Archives for posts with tag: lit. scene

I stepped in gum on my way to a poetry reading this weekend. I was baffled and infuriated: First, who chews gum? Where are these ditzy blonde secretaries or sleazy agents in wraparound shades that, to my knowledge, are the only people left on the planet who get a kick out of gnawing Juicy Fruit? I’ve never seen anyone like that in New Orleans.

Second, who does not know the obvious result of discarding gum on the ground, the prolonged aggravation some innocent walker-by will undergo while having to scrape something impossibly both rock-hard and grossly gooey from the bottom of his shoe? Whoever spat it: Let him be hanged.

My aggravation was not totally a result of the gum. The poetry reading I went to intended to recognize the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which was Sunday, and among those featured was Yusef Komunyakaa—a Louisiana native now living in New York and a poet recently of great interest to me. Of course, in a gesture that affirms the robust humility that seethes from his work, Komunyakaa volunteered to read among the first poets instead of in the “headlining” spot at the end, where he belonged. And, of course, me—I’m always late for everything. He had finished by the time we got there.

I retreated to the bathroom after the event in search of some privacy in which I could attempt to chisel the remainder of the gum off my shoe—that which I hadn’t already rubbed into the fine fibers of Tulane’s auditorium’s carpet. I was leaning on a sink, making good progress, when I realized someone was in the bathroom with me, in a stall.

I began to daydream that it was Komunyakaa, and that after all I had gone through—the long wait at the sandwich shop which made us late in the first place; the drive across town during which I listened intently (obsessively?) to the noises my car made that increasingly suggest I’m going to need new struts; the rain; the gum on my shoe; missing Komunyakaa; Brenda Marie Osbey’s over-zealous expositing of mediocre verse; the bored, pompous look on Peter Cooley’s face throughout—this journey would have an extraordinary element after all. Komunyakaa would emerge from the stall while my foot was still in the air, my sole toward my face, gum in plain sight. I would glance up and recognize him, and he would see that I recognized him but that I was not overly awed or nervous in his intimate presence. He would gather that I’d read his work and appreciated it, and then he would look at the gray gum on my shoe and back up at me, and there would be a knowing connection between us.

In his effortless baritone he would tell me a story of how, once in Bogalusa when he was a boy, he too had memorably stepped on a piece of gum. The story would take place on a hot, muggy day, and would likely involve his father. It would illuminate the way in which we often learn one thing from a person who’s trying to teach us something completely different—or, how the lessons we receive from our well-meaning elders take on new shapes and proportions as they grow inside us during our path to adulthood. It would end with some line that would make me long for home, because I, like Komunyakaa, grew up in a small, crappy town and spent a good part of my life struggling to put it behind me, only to realize that this was impossible. He would only take a few sentences to achieve all this, and then he would wash his hands and walk out.

A college student in sandals and a white t-shirt was awkwardly maneuvering around me. I was blocking the paper towels. I put my foot back on the floor and returned to the lobby, where I ate a plate of complimentary salad.


This interview originally appeared in Gigantic Magazine.

Illustrations by Andrew Bulger

Amy Hempel is the first Northerner to edit New Stories from the South, but it’s not as if she had to get out a map to find Chapel Hill when Algonquin approached her about the project. Hempel is something of a secret Southerner, in fact. The reading lists she teaches are top-heavy with Southern fiction, and friendships with the likes of Barry Hannah, Frederick Barthelme, Mary Robison, and Nancy Lemann have kept her in close touch with Mississippi, Florida, and Louisiana.

The stories in this year’s anthology abound with animals, and not merely the dogs that often populate Hempel’s life and work: There’s a dead deer in a pond, a dead moose in a boat, a live caiman as a pet, and a giant catfish kept moist and breathing on land with a hose. And the people—they birth and die all over the place, amid calamities and sadness, humor and hope. What New Orleans native and novelist Nancy Lemann said about the South is true of the stories in this book: There’s a lot of human condition going around.

