Booker Longlist 2022: Claire Keegan’s ‘Small Things Like These’

Many of them were raped by family members. Impregnated, unwed women were locked away in institutions of slave labor by the Catholic Church and with the full knowledge of the Irish government, forced to work in hellishly hot virtual torture chambers behind bars, as if they were convicts. Nuns stood over these women and children morning and night to hit them and pull their hair if they didn’t fold the sheets right or dared speak to each other. Their birth names taken away, the women were given saints’ names and warned never to speak of their former lives.

To this day, traumatized survivors don’t know who they were imprisoned with because they never once heard their real names.

These institutions were called Magdalene Laundries, or Magdalene Asylums, and it’s estimated 30,000 women and children spent time in them from the 18th Century to the 20th. In 1993, unmarked mass graves of women and children were discovered, their bodies thrown in the ground unceremoniously, some in soil soaked in sewer water.

The Irish government admitted these atrocities in 2001, 236 years after the first Magdalene Asylum was opened.

Magdalene Laundry, c. early 1900s

Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These opens in October 1985, as the damp days of autumn are setting in. Bill Furlong is a coal and timber merchant, living with his raven-haired wife Eileen and their five lovely daughters. Furlong is a kind, hard-working man whose sole purpose is caring for his family. They are the lucky ones, not wealthy by any means but also not starving at a time when jobs were hard to find, many people forced to emigrate to the UK and America for the promise of a better life. Well-liked by the villagers, as long as he maintained his reputation as a fair and honest man, the Furlongs were as financially safe as it was possible to be.

Furlong never knew his mother. Raised by a kind woman named Mrs. Wilson, he wasn’t told who his father was, either. He didn’t dare ask. But he grew up happily enough with loving adults in his life, growing into a kind and compassionate man.

On Christmas Eve 1985, Bill Furlong rose extra early to deliver coal to the local convent, his last stop before attending Mass with his family. What happened that brutally cold morning would force him to choose between following either his head or his heart, knowing the path he took could place his family’s stability in peril. His decision would put his courage and strength of character to the ultimate test.

Small Things Like These is a short book, at 114 pages the shortest ever to be nominated for the Booker Prize. Because of its brevity, I hesitate to say too much about it to avoid spoilers. It’s a beautiful novel, written in celebrated Irish novelist Claire Keegan’s distinctive spare prose, interwoven with the kind of spirituality that doesn’t involve churches. It’s about kindness and goodness and empathy, told without a trace of sentimentality.

While this novel is a little gem, I don’t think it will win the Booker. The judges are giving Keegan a nod, acknowledging her quiet power. But ultimately, the prize will be given to a bigger novel with a story more suited to a sweeping canvas. But then, in 2011 I said the same thing and Julian Barnes waltzed out the door with his A Sense of An Ending, another shorter book. It’s fantastic and I love and admire it, but I loved Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side just a little bit better.

It occasionally happens that I’m wrong, but I don’t think so in this case. If I use A Sense of An Ending as a gauge, its focus was much wider, the story more satisfyingly dense. Small Things Like These touches on a very weighty subject that absolutely deserves more exposure, but ultimately I don’t think it will prevail against the competition. It will appeal strongly to readers who complain Booker winners are far too obscure and too highly literary; this is the quietest longlisted novel I’ve ever read and one of the most accessible.

One thing I do know is unequivocably true, I’d better move my arse if I’m going to get through the longlisted novels I mean to.

For more about the Magdalene Laundries:

Ireland’s Magadalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment

Plus loads of YouTube videos – give it a Google

See Wikipedia for this excellent article

May all of them, living and dead, find their peace.

And may the guilty find Karma.

Blake Bailey, Roth, and the real reason sexual predators are on the streets

Explosive news in the literary world this week, when literary biographer Blake Bailey, in the midst of almost universally laudatory praise for his new biography of Philip Roth, was revealed to be a sexual predator and accused rapist. Women who’d been middle-school students of his back in the 90s came forward, revealing the ways he’d “groomed” them as children and then made sexual moves as soon as they’d turned 18 – the “age of consent.” One former student has accused him of rape.

Roth, of course, had a reputation for treating women abhorrently. The nice term would be “playboy,” I suppose, which, depending on the degree and whether or not it was mutual, is often dismissed with a wave and a chuckle. “Boys will be boys,” right?

Because Roth chose Bailey as his biographer, the inevitable parallels are being drawn.

Publisher WW Norton temporarily suspended shipment of the book, pulling the plug on publicity. Bailey’s literary agent dropped him. The much-anticipated literary biography of Roth, already considered a strong contender for the Pulitzer, became a pariah in the course of a week.

I question if the allegations against Bailey would have exploded prior to the #metoo movement, before women found their voice, organizing to march against sexually-abusive men in the wake of Donald Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” comment caught on tape. I don’t believe it would have. It never has before, when sexually violent men have become successful. Before women found their voice, victims had to remain silent, looking on while the men who assaulted them accepted adulation.

