Per Petterson does not map out his novels in advance, the Norwegian author told a crowd at Macalester College on Tuesday night. Nor does he work with drafts. He writes slowly and straightforwardly, sentence by sentence, trusting his hard work to lead him to the next sentence, the next idea. He does not know what's going to happen in the end; he often does not know what's going to happen on the next page. "I trust my subconscious," he said.
If you've read his novels --- "Out Stealing Horses," for instance, winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, or his new one, "I Refuse," published this month by Graywolf Press --- you will have noticed his gorgeous complicated prose, "run-on sentences, tripping over their own dropped clauses, pricked with intermittence, properly punctuated but curiously unpunctual," as James Wood said in the New Yorker.
Petterson said that he works hard on these sentences, works on the rhythm and the meaning. Maybe the sentence ends with a two-syllable word and it really needs three syllables, so he digs around in his brain and finds the right three-syllable word, but that word has a slightly different meaning than the two syllable word, so then he has to go back and rework the rest of the sentence. And when it's done, when it's right, he moves on.
Even a complex novel like "I Refuse," a beautifully braided story that alternates between two time periods (the 1970s, and present day) and two main narrators (but there is a third narrator, and, twice, a third time period), and between first person and third person--even that book, he says, he wrote straight through. He did not map it, did not cut it into pieces and move sections around. Except for one section--he moved one of the sections about the protagonist's mother. "And it felt like cheating," he said. He doesn't normally write that way.
"Out Stealing Horses," also published in the United States by Graywolf, was a world-wide best seller, translated into 50 languages. Petterson admitted to being difficult to work with when it comes to translation. The English version, in particular, was important to him. "I love the English language," he said, and he used to work in translation himself. So once the translator was done, Petterson jumped in, rewriting, changing, working with his editor via Skype. Where was the translator during this? He is over here somewhere, he said, waving his hand to indicate, well, Siberia, maybe, or the boonies.
(When it comes to working on translations, Petterson said in an interview last year with writer Tasja Dorkofikis, "I guess I am a little more than average involved.")
The title of "Out Stealing Horses" was originally translated as, "Out to Steal Horses," which Petterson could not live with. It was wrong, he said. "What does that mean, Out to Steal Horses? Nothing, it means nothing," he said. No worries. He fixed it.
So what of the 49 other translations? The two Chinese-language editions, the Italian, the Spanish? Did he worry about the quality of those translations too? "Of course," he said. But he can only do so much.
An audience member, noting the lyricism of Petterson's prose, asked him if he also wrote poetry. "No," Petterson said. "I read a lot of poetry. All fiction writers should, I think. What I have of poetry in me goes into the prose."
When he began writing "I Refuse," he had the opening scene--a well-known bridge in Oslo---and he had a character: an unhappy man who had lost nearly everything and who had come to the bridge to fish.
What would happen next? Petterson had no idea. He trusted his subconscious, he said. And sure enough, along the bridge came a big fancy car and a rich man in a purple coat. Who was the man? Petterson let his subconscious figure that out. For his part, he just kept writing, one sentence at a time.
Nearly 1,000 poets from all over the United States entered Common Good Books' annual spring poetry contest. The winners were announced at noon today by Garrison Keillor in a ceremony at Macalester College.
Minneapolis poets Lisa Kundrat and Ethna McKiernan, along with Kari Castor of Illinois, were the three top winners. Each won $1,000.
There were also four $500 winners--three of whom are from Minnesota. They are Heidi Annexstad of Golden Valley, Cynthia Orange of St. Paul, Sharon Dardis of St. Paul, and Elizabeth Twiddy of Syracuse, N.Y.
The three top poems are posted below. The competition was judged by Keillor, the owner of Common Good Books.
Lisa Kundrat, "Dear You"
If we had met ten years earlier, would we have had ten more years?
Or, meeting too soon, would we have rejected the alien and had no
time at all? You the responsible, hard-working corporate guy, me a
hippie vagabond, living in a trailer adjacent a rooster coop. For me to
wander into the corporation took a while. How lucky to find you in
that tiny window of time, grinding out PowerPoints and yearning
toward bumdom. Once I wandered in, we left together. Driving our
rented Camry through the West, driving that straight-line highway
toward Albuquerque, the land scrabbled with petrified trees and
ringed with a 360-degree rainbow. We stopped at a cave-like
restaurant in Taos for Thanksgiving fajitas, chili-pepper lights
dangling like calcite. Driving north through the pitch black, we knew
we were surrounded by beauty. Opening the window to breathe the
cold pine air of the forest we knew was there, but couldn’t see.
Gripping the dash, saying, “stop stop stop,” as a bull elk stepped into
the headlights. You slowed, we watched him saunter across. You
wanted a photo, but could only stare, heart pounding. Why do we
always have to know what we’re traveling through or toward and
when we’ll find it? What matters is we’re wandering together. As our
hearts slow enough to take a picture, he disappears into the black on
the other side.
Ethna McKiernan, "Leaving"
I turned around tonight to say—
And then I missed you so hard
at that instant, the wry smile of you
absent, every atom of you flown,
not a particle hovering in the house.
