Book Review: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee









J.M. Coetzee



Penguin Books

ISBN: 978-0143115281


J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace is a well-crafted novel that will leave any reader feeling fortunate that he is not David Laurie. Laurie, a seemingly successful professor in Africa’s Cape Town, loses almost everything through a series of questionable decisions that are then followed by a series of unfortunate events. When his life goes awry, he flees to the African countryside and his daughter, Lucy, only to find that his life’s difficulties continue to amass amidst the turmoil of South Africa. In a place where life should be simpler, easier, Laurie discovers true pain and agony—the sort that can only come from someone harming those you love and the realization that you are useless in the matter. He discovers that the danger that lurks around every corner is not exclusive to the city—perhaps even worse in the countryside where areas tend to have their own practices and hierarchies.

Coetzee seems to be reiterating the theme of a man’s “goodness” and mortality as he did in his earlier novel, Slow Man, and again in his later novel, Waiting for the Barbarians. Both of his earlier novels present the reader with a main character who has suffered greatly and personally (though the placement of the injury varies a bit between the two). Laurie has a less-than-passionate, and at brief moments confusing, affair with his student Tiffany and much like the one that occurs between the magistrate and barbarian girl in Waiting for the Barbarians, it leads him to experience a series of struggles. Laurie’s struggles begin with the loss of his career and continue to escalate after he retreats to his daughter’s smallholding in the country.

Coetzee uses a chronological structure (with a sprinkling of flashbacks) in Disgrace to heighten the tension of the plot. Laurie’s series of unfortunate circumstances comprise the girth of the novel, leaving the reader feeling as if he is barely able to tread water. There are two very significant robbery scenes in this novel that act almost as a structural framework for the story. When Lucy and Laurie experience the first robbery scene, in chapter eleven, it is a harsh blow; however, when Laurie returns to his home in chapter twenty and finds it too has been burglarized the reader cannot help but feel as if his heads are being pressed below the surface. The second robbery scene unfolds like this: “[it is]…no ordinary burglary. A raiding party moving in, cleaning out the site, retreating laden with bags, boxes, suitcases…who at this moment is wearing his shoes?…from the bathroom…a bad smell…a pigeon…expired in the basin…the lights are cut off, the telephone is dead” (176). This scene, however powerful it may be on its own, is next to devastating in its context. It also reveals the depths of sorrow that Laurie needs to reach to spur him to change—to make a commitment to something that is otherwise uncomfortable.

Coetzee excels at the development of characters with flaws and insecurities; he has proved his talent for characterization novel and novel again. It seems he has also found a niche in the troubled middle-aged man who has lost his passion and is only spurred into reality after an affair with a younger woman goes terribly wrong. Perhaps Coetzee is using such stories to warn his peers of careless decisions—or perhaps he is revealing a little something of himself and his views through a new and hopelessly defective character. Whatever Coetzee’s intentions are, his result is a deeply revelatory and moving experience for his reader, one that resonates in such an unsettling way that it is not likely to leave them for quite a while.



Crystal Miller lives in Tampa, FL with her family where she teaches writing at Hillsborough Community College. She is a voracious reader and before entering Sierra Nevada’s MFA program, she earned her Bachelor of Arts at SUNY Empire State College with a dual major in Literature and Creative Writing. Crystal is currently working on her first novel, which will be the first in a series regarding female serial killers.

iPhone Misc 620

2013 High School Writing Contest Winners Announced

After much deliberation by the Sierra Nevada Review faculty, undergraduate editors, and graduate editors, Sierra Nevada College is very happy to announce the winners of the fourth annual creative writing contest for high school students.

Over 325 students submitted work, most with entries in more than one category and submissions came from across the country. The readers were all impressed by the quality of writing from the finalists, and it was a difficult decision in each category.

The winners will be hosted for an awards ceremony on Friday, January 10 to congratulate and acquaint them with SNC. All students who submitted entries are invited to the Awards Ceremony. Winners will also receive a cash prize and be offered a scholarship to SNC.






First place = How to Mix Native Blood with Foreign Water: A Lab by Dalia Ahmed

Second place = Dream in Which the Moon is replaced by my grandfather’s lymphoma tumor by Talin Tahajian

Third place = Concavity of Checkmate by Hanel Baveja


Local’s winner = Mitosis by Stephanie Hsu, Fremont, CA




First place = Kindergarten by Alexa Derman

Second place = The 29 by Catrina Sun Tan

Third place = Moon Country by Nick Burns


Local winner = The Countdown by Sara Lagen (Monterey CA area)




First place = A Reality on a Friday Night by Jenny Jung

Second place = How to Be Holy by Allison Light

Third place = Camp by Tyler Randazzo


Death of a Dogfish = Local’s Prize Eloise Perrochet (Northridge, CA)



Review of “Vanitas, Rough” by Lisa Russ Spaar

By Emily Provencher

Publisher’s Weekly called Spaar’s latest work, “An entrancing world of lush language and passionate imaginings.” Vanitas, Rough features poems about the synchronicity of simplistic complexities in the often mundane face of everyday realities. In the piece, “Trailing Mary & Martha: 3 AM,” Spaar speaks of “unfathomable barking / [and] jaw dumpsters in the cul-de-sacs.” Not the craziest of poetic happenings, but written with poise and understanding.


