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Monday, July 30, 2012

Magnificent review

Thanks to Contemporary Literature for a review of A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage that makes great claims for the book. The full review by John M. Formy-Duval is here.

Some clips:

It is seldom that a novel from a small university press can compete with the offerings from the big houses in New York. A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage may be the best novel this reviewer has read this year. Its quality and story-telling remind one of The Adventures of Roderick Random, Great Expectation and The Grapes of Wrath among others. The winner of the 2012 "Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction," A Death has the potential to become a classic American picaresque novel.

One wishes, however, that this novel will not get shunted into the regional box and be seen only as a Southern novel. Its themes and the power of its language, the forceful flow of its storyline and its characters have earned the right to a broad national audience.

(Note: There is a minor error where Pip is referred to by the full name of the protagonist in Great Expectations...)

New interview link

In answer to a request for another link: the WSKG interview has now shifted into archives and on-demand play. You may find it here, accompanied by an article by Bill Jaker, or else you may go to the full list of "Off the Page" shows with Mr. Jaker here. It's an hour-long show, so we had time to discuss and read from A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, answer a couple of emailed and called-in questions, and read from The Throne of Psyche, The Foliate Head, and the forthcoming-in-November Thaliad. Related link: opening chapter of the novel at Scribd.

Sunday afternoon with Armide

Today I went to see Lully's Armide at Glimmerglass Opera with painter and singer (Aida chorus) Yolanda Sharpe and was better pleased overall than I was the last time around, when I was pleased in part only. It was interesting to see a Baroque French opera with a good deal of dancing (although the elderly lady sitting next to me slipped sideways into sleep during the dancing, she dozed gently and did not snore.) The semi-transparent set designs inspired by Persian illuminated manuscripts and calligraphy were lovely, and the scattered lights that showed through at times pleasantly echoed the bits of crystal sewn onto the ladies' bright jewel-color skirts. Some voices were better than others, and some minor things felt distracting--what did the bit of gender-bending with some of the over-effete poses of the men versus the mannish hair (striking compared to the pretty bunheads of her ladies) of Armide add, and why? The Quinault libretto (story drawn from Tasso) was fanciful enough that the idea of it being the Seelie Court and the Fairie Queen kept tumbling through my head. Certainly the dancing courtiers appeared close kin to the trooping fairies with their aristocratic ways and fine processions. Or perhaps, given the invocation of demons, it might be the Queen of the Unseelie Court. She would knock down her world when angered! And of course pop it up again when she felt the desire for another go-round with the handsome Renault. Press images here.

Afterward we went to the Pavilion and heard a great number of songs and set pieces, and I enjoyed myself thoroughly. I am wishing that they would make more use of Yolanda some year; she has a rich voice and much training, though she is tethered to SUNY-Oneonta, where she is an art professor. It would be a great thing for Cooperstown and Oneonta audiences, as she is so well-known and active in both places, especially after her recent recital to benefit the food bank.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Aunt Myra

Parasailing granny does it again (PHOTOS) May 16, 2011 3:33 PM Destin Log staff reports FROM PREVIOUS YEARS: OH, CHUTE! 92-year-old has a blast with birthday parasail Myra Morris celebrates her 94th birthday with style in Destin. The South Carolina native has been parasailing with Captain John of Gilligan’s Parasail every year for her birthday for the past seven years. Morris and her eldest granddaughter, Robin Morse of Hattiesburg, Miss., got a bird’s eye view of Destin. Morris was in town celebrating her birthday on May 12 with 17 relatives from Mississippi, South Carolina and Canada. from
My lovely Aunt Myra died early in the morning on Thursday. Myra Dean Hopkins Morris was the dearest, spunkiest, sunniest, most delightful person one could know. She could charm teens as easily as old friends, get them smiling and laughing even when they meant to do no such thing at all! I don't remember work ever being mentioned by her, but she retired as an editor for the Army Infantry Board; her husband was my mother's brother, my Uncle Hugh, and like my other male relations of that generation, was a war veteran. Even in old age, Aunt Myra would dress in jewel colors like a tropical bird. One of the last times I saw her, we brought in our pile of just-purchased shoes from a discount store in Asheville so she could try them on for a lark--she always loved shopping for shoes. She could make a little episode like that into something that made you laugh and the tears spring to your eyes. If Yeats was right that we must choose between being the maker of our art or of our lives (and while he meant poets, it applies to everybody), then she was a master: of life. Even though she was ready to go on to the next one--being bent by the aches and crookedness of 95--she made this life shine for everybody around her. I can just imagine her flitting through the galaxies like a bright bird, making the stars laugh.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Blog End

To blog or not to blog? All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.
--Faux-Shakespeare + Tolkien

Last week I was contemplating whether I ought to stop blogging--to shut the door on my little house at Blog End, and let the habit sleep... I tend to get a good number of visitors, and lots of comments on facebook links on posts, but I still felt a little unsure about whether it was worthwhile--and whatever do I mean by that? Perhaps that I'm busy; my time is limited. Perhaps that I have lots of books popping up and not much time to do that thing called "marketing." (I am only erratically good at marketing.) Perhaps that I'm reading 300+ books for an award. And that I have other books of mine in the pipeline that I need to work on.

