News & Updates

News & Updates 2020

Last autumn, in that distant, relatively normal year of 2019, my wife Alma and I settled down for a six-week stay in our second home, in Santa Fe. The town is gloriously filled with art galleries, museums, and a thriving literary scene, and one evening we attended a reading by three poets at Collected Works, one of the finest bookstores in New Mexico.

The readings of all the poets were excellent, but the poems of Isabel Ribe stunned me, for their calmly stated and yet passionate political and cultural testimony. After the reading, I asked her to submit work to Ninth Letter, and finally, in January of 2020, in the last of those kinder, gentler pre-Covid days, we published four of her powerful poems, which you can read here.


In late February, I flew to Lisbon to teach a writing workshop and give a reading for the Vermont College of Fine Arts International MFA Program in Creative Writing and Translation (now that’s a mouthful of a title). I was so pleased to be invited to join this program, to add a little teaching to my “retirement” writing and editing life. During those first days in Lisbon news reports of the spread of Covid-19 grew increasingly alarming, and yet somehow the residency jelled, as residencies will do, over breakfasts, lunches and dinners, workshops, craft lectures, and readings. The fact that we were all housed in the gloriously beautiful Lisbon neighborhood of Belém, and that classes were held in the Centro Cultural de Belem (across the street from the World Heritage site of the Jeronimos Monastery), may have helped.

Writer Tabish Khair (I highly recommend his novel, Night of Happiness) and I co-taught a combined fiction and nonfiction writing workshop, while novelist Evan Fallenberg and translator-extraordinaire Megan McDowell co-taught a fiction/translation workshop. Heady work, and lots of talented student writers.

More than once we made our way to downtown Lisbon, for a visit to the José Saramago Foundation, or to a reading at the Menina e Moça bookstore, or a meal at this-or-that spectacular classic Lisbon restaurant. As part of the residency’s program, one afternoon I led everyone on a literary and cultural tour of Lisbon, beginning at the Praça Principe Real and ending two hours later at the Largo de São Carlos. Here I stand midway through the tour, at the Miradouro de Alcântara (a park with a spectacular view of the city) talking about the cataclysmic earthquake of 1755, which destroyed most of Lisbon.

Though I had worked out the route carefully in advance, life—as it will—intervened. First, we found ourselves cut off from a route because of a slow and stately religious procession.

Finally on our way once again, we encountered a huge Women’s Day protest that cut us off from the Praça Luis de Camões. In each case, a real slice of Portuguese culture improved on whatever I had planned to say.

By the time the residency had ended, the WHO had declared Covid-19 a pandemic, and the program’s students and faculty scattered to all points of the globe back home. Alma and I, however, foolishly continued on to Brussels, where we were scheduled to give a reading of nonfiction and fiction at the Snug Harbor reading series. But in the middle of the night before our reading, we were awakened by an insistent series of texts from our daughter, alerting us that Trump had just given a speech about an immanent banning of flights from Europe to the U.S. Since this ban would have affected our return flight home, Alma and I hustled to the Brussels airport at 3 AM, through a blinding rainstorm, in a frantic but ultimately successful search for an alternate flight. Unfortunately, we had to cancel our reading, something neither of us has ever done before.


In March, Ninth Letter published “Dinner and a Fight,” a phenomenal essay by Katherine Scott Nelson, about their grim and heady experiences working as a “cater waiter,” in the Chicago area. This essay is as eye-opening a look at the gig economy as can be imagined. Though it was written years earlier, its appearance couldn’t have been more timely. As I wrote in my introduction: “In these sudden, terrifying days of the coronavirus pandemic, the lives of the people you will read about here have become even more precarious, as our country’s shameful economic and healthcare inequality worsens in the crisis.”


Soon after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation began publishing an online series of nonfiction and fiction entries by former participants in the foundation’s yearly Sozopol Literary Seminars. We could submit either writing about the pandemic, or examples of work on any subject that we’d been writing during quarantine. We were also asked to provide a photo of where we were hunkered down for safety. I chose the sun room of my home in Rhode Island, where I often write, and I picked two brief tales of ghosts to share, both from the beginning of a novel I’ve been working on since forever. You can read them here.


A month after the cancellation of our reading in Brussels, Alma and I were invited to finally deliver our reading for the Snug Harbor reading series in Brussels, though this time via the Zoom platform. Alma and I had never done this before, but found the experience satisfying—seeing the audience in their various homes lent an intimacy to the event that would be impossible with an in-person reading. That said, I can’t wait until actual readings in actual bookstores are once again possible—in 2021, perhaps?


