Books for Writers

Short review-things of books (and stuff) for aspiring writers.

Quotes for the People No. 15

“Someday people will understand what made this great artist so great: the fact that he was a worker, who desired nothing but to enter, completely and with all his powers, into the humble and austere reality of his art. In this there was a certain renunciation of life. But precisely by such patience did he win life: for the world offered itself to his art.”  —Auguste Rodin by Rainer Maria Rilke.

Recommendation Number 10

Hmm…nine whole days since a post.

I’ve been reading a work that I find so strangely wholesome–to make a bit of a pun–that, though the temptation was there, I could not post a quote from it before writing my recommendation; to remove any part from the work would compromise the integrity of both the now-imperfect whole and of my portion, no matter how delicately cut. I even went through the book writing down passages to check on again later, but still I can find nothing I would not feel guilty displacing. Thus you will have to simply take my word for it, and the word of the Modern Library: the novel below is surely one of the most magnificent things born from the pen.

As I’ve stated, when someone says something wonderfully, it is a bit counter-intuitive to attempt to say something wonderful about their utterance. I’ll at least bolster my recommendation with this: it’s from, ahem, an author of some note–do you know who it is?

“As a Nobel Prize winner I cannot but regret that the award was never given to Mark Twain, nor to Henry James, speaking only of my own countrymen. Greater writers than these also did not receive the prize. I would have been  happy–happier–today if the prize had been given to that beautiful writer Isak Dinesen. . .”

Read it, read it. If your library doesn’t have it, buy it. Unfortunately I’m not affiliated with Modern Library and actually have no income to speak of, so don’t think I’m advertising–the book is simply that good that I say buy it, and I don’t always buy my books…

…but when I do they’re damn good ones.

Recommendation Number 9

A painter was once asked whether he studied aesthetic theory. He said he did not really; he thought it would be like a bird studying ornithology.

I learned of that anecdote in a book of aesthetic theory. How valuable is aesthetic theory for the artiste? That is difficult to say, but it is certainly not without value.

Today’s book is M.H. Abrams’ The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. What does this book sound like it’s about? Well, that’s exactly what it’s about, no more and certainly no less.

As far as rate of reading goes, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book as quickly as I read this one after I realized how damn familiar everything was. It might not be that way for all of you, so don’t think that statement comes from someone with no background in the critical tradition. Even then, Plato said that all learning is simply recollection…

I still haven’t quite recommended the book. Okay: knowing aesthetic theory is a bit like knowing some music theory, but less important in writing than music theory is to composing. Still, it can provide you with much information by which to analyze many works, thereby increasing your number of “a-hah!” moments. Romantic theory is the foundation which modern critical theories build upon or rebuke, and they often don’t rebuke it without building upon it anyway.

I’ve read a few books on Romantic theory, on the critical tradition…I will say this for The Mirror and the Lamp: after reading it, I don’t feel I need to read any more about Romantic theory. The work is clearly a condensing of gigantic scholarship, but all the important things are kept in and made clear to the reader, and you only need to know the important things. The book is by no means short, however, and I suggest you read it with haste.

Now, about that “birds studying ornithology” comment…

For my part, I consider myself a genius and artist only in direct proportion to the amount of effort I put into my work. To satisfy my ego, I must put in much effort, but you don’t have much time to think about your genius when you’re working. Work is not always what we think of when we think “genius,” thanks to the portraits of so-called geniuses painted by…whomever. I would contend that those people who have thought genius was something unpremeditated and spontaneous were simply not geniuses themselves and had a hard time identifying what exactly was going on.

Consuming and digesting aesthetic theory is not always pleasant work, but it is surely presumptuous to think that because one is a certain way–an artist, for example (whatever the hell that means)–one therefore knows all about how to be that way. We’ve all heard “know thyself,” but the higher axiom of Greek philosophy was actually “take care of thyself.”

Anyway, I’m rambling now. If you don’t care at all for theory in art, don’t read the book and don’t read this blog anymore and don’t try to be an artist because you’re gonna have a bad time. If you still want to try to be an artist–a writer or poet, in the case of this book–read away, but swiftly!

