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Saturday, June 28, 2014

The glittering fall

The Ferrol Sams Award
Silver, ForeWord Book of the Year in fiction
Books and Culture Favorite Books of 2012
     Alden kept whispering in the dark, but Pip was emptied out and unable to speak. The jag of glee had depleted him, and he felt as if he had been gulping at some fine mist of drowsiness. Perhaps it was the Sandman's crystals, flung by the handful into the air. For a long time he lay caught in a no-man's-land between waking and sleeping until he opened his eyes and saw that a delicate and glittering rain was falling in the room. It came to him that he had seen many wonders in his travels, had gone north until he met the midnight flares of the aurora borealis, had waded through the high prairie grass until he knew it to be endless, and had crossed a western beach piled with agates and inset with pools of pink and green stars, but that now he had come to what might be home and this sight was the strangest of them all. In its in-between realm, he struggled to name the peculiar snow but could not. When he realized that he had felt no surprise, it occurred to him that he must be asleep. But yet he could feel the flecks against his skin and piling in the bedclothes though not moistening them. He closed his eyes.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Morning thoughts: on making

Interior decoration by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for Glimmerglass, out in September.
A lion, a leaf, and a crown--surely they are
nothing if not realistic. And yet, put them together...

Often I'm startled by my own absurd temerity in saying anything about books. What do I know? Why don't I stick to my own narrative and lyric frolics and words and keep my mouth fast shut otherwise? A writer is always making things up, beginning at the very beginning--knowing nothing about how to make what she must make next. It's yet another thing about being a writer that enforces (or should enforce) a kind of humility, whether a writer wants it or not. Having revised a poem or novel or story, I hold an amount of strange knowledge . . . and yet it all flies out the nearest window, never to return, when I sit down with the blank page, the not-yet-born next.

Yet I do persist in this mania of having and changing opinions, thinking that I know things about what I do. For example, I've long felt that the roots of our literature in English are quite other than what is often praised--this thing called realism that so dominates much of our thinking about books. And I've felt, in fact, that there is no such thing as realism, just as there is no such thing as the fantastical or irrealism. These words are but handles, convenient ways of describing points on a continuum. As I've said before, if a book could be perfectly and wholly "realistic," it would then replace reality in one Borgesian swoop. All works of literature are made from nothing, or from Yeats's "a mouthful of air." That is the nature of creation and the sub-creation that is literature.

From Beowulf to Gawain and the Green Knight to The Tempest to Tom Jones to Bleak House to the latest narrative in prose or verse, what matters in poetry and fiction is energy. Is the work alive? And the answer to that question has little to do with where a work falls on the continuum between realist and irrealist, and everything to do with whether it captures something of the energies of life.

* * *


It occurs to me (once again) that I have already said these things before, in some way or another. These morning thoughts, written before the dawn . . . Waking, making. Making is a kind of waking, isn't it? And a maker desires to be awake, to wake others.

* * *


Here's Jacob Bacharach, author of A Bend in the World, at Huffington Post:
Sometimes I think that all the really great works of surrealism predate our boring, modern obsession with dividing the real from the unreal, truth from fiction, the conscious mind from the dream. I'm using surrealism in its common and not specific sense; a lot of the works I'm going to mention are what you might call magical realist, or experimental, or postmodern, or just plain weird. I'm actually a fan of weird fiction myself. If my own writing ever spawns a genre, that's the name I'll lobby for. Anyway, in working on a current unfinished writing project, I've been rereading the Bible, and it's reminded me that of a friend of mine who once said that Revelation was his favorite science fiction novel. I'm a fan of Job, myself, which would give Burroughs a run for his mugwumps, although for true weirdness, you really ought to reread Genesis, in which the utterly ordinary and the utterly otherworldly coexist and commingle in a manner totally alien to the modern ear and imagination; the poetry of creation gives way to genealogy, and God flits between instantiating His word and dickering with little humans over the specific price and measure of disobedience...
I tend to think that all great literature has an element of the fantastical and the surreal: Bolaño, Melville, Djuna Barnes, Anne Carson, Laurence Sterne... Each era throws up writers who take their elbows to the way we're supposed to see things, and these are the ones I come back to when I am bored with being bored.
Via that interesting young seminary professor and writer, Wesley Hill