In April, Ninth Letter published an excerpt from the quirky and brilliant The Museum of Whales You Will Never See, by Kendra Greene, a book about the small, odd museums that are tucked away in various corners of Iceland. The chapter excerpt we chose was “On Necropants: the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft.”


Also in April appeared a review I wrote of two superb novels by the Bulgarian writer Bogdan Rusev, A Tourist, He Thought, and Come to Me, for the journal Reading in Translation. Rusev’s novels, while quite different stylistically, are united by the contemporary Bulgarian obsession with travel. You can read my review, “The Dangerous Charm of Leaving,” here.


Ninth letter published this June an excerpt from Antony Dapiran’s City of Tears, his book about the political protests in Hong Kong, the government’s use of tear gas as a weapon against those protests, and the ingenious tactics developed to fight back against the gassing. Dapiran’s book recounts extraordinary bravery on the part of the pro-democracy forces, yet soon after this publication the mainland Chinese government dropped the hammer, and who knows what will now become of the courageous people of Hong Kong?

You can read the excerpt here.


Once again, I served as the judge for the Disquiet International Literary Prize in Nonfiction, and top honors went to Serena Simpson for her breathtaking essay, “On Choosing,” which became our Ninth Letter website feature for July. In my introduction I wrote, “This is a very brave essay, where declaration, accusation and confession wind round each other. It is truth-telling that goes deep.”

Congratulations to Serena Simpson!


My first monthly music column for the website 3 Quarks Daily’s Monday Magazine: “Thank You, Secret Music Benefactor,” appeared in July. I am so pleased to have this year-long gig, since 3 Quarks Daily has been one of my favorite, must-go-to websites for over a decade, which aggregates articles on science, art, literature, philosophy and politics. Every Monday they present original work by a stable of columnists, and that’s what I have joined. But why a music column? I play no instrument, not even a basic kazoo! But all my life I’ve been a lover of music in all its forms, a passion that has influenced my writing in both small and large ways. So I’m looking forward to exploring all I have to say on the subject. One down, eleven to go . . .


This year, one way the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation fought the pandemic was to recreate a sense of community for the international cast of writers associated with the Sozopol Literary Seminars. The foundation produced a series of videos of writers in conversation, each writer reading a short work of fiction and then each posing a question to the other. I had the good fortune of being paired with Melissa Wan, who read her stunning short story “Joseph, When It’s 3 AM and I Still Can’t Sleep.” I’ve read it three times, listened to it twice, and each time Wan’s story reveals further depths. As for my contribution, I read two short excerpts from a novel in progress, each of the excerpts capturing a moment in the “life” of a ghost. You can listen and watch our exchange here.


In August, Ninth Letter published a harrowing short story by Tobias Hecht, “Hatching Outside the Egg,” which reminds us that being born is no easy task—for child and parent both—and that a family is forged in tears, love, occasional despair and the chancy luck of possible self-revelation. You can read it here.


My second 3 Quarks Daily column, “Nothing Else Sounds Quite Like This,” looks at music that creates its own aural path—my favorite type of music. As an old friend once said, I belong to a record club called “Only Made Six of ‘Em.” I was so delighted to have an opportunity to write about Annabel (lee), a band whose exquisite music pretty much defies easy definition. And I also managed to slip in a little attention to the polyphonic Albanian men’s choral group from the town of Vlore, and the La Koro Sutro choral work of the American composer Lou Harrison.


Because of Covid, this September the fall residency for the Vermont College of Fine Arts International MFA program in Creative Writing and Translation took place not in Istanbul (damn), but virtually: a six-day Zoom meeting!

That sounds pretty horrible, but it all turned out just fine. Sure, there were no glorious views of the Bosporus, no smells of Turkish coffee in the streets, no . . . I should stop, before this gets too depressing. Regardless, seeing the faculty and students on Zoom in their homes (which ranged from Japan to Singapore to Germany to Los Angeles and many other locales) made me feel as if the world had arrived in my study.

Program co-director Xu Xi and I together taught a combined fiction and nonfiction workshop with a gaggle of first-rate students. I presented a craft lecture on the use of dialogue in fiction and nonfiction, “Don’t Just Use Your Words,” using examples from the work of Mozambican writer Mia Couto, Georgi Gospodinov of Bulgaria, and the Tamil feminist writer Ambai, among others. And we were all treated to guest lectures and readings from Robin Hemley, Rachel Kadish, Daniel Hahn, James Scudamore, and many others.

