Review of Dean Rader's Works and Days

Dean Rader, Works and Days (Truman State University Press, 2010)
            Dean Rader’s T.S. Eliot Prize winning book, Works & Days, takes for its title the name of Hesiod’s great epic on labor, and thus Rader asks his reader to consider his work in a tradition longer than that invoked by most contemporary American poets. The title seems to make a claim to epic proportions, but at the same time, in the poet’s choice to echo a previous epic so closely rather than giving himself the room Virgil gives himself with Homer or Dante with Virgil, Rader exhibits the sense of belatedness or reduced possibilities one expects from a postmodern poet. Put another way, Rader manages to seize the epic’s claim to encyclopedic inclusiveness and yet acknowledge the fragmented epistemology of our age. In this way, Works & Days reminds me of Berryman’s Dream Songs. When epic was new, it strove to be, in the words of one admirer of Paradise Lost, “the story of all things.” In the age of growing individualism, we see that encyclopedic urge turned inward in Whitman and Wordsworth: the story of the self as all things (Whitman: “I am large, I contain multitudes”). With Berryman, and now with Rader, we see a Whitmanian largeness filtered through the legacy of Freud, which is a sense of a divided self. The encyclopedia is now private and random, the epic inclusiveness echoed as unending pastiche.  
            Berryman gives us Henry and the unnamed minstrel as fragments of the self; Rader gives us Frog and Toad, characters from Arnold Lobel’s beloved books for children. Refashioning well-known kiddy characters into instruments of philosophical/lyrical meditation is a risky business; one could easily drift into the facile cleverness of The Tao of Pooh. Rader avoids the pitfall of cuteness through both careful selection of his borrowed characters and disciplined use of Lobel’s material. The choice of Frog and Toad – as opposed to, say, Dora the Explorer – gives Rader the advantage of working with characters that already have, I dare say, a sort of Homeric dignity about them. Frog and Toad as depicted by Lobel are types in bold outline, more like Achilles or Hector than like Hamlet or Emily Bovary. Thus, in Rader’s capable hands, they take on an instantaneous air of symbolic importance, unhampered by psychology and background. Rader furthers this effect by refraining from following Lobel’s storylines. He imports the characters into new contexts rather than bogging down his poems in references to the stories in Lobel’s books. Frog and Toad are free to represent isolated aspects of the self rather than a whole identity. If one considers the characters as treated by Lobel, one might be tempted to posit Toad as id to Frog’s ego, but Rader does not push such an identification.  They could as easily be Yeats’ Hic and Ille as Jung’s “self” and “shadow.” In the first, and best, of the Frog and Toad poems, “Frog and Toad Confront the Alterity of Otherness,” Rader uses sparse, unrhymed couplets to augment this effect of bold Homeric outline:
                        The sun was hot in the sky
                        like a muffin in a bright blue tin.

