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Saturday, January 30, 2010

New books by friends, 2: "The Teaching of the Twelve," "A Syllable of Water"

Tony Jones, The Teaching of the 12 (Brewster, Mass: Paraclete Press, 2009)
A Syllable of Water, Emilie Griffin, Editor (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2008)

The Didache is a curious little document that reflects the workings of a young church innocent of the teachings of St. Paul and with its eye on right practice, and Tony Jones has mulled over this work and considered how it might relate to the house-church movement. His The Teaching of the 12: Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community seems a well-researched—that is, a book based on scholarship and based on face-to-face examination of what the Didache can mean to a specific group of people who meet in homes and public spaces in small groups, seeking to return to the days and ways of the primitive church—investigation of the early Christian era.
The simplicity of the Didache is appealing: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death! And there is a great difference between the two ways. The way of life is this: First, you shall love God who made you. And second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you.” These words sound like the Shema, and there are other elements that sound like the Sermon on the Mount. But there is much in the Didache that’s a bit startling. “My child, don’t observe omens, since it leads to idolatry. Don’t be an enchanter, or an astrologer, or a purifier, or be willing to see or hear about these things . . .” The sections on the Eucharist don’t even mention the sacrifice of Christ but focus on the idea of the fruit of the vine of David and the gathering together of the church. The unforgiveable sin (always a special interest to a lover of Hawthorne!) proves to be this: that one judges a prophet who speaks in the Spirit. Visiting prophets who want to stay should have a craft and earn their bread. One is to fast as well as pray for one’s enemies, for injustice.

Some of the interest in all this is the way that Tony Jones imagines the community that might have used this and considers what is forbidden, setting it against established culture ways of Roman, Greek, and Jew—sex ways, marriage ways, child-rearing ways. An often-implicit contrast with our own culture ways is clear, as well as the reasons that the Missourians who call themselves the Cymbrogi long for the simplicity of practice, the simplicity of love that was a hallmark of the people who used the Didache.

While much of the Didache is straightforward and bent toward an apprenticeship in how to live, there are grace notes of beauty—the church is gathered from the four winds, the broken bread is scattered over the hills and brought together into one. Love is the rule of life.

Lil Copan of Paraclete sent me Tony’s new book; she also sent along a copy of A Syllable of Water: Twenty Writers of Faith Reflect on Their Art. I only know one of the writers in this book—Doris Betts, novelist and short story writer—and I am enjoying meeting the others, all members of the The Chrysostom Society. It’s one of those books to read slowly in ruminant fashion.

My favorite essay so far is by the poet Scott Cairns, whose poems I have enjoyed for some years. His contribution is “A Troubled and Troubling Mirror: On Poetry,” which I like very much for the somewhat self-indulgent reason that I see some of my own thoughts returned to me in fresh clothing stitched up by Scott Cairns. It would be a grand essay for any young poet to read, but I found it quite interesting even though I am no longer a young poet.

Here are a few of my favorite lines from Cairns:
1. Poems are, instead, about language, and about how language—when we learn to trust it—is able to operate as a way of knowing.
2. What a poem is finally about cannot be understood to have preceded the actual making of the poem.
3. …real art is, for the artist, far less referential than it is generative.
4. When we’re talking about poetry, however, success lies primarily in the opacity of the language, the ability of the words to draw attention to their own cobbled densities, and to invite the reader to encounter his or her own reflection in their surfaces.
5. The degree to which a fiction, an essay, a drama obtains the poetic is also the degree to which it is literary.
6. Also, a great many contemporary texts—posing as poems—are more correctly understood to be verse essays, verse anecdotes, verse declarations, verse gripes.

Aren’t those good? What a simple, clear definition of “the literary.” And how pleasing that a poem is regarded as a realm of experience—new, not recapitulated—and a place where the reader will have new experience and discoveries.

There is much more in the essay, and more in the others of A Syllable of Water. In Emilie Griffin’s words, “Our best experiences with literature and the arts are contemplative, a union of ourselves with the beauty before us.”

