Monday, April 29, 2024

TBR: Popular Song by Harry Man

TBR [to be read], a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books.  


We don’t expect an elevator pitch from a poet, but can you tell us about your work in 2-3 sentences?


Pound, Hope Mirrlees and Eliot and later modernists were writing in response to mass-production and the rise in literacy and psychoanalysis. From the 60s until now, the big subjects have been advertising and the environment. Now that great subject is ourselves. Congruent with that is the question of popularity. Online attention as popularity (particularly divisive attention) and thus the favouring by algorithms of the popular, the separation of self between the online persona whom we perhaps believe is more popular than our unvarnished selves, and also poems that reflect on what that popularity means. These are all hiding in the wings. The collection itself is concerned with discovery, humour and invention that takes its cues from the Invisible Man, assorted British wildlife, Kubla Kahn and David Bowie among others. In other words, nerdy, but fun nerdy.



What boundaries did you break in the writing of this book?


I was already working on poems after Ed Sheeran, Tones and I and The Weeknd, to challenge myself. All three have penned some of the most streamed songs of all time. I did also write poems in response to some of the UK’s favourite poems including Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ (aka ‘Daffodils’). A working title for my first pamphlet was Pilots and I think that tradition in my work of every poem being a test shot into the unknown continues. With that comes the risk of spectacular failure. In order to send work out, I have to be okay with that. This of course is alongside any chance of success. If I can inspire poems by people who had previously felt intimidated or alienated by poetry, then that is greatest reward and that for me is where the poems take off into new lives.


I also like poems that offer a valuable journey to a reader who wants to spend more time casting around and isn’t afraid to get out their own answer to literary sonar in search of ancient ruins, revealing treasures and uncovering histories for themselves. (You can see a little bit of this in poems like ‘Alphabets of the Human Heart in Languages of the World’)



Where does that sort of courage come from?


I read a news story the other day about a local guy so high he took a kid’s little yellow bicycle and tried to outrun the police on it. Courage comes from all sorts of different places. To be more serious about it, post-pandemic, I think like a lot of people, I needed to talk myself back into a hard-truth, yet highly empathetic reality.


There’s more to it, and I tend not to wear it on my sleeve, but I am dyslexic and I am on the spectrum, what people used to call Asperger’s. I think dyslexia gives me the most courage. You not only think, see, and hear the world differently, but you also learn the true weight of a blow. This can help you to understand how to inspire other people to fight for what they want to write and what they want to say and that’s exciting. For yourself that opens a space to write and create without limitation, but of course there are some cold light of day dangers to that too(!). Days and nights at the keys are all very well and good but you should also absolutely take a break and listen to the birds. Anthony Minghella, director of The English Patient said he had the affliction of being uxorious. That’s an affliction I also share that gives me the most courage (pukeworthy, but also true!).



Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.


The book spans twelve years of writing. In that time my poems have blasted off to Mars, others have been printed on cakes, cast in ice, put onto train station platforms and one was turned into a turning steel monument another performed with a jazz orchestra in Rotterdam. They’re young, they need to get out there and do their own thing. It’s hard to have a favourite. I think one of the best was when I heard Kathleen Jamie say she liked my work. I think my pulse has not quite been the same since. I read poems on stage with Pete Brown (who wrote the lyrics to Cream’s ‘White Room’ among other songs – probably the one song in the world that for me that most epitomises pre-internet London) before he passed and that was really very special. I also got to shake hands and share a glass with Jan Erik Vold – a privilege I will never forget. I walked with Nikola Madžirov and had one of those life-changing conversations about writing and the imagination and I got to watch the tempestuous Norwegian Sea rise and fall around black cliffs at midnight with Endre Ruset – and see how deservedly adored he is. I banged my head against a desk in frustration at my own poems while talking to Alice Oswald. The world turned. I worked nights at the supermarket during the pandemic. I wrote. I lived in a caravan, then in a shepherd’s hut and wrote a meditation for the birds and I translated secret codewords from the Russian military into English (for a poem). A close friend died of cancer. I wrote poems with Julia Lewis. At night I walked across the fields by moonlight to my house. I held my bed for six months while waiting for a doctor’s appointment because I thought my heart was going to explode. I conducted interviews with the trees and my niece wrote a story where everyone on Earth left got in a rocket and set off, leaving me behind with a bunch of dinosaurs, a canoe and a chocolate cookie. Poems about some of this ended up in the book. There is so much to explain, but I am grateful for all of it.