Editor Louis Rubin founded Algonquin Books in 1991 to function as an outlet for emerging writers who had no connections in the New York publishing industry. Algonquin’s location in North Carolina meant word of it spread among Southern writers more widely and quickly than in the rest of the nation, and although it was not intended to have a regional focus, that’s what it ended up with. Algonquin is known today largely in two respects: as the foremost publisher of contemporary Southern literary fiction; and for its New Stories from the South series, which was for years the product of editor Shannon Ravenel’s efforts, but which is now overseen by Kathy Pories. The anthology has published stories by Barry Hannah, Robert Olen Butler, Jill McCorkle, Allan Gurganus, Nanci Kincaid, Steve Almond, Madison Smartt Bell, Mary Hood, and many others. The authors in this 25th edition include Rick Bass, Wendell Berry, George Singleton, Ann Pancake, Padgett Powell, Marjorie Kemper, and Wells Tower.

Amy Hempel and Gigantic conducted this interview via e-mail over three days in July.


GIGANTIC: You wrote in “The Afterlife” that water is your “place on earth, not swimming pools at small hotels, but lakes, the ocean, a lazy-waved bay, ponds ringed with willows, and me the girl swimming under low-hanging branches brushed by leaves for the rest of my days.” How do you feel when you see water being treated as it is in the Gulf with the oil spill?

AMY HEMPEL: I feel the way every other person who cares about LIFE feels about the situation there—it’s criminal, devastating, and I’m sickened, furious, and anguished. It is hard to believe what has happened—is STILL happening—in the Gulf. I have lovely memories of the Gulf Coast and I am going back later this summer to look for myself. Water is very important in my life, as in my fiction—the Gulf Coast, certain lakes in Maine, the Caribbean, Venice Beach, the pond in Illinois that is described in the quote from “The Afterlife.”

GIGANTIC: Do you have a particularly fond memory of being on the Gulf that you could relate?

AH: Every time I was in Hattiesburg visiting the University of Southern Mississippi’s writing program with Rick Barthelme, Rie Fortenberry, Mary Robison, et al. Going out to the casinos!—before they were blown away.

GIGANTIC: I assume you know about Barthelme’s removal from that program.

AH: Yes, it’s unbelievably awful. I’d known of this for some time, and there are MANY writers across the country writing to the dean about this, me included. Disgusting…


GIGANTIC: When you’re writing, you pay strict attention to the individual sentence. Is the same true while you’re reading—especially when you’re reading for a purpose?

AH: I DO read at the sentence level, even when I am not reading for a project like this. Language is always the first requirement. If I find myself stopping to say a sentence aloud—that’s a very good sign. I also want a sense that the author is not holding anything back.

GIGANTIC: A story can be called “Southern” for a number of reasons—its author’s place of origin or residence, its content or tone—but I was wondering if perhaps Southern stories are simply made of Southern sentences. What do you think?

AH: This is an interesting question! There are Southern words, certainly, and Southern idioms. I like the idea of a Southern sentence, but I don’t know of one to give you.

GIGANTIC: I guess when I was thinking about Southern sentences, I was thinking mostly about Barry Hannah. I believe his book Ray is composed almost exclusively of them. You knew Hannah personally, and this anthology is dedicated to him. But I was wondering if you could talk about your relationship with him in another regard—with you as a reader, and him as a writer, Southern or otherwise.

AH: Barry Hannah’s sentences are indelible. Once I was remembering a favorite one, and I unconsciously substituted a word that made it truer for me. It’s the line, “I live in so many centuries.” I remembered it as “I live in so many sentences.” Well, I do—I live in so many of HIS sentences. The line after that, of course, is, “Everybody is still alive.” I can’t think of another writer whose sentences I cherish as much as his. When I read Airships, I felt my sense of story and language open up in a profound way. Same with everything after that. I read him just before I started to write. He was always one of the four or five people I wrote for. I met him just before my first book came out, went to Oxford to meet him back in 1984. He was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known, and he was capable of so much surprise on the page. You can learn pretty much everything you’d ever need to know about “voice” by reading Barry. He is noble on the page. He told me, “Beckett would be a downer in a bar, but he was noble on the page.” Beloved Barry.

