Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Quote of the Day

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When the system doesn’t respond, when it doesn’t accept what you’re doing—and most of the time it won’t—you have a chance to become self-reliant and create your own system. There will always be periods of solitude and loneliness, but you must have the courage to follow your own path. Cleverness on the terrain is the most important trait of a filmmaker.

Always take the initiative. There is nothing wrong with spending a night in a jail cell if it means getting the shot you need. Send out all your dogs and one might return with prey. Beware of the cliché. Never wallow in your troubles; despair must be kept private and brief. Learn to live with your mistakes. Study the law and scrutinize contracts. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern. Keep your eyes open. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it. There is never an excuse not to finish a film. Carry bolt cutters everywhere.

Thwart institutional cowardice. Ask for forgiveness, not permission. Take your fate into your own hands. Don’t preach on deaf ears. Learn to read the inner essence of a landscape. Ignite the fire within and explore unknown territory. Walk straight ahead, never detour. Learn on the job. Maneuver and mislead, but always deliver. Don’t be fearful of rejection. Develop your own voice. Day one is the point of no return. Know how to act alone and in a group. Guard your time carefully. A badge of honor is to fail a film theory class. Chance is the lifeblood of cinema. Guerrilla tactics are best. Take revenge if need be. Get used to the bear behind you. Form clandestine rogue cells everywhere.

Werner Herzog, A Guide for the Perplexed

Written by nevalalee

November 3, 2020 at 8:40 am

The Singularity is Near

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My latest science fiction story, “Singularity Day,” is currently featured on Curious Fictions, an online publishing platform that allows authors to share their work directly with readers. It was originally written as a submission to the “Op-Eds From the Future” series at the New York Times, which was sadly discontinued earlier this year, but I liked how it turned out—it’s one of my few successful attempts at a short short story—and I decided to release it in this format as a little experiment. It’s a very quick read, and it’s free, so I hope you’ll take a look!

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October 18, 2020 at 12:02 pm

The Return of “Retention”

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Back in 2017, the audio anthology series The Outer Reach released an episode based on my dystopian two-person play “Retention,” which was performed by Aparna Nancherla and Echo Kellum. It’s one of my personal favorites of all my work—I talk about its origins here—and I’ve been delighted to see it come back over the last few months in no fewer than three different forms. The original recording, which was behind a paywall for years, is now available to stream for free through the network Maximum Fun. A wonderful new rendition narrated by Jonathan Todd Ross and Catherine Ho is included in my audio short story collection Syndromes. Perhaps best of all, the print adaptation appears in the July/August 2020 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact, which is on sale now. Because I’m hard at work on my current book project, this will probably be my last story in Analog for a while, and I can’t think of a better way to close out my recent run than with “Retention.” I’m very proud of all three versions, which interpret the same underlying text with intriguingly varied results, and I hope you’ll check at least one of them out.

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July 5, 2020 at 10:47 am

Listening to Syndromes

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I’m pleased beyond words to announce that my audio short fiction collection Syndromes, which includes all thirteen of my stories from Analog Science Fiction and Fact, has just been released by Recorded Books. (It was originally scheduled to drop in June, but in light of recent developments, it became one of a handful of titles to come out before everything shut down on that end. I’m glad that it managed to appear just under the wire, and I’m especially delighted by the dazzling cover art by Will Lee.) The wonderful narrators Jonathan Todd Ross and Catherine Ho trade reading duties on “Ernesto,” “The Spires,” “The Whale God,” “The Last Resort,” “Kawataro,” “Cryptids,” “The Boneless One,” “Inversus,” “Stonebrood,” “The Voices,” “The Proving Ground,” and “At the Fall,” before joining forces at the end for a new version of my audio play “Retention,” which strikes me as the standout track. Every story has been revised to fit into a single interconnected timeline, which stretches from 1937 through the near future, and even if you’ve read some of them before, you’ll discover a few new surprises. You can purchase it at Amazon or stream it through Audible or Libro.fm, so I hope that some of you will check it out—and let me know what you think!

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April 14, 2020 at 9:18 pm

The books and the wall

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Yesterday, I published an essay titled “Asimov’s Empire, Asimov’s Wall” on the website Public Books, in which I discuss Isaac Asimov’s history of groping and engaging in other forms of unwanted touching with women at conventions, in the workplace, and in private over the course of many decades. It’s a piece that I’ve had in mind for a long time, and I’ve come to think of it as a lost chapter of Astounding, which I might well have included in the book if I had delivered the final draft a few months later than I actually did. (I’m also very glad that the article includes the image reproduced above, which I found after going through thousands of photos in the Jay Kay Klein archive.) The response online so far has been overwhelming, including numerous firsthand accounts of his behavior, and I hope it leads to more stories about Asimov, as well as others. There’s a lot that I deliberately didn’t cover here, and it deserves to be taken further in the right hands.

