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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Janus-post: look both ways

Why do you feel that it is important that commercial fiction receive critical attention?
Jodi Picoult: Because historically the books that have persevered in our culture and in our memories and our hearts were not the literary fiction of the day, but the popular fiction of the day. Think about Jane Austen. Think about Charles Dickens. Think about Shakespeare. They were popular authors. They were writing for the masses.
Appreciation! Recognition! is Jove appreciated? Why, ever since Adam, who has got to the meaning of his great allegory--the world? Then we pigmies must be content to have our paper allegories but ill comprehended. 
--Melville to Hawthorne, in reply to a letter about Moby Dick, long considered a failure

"Thank goodness you're a failure--it's why I so distinguish you! Anything else to-day is too hideous. Look about you--look at the successes. Would you be one, on your honour?” 
--Henry James, The Ambassadors

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Good-by to all that--

Yesterday, the day of sad news and the giant Winnebago stuffed with yipping dogs (alas, parked directly in front of my house, which stands, like many old village houses, rather close to the street) is done. Heralded by two hungry cats kneading my prone and possibly edible body, one barking dog and many cheeping sparrows hopping about from the dripping giant rugosa to the hunch-backed lilac, the new day has begun. It's full of little creatures not bothering to think about matters of death and life, not worrying their brains about selves or fictional worlds (or, if one makes sub-worlds, whether the world-building is properly established) or even (save us!) genres or marketing and promotion.

No, they tear the world into little chittering bits; they bark it and miaou it with cheer. I like this washed, broken world. It has filled my head with rain and the confused movement of leaves in morning breeze. In a moment, I shall go out and navigate my way between raindrops--

Friday, September 28, 2012

Internal exile

What I find interesting this morning:

Writing is a temporary surcease from exile. It is not a search for one’s "voice" or "subject"; it is not the invention of a "self" nor even of a "world." These are the concoctions of critics, who study the scattered places where the writer momentarily relented from his unrelenting search for some place to relent from his unrelenting search. The word writing is a progressive verb. The writer is distinguished by his progressive activity, not by what he has written. Nor by the kinds of things he has written. Someone who has written stories is not necessarily a writer, nor is someone who hasn’t.  --D. G. Myers 
I'm feeling a little obsessed with Myers because he makes remarks that have little thorny hooks that catch and stick in the mind. He has no business latching onto my brain that way--or maybe that is exactly his business, maybe that's what he's for... at least in part.

 There's much that is interesting in that passage and about the bond between writers and the idea of exile, but what I'm thinking about right now is "exile" as starting in early childhood. For a while, I was going to call The Throne of Psyche after a short poem, "The Exile's Track," and I have had a strong feeling of being exiled since about the age of four. First there was a feeling of exile from family, of things being sigodlin, askew because of a death. Then there was the constant ripping away, at least every three years, from the place I knew and where I had made friends. And this was particularly acute in my second and third moves, when I was dragged out of fairyland, as I conceived it, in the form of crawfish and Cajun playmates and tropical blooms and shrimp and alligator turtles and moonvines. We moved from Gramercy to Baton Rouge, but there was much that I loved there as well. But after second grade I was dragged entirely out of Louisiana and the South. I wept with relief and joy when, at almost 13, they told me we were moving to North Carolina.

After a while, one is always a little uneasy, or balanced somewhere between a past and a future uneasiness. And that's not what Myers is talking about, but it's related.

If a writer ever felt completely at home in a tale and satisfied, he would then have found home and would never need to progress again. Instead, writers are all melancholy around the edges, even the happiest of them, because they can never pluck the silver apples of the moon and the golden apples of the sun and are condemned to go on wandering with Aengus, endlessly searching, endlessly almost capturing, endlessly letting go.

Or perhaps we are like Odysseus, wandering on, creating a kind of archipelago of islands, temporary stays. Maybe we are Penelope, endlessly working over her strange warp and weft, throwing the shuttle--always tearing down, never satisfied, never quite at home even though at home.

No wonder all stories seem to herald an arrival or demand a departure...

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Fool party

After yet another five hours spent in ferrying two children and then waiting in Oneonta while they drove around with Ted of Baxter's driving school, I am ready to party! Being a writer and hence capable of large amounts of peculiar behavior, I am working on the poems in The Book of the Red King for my reward. That means I am revising some, tossing some, slightly tweaking others, and patting a few on the head with no change. Here's one, the first of thirteen that appeared in At Length in the past year. (More poems here. It's easy to see an alchemical influence in this group.)


