r e c o m m e n d e d  r e a d i n g  


…. it was as if the phrases he had in front of him had become suddenly familiar, were starting irresistibly to remind him of something, as if onto each one that he read there had been imposed, or rather superimposed, the at once precise yet blurred memory of a phrase almost identical to it that he had perhaps already read somewhere else; as if these words, more tender than a caress or more treacherous than a poison, words that were alternately limpid and hermetic, obscene and cordial, dazzling, labyrinthine, endlessly swinging like the frantic needle of a compass between a hallucinated violence and a fabulous serenity, formed the outline of a vague configuration in which could be found, jumbled together, Germain Nouveau and Tristan Corbière, Rimbaud and Verhaeren, Charles Cros and Léon Bloy.


  Georges Perec,“The Winter Journey”
tr. John Sturrock


Joan Schenkar calls Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) the “Dostoevski of American Noir”:

Patricia Highsmith, who always had murder on her mind, is my enduring candidate for Great American Expatriate Writer. She belongs somewhere between Willa Cather (the only woman writer she openly admired) and Hell (a condition she prepared for her characters as energetically as did her maître, Henry James). Highsmith provides the most sustained literary examination of guilt and the instability of gender identity in American literature – and she does it by the kind of formal forgery that continues to trick publishers into advertising her books as “crime novels.” Reader, do not be deceived.

An equal opportunity discriminator, Highsmith preferred men in her books as the active agents of her violent imagination and women in her bed as the inspiring objects of her inability to form permanent partnerships. Neither gender fares particularly well on the point of her pitiless pen and Patricia Highsmith is that rare creature - a writer as indifferent as Wilde or Sartre or Camus or Thomas Hobbes, for that matter, to moral postures in art; a writer whose characters are capable of anything.

In Highsmith’s toils, good intentions corrupt naturally and automatically, guilt often afflicts the innocent not the culpable, and life is a suffocating trap from which even an escape artist like the talented Mr. Ripley cannot find a graceful exit. She treats people and the things they handle in the same deadeningly objective way; the cumulative effect is a horrifying aura of unease. Although she never tried to achieve its style, High Art was always Highsmith’s inspiration; what makes her own work so indefinably odd is that most of her murdering, mutilating, muggish characters are inspired by it as well.

There is always a bit of blood in the corner of a smile – and a recommendation to read Henry James; a knife turning restlessly in someone’s hand at the mildest moment – and a preference for the poems of Auden; a lunch punctured by a horrible suspicion – and a man weeping at the grave of Keats. Her male characters are often psychologically twinned and obsessed by clothes; her most enticing love scenes are usually between gastropoda.


Joan Schenkar is writing a biography of Patricia Highsmith, THE TALENTED MISS HIGHSMITH: the secret life and serious art of Patricia Highsmith, for St. Martin’s Press, to be published in 2005. Her last Recommended Reading appeared in Vol. 2, No. 1.



Marilyn A. Johnson tells why we should read Contemporary American Fiction Writers:

I’m trying to find some beauty out of an ugly middle-class upbringing: strip malls, etc., emotion recollected in turmoil; and so I write mongrel poetry using chain link fences, cars, driveways, teen pregnancy, and I gravitate to plainspoken poets. But I find contemporary American fiction writers (CAFW) are the ones who have really staked out that turf. I’ve been leaping from one fresh talent to another. Then a literary friend confessed she hated reading CAFW because of their engagement with middle class life.

All right, she’s a professor’s daughter, I’m a car salesman’s daughter, maybe that explains it.

Or maybe she’s just prejudiced. What she’s missing, though! THE CORRECTIONS, by Jonathan Franzen, is a peak experience for someone who loves bleak humor and beautiful sentences, and all the better if you know St. Louis. The New Jersey take: James Kaplan’s TWO GUYS FROM VERONA. The California take; anything by the underappreciated Carolyn See. My friend is missing – well, I have to go to the shelves outside my office, where I try to keep copies of my favorite books, including everything by Pete Dexter and Robert Stone, violent guys, best read next to Toni Morrison. In fact, read the three of them, and there’s America, nailed. Lorrie Moore. THAT NIGHT or CHARMING BILLY by Alice McDermott. AMERICA’S DREAM, by my friend Esmeralda Santiago, or anything by our pal Ben Cheever, who has such a wild, funny, edgy take on the suburbs his father once owned. Allegra Goodman. How about Joyce Carol Oates’s novel about the high school reunion, BROKE HEART BLUES? I can’t help pressing my favorites into people’s hands, so lots of titles are missing, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES by Jeffrey Eugenides, for instance: I can’t keep that in stock.

