Poet Spotlight: Sarah Ann Winn on reclaimed fairy tales and the octopus in the jar

Sarah Ann Winn’s first book, Alma Almanac (Barrow Street, 2017), was selected by Elaine Equi as winner of the Barrow Street Book Prize. She’s the author of five chapbooks, the most recent of which is Ever After the End Matter (Porkbelly, 2019). Her work has appeared in Five Points, Kenyon Review Online, Massachusetts Review, Smartish Pace, and Tupelo Quarterly, among others. She teaches writing workshops in Northern Virginia and the DC Metro area, and online at the Loft Literary Center. Visit her at http://bluebirdwords.com or follow her @blueaisling.

Your new collection of poetry is Ever After the End Matter. Tell us about the project and how it came into being.

Ever After the End Matter is a set of hybrid pieces (although some works in it are traditional looking poems and flash fiction) trying to reclaim fairy tales/strip some of the sentiment away so that we can get to the meat of the stories, their (sometimes ugly) truths about human nature, the characters who deserve more than a glance, and what they have to say about themes of loss, survival and resilience. The sequence started as I was working on the hybrid pieces for Alma Almanac, my first book. The spine of Alma Almanac is a set of imaginary book appendices/plate descriptions labeled as figures, the way that a reference work might describe an actual illustration. My mentor, after reading one of these figures, based on scenes from my childhood, asked “Why tether these to a number at all? Why not label them ‘Appendix Brown” or some other evocative word? While I didn’t end up using her suggestion for Alma Almanac, because I felt the numbers somehow resisted clear boundaries of a title, and anchored each fragment of text in reality/truth, the idea would not let me go, so I wrote the first of these, “Appendix Red” imagining the figures from fairy tales instead of from my childhood, and the heart of the sequence was born.

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Six Books I Love to Reread

Apparently, today is National Book Lovers Day — and since I love books — I thought I’d share six books I love to reread over and over again. These are books that connect with me on a deep level. I’ve read each of these books at least twice, and I will likely reread them again in the future.

In fact, just talking about these books makes me want to pick them up again.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved by Toni MorrisonBeloved is a book about being haunted — at first Seth is haunted by the memories of being a slave and later by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless. This is a stunningly beautiful book, the culture, the characters, and the layers richly textured. I’ve read Beloved three times and each time I’ve been swept away by the poetry and power of Morrison’s story. Every reading offers new discoveries, new linguistic treasures.

It broke my heart this week to learn of Morrison’s passing. If you want some profound words in honor of her life and work, here are eight black female writers and thinkers on Toni Morrison’s legacy. For my small part, I’ll be rereading Beloved for the fourth time and seeking out some of her work that I haven’t had a chance to read yet.

Dune by Frank Herbert

Dune by Frank HerbertDune is a political science fiction book. The Atreides family is sent off to take control Dune, a desert planet and the only place where the spice Melange can be produced — the most valuable substance in the universe. The story is fraught with intrigue, with scheming and betrayal coming from every angle,

Story time: Years ago, I picked up Dune on the same day I was heading over to a friend’s house for a sleepover (because I always bring books with me on the chance I need something to occupy an empty moment). When my friend went off to tell her mother something, I picked up the book intending to read a page or two. . . . Then my friend returned.

What should have happened is me putting down the books so that I could hang out the way a socially aware, polite person would do. What actually happened is I spent the rest of the night reading — pausing only long enough to eat, go to the bathroom, and sleep for an hour or two. I finished the book early the next morning, very grateful that she was still willing to be my friend.

When I reread the book again years later, pretty much the same thing happened (except I had adult responsibilities to attend with).

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E ButlerI’ve long been a fan of apocalyptic dystopian tales, with Parable of the Sower being at the top of my list as one of the best. Set in a California ravaged by poverty, drugs, and chronic water shortages, the story follows Lauren Olamina as she escapes from her home after it burns down. Trying to forge her own path through a dangerous world, she develops a belief system built on the practicalities of the world around her, which she shares with the fellow refugees she gathers around her — all making their way North in pursuit of some somewhere safe to call home.

