Book Recommendation: Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado

This short story collection is perfect for anyone who doesn’t like distinctions. It’s literary fiction that romps through horror, pop culture, and ghost stories, and revels in the strange, the grotesque and the just gross. I was fascinated and read it more or less in a sitting, everything from an almost novella-length retelling of the ghost story “The Green Ribbon,” from the perspective of the wife with the detachable head which blends the original material with body-horror grounded in what happens to women in medical settings, to a bizarre hallucinatory riff on “Law and Order: SVU” that feels like reading online episode recaps while running a very high fever, to a heartbreaking meditation on loss set in a world where women literally become invisible, narrated by a young woman losing her girlfriend. The stories are excessive, and that’s the point. They are also brilliantly queer in the contemporary sense and also in the historic sense: something odd, something that doesn’t fit anywhere, and that insists on being only itself.

Questions and Answers:

Yes, you are still putting questions in the box! Blessings on all of your heads. Please keep it up. If you already asked a question but want to ask another, go for it. I won’t know it’s you.

Q: Do you have any tips on how to know that a piece has had enough edits? Even if you feel overall good about it, you think there still could be things to add but how do you know when to stop? (especially with poetry)

A: You don’t know, but you can make a productive guess. Time helps. Leave your writing alone for a while, and you’ll gain perspective on what needs to be removed or rewritten. Usually more than you think, in the first excitement of finishing a draft. Usually the process of rewriting involves cutting more than you thought, to bring out what is good underneath. Often it involves extensive rewriting. But you need to get the writing down on the page, messily and excessively, before you can gauge what needs to stay and what needs to go. I find it helps to think from the perspective of the reader, trying to see whether you are over-determining their experience, not allowing them to make their own conclusions. If you are leading them rather than letting them roam, keep editing. As to when to stop: stop when you can’t imagine the text any other way. And give it time.

Q: Can you offer advice on how to build or solidify a writing voice? Does writing voice change with time or does it stay consistent even if you acquire new tools of the craft?

A: Your voice will not come to you whole, unless you are a genius, and not always then. Your voice comes to you through the practice of writing, through many, many hours spent putting words on the page. At first it will be stilted, clumsy, or too ornate. You will exaggerate. You will show off. You will indulge yourself. And slowly, slowly, you will stop doing those things and start to feel like your writing is true. The distance between what you imagine and what makes it onto the page will always be there. But the more you write, the more the gap will close. As to the second part of your question: yes, it changes, for the reasons above. I remember being irritated, in university, by an eighteenth century essay on Shakespeare that praised his “naturalness,” that his writing was some kind of spontaneous overflow of sensitivity rather than a craft. I thought (and still think) that it’s the opposite: in the early plays, he overdoes it, he shows off. He’s a young writer, desperately trying to prove his own worth. It’s in the later plays that he becomes simple, direct, so sure of himself he doesn’t need to overstate his case. That’s what makes the late plays so astonishing: he has learned to be simple, he doesn’t waste time. So even for a genius, voice is learned, and changes as the person changes.

Q: Poetry recommendations for newbie?

A: Great question. It depends on your taste. That said, you need to read to figure out what your taste is. It might be ornate, it might be simple, it might be explicitly political, or you might be primarily interested in an experience of beauty (which is also, of course, political). You might like a bit of everything. Here are a few random recommendations, some historic and some contemporary, some Canadian and some not, just stuff I like:

  • Luke Hathaway, The Affirmations
  • Sue Sinclair, Heaven’s Thieves
  • Paul Vermeersch, The Reinvention of the Human Hand (yes, he is your instructor, and this book is brilliant)
  • Aisha Sasha John, Thou
  • Souvankham Thammavongsa, Cluster
  • Jessica Moore, Everything, Now
  • T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
  • Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems
  • Sylvia Plath, Ariel
  • Anne Sexton, Transformations
  • Gwendolyn MacEwen, The T. E. Lawrence Poems
  • Carl Phillips, Wild Is the Wind