                        The day was just the day.
                        The wind was nothing more

                        than wind, the leaves were leaves
                        and kept on being leaves.
The directness of these lines puts me in mind of C.S. Lewis’ commentary, in A Preface to Paradise Lost, on Homer’s use of stock phrases applied to the natural world:
            Yes; but under all these, like a base so deep as to 
            be scarcely audible, there is something which we 
           might very lamely express by muttering ‘same old sea’
           or ‘same old morning’.  The permanence, the
          indifference, the heartrending or consoling fact that
         whether we laugh or weep the world is what it is, always
         enters into our experience and plays no small part in
        that pressure of reality which is one of the
        differences between life and imagined life.  But in  
         Homer the pressure is there.  The sonorous syllables in
         which he has stereotyped the sea, the gods, the morning,
        or the mountains, make it appear that we are dealing not
        with poetry about the things, but almost with the things
Through Frog and Toad, Rader gives us our own divided psyches as “the things themselves.” Like Yeats in “Ego Dominus Tus” or “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” Rader makes of the fragmented modern self a subject both universal enough and, in its own reduced way, heroic enough to be the subject of epic poetry.
            But there is more to this book than Frog and Toad. There is also a fascinating play between the experimental and the lyrical, a sort of dialogue between two poetic strategies that also reflects a sense of the self divided. This division is clearly seen in the collection’s several love poems. There are poems, such as “Love Poem in 5 Couplets + 1 Line” and “Waking Next to You on My 39th Birthday,” which, while imaginative and original, are fairly straightforward in their lyrical appeal. Take for example these lines from the latter poem: “The bed we share is a ship. / You are the captain / in a big blue hat.” The image is compelling, and the blue hat is a surprising and amusing touch. The poem is, however, a standard love poem, based on a metaphor traceable at least as far back as Petrarch. Yet in “Talking Points [Love Poem]” the same lyrical impulse is fragmented into bullet points: “and the way the stars in their wool coats shine inward;” for instance. In “A Genealogy of Unfinished Love Poems” the same fragmented effect is achieved by leaving out words: “Your eyes are so _____.” This poem also approaches the subject of love through the differing perspectives of elegy, comedy, haiku, and epistle, as if any one genre were incapable of capturing the full experience of love. The effect is unsettling, a sense of a self in restless pursuit of a coherence not quite obtainable.
            This same restlessness is evident in the book’s series of self portraits. These poems, scattered throughout but increasing in frequency as the volume draws to a close, offer a glimpse of the poet through a fractured lens, a kaleidoscope effect. “Self Portrait: Rejected Pop Song,” for instance, offers a view of the poet via a more mischievous and baffling version of Billy Collin’s “Litany”:
                        I am not the songbird
                        I am not the devil’s bunghole
                        I am not the oyster in the child’s mouth
                        I am not the shantih, not the shantih[.]
One might object that the reader is left with no idea of what the poet, then, is, but that is perhaps rather the point. Rader draws on postmodern notions of self as unincorporated fragments bound only loosely by the illusion of identity. In this framework, any poem could become a “self portrait,” and thus Rader offers a number of such poems on very diverse topics. As the book races to its conclusion, the self portraits shift into a series of birthday poems, each one less conventionally bound than the last, until we arrive at a final prayer from no one to nobody:
                                    O distance,
                                                O silent measure,
                        drink down the body:
                                    drink down time’s cup.
In the blank space, in the spacious imagery, in the large and empty vowels, these line convey a longing for dissolution of self, the release of the mystic as filtered through Wittgenstein and Derrida.
            Not all of the book’s poems are as obscure. There are charmers as well, like “The Poem You Ordered,” a playfully surreal engagement with the reader – again in the mode of Billy Collins – that takes a darker turn at the end. Another example of Rader in a more playful vein is “While Looking up the Etymology of ‘Country’ in the OED, I come across ‘Cornucopia,” a poem appropriately bountiful in its play with language.
            Works and Days is an engaging book that manages to be both experimental and “accessible,” if by that latter term one doesn’t mean dumbed-down. More than just a conglomeration of poems, it is a book with a subtle architecture, an ironic unity fashioned on the theme of fragmentation. This coherence and sophistication is an outstanding achievement in a first book.

Blog Love & Coming to the Writer's Center

The Writer's Center just announced the line-up of fall workshops being taught not only in the Bethesda location but in Annapolis, McLean, and the new Hill Center in Capitol Hill. Our instructors include winners of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the American Book Award, and the National Book Award. You can read up on these by clicking the linked course names, or see the whole fall via The Workshop & Event Guide...

Martin Espada (Barbaric Yawp)

Barbara Esstman (
Advanced Novel & Memoir)

James Mathews (Building a Page Turner)
Lynn Stearns (Memoir: Story Construction)
Stanley Plumly (Poetry Master Class)
Rose Solari (A Sense of the Whole)
David Taylor (Writing Brilliantly About Science)
Kathryn Johnson (The Extreme Novelist 1 & The Extreme Novelist 2)

& TWC highlighted my class as well, The Strategic Poet, which will run on Tuesday nights in September through mid-October. I describe it in these terms:

Poetry is both an art and a craft, complete with its own toolbox. In this workshop (which will dovetail but not overlap with “The Strategic Poet: 1”) we’ll use weekly readings to help identify strategies for writing effective poems, and identify the tactics that can be used to follow those strategies in your own writing process—whether at the point of drafting, revision, or the shaping of a collection. For the first meeting, bring 15 copies of two poems: a poem that you love, and a draft of your own.