Just when I was leaning toward closing up Blog End, the universe seemed to take an interest in my little habits. I had a spate of marvelous compliments about the blog, online and off, from writers and editors. I suppose that no matter one's age, a resounding response is always helpful--or that I am in some things a weathercock, easily blown from one direction to another.

So today I was looking at my top five most-read posts, and wondering whether high readership could tell me anything. I think it's interesting that the most-read one is about a lively young woman--a sort of character sketch via interview. Two of them have to do with the world of my friend Dave Bonta. One is about guest-editing qarrtsiluni, the magazine he edits with Beth Adams. The other is from a series I did called "The House of Words," and it features poet Luisa Igloria, who posts daily poems on Bonta's Via Negativa. One is about The Throne of Psyche winning an Addy. And the last is about Karin Svahn's ecclesiastical embroidery.

I'm not sure what I can conclude from those five. Perhaps that people and their passions are wonderfully interesting subjects. Perhaps that despite all my novels I lean toward poetry on the blog, though I'm not sure that's true. Perhaps that doing things for other people--featuring someone who has a little more life than most people or a relatively unknown person's passion or a poet's thoughts--is the most pleasing thing a blog can do. The most fun. The most enjoyable to write and to read.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Page for "The Foliate Head"

Tada! Here's a page for  The Foliate Head (UK: Stanza Press, 2012.) The poetry collection, out this month, is a limited edition of 300. If you want a copy, I recommend that you get it soon. I know it's available directly through Stanza Press and also through various Amazon sites, and of course one can always order through your favorite indie bookstore.

It is a special thing--a remarkably handsome item with grand design by Andrew Wakelin, artwork by the artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins, and poems by me. A rare thing, this, the book created by friends! I look forward to seeing a box of copies at my door.

If you have any suggestions or comments, there's a box at the foot of the book page with no pesky word verification or other hoops to jump.

Other recent or recently updated links of note:
A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage
Chapter one at Scribd
Hour-long interview with Bill Jaker of WSKG-Binghamton + article
The Throne of Psyche

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Amis on poetry & a response

from David Wallace-Wells, "New New Yorker Martin Amis talks about terrorism, pornography, idyllic Brooklyn and American in decline"

 Amis: It’s why poetry is in retreat, very generally. What a poem does, what a lyric poem does, is stop the clock. It goes, right—we’re going to look at this moment, this epiphany, this little revelatory meditation on mood and setting. And the clock is going to stop while we do this together—that’s what is said to the reader. And the modern reader goes, Nah, I don’t want to do that, I’m busy. And when you’re reading some enormous piece in The New Yorker or the New York Review of Books about Iraq or Afghanistan, and there’s a poem on the page—you go, what’s that doing on the page? It looks bathetic.

Wallace-Wells: It’s amazing that at one point, the poem could be expected to do the same work as a cartoon—that people reading The New Yorker would have the same appetite for stopping and reading a poem as they would for reading a cartoon.

 Amis: Yeah. And the appetite is gone. People talk about dumbing-down, but there’s a parallel process which is a numbing-down. When a poet is asking you to commune with him or her for this period of time—it gives people the creeps, now. That’s why people are always talking on their phones, or looking at their phones, it’s because they don’t want to be alone with their thoughts.

Novels don’t work like that. The element of escapism is a real one, and you become absorbed in others’ lives. There’s a very good poem by Auden called “The Novelist,” a sonnet in fact. It begins by talking about the poet—”encased in talent like a uniform, they can dash forward like hussars.” And it comes to the novelist. Your talent is very different. You must submit yourself to all human boredom. With the just, be just, with the filthy, filthy, too. It’s a much more promiscuous and Everyman-ish form than the poem. And those novels we talked about, the long-headed essayistic, wise, sort of Babel novels, where you’re just sort of sounding off about this and that—I like those novels, but that is too much like the voice of a poem, not the novelist.

 * * *

 I'm mulling over whether these things are true; being devoted to both poetry and fiction, I'm interested in what novelists (particularly novelists who claim they are not poets) have to say about poetry. Someone with a little distance from poetry but devoted to words can have a sheaf of sharp opinions... And Martin Amis generally does. I once saw him read from The Information at The Regulator in Durham, North Carolina, and thought that he had a real gimlet eye--piercing, demanding.

Some thoughts:

 1. On stopping the clock: Yes, I agree with this in great part. A first-rate lyric can be about much more than "mood and setting," but in our age it frequently isn't about more than mood and setting. And I also agree that (as he says elsewhere in the interview) we're still knee-deep in the powerful current of Modernism, however many times we do protest too much by setting "post" before the word. The "avant-garde" in poetry sometimes appears to have discovered Duchamp for the first time...

 2. One of the things a return to formal poetry attempts to do is wrestle those old patterns of richness and argument (vs. simply "mood and setting") into the current day.

 3. Yes, it seems to be almost possible to pull the average modern reader into the kind of receptiveness that lyric poetry demands. I do know some poetry readers who are not poets, though, and still have a hope that the tribe might increase.