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January 8, 2020 at 7:30 am

Shoji Sadao (1926-2019)

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The architect Shoji Sadao—who worked closely with Buckminster Fuller and the sculptor Isamu Noguchi—passed away earlier this month in Tokyo. I’m briefly quoted in Sadao’s obituary in the New York Times, which draws attention to his largely unsung role in the careers of these two brilliant but demanding men. My contact with Sadao was limited to a few emails and one short phone conversation intended to set up an interview that I’m sorry will never happen, but I’ll be discussing his legacy at length in my upcoming biography of Fuller, and you’ll be hearing a lot more about him here.

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November 13, 2019 at 7:15 pm

Onward and upward

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Next week, I’ll be attending the 77th World Science Fiction Convention in Dublin, Ireland, which promises to be a lot of fun. Here’s my schedule as it currently stands:

  • Thursday August 15, 3pm—”Current Politics Reflected in SFF”—Dr. Harvey O’Brien (M), Susan Connolly, Dr Douglas Van Belle, Alec Nevala-Lee—”SFF is probably the genre that best mirrors present day society. If we examine SFF in both visual media and books, what can we learn about current politics playing out? What might future generations surmise about us?”
  • Friday August 16, 11:30am—”Continuing Relevance of Older SF”—Sue Burke (M), Alec Nevala-Lee, Aliza Ben Moha, Robert Silverberg, Joe Haldeman—”We are in a new millennium, a literal Brave New World. Surely much of the fiction of the 20th century no longer holds relevance? The panel will discuss the fiction of the past and how it can still be relevant in the 21st century. What lessons from older authors – such as Orwell, Asimov, Butler, Delany, Kafka, and Atwood – can we apply to our app-loaded, social media-driven age?”
  • Friday August 16, 2019, 5pm—”Comparable Futurist Movements”—Alec Nevala-Lee (M), Gillian Polack, Jeanine Tullos Hennig, Shweta Taneja—”How influenced by Afrofuturism are other world futurist movements such as Sinofuturism, Nippofuturism and Gulf futurism? Do they consider themselves a part of the same futurist tradition, or separate? The panel will discuss visions of the future from world cultures, how they are influenced by the root cultures they draw from, and how (if at all) they relate to Afrofuturism.”
  • Saturday August 17, 2019, 2pm—Autographing
  • Monday August 19, 2019, 10am—Kaffeeklatsch
  • Monday August 19, 2019, 12:30pm—Reading

I might as well also mention that Astounding is up for the Hugo Award for Best Related Work—although the rest of the ballot is extremely formidable—and that it recently came out in paperback. (This new edition is virtually identical to the hardcover, but I took the opportunity to make a few small fixes and tweaks, and as far as I’m concerned, this is the definitive version.) And if you haven’t done so already, please check out the first three episodes of the wonderful Washington Post podcast Moonrise, which heavily draws on material from the book. Hope to see some of you soon!

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August 10, 2019 at 8:07 am

Burrowing into The Tunnel

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Last fall, it occurred to me that someone should write an essay on the parallels between the novel The Tunnel by William H. Gass, which was published in 1995, and the contemporary situation in America. Since nobody else seemed to be doing it, I figured that it might as well be me, although it was a daunting project even to contemplate—Gass’s novel is over six hundred pages long and famously impenetrable, and I knew that doing it justice would take at least three weeks of work. Yet it seemed like something that had to exist, so I wrote it up at the end of last year. For various reasons, it took a long time to see print, but it’s finally out now in the New York Times Book Review. It isn’t the kind of thing that I normally do, but it felt like a necessary piece, and I’m pretty proud of how it turned out. And if the intervening seven months don’t seem to have dated it at all, it only puts me in mind of what the radio host on The Simpsons once said about the DJ 3000 computer: “How does it keep up with the news like that?”

