Detail of book cover: TRANS-GALACTIC BIKE RIDE
fiction

‘Trans-Galactic Bike Ride’ is a Lambda finalist!

On Monday, Lambda Literary announced the 2021 finalists! Who’s on the list? Stellar work from a lot of great authors, and I’m honored to tell you that Trans-Galactic Bike Ride: Feminist Bicycle Science Fiction Stories of Transgender and Nonbinary Adventurers made the list! (I have a short story, “Lucy Doesn’t Get Angry,” in this anthology.)

Ebooks and print books are available internationally from Microcosm. In the US only, you can order print copies from Bookshop. If you’re not ready to place an order, just mark it as “Want to Read” on Goodreads so that you will find it again someday when you circle back around the galaxy. But please consider how cool it will be to be holding copies of all five finalists in the Transgender Fiction category when one of them is announced as the winner on June 1!

2021 Lambda Literary Award finalists – Transgender Fiction

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Close up of an elephant eye.
poetry

‘The Elephant’: A poem about authenticity

Today I learned about Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s poem “The Elephant,” translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith in the collection Multitudinous Heart. The translation of this poem is also available online.

“I make an elephant,” the poet says, repurposing “some wood / from old furniture” and stuffing it “with cotton, / silk floss, softness.” Glue, too, will have to do. But what to do about the ivory, “that pure white matter / I can’t imitate”? What to do about the eyes, “the most / fluid and permanent / part of the elephant”?

It’s not so much an external object. The elephant is “my dearest disguise,” the poet says. He is constructing himself.

It is a poem that might appeal especially to anyone who has tried to sculpt or reconstruct their own body, and perhaps it also may, more abstractly, address the sculpting or reconstructing of nonphysical aspects of a life.

It’s about the risk that we do it badly. We don’t meet our own standards, or the world is not ready to receive us and believe in us. The elephant enters “a jaded / world that doesn’t believe / anymore in animals / and doubts all things,” and “no one will look / at him, not even to laugh / at his tail.” It’s also about monstrosity: how an attempt to imitate an awesome, beautiful being may result in a half-invisible, ugly accident that inevitably must be disassembled by its creator as a failed experiment. Or: This is, at least, part of the process that others pick up on when they perceive us as monsters.

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Abstract digital art, suggesting a flower in a pond, by Tucker Lieberman
art, nonfiction

What’s a ‘commonplace book’?

“For nearly four decades, I’ve kept what’s known as a commonplace book,” Dwight Garner wrote in the New York Times in November 2020. “It’s where I write down favorite sentences from novels, stories, poems and songs, from plays and movies, from overheard conversations. Lines that made me sit up in my seat; lines that jolted me awake. About once a year, I’ll say something I think is worthy of inclusion. I mostly end up deleting those entries.”

I have always done this, too, since I was 18. In my first year of college, in 1998, I started my own website as a hobby, and I began filling it with my own mini-essays (“blogs” were not quite invented yet) and interesting passages that I found in library books and typed up. As my list of quotations grew, I grouped them by theme; and as the lists continued to grow, the themes multiplied and became more specific.

“Do you keep a notebook?” Prof. Lance Morrow asked my essay-writing class in my journalism program in 2004. He explained to the class that he meant writing down personal musings and interesting passages written by others that might fuel our own future essays. I answered that I did; I had multiple “notebooks,” organized by theme. (The class seemed to think this was a little over the top.) Also, my “notebooks” have always been digital, so that the information is readily searchable by keyword and copy/pasteable in case it needs to be reorganized or, at long last, incorporated into an essay of my own. (I do sometimes use paper and pen to transcribe information, but ultimately I type it up because that’s how it will be more usable.)

In 2020, I counted the number of themed files. There are two hundred. They include:

