On September 7th, the Scottsdale Art Museum will be hosting The Art Guys, a comedy duo that uses humor to demystify the art world. This lecture is a free event that starts at 7PM. Find out more information about the event here. And check out The Art Guys at their minimalistic website here.
Today we are pleased to feature author Judith Sara Gelt as our Authors Talk series contributor. In her podcast, Judith discusses the “hermit crab essay,” which she describes as an essay living inside a form that isn’t typically in an essay. In the case of her piece in Issue 18, it is an essay living inside a rubric.
Judith also shares how delighted she is that readers have found humor in her piece, “Loneliness Recovery Rubric–Female.” She then discusses her pursuit for authenticity and explains how personal sharing requires practice, practice, and more practice. Before signing off, Judith encourages everyone to try pushing the envelop because “it’s wonderful to experiment.”
You can access Judith’s piece in Issue 18 of Superstition Review.
I usually try to buy all of my books new. It isn’t because I necessarily like the crispness of the pages (which I do), or because I am a supporter of the publishing industry (which I am). These are admittedly added bonuses, but the main reason why I purchase books new is to escape the insidious chattering of the book’s former readers, namely through marginalia. I do not want mystery Reader One’s thoughts on what the dog food is a metaphor for, nor do I care that mystery Reader Two felt the man with a limp was “scary!!!” These are discoveries I prefer to find—or not—on my own.
As such, I was extremely disappointed when I was unable to locate a reasonably priced new copy of the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction for my online writing class. In truth, I could find some new copies, but none that matched the ISBN that the university indicated on their “Required Reading” list. I took a chance and ordered a “Used – Very Good” copy through the university bookstore website, believing—erroneously—that “Very Good” meant the pages would not be littered with the comments, thoughts, highlights, musings, speculations, and condescending judgments of former readers. Unless the university bookstore believes it is “very good” for its students to know that one of the book’s previous owners felt a character “spends sooo much time talking about Henry,” I have to wonder if the bookstore even bothered to flip through the pages of the book before declaring it “Very Good.”
This is how I began reading David Sedaris’s essay “Repeat After Me.” Sedaris’s humorous essay explores his visit to Winston-Salem to tell his sister, Lisa, that one of his books had been optioned for a movie. Sedaris’s book (the potential movie) is a memoir piece that features his family—including Lisa—so Sedaris wanted to tell his sister in person that an actress may play her on the big screen. While traveling to his sister’s place in the essay, Sedaris reminisces about the “roles” he and his sister had been assigned growing up that—in Sedaris’s words— “effectively told us who we were.” As children, Lisa played the role as the one in the family with the most potential, while Sedaris was viewed with much lowered expectations. Later in life, as they grew and matured, Sedaris and his sister found themselves playing nearly the opposite roles.
As I settled into my sofa to begin reading Sedaris’s essay, I felt my excitement begin to grow. This was the first thing I had read by Sedaris and, as of late, I had been hearing his name quite often since he was in my city for another (different) book signing. I opened the anthology to the beginning of the essay “Repeat After Me.” I immediately tried to immerse myself with Sedaris’s brief bio and the start of his essay, but the word “ALLUSION” was printed in pencil over the top word in the first sentence, as if calling out in a neon-blinking sign that said “LOOK HERE!” I did my best to ignore the “allusion,” but I soon found myself flipping through the pages for a marginalia preview.
As far as I can tell, based on the pencil/pen type, handwriting and diction, there were at least three distinct former owners who felt obligated to critique the grammar, make snarky comments about the characters, bullet themes, and incessantly underline text (in ink, no less). While I did get into the rhythm and the humor of Sedaris’s essay, I ended up finding the marginalia equally humorous. I normally consider marginalia to be simply irritating, but perhaps I was primed to find their comments funny because the essay itself was categorized as “humor.” Thus, I began to read the marginalia as its own kind of “text”—a text that is superimposed on Sedaris’s text and full of meta-cognitive awareness.
Reader One was so exasperated by Sedaris’s choice of grammar and consumed with his/her judgments about Sedaris that she failed—in my humble opinion—to take note of the truly funny moments in the essay. Reader One chastised Sedaris “Why is his superlative in lower case?!?!” when Sedaris wrote that “to this day, as far as my family is concerned, I’m still the one most likely to set your house on fire.” Given that superlatives—as a general rule—aren’t supposed to be upper case, Reader One’s comment had me wondering whether or not she is the one “most likely to set your house on fire” in her family. In the same paragraph, when Sedaris wrote that while he accepted “ lowered expectations, Lisa fought hard to regain her former title,” Reader One snipped as if she had known Sedaris’s family her entire life, “Easier for him – always been that way.”