I think maybe my CAFW-phobic friend simply hates those bad, faux, easy books where boys and girls come of age in the suburbs, and Mom, who has fidelity issues, screams through the screen door, and everybody drinks and drives onto the golf greens – no, no. We’ve advanced way past that, though Rabbit Angstrom and Richard Yates’s doomed characters still wave in the background. I just finished THE LOVELY BONES, a first novel by Alice Sebold, and though I don’t totally buy the end, it is an incredible premise, narrated by a dead fourteen-year old girl who keeps track of her family, friends, and the man who murdered her. A brave book, and it left me almost as breathless as Laura Kasischke’s THE LIFE BEFORE HER EYES, about a high school shooting, where the psycho classmate asks two girls holed up in the bathroom, I have to kill one of you, which will it be? The novel is the story of the girl who says, Please, not me. Beautifully written. A poet wrote it. And I don’t mean that fuzzy-static nature-and-beauty poetry, I mean the poetry that takes something real and passes it through somebody’s soul, maybe grabbing some Velveeta and crackers on the way.

Marilyn A. Johnson is a poet whose work has appeared most recently in Field. She helps run the reading series for the Hudson Valley Writers Center in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.




Tea with Kevin McFadden. An Interview by F. David Mencken.

The Interviewer had the chance to catch up with poet Kevin McFadden at a coffeehouse in Charlottesville, Virginia. They met for a discussion of anagrams, the OuLiPo movement, contemporary poetics, including the effect of these on his own poetry:

INTERVIEWER: It seems to me, Kevin, that the puns and word games in your poems have a lot to do with the duplicity of language. Is that accurate?

KEVIN McFADDEN: Well, sure. Duplicity is a good word for it. Early on we think of language as communicative solely, but as we advance in language we sometimes find as much is said to conceal as represent. Sometimes it’s innocent. We said we’d meet for coffee and yet we’ve both ordered tea. Why didn’t we say we’d meet for tea? So much humor is meant to show us when we’re behaving robotically or conventionally, catching us in our routine linguistic logic and exposing something absurd. We go to the bathroom and it’s not for a little shampoo, is it?

I: Does that set up a difficulty for a poet who’s trying to say something? I mean, if words and poems are consistently undermined by their own contradictory meanings?

KM: For the kind of writing I’m interested in, two meanings is a minimum. I like to think that a poem has the ability to expose an entire argument in its tension. To say something, you’re necessarily excluding something else. To speak in a way that says something and something else at the same time seems truer to our lives, at least to me.

I: Describe to me the process of your anagram poems. How did you begin writing them and why?

KM: I invented the anagram form I use. So I thought. I was an American college student at the University of Glasgow, truly awash in a variety of englishes, pronunciations and spellings; words started losing their monolithic dimension to me. I’m convinced when we are taught to read that we diminish our sense of possibility with language. All these trees of possible ends but we learn to go out on the same branches every time. The point of reading a sentence, we are taught, is to get through it quickly, without mispronouncing, without stumbling. We train our minds to use context to filter out homophones and homonyms, any number of variants that would wreak havoc on a sentence’s avowed universal meaning. Dyslexia, the supposed inability to stick to these rules, is in that scheme a disability. You could as easily describe it as hyperlexia—the dyslexic is not fooled by this conspiracy of sense we call grammar and usage. The dyslexic sees it is the sane who are crazy, or at least okay with an eerily agreeable conformity, and it is the sane who suffer, who need to be confined. My purpose for many years, because I do not clinically have this condition, has been to induce dyslexia.

I: How do you decide what to anagram?

