Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added)
is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.
--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Strange Horizons

A reprint of "Tall Jorinda" is up at this week's Strange Horizons. There's a link to a comments page sandwiched between a bio note and a credit to Capitol Magazine. I've always been grateful to Capitol for the bolus of money that came with their New Writers Award. I was a week or so away from having my first baby, and the money came at the right time. And the reading and reception at the Shaker Museum made me feel that I wasn't entirely alone, writing in the crook of the hallway.

One thing I find curious is that editors in the genre realm appear to be far more interested in doing actual editing than editors of literary magazines. Jed Hartman gave me heaps of "tweaking" comments that helped me look at an old story anew; Ellen Datlow gave me lots of comments on a SCIFICTION story. Despite the fact that I've published many stories and poems in literary magazines, I haven't encountered that attitude much elsewhere. Writer/editor Melissa Pritchard gave me some for "A Child in Summer" when it came out in StoryQuarterly. Jill Lamar gave me very useful and interesting comments for "The Angel with the Broken Face," out in the current issue of Mars Hill Review. Beyond those, I don't remember much focus on genuine editing.

On the issue of being alone in that dark corner of the hallway: I haven't been alone since that time. Why do children always cram into the room where you're working? Sometimes all five of us are shoehorned into a little box; we could've bought a wee hovel instead of a rambling federal house. Right now a fifty-pound boy is sitting on my lap, leaning in toward the screen and sticking his elbows on the keyboard!

I peeked at the comments and see that, though most are devoted to the unusual fact of a reprint, there's a splendiferous one from poet Jeffery Beam. And I just found his website: http://www.unc.edu/~jeffbeam/. He's a wonderful poet, a real lover of word-music and beauty. And Corey Mesler left a nice note, and it reminds me that he has a brand new book out from Livingston Press, We Are Billion-Year-Old Carbon. Well, maybe not yet. I just looked and pub date seems to be February...

The illustration above is another proposal for the Firebird paperback cover of The Curse of the Raven Mocker. Renato Alarcao has drawn Adanta holding a wren in her hands, with a raven mocker bursting into feathers behind her.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Southern humor at full spate--

Illustration: a preliminary sketch for The Curse of the Raven Mocker showing Adanta and Tass racing across the mountains, a raven (mocker) overhead. Copyright Renato Alarcao.

* * *

Roy Herron (state senator and floor leader from Tennessee) has sent me a copy of his book, Tennessee Political Humor--subtitled "some of these jokes you voted for"--co-authored by L. H. "Cotton" Ivy. It is wonderfully funny to read aloud, almost as funny as listening to Roy himself.

The book is spilling over with colorful characters. Here's a figure of interest: "E. H. Crump was a legendary leader with few scruples about elections, but he had considerable creativity in crucifying a candidate he opposed."

I'll say.

Here's Boss Crump's venom in action--and I'm willing to bet that it has more verve and gusto and swing than most free verse poems of 2005 A. D.:

I have said before, and I repeat it now,
that in the art galleries of Paris there are 27 pictures
of Judas Iscariot.
None look alike but all resemble Gordon Browning;
that neither his head, heart nor hand can be trusted;
that he would milk his neighbor's cow through a crack in the fence;
that of 206 bones in his body there isn't one that is genuine;
that his heart has beaten over two billion times
without a single sincere beat.

Now there's some strong down-home rhetorical artfulness and flourish. Give me some of that rollicking Southern style, along with a plate of greens and rutabaga scratchbacks, willya?

Sunday, November 27, 2005

More Renato Alarcao

And here is another of Renato Alarcao's preliminary sketches for the paperback edition of The Curse of the Raven Mocker (FSG), forthcoming from Firebird (Penguin).

Friday, November 25, 2005

Groundhog Thanksgiving

* * *

1. RAVEN MOCKER REDUX

The pot boy had to go to the kitchen to do a mountain range of Thanksgiving dishes. He’ll be back, some day . . . And that's not the pot boy at left.

