SAFARI seems to no longer work
for comments...use another browser?

Friday, November 29, 2013

Leaving the realm called Melancholia

One of many images made
by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for The Foliate Head
Perhaps it was that big birthday number, glimmering in the near distance, but not long ago I went through a melancholy patch where I wondered whether, in fact, I had done everything wrong. (Oh, I know that I've done plenty that was wrong in ignorance or insensibility. And hope I know better now.) But I meant the whole shape of my life, the fact that I pursued words from an early age, that I felt early on that I had been given the most wonderful, joyous gift and that my calling in life was to use it and give back.

Image by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for Thaliad
Was that mere delusion, I wondered, some mirage that retreated over the landscape? Were my dreams mere dead leaves? Had I entirely misunderstood everything, here in the world that Keats called "the vale of Soul-making?"

All moods pass on like the leaves, drifting on a stream.

And so once again I am content that my time was spent in that lonely joy, making stories and poems and tossing my bottled words onto the great sea in hopes that my letters to the world would be found. In that careful, careless manner I gave my hours and dreams away.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Stray thoughts on Mervyn Peake

To go down one's own proper path in words or images is sometimes to forego wide popularity and warm acceptance, and one must be very determined not to be swayed by the desires and would-be directions of other people. If this is one's call, well, one must tread that weird, singular path or else make a botch of what one is given to do. Yet it was hard for artist and writer Mervyn Peake to have little reward--to have children and be uncertain of how to feed and clothe them.


He did not let go of his strange, unconventional muse but followed her over hollow lands and hilly lands, even though it caused him sorrow--he gave the gift but clearly often felt that it was not received. Then he died in 1968 of a rare degenerative neurological and psychiatric disease. It's hard not to think that the mad figures of Gormenghast were a kind of prefiguring of his own early degeneration. I have seen what it is like to be with someone dying by inches of such a thing--my father died of a dreadful neurological disease--and the pain of slow slippage, the ability to interact and to do the work one is meant to do draining away into nothingness.


My mother gave me the books when I was in high school . . . But it wasn't until I was nineteen that I discovered more of Peake's illustrations and fell in love with the marvelous Alice drawings. It wasn't so easy, back then, to see the scope of an artist's work.


In the BBC Bookmark film, it's recounted that he once sat on the bed of a dying girl, drawing her face and abruptly feeling astonished at his own ability to do so, to bear it, to be calm in the face of what he was seeing and doing . . . Hasn't every writer or artist felt the same, that the curious, examining, describing part of the brain was guilty of looking at people in a wrong, blameworthy way? And yet his imagination could never get over that visit to Bergen-Belsen, could never forget what his eyes saw.


He became ill; he saw the end of all his dreams, and his work had not become beloved--as it would be shortly after his death. It's as sad as any story of a Melville or a Bruno Schulz. Today he is an artist and writer treasured for his singular way of seeing and making, but the change and popularity came too late for him to have its sweet reward. He left us such magical gifts. When in the world's madhouses and still able to know himself, he ended his longing, loving letters home to artist Maeve Gilmore and their three children with "God bless you all."

Saturday, November 23, 2013


Note: reading at the Bright Hill Center celebration in Treadwell, 2-3ish today. Full-length reading there in 2014.

Thank you for the deluge of birthday wishes on facebook and elsewhere, and here's another post about A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage by novelist Scott G. F. Bailey.

Here are a few clips to entice:
A couple of days ago I finished Marly Youmans' beautiful 2012 novel A Death at The White Camellia Orphanage. I come here not to review the book, except to say that it's a wonderful novel and I recommend it to you. I can't review it because not only do I not know how to write a proper review, I'm not sure what to say about the novel. I don't know how to talk about it without diminishing it.
Or this:
Youmans gives us a nontraditional story arc, which surprises and succeeds entirely.
...and the novel, as I say, or should have said by now, works beautifully on this symbolic level just as it works beautifully on the surface level. It's quite a feat.
It is, however, a deeply moral book, written in gorgeous glittering prose, entirely earthbound in its story and not afraid of poking into the dark corners of real life but also fearlessly--if in a more subtle way--pointing away from that darkness.
I am grateful to Scott Bailey for visiting and re-visiting the book . . .