The first time, I read this entire book of poetry without having any idea of what the title of the collection meant, or how the cover image related to the work inside the bind. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of poems, and then I decided to look up the definition of the word “vanitas.” It is, “a still-life painting of a 17th-century Dutch genre containing symbols of death or change as a reminder of their inevitability.” ( The pomegranate is a symbol of fertility and abundance in some sects of mythology, especially Greek and Roman. The cover of this collection alone is a beautiful metaphor representing the inevitable rising and falling of abundance and goodness versus the bleakness one encounters throughout different periods of time.

“the shear, the jabbing jaws / in elbow high gloves / & up to the briary cervix, a welter historical,”

A line from one of the early poems, “Old Rose,” had my mouth watering for more sublimely tantalizing words. The overall content of this series of poems is of nothing truly shocking or out of the ordinary, but is still wonderful to read. The language Spaar uses throughout her poetry is astounding.

“Vanitas, Rough” features the hypnotizing lines, “your tongue in me is mine, too… / drunken wasp grazing semen yolk / of split, glazed oyster shells, / Death blowing soap bubbles / out the orbital sockets…” These phrasings captivate readers due to their close-to-absurd wording. They force the reader to go back and read the line over and over because of the terrifically strange content.

It can be difficult for authors to eloquently capture the banality of longing. In Vanitas, Rough, Spaar calls to Emily Dickinson as a muse in “Spring Fever” and “Outliving Emily,” channeling the metric empress of the nineteenth century in her lines of carefully constructed syntax in her pithy diction throughout this series.

The language in this collection is beautiful, but when I was finished reading the book, I did not find myself changed or moved from the experience. Nonetheless, Vanitas, Rough is a beautifully written catalogue of poetry and it is very enjoyable to read.Spaar uses words to illustrate a bizarre myriad of alluring images in her latest publication, it is a great work that writers and readers alike will appreciate.

Author Bio:

Emily Provencher is a twenty one year old english major focusing on poetry at Sierra Nevada College in North Lake Tahoe. Originally from Southern New Hampshire, she moved to California for all the wrong reasons and is still absolutely relishing her decisions to move west three years later. Emily enjoys pondering the mysteries of the universe, drinking Guatemalan coffee, mining for precious stones, reading Tarot cards, cultivating and sustaining of the miracle life from the Earth, and reading and writing poetry with any and all chances she gets. She is new to editing and blogging, but having a pen in hand is simply second nature to her. Emily accepts all criticisms to her work, but she will also not hesitate to criticize yours.


Rigger Death And Hoist Another: Dear God! Yes!


Dear god! Should have been all I could say about this (by: Chris Muravez)

Rigger Death & Hoist Another by: Laura McCullough (ISBN: 978-1-937854-29-4, Black Lawrence Press, $14)



A professor of mine once said of writers, “We are witnesses” and this line of thought can be felt throughout Laura McCullough’s new collection of poetry Rigger Death & Hoist Another. McCullough has an intellectual and realist personality whose affectatious nature helps to bridge the gap between an academic life and a working class mind. I had the great fortune of meeting her last year at a reading here at Sierra Nevada College. The wisdom and love of life she presented to us has affected me greatly, and can be found throughout much of her works.

The theme of a life worth living is prevalent in her first section titled Membrane where she give us a glimpse of an existence floating and observing the various facets of life that can be found in this world. Of the scottish rigger in the collection’s namesake poem she writes “Oil is distilled, too, as are memories” leads into her ability to create a connecting thought when she continues with:

why we hoist another one, nosing and tasting,
taking sips and rolling our lost
histories around the tongue, so they penetrate-
and distill-
the scarred membranes
hidden inside our mouths

Here McCullough demonstrates the ability to make deep philosophical connections through the seemingly simple act of enjoying a drink. Like Proust with booze. Yet this collection goes beyond that and delves into the reflective realms of C.K. Williams or Sharon Olds. McCullough has injected her works with academic certainty coupled with the wisdom of a woman who has never lost the spark for life. The second section of her work, Dandelions, presents us with the different seeds she has sown throughout her life. Talking about one’s children has been a focus of many poets and has been accomplished in various ways. There is always a lingering doubt within a parent’s mind about how well they raised their family. More often than not, this question is asked straight forward in a confessional looking for absolution from the audience. Yet McCullough has the wisdom to know that nothing is stagnant, and to attempt a redemption from an anonymous audience is foolhardy. Rather, her focus is more on a presentation of what her contribution to our world is. About her son she writes “his body like a ball soaring over the green of this unspeakable world.”

In They Dream of AK-47s she writes about her son’s experiences with a hunting club, a topic long held in reserve for masculinity. Destroying these gender barriers through paternal pedagogy, she gives her son a book of poetry:

Then, on his twenty-first birthday,
Hunter reads one of Jack’s poems out loud.

I ask him what he thinks of it,
but he refuses to comment silence
another weapon
he’s learned how to shoot.

Everyday, I tell Hunter I love him.
Everyday, he says, Hush Ma, I know.

This example shows her formatting; a style whose enjambed lines, indented line breaks, and singular words that put a thought or sense into the reader’s rearward thoughts, that connects seemingly unconnected and disjointed themes in a logic of a poetic witness.

In the last section of the book, The Door, McCullough continues her process of presenting the world in a way that only a poet can. She connects multiple themes that have presented themselves throughout into an almost omniscient commentary that is unwavering, unforgiving, and fearless. “What we need is a queer god” is her claim in Queerness Means Questioning Mythical Norms. I can’t help but love everything about this line. The audacity of the claim would leave spineless readers running for the door. The notion of being able to replace gods at will gives us the power over them. It is a complete reversal of hierarchies, gender norms, and theology. This, in a sense, portrays McCullough’s writing, personality, and wisdom at its best.