Quotes for the People No. 14

“I must Create a System or be enslav’d by another Man’s.” –William Blake, Jerusalem

Interview with a (Published/not Starving) Poet and Musician: Part 2

BfW: How do you feel about networking, about knowing people, and using it as the stepping stone? Or perhaps as even the plateau, to know certain people…

Nathan Brown: It’s not my nature, but I have gotten better at it, and I have to be honest and say it does make a difference. I had to figure out ways to do it where I could live with myself. Honestly, the folk musician in me, which is sort of my background, taught me how to handle my poetry. Get out there and do it. Don’t network in the sense of meeting all the professors who know the people who own the prizes, but network in the sense of performing, being out there, being in front of people, speaking, reading…building an audience that way, and then meeting people.

I have to say that I do agree with it though, because the days of publishers picking up writers and making them famous are over. It’s up to the artist now whether or not they’re going to be heard or read. It’s going to take a lot of our energy, and there’s a lot of writers who don’t want to hear that.

I have friends who are novel writers. One of them has won the American Book Award and the Pen Faulkner Prize and she says that even at her level, when she meets with her New York publishers, all the publishers now are looking at the writers and saying “So what are you gonna do to sell this book?”

BfW: You’re a performer. How do you feel about bringing performance back into poetry, about poets being their own street teams, so to speak?

Nathan Brown: In essence, that’s what I do. It’s not slam, but I go out and perform, and it’s many kinds of different events, not just universities and conferences. I get out there and people say “Oh, poetry that I understand!” and so they buy the books, word passes around. It’s taken many years, of course, but I’m pretty busy.

Poetry struggles—there’s no getting around it. It’s not the most popular literary sport. But I think it’s coming back, and I love it. I will stick with it and will continue to do it for the rest of my life. I’m also back into music now, and one of the ways I make my living now is by doing house concerts that combine music and poetry. That’s my bread and butter, to be honest. There’s a huge house concert circuit. It’s in a house, there’s no PA system, just a guitar, a voice, poetry, songs. It’s one my favorite things and they do it all over the states now. It’s really great.

That’s an excellent networking system there, but being in front of people is how I’ve done it, not meeting the academics. And I went all the way through, I got my Ph.D., but I’m very frequently in trouble with academia. If I speak at a conference, I’m always pissing somebody off with what I’m saying. I’ll get up and say “By the way, nobody likes us, so when are we going to start talking about why?”

You can read entire literary journals and read nothing that you actually like. You go through and feel like you should like it because it’s in there, but you don’t like it. Until we address that, we’re dead in the water.


The interview was a bit longer but I cut some things–I should have been better prepared. I’ll be interviewing Nathan again sometime this month, I hope, and I’ll have written the questions in advance, so expect that interview to be the most interesting thing you’ve ever read. I expect it to be quite practical.

Recommendation Number 8

I thought I would have an enjoyable search for this book’s cover image, and I was not disappointed. I settled on the following:

Jorge Luis Borges. Just like the last writer I recommended, he wrote in Spanish, he won the Nobel Prize, he could be called a magical realist. Like the last writer, I recommend him unreservedly. Ficciones is a fantastic group of short stories that can be read disappointingly quickly, as surely (surely!) there is more! There must be more. That is not to say it is incomplete, but Borges’ great talent for creating wonder in a reader cannot help but leave us forlorn when it is over, when we fall back down to an earth terrible in its familiarity. So we go back to the library or reread the stories or, when we are lucky or foolish, manage to write one of our own. Please, read him if you have not. If you spend long enough with someone who can defy gravity, you might pick up a few of the tricks yourself.

Quotes for the People No. 13

“Methodical writing distracts me from the present condition of men. But the certainty that everything has been already written nullifies or makes phantoms of us all. I know of districts where the youth prostrate themselves before books and barbarously kiss the pages, though they do not know how to make out a single letter. Epidemics, heretical disagreements, the pilgrimages which inevitably degenerate into banditry, have decimated the population. I believe I have mentioned the suicides, more frequent each year. Perhaps I am deceived by old age and fear, but I suspect that the human species–the unique human species–is on the road to extinction, while the Library will last on forever: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly immovable, filled with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret.”  –Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel” from Ficciones

Quotes for the People No. 12

“Will you believe me? I am almost ashamed to confess the truth, but I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than the poets did themselves.” –Plato, Apology

Interview with a (Published/not Starving) Poet and Musician: Part 1

Hi guys. I thought I’d interview someone who’s sort of living the dream and post about it on Books for Writers. Here goes the first half of the interview.

