Bridgette Bates (Safety Book #40)

1. Could you tell us the name of a book that you love, and why?

The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees.

I had always loved more dizzying, image-driven poets, but Kees’ crystalline prose-like lines unnerved me with their precision. The dead are named, avenues are numbered, mouths speak extensively with long stanzas of dialogue. So much is illuminated before Kees himself goes missing. The narrative of his life infiltrated my reading of his poems in a way that I typically never read poetry with biography in mind. It is believed Kees either jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge or ran away to Mexico. I like to think he is living in an alcove of the Mayan ruins, finding solace in the cerulean waters.

2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?

I discovered Kees’ and his collected works during my first Midwestern winter of blinding blizzards. It was my first year at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I was getting little writing of my own done, so I hibernated with a lot of reading. I was reading Donald Justice’s book of essays, Oblivion. Justice has an essay where he praises how none of Weldon Kees’ poems are flawless. I immediately went to Prairie Lights and bought Kees’ collected works. As a young writer struggling to write, flaw inspired me.

3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?

His poems not only haunted me during the coldest winter of my entire life to date—as I spent one late night shoveling my car out of a pyramid of snow, only to realize it was not in fact my car, I heard his fugue: “Falling night/Will cover all”—but beyond that white trench, I have carried with me Kees’ polarizing enchantment with the world—the ephemeral nature of long seasons, dark humor, the beauty of heartbreak.

4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…

People often critique dialogue in film and books for not sounding believable, which I find ridiculous. I want to be transformed by words on a screen or on a page in a more fantastical way than what I encounter on the street or on my iPhone. Kees was a master at composing utterly beautiful dialogue sequences. Is there anything more breathtaking than this spoken exchange in his poem “Girl at Midnight”?

“Christ, we could die

The way deer sometimes do, their antlers locked,

Rotting in the snow.”

5. Who did you send this book to, why?

I would like to send this to my best friend living in Ohio in honor of the upcoming winter, but she’s a new mom, and that’s such a raw state, that Kees may lead to some type of emotional combustion, so it’s probably best to send her Kees in the summer.

Jonathan Blum (Safety Book #39)

1. Could you tell us the name of a book that you love, and why?

The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary: First Edition.

There have now been five editions of this book—each new one offering hundreds, even thousands, more playable words than the one before—but the edition I’m talking about had a stark gray hardcover (the binding of mine is torn up from use) and had this as a preface:

"This word book has been long awaited by lovers of…SCRABBLE…All who have looked for a guide to settle challenges that arise in the course of play now have one of authority. This is the dictionary of first reference for all SCRABBLE crossword game tournaments."

The first Scrabble clubs, breeding grounds for tournament players, were being formed around North America in the mid-1970s. I found out about the local Miami club from a notice in The Miami Herald; I started playing there regularly on Saturdays in 1977, when I was nine. 

In those days, I studied the OSPD all the time. During the day and at night. In bed and in the bathroom. At school and after school. From age nine to eleven, I spent part of many days trying to memorize as many words as I could, including all the acceptable two- and three-letter words; all the letters (“hooks”) that can go before and after the three-letter words to form other words; words containing J, X, Q and Z; variant spellings of words (CRAAL/KRAAL); then every anagram I came across, particularly potential bingos, which I wrote out in the margins of the dictionary: UTOPIAN/OPUNTIA, STOGIES/EGOISTS, DISCOVER/DIVORCES. I wanted to be a great player. At first, it just seemed a matter of knowing more words—a lot more words—than your opponent. And of being able to find the words in your rack. But the more I studied, the more I realized I didn’t know and the clearer it became how far I was from possibly ever becoming an excellent player.

At twelve, I became a more observant Jew and would not go anywhere on Saturdays other than to synagogue and, afterwards, to the rabbi’s house for Torah study. Some of my Scrabble-playing zeal cooled off, but it has returned periodically throughout my life.

2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?

It was at the Miami Scrabble club that met on NW 37 Avenue.

3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?

As a young child, I was fascinated by people who could learn things by heart. I didn’t have an especially good memory but I was very admiring of people who did. My grandmother, for example, had memorized dozens of poems and stories that she recited to me before sleep. At synagogue there were men who knew the entire Sabbath prayerbook by heart. Sports announcers seemed to have hundreds of statistics at their disposal. Musicians knew every verse of their songs. And the best Scrabble players, including one, an attorney, who kindly gave me rides to the club and who was so good that he would soon be vying for the national championship, had word knowledge that I would probably never acquire. Still, there was joy in trying to memorize as much of a book as one could, from BEDIAPER to TRUELOVE to PISSOIR; after all, this book, perhaps as much as any other, was made to be memorized.

