Posted by: zhiv | December 25, 2009

Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z, by Debra Weinstein

This is a good book, which perhaps deserves to be better known. It was given to me, and simply described, as “The Devil Wears Prada set in the world of poetry,” which is certainly true enough. So one of the ways into it is looking at the story and characters as a possible film, but that’s not fair to the quality of the book on its own as fiction and the experience of reading it, which is a joy.

So the setting is the rather nebulous world of poetry and, somewhat tangentially, academia. Thus it’s a light heavyweight book, or a heavy lightweight book, however you choose to look at it. The words are carefully chosen and it contains a celebration of poetry and how it works and the creative process, and author Weinstein is herself a poet. Her poetic spirit and talent and training, and her development and habits of mind run in a steady accessible stream throughout the book. But there is also a fine cynical edge and a satirical examination of the world of poetry and celebrity poets. The absurdity of a heightened and luxurious lifestyle for a famous poet is well-done here, and it’s fun to see the exploitation of young talent and ridiculous assumptions about one person’s needs and exceptionalism within this particular context. It makes you (or me at least) realize that, whatever Prada’s merits are as a novel, the world of fashion is a great, visual setting for a big commercial movie, all very appropriate, but applying the same model to poetic fame is perhaps even funnier, on the page at least. Apprentice has an equally compelling mentor/coming of age-professionalization story and relationship at its core, but instead of looking at outfits as a means of understanding fashion and design and creativity and taste, we’re reading poems. And Apprentice is a good book that isn’t overly serious about its central concerns. It seems to be going out of its way, almost, not to be a great book, to be fun and readable and less-than-serious, while its obviously talented author reserves her seriousness for poetry itself. This is all well and good, and I just wish I cared more about contemporary poetry and felt inclined to put more effort into it, but I don’t; it’s just not my thing. This book was a nice window into that world, however, while at the same time it obviously expresses and contains a lot of the ambivalence towards poetry that I feel myself, only more so. It’s a funny equation.

It’s hard to say if the author is a novelist or if she wants to be one. She’s more than good enough here, and this is a book that’s funny and smart and will worth reading by its intended audience. It’s a well told simple story, and a fine first novel, and it’s doubtless a nice ironic companion to the author’s first collection of poems. But one doesn’t know what she might do next, and where her writer/poet affections might lie. It has caused me, writing it up, to reflect on A.S. Byatt’s Possession, and other novels that contain poetry and poets within them, some of them quite substantial. Possession is a masterwork of sorts, propelled by extreme storytelling and narrative and also historical energy, with its poetry thrown in almost as a bonus, although it should probably count for more than that. And I have a sense that there must be a number of novels that contain poetry to a significant degree, though I can’t think of any others at the moment–my guess is that there have been books that are roughly similar to Apprentice, which has its own basic postmodern architecture, and I just don’t know them. But this one is very current, and says perhaps as much as one can about the world of contemporary poetry set against our own strange values and lifestyles, and it’s very funny in doing so. I don’t know if Weinstein is going to write more books, more ambitious or otherwise, or if she’ll stick to poetry and perhaps teaching. But she’s done well here, and it will be interesting to see her progress.

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Responses

  1. I just began reading Nicholson Baker’s novel The Anthologist, which is about a poet trying to write an introduction to a poetry anthology. It has snippets of poetry and lots of thoughts about poetry in general, and so far it’s really good — perhaps another book to add to the category you’ve got going here? The Weinstein book sounds like something I would enjoy.


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