Yet, for some mysterious reason (that I, personally, find incredibly funny), all of the Readers who came before me failed to comment on the part of essay where Sedaris’s sister “land[ed] a job in the photo department of a large international drug company, where she took pictures of germs, viruses, and people reacting to germs and viruses.” Sedaris was telling the reader about his sister’s varied—and seemingly unrelated—series of jobs. At that line, “people reacting to germs and viruses,” I imagine people reacting with mock horror at the sight of an enlarged squiggly Ebola virus, and doubling over with their hands clutching their stomach at the sight of salmonella bacteria. I imagine people “reacting” by running in slow motion, yelling “Nooooooo….” for the benefit of the photography camera, pushing everyone else away to escape the horror they saw through the microscope in the Petri dish. Alternately, to take a more somber view of the line “people reacting to germs and viruses,” I imagine people laying in a hospital bed or dry heaving over a toilet. There is so much imagery—so much potential “funny”—bound up in that one tiny line, yet the book’s former Readers chose to ignore that line and, instead, underline the fact Sedaris’s sister earned “an English degree.” Reader One later noted in a space between paragraphs, “Lisa throws herself into things she really isn’t passionate about.” Yes, Reader One, I agree—that part is very clear.
After initially looking at marginalia with disdain, I now have to admit there is more to it than irritating spoiler alerts and banal judgments. It is like a two, three, or (in my case) four-way conversation about an author’s work. It is the benefit of a book club without having to get out of your car. I no longer view marginalia with complete disdain—but I still prefer to read a “clean” copy first. Moreover, I am sure it is only matter of time before someone will mock my marginalia as well, and wonder why in the world I drew a smiley face next to the line about people reacting to germs and viruses.
Project Humanities is a university-wide initiative at Arizona State University that strives to connect people through talking, listening, and connecting about the humanities. Every semester, Project Humanities chooses a theme that will guide their kick-off week and subsequent semester. Kick-off week for the Fall 2013 semester will run from September 16-21 with the focus of “Humor… Seriously.” Advertising intern April Hanks had the opportunity to conduct a phone interview with Neal Lester, Foundation Professor of English at Arizona State University and Director of Project Humanities.
April Hanks: How would you explain project humanities to someone?
Neal Lester: Project Humanities is a university-wide effort to demystify and to promote the relevance of humanities research and public programs across all campuses and into the surrounding communities. And we do that through a number of strategies that are research-specific as well as public programs that engage diverse communities. It’s all year round and it has been in place for about three years.
AH: How did Project Humanities begin?
NL: The germ of the idea began in fall 2010 and that’s when we assembled. I served as Dean of Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the time and one of my charges was to make humanities more robust. It was at a time when a lot of humanities programs across the country were being cut because of budget and… around the country they seemed to be chopping at humanities courses first. So what I figured I needed to do in terms of making humanities more robust was to first sort of take humanities out of this notion that humanities happens within a classroom. [I needed to show] that humanities were bigger than discipline and that we could actually talk about humanities across all disciplines. And so that became sort of the focus. How do we talk across disciplines, how do we talk within disciplines so it’s not as if literary scholars are always talking with historians or historians are always talking to religious studies scholar? So there was an effort both to talk within disciplines, but also to talk beyond and across disciplines about those kinds of questions that humanities ask. And they’re not formulas. They’re not always black and white. But it’s to find meaning in those sort of grey spaces between, say, STEM disciplines and look at humanities as a way of basically helping us better understand what is going on in our lives and the world.
AH: You mentioned that Project Humanities reaches out to the community…
NL: Communities. I get a little bothered when we sort of make community monolithic, because I don’t know what that means when we talk about the community. Because what Project Humanities tries to do is reach out to multiple communities and my personal sense is that each individual is a member of multiple communities simultaneously. We can certainly talk about communities within ASU, we can also talk about communities outside and beyond ASU.
AH: How does Project Humanities engage with communities outside of ASU?
NL: First of all, we have about 100 programs a year that we either sponsor or cosponsor. We’ve done Project Humanities events at churches that were not necessarily faith-based programs, we’ve had film screenings at one of the churches downtown, we had another public program at one of the cafes, the Fair Trade Café, we did another at Sunnyside Diner in Ahwatukee, we do things at the library, we had a program that was actually at The Lot, which is downtown Phoenix outside, we had one of our first programs that engaged the community at the Phoenix Youth Hostel, in addition to having programs on campuses across all four campuses. So that’s one way.
