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Monday, March 19, 2007

Joy in Poetry

The other day I left a note for Sir Gawain, who I hope has many days to come at Heaven Tree before the Green Knight chops off his head. And my little note has made me think about poetry (rather than simply poems) again:

“it’s much more like being met, that some part of us has been recognised” (Armstrong)

Thinking about Rilke and “Archaic Torso of Apollo” once again: the work of art sees us, measures all that is in us that can match and mate with it, and we find ourselves as in a magical mirror that calls us toward transformation. And it seems to me that the upwelling response to a work of art begins our metamorphosis.

And perhaps if one can have enough transformation, the little hard grit of the soul may be washed and washed to pearldom!

I’ve been asking myself why this little matter of poetry concerns me so nearly. Why do I embrace, again and again, certain collections of words, lyric to epic? The older I get, the more I find in certain poems (and stories and paintings and sculpture and so on, though here I am thinking specifically of poems) the sprigs of the tree of life.

1. I rejoice that poetry is intractable and will not be anything other than what it is. You cannot distort a poem; if you try, it will return to its original condition when you are done with your wrongheaded readings and look at you until you are fit to see it properly.

2. I rejoice that you cannot make a movie out of a poem.

3. I rejoice that the yoking of unexpected and even unorthodox things in a poem can still cause a great flowering of joy and wonder and surprise.

4. I rejoice that a poem can take what is foolish, weak, and empty in me and fill and transform by force.

5. I rejoice that poetry is alien to technology. All technology can do is repeat it, as if on a page, sometimes with the addition of images that are more or less pleasing—or read it aloud, as if the poet or another read but with a second-hand setting.

6. I rejoice that a poem's strength made from “a mouthful of air” and even from weak and foolish images.

7. I rejoice that poetry is not useful and cannot make up a part of the body of capitalist economy but floats somewhere out of reach, like a halo.

8. I rejoice that I can get lost in a poem.

9. I rejoice that poetry is a mad, mad pursuit in the current age.

10. I rejoice that poetry has survived Modernism and Postmodernism.

11. I rejoice that it simply doesn’t matter that poetry doesn’t matter to almost everybody.

12. I rejoice that poetry is not politics.

13. I rejoice that poetry measures the height and depth of me.

14. I rejoice that poetry is nakedly mystical and joyful.

15. I rejoice that the best poems cannot be confused with prose by getting rid of the line breaks but have language, rhythm, and sound that is not daily.

16. I rejoice that poetry is made out of the world’s brokenness into a ravishing whole.

17. I rejoice that poetry makes us go to the fount, and that it is worth doing so to get a pail of water, even if we get a broken crown along the way.

18. I rejoice that no matter how long a teacher talks, the soul of a poem cannot be taught.

19. I rejoice that poetry refuses to be quick and easy, that it turns a back on all that is fast in our age, the Fast Age that makes us fast from beauty and the metaphysical.

20. I rejoice that a wonderful poem does not give up all of its secret but remains inexhaustibly, fruitfully strange, even to its maker.

Okay, that’s enough rejoicing! None of those apply to all poems; they don't all apply to each of the poems I love best. But they do give a whole picture, nevertheless.

Image courtesy of and Stefan Kuemmel of Graz, Austria.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Pups of Letters, no. 1: James Simpson

I have a lovely, cosy feeling of satisfaction. I'm actually doing my New Year's Resolutions! Normally I never even remember what they were by March. Here is the first of my interviews with some of the younger writers (they don't have to be young in years, but they are novices) who have contacted me. They are drenched in aspiration and perspiration on the road to a first book.

Number one is James Simpson. I hope he will forgive me for pillaging the accompanying photographs off his Flickr collection. I'll swap and forgive him for quoting some of my immortal poetic wisdom!

And here he is.

* * * * * * *

I am up here in Cooperstown, writing a novel about the South. You are down South, writing a novel about Cooperstown. Explain yourself.