 4. I'm wondering if much of this could just as well be an argument against the long, long dominance of the lyric over longer forms like dramatic monologue, narrative, and epic. (I hope so, since I have a long narrative coming out--a cross between a novel and a blank-verse epic that adheres to epic conventions and focuses on dramatic events and character. Perhaps I prefer to delude myself here. I prefer. I prefer. A reverse Bartleby.)

 5. To what degree is a distaste for poetry actually a result of being force-fed often mediocre or axe-grinding prose broken into lines in the public school system? And being made to write the same? While many children enjoy these portions of English class, the undertaking is so inferior a program to what our ancestors experienced in school, translating Greek and Latin poetry into passable meters. Perhaps today schoolchildren should be asked to translate a passage of Chaucer or one of Shakespeare's sonnets into passable meter and contemporary English.

 6. Bathetic is an interesting word, combining the pathetic and sheer bathos. So the argument is that if you glimpse a poem on the page along with a serious work of journalism, it appears sentimental or downright hokey--before one has even glanced at a word. The whole idea of a poem, Amis says, is suffused with a sense of the maudlin. I have a mixed response here: I'm imagining the newspaper reader more like a cow (no insult--a lovely, pricey Belted Galloway, say), absorbed in her nutritious grass, who flicks away a pesky fly. Of course, that's the "what's that doing there" response he mentions. But a huge quantity of contemporary poetry is barren of feeling, sentimental or otherwise, and to call it "bathetic" is probably to pay more of a compliment than a lot of poetry deserves. (Not that we're any different here than other recent ages: there is always a lot of bad poetry of various sorts. One hopes not to contribute to the storehouse.)

 7. The poetry and cartoon comparison: I'm not sure what it means to say the same "appetite" for each--perhaps I'd agree with the same "willingness" to experience a thing. But the experience of a one-panel cartoon is much, much briefer than the experience of a good poem, which may involve re-readings and certainly asks for an interiority that does not seem common now--although I may be too swayed by the image of people with phones clamped to their heads. All I have to do is look out my front windows to see just that in the shape of a Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame tourist. (How do I know it's not a Glimmerglass Opera tourist or a museums tourist? Dead giveaways: baseball cap, striped uniform. Never worn to the opera or Fenimore Museum. Occasionally to the Farmer's Museum.)

 8. The discussion about poetry and novel seems to suggest again what a loss it is that the more dramatic and narrative types of poetry have faded away during the long dominance of the short lyric--which has, of course, over time become less and less lyric-like. What's the use of a lyric that refuses to sing?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Interview at 1:00

Reminder: I'll be on "Off the Page" with Bill Jaker of WSKG (Binghamton region NPR) at 1:00 EST in the afternoon, repeating at 7:00. The talk will be available on the radio or as live stream or afterward on demand here, to the right of Mr. Jaker's article about the book. We'll be talking about A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, as well as The Throne of Psyche and the two upcoming books of poetry, The Foliate Head and Thaliad.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Today, yesterday...

I was up till about 2:00 a.m. doing by duty as a judge (that is, reading till my eyes bugged out) and now am going to take the morning to look over A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage and The Throne of Psyche for tomorrow's radio interview in Binghamton. And I'll pick out a couple of things from The Foliate Head and Thaliad to read. I have so many other books rattling around in my head that I need to remind myself of my own, I fear. After that I must catch up on all sorts of house-related drudgeries.

Yesterday my eldest turned 23 in North Carolina, and went out to dinner with my mother.. It makes one feel remarkably grown--even more than the 25th wedding anniversary on the 16th. One is sailing fast on the big slide, taking corners roughly at times, but exhilarated.

Slide... That reminds me that when he was 27 months old and I was nine months pregnant, Ben begged and begged me to go down a slide in the park with him. I did, rather slowly. Then at dinner, I suddenly realized that I could not eat any more, and that I had certainly better not eat dessert. The golden daughter with curly hair who I had known would be mine when I was a little girl was born the next morning. Her baby silks fell out before long, and then I had to wait a good long time before the pale curls appeared.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

"A young, naive invertebrate," or, frolicsome facts about the state of books, c. 2012

“Why is anyone the way they are? That’s kind of hard to answer. Why do some people like cheese and other people hate it? Do you like cheese?” --According to, that critical powerhouse, this quote refers to Christian Grey's odd preferences. And here I will confess that a. I do like cheese and b. that I have never so much as cracked the spine on 50 Shades. 
In answer to a question elsewhere: yes, this is what is called tongue in cheek, although mentioning body parts at all is somewhat risible in this context. Am I one of those angry folk? Not at all. I, like Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, simply observe the world's follies and hope to keep my equanimity and good cheer...
1. Comments on and discussions of 50 Shades of Grey are known as "critical reception." Those who discuss are called "critics." Some of them are angry. Some are tongue in cheek. Some are perfectly serious. Some prefer the Christian in Pilgrim's Progress, another book that has sold well over the years. Some have daydreams about Christian Grey and his enthusiastic but allegedly dumb sidekick, Ana.

2. Selling many copies now means a book is good. Selling fewer copies means it is bad. 50 Shades of Grey is the "fastest-selling paperback of all time." Therefore the ancient discipline of Logic tells us that 50 Shades must be a good book, and no doubt the accountants of the publishing industry agree.

