"Christeene Fraser is a vibrant new voice on the poetry scene. Starkly confessional, yet warmly human, her writing strikes a nerve in the audience...a poet to watch."

Bruce Haring, Director, New York Book Festival

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

La Literati MOVES

Hi friends, La Literati has moved/metamorphosed over to SPEAKING at: www.christeenealcosiba.blogspot.com

All of this blog's previous material has been shifted over as well. Hope to see you over at the new site!

Cheers, and thanks for reading--

Friday, September 23, 2011

La Literati Reviews: Six Months, by Josh Olsen

Tainted Coffee Press, 2011, $10.00

FULL DISCLOSURE: I don’t know how to classify Josh Olsen’s work. Partially that’s because—

1) I am a librarian by trade, and

2) I am not an academic

3) I do not possess a MFA or an Arts & Culture column in the Huffington Post and therefore I do not I feel that I have the subject expertise or authority to wax eloquent on literary genres and the criterion for placing creative works into neatly (or mostly) defined categories.

What I am, however, is a voracious reader and fellow writer. So my stab at articulating what Olsen’s work is comes directly from nuanced—albeit impressionistic—observations of his work against the smorgasbord of things I’ve read and written personally.

Some back story: I first discovered Olsen’s work in New York Quarterly, where his poem “KT and I,” was first featured before finding a home in his debut book, Six Months. As such, I’ve been operating under the assumption that what I’d been reading for the last month was, in fact, poetry. Poetry in the rhythm-and-meter-and-not-prose sense of the word.


Imagine my surprise when I hear from the author’s mouth via a BlogTalkRadio podcast that he categorizes the contents of his first book as flash fiction, not poetry. Grrrreat, I thought, I’ve got to rethink my entire book review!

But I’m not going to rewrite the review. I’ve decided, at least for the purposes of this post that Six Months is a collection of prose poems—author distinction be-damned. I suspect, somehow, that the flash fiction label was chosen out of convenience, and not necessarily derived from the firm conviction that what Olsen is consciously creating is fiction, not poetry. Else why submit “KT and I” as a poem to New York Quarterly in the first place?

On my first read, questions surrounding this book persisted beyond superficial ponderings on genre and carried into the collection itself. This pervasive sense of whaddayamakeofthis plagued me. There’s a kind of tension where the reader (at least, this reader) is unsure of how s/he should feel or think about the tone and execution of the material.

Is Olsen being serious? Are these poems about chronic masturbation and diarrhea mere sophomoric shock-jockery, or is there something more going on here?

But before you think I’m throwing this poor man (or his editor) under the bus, you should up know up front that I admire him and what he’s done with Six Months. Because my suspicion is, that beneath the obvious campiness of the book—whose back cover bears the tag line ‘I returned to the womb every six months’—is a poet who is using humor quite slyly, quite heartbreakingly, to wrestle with somber themes of domestic abuse, sexuality, the woes of working-class parenthood, and childhood trauma.

A graduate from the Sharon Olds School of the Earthy-and-Unapologetically-Autobiographical-Body-Celebrators, Olsen comes off as the keeper of dirty little masculine secrets. And I suspect that many readers (particularly young male readers of a certain counter-cultural stripe) will enjoy Olsen for this very reason—for the pure joy of nodding their heads in affirmation of the oft-comical, at times humiliating male libidinal impulse.

Take a cue from a line in the opening poem, “On a Train Back to Michigan” (I’m ignoring line breaks):

“Doubting her consciousness, I took my time eyeing the soft skin of her inner thighs”

AND this line from “Apple Pie”—

“[I] quietly masturbated through a grainy VHS copy of Class of Nuke ‘Em High.”

OR this line from “Last Night’s Ice Storm, (Pt. 1)”—

“I just shaved my pubic hair. Toilet paper clung to the razor nicks on my scrotum.”

I imagine that some people might dismiss this book or find it distasteful because of the incessant genital schtick Olsen keeps returning to. But the appeal, for me anyway, is Olsen’s plainspoken, working-class hero persona and his reckless, at times ridiculous, joie de corps—it’s what makes Six Months a pleasurable, quick read. Some writers are so abstract/academic/avant garde/high-falutin’ that reading their work feels very much like trying to make sense of the ingredients listed on the back of a bag of Doritos; a mostly useless exercise that leaves 97% of the population frustrated and scraping to remember the prefixes they’d forgotten long ago in high school Chemistry.