Traditionally, my workshops have a great time.  I have the Writer's Center place a cap on enrollment to 12 people so we don't feel rushed in class, and I return handwritten individual feedback on each poem. One of the amazing writers in my "The Strategic Poet: 1" class even went on to win this year's DCCAH Larry Neal Award! Those who know me well know I don't teach often, but I'm really proud to connect with DC's writing community through these workshops. If you're interested, please consider signing up. 

If you're in town this weekend, I hope to see you at Politics & Prose on Sunday at 3 PM to celebrate the hometown debut of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life. My wonderful fellow DC writers Leslie Pietrzyk and Paula Whyman were kind enough to mention it on their blogs; Paula called it a "don't-miss author event." 

Speaking of blog love, I wanted to send out a big, sloppy, e-kiss to Kristin Berkey-Abbott: if you don't follow her blog you should, because it is one of the most frequently updated and substantive ones I am reading right now. I was so honored and delighted to find her mediation on DKTBG, which included these good wishes..."Perhaps Sandra will be our next Natalie Angier or Laurie Garrett, someone who can make science accessible for those of us who haven't had a science class in decades.  She's done that for the world of allergies in this book." Wow. I got to work with Natalie Angier once or twice in my American Scholar days, and I have to say that if I could become half the nonfiction writer she is, I would be thrilled. Thanks for setting the bar so high for me, Kristin--and for believing in my voice. 

And while I'm at it, I'd like to take Miss Ada Limon out for a night of cherries...and dancing. 

Since folks have been so generous in supporting me, I'd love to pay the blog love forward. So please check out Laurel Snyder's efforts to book 100 school visits in 100 days (via Skype) in celebration of the release of her latest children's book, BIGGER THAN A BREADBOX. This is such a fabulous idea, and trust me--Laurel's personality is big enough that it will project through a screen just fine. BTAB is a brave look at how a child copes with divorce, while displaying Laurel's signature blend of humor and fantasy. Here's a synopsis:

A magical breadbox that delivers whatever you wish for—as long as it fits inside? It's too good to be true! Twelve-year-old Rebecca is struggling with her parents' separation, as well as a sudden move to her Gran's house in another state. For a while, the magic bread box, discovered in the attic, makes life away from home a little easier. Then suddenly it starts to make things much, much more difficult, and Rebecca is forced to decide not just where, but who she really wants to be. Laurel Snyder's most thought-provoking book yet.

If you're a parent or know of a worthy local school, please encourage them to query Laurel. You also might be interested in this ongoing giveaway via Goodreads leading up to the book's September release. 

Bright Lights, Big City

It has been an absolutely wonderful first week for a book. If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you've already been bombarded with a daily link. I'm not going to retread all that here. Suffice it to say that I've had some glowing reviews and some thoughtful interviews, not to mention generous hometown coverage leading up to this Saturday's Politics & Prose reading (3 PM: come on out!). I am a very lucky woman.

Yesterday morning I hopped on an Amtrak Acela train for New York City, where I would give my first public reading from Don't Kill the Birthday Girl. Even though I've been fortunate to give readings in New York before, this felt different. For one thing, I was on Crown's dime: as someone accustomed to long Bolt Bus rides and crashing on a friend's couch, this was truly a whole new ball game. Arriving at the hotel where they had reserved a room for me only affirmed my excitement...

The Warwick is one of those fabulous old-school hotels, in one direction a few blocks from The Ziegfeld theater (which was staging the premiere of Crazy, Stupid, Love the same night, starring Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, and Emma Stone--I wish I'd had time to gawk), a few blocks from Radio City Music Hall the other direction, and adjacent to the iconic "LOVE" sculpture. The lobby features beautiful chandeliers and a tall wall of built-in shelving and books--always a comfort to an author. And though chicly arranged (sans slipcover, arranged by color of binding), they were in fact real books. I know because...I pulled a few down off the shelf and checked. Perhaps not my most sophisticated moment.

