If we could just—just stop. For one year. If everybody could stop publishing their poems. No more. Stop it. Just—everyone. Every poet. Just stop.
But of course that’s totally unfair to the poets who are just starting out. This may be their “wunderjahr.” This may be the year that they really find their voice. And I’m telling them to stop? No, that wouldn’t do.
But wouldn’t it be great? To have a moment to regroup and understand? Everybody would ask, Okie doke, what new poems am I going to read today? Sorry: none. There are no new poems. And so you’re thrown back onto what’s already there, and you look at what’s on your own shelves, that you bought maybe eight years ago, and you think, Have I really looked at this book? Might have something to it. And it’s there, it’s been waiting and waiting. Without any demonstration or clamor. No squeaky wheel. It’s just been waiting.
If everybody was silent for a year—if we could just stop this endless forward stumbling progress—wouldn’t we all be better people? I think probably so. I think the lack of poetry, the absence of poetry, the yearning to have something new, would be the best thing that could happen to our art. No poems for a solid year. Maybe two.—Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist
My working theory is that the silence and the sunshine and the singing are key materials of the nest I am always building, to hold whatever thoughts, feelings, rhythms, and ideas become my poems.
Tara writes a monthly guest column on Nicole‘s blog. Every installment holds several gems, but her latest is particularly gemful. The nest! I adore this metaphor. What are my nest materials? How do I tend to build with them? I don’t know yet, but I have hunches. I want to lay them out and inventory them like a bower bird.
An additional thrill is that Tara and I will be working on something together in the next few months. She’s a spectacular poet (in addition to being a thoughtful and lyrical essayist), and sometime last year she shared a new collection of work with me under the title Low Tide Book. (You can hear me explore her idea of “a low tide of the spirit” in Ramble #20, notably before I got with the program and started pronouncing her name properly. It should be terra, like earth.)
I read the poems and loved them, and then I can’t quite remember what happened next but somehow I got to do my very favorite thing and smush two good people together while yelling “MAKE SOMETHING!”
The other person in this equation was my friend Stefan.
I say “my friend” in that way I do to refer to anyone I know primarily through the internet, and it’s true we’ve never met in person, but I do think of Stefan as a friend.
We connected on Kickstarter in 2012 because we were both running our first projects at the same time.1 He ended up with a copy of True Believer and I ended up with a copy of Cedar Toothpick and then we sort of fell out of touch. I do remember that his campaign didn’t have a video, but rather a delightful audio recording taken in a field. Possibly with some bees. Anyway, I loved his attention to quality in paper stock and his creative focus on the minutiae of the natural world. Cedar Toothpick still has pride of place in my poetry shelf.
When we reconnected via Instagram many years later, he floated the idea of collaborating on something. By that point he’d been branching out into publishing work by other writers under his imprint, Bored Wolves. Somewhere in there was when Tara sent me Low Tide Book, and somewhere shortly after that was the moment I realized they were perfect for each other. She had this manuscript full of contemplative poems crafted in conversation with the natural world, he had a tiny, remote cabin in the Polish highlands and access to a boutique printer. It writes itself, really.
So the long and the short of it is that we’re all making a book! Tara’s already written it, and I’m going to illustrate it, and Stefan’s going to publish it.
The title we decided on was Tell the Turning and it’s (as of May 1st) ON KICKSTARTER RIGHT NOW!
1. The ecosystem was much smaller then, so it was common to just become pals with whoever else showed up in the Discover tab. It was nice. ↩
There’s a paragraph from Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit that lodged firmly in my brain when I first read it in college. (I loaned my copy of the book to a friend years ago and it was only recently returned it to me, so this is the first chance I’ve had to go back and reread it in a long, long while.)
THE RITUAL IS THE CAB.
Eh-hem. Anyway. She goes on:
Turning something into a ritual eliminates the question, Why am I doing this? By the time I give the taxi driver directions, it’s too late to wonder why I’m going to the gym and not snoozing under the warm covers of my bed. The cab is moving. I’m committed. Like it or not, I’m going to the gym.
The ritual erases the question of whether or not I like it. It’s also a friendly reminder that I’m doing the right thing. (I’ve done it before. It was good. I’ll do it again.)
This bit at the end! The question of “whether or not I like it” immediately countered with the truth that if this ritual is something I have built that will carry me towards things I have decided are meaningful to me, then it will automatically be the right thing.
But even when the right thing has proved, time and time again, to be rich, pleasurable, surprising, rewarding, and thrilling, I still have a brain that fixates on the times it is not. Sometimes it is infuriating, terrifying, or disappointing (although almost always those feelings come at the start, not during the act itself—or after the finish). I latch onto the negatives, drowning in avoidance, believing I can think my way around them.
