Malcolm Tariq's poetry book, "Heed the Hollow," examines blackness, queerness, and the South

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Malcom Tariq and his book Heed the Hollow

Author photo by Karisma Price.

To say that Heed the Hollow by Malcolm Tariq is about the queer black experience is both true and also too simple. The poetry collection engages with the American South, the history of slavery, and sexuality and eroticism in candid, unexpected ways.

In the introduction, Chris Albani, who selected the book for the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, aptly illuminates what this book does, writing, “This is where we find Malcolm Tariq’s work, on the cusp of a new south, a new Black, a new self-love, a new history. He is one of a new emerging crop of writers that is redefining Blackness in the United States….” The collection shares perspectives on this history and lineage in relation to today.

One of the poems -- a cento that borrows lines from other places -- states, “We give narrative to experience every day. Being born and living lawfully in my / humanness, I live a reality denied to the enslaved and formerly enslaved.” This contrast between today’s way of life and the not-too-distant past offers insight into how this country’s history still shadows the experience of the present.

In "Find Me," author André Aciman resumes the stories of characters from "Call Me by Your Name"

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Andre Aciman and his book Find Me

Author photo by Christopher Ferguson.

How do we know if we are fully living our lives? Does asking that question mean that we are not?

Find Me by André Aciman is a novel obsessed with these questions. Its characters find such great love that they feel as though they had not been living previously. This book also continues the stories of Elio and Oliver, among other characters, which first appeared in Call Me by Your Name, Aciman’s 2007 novel. While reading Call Me by Your Name before Find Me would provide helpful background, you can enjoy Find Me without having read the other book, as I read Find Me first for this interview with Aciman and then Call Me by Your Name after.

Aciman is a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and lives with his wife in Manhattan. He will be in conversation with Zahir Janmohamed and also answer audience questions at Rackham Auditorium at the University of Michigan Saturday, November 9, at 7 pm in a ticketed event by Literati Bookstore.

In the four-parted Find Me, the first section focuses on Samuel, who is Elio’s father and receives a bigger role than in the previous book. On the topic of whether someone is truly living, Samuel reflects, “Some of us never jumped to the next level. We lost track of where we were headed and as a result stayed where we started.” As he interacts with Miranda, a woman he meets on a train, he muses about embracing life and how conversely, “Perhaps going about one’s daily life with all its paltry joys and sorrows is the surest way of keeping true life at bay.” This concern becomes not only a call to action and attention for Samuel as he comes to this awareness while his relationship with Miranda simultaneously grows, but also a theme as other characters reconsider their lives in subsequent parts of the novel.

The next three sections of Find Me center on other characters -- Elio, Oliver, and Elio again -- in their first-person voices, and they pick up what has happened in their lives since Call Me by Your Name. The subject of how to live gains more nuance as those characters discuss who they have been, who they are now, and how they have changed over time. Michel, Elio’s lover, says to him, “I suspect we have first selves and second selves and perhaps third, fourth, and fifth selves and many more in between.” He recognizes how, at different times and places in life, we are different people, and then later we are no longer those people. This concept becomes especially poignant between Elio and Oliver.

Not only do people evolve during their lives but they also reveal unique parts of themselves in different relationships and situations. As Samuel says to Miranda, “Most of us never meet those who’ll understand our full rounded self. I show people only that sliver of me I think they’ll grasp. I show others other slices. But there’s always a facet of darkness I keep to myself.” Find Me is also clearly preoccupied with who we are and how we know -- and are known to -- others.

The events and musings of characters in Find Me expose the situational nature of relationships and also embrace intensity and sensuality, though it may be hard to believe the ways and speed in which relationships progress. Fate plays somewhat of a role in bringing characters together, but the novel suggests that the characters’ choices and desires have a bigger effect on their lives. At so many points in the relationship between Samuel and Miranda, or Elio and Oliver, someone chooses or chooses not to say something, or they get scared and bolt. Yet, they discover a greater life when following their desires.

Aciman answered some questions from me before his visit to Ann Arbor.

Poet and U-M writing instructor Molly Spencer sees the world "as a collection of thresholds" in her new book, "If the house"

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Molly Spencer and her book If the house

Author photo by Michelle Massey Barnes.