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July 12, 2019 at 2:35 pm

Notes from all over

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It’s been a while since I last posted, so I thought I’d quickly run through a few upcoming items. On Saturday June 15, the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago will be showing Arwen Curry’s acclaimed new documentary Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin. After the screening, I’ll be taking part in a discussion panel with Mary Anne Mohanraj and Madhu Dubey to discuss the legacy of Le Guin, whose work increasingly seems to me like the culmination of the main line of science fiction in the United States, even if she doesn’t figure prominently in Astounding. (Which, by the way, is up for a Locus Award, the results of which will be announced at the end of this month.) The next day, on June 16, I’ll be hosting a session of my writing workshop, “Writing Fiction that Sells,” at Mary Anne’s Maram Makerspace in Oak Park. People seem to like the class, which runs from 10:00-11:45 am, and it would be great to see some of you there!

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June 10, 2019 at 9:35 am

“At the Fall” and Beyond

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The May/June issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact includes my new novelette “At the Fall,” a big excerpt of which you can read now on the magazine’s official site. It’s one of my favorite stories that I’ve ever written, and I’m especially pleased by the interior illustration by Eldar Zakirov, pictured above, which you can see in greater detail here. I don’t think I’ll have the chance to write up the kind of extended account of this story’s conception that I’ve provided for other works in the past, but if you’re curious about its origins, Analog has posted a fun conversation on its blog in which I talk about it with Frank Wu, the author of “In the Absence of Instructions to the Contrary,” which appeared in the magazine a few years ago. (Our stories have a number of interesting parallels that only came to light after I wrote and submitted mine, and I think that the result is a nice case study of what happens when two writers end up independently pursuing a similar idea.) There’s also a thoughtful editorial by former Analog editor Stanley Schmidt about his relationship with John W. Campbell, inspired by a panel that we held at last year’s World Science Fiction Convention. Enjoy!

Love and Rockets

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I’m delighted to share the news that Astounding is a 2019 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Related Work, along with a slate of highly deserving nominees. (The other finalists include Archive of Our Own, a project of the Organization for Transformative Works; the documentary The Hobbit Duology by Lindsay Ellis and Angelina Meehan; An Informal History of the Hugos by Jo Walton; The Mexicanx Initiative Experience at Worldcon 76 by Julia Rios, Libia Brenda, Pablo Defendini, and John Picacio; and Conversations on Writing by Ursula K. Le Guin and David Naimon. It’s a strong ballot, and I’m honored to be counted in such good company.) It feels like the high point of a journey that began with an announcement on this blog more than three years ago, and it isn’t over yet—I’m definitely going to be attending the World Science Fiction Convention in Dublin, which runs from August 15 to 19, and while I don’t know what the final outcome will be, I’m grateful to have made it even this far. The Hugos are an important part of the history that this book explores, and I’m thankful for the chance to be even a tiny piece of that story.

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April 2, 2019 at 9:01 am

Outside the Wall

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On Thursday, I’m heading out to the fortieth annual International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in Orlando, Florida, where I’ll be participating in two events. One will be a reading at 8:30am featuring Jeanne Beckwith, James Patrick Kelly, Rachel Swirsky, and myself, moderated by Marco Palmieri. (I’m really looking forward to meeting Jim Kelly, who had an unforgettable story, “Monsters,” in the issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction that changed my life.) The other will be the panel “The Changing Canon of SF” at 4:15pm, moderated by James Patrick Kelly, at which Mary Anne Mohanraj, Rich Larson, and Erin Roberts will also be appearing.

In other news, I’m scheduled to speak next month at the Windy City Pulp and Paper Convention in Lombard, Illinois, where I’ll be giving a talk on Friday April 12 at 7pm. (Hugo nominations close soon, by the way, and if you’re planning to fill out a ballot, I’d be grateful if you’d consider nominating Astounding for Best Related Work.) And if you haven’t already seen it, please check out my recent review in the New York Times of John Lanchester’s dystopian novel The Wall. I should have a few more announcements here soon—please stay tuned for more!

Art and Arcana

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On Sunday, I got back from the Savannah Book Festival, which was a real pleasure. My event at Trinity United Methodist Church—which was the first time that I’ve ever spoken from a pulpit—went great, at least to my eyes, and I enjoyed talking to the science fiction fans who were kind enough to turn out on a rainy afternoon. (I also had the chance to meet a number of other writers, notably Mike Witwer, whose Dungeons & Dragons: Art and Arcana looks just incredible.) During my free time, I visited the Book Lady Bookstore, which I highly recommend, and the house of Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts of the USA, much to the delight of my daughter, who recently joined the Daises. And I’m happy to note that my talk is scheduled to air on BookTV on C-SPAN2 this Saturday at 5:35pm ET, followed by an encore presentation early the following morning. (You can watch it online here.)