That's Magpie Joe, a flighty character from The Curse of the Raven Mocker, and the picture is one of a number of proposed sketches for the Firebird (Penguin) paperback. It won't show up in the book, but Renato Alarcao gave me permission to post the unused pictures on my web site (more to come on this and the Mocker page).

Renato is an illustrator of abundance and gusto and beauty, and his work is starting to appear in this country. (He lives in Rio with his wife and brand new baby and without his famous flying cat, who has moved to farther parts.) Robbie Mayes deserves credit for getting Renato to do the jacket and frontispiece for Ingledove, and I'm glad that Sharyn November is recruiting a second piece by Renato to "match" that book rather than starting over with a new artist.

Steve Cieslawski did the original cover for The Curse of the Raven Mocker (FSG, 2003), but he no longer does illustration. Instead, he's a full-time painter in oils--and he has a show on at CFM Gallery in New York. All three of his solo shows can be seen on the CFM site, and they're well worth a visit.

* * *

2. WHISTLEPIGS

On Thanksgiving, one fattens on stories and funny anecdotes as well as food. I give this one in honor of the Day, because it has the appropriate fat bellies, and because I laughed over its utter silliness while trying to decide between the mincemeat, pumpkin, and pineapple-cream-cheese pies—or would it be gingerbread with whipped cream?

A nurse from the city took a job at Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital in Cooperstown. Being thoroughly steeped in NYC and its ways, she sometimes was bemused about the goings-on of the Yankee ruralite in the hinterlands of Otsego County.

One day at Bassett, she described a poignant sight: a big old daddy groundhog, a mama groundhog, and a wee gang of smaller but still substantial groundhogs draped over the top strand of a barbed wire fence. Their poor little woodchuck feet dangled down pitiably, and their fat pot bellies sagged against the wire.

“It’s so sad,” she said; “they were jumping the fence and didn’t make it.”

* * *

3. GROUNDHOGS IN FAMILY HISTORY


My father ate woodchucks in Depression-era south Georgia. When he could get one, that is: his family scoured the fields and sky and swamp for edibles on leg or wing until there wasn't much moving on more than two legs. He said woodchucks weren't too bad, though fatty.

* * *

4. CHUCKABLES

That's woodchuck to you, Marmota monax, also called groundhog or whistle-pig: squat waddlers, squirrel-cousins, burrowing den-builders. The whistle-pig has its own tongue-twister, and the amount of wood a woodchuck could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood has been precisely tabulated: "Average amount of wood a woodchuck would chuck in a given day [is] 589 butt cords of wood."

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Monkey Gull & the Palace Pot Boy

This is the pot boy.

First, I have one thing to say: I am not illiterate. That is a scurrilous—catch the lingo, eh?—rumor begun by my enemies in the kitchen, namely the Lower Pot Scrubber and the Middle-management drone, the Disposer of Leftovers.

M. is still hanging out in the garden, waiting for her birthday to end. She has been annoyed all week, and she’s evidently still annoyed now that the great day has arrived. Age without wisdom is a drag, she has been heard to say, cold cabbage leaves draped over her head and raindrops splashing her nose.

If she waits for wisdom to arrive, she’s going to be huddled in a snow bank before long.

What I say is, at least she's not the Jackass of the Week.

Anyway, it’s my turn.

I paid a visit to the monkey—cuddly little beast—on Vanderworld and decided to write about a family gull: a monkey gull. There’s a lot of gulling going on around here. After all, this is a family where the eldest son tried to make his adorable fellow pre-schoolers walk the plank during an impromptu performance of Peter Pan, set on the tiptop level of the multi-story wooden play tower. He made a fierce little Hook. That led to a parent-teacher conference on the subject of little people who cannot tell the difference between reality and fantasy. Rather a laugh—with M. involved.

But the favorite gull is always the gull of the un-gullible. (Not literate. Pooh! Everybody knows that the Pot Boy is always Royalty in disguise.)