Josh Olsen is not one of those writers. He lets you have it without affectation.

Further, to counterbalance all the boxing-the-clown shmuh, there are these redeeming lines that belie deeper, more poignant artistic reaching toward the themes I mentioned earlier. Some gems:

*My sexual revolution peaked in the first grade

*Sometimes he confronts me. Asks where I’ve been all this time. Why I’ve been running away.

*Sometimes I wake up feeling guilty. That I should make amends. Should write him a letter and let him meet his grandkids.

*I had not punched a hole in the wall, I pounded

*I waited for the day when Jack would write his poem

*[I] wondered whose god he prayed to

*My daughter’s condition made me feel dirty

*She used to smell cold, like snow or cucumbers

*I forgotabout the condom, stairwell, miscarriage, and Rodney

*He thought I was there to throw my son in the water

AND my personal favorite—taken from the piece “My Fear, My Guilt,” where Olsen pits his own uneasy desires against the biology of his daughter’s young slumber party guests:

“I feared them and their bodies, humming with potential, moments
From bursting, seconds away from something I would desire.”

That’s the zinger for me in this book—when Olsen actually gets down to the marrow of what it is he seemingly wants to talk about as a writer, but never quite indulges fully (presumably because it is either too painful or too personal or against his creative principles to do so).

What I’d like to see in Olsen’s next book is a total shirking of the locker room antics for a more raw examination of the family and parenting dynamics hinted at in this collection.

There’s an exchange from the poem “Carpet” between the poet and his girlfriend KT that I think is particularly to the point (bold added):

““You should write more about your family,” KT suggested.
“But that’s all I ever write about!” I replied, and KT told me that
I had been too gentle

KT—I couldn’t agree more. So, what say you Olsen? Let’s dig in.

In short, spend some time with Olsen’s first book. And when you do, what you’ll find is the promising beginnings of a richly human conversation on fatherhood, relationships, the body, and sexual impulse related with a hefty dose of winsome self-deprecation and nervous humor.

WRITERS: Interested in having your book or chapbook reviewed for this website? Email Christeene at laliterati83@gmail.com

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Graduation Isn't Enough: Maintaining the Post MLIS Momentum

For the last three or four months I've done very little but labor over the work for my last semester of library school.

Over the summer I spent many, many caffeine-fueled nights fantasizing about what it would mean to have the leisure to be a total non-thinking slob if I wanted to. Minor jealousy filled my heart as my friends cracked jokes and drank beer at Braves games or lounged in the grass and watched 80's classics at "Screen on the Green" while I sat at home and pondered copyright law. Everything other than school looked sooo good. A veritable buffet of pleasure. So bleak was my work-life balance that I was beginning to drool over the prospect of watching "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" while pile-driving through a bucket of extra crispy.

Then seemingly, out of nowhere, I was marching to "Pomp and Circumstance"/being hooded/ushered down a platform/posing with my degree in front of a camera/and receiving palpitation-inducing exit counseling emails from the Graduate DIRECTPlus Loans office.

My first order of business after graduating was to get out of dodge; so I took a trip Chicago. I stayed up late, got up early. I watched an entire season of "Sex and the City" in one shot in my hotel room while laying in bed in a bathrobe. I met up with some fabulous writer people I know who toured me around their fair city. I read poetry magazines while soaking in a ginormous whirlpool tub and listening to Dvorak and sipping on cheap Shiraz I bought from the 7-Eleven on the corner. Oh the lack of research papers! The joy! The decadence! Yes, that's decadence for a young mother: bath tubs and cheap vino and alone time (shut your face).

But now that that's done, I've been scouring the LIS job boards, and realizing a few things: 1) my Master's degree doesn't make me a desirable candidate, it only makes me minimally qualified, and 2) there are understandable gaps in my education or experience that I need to address (and fast) if I'm going to secure a job in my field.

Instead of poo-pooing the fact that my Master's degree isn't the end-all-be-all of my education as a professional, I'm excited about the challenge of figuring out what I can do to make myself a more nuanced librarian and enticing job applicant.

