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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

WikiTikiTavi Templeton!

Surely it is a mark of sheer eggheadedness to post an entry on Wikipedia. However, I have done so and now added Templeton to Wikipedia's list of Invisible Cities. Fictional cities, I think Professor Wiki calls that entry. And I must say that the local Rabid Cohort of Fenimore Cooperites (the RC/FC) has proved rather slow off the mark not to beat me to it. (Halloo, Hugh--why's the RC/FC lagging in Wiki-land?) I'm used to our local historians and critics leaving the rest of us--Southerners-in-exile like me, the yearning social climbers on the rungs below Clark-Busch-Hager Land (makes one feel Jane Austenish--those great-grandfathers made their fortune in beer! in sewing machines! in trade!), the Bassett workers, the baseball shop owners, etc.--in a fog of dust.

By the by, if you have an interest in Cooper's dreams about the wilderness, the best place to start is Mr. MacDougall's The James Fenimore Cooper Society. It also has a section in praise of Fenimore Cooper's daughter, Susan Fenimore Cooper, author of the marvelous Rural Hours.

And here is the Wiki post:

Templeton - A little Yankee village on the shore of the imaginary Glimmerglass, both invented by James Fenimore Cooper in The Leatherstocking Tales; the name of the lake having infiltrated the so-called non-fictional realm with great success, the name of the village appearing there infrequently.

I did not, however, mention that I have pilfered the imaginary town for my own twisted purposes in many short stories . . . Some things need to remain secret. Now you know.

* * * * *

P. S. to the RC/FC: Note that the link to the Tales is Not Found. How can that be? Shall it stand?

Saturday, December 24, 2005

In the magical Christmas-tree forest. Rose's cookies. Light. Pax tecum.

As a small child, I did not own many books, but several of the ones that I possessed have continued to possess me. About the time I moved from Gramercy to Baton Rouge, before first grade, I was given the Alice books. They were hardcovers in a slipcase with the Tenniel illustrations, and I still have a strong love for Carroll. I don't know what happened to the books; perhaps they are still around, tucked in a box. Other Alices are on my shelf, but not those.

But I still have my childhood copy of another book I loved, The Snow Queen and Other Stories, an oversize Golden Book illustrated by Adrienne Segur, with an image from "The Nutcracker" on the cover. I believe that this was given to me at Christmas when I was in third grade. We had moved from gorgeous, rich, marvelous Louisiana to an alien place of flat, severe beauty, and all that I had lost seemed to find some kind of echo in these tales and pictures. Glimmers of them--particularly "Winter's Promised Bride," "The Nutcracker," and "The Snow Queen"--have lit odd corners of my stories and poems. And I'm sure that "Tall Jorinda" borrowed her name from "Jorinda and Joringel." The book is in my writing room, propped on top of a bookcase...

I'm not alone in having fantastical memories of a book that Segur illustrated--Terri Windling talks about writers and artists with a childhood passion for Adrienne Segur's pictures (, and there are many mentions of Segur at Endicott Studio. I spent hours with The Snow Queen, reading the stories and poring over the illustrations, wandering through the cruel snows and the magical Christmas-tree forest.

* * *

Friends and strangers who have written me a note or left a comment or simply come by and passed on to other pages--a joyful Christmas to you. As there is not one Day but Twelve, I'll be back during Christmas, but now I have many things to do. The castle of home has that lovely smell of warm spices, and the best cookie cookbook in the world, Rose Levy Beranbaum's Christmas Cookies, is seeing hard use. (These days you can write Rose at her web site, Real Baking with Rose.) This year My Man Who Bakes (and Cooks) is working his way through chocolate-pistachio marzipan spirals, coconut kisses, Rose's crescents, cashew chewy puffs, chocolate madeleines, mahogany toffee crunch, and buchettes de Noel. (Later will come gingerbread people and terriers and other animals, elaborately painted with royal icing by the whole crew.) Most of the cookies fly out the door on Christmas Eve, landing on our neighbor's tables in the heart of the village--in the oldest residence in Templeton, in the house that's hard by the hanging ground and made of bricks from Fenimore Cooper's Otsego hall, in the two townhouses (we have just two), in the stone house with the herringbone pattern, and in other colorful and sometimes ghost-ridden houses. I always like to peep in the haunted mirror across the street to try and catch a glimpse of the ghost.

The snow is crisp and hard over the graves of Fenimore Cooper and Susan Cooper, and in the dark afternoon we will be out in the cold, lighting luminaires on the walkway that swoops past their names. And that's just the start.

Christmas approaches, glimmering...

* * *

I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.
~Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Starfire Crown: Merry Christmas

I'm on the Poem for Monday mailing list at Burke's Book Store in Memphis. This week novelist, poet, and bookseller Corey Mesler sent out a real, sure-nuff Christmas poem. These days that seems a rather bold act, even in Tennessee, and I'm passing on this bit of loveliness.

* * *
Woodcut courtesy of, the site for Medieval and Renaissance recipes.

* * *

A Christmas Carol Poem

by G. K. Chesterton

The Christ-child lay on Mary's lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary's breast
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary's heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world's desire.)

The Christ-child stood on Mary's knee,
His hair was like a crown,
And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down.


Now isn't that simple and lovely and magical? It has a radiance and a sweetness that many a contemporary poet, immured in the School of the Politically Correct & the Lyceum of Snipped-up Prose, has never found. Innocence and world-weariness go arm in arm until the end, when what Elizabeth Bishop called "infant sight" conquers all in the final verse, when the flowers of light and the flowers of earth are drawn to turn their faces to the child.

And you can even sing the lines to your favorite carol or ballad tune. That old alternation of tetrameter and trimeter iambics is shapely still. The ballad stanza is easy on the ear, even when it doesn't use all its resources and sticks to one rhyme per quatrain, abcb.