3. Book rights to 50 Shades of Grey have been sold in 37 countries, according to Wikipedia. That's a lot. According to the aforementioned Logic, this book must be really, really (really!) good.

4. The book has hunkered down on bestseller lists around the world. People who read 50 Shades are called "readers." Logic says that there are many, many "readers" in the world, far more than I had realized before! This, too, surely must be good, right?

5. Librarians, those people who in times of positively yore had time to help other people to find good books, have sometimes refused to carry the book for various stated reasons but have been over-ridden by readers and people in charge.

6. As Perez Hilton and other major webbish pontificators note, author Brett Easton Ellis (American Psycho) tweets that he wants to do the screenplay.

7. Katrina Lumsden has rioted her way through all five (oops, no three--numbers are very important) volumes and posted her colorful thoughts on Goodreads. Among other things, she collects words. In the first volume, she finds the count on these words:
"Oh My" - 79
"Crap" - 101
"Jeez" - 82
"Holy" (linked to assorted surprising nouns) - 172
"Whoa" - 13
"Gasp" - 34
"Gasps" - 11
"Sharp Intake of Breath" - 4
"Murmur" - 68 "Murmurs" - 139
"Whisper" - 96 "Whispers" - 103
"Mutter" - 28 "Mutters" - 23
"Fifty" - 16
"Lip" - 71
"Inner goddess" - 58*
"Subconscious" - 82
    *i.e. the vagina of the protagonist, according to Katrina
    (though argues that it is a part of her psyche)
I am very glad that Katrina has read the book and has been anal enough to do all this counting for us. Also, she corrects prior mistaken analyses by pithy summations such as: "This is not a book about BDSM, this is a book about one sick, abusive man and his obsession with a young, naive invertebrate."

Oh my.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Bill Jaker on A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage

Bill Jaker of WSKG (Binghamton, NY) has written an extended piece on A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage in preparation for our 1:00 talk on "Off the Page" on Tuesday, July 24th.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Aurora. Columbine. Such beautiful words.

Clive & prints of "Thaliad"

Clive Hicks-Jenkins is having a printmaker create a risograph version of the cover of "Thaliad." This idea sprang from the Artlog and the enthusiasm of Clive's followers for the cover image. The prints will look a bit different from the original but have something of the handmade quality of its collage of painted paper. As Clive has not yet determined on a size for the edition--though he is thinking of a small number of prints--requests will probably influence him. 
A Risograph is a stencil printer, and I recently discovered exciting images being produced by the Risograph method at Ditto Press in London, where interesting artists and clients flock to work with an enthusiastic team of artist/printmakers. I’ve been collaborating with Ben, who has been deconstructing the cover artwork of Thaliad in order to remake it as a Risograph print. The above image is a screenshot of the artwork remade in six separate colour plates: yellow, green, black, orange, ‘federal’ blue and bright red.
The result of this collaboration will not be a print that reproduces the collage in the way of  giclee or photo-lithography. The Risograph print honours the original artwork while showing evidence of the stencilling technique combined with the judgement calls of the print-maker at every stage of the process. The stencilling inks won’t attempt to  reproduce the colours of the original, but will create their own versions of them to produce a print that is a fresh and craftsman-made object rather than a standardised commercial reproduction. It’s a technique that utilises modern technology, though the results have a slightly naive quality, with the colours fresh and jewel-like. And of course, it will enable me to offer for sale, print-versions of the original artwork, without going the way of a giclee. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012


NBA Young People’s Literature - Winners, Finalists, And Judges On Twitter If you are on twitter or follow it, this might be an interesting list to pursue--lots of people I did not know were on. And now, back to the big summer read...

And speaking of things discovered on Twitter, where, oh where is the angel with the flaming sword when you need him? First Billy Collins unbuttons Emily Dickinson and now, infinitely more bothersome, this. Outrage, as newspapers used to say when they meant rape. Austen? Just shatter a Grecian vase over my head, will you?

As long as we're in the realm of strange things learned on Twitter and the removal of undergarments, please note the fascinating discovery of a 15th-century bra! No doubt fashion historians are scribbling revisionary texts at this instant.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012



I've signed onto Makoto Fujimura's Kickstarter project and hope you will as well. I admire Mako and his nihongan-style painting, as do many people around the globe.


Midori Snyder has shared Paul Digby's wonderful video of my poem "In Extremis," and reminded me of her lovely blog, In the Labyrinth: She also has this and more to say about The Throne of Psyche: "First up read Marly Youmans's splendid and mythicaly off the charts collection of poems, The Throne of Psyche. It will get under your skin immediately -- like all myth and fairy tale weaving together darkness and violence, coupled with beauty and transcendence. The taproot of nature anchors the poems in the material world but family and the powerful bonds of maternal love invite the visionary power of grace."
The Throne of Psyche book page here

(July 18)

Reader review by Mamie: Nancy, I agree 100% with your comments about A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage by Marly Youmans (Mercer $24). This book is to be savored, read over and over, and thought about in between readings! It has, as you said, all the markings of a true classic. -- Mamie
A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage book page here

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

On the calendar

On July 24 I'll be talking about A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage and The Throne of Psyche with Bill Jaker of "Off the Page" (WSKG, Binghamton.)