This one involves M. and her husband, turning left somewhere on the Outer Banks.

Husband: “Something’s been hit… It looks like—it looks like a green monkey!”

M: “Oh, they’re an awful nuisance. Been that way for years around here. You wouldn't believe the trouble they cause--”

H (astonished, but admittedly Not From These Parts): Monkeys?

M: Green monkeys. You know how the beach in North Carolina and Maryland just gets overrun with those little Spanish ponies? And so they have pony round-ups and auctions?

H admits the truth of what she says.

M: It’s the same thing with the green monkeys. It’s like the parakeets in Louisiana—people go outside to clean the cage and pretty soon there are flocks of parakeets everywhere. My mother all on her own was responsible for a small flock. And she’s a birder.

And pretty soon M. has the H. believing that packs of wild green monkeys roam the beaches, wreaking havoc on the local ecosystem, causing Committees and headaches for hapless park rangers, plucking the mating plumage from egrets (squee-awk!), tormenting and sometimes riding the wild ponies…

Relentless, the gull goes on for years.

--the Pot Boy, who told one lie in the post above

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Minor exodus of tattered un-royalty

Marly has retired to the small blue tent with the red tassel behind the compost heap in the garden. The kitchen pot boy will be answering comments in the near future, so please leave the poor blighter a note. Reputed to be only somewhat literate but anxious to get away from the dishes.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Test of a good "Keillor-pick" Poem

Mr. Garrison Keillor, raconteur and novelist and radio man, is the door to poetry (or a particular subset of the form) for a good many people who don't read the stuff on the page but listen to NPR over breakfast or at work; I happen to be part of that minority of people who listen and read.

How do we evaluate those poems? If you are an ordinary listener with no particular background in poetry, how do you decide whether you like one of them?

The Garrison Keillor Living Memorial Poetry Test

Here's one possible direction:

Consider it without the line breaks. Does it still strike you as a poem?

Here's a poem presented on The Writer's Almanac this morning, minus the line breaks that made it appear to be--though it was not--blank verse. Why did I take out the line breaks? To see if it still was or resembled a poem without the "signals" given by breaks--to see whether it still managed to survive as poem when deprived of its "units" of verse.


To see it with breaks, go to: Archive
TUESDAY, 15 NOVEMBER, 2005
Listen (RealAudio)

Putting in a Window

Carpentry has a rhythm that should neverbe violated. You need to move slowly, methodically, never trying to finish early, never even hoping that you'd be done sooner. It's best if you work without thought of the end. If hurried, you end up with crooked door joints and drafty rooms. Do not work after you are annoyed just so the job will be done more quickly. Stop when you begin to curse at the wood. Putting in a window should be a joy. You should love the new header and the sound of your electric screwdriver as it secures the new beams. The only good carpenter is the one who knows that he's not good. He's afraid that he'll ruin the whole house, and he works slowly. It's the same as cooking or driving. The good cook knows humility, and his soufflé never falls because he is terrified that it will fall the whole time he's cooking. The good driver knows that he might plow into a mother walking her three-year old, and so watches for them carefully. The good carpenter knows that his beams might be weak, and a misstep might ruin the place he loves. In the end, you find your own pace, and you loose time. When you started, the sun was high and now that you're finished, it's dark. Tomorrow, you might put in a door. The next day, you'll start on your new deck.

Some further areas for thought:

Are any formal demands or any plain old demands in evidence?

Frolic, rapture, transcendence, light, energy, incandescence: any of these apply to the poem or to the reader in the act of reading the poem?

Are the words or their arrangement more than what one meets in mundane chat, or is it too comfy?

Is it approaching the condition of music, or is it actually prose?

Is it interesting? Does it provide pleasure?

Is it on the wing, or is it burdened down by the weight of message?

Has it been on the hunt for the right word, the telling phrase--for the magic and mystery of what Wallace Stevens called the finding of "rightnesses"? Even if it deliberately evades subject or is a nonsense poem, this question can still be asked. But most Keillor-picked poems are not evaders of meaning, it should be noted.