McCullough has given us an unapologetic work designed to provide commentary, tell a story, and confess without turning into a banal mewling that so many poets fall into. Too often. Yet her sass is coupled with a unique tenderness that comes from a knowledge only gained through experience. This tenderness is one that gives hope, determination, and foresight to all witnesses of our time. She has challenged everything from parenthood, gender, hierarchies, capital, and faith. Her challenges are that of questions more than critiques. And in questioning she is able to present a universal hope for the future as she writes in The Flags We Raise:

When I say beautiful boy, a flag
is raised in in my chest
that belongs to no country,
but the one all hostages to fortune live in,
one with no boarders
which can not be escaped from,
and of which there is no government,
only taxes, death, and
of course, what pleasures
we can steal along the way.

Chris Muravez is a near 30 college student because he spent way too much time mucking about in the military. He doesn’t regret it; well, at least not as much as what he ate for dinner last night. He likes reading Proust, shopping for sweaters, and laughing in the back of his mind when people challenge his “manhood” for those things. He currently writes poetry and is on a never-ending quest for the perfect pair of wingtip boots.

Reading Matthew Sweeney’s Horse Music

By Bryce Bullins

“Naked, exposed to the frost of this most unhappy of ages, with an earthly vehicle, unearthly horses, old man that I am, I wander astray.” Thus marks the opening page of Matthew Sweeney’s latest collection of poetry, Horse Music (Bloodaxe Books, 2013 ISBN: 978-1-85224-967-0). It is a quote from Franz Kafka’s story, A Country Doctor, and a wholly fitting one, along with quotes from Edward Lear and Walter de la Mare, that serves as a preface to the poetry collected here. It’s the sort of biting, awkwardly funny, self-deprecation that Sweeney’s poetry often evokes. Horse Music has no overall theme per-se, but rather, is a collection of one-off fables about dwarves, recollections of long-dead or still living relatives, and of loves present and former. In a phrase: it is a sweeping exploration of life. Sweeney’s voice is unique in that while combining traditional narrative style poetry (albeit condensed narratives and often in media res) he blends elements of black humor, Kafkaesque territories, and what Sweeney himself calls “alternative realism”, to hook his readers and make Horse Music a pleasure to experience from cover to cover.


The poems in Horse Music don’t stray far from Sweeney’s other work, and rightfully so. After publishing poetry collections since 1981, it is fair to say Sweeney has found his voice. Horse Music may represent the flourishing of his voice, however. Deftly paced and lyric, Horse Music is amalgam of voices from across literary tracts. Influences of Kafka are abundant, unsurprisingly so, given Sweeney’s extensive background in German literature, specifically Kafka, but there is a more subtle craftsmanship at work here. Sweeney deliberately makes strides away from not only the two domineering figures of Irish poetry: W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney (though there is a poem for Seamus Heaney within Horse Music, “The Tunnel”) but his contemporaries, Paul Muldoon and Ian Duhig. Sweeney keeps what the British Council on Literature calls an “inherited Irish interest in narrative”[1] while keeping a keen interest in the themes in the great works of German literature. There is no disrespect toward his fellow Irishmen but rather a nuanced respect that Sweeney builds over their foundations and then takes toward new horizons. Gone are the “well-made-poems” and in their place come byzantine ornamentations in the form of micro-narratives that spread out across ages. If Sweeney’s poems were written in such a way as to ape Yeats or Heaney, they would be nowhere near as enjoyable as they are in their present form.

While Sweeney’s poetry is at times self-referential, it would be remiss to call it “confessional.” Instead, Sweeney obfuscates his poems in ornate tapestries of illusion and black humor. Nowhere is this expressed more than in this reviewer’s favorite poem in the collection, “Waiting”, wherein Sweeny bemoans the perils of always waiting for one thing or another and the doldrums produced therein:

I’d like to knife my partner, the postman,
my publisher, the bank teller, my neighbor.
One day I’ll emigrate to Antarctica
and befriend the penguins there. (9-12)

Sweeney is able to parse words we usually don’t want to consider together to create a new fiction for us to partake in, all the while still grounding us in the present.

It is clear from Sweeney’s writing that he stays away from the heady realm of surrealism and magical realism but rather focuses on connections, subtle and otherwise, in the form of metaphor and fantastic imagery. In “Sausages”, Sweeney makes connections between the “six [of them] inhabiting the same gut… / waiting on the hot pan with spitting oil” (1-3) to his “long-dead grandfather” (6). More grim is that each sausage has within them a meta-piece of said grandfather. Sweeney is able to take something as banal as frying up sausages and is able to trace the lines of interconnectivity in them to an intensely personal plain. Though the image is initially grotesque, it becomes something of an episode of bittersweet memory:

…so my grandfather lights a cigarette,
opens a bottle of Guinness and swigs it,
sitting down at the far end of the table
the table I will sit at when you’re browned,
and I’ll eat you, one by one, with mustard,
raising a black glass to my grandfather. (16-21)

Horse Music is at times morose, but more often than not, heartfelt and warm. The broadness of its scope is well suited to its narratives and its intrigues. It is the everydayness of Sweeney’s poetry that makes it so appealing now and what will make it so enduring for the future. Horse Music is available now via Bloodaxe Books and is distributed in North America by Dufour Editions Inc.