If you'd like to be on Burke's list for a weekly poem, write Mr. C. Mesler via burkes [at] Corey's "mind-blowing hippie novel," We Are Billion-Year-Old Carbon, is now available ($14.95 paperback, $25 hardback). Want a signed or inscribed copy? Go to

A resounding Merry Christmas to you, with peace and joy and no materialist Happy Inoffensive Money-grubbing Holiday wishes at all.

Friday, December 16, 2005

The year of the blue tree, part 5

In which the blue forest invades a cottage in the Village of Templeton...

6:58 p.m. N is asleep, and R falls asleep immediately upon arrival. At home, we discover that the tree is about sixteen inches too tall for the 9' 6"ceiling. Mike measures the ceiling with a 9' 6" fishing pole. We knew the tree was too tall, but we didn't know how high the ceiling was. There! that's settled. We can't cut off the bottom, because it now appears that the spruce is actually three fused trees, and the base is meant to be hold them together. Briefly I remember the perfect ten-dollar tree of last year, a lovely thing that was immaculate in form and just tickled the ceiling. We heave and wrestle and turn this multiplying tree in our enormous cast-iron Victorian bucket stand. We chop the top--the many tops--and I stuff the leftovers into a big galvanized bucket. There, they look like a small tree, a civilized and easy tree. Our spruce looks utterly wild, untamed, a whole forest of trees crammed into an 1808 parlor. We discover three of last summer's nests. They belong neither to hummingbirds nor wrens but are generous habitations, streaming with the raveled grass from the hummocks. Tips of a possibly infinite number of trees swim on the ceiling, bent slightly.

It will look astonishing, I say.

Mike wants to cut more at the top so that we can use our Polish glass finial. It will be all stubs, if we start trimming, I point out. Maybe we should just hide the finial somewhere in the tree, somewhere surprising. It may be that everything about this tree is supposed to be surprising, beginning with the fact that it made it over hill, dale, hummock, etc.

Well! That is enough for one day.

I'm awfully glad that I have a no-never-work rule for Sunday, or I might have mistaken the day for hard labor instead of a mere dawdling afternoon of Christmas tree cutting. Everyone who is awake is ravenous, and the others will be likewise, when we wake them. After dinner, we can light candles in the living room and admire our personal forest. Who knows what might happen next, with this huge wild green place asserting itself in the room? Funny, now that it's in the lamplight the tree doesn't even look blue.


That was a day in Advent 2001: the fifteenth of December. Life has gone flooding on, over the dam of sticks and through the magical woods. N is no longer toddling about in a tall cap, and B and R are now teenagers, shedding strands of the cocoon of childhood, holding a dying man close, encountering their first major death--looking forward and looking back. Life and death skip hand and hand through the blue forest. I go on being a writer and a mother, living two lives, watching out for wolves in the undergrowth and falling stars above the canopy. Other nigh-perfect trees have come and gone, but a blue branch still stirs the imagination.

Today is a Snow Day, no school, no karate, no cars passing in the street. It's windless, so the flakes are falling straight down and the firs are keeping their snow. The sketchy plum trees and the gazebo with its ravel of Dutchman's pipe vines go foreign and lovely.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The year of the blue tree, part 4

In which many terrible things are imagined...

After a long time, we find ourselves lurching onto blacktop. Looking into the gulf from whence we have been hoisted, I see that the dirt lane appears to have been resurfaced, and the old surface to have been deposited upon the sides of Susy Bus. I hope she is not leaking anything. I hope my husband returns. I hope he does not cut off his leg with the antique bucksaw. Also that he is not lying under an enormous blue spruce, far too large for our living room. After a long wait, in which I see nothing but one winking airplane light, I hear his voice, very far off. For a time, he continues to drag the tree over dale, hill, hummocks, etc. and finally gains the blacktop, where the spruce makes a loud cracking noise. Mike, B, and I heave-ho the tree onto the roof of Susy Bus. We see that the tree has shivered into two parts, that it wasprobably always two fused trees. Durn if we care. After B gets into the car, my exhausted husband tells me a dirty joke about why angels ended up as tree toppers--it's a joke about a very rotten Christmas with a bad-tempered Santa and a grumpy Mrs.Claus and recalcitrant reindeer and the last straw of a tiny angel arriving with the tree and inquiring,"Where do you want me to stick this?" I laugh. Nobodyhas gotten mad during this whole escapade! That's pretty marvelous. Off I tootle.

Mike says that he will bake pies for Mr. Tilley and Paul, the tree farm owner with the red tractor. They aren't to be bought for money, but they will probably like being thanked with my husband's very delicious pies. If we can ever find this place again...

To be concluded; or, more adventures with a bucksaw

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The year of the blue tree, part 3

A continuing soap opera of Christmas hubris...

I hike back and report the unfortunate news. No problem! We can make it, Mike decides. He has not seen the road, but he is a man, and he knows these things, and so I nod, throwing out small female warnings about the small lake in the road and the deep ruts with the ice and pools and muck and so forth. The tree is halfway sawn. As it's getting gloomy, we hike over hill, dale, stream-with-hummocks. Etc. We drive the van down the muddy road, and we get stuck. Most stuck; also, completely stuck. Thinking of my three children in the dark, I start to implore the Ruler of the Universe and his angels, then decide it is silly to bother Him with the likes of a mudhole inthe backwater of Otsego county. There are women with three children in far worse fixes than mine who need some attention. Despite my having lodged only about a quarter-prayer, rescue arrives fairly promptly, a lot quicker than AAA would have. Mike hikes over to the charming nineteenth-century cottage, which is dark,and on to the century-later replacement, which is not. The angelic Mr. Tilley arrives on his rather small tractor. We slide backward and forward for a time.The owner of the tree farm happens by, and goes to fetch his very large (and powerfully red and Blakean) tractor. A family of four stops by, just for the interest of the thing: a rural frolic. We are now a party of ten, minus Mike, who has gone off in the pitchy dark to finish sawing down the blue spruce with his lovely antique bucksaw. There is no moonlight and no starlight because the sky is socked in with shoals of tightly packed cloud.