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Books, deadlines, & truffles

Deadlines and minor panics have been sprouting up for several months, but now at least the current round of college applications is done--much more to do there, but at least we hit the eleventh hour with submissions on Friday. Make that the eleven fifty-ninth minute. And The Throne of Psyche has gone to Mercer University Press. I made the deadline of Friday; then my mother (wonderful persnicketiness!) found some glitches, and so I tinkered some more and turned it in again last night. I guess that's called not quite making the deadline. I got a reward anyway: last night my husband flew home from Houston with a giant purple box of Vosges (haut chocolat, indeed!) truffles, and I discovered that an announcement of chocolate brings the very speediest responses to facebook status lines . . .

Soon I hope to do some more posts on friends-with-new-books since a bumper crop has come along lately. I have a rather daunting stack, but it's not the best of times in Book Land, and one must do one's little bit to help. Yesterday I had lunch at Alex and Ika's with two local writers who just received excellent reviews in the not-defunct-after-all Kirkus: Peg Leon of Cooperstown, whose second book, A Theory of All Things, is forthcoming from Permanent Press; Alice Lichtenstein of Oneonta, who also has a second book appearing, Lost, from Scribner's. Both books have March pub dates and sound like fine reads. I'll get to them.

Meanwhile, I have decided that I don't quite like the first third of my third--perhaps my last, as I have written one for each of my children--novel for children. So I shall be getting back to that soon. The rest of the book has great swing and momentum, but the first third seems a bit mired in molasses. The pacing is a tad off, and the introduction of the various characters comes too slowly.

From a review of the anthology Enemy of the Good (U.K.: P. S. Publishing) in Tangent:

“The Red King Sleeps” by Marly Youmans weaves a vivid fantasy dreamscape of romance, death, decay, and the dangerous power of the mind to create worlds. This story is not long, but Youmans makes every word count. The imagery she presents is as beautiful as it is eerie. It is not surprising that she mentions that this story was “written in the seizure of a dream.” This story will seize anyone with a taste for the dark and surreal. --Maggie Jamison

That's the Tenniel Red King sleeping at the top of the post, of course. I was given the Alice books when I was five and read and reread them endlessly. My Red King doesn't look much like this one. He doesn't even look like a Mervyn Peake illustration--and I adore Peake's Alice illustrations (and what wonders he did with Bleak House and other books!)

And now since I appear to be truffleable, or worthy of being truffled, I will go have a very small bite to eat . . . If you were here, I would share. Alas. As it befalls, I am alone with a large number of helpless truffles. First I shall recite "The Walrus and the Carpenter," waving my handkerchief as I do. Then: a nibble or two. Good cheer!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Giving to Haiti: a recommendation

I recommend this Haitian charity: The Sisters of St. Margaret (Episcopal, associated with The Society of St. Margaret based in Boston) in Haiti have long served the handicapped. No doubt they will have more handicapped patients and students to care for than ever after the earthquake. Their convent was destroyed along with their rehabilitation hospital and Holy Trinity School. The Cathedral and the Bishop’s residence were lost in the earthquake as well. St. Vincent’s School for Handicapped Children has been damaged. Some of the sisters have lost extended family members but all have survived. You can donate here: (Scroll down.)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

More poems at "Mezzo Cammin"

Poems "Scout Ceremony" and "Interregnum" are up at "Mezzo Cammin."


"Scout Ceremony" is about just that--but set on and around the crenellated, arched bridge near the mouth of the Susquehanna (the second bridge.) "Interregnum" was written for a young writer who has gone through a lot of eye surgery, Eileen St. Lauren, and who is struggling to establish herself despite having greatly reduced vision.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Tree for Ezekiel

A second poem of mine is up at the Words of Power issue of qarrtsiluni If you want to make a comment, please leave it there, not here. Beth Adams and Dave Bonta have worked hard on this issue, so I'd like to share any appreciation with them.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Give me your brain! Advise me...