4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…

From the Introduction:

“In most cases, only one very brief definition is given for each main entry since definitions do not play a significant role in…SCRABBLE…”

When I was a boy trying to learn as many acceptable Scrabble words as possible, I was often asked by adults who learned of my passion why I was trying so hard to memorize words that, in many cases, I didn’t know the meaning of. (I did have to know if the word took an S or an R or a D at the end.) I usually shrugged off this question; could these people really not see that words are groupings of letters that have an existence as shapes and sounds that is separate from their existence as holders of meaning? That OXY and DOXY or ESOTERIC and COTERIES are related in ways that have nothing to do with what any of the words means? Also, I did gradually learn many meanings. For example, the definition of FOOTSIE in the OSPD is “a flirting game played with the feet.” I drew a rectangle around this meaning. Likewise, around DOURINE, which meant “a disease of horses,” and ONEIRIC, which meant “pertaining to dreams.” A definition could sometimes help you remember the word.

5. Who did you send this book to, why?

I like giving Scrabble sets together with the latest OSPD as gifts to kids four and older. Although Scrabble is already an extremely popular game, it makes me feel a little like Johnny Appleseed to sprinkle the game and dictionary here and there in the homes of children.


Jonathan Blum is the author of Last Word, a novella, published by Rescue Press in November 2013. He grew up in Miami and graduated from UCLA and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His short stories have appeared in Green Mountains Review, Gulf Coast, New York Stories, Northwest Review, Other Voices, Playboy, Zaum, and elsewhere. He has taught fiction writing at The University of Iowa and at Drew University, and is the recipient of a Michener-Copernicus Society of America Award and a grant from the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation. He lives in Los Angeles.

Luke Bloomfield (Safety Book #36)

4068961. Could you tell us the name of a book that you love, and why? The Four Questions of Melancholy by Tomaz Salamun, an anthology of his poems that goes all the way back to Poker. There are certain books I can open up and read whatever I open to and have shown to me something perfect. This book is one such example. I love this book because there isn't a bad poem in it. It's not a very sophisticated love.

2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?

When I was 20 I was obsessed with great American and European male fiction writers of the 19th and 20th century, and I thought I would become one for the 21st century. I wrote some awful stuff and showed it to my independent studies professor, Dara Wier. She told me to go to this reading at Memorial Hall at UMass by a Slovene poet. It's sufficient to say that Tomaz (and Dara) thoroughly altered my thinking about writing. I took his book home and read it all the way through with his haunting accent in my head. Then I wrote a poem. It wasn't good, but it was the first time I was aware of what the process of writing a poem could feel like.

3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?

I want to say that if it weren't for The Four Questions lukebof Melancholy I wouldn't be writing poems today. Who can say if that's true or not, but whenever I'm in a non-writing funk, this book gets me out of it. Tomaz's poetry exemplifies the truest expression of freedom and the authority to seize it. He's a total freak that way and an enabler. When I read this book I'm invited to ruin language the way he does which makes me feel good about being a human.

4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…

Here's the beginning of the poem "Who's Who" which I guess first came out in English in 1972 in the book White Ithaca:

Tomaz Salamun you are a genius you are wonderful you are a joy to behold you are great you are a giant you are strong and powerful you are phenomenal you are the greatest of all time you are the king you are possessed of great wealth you are a genius Tomaz Salamun in harmony with all creation we have to admit that you are a lion the planets pay homage to you

The entire poem is 36 lines, and it does all the above things except disgusts me.

5. Who did you send this book to, why?

I should send this book to my grandparents Warren and Rosalie with the hope they'll understand my own work a little better.


Bio: Luke Bloomfield is the author of a chapbook called The Duffel Bag (Factory Hollow Press, 2011) and a longer collection called Russian Novels (FHP, 2014). He earned an MFA from UMass, and he supports all Massachusetts sports teams.

Stephen Lovely (Safety Book #35)

1340453_2393643-caseiphone5_lCould you tell us the name of a book that you love, and why? To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. I’m just as crazy for Mrs. Dalloway, and I’ve always thought of the two novels as a set, as companion pieces, either because of stylistic similarities plenty of people have remarked on—Dalloway was published in 1925, Lighthouse in 1927, in a kind of soaring into her own following the more tentative flights of Jacob’s Room—or, just as likely, because the editions I bought in the late 1980’s as a callow undergraduate are nearly identical: small, dense, ingot-like Harcourt Brace Jovanovich paperbacks with cover drawings by John Alcorn of Clarissa Dalloway and Lily Briscoe and a squat, sturdy typeface whose thick-stemmed capitals look as though their ink might still be wet. Over a period of years my copy of To the Lighthouse suffered spinal wear and finally disgorged a chunk of pages. I considered a replacement, but Harcourt had updated to a frail, reedy typeface I didn’t think flattered Virginia’s prose. I hunted down and hoarded used copies of my favorite editions. These days, thanks to the good folks at Feetan, China’s largest English-language digital book publisher, I can carry (legally, I think) the collected works on my phone, and simply by touching the pale green icon from which Virginia’s face curiously gazes at the blue Facebook icon next door, I can fill my screen with that astonishing, crystalline English, which seems to have been burbling and flickering all this time like an eternal spring beneath the overgrowth, and which contains all the clatter and clamor of human life distilled to essences.

