INCONVERSATION

Geoff Dyer with Jed Lipinski

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Geoff Dyer is the author of But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz (winner of the Somerset Maugham Award), Out of Sheer Rage (a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award), Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It, and The Ongoing Moment, among other titles. His newest book is scheduled to be published by Pantheon in 2009. Recently, Dyer took time to speak with Rail contributing writer Jed Lipinski about his life and work.

Non-Fiction: You Are Neither Here Nor There

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At the moment he is hot and thirsty; he is unsure of his location; and as soon as he sees the boy and girl, they are gone. Chemical winds, warehouses and a field of dead grass replace the vision. He writes: “I was touched by a golden pathos almost entirely purified of sadness.” For someone in search of everywhere, Vollmann suggests, it may be necessary to establish an equilibrium between freedom and imprisonment, beauty and ugliness, movement and stillness. The reward for maintaining such a precarious balance, to Vollmann and his readers, are these little pockets of enlightenment he encounters along the way.

Fiction: Oh The Stories They Could Write

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Roberto Bolaño is one of those cultural luminaries who is talked and written about extensively and with great excitement, and not only because his work greatly shook up the hegemony of Latin American literature but because he profoundly affects people. This is something that doesn’t happen all the time, especially lately. In Francine Prose’s review of the posthumous collection of short fiction Last Evenings on Earth (New Directions, 2006), she brought out a level of enthusiasm reserved for the books that change our lives. That certainly rang true to my experience; the book was handed to me when I made a delivery as a bike messenger to the New Directions office, at a time when I wasn’t doing much writing nor very excited about the books I was reading, and the stories set me on a complete one-eighty.

INCONVERSATION

Eve Packer with Carol Wierzbicki

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Eve Packer is one of those people who comes off on-stage like an in-your-face diva with plenty of ‘tude, but when I got to know her, I discovered a down-to-earth, like-minded soul who shares my skepticism about the frenetic development going on all around town. Recently, we discussed her beginnings as a poet/performer; her book Playland: Poems 1994-2004 (Fly By Night Press, 2005), about the grittier aspects of Times Square; her jazz collaborations with musicians Noah Howard and others; what it was like to have her work displayed in a designer boutique; and, of course, gentrification. In her “spare time” Packer teaches and runs a loose collective of poets called What Happens Next.

Fiction: The Politics of the Afterlife

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Joshua Cohen with drawings by Michael Hafftka, A Heaven of Others (Starcherone, 2008)

Richard Pryor used to tell a joke about the night he came to in an ambulance after a cocaine binge-induced heart attack. Surrounded by white medics, his first frantic thought was, “Shit! They sent me to the wrong heaven!” This idea that there are multiple heavens, right ones and wrong ones, white ones and black ones, is pushed to its fantastical limits by Brooklyn writer Joshua Cohen in his dream-world novel of the afterlife. True to the author’s trademark style of high-wire breathlessness—some might say talkiness—A Heaven of Others may have the longest subtitle of any book in recent memory, even in these subtitle- happy times.

Poetry: The Office is a Cruel Muse

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Broadly speaking, all poetry is composed under such constraints. An Elizabethan sonnet followed a certain stanzaic or metric pattern while, at the same time, only coming to be within a certain social coterie composed of aristocrats and their hangers-on (like Shakespeare). However, when Mesmer speaks of a social component to her lyrics, she is linking them not to an enclosed segment of society, but to a practice. She writes that she belongs to “a handful of poets with full-time jobs and little time to write [who] were entering outrageous and/or inappropriate word combinations in the Google search engine and making poems out of the results.”

Nonfiction: American Ear Drums

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With the disaster of foreign occupation and the U.S. dollar on the dole, it is hard to believe in an ethos of curiosity, ingenuity, and panache—in the American dream, out in the wild world, hatbox and guitar in hand, wayfarers covering its whiskey-soaked eyes.

Fiction: Sex as Subversion

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A year before China’s Yan Lianke wrote Serve the People!, he was dismissed from his position in the People’s Liberation Army. Employed to write stories that improved soldiers’ morale, it is not surprising that he was shown the door after penning Enjoyment, the 2004 novel mocking the money-making schemes of local government. In Serve the People!, Lianke flips his skills as a propaganda writer in order to strip the party language of its meaning and substance.

Poetry Roundup

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This period of Hebrew poetry represents a flowering of the language not seen since the Bible. This community, semi-protected by the Muslims, grew for half a millennium. The book begins with Moroccan-born Dunash Ben Labrat. In the 10th century, he studied in Baghdad and brought secular interests to the traditional, liturgical Hebrew verse. The Arabian meter made the verses melodic. Often they were accompanied by music and began to address new subjects (like a tattered coat, fleas or a symbolic doe) with confidence and insight.

Prose Roundup

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Four hundred years have passed since Shakespeare plied his quill. In the interim, we have published him, lauded him, Bowdlerized him, edited him, and possibly forgotten who he was. One has the sense that the historical documentation is worn thin with the jittery handling of Ivy League professors. Every generation—every few years—Shakespeare is remade from the same stuff.

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