I went searching for articles about the controversy this morning. Unsurprisingly, there is no lack. I also stopped by the Philip Roth Facebook page, where the comments are not astonishing but definitely disappointing. Given an opportunity for debate on the topic of sexual violence against women and systemic mysogyny, the group of mostly men were foaming at the mouth about the women dragging both Blake Bailey and Philip Roth through the mud. Here lies the problem: given a real-life example of the issue, we cannot engage in conversation about the real victims of sexually-predatory men. Instead, a group of readers chooses posturing in order to argue about “cancel culture.”

Really? Is that the takeaway? Guess what: this is precisely the reason women hesitate coming forward to report sex crimes against them. The minute we do, the public at large swoops in to savage us for ruining reputations of these poor, misunderstood men. Are men sometimes wrongfully accused? Of course! But women who come forward deserve to be heard.

I cannot believe I even have to say this.

The “other” position is hardly better. Those who sympathize with the women, instead of rising up to say let’s work on fixing the reason women don’t feel free to talk, instead start ripping apart Philip Roth’s life (which is over) and fiction (which is generally brilliant) for examples of terrible things he’s done. That ship has sailed. You know what ship hasn’t?

Violence against women.

I sympathize with readers who cannot stomach the idea of reading the work of men who’ve done abhorrent things. But you’re not getting it. If you want to examine topics such as racism, sexism, and glorification of violence against women in the writings of specific authors, do so! Just don’t put that ahead of advocacy for the root cause.

I’m a life-long student of literature. I get it. I enjoy rousing debate, as well, however, what infuriates me is not how fictional women are treated. It’s how actual women are.

FFS, would you take a step back and listen to yourselves.

Support for the writing-constipated

Battling the Black Dog of depression.

It’s not for lack of things to say. Rather the opposite, there’s a bottleneck of scattered throughts stuck where the words come out. Still unable to write anything of substance, barely able to read. Concentration shot, desire to create all but dead.

My 2021 journal has one page scribbled, front and back, and that pretty much garbage. Stuck in the middle is a list of things my therapist said should be first and foremost in my addled brain, advice on bare-minimum concepts of self care during stressful times:





She insisted I write these words down when she could see me do it, in last Saturday’s virtual session. I obeyed, did the things one or two days, then sat up this morning remembering SHIT, I have to account for that today. I bluffed my way through, distracting her with every other problem I could think of. She’s so easy to bump off topic. Not that it wasn’t all legit. It was all legit.

To be honest, I barely remember what things fall under the categories she dictated. Head is intellectual, natch. Or is that meditation and such. Oh, crap. Anyway, I watched an interesting series on English history and read a few paragraphs in a book and called that a day.

Body. I have a pulled bicep tendon, meaning I cannot lift anything or support weight with my left arm. Simple yoga stretches left me in excrutiating pain, unable to even lift that arm for a full day. Arctic temps (- 30 to -35 expected tonight) excuse me from walking. Got points for effort.

Heart. As long as that’s not love, I can work with it.

Considering the week before last I was hardly able to get out of bed when it wasn’t required, this past week was a hive of activity. Now that I have a kitchen, I’m cooking again. I baked bread, roasted chicken, made vegetable soup… Slap me upside the head and call me the Pioneer Woman.

Clementine marmalade!
Greek yoghurt muffins with clementine marmalade!
Chicken wings!

Since the last time I posted, I’ve gotten all settled in the new place. It’s good to be back to the land of mod cons. The Victorian-era building had its charm – well, my apartment did, but the building itself was filthy as hell – but a year without in-unit washer and dryer, dishwasher, and forced-air furnace was an exercise in consternation.

I love decorating and I’ve thrown myself into it here. The sofa arrived yesterday, completing the living room. Very happy with the look.

Mid-century influenced – love it.


Next up: the bedroom/office. Since I spend so much time in there, it deserves much more than its current state, which is basically a drab, grey bed and white walls. I’ve been looking at desks. The leading contender is a corner desk that converts from standing to sitting. Benefits are I wouldn’t be on my ass all day, plus the corner placement leaves more of the walls open.

Which side of the room do I put it on, that’s the burning question. My bed is currently under the window but having the desk in that corner would mean natural light, plus a room with a view. Downside is directly on the other side of that wall are my neighbors, who’d have to hear me yammering away on the phone all day. Sound-proofing? Maybe.

Decorating and arranging things keeps my spirits from crashing too far. I think I’m pretty decent at it. Ditto the cooking. I have big countertops now, a huge gas stove/oven and all the conveniences. I bought myself a knife block with actual sharp knives, not the cheapest stuff I could find. As of today, I have a Cuisinart.

I’m writing this post. And I ordered myself two books for a Valentine’s Day present to myself. Both are positive signs. These next few weeks will be tough on me emotionally, as I pass two milestone anniversaries that break my heart. So I’m filling my life with things I love doing, things that inspire.

Is the writing drought done, I don’t know.

I only know I’m moving forward, which is so much better than sitting stuck.

Election Day 2020: Throw the bastard out

November 3, 2020.