In the meantime, I have a few other upcoming events that might be worth mentioning. On Saturday February 23, I’ll be holding a second session of my fiction workshop, “Writing Science Fiction that Sells,” at Mary Anne Mohanraj’s makerspace in Oak Park, Illinois. The first class went better than I could have hoped, and I’d love to see some new faces there. (For the record, most of the guidelines that I plan to cover—clarity, coming up with ideas, structuring the plot as a series of objectives, managing the information that the reader receives—apply to all kinds of writing, although they present particular challenges in science fiction and fantasy.) I’m also going to be appearing with the editor and critic Gary K. Wolfe on Monday February 25 at the Blackstone branch of the Chicago Public Library, where we’ll be discussing Astounding as part of One Book, One Chicago. Please spread the word to anyone who might be interested—I hope to see some of you soon!

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February 20, 2019 at 6:16 am

Sci-Fi Strawberry in Savannah

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I’m heading out this morning to Savannah, Georgia for the Savannah Book Festival, where I’ll be appearing this Saturday at 4 pm at Trinity United Methodist Church to discuss Astounding. (As it happens, L. Ron Hubbard lived in Savannah for a period of time in the late forties while he was developing the mental health therapy that became known as dianetics, and I plan to briefly explore this local connection, as well as other aspects of the book that recently scored a big endorsement from a certain bearded fantasy writer.) I hope to see some of you there in person—perhaps at Leopold’s Ice Cream, which will be serving Sci-Fi Strawberry this weekend in honor of the book—and if you can’t make it, my event is scheduled to air eventually on BookTV on C-SPAN 2. And please keep an eye on this blog, where I expect to have a few other announcements soon. Stay tuned!

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February 14, 2019 at 7:30 am

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Writing the future in Oak Park

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I just wanted to mention that there are still a few slots available for a workshop that I’m teaching tomorrow—modestly titled “Writing Science Fiction that Sells”—at the house of my friend Mary Anne Mohanraj in Oak Park, Illinois. Here’s the full description:

Saturday January 26
332 Wisconsin Avenue, Oak Park, IL
9:00-10:30am: Writing Science Fiction that Sells

Science fiction offers a thriving audience for short stories, but it can be hard for beginners to break into professional markets, and even established writers can have trouble making consistent sales. We’ll discuss strategies for writing stories that are compelling from the very first page, based on the principles of effective characterization, plot structure, and worldbuilding, with examples drawn from a wide range of authors and publications. During the class, Alec will plot out the opening of an original SF story, based on ideas generated by participants. Members will also have the option of submitting a short story for critique.

Cost: $50. Registration Max: 15

You can register for the event here. If you use the coupon code “12345,” you can get twenty percent off the registration fee. Hope to see some of you there!

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January 25, 2019 at 10:57 am

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Visions of tomorrow

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As I’ve mentioned here before, one of my few real regrets about Astounding is that I wasn’t able to devote much room to discussing the artists who played such an important role in the evolution of science fiction. (The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that their collective impact might be even greater than that of any of the writers I discuss, at least when it comes to how the genre influenced and was received by mainstream culture.) Over the last few months, I’ve done my best to address this omission, with a series of posts on such subjects as Campbell’s efforts to improve the artwork, his deliberate destruction of the covers of Unknown, and his surprising affection for the homoerotic paintings of Alejandro Cañedo. And I can reveal now that this was all in preparation for a more ambitious project that has been in the works for a while—a visual essay on the art of Astounding and Unknown that has finally appeared online in the New York Times Book Review, with the highlights scheduled to be published in the print edition this weekend. It took a lot of time and effort to put it together, especially by my editors, and I’m very proud of the result, which honors the visions of such artists as H.W. Wesso, Howard V. Brown, Hubert Rogers, Manuel Rey Isip, Frank Kelly Freas, and many others. It stands on its own, but I’ve come to think of it as an unpublished chapter from my book that deserves to be read alongside its longer companion. As I note in the article, it took years for the stories inside the magazine to catch up to the dreams of its readers, but the artwork was often remarkable from the beginning. And if you want to know what the fans of the golden age really saw when they imagined the future, the answer is right here.