What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


Don’t finish that day’s writing when you’ve finished the thought, but rather when you know what the next sentence will be.


It’s more for prose writers than for poets, but building that rhythm and swinging across the gap from one sentence to the next to keep that pace going… Invaluable.



My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?


I was working on a piece about ‘The Empire Strikes Back in Reverse’. For a reader, it’s all over in a few minutes, but for me it’s been a quarter of my life. I always knew the poem had its own secrets. I took the two main characters outside of the cramped conditions of the car where most of the poem is set and it broadened and suddenly all this light came into the room and the relationship between them opened up in its scale and conversely it focussed their intimacy and that was revelatory. I started that poem in 2013 and finished it eleven years later… the amount of times I’ve seen a Tauntaun regain its innards and come miraculously back to life… It was all that time to find that one secret.



How did you find the title of your book?


An earlier version was called Spooky Action at a Distance. It has that feeling. People travel to Mars and lose contact with Earth, others the reader steps into a cassette tape and becomes the song on the album. Gradually, working like a selected poems, it became more of a mixtape and more about song and sound.


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)


Gremolata Linguine. A perfect spring or summer afternoon recipe. It is zesty, tangy, a little bit spicy and feels warming and indulgent. It does not strictly feature in the book, but this is a big recipe from my childhood (minus the wine) and my childhood does feature – as does time travel, so if I travel back in time from the future, maybe it will go into the book somewhere!


Here’s how to make it:




3 garlic cloves

1 lemon (zested, then juiced)

60g wild rocket [known as arugula in the US]

100g parsley

1 red chilli

300g cooked and peeled prawns (will also work with breadcrumbs, olives and rosemary)

300g linguine

250ml dry white wine


Pepper, salt, olive oil


You will need:  A boiling pan, a food processor, two large bowls.





Add two tablespoons of salt to a large pan of water and bring to the boil. Cook the linguine to one minute less than it says on the packet instructions, so it still has a little “al dente” bite to it. Pour a little of the cooking water out of the pan before you strain it. I usually drain the pasta and then, while it is still dripping, toss it back into the pan with a drizzle of olive oil. Stir. Empty this into a bowl and chill in the fridge for at least 60 minutes. If time is of the essence you can re-fill the pan with ice and water to cool it quickly. Meanwhile zest and juice the lemon. Wash the rocket and parsley. Peel the garlic. Add the lemon juice and zest, the rocket and parsley, the garlic and that 250ml (or just a glass of wine) to a food processor and blitz. Taste to check. Because the pasta is slightly sweet, you need good acidity, good salt and a little spiciness to the sauce. Add as much chilli as feels comfortable and a generous amount of salt and plenty of black pepper. Give it another blitz. Once the pasta is perfectly chilled, toss it together with the sauce and add in the prawns. The prawns like to holiday at the bottom of the pan, so keep an eye out so everyone gets their fair share. Serve immediately. Watch out for your time-travelling self coming back for seconds… or is it firsts?


It’s a good travelling dish, and meeting poets, I have made this with variations using butter instead of olive oil, local giant sourdough loaves, sliced tomatoes and I have made my own fresh pasta with local eggs too. A real crowdpleaser.











Monday, April 22, 2024

TBR: The Requirement of Grief by Danielle Ariano

TBR [to be read], a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books.  


Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?


The Requirement of Grief recounts the unique bond between two sisters and offers an unflinching perspective on what remains in the wake of one sibling’s tragic suicide.



What boundaries did you break in the writing of this memoir?


The first chapter is written from my sister Alexis’ imagined perspective and it takes place on the last day of her life. There are several other chapters like this throughout the memoir. While I did my best to adhere to the factual circumstances of my sister’s suicide/life, these chapters are fiction.


Some would say that they have no place in a memoir. I might even agree with these people, and yet I felt that Alexis’s perspective needed to be considered. Since this was impossible, I did my best to recreate it in these chapters. Alexis kept journals throughout her life and I drew on these as a way to understand how she saw the world, especially in the deepest throes of her addiction and mental illness. When I gave myself permission to write these chapters, I felt as though the manuscript finally came to life.


I had only seen this done once before in one chapter of Marion Winik’s memoir, First Comes Love, and it had a huge impact on me as a reader. She shifted into the imagined point of view of her husband Tony, who died of AIDS. Even 15 years after reading this book, I still remember the emotional impact that chapter of the book had on me. Seeing this technique used effectively in another memoir, gave me the courage to try it.



Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.