It’s here. Time for the People of the United States to vote out the single most vile president in the history of our nation. Four years of humiliation, despair, alienation of our allies, and the enabling and encouragement of racist hate groups will come to an end. I have little doubt of this. When called upon to do the right thing, I believe the American people will answer.

I won’t go into the grisly history of the man’s presidency. It’s too horrific and I don’t want to remember, to be honest. Neither will I refer to him by title. He has done nothing to earn it. The world knows the history and in the future I can only imagine what our descendants will make of it.

It is our national shame.

Voting him in once was a lapse of judgement. It was soul-crushing to those of us who believed it was a disastrous choice – though we can’t have known the extent of his depravity. Voting him in twice would be a damning indictment of the character of this nation.

That would be indefensible.

The last four years have been devastating to me personally. Outrageous behavior has become normalized; it’s been staggering ineptitude, narcissism, and just plain criminal behavior for four years. Unimaginable he’s gotten away with it all. I can’t explain it away without believing the soul of the country is completely without integrity.

The supporters of this outright tyranny are so insular they don’t even listen, pay no attention to his disturbing and dangerous actions. He grabs the flag, waves around a bible, spews hatred and blares out patriotic phrases and his people cheer.

His supporters are lost. Frankly, I’m happy to move forward without them. Damn them to hell for the part they’ve played in flirting with the downfall of our country.

It ends here, America. Going forward it’s a new day filled with hope for change.

Waking up as September ends

Aspiring bloggers, take note! Sit down. Whip out your Moleskines and disposable fountain pens. I offer you the key to my Blogging Empire.

Write this next part on a fresh page. Memorize it. Eat it, so it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. Your enemies surround you, preparing to dance ’round your smoking carcass. Drumbeats are so loud you feel it in your chest; one word from that guy wearing a big, feathery hat and they’ll step off. It’s like totally dramatic, I will not lie. You could have used all this in a story, only you didn’t heed my warning.

FFS, why do I even bother.

READ THIS SO YOU CAN LIVE. Record my words:

1). Fire off a flurry of posts of varying quality in a short space of time, generating interest and gaining followers.

2). Piss off a few months. Totally ignore the goddamn thing like that dusty, wrinkled sock under your bed next to the mechanical pencil you dropped when you fell asleep writing marginalia.

3). Misspend all your time posting political rants on Twitter, articles on Facebook, pictures of rando stuff on Instagram. Use lots of filters, apply vignette to everything.

4). Indulge in self-loathing – really dig in! Sketch out all the ways you’ve failed, opportunities lost and connections missed.

Make them up if you must!

What am I, your secretary?


5). Poke your face in after you’ve lost your old password and have to re-set it, and, THIS IS THE IMPORTANT BIT, SO CHANGE INK COLOR: promise to do better, then don’t.

6). Order pizza. This is hungry work!

7). Send me money for value provided. My Amazon cart will not buy itself.

Its simplicity is genius. You can, quite literally, pour your Dorito-swollen pandemibody onto the sofa, eat popcorn and binge British crime dramas, and achieve every bit as much as I have. Every. Last. Bit.

I feel waves of admiration radiating. I love you, too, and accept your thanks with open wallet.

Retreat – Stockton, IL – July 2020

Srsly, this last stage of pandemonium has been intellectually frenetic, following that cleansing week I spent off the grid. Over a hundred pages ink-vomited into an ironically optimistic dedicated 2020 journal left me dry heaving and spent. Clarity of mind lasted, oh, a week?

It’s been a trip, innit.

It was the summer of re-reading Faulkner, plowing back through As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury. They ripped out my slimy guts, leaving them throbbing on the floor.

Say it with me: William Faulkner is the single greatest writer produced by the United States. Full stop.

I clawed my fingers into the words, drowned in the depths of their devastating perfection. Analytical skills cultivated from a lifetime passion for reading and writing about reading and extricating allusions and meaning reignited, like a thousand banshees screaming their fury.

It was as if I’d never deserted criticism.

So, yeah. There’s that.

In other news, five years into the divorce my ex-husband and I have begun sharing custody of the family Jack Russell Terrier. I took her in when he found himself in a bind, faced with possible cancellation of vacation plans with his current girlfriend turning him to his last resort – me. I accepted reluctantly. Having a cat who never seemed to play well with others, and a lease stipulating a one-pet limit, I wasn’t thrilled though I love her dearly.

Lo and behold, I felt tearful when he took her home.

At 14, she’s barely slowing down – not that she’s ever exhibited the full-blown JRT personality. Anxiety tempers the in-yo-face exhuberance she doesn’t realize she’s supposed to have, though she Tiggers at walkie time.

Mostly, she sleeps. And at night she grunts and dream woofs, curling up against my back and kicking me randomly. Reminds me an awful lot of marriage, only my ex-husband never peed on my down comforter.

Violet is besotted, rubbing against Lia violently. She stands on tip-toe, takes aim, and heaves herself like it’s a trust exercise at a business seminar. Lia generally takes it well, save two times she literally snapped. On the upside, Lia hasn’t caught her.