Throughout Molly Spencer’s new book of poetry, If the house, each measured word reveals the intensities and scenes of home, time, and solitary experience amidst people and relationships. In a poem titled “How to Love the New House,” there is a line that answers, “Until you ache with it.” Another poem, “As if life can go on as it has,” includes the sentence, “The earth has all these endings,” and the speaker goes on to share, “I am / in a kitchen’s heavy afternoon / light,” almost implying that the sun could indicate a conclusion. 

Perhaps most consistently, the passage of seasons prominently delineates time in If the house. Early on, a stanza depicts time’s effects through apples and squash:

Given time, they will ripen, 

grow sweet, become something

for you to get by on. 

It seems that time offers sufficient sustenance to keep going and also that time keeps independently moving, resulting in byproducts like sweetening. Later, the lines, “It’s December” and then “October and the birds flock / and rise, whole-cloth” appear in different poems. So months also mark time in this collection, along with other indicators, such as, “My body / adds itself again to the unfolding / rooms of time,” and there are “...other Augusts far / from here, but not so far you can’t / reel them back in....” Each moment is clearly fixed to others by virtue of time being linear, but life in this poetry collection’s world still changes and shifts, showing contrasts to previous points in time to which the speaker remains connected. 

Eileen Pollack's "The Professor of Immortality" novel explores science, tech, grief, motherhood, whether we can truly know another person -- and the Unabomber's time in Ann Arbor

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Eileen Pollack and her book The Professor of Immortality

Author photo by Michele McDonald.

The Professor of Immortality by Eileen Pollack is preoccupied with how well people can know each other and how they deal with flaws and surprises in relationships when they care about the other person. The book raises questions about whether it is better to be together despite challenges and what the costs are either way. The ending seems to point strongly to an answer yet still lets the reader wrestle with this matter.

Main character Professor Maxine Sayers has an energizing job, loving husband, quirky child, and comfortable home -- until she doesn’t. Her husband dies unexpectedly, and then she experiences issues with her existing family members as her son becomes inaccessible and her mother’s health deteriorates. Through all of these changes and problems, the novel delves into Maxine’s thoughts and feelings about the goings-on. She must contend with whether what she believed and worked for is right and if it is what she still wants.

As Maxine takes action to figure out is transpiring with her son and a former student, she reflects deeply on her life and connections to people. At one point while talking with a friend and colleague, Rosa, Maxine wonders how to cope with her concerns, and she experiences some relief from Rosa:           

[Rosa] settles beside Maxine and rubs her back until Maxine is crying in her arms. That’s all anyone wants, isn’t it? To be held? Isn’t that the best Terror Management System any of us has devised?

This passage feels poignant in and of itself and becomes even more weighty with the fact that the book draws inspiration from Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Another character, Angelina, provides further insight, noting that for many, “‘…their troubles are because of what is missing in their lives. And there is no way you could make up for that.’” These insights buoy Maxine when she faces what she fears is true and makes difficult decisions as a mother.

Pollack previously directed the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan (U-M), and she has written numerous books, including the recent novel, The Bible of Dirty Jokes. Now she lives in New York City. Ann Arbor welcomes her back Friday, October 11, at 7 pm at Literati Bookstore, where she’ll be in conversation with author Natalie Bakopoulos. I asked her some questions beforehand.

Beer captivates and divides a family in J. Ryan Stradal's new Midwestern saga, "The Lager Queen of Minnesota"

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J. Ryan Stradal and his book The Lager Queen of Minnesota

Author photo by Franco P. Tettamanti

Beer and pie remain constant for characters through rifts, tragedies, and changes in J. Ryan Stradal’s new book, The Lager Queen of Minnesota. The novel follows two sisters, Helen and Edith, as they come of age and make lives for themselves. Yet their paths diverge when Helen taps their father for all the money from the sale of the family farm, which divides the family. Edith becomes known for her pies, hops between service industry jobs, and endures several major losses, all while bottling her feelings about the uneven inheritance. Helen pores over chemistry and learns to make beer in college, and then she grows a large, successful brewery with the help of the farm proceeds. When Edith’s granddaughter, Diana, inadvertently enters the beer business, their paths head toward each other again.