Both of my parents are from New York State (my mother in Lebanon, my father on Long Island), and my sister was born in Brooklyn Heights. Although my brother and I both were born in Florida, I've always felt a connection with the Empire State. My maternal grandparents owned a summer home in Cooperstown, and from the time I was four until the time my grandmother died when I was seven, we spent summers at their house on Leatherstocking Street, and later, Grove Street.

To me, Cooperstown is a place that has remained relatively unchanged. Long-time residents would probably disagree, what with the baseball theme park and influx of increasingly rude fans, but it's arguably one of the most unique villages in the country. It's a place I've always wanted to write about, but for the longest time I hadn't a clue what that might be. I'm sure there were many things at work lurking in my subconscious all these years, but basically, Cooperstown seemed a perfect and iconic setting for me to explore memory and history. The town simply exudes history.

Can you tell us about the book? (That can be done obliquely, if you don't like to talk about something "in progress.")

It's about a man who moves his family to Cooperstown after inheriting a large chunk of land from his uncle. Not knowing quite what to do with it, he visits the village and is surprised to find his grandparents' house for sale. With the proceeds of the sale of the land, he buys the old house and a small business off Main St. Through many seasons there he learns more about his parents than he ever thought possible and discovers the true story of his uncle's tragic death. He also reconnects with his globetrekking older brother and suffers through his wife's retelling of his childhood through a series of highly successful children's books featuring a pair of wacky penguin brothers.

Is the act of writing a novel: a.) a Frodo-esque quest; b.) an Ishmael-esque whaling adventure; c.) an investiture of the self in poky corners and bottom-to-chair velcro; or, d.) something entirely different, which you are not at liberty to explain. If you cannot answer by letter, explain yourself once more.

Definitely (c). It's about setting aside time each day to write, finding a routine and sticking to it. A wise and wonderfully unique writer once fed me some hortative doggerel advising me to write a page a day, to "sit my butt in chair, write in vestments rare, write in woven hair, write when dratted bare." I don't always get that page a day, but I try at least to follow the spirit of those sage words: I keep my feelers out all the time, looking for anything that might work within the story.

Write a 100-word sketch fit for a stuffy biographical tome, bragging on yourself and your writing strenuously but with dignity.

The bio would probably mention something about a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, but unfortunately that phrase has been taken. Instead, I'll point you in the direction of my favorite defunct literary journal, Big City Lit, founded and produced by the late Maureen Holm. She edited and published my first story, which she later nominated for a Pushcart Prize. I worked with her on two subsequent stories, and she was a true writer's friend, as sharp an editor as there ever was. I get teary whenever I think of her. Seriously. Go here while I take a moment:

A short bio appears at the end of the story.

Write a 100-word sketch fit for the highly cool 'zine, Solar Necktie.

I'm not nearly cool enough to appear in Solar Necktie. Sorry.
Tell me about the most secret corner--the place most satisfying to a child--of your grandparents' house on Leatherstocking St.

The attic. This is odd because attics weren't places I frequented as a kid due to the ever-present possibility of monsters and other unspeakable horrors (a madwoman in the attic?). But directly under the roof of the Coop house there lived the most wonderful old toys. I remember an old red fireman's helmet, Tinker Toys, trucks. I can still smell the musty wood, see the rain streaming down the tiny window and hear its gentle patter above me.

You evidently are enmeshed in some sort of critique group. Is this jolly? Is this useful? "Do you think, at your age, it is right?"

The coffee's nice, as well as the camaraderie. And the criticism ain't bad either! Besides, I don't incessantly stand on my head during our meetings, and if I feared it might injure my brain, I'm perfectly sure I have none. (Wink, wink).

What is daunting and dampening to the heart of a novice writer?

Beginning is the most daunting, facing that blank page and trying to push aside the fear of failing by allowing yourself to write what Anne Lamott refers to as the "shitty first draft." My blog is the G-rated version of that -- I've got young impressionable kids! [They won't read this.] As for writing a novel, I've got E.L. Doctorow's well-worn quote in a tiny frame on my desk: "Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." It's true, but my problem is that I have horrible night vision.

What is encouraging and enlivening to the same?

