Thursday, January 29, 2009

Poetry Friday: Tales From Outer Suburbia

Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan is one of those books you wander through and marvel at the sights along the way.  What IS it? one is tempted to say. Nominally, it's a collection of short stories and poems, but it reminds me more than anything else of the cantina scene in the original Star Wars. Perfectly weird in every way.  Characters with depth of story behind them and a sense of humor around them. And you can't take it all in on the first viewing.

My favorite discovery was his story/poem, "Distant Rain," which he says was done in "pencil, acrylic, oil & paper collage, using other people’s handwriting." In it, abandoned words gather, form a semi-cognizant mass, and then rain from the sky, transforming the world below. If that's not a description of the poetry-making process, I don't know what is.

The poem begins like this:

Have you ever wondered
what happens to all the poems
people write?

the poems they never
let anyone else read?

and continues later with...

naturally many poems 
are immediately destroyed
flushed away
occasionally they are folded
into little squares
and wedged under the corner of
an unstable piece of furniture

The poem then rolls on over six pages (two of them wordless) before concluding with:

No one will be able to explain the
strange feeling of weightlessness
or the private smile 
that remains
after the street sweepers 
have come and gone. 

But what I'm leaving out (and you'll have to see the book to appreciate) is how these words are placed on the page. The poem itself is a collage of word scraps, which makes the whole thing read like you're piecing it together in the aftermath of a paper storm.

Here's the last page of the poem.

Spread from Tales From Outer Suburbia © 2008 by Shaun Tan. Published by Arthur A. Levine Books. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

Shaun Tan also says on his site:
"This idea began when I was thinking about Jewish stories of the Golem, an artificial being made of clay that could be animated by spoken or written words (‘golem’ in Hebrew means ‘shapeless mass’, also ‘unformed’ or ‘imperfect’). This lead to the idea of a being made out of words – particularly those written on scraps of paper, thrown away or lost. Eventually the story evolved into something a little like the narrative of a wildlife-documentary, and the ‘paper being’ simply became a large ball with some kind of vague consciousness."
 (More thoughts from him are here. Click on the book and then the comments link.)


  1. I just picked this up a few days ago and am looking forward to diving in soon. I have deliberately kept myself from reading anything about this book and now you've got me all excited!

  2. Oh wow. Simply. Must. Get. This. Thanks for the teaser!

  3. What a fascinating book! I will look for it. My favorite is the poems that get folded up small and wedged into furniture.

  4. Oh, is this DELICIOUS looking, or what???

  5. I've gotta see this book. I read about it the other day, and this morning---as I'm visiting blogs---I've got my library's OPAC open in another window for requesting books. I just snagged that one, though it's on order, at Nashville Public. Anyway, thanks for a glimpse inside! I'm eager to see it.

  6. P.S. Cloudscome, I like that part, too!

  7. Oh my...must call Hicklebees and see if they have this now. Thanks for sharing it.

  8. Thank you for posting this. Must have it, and soon!

  9. Wait a minute! I had an ARC of this book...I distinctly remember holding it in my hand! Where did it go??? Must dig through various piles of books Right Now and find it!

  10. Thanks for this post, Sara. This book sounds interesting. I'll have to order a copy.


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