What books are currently on your nightstand? (Or wherever you keep the ones you're working through?)
More like at the base of my lamp, the corner table, the coffee table. Right now, I’m reading a short story collection by Mary Miller called “Always Happy Hour.” A memoir that I recently finished, “Gun Needle Spoon,” by Patrick O’Neil, is still hanging around. Usually, I have one of Bukowski’s books because you can randomly open any of them and find something to read in the middle of the night. At this moment it’s “You Get So Alone,” and I also have “Loving and Hating Charles Bukowski” by Linda King, Steven Blush’s “New York Rock,” and David Callard’s “The Case of Anna Kavan: A Biography.” And current issues of The New Yorker and New York magazines.
What’s the last great book you read?
I would say “Ice” by Anna Kavan. I’d only recently learned about her, which led to me to track down the somewhat stilted biography on my imaginary nightstand. Kavan was born in 1901 and relatively late in life became a heroin addict. I’ve heard that “Ice” is not considered a major work of hers. I found the symbolism and the surreal look at an apocalyptic world collapsing under walls of ice to be hypnotic and very visual. There is nobody to root for in this book, and the reader never even learns a character’s name. I was drawn into the cold and emptiness. So not a fun book but, to me, a mesmerizing one.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
It could be “Ice.” I’m sure many people have heard of it, but the only person I ever spoke to who had was the guy who recommended her. Two others are “Random Acts of Senseless Violence” by Jack Womack, and “Mr. Touch,” by Malcolm Bosse. I also read my friends’ books and many of us are known only within certain circles. I think my friend Misti Rainwater-Lites is one of the best writers I know, so I will add “Bullshit Rodeo” to the list.
What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?
It took me close to a year to put together my last full-length collection, “Retrograde,”. I can’t really attach any relevance to what I might have read during that time. There is nothing that I consciously avoid. I remember one incident when I was writing “knuckle tattoos.” I thought I had a decent draft until a West Coast poet friend, Jack Henry, asked me to read and blurb his upcoming poetry collection, “The Patience of Monuments.” Reading through his, I realized what a piece of crap mine was, and threw it away. At the time, it was devastating, but I found a way back in and the book was better than what I had originally conceived.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
The element of surprise, a plot line or even a poetry line, that makes you gasp in discovery. Books and stories fitting together like puzzle pieces fascinate me. I am moved by the awesomeness of great writing. There are some books that are so intensely moving and seem to reach so deeply into the souls of the characters that I could not imagine rereading them. On the top of that list are “Requiem for a Dream” by Hubert Selby, Jr. and “Little Beauties” by Kim Addonizio.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
For years, I’ve been fixated on post-apocalyptic literature. Three of the books that I identified as favorites nobody has heard of fit into that genre. A lot of what I’ve read seems to be coming true, so I might need to find another fictional obsession. There are no genres I deliberately avoid. I don’t read much fantasy/science fiction, although I have at different times in my life. Sometimes I’ll read a lot of books by a specific author – Elmore Leonard comes to mind – and then I need a break. When I was much younger, my choices were more literary in a classical sense. I’ve read so much over my lifetime that sometimes it comes down to a search for something different.
How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? One book at a time or simultaneously? Morning or night?
Books. Just books. I was given a Kindle and have not yet used it. I read newspaper articles and, occasionally, short fiction online. I’m more likely to read news and articles online in the morning and books at night. If I read in the morning or afternoon I can’t help feeling that I should be doing something else. But I can watch a stupid court TV show like Judge Judy guiltlessly, so go figure. I may read more than one book at a time if they are different genres, but I’m generally more focused on one and picking at the others.
How do you organize your books?
In spurts of diligence. I keep all the poetry together, but I have a different shelf for signed copies, for anthologies where I’m included, for books by people I know, both signed and unsigned. When certain authors, like Kim Addonizio, write in several genres, and sign some of the books, my system sort of goes awry.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Anyone who is close enough to come near my bookshelves won’t be surprised by anything.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
In 2015, for my birthday, my West Coast friends Richard Modiano and S.A. Griffin, both of Beyond Baroque, sent the posthumously published collection of our mutual friend, Scott Wanneberg. It’s called “The Official Language of Yes” and was assembled by S.A. I think I may have known the book was coming, but I literally gasped at the size and beauty of it.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
I loved Salinger’s Glass family. I read all of his books at a young age and, writing this, I can see that’s where my love of linked short stories originated. Heathcliff and Cathy of Wuthering Heights, another book I originally read in childhood. Clearly, I become attached to deeply flawed characters who cannot be classified as either good or evil. Richard Price’s protagonist in “Bloodbrothers,” Stoney DeCoco, was a heartbreaker.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
Voracious. I escaped through books, and when I became old enough to go o ut alone I’d go to the library and hide the books I carried home because I lived in the type of neighborhood where tkids would torment you for reading. I loved “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn” by Betty Smith and “A Stone for Danny Fisher,” by Harold Robbins. It was way better than the books he wrote later on. The children’s book I loved most as a young child was “Madeline,” which I still have on my shelf (not my original copy.) I liked books about horses and dogs. The emotional impact of “Old Yeller” was a hundred times more intense and gave me more nightmares than anything Harold Robbins might have written.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
I’m bad at dinner parties. We could move the locale to a bar and invite Bukowski, which is a sort of clichéd answer but how could you not. Bukowski, Carson McCullers, and Junot Diaz would make for an interesting evening. I’d like to see how Bukowski interacts with McCullers, because she was among his favorite writers. He even wrote a poem about her. And Junot Diaz, because he’s young and brilliant and alive.
Of the books you’ve written, which is your favorite or the most personally meaningful?
“Belinda and Her Friends” is my first published collection and is my favorite because when I wrote it I didn’t know I was writing a book. I started thinking about a particular time in my life, late 70’s on 10th Street, and sort of channeled the characters, few of which are still alive. It’s the least self-conscious and the truest piece of my work to date.
What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I’m supposed to like Kurt Vonnegut and I just don’t, except in small doses. I have still not finished Slaughterhouse-Five. The same goes for Joseph Heller and Catch 22. The last book I put down without finishing is probably “Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock and Legendary Neighborhood” by Michael Walker. It can also fit into the category of “books I’m supposed to like.” I might give it another shot, though. It might be one of those books that require a little patience at the beginning.
Whom would you want to write your life story?
I don’t want my life story written by anyone. I’ve read too much of my own story in books like “Take the Long Way Home” by Susan Gordon Lydon and Julie Crenshaw. It doesn’t need to be told again, and enough of it is revealed in my own poetry and stories. That said, I wouldn’t mind inspiring a character in a Richard Price book.
What do you plan to read next?
I mentioned “Me and Bukowski” earlier. It’s on the imaginary nightstand. I’d like to get a hold of Kim Addonizio’s latest poetry collection, “Mortal Trash.” I take a lot of books out of the library, but I need to own poetry books. There’s a book about Patty Hearst I’d like to read, “American Heiress,” by Jeffrey Toobin. There are lots of books on my shelves that I haven’t yet read. One night I thought I was having a heart attack so I took an aspirin and read Bukowski poems. I forgot about the heart attack but it dawned on me that I could die before reading all of my books.
(Note from TLC, Puma’s answers could change depending on the day she is asked so we may be revisiting when in Retrograde)