Journal Review: The Georgia Review

by Laurie Macfee


The Georgia Review
Summer 2013
Published quarterly by University of Georgia
143 pp. plus front and back matter
ISBN 0016-8386


The Georgia Review has been publishing a cross-section of poetry, fiction, essays, art, and reviews since 1947. Based at University of Georgia, the journal is internationally distributed and published quarterly. It is widely considered one of the finer literary publications in America. At 143 pgs, the Summer 2013 issue packs in eight poems, two fiction pieces, one essay, a painting folio, six book reviews, a note to readers, and most importantly, a special non-fiction feature, Judith Kitchen’s remarkable “Circus Train.”

In editor Stephen Corey’s front piece, To Our Readers, he notes, “During my 30 years with The Georgia Review, the journal has published just a few works that approximate the length of Judith Kitchen’s ‘The Circus Train.’” He queries whether perhaps we need to devise a new category for pieces such as this inventive and moving, “segmented but forcefully interwoven study of memory and mortality,” which is 55 pgs long. The last piece of this length was featured in 1985. For comparison, the environmental essay “Near and Distant Bears,” a treatise on climate change by Scott Russell Sanders, is a mere 12 pgs.  The two short fiction pieces, also environmental in nature, come in at 9 pages for David Griffith’s “Blight,” and 10 pgs for Jerry McGahan’s “The Deer Walking Upside Down.”

Why go on about the length of this work? Because what The Georgia Review has allowed with Kitchen’s breath taking, genre-bending reflection on her upcoming death from cancer, is the room to recreate a life. The back and forth segments mimic the waiting for letters (“wings of thought”) to arrive in the mail.  “Everything on hold while time crossed the country in its three-hour increments.” The generosity of space allows her to ruminate and build a case for her memories that lap like waves at the edges of our shore:


“…because the only snow is that of memory, and you will miss it acutely with a soft smile as you picture it spreading over the lawns, settling on fences until they carry their burden oh so lightly along their length, the celebration of cardinal or jay as they add their brief glint of color. Soft smile as you step out in boots to scoop up the past, letting it trickle over your face where you lick at its fake confection. Soft smile in perpetual summer twisting your heart where yes you miss snow you miss snow you miss snow.”


This lyric essay alone is reason to purchase the issue, as it will undoubtedly be anthologized for years to come, poetic language building the narrative in sections that fall in and out of focus. It is haunting, and unforgettable. In the end, Kitchen leaves us with this thought: “To conjure the circus train… it must have meant something as it moved across my horizon and vanished into the haze. It must have meant something, because it keeps trailing its scarf of smoke.”

There are only a spare eight poems in this issue.  In comparison, The Iowa Review featured 38 poems. I went to several back issues of The Georgia Review, to see if the length of Kitchen’s piece limited the poetry selection but the fall/spring/winter issues only feature 13/14/9 poems each. Seemingly, a breadth of poetry is not the focus (as a poet, it is something I look for). However, this issue begins with a piece by Al Maginnes, which is a mark in the win column. In “Music from Small Towns,” he writes about blue collar boys who, “play their version of a place/that didn’t have a name before it became a song.” Since he opens the journal, Maginnes sets the tone for the entire spread, a melancholy, somewhat wistful narrative on memory.  Since I had the great luck to hear him read at SNC last month, I could hear his voice in my ear as I read. Maginnes has such talent in capturing this world.

Other poems that stood out included Jack Ridl’s “Practicing Chinese Ink Drawing,” a lovely moment of re-awakening of an artist to the scene presented in front of him, “my brushstrokes/carry the feel/of listless/luck – languid/and precise….” And even more compelling, was Robert Wrigley’s “16 Down,” about the names for a part of a knife, “choil or ricsasso,” how the speaker fell in love with the words, with the fact that there were multiple ways to talk about the place where the haft disappeared into the handle.

It is refreshing that The Georgia Review includes a section dedicated to art. Paintings by Maine artist John Winship are featured on the covers, and in an 8-pg folio on glossy paper inside.  These 10 pieces represent a body of work, Presentiments, for which the managing editor wrote a 2-pg intro to help ground the reader. Based at least partially on Emily Dickinson’s poem of the same name, the work seems to rise out of the “domestically grassy, shady vision of past moments,” that Dickinson mined. The oil and acrylic pieces are Hopperesque in their narrative, single figures or couples caught in a shadowed landscape.

The book reviews included an interesting critique of two new books on film critic Pauline Kael; a review of three new books out in 2013 about the work of Sylvia Plath; a new book on the selected correspondence of Kenneth Patchen; a book of essays and cartoons by Tim Kreider; in a double cameo, a critique of the newest Al Maginnes book “Inventing Constellations;” and a wonderful review by Sian Griffiths of Eric Sasson’s unflinching portraits of gay men’s lives in “Margins of Tolerance.” 

Because I count, only two of the eight poets, two of the six book reviewers, and none of the regular essays, fiction, or art are by women in this issue.  So, for a body count of the 20 writers/artists listed in the table of contents, only five have a vagina. And of the eight books reviewed, only two were by women. One might imagine that 75% of the writers in the United States are men. But I digress – or do I?  The Georgia Review is a lion in the literary world, which is why these numbers are so problematic.

If I had to choose adjectives for The Georgia Review, they would be upstanding, elegant, and safe. Perhaps attempting to represent the best of literary tradition requires choosing more traditional work, taking care not to offend? Besides Judith Kitchen’s piece, none of the work pushes at the edges – this is not a journal intended to shake the status quo. It is lovely and palatable and known, like a Hopper painting. Which is not to say without quality. It has the imprimatur of arrival, a resume-maker if you are emerging. The writers in this issue seem to be established or at least mid-career. It is just too bad that artwork isn’t chosen that pushes as hard as Scott Russell Sanders does on the environment, or as Emily Dickinson pushed at the traditions of her day. Or that more women are seemingly not up to their standard, or part of the literary tradition they cover. Maybe I just picked up a depressingly testosterone-filled issue. It seems like such an old saw at this point, except that it obviously is not. But I would buy this issue for Judith Kitchen’s piece alone – it is worth the expenditure.