Can the poem stand, kneel, or even curl up on a pile of leaves next to an early Yeats lyric like "The Song of Wandering Aengus"? On several occasions Mr. Keillor has read that lyric alongside a contemporary poem, and I have noticed that the act is a rather severe test for the accompanying poem.

Do you want to read it again?

Read it again! Look away. What phrase from it do you recall?

Read it out loud. Again. Once more.

* * *

I have written, I have thrown away, I have made the mistake of publishing, and I have read a good many poems that couldn't pass this test...

But I think we need to start trying to remember how we tell good poems from great, bad from good, mediocre from good. It seems that we have lost the knack for telling, and we need to retrieve what's been lost.

Consider the poem and take the test. Critique the test. Add a question.


Update: I've gotten a number of interesting private letters about this one, and I've qualified the post by limiting the test to Keillor's picks...

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Books by a non-academic light

Often what's interesting about a newspaper article is how differently we think about things . . . I often read Peder Zane because he's thoughtful and his columns feature writers I know or have seen around the Triangle area of North Carolina. I've been away from UNC and colleges long enough to find that I don't consider things at all by the lights of an academic or a writer ensconced in the academy.

Peder Zane tells an anecdote meant to illustrate how students at our major universities seem to know nothing and be curious about nothing:

"Over dinner a few weeks ago, the novelist Lawrence Naumoff told a troubling story. He asked students in his introduction to creative writing course at UNC-Chapel Hill if they had read Jack Kerouac. Nobody raised a hand. Then he asked if anyone had ever heard of Jack Kerouac. More blank expressions.

"Naumoff began describing the legend of the literary wild man. One student offered that he had a teacher who was just as crazy. Naumoff asked the professor's name. The student said he didn't know. Naumoff then asked this oblivious scholar, 'Do you know my name?'

After a long pause, the young man replied, 'No.'"

"'I guess I've always known that many students are just taking my course to get a requirement out of the way,' Naumoff said. 'But it was disheartening to see that some couldn't even go to the trouble of finding out the name of the person teaching the course.'"

I deliberately left academia 18 years ago. Probably it was a poor decision in some ways--financially and in terms of the support system and built-in audience that colleges provide for writers.

As somebody who is no longer close to the academy and who does not live in a college town and just spins her own thoughts, I notice two things that the professors and writers and journalists at Peder Zane's dinner party did not. They appeared to stress the lack of curiosity in their students--about that, I can't say, since I've been away from the Tower for a long time, though I'm rearing three intensely curious children and thus doing my bit for college-bound curiosity. (As for a boy not knowing a teacher's name, where's the surprise? If it had been a girl, I might be worried.)

Here are my questions:

One: Should students be reading Kerouac at all? Has he lasted well, or is he a moribund old stoned-out fossil, as dated as Troll Doll rings? That's a serious question, one that I can't answer because I haven't felt the urge to pick up a book by Kerouac in some decades.

Two: Let's pretend it was Dickens and not Kerouac, because then the failure to read an important writer would be absolutely clear. If high school and college kids aren't reading 'Dickens,' why aren't they?

Well, that's clear, clear, clear to anybody who is not seated at a dinner party with professors.

When certain professors started lauding minor writers for reasons having nothing to do with books (say, because they were of a certain sex dear to The Department of Feminist Theory or of a certain race dear to The Department of Fill-in-the-Blank-American Studies or some other interesting reason irrelevant to the merit of a book), they tore away the bottom shelf of what used to be called "the canon" (and that was a more changeable entity than is commonly recognized in shrill argument) and let a lot of really good books tumble out.