My first trip to Oxford, I asked Barry what he felt when people referred to him as a “Southern writer,” and he said, “You like to be called a woman writer?”

GIGANTIC: “Southern fiction” doesn’t seem to me quite as obnoxious as “African-American poetry” or “women’s lit,” but any time you use a qualifier like that, I feel like there’s a bit of degrading effect. What do you think?

AH: I agree that labeling writing or writers by region has the effect of suggesting limitation. I’d rather just say that someone is a writer from the South. I don’t think there is a single story in the anthology I put together that would not appeal to readers anywhere. That was my experience with NSFTS for many years as a reader— I knew I was guaranteed to find stories I would adore, and that my students would too. I didn’t go looking for “Southern” stories, you know?

GIGANTIC: You’ve said that you want in a story things that could only happen in the place in which it’s set. How does this relate to finding stories from a particular region?

AH: I’m thinking of a recent story that came up in a workshop at Bennington. It was set in a town in Colorado where beer is brewed because of the special qualities of the water there, so the town has a yeasty smell to newcomers. I look for smaller defining aspects, in the South or anywhere—town by town.

GIGANTIC: Those sentences of Hannah’s you mention—about living in so many centuries and everyone is still alive—echo the Faulkner quote you included in the introduction to the anthology: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” How important do you think a sense of the past is to good fiction writing?

AH: I don’t feel one way or another about a sense of the past as an important element in fiction. It’s important for some writers, not important for others. I am probably more interested in an accurate rendering of the here and now.

GIGANTIC: You said Barry Hannah was one of four or five people you wrote for. Who are the others?

AH: I always wrote “for” or with these people in mind: Barry Hannah, Mary Robison, Gordon Lish for many years. The other one or two people in this category change over the years.


GIGANTIC: In your introduction, you mentioned a criterion you had heard from Gary Lutz as one that helped you determine whether you would include a story in this collection: You wanted whatever you could never expect to get from anyone else. NOON editor Diane Williams recently cited a speech Lutz gave in 2008 as “one of the most important contributions to 21st century American letters.” Is it a coincidental product of my reading habits, or are Lutz’s opinions on fiction writing becoming increasingly influential?

AH: That talk that Gary Lutz gave a couple of years ago is every bit as important as Diane said. Gary has been an extraordinary “writer’s writer” for years, and as more people read and listen to him, his influence grows. Gary Lutz sounds like nobody else. He is one of the most precise and daring writers I can think of. There are no half-measures in his stance regarding fiction. You can set a course by some of the things he said in that talk, which I think was also published in the Believer. He is always worth reading, and re-reading!

GIGANTIC: The spaces in a story—between sentences or images, long breaths in dialogue—are often as important as the words themselves. When you’re compiling an anthology, do you think about the spaces between the stories, and what effects the gaps between one and the next might create?

AH: I do think about the spaces between stories in the anthology. I can’t know if they’ll have the effects on other readers that they had on me, but I started with the first and last stories, of course, and filled in on either side moving towards the center. Some coincidences occurred as a result: George Singleton is placed on one side of Megan Mayhew-Bergman, and I later found out that he had been her teacher. I tried not to put a very sad story after a funny one, because a reader conditioned to laugh might keep on laughing, but that said, I probably did this very thing.

GIGANTIC: Besides selecting the stories for this anthology, I know you’ve also judged a contest or two for the Mississippi Review. What other things have you done that are Southern-lit related?

