The University of Iowa

At the Reading: Caryl Pagel and Madeline McDonnell

By Denise Jarrott

Listen: Caryl Pagel and Madeline McDonnell reading | Apr. 16, 2013

Last summer, I reviewed Caryl Pagel's first book of poems Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death. I stand by the fact that it is one of the best books of poetry that I've seen in recent years, and because of that I suppose it seemed fair that I was a bit nervous to see her read live. Pagel was introduced by fellow Rescue Press editor, Danny Khalatschi, as "editress" of jubilat and Rescue Press, but perhaps most importantly, Khalatschi framed her work as being "what we swallow in our nightmare when we wake tastes us". In my little review, I could not have said it better than that one sentence.

Pagel mentioned that most of the poems in the collection were written in Iowa City. I listened for references and found many that I missed on a first reading. The black angel at Oakland Cemetery, the flood of 2008, and many others. I think that I share the same sentiment, that "It's not such a sorry fate to be the last stranger in this town." Pagel has a command over the power of pause and pacing, and her new poems seem reflect this as well. Her new work seems concerned with how language loses control of itself as well as how it catches up with itself.

Madeline McDonnell, a fiction writer whose book of stories There Is Something Inside, It Wants to Get Out  and her new novella Penny, n were both published by Rescue Press this year. I'd seen McDonnell read before at a Rescue Press event the first summer I worked at Prairie Lights, and her humor as well as her engagement with language seemed even more fine-tuned. She read from the beautifully designed Penny, n. I tried to pin down that rare and sparkling thing about McDonnell's writing that seemed to set itself apart from most of today's fiction, and my theory is that I can imagine her hanging out with her characters, sharing jokes, developing relationships. McDonnell presents her work like a passionate comedienne, and her love of how words can form jokes with themselves lends itself to the theatrical. Watching Madeline McDonnell read is like watching a stand-up comic who converses with an audience of her own making.

What I found most interesting, though, is that the reading seemed to center around friendships. Pagel, McDonnell, and Khalatschi had an interesting camaraderie, and though their work is variant from each other, their relationships prove that writing is not an entirely solitary act. We can influence one another and allow other people inside of our inner lives. McDonnell's novella, Penny, n was designed by two students in the undergraduate writing program at Iowa, extending the influence of literary friendships.