Tharp’s model requires a clear-eyed statistician’s view—an assessment of the facts. And the fact is I feel good about the act of creation far more often than I feel bad about it. The ritual becomes a method of tipping over the edge into that inexorable slide—the point where it would be far more work to turn back than it is to go forward. The point where you can’t help yourself.
This is the mantra I need going into my next project, quaking in my boots because it all feels new and beyond my capacity or control:
I’ve done it before. It was good. I’ll do it again.
The landing outside our bedrooms is tiny—barely big enough for one person to stand alongside the single floor vent that’s supposed to heat the entire upstairs. But! There’s enough wall space for two tall pieces of paper, so that’s where Zina and I have kept our reading lists since 2015.
I’ve never really gotten into tracking my reading online, so this practice has served as my visual archive of books devoured. It’s a lovely way to remind myself of when influential authors first appeared in my life, and to lend shape to the years. I used to keep the old ones pinned up in my room for easy access, but my impending move has meant getting rid of a lot of papery ephemera, so here they all are for posterity:
Since I’m trying to keep more of myself on my own site, I figured I’d upload the whole catalogue from 2020 as a blog post. I’ll do a followup with a little more about my absolute favorites, but for now: here’s everything.
|Legend||Rough Guide to Ratings|
|🎭 – Plays|
📝 – Poetry
📖 – Books (Fiction)
📓 – Books (Nonfiction)
💬 – Graphic Novels
|❤︎ = Yes|
❤︎❤︎ = Oh Yes
❤︎❤︎❤︎ = Hell Yes
- 📖 The Starless Sea – Erin Morgenstern ❤︎
- 📓 All About Love – bell hooks
- 📓 Trick Mirror – Jia Tolentino ❤︎❤︎
- 📓 Atomic Habits – James Clear
- 📓 The Way of Zen – Alan Watts
- 💬 Unversed – Ed. Jonathan Hill
- 💬 Uncomfortably Happily – Yeon-Sik Hong
- 💬 The Chancellor and The Citadel – Maria Frantz
- 💬 The Northwest Passage (Vol. 1) – Scott Chantler
- 💬 The Hunting Accident – David L. Carlson & Landis Blair ❤︎
- 💬 Delilah Dirk and the Pillars of Hercules – Tony Cliff ❤︎❤︎
- 📓 Deviced – doreen dodgen-magee
- 📝/📓 Letters from Max – Sarah Ruhl & Max Ritvo ❤︎❤︎❤︎
- 📓 Van Gogh – Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith ❤︎
- 💬 Gaugin: The Other World – Fabrizio Dori
- 📖 The Ten Thousand Doors of January – Alix E. Harrow
- 📓 Madness, Rack, and Honey – Mary Ruefle ❤︎
- 📖 Axiomatic – Maria Turmakin
- 📓 The Crying Book – Heather Christle ❤︎❤︎
- 📖 Looking for Jake – China Miéville
- 🎭 Macbeth – William Shakespeare
- 📖 The Bird King – G. Willow Wilson ❤︎
- 📖 Steel Crow Saga – Paul Krueger
- 📖 On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong ❤︎
- 📓 The Salt Path – Raynor Wynn
- 💬 Displacement – Kiku Hughes
- 📓 Time is a Thing the Body Moves Through – T. Fleischmann
- 📖 The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book – Kate Milford
- 📓 Pleasure Activism – adrienne maree brown ❤︎
- 📖 Tales from 1001 Nights – Trans. Malcolm & Ursula Lyons
- 📖 The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemesin
- 📖 The Mermaid, The Witch, and The Sea – Maggie Tokuda-Hall
- 📓 Constellations – Sinead Gleeson
- 📖 The Reapers are The Angels – Alden Bell
- 📓 The Weight of Glory – C.S. Lewis
- 📖 Gideon the Ninth – Tamsyn Muir
- 📖 You Are the Friction – Ed. Jez Burrows & Anna Hurley
- 💬 The Golden Age – Cyril Pedrosa & Roxanne Moreil ❤︎
- 📖 Flights – Olga Tokarczuk
- 📖 Annabel Scheme and The New Golden Gate – Robin Sloan ❤︎
- 📖 How to Be Both – Ali Smith ❤︎❤︎❤︎
- 📖 A Burning – Megha Majumdar
- 📖 If Beale Street Could Talk – James Baldwin
- 📖 Blandings Castle – P.G. Wodehouse
- 📖 Summer Lightning – P.G. Wodehouse
- 📖 Heavy Weather – P.G. Wodehouse
- 📓 Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency – Olivia Laing ❤︎❤︎
- 📝 Citizen: An Americal Lyric – Claudia Rankine
- 📖 A Room with A View – E.M. Forster ❤︎
- 📓 Close to the Machine – Ellen Ullman ❤︎
- 📓 The Power of Ritual – Casper ter Kuile
- 📖 Artful – Ali Smith ❤︎❤︎❤︎
- 📓 Coming to Writing and Other Essays – Hélène Cixous ❤︎
- 📖 Attrib. – Eley Williams ❤︎❤︎❤︎
- 💬 Go With The Flow – Lily Williams & Karen Schneemann
- 💬 Knight and Beard (Vol. 1) – Tara Kurtzhals & Sarah Bollinger