I didn’t realize my lard-ass cat could move that fast.

Lia gets me out of the house and walking the neighborhood. Painted lady Victorian-era homes proliferate here; there are hundreds. A sucker for their beauty, I take pictures no matter how stalky it looks. I cannot help myself.

Historic District, Elgin. Painted Ladies.

After a summer spent pandemidating, there’s been a sea change in my whole perspective on relationships. Fifteen men met scrutiny, none fit the suit. Visceral nausea, a literal struggle not to projectile vomit through a mask made me realize what I was doing and why it was wrong: I was looking to recreate my last relationship, to reincarnate that specific man. Each one of them had about three minutes to be him. At that point I hoped an anvil would fall on their heads.

My life is so full. I’m finding my joy again, and trying to meet society’s idea of what I should want is useless torture. Plus, toying with the emotions of other people. That’s wrong, saying sorry, but no, over and over.

There’s been little happening and much happening, depending on perspective. I don’t venture out many places. Only when absolutely necessary. Agoraphobia is an ever-present threat, the pull of the farmers market on Fridays desirable beyond the produce and freshly-baked bread. I pick up groceries, see my adult kids occasionally.

Forcing faith the world will reopen one day, a 2021 trip to homes of great writers is in the planning stages. Beyond that, possibly the UK in 2022. All the stuff I can do because there’s no need to take anyone else into account in scheduling my life.

It’s going well, two steps forward and one back as the November election looms. Barring civil war, the next milestone is the vaccine.

We’re all taking it day by day, aren’t we.

Exhausting. But hopeful. It springs eternally, as it must.

As I Lay Whining

Friends and exes still stalking me (as I am you, and you still look so pretty when you sleep), I am in a funk – at once bored out of my mind and so irritated the only thing stopping me from clawing my way out of my skin is the mess. Who needs the aggravation of no-contact carpet and upholstery cleaner rental right now?

Not this bish!

I’ve only just mastered grocery pick up, FFS, and even then I hesitate to abuse the term “mastered,” as I discovered today I left three frozen dinners in my trunk, in 90 degree heat, for two days. Particularly annoying when I’m gearing up for a “let’s get off the quarantine weight” initiative, my time-tested method consisting of protein shakes for breakfast and lunch, then strictly calorie-controlled frozen dinners – preferably frozen dinners that will not result in death by e-coli, and, though this would negate the need for future initiatives of any sort, upon further review the judges have turned thumbs down on this idea, in a rare show of a united front.

Is this current mood an improvement over anxiety? It’s a change. I’ve blown past insomnia to wake me and I will bitch-slap you, whore, which my doctor assures me is even worse than not sleeping. Yet, when I was not sleeping she was all furrowed brow and have you tried melatonin, and I was all yeah, but I ran out and I could put it on my grocery list but I’ll probably just leave it to rot in the trunk with my Healthy Choice protein bowls.

Summer heat helps nothing, the charm of my turn 100+ year old apartment tarnished by the lack of forced air. Not sure you’ve noticed, but little annoyances blow up when you’re sweaty and dehydrated. It took about three days of sweating myself into a dessicated pile of dust to jump online and splash out $ 400 for a window unit air conditioner – with remote, thanks very much.

Take my money! Just let me live again!

Impressive how easy the stores make it to spend your money while totally circumventing human interaction. You pay, they email you when your stuff is ready to be picked up, then some guy in a mask heaves it into your trunk like some kind of reverse robbery. It feels illegal, like a parking lot drug deal.

I’m left wondering why on earth I ever voluntarily interacted with another person, and if they’ll continue this even after the pandemic’s over.

Note to self: call Lowe’s Monday.

Where it falls short regarding modern conveniences, building management makes up for in superb maintenance service. Once I had the unit in my trunk, I texted my landlord I needed help putting the thing in my window. An aversion to squashing people having dogged me my whole life, I didn’t want anything disastrous to be my responsibility should the thing slip from my hands. Plus, when I rented the place he’d assured me installing said appliance would be no big whoop.

Two days later the maintenance guy came knocking, masked and carrying something that looked like an industrial-sized auger. Puzzled, I acknowledged I really had no idea what tools a person needed to install an air conditioner, and, obviously, a four-foot long metal spiral was necessary.

He pointed to the bathroom door, saying In there? Having already given my landlord the heads’ up I needed the a/c brought up the stairs because I couldn’t lift it from the trunk, I figured he just hadn’t relayed the message, so I replied, No, in my car trunk, at which point the poor man looked completely confused.

Your toilet is in your trunk?

No, my air conditioner is.

Him: blink.

Me: blink.

I need the window unit a/c installed.

Hilarity ensued, as he realized the clog in my toilet was actually a 50 lb. air conditioner. Ha and ha, the laughter becoming strained when I re-affirmed that, yes, my landlord had volunteered him, the maintenance guy, to not just install the unit but also wrangle the thing up three floors.

It was then the light in his eyes died.