abortion, abstractions, activism, affluenza, altruism, animals, anxiety, art, attention and busyness, beliefs, bias and control, body, brain, caring, Cartesianism, celibacy, certainty, chance, charm, cheating, climate change, cloning, coaching, commercialism, compassion, conformity, creativity, death penalty, decision-making (and gut instinct), dialogue, dirt, disaster insurance, disgust, domination of nature, emotions, enlightenment, environment, epiphany, eternal now, ethics (business), evolution, faith-based charities, false memory and confession, food (and hunger), forgiveness, free speech, free will, friendship, gender, giving, God (and: anthropomorphism, atheism, biblical authority, faith, feminist theology, “on your side,” and “knows secrets”), grief, hair, handicapping agreements for games, healing, history, honor, human rights, humanism, humility, humor, immortality, integrity, Internet history, interpellation, Israel, Jewish, journalism, knowledge (and not knowing, deliberate ignorance, and ridiculous beliefs), language, liberty and security, literacy and numeracy, logic, love, lying (and rationalization), marijuana, marriage, math, memory (and the permanence of Internet publication), mind, money, monsters, mortality, myth (and political myths), names, natural disasters, “nature or nurture,” networks, nostalgia, oaths, organ transplant, Orwell, Panopticon, paradox, patriotism, peace, philosophy, pleasure, poaching, political polarization, politics (and unwritten norms), power, prayer, prisoners, procreation and parenting, prohibition of alcohol, race, regret, relationships, relativism (this one, dear reader, may be the longest, at 70,000 words), religion and science, religious experience, risk, ritual, saying no, self, self-sacrifice, sexuality, shame, skill, sleep, software design and testing, soldiers, solitude, success, suicide, technology, Thanatos, theodicy, time, tolerance, tree, trust, twee, utilitarianism, vegan, virtue signaling, weapon metaphors, werewolves, writing

Plus, of course, the indispensable catch-alls: “nice turns of phrase” and “miscellaneous.”

If I’m writing an essay and I suddenly remember a phrase I was once struck by, I can search any of these files (or my entire computer) by keyword. Then I can cite it in what I’m currently writing.

I recently told someone that I organize my digital files like this, and she asked if it was difficult to come up with these themes and stick to the organizational system. No, I answered. The themes were born from need, and they developed organically, as when one begins with a messy room and begins labeling the shelves as a response to appropriately accommodate all the material that already exists. Also, I stick to it only insofar as it works. I put the material on the “most correct” shelf because where else would I put it? So I use my files appropriately, and thus they work for me.

If I started with a blank slate, now, at age 40, my labels for these files would be completely different. They are what they are because they spun off of a system I kicked off, semi-consciously, when I was 18 and just starting to make a big proto-literary mess.

I suppose I could restructure everything, but there seems to be no urgent need to do so. And this would be a huge project; how would I begin to approach the 70,000-word file labeled “relativism,” a book-length document comprised entirely of other people’s statements on this subject?

The benefit of keeping the “old ways” is that they are embedded deeply in my brain. When I’m reading and a quote strikes me, I don’t have to ask myself, “Which of 200 themes is this best categorized under?” I already know “what I want the quote for”; my “themes” are just my shorthand keywords for something I already implicitly recognize and understand. It is a private, decades-long conversation I have with myself.

I didn’t know this was called a “commonplace book” until I saw Dwight Garner’s essay in 2020. I have since heard that Ryan Holiday discussed the concept in his book The Obstacle Is The Way. Update: Cory Doctorow also used the term in a May 2021 essay in which he said that he’s been writing digitally since 1979 when he was eight years old, although such notes tend to be valueless for him unless he blogs them, in which case he puts in enough effort to make them readable for an audience who may stumble across them, so they are easier for him, too, to refer back to.

“I have endless running text-files from the 1980s and 1990s in which I jotted down notes to myself. These are better than my actual notebooks in that they are searchable and I don’t have to decipher my handwriting, but I can’t really say that they generate much value for me as a writer. I couldn’t tell you the last time I referred to them.”

It feels like a commonplace activity within my own life because I’ve always done it. I don’t know if others consider it a normal thing to do. I have never had any other word for it. Sometimes I write “QUOTES” at the top of a piece of paper so that I know the material has to be typed up. Apart from that, it has been a nameless activity for me.

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Uncategorized

Poems read Oct-Dec 2020

Poems that stumbled across my path online. You might like them, too.