I'm encouraged when someone is moved by something I've written, when connections are made. That's deeply satisfying. Also, when I'm writing and totally immersed in the characters or some dialogue, a scene perhaps, my brain firing away on all cylinders and suddenly something jumps out on the page. It's usually totally out of the blue, nothing I've planned (consciously, at least) but it works perfectly for the story. Those are the moments of the creative process that amaze me. After those moments, I'm often reminded of a scene from The Last Waltz, Scorsese's 1978 documentary on The Band's final tour. The keyboard player, Garth Hudson, begins a song with this swirling, otherworldly riff that goes whirling around above the stage, and Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko look up, smiling, shaking their heads in wonder as if to say, 'How'd he do that? That was awesome!' Who knows; maybe they were just stoned. I like to think it was magic.

You appear to be a fan, shall we say, of Fan Yang's bubbles and of toast. Do these things have anything to do each other? Do they have anything to do with your novel, directly or in some subterranean way?

Who doesn't love bubbles and toast? (Separately, of course.) Neither has anything to do with the novel. I saw a photo of Fan Yang in Parade Magazine in the Sunday paper a few years ago. He had this supernatural look on his face, very mesmerizing. I researched the guy and discovered this bizarre subculture of professional bubble blowing performance artists. Now there's a fun story waiting to be written. And toast? Well, toast and I go way back.

Is there such a thing as useful advice for a youngish, as-yet-unpublished novelist? What is it?

Read everything. Everyone says it, but it's true. Even if it's bad, read it -- you don't have to finish it, though, just learn from it. Above all, write. Rewrite. Edit. Write some more. Revise, read aloud to yourself what you've written. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

What pleases you most in a book?

An engaging, believable (within the realm of the book's world) story. Realistic dialogue. Nothing turns me off more quickly than stilted, affected dialogue. I also love a good Acknowledgments page. I don't know why, I just do. Ask Ingrid Hill.

What three revelatory, enlightening questions did I fail (miserably!) to ask? Do not answer them.

1). Why do you spend so much time working on something that people might never read? (I'm not good at much else.)

2). Who's your favorite Stooge? (Moe.)

3). Ginger or Mary Ann? (Jeannie) Sorry, I can't let questions go unanswered.

Thanks, Marly, this has been fun. I feel like such a minor celebrity!

You can find more about James Simpson at his blog, Shoddy First Draft.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

At the Palace of Pest

Bloggerdom will have to toddle on mostly without moi for a while longer, because children want stories and special treatment when they are sick. And children don't need a blogger (or a writer, though one hopes the stories are first-rate.) In some bookish ways it has been a sickly-yet-good week: requests for poems and a story (I love requests, because I hate the bother of sending out), mail with money for a poem (yes, money for poems is always surprising news) and an issue of Books & Culture with one of my poems, "The Sea of Traherne" (also reprinted online with permission from the editor here), and an acceptance to Yaddo--my first time applying, so I'm pleased.

Also, somebody pointed me to a new review of Catherwood (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)--a longish review of a book published twelve years prior. The net is a friend to writers when it allows once-impossible things like this to happen. (Of course, the web also allows the throwing of fermenting veggies and bizarre anonymous notes.) The end made me feel cheerful, it's so heartfelt and strong: "Catherwood has changed my life completely. This book has easily become my all-time favorite. It has all the action, romance, suspense and gruff reality that will keep the reader turning pages until the bittersweet ending. I urge everyone to find this book, buy it, read it. Mothers take my warning, you will need a whole box of kleenex for this one. I have read it several times. I know it by heart almost, and it still makes me sob uncontrollably."

Thank you, Dawn Nave! I'm glad somebody somewhere is using kleenex for something better than the common cold.

The book had great reviews in the NYTBR and Washington Post and elsewhere and was a Literary Guild Alternate, so I've always felt sad that megacorporations ate its paperback line (Bard) and thus took Catherwood out of print. But you can buy a used copy in softcover or hardcover for one little brown penny at Amazon (here) and such places.