Listen live at 1-2:00, sign up for the podcast, or listen here.

Monday, July 16, 2012

25th anniversary

On this very day 25 years ago I eloped with Michael Thomas Miller, a man who in the past year has raced on horseback to the pyramids of Giza (and won, mind you), was passed off (in his blithe innocence) as a potential groom in Vietnam while on a medical-mission trip, and spent the night on a high, narrow ledge of the Crazy Mountains wrapped in the bloody skin of a mountain goat (shades of Star Wars.) Things just get more and more wild and curious, and I can't wait to see what happens next.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Quotes x 3


Quoting writer Elaine Neil Orr on facebook with huge thanks to handsellers everywhere and Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh and Nancy in particular for loving and selling A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage: "I was in Nancy Olson's bookstore yesterday, holding your book, and Nancy came by, took the book from my hand and said to all nearby: You need to read this!"


"Rulers come and go, and we're fools if we put our faith in them." -Fr. Mark Michael


When I signed a book this morning, the owner told me that her favorite line in A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage is when Casimiria (the Countess Casimira, please!) waxes poetical, musing on how "dreadfully old" she is:  "We are grass, our lives fleeting, our golden morning lasting no longer than the yellow flower head of the dandelion that runs to seed and which some passing child plucks and blows upon, scattering all its silver threads." Thank you, Miss Daphne!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Unpacking Ms. Penelope's trunk...

Clive Hicks-Jenkins,
vignette from
The Foliate Head 
Last night I tootled off to Crumhorn Mountain with child no. 2 to see no. 3 dance with The Order of the Arrow. Must say that being 1/16th Mohawk must help because he looked long and elegant and graceful. And that faux-Iroquois mini-dress and feather bustle looked pretty grand! Alas, it was quite hot dancing around summer fires, and an unexpected need to jettison dinner came strongly upon him...

We all stayed up late, all except Mike, whose plane was cancelled last night.  He got up by three in order to catch a plane at 4:00 a.m. and arrived in Chicago just in time to have a danish before running a workshop.

And now I am avoiding the mountain range of books in the guest room and frittering my precious time. Thanks to @tedgioia on Twitter, I just read Penelope Trunk's article, "How I got a big advance from a big publisher and self-published anyway." I have some fascination with these barn-burners who leap into self-publishing. I suppose my response would have to be "How I got little-to-decent advances from big publishers and small and university presses and published with them and didn't have time to worry about it a whole lot." In the comments she replies to someone with a question about fiction:

Nonfiction is about earning money. The author is writing the book to generate some sort of action that will earn the author more money than any book can earn.
Fiction is about art. The writer is looking for some sort of authority on this art to say the book is art. The publishing industry actually still serves as a good gatekeeper for this sort of thing.
The publishing industry probably would have rejected Fifty Shades of Grey as trash even though it became a self-published bestseller. But in general, the publishing industry establishment has a good eye for good literature. That’s why self-publishing fiction is so different.
So let's see. Considering self-publishing and poetry is absolutely pointless; I've had and will have gorgeous productions with publishers--The Foliate Head coming out soon and Thaliad in November being even more special as physical books than any I've had before thanks to Clive's artwork. I've had as much impact on the shape of each of the forthcoming books as if I had self-published. That is, I chose certain publishers (both asked for a manuscript) who allowed me to have input and to work with an artist. In the case of The Foliate Head, the choices in the book were 99% made by me, the artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins, and especially the wonderful designer Andrew Wakelin, who was not an employee of the publisher but a friend who worked with us out of sheer love for books.

"Action that will earn the author more money than any book" is certainly a nonfiction idea for those looking for fat speaker engagements and other mysteries. But what about fiction?

Johnson said that "nought but a fool" wrote for anything but money. Of course, I just wrote a very long series of poems about a fool... And what I really care about is the deep pleasure of writing, and also the frolicking with readers that comes afterward--dancing my dance of words with readers. At the moment I particularly care about novel readers dancing with me on top of an imaginary boxcar: A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage. 

Anyway, I could hardly be paid for a lifetime of pushing words around the page for the joy of it. Who could afford it? And I have done that perfectly unwise for sales yet delightful-to-me thing of writing in many genres--novels of many sorts (realist, irrealistic, historical, coming-of-age, multi-genre, etc.), short stories, novellas, lyric and other poetry, long narrative sequence of poems, extremely long poem (i.e. epic), and stories and novels for children.

And I have certainly not given up on publishers, even though I'm one of those writers who turns in a clean copy that does not need a lot of editorial scrubbing. What I do ponder is what my publishers can do for me that I can't do for myself, and how to best use their limited marketing time. What is effectual, rather than just an exercise in treading water? It seems to me that a great deal of labor is misdirected, mine as well as theirs.

One question pops up; now here come a thousand. Mostly I don't mull these things because I'm more interested in what I'm writing. Perhaps I should think more about these issues, now that I'm committed to a summer and early fall of major reading. But just this instant I must go to the book mountain and grab another book and climb into a dream.