In this difficult economy, entry-level positions are few and far between and the competition for these coveted spots is marked by more tears and self-loathing than an episode of America's Next Top Model. In fact, a recent article from the San Jose State University LIS program confirms that 26% of all current LIS job listings are at the management level (although as a job-seeker it feels more like 80%). With all of this in mind, I propose 10 ways that others like myself can keep the post-graduation momentum going while applying for that first professional position:

1) Edit, edit, and RE-EDIT your resume or CV. Seriously, dude. Nothing makes you look more not-with-it if you're still rocking the objective statement under your contact information. Or heaven forbid--you misspell something.

2) Labor, labor, labor over your cover letters. Make them personal. Make sure that you address as many of the job responsibilities listed in the job announcements as you are convincingly able. Don't lie or overstate your qualifications. But neither should you assume that because you have a MLS that a potential employer will know you are the goddess of MARC or ILS or children's programming. Customization is also incredibly important because many HR departments now sift through hundreds of applicants by using software that automatically weeds out unqualified candidates based on the number of specified keywords used in cover letters or resumes.

3) Use your nifty new research skills to locate a few research articles written by or about the institutions you'd most like to work for. This info you'll gain by understanding your most choice employer will not only be edifying to you, it will go a long way in creating a dialogue and setting you apart in interviews.

4) Develop your technical acumen by taking a continuing-education IT course or the like. Luddites in the library profession should truly take a reassessment of themselves--or take a Xanax. The future of librarianship is steeped in technology. As for myself, in the coming months I'm dedicated to mastering Drupal (a free website content & development program).

5) Unlock the power of your professional organization. I've joined ALA (American Library Association) and SAA (Society of American Archivists) in the last year, and have only really just started to discover what membership actually means in terms of services and networking opportunities. To the unschooled person, I'd advise: take advantage of any local or regional professional development classes offered by your chosen professional organization. Get on the job listservs. Go to the events and actually get your face in front of your colleagues. Attend conferences where possible. At the very most, this could mean that your name may stand out in a sea of applicants for a future position. At the very least, it could mean that you grow and develop as you exchange ideas and share anecdotes with more established professionals.

6) Position yourself as the chief-muckety-muck of something or other, and develop a website that displays your know-how. Love special collections and archives? Create a blog that discusses the recent acquisition of collections at various institutions, or the need for improved training for new archivists. Love children and teen programming? Think about a starting a website that reviews the best books for those age groups. Get it out there. Think of your internet footprint as a supplement to your resume. Which leads to #7...

7) Safeguard your internet identity. Things happen, as we can all attest--and we are not always able to prevent having the one idiot friend who tags you in a picture wearing a less-than-professional costume while chugging a Hurricane on Bourbon St. in 2001 or whatever. But with that being said, control your Facebook/Myspace (who still uses Myspace?)/Twitter rants/Flickr uploads. Nothing says don't hire me like a person who doesn't understand (or care) about the ramifications of social networking in 2011.

8) Give in to the inner 12 year old that still likes to: write/draw/skateboard/knit scarves in funky colors/collect comics/bake cookies. Developing your hobbies and having fun in a way that is completely unrelated to the field is, I think, a HUGE deal. So many people are so laser-beam focused on being the best worker-bee possible that they forget to be a human-being also. Who wants to hire a bland robot? I don't.

9) Get thee a Mr. Miyagi. You know that cult-classic-amazing-piece-of-cinematic-genius called "The Karate Kid?" If your 80's nostalgia serves you well, you'll remember that Daniel-san couldn't get to that final championship kick without the help of his coach, and a lot of wax-on-wax-off action. What does this mean for professional development? It means you should find your equivalent, a mentor of sorts, to help you along your way. Of course nothing would suit my vanity more than the idea that I didn't need someone older to help me along, but I'd be stupid to think that. We all need a Mr. Miyagi. Immerse yourself into the wide world of librarianship and see who the cool kids are that you can admire; you'd be amazed how many of them will be willing to offer advice when prompted by a (sincere and heartfelt) email.