What does it mean to be a fool?

Is it to reel about the world
Like stars made out of icicles,
Dangerous and breakable?

What does it mean to be a fool?

Is it to make the things no one
Can recognize or put to use?
For the beautiful, for hurt joy?

He spins around, wanting to learn.

The Fool is dreaming that he lies
With truth—across a grave like glass
He lies, the shaft shoaling with leaves.

What can he do with schooling dark?

Each minnowed leaf says leave-taking.
He shakes his rattle at the dark
And fills his antic hat with leaves.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Poetry, fiction, hippos--


1. When you buy a gigantic cauliflower, no one will notice and so somebody else will buy another gigantic cauliflower, and then there will be no room in the fridg inn.

2. When hippos poop in the water, they twirl their tails in circles and attract fish. (This sort of thing is what you learn when your husband goes to Mozambique for a month and then comes back.) Perhaps Mattel would be interested.

3. I no longer have any patience for lists that tell me something like what should be in a narrative poem and give cleverish advice. I've written a long narrative poem that's soon to come out, and I'd rather somebody read it than read a list, just as I'd rather read a writer's narrative poem than his/her lists about what they want in narrative poems. Is it that I'm beginning to think that people read these clever lists about a piece of art and then don't encounter the art? Meanwhile, I am committing a list. Woe is me.

4. To clarify, although primarily to two or three concerned parties: although at times I am ensnared by genre terminology because it's the way so many people look at books, I'm really just a Sendakian divider of books into good and not-good. I don't care about genre and sorting and classification. Just give me the good.

5. Sinyavsky quote plucked from an Amazon review: "In principle only miracles are worth writing about--as the fairy tales knew. And if we ever decide to tell about ordinary things, we should show them in a supernatural light. The art of narrative is to see things like this."

6. Another Sinyavsky: "Art does nothing but convert matter into spirit."

7. Me, one minute after midnight: One reason that poetry is a higher art (when it is a higher art) than the novel is that one can approach perfection with a poem, whereas a novelist is doomed to throw in a wrench and the kitchen sink.

Monday, September 24, 2012

My podcast (blush!)

I've had a book dedicated to me . . . but never have I had a podcast dedicated to me. I didn't know podcasts were dedicated to people! But this one is fascinating, focusing on writer Andrei Sinyavsky's A Voice from the Chorus. John Wilson, editor of Books and Culture, is probably the most well-read man on the continent, and if he says this book had a great impact on him, I'm going to read it. I suspect you should too.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Adventure Boy

Michael-my-husband has been having some difficulties in exiting Africa by way of Maputo and then Johannesburg. Evidently he had a Kafkaesque passage when accused of gun smuggling in Mozambique... Eventually he did fly off.  But then he and hundreds of others were turned back to the airport when someone on board the plane suffered a heart attack. I hope that victim survived and is feeling better and that the rest of the passengers are safely in the air, going home or leaving home, each as wished. Evidently my Mozambique adventurer may be home by Sunday night. 

So today I shall tinker with The Book of the Red King, exercise, go to the farmer's market, clean up my house, and generally make ready for the return of the wanderer. I hope you are having a good adventure, out there in the world.

Friday, September 21, 2012

"Show us what he does and how"

Clip from Ruth Franklin's acceptance speech for the 2012 Roger Shattuck Prize in criticism:  It’s obvious why the reviewer needs the novelist—not just any novelist, but a good novelist, even a great one, to challenge us to rise to his or her level. But the novelist also needs the reviewer: not just as a vehicle for advertisement, but as an enforcer of standards. If we speak only to praise—and my children can vouch that I’ve never been guilty of that—then praise itself becomes cheapened, and ultimately meaningless. Not all books are worth reading; some are dull, some are poorly written, and others can actually have a pernicious effect on our culture. It’s the task of the critic to champion books that deserve to be championed, and to take a stand against those that have the power to harm. And anyone who doesn’t believe that books have the power to harm is not taking them seriously enough.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Autumn morning with rain

Yesterday I finished the work on a long judging stint. I celebrated by taking a nap, and when I woke, I sat up in bed and wrote a poem. It felt like magic. And even a morning of autumn rain and "Goldengrove unleaving" can feel like the first day of summer. "Nature is never spent / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things..." I'm in a Hopkins sort of mood, it seems.

Or perhaps it is a Yeats mood of tragic joy, alive in a world where "irrational streams of blood are staining earth." Yet from the darkness springs again "The workman, noble, and the saint, and all things run / On that unfashionable gyre again."