What to Do When You’re a Genre Writer, cont…

Highlight: Tracking and Etiquette

by Crystal Miller

Staying on Track

Once you have discovered the right places to submit, you must focus some energy on organizing all of that information. Keeping track of when, where, and what you have submitted can quickly get out of hand if you do not have a system in place. If you are computer savvy, (good for you!) an Excel spreadsheet can be your best friend. Excel does, however, require a certain amount of knowhow when setting up a new spreadsheet. For example, you can calculate an expected response date for your submissions by creating a formula that gives you the date that falls six months following your submission (or however long the expected response time may be for that journal). If you know how to create a spreadsheet, insert formulas and successfully format a customized template, that is great – but unfortunately not everyone is so technically inclined. If you fall toward the less inclined end of the spectrum (like I did), do not fret. You can take a class to learn Excel, ask a friend or check out the links posted below. In fact, if you open Excel on your computer, in the upper right hand corner of your screen there is a blue circle with a white question mark in it – clicking on it will take you to Microsoft’s help site where you can watch a number of tutorials. When I started using Excel, my spreadsheets were pretty primitive with Magazine titles, story titles and dates submitted. Over time, I became a little more comfortable with the program and added fees, re-submission schedules and rejections/acceptances. You may also utilize the icons that ascend, descend and/or alphabetize the columns. You’ll get the hang of it if you are willing to stick with it and have the desire to dedicate the time, and on the upside – once your formatting is finished you will have a customized tracking form that you can easily duplicate and/or expand to fit your growing needs.


However if, despite the customization and ease of access on your computer, you find all of that entirely too daunting there are other avenues to explore. Many sites have been established to help writers track submissions and stay organized.

Submission Managers:



Luminary Writer’s Database – – you can track submissions, find markets and chart your writing. Each aforementioned feature is thoroughly explained and optional so you can pick-and-choose features.

Excel – (you can learn, I promise) – This article on, titled “How to Use Excel – Excel Tutorials for Beginners,” is a straight forward, no frills approach to learning Excel.

– – “Computer Help: How to Use Excel” is an easy visual tool for learning Excel basics.



Duotrope – $5/month – Duotrope exists to help writers help themselves. This site offers a submissions tracker, data reports, a literary search engine and best of all they offer a “calendar of upcoming themes” to get you on an inspirational cycle.

Writer’s Market – $5.99/month – Writer’s Market offers subscribers extensive listings that include publishers, agents, magazines and contests along with organizational tools like personalized folders, electronic records and reference articles. One other thing that Writer’s Market does is show you a side-by-side comparison of how their listings differ from their competitors’.


Other Things to Consider

While staying on top of things and being organized is crucial to your personal success and sanity, there are a few other things that should be taken into consideration – like etiquette.

  • Do not submit more than once during a writing period unless the guidelines clearly state that that sort of thing is acceptable. (If nothing is said, it is not acceptable)
  • Wait at least six months between accepted submissions. It is important to stay on everyone’s good side and to show courtesy and consideration. Do not be an eager beaver and flood their inbox.
  • Address cover letters accordingly – it only takes a couple of minutes to look up who will be reading your piece. A little personalization can go a long way. Think of it as a résumé cover letter – it is very similar.


The writing world can be a fickle mistress. Always do your homework, proceed with caution and cling to your optimism. You will get rejection letters. They are part of the process. Keep them. File them away (or jam them onto a large nail above your desk for motivation like a very young Stephen King) and press on. Every successful writer has been rejected more times than they would like to think about. You will be rejected, too. Hang in there and above all, write on!

Book Review: Heath Course Pak

by Laurie Macfee

Counterpath Lin Cover

Heath Course Pak
Author: Tan Lin
ISBN: 978-1933996271
Publisher: Counterpath Press
Dec 15, 2011
2nd ed, revised

Were you to pick up Tan Lin’s seminal little book Heath at your local bookstore (and may I suggest that if you find it, you buy it immediately), you might take it at face value. It is a 3/8th inch thick soft back, with no page numbers. The cover features the title in red caps, HEATH COURSE PAK RFC. Layered behind that, in black text, is Tan Lin’s name followed by: “plagiarism/outsource, Ed. Rev., Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, Untilted Heath Ledger Project, a history of the search engine, disco OS annotated”.

A quick perusal between the covers will net you the following: it is a book, “set” in plain text (or a courier-esque simulation), a mash up of data sources from RSS (Rich Site Summary) feeds to blog posts, Google searches, retrieved photographs, handwritten notes, redacted text, sticky notes, an interview, annotated text, meta text on design of the book, etc. A disjointed amalgamation, it is written in multiple parts, the most obvious of which are Part 1 Samuel Pepys and Plagiarism, and Part 2 Outsource. But even on a cursory glance, the textual layering posits more “parts” to this book than the noted two.