To be continued...

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The year of the blue tree, part 2

A continuing saga of havoc, over-reaching, and Christmas Slightly Past...

We come to a wilderness of hummocks--mysterious long-haired tuffets. Beyond are willow shoots and a stream. I have a sudden memory of crossing a glacial morraine in western Canada, toiling over endless stones until I reached the green mouth of an ice cave, pale green and scary. Some memories one really should pay attention to.... I forget about the Canadian warning. Canadians are sedate and conventional, right? That's what they're always telling us. So maybe we don't want to take any Canadian advice. We toil on. The first blue spruce we find is satisfyingly blue and big, and Mike desires it--either that, or the equally large fir just behind it. By this time, the van is a mere lozenge in the distance. Before any decision is made, we must scrutinize every other tree in the meadow. We don't mind this. We find lots of holes where trees have been dug, all laced up with bands of fairy ice, some of it with milky swirls, ribbons, and ice leaves. N stomps in a big one. We go back to the first blue spruce. It is very big, bigger than I had thought. Mike flourishes his bucksaw, the very old kind that decorates country restaurants and is never used, and he starts to saw. N sits down with his legs aspraddle, and B makes helpful noises. I offer to go down the grassy rut and see if there is a passable connecting road, so that we don't have to drag a giant blue tree over hill, dale, hummocks, stream, etc. (Babe the Blue Ox, where are ye?) There is a road, but it is a dirt road with muddy ruts, and the stream loves it and laves it with enthusiasm--there is a pool about 12 feet long and 4-5 inches deep, measured on my boots--B's outgrown red rubber boots.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The year of the blue tree, part 1

A saga of astonishing foolhardiness, to be continued tomorrow...

Mid-afternoon: we decide that we must get a tree because on our only other possible free day, we have a morning baptism five hours away in Malone (nephew Cambrie, heir to the local French Canadian cheese houses of Camembert and Brie) and an evening pageant in Templeton. So we head off to a tree farm owned by a nurse at Bassett, a pleasantly haphazard place where we found a perfect nine-foot tree for a mere ten dollars last year. R complains that it is not as much fun when there is no snow and no dog to romp in it, and why can't we take the dog and the (alas, say I) visiting puppy? We get lost. We ask for directions. We find another tree farm on a dirt road, where the trees are twice as much. That's still a bargain. First, we tromp up a mountainside where the trees are comically shaped, like mountain cows with their legs shorter on one side than the other. We decide to hike along the valley, where the Douglas firs appear to be pleasantly punctuated with blue spruce. It would be fun to have one of those for a change, some sadly mistaken person decides. It might even have been me. We walk, even N, who is already tired but toddles along in his red boots and his foot-tall blue hat. R does not walk because she seems 15 and hormonal today, even though she is only 10. She stays in the car with the doors locked against passing bad guys. Nobody at all passes. It is a little dirt road.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Snow Day in the Writing Room

From the window of my writing room, I can see Otsego Lake, with Kingfisher Tower floating on its surface. Summer, I barely glimpse them through a gap between the trees of the yard behind us--the rail magnate's mansion eats up half the block with house and trees. The trees are mature, all planted by somebody in the nineteenth-century who "collected" them as rarities. Last year a Kentucky coffee tree from the neighbor's yard fell on our garage, and the canopy filled up the alley with magical jungle.

In the winter I see more of the lake and the hills around Kingfisher from my writing room. Today I see slate-blue water, ice, snow, and a tiny blue Kingfisher Tower pointing toward heavy clouds. It has snowed and snowed, and there is no school. No school spelling bee, no dentist, no karate. Just three children who want to read and frolic. Outside, the wind rocks the evergreens and spills snow, and Main Street is all garlands and Christmas, with good Saint Nicholas nestled inside a tiny Gothic Cottage next to the Tunnicliff Inn, ready to hear children's wishes and to tell a story; inside, all is cosy and bright, with books and games scattered on the floor.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Firebird Raven

Here is the final cover for the upcoming paperback edition of the Raven: the final piece as conceived by Renato Alarcao.

You can check back through the proposals on earlier posts and see if you think it was the best choice. If not, which is your favorite?

Like most of the sketches, it's romantic and active. The gyre of the bird rising up from the lake sets the air and light into whirling motion, and it catches up Adanta's hair, shawl, and skirts.

The rich color and mysterious handling of light makes it a good pairing with Renato's image for the FSG jacket of Ingledove. This one has the drama of brightness tossing the dark into the air, but the malachite of this water will go well with the cobalt lake that Ingledove and Lang are crossing on the other jacket. Somewhere, up on a 17th floor in Rio, Renato is dreaming up his pictures right now--or maybe tossing his baby. His next U. S. project is a book for Candlewick, and I'm looking forward to that one.

And now my youngest is telling me that I need to write a book "for him." Maybe I'll make a deal; if he won't bring home any more pernicious winter bugs from his little Yankee elementary school, I just might do it.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

from the Pest House: reading Epstein

One of the few pleasures of having my third miserable Yankee bug of the fall is ignoring some of the work that needs to be done for a family of five and doing a little extra reading. Yesterday I reread some Singer stories ("Gimpel the Fool," "The Mirror," "The Wedding," and more) and a story from Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales. Rereading is delicious...

One of my very favorite essays is Joseph Epstein's "What Yiddish Says: The God-haunted fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer." Epstein is unfailingly amusing and interesting, with breadth and depth and thoughtfulness and even a certain desirable humility when he confronts the mysteries of life. All this I admire. So one of the things I have read with pleasure during the current plague is his essay about Edmund Wilson in Commentary.