Skimming around the web a few moments ago, I was struck all over again by old, simple truths--that we rarely know what matters, that we mistake straw for gold, that we could be better to one another.  Have I lived this long only to know what a child learns, navigating the world? I feel like a child, eager to play with paint or to push words around on a scrap of paper. So let me go. I will make something.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Waving from the book parlor...

Another day of deadlines and much reading ahead (not to mention important rush visits to the village dump and farmer's market), so why don't you visit me somewhere else, friendly passers-by? Book boards etc. at Pinterest? The Twittering Machine? Etc. Or wander around in the blog, visiting past time. Good cheer and happy reading...

And thanks to Nancy Olson of Quail Ridge Books for recommending A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage (Mercer, 2012) on Tom Kearney's radio show at WPTF-Raleigh.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Public service announcement

This is a no-post day. It is a day to kickstart the children, read many books for a deadline, and wrangle on contracts. Probably I'll throw in a little self-doubt and considerable ditheration and a few fantods. Have a good one, passers-by!

(Meanwhile, my husband in Mozambique has had encounters with a cobra, zebra, cape buffalo, lions, and more. He ate hippo for dinner--like pork but tougher. He says it's better than playing pirates or cowboys. Me, I'm glad for my book and cup of tea.)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

News x 3

1.  Epstein on the state of the liberal arts

Have I said that I very much like Joseph Epstein? I feel sure that I've mentioned his wonderful essay on Isaac Bashevis Singer. Here's a new essay of his that is in part a review of Andrew Delbanco's College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be but is also a frank, interesting response to the current state of the liberal arts on campus.

Clip: The death of liberal arts education would constitute a serious subtraction. Without it, we shall no longer have a segment of the population that has a proper standard with which to judge true intellectual achievement. Without it, no one can have a genuine notion of what constitutes an educated man or woman, or why one work of art is superior to another, or what in life is serious and what is trivial. The loss of liberal arts education can only result in replacing authoritative judgment with rivaling expert opinions, the vaunting of the second- and third-rate in politics and art, the supremacy of the faddish and the fashionable in all of life. Without that glimpse of the best that liberal arts education conveys, a nation might wake up living in the worst, and never notice.

2. Collaborating with Clive

Clive Hicks-Jenkins is judging the Fox Open Art Competition on the Channel Islands, and concurrently having a solo show of new art work (including images from The Foliate Head and forthcoming Thaliad.) It's called The Greening, and will be at the Jersey Art Centre. On the wrong side of the puddle? You can take a peek here.

3.  Emissary

Before the silver cord is loosed, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. -Ecclesiastes

It's the wee hours, and I am grief-struck by catching sight of an image of our ambassador's murdered, dishonored body dragged through the streets while terrorists snap photos on their phones . . . The beautiful idea of the emissary and his permission to walk safely in alien lands has been a part of civilization for a long time.

I consider my blog mainly a place for news about books--mine or otherwise--and sometimes for more personal comments. It is a politics-free zone. But there is something about sorrow for others never known and for a human ideal crushed under foot that can feel personal. I feel it so.

Update: I'm looking at the comments and numbers of visitors (the two not always correlated, though common sense suggests that they would be) to posts and feeling surprised at what receives most attention. I wouldn't mind a bit if passers-by left a note about what they would most like to see on the blog this winter. (I am planning on doing some posts related to this year's reading project, but that can't come until near the end of the year. Otherwise I am as flighty and changeable as ever. I have had a recent request for a visit from the Pot Boy. I might or might not include more Tinies. I'll probably do some posts about friends with new books. Etc. Suggestions and questions welcome.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Rebecca and Campbell, Cake Caterers

Rebecca and Campbell, two old friends from summer camp,
get together in my Cooperstown kitchen and make cake!
Little hamburgers, all cake and icing and dyed coconut.

Happy birthday, Campbell Higle!

Congratulations to Campbell, now leaving for
Trinity College, Dublin as a freshman.
The Emma Willard cyclone is on her way...

"May the road always rise to meet you . . .
may God hold you in the palm of His hand."

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Substance

Awash in driving lessons, NBA reading, Scouts, company, and more... So here's a tiny poem from the just-out The Foliate Head (UK: Stanza Press.) Originally published in Angle. More poems here.


Fine as a ring-stole drawn through a hoop
Of gold, but crimped and burned
And almost ruined by some fire
Long ago, far away--
Glimmering like abalone,
Moody and beautiful.