BfW: Who are you, what are you, and what do you do?

Nathan Brown: I’m Nathan Brown, and I am a poet, a photographer, and a musician/songwriter. Primarily a poet, but I’ve done music longer, and right now what I do is I travel and I teach creativity workshops, creative writing workshops, and I do musical performances and poetry readings.

BfW: When did you decide to dedicate your life to artistic goals? Specifically poetry, but music as well.

Nathan: Well, musically it is very easy to pinpoint. I was eight years old and I started learning to play the guitar because I wanted to be John Denver. In my teens I started playing in bands, and by the time I was in my 20’s I started writing music. Eventually, in my mid-twenties, I moved out to Nashville and worked as a professional songwriter there, and then I came back here from Nashville because I kind of burned out on music a little bit and I took creative writing at OU (University of Oklahoma). I had a professor there who turned me around, and then a certain poet, Stephen Dunn, who’s one of my favorite poets writing in the English language right now. Stephen Dunn is phenomenal. He had a book of poetry that I read and said “Man, if poetry can do that, sign me up.” I’ve been doing it ever since. I’ve published 8 books of it and it’s now a big part of my life. I travel and read and speak at schools. It’s pretty fun.

BfW: A lot of people would say that in poetry today, the market, the audience isn’t what it used to be. Do you agree or disagree? Also, is there any particular changes you would like to see in contemporary poetry today?

Nathan: I do agree, but I also think it’s somewhat turning around. The crash-course in it, which is completely unquotable—there’s a lot of people who would probably disagree with me—but the bottom line is about fifty or sixty years ago, poetry basically just crawled up in the attic of academia and it never came out. And so nobody understands a single thing that we’re saying, and so nobody cares , and so audiences left; it’s very easy math. When you start doing poetry that basically reads like somebody put a bunch of words into a blanket, shook the blanket up and wrote down how the words fell out and call that a poem—

BfW: Like a found poem?

Nathan:–Yeah! Yeah, and so everybody goes “Whooo” and they think it’s profound and deep. And it’s not. It’s crap. Nobody gets it and the authors don’t even get it. Some of them will pretend like they do, and some of them will give big long lectures pretending like they do, and it’s all just crap. Now that’s my opinion, and a lot of people disagree with it, but not audiences. Audiences hate that stuff and it’s boring as hell.

I write serious poetry, but tonight I read a couple of funnier poems. In performance, people’ve gotta smile. We’re all depressed enough; people don’t need my help to become more depressed. A lot of American poetry over the last sixty years has felt like an inside joke. Nobody gets it, so audiences left. Now, though, we’ve got a crew of American poets who’re coming back, and they’re daring to make sense. They’re daring to try to say something that somebody can understand, but to say it in an artful way. There’s a big movement with that right now, and I think everyone’s pretty much had it with the other thing. I think that’s run its course.

BfW: Care to name any names of those poets?

Nathan Brown: Well, Stephen Dunn, I mentioned earlier. Absolutely Stephen Dunn. Billy Collins I refer to as a gateway poet. For people who got disenfranchised, Billy Collins is sort of a gateway poet for people to come back to it. Sharon Olds is fabulous, a little more hard-hitting. Wonderful nature poetry, cause a lot of nature poetry isn’t—Mary Oliver. Tony Hoagland will turn your head around a couple of times, and so will Bob Hickock. I’m gonna miss a few, but that’s a good list. Another thing that I tell people is, if you ever start taking yourself too seriously, you just need to back off and read some Bukowski. He is the original dirty old man in American letters. I love what he said, “An intellectual is a man who says a simple thing in a difficult way; an artist is a man who says a difficult thing in a simple way.”…so many people hate him.

The problem is that academia owns all the prizes, so the only way to win the prizes is to sound profound to impress your professors who know the people who judge the prizes. It’s inbred, is what it is. It’s inbreeding, pure and simple.

BfW: That’s a great word for it.

Nathan Brown: (laughs) Oh, well…

I’ll try to post the rest soon. For those of you who are snobby about this (anyone?), Nathan does have a Ph.D. Here’s a link to his site:

Very cool guy. I’m having a good time just writing out the interview here, which was totally impromptu, so excuse me if it’s not up to the quality of any Journalism majors.

Quotes for the People No. 11

“These words are ineffectual and metaphorical. Most words are so—No help!” –Percy Bysshe Shelley