Sunday, May 16, 2010

Patrick Madden

Patrick Madden is the author of Quotidiana (Nebraska, 2010), a collection of personal essays. He teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University.

Not so long ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Having just finished out the winter semester, I'm once again able to do some reading for pleasure and enlightenment, beyond all the stuff I assign to my students. I'm enjoying several books at the moment. Here are a few.

Most of my reading is in the realm of creative nonfiction, typically the more essayistic side of that unwieldy category. So I'm excitedly reading Need for the Bike by Paul Fournel, current president of Oulipo, which group every writer should know (and emulate). This book, however, is not Oulipian in any formal way. Instead, it's a collection of vignettes tracing the author's love of cycling, from Fournel's formative years (and crashes) to the Tour de France, with plenty of quick excursions (cyclical and mental) in between. “The bike always starts with a miracle,” writes Fournel, expressing his reverence, which sentiment permeates his book.

I'm also devouring Donald Morrill's newest collection, Impetuous Sleeper, which brings together memoirs of travel and prose poems with meandering meditations on dreaming and waking. Interspersed between the more traditional-seeming prose pieces are bursts of aphorisms, called “Saccades,” which lend a profundity to the whole. Here's one: “Sleep is our second, lesser-known past. Our memories of it are hearsay from a witness reputed to be our self but who seems a stranger.”

After hearing an NPR piece about established authors self-publishing, then reading a piece at the Rumpus about Steve Almond's venture into this realm, I bought This Won't Take but a Minute, Honey, and I'm finding affirmation in the “essays” side of the little book, in which Almond offers advice on writing. I find that his oath “Never confuse the reader” works for nonfiction as well as for fiction, as do most of the exhortations, which come in thirty one-page numbered sections. There're also thirty very short stories if you flip the book over, which I intend to do soon, because I while I focus mainly on nonfiction, I very much enjoy novels, short stories, and poems, too.

For instance, I've just finished Silence by Shusaku Endo, a Japanese Catholic writer. The book follows a Portuguese Jesuit missionary in Japan during the seventeenth century, a time of backlash repression against Christians. Psychologically, it deals with the troubling question of God's silence in the face of persecution as believers are forced to apostatize or face brutal tortures. Literarily, it is serene, measured, never showy, a wonderful example of peaceful, powerful prose.

That seeming peace, of course, reveals inner turmoil, which is true also of Lynn Kilpatrick's In the House, a collection of short stories revolving around domestic themes. I don't have the same theoretical background in stories as I do in essays, so I'm consistently surprised and pleased by the formal moves Kilpatrick makes, seeming to dance around plot, to keep plot alive in the spaces between sections or in the words not written.

But when it comes to poetry, I prefer words written, not omitted, poems that make sense as sentences first, then work within lines. So I'm smitten with Marc Sheehan's second book, Vengeful Hymns, whose poems are mini-essays, thought-experiments, memory-probes, vehicles for ideas-from-life. Sheehan is intelligent, it's obvious, with a stunning command of the medium of words, an ability to startle me into presence and understanding.

I ought to mention, too, a few others that I've sampled or heard wonderful things about, and which I'll be reading very soon: Mary Cappello's Called Back, Steven Church's Theoretical Killings, Christopher Cokinos's The Fallen Sky, Kim Dana Kupperman's I Just Lately Started Buying Wings, Kyle Minor's In the Devil's Territory, Peggy Shumaker's Just Breathe Normally… I hope the summer lasts!
Visit Patrick Madden's website to read hundreds of classical essays or sample his essays.

--Marshal Zeringue