Epstein finds Wilson falling short in grasping "the mysteries," and says that such lapses lead to shortsightedness: "I suspect his difficulty with Joseph Conrad and Franz Kafka, two major writers whose power he could never quite comprehend, stemmed from the fact that each took as his subject, precisely, the complex mystery of life: Conrad on the cosmic level, asking why we are put on earth; Kafka on the level of human nature, asking why we are as sadly and comically limited as we are." I especially like the preface to his glancing-but-damning blow, saying that Wilson "traveled light": "One of the advantages artists have over critics is that they can be nearly complete damn fools and still produce interesting and important, even lasting, art. Critics are not permitted such large margins of stupidity. It matters that they get things right; their opinions, which is all they chiefly have, are crucial. Wisdom, in a critic, is never excess baggage."

Today's picture is another Renato Alarcao sketch, one of the proposals for the new cover of The Curse of the Raven Mocker. I'll put the choice for cover up next.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Curiouser & curiouser

To the right: another sketch by Renato Alarcao for The Curse of the Raven Mocker. This one shows Adanta with a wren, her grandmother's house in the background.

And here's an interesting "picture": I skipped over to Arts Journal and note the contrast of the two "publishing" stories currently posted. One is a story about National Novel-Writing Month, reporting that 10,000 of the 60,000 people enrolled in NaNoWriMo managed to finish a manuscript of 50,000 words. The other article is about sales of English-language literary fiction, and it's called "The great fiction crash of 2005."

Now isn't that a curious pair?

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Illustration techniques of Renato Alarcao

Wonder has no opposite; it springs up already doubled in itself, compounded of dread and desire at once, attraction and recoil, producing a thrill, the shudder of pleasure and of fear.
--from Marina Warner, Wonder Tales

Here's another Renato Alarcao sketch for The Curse of the Raven Mocker: the raven; the grandmother's mountain-top house above the twisting paths; Adanta behind Tass on his pony, Polk.

Here's something Renato wrote me about how he works: ". . . it is usually a blend of traditional and digital. Well, I have many different styles and use a myriad of techniques, depending on what the manuscript suggests (or what the editor wants). The pieces with textured surfaces and scratchy lines ("Ingledove", "The Curse of the Ravenmocker" and "Red Ridin' in the Hood") were done with black etching paint over transparent acetate. Then I scan it into the computer and apply the colors. The final touch is the pencil outline which is applied digitally as well. It takes forever to finish one single piece!!"

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: 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

* * *


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.

* * *


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.”

* * *


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.

* * *


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
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.”


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.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

And she sweeps out of the Palace--

Back for All Hallows Eve and trick-or-treating. No doubt the Celt (and the shivering Southerner) in me will want a bonfire.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Childhood settings / Gone fishing

Ingledove has a review in the Spring 2005 issue of Berea College's Appalachian Heritage, a journal with a mandate to publicize and promote writing linked to Appalachia. This is the first time I've had a notice with the central purpose of clarifying the exact setting of a book of mine and of figuring out my relationship to the setting: "Set in the Bryson City, Hazel Creek, area of North Carolina, this is a fantasy tale centering on the creation of Fontana Lake. Although this youth novel deals with an alternative world and Fontana's answer to the Loch Ness, it actually illuminates the real history of the Cherokee and White people of the area. Marly Youmans grew up in Cullowhee and fished with her father on Fontana Lake. She is the author of The Curse of the Raven Mocker, which explores a similar setting and theme."

While the North Carolina mountains feature in a lot of my poems and short stories, I haven't written much about them in my longer fiction. Little Jordan has something of a mountain setting, with hills and streams and jewelweed, but the template for that setting was Tinker Creek and the outskirts of Roanoke (plus the Carolina coast). Much of Catherwood is set in a northern foothills landscape, and it was inspired by living in a Yankee section of the Appalachian spine. The Wolf Pit has a North Carolina circuit rider.

And how did they know that I had ever gone fishing with my father on Fontana?

My very favorite place to fish in childhood was False River Lake in Point Coupee Parish, Louisiana, where I caught an alligator snapping turtle and hauled its enormous head out of the water. I put that one in a story called "Compass of Dreams," published eons ago. The glitter on the water, the tree frogs, the ice-cold Dr. Pepper, the plums by the bamboo, the fishermen running to cut my line: I suppose I was five years old, or perhaps six.

False River is no longer that magical water I recall as a bright, fish-skinned thing: the Atchafalaya Basin Program and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers have launched an effort to restore the lake. Silt and run-off have meant a loss of richness and the dying off of many species.

I suppose it happens in every generation that the world changes until one no longer has any but a tenuous place in it. But it is sad to think of the joy I had there, lost, and the unclean waters.

Monday, October 24, 2005

"Their Ancient Glittering Eyes": Passion of the Old Guys

What William Hazlitt named gusto, "power or passion defining any object," and found foremost in Shakespeare, he assigned to Boccaccio and Rabelais above all other prose writers. Hazlitt also urged us to realize that the arts are not progressive--a realization that belated ages, like our own, attempt to resist.

--Bloom, "Elegiac Conclusion," The Western Canon

The infinite quantity of dramatic invention in Shakespeare takes from his gusto. The power he delights to show is not intensive, but discursive. He never insists on anything as much as he might, except a quibble. Milton has great gusto. He repeats his blows twice; grapples with and exhausts his subject. His imagination has a double relish of its objects, an inveterate attachment to the things he describes, and to the words describing them.

--Hazlitt, "On Gusto," 1816

I look forward to reading the book--old-time critics like Mr. Rubin always have something worthwhile to say.

