Wherein triple threat (writer/editor/bookseller) Kevin Sampsell praises the humor and honesty of Steven “Jesse” Bernstein, a writer gone too soon; author Samuel Snoek-Brown confesses his love for the one and only Jane Austen; Gigi Little thanks Maurice Sendak for teaching her how to do a little wrong to achieve a whole lot of right; and poet Shaindel Beers discusses how Anne Sexton taught her to use fairy tales to get at the personal. Please read and enjoy…
by Shaindel Beers
I once spent a summer reading Anne Sexton’s complete works, and it had a profound effect on me. Every little bit of life that happened to her turned into poetry. Nothing was off-limits. Think, for instance, of “The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator” and “For My Lover, Returning to His Wife” and the era she was writing in. She was incredibly brave—beyond anything most of us can imagine today. Transformations showed me that you can use fairy tales (or other widely known works) to rewrite the personal, and I’m forever grateful for this lesson.
Shaindel Beers is the author of three poetry collections, A Brief History of Time (2009) and The Children’s War and Other Poems (2013), both from Salt Publishing, and Secure Your Own Mask (White Pine, 2018). She is the Poetry Editor of Contrary Magazine. Learn more at http://shaindelbeers.com.
by Gigi Little
My first influence as a writer was Maurice Sendak, a man most known as an illustrator for children’s picture books. He was also a master wordsmith: “Poor Ida, never knowing, hugged the changeling and she murmured, ‘How I love you.’ The ice thing only dripped and stared, and Ida mad knew goblins had been there.” That tiny passage from Outside Over There, “and Ida mad,” with no commas, was life-changing. What elegant incorrectness. Sendak taught me that twisting language creates a new voice, and voice has driven me, ever since, as both a writer and a reader.
Gigi Little‘s essays and short stories have appeared in journals and anthologies including Portland Noir, Spent, and The Pacific Northwest Reader, and she’s the editor of the collection City of Weird. She’s also a freelance book cover designer and the staff designer for Forest Avenue Press. She lives with her husband, fine artist Stephen O’Donnell, and a Chihuahua named Nicholas. In her earlier days, Gigi spent fifteen years in the circus as a lighting director and professional circus clown. She never took a pie to the face, but she’s a Rhodes Scholar in the art of losing her pants.
by Samuel Snoek-Brown
My wife may have turned me on to her early in our relationship, but I really fell for Austen in a graduate course on Gothic romance. Though we focused on Northanger Abbey, a hilarious send-up of the genre, my edition also included unfinished works like Sanditon and Lady Susan. When I saw how brutally honest Austen was about human nature in her unedited stories, I was hooked. Sanditon dares to discuss the racism of British imperialist mercantilism far more overtly than Mansfield Park, and Lady Susan is remarkably free-spirited about the sexual lives of women. But even in her more polished, editorially subdued novels, Austen’s precision and insight when describing culture, society, and relationships are astounding and still feel fresh.
Samuel Snoek-Brown is the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the Civil War novel Hagridden, and the short-fiction chapbooks Where There Is Ruin and Box Cutters. He also serves as production editor for Jersey Devil Press. He lives with his wife, a librarian and fellow Janeite, in Tacoma, Washington.
Steven “Jesse” Bernstein
by Kevin Sampsell
Steven “Jesse” Bernstein was forty years old when he decided to stab himself in the throat and die. I was obsessed with death at the time and Bernstein was my favorite writer. I loved his gravelly voice and surreal vision. Not many people remember him now but he put out a few books and a posthumous spoken word album on Sub Pop in 1992, at the height of grunge. His most notable work for me is More Noise, Please!
Bernstein’s work alternates between disturbingly sad and manically funny. I once saw him perform in Seattle. I was the first one there and he asked me if I left my urine sample at the door. Instead of a reading, he played acoustic guitar and sang some of his songs. Some people, you can just tell, are not long for this world, no matter how gifted they are. Bernstein (with his bipolar disorder and PTSD) grappled with the world and ultimately surrendered.
Kevin Sampsell lives in Portland, Oregon and is the editor of the micropress, Future Tense Books. His books include A Common Pornography and This Is Between Us. His stories have appeared recently in Joyland, Radioactive Moat, and Hobart.
The topic of personal taste has always interested me because even for one person there should be many different levels of taste. Say you’re a literature professor: You may have personal favorites but to go too far in expressing disdain for something in the canon (or, for that matter, work outside the traditional canon)—work that may not be to that personal taste—is a major error, one of the worst you can commit. As a literature professor, or a critic for that matter, you must be broad-minded enough to accept the possibility that you’re not right, or even conversant, about everything of value.
Shift to the role of writing professor, and many of the same cautions hold. If you’re not careful you can do damage to the work of students who don’t share your sensibilities. Conversely, overlook what you see as (and may well be) real problems in the work and you do your student a disservice. The good writing teacher, to me, is one who is constantly and effectively balancing these two impulses, not one who blurts out dismissals like “that’s science fiction” or “that’s romance.” But not everyone agrees. I know this from personal experience.
There are some writing professors, and, no doubt literature professors and critics, who feel they only add value by being completely honest about what they love and hate, for whatever reason, reasons that might include everything from style and topic to voice and point of view. They might see the concept of assessing work based on, “How they’d see it if they enjoyed that sort of work?” as completely artificial, a sort of opinion bred in a lab. Some might even see explaining their opinions in too much detail as artificial. They might suggest the only response that matters comes from the gut.
The short answer for the writing teacher (and I think also for the literature professor and the critic to a certain extent) is that you must give both opinions, providing as much information as possible to let the person receiving the opinion make what they will of it. An even greater danger than being a biased reader is being a reader with a bias undisclosed because the undisclosed bias can go far beyond technical matters of literary taste. The undisclosed bias can run to hidden racism, sexism, or sheer personal dislike, faults still more disqualifying than making the narrow-minded offhand comment, “that’s science fiction.”