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Smidge of power and magic

Thanks to Nicki of Fyrefly's Book Blog for my part in a review of Sharyn November's third Firebird anthology, Firebirds Soaring (Penguin / Firebird.) I always like to see late reviews because they show a book is still being read and introduce it to new readers. They are one of the good things about the internet. Some day I'll have to gather up my stories about teens for a collection.
“Power and Magic” by Marly Youmans is the tale of a confident boy trying to impress a jaded girl, who has promised to kiss him if he shows her real power and magic. I was surprised by this one – both the depth of character and the sheer weight of atmosphere that Youmans is able to build in a relatively short space were impressive, and this story is resonating in my head after many of the others have faded.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Book of the Phoenix, 1: 1-40: The Prophet Fed by a Raven

Clive Hicks-Jenkins has posted a piece I wrote for his big, beautiful monograph, a knockout book with chapters by Simon Callow, Andrew Green, Rex Harley, Kathy Koja, Anita Mills, Montserrat Prat, Jacqueline Thalmann, Damian Walford Davies, and me.

Lund Humphries monograph
This fragment from my chapter is channeling the modes and techniques of biblical poetry. It is a kind of reply to one of Clive's paintings, "The Prophet Fed by a Raven."

And if you want more Clive-and-Marly interaction, slide down one post in Artlog, and you'll find his response to a recent post, plus remarks from us both in the comment section. Growing up, God, Spirit, ruin, building a world, and more...

Monday, June 23, 2014

A jacket for Glimmerglass--

Art for  Glimmerglass. Here is the jacket with art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins and design by Burt and Burt. Isn't it wondrous? Clive is not a literalist with book art and decoration but a magician of atmosphere. Click on the image to see a bigger version, in which you may see beauties! Text for back and flaps to come...

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The longing for depth and wholeness--

One of the vignettes by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for Thaliad (Phoenicia Publishing, 2012)
Recently I wrote some sketches about fans and paparazzi as part of my current series of tiny stories, since I'm still too busy to start a novel. I've never been much interested in the idea of celebrity or celebrities, but I accidentally bumped into a fan site for Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson (the way one does on the internet, following a thread through the infinite Borgesian labyrinth) and then explored some more.

At first, I felt a tad appalled--the latter in part because a great many fans don't particularly care about grammar, syntax, clarity, and other tools of the trade most dear to my heart. Of course, I don't care for a great many other things . . . so I won't reproach them. Clear thinking for me is made of words in the right order, but it doesn't mean all that much to a lot of people active on the internet. Neither does proofreading. But plenty of people have lived and died without deep engagement with the written word. For that matter, most of our human time on the planet has passed away without written words.

The fascination I felt lay elsewhere. I was intrigued by the idea that a large group of fans were building a story, collaborating on a kind of fiction, telling themselves a thing they needed to hear. It is a story based on clues, and like fiction, it appears as a kind of lie that is more real and compelling than surface reality. The writers are detectives, the story itself a tale of romance between two people who are considered quirky (that is, they are often surprising in behavior, and they have been part of the mainstream but now swim against it in indie films) and smart and good-looking. The tale is clearly related to their roles in the Twilight movies because it is very much concerned with ideas about the ideal and the permanent.

The effort to make the story involves a lot of analysis, the sort of analysis that an engaged reader might apply to a poem or novel or scripture. Every word is scrutinized, every image searched for information--shared clothing, a young woman's weight gain and loss, sardonic words, tossed-off comments that may or may not be serious. These fragments are compared with other fragments, the puzzle pieces to a larger picture. Tone, mood, and attitude of the characters involved become important and are discussed endlessly. These 'shippers' of an ongoing love relationship between the two stars (love, marriage, a new house, a baby) are doing the thing that engrossed readers do. And isn't that curious?

They're not the only story makers. The 'haters' make their own counter-stories, based on a different reading of information or built off dismissing the stories of the shippers. These stories tend to be more perfunctory and less developed because they are primarily rejections.

