Thursday, January 28, 2010

Linda Cooper

I’m no poet. So, despite having that master’s degree in the-language-I-learned-when-I-was-two, I’m not in any position to analyze poetry, much less to judge it. I don’t know exactly what makes poetry work, but I know what moves me. And Linda Cooper’s poetry moves me.

In her poems, familiar images from the natural world—leaves and rocks, insects and mosses, water and sky—suddenly have the capacity to startle me. Sometimes it’s the juxtaposition: the unlikely combination, the sound of this word with that. More often it’s a kind of seduction. I follow an idea where I think it’s going, then it takes a wild turn and evokes an emotion I didn’t even know was there: grief, exuberance, hope, fear, longing, emotions sometimes tumbling so fast, one after the next, that I feel off-balance. The experience is part-epiphany and part-healing, always a delight.

You can read examples in literary journals like Hayden's Ferry Review, West Branch, Third Coast, Willow Springs, Hubub, Elixir, Diner, Midwest Quarterly, and Redactions and at the links below.

Wait! That’s not all! Linda Cooper is a nonfiction writer, too, and her essays have that same magic quality that her poems do with an extra-generous helping of her trademark humor. (Everyone I know who ever received one of Linda Cooper’s hilarious holiday letters has kept them to this day.) You can find her essays in Open Spaces: Views from the Northwest, and Concho River Review, and look for her collection, Echolocation, to appear sooner than later.

Little known fact (well, actually semi-well-known in some circles):
Linda Cooper also sings a mean karaoke version of “Dream On."

Steven Tyler beware!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

David Oates

A couple of years ago, David Oates showed up in Stehekin looking for some quiet space in which to finish up his most recent book, What We Love Will Save Us. He’d arranged to stay in a small cabin near the river, but that wasn’t to be. Mid-visit the river rose with spring snowmelt and he ended up bunking on high ground at our place for a few days while we were out of town. Upon return, I joined him as he ventured out through the muddy slough to collect the gear he’d left in the riverside cabin. Here he is on that day, testing the waters, in his hip waders.

It’s a fitting image for David’s work. His long and prolific career, as a poet and essayist, has often taken him into turbulent waters. Whether challenging wilderness philosophy in Paradise Wild or lobbying for the crucial character of urban spaces in City Limits: Walking Portland’s Boundary (to which I contributed the short essay “A View from Teensy Town”) or always – in the forefront of his work or the not-so-distant background – telling his own story of coming out as a gay man in a strict Baptist household, his voice is courageous and steady, empathetic, and original.

What We Love Will Save Us is a collection of mostly very short essays that cover all of that terrain and more, wading into the contentious politics of the last decade – war, torture, scandal, and the rest -- and coming to the conclusion of the fabulous title: What We Love Will Save Us. “Our job is to work on what we love,” he writes. “Daily. With precision and determination.”

You can check out the title essay as it appeared originally in High Country News:

And you can read more about the book here:

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Jerry Gabriel

As promised I'm planning to spend the weeks before Test Ride appears discussing lesser-known writers I admire.

This week I start with Jerry Gabriel. His first book represents the culmination of more than ten years of work. And it paid off. Not only did Drowned Boy win the 2008 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction from Sarabande Books, the book has also been chosen a Barnes & Noble "Discover Great New Writers" selection and is 2010 Barnes & Noble Discover Award finalist.

What I most admire about these fabulous linked stories set in rural southeast Ohio is the seamless way that landscape and longing and community combine in prose that’s honed, spare, and often, astonishingly, funny. The dialogue between the two main characters, Nate and Donnie Holland, brothers as different as day and night, is wry and affectionate, snappy and original.

In the title story, a grief-struck teenager considers geological history: “The idea that a river might change direction had captivated Samantha at a time when almost nothing sparked any real interest in her.” In “Marauders,” a whole slew of old-timers latch onto the local elementary school basketball team like rock star groupies: “We traveled like gypsies to these little towns—places called Mudsock and Comersville and just plain Water.”

You read a lot these days about a “sense of place” in writing, usually it means extra-lyrical prose about extra-pristine landscapes. (Yep, guilty as charged.) These stories evoke place plainly, and therefore elegantly. They show how places – pristine and, especially, not-so-pristine – mold us irrevocably, then shift unexpectedly. In the closing story “Reagan’s Army in Retreat,” Nate goes looking for Donnie only to stumble upon a house fire after which all that remains is a talking robot trivia game on eight track tapes stuck in the snow, a game that had once belonged to the boys. If there’s a more poignant image of loss, I can’t conjure it. And if a better book of short stories comes out this year, I’ll be surprised.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Foot dragged into the future .. uh, the now

So I started a facebook fan page.

And as an antidote to all this embarrassing self-promotion, starting soon, I plan to dedicate this space to some of my favorite lesser known writers. Stay tuned!