On the surface, this book appears to be a collage about the actor Heath Ledger’s death in 2008 of an accidental overdose. At one point, Tan Lin even appropriates the minute-to-minute news feed and blog reporting Ledger’s death. There is an autographed fan photo of Ledger on the Broke Back film set, but also one of Jackie Chan in an ad selling Green Tea. As Alice said, “Curiouser and curiouser…”

At this point, two things might occur. First, a reader, aka a “user”, might thumb through the book blindly and try to make some sense of it: dip in and out of the text stream, turning the page when bored, jumping, subverting the authorial intent.  Or is that part of the authorial intent? It is at this point that the questions may begin: Does the author intend for the reader to make her own meaning, a personal grammar? In this way, is the book democratic, perhaps even Marxist, as we upset the power and production of authority? Is that part of Tan Lin’s aim with the sub-title “Notes on the Definition of Culture”: our relaxing attention spans, the temporal nature of information and language in the current zeitgeist? And what is the deal with Jackie Chan? Which leads to the second option: as the reader becomes confounded by the surface, she might return to where she started, and try to untangle the web that is merely the title, let alone subtitle, on the cover.


Grammar is the set of structural rules that governs the composition of clausesphrases, and words in any given natural language. – New American Dictionary

A cloud of philosophy can be condensed into a drop of grammar. –Ludwig Wittgenstein

One way of looking at Heath is as a game, a form of serious play, with the end user as sleuth. If it was digital book, written in hypertext, we could jump from node to node, accessing information. But when readers hold the paper book in sweating palms and are faced with a proliferation of language/data, the notion of interactivity changes. Luckily, from the moment we pick up the book, Tan Lin has set the conditions or grammar for reading it. He has designed the environment for us, if we choose to “interact”. To this end, the cover offers key ways we might begin to understand the text. Armed with my computer, I decided to parse it, to see where it led, in consideration of the contents.

First, because Tan Lin chose to replicate the language of programming as the primary type on the cover and throughout the book, we are notified that we are entering into a world of the data stream. This font is shorthand for the constructed language of technology, where layers of information produce/hide/create/numb meaning. In addition, the title words fall apart on the page, as words do in plain text, creating a disjunction, a level of abstraction.

The first word of the title, HEATH, is our first hint that this is about Ledger (though without opening the book, it could be about the Scottish highlands). Upon realizing the connection with the actor, we might remember that his death was a cause celebre and, as the book notes, over 25,000 stories were produced. His death becomes a perfect catalyst to talk about the cultural simulacra of imagery and text, the way global obsessions light up RSS feeds. This very real tragedy became consumed, a spectacle of representation, a mediated cultural icon producing layers of meaning.  We could choose to tap into or ignore the proliferation. Included in the book is a photocopied prospectus of a paper written about the first edition of this book, which mentions actor network theory, or ANT.  ANT treats objects as part of social networks – mapping relations between materials and concepts.  Ledger’s death is almost a rebus, a pun, for ANT: an actor, whose death becomes the relational material for an entire network of responses, which become a theoretical poetry.

A COURSE pack is a set of materials arranged by a professor to be used in the classroom, including copied articles or portions of books. The packet is a multi-authored compilation, a low-tech aggregation. It is cleared under the Copyright Act of 1976 as fair use, in the educational context only. Tan Lin changes pack to PAK, another technological reference and play on language of software. PAK is a file extension (similar to doc or pdf), an abbreviation of “package”. By titling this book as a COURSE PAK, Tan Lin is signaling that it is a fair use aggregate of technological language. I sense the humor in this, as well as staking ground.

RFC is tech lingo for a “request for comments.” Is the author prodding us to interact, or merely toying with the Internet specifications and protocols for procedures and events?  If this is indeed a course pack, is Tan Lin telling us the readings are up for discussion?


Below Tan Lin’s name, we come to the first part of the subtitle, plagiarism/out source Ed. rev. In the text, Tan Lin complicates authorship by plagiarizing himself (lectures, notes, poetry) as well as outside sources, including Google’s Project Gutenberg. In Part 1, he begins with PG’s representation of Samuel Pepys diary.  Is Google’s offering of this primary source plagiarism or access? As an aside, the original diary was written in shorthand, a code, just as this book is written in a form of shorthand, requiring translation.

Tan Lin’s use of the word outsource denotes the contracting to a third party, such as news blogs, RSS feeds, etc. It may also point to the fact that part of the text was generated in an Asian Poetry Writing Workshop he led. It could even point to a political connotation of contracting public services to for-profit corporations. Regardless, this use of a multi-authored texts points to how we gather information, how language is shared contemporarily in digitized form. Because this is titled a course pack, Tan Lin plays with notions of appropriation, copyright, and censorship – major issues in the age of digital language. A portion of the text, as well as a sourced photo, links to the nature of derivative ecstasy. Finally, I find the Ed. rev. portion to be amusing – a tongue in cheek signifier that this compilation has in fact been edited, and revised.

The second part of the subtitle, Notes on the Definition of Culture, brings questions. Is an RSS feed a manifestation of collective intellectual achievement, a form of art?  Or is it more related to the scientific notion of a culture, an artificial medium that promotes or cultivates replication? At base, is culture a noun or a verb? With technology, is culture a metaphor for how we experience language: remixed, random access, temporal, aggregated, unauthored? How does this affect the audience? In the same way that a repeating sound pattern will lull the eye, does this language of inundation bring on a hypnotic state of mind, which we sometimes call boredom, or numbness, or brainwashing? What happens when we are bored by someone’s death? Is technology neutral or a benign instrument in the construction of culture, one that can be used well or badly, like a gun?

When reading Untilted Heath Ledger Project the brain automatically auto-corrects Untilted to Untitled. This might be a humorous reference by Tan Lin to how fast we type, or the fact that we expect the computer to correct us, or our brains to make sense of nonsense, while also defining the HEATH of the title.  However, if tilt means to unsteady, lean, slant, or cause to topple, then untilted means steady, rise, ascent, increase or agreement. Read with authorial intent, the wording walks both lines – humor and information.