Oddly, this sort of storytelling brings up issues about mainstream culture and deep human desires. Why did an obsessed group of fans need to make that story, one in which they piece together clues to prove that Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart live in a private, perfect, joyful world of their own?

Our dark age worships a debased mainstream culture dominated by sex, violence, and speedy electronic jumps from one thing to another. It opposes Melvillean "deep diving," high art, thoughtfulness, and the spirit. In such a time, it is illuminating to look around and see where storytelling takes hold of people and why. In this particular case, the many fans obsessed with two celebrity figures work to uncover, build, and support a dream of love, a dream of wholeness--an old-fashioned dream that love can have depth and permanent meaning and soul, and that a man and a woman can fit together to become one perfect, complete thing. This dream expresses a core human longing for depth and meaning, raised up from a mainstream culture that is increasingly drained of substance.

* * *

An interesting response from painter Clive Hicks-Jenkins is here.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A note from the Young Crones Club

Image via
Rare: an image of a medieval woman artist at work.
The glorious thing about being in the Young Crones Club is that suddenly you know well people of all ages. Of course, everybody knows about the down sides (like an over-cut diamond, growing older has many sides. I also think knowing a lot of people of many ages comes from living in a village setting, where the ages are not separated out and compartmentalized, as they often are in a city.)

It's a curious time of life, the time of the Young Crone, when children are struggling to fly outside or inside the nest, when parents are growing old and sometimes dying, when duties and requests for volunteer work increase madly when it seems they ought to lessen, and when the plain fact of growing older tells the writer (this one) to hurry up and finish all those almost-finished things strewn around the writing room. And then what? To dream of beginning a new work, death-defying and magnificent... Because every writer of any potency has the dream burning in the brain.

"Now let us sport us while we may; / And now, like am'rous birds of prey, / Rather at once our time devour." Words are sexy, fecund, powerful, and joyful: so Marvell sported in words with his would-be lover, the famous Coy Mistress, and made of desire that flies a kind of monument. And so we readers and writers may aspire to sport and rejoice through words--losing and finding ourselves in a more intense life.

P. S. Just peeked to see if I had written about the Young Crones Club before--and yes, I have (yes, the mind must be going!) And stumbled on this while I was at it: Joy in Poetry.

P. P. S. Thanks to Jenny B for including A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, The Throne of Psyche, and The Book of Ystwyth: six poets on the art of Clive Hicks-Jenkins on her list of recommended summer reads. Also included are books and chapbook by real life and e-life friends Dale Favier (never met but want to meet!), Robbi Nester (met in college), and Fiona Robyn (met in Wales in 2010.) And, of course, I can't leave out the poets in The Book of Ystwyth; I've been lucky enough to meet Dave Bonta, Damian Walford Davies, Callum James, and Andrea Selch in Wales, and I often feel that I know Clive's friend, the late Catriona Urquhart. It's a beautiful book, packed with Clive's images and well worth owning.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

News from poetry land--

Cover art and design by Elizabeth Adams
Logan, revising the world

Occasionally I read an article that seems so congruent with my own thoughts that I am naturally--human nature being the naughty thing it is--drawn to think it marvelous. This morning I'm feeling very pleased with William Logan's Poetry: Who Needs It? (Hat tip to Prufrock News.) Although the thought of poet William Logan with his reviewer's shears in hand can be terrifying, he is sharp (natural to grasper of shears!) and amusing. He's good here on the state of the culture, the place of poetry, and poetry in the schools. And he invokes Auden's daydream college for bards.

Chitterings of Earl the Squirrel 

Speaking of feisty writers on poetry... I had no idea that a talkative, over-opinionated gray squirrel had started a poetry blog. Evidently he has a sister, Pearl. She is, as you might guess, also Squirrel, family Sciuridae. You can enjoy the nine most asinine things Earl the squirrel has heard poets say, and then noodle around in the obstreperous little fellow's posts. He wields compliments as well as skewers, though his compliments often make implicit demands: "William Shakespeare understood that, in order to survive, verse needed to be meaningful, entertaining and adroit."