- 📓 The Heroine’s Journey – Maureen Murdock
- 📖 Each of Us a Desert – Mark Oshiro ❤︎
- 📖 Self Care – Leigh Stein
- 💬 Syllabus – Lynda Barry ❤︎❤︎❤︎
- 💬 Grass – Keum Suk Gendry-Kim
- 📝 Handwriting – Michael Ondaatje
- 📓 Letters from Tove – Tove Jansson ❤︎❤︎❤︎
- 📝/📓 Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties – Trans. John J.L. Mood
- 🎭 The Tempest – William Shakespeare
- 💬 The Best We Could Do – Thi Bui ❤︎
- 📝 Beowulf – Maria Dahvana Headley ❤︎❤︎
- 📝 The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- 📖 Piranesi – Susanna Clarke ❤︎❤︎
- 📓 A Reading Life – C.S. Lewis
- 📓 Better than IRL – Ed. Katie West & Jasmine Elliott ❤︎
- 📓 Split – Ed. Katie West & Jasmine Elliott
- 📖 The Waves – Virginia Woolf ❤︎❤︎
Not every night, but most nights, the English writer Philip Hoare gets into the sea.
I know this because he tweets about it. Not every night, but most nights. A brief, poetic, timestamped dispatch from the waves.
I read Hoare’s book Risingtidefallingstar toward the end of 2018 and fell hopelessly in love. It’s a sweeping voyage through various coastal regions, literary lives, and strange creatures of the sea. It defies categorization—feels tidal rather than textual. (Just describing the book makes me realize that it shares many qualities with Always Coming Home, which should hardly come as a surprise at this point.)
When I followed Hoare on Twitter, I started seeing these fleeting messages in my feed. The nature of the platform meant that it took me a while to realize how consistently they cropped up, but when I noticed, it shifted something.
In 2019, I made a pact with myself after a week by a lake on an island in Canada: if I find myself near a body of water and it is even remotely possible for me to get into it, I must get into it.1 I’ve since plunged into frigid waves on the Oregon coast, silky river waters of the Columbia Gorge, and the hidden shock of a creek in my hometown of Ojai, California.
Often, as I’m sprinting, screaming across the wide expanse of sand toward the breakers, or furtively scrambling out of my clothes in the underbrush, I think of Hoare’s constant devotion to being where he feels most alive. Most held.
It’s not even about whether or not he swims every night, or what time he goes (does the man ever sleep? Unclear), or what the sky is doing on that particular Tuesday. It’s just a reminder that there is a person who embodies his affection for the sea so fully and faithfully that he’s out there, in the water, baptized night after night.
Whatever Hoare writes next, I’ll probably love it. But my primary interest isn’t his creative output. The thing I want to know is whether he is still himself, and as far as I can tell plunging bodily into the ocean on a near-nightly basis is the backbone of his existence.
I’ve chewed on the idea of object permanence a lot this year—dug into my mistrust of fleeting social media feedback, questioned how online creators can feel secure in taking leaves of absence, and wondered at what it is about our work that truly endures. Hoare makes me consider relocating the idea of permanence from deliverables like books and art and films to the substrates of our creative practices; these undercurrents of selfhood.
That is the thing I want to celebrate and support.1. Even having trod on a stingray and endured unimaginable agony two months after taking said vow, I still believe it to be sound. ↩
What’s the thought you think all your life long? It must be a great one, a solemn one, to make you gaze through the world at it, all your life long. When you have to look aside from it your eyes roll, you bellow in anger, anxious to return to it, steadily to gaze at it, think it all your life long.— To The Bullock Roseroot, an improvisation spoken during the Second Day of the World ceremonies by Kulkunna of Chukulmas
I’ve been making my way, very slowly and over the course of many loans from the Multnomah County Library, through Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin’s unclassifiable, meandering, pseudo-anthropological record of a fictional future people called the Kesh. I’m not even a third of the way into the thing, but as the above quote from the book suggests, I’m thinking about it all the time.