I left him to the installation, having received a positive response to do you think it will fit in the kitchen window. All of fifteen minutes later, it was installed and running. He handed me the remote, even offering to put the box in the attic, to get it out of my way. I tipped him for what I considered over and above normal building maintenance, wishing him a good day and thanks so much.

Only once I’d wrapped up my work day did I take time to inspect the job. The little machine that could had restored my will to live, what more did I need to know? I’d sat at my desk all day pointing the remote over my shoulder, turning the air off and on. It most assuredly worked. A little loud, but my place is small and sound carries. No big whoop.

Dinner time rolled around and I was standing in front of the air conditioner, merrily cutting Brussels sprouts to roast. Like my entire apartment, my kitchen is compact. Sub-compact. Like, really, really small. The fact my hip was so close to the vent as to become frost-bit didn’t give me pause.

Until I went to shove the sprouts in the oven.

And the oven door hit the a/c, because there was zero clearance.

Because the sweet maintenance man had not, in assuring the unit would fit the window, taken into account I may actually go crazy and, I don’t know, WANT TO COOK FOOD.

Let’s stop this here while I tell you there are no good options for windows to virtually lose in my apartment. The sofa is in front of the living room window. The kitchen area has three beautiful bay windows I refuse to uglify with a huge appliance. Then there’s the bathroom and bedroom. The bathroom would be ridiculous, even if the window weren’t too small. And the bedroom? My headboard completely blocks it, plus, that window’s over-sized. It would require some sort of extension to fill the gap left by the expandable sides coming out of the air conditioning unit.

The kitchen window is not a good one to lose, but that’s basically it. I have the choice of eating hot food or burning to a crisp in my third floor charmer.

Are you even fucking kidding me.

I did what any sensible person would do. I spent another $ 150 on a combination toaster/convection oven, in which I hope to cook all food I cannot make on the stove top. The convection oven bumped the microwave from its perch, so now my microwave is sitting on the floor, while I studiously avoid thinking any further about any of this.

So. Yeah. I’m a little irritated at the moment.

How’s your pandemic going, month fifty-thousillion?

Do tell.


Takes a pandemic to propel me back to blogging, apparently.

My mind had been on it prior to that, but disaster provides strong motivation to reach out. I’d have posted sooner, like two weeks ago when it began, only the practicalities of turning your life upside down pretty much overnight take one hell of a lot of time and energy.

Finding yourself tired all the time? I’m exhausted. I sleep like an angel at night, but the emotional impact of all this drains every ounce of energy. I don’t doubt you feel that, too.

I’ve been posting semi-regular daily journal entries on Facebook for the consumption of friends and family, then realized that’s not the best medium for more complex thoughts. Bluestalking’s been sitting idle a long while, waiting for me to make up my mind what to do with it. I’d rather it hadn’t taken a global crisis to nudge me back toward writing.

Thanks, but no thanks, COVID-19.

Writer’s block, a thing I’ve rolled my eyes at basically forever, hit me with a vengeance several months ago. I quit reviewing, keeping a journal, even reading. Moving away, in spitting distance of where I’d spent nearly 30 years of my life but far away in terms of culture, provoked such fear and panic and I can’t tell you why. I left the country with less anxiety – TWICE.

I lost touch with myself. It manifested itself in out-sized anxiety I struggled to control, succeeding by virtue of digging my fingernails into the ledge I nearly dropped from. The place I moved is packed with character, the apartment charming as hell, and the diversity of the area far removed from my blindingly white former home.

But I kind of fell apart.

Coming back to writing and reading will, I’m hoping, return me to myself.

I know no one who’s had COVID-19, or even knows anyone who’s fallen victim. Counting myself lucky on that score. Also fortunate my occupation allows me to work from home; I have a regular salary from a company that’s thriving – actually hiring in the midst of this dystopian nightmare, and full benefit of health insurance.

My pantries are so full, if pressed I could stay in place at least a couple of months – though, Christ, I hope it won’t be that long. I lack for nothing, save face to face contact with those I love, though that’s a huge, yawning gap. I’m thankful for video chatting. There’s that.

The State of Illinois has been under a shelter-in-place order a week now, and I abide by that strictly, leaving home only to pick up medication, so far. When I need eventually need groceries, I’ll either order for pick up or have them delivered.

Again, I’m fortunate.

But tired, and struggling to wriggle back into my skin. Pandemics just don’t show up at convenient times, do they?

We are in this together, and what we make of this time will define how future generations judge us, looking back. I, for one, want to be able to look at my future grandchildren and say I more than got through this. Not just “I learned 100 ways to cook beans,” but “I accomplished a thing” – then tell them about it.

We will get through this.

An interview with former poet laureate Billy Collins

Interview With Poet Laureate Billy Collins

Billy Collins

I had the pleasure of interviewing former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins via telephone. Mr. Collins served two terms as Poet Laureate, from 2001 – 2003. He was also selected as New York State Poet for 2004.

Billy Collins has published several collections of poetry (bibliography below, from, and he’s been included in many anthologies.

LG: Were you an avid reader as a child? What were your favorite books?

BC: I was not only an avid reader but I used to pretend to read before I could read. I was an only child and that lead to a very rich reading life. When my parents would have people over I would pretend to be reading. I would have an encyclopedia on my lap and I’d pretend to be reading it. I knew which way to turn it because of the pictures.

Later, when I was able to read, I read all the Hardy boys, and the Albert Payson Terhune books about Lad and Lassie. They’re basically all the same story, with the names changed. I read Black Beauty and The Yearling. Those I read a number of times and had them read to me.

My parents didn’t have a TV until everyone else had a TV. We had the collected Dickens in the house, and my mother said, half-jokingly, if I read all of Dickens we could get a TV. I didn’t read all of Dickens.

Mother Goose is the original inspiration for all poets. That’s where they get an idea of rhythm and rhyme. My mother had memorized a lot of poetry as a schoolgirl. She went to a rural school in Ontario, Canada. She housed hundreds and hundreds of lines of poetry. If any occasion arose she’d have a few lines of poetry about it.

LG: When did you start writing poetry?

BC: I don’t think anyone escapes childhood, or adolescence, without writing some really horrible, usually lovesick, poetry, poems of a misunderstood adolescent who was convinced no one in the course of history had ever felt this way before.

I didn’t write my first book until I was in my 40s. It took me a long time to figure it out, or find my voice, or combine these different influences so it sounded like me. I was writing all along, kind of on the side. I went to grad school and began teaching literature in college. I’ve been doing that most of my life. I used to be a professor who wrote poetry. Now I’m a poet who happens to be a professor.

LG: How many hours a day do you write? Do you keep a strict schedule?

BC: I have no work habits whatsoever. I don’t write every day, so often it would be zero hours per day. I kind of hold onto a romantic view. People say in order to be a writer you have to write all the time. The poem will come along when it arrives. I try to be on the lookout for creative opportunities, something that might trigger a poem, but I don’t sit down in the morning and try to commit an act of literature before lunch.

LG: That sounds a lot different than writing fiction.

BC: It is very different from fiction writing. As Hemingway said you always knock off for the day in the middle of a scene, but poets have to restart themselves all the time. Poets return much more often to the blank page.

I heard about a survey once, the results of which are poets are more inclined to suicide because of the anxiety of starting afresh. Depression visits poets more frequently. You can write a lyric poem in a couple of hours. You don’t know if the next poem will start the next hour or a month from now. Poetry’s known for its brevity, but that’s also the bad news for writers.

LG: Do you do a lot of re-writing?

BC: Less and less. I try to make it right the first time. The conceptual journey of the poetry is all done in one sitting, from beginning to middle to end. I hardly ever change the movement of the poem as it navigates itself. What I do change are matters of rhythm and sound, finding an adjective. But I never go back and say this is all wrong.

LG: Do you write on the computer or longhand?

BC: I write with a pencil, always longhand. I make a mess and scratch things out. A pencil seems very fluid. I put it on the computer at the very last minute, when I think it’s done. On the computer it looks fixed in place and it’s pretty much done. When you put it on a computer you see what it looks like. The look of prose is irrelevant, but the poem has a shape to it which is the result of line breaks and stanza breaks, so you can see what you couldn’t see with the pencil. Shapeliness is one of the attractive aspects of poetry. When I get it on the screen I do some shaping to make it look right.

LG: Do any other genres, besides poetry, appeal to you?

BC: Not really. I think it’s sort of like in music. It’s enough to be able to play one fairly well. That’s the question musicians never get, do you play any other instruments.

I write some prose, I write essays on poetry. Criticism. I wouldn’t know what I was doing if I wrote a short story.

LG: What writers have influenced you the most?

BC: That’s a tough question. There are too many to name. It’s not even clear the degree of influence. Often people will spout names like Yeats, Coleridge, etc., but I think these are flags of convenience. It’s hard to think of something that hasn’t influenced me, positively or negatively.

I’ve taught literature in college for so many years. Every semester I re-read Emily Dickinson, Wordsworth, Marvel. I read them all semester after semester.

What I think of as an influence is a poet who makes you jealous. It’s a polite way of saying other writers inflame you with jealousy. Driven by a jealous rage you go off and try to write something like that, or try to steal from them in order to exact revenge.

LG: I’ve read that you consider your poetry to be “hospitable,” which some refer to as accessible. How do you distinguish between hospitable and poetry that’s considered difficult or obscure?

BC: I think I discovered that you can write clearly in clear language and still have access to areas of great mystery. To write doesn’t mean to get stuck on a literal level. There are poets who follow etiquette. I write in sentences. I use standard punctuation, beginning with a standard note the reader can identify with. Once that engagement is made the poet can head off in less familiar directions and take the reader on an imaginative journey in which the writer doesn’t know where he’s going.

A poem begins in clarity and ends in mystery, if a poet is able to understand that distinction and knows when to be clear and when to be mysterious. It’s important to know which cards to turn over, and which to leave face down. In the worst poetry all the cards are face down.

LG: Aside from writing, what are your pastimes?

BC: I play the piano. I have a dog I’m obsessed with.

LG: What kind of dog?

BC: She’s a mutt, mostly collie. It goes back to those Albert Payson Terhune books. I live in New York City, on the Hudson River in the Village. That’s a good opportunity for walking.

LG: What projects are you working on currently?

BC: I’m finishing a manuscript but I don’t know if it’s done yet. I think the publisher would like it but I’m not sure it’s ready. I don’t want to rush it into print. I don’t know how many aces I have.

LG: What advice would you give to aspiring poets?

BC: That goes back to that influence question. Just read. Find poets that make you jealous. The only hope you have in what would be called originality is through a process of imitation. It’s a matter of getting rid of the young poet’s delusion that your experiences are so original that you’re going to announce this in original language. What inspires poetry is poetry. It’s not the muse. It’s not nature. It’s not emotion. It’s other poetry that inspires poetry. When you write poetry you’re adding your voice to this long historic voice. You need to listen to these for a long time before you even know what your voice would possibly add. Read widely and quickly. Don’t waste your time on poetry that doesn’t talk to you.

LG: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

BC: Thank you.

Special thanks to Steven Barclay, of Steven Barclay Agency, for putting me in touch with Mr. Collins, and to Billy Collins, for his generosity in granting the interview.

A Sunday Commonplace

Books mentioned in this post:


The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

James Joyce: Portrait of a Dubliner – A Graphic Novel by Alfonso Zapico

Theodor Geisel: A Portrait of the Man Who Became Dr. Seuss by Donald E. Pease

Review copies:

Hoopty Time Machines: Fairy Tales for Grown Ups by Christopher DeWan

He Comes in Fire by Aaron R. Even

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

A Tree or a Person or a Wall by Matt Bell

Up Soon in Reading:

The Brontes: Wild Genius on the Moors – The Story of a Literary Family by Juliet Barker

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by D.G. Compton (NYRB)






Loads of overtime hours this week: 14, to be precise. Overtime means time and a half, and time and a half means money I’m lusting to spend. A responsible adult, I realize no money should be squandered, which is why I wasted none of it on groceries or rent. As long as there’s money jingling in the buy one, get one Egg McMuffin fund, I see no problem here.

It was a bookwhorish week dreams are made of, both purchased and review books hitting the doorstep with a frequency impressing even me, no stranger to One Click frenzies – the nerdy equivalent of drunk dialing. But books arriving unbidden, oh GOD what a beautiful thing.

It’s best when you don’t anticipate them coming, in a way. Don’t you agree? Slavering for the UPS man is all well and good, but boxes hitting the front door after you’ve torn up the stairs to find a dark place to sit and stroke your new presshussses, well that’s the equivalent of God leaning down and whispering he exists and has a place for you after all, despite all your atheistic snark.

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout is one of the Booker nominees I spoke of a mere couple days ago. It’s the easiest Shortlist title attainable, so I snatched it. Levy’s Hot Milk, Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing and Moshfeh’s Eileen (PEN Hemingway winner) are available now; Szalay’s All That Man Is and Graeme MaCrae Burne’s His Bloody Project are due in early October.

Resist, Amazon one click finger. Mama has bills.

I’ve paged through Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance during Barnes & Noble lurks, but never properly read it. Scoring one of the wingback chairs on my last visit, settled into read the first four or five pages and my hands couldn’t let go. A portrait of the economically depressed South that’s also home to my family, it appeals to my great need for an empathetic portrayal of my roots.

“There is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites. Well over half of blacks, Latinos, and college-educated whites expect that their children will fare better economically than they have. Among working-class whites, only 44 percent share that expectation.” – J.D. Vance


Next up: a graphic books.  No good reason I haven’t read more save the old complaint about that thief time.  James Joyce: Portrait of a Dubliner – A Graphic Biography leapt off the shelf and hit me in the head. No hesitation; this book was mine.

In 2014 I visited a Dublin bursting with echoes of Joyce. Of course I made a vow to read more of his work, and of course I haven’t since. Goodbye, guilt and hello to a genre I’ve neglected, all in one go.


The Literature Book by James Canton– $ 1.99

The Harvard Classics in a Year: A Liberal Education in 365 Days – $ 2.51

The Yellow Room by Mary R. Rinehart – $ 1.99

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick – $ 1.99

Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties by Rachel Cooke – $1.99

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym – $ 1.99


As much out of left field as the graphic bio, Theodor Geisel: A Portrait of the Man Who Became Dr. Seuss happened. Ironic it’s another literary biography with A Portrait in the title. It’s like Barnes & Noble had a plan for me, like they’ve been stalking me. Looks like it worked.

Now, the review books – bookwhore crack that didn’t make my credit card scream in agony.

Atticus sent me two: Hoopty Time Machines: Fairy Tales for Grown Ups by Christopher DeWan and He Comes in Fire by Aaron R. Even, both of which are completely unknown to me – books and authors.

Kevin Brockmeier, a writer I met a few years ago and whose writing takes my breath away, had this to say about Hoopty:

Hoopty Time Machines is much like a bag of M&M’s, in that it’s nearly impossible, once you’ve opened it, not to consume it down to the last morsel, and fast. It is less like a bag of M&M’s in that you never know what you’ll find beneath the candy coating: a peanut or an amphetamine, a rosary bead or a thumbtack.” –Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination

A bit baffled by Aaron R. Even. He’s not coming up on Amazon searches. Seldom do I make time for writers with no creds, no blurbs by authors I respect. This one’s described as Southern gothic, an appealing term. Nevertheless, it’s a descriptive thrown around liberally, seemingly by those who have no idea of the true meaning – or less about the meaning than profit margins.

Atticus books feeding my sickness.

Atticus books feeding my sickness.

Two books I’m wildly excited about are also freebies:

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride and A Tree or a Person or a Wall by Matt Bell. I hang out with Matt on FB, share taste in beer, and was floored by his 2015 Scrapper. I hadn’t yet worked up to asking him up for a review copy; it’s like his publisher read my mind.


And Eimear McBride. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a book which left me conflicted, but ultimately impressed. I said in my review I’d gladly read more of her work. I’m getting that chance.

I was going to write about current reads, but covering this week’s literary immigration into my apartment exhausted me. Disclosure: at least three others didn’t make this report. They were late night One Clickers that haven’t arrived yet, bless their papery hearts. Next time.

Always next time.

Harriet Said… by Beryl Bainbridge


Harriet Said… by Beryl Bainbridge * Virago Press * Intro by Linda Grant c. 2012 * Originally published 1972 – Duckworth


A chilling tale, Harriet Said… by Beryl Bainbridge explores the dark side of adolescence, the very particular point at which childhood morphs into sexual awakening. Two 13-year old girls: thin and lovely Harriet, and an unnamed pudgy and unattractive narrator who’s never named, live in Merseyside. Returned from boarding school, the narrator resumes her traditional role as sidekick and adorer of the beautiful Harriet, groomed to serve and carry out the whims of her friend.

Desperate to keep her friendship and approval, the unattractive girl would do absolutely anything. Slave to her idolatry, the narrator cannot oppose the prettier girl. Even when she determines to defy her, one look a the girl’s pretty face stops her in her tracks. She becomes powerless.

Following what Bainbridge subtly depicts as the sexual assault of Harriet, the girl turns into a menacing, creeping creature bent on wreaking as much havoc as possible by leading men astray. Her particular prey is a 56-year old man the two girls refer to as “the Tsar,” a man named Mr. Biggs who lives in their village.

By no means faultless, the Tsar is goaded into beginning an affair of sorts with the narrator. Alternately teasing and ridiculing him, the two girls arrange to meet him in out of the way places, presenting him with the opportunity to engage in lascivious behavior with the child. And when he takes the bait, that’s when Harriet’s true evil rises to the surface.

The two perpetrate increasingly horrendous acts on both Mr. Biggs and his wife, a hulking figure of a woman who sees right through them. The cruelty and level of cunning accelerates as the narrator is persuaded to take the baiting even further.


“Harriet spoke in the same reasonable way she talked to her mother.

‘At thirteen there is very little you can expect to salvage from loving someone than experience. You’ll go back to school for years, you’ll wear a gym tunic long after this is over… And all he’ll feel for you is a sort of gentle nostalgia. No – bring it to its logical conclusion. If you don’t you’ll feel emotional for ages over something that was pretty trivial.’

‘But what if we find it’s not trivial?’ I was appalled by the wisdom of us both. It seemed unnatural. Why had I not noticed it before?


I knew the book would be dark, but had no idea to what extent. The horror is paced well, building to the inevitable and brutal end by degrees. The thing is, I cannot say much more about the plot without risking the spoiling of it. The book’s quite short, at 175 pages, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for discussion without giving too much away.

I thought it was brilliantly done, though I enjoy dark writing. I’ve read other Bainbridge, though it’s been several years, and I remember her other stuff is similar to Harriet Said… I expect it’s something you either like or don’t. I fall quite firmly into the like camp.

Stories about the potential for brutality in adolescents aren’t rare. If you’ve been 13 you’ll understand why. It can be a nasty age, with all those hormones raging. Of course, not everyone is Harriet – and thank God for that.

It’s at this age children become narcissistic, rebellious and downright nasty – to different degrees, of course, and not universally but to a large extent. Thankfully, for most it’s a phase. Just sometimes, it’s taken to a fatal extreme. It’s in this dark place Bainbridge set this novel.

A dark delight, once started it demands you don’t put it down. Morbid fascination carries the reader along to the end we both know and hope isn’t inevitable. And Bainbridge does not flinch. She takes it to the bitter end, all innocence lost.

Now I know why I’d meant to get back to her writing. I enjoy the shiver of it, the dark recesses of wickedness. A wonderful short novel. Highly recommended.