Here's a question for Puttenham nuts, trope nuts, poetry nuts--somewhere in The Arte of English Poesie is a trope he calls "the traveller," unless I am making that one up. I thought it might be anastrophe. But I don't think so now... I'm regretting that the book was in one of the 25 boxes of books I once had to leave behind in a move because I'm not proving quick at finding what I want in the online version. Anybody know, right off the bat?

Last day for pre-orders, Night Willow

If you want Phoenicia Publishing's pre-order price for Luisia Igloria's Night Willow, better order by midnight! Take a look at the Phoenicia catalogue while you're there.

Kurp on Mehigan

Patrick Kurp (I recommend his blog, Anecdotal Evidence) has written an interesting review of Joshua Mehigan's second book. (h/t Prufrock.)
Mehigan’s most valuable gifts as a poet are his ability to maintain impersonal distance and remain indifferent to fashion without repudiating tradition. The sociologist Edward Shils might be referring to Mehigan when he writes: “The beginning writer seeks a tradition until he finds one or several and then begins to develop his own style; but he must be a person of great courage and perseverance to disregard the traditions which are proffered to him and insisted upon by teachers, contemporaries, friends, critics, and publishers.” As a poet, Mehigan has passed through apprenticeship and is thriving as a journeyman working toward mastery.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Letter to a young artist

Interior collage vignette by Clive Hicks-Jenkins for Thaliad

I've been thinking about you and your aspirations as you drift into the world, slipping into a job, finding the time to make your art without someone at your shoulder. You ask for advice, yet always I fear being polonial,* and so needing a good stabbing as I stand behind the arras. And though you must discover your own path and make your own quest, I feel the impulse to warn you against certain beasts along the way. In our age, the barriers to mastery in the arts have become especially powerful and strange. They can lead you in directions that mean the destruction of art--that can cripple your future work at the very start.

I say this in part because you passed through the liberal arts college of the day, and sometimes you have been taught by academics to take angry little hatchets and chop away at the pillars that hold up Western civilization and tradition. (My stance? To teach is a high calling, often fulfilled with grace. But a professor who mocks and throws away the great works of the past is a mere chipmunk digging a hole under the foot of a giant.) Oh, it is good to look with clear eyes at the world and time. But it is wrong to dismantle and trash the glories of a civilization. The truest, strongest art is crafted in the sex-abolishing, race-abolishing spirit, using the tools of the trade.

Take the great works of the past. Make them your own. Know why some matter to you, while others do not, and you will know yourself and your aims better. Know the tradition from which you spring and so be a giant by standing on the shoulders of men and the few women who managed to speak well in spite of the expectations and constraints of their times and culture. Rejoice in the art, rather than dwelling on social critique and conditions as a measure of that art. Conditions and cultural beliefs are not the measure of an art, but part of a complicated soil of time and place from which a work grows and flowers.

Also, sift out and forget any nonsense you were served up in studio or workshop classes--to make art only based on "what you know," "to find your voice," etc. My education taught me that certain words were off limits, that literature was divided into genres and only one was worthwhile, and that I didn't need the ancient tools of my trade inherited from the masters of the past. One of the things I found useful about my education was that it awakened the desire to strive against or test what I had been taught. Question your received ideas, and toss them if they do not serve your art.

Let the art teach you. Know your tools. Remember that the way forward has long been through the tradition and the past. Each time you start a work, you will be starting over. But just make your art. In love. In truth. In grace. You will be making yourself, as well. Each time you begin again, you will be different--bigger on the inside, more emboldened and ready to leap into the unknown with a shout.

Love to you, luck to you--

* Yes, I made that one up. But it's a made-up word I've used for a long time, as Polonius and his advice always come to mind when I am asked for advice. Perhaps in such situations, we are all Polonius, or we are all the grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find," who would have been a good woman--would have spoken only what is true and what matters--if only there had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.