Lisa Ampleman, “Gilding the Lily”
Molly Brodak, “Ok
William Bronk, “Deus Vobiscum”, “Questions for Eros,” “The Remains of a Farm”
Jericho Brown, “Another Elegy,” in The New Testament
Lauren Clark, “Illinois in Spring”
Lucille Clifton, “birth-day”
Cid Corman, “The Unforgivable”
Gregory Corso, “Hello”
Kwame Dawes, “Loneliness
Ansel Elkins, “Autobiography of Eve
Rhina P. Espaillat, “November”
Jack Gilbert, “Exceeding the Spirit”
Aracelis Girmay, “[strange earth, strange]”
Peter Gizzi, “The Present is Constant Elegy
Louise Glück, “October,” “The Pond” in The House On Marshland
Linda Gregg, “God’s Places”
Paul Guest, “Post Factual Love Poem”
Alen Hamza, “Someday I Will Learn”
Joy Harjo, “She Had Some Horses”
Zbigniew Herbert, “Prayer”
Amorak Huey, “Lifespan of a Deer”
Laura Jensen, “Memory,” “Here in the Night”
Jean Joubert, “Brilliant Sky” (tr. Denise Levertov)
Dilawar Karadaghi, “[I’m not here]”
Joanna Klink, “On Mercy”
Ada Limón, “Instructions on Not Giving Up”
Moira Linehan, “My Great Blue”
Timothy Liu, “Survivors”
Audre Lorde, “Speechless
Sophia de Mello Breyner, “[You will never again feel]”
W. S. Merwin, “The Morning”, “How It Happens”
Malena Mörling, “Ashes
Sharon Olds, “I Cannot Say I Did Not”
Mary Oliver, “Fall Song,” in American Primitive
Charles Olson, “[I measure my song]”
George Oppen, “Psalm”, “World, World–“
Katherine Osborne, “[My son died.]”
Linda Pastan, “In This Season of Waiting,” “Go Gentle”
Carl Phillips, “And If I Fall
Rowan Ricardo Phillips, “Grief and the Imaginary Grave”
Roger Reeves, “After Death”
Rainer Maria Rilke, “[Only in our doing can we grasp you]” in The Book Of Hours
Theodore Roethke, “Memory”
Charif Shanahan, “Ligament
Natalie Shapero, “Not Horses,” in Hard Child
Izumi Shikibu, “[You ask my thoughts]” tr. Hirshfield & Aratani
Charles Simic, “Poem” [Every morning I forget how it is]
Maggie Smith, “Rain, New Year’s Eve”
Tracy K. Smith, “An Old Story”
Molly Spencer, “Most Accidents Occur At Home”
Matt Stefon, “A bent rainbow”
Nomi Stone, “On World-Making
Timmy Straw, “Willamette”
Anna Swir, “Her Death is In Me” (tr. Milosz and Leonard Nathan)
Fiona Sze-Lorrain, “[Nothing in my song]”
Shuntaro Tanikawa, “Twenty Billion Light Years of Loneliness” trans. Wright
Chase Twichell, “Fox Bones”
Jean Valentine, “The One You Wanted to Be Is The One You Are”
diane wakoski, “the moon has a complicated geography”
Katharine Whitcomb, “Through the Window,” in The Daughter’s Almanac
James Womack, “To Maximian”
Wendy Xu, “[Most things lose]”

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Digital art by Tucker Lieberman. Pastel colors in abstract shapes.
avoidance, nonfiction

On sun, shadow, and hidden images (three quotes)

Digital art by Tucker Lieberman. Pastel colors in abstract shapes.
Digital art by Tucker Lieberman.

“In Pharaonic Egypt at the time of Akhnaton, in a now-extinct monotheistic religion that worshiped the Sun, light was thought to be the gaze of God. Back then, vision was imagined as a kind of emanation that proceeded from the eye. Sight was something like radar. It reached out and touched the object being seen. The Sun—without which little more than the stars are visible—was stroking, illuminating, and warming the valley of the Nile. Given the physics of the time, and a generation that worshiped the Sun, it made some sense to describe light as the gaze of God.”
Carl Sagan. Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium. Ballantine, 1998. p. 31.

“Here is a graphic demonstration of what Jung usefully called the work of the archetypal shadow: we cannot encounter directly what we have repressed, what we cannot face, because it is by definition unconscious; and so we encounter it indirectly, as if it were outside us, cast like a shadow out of the unconscious on to the world.”
Patrick Harpur. The Philosopher’s Secret Fire: A History of the Imagination (2002). Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003. p. 54.

“It could be that I had the kind of childhood full of absences, and yours happened to be the only one that hurt so good. It could be simply that suicide does tricky things to people. It is a bizarre kind of loss, full of answers and empty of ways to access them, much like the series of Magic Eye posters taped to the walls of our junior high school. Despite extended periods of squinting and eye-crossing, I repeatedly failed to detect the hidden images, available only to those with the ability to skew their vision. I grew to detest those posters with their cloaked dinosaurs and sailboats, constant reminders of the limits of my perception.”
Candace Jane Opper. Certain and Impossible Events. Tucson, Arizona: Kore Press, 2021. p. 13.

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