KM: Usually I take a line of this monolithic dimension, something we’ve heard so often it’s recognizable. Something we know so well or, if it is contemporary, something I think we will one day know so well it is taken as a kind of proverb. Then, I begin taking it apart at its letters, seeing what arises, and let it rebuild itself into a new form. Each line has to have the same combination of letters, exactly, as any other line. It is my hope that when a poem begins “There’s nothing new under the sun” and ends “There in the unsung, wonder’s then” that we’ve tried to move a monument. Or at least graffiti on the monument’s other side. There are other times I choose a line I love and continue to riff on it. Usually by the end of an anagram poem you can tell whether, like some classical sonnets, the introductory arguments have been challenged or incorporated. Other times I withhold the seminal line until the end, or introduce it in the middle. Each has different effects.

I: You implied you didn’t invent the form.

KM: Well, no. When I began with it, I hadn’t seen anyone using it. It seemed to arise from the nature of anagram. I liked seeing one line turning into another, but then I wanted it to be more than one other version, three, four; then for those versions to be conversant with each other in a way that read like a poem. Look at them go. I was this genius inventor, a legend in my own lunchtime. Then I found (in a search for an Internet anagram generator) at least one other English poet who’d done one, Heather McHugh; she anagrammed William Butler Yeats’s name. As I looked more into the anagram, I found that the OuLiPo had been using it for half a century.

I: I was going to get into the OuLiPo...

KM: Well, they are a fascinating group. A European movement, which is perhaps why American tastes are always unfairly suspicious of their ingenuity. They were and are convinced, like almost any literary clique, that their purpose was to revive the literature, to denounce the flaccid poetry and prose around them, and to adopt strictures that would accomplish a lexical revolution. The constraints the OuLiPo place on their work are nearly always calculated on abstractions—novels with no letter e as in Georges Perec’s classic; Queneau’s sonnet that can be read 100,000,000,000 ways; abecedarian progressions—and the results are like nothing you’ve generally read before. Sometimes they’re also like nothing you’d want to read anyway. I’m bad with French acronyms, but I know the po in OuLiPo means “potential”—and that’s the significant part. That’s what their group is doing, combing the infinite potential of language in search of new forms for writing.

I: Here the phrase “po biz” evokes the careerist side of poetry. Not so in France, I take it.

KM: Yes, you’ve hit on it. What a difference in a syllable. When po is potential, I’d be honored to say I’m in po-biz. What could be more worthwhile. I once heard an OuLipist described as a rat who invents a maze in order to escape it. Of course you can’t join OuLiPo proper, you have to be “made.” I was borrowing, whether I knew it at the time or not, from their tradition.

I: With these intricate schemes and reactive methods, how does one avoid the charge of just plain satire?

KM: Well, you use that word with contempt. Satire, to me, is not a secondary genre. The act of satire is a primary function of existence. Most of us are subtle satires of our parents, as they were of theirs. Accordingly, we will all deserve to be satirized by the coming generation. We’re all subtle satires of our cultures in order to survive them—sometimes funny, sometimes dead-serious. Satire originally meant a mixture—a mixture of styles, a low-discourse in a high-discourse setting, vice versa. Can you name a movement or breakthrough, artistic, scientific, whatever, that has no relation to elements of thought already ancient? We’re constantly mixing and remixing the past to expose something. Often with a critical distance. This, to me, is satire.

I: And yet, it still is dependent on those pre-existing forms before it can work.

KM: Everything lives on the decay of something else, a fact we seem perfectly at home with except when it comes to literature. In literature, great works just spring up wholly formed, like Athena. If satire were in the oxygen cycle, it would be a tree sucking in our endless profound exhalations and giving them back to us so we can simply breathe again. The great satire goes on.

I: Is there an anagrammer’s—

KM: Anagrammarian.

I: If you like. Is there an anagrammarian philosophy?

KM: There isn’t just one. Some of the ideas have roots in Jewish mysticism. Some philosophies I’ve heard are more dramatic than others. At times it is as simple as subversion—that’s a little basic though. Certainly some believe anagrams expose truths—I think they merely expose alternatives. When a word is born, so are its anagrams, some of which have meaning, and others of which are still behind a veil. When veil is born so is vile, and live and evil. Perhaps meanings are hidden in a different language. In the case of my poems, each anagrammed line approaches its seminal line like the Jewish mystics approached a piece of scripture—the point of the commentary is to revitalize it, to deepen our understanding of it. It may remind us these lines which we’ve privileged have some relation to the whole system, comical perhaps, perhaps serious. Each anagram is first among equals.