10) Get some library experience by hook or by crook. If you are already employed in a library somewhere, then thank your lucky stars and go hug a patron. If not: volunteer, get an post-grad internship, a part-time position, something. All experience is valuable, and EXPECTED of you when you apply for that first gig.

The uncanny thing about this is: this plan of action works for nearly any major professional attempting to transition from graduate school to the work force. Substitute a few words and sprinkle in some optimism. Think of anything I've left out? Email me or comment below. Let's start a dialogue and get hired!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Why I Became a Librarian: Notes from the Rose Main Reading Room

During a recent presentation given by one of my library school colleagues, I was shocked to learned that something like 0.5% of the population determine that they want to enter the library profession before or during college. Most graduate students entering library school do so after having explored or worked in another industry or profession. I mean, I was one of those people. And while I knew that the numbers would be scarce (after all how many kids say 'I wanna be a librarian when I grow up?'), I never imagined they would be *that* scarce.

When I tell people that I'm getting my Master's degree to be a librarian, two questions generally arise: 1) why, and 2) you need a Master's degree to do that? This used to make me wince because I knew that behind those responses was a perplexed person who assumed I was somehow wasting my talent in becoming an information professional because they had absolutely no clue what a librarian actually does. It was like they were basically saying to me: "You want to get a Master's degree so you can check out books for people?!"

Yes, checking out books is sometimes a part of librarianship (and there's nothing wrong with that, you snobs), but that's not the whole story. The childhood stereotype of some four-eyed curmudgeon with an aversion to noise is not the face of modern librarianship. I think part of the problem stems from poor national campaigning and image-shaping by professional organizations within the LIS community. Let me clarify a point: I think organizations such as the ALA have done a fabulous job in national campaigns to discuss the societal impact and value of libraries as institutions. But by comparison they've done a lackluster job of illustrating what information professionals do within that context, especially when compared with the national image-shaping & recruitment campaigns for other professional organizations such as a the American Nursing Association.

My colleague's presentation made me think about why I'd entered this profession, particularly as a minority. Why did I choose to become a librarian in the wide world of options before me? To answer this question, I'd like to share a portion of a reflective essay I completed for my capstone course which discusses what initially drew me to the profession:

"In the fall of 2002 I was a freshman college student renting a room in a squalid apartment in the Southside Bronx while attending SUNY Purchase. I’d left my native Georgia and sojourned to New York carrying dreams of big city life and a career in medicine. And in the spirit of nearly every New York City story, I learned quickly that my fantasies of that great and terrible place were merely preconceived notions derived from the movies, pop culture, and impressionistic observations from previous trips. What I encountered was far beyond my means and capabilities as an inexperienced eighteen year old girl, and by the end of my freshman year of college—I was on the Dean’s list, and essentially homeless. It was during this time of personal and financial turmoil that I took comfort in the New York Public Library, one of the few places in the city that was free and open to the public; and under the frescoed ceiling of the Rose Main Reading room, the seeds of my future profession were planted deep inside of my subconscious.

The New York Public Library represented a kind of refuge for me. When I wasn’t in class, I spent whole days studying or writing poems at one of the long tables in the main reading room, fingering the spines of gilded books in the stacks, or examining the portraits of long-dead aristocrats from New England in the adjoining gallery. On one of these extended visits to the NYPL, I wandered down a hallway of glass-walled rooms where the special collections were housed. From the corridor I watched as white-gloved researchers handled delicate pieces of paper with the same attention and tender care of a mother bathing her infant. At the time I had no concept at all of special collections, the research role of primary records, or the qualifications needed to access such things. But that day made a lasting impression on my young mind: I wanted to be one of those people on the other side of the glass. I didn’t know immediately that I wanted to be a librarian necessarily, but I did know that I wanted to work somewhere like the NYPL—a place where beauty, history, and knowledge was accessible to anyone irrespective of education or socioeconomic status. A place that took seriously its explicit role in the creation and continuum of knowledge and service to a greater societal good."

I share that excerpt only to demonstrate a point. I don't think that one testimony is enough to shift the perception of librarianship, but perhaps several thousand testimonies could? Perhaps if library professionals--and their subsequent organizations--made a concerted effort to share their stories, and spur a national dialogue on how they are touching the lives of individuals in ways that are comparably value-added and intimate as other professions, we will see greater library school enrollment, a better societal understanding of the profession, and political shifts in the understanding of libraries and librarianship as fundamental to the cultural and intellectual growth and sustainability of our nation.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

What Color Parachute Would You Like?

