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Friday, January 31, 2014

Morning thoughts on character and "a free artist"--

I'm starting the day by polishing The Book of the Red King but all the time thinking about how it is a personal fault and also a strength in writers that we are drawn to and insanely curious about the drama and mystery of the compelling, contradictory person--drawn to trying to understand the crux of opposing beliefs and forces... Because that's a place of power. No grasp is possible, so we bridge the gap in imaginings, creating character.

And I'm still thinking about the Chekhov quote I mentioned before, here and elsewhere, and some of the responses of people to his words. I've also been pondering lives of artists who were "not free" in some way, even if they seemed more free than most people, and how those self-set limitations through ideology or -ism work (or don't work.) Chekhov's letters are full of fascinating tossed-off remarks and confident, extended claims, and I've recently used some of that material in an essay. Here's the full passage that I mentioned in brief earlier, as translated by Constance Garnett:
I am afraid of those who look for a tendency between the lines, and who are determined to regard me either as a liberal or as a conservative. I am not a liberal, not a conservative, not a believer in gradual progress, not a monk, not an indifferentist. I should like to be a free artist and nothing more, and I regret that God has not given me the power to be one. I hate lying and violence in all their forms, and am equally repelled by the secretaries of consistories and by Notovitch and Gradovsky. Pharisaism, stupidity and despotism reign not in merchants' houses and prisons alone. I see them in science, in literature, in the younger generation.... That is why I have no preference either for gendarmes, or for butchers, or for scientists, or for writers, or for the younger generation. I regard trade-marks and labels as a superstition. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom—freedom from violence and lying, whatever forms they may take. This is the programme I would follow if I were a great artist.
Poet Dick Jones noted on facebook that "It's for declarations of this nature and quality that I used to love teaching Chekhov to my Theatre Studies students." Yes, the whole passage is full of challenges and sharp assessment, full of riches.

We live in a time of many "trade-marks and labels," a time in which people in the arts are expected to hew to a certain ideology, a set of acceptable beliefs--and we all know what those are. We are definitely not expected to be what Chekhov called free artists, who have no ideology at all but wish to witness all things clearly without taking sides.

Here are some of my questions after reading that bit of Chekhov... Does a time when the elite is mostly in lockstep have a debilitating effect on fiction and poetry? Do we or do we not see the same range of characters as before? Are characters who don't "fit" are in danger of being treated harshly rather than portrayed in fullness? Can we think of cases in which characters are given either more or less than their due as full human beings, depending on their own world view or beliefs? Does varying from accepted beliefs dictate portrayal? Either tendency would be weakening. Do we see people in novels at work much any more? Do we participate in a form of lying? As, do historical settings seem to demand that characters be contemporary with us in their minds and spirits, though physically in fancy dress of another era?

Most of all, can one escape and be "a free artist?" If so, does that also have a great cost? Of course, just being alive comes with great cost... And what exactly would being a free artist look like?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Sixteen Hundred Years

"Trees and moon" courtesy of
and Siddharth Nair of Bangalore, India.
LibraryKris aka Kris Weihipeihana of New Zealand has read another of my poems on Audioboo (it follows her reading of "The Wish for Roses") this time a poem in the current issue of Mezzo Cammin (click to see the text.) It's fascinating to see what poems attract readers, and to hear one's words with the emphasis and accents of another.

A whole series of readings of the same poems would make an interesting site, wouldn't it? To hear the differences in pause and length of syllable, the variety of accents, the subtle changes in sense and emotion that would sometimes occur.

Thank you to Kris!

Bulletin from Hoth

Yes, I have been taking a small break from blogging but will be back soon.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Finding the thread--

detail, The Big Purple. Yolanda Sharpe, 2011.
26 x 80 inches, watercolor on paper
I have been feeling quite unlike myself in my work--wayward, disorganized, unsure of what's next--due to an excess of meets and tournaments, ferryings, volunteering, and extended periods of being a single mother while my husband travels. Sometimes life becomes labyrinthine in complexity and just a little too packed with labor that is tiring, no matter how good it is to do. I expect this sort of over-crammed sensation is especially true of women who pursue the arts, and most especially true of those of us who have children because children are, as Bacon wrote, "hostages to fortune" and must come first.