Why do I love To the Lighthouse? The reasons Virginia Woolf. (Virginia Woolf, a Britisth authoress of "A Room of One's Own", "To the Lighthouse", "Jacob's Room" and other novels and crit)everyone else does, probably. The lucidity and precision of the prose, which flows easily and purely with unflagging impetus and suppleness and grace across space and time, from one consciousness to another, from the particular to the universal, the quotidian to the cosmic, in the space of a paragraph or a sentence; the way she threads the point of view lightly and deftly through her characters and allows them to emerge not only as products of their own thoughts and feelings but as aggregates of each other’s perceptions and misperceptions; the intensity of the focus, which cuts through the fog of qualia to light on the salient object or idea or feeling; the formal challenge she sets for herself, confining the first and last sections of the novel to small pockets of elapsed time (an afternoon and evening; an early morning) while managing to send so many people and places and things flowing through with such marvelous economy; her ability to animate or update a character with one or two well-placed strokes (“He was unkempt. He dropped things on his coat. He had the tiresomeness of an old man with nothing in the world to do”); her dazzling choreography, the way she handles all those people wandering all over the house, up and down the terrace, up and down from the beach, kids everywhere, not to mention a novelist’s nightmare, a forty page dinner for sixteen, all without any clunky hydraulics. And of course the hungry, incandescent mind that struggles, as Lily Briscoe does at her easel, to connect things that resist connection or resist disclosing the nature of their connection, the relentless seeking intelligence that looks and looks harder, teases apart, fits together, reconfigures, realigns, adjusts, plays, working with the weird pieces at the center of the puzzle.

Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?

I wish I could say there were some blazing instance of communion I had with this novel, but I can’t remember one. I’m sure I owned To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway in college—I can tell from the price stamps (both books were $5.95, new) that I bought them in the Kenyon College bookstore circa 1984—but I don’t remember reading them, and if I did I probably lost interest. Isn’t there a huge disjuncture between the amount of emotional maturity and life experience necessary to connect with great novels and the amount a college student is likely to have? There was in my case. I was fortunate enough to spend a long, idyllic junior year studying in England, where my classmates and I were asked to do little more than read one nineteenth-century English novel after another, have lunchtime pints with our tutor, and roam the countryside. I fell in love with England and its novels; my mind came alive; I grew up a little. I must have read Lighthouse and Dalloway for the first time shortly afterwards, because I remember dimly apprehending that these novels were radically different, in terms of style and structure and point of view, from the Victorian novels I’d been reading. I knew this had something to do with something called Modernism, but Ulysses had scared me to death—if that was Modernism I didn’t want any part of it. Woolf’s was a kinder, gentler Modernism. There was something about her voice that wanted to bring me into its fold, to carry me along. We were going to take our time. We were going to linger, particularly on the subtleties of relationships. She was going to show me the world, which I felt I’d never paid attention to properly, certainly not with the kind of intensity and patience necessary to locate the divine in the mundane, to be, as Lily Briscoe thinks, “on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.” I still feel obtuse and disengaged, which is why I read Woolf, and why I carry her on my phone. In idle moments, sitting and waiting, if I absolutely can’t be bothered to attend to my physical surroundings, I try to resist plunging into the phatic chorus and touch my finger to her cheek.

Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?

Oh, Lordy. I wanted to write like Virginia Woolf so badly. I floated my characters out and recorded their every thought and feeling and sensation and association, the slightest quiver of a dendrite, as they stood paralyzed by the profundity of their observations, perhaps occasionally moving a limb, or tripping over a semicolon, and the minutes passed slowly as hours, and the light shifted, and a bird darted overhead, and similes proliferated like pollen, and every so often a metaphor cratered in. It wasn’t pretty. Actually it was pretty, I thought. My first teacher at Iowa, Deborah Eisenberg, who I hoped would appreciate my aspirations—she even looked a little like Virginia—sat me down for our conference, placed my story on the desk in front of us, touched the tip of her pen to my first sentence, studied it for a moment, and then informed me, delicately but firmly, sounding bewildered but above all concerned, that we really could not discuss my story, which was entirely composed of sentences like the first one, until I made an effort to arrange words in such a way as to communicate something around which we could arrange words. I thought this would be the beginning of our conference, but it was the end. I left shell-shocked—surely Virginia would have recognized my genius—but it wasn’t long before I felt desperately grateful to Deborah. Nowadays I try, in my writing, for some semblance of the depth and precision and sensitivity I find in To the Lighthouse (hey, nothing wrong with trying) but Woolf naturally descends to a running depth in consciousness I tend to forget even exists, and that I can’t access outside her language, without her soul. I take encouragement from Lily Briscoe, the young painter in Lighthouse who labors on a single painting, at the easel and away from it, throughout the novel, over a period of ten years, struggling to “have her vision” as Virginia struggled to have her own: “One must keep on looking without for a second relaxing the intensity of the emotion, the determination not to be put off, not to be bamboozled.” And this: “It was a miserable machine, an inefficient machine, she thought, the human apparatus for painting or for feeling; it always broke down at the critical moment; heroically, one must force it on.”