Some things persist as mystery,
No matter how we seek
A raveling, no matter how
We vaunt, no matter how--
Slanting above our lifted faces
Like rain shot through by sun.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Tolkien/Jacobson, genre/literary

Update: Book designer John Coulthart just sent me a link to this piece, in which he says Jacobson is more nuanced about genre. "The best fiction doesn't need a label." It looks interesting, and I'm going to read it now and then get back to work. Thank you, John!

High school started here on Thursday. The three children and I watched The Lord of the Rings trilogy in celebration of the start of the youngest's sophomore year in high school (the hallways of Orcs! the all-seeing principal Eye! the young women sharp as a blade!) and finished the last bit last night, finally obliterating the sign of sin and overreaching power in the volcanic flow of Mount Doom. Of course, the movies are nothing so complex as the book in three volumes that was praised by Auden and has been dearly loved and reread by many, but it got me considering that curious man, Tolkien, off and on all week. Last night I was thinking about how interesting it is that he disliked Macbeth and yet clearly does more than nod to it with his moving forest on Ent-march and his "no man" oracular prophecy and plot twist.

This morning I read Howard Jacobson's interview in the Guardian, where he says he is "contemptuous of genre things...." Not books but things. (I tend to be with Sendak in thinking that there are "good books" and then the others, but we live in a world where people like to categorize.) Jacobson goes on to reference without naming the Twilight series and then to cite 50 Shades. Ridiculously easy potshots! I'd like to see what he thought of Crowley's Little, Big, for example. He is also contemptuous of the term "literary fiction." He writes "fiction," he insists, while others write "crap." I know a lot of these attacks are a clever, Amis-like use of a media that desires column inches with sharp teeth and blood and hair. No doubt they are good publicity for the new book.

Those of us who write what is called "literary fiction" evidently want to be acknowledged as writing the only fiction that matters; that's why we desire that simple label, "fiction." What we do, we believe, matters more. But it ain't necessarily so. What I learned in writing two fantasies for young readers and a number of fantastic stories for anthologies is that our "literary fiction" worldview is provincial. Writers in other genres believe strongly that we write in simply another genre, one often less vital than their own. Sometimes they are right--depends on the book. It always depends on the book. Likewise, a book in another genre can clamber up to the heights. Entertainment may fly up into the realm of art. Why not? There are no rules, only the force and heart and skill of the mind behind the keyboard. What is The Tempest if not a romance of first love and a fantastic tale of a wand-wielding and -breaking wizard intended to please both the ruled rabble and the ruling classes?

Oh, I have sympathy for Jacobson's past situation, and am glad he has been lifted into light where he is visible. I know all about his "working away at the edges for years." No doubt the stacks of sold copies for A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage and Catherwood and all the rest are but very little hobbits compared to the giant cave trolls of a Booker winner or a NYT bestseller. But hobbits are sturdy, lovable storytellers and song-makers. And the hinterlands and the edges have their advantages. From the edge, you can reach out into space that has no chart, building a world outward as you will. From the edge, the trends and bubbles of the day are only white noise, lost in the distance, and what matters from the past stands like a great field of monuments where a writer can lose and find himself in wandering.

Any of us "at the edges" would trade something for visibility, for a greater number of readers. But it's an old story; I imagine that Melville, say, would have been willing to give up a limb and hobble like a peg-leg sailor to keep the readers he had with Typee and gain a few more. Poe certainly wrote wild attacks with teeth and hair and gave up everything in search of a wider audience. Dickinson ventured out and then back, sealing the door. Yet they and others like them--some remembered, some not--had their painful, joyful, austere reward, just as Stephanie Meyers and the writer of 50 Shades of Gray have a reward of another kind. Let's look to Jacobson's "genre things" for what we must do about the strange ways of the world. As Gandalf says, what comes to those in a time "is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."

Thanks to Damien Walter, Guardian columnist, for the Jacobson interview link.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Red King Redux

Three of The Book of the Red King poems are at the 2012-2 issue of David Landrum's Lucid Rhythms: "The Fool, the King, and the Fox-Fall," "The Yellow Fool," and "The Red Fool." The latter two are little poems based on alchemical colors (some others of these have appeared in At Length), and the first is a narrative. I need to think more about the first one, whether it will stay as is, whether it will go in the final version of the sequence--in the book, that is.

And I hereby nominate the Red King for President. In accordance with tradition, the Fool will play veep. Both promise not to bombard you with bombast, make promises, zap email, send mail, or commit any other botheration. In return: governance rising to perfection through alchemical stages. And perfect Fooldom.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Michael in Mozambique

My husband is the Man of Hobbies.