Ashley Norwood Cooper, "Deer in the Headlights"
casein on board, 2012
And so on Thursday, two friends and I started a project of setting goals, roughly following the International Arts Movement's Working Artist Initiative. I'll be meeting weekly with painters Ashley Norwood Cooper and Yolanda Sharpe. Ashley is, like me, the mother of three children, so we have similar problems with organizing time, though her children are younger than mine. Yolanda has a different set of issues as a full-time academic who is both painter and singer. But the three of us know one another well and won't have to become acquainted with one another's work because we know and like it already.

It's good. I can feel our little project working on me already--the need to organize, the expectation of sharing our progress at the upcoming meeting, and the simple but beautiful idea of that somebody else cares whether I make something of worth this week is energizing and helpful.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Notes on a Hindsight page--

Update: Here's another link, an interesting reading of "The Wish for Roses."


Just drove in from White River Junction and see that in my absence, something of mine has materialized on Sienna Latham's Hindsight, a new by-invitation site dedicated to historical museum collections around the world and the stories they tell. For Hindsight, I wrote a poem to go with a photograph (although this one is not in a public but in a private collection.)

The photograph captures a graceful moment in the life of a great-aunt of that interesting fellow, Fredric Koeppel. When he was books editor of The Commercial Appeal (Memphis), he once assigned a book of mine for review to writer and bookstore owner Corey Mesler; later, Mr. Koeppel reviewed several of my books. That's how he came to my attention. But long before that time, he was an English professor. Today he is probably best known for his wine website and blog, Bigger Than Your Head (although perhaps as much for his vast collection of mismatched socks and his wonderful homemade pizzas, both shared on facebook.)

Fredric Koeppel's photograph and account of what had happened to his pretty great-aunt broke my heart into tiny glittery pieces. As soon as I saw the picture and read the story, I knew that I would write about her. The poem is the result of a helpless wish to restore what cannot be restored--something like the flowers, stones, or tokens left on a grave. It's a reminder, too, of old times in the prairie, the ruggedness of a way of Western life that has passed away. As such, it is our story, the sometimes tragic tale of our ancestors, here or elsewhere, living a far harder life than our own.

There are places that are just as hard still, but they are few. My husband just returned from weeks spent wandering in the Kyrgyzstan Himalayas, sleeping in a flimsy tent with people who wore no gloves, dipped their frozen sardines or mutton fat in tea, and would sometimes just squat and turn their backs to the wind for hours if a snowstorm blew in. Most of us live a far cozier life, and though we may remember grandparents who lived in a shack, we are comfortable and warm and drowning in entertainment.

If you take a look at lovely Hazel, reaching toward the roses, and at the poem, you'll meet a doubly lost life. Imagine Hazel, one of us, deceived and broken, wandering at large on the planet.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

6 poems at Mezzo Cammin

Update: I suppose this is a hat tip to poet Ned Balbo for saying on facebook that he especially liked "Legends of the Virgin Martyrs" because that made me suddenly realize that the post should be "7 poems at Mezzo Cammin." The unfortunate virgins have suffered yet another injury . . . .

* * *

I'm feeling celebratory, as I'm just home from a tournament--child no. 3 won two matches (one technical fall and one pin) and had a forfeit (and yesterday won his dual with a pin as well)--and my husband will be home from Kyrgyzstan in the small hours of this very night. And so it's good to have a little flourish of my own to share--some poems at Mezzo Cammin, edited by poet and West Chester Poetry Conference director Kim Bridgford. Thanks to to her for much hard work of sifting and and arranging!

And there are lots more poems in the issue. The poets are Liz Ahl, Shaune Bornholdt, Rebecca Guess Cantor, Joanna Cattonar, Claudia Gary, Carrie Jerrell, Ann Kolakowski, Jenna Le, Diane Lockward, Barbara Loots, Katherine McClung, Susan MacLean, Angela O'Donnell, Jessica Piazza, Rosemarie Rowley, Maxine Silverman, Katherine Smith, Linda Stern, and Karrie Waarala.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Hello, world!

