Catching Up, Catching On, and Catching-22: Report from 2013 Community of Writers

The predictable if happy consequence of spending time with fellow book peeps is that discussion, however beautifully untethered from wage slavery, free as scrub jays, elevated (here at 6,500 feet in the High Sierra) is that it is so darn bookish. As a result, I will return to OC this week with recommendations, and even more books. If there is one area in which acquisitiveness is not only forgiven, but encouraged, it seems to be this one. The more you read, alas and whoopee, the more you have to read. That's some catch. And I am, of course, always trying to get caught. Here's the logo of the tribe I have belonged to for the past couple of weeks, a temporary, DIY, circus-tent caravan in Squaw Valley, California action-packed with poets, fictionalists, non-fiction storytellers, screenwriters.  I'm the one on the left. I took enthusiastic if sloppy notes during Poetry Week, which arrived first, and this year 

eatured Sharon Olds, Robert Hass, Evie Shockley, Forrest Gander and Brenda Hillman. Damn, what a line-up. Each offered a craft talk in addition to leading workshops, and the week culminated in readings by each at their very best. It was almost overwhelming, as in too much of a good thing was, well, just right. Olds is a "first thought, best thought" kind of natural word-worker. She read a poem about waste. Not as in "want not." As in compost, about the cycle of consuming and eliminating. About poop. I saw her read at Naropa for a big celebratory academic and cultural wing-ding honoring Allen Ginsberg a decade or so ago. Now she is winning Pulitzer Prizes and like that.   

Robert Hass, former US poet laureate, is some kind of genius bodhisattva avunucular Dumbledore of vernacular wisdom and a human Dewey Decimal to boot. He appears to possess perfect memory, possibly photographic, but for sure phonographic. He reads everything, and pulls entire poems from the invisible river flowing just above his head, strong shoulders and empathetic face. He asked what I was reading, which I assume neither of us really was all that interested in. Being a reasonably clever bibliofella I moved us directly to his recommendation: James Salter. When the former poet laureate suggests a writer whose novels and short stories you have not got to, you quickly try to catch up. "The new novel," said Hass, "the sex one!" I ordered All That Is that night, from Powells. And as it happens (I love that phrase, name of a CBC radio show) the local Truckee thrift store had a copy of Salter's short story collection, Dusk and Other Stories.  Reading the first of those short, short sentences telegraphing their hurt, edgy recreations of expat alienation and lust seems a good place to have at last started.

Forrest Gander is a kind of language poet, a translator and more. He wrote about dance and danced himself there at the podium. Brenda Hillman's experimentation, not as in some self-aggrandizing affect of avant gardism but in the sense of seeing what works, how it works, plays with forms long and short and surprises me always at its architecture.  Plus, she is political as regards war and ecology. And Evie Shockley? I don't know if I have ever heard a 

reading, much less a 12-minute reading where a person-voice so successfully embraced every possible genre and form, beating each into the perfect exemplar of that form, yet made new in her poet's voice. It's possible she was the easy choice for star, her choices collaborating with all kinds of topical serendipities, from memories of our friend Lucille Clifton to the recent good news about bad DOMA and the continuing struggle for the human right to love.

Cool thing:  The folks at Poets and Writers helped underwrite Shockley in poetry week and two fiction writers, Alex Espinoza and Christian Kiefer. Thanks, P & W.

No, Fiction Week is not quite done. We break camp tomorrow morning. Yesterday Amy Tan offered her craft talk and later today super-mentor Richard Ford talks about how he wrote his latest, Canada. The regulars and established Friends of Squaw have done their reliably terrific thing, from novelist Lynn Freed to agent Ann Close. I hope to tape a "Bibiliocracy" or two or three, with among others Dagoberto Gilb, founder of the newish (and beautiful) literary journal Huizache, and NPR book guru Alan Cheuse.  I note with some small satisfaction that 
although panned by almost everybody else, two clever reviewers seemed charmed by Ann Beattie's Mrs. Nixon (see last week's OC Bookly): Yours Truly and A. Cheuse of "All Things Considered."  Already spent a solid half hour with Karen Joy Fowler, so anticipate a show on another novel I adore, her We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.  

One terrific feature of the week is the "short takes" reading by staff, another the Published Alumni reading, a kind of debutante mini-ball meets homecoming, where we all hail the conquering author now in print.  Among new staff was a handsome, smart young fella named Josh Weil, who read a section from his set of new interconnected novellas (The New Valley), maybe the sexiest and also saddest excerpt I've heard. Amy Franklin Willis's (The Lost Saints of Tennessee) reading took away the collective breath of the audience with a startling kick in the heart. Terence Clarke shared the beginning of a novel about Pablo Neruda. Local hero Eddy Ancinas shared from her history of this valley as told in her Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows: Tales of Two Valleys. Eddy and Osvaldo are not only stalwarts of the Community of Writers (the "CoW," everybody's late friend and founder-teacher 
Oakley Hall used to call it - moo!) but patrons of the arts and nurturers of the artists' souls and stomachs. Eddy's book is an essential and fun, engaging local history for the hikers and skiers and anglers who come here year after year, with photographs and a well-told story of pioneers and families and the modern beginnings this amazing snowy, rocky place, the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics.

Long-time staffer and board member of the CoW, novelist Max Byrd's newest novel has been out awhile, but I'd missed it somehow. Famous for his historical fiction, books about presidents (Jefferson, Jackson, Grant), this latest book just blew me away. Set in Paris, 1926, the opening of The Paris Deadline is one of the wittiest, jolliest, cleverest, warmest and most appealing beginnings I have heard in the Olympic Lodge 
or anywhere, a book whose setting so immediately transports that I was reaching for my absynth and Gauloises.  Too much (smart) fun. Thanks, Max.  

And what of the unpublished majority, the participants committing to the disciplined self-indulgence of a full week of mutual aid, talking about character, plot, perspective, not to mention the nuts and bolts of trying to realize the dream of publication? I saw a whole lot of happy, excited, engaged, almost uselessly abundant list of adjectivally-enhanced humans. I read one piece of fiction I hope that author will send along to my own little mag, with a couple of others Almost There. And I am taking home a few more manuscripts, work recommended by other staffers. So, yes, one more day, then home to OC with the little book-dude, each of us looking forward to, yes, reading (!) on the flight. But also looking forward to next year, to another great conference mostly organized, run, coordinated mother-hen'd by Brett Hall Jones, daughter of Oakley. Generous, joyful, gracious, organized and fun, she makes it a pleasure for attendees, staff and volunteers to come up where the air is thin and clean and the creative energy is catching. Writers with a manuscript: Not too early to consider applying next early spring for 2014, or choreographing your vacation in the Sierra, on the Truckee River, near the shores of Tahoe, at the base of the Granite Chief to include taking in some of the free to the public readings and panels. 

Check the website for this year's line-up. You missed it, but the list is a great recommended reading tear-out, print-out, download, upload, whatever.  That's all for now, as my 85-year old father-in-law says when signing off, hopefully, confidently, dryly. And all, I figure, is plenty.

Visit the website of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers for titles of books mentioned, author bios, and more on the conference, a 43-year tradition in the High Sierras founded by my own teacher at UCI, Oakley Hall, author of all kinds of amazing books. Maybe start with Warlock. Thomas Pynchon likes it. Just sayin'!

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.


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