Right now—when I am not lashing my daughter to finish her college applications or doing the FAFSA or meeting my deadlines on the 15th—I am pondering the issue of poetry book marketing.

Yes, marketing is boring and is easily left to marketers. But don’t go away! I need you! If you’re not a poet and not a marketer, I still need you because you’re not in the box. If you are a writer/marketer, tell me what you think works.

Yet it seems an impossible thing, doesn’t it, the selling of a book of poetry in these hard and quickly-changing days? The editor at a mid-size house told me recently that they have dropped their poetry line because none of the books broke 200 copies. 200 copies! And the names on that list were known names.

I have a book of poems coming out in 2011, probably somewhere from March to June. (That’s The Throne of Psyche from Mercer University Press; you can peek at the title poem here.) In terms of planning, that means now.

But we’ve all noticed that things have changed in the past few years. Publishers don’t fork out the money for book tours—and certainly not for poetry! And who can blame them? The free promotion in newspapers and other outlets has slipped away. Book pages have slipped away. The selling of a book of poetry is now the most daunting sell in Book World.

If you want a copy of my book when it arrives, great—leave a comment to say so and I’ll put you on my list. After all, Samuel Johnson often fed himself and Lily and Hodge the cats and the rest of his entourage with a book subscription service. Maybe we ought to revive such things.

But what I’m wondering is, what else can be done? Please put on your crazy, magic outside-the-box hat and speculate. People have done all kinds of antic things to sell novels—have flogged them on the subway, have been recipients of enormous book parties, have corralled people to help sell, have done blog tours.

Unfortunately for the marketing side of things, I am a rather modest person, the kind of person who—with an eighth book coming out—is still having good acquaintances in her tiny village find out that she is a writer. I dislike asking people to do anything for me for various reasons that are probably in the a-bit-mental category. This is not good when it comes to marketing! So I am venturing out of my doorstep to ask for advice, a first step.

One of the many things I’m considering is a book trailer. (Worthwhile? Worthless?) After all, I could hire my future film major daughter—get some use out of that great money-sluice, college.
I’m perfectly willing to do the traditional things—I’ll go where I need to go, but my children are three and my time is limited, and I need to make every event effective. I’m willing to go a distance, but not if I can’t sell books. (Sell enough books for me, and I’ll be there… For that matter, if you want my e-self, I’m always glad to visit blogs, answer serious and ridiculous questions, etc.) But I’m also interested in ideas about how to do things differently, and I just imagine that you (whoever, whatever you are) might have a quirky or brilliant idea. If you have a thought, please leave it.

Picture credit: Rebecca Beatrice Miller, 2009

On book tours:
Author Book Tour Turns Endangered Species

By John Douglas Marshall
“But the economy alone is not responsible for turning book tours into an endangered species. What delivered an equally severe blow to book tours was the concurrent implosion of the media business. Small turnouts at bookstore events could be justified as long as a book tour resulted in significant coverage in the local media. Newspapers, television and radio could extend the spotlight on a book and author well beyond the folks who actually turned up at a reading. But the local media landscape was rocked by a 6.0 earthquake of change. Newspapers cut book features and reviews, just one of their short-sighted desperation moves, a suicidal impulse since book readers were loyal newspaper readers. Local television talk shows were replaced by syndicated offerings from afar.”

Friday, January 08, 2010

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Gail White, "Easy Marks"

“Gail White claims a new authority for the woman light-verse writer: The right to assert herself as a satirist, as a clear-eyed critic of the world around her… Her poetic voice seems unusually tough, self-confident, and astringent.” —Julie Kane, author of Rhythm & Booze

Last month Gail White sent me her book Easy Marks (David Roberts Books, 2008); I know who Gail is because of the Formalista listserve for women who write formal poetry ( That’s a fairly small group, but Gail also is an honorable member of an even smaller group: those who write comic and satiric poetry, who bind cleverness in numbers.