Tan Lin gives us another clue with the subtitle, history of the search engine. It is a short history. From its inception in 1990 with Archie, to Google’s birth in 1996, to Bing in 2009, the ability to search word streams on the World Wide Web has been sculpted into an art form.  In the beginning, users had to enter exact wording, so if you wrote “untllted Heath Ledger Project” into a search engine, nothing might come up. By the time Google came on the scene, with autocorrect and its authorial relativity linked to the number of people visiting a site, questions of language ownership began to rise. Search engines have led us, in 23 years, to the advent of data mining, inexhaustible data horizons, real time information retrieval, open directories, rich source sites, indexing and architecture of information, retrieval index design, permanent storage and retrieval of natural language documents, web crawling, news feeds. Search engine’s revolutionary effects on culture cannot be underestimated: a constructed hyper-reality of hypertext, shared meanings, interconnected with no dominant axis of orientation.

The part of the subtitle that might cause the most initial difficulty is disco OS. What does a dance style have to do with an operating system? Using the ubiquitous search engine, I found two things that shed insight. First, disco is an app that allows you drag, drop and burn info onto discs, and then to instantly search thousands of files across discs.  Perhaps Tan Lin used disco to organize the information streams in the book? But then, I found an essay on the website Project Muse, penned by none other than Tan Lin in 2008, called Disco as Operating System. It linked the generic cultural dance phenomenon and its “mimicked forms of mass cultural production” to the digital age of programmed language we are mired in.  It is a brilliant essay that shed light on production of the book. These passages seem to presage the blanketing of Ledger’s death as noise across the blogosphere, and Tan Lin’s reaction.

Suddenly disco was everywhere, a product without clear origins, broadcast indiscriminately like Tennyson’s and Longfellow’s trance-inducing poems in the nineteenth century or home décor in the post-Bauhaus era….

Inverting Claude Shannon’s theory wherein increased information generates greater noise, disco would blur the distinction between signal and noise….The listener experiences disco desiringly, without listening and blindly, as a function of increasing uncertainty in the remix, where the listener is the output—that is, a programmed state of mindlessness…In this sense, disco exposes even as it camouflages desire as a programmable function.

And so the social world of language production and meaningful utterances is rendered obsolete and automated.

Such a programming language was once called literature (we have chosen to call it art history), though disco, of course, is not a literature at all; it merely simulates the effects of literature (as empty brand) with the uncanny precision of our era’s version of a lullaby: the remix. Disco is a programming language…

In our era, unlike in Shakespeare’s, all plagiarism is part of an operating system. …most writing is automated and invisible, an empty form of surface decoration where “writing” is the instantiation of a software code being transferred from one location to another in an act of self-plagiarization.

Disco provides impetus for new modes of being and nonbeing involved in the writing and in particular the nonwriting of poetry and art, where lyricism, subjectivity, and personal expressiveness might be reduced to blips in an ambient sound track, where historical markers (of cultural products) could be erased, and where nonreading, relaxation, and boredom could be the essential components of a text. Poetry—and here one means all forms of cultural production—should aspire not to the condition of the book but to the condition of variable moods…

Tan Lin plagiarized and annotated himself in writing disco OS into the subtitle, and created a primer for the production of this text. Which brings us to the final word, annotate. Tan Lin points to the fact that he is making comments – he is making a mark. An antonym of annotate is gloss – a translation or explanation of a word or phrase, but also a glitzy reminder or link to the stardom of Ledger. To annotate something is to pay attention – this book is a sustained, voluntary attention, or a continual returning, to its object.


Once I was finished parsing the cover for clues, there remained one question: why a book? A book is a carrier, an information repository. Tan Lin did not choose a tablet, or scroll, or an electronic book, but specifically a codex to carry the language of the digital age. A codex is composed of many little books: leafs of paper, folded into signatures, bound on one end (the spine) between two covers, it appears as one coherent whole.  Tan Lin forced this treatise on multi-authoring/multi-languages into one single platform of exchange – data integration, reconciled representations. If language is a system, a social network, he placed his mash up of digital mayhem in one of the oldest analog information contexts in western civilization, the book. The codex offers compression and portability. We expect linearity, a beginning, middle and end, which Tan Lin subverted beautifully. He replicated the temporal experience of being on a computer (multiple tracks to read, linking non-cohesive fragments, electronic narratives) in an object that can sit on a shelf for a lifetime-one that can be accessed with no electrical components except human impulse.  In the midst of all the abstraction, there is an ounce of hope in that action.

Is this book poetry? Literature? Book arts?  Heath most definitely is an artist’s book, a meditation on our mediated reality in the early 21st century, how we experience the world, or a death.  In an interview in Rhizome, Tan Lin noted, “Human remembering has become impossible.” Hopefully, in explicating the grammar or philosophy of the cover, this blog post lends a small insight to the poetry of memory constructed inside. Paul Valery said a poem is “a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense.” In that way, I believe this project is a vast language poem based on a prolonged hesitation between signal and sense. Tan Lin created a rebus, or perhaps Wittgensteinian language game, with this project. He has woven portals into pages of meaning, and bound the fleeting. You could spend an hour, a day, or a month lost in this portable rabbit hole.