AH: In addition to judging the Mississippi Review Prize Issue, I was a regular visitor to the Center for Writers there in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Rick Barthelme and company made it a remarkable place. A few years ago I judged the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction for Sarabande Books in Louisville, Kentucky. I picked a collection titled Head, by William Tester, who is from Florida. There are writers from the South in the current issue of the Alaska Quarterly Review that I guest-edited, such as Patricia Lear (her story “After Memphis” was in the Best of the South anthology edited by Shannon Ravenel), also new writers such as Jamie Quatro down in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, and again, Megan Mayhew-Bergman.

GIGANTIC: Who are five fiction writers from the South whom you might recommend who do not appear in this year’s anthology?

AH: I’ll give you six fiction writers from the South that I’d recommend who are not present in this anthology: All of them are well-known, and some not included only because, as I say in the introduction, they did not publish short fiction in 2009. I’d say Rick Barthelme, William Gay, Allan Gurganus, Nancy Lemann, Jill McCorkle, and Mark Richard. Mark Richard has an extraordinary memoir coming out in February, Jill McCorkle had two stories out in 2009 that were exempt from consideration because they’d already appeared in her collection Going Away Shoes. Allan Gurganus can do no wrong, as far as I’m concerned. William Gay didn’t publish short fiction in ‘09; I heard he’s working on a novel. Nancy Lemann is a novelist, not a story writer, so there would not be a chance to have her in such an anthology, but her work is singularly funny and filled with yearning. Rick Barthelme doesn’t make a misstep either, and everyone should re-read his novel Waveland, given what’s going on in the Gulf.

GIGANTIC: What types of satisfaction do you get out of compiling anthologies? What are your favorite things about projects like this?

AH: The best part is finding new writers that you want others to read—that is always worth the time. And selfishly, it’s good to feel—for that year, at least—that you’ve read more than you might have without the guest-editor position.

GIGANTIC: What are you up to, writing-wise?

AH: For the last year, I’ve mostly been writing half-page biographies of dogs on death row, trying to get them adopted from the “kill shelter” in Spanish Harlem. It’s the most important writing I do. It’s part of a program I’m a part of there, volunteers who tend to the dogs who are scheduled to be put down … very grim, but such wonderful dogs, and such a great feeling when they are rescued and given another chance. (Also, Harper’s is running a new short-short story, in its August issue, I think.)

A couple weeks ago I received a brief email from a friend of a friend asking if I might answer a few questions regarding New Orleans’ “literary scene” for the blog attached to Fictionaut. I was tempted to admit that I’d only lived in the city for a few months and was therefore probably not the best person to ask about such things, but the sparse punctuation and complete lack of capitalization in her request indicated that this probably wasn’t the most serious undertaking, and I’m always happy to offer an opinion.

So, she sent me her questions, I sent her my answers, and she edited my answers down into a single answer and posted it with some other answers to other questions that she had asked a writer who spends time in Haiti and another who started a Fictionaut group that has something to do with the Gulf oil spill. You can read that post here. Below, I’ve posted the complete set of answers I sent her.

whats the word on new orleans re: post-katrina literary world. i heard an influx of hipsters moved down in solidarity to volunteer their help. true or untrue? if true, has there been a change in the literary scene?

True. Lots of young people have moved to New Orleans since Katrina to participate in the rebuilding of the city. Some are hip, and others are not hip. Some help out “rebuilding” in literal ways, like volunteering to build green homes or starting entrepreneurial ventures or nonprofits, and others just sort of figure that adding themselves to the mix as bright, motivated, intelligent people is good enough. I saw a clever advertisement for the University of New Orleans the other day that showed a picture of a smart-looking girl and it said, “She’s part of the BRAIN GAIN.” There’s even a nonprofit here whose sole function is to keep all the people who have moved here post-Katrina from moving away.

As far as the literary world goes, I would say that it has not been tremendously affected by the influx of hipsters … yet. Remember Adorno’s idea about writing poetry after the Holocaust? People had other things to do after Katrina besides write fiction and poetry, on top of the psychological trauma. In fact, Anne Gisleson, a writer who runs a cool gallery/publishing house here called Press Street, said in an interview that she even stopped reading fiction for a long time after Katrina.