Having a fixed idea that the very happiest part of my childhood was the time when I lived in Gramercy and played with my Cajun neighbors and then in Baton Rouge, where I was taught by the adorable Mrs. Stringfellow, I have a soft spot in my heart for Louisianans. I also have soft spots for poetry that tells stories. And one for poets who use characters. And another for wild variety and comedy that restores the world and light verse that darkens and goes heavy...

Here's a little mini-anthology of Gail White's poems. If you read them and want more, head over to her website. And always remember, in what may be the most-often-remembered words of Kenneth Patchen, "People who say they love poetry and never buy any are a bunch of cheap sons-of-bitches.” It's good to remember that most books of poetry in these United States sell well below a thousand copies--often below a hundred copies--even though poems reward rereading and memorization in a way that a novel, say, simply can't. The publication the next book often depends on sales of the one prior. So if you like a poet's work, think about buying it.


It knocked me over to learn there's no such thing
as a nervous breakdown. My aunts and uncles had them
all the time. It was spoken of in whispers,
like drink, divorce, or cancer. Aunt Leona
had a Nervous Breakdown back in '67
and never took communion again--she thought
the devil had her. Enviable Aunt Leona,
sure of her standing with the Lord and Satan.
Uncle Eugene got violent when he drank
and ended up in a Home. They never said
whose home it was. Some people who broke down
looked fine to me, but still the fame and glamour
of a Nervous Breakdown hung around their necks
like a name-brand diamond. Now, in middle age,
I'm told my dismal state is just depression,
Reactive, mild--here, try a little Prozac.
Damn it, I don't want drugs. I only want
to be eccentric, batty, somewhat daft,
covered by Aunt Leona's mental mist.
Again, my generation gets the shaft.
I'm due for a breakdown, and they don't exist.

As she comes to the end, hoping to ravel and have a bit of a mental lie-down, the poem absolutely refuses her and moves into the increased solidity of a quatrain.
One reason I like this one is that I had an uncle who, at 101, kept seeing pesky Georgia devils coming round. His Jamaican nurse chased them away, coaxed him into humor. There's nothing like deep South relatives... (For that matter, there's nothing like relatives.)


He wants his poems now, the ones he buried
with me, to be a sacrifice of love
forever. There you are, that's being married
to genius. That's what you're dreaming of,
you silly girls who think it was great luck
to rise from milliner to painter's model
to poet's wife. You marry and you're stuck.
Give me an artist for a man who'll coddle
himself. Oh, he's in love with his ideal
and thinks it's you, but it's his bag of tricks.
Even when I was dying he could feel
That I'd be perfect for his Beatrix.

And then? They're all alike, poet or hack:
He digs you up and grabs his verses back.

Dante and Dante...

Elizabeth Siddal, lover and finally wife and artist and poet, much under the thick and demanding shadow of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, has great fascination for both so-called literary and so-called genre writers. (I prefer not to do categories, but you know what I mean.) Dante's friends dug her up from the grave first and claimed that her red hair had grown wildly, but writers can't let her rest either--she's a fascinating figure.

I like this macabre twist on the tale, where Dante Gabriel Rossetti is already dreaming of his famous "Beata Beatrix" (with the figures of Dante and Beatrice in the background) well before Siddal's death.


Somewhere inside my mother's head
beyond the reach of conscious thought,
their lived the girl she might have had,
the charming daughter I was not.
My shadow sister would have had
beauty and common sense and taste.
Though I had brains, it was too sad
the way I let them run to waste.

My shadow stood beside the bed
moments before my mother died.
Looking beyond and through my head,
"Oh what a lovely girl," she sighed.

What a tight poem, full of reverberations! Here is a little hall of mirrors in which the narrator sees her mother, herself, and the imagined perfect daughter, while we see all these and, additionally, the last gasp of mother-love that can fuse the two daughters into one.