There are so many things I love about this collection, particularly its place-specific-ness. The Kesh live in a far-future, post-societal-collapse Northern California. Even with the ravages of climate change, they describe the local flora and fauna in a way that taps straight into the landscape of my childhood—what Cassie Marketos calls “our good earth to grow in”. It brings me back to hot, dusty hikes through the Sespe wilderness in grade school, shifting my weight side to side as a leathery naturalist lectured us on different varieties of manzanita. It roots me in a place I think about even when I am not thinking about it.
If we are friends in any capacity, chances are high that I’ve pressed Le Guin’s essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” into your hands at one point or another. It explores a hypothetical world where stories are about the things they gather and contain, rather than the bodies they pierce and conquer, and I want to talk about it with everyone. It took me years to bother looking up where it had originally been published, which led me to Always Coming Home. Now that I’m a third of the way into this massive, discursive, lovely collection, it makes perfect sense. Theory in practice.
I like a book that forces me to take my time.
I’m a fast reader, and the first to admit that I can get a little breathless with my consumption. I spin out over ideas, get caught up in the excitement of newness. A book like this resists every opportunity to rush. The chapters and sections are all relatively small, but they loop and meander and digress. They build in layers over hundreds of pages to give an impression rather than a narrative. The experience feels very similar to reading oral traditions of cultures other than my own—an abruptness as one’s expectations of narrative symmetry and pacing are undermined in real time. The lack of them speaks louder than anything; makes me more aware of what I’ve been raised with, and of how things could be different.
Despite their distance from our current world of technology, the Kesh still interface with certain vestiges of present-day culture. These moments are some of my favorite in the book so far.
The City mind thinks that sense has been made if a writing is read, if a message is transmitted, but we don’t think that way. In any case, to learn a great deal about those people would be to cry in the ocean; whereas using their bricks in one of our buildings is satisfying to the mind. […] What does it mean to cry in the ocean? Oh, well, you know, to add something where nothing’s needed, or where so much is needed that it’s no use even trying, so you just sit down and cry.
If that isn’t social media in a nutshell, I don’t know what is. The desire to know everything, consume everything, document everything butting up against Marge Piercy’s recognition:
Greek amphoras for wine or oil, Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums but you know they were made to be used. The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real.
When I retweet or double tap on a post by a friend to express my approval, I’m not using their bricks in one of my buildings. But when I write? That’s when we’re in conversation—occupying the same room across space and time, building it together.
This is what Le Guin manages, in this layered, looping collection of stories and ideas: she writes a re-envisioned world into being, and then writes herself—writes all of us who create—into that world. “What do they do,” she asks, “the singers, tale-writers, dancers, painters, shapers, makers?”
They go there with empty hands, into the gap between. They come back with things in their hands. They go silent and come back with words, with tunes. They go into confusion and come back with patterns. […] The ordinary artists use patience, passion, skill, work and returning to work, judgment, proportion, intellect, purpose, indifference, obstinacy, delight in tools, delight, and with these as their way they approach the gap, the hub, approaching in circles, in gyres, like the buzzard, looking down, watching, like the coyote, watching. They look to the center, they turn on the center, they describe the center, though they cannot live there.
It’s the doubled items in this list that I love the most: “work and returning to work,” “delight in tools, delight”. I love that Le Guin understands these as separate, yet interlocking elements. I love that she has thought, so deeply and with so much lenience and also so much slantwise clarity, about the purposes we might serve in remaking the fabric of society.
She was a writer with a thought to think her whole life long. And the beautiful thing about writing is that the thought didn’t end when she did—now I’m thinking it, too.
Last week, in a moment of Peak Bellwood Weakness I signed up for an online class/study group called Literature at Sea: A Brief History of Existence. The facilitator shared something in today’s intro call that I can’t believe nobody sent me when it was released back in July. It’s called An Ocean of Books and it looks sort of like this:
This “poetic experiment” was made by Gaël Hugo during his time as an Artist-in-Residence at the Google Arts & Culture Lab. It pulls from the entire Google Books library and uses a bunch of (I’m waving my hands vaguely here) technology to generate a chart of Author Islands whose distance from each other is determined by their relationships on the web.