My jaw dropped when I saw that my hotel room had its own living room. Since I was traveling alone, it was a bit overwhelming. One by one, I sat in all the chairs. One by one, I turned all the lamps on...then off again, so as not to be wasteful. (Just to be clear: I'm not trying to gloat by showing this. I just know that -I'd- want to see, if someone else had this opportunity. A month from now? I'll be back on my friends' couches!)

A few days ago my lovely poetry-friend Maureen Thorson, who I have known since our undergrad workshops at University of Virginia, had sent me this sneak peek of the display of my book at the Upper East Side Barnes & Noble. (Aside: Maureen's Applies to Oranges collection from Ugly Duckling Presse is killer. Check it out.) When I arrived on Tuesday night, through welcome coincidence the first familiar face I saw was Jeff--Maureen's husband. Also, the book was stacked all over the place. And pictured on the Jumbotron screens overhead. Crazy. 

What can I say about the reading? Reading prose is very different from reading poems, in the same way that running a series of wind sprints (poetry) is very different from running a marathon (prose). I had agonized over my selections beforehand, before settling on a trio that I hoped capture a few different aspects of my personal story: a part of the introduction, a section from childhood, a section on dating as an adult with food allergies. The question and answer session was lively, a nice mix of people who came to the topic from firsthand experience and people who were just curious. Afterwards--plenty of books, sold and signed. Here are a few glimpses...
Upside: I'm an impassioned reader. Downside: I'm destined to make funny faces when I read. This is my signature "oooopen mouth" look, frequently captured on film.
Here I'm with Barbara Rosenstein of the Food Allergy Initiative. Such a great group--focused on research and long-term solutions. And I now know (from this morning's meeting) they are also fun, lively, super-smart people. I'm excited to work with them.
This lovely lady, Lisa, came to the reading after having heard me read poetry as part of last year's Boog City Festival. She's a talented poet herself. That is one of the surreal aspects of touring for this book: integrating it into the identity I've already built as an author of poetry. This morning I dropped by the offices of W. W. Norton--the paperback of I Was the Jukebox is out August 1--and chatted with my editor, Jill (who is also an author in multiple genres) about this balancing act.
 This guy said "I just like memoirs." You can see how I'm beaming. Refreshing to have an audience who attended in equal parts for the topic and for the craft. 
I love this photo for three reasons. One: it shows the random friend-of-a-friend who gave me two of his own CDs--I love it when artists randomly cross paths. Two: it shows me signing a poster for the Barnes & Noble wall of fame. Three: it shows the yellow origami turtle given to me by poet-friend Kimmy Grey. Talk about your talismans of good luck! (She was inspired by the origami poems in IWTJ.) 

Kimmy, know I carried that guy around in my purse for the rest of my New York trip.
And here we are. I've said this before, but I'll say it again: the people at Crown are awesome. Meet Julie Cepler (black jacket), Rachel Rokicki (black skirt), Sydny Miner (plaid dress), and Anna Thompson (gray skirt). They are my editorial and publicity team. They are my safety net and saviors. They are my "Oh, it's 4:55 PM? Yep, we can get that out before end of business day" people. They are the best. 

Mom...thanks for helping me pick out that dress. Dad...thanks for that red coral necklace. I couldn't have asked for better birthday gifts. Let the adventures continue~

Birth of a Book

I have to admit: I wasn't sure what to expect today. So much of what would pop up as "new" to the big, wide world was not new to me. I'd already held the book in my hand. I knew there was a flurry of interviews and guest posts scheduled to go up--my favorite is at eHarmony--but having written them, there was no surprises in store there. I knew good friends would gather at City Grocery, but I've had drinks with them at City Grocery dozens of times before. So I thought: well, we'll just head on down to Square Books. We'll see. And this is what I found...

The flowers my mom had delivered to me, care of the bookstore. 

A stack of copies--more than I'd ever seen in one place before!

Then I turned around and realized, Oh my goodness. That was just the stack of extras. Here's the real stack, complete with a teaser for my July 26 reading.