Friday, July 13, 2012


Pre-orders are now available
from Stanza Press in the U.K.
Interior/exterior art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.
Design by Andrew Wakelin.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Snip from White Camellia

Excerpt, A Death from the White Camellia Orphanage:

From a ways off, the train idling by the tank did not look so big.  And he had practiced for this, grabbing a vine and swinging his legs up and onto the fork of a tree, over and over, until the jump to his “boxcar” was easy.  Grey smoke vented from the stack at intervals, barely staining the air.  But when the train began to move, it accelerated rapidly, the whistle crying two notes about a tug-of-war meant to budge tons of metal, to hurl wheels along the rails.  Smoke geysered from the stack in jet thunderheads.  As the engine loomed up, Pip began to lope, his gait crooked, his bindle swinging from one hand.  Stumbling, he almost tripped and dropped beneath the iron wheels, and with a lurch of fear he leaped at and seized a handle.
            The powerful sweep of the train jerked him from his feet, banging him against the side of the car.  Cinders and stones pelted his bare soles.  Up—out—legs away from the wheels!  The thudding and pounding brought on an ache and then an eclipse, the landscape darkening steadily as he was flung against metal and across the open doorway.  He reached for another grip with the hand that held his bindle and failed to find it.  The pain in his head blotted out everything except his need to find safety in his grasp.  The locomotive rocketed on; hot air gusting from the wheels spewed against his ankles.  Jabs of anguish in his head wanted him to go sailing into the puff briars and berry bushes beside the train.  He could not.  Could not hold.  Could not keep battering the flank of the boxcar and swinging his legs toward a security he could not find, the handle digging into his fingers.  Hollering against the vibrating metal and a skull-caged star that sprouted new spikes of pain, Pip let go.
            But something had seized his wrist, held him a moment like a flag, flapping outward and threatening to fly, and then hauled him inward and flung him onto the floor of the car where Pip lay panting, saved, alive, his head speared by migraine, his ears deafened by the galloping noise of the wheels, and his whole frame shaken and racked by the clamorous train.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Thread in the labyrinth

The dog stopped barking and began to snooze. Child no. 3 is sleeping so deeply I checked for breathing. Child no. 2 and friends (day off today!) probably stayed up all night. Sleeping in the playroom, those... The tourist traffic sounds like water. I look around and once again realize the dire need for three maids, a gardener, and a secretary. The latter part of summer is all reading-and-judging of some hundreds of books, with occasional hops out in the world to remind people that A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage leaped into the world of March 30th, eager for friends. Also I do bits of work on the upcoming poetry books, The Foliate Head and Thaliad. Then there is life, with children and husband and friends and visitors. It's all quite crammed.

Since reading when I wake up, while I eat lunch, and on into the night gets in the way of writing, I have started a strange manuscript that appears to be going somewhere, though I'm not sure where. I'm not making myself consider the where, only that I must have fifteen minutes each day to call my own. I just sit down and immediately write for that short space of time. The narrator is a young woman who tumbled into another world as a child, and there is Reknel who is so large that she only sits and thinks, and there is Omin, who fishes for the bones of the dead, and there is a sort of highwayman whose identity will emerge. Oh, and Old Martin, who comes from the same place as the narrator and teaches her English. Evidently there are five others from the same realm. They haven't appeared yet. Others as yet unknown are lurking in the trees, no doubt. I save a tiny snip of time for it every day, as not writing makes me feel . . . peculiar.  So I now follow the ways of Trollope, writing once a day in brief and businesslike fashion. I have no idea whether this piece will have some strength or whether it will be simple a large, diffuse embroidery that simply allowed me to "keep my hand in." Either way, I follow the thread through the labyrinth of many books. And the heap is starting to look like a labyrinth in the guest room--stack after stack of books with tiny paths in between.

Quote of the Day:  And here is a reminder that the new novel is a real thing in the world--as it could easily feel like a dream, given the nonstop reading and the pickled eyes hanging out on stalks:  Nancy Olson (a Publishers Weekly Bookseller of the Year), Quail Ridge Books (excerpt, Quail Mail #638): Occasionally I read a new work of fiction that blows me away, and Marly Youmans's A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage (Mercer $24) did just that. Every page in this book resonates with beautifully crafted language, a "universal melody that sings of deep loss and conciliation," and a moving story of a young boy, who after the death of his beloved younger brother, takes to the rails in Depression-era America. I agree with one reviewer that said this is destined to be an American classic.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The fictive dream and the folding chair

Recently I enjoyed an opera on opening night and relished seeing friends in the chorus. The opera house demanded a compaction of usually grand settings onto a smaller stage. Lovely and inventive costumes, heartfelt singing, a magical opera, a beautiful story in which people of high rank are battered and tossed by great forces, and a rural, fresh-air opera house with grand acoustics... I had a great time.

Now I want to make it very clear that I liked the opera (though a certain tomb scene should have been kept in--the alteration to the end makes the closure too much like "Romeo and Juliet.") But I'm not going to name the opera or the opera house because what I'm really after here is certain tendencies in art.

The parts of the opera I don't like are no surprise. It's easy to find examples of parallel decisions in all the arts and in plenty of other operas.