I'm entirely busy with being properly neurotic about my husband in Kyrgyzstan, ferrying children, attending wrestling meets in the unwashed boondocks (exaggeration: all boondocks are washed these days), scaling the cliffs of the Mega-laundry, and meeting deadlines. Visit me here for frivolity and no worry.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Note from the snow village--

Image by Clive Hicks-Jenkins in my Thaliad
(dual hc/pb, Phoenicia Publishing, 2012)
I've just read Tim Parks's post in the NYRB blog, "Writing to Win," and am feeling amused. It seems that I hardly qualify as a novelist at all because I do not feel in the least that writing is a competition, and I have no compulsion to "win" against others. It's a lot more pleasing to help other writers than to trip them up and race off. In fact, I have no sense of wishing to be "better" than others in terms of numbers, which don't tell us a lot about whether a book is any good. It's not that I don't want to have readers; I do. Books aren't complete without readers. But numbers are always less than the desire to make novels and stories and poems full of energy and truth, grace and beauty.

Is it because I am a woman and lack literary testosterone that I have no fever to elbow aside other writers in some imaginary race? Is it because I am a busy woman who is on the tail end of raising three children? Certainly the post makes writing novels sound like a boy's game. Is it because I live in a remote place, and as a Southerner practically hibernate in the winter, so that I lack concern for being visible? (No, I'm not going out until the snows melt! Or at least until child no. 3's next wrestling meet. Brr. It's later today.) Is it because I began my writing life as a poet in a time when poetry book publication was limited, and so didn't expect a book immediately? Perhaps all novelists should be forced to start out in a landscape where publication is difficult, the snows are long, and the place obscure. It might calm them down a little.

It occurs to me that I live the most ordinary life possible. People in my little Yankee village know me as my husband's wife, my children's mother, or as Marly--most of them don't even know my writing surname, my birth name. They're more likely to ask me the date when my husband gets back from Kyrgyzstan (and if it's a man I'm talking to, he may say I'm the best wife in the world because my husband is off adventuring in Kyrgyzstan) or how my children are doing than to ask me what I'm writing. My friends who are painters and writers in the area and some others do know, of course, and we get together and talk about art and books and children and travels and so on.

Oh, there are articles in the local paper, but few people make the connection. My audience and my events tend to be elsewhere, though I do readings or talks for the village library or school and visit the occasional local book club from time to time. My closest non-village readings were in the nearest large town until the bookstore there decided that having readings "wasn't fair" to some others who couldn't bring in sufficient audience and dropped the series. So now most of my book activity is at a good distance from home.

I like this life; it's helpful being a member of a community and involved in various group activities. By the lights of those Tim Parks talks about in his essay, that leaves me out of the winner's circle. "It's a competition," he says of them. Luckily I aspire to something else entirely . . . and so am not downcast.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Chivalrous mice and other matters

Jeff de Boer, The Seven Samurai Mice
2005, copper, brass, mixed media, 4.5" x 3.5" x 2"
Back in 2007, I wrote a post about de Boer called
In the Realm of the Mouse Warrior.

From 4:45 a.m. until 9:15 p.m. yesterday, my life was given over to attending a gigantic and nigh-endless wrestling tournament. I am a wee bit . . . exhausted, without ever so much as tangling with an opponent. And I have a dire need to work on some essay commissions. So maybe today I'll give you some thoughts from a book I'm reading, On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, a collection of essays by C. S. Lewis. Here are some interesting snips from Walter Hooper's introduction.

This is a charming note:
C. S. Lewis can't have been more than five or six years old when he wrote, in a notebook he much later passed on to me, a story called 'To Mars and Back' and another little romance about chivalrous mice and rabbits riding out in full armour to kill cats.  --Walter Hooper
Here is a well-known quote from one famous name to another:
Just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth. We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by become a 'sub-creator' and inventing stories, can Man ascribe to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. --J. R. R. Tolkien to Lewis, quoted by Hooper
And here is another of the same, in the reverse direction:
Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to write some ourselves. --Hooper quotes Lewis to Tolkien, not long before he wrote Out of the Silent Planet
Lewis and drafts of writing:
Except for his academic works, Lewis never wrote more than a single draft of his novels, which indeed suggests that the stories were worked out in his head before he put pen to paper. --Walter Hooper
Here's a riposte to those who have attacked adult readers for reading books written for children or young adults:
When I was ten, I read fairy stories in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. WhenI became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.  --Hooper quotes Lewis, from "Three Ways of Writing for Children"

Friday, January 10, 2014

At Random

You needed some Random Fungal Fun, right?
Photograph by Paul Digby (2013)
from my mother's forested mountaintop.