--from a letter by a novelist & penpal

Friday, October 21, 2005

Pullman, Lewis, & the world-changing redemption of the ordinary

Grumpy angel courtesy & copyright
of Hugh MacLeod &

Philip Pullman has been attacking C. S. Lewis once more, turning a few speckled grains of truth (a girl with fat legs, a mix of good and bad among those with dark skin) into the pomp of a major mole mountain. How many dead writers get this kind of sustained pummeling, I wonder? The last notable spectacle of this kind is probably Griswold's repeated kicking of the corpse of Poe. I don’t think Pullman can make his arguments of racism work without exaggerating some evidence and ignoring other evidence, but Tim Cavanaugh has thrown his feathered hat into the ring by arguing that racism is a source of power and interest in many British writers. I like the first two volumes of His Dark Materials but always find it curious that the author is so very shrill about Lewis when his own loathing of religion (not just religion as it is “organized” into human institutions, but the concepts of a living, borderless kingdom of believers, God, and a world beyond this one) wounded the final book of the trilogy.

So I guess it’s time to think about MacLeod again.

17. Merit can be bought. Passion can't. The only people who can change the world are people who want to. And not everybody does.

--Hugh MacLeod,
How to be Creative, The Gaping Void

Topic: world-changing.

Last night I was daydreaming about the thread of the fantastic in poem and narrative, stitching my way back to George MacDonald and William Morris and to the American Romantics and then all the way through Renaissance Arcadian romance to Gawain and Beowulf and the Dream of the Rood. While no book has ever been or can ever be identical with so-called reality, and while “our” reality does not exist in fiction—despite mirrors, despite the onslaughts of movements called American Realism and Naturalism—the length of the distance between “our” reality and a created world can vary considerably.

Writers like Hawthorne who "tinge" their pictures with "the marvelous" are positing the possibility of other worlds, other ways of being. It’s why fantastic literature is (unless too derivative) automatically subversive and in violation of our world’s natural laws. Surely it’s why so much speculative writing is religious (more subversion of normal values) or “otherworldly” in coloring--and why MacDonald and Lewis and Tolkien hold such sway. It helps to live in more than one world; it helps to believe that one soul’s Passion can transform the globe. Perhaps the invention of another world always brings with it a built-in sense of wonder that is essentially religious, whether the writer is so or not. Pullman can’t, in the end, break free of a Christian world view; he ends with Eden, although it is a rather perverse one, where two children have sex and then separate forever.

All art attempts to play redeemer. At its highest level, art restores infant sight to the humdrum world. Art knocks the picture askew so that we can notice and see its image once more. An act of art is like the child jumping rope in the kitchen (don't do that!) who catches up a pot of cyclamen in his arc; the crack! of ordinary clay startles us, and we both kneel, staring at the delicate curved stems and flowers and the pale curled roots in the potting soil. When we look up, the world is standing—broken and bright and saved from the ordinary--all around us.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

A consideration of "How to Be Creative"

Large big-mouth talking, courtesy and copyright of Hugh MacLeod

I have decided to mull the Wisdom of Hugh, despite the fact that he occasionally offends my sensibilities. Perhaps because he occasionally, etc.

However, I refuse to do it in the proper order.

22. Nobody cares. Do it for yourself.

Everybody is too busy with their own lives to give a damn about your book, painting, screenplay etc, especially if you haven't sold it yet. And the ones that aren't, you don't want in your life anyway.

--Hugh MacLeod, How to be Creative, The Gaping Void

For various reasons that I won’t go into—for fear that they might reflect oddly on somebody, somewhere, somewhen—I grew up with a high tolerance for "different" and crazy people. This is an unfortunate propensity for a writer, because writers attract crazy people. This was especially unfortunate when I lived near an eminent Yankee psychiatric institution or nuthouse. When I pushed the pram through the charming Olmstead-designed park with my sterling, adorable babies, the local unhinged population trailed after me, making strange cries of infant-worship and calling out curious things about their sex lives, the local topography, and other potentially frightening topics.

I still have a lot of crazy friends. Years of my life were devoted to crazy men, once upon a time. Finally I realized the difference between crazy and not crazy.

This was hard for me, because I come from a long line of neurologically-interesting people.

But it was not impossible.

I am married to a healthy-minded man with an astounding number of fun hobbies, including a liking for cooking his way through Bon Appetit each month.

But if you’re reading this and you’re a crazy friend of mine, remember: I love you. I’m nothing if not loyal.

:-}) :-) :-})

Oh, and that first bit of wisdom. We-the-writers knew that. We knew it in our scribbling bones, while we sat in the corners of our rooms (the chilly attic ones with the horrible wallpaper of fainting mongooses and stains in the shapes of tiger lilies), staring into the corner where the paper doesn’t quite match.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Book Party for Fae Malania at the Thanksgiving Home

Our second event for Fae Malania and the reprint of her 1961 Knopf book, The Quantity of a Hazelnut (Seabury, 2005), went off very well, hosted by Pat Donnelly (director) and Trish Webster (activities director). The reception was in the parlor at the Thanksgiving Home, with old-fashioned songs on piano and wine and cheese and crunchies. Every person who bought a book at the original launch party was invited, and I think that they all came. The room was crowded with friends of the book, as well as with most of the residents of the Home.

Fae looked delicate and pretty and happy, and that went a very long way to making the rest of us feel very pleased. I sold more "nuts," and I think that the book has done exceptionally well in our little village.

Now I need an accountant!

Meanwhile Fae has a lovely review in Library Journal:

MALANIA, FAE. The Quantity of a Hazelnut. Seabury. 2005. c.138p. ISBN1-59627-014-4. pap. $14. REL This gem of a book contains many years' worth of meditations on life's wonders and struggles by Malania, former Mademoiselle staff member and widowof an Episcopal priest. Malania writes with singular facility and wit; her mind engages the likes of T.S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Julian of Norwich as her prose addresses images as small as the titular hazelnut and problems as large as the death of a president. Not many spiritual writers could find wit enough to praise a camel with humor and dignity, yet Malania does. Highly recommended. (from the Spiritual Reading column by Graham Christian)

Edith Abbott, who has designed books for The Stinehour Press and other notable fine presses, thinks that Seabury did a first-rate job on the book.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A & B

"H. E. Bates, who wrote beautiful stories about English country characters, told me that for him a story always needed two different ideas to get it off the ground, to make it begin working and fermenting in his mind. I thought about this and realized that the story writing process was exactly the same for me." --Joan Aiken, Introduction to Shadows & Moonshine (David R. Godine, 2001)

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Invention of Bloom

I hopped from The Reading Experience to an interview with Harold Bloom at Eurozine.