The site’s a little awkward in places, but I find the whole concept delightful. The weird aesthetic mix of pixelated game art and old nautical chart elements!1 The playful mechanism for revealing keyword searches within a bank of fog! There’s also little factoids beside various islands, like this gem about Maurice Sendak:
Anyway, I spent a lovely afternoon poking around in here, but what it really got me hungry for was a similarly attractive way to organize one’s own library for others to explore. The trouble is that I’m just not moved by reading lists—even ones curated by subject. I’m a visual thinker, and I need to make a big mess and tack a lot of red string to the wall before I can truly understand how all these ideas are contributing to the electric pinball machine.
I don’t want the map to be dictated by an algorithm; I want to play cartographer.
I rediscovered a piece of technology this week that might hold the key, but I’m saving it for now. You’ll just have to wait.
1. Fun pedantic terminology fact: if it’s to do with the ocean, it’s a chart, not a map. Yes, there will be a quiz on this later.↩
I finished Ali Smith’s Artful in bed the other night at 12:42am. I didn’t mean to. I’d told myself I wouldn’t. But I did, because every new page contained something that made me yell—actually yell—in the dark of my room and I’d already blunted my pencil with furious underlining and I couldn’t believe one person could weave so many wonderful threads into a cohesive whole.
This is the deep and abiding pleasure of the thing: to be introduced to new secrets—inducted into them, even—while also catching sight of familiar friends. Sometimes you read a book this rich before you’ve encountered enough of the source material and it just feels overwhelming. Other times the author will quote a phalanx of people you’re already familiar with and it’s…tired. The same quotes from the same famous figures. Nothing new.
But Artful…woof. It hit me just right. Just rich enough, just new enough, just familiar enough, just fucking weird enough to wrap me up in a giddy sense of total intoxication.
You know when you meet someone whose brain operates in way you find totally engrossing and energizing and you just want to spend all your time watching them cram things together into new and impossible forms? It’s like that. The mere fact of their existence grabs you by the shoulders and seems to bellow “If you’re not doing everything in your power to live in this electrifying pinball machine all the time then what are you even DOING WITH YOURSELF?”
Katherine Kwong is a delight. She’s smart and earnest and curious and very, very kind. We first met in person at my book tour event for 100 Demon Dialogues at McNally Jackson in New York, and her online exuberance is even more tangible in person. When she told me she was launching a podcast to interview folks about formative books from their childhoods, I couldn’t wait to hear it. Little did I know she was planning to interview me for its inaugural season!
Because of Quarantine Time I honestly couldn’t have told you when we recorded this conversation for This Book, That Book, but given the details I share about our foster dog it seems to have been fairly early on in the whole process. Possibly March. Anyway, I was delighted to get a text this morning saying that my episode had gone live, so I share it here for all of you to enjoy.
We discussed My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, a sun-drenched dream of a book full of thoughtful observations, eccentric characters, and a deep love of the natural world. It holds a place very near to my heart and manages to act as a touchstone in our conversation for growing up with a menagerie of creatures in Southern California, life as an only child, and my nascent love of tall ships (partly catalyzed by the book’s own small vessel, the Bootle-Bumtrinket).
You can listen to the episode (and check out the four other interviews released so far) below:
Big, big news today! My latest project, 100 Demon Dialogues, is now live on Kickstarter!
For the past three months, as part of the 100 Day Project, I’ve been illustrating a daily dialogue with the little voice in my head who tells me I’m no good. (You might recognize him from my Inktober drawing challenges from the last couple years.)
I just drew the 100th entry this morning and I’ve been so overwhelmed by the response to the project. Hearing from people who see themselves reflected in these drawings makes my heart swell. I’ve also heard from a lot of people who want to own these comics for themselves! So here’s what we’re gonna do about that:
- The Books!
- Today’s Kickstarter launch will fund both softcover and hardcover editions of the book. I am very excited about the whole thing. Here are some of the special features I’m aiming for:
- The Plushies!
- The Kickstarter will also be funding a run of PLUSH DEMONS to keep you company as you do battle with your own voices of anxiety and self-doubt. This little fella will measure about 15″ from tip to tail, and can easily sit up on any surface you care to place him on. (If you’d like to read all about what it takes to produce a plush toy from start to finish, I just did an in-depth blog post about it over on Tumblr.) Here’s a look at the prototype:
- The Print Shop!
- Lots of folks asked for prints of particular demons, but since producing, stocking, and shipping 100 different print types is a massive headache for a long creator like myself, I’ve partnered with the fine folks at Buyolympia to provide archival-quality prints of any demon your heart desires. The store is almost ready, and I’ll be sure to link to it here on the blog once it’s up.
Thanks, as ever, to my amazing supporters on Patreon, who gave me the stability to devote so much time to the this project over the last three months. Y’all are the best.
LET’S GO MAKE SOME COOL SHIT.