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January 11, 2019 at 7:25 am

The last resolution

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By just about any measure, this was the most rewarding year of my professional life. My group biography Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction was released by HarperCollins in October. I published one novelette, “The Spires,” in Analog, with another, “At the Fall,” scheduled to come out sometime next year. My novella “The Proving Ground” was anthologized and reprinted in several places, including in the final edition of the late Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction. I wrote a few new pieces of nonfiction, including an essay on Isaac Asimov and psychohistory for the New York Times, and I saw John W. Campbell’s Frozen Hell, based on the original manuscript of “Who Goes There?” that I rediscovered at Harvard, blow past all expectations on Kickstarter. (The book, which will include introductions by me and Robert Silverberg, is scheduled to appear in June.) My travels brought me to conventions and conferences in San Jose, Chicago, New Orleans, and Boston. Perhaps best of all, I’ve confirmed I’ll be spending the next three years writing the book of my dreams, a big biography of Buckminster Fuller, which is something that I couldn’t have imagined a decade ago. Even as the world falls apart in other ways, I’ve been lucky enough to spend much of my time thinking about what matters most to me, even if it makes me feel like the narrator of Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” who continues to work quietly in his hotel room as the civilization around him enters its long night.

In good times and bad, I’ve also found consolation on this blog, where I’ve posted something every day—and I have trouble believing this myself—for more than eight years. (My posts on science fiction alone add up to a longer book than Astounding, and they account for only a fraction of what I’ve written here.) At the moment, however, it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to keep up my streak. I won’t stop posting here entirely, but I can’t maintain the same pace that I have in the past, and I’ve resolved to take an extended break. For a long time, I planned to skip a day without any advance notice, but it seems appropriate for me to step away now, at the end of this very eventful year. I expect that this blog will go silent for a week or two, followed by occasional posts thereafter when anything grabs my attention, and I may well miss my morning routine enough to return eventually to something approximating my old schedule. In the meantime, though, I want to thank everyone who has hung in there, whether you’re a longtime reader or a recent visitor. Eight years ago, I started this blog without any thought about what it might become, but it unexpectedly turned into the place where I’ve tried to figure out what I think and who I am, at least as a writer, during some of the best and worst years of my life. I’m no longer as optimistic as I once was about what comes next, but I’ve managed to become something like the writer I wanted to be. And a lot of it happened right here.

Quote of the Day

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He wonders: will he become a regular person? Something has gone wrong; his vaccination didn’t take; at the Boy-Scout initiation campfire he only pretended to be deeply moved, as he pretends to this hour that it is not so bad after all in the funhouse, and that he has a little limp. How long will it last? He envisions a truly astonishing funhouse, incredibly complex yet ut­terly controlled from a great central switchboard like the console of a pipe organ. Nobody had enough imagination. He could design such a place him­self, wiring and all, and he’s only thirteen years old. He would be its operator: panel lights would show what was up in every cranny of its cunning of its multivarious vastness; a switch-flick would ease this fellow’s way, complicate that’s, to balance things out; if anyone seemed lost or frightened, all the operator had to do was.

He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he’s not. Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator—though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed.

John Barth, “Lost in the Funhouse”

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December 31, 2018 at 7:30 am

Flash Gordon and the time machine

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I remember the day my father came home from the neighbors’ in 1949 and said they had a radio with talking pictures. It was his way of explaining television to us in terms of what he knew: radio. Several years later I would sit on the rug with half a dozen neighborhood kids at the house down the block, watching Flash Gordon and advertisements for Buster Brown shoes.

Such early space-travel films may have marked my first encounter with the idea of time machines, those phone booths with the capacity to transpose one into encounters with Napoleon or to propel one ahead into dilemmas on distant planets. I was six or seven years old and already leading a double life as an imagined horse disguised as a young girl…

Flash Gordon never became a horse by stepping into a time machine, but he could choose any one of countless masquerades at crucial moments in history or in the futures he hoped to outsmart. This whole idea of past or future being accessible at the push of a button seemed so natural to me as a child that I have been waiting for science to catch up to the idea ever since.

Tess Gallagher, “The Poem as Time Machine”

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December 30, 2018 at 7:30 am

The personality of style

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Style is the property of a poem that expresses the poet’s personality. Either his real personality or his invented personality; or, most likely, a combination of the two…Style consists of factors so minutely constituted and so obscurely combined that they simply are not separable and not measurable, except in the grossest ways. Yet we know a style when we see it, we recognize it and are attracted or repelled by it. One reason for this is the fact that style is a continuing element in a poet’s work, it remains consistently itself from one poem to another, even though the poems in other respects are notably dissimilar. We speak of the “growth” and “maturity” of a poet’s style in the same way that we speak of the growth and maturity of a person. This is an interesting fact; it may even sometimes be a crucial fact, as when we are attempting to explain the incidence of poetic genius. But it can also be a dangerous fact, for it leads to the state of mind in which style seems to be abstract from the poem, abstract from form itself.

Hayden Carruth, “The Question of Poetic Form”

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December 29, 2018 at 7:30 am

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