I whispered, 'I am too young,'
And then, 'I am old enough';
Wherefore I threw a penny
To find out if I might love.
'Go and love, go and love, young man,
If the lady be young and fair.'
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
I am looped in the loops of her hair.
--from Yeats, "Brown Penny"

And trala, despite coughs and fevers and winter blues! Good health to you, and good cheer. The sun is blinding-bright on the snow today, so I'm dreaming of melt and the lovely sound of ice water (trickling into the basement, no doubt.) And now I climb upstairs to tell a story to a little boy who needs one desperately.

Don't we all, don't we all?

Public domain picture: Image is taken from an old postcard of Yaddo that appears in various spots on the web--and seems to be sold as a larger print as well.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Office of Health, O. O. H.

O. O. H. missive: The castle is under pesty, pesky quarantine in the heaped-high banks and the pelting snows . . . Prayers, parades, dances, offerings (poetry books, flowers, novels and hovels-in-good-repair down South, homemade soup), wishes, crates of Lysol, and cheer accepted.


Really, I'm just shirking.

The cold is not so awfully bad, thanks to mad infusions of Airborne as it took hold. I am beginning to suspect that the stuff may actually work.

However, I'm taking a break while I get over my respiratory unhappiness and my snow blues (you thought they were white, but they aren't, being the exact shade of shadows on snow just before twilight) and fill some requests and get ready for the next two Palace features.

Soon-to-be-showing at the Palace: One piece will be about a new book by Philip Lee Williams--a celebration of morning. The night owls like me can find out what they are missing. Another will be an interview with what is bandied about as an "aspiring" writer. It does seem to me that "writer" is a thing that demands continual startings-over, unless one wants to stamp out repeat copies of a money-maker, so perhaps there is nothing but "aspiring," no matter the age or experience. I have several younger writers in mind but am going to start with one who has a Cooperstown link.

So I am not going to visit your blog today, if you have a blog. You might leave me a note full of verve and signs of life anyway, as it will help drive off the snow blues. If you don't have a blog, thank you for being quaint and not having a blog and come back again.

Anon, my friends and passers-by.


Oh, the curried soup was snitched from Laurelines. Thank you, Laura. It was delicious but not quite filling.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Long Grass Books, again

The Marketplace prefers there to be a great story attached to a book. In fact, it often cares more about the attached story than any labored-over manuscript. The Marketplace may be willing to love your new novel, but it will love you better if you are a beautiful unwed quarter-Nepalese mother of seventeen, a recovered addict, highly photogenic despite your missing hand, cut off by your brutal father with the sword his own father had brought home from Japan in World War II. If you can be all of those things, or some, or none but with just-as-colorful alternatives, you are a story, and that kind of story can be sold as sweet meat for the marketplace.

There’s a peculiar kind of disrespect to the reader in these tendencies: they’re nothing new, of course, and have been written about endlessly. They present a great NO. They are the trees planted to obscure a forest. The big books on the billboards are always new and trendy and changing. The other books are behind the billboards in the long grass. They persist, though they’re mostly invisible.

The Marketplace Taste and “good taste” are not the same. They can coincide, but often they simply don’t. Other eras spent a lot of time thinking about “good taste” and beauty and truth in art; ours doesn’t. But even eras that thought about taste didn't have much liking for Melville and Hawthorne or Dickinson (her little efforts to reach out, all misunderstood) and many another. That's the kind of thing that can kill you, if you're a John Kennedy Toole, say--or many another.

Sometimes I read a book on the billboard. Often I like to lie in the grass and read the unregarded books. They’re hard to find, deep in the long grass. But there are rewards that make up for the effort to find them.

Today we are due for an ice storm on top of our many feet of snow, and school is closed--we are using our last scheduled snow day already. And what I really want is a wonderful book to read. I’ve been re-reading Yeats, and I’m ready for a story that can bear the light of his tragic joy and beauty. Be it new or be it old, what shall I read? What are the really wonderful books that I’m missing, wandering in a grove of billboards?

Prior Long Grass Books

Bilge Karasu

Jeanne Larsen's translation's of Tang poems by women

Clare Dudman

The photograph above is courtesy of and Neil Kemp of Egham in Surrey, England.