Friday, November 22, 2013

六十. lok-sat. soixante. LX. шестьдесят. 60.

credit: Rebecca Beatrice Miller, 8/2013
Conflagration cake
With battalions of candles
Frizzling the icing.


I started celebrating yesterday with a studio visit with Ashley Cooper and then lunch. So glad to see her new work . . . And for dinner my husband made a grand feast for friends, and afterward painter and soprano Yolanda Sharpe sang Haydn and Handel arias for us. Lovely.

Of course, today is drear and rainy (a real Ishmael November day), more appropriate for the deaths of Kennedy and poor C. S. Lewis, overlooked in the wake of presidential assassination. It's also pee day in Rome, New York for the wrestling team . . . a tedious boy duty that seems to take eons longer than it should and is in the way. Nevertheless, frolics shall be had!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Bright Hill frolics

The day after my (gigantic) birthday and conflagration of candles, I'm going off to the Bright Hill Center in Treadwell, New York to meet writers and readers and read for a few minutes in celebration of the center:
Twenty-one years of readings, workshops, art exhibits and more will be celebrated Saturday as Bright Hill Center marks its anniversary with an open house and marathon reading. 
From 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. [on November 23rd], the Treadwell arts venue will invite many of those who have been involved with Bright Hill during its 21-year history to join in the celebration. Refreshments will be served throughout the day, with “anniversary cake” served at 6 p.m. during a closing reception. Works from Bright Hill’s archives dating back to 1992 will be on display... 
Scheduled to participate, along with founder Bertha Rogers, are Evelyn Augusto of Jefferson, Mermer Blakeslee of Roscoe, Richard Bernstein of Norwich, Richard Q. Downey of Otego, Ernest M. Fishman of Treadwell, Jesse Hilson of Delhi, Ginnah Howard of Gilbertsville, Sylvia Jorrin of East Meredith, Susan King of Walton, Tommy Klehr of Oneonta, Andy Morris of Downsville, John O’Connor of Franklin and New York City, Sharon Ruetenik of Delhi, Annie Sauter of Oneonta, Pamela Strother of Oneonta, Julia Suarez of Oneonta and Marly Youmans of Cooperstown.
For more information about the celebration, go here. (Yes, there will be much cake!) I'll be reading in their Word Thursdays series next year.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Our Lana of the Camellias

Artist Lana Gentry looking intensely meditative
with A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage.

People sometimes send me pictures of themselves with a book of mine, and occasionally I receive the gift of a toddler or baby with one of my books--they tend to devour them at that age. But here is Lana Gentry, rocking her reading glasses and cradling A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage. Lana is a self-taught artist, and she is wonderfully feisty and funny.

What has the lovely Ms. Lana been up to lately? She interviewed Robert Crumb for LoBurn, hugged the wonderfully insane (all that maniacal cross-hatching!) Laurie Lipton and the hunky Thor aka Thomas Gunter, and curated a show at Hyaena Gallery in L. A. Also in 2013, she had a show in China. China! What fun . . .

A curious thing that's always both old and new is her ongoing series of portraits: that is, some 360 portraits have been made of her by various artists. You can find a lot of them on her facebook page.

* * *

Shall be back home very soon--I'm currently having a pleasant evening at a 1796 bed and breakfast. I have a jolly little fire in my private parlor, and my two rooms are crammed with books and movies. It was a good trip . . . I had good visits with my mother and eldest child, visited Wofford College classes and did a reading at the invitation of Jeremy L. C. Jones, and stayed with artist Mary Bullington on my trip north.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

You Might Not Know

Various people have tagged me for the latest (possibly annoying) meme, Things You Might Not Know About Me... But I'm officially letting Gail Dooley (professor of music at Morningside College) tag me because she asked for six items:

1. I talked in paragraphs before I was one. True.
2. As a child, I couldn't bear tags or seams. I still cut out a lot of tags. True.
3. Also as a child, I ate raw vegetables and fruit only. And dessert. I had nothing against dessert. Perhaps this is why they tell me I have no bones. Only too true.
4. This one is to go with the "six" request: I will be sixty blinking years old on the 22nd yet don't believe it. True, mostly. Now and then I believe it, mainly when my back hurts.
5. Because I was a poet and an innocent about publishing, this is how I published my first book: I read a book called Salar the Salmon (great book!) published by David R. Godine of Boston. I thought if they loved Williamson, they might like me. I put my manuscript in a little brown envelope and sent it off with a lick and a stamp in the way people used to do back in the golden age of publishing. Three months later I called the publisher. The operator had never heard of me and said to call back in three days. I did, and he had heard of me this time and said the manuscript was on Mr. Godine's desk. Took a long time to come out, but that was my first book. Absolutely true, and a good hope for innocent writers.
6. I have never looked for an agent and am spoiled on that count. My first found me when my first book was in galleys. The great Louis D. Rubin, who died (to my very deep sadness) in the past day, suggested me to my second. Now I don't have one at all and like it so far, although it has drawbacks. Some day I might embrace a third. Maybe. Or not. And the facts are true there, and the end waffley enough to pass muster.

Good night!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Thank you

to novelist Scott G. F. Bailey for a lovely piece on A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage. See it here at Six Words for a Hat. "The prose nods to Faulkner, to Shakespeare, to Yeats, to epic poetry; it vibrates with rich color and detail and feeling."

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Carolina events

I've been having a good time on my second Southern ramble in the past four months... Friday I arrived in the nick of time to see Elaine Neil Orr and Kay Stripling Byer read at City Lights in Sylva. Then yesterday I zoomed off to Wofford College, where students of Jeremy L. C. Jones have been reading several of my books. And I did a reading before coming back this afternoon. I've also visited my mother and eldest son. More frolics to come!

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Mountains calling my name--

Soon I am abandoning my little home ship and its crew (beloved humans, barky dog, and sleepy cats) and intend to go paddling off to the Carolinas to visit several Wofford College classes (thank you to Jeremy L. C. Jones, who is teaching A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage and Thaliad) and do a reading at Hub City Books.

Might read from the two books mentioned plus The Foliate Head. Or not. I haven't heard what is desired as yet. (If you want to know something about any of my books, see tabs above.) Update: evidently it will be The Foliate Head with dashes of the other books, since I'll be talking about the other two at Wofford.

I'm hoping to see novelist Elaine Neil Orr if I make landfall (mountainfall!) on time. I'll be in Cullowhee, North Carolina and Spartanburg, South Carolina, doing events and visiting family and friends.

Y'all take care while I'm gone, and be sure to love one another, okay?

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

"Art is artifice"

Art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for Marly Youmans, Thaliad
(Phoenicia Publishing, 2012)

Scott G. F. Bailey stole my brain:
The novel is and has always been a work of art, of artifice, an abstraction of a set of ideas about the world. A novel is—and pretends to be—no more “real” than a symphony, a painting, or a dance. Novelists might talk about life and the world, but they are not creating an accurate map of life and the world. To ask the novel to accurately mirror our own lives is to ask the novelist to do something that isn’t his job. Apuleius’ Golden Ass is clearly only a glancing blow against reality. The same can be said of Shakespeare, of Chekhov, of Chaucer, of Dickens, of Tolstoy, of O’Connor, of Woolf, of Manning, of whomever you care to name. Tristram Shandy contains many truths about life, but it is not a strict depiction of reality. The same can be said of Finnegans Wake. The same can be said of The Old Man and the Sea, or Lolita, or A Visit From the Goon Squad. I will also point out tangentially that every good book is an amalgam of what the author believes to be factually true and what the author has invented. The ratio of fact to invention is no indicator of the success of the book. And every representation of the world is imaginary, because the only accurate representation of the universe is the universe itself; anything else is an abstraction, an illusion, a fantasy, a falsehood, if you will. Art is artifice. There has never been a “realist novel” that was not a fantasy. There has never been an epoch where a work of fiction was equivalent to the actual experience of life. 

Now wasn't that good?

