that proved we were more important than the jocks or the freaks or the band nerds or the pop squad. One of the few specific instances I can remember using the microphone was to mock A for hanging out with the popular kids in pursuit of a girl who hung around with them; as with the Fornication Proclamation, I think we were really just trying to keep anyone from leaving the gang, trying to protect that sense of comfortable confidence we’d built together.
We couldn’t all stay in that Festiva for ever, though, and it was probably my anxiety about high school ending and us all moving on to different colleges that had me trying to hold on to what we had with a fundamentalist fervor. Thankfully, I only wore the microphone to school once or twice the next week and then half-heartedly again the next weekend before letting go of the phase. It wasn’t going to keep A from falling in love and it wasn’t going to keep time from passing. Nothing could keep our group together forever, especially since none of them seemed to want to chase after the wild literary life with me in college: as close as we were, I couldn’t get any of them to want to be the Ginsburg to my Kerouac. I couldn’t even get them to read Kerouac.
I’m happy to say I’m still close friends with almost all of the guys, but I don’t think we’ve ever been as close as we were when crammed into that Festiva. How could we be while trying to grow and explore the larger world, building adult lives for ourselves? As we all moved into the larger world, we had to turn our backs on our inside jokes, and I learned the value of a good prepped joke in an unfamiliar, high-pressure situation—which we’ll discuss in the next post in this series.