What's the end result of such carelessness? If it doesn't matter who you read, why read 'Dickens'? To take the idea to its logical extreme, if it doesn't matter that some books are better than others, why read them at all?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Tara Powell's Southern poets feature

When one (this one) is too lazy to send out poems in little envelopes, it is very nice to be asked for poems. And as one (this one) gets older, one gets asked more and more, despite one's (this one's) laziness. Poet Tara Powell is working on a Southern poets feature for storySouth's winter issue, and four of my poems will be included. She also did an interview about me and poetry and the matter of being Southern, although I don't know how much of it will be used.

In Extremis is a poem that comes out of the bad time when we feared that our eldest son might die from meningitis, back when he was 8. It centers on a mystical event, painful and ecstatic.

Southern to the Bone shows the punch given to my imagination by a book on "the powers." These happen to be "fallen" ones.

The Exile's Track stems from the move North, at a time when I was needed in the Carolinas. It's a poem of grief and love and cold and the aurora borealis.

The Black Flower mingles musings on Iris Chang's death with images of the black irises that grow in the cottage garden in front of my 1808 Yankee house--though the earth contains considerable amounts of Carolina red clay, along with cardinal flowers and other native plants dug from my mother's mountain-top garden. The title is from a line in Hawthorne, as I suppose any good book nut knows, but was also used by my penpal, Howard Bahr (and that friendship shows you that blurbs are good for something, because I first wrote him after he gave a blurb to my novel, The Wolf Pit.)

These are all poems that make use of traditional forms--well, one is nonce--though not particularly complicated ones in these instances. I rarely write in free verse any more, because it just doesn't interest me except when I have written a good many poems in tight forms. Then I might like to leap out and break the bonds. But I always go back to form, because it takes me places that I didn't expect and gives me joy. The caged bird sings...

Other poems of mine are on line at McSweeney's Internet Tendency and Hypertexts (under "Contemporary Poets") and Books & Culture.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

The beggar queen talks to the castle laureate about writing and "expanding the form"

B. Q.: So you think that there’s no progress in art? Is that right?

T. L.: Well, I don’t know. It just seems dreary, all this talk about expanding the form, as thought we were talking about a lady’s girdle—those big elasticized things that women used to wear in the 50’s or 60’s, before they burned their bras and, I would imagine, the girdles. Perhaps the girdles went first.

B. Q: Dreary?

T. L.: Boring, I suppose I mean. Expanding the form, expanding the form… What business is that of a writer’s? Just hush. Just do what you do, just dream it into being and let whatever can drift in unexpectedly drift in; then tidy it up and see what you have. Keep it or toss it back. The form will be there; how could it not be? And then let the academicians can come and determine in what precise way it has been expanded, or not expanded.

B. Q.: Hmm.

T. L.: Perhaps all this conscious nattering on about the need for expanding the form is, in the end, a curious kind of rigidity of message, and I dislike messages in stories and poems. Everybody does, you know, or almost everybody. A message belongs in a bottle. Cooped-up.

B. Q.: Riding on the sea, maybe?

T. L.: The sea—that’s a better thought for stories. Because it’s alive, vigorous, surprising… One could meet a giant squid or a tiny blue octopus...

B. Q.: A mermaid--

T. L.: With a cuttlefish.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Writing & the wish to be a wandering Aengus

A long time ago, I put my hand on Yeats’ tombstone. I was young; tears whipped by the wind off Ben Bulben stung my eyes, and the stone was chilly against my palm and fingers.

The marble stone over Yeats’ body reads like this:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death:
Horseman, pass by!

I’m in the mood for those strong, bold urgings. It’s good to be a beggar queen; it’s good to know pride and high passion and freedom—to fasten one’s heart to the highest goals.

All quests have a cost; likewise, the foregoing of quests.

In the final struggle for breath, I don’t think that I’ll care much about Bookscan. I’d rather be an Aengus who has sought after and been faithful to the glimmering goal of the beautiful. I would rather be one who has climbed the world-tree, chasing after the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Very Divine Comedy, D. C. style

Hell & Heaven & your tax dollars at work


Inferno & Purgatorio in the Halls of Power


· Favorite line heard in a senator’s office: “I don’t really know because I’ve never had that dialogue-discussion. If the Senator were in here, he would be more than happy to answer that question.”