lighthouseGive us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…

I could lift a paragraph at random from To the Lighthouse and it would intrigue, engage, mystify and inspire. One of the amazing things about this novel, for me, is that the entire world, or everything about the world that I’m interested in, is contained within it: the joys and burdens of interpersonal relationships, human love and conflict, marriage, childhood, the nature of self, consciousness, time, memory, death, tyranny, the importance of art, the visible and the invisible, our simultaneous and often irreconcilable cravings for community and solitude. On the last of which, this, which enshrines the depth and allure of the inner life so beautifully and suggests, as a kind of converse, our unavoidable obscurity to one another. Mrs. Ramsay, who’s been ministering to her husband and children and guests for 85 pages, finally gets a moment to herself.

“No, she thought, putting together some of the pictures he had cut out—a refrigerator, a mowing machine, a gentleman in evening dress—children never forget. For this reason, it was so important what one said, and what one did, and it was a relief when they went to bed. For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of—to think; well, not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others. Although she continued to knit, and sat upright, it was thus that she felt herself; and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures. When life sank down for a moment, the range of experience seemed limitless. And to everybody there was always this sense of unlimited resources, she supposed; one after another, she, Lily, Augustus Carmichael, must feel, our apparitions, the things you know us by, are simply childish. Beneath it is all dark, it is all spreading, it is unfathomably deep; but now and again we rise to the surface and that is what you see us by.”

Who did you send this book to, why?

I sent a copy of To the Lighthouse to Kit Haggard, a student at Sarah Lawrence who attended the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio in 2008. She just returned from a junior year in England. When I messaged her to ask whether she’d read the novel, she replied right away that she hadn’t, though she had read Mrs. Dalloway. She also told me she’d just sat down on a bus to Massachusetts next to a guy who was carrying a copy of To the Lighthouse. This made me think of a passage I discovered recently in Woolf’s Moments of Being:

“From [writing the parts into a whole] I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”


Bio: Stephen Lovely is a fiction writer who lives in Iowa City, Iowa. His first novel, Irreplaceable, was published by Hyperion/Voice in 2009. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Director of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.

Niki Neems (Safety Book #34)

1. Could you tell us the name of a book that you love, and why?

 Tremble by C.D. Wright. The poems mimic the absurdity and humiliation found within moments of intimacy and illuminate the blurred shape of being a human in the world. I love the pace of this book. It is leisurely reminiscent and quietly erotic. Each of these short, lyric poems can stand alone, but when bundled together, they become a complex, winding narrative.

2. Where were you when you first read, saw or heard of this book?

I was at work, a retail job, when a friend of mine unexpectedly began to recite: “Everything good between men and women / has been written in mud and butter /and barbecue sauce. The walls and /the floors used to be gorgeous. / The socks off-white and a near match. / The quince with fire blight / but we get two pints of jelly…” I know now that this is the beginning of the poem “Everything Good Between Men and Women,” but at the time my reaction was more visceral. I didn’t think of myself as a poet then, hadn’t spent much time thinking about poetry, but after locking up that night, I went immediately around the corner to the bookstore and paged through each and every one of C.D. Wright’s books until I found those memorable first lines. I bought a copy of Tremble because I had to read the end of that poem.

3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?

This messy, vulnerable book made me want more poetry. I still appreciate the way the poems become at times too tender and nostalgic, too finite, keeping me aware that being human means always being in the middle, uncertain, unfinished. These poems say without saying that all endings are pretend, staged for the participants, because in reality, if we are brave, we know that endings are non-existent.

4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…

Just typing them again makes me happy. “Everything good between men and women / has been written in mud and butter /and barbecue sauce. The walls and /the floors used to be gorgeous. / The socks off-white and a near match. / The quince with fire blight / but we get two pints of jelly…”

5. Who did you send this book to, why?

This book is out of print and hard to get a hold of, but I’ve loaned my copy to so many people who say they don’t read poetry I can’t remember them all. I like that my book has been in so many people’s hands. It’s worn and the binding is broken. It opens naturally to the lines above.


Bio: Niki Neems received an MFA in poetry from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa, where she owns a neighborhood stationery shop.