Journal Review: Area Sneaks

by Laurie Macfee

Area Sneaks
Published by Poetic Research Bureau
$15.00 per issue
Los Angeles, CA
ISBN 1939-4152

I just finished writing about The Georgia Review, one of the US’s “finer literary journals.” It is elegant and timeless. I wanted to take time to look at another part of the spectrum with a journal published in Los Angeles called Area Sneaks.  Two issues fell into my hands earlier this month, one from 2008 and the other from 2009. If The Georgia Review is a Merchant Ivory film, then Area Sneaks is an early David Lynch spectacular.

But perhaps that is not a fair comparison. The two journals have different reasons for being: one has published the best of literary tradition for almost 70 years, and was 5th in Pushcart Prize ratings for poetry last year, 6th in fiction.  The other is a cutting edge, pop-up, art-lit mag with completely different aims, as outlined on their website:

AREASNEAKS, a new print and online journal, seeks to touch the live wire where language and visual art meet…. Gertrude Stein’s Paris artist salon, Velemir Khlebnikov and Vladimir Tatlin’s constructive collaboration, Bernadette Mayer and Vito Acconci’s editorial partnership, Augusto de Campos’s concrete engagement with Brazilian modernism and Mike Kelley’s interest in systems of literary knowledge have each provided potential models of positive exchange between artists and writers. AREA SNEAKS hopes to maintain this dialogue by creating a fellowship of discourse within an open community of contemporary artists and writers.

Belatedly, I found out these are the only two issues produced. Which is entirely too bad, as it seems the editors Joseph Mosconi and Rita Gonzalez were stirring up a wicked and fearless brew.


Issue 1: 2008/187 pps.

In the first issue alone there is a 22 pg interview between visual artist Stephanie Taylor with Kathryn Andrews and Michael Ned Holt, which features her sound/photo/sculptural installations in Berlin, creating a narrative over time. There is a new, “Improvisational Score,” by Sawako Nakayasu, a stunning performance poetry piece. You will find the 16 pg “Tearoom Texts: Project,” by William E. Jones, that presents research and clandestine documentary footage shot by police, leading to a crack down on public homosexual sex in the 1960s. There is a 24 pg translated and layered poem, “The Cape of Good Hope,” by French poet Emmanuel Hocquard, written in 18 parts, as well as a prose poem in segments by experimental writer/artist K. Lorraine Graham, which stretches to 7 pages.

Area Sneaks isn’t afraid of length, or depth.  It is not afraid of grainy photographs of men having sex in a public bathroom in Mansfield, Ohio. It unabashedly embraces the concept of hybrid. It lives in a world where there aren’t as many rules, or perhaps the rules are made to be broken. The second issue includes visual poetry experiments, a visual poetry forum, news drawings, and an essay entitled, “From Man’s Wars and Wickedness: A Book of Proposed Remedies and Extreme Formulations for Curing Hostility, Rivalry, and Ill Will”.  Artists interview writers, writers talk with artists; writers use images, artists use words in their compositions, or they work together in collaboration and present image and text side by side. It is part art journal, part lit mag, and part wonderful.

This may be a “temporary” magazine project that may pop back up at another time, but it looks and feels weighty, and substantial. The matte text paper is of beautiful quality, the reproductions are clean, the covers have full-bleed artwork with no title, except on the spine.  The back covers feature a list of artists and authors, the title, and the issue number.

Speaking of lists, another thing Area Sneaks is not afraid of: women. In the first issue, seven women were represented out of 18 contributors, or 38%. But in the second issue, out of 29 contributors, 14 were women, or an increase to 48%. Contrast that to The Georgia Review’s paltry 25% representation of female writers in the pages of last summer’s issue.

Interestingly, Area Sneaks is also a participating partner of the Poetic Research Bureau (, or perhaps it is better to say that the PRB is a literary umbrella for projects such as Area Sneaks.  About the Bureau (from their website):

As a research bloc, the PRB attempts to cultivate composition, publication and distribution strategies that enlarge the public domain. It favors appropriations, impersonations, ‘compost’ poetries, belated conversations, unprintable jokes and doodles, ‘unoriginal’ literature, historical thefts and pastiche. The publication emphasis is on ephemeral works, short-run magazines and folios, short-lived reprints and excerpts in print-on-demand formats, and the occasional literary fetish objects of stupidly incomparable price and value.

Hidden in the center is the phrase “short-run magazines.” I hope they mean the print run of Area Sneaks is short, that each of these issues is a treasure to be hoarded, and not that that the magazine itself is short-run, or on the way out. Since the last issue was four years ago, that may be the case. [see postscript]


Issue 2: 2009/174 pps.

Creating these epic intersections of people and their passions – a community of discourse – must have been a herculean labor of love. It provides a model of what is possible between visual/written/spoken languages. Like all real relationships, or conversations, it is messy and occasionally unsuccessful. But it is in the reaching out, in the making of the bridge, that this journal succeeds wildly. Each of these two issues of Area Sneaks is itself a collaborative art piece. I hope Mosconi and Rodriguez have had a nice hiatus and can get back to it soon, with renewed vigor.

Area Sneaks makes more things possible. Area Sneaks is dead. Long live Area Sneaks.

[postscript: Area Sneaks lives! I wrote to the editor, Joseph Mosconi, to check on what short-run might mean. He got back to me to say they are working on new issues:

“we’re going to focus on less expensive zine-like editions, each with an artist and writer collaboration, interview or pairing, that we can publish on an ad-hoc basis as we receive the submissions. They can then be collected in a box set once the number of editions (10 or so) are complete, and that will complete the third issue. They will be printed and for sale but also appear as free downloadable PDFs. Look for the first ones in January.”

So after the New Year’s bubbly has worn off, check in with! Or better yet, find an artist to collaborate with and send in a submission…]