While performing the slight, mildly pleasurable task of dropping spam into the realm of Balrogs, I found this "shiver in the curtain of the world"--and was surprised at my own thoughts, six years back. And it occurs to me that I haven't played with the palace characters for a while, nor let the Pot Boy exercise his talents...


Last night I went all the way to Delhi for a wrestling dual meet and . . . child no. 3 had a forfeit. Nobody in his rather skinny weight class in the great town of Delhi. Oddly, this morning I'll have a visit from a friend who is also from Delhi. Delhi is a place in my ancestral history, as one of the Yeomans/Youmans brothers who came over from England before the Revolution settled in the upstate and his branch did well--a "Youmans mansion" was torn down in Delhi some time ago. So I have a peculiar link there. (My branch went to Georgia.) I'm expecting something delphic to occur in the day. Or maybe delhic.


I'm recommending a blog by someone especially interested in children's books, teaching, writing, and more; here's Robins newest one-question interview, a clever thing. I was the lucky subject of her first one-question interview: here. (She was a student and walking companion of mine when I was writer-in-residence at the Hollins summer MFA program in children's literature.)


Dreamed about Amish vampires. Now that's just wrong. However, the landscape was wonderful, and the weird hay-bale labyrinth and constricting corridors. Woke up before I managed to get out with my daughter.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

A proper thanks to Dale Favier, and an introduction to his writing-

Thank you to poet Dale Favier, way off on the other side of the continent, for this lovely facebook post... I'm a fan of his as well, so it's very sweet to have him comment on a book of mine this way. (And I should say that I'm grateful to the people on twitter and Facebook who have shared an enthusiasm for my books; I hope that I always remember to thank them, but if anyone has slipped by without my commenting back, I hereby thank them!)
  • It feels very, very strange to read novels again. I read Marly Youmans' marvelous A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage last year, and all the time there was a surreal throb at the back of my mind: it said, yes, people still write novels. People walking the earth today, they write novels, just like Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy did. Because to me, you see, present-day people -- by which I mean people I know online -- they write *poems*, not novels. Marly of course writes poems too, and she's eccentric, so that's all right. But now I'm reading Elizabeth Eslami's no less wonderful novel, Bone Worship, which makes me laugh and laugh. And now I'm thinking, maybe real present-day people write *novels*, too. And I read so slow now! But God, with my strangely slowed, poetry-trained senses, I read much better, and I taste before I swallow. I'm so grateful to the writers I know for hauling me into the 21st Century. It's really a beautiful, beautiful place. I used to think the beauty all died sometime at the beginning of the 20th Century. But it didn't really. Thank you, all of you. xoxoxo
What does he mean, eccentric? Dale, aka Mole, what do you mean, eccentric? I am going to assume he means for doing that odd thing, writing both poetry and fiction, and nothing else, unless he says otherwise.

If you would like to read a poem by Dale Favier, you might go here, where you can also buy his Opening the World from Pindrop Press. I did, and I recommend it! He also has a collaborative book called Not Coming Back with photographer Nina Tovish, and you can read and see samples of poems and images here. I still need to get that one. You can also read poems and musing on his website. Here's a sample post; in this one he reminds me of Thoreau (one of his "like-minded people," surely), especially in the opening declaration:
I regret nothing except my occasional half-hearted gestures towards making myself acceptable. There was a time when I thought might find a home among like-minded people: I'm grateful to them for making clear that it will never happen, and so keeping me from wasting my time. There is so little time. My awareness of that deepens every day. No: you can take me as you find me, and that will usually be gazing at the sky, while points of rain or starlight patter on my threadbare scalp. The riddle is written up there, and I stop and puzzle out a few phrases, and wait for the lightning or the sunrise. And still the sphere turns, and turns, and turns in its faint wash of darkness. There is nothing else, not really. We are traveling at immense speed, even in simple terms of the earthbound physics Newton propounded: we are falling toward the sun at somewhat more than 67,000 miles per hour. Once you actually absorb that fact, the speeds at which we creep around our falling home take on a comic aspect. In the time it takes us to walk to the store we have also traveled ten thousand miles through space: yet the quarter mile's incidental movement on this blue-and-white marble's surface is the movement that impresses us. Well. Not so clever, for all our airs. No. Stars and rain are real, the silky hair threading between my fingers is real, the pulsing heart that lifts my fingertips is real. The rest? Toiling from speck to adjacent speck on a marble that's been thrown off a cliff? No: not so real. Not so real at all.
There you go. You may find him surprisingly like-minded at times--or you may find him fascinating because he is not. Meet the man, the Mole, the poet... And thank you, Dale! 