What strikes me is the wonderful complexity and roundness of the man's self-portrait--his dramatic vision of himself as Professor Bloom, beleaguered and scorned and beloved, enduring the twilight of Europe and the darkening of this land from inside his castle of books. Here's the breadth of a life--the death waiting, the wondering child, the grandeur and the weakness, and the way that an intelligent child became a lover of splendor and flourish and beauty.

He portrays himself as a sort of perambulating-and-thinking plum-pudding, a hodgepodge of familiar and unfamiliar and contradictory elements stewed together: the very sort of rich character he would admire, discovering him on the page.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Firebird covers

Ingledove frontispiece by Renato Alarcao.
Evidently Firebird (Penguin) will reprint The Curse of the Raven Mocker and Ingledove with at least one new cover for the paperbacks--they will both be images by Brazilian artist (and new papa) Renato Alarcao, whereas the FSG hardcover jackets are by two artists, Steve Cieslawski and Renato Alarcao. It will be entertaining to see what Renato does with the story. . . And I'm not likely to forget the original picture, as Steve's oil hangs right by me when I'm working, a special gift from him--his very last book jacket.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Great Frolic & the Coming World with its Excess of Writers and Pediatricians

The Great Birthday Frolic Poll

The Boy wants to be a genetic engineer.

The Ten Girls (ages 13 & 14) want to be:
1. H: a veterinarian
2. R: a writer (of fantasy)
3. V: an architect
4. M: a makeup artist
5. E1: a veterinarian
6. A: a writer; and, perhaps, a singer
7. C: a pediatrician
9. E2: a clothing designer
10. L: a pediatrician

Sweeping Generalizations to be Derived (from a ridiculously small sample):

1. When I was a child, They were busy telling us that there were no differences between girls and boys... When I was a child, They were wrong.

2. No wonder there are so many writers!

3. Girls naturally gravitate to the lower end of the pay scale: not two orthopedic surgeons (or genetic engineers) but two pediatricians.

4. Look at the world to come: There are lots of dogs and lots of children, architect-designed shelter, and books to read. We're well dressed and looking good. It's a round life, warm and lively. The Boy can go off and play genetic engineer if he likes, but the pediatricians will tease him if he causes problems. There are no soldiers, not much in the way of science, and no cut-throat climbers.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The three days of The Great Birthday Frolic have come to an end, the last hurrah being a dinner with godparents and another cake. All candles on all cakes were successfully blown out, all wishes collected and kept secret.

The sylphs' 2-day Party with Silly Hats was an astonishing lark, a non-stop event with many English accents, much dressing up and changing of garments from the Infinite Dress-up Box, skits (Pythonesque in spirit), teasing of The Boy & the Little Brother (but not the Big Brother), four bouts of eating (with laughter), hide-and-seek with precipitous dives down the back stairs into the kitchen and much scrunching into tiny places, games of detection, etc.

The Little Brother will never be the same. Enchanted, he wants them all. To live with us and be ours. Forever.

It was rather like having a troop of fairies invade the house for the length of one of those odd fairyland moments that are also seven years. They were tireless, mischievous, sweet, and definitely not made of the same substance as the rest of us who are not dressed in silks and funny hats and who are no longer made of the immortal flesh of childhood.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

A slave to frolic

The 3-day birthday extravaganza holds me in thrall. Free on the 12th!

Saturday, October 08, 2005

The Irresistible Delight of a New Book

Despite the fact that I am in the middle of numerous books (Louis Rubin's new book on writing and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and a Jim Harrison book that had become lost in a confusion of papers but has now surfaced and a story collection by Joan Aiken), I bought several used books on Saturday. I was fleeing the cleaning job for a teen sleepover and birthday extravaganza, and I just happened to go by Willis Monie's and tumble into the long hall and through the door.

It was rainy and slick: no wonder I slipped.

To console myself for my lot (cleaning drudge and teen party maven), I came home with a 2-volume compendium of Muriel Stark's novels and a copy of Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales--one of the many books I once owned but relinquished to the great moving-and-fundraising sale of 1991. Perhaps it was 1990.

Whenever it was, it was sad.

The party is almost ready. The gold-and-silver leaves are twined in the chandelier, with peacock feathers and strings of tiny transparent pumpkins. As soon as the pack of girls arrives, I shall call halt to all fussing and cleaning, and I shall plunge into my books. Simultaneously, if I can manage it.


"Perhaps it is because a foreigner, writing English, often falls as it were by accident on inimitably fresh ways of using our battered old words. Perhaps quite simply, the style seems so original and strange because the personality using it is original and strange." And having come to no conclusion at all, you will turn back to read until you are again stopped by some passage for which you can't find a comparison in the writing you know. Like this one, in "The Supper at Elsinore" at the end of the party. The two middle-aged but still brilliant sisters "were happy to get rid of their guests; but a little silent bitter minute accompanied the pleasure. For they could still make people fall in love with them; they had the radiance in them which could refract little rainbow effects on the atmosphere of Copenhagen existence. But who could make them feel in love? At this moment, the tristesse of the eternal hostess stiffened them a little."
--Dorothy Canfield, in the introduction to Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales

Friday, October 07, 2005

The Impossible Master

Ah, another candidate for Shakespeare! The more the merrier—back in high school I scribbled a paper about Shakespeare “really” being the Earl of Oxford. And I thought that it mattered for a few addled days.