Chapters in this plot-driven yet poignant novel alternate the focus between characters and are titled by various sums of money exchanged within them. The backstory and present lives of the three female main characters are blended throughout the chapters as Diana’s story parallels Helen’s in some ways. It is not only about what is happening or has happened, though. The novel also lingers on nostalgic or emotional moments. When Edith loses her husband, Stanley, the narrator describes that:

Her grief was a forest with no trails, and she couldn’t guess how long her heart would walk through it, as her body walked other places. For half a century, she had seen or spoken with this man almost every day, so his life didn’t end when he died; it found its way into cereal aisles and intersections and post office lines and conversations she didn’t intend.

It’s clear that Edith cares deeply about those around her even as she struggles to get by.

The characters don’t succumb to bitterness despite challenges to support themselves, and they celebrate their successes in an industry that fluctuates based on consumers’ preferences. Beer aficionados and foodies might appreciate the well-crafted descriptions of brewing methods and tasting notes. One passage describes “Grandma Edith’s Rhubarb-Pie-In-A-Bottle” ale as such:

The beer has a fluffy pink two-finger head and smells like malty rhubarb, so it’s certainly not out to fool anybody. ... This beer is flawed, wonderful, and strange in a way only a certain individual could devise, and it renders every other beer on the shelf a faceless SKU.

This review of her beer illustrates Edith’s and other characters’ work ethics and distinct Midwestern traits.

Stradal has first-hand knowledge of the setting, as he grew up in Minnesota. He now lives in Los Angeles and is a contributing editor at TASTE, an online magazine about food and cooking. His first novel is Kitchens of the Great Midwest. He reads at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, September 24, at 7 pm, and I interviewed him ahead of time.

Poet, Princeton lecturer, and former Zingerman's employee Michael Dickman accounts for days line by line in new collection

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Poet Michael Dickman and his books Days & Fays

Author photo by Michael Lionstar.

Days go by in many sorts of ways: hectic, enjoyably, dragging, intensely, calmly, explosively, gratifyingly. They can take on not just one but a range of characteristics. I am convinced that poet Michael Dickman goes through his days attentively if his poems are any indication of how he lives.

Drawing on nature and circumstances, Dickman’s new collection, Days & Days, reveals observations about parenthood, television, love, hotel stays, prescription drugs, and bodies of water. The poems are associative. Lines next to each other may seem unrelated and abstract at times, and then a line a few pages later will relate to a previous thought. The longest poem, “Lakes Rivers Streams,” reads:

          This is the earth & sometimes the earth

                    changes color

          Now I remember they were horses mulching the backyard

The horse metaphor for children continues:

          My horse kids eat something off the ground I can’t quite make out 

and

          What should I do with their withers & fetlocks what should I do with

                    their dressage?

          A parade is nice

These lines capture the variety and vicissitudes of days, whether with children or other topics. One wonders if Dickman is constantly jotting down fragments as he goes through his days and later fits them together into cohesive poems.

Formerly of Ann Arbor, Dickman now teaches at Princeton University. He reads at Literati Bookstore on Friday, September 20, at 7 pm. I interviewed him prior for Pulp.

Rachel DeWoskin's "Banshee" follows a woman exploring impulses and freedom after a medical scare

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Rachel DeWoskin, Banshee

Author photo by Annie Li.

Rachel DeWoskin's Banshee is a novel about Samantha Baxter, a woman who faces a serious medical diagnosis and casts about for meaning while acting out in ways inconsistent with the life she has lived so far. She crosses lines in her job as a professor and her roles as wife and mother. Through it all, she recognizes the incongruencies of her actions, but she does not just plow ahead disrupting her middle-aged life; instead, she both makes her choices and contemplates how they unfold.

While her actions appear extreme, ranging from sleeping with a student to alienating her husband, Samantha does not leave her life and home. Her defiance centers on how she acts within her existing family and professional relationships. Samantha says what she wants to, unapologetically follows her impulses, and lets the consequences unfold. Accordingly, the prose consists of her first-person narration of her experiences and perspective as she transforms and reacts to her major health problem and to how she feels in new situations. The plot becomes about what she does or doesn’t do, what she says or doesn’t say, and what she thinks and feels about all of it.