Some years he takes up beer-making. Some years he decides to dedicate himself to the perfect homemade sausage. During med school and training he did a great deal of hand-piecing and quilting. He used to repair key-wound toys. A few years ago he wrote a novel to see what that was like (I think it's lying around somewhere, almost finished.) Among other pursuits, he cooks, bakes, volunteers as a neuromuscular neurologist in Viet Nam, goes fishing, leads a Boy Scout troop (just back from clambering up Mt. Katahdin in Maine and headed for the Grand Canyon some time next year), teaches a confirmation class, and was recently a Senior Warden at Christ Church (where James Fenimore Cooper was once Senior Warden), travels whenever he gets the chance (lately: Cambodia, Thailand, Sweden, Yukon, Morocco, Egypt, Greece, Turkey), and hunts.

Right now he is hunting in Mozambique, accompanied by our friend Jack, who is packing a camera. Yesterday Michael killed a Cape Buffalo, and I am wondering what on earth one does with a powerful and short-tempered but dead Cape Buffalo, and also thinking about the mischief and fun there could be in becoming a vegetarian... Thanks to a certain person's hobbies, I have eaten antelope (spicy, as if it had been eating mesquite, maybe), caribou, mule deer, white tail, and innumerable other four-legged and two-winged creatures.

Michael and I have been married for 25 years. We eloped and had a sheriff's deputy for a bridesmaid. He was packing a gun but didn't mind holding the bouquet, my one symbol of the usual way of doing things. Flowers and a gun: it seems like a key to how things have gone... I never would have guessed that Mike would sew as well as cook (I knew he could cook), or that he would crave traveling to places like the Crazy Mountains and the Yukon and Mozambique to hunt.

More than most lives, his is an adventure. I do hope he is not eaten by lions.

Thursday, September 06, 2012


Things done well and with a care, exempt themselves from fear.
--Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

Today is the first day of high school in the Village of Coopertown, so lark-rising season begins for me and my youngest. Tomorrow I tote my two eldest to driving school as well, as it is time for one young man and one young woman to learn how to navigate the world. My husband seems to be having a fine time in Mozambique, and has not been eaten by lions or trampled by hippos.

Yesterday I finished the first stage of the reading that has occupied my time since early June. The guest room floor is impassable, a city with skyscraper stacks of books. And each volume is a separate world with its own angle of vision and laws and dreams. Lately I have read some good books, particularly novels, that I will not forget and that will no doubt lure me on in some dream of winning those "silver apples of the moon." As Henry James said of novels, "the good subsists and emits its light and stimulates our desire for perfection."

But now it is time to catch up on all the things I have left undone, from my garden to promised writing and contracts to be reviewed and house repair.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The ghost files

Whenever I look out the front windows, I can see a house with three ghosts... four, if you count one in the stone wall. And I not long ago heard a ghost story about my federal era house. But I've written about those and other Cooperstown ghosts before. Here's a brand new one. Last week I was sitting outside on a bench when S. came by, walking a dog. She told me that her youngest son had been dog-sitting at a house down the street, one that had been a medical clinic in the late nineteenth century.

The day before, her son G. had walked the dog and taken it back in the house. But as he turned away from the dog in the shadowy entrance hall, he realized that a woman was standing close behind him. Alas, he bolted for the door and did not engage her in cross-species chitchat.

Monday, September 03, 2012

A little gift from Float Press

An interesting envelope from Austin, Texas in the mail...
Judy Jensen asked me for an August poem for Float Press.
(Click for larger versions in a new window.)

So I promptly wrote a triolet about Lammas,
the ancient festival of harvest, Hlaf-mass,
when bread would be blessed at church.
And in return I have three "postcards,"
or tiny letterpress broadsides.
Thank you, Judy and Float Press!

Saturday, September 01, 2012

How it goes in the Village of Cooperstown--

As my husband (man of hobbies and adventures) flew off to Johannesburg and then Maputo and rambled on from there a few days ago, I am about to drag a healthy young man or two out of bed and fare into the world to do things that are normally on the man-list, starting with loading the Tundra with recycling and sacks of garbage and heading off to the village dump. Unfortunately I forgot to ask where the dump is, so I shall just have to trust my nose...

I'm still immersed in reading, so no new writing for a while longer. Shall post some more pieces from the Tinies, perhaps.

But mostly I am thinking about how I do not want my husband to be eaten by a lion.