One problem that relates to the decisions of artists drifted through my mind more than once: the whole business of "updating" and "making relevant" a story that, treated in a less clever manner, partakes of timelessness. The set (said to be modeled after a chamber in one of Hussein's palaces) was one of dingy, war-dirtied grandeur, and the designer and director chose to update the "war room" atmosphere in the fashionable mode with computers and folding tables and chairs. Likewise, the director utilized episodes with water-boarding and execution by lethal injection.

These are elements that distract and tear me out of a fictive dream.

Why should they? 

After all, we can't help being of our time. Our versions of the past will always be grounded in the present. (For example, many of the splendid costumes clearly refer to pharaonic times and invoke grandeur but use the flowing fabrics of our own. Or to take a different opera, I'd point to the wondrous marriage of old and new in the conception, design, and marvelous lighting of Mark Adamo's "Little Women" back in 2002.)

Well, the business of logic tugs at me: why are we invoking contemporary Iraq with an Egyptian historical setting? There's something that feels a bit careless (or perhaps simply a bit axe-grinding) about the conjunction, in part because the ancient histories of each country are so rich and so widely divergent. 

The desire to be relevant when dealing with a timeless work of art: it's just not helpful. It puts up billboards saying that we're going to make the work relevant for you poor, benighted contemporaries. Relevance is not needed because a timeless work is always relevant--otherwise we couldn't possibly call it timeless. Nevertheless, there is a mania for relevance and innovation in opera and elsewhere--certainly the desire to "be relevant" and "say something new" spoils a good many novels and poems and dates them with great rapidity.

A sense of "telling people what to think about issues" pervades the use of images and actions derived from water-boarding and lethal injection. (And in order to do so, they had to neglect the opera's Egypt-and-Ethiopia setting in order to invoke water-boarding and Hussein's palace.) I find it bothersome when an artist tries to commit axe-grinding. As a novelist and poet, I'm not the least interested in telling my readers what to think about current hot-button issues (although I don't think that those two topics are hot-button but rather old-hat, and most people know what they think already.) My readers are smart and don't need me to lord over them with some faux-superior knowledge, I feel quite sure. And that's not my purpose in fashioning a work of art.

Moreover, there is a deliberate, chosen ugliness in the stage design and props that is in keeping with the past century's war against beauty, and this occurs particularly in the water-boarding and lethal injection scenes. I've so been wanting to get beyond the endless legacies of Modernism and return to beauty, that wondrous quality married to love, truth, and transformation. The elements I thought particularly ugly: the homely folding chairs and table that made distracting noise (because hey! metal folding chairs make noise, and there's nothing a person can do about it if they need to be moved) during an aria; the scaffolding used for various purposes. The mixture of the  ugly with the beautiful (the music--they can't uglify the music and libretto--and fashion, which is still allowed to be lovely) muddles a story that arrows toward love, sacrifice, and death.

That business about time... Immersed in a theatrical dream made of out words and notes, we enter a world where time is lost. A single Western, modern folding chair can collapse that delicate house of cards. Plenty of opera directors and designers use clashing elements for a purpose. That kind of now-familiar and yet still fashionable cleverness simply does not work for me. I very much doubt that anybody except a person ideologically bound to post-post-post-etc.-modernism could love it..

The same thing can happen in all kinds of narratives. One of the things most writers dealing with historical settings strive hard not to do--and can do easily--is to spoil the dream by introducing something askew, too modern or from the wrong era. (I'm thinking of a much-lauded literary writer who sent Civil War characters zooming around the South on trains in a year when the Yankees had already ripped up the rails.) 

Some day our long embrace of intentional ugliness and historical hodgepodge on the stage may seem as wrongheaded as the work of those once-cutting-edge playwrights who patched happy endings onto "King Lear" and other tragedies. In the meantime, there is much left to admire, and I am thankful for that.

Yet give me the beauty and power that comes with timelessness, and don't wake me from my dream...

* * *

Letter from the Pulitzer fiction jury here.  This one is especially interesting to me, as I'm on a judging panel for a national award this year.  Their negotiation on what constitutes a "best book" is particularly thought-provoking.

Update, page for A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage

Monday, July 09, 2012

Novel-slaying: a clarification

Amusing account of the semi-botched NYT review of Patrick Somerville's new book here ('Thank you for killing my novel.") One might say that this is an account of making lemonade out of lemons on a grand scale. Of course, even a pan in the NYT is something of note, although I have a friend who cried mightily for several days over hers. And why not? A piece of her life was captured in the book, and I'm rather afraid that the reviewer had a distaste for Southerners in general.

The Somerville case: the truth is that an error in a review led to another mention (hurrah!) in the NYT for correction, and then to a correspondence with a NYT writer (hurrah!), and then to the Salon article (hurrah!) and others (more hurrah) about what happened, including this little post. So it's all a happy ending in the guise of an unhappy ending.

What is not a good outcome and slays novels is something very different than what is known as a "mixed review." A bad outcome is to be simply ignored by reviewers, and not to have anything to be botched or corrected or mentioned or bewailed in an amusing fashion. That's the really bad outcome.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Anecdote of Edward Lear

'How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!"
  Who has written such volumes of stuff!
Some think him ill-tempered and queer,
  But a few think him pleasant enough.

