Last night I cleared out about twenty pounds of paper. Most of it was easy--paid bills from 2004, warranty slips for things I don't even own any more, that sort of thing. Some of it was harder. I have a file of magazine clippings that I've been carrying around (and adding to) since, I don't know, 1995 or so. So I went through it, pruned what I could. One of the things I kept--easy choice--is the following poem by Melissa Montimurro from Literal Latte, Volume 7, Number 5, and first prize winner in the Food Verse Contest, and it gets me every time:

Why Onions Give Us Their Tears

Because they are secretly afraid of the dark.

Because they are homely and humble and cannot bear the sadness.

Because they've held all of the hopes of the lily yet will never pose wanly in a vase
but be tamed in a kettle instead.

Because the garden was a long lush dream above them.

Because once for a moment they felt the sun on their maiden heads
and they knew then what the others knew
cabbage and chard and sugar snap
that it was the hot kiss of the galaxy
and they had misspent their entire lives.

Because they would drown in the waters of their own weeping.

May 31, 2008, 12:24 p.m.Categories: Food, Poetry

News crawl.

I spoke earlier about how open the Chinese government has been in allowing full reporting, both inside and outside China, in regard to the Sichuan quake and its aftermath. Old habits die hard, apparently. It has been quietly declared that there will be no more stories (at least inside China, at least for now) about the fact that so many school fells and so many government buildings didn't, or about the immense amount of donated aid that is vanishing into thin air long before reaching the victims. (For example.) But the edicts don't seem to have the force they once did. Too many people are too angry. What happens next isn't clear yet: maybe the hammer will fall hard and things will go back to how they were; maybe the hammer will fall hard and break; maybe a new compromise will be reached before the hammer falls.

In other news, I've never done it myself, but I've often thought that "News Crawl" would be a good fiction workshop exercise. You watch any major television news program, see, but instead of watching the images and listening to the anchors and reporters, you only read the headlines crawling across the bottom of the screen, and you have to write a story linking the first, say, five items into a single narrative.

Last night, though, this would have been a stretch. My mouth just kept dropping further and further open at each successive item:

A 747 carrying U.S. diplomatic baggage breaks in half on take-off...

and Tirofijo is dead, not at the hands of the Colombian government or paramilitary deathsquads or some split within his own militia, but due to a heart attack months ago...

and an aftershock in Sichuan (where 79 dams are now considered at serious risk of failure) knocks down 70,000 more houses...

and a cast member from the Harry Potter series was stabbed to death in a bar fight...

All of which was just a little too cosmically incongruent for me, so I stopped watching. I'm guessing that the fifth item would have been in regard to Virginia Quarterly Review and Zyzzyva beating the hell out of each other as re: slushpile etiquette. And I'm guessing that right now some hack at Fox is pitching his superiors on his great new idea: When Lit Mags Attack.

May 26, 2008, 8:44 a.m.Categories: China, History, Litmags, Politics


I have just been informed that video footage of the reading I did with Benjamin Percy and Min Jin Lee at the Happy Ending Music and Reading Series is now live online.

May 16, 2008, 9:51 a.m.Categories: Fiction Collections, Short Stories


You've all seen the news. Yesterday afternoon, I had a slight sense of nausea, my vision was off, and I knew the feeling but it took me a few seconds to name the cause. The feeling lasted only a few seconds longer. I walked out into our living room, saw a wall-hung mirror rocking slightly, showing different bits of the room to me, back and forth. That was all that happened here in Beijing while in Sichuan thousands were dying.

The numbers are awful, and are about to get much worse.

The government here is reacting quickly and thoroughly, limiting the suffering to whatever extent they can. They are also reacting openly for once, which may seem a small thing given the horrific context, but isn't to those of us who call China home.

There are many ways you can help. Here are a few. Please give if you can.

May 13, 2008, 10:48 a.m.Category: China


I recently had the pleasure of judging the Press 53 novella contest, and they've now posted the results. The editors there, Sheryl Monks and Kevin Watson, narrowed my pool down to ten finalists, which they then forwarded on to me. I read them blind, which added a useful frisson and a necessary ignorance to the exercise, but it's fun, now, to see the names of actual people attached to the manuscripts I read.

And I'm here to report that the wonderful thing happened as I worked through those manuscripts, the thing you always hope for but know not to count on: the group of finalists was very solid, with a clean sub-group of Honorable Mentions rising above, and one novella in particular that was absolutely transcendent--so good that I couldn't believe it wasn't already a book. Congratulations, then, to everyone involved in the contest, and most especially to the winner, Joan Corwin of Evanston, Illinois, whose "Safe Shall Be My Going" is a beautiful novella, and whose name, I suspect, we will be seeing often in the future.

May 12, 2008, 10:13 a.m.Category: Novellas

Gary Snyder wins Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize

This news made me just unfeasibly happy. I first came to Snyder almost exactly twenty years ago, in an early edition of Donald Hall's excellent Contemporary American Poetry. I'd just dropped out of college and was hitchhiking across the country on my way to Alaska, bought a couple of books in a used bookstore in Seattle before jumping on the ferry, and that anthology was one of them.

I already knew a few of the poets inside--Lowell and Bly, maybe Stafford, maybe Ashbery--but most of them were new to me, and they made me crazy with pleasure and desire, the whole crowd: Duncan and Nemerov and Dickey and Levertov and Logan, Ammons and O'Hara, Kinnell and Merwin and Wright and Kennedy. Creeley and Wilbur were crack to me--the feeling that whole countries were there, and that maybe, if I was just a bit smarter, if I really read the shit out of those poems, I'd be given the visas, have earned them. John Haines felt like a brother-in-arms, because, hey, poems about Alaska, exactly where I'm going right this very minute!

And of course Gary Snyder as well. I like what Margaret Soltan has to say about him here: the man knows how to listen to the world, has hearing most of us can barely imagine. Sitting there on the deck of that northbound ferry, skirting Canada, sun on my face but not in my eyes, reading "Milton by Firelight" and "Hay for the Horses," I'd have given Snyder a hundred grand right then and there, if, you know, I'd had a hundred grand, and hadn't been on a ferry. Thank God Ruth Lilly has my back.

May 2, 2008, 12:38 p.m.Categories: Poetry, Travel