When my son was a baby, there was an entire year when he preferred my wife Lindsay to me. I would walk into his room in the morning and he would squeal that he wanted her, not me. Logically, I understood that this was normal and that it would not last forever, but emotionally it was devastating to be rejected by him. There were days that I questioned myself as a mother.


Getting rejected over and over as I sent my manuscript out felt eerily similar. Even though I believed in the quality of my writing and believed that there was value in the subject matter, I found myself going into tailspins of self-doubt as the no’s piled up. Logically, I knew this was all part of the process and I had to press on, but unfortunately my emotion didn’t care about logic.


Thankfully my writing partner, Judith Krummeck, had an unwavering belief in the manuscript. I have so much respect for Judith and her writing that her words buoyed me at the lowest points.



What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


You want to be a writer? Write.



My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?


One night I went out to dinner with a writing mentor to talk to her about my manuscript. When I told her about the chapters written from my sister’s perspective, she asked me if I had written one about the day that Alexis ended her life. The moment she asked, I knew that I needed to write this. Even though it wasn’t something I’d planned or wanted to do, I could see that it was essential to the story. Eventually this became the first chapter of the book.



How did you find the title of your book?


Titles are usually so difficult for me. Typically, my essay/chapters/books are untitled until the very end, but this one came to me as I was revising a chapter that contained the following text:


As time passes, I learn that grief’s only requirement is that it must be carried. It does not care if you are ready for it or if its weight is too much to bear or if you are in the throes of the deepest joy.

"It cannot be set aside even for the briefest moment while you sit on a park bench and enjoy a beautiful sunset. Even then, it must be carried. Carried even as you watch in wonder on the day your son comes into the world. Carried when you bear witness to your parents holding their only grandchild for the very first time. Carried always.”

I was struck with the realization that The Requirement of Grief was my title.








Monday, April 15, 2024

TBR: Truth Is the Arrow, Mercy Is the Bow: A DIY Kit for the Construction of Stories by Steve Almond

TBR [to be read], a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books.  


Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?


Truth is a book of essays about the whole creative process: the elements of craft, where stories come from, and (most important of all) all the evil voices that haunt us, and hold us back, at the keyboard. I’ve been writing it—in my head, in the classroom, and at various writing conferences—for three decades.


Which essay did you most enjoy writing? Why?


There’s an essay called “Writer’s Block: A Love Story,” which I loved writing, because I think our ideas about writer’s block is really misguided. We treat it like the black plague, something to be endured in shameful isolation. But the truth is, writer’s block is an inevitable part of the writing process. It describes moments when our doubts and inhibitions overtake our capacities to create. That happens all the time. I’ve re-written sentences and paragraphs a hundred times because I’m blocked. I’ve also been so blocked that I can’t even get myself to the keyboard. It’s very upsetting. But it can also be really clarifying. Because we stop asking the question, “What should I write?” and start asking a much more useful question: “What do I really want to write? What will get me to the keyboard again?”


And, which essay gave you the most trouble, and why?


The title essay was a bruiser, because I was trying to write into the heart of the anxieties we face when we know we have to write a story, but we’re scared to death about breaking a long held silence. To write that essay, I had to break a few silences myself, so I was going through the kind of anxiety I was writing about.


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.


The publishing experience itself has been terrific. My editor, Emily Bell, is a genius, and the folks at Zando have been great. The lows came more in my attempts, over the years, to confront the darker truths in the book. I experience a lot of doubt when I write, so it was hard for me to write a book that purports to guide others. I dealt with this by writing mostly about my struggles, and failures, which are sadly abundant but also almost always instructive.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


Write about what you can’t get rid of by other means.


My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?


I had a lot of fun. That was a huge surprise. I’m mostly miserable when I write. My family and friends can confirm that. But with this one, I really enjoyed gathering all my thoughts and experiences into one place. I enjoy teaching far more than writing, and this book was endowed, I guess, with some of that joy.


How did you find the title of your book?


I know it’s mouthful, but I’m so happy Zando let me use “Truth Is the Arrow, Mercy Is the Bow” as a title. Because it’s really a distillation of what I have to say about writing. You’re only going to travel into the truth as far as mercy gets you. You have to be driven by a desire to understand and forgive. That’s what allows you to go back into all those painful rooms and see clearly what was happening.