Video by Paul Digby.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Catching the spirit--

Study for the jacket/cover by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.
The final jacket has a warm, peachy background
and also contains A Novel, skittering around
the dragon's spines. Design work by
Burt & Burt.
Comments from Clive Hicks-Jenkins on making the cover art for Glimmerglass, taken from a comment on his Artlog:

I read Glimmerglass three or four times before I made the cover and the interior decorations for it, and I really loved the novel.

Marly is a friend of mine, and making covers and chapter-headings for her books really feels like a collaboration, which is not at all the way I hear many illustrators feel about commissions to make covers. Marly gives me free-rein to take the ideas where I think best, and is always gracious about the outcomes. I think it takes remarkable generosity on her part to give me that kind of freedom, as she must have ideas of her own, and yet she understands the processes of creativity so completely that she only ever offers positive responses. In fact I think she quite enjoys being taken by surprise!

detail, rear jacket
For my own part I never attempt to ‘illustrate’ the covers of Marly’s books, but try to create ‘moods’ for them that will have allure for anyone spotting them on bookstore shelves or in window displays. That’s my job, to catch the attention long enough to arrest the gaze of a potential purchaser, hopefully to the point of picking up the book to look inside. I have to be true to the spirit of the book, rather than try to reproduce in a picture what Marly has already achieved so beautifully in words. I attempt to make a setting (the covers) for her words (the novel). I see the image as being an accompaniment, like a pianist accompanying a singer, though I realise that might sound a tad fanciful.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Journey's End

If you come here often, you probably know that I have a good many friends who are painters--not sure how that happened, but I enjoy it and get as much or more out of talking about the visual arts as I do from talking about writing. In fact, I'm going to meet up with a couple of painter friends for lunch today... I tend to be more interested in talking about arts other than my own in some ways, as I think about writing quite enough. And if you know those things about me, you may also know that I have collaborated a good bit with painters and other artists, especially with Clive Hicks-Jenkins.

Here's a poem I wrote about one of his early paintings, "Journey's End." It was written as a little gift for Clive, and it appears in The Foliate Head, the collection of my poems dedicated to him. In many of his inside/outside pictures, the foreground is a still life containing treasured, meaningful items, while in the background (often seen through open curtains, as in the stage, so important to Clive's history) a mysterious Welsh landscape appears. Items tend to repeat, much as we see actors in different plays. In this early picture, a sense of human presence on the stage of the world and a combining of still life with landscape already are important. The cup portrayed here belonged to his late father. The tower (Tretower) was the place to which Clive retreated for some years after breaking from his life in the theatre. The poem begins by musing over what seems missing--the strong narrative and bright, intense color of many of his later works. It glances at the painting, moves to consider story and imagines the painting as a kind of fount of possible stories related to his father and the father's death, and at last rests in the mystery of the picture.

Happy birthday, Clive! Slightly belated...


                  “. . . this early painterly approach to objects
                  can be seen in Journey’s End, the little still-life/landscape
                  painting of my dad’s tea mug standing in front
                  of Tretower Castle.”  –Clive Hicks-Jenkins

There’s nothing here bejeweled with twig and flower,
No wolfish fur that burns as if a kiln
Had been flung wide to let in sprays of salt,
And most of all, no story, wings, or saint.
Instead there is the seepage of a blue
Not twilight:  low, continual dim glow
Dispersed from borderlands beyond this world.

So here is landscape as the stillest life,
So here is still life hunkered in the grass,
Estranged from lamplit houses, grown outscale.
There’s nothing here but cup and keep and tree,
And tree resembles keep, and keep is tree
Truncated—cup is stump of leaning tree.

No teller yet, unless the tale be one
Older than the famed white book of Rhydderch,
Older than the red of Hergest, older
By far than these… Fetch me a magic fruit
So I can taste its glistening cells and gulp
The stubborn words that linger out of reach.

In blueing light, a father’s mug might be
The grail, might be Welsh cauldron, wombed with life,
Might over-brim with death-drink, colorless.
There’s nothing but a shadow in the cup!
Its clipper ship in sail is doldrum-glazed,
Forgets the fragrance of darjeeling seas.

The motte, a mound of good Welsh earth, was his,
As was the tower vacant to the sky,
The kingdom known as Powys long ago,
And all the rainy borderland of blue—
All things that flee and hide in borderlands
Between the earth and sky belonged to him.