I feel like 27 is some sort of critical age. Which is a stupid 27-yr-old thing to say, I know, but it *feels* true nonetheless. The truth is EVERY age is a critical age, but it is only now that I'm starting to feel like possibility and limitation are scaled in equal measure before me. And that is an entirely new prospect for many people in their late twenties.

What I mean is this: you never tell a 5 year old that they're being unrealistic when they say they want to be an astronaut/President of the United States/ballerina/doctor/pirate/NBA star/firefighter. Our own cynicism might quietly *think it*, but, for all you know that freakin' kid MIGHT ACTUALLY DO IT. Who knows? Life is before them. Possibility outweighs limitation. But at 27, the field narrows. What was once an open meadow is now this scraggly little path winding up Work Mountain.

But the funny thing is, I'm finding this narrowing to be a sort of blessing.

I have a dear friend who is pulling his hair out trying to decide what to do with the rest of his life. Ah, that question: what to do, what to DO with our remaining youth, our remaining work years? He's prayed. He's discussed. He's researched. He's sought counsel. What he hasn't done, in my humble opinion, is be quiet. Quiet enough to have an objective discussion with himself. All of his understandable fretting has made me think about my own career trajectory, and in retrospect I find it ironic that my true passions were illuminated only after I recognized and accepted the limitations I have. I had to have the cajones to be painfully honest with myself and my desires before I could start reaping any joy from the work that was, in fact, sucking up my youth.

For me, teaching was a disaster. Not because I wasn't good at it, or because I didn't like the kids, or because the pay was bad (and it was). I LOVED my students, and by all accounts I was a stellar teacher. But, and here's the thing, I felt like I was extinguishing some essential part of me in order to do it. If it had been my "calling" all of that work would have been nutritious for my soul instead of draining, taxing, toxic. This is not to say that our passions should come easily, but rather, the work that comes as a result should grow us, feed us.

The narrowing of the field has helped me to zero in on what I want my life to look like, really. Not what I think my life should look like. And for the first time, I'm starting to see glimpses of the dreams I began as a girl. At fifteen I read and fell in love with The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. At 22 I taught this book to my 9th grade students. And now, at 27, I've received a note from Sandra Cisneros herself saying she loves my poems, lauds my future in writing. How else could that have happened, ever, if I hadn't been honest with myself about my desire to become a poet no matter how daft it made me look to other people?

I may never achieve any measure of *success* where writing is concerned. And I am, in fact, a no-name in the publishing world. But I'm totally okay with that because I am living a life that looks and feels exciting to me. Thank God the field is narrow for me now. Thank God I've had the good fortune of falling on my face hard enough to know now what I want. Bring on my thirties and beyond: I'm ready to run through them, torch in hand.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Pity Party for One, Anyone?

I've kept a journal since I was probably...10? For the last 17 years, I've chronicled every awkward phase (or, I should say, every phase of a perpetually awkward life), every heartbreak and new love, nearly every vacation, most of my harebrained book ideas/poem drafts/sketches of random strangers on NYC subways. My diary has been with me on the bank of the Seine, the beaches of Hawaii, and in the hospital room where my daughter was born. My diary contains the eulogy I wrote and read at my father's funeral.

I think it's a peculiar thing that people should even have the impulse to journal. Some might think it is an inherently narcissistic motivation--this desire to archive the minutiae of one's existence. Who, after all, stands to benefit from your illegible musings besides you? But narcissism or not, I was incredibly grateful for my journals the other night when I was in the midst of a pity party for one.

I've been in a weird place professionally and creatively. An odd purgatory where I've had enough success or achievement to lodge a foot in the door, but not enough to actually be invited in. Last week I was battling a hefty double punch of self-pity: I'd received two rejection emails from literary magazines I was hoping to publish in, and I was dealing with an unmitigated sense of loser-ness in the prospect of my future career as an academic librarian.

