Sunday, February 26, 2012


The Greatest Show makes its debut this coming week at a conference in Chicago. AWP will draw at least 9,300 writers, teachers of writing, and students of writing to hear writers speak on panels, to hear them read, and to buy their books at the book fair. It's astonishing to think that

1) There are that many writers and aspiring writers in these United States

2) That in reality there are way more than 9,300, because plenty aren't coming

3) That 9,300 of us are willing to travel to Chicago to hang out with fellow scribes. In winter. We kinda like each other, I guess.

Anyhoo, if you are among the multitudes, I'll sign copies of The Greatest Show at 3 p.m. on Friday, March 2, at LSU Press's table. Also on the LSU's docket: the amazing Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Claudia Emerson signs her newest volume, Secure the Shadow, and poet Alice Friman will sign her book, Vinculum.

Geaux LSU!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Cover that Drifted Away

Flying Alinga Flaming Ring, 2009,
smoke on paper, 60x40 inches

Two summers ago, I met an artist who paints circus scenes with smoke. Beautiful, haunting, dream-like. Rob Tarbell and I were both in residence at The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, a farm in the mountains near Lynchburg where folks provided us and two dozen other artists with three squares a day, a comfortable dorm room, and a studio in a barn. “Knock yourselves out,” they told us. “Make art.”

Rob made his while protected by a hazmat suit. Like some bio-terrorism researcher, he’d step inside a tent-like contraption of shiny plastic and ductwork, and he’d affix a canvas overhead. In his hand was a stick, and clipped to the end of the stick was a photo negative or a credit card or some other material full of toxic chemicals. When he touched flame to the fuel, acrid, potent, deadly smoke rose to stain the canvas. A whiff was all it took. Any more and the canvas would start to look like the inside of a chimney.

When I first saw Rob’s art, The Greatest Show didn’t yet have a publisher. But already I envisioned his work on the cover. I asked, he said yes.

He calls the series of circus paintings, “Smoke Rings.” I love how he compares what he does with smoke to what animal trainers do with animals. Both take advantage of the natural tendencies of their subjects to have them do something unnatural. A horse will rear up on its back legs; but only a trainer can teach it to stay up there, balance, and then walk. Rob lets the smoke rise and stain, but he directs it to make pictures, something it wouldn’t ever do without him.

So, yeah. I was smitten. I still am.

But a cover isn’t art alone. It’s also marketing. Months after I met Rob, I read a New York Times piece about book-cover designs that publishers had rejected. Among the reasons, the Times informed me, were that some covers were too light. “White covers,” the story read, “don’t look good on Amazon.”

And I recalled those white backgrounds behind the smoky zebras.

Nevertheless, when my editor at LSU asked whether I had ideas for a cover I forwarded Rob’s work. “They are pretty cool illustrations,” I heard back, “and rather timeless and dreamy-looking—but not very colorful.”

So instead, LSU’s design editor created the beautiful, striking, haunting cover, which is art and also visible on Amazon, and more wondrous than I could have dreamed.

Still, I want people to see Rob’s smoke paintings and their ambiguous, otherworldly tension between childhood fantasies and danger, images that sear my Greatest Show self.

Alinga Trio with Anna Karma Fala, 2009, smoke on paper, 30x44 inches

"Later his dog met her cat, and it was a day before the cat would come out from under the house."

Ha ha. I like this story.