In pitch darkness, after a fifteen hours' journey in Greece, he went to sit on a rock but sat on a cow. He remarked cheerfully, "There was an old man who said / Now I'll sit down on the horns of that cow..."
     --Peter Levi, The Art of Poetry

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A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage reviews here
A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage sample chapter
A Death at the White Camellia Orphange book page here

Friday, July 06, 2012

Rounding up the little doggies--

"Oh! the Duchess, the Duchess! Oh! won't she be savage if I've kept her waiting!"
THALIAD vignette, Clive Hicks-Jenkins
And now I need to go readreadread and also snag a ticket for "Aida" at Glimmerglass Opera... Hurrah for friend Yolanda Sharpe, who is not only a grand painter but is a spectacular soprano and is the really big-bodied voice you hear in the chorus. Also on the weekend burner: a quick trip to Crumhorn Mountain to see the Scouts in their fireside frolics. We won't mention the need for house-drudgery and a total dearth of house elves: too daunting.

The best new link for A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage is Ben Steelman's review at The Wilmington Star, "Youmans's novel might be her best yet." And I also updated the book page for the novel this week.

Both Clive Hicks-Jenkins and Beth Adams have posted lots of interesting news about Thaliad. Clive's Artlog overflowing with new work for the book. Beth's Phoenicia Publishing site also has a number of posts about progress on the book.

More web-wrestling today. Boring! I managed to ruin my Val/Orson page after pasting in a post from novelist friend Philip Lee Williams that no longer existed except as a cached copy, as he has taken down his blog... That one little action gave Blogger unnatural fits. I finally made a new page for the book and chucked the old one. Ridiculous. So go look at the new one with Phil's post; maybe I won't feel that I wasted so much time! 

Thursday, July 05, 2012


Some nefarious thief seems to have stolen the bulk of the images off my book pages--how did that happen? This morning I have gone through and stripped the blank frames and replaced some essential images, but they are barer pages than they once more... Now I know to go through and check the art gallery more often! I'm afraid that the greatest losses were both finished art work and sketches; some time I'll replace the ones that I can by rooting through the blog. The book covers were easy enough to replace, though I did not find a clear one of Little Jordan. I hope that I have not introduced any errors (hanging captions and so forth), so if you see anything strange, please call me on it!

Meanwhile, in the past few days I have passed the 50-mark on reading for a judging stint. And that is encouraging: it is possible to consider 300 books, to give each one a fair swing. It's just not easy, and the reading must be done every day. Since I fear being slightly off-kilter with doing so much reading and no writing, I have started something simple--a group of related prose poems. At first I thought that I would just sit down and write whatever flew into my head each day, but I should have expected that characters would show up, and that there would be some kind of narrative visible, even in such a form.

I look forward to mid-November celebrations, when I will be free to start the novel that is rolling about in my head and making rumbly noises from time to time. It is great fun to think about, and I hope will be pleasing to read, some day.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Happy 4th of July!

"The love of one's country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border?"
                   -Pablo Casals

Time to recall patriot ancestors who dyed the earth in blood for the cause of Lady Liberty and to celebrate the ongoing project of freedom and those who have striven to reform... My day? A giant potluck with the Scouts at Crumhorn Mountain and watching the fireworks reflected on the surface of James Fenimore Cooper's Glimmerglass.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Monday, July 02, 2012

Miss Yo-Yo & Marly at Yew Journal

yew logoIf you click and catapult over to Yew Journal, you'll discover some poems from my series, "The Book of the Red King," and artwork by friend Yolanda Sharpe. The editors always ask for an unknown biographical fact for the contributors' notes, so you may also ferret out secrets.

* * *
Ghosts and Gaslight was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award, and now Charles Tan interviews Nick Gevers about the anthology. Nick refers to me and Theodora Goss as "grand mistresses of the mytho-poetic." I think we need some old-fashioned calling cards. Some lovely curling script:  Theodora Goss, Grand Mistress of the Mytho-Poetic. Etc. Nothing like a proper calling card.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

"Rich and strange"

Review - Youmans' novel might be her best yet

"A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage" continues Youmans' winning ways. It received the Ferrol Sams Award for Southern fiction. It may, in fact, be Youmans' best to date: a picaresque yarn that invites comparisons to Robert Penn Warren.

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Although it's only intermittently comic, "White Camellia Orphanage" has parallels to Michael Malone's "Handling Sin." Both books are haunted with Christian imagery and metaphor, and both involve a quest for missing family. (Pip eventually encounters an older sister, who perhaps inevitably is named Lil.)
It is not a novel for speed-readers. Youmans revels in wordplay, metaphor and descriptions as luxuriant and dense as kudzu. She can also be slippery. In her version of Georgia, a lady's hatpin is a wildflower, not an object in a toilette.
Readers willing to exercise, though, will find plenty of reward. Like Warren's fiction, Youmans' book is as much poem as novel, turning ordinary story into something rich and strange.
* * *
Read the entire review here.
Published: Sunday, July 1, 2012 at 12:30 a.m.