Not only do we have programs at these other places, but we also invite people from these communities into ASU to sit on panels or into ASU to give a lecture or to participate in a conversation. For “Humor… Seriously” we actually have a representative from Tempe Improv as well as the National Comedy Theater, I believe, who are coming in to talk in the business school about the business of humor. So it’s not as much about being funny or talking about humor and how humor is done, we have other workshops about that, but this is how do you market humor. How do comedy clubs survive? How do improv groups survive? What is the entrepreneurial aspect of humor? So these are not people who are ASU people, they are coming from the outside. We also engage with national communities. So we don’t just deal with the local but we try to make sure that the local expertise interfaces with the national. So we have national speakers coming in, we have people leading workshops who are national experts. We also talk about the international communities and we have a visiting scholar now from Norway. And our Hand campaign, which is the t-shirts: people wearing the t-shirts and then sending us pictures from all over the world. So there are multiple ways we engage with communities outside of ASU but also communities inside of ASU.
AH: You’ve mentioned several times that the focus for this semester is humor, so how did Project Humanities decide to focus on humor this semester?
NL: We have a signature event: biannual kick-offs. And rather than doing what some universities have done, which is to just sort of throw anything and everything that has to do with humanities into a segment of the semester, we decided, this was a steering committee and I three years ago, that we would try to have some kind of thematic focus. But a thematic focus that would allow anybody doing anything across disciplines, communities, and professions.
So the first one we did, which launched it in spring of 2011, was “Perspectives on Place.” And that theme is interesting because when we started Project Humanities, it was to address a number of things, not only about the place of humanities in higher education when parents and students are asking where you’ll get a job when you major in English or French or Spanish or even art history. So it was the place of humanities in that conversation. The other part had to do specifically with the southwest. At the time, Arizona was going through some really difficult political and social conversation about racial profiling, about immigration, about attacks on ethnic studies. SB 1070 was high on everybody’s list and there was this narrative circulating that Arizona was not very hospitable to difference, and cultural difference at that. So Project Humanities was a conscious effort to try to address some of those issues, to say “here’s a different narrative about what’s going on in the southwest, in Arizona, and at Arizona State University.” So in many ways the idea of the project was focused around a particular need to address a number of things that were specific…
So then we did one on American music, and we had a number of performances. We had Blues at the MU, we had conversations about blues and memory, we had performances. I remember one in particular where we had a sold out audience in Old Main, where we had performances of gospel, of barber shop, and of poetry and rock. But punctuating each of those performances, and they were actually diverse, were music historians’ views of how these different genres connected. So it wasn’t just a series of performances as if you’ve been to a concert.
Then we had another one on truth, and a lot of these come out of what’s happening in the world, so at the time it was about whether or not truth is overrated. People are always saying “tell the truth and nothing but the whole truth,” so we sort of explored that. What does it mean to do truth in art? The students had something about white lies: what does it mean when you’re just telling a little white lie? So there’s all these efforts to talk about truth.
Then we did one on “Are We Losing Our Humanity?” And that one has been the one that has resonated in more far-reaching ways. And I say that because we built a summer film series around it, which is a film per month at one of the public libraries in Phoenix, not always at the same place. And that led to a number of public lectures that I did and continue to do because people are actually trying to give meaning to some of the stuff that doesn’t make sense, whether it be a Tucson tragedy, or Aurora, Colorado shootings, or Newtown, Connecticut, or any number of things that are happening in our own neighborhoods.
So from “Are We Losing Our Humanity?” we moved into for the spring, “Heroes, Superheroes, and Superhumans.” And that seemed a natural fit because often times wherever there’s great tragedy we also hear these stories of great heroism. And we were also able to move not only into comic books, but also in terms of veterans as heroes, teachers as heroes, everyday heroism. And we created a number of activities around the theme.
From that, the humor felt like everybody could bring something to the table on humor. And it was not just comedy, so we deliberately didn’t name it comedy, but we tried to look at humor not only from a scholarly perspective, but also from a performance perspective. So we’ve got a couple of open mics, we’ve got workshops, we’ve got film screenings, we’ve got lectures, we’ve got a funniest teacher contest that’s coming up. So the idea is to try to find something that everyone can potentially participate in so that it’s not something that excludes people.
AH: What is your future vision for Project Humanities?