A friend walked in, said hello, and the next thing I book was at the check-out counter! (If this photo is a bit blurry, I know it's because I looked really strange photographing a banal commercial process.)

This is me with that friend--Jere, aka the man I got to see buy my book on the day my book went on sale. He's pretty much my favorite person on God's green earth right now.

Sometimes a day of celebration doesn't have to be epic. Sometimes it's the small gestures of the people who love you. Sometimes it's taking a deep breath and knowing: So it begins.

Reading This Week at Woody Guthrie Fest

I’ll be reading at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah this Saturday, the 16th of July, along with the other “Woody Guthrie Poets” at 4:00 P.M. at the St. Paul Methodist Church, 3rd & Atlanta Streets (just up the street from the music venues).

Here’s the roster of readers this year: Yvonne Carpenter, Ken Hada, Carol Hamilton, Jessica Isaacs, Abigail Keegan, Jennifer Kidney, Julia McConnell, Tony Mares, Melissa Morphew, John Graves Morris, Benjamin Myers, Steven Schroeder, Michael Snyder, Sandra Soli, Jim Spurr, and Pat Sturm.

And, once again, musical accompaniment will be provided by the great David Amram.

Writer's Center DKTBG Giveaway

The lovely folks at the Writer's Center are helping celebrate the release of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl by giving away of a copy of the book! Registering to win could not be easier: go to their Facebook page and leave a comment in response to this query~

Tell us about an experience with food allergies in your community. Or share your thoughts on how this issue has changed in society over time.

The answers people have left show the gamut of our experiences with food allergy--from firsthand reactions to nervous waitressing. The winner will be chosen on Monday, July 11, so get a move on adding your take. Good luck!

Kyle Semmel of the First Person Plural blog was also kind enough to do a short Q&A with me, which is here. In response to Kyle's request for a "sneak peek" at what the book contains, this is what I said:

I tried to balance a substantive, interesting look at the science of food allergies (from prick tests to epitopes) with the quirky realities of managing them in the everyday. Hives from a kiss? Yep. Stunt-eater friends who sit next to you at weddings and make your dinner plate look like you had a few bites, so as to not offend the bride? Yep. Having a mother who tries to keep you safe by packing your suitcase for every trip with a loaf of "Sandra-friendly" bread and the knife to slice it with? Yep. You can bet how surprised the security guard was to pull an eight-inch serrated blade out of my suitcase on my way to Disney World with my high school choir.

As the World Turns

It has been comically frustrating to have no internet service this past week. Or rather, to have had only a wan, intermittent stolen signal from someone's house nearby. My sublet's network, perkily named "BoatsandHoes," has been MIA--and since I'm not the account holder, there hasn't been a damn thing I could do about it. All my hard-earned nagging skills from dealing with Comcast in DC, wasted! That's the peril of choosing to be miles from home in the week leading up to having one's book born. 

Writers love to romanticize a lack of internet, particularly when it comes to colonies. I get that. But the good people at Crown have been working their butts off on bookings and media queries--each in one in delicate balance with the others, based on who gets "first" this or "exclusive" that--and I hate holding them up. When you find yourself driving to a Pizza Hut parking lot so you can skulk in your car checking email, something has gone awry. 

Anyway. Enough whining. The magical interwebs seem to be back. 

On Thursday, I got a note from the Reviews editor at the Wall Street Journal asking if I might have 800 words I could contribute to their weekend edition on the topic of living with food allergies. Um...yes? The only problem was that I'd already made plans for the night; a beer with this year's Ole Miss Summer Poet in Residence, Jay Leeming, then a dinner party in Taylor, then meeting to see friends of a friend play on the Square. I've been somewhat stubborn about maintaining a work/life balance down here in Oxford. 

So, after having a Reb Ale with Jay on the balcony at City Grocery--after meeting my dinner host's pet Jackson Lizard (oddly enough named "Iguana," but they call it "Cucumber")--after enjoying a meal of marinated chicken and Honey Bee Bakery French country bread and homemade tequila-watermelon-line sorbet--after a great meandering conversation about trying to grow apples in Mississippi and Billy Collins and radio interviews gone wrong and living on the Lawn--after listening to an hour of music at Parrish's--I came home. 