Parable of the Sower moves me each of the times I’ve read it. In a world full of desperate people, fighting brutally for survival, I love the way these characters come together and care for each other. I also find the Lauren’s parables, presented at the beginning of the chapters, fascinating and beautiful.

Her by Cherry Muhanji

Her by Cherry MuhanjiI discovered Her during a summer-long internship at the publisher Aunt Lute Books. The novel, which won the Lamda Literary Award in 1991, explores the relationships between a community of black women in 1950s Detroit. The language is liquid in its beauty, irreverently illuminating the streets of the Motor City, contrasting the hard work of the automotive plants with the rowdy bars leaking jazz out into the night.

My fellow interns and I read Her twice over while helping to helping to copy edit the book for its second edition — and I’ve since read it a third time for the sheer pleasure of the language and the story it enfolds. I’m so honored to have taken any tiny part in working with Aunt Lute on this book.

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

The Martian Chronicles by Ray BradburyThe Martian Chronicles is a novel comprised of interconnected short stories that imagine humanity’s repeated attempts and failures to colonize Mars, from the first visitors to the cities of humans that sprouted over the planet. The stories range in tone and styles, with some being thrilling, others being humorous or haunting.

On the whole, I’ve read The Martian Chronicles twice — but the individual stories, I’ve read many times over. “There Will Come Soft Rains” — one of my all-time favorite short stories and powerful in its standalone compact form — I’ve probably read a dozen times. Below is a recording of Leonard Nimoy reading the story:

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice by Jane AustenOne of the things my sister and I have in common is our love for Jane Austen, especially her well-loved novel, Pride and Prejudice. We have both over the years read this novel several times over (although I’m certain that my sister has me wildly beat on that count). We love this story of the Bennet sisters and their search for marriage and love, with all its ever present wit and misunderstandings and prideful mistakes. Reading Pride and Prejudice is a soothing pleasure and delight each time I pick it up. In the end, the characters we love come together and find happiness.

Are there any books that you’ve read more than once? Which are your favorites?


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Culture Consumption: July 2019

Hi, lovelies. Here’s my month in books, movies, and podcasts.

Books

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira GrantIf you’ve been longing for a book about murderous mermaids, then Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant is the book for you.

Seven years after the tragedy that befell the scientists, actors, and crew of Atargatis when they were traveling  the Mariana Trench to film a “mockumentary” on mermaids (events that were phenomenally portrayed in Rolling in the Deep), a new team has been put together to find answers. Although they are geared up more thoroughly this time, none of them are fully prepared for the dangers they find.

There were moments in this book that legitimately terrified me, moments where I was to scared to keep reading, where I shouted at the characters as if I was watching a horror movie, where I couldn’t put the book down. Into the Drowing Deep is an altogether phenomenal science fiction horror story, one that makes me even more uncertain of the ocean than I already was.

I also finished up with Song of Susannah, book six of The Dark Tower series by Stephen King and wrote a somewhat lengthy post about my thoughts on the book. The series continues to be excellent and I’m looking forward to wrapping things up.
Continue reading “Culture Consumption: July 2019”

Haunted by Grief: A Review of Personal Shopper (2016)

Personal Shopper, directed by Olivier Assayas, begins with the presence of an ghost. Maureen (Kristen Stewart) wanders through an empty house. Doors slam in the distance, things creak. She speaks a name and we see a flicker of something in the shadows behind her, though it’s not entirely clear what.

It’s a perfect set up for a horror movie — the woman alone in the house, the strange sounds, the ghost — and yet, Personal Shopper confounds the viewer by breaking with the expected tropes. Yes, there are ghosts (or something resembling them), but they are mostly harmless, just whispering figures in the dark.

Maureen is a medium, like her twin brother. Each made a pact to the other — whoever dies first would return as a spirit and communicate with the living sibling, proving the existence of an afterlife. So, following her brother’s death, Maureen is in Paris waiting for some sign, some message.