NL: Well, I want Project Humanities to first of all be more nationally visible. I want it to be one of the leaders when people talk about humanities nationally. Somebody will say, “What is Project Humanities doing?” or “What would they say about this?” And I also want it to be a center for collaboration across disciplines and across professions and communities. We’re writing a number of grants now, so we can expand the reach of Project Humanities. We don’t have a very large staff, but we have a growing staff of students who are both volunteers and also student workers. And I think more people are knowing about Project Humanities. I mean, I’m so excited that three years ago we started with about 200 Facebook likes. This summer, we had about 600 and of right now we have 936 likes. And our announcement about Bill Nye went viral immediately because Bill Nye is going to be one of our guest speakers this semester, talking about humor science and science humor through the lens of humanities. So that’s one indication, I’d like for that to be more robust. I’d like for us to be more nationally visible and I’d like for people to know when they’re going to an event, “Wow. I get humanities. Humanities really is important.”
For more information on Project Humanities or their fall kick-off events, check out the Project Humanities website (http://humanities.asu.edu/) or Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/projecthumanities).
Laurie Notaro: “Cracking Up! Humor between the Lines in Literature & Writing”
(Mesa, AZ, September 6, 2013) –Superstition Review is continuing its popular reading series this fall with a talk, book-signing, and Q&A with Author Laurie Notaro.
Laurie Notaro was born in Brooklyn, New York, then spent the remainder of her formative years in Phoenix, AZ, where she created something of a checkered past. She is the New York Times Best-selling author of the humor memoirs The Idiot Girls Action Adventure Club, Autobiography of a Fat Bride, I Love Everybody and Other Atrocious Lies, We Thought You Would Be Prettier, Idiot Girls’ Christmas, There’s a Slight Chance I Might Be Going to Hell, and The Idiot Girls.
She is a terrible typist, doesn’t suffer Big Ikes very well, and lives under an assumed name in Eugene, Oregon where her neighbors believe she is writing about them, but she is not. She has a cute dog, a nice husband and misses Mexican food like a limb lost to diabetes.
While no one can exactly teach you how to be a comedian, this talk can demonstrate where to find the funny, how to get it off to a running start, establish timing, and then incorporate humor into your writing. Notaro will discuss the mechanics of humor, voice, the role of rhythm, subject matter and the value of relatability, as well as writing for your audience vs. writing for yourself while merging the two approaches.
This Superstition Review event is co-sponsored by the School of Letters and Sciences and Project Humanities as part of Project Humanities’ Fall 2013 Kickoff Week, with the theme of “Humor…Seriously!” The evening will include refreshments, a book sale and signing, and an author Q&A.
WHO: Laurie Notaro with Superstition Review and Project Humanities
WHAT: Talk, Booksigning, and Q&A
WHERE: ASU Polytechnic Campus, Cooley Ballroom
WHEN: Tuesday Sep 17, 6 pm
For further information: Visit https://www.facebook.com/events/1377315692498730/ or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
In our Issue 7, Superstition Review had the honor to publish poetry by Matthew Gavin Frank. We would like to share that Frank’s new book Pot Farm (The University of Nebraska Press/Bison Books), is now available for pre-order on the press website and on Amazon. The book is a behind-the-scenes exposé of a Northern California medical marijuana farm.
Praise for Pot Farm:
“Pot Farm is the curious and compelling tale of a hazy season spent harvesting medical marijuana. The cast of characters rivals those found in the finest comic fiction, except these folks are real, and really peculiar. Pot Farm is smart, sly, revelatory, often laugh-out-loud funny, and entirely legal.”—Dinty W. Moore, author of Between Panic and Desire
“Sex, politics, intrigue, crime, adventure, life and death—it’s all here, in a strangely compelling hybrid of action flick meets postmodern philosophical meditation meets Cheech and Chong. This compulsively readable exposé from a self-proclaimed ‘unreliable narrator’ has it all, including a cast of outcast characters who simply jump off the page.”—Gina Frangello, author of Slut Lullabies
Frank’s book Barolo has gone into its second printing in paperback, and will include links to Italian Piemontese recipes. This new addition is available for preorder here.
Matthew Scott Healy lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with his wife and daughter. He teaches English and Creative Writing at Scottsdale Community College. His work has appeared in Blackbird and Cutbank. His is the recipient of the Finnely Award for Humorous Short Fiction, and his story “Always the Obvious Places” was nominated for storySouth as the most notable story of 2010.
Superstition Review: I’m drawn to the character Emmett in “Always the Obvious Places.” Can you please describe how you came up with a character that would “throw a cactus” just to get away from the police?
Matthew Healy: I like the idea of characters without shame, who hold nothing back. Here is Emmett, a guy with the thumb of law enforcement upon him, yet he maintains this defiant posture of bluster. So many characters are governed by the consequences of their actions, and I wanted to have a character who is the exact opposite. He’s a guy without any permanence in his life, so his refusal to change is his anchor point. He’s also the character the other characters want most to change, but Emmett is so obdurate that by necessity others must do the changing around him.