But now he has passed through that realm of dreams
And left you wondering by hills of earth,
And long you’ll muse, and long you’ll meditate
And never understand the world you brushed
Across that sheet of paper:  world where tree
Is keep, and keep is tree, and cup can loom
As high as high Tretower or a tree.

                       Journey’s End, 1999

Prior mentions of Journey's End--
Mar 07, 2013
Journey's end. "Journey's End" with Tretower castle by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. You can find something I wrote about this piece here. Poem as tower. Unterecker, A Reader's Guide to William Butler Yeats (p. 107): By staring at any ...
Sep 01, 2011
7. Both those little paintings show Tretower,. where Clive hid himself in a cold chrysalis. between his life in the theatre and his life as a painter. The larger one is "Journey's End,". showing Clive's father's mug in the foreground.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

on Catherwood

"Mainly I want to get people reading that book, which is one of the glories of American fiction from the last 50 years."

            --John Wilson, editor of Books and Culture.
              On twitter, June 11, 2014 
New edition of Catherwood by the end of the year! Review clips, "best of" citations, and information on editions here.

Comment used by permission. I am once again grateful to someone never met in person, someone who has been a strong advocate for my books. Thank you.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Catalogue page for "Glimmerglass"--

Clive Hicks-Jenkins,
prefatory drawing for Glimmerglass
I'm posting the catalogue page for Glimmerglass today--go here.

"I know of no writers other than Marly Youmans who has the genius to combine the spine-tingling suspense of Gothic storytelling with the immense charm, grace, glamour, realism, and simplicity of Hawthorne. Glimmerglass does more than shimmer and grip; it entertains and hypnotizes. Youmans, one of the biggest secrets of contemporary American fiction, writes with freshness and beauty." -from poet Jeffery Beam's blurb

I'll be posting more comments and images as the summer goes on...

Monday, June 09, 2014

Long ago and far away

One of the unused Clive Hicks-Jenkins
images for The Foliate Head--it seems
to fit this Whitmanian post...
"Walt Whitman" just followed me on twitter, and that made me remember that I had a professor once who made me read great swaths of Whitman aloud in class. We had an 8:00 start time, but he made us arrive at 7:00 a.m., a great trial for the young, who think they have long lives ahead, not knowing that life is a mere blink, and so feel that they need much sleep. We had to arrive early because he was such a great believer in feeling the rhythms of poetry or prose in our bones, and so we read as well as discussed. I suppose it was, even then, an old-fashioned way to teach, but I imagine that it was effective in a time when theory was already in ascendance.

Our professor would often arrive singing "Lili Marleen," a thing that somewhat disconcerted me because my legal first name is Susan (meaning "Lily") and my middle name "Marlene." He was always cheerful and clearly the famous early bird, which most of us were not. If we were reading poetry, he would always want me to read because he liked the way I read poetry, and if we were on Whitman, he would rarely let anybody else get a word in. Some mornings at 7:00 I could hardly speak! But Whitman tends to wake a person, even a young and sleepy person. The professor was a bright, amusing man, to whom a number of sad things later happened that are nobody's business. But he seemed to have strong friendships with colleagues and a deep love of literature, so I think he must have had, overall, a satisfying life.

He's long gone now, gone to the grass under my boot-soles, as the poet he loved so much said, even longer ago. They were kindred in some ways, and departed "as air." They shook "white locks at the runaway sun." They effused "flesh in eddies, and drift[ed] it in lacy jags. And so this morning I read a little Whitman aloud in the honor of that long-ago professor, the early bird, the lover of poetry, the man of great good cheer.

Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much?
Have you practiced so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun.... there are millions of suns left,
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand.... nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.

--Whitman, shaker of white locks at the runaway sun

* * *

Notes on my recent books, no. 3
(click above for complete review)
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. 30 July 2012 John M. Formy-Duval

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Glimmer and shine--

Recognize these, anyone? I am a fan of stained glass and the poetry of Henry Vaughan (and especially his marvelous "The World"), and so I'm excited to see that Clive Hicks-Jenkins has started working on a window commission and is using images some images he made for my poetry collection The Foliate Head and upcoming novel, Glimmerglass. And the way he is handling the text points back to the lettering on Thaliad, The Foliate Head, and Glimmerglass. I love to think that the books we worked on together will be a secret subtext to the window...