What complicates her search is that she is not a believer (something I’ve never seen from any other medium in a movie before). While Maureen admits to be a medium and being able to sense entities in the world around her, she is not convinced that these entities are human spirits. Even though evidence of a spirit or haunting is present — events that others would take as proof — she remains uncertain as to whether or not this is her brother or something else.

Her pursuit is a blend of doubt and longing. She is desperate to find proof of her brother and finds herself caught in a holding pattern — riding around Paris on a moped and going through the motions of her job as a personal shopper for a celebrity.

Maureen is a woman lost in grief.

One of the most confounding moments in the movie is when it makes a jarring tonal shift as Maureen starts receiving messages from an unknown sender, someone who knows about her and what she’s been doing. Shaken, she at first reaches for the hope that this could be the longed-for proof of her brother’s spirit, only to quickly realize the messages are more likely from a stalker and she becomes wrapped up in a dangerous game.

As a viewer, I found myself confused at first by this storyline. But taking in the context of her character, her choices makes a certain kind of emotional sense. A person lost in their grief might go looking for ways to feel anything else but hurt.

Kristen Stewart’s performance throughout Personal Shopper is stunning. The is the second movie she’s done with Assayas, the first being Clouds of Sils Maria — a movie I adore.  In many instances throughout Personal Shopper, Stewart is alone in a room having to carry the emotional resonance of the moment. And she does so with a beautiful naturalism, bringing up an interior experience to the screen (check out the video essay below for a look at how her acting style has evolved of the years).

Ultimately Personal Shopper is not a horror movie. It defies that expectation at every turn, sometimes in startling and uncomfortable ways. The ending leaves questions confusingly unanswered and is ambiguous to a degree that will likely make some unhappy with the experience. I found myself sitting in silence as the credits rolled, followed by an immediate internet search to see what others thought of the ending and how it was interpreted. It made me wish that I had had someone else watching with me, someone to discuss and debate all the possible meanings.


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Song of Susannah – Reading The Dark Tower, Part VI

Here are Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IV, and Part V of my journey through Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series.

The Story

Song of Susannah is a cool 400 pages or so — quite a relief from the 850+ pages of the two previous volumes in the series. Strictly on a physical level, it’s a lot less book to heft around. However, the condensed nature of the book does not negate the value of its storytelling. Song of Susannah is tight in its action and character development, which makes the story all the stronger. 

At the end of Wolves of the Calla, the battle was won but the katet was divided — Susannah, pregnant with a demon’s child and being overtaken by Mia (a new personality), has stollen the Black 13 (a powerful and dangerous stone) and absconded to another world and time. Song of Susannah opens in the midst of this loss, with Roland, Eddie, Jake, and Callahan nursing their wounds and working to come up with a plan to both save Susannah (in one time and place) and obtain the empty lot with the rose from an obsessive bookseller named Tower (who exists in a completely different time and place).

All their planning doesn’t help much, however, because ka has its own designs, immediately setting everything awry — Roland and Eddie find themselves fighting thugs while chasing after the bookseller, while Jake, Callahan, and Oy find themselves going after Susannah.

Unlike the previous book (with it’s slow build to battle), the action in Song of Susannah comes quick and bloody. Roland and Eddie are immediately attacked when they land in the past, and Susannah’s struggles are constant, if internal. The intensity is ever present, since the characters (and the readers) know they are facing virtual ticking bombs — time is desperately short. Failure to achieve either of their goals will result in death of Susannah and/or the destruction of all the universes. 

Structurally, Song of Susannah is different from any other book in the series — each chapter is titled as a verse, making the book itself the overall “song.” Each chapter also concludes with a two stanzas of a commala, which is a kind of call and response song. The structure and inclusion of verse lends the story a folky vibe, like a legendary tale shared over a campfire. This feels fitting considering the revelations that come later in the book, with the writing down of tales being vitally important to the characters survival. 

Commala-ka-kate
You’re in the hands of fate.
No matter if it’s real or not,
The hour groweth late.

Commala-come-eight!
The hour groweth late!
No matter what shade ya cast
You’re in the hands of fate.

Continue reading “Song of Susannah – Reading The Dark Tower, Part VI”