I left too, young as you
craving wind-shifts of change,
hitching through Europe in the 70’s,
camping rough, picking grapes in France,
bleaching the stain off down in Spain,
five months of glory on the road.
Now the same winds have pushed you
to Mexico, a silver jet seam visible as stars
in the sky last night, that long curl
dissipating into cloud.
Remember how I knew you at five
in that Ninja costume?
I knew you skate-boarding
with an attitude at Brackett Park,
and sensed for certain when
you first fell in love. I knew you
as a heartbeat beneath my ribs
at nine months, almost born.
And know you now,
Kari Castor, "Dear Roger"
I think sometimes about
that night in college when I
sat on your lap in your room
and the way we tried to devour
each other when we
realized we were alone for a moment--
Aaron graduated and in
for me to join him,
our friends returned
to the living room--
the way your thick stubble
burned my cheek
the way I was terrified
to make this mistake
and also terrified
to not make it
the way I made you drive me
home and leant my
against the cool car window
the whole way about asking
you into my empty apartment
the way we carefully
avoided touching each other
for fear of striking a spark that might
set the whole fragile veneer ablaze
and I wonder sometimes if you
all these years later
ever think about that night
the way I do
Novelist Marlon James and poet Joyce Sidman each picked up their second Minnesota Book Award on Saturday night, and previous nominees Julie Klassen and Margi Preus also were among the winners. The Star Tribune's editorial writer Lori Sturdevant picked up her first award for writing; she had previously won two Minnesota Book Awards for editing.
The annual event drew about 800 people to St. Paul’s Union Depot for a festive night of music, champagne and celebration of the written word. Here are the winners:
Children’s Literature, sponsored by Books for Africa:
Joyce Sidman and Rick Allen: “Winter Bees and Other Poems of the Cold,” published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers. Sidman, a Newbery Honor-winning author, won a Minnesota Book Award in 2010. She lives in Wayzata. Allen is an award-winning illustrator and printmaker in Duluth.
General Nonfiction, sponsored by Minnesota AFL-CIO:
Nancy Koester: “Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life,” published by William B. Eerdman Publishing Co. Koester is an ordained Lutheran minister and spiritual director.
Genre Fiction, sponsored by Macalester College:
Julie Klassen: “The Secret of Pembrooke Park,” published by Bethany House Publishers. Klassen is the author of eight novels, including three winners of the Christy Award for Historical Romance.
Memoir & Creative Nonfiction, sponsored by Northwestern Mutual:
Kaethe Schwehn: “Tailings: A Memoir,” published by Cascade Books/Wipf and Stock Publishers. Schwehn is the co-editor of “Claiming Our Callings: Toward a New Understanding of Vocation in the Liberal Arts.” She teaches at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.
Minnesota, sponsored by St. Mary’s University of Minnesota:
Lori Sturdevant: “Her Honor: Rosalie Wahl and the Minnesota Women’s Movement,” published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. Sturdevant is an editorial columnist for the Star Tribune and has written a number of books on Minnesota history.She won a Minnesota Book Award in 2003 for editing "Overcoming: The Autobiography of W. Harry Davis," and in 2001 for editing Elmer L. Andersen's "A Man's Reach."
Novel & Short Story, sponsored by Education Minnesota:
Marlon James: “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” published by Riverhead Books. James is the author of “The Book of Night Women,” winner of a 2010 Minnesota Book Award. He teaches at Macalester College in St. Paul.
Poetry, sponsored by Wellington Management, Inc.:
Sean Hill: “Dangerous Goods,” published by Milkweed Editions. Hill, who was born and raised in Milledgeville, Ga., also is the author of “Blood Ties & Brown Liquor.”
Young People’s Literature, sponsored by the Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University:
Margi Preus: “West of the Moon,” published by Amulet Books. Preus, who lives in Duluth, is a Newbery Honor Award-winning author of five books for young readers.
Also at the event, writer and educator Mary François Rockcastle received the previously announced Kay Sexton Award for her long-standing contributions to Minnesota’s literary community. And Harriet Bart and her collaborative partners, Philip Gallo and Jill Jevne, won the eighth annual Book Artist Award for a new piece entitled “Ghost Maps.” Since 2000, Bart, Gallo and Jevne have collaborated to produce 10 artist books, two of which have received Minnesota Book Awards.
Judges sifted through 250 books nominated for awards this year, with 32 books selected as finalists. The winners were chosen by judges from around the state.
So much happened last weekend at AWP. So much. I can’t tell you it all. I didn’t see it all. I was there nonstop for three days and I only saw a tiny fraction of what went on. I’m talking, of course, about the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, that traveling show of writers, teachers and literary people that took over the Minneapolis Convention Center — as well as the Loft Literary Center, the Walker Art Museum, Central Library, and a whole lot of bars — for three days last week.
Some things I do know. Graywolf Press was named Small Press Publisher of the Year. Poet Claudia Rankine and novelist Marlon James cooked dinner for some people (not me) at James’ house. Essayist Roxane Gay was everywhere, delighting fans, sending her cult status soaring, without even trying. (There are now Roxane Gay for President bumper stickers available.) Poet laureate Rita Dove sang.