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Joyous path--

Courtesy of and Rodrigo Lozano of Brazil
Old English Wordhord ‏@OEWordhord #OldEnglish #WOTD: gomenwāðu, f.n: a joyous path. (from twitter)
One of my favorite things about the internet is coming upon small, startling facts left like Hansel-pebbles in the woods. (My least favorite thing is, naturellement, the general addiction of everybody and the much-discussed decline in book-reading.) It's amazing that one (this very one, long ago) can spend a year tangling with Anglo-Saxon and not remember a marvelous nugget like this. A mind-nugget. A thought-pebble. Perhaps we should bring back some of these wonderful words. Here's the Bosworth-Toller (Anglo-Saxon dictionary) entry example for gomenwāðu (n; f):
Gewiton ealdgesíþas of gomenwaðe the old comrades departed from the joyous path,
Gomen is an interesting word for joy with, as far as my limited understanding goes, touches of the jubilant, jocund, mirthful, and sometimes pleasure in games and sports about it. While noodling about in the Anglo-Saxon dictionary, I also stumbled on the also-happy gamen-wudu, which Bosworth-Toller defines as "pleasure-wood, glee-wood, a musical instrument, harp." Isn't that a wondrous kenning for a musical instrument?

The not-unflawed but often interesting Wikipedia tells us that kenning as a term for a literary trope in modern English did not come into usage until the nineteenth century, being borrowed from the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson and other treatises, "and derives ultimately from the Old Norse verb kenna 'know, recognise; perceive, feel; show; teach; etc.', as used in the expression kenna við 'to name after; to express [one thing] in terms of [another]', “name after; refer to in terms of”, and kenna til “qualify by, make into a kenning by adding.” So a compound like gamen + wudu is a kind of circumlocution meant to make us know a thing more strongly, to perceive a thing more nearly, and to makes us ken what we did not--gamen-wudu gives us the concept of harp mingled with a consciousness of its source in a tree and its identity as a thing that gives glee and pleasure. In one word is packed much, as in a small poem that radiates in many directions.

So may you dance along the gomenwāðu, lovely notes of the gamen-wudu accompanying you... They might be notes from a distant harp, or they might be the song of a breeze combed by branches and leaves. What would that be? In old English kennings, the wind is a tree breaker, but maybe this one could just be a wind-comb, sweeping and singing below the bright heofon-candel.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Fracas! Ruckus! Brouhaha!

Vignette by Clive Hicks-Jenkins for Thaliad
Dear Slate,

What a lot of grief you are getting for publishing an article about how adults ought to be embarrassed to read children's books. ("Against YA" by Ruth Graham.) I guess maybe that was the point, as it is so often the point in these days. To get attention. To cause a commotion, a hullaballoo, a hoo-ha. To make a sort of paparazzi fuss, all lightbulbs and yelling and jeering. I'm a bit tired of the ruckus, you hear?

A long time ago C. S. Lewis told us that "A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest." Likewise, Maurice Sendak made it clear that it was whether books were good that mattered. And as to fantasy and fantasizing being for children, he said, "I believe there is no part of our lives, our adult as well as child life, when we're not fantasizing, but we prefer to relegate fantasy to children, as though it were some tomfoolery only fit for the immature minds of the young."

I agree with Lewis and Sendak. Ages and genres make no difference at all. Being packed with energy and life counts the most when it comes to a book, not some idea of audience age and kind or mode. I read the Alice books when I was five, and I am still reading them today. Stand where two roads diverge in a yellow wood, and take the way with the nooks for reading and the stones for skipping and the books without labels, without ages. Hey, it'll make all the difference.