SR: How did you imagine the life situation for Emmett and family? Where did it come from?
MH: Emmett’s life is about resiliency in a place where nothing is permanent. His job, his living situation, his girlfriend, what kids are around—all of it fluctuates wildly. I’ve known people like Emmett, and what amazes me is their ability to survive in such flux. In the story, Emmett has a somewhat stable living situation, but I imagine him living somewhere else a month before the story begins and somewhere else a month after the story ends. I worked briefly as a probation officer, and so many defendants exist this way, living as nomads. One of my defendants moved from jail to a halfway house. Within a week, he was living with a new girlfriend and her kids (who were already calling him “Dad”). A week later, he moved in with his parents, and then into some apartment with a different girlfriend and her kids. This wasn’t uncommon. I watched people join a family for only a week or two before joining another. The men and women became temporary fathers and mothers—an entire migrating community of interchangeable family members. I think that’s why Emmett can be so lighthearted about Officer Jay and Sgt. Falco’s visit, because their presence is temporary. Eventually, they will go home to other, better parts of the city, away from this vortex of instability, and Emmett will keep moving inside of it.
SR: The location of “Always the Obvious Places” is very vivid. How does place inform your writing?
MH: I grew up next to families who were not far away from Emmett’s circumstances. Actually, they may have been worse. My two best friends living on either side have spent their lives in and out of prison. I still remember the sights and sounds and smells of their houses: dark hallways, navigating through heaps of clothes and trash, looking for a space to play. Blackish-brown carpet that was harder than tile from all the abandoned spills. As a little kid, I was too young to understand or be bothered by such conditions. It just seemed strange and different. Later, when I became a probation officer, my reaction was much different. One of pity and disgust and anger (especially when I found babies and toddlers living in conditions that were squalid, but not enough to warrant intervention by CPS). I felt very much like a tourist lost in a bad part of a foreign city, standing in the living rooms of people and making recommendations on how they should improve their lives.
In “Obvious Places,” the setting influences how the characters behave and what they value. I wanted Emmett’s home to seem tangible and constrictive, yet ephemeral—a place that could be razed to the ground without anyone paying it much mind.
SR: In almost each line of “Always the Obvious Places,” there is a trace of humor. What are some of the difficulties of writing humor? What are the joys? Who are some of your favorite authors who use humor?
MH: I think one of the dangers of humor is becoming seduced by it and sacrificing the story for a few laughs. I didn’t necessary begin “Obvious Places” intending for it to be funny. Instead, the humor was a necessary counterbalance to the very bleak reality of Emmett’s life, which in so many ways is simply tragic. I just realized that one of the worst things anyone can do is analyze humor, so I’ll resist the temptation to dissect it.
Instead, I’ll answer the last part of your question, and mention a few funny writers I admire. I favor wry and subdued humor that’s attached to something much larger and darker, something that’s lurking after the punch-line to shake things up. Along those lines, Sherman Alexie has a wonderfully deadpan humor, and so does Denis Johnson. One of my favorites, though, is Richard Russo. When writing “Obvious Places,” I was actually thinking about Russo’s very funny novel Straight Man. In a strange twist, Russo’s agent contacted me out of the blue after reading “Obvious Places” to tell me he had enjoyed it. I’m still trying to figure out if that means I unintentionally channeled Russo’s voice too much in the story. As I tell my intro creative writing students, after reading someone you love, wait at least an hour before starting to write. What works for eating and swimming might work for reading and writing.
SR: What are you writing now? What are you reading?
MH: I just finished revising two short stories as part of a collection, but I’m also about halfway through writing a novel, which has turned out to be the most difficult undertaking of my life. I’m used to writing short stories, which is primarily what I like to read. Right now I’m reading the sizeable collection edited by Joyce Carol Oates, and most of the stories so far are pretty engaging.
I’m not reading any novels right now, though not for lack of trying. Unless they’re really good, my attention in most novels tends to sputter out after a hundred pages or so—an awful admission for someone who is trying to write one, but it’s true. When I was in Ohio State’s MFA program, we got to meet Michael Chabon, and we discussed the differences in short and long forms. He believes most writers fall into one category or the other, so perhaps I’m just a short form type of guy. (By the way, he admitted to being a long form guy.) This is fine with me, even though there’s no money in writing short stories, but it’s a shame since short fiction is so pristine and every word is so deliberate. I love the necessary ambiguity of short stories—there simply isn’t time to render every detail, so much of the story that orbits the literal prose must happen in the reader’s imagination. Who knows, maybe the dwindling attention spans means a lucrative future for short story writers.