Wednesday, January 08, 2014


Goodbye, Christmas season--
Mary Bullington ornaments,
Market Gallery, Roanoke
Thanks to Patrick Kurp

for a lovely post about The Foliate Head. I've often read posts in his literature blog, Anecdotal Evidence, and am especially pleased (and surprised) to appear there.


I'm a little fuzzy on whether people like the podcasts (see prior post if you missed it) or not--probably won't do more without some generous dollops of encouragement. Although they did receive some facebook shares and comments, they were dwarfed by other things! They're a bit of trouble--which is fine if they're worth it to people, but I'm still not really sure if they are.

Update for curious friends

I feared my last messages for a while would be from Istanbul, but the missing traveler has surfaced briefly: "left Bishkek immediately to beat some bad weather that was coming in." He stopped for gas in the last town with a paved road and found, to his surprise, an internet café. So that's the last I'll hear from my husband until he returns from adventures in the Himalayas. It's going to be cold and snowy out there in the wilds. Ibex and snow leopards and yurts...

Just checked and it has warmed up to 12F in both Bishkek and Cooperstown on this sunny afternoon. But I'm staying inside until wrestling boy calls for a ride! Hope Michael has on his furry "Teddy Bear" long-johns...

Goodbye to all that-- 

D. G. Myers:  My experience is a prelude to what will be happening, sooner rather than later, to many of my colleagues. Humanities course enrollments are down to seven percent of full-time student hours, but humanities professors make up forty-five percent of the faculty. The imbalance cannot last. PhD programs go on awarding PhD’s to young men and women who will never find an academic job at a living wage. (A nearby university—a university with a solid ranking from U.S. News and World Report—pays adjuncts $1,500 per course. Just to toe the poverty line a young professor with a husband and a child would have to teach thirteen courses a year.) If only as retribution for the decades-long exploitation of part-time adjuncts and graduate assistants, nine of every ten PhD programs in English should be closed down—immediately. Meanwhile, the senior faculty fiddles away its time teaching precious specialties. --from

The idea that academe has shaken off David Myers breaks my heart into little pieces. So wrong.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Twelfth Night

Here are some more ornaments, this time for Richelle Hawks, bead sweeper at Shipwreck Dandy. She saw the prior batch and told me that she would make me an ornament for next year, so this is especially for her--and for you, if you like such things. She is the queen of "handmade rustic assemblage jewelry."

Our Norway spruce will probably stay up until my husband is back from Kyrgyzstan, as I have (alas) a tree allergy that makes spruce-wrestling problematic. Shall be needles-on-floor galore by then! Some people say it is unlucky to leave the tree up past Epiphany eve, but I say it is unlucky to turn as red as a summer tomato...

And here's a bit of poetry for separated loves and twelfth night, that merrymaking time at the end of the Christmas season:

O mistress mine, where are you roaming? 
O stay and hear: your true-love's coming, 
That can sing both high and low: 
Trip no further, pretty sweeting; 
Journeys end in lovers' meeting, 
Every wise man’s son doth know.
  --Feste, scene iii, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

A merry Twelfth Night to you!

Saturday, January 04, 2014

11th day of Christmas--

Now and then I've been glancing at my husband's progress toward Istanbul... and now he has landed. He'll be there for a bit before flying on to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, land of Himalayas and snow leopards and ibex and yurts. If you are a follower of this blog, you probably already know that I married a man of adventure. He got up in the small hours and drove to JFK in the blizzard, and only went off the road twice...

I'm missing him already, and so I'm posting some images of the at-home part of Christmas. This was the first Christmas we were not all together as a family, as our eldest child was in North Carolina with Mamama, my mother.

Good night, world--you are so big, so small.


Okra pod Santa

Newel post and friend
Antique baby's head that survived a tree fall...

Dreamboat to the land of Nod

Little Red

Clay ornament made by our eldest in 1st grade, Mrs. Sweet's class, Carrboro Elementary, NC

Advent wreath

Putting on the Doctor's red bow tie

Child no. 3 in horse mask and silly Hello Kitty! snuggly given him by a classmate

Etsy's Jevgenia masks