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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Questions for Thaliad

Mercer, 2012
Art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Fr. Augustine Wetta's class at St. Louis Priory School (MO) is reading through a sequence of Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton, Carroll, and Youmans! I love being the little red caboose on that artful train. The students are reading Thaliad, and the wonderful Fr. Augustine a.k.a. Fr. Dude has allowed them to ask me two questions (although #1 is actually two):
QUESTION #1: How/why did you decide to kill off the most lovable character so early in the book? Did you feel guilty for doing it?

QUESTION #2: In your own mind, did Gabriel survive or die? If he died, then how?

DISCLAIMER: I warned them that there is probably no answer to #2. Once it’s published, the poem belongs to our imaginations. But the kids insisted. And the choice is theirs.
So hello to Fr. Dude's class, and let me see what I can do about these questions...


First, I'll tell you something about the writing of this book. Thaliad surprised me; I woke up one morning in the summer, all three of my children at home (i.e. not a convenient time to write), and the story was in my head and wanting o-u-t. Did I dream it? Did it pour in from a distant star? Who knows? I love that sort of thing, when a delicious sluice of words appears, but I don't pretend to understand why poems and stories sometimes happen in a great gush and yet at other times need some coaxing. I wrote the narrative swiftly, working around the events of my day and also late at night. Nothing seemed to need dreaming up; everything felt already there, unreeling in front of me. I know it was my mind and my words, and yet the writing felt wonderfully strange, the events