The student reading at the end of the residency was beautifully organized by program co-director Evan Fallenberg. The first reading (five minutes each) began in Hokkaido, Japan, then moved westward to Hanoi, and on and on through multiple time zones until the last student read from his work in Los Angeles. A perfect way to illustrate that this international writing program is truly international.


My third monthly music column for 3 Quarks Daily dropped right at the end of the VCFA residency. In “How Do You Play a Nyckelharpa?” I explore the ways of an unusual traditional Scandinavian instrument that combines the qualities of a violin, piano and sitar. Plus a side journey or two, about how to decipher album cover art, the lost pleasures of searching out music in the now defunct Tower Records (and how, fictionally, to rob it blind).


In early October, Ninth Letter published a pandemic-themed anthology I’d been curating and editing since mid-March, titled “my heart. your soul.” I searched for work that would offer an unusual take on what we’ve gone through, and gathered a wide range of contributors: from Belgium, China, India/Denmark, and Spain, and from across the US—the Southwest, Midwest, and New England.

Read about the “skin hunger” of extended quarantine, or of roadside descansos created for BLM martyrs in New Mexico, or three remarkable revisions of Shakespearean sonnets into modern pandemic themes, or a poem by Major Jackson on freedom; listen to a punk/pop song about Zoom dating; and watch a video of a string quartet playing to an opera house filled with houseplants. And much more. The feature is held together by three truly excellent works of art by the contemporary abstract artist Nikki Terry.


October was also the occasion of my third 3 Quarks Daily music column: “My Own House of Pedal Steel Guitar.” This time, I write about the surprisingly varied musical genres that employ the sonic possibilities of pedal steel guitar besides country music: Nigerian Juju music, Sacred Steel gospel music, and what’s labeled “Ambient Americana.”


Just two weeks before the absolutely crucial 2020 U.S. presidential election, Ninth Letter published an excerpt from Portuguese writer Rui Zink’s prescient 2012 novel, The Installation of Fear. In the world of Zink’s novel something utterly ordinary occurs: two mundane technicians, who have been working their way through floor after floor of an apartment building, appear at a woman’s door to “install fear.” She’s not prepared to let them in, and so they begin a chilling and sometimes inadvertently hilarious sales pitch to explain their work to her.

Thank goodness that the fear installed in too many American homes these past four years wasn’t nearly enough to prevent the election of Joe Biden to the presidency!


The morning after the election, when the results were still up in the air (but looking good, looking good for Biden), I gave a Zoom talk to the student and faculty editorial staff of the Santa Fe Review. Though the as-yet- unresolved election hung in the air, we all managed to work up a lively conversation about editing, literary diversity, building and organizing the contents of a magazine issue, and the writing life in general. My many thanks to Kate McCahill for the invitation! Kate was one of my best students in the Vermont College MFA program many years ago, and I’m so proud of her accomplishments as a writer, as the Chair of the Creative Writing program at Santa Fe Community College, and as the editor of the Santa Fe Review.


Three days after Joe Biden was declared President-Elect (glory, glory, hallelujah), my fifth 3 Quarks Daily music column was published, “Songs that Sing the Interior Life.” I took the moment to anticipate and celebrate the eventual scrubbing of Trump out of our minds, collectively and individually. So much interior space we can return to! So I wrote about four brilliant songs that look specifically at the emotional architecture of the interior life, songs by Adey Bell, Ann Brun, and Alison Goldfrapp.


Just before Thanksgiving (a family Zoom affair, in this year of Covid), 3 Quarks Daily published my conversation with the essayist Michele Morano, one of my favorite writers, about her latest book, Like Love, a collection of essays that brilliantly examines the many overlapping territories of affection that reside within the space between “like” and “love.” You can read our (I think I can fairly call it lively) conversation here.


As the delightful year of 2020 nears its close, my sixth music column for 3 Quarks Daily has just been published, “The Maze of Words and Music,” which asks the question: Which is more important in a song, the lyrics or the music? Tuneful examples include the heady, joyous soukous music of Luambo Franco and his Tout Puissant O.K. Jazz band, Susheela Raman’s combination of sinuous blues with Indian Carnatic classical music, and the Danish electronica band Sorten Muld’s breath-taking transformation of old Nordic folk tales. And in-between, you’re find takes on John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, and Jacques Lusseyran’s remarkable autobiographical essay, “Poetry in Buchenwald.”


News & Updates 2019

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News & Updates 2016

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