It appears that we still can’t believe that an Elizabethan of middling rank and moderate education—though how many of us these days have even “small Latin, and less Greek”?—might actually wield a pen with lightning power. Nor can we fathom that imagination might allow him free access to both hovel and throne room.

Perhaps it is our day that blinds us; after all, we invented the worship of celebrity, and our latest awards are the “Quills,” given not to the best but to the bestselling writer. We grow unaccustomed to the idea that a potent writer might be a person of some modesty, and that he might stand with humility before the mysteries of life and death. Humility, despite all mastery…

And so we find it impossible that such a person—having dipped his feathered pen in an immortal ink bottle—could retire from London and choose a village life with what was left of his family. We find it difficult to conceive that he might very well have been taught by his own words that both kings and commoners end in a handful of dust, and that he might have left The King's Men and departed for a country life “in content / To liberty, and not to banishment.”

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The Book Tour as Acorn-Strewing

I wish Some Bright Official Bookperson would decide “once and for all”—and especially for me—what works and what doesn’t work to get the word out about books and to build that highly desirable and seaworthy vessel, a readership. Heaps of recent articles and blog posts have argued that the institution of the Book Tour is hoary, unpleasant, and a waste of time for any but those who are promoted mightily. This is something that a writer not receiving a solid “push” (i.e. one of the 98 or 99% of us) sometimes feels while on a tour, especially in its boggier moments, so it has an unpleasant whiff of truth about it. But just when I decide that I’ll be like Anne Tyler and forget the whole unwieldy abandon-the-three-kids-to-Daddy enterprise, along comes Miss Snark with a post about her Acorn Academy.

What’s an author to do?

For now, ignore. The rampant confusion may go away.

I’m feeling pleased with the week so far, as Monday-Wednesday brought these developments: 1. I found my name on one dedication page; 2. I was asked to write a book; and 3. I have fresh reason to feel good about my newest editor. 3 for 3. Not bad.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

"Our Absolutely Deplorable Literary Situation" & Other Thoughts of a Man of Letters

"In saying that our literature must separate itself from the book and magazine industry of the metropolitan Northeast, what I mean is that it has got to be able to function on terms that do not require it to compete with the commercial mass market expectations of the entertainment industry, centered as the latter are on the television audience. The only way to arrange that is to operate independently of it. And that cannot be done as things now stand, because the two industries, publishing and showbiz-TV, are too massively and intricately tied together up and down the line.

"To state the proposition in book-business terms, obviously considerably more money is to be made from promoting a book so that it will sell 100,000 copies instead of 25,000, than from promoting a book so that it will sell 10,000 copies instead of 5,000. No publishing house, especially if owned by a conglomerate, is going to try to do both. That is why the deck is now so cruelly stacked against literary publishing. What the future welfare of our literature depends upon is the kind of book publishing that will concentrate on doing the latter rather than the former.

"It comes down, then, simply to this: so-called print culture must be removed from the auspices of the TV-centered mass entertainment industry. It is too valuable to be allowed to go by default--which is what seems to be happening now. We are letting it dwindle away toward oblivion. It does not follow, either logically or practically, that because many more people regularly watch Geraldo than read Annie Dillard or Mark Helprin, literature is therefore doomed. But when we allow the same industry to preside over the promulgation, distribution, and critical evaluation of all three, as if they were equally engaged in showbiz, how much chance do the latter two have?

"We have therefore got to sever the financial bands that have connected contemporary letters with the popular entertainment industry and let literature flourish on its own, as the product of literary folk writing for a literary audience."

--Louis D. Rubin, Jr., Where the Southern Cross the Yellow Dog: On Writers and Writing (Columbia: University of Missouri, October 2005)

On matters of writing or publishing or writers-and-academia, it's always good to listen to Louis Rubin. He's the founder of the writing program at Hollins, the University Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Chapel Hill, mentor of many Southern writers, and the founder and former president of Algonquin Books. He is the author of some fifty books, including his recent My Father's People: A Family of Southern Jews, and he has received many, many awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award of the National Book Critics Circle.

The book is elegant, with a reproduction of Carroll Cloar's Where the Southern Cross the Yellow Dog opposite the title page and on the jacket. And I am thrilled, tickled, and all-around surprised and abashed to be on the dedication page...

Table of Contents

1 The Ordeal of Unconstant Moose
2 On the Literary Uses of Memory
3 Where the Southern Cross the Yellow Dog: A Time, A Place, A Painting
4 Thoughts on Fictional Places
5 Questions of Intent: Some Thoughts on Author-ship
6 Bloom's Leap: Or, How Firm a Foundation
7 What Are All Those Writers Doing on Campus?
8 The Progress of Poetry:
Or, a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Bookstore
9 Slugging It Out with Dempsey and Others
10 Polemical Coda: Our Absolutely Deplorable Literary Situation--
and Some Thoughts on How to Fix It Good

Monday, October 03, 2005

Malania Book Launch & the Templeton Pumpkin Festival

The shameless Sunday book-flogging for my little old lady friend, Fae Malania, went off very well. I found homes for all 60 of the books that I'd ordered, and I even sold most of her author copies. By the time the stragglers show up, we'll go over 70.

It was a peaceable, teetotaler's party--and much cheaper than champagne for 100--your basic C & T plus cake. I ordered a Gargantua-sized cake with yellow roses and an icing book on top with the sugary words, The Quantity of a Hazelnut by Fae Malania--made by an enterprising Templetonian baker--plus pots of red and white cyclamen and ornamental peppers from the Farmer's Market. And those went home with a few of the many people who have helped Fae.

There is a perfect riot of confusion in my brain about the money in little baggies and the checks, but I suppose it will be sorted out before long. Some have not paid but have taken a book. Some the reverse. Some didn't show but reserved... Sigh. I do not like to play accountant, extortionist, and delivery girl.