And slept. And got up at 2:30 AM. And got to writing my piece for WSJ, with a 9 AM deadline hanging over me. 

Admittedly what I'm calling "work/life balance" might, in fact, be burning the candle at both ends. But it all worked out. Here it is: "An 'Allergy Girl' Comes Out of Her Bubble." 

DC-area folks might get a kick out of knowing that the opening scene takes place at Bethesda's Jaleo, on a night when I hosted two Emerging Writer Fellows for dinner before a Story/Stereo reading at The Writer's Center...

At a recent dinner with friends, I was determined to enjoy a night without any allergic reactions. I had asked for the dairy-free menu, but when the waiter brought our drink orders, I eyed my martini glass with alarm: It was garnished at the bottom with a pearl of milky liquid.
"What's in that?" I asked.
He proudly described a liqueur containing essence of pine nut. I groaned.
"You didn't ask for the nut-free menu!" he said.
I looked at him. "The nut-free menu for cocktails?"

...and for the record, they replaced that drink gratis with an amazing concoction that combined cava with edible gold leaf, which swirled hypnotically in response to the wine's bubbles. Hooray for José Andrés! I like to tease ThinkFoodGroup for their tendency toward self-grandeur, but he really has some of the most allergy-friendly restaurants in the country. 

Book Countdown: One Week

When I got the news about my book deal, I was at Reagan National Airport waiting to fly to Chicago for the 2009 AWP Conference. My agent reached me right before they announced boarding. The news was big--this was a deal that would move my writing from a side love to a full-time job--and after I hung up I looked around the terminal and thought, with a twinge of sadness, Nobody here knows meThen I realized the liberation of that: Nobody here knows me! I jumped up and down. I wiggled my hips. I dipped my shoulders to a silent dance track. I grinned like a happy fool.

When I landed in Chicago and got to the conference hotel, I did the usual dashing about--check-in, conference registration, tote bag critique, hello to five hundred friends. But I stopped in the middle of the lobby and ignored the noise long enough to call my Grandma Beasley back at home. (Agh. Just writing this...I miss her.) Someone would pay me to write a book, I told her. A book about growing up with food allergies. 

"Well, darlin'," she said in her accent, still Texan from younger days. "After all these years, there turns out to be a silver lining." 

Independence Day

A combination of things both good (daytrip to the Mississippi Delta) and bad (internet outage at my sublet) have kept me away from the blog this week. Let's think of it as the calm before the storm. Tuesday kicks off the one-week countdown to book publication on July 12, so I'll be posting daily. You can also always keep track of me on Twitter (where I talk about everything from moonshine to Oxford commas to my girl-crush on Ann Patchett) and via Facebook, if you don't already.

Oh! Those on Facebook know that Crown is giving away a copy of DKTBG through their Read It Forward program. I'd be delighted if someone who reads this blog took it home. You can find a little essay from me about the conception of the book--and sign up to win, if you do so by July 4--by visiting the Read it Forward website here. And if you happen to live in Arizona, the Arizona Food Allergy Alliance is doing a giveaway too.

This is the fourth year in a row when I've had an apartment with a great view of Washington's skyscape for fireworks--and ended up nowhere near that apartment on the Fourth of July. (One year I was in McLean, Virginia; another year, Wyoming; and now, Oxford.) I told my folks it would be a crime if they didn't head over to my apartment, enjoy the cold beer in the fridge, and sit on the balcony to watch the show. 

I love fireworks no matter where I am, but there is something special--dare I say, downright patriotic--about watching them in DC. One of the best July 4ths of my life was the year my father returned home from his Army deployment for Desert Storm, which had taken him to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. He took me down to the National Mall, where we watched the technicians debut a brand-new firework: one that mimicked the shape to a yellow ribbon, the loops of the ribbon undulating and loosening as if being untied as the embers fell down the sky. I leaned my head on his should and thought, This is it. This is what awe feels like.