I: Can you name any OuLipists who’ve used this method of anagram?

KM: I should say the art of anagram is centuries old. Someone may be first to spot an interesting anagram but claiming to have created it seems against anagram’s own convictions. It created itself, or, if you like, when anyone decides on a word they are necessarily outlining its anagrams. There are word puzzles from Greek and early Christian times, throughout the medieval period and beyond. Queneau had a poem in 1923 that rearranged its letters. The first to consist of ordinary words was taken from a line by Gérard Nerval and was a collaboration by three OuLipists in 1948 or so—their names always escape me. A good resource here is OULIPO COMPENDIUM, edited by Mathews and Brotchie. I know Oskar Pastior did a collection in German, Michelle Grangaud in French. But the first person to make a collection of these poems was Swiss, Unica Zürn. Zürn suffered from schizophrenia and was confined several times for it. Eventually she jumped out a window.

I: A cautionary tale for anagrammarians?

KM: Madness is a danger the more and more you stare into the letters. Kabbalists used to, maybe still do, have a stricture that the only practitioners of their art must be forty year-old married men of great girth. This was so they’d be strong enough to resist the pull the letters had—the black magic. I’m relying on my thick mid-section to carry me through here. Sanity is truly at risk, depending on how far you humor the letters. Easy to slip into a state where the world comes apart at these little verbal hinges we really rely on. The Kabbalist phrase is “Who touches is touched.” Meaning the sacred letters. Mess with the letters, they might mess with you.

I: What do you feel is wrong with contemporary literature that forces poets to these non-traditional methods?

KM: Wrong isn’t the word I’d use. It’s a question of freshness. Generations have trod, have trod. The critic Harold Bloom, and I should say I find myself in the rare position of agreement with him here, says that most contemporary American writing is derivative of Wordsworth, consciously or unconsciously imitated. I’ve written plenty of poems from that place, some I’ll still stand by, but it’s harder to keep my interest because the equation seems done and overdone. There are few untrodden ways at this point. Still I’m not going to join those who have made the use of the biographical I a literary crime—it’s a necessary and valuable direction.

I: But you’re saying it’s not fresh.

KM: The injunction is “make in new,” not “make it you.” That’s the easiest way to give identity the veneer of originality, to say this is new because you’ve never heard it my way. I usually want to hear something else from a poet, not just I’m X from Y and I’ve been through Z. That can be one leg of a poet’s stool, but it can’t be the only one. The variables may change, but if the story is all that’s new it’s still probably a story we’ve heard somewhere: let N = your childhood and pretty soon you’re rowing circles in the Lake District or someone’s reasonable facsimile thereof. I like the I, but I like that it’s not the only way I must write. Now I believe attention to language and its forms can be its own trace of identity, and those considerations preoccupy me. I like that anagram steers me away from the I, especially in lines in which I is not an option.

I: One of the technical considerations formal poets have registered is a worry that they’re filling out a form. Do these anagrams run that risk?

KM: Sure they do. There’s a sort of dull cadence that a sonnet or a villanelle can fall into, and I’ve learned this through writing my own and listening to others. Avoidance of that dullness really distinguishes great uses of these forms from mediocre ones. I usually suspect it’s time to end an anagram because the interesting variations have run out. I’ll keep seeing the same words pop up. “Sin” seems to be a favorite of mine. Some lines, by their algebraic arrangement, limit themselves to becoming smaller poems. Two instances of the letter V in a line, for example, can be near deadly to an English arrangement. On the other hand, presence of threnodials, a word composed of the eleven most common letters of English language, can sustain a poem for quite some time. It’s interesting, in French, they’re ulcerations.

I: Did you mention an anagram generator earlier? Do you have one of these at home?

KM: Yes and no. It’s not its own kind of machine like a blender or some useful appliance.

I: Where do you find one?

KM: I searched the web and found quite a few, and those are the ones I use. Initially, I did my work with pencil and paper, but the computer can get me out of a fix so much faster and sometimes with better combinations than are available to my mind. There’s one I’ve used because it allows me quite a few strictures: how many words I’d like in any anagram, any repetitions of words allowed, that kind of thing.