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)


Steve’s Smoked Maple Crunch Chicken Salad


Two cups of smoked chicken (diced straight from the grill)

1.5 cups diced McIntosh apples

1 cup thinly sliced celery

1 cup roasted cashew halves

¾ cup of golden raisins

½ cup mayo (more or less to taste)

1 teaspoon curry powder



1. Dump ingredients in a large bowl

2. Mix


Suggested serving:

Straight out of the bowl, with a large wooden spoon.

It also tastes good on a nice, puffy Portuguese roll.











Monday, April 8, 2024

TBR: Pop Culture Poetry: The Definitive Collection by Michael B. Tager

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe. 


We don’t expect an elevator pitch from a poet, but can you tell us about your work in 2-3 sentences?


The poems within Pop Culture Poetry: The Definitive Collection explore our relationship with celebrity. They're about David Attenborough and 90s Hip Hop, Bjork, toxic masculinity, Patrick Swayze, The Golden Girls, nostalgia and vulnerability, Whoopi Goldberg, Justin Bieber, video games and Queen. But they're also about the author, and also about you, and you (and yes, you in the back).


What boundaries did you break in the writing of this book? Where does that sort of courage come from?


I don’t know if I’d call it a boundary as such, but I started writing these poems specifically because I didn’t see much of the everyday in a lot of the writing I was encountering, in poetry especially, but also in fiction. I didn’t really “get” that, because I figured that anything we spend as much time with as we do tv, or sports, or music, or whatever, should be featured in the poems that we write.


Maybe the “boundary” is that writing poems about tv shows or celebrity crushes isn’t very serious. Or maybe there is no boundary at all and I just haven’t read those poems and am unfamiliar with those poets.


A couple poets in my circle–Tracy Dimond and Steven Leyva–would occasionally drop some references to their own tastes (I remember poems about OkCupid and Star Trek, respectively), and it got me to thinking about my own writing and the risks I wasn’t taking, the life I wasn’t representing. So I wrote some poems about Patrick Swayze movies after rewatching Point Break and I was off to the races.


They’re also funny, which also isn’t a boundary, but does seem to be absent in a lot of serious poetry. And they are serious poems, in that I mean what I say, even if they don’t seem that way upon first read. Do I literally mean that David Attenborough was turned into a vampire via a trip into caverns and quotes Missy Elliott whilst eating people? Well probably not, but it’s a funny image, and I do have thoughts about caves, the mysteries of the planet, and that. 


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

 I came across a series of poems about trees and kind of rolled my eyes. Don’t get me wrong, I like trees and I like tree poems, but I’ve also read a lot of them, just like I’ve read of bird/moon poetry, and they sometimes run together. I wondered how, if I were to write nature poetry, I’d access that.

 I’m a big fan of nature documentaries and was super into Planet Earth at the time which immediately brought David Attenborough to mind. I started writing a poem and for whatever reason I inserted a Lil Bow Wow lyric into the first one. Normally I’d have deleted that, but because I wanted these to be fun, I left it in. That turned the series of poems into a David Attenborough–90s hip hop mashup, because in this alternate universe, Attenborough loves 2pac.

 Those poems were immediately accepted for publication and have been my most reliable hits when I’m giving a reading. I think they’re the reason I believed in this manuscript enough to call it a manuscript and show it to people. I don’t think it would exist otherwise!


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

 Erin Fitzgerald from Barrelhouse told me once that my writing was too controlled and that I needed to let it be messy, because that was where the surprises happened. She was right! Letting it be weird, letting questions be asked that aren’t answered, doing what seems bad at the time is what often leads to the good stuff!


How did you find the title of your book?

 The title is the title because subtlety is for chumps and while it’s a totally reasonable practice, I’m not a fan of naming a book after a single poem within a manuscript. It’s just not my bag. I thought about naming it after a central theme and couldn’t come up with anything so just called it what it is and didn’t hate it. Now I love it.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes you might share?)

The only meal that comes to mind is what I affectionately call “veggie mess,” which might be an apt metaphor for these poems! They’re kind of a mess, but there’s a plan, and a mission, and a flow. And they also taste delightful!


Veggie Mess Receipt:




Anything leftover in the fridge/pantry

      onions are helpful

      beans and/or potatoes are also important

      If you have it, cheese works well

Garlic, salt, pepper, basil, cayenne

Olive oil


Step 1: pull out all the leftover veggies you have

Step 2: cut them up and start sauteing them: cook until al dente

Step 3: throw in any sauce and/or cheese, whatever you have

Step 4: throw in your beans and/or potatoes

Step 5: throw in your seasoning

Step 6: cool and eat












DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.