I'm always mentioning this business about "reality" and the novel to people. It's what makes talk about literary versus speculative fiction so often meaningless. But it's also what gives made things of all sorts much of their charm and beauty--the gap between creation and sub-creation, sometimes seeming narrow and sometimes wide.

Find him at Six Words for a Hat.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Sir Marketer, thank you--

UK: Stanza Press, 2012
Art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Design by Elizabeth Adams
Having three books out in a year is a fearsome thing for a poet and writer. It means a lot of jumping up and down and waving of the arms. It means zooming about the world, as I am about to do once again, visiting Wofford College and Hub City Books. While I knew that the Mercer novel, A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, could gather some readers, I felt uncertain about the Stanza Press poetry collection, The Foliate Head, now in second printing (hurrah!), and especially about the Phoenicia Publishing long poem, Thaliad. Would anybody these days read a long poem, however adventurous? How could I ever manage a novel and two books of poetry at once?

So I'd love to thank David (whoever he is--a Halethorpe Marylander and "top reviewer") for a lovely long review of Thaliad on Amazon. I've been pleased that the book is still collecting website reviews a year after publication--the most recent one (brand new) is here. In addition, I continue to be pleasantly surprised that a long poem is finding reviews on Amazon (US site, and a few at the UK site), since so many collections of poetry go without any reviews there. Reviews for fiction? No surprise. Surprised by reviews for a long poem? Definitely!

And David of Halethorpe is a first-rate marketer, starting like this: "This is one of those books that is special and unlike anything you've read before, and I urge you not only to read it, but to buy it, because there should be more books like this."

He knows how to end as well: "This is a beautiful work, probably destined to be obscure and under-appreciated, though it should be in classrooms around the country as an example of modern and relevant poetry. So please buy it and read it. It's one of those occasional treasures you are only likely to stumble upon by chance." Please buy it and read it. It's the kind of thing I'm entirely loathe to say, but it's those sorts of words from a reader that save a book from being wholly "obscure and under-appreciated."

In between, he says interesting things about the narrative and gives a sense of what it is like. I've never liked the selling part of publishing books very well, and have always felt rather shy about such things. But he makes his claims well! Now if only I (and every poet) had a mob of such reader-marketers!

The Foliate Head. Now in second printing.
UK: Stanza Press, 2012. Art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.
Design by Andrew Wakelin.

A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage
Mercer University Press, 2012.
The Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction.
SilverAward, ForeWord Book of the Year Awards.
Design by Burt and Burt.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Swifts from the buttonwood--

Before long I'll be abandoning my family in Cooperstown for a little while, visiting classes taught by Jeremy L. C. Jones at Wofford College, doing a reading, and visiting my mother. It should be pleasant, if I can ever get through that annoying To Do list and leave . . .

In stray moments I'm reading Abandoned Quarry: New and Selected Poems (Mercer University Press, 2010) by John Lane, who teaches at Wofford. Also an essayist, he teaches Southern literature, Environmental Studies, and more.

The poems draw on thirty years of publishing books and chapbooks.

Here's a sample:


Praise the sycamore for its huge girth when left alone,
              so thick that settlers used its hollow heart for a barn.
              For the beauty of the buttonwood lies in the trunk.

Praise for these trunks more thick and sturdy than all other deciduous trees,
              a true forest giant of stream sides, flood plains and river bottoms,
              for dark spaces where swifts congregate and fly out at dawn.

Praise for sycamore bark, flaking off in big green patches on old trunks,
              for the wood, clay-yellow and warty, furrowed, bone-like,
              and yes, for the leaves, bright green and huge, paler below.

Praise for what we've made from them: oxcart wheels, barber poles,
              old stereoscopes, lard pails, hogshead for grain,
              piano and organ cases, crates, boxes, and butcher blocks.

Praise for the Carolina Parakeet, now gone, our only true parrot,
              and for their yearly feasts on sycamore buttons in spring when
              clouds with wings passed through so thick the sun was obscured.

And praise for the cooling depth of the sycamore's shade, for the rich
              deep bottom lands where the field guides say it still "takes happy rest,"
              for the streams running past and the sycamore leaves floating there.