I: Do you find the computer generated lines limit self-expression and keep back egotistical intentions we may have for poems?

KM: They don’t keep them back enough! I wish the computer kept me from seeing what I’m inclined to see in the letters. And yet there are times it won’t let you have something you’re dying to get the poem to say. But in practice, I’ve found if you’re steering toward a phrase you can usually find it. Usually. Plenty of times I’ve thought, I need a K, or what I wouldn’t give for a P—but that’s like playing Monopoly and hoping that when you get to Go you will have your pawn turned into a queen. You simply can’t have it, it’s a different game. So you let the poem go where it’s asking to go. I have a friend who thinks I write these because they absolve me of responsibility for having written them—the letters made me do it. No, not quite, but there’s definitely enough you can do to toy with certain potential outcomes.

I: An image is a sensory imitation. A rhyme at least has a tonal imitation. What about these poems, being based on an abstraction? Doesn’t that upend the idea of mimesis, when there’s nothing present in the world by which to appreciate their form?

KM: I think these anagram poems are elaborate rhymes—each line with the next. The most perfect of rhymes, it may even be argued, although a word is not supposed to rhyme with itself, it merely is itself. If you can’t rhyme with yourself, now, who can you rhyme with? Now there’s a mystery. In anagram you hear a music begin to pick up. It’s a music to get used to, but there is something like it in the world. It’s usually too big or small for the naked eye to take in in a moment, but it’s there. It’s a cycle, endless recombination, a terrarium. How often do you move around furniture in a room to give it the appearance of newness? Or what about DNA? Isn’t it just one amazingly intricate anagram? Nothing is gained or lost, only infinitely rearranged.

I: Ever miss a letter?

KM: No, God-willing. I try to keep to it. I check relentlessly. There are severe penalties in some scripturally transmitted religions for missing even one letter. Freud mentions a German newspaper in wartime that misspelled the headline Heil Hitler as Heilt Hitler. That’s “heal Hitler,” of course, and what a difference one t makes. The difference between and interview and an innerview.

I: Do you feel like the letters are getting the upper hand?

KM: Who touches is touched. The letters have got a lot to say, more than I can imagine, more than any of us can imagine. That’s why we’ve been packing them around all this time, finding the forms that unlock their potential. They’re simple machines really: levers, pulleys, inclined planes. Everything else we do seems to sink into the earth, save the letters. I’m pushing the conceit to absurdity, but even the alphabet song is sung to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” They used to stand for things in the world, but now they’re above it, little resurrections, little ascensions. They won’t stay down. We write them down, but their nature is up.

Books noted:

OULIPO COMPENDIUM, eds., Harry Matthews, Alastair Brotchie. Atlas Press,1998. (Queneau’s 100,000,000,000 sonnets appears here. The book leaves perforation marks so you can divide the lines by strips and change the verses of the poem, like fourteen Dutch doors if that makes any sense. —KMcF.)

Michelle Grangaud, MÉMENTO-FRAGMENTS, ANAGRAMMES. P.O.L., 1987

_______, RENAÎTRES. Ecbolade, 1990

_______, STATIONS, ANAGRAMMES. P.O.L., 1990

Oskar Pastior, ANAGRAMMGEDICHTE. Verlag Klaus G. Renner, 1985

Georges Perec, A VOID, tr. Gilbert Adair. Harper Collins, 1995

Raymond Queneau, CENT MILLE MILLIARDS DE POÈMES. Gallimard, 1985

________________, EXERCISES IN STYLE. New Directions, 1981
Unica Zürn, DARK SPRING, tr. Caroline Rupprecht. Exact Change, 2000

MAN OF JASMINE & Other Texts, tr.Malcolm Green. Atlas Press,1994
________ , GESAMTAUSGABE. Brinkmann & Bose, 1998

Kevin McFadden’s anagram poems have appeared in Denver Quarterly, Iowa Review, American Letters & Commentary, Gulf Coast, The Ledge, Fence, and Archipelago (Vol. 6, No. 1), and are forthcoming in Chicago Review. He suggests that interested readers might look at an anagrammarian site, which he himself has used on occasion.


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