· Favorite waffling: “That’s not one of my issues per se.”

· Favorite earnest cliché: “He puts his best foot forward, he really does.”

· Favorite utterly confused and redundant line with a failed wind-up toy (or music box) metaphor: “There are so many different myriads that you have to wind down and listen to.”

· Favorite evasion: “I don’t recall personally . . . since I’ve been serving in this capacity."

· Favorite unintentionally funny remark: “It gets very challenging out there . . . so I moved back here.”

· Favorite irreverent notes in the margin: “I hope you’re getting all this down.” “Let’s play hangman!” “We could be at the National Gallery!” “Okay, I’ve sucked this thing DRY for its “fictional interest”—let’s g-o.” “What animal would you most like to be?” “Roadrunner. Run far, very far, very fast.”



Paradiso


At last we take the blessed Beatrice by the hand and enter the realm of wisdom and beauty.

· Favorite meaningful phrase from a Senator: “the Talmudic notion to perfect the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty.” In fact, our 30 minutes with him were composed entirely of meaningful phrases. And that was consoling and enlivening and restorative.

· Two things of gravity and grace in the Hart Office Building:

Calder’s Mountain & Clouds. I’m afraid that I immediately thought of the wing of a stealth bomber when I saw the clouds, and the whole piece is black and threatening and fierce from below—and very playful from above. Mako Fujimura talked about how hard it was to make the Hart Building’s huge interior space “come alive aesthetically” and how few sculptors were capable of “this kind of gravitas” in order to do so. (The next day I ran into Calder’s “Six Dots Over a Mountain” at the Hirshhorn—I’d forgotten that one, gay and playful.);

Senator Lieberman (D-Connecticut).

· Most surprising person, who turned out to be very different from what I had expected: journalist Joseph Laconte, a man of contradictions and sparkling humor.

· Favorite warm, funny, heart-breaking storyteller: Roy Herron, Tennessee Senator (D-Dresden.) He promised to talk candidly and as if to friends, trusting us with what he had to say. So I won’t repeat those private conversations. But I ached to move back home, listening, and I’m going to do a book swap with him.

· Favorite lunch: I’ll pick the National Museum of the American Indian over the Thai restaurant at Union Station. Wonderful twist on the idea of the “museum café,” with native foods from different parts of the Americas. And a great view of stones and stream and trees. While I wasn’t surprised that the museum was a bit p. c. (caught between its desire to condemn the 900 conquistadors, say, and the realization that 200,000 enthusiastic Indians rose with them against the Aztecs—also between its desire to stomp on the missionary impulse and the fact that Native Americans are heavily Christian) and here and there burdened with technology (ah, the ease of those little white cards of days gone by!), I was surprised by the way materials were displayed in great currents—floods of points, gold, or Bibles. I was taken with the stream and stones with its sink-hole drop, the “cliff-dwelling” wall, the enormous prisms, and the onward-flowing and anti-linear shapes of exhibits.

· Favorite dinner: at McCormick & Schmick’s

· Most “forgotten” painting: I was taken with Fragonard’s portrait of a young girl reading. I’ve seen it many times before, and I’ve seen it reproduced so many times that I thought it had become meaningless to me. But it has a vigor and fluidity that stopped me, and I saw all over again that it possessed the gusto and spirit of life that I cherish in a picture. It’s wonderful that the genuine picture can still triumph over the numbness caused by over-saturation and reproduction.

· Favorite sight: Flying below a grand armada of clouds and seeing the beams of light reaching to earth—and at the top near the clouds, they were Elizabeth Bishop’s “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!” And that’s a fish I had to let go…

· Other favorite moments: the autumn light catching the flags; the plane climbing over the Mall; the conversations with friends from Yale Divinity and others strewn across the country.


***

Here's a glimpse of one angle of Calder's "Mountain and Clouds," although it clips off most of the cloud mobile.