Good cheer,

P. S. To somewhat change the subject, I don't like the idea that grownups desire to read weak, thin, smarmy books. And that's where the real criticism is hidden, I think--in the idea that some people are content with such books, whether they are written for toddlers, young adults, or grownups. And the writer assumes that children's books are, indeed, lesser, and that an adult could not have a rich experience reading them. Carroll. Sendak. L'Engle. Those are a few of many arguments against that thought.

P. S. So you don't think I'm being mean to her, here's another article by Ruth Graham--a highly sensible proposal that suggests that maybe we've dropped something we should pick up again, revised for our own day.

Notes on my recent books, no. 2

In THALIAD, Marly Youmans has written a powerful and beautiful saga of seven children who escape a fiery apocalypse----though "written" is hardly the word to use, as this extraordinary account seems rather "channeled" or dreamed or imparted in a vision, told in heroic poetry of the highest calibre. Amazing, mesmerizing, filled with pithy wisdom, THALIAD is a work of genius which also seems particularly relevant to our own time.  --Lee Smith

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Dorothy's rapier, etc.

Dorothy Sayers at The Lapidary Craft
The English language has a deceptive air of simplicity: so have some little frocks; but they are not the kind that any fool can run up in half an hour with a machine. . . . [English] is a rich, noble, flexible, and sensitive because it combines an enormous vocabulary of mixed origin with a superlatively civilized and almost wholly analytical syntax. This means that we have not merely to learn a great number of words with their subtle distinctions of meaning and association, but to put them together in an order determined only by a logical process of thought. There is no good English with clear thinking, and (as some cynic has justly observed) “most people would die sooner than think, and most of them do.” - Dorothy Sayers
Recommending "Dorothy Sayers on Writing" at The Lapidary Craft.
Hat tip to The Prufrock News

Dorothy Sayers on men and women

I enjoyed the Lapidary Craft quotes so much that I'm tossing in another one by Dorothy Sayers... I've never read much Sayers, aside from Gaudy Night, so perhaps I ought to put her on the list.
A man once asked me ... how I managed in my books to write such natural conversation between men when they were by themselves. Was I, by any chance, a member of a large, mixed family with a lot of male friends? I replied that, on the contrary, I was an only child and had practically never seen or spoken to any men of my own age till I was about twenty-five. "Well," said the man, "I shouldn't have expected a woman (meaning me) to have been able to make it so convincing." I replied that I had coped with this difficult problem by making my men talk, as far as possible, like ordinary human beings. This aspect of the matter seemed to surprise the other speaker; he said no more, but took it away to chew it over. One of these days it may quite likely occur to him that women, as well as men, when left to themselves, talk very much like human beings also. ― Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women Human? Astute and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society 
What I am doing

detail, proposed cover art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Drudging, ferrying, writing when I can.  I have been noodling around with tiny stories, which range in topic from cephalopods to celebrity fans (and do not always begin with "c"), but what I really need to do is finish work that has been sitting around in "almost" state for a year or more, waiting for me. I'm making a resolution to finish up three book manuscripts that need to be tidied and in two cases re-ordered--time-consuming but not difficult tasks. I also need to work on fall events for Glimmerglass, as I have done nothing about that matter! And I need to think about the summer workshop at Antioch.

Notes on my recent books, #1

Rose Kelleher, poet (Maryland) at Amazon. On A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage: I hope this book receives the recognition it deserves. I was going to say it was "beautifully written," but that seems superficial somehow, so I'll say it's ~masterfully~ written. Youmans is a poet, true, but the poetry here is used in the service of the story, to bring scenes and characters to life; it's not decoration. I'm amazed at Youman's ability to inhabit another world so fully, as if she'd been reincarnated and were remembering it all firsthand. As others have noted, you want to linger over the descriptions and at the same time move forward to see what happens next.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Tweedly-jolly for Glimmerglass!

I'm busy writing a guest blog post and then must do some ornery tasks that are singing my name in gutturals and shrills... So just for fun, here's a bit of welcome for Glimmerglass from the editor of Books and Culture:

  1. Having read it at a previous stage, I already know it will be one of my favorite books of the year
  2. Major new arrival from Mercer Univ. Press: galley of Glimmerglass, new novel by
  3. 22h