There are some stirrings, though. The best example of good new blood I can think of is Paul Killebrew, a young poet and attorney who recently released a book with Canarium and also recently moved here to work for the Innocence Project New Orleans. Lots of people have been coming through, too, some as a residual result of the storm: Dave Eggers taught a master class last year at NOCCA and did some other stuff with the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival; Deb Olin Unferth is (tentatively) coming to teach a master class at NOCCA this upcoming year; Amy Hempel recently completed a residency at Tulane; and an outstanding unknown writer and generally all-around great guy named Nate Martin has really been shaking things up and doing good for the community.

All that said, people in New Orleans are kind of tired of hearing about all this post-Katrina blah blah blah. Seriously, it was in 2005. Get over it. Mary Robison got away with publishing a post-Katrina book last year only because she’s Mary Robison. I met a Bosnian filmmaker named Mirko Rucnov who’s working on a film set in post-Katrina New Orleans and he’s getting away with it only because he was a war refugee and can perhaps bring a perspective on trauma, displacement and loss that differs from David Simon’s. In case y’all hadn’t heard, there’s a new catastrophe that’s devastating the Gulf Coast AT THIS MOMENT. Sure, a lot of New Orleans is still deeply scarred by Katrina, but we have no choice but to move on.

how has literacy in new orleans changed if at all since katrina?

Literacy, yeah … hmmm … I think it was at 40 percent in 2005, which made aid difficult to distribute in some areas of the city because people couldn’t read the forms they needed to fill out in order to get the aid. I don’t think it is any worse now than it was then, if that’s any consolation. Although I do know that some Vietnamese fishermen who were trying to file for compensation from BP for oil-spill-related losses couldn’t fill out the requisite forms because they couldn’t read English—but I think most of them can read Vietnamese alright, so I believe that’s being somewhat sorted out.

As those of you know who read The Shock Doctrine (or at least made it through the introduction), New Orleans’ school system underwent a radical transformation post-Katrina, as neocons—alongside ordinary people who were exasperated at the thorough and relentless fucking-up that has plagued N.O. public schools throughout history—essentially dissolved the city’s school district in favor of a system dominated by private charter schools overseen by a state board. There are currently more charter schools in New Orleans than in anywhere else in the country. Obviously this divides people along ideological lines, but I think it’s really too early to tell what positive or negative effects this has had on literacy, or education in general.

There are also a number of literacy organizations that have either launched or undergone a rejuvenation with help of federal aid since Katrina. The Louisiana Literacy Alliance is a sort of umbrella organization that pulls a lot of them together, at least informally, and there are smaller independent groups, too. Press Street was running an after-school program for a while, but they’ve yet to restart it since moving to a new space last year. The Neighborhood Story Project is a fruitful undertaking. I talked with some folks at McSweeney’s a while back and they are really interested in launching an 826 center here, but as one might imagine, there are obstacles that make such things difficult (crippling poverty, etc.).

[Addendum: After the interview, I found out that the 40 percent literacy rate was ascertained in a nationwide study that accompanied the 2000 census. A similar study accompanied the 2010 census, but Louisiana did not participate because of a lack of resources.]

what can writers, readers do to help?

Move here. Sure, it’s hot in the summers, the crime is atrocious, and sometimes attaining goods and services is tougher than in other places, but New Orleans is a magical town abounding with amazing sights, sounds, interactions, and activities. My girlfriend and I live in a (veritable) mansion in the coolest neighborhood in the city for $1,000 a month. There’s an incredible insularity to the city’s culture that distinguishes it from the blasé amalgam that you find in much of the rest of America. While most of the country piddles along stagnant or receding, New Orleans is in a period of rebirth. While in New York you can be one in a million and there are still eight of you, in New Orleans you can make a perceptible impact. The city’s strong literary tradition hit a glitch with Katrina, but will soldier forth anew. Perhaps all it needs is you.