Writer, poet, and Ann Arbor native DeWoskin previously acted in a Chinese soap opera and now teaches at the University of Chicago. She will speak about and sign Banshee at Literati Bookstore on Monday, September 9, at 7 pm. Beforehand, I interviewed her about her writing and new novel.

Author and A2 Pioneer Instructor Jeff Kass Contemplates the Working Life in "Teacher/Pizza Guy"

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Jeff Kass, Teacher/Pizza Guy

What do you do?

It’s what people ask when they first meet as a way to identify each other, yet our jobs do not have to define us.

When I asked Jeff Kass this question, he answered with three jobs: a full-time English teacher at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, part-time pizza delivery person, and part-time director of literary programs at the Neutral Zone for a year in 2016-2017. During that time, he also worked on drafting the autobiographical poems about this experience that form his new collection, Teacher/Pizza Guy (Wayne State University Press).

Teacher/Pizza Guy reveals Kass’ experiences in the classroom and pizza place, including issues with service industry jobs, challenges of aging, and relationships with colleagues, youth, and family. Despite the possible mundanity of work, Kass offers poetic insights on the situations. The first poem in the collection, “Oh, Splotch of Blue Paint,” not only addresses the paint on the sidewalk outside of the school where Kass teaches but also ruminates about its origins:

…were you trying to paint the sea? A place 

for you to float in? The breeze a lovely, reassuring

friend who brings you cookies and iced tea

and listens to you without judging…? 

This speculative question, in turn, raises a question for me: Isn’t that what we’d all like, a pleasant place, a friend who shares treats, and good conversation? Another poem depicts colleagues crossing paths in the night as Kass returns to home from his pizza-slinging job to see a fellow pizza slinger working his other job of delivering newspapers.

Amidst dishwashing, disastrous delivery runs, and the grind of teaching students in class after class how to write essays, Kass pulls out moments of clarity that describe the working life. One poem describes a break during which he makes a pizza for himself, one that’s not on the menu, and writes, “Believe / for a moment / your time / belongs / to you. / Savor. / Chew.”

Within the drudgery of going from job to job, Kass is not all work; he observes and shows parallels between his jobs and life, recognizing and taking ownership of those moments rather than letting work consume him, almost as if he is both living his life and watching it from the outside. Kass finds meaning in those fleeting moments of entering and exiting customers’ lives to bring them pizza and also seeks respect as he makes ends meet.

Kass, who lives in Ann Arbor with his wife, Karen Smyte, and their children, Sam and Julius, will read from his collection at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, September 10, at 7 pm. I interviewed him about his poetry and work.

Caitlin Horrocks' novel "The Vexations" immerses readers in the life of composer Erik Satie

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Caitlin Horrocks, The Vexations

Author photo by Tyler Steimle.

Through chapters alternating between characters’ perspectives, Michigan writer Caitlin Horrocks’ new novel, The Vexations, narrates the life of not just composer and pianist Erik Satie but also the lives of his sister and brother, Louise and Conrad, and the people in their lives. The siblings’ experiences diverge as they are raised with different family members and pursue their unique interests and desires. Hardship, pain, and loss mark their pursuits, yet, true to history and especially for Erik, they find success, too.
 
Originally from Ann Arbor, Horrocks lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and teaches at Grand Valley State University. She will read at Literati Bookstore on Monday, August 19, at 7 pm. She answered some questions for Pulp here.
 

U-M grad Valencia Robin returns to Ann Arbor with her debut poetry collection, "Ridiculous Light"

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Valencia Robin, Ridiculous Light

Author photo by Jennifer Walkowiak.

Valencia Robin’s new poetry collection, Ridiculous Light, spans time, space, and seasons -- from Milwaukee in the 1960s to Ann Arbor -- and offers moments of distinct observations. The speaker invites readers into specific recollections and, within them, shares not just what happened but vivid descriptions and sublime reflections on the natural world, people, identity, and experiences. 

A poet and painter, Robin is one of the founding members of GalleryDAAS at the University of Michigan. She now lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

She will return to Ann Arbor to read at Literati Bookstore on Friday, August 16, at 7 pm, and Pulp interviewed her before her visit.