And as I retreated to my journal to commemorate it, I noticed that I only had one page left to write. Not only that, I was finishing my journal EXACTLY a year to the date that I'd started it. I figured it was a sign. Divine intervention. So I gave the first entry a reread.

What I wrote about myself was this, "For what purpose am I here? Failed poet and sappy diarist. Overblown ego and burning heart."

That one line in particular, "failed poet," prompted me to read my diary from start to finish. I wanted to know if that statement still felt true a year later.

What I realized after reading my diary was this: I had grown tremendously as a woman, as a writer in the past year. When I wrote those things I was coming from a place of brokenness having made the difficult decision to leave my teaching career behind, and feeling insecure in my capabilities as a writer. But in the year since I penned those statements I wrote two manuscripts worth of poems, won a poetry prize, secured publications in three fantastic literary journals, nearly completed a Master's degree, and conquered some personal issues that had been previously crippling.

That's when it hit me--this understanding of the transformative power of journaling--the unique treasure of being able to rediscover yourself and grow from the retrospective examination of who you were, are, or wanted to be at any given point in your own personal history. As my pastor likes to say, "That's good stuff." Good stuff indeed.

I felt reborn after rereading the ups and downs of the previous year. I was ready to become my own cheerleader. I was ready to steam forward into my next journal, and whatever next phase lay ahead of me with some genuine joy in my heart. For my last entry, instead of lamenting my rejection slips and lack of professional security--I wrote a list of specific ways I had grown over the last year, and another list of traits I'd like to develop in myself going forward.

Page one might read "failed poet," but the final page has yet to be written.

Friday, March 18, 2011

What the National Archives is Teaching Me About the Disaster in Japan

Given the recent tragedy in Japan, and the impending nuclear crisis that resulted--I find a sense of amorphous History haunting me as I process the records from the Manhattan Project as a volunteer for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Something that's always fascinated me as a writer, student, and just as a human being in general, is the notion of History being omnipresent, or not even really History at all.

What I mean is, when I touched the cold limestone of the Notre Dame in Paris, I thought of plague victims from the 14th century leaning their feverish bodies against the same cool exterior. I thought of Napoleon Bonaparte walking down the center aisle in an ermine robe, snatching the crown from Pope Pius VII and placing it on his own head. When I interlace my stubby brown fingers with my husband's long pale white fingers and walk down the streets of Atlanta, I know that perhaps some of the eyes that see this small act of public intimacy also witnessed the protests and death it took to allow it. None of those things that we call 'History' seems very far away from me, from my life as a woman living in 2011.

In my hot little hand yesterday, I held a blue print that showed the nuclear reactor used in Oak Ridge, Tennessee to process the Uranium needed to power the first atomic bomb, dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Later that same day, I went home and scrolled through images, and read in-depth commentary on the Fukushima nuclear reactors threatening to wreak havoc unseen since Chernobyl.

The images of Japanese men and women crying over leveled homes gave me chills. It was like time woke up from a feverish nightmare repeated again with slightly different details:

Hiroshima, 1945
Courtesy of Million Face

Miyagi Prefecture, 2011
Courtesy of Business Insider

Since I began processing this collection, I've gone through hundreds of pieces of paper that might seem mundane to the average person--shipment records, correspondences, charts and tables, blue prints. But the reality of it is this, History (if we can call it that) is made through a conglomeration of individual acts. It so rarely occurs as a result of an unprecedented earthquake, but when it does, we are still tested by the weight of our smallest decisions.

I feel very differently today about nuclear technology and the ramifications of our work as Americans in the Manhattan Project. Not just because of the problems Japan faces now, but certainly in light of them. A sense of remorse. A sense of unease. A sense of we-can-do-better-than-this. There are 50 or so Japanese workers risking life and limb right now to try to exterminate the nuclear reactors that threaten their nation. They, and their countrymen are being tested by their daily acts of service, community, and sacrifice. I am inspired by that, truly, and I feel like we could learn something from that here in America.

If it is in your power, or realm of concern, considering donating to a fund that you trust that is working to provide aid to disaster victims in Japan such as MercyCorp or Unicef.

Let us not be the generation that idly grieves when we might act. Passive sympathy is as inexcusable as active cruelty. At the very least, let us be the generation that respects History as a living thing that we participate in and can change.