I celebrated book-launch success by taking my youngest to the second day of Pumpkinfest. Yesterday we saw Merdwyn the Mediocre do his famously mediocre magic show at the Doubleday Field. My son got him in a corner (difficult in an open-air festival) and talked candy and magic and other important topics at him until he begged us to go.

We inspected the giant pumpkins, including a 1,407.3-pound winner. That's one thousand four hundred and seven pounds, plus. Or as my third-grader says, poring over the problems in expanded form: 1,000 + 400 + 7. I don't know what he'd do with the smidge left over. I don't think he does expanded-form-with-fractions as yet.

Each of the four mega-pumpkins on stands in front of the Doubleday Field gates broke the New York state record. Which just goes to show that a little sunshine--what marvelous weather we have had this year--helps with all kinds of expanded form. I could deal with weather like this year round. If it was up to me, I would deal with weather like this year round. Most Templeton summer mornings I get up, put on a sweater, and lodge two or three complaints before breakfast. Some fall mornings, I put on snow boots and the giant down blueberry. It's so big that it stands up by itself and sticks its arms out. More expanded form at work.

Here is something I learned at Pumpkinfest: grossly fat pumpkins look just as weird and astonishing as grossly fat people. I thought my Southern cohorts might not know that, and it's an interesting fact. We have the spectacle of 450-pound humans pretty much everywhere these days, but it's not so often that we see a really excessive pumpkin down South... Pumpkin giants flop as they grow, lose their flower ends and umbilicals in wells of flesh, and sprout stretch marks.

In today's installment of pumpkin mania, my son played silly games and had his picture taken while sitting inside a pumpkin, next to a Grumplie, an equally large pumpkin carved in high relief. Sour-faced: hence, Grumplie. Our favorite part was watching the Catskill Puppet Theatre do "Hiawatha" with rod puppets; we'd seen the show once before, but one of us was only a toddler and didn't recall.

Alas, we missed the Regatta, though we did go and inspect the wet pumpkin boats behind the Lake Front Motel.

Friday, September 30, 2005

The Pleasant Frittering of Time

For a writer, one of the dreadful things about the internet is that it’s so full of amusement and distraction. So this morning I have wasted a perfectly good hour reading interviews from Raymond’s Thompson's Taliesin's Successors: Interviews with Authors of Modern Arthurian Literature. He has collected all sorts of interesting people, including Robertson Davies and Alan Garner and Susan Cooper, and I have succumbed to mere eavesdropping

Alan Garner: I grew up, as a child, with the Arthurian legend as part of my cultural background. I grew up in a rural working-class family in Alderley Edge, a hill sticking up out of the Cheshire plain just seven miles from where we're sitting now. My family were rural craftsmen. My grandfather could read, but didn't and so was virtually unlettered. The family did, however, have the last remains of a genuine oral tradition, which was the story of the King Asleep Under the Hill, being guarded by Merlin. The story is so deeply embedded in my psyche that I can't tell you when I first heard it. I've always known it, and it came to represent the whole of that rural, working-class part of my background.

It's a British phenomenon which is still a problem: the problem of the first-generation educated child. What happened to me, and what is still happening to other children, is that I was selected by our educational system as being worthy of education. The effect of this was to remove me from my cultural background, but to enable me to understand the price that was being paid, for this removal produces enormous tensions within the individual. So, as I learned formal, analytical, rational, and academic disciplines, I became aware, rationally and academically, of all that I was losing. My family could not cope with me, and I could not cope with my family. Emotionally, "my" legend came to stand for all that was being lost, and so it took on a poignant tone, Perhaps that poignancy is not there in the Matter of Britain, but I think it is. I was set firmly on an academic career when the writer in me, who I think was there from birth, started to emerge, to wake up and kick and say no, there are other things which you have to do, which are uniquely yours.

Robertson Davies: The Arthurian legend has been a part of my life since childhood. My father, of course, was Welsh, and the story of Arthur is very dear to the Welsh people. Britain, both during and after the Roman occupation, has always been important in my mind because I visited Wales a good many times with my father. I knew it well and visited many places with Arthurian associations. Glastonbury I've known for a very long time also.

As a boy I had a book of Arthurian legends, and about the age of sixteen or seventeen I became very interested in the work of that now rather neglected writer, Arthur Machen. He draws a good deal on Arthurian legend, often without writing about it directly although the feeling is there. Not very long afterwards, I fell under the influence of an author I consider a neglected master of the English novel, and that is John Cowper Powys. I read A Glastonbury Romance which is soaked in Arthurian feeling; then later Porius, which is about a young man who encounters Arthur and Merlin. Both figures are seen with great imaginative splendor. Powys has a marvelous feeling both for the ambience of the legend, and for what we can guess about the historical figure of the "dux bellorum" who took control after the Romans left Britain. His vision seized my imagination very strongly, and I became interested not only in what Arthur had meant one way or another to a wide variety of people, but also what he had not meant to some of them.

Susan Cooper: The struggle between the Light and the Dark in my books has more to do with the fact that when I was four World War II broke out. England was very nearly invaded by Germany, and that threat, reinforced by the experience of having people drop bombs on your head, led to a very strong sense of Us and Them. Of course Us is always the good, and Them is always the bad.

This sense must have stayed with me, and it put me into contact with all the other times that England has been threatened with invasion. We are such mongrels: we have been invaded over and over and over again from Scandinavia, from Ireland, from the Continent. This same fear and resistance--usually unsuccessful-- has been repeated throughout British history. All that goes into the collective subconscious, and, especially if you come from a generation which went through this experience in childhood, it becomes very much a part of your own imagination. So there is this sympathetic link between my growing up and what it must have been like when the real Arthur--what we know about him--was alive. You find this reflected in the books, especially the last.

Wasn't that good company and good frittering? And it reminded me that I dearly love that odd, magical giant of letters, John Cowper Powys... Maybe it's time to reread Wolf Solent and The Glastonbury Romance.