People won totebags. They played Bookfair Bingo. They played “Name That Author.” They picked up literary journals they had never heard of and pondered writing for them some day. They reunited with their MFA classes, even if they had just graduated last semester. They had a drink. Or two. They bought books. (Let’s say that again, slowly, with emphasis, because it’s important: They bought books.)
They listened, raptly, to T.C. Boyle and Jayne Anne Phillips and Carolyn Forché (“Carolyn Forché you wreck me” one person tweeted) and Cheryl Strayed and Karen Russell. There were so many prominent writers on panels and doing readings that nobody could keep track.
I stopped to chat with memoirist Rebecca McClanahan, who mentioned she had just been on a panel with Phillip Lopate, and the person next to me squealed, actually squealed: “Phillip Lopate is here?”
Robert Bly was honored at a tribute that included other poets, music, singing, and a magician who made flames shoot from the pages of a book. And then Bly, 88, read, and it was he who wowed the room.
Some AV stuff didn’t work. Some presenters were delayed due to weather and others stepped up and took their place. Glitches were handled with aplomb.
Hundreds, thousands, maybe million of tweets were sent. Some of the tweets were displayed on the big screens at the Bookfair. People stood and stared at the screen and then lifted their phones to take pictures. Did they then tweet a picture of their tweet?
They took pictures of everything — writers, stacks of magazines, dinner, frosty delicious beers, the view from the stage, themselves.
It snowed. It rained. The sun came out. It snowed. The sun came out for good.
People wandered away from the Convention Center and took pictures of Spoonbridge and Cherry and the musical-note wall of the old Schmitt Music. They bought T-shirts and books from Birchbark Books. (But Louise! where was the owner, Louise Erdrich? Back at the Convention Center, on stage with Charles Baxter.)
Central Connecticut State University came out with its annual rating of most literate cities, and Minneapolis had moved back into first place. Tweets galore! “Perfect timing,” said one.
The final tally was close to 12,000 attendees — 11,800, said AWP executive director David Fenza, and he was happy with that. “Registration above 11,000 people is a great victory for us,” he said.
Baxter, who was there every day,on panels, in conversation, being honored, likes the excitement of AWP, which he notes is not just a convention of writers, but a convention of readers.
“That’s an important distinction,” he said. “And it’s a place where poetry is still discussed without apology, and where it is assumed that poetry is still a living force on our culture.”
Guild Hall at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis was packed to the rafters on Monday night with poets and poetry lovers who turned out to see poet Robert Bly. Many of them had turned out on Saturday, too, when Bly was being honored at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual convention, and now here they were again, waiting to hear him read from his "new/old collection" of poetry, "Like the New Moon, I Will Live My Life."
The book is a collection of Bly's Chinese-infuenced poems; the collection, edited by White Pine Press publisher Dennis Maloney, was culled mainly from out-of-print books, uncollected poems, and chapbooks spanning 50 years.
The evening was emceed by Bly's old friend, poet James Lenfestey, who had lined up 24 poets to read. It sounded daunting, at first, like it might go on all night, but Lenfestey was efficient, arranging the poets in alphabetical order (from Thorsten Bacon to Timothy Young) and tasking each with reading just one of Bly's poems.
The poets chose well.
Jim Heynen read a prose poem called "A Moth With Black Eyes." ("You have done a lot with and for the prose poem," he said to Bly, "and I wanted to make sure that the prose poem was represented tonight.")
Louis Jenkins read the title poem. It's easy, he said; it's right on the back of the book.
Connie Wanek's choice was perhaps the most poignant; she read "Picking Mushrooms in Late Summer in the Western Half of the Island of Runmaro with Tomas Transtromer," a poem not much longer than its title. Transtromer, the Swedish Nobel Laureate, was a dear friend of Bly's who died quite recently.
Some gave brief introductions, looking right at Bly while they spoke. Some emulated Bly's famous habit of reading a poem twice, or re-reading a line or two. But mostly they were efficient, standing up, heading to the podium, reading Bly's words, thanking him, and then making way for the next poet.
Down the row they went, Tom Hennen, Tony Hoagland, Ed Bok Lee, Freya Manfred, Jim Moore, Joyce Sutphen...
And then it was Bly's turn. Lenfestey had arranged for a comfortable-looking red couch in the front of the room for Bly to sit on, but Bly said he would stand. He walked slowly, with dignity, leaning on his cane, to the podium. He read "Moon Behind a Cottonwood Tree." He read, "Arriving in the North Woods," even though someone had already read it that evening, because Lenfestey asked him to. ("Just because it's your favorite I have to read it twice?" Bly joked.)
And he finished the evening with the same poem he had read on Saturday at AWP, the poem that has of late become his anthem: "Keeping Our Small Boat Afloat," his poem about death, survival and grace; his poem about growing old.
And as he reached the last lines, he thumped his cane on the floor.
"Each of us deserves to be forgiven, if only for
Our persistence in keeping our small boat afloat
When so many (Thump! went the cane)
have gone down (thump! again)
in the storm." (one last, resounding thump)
And the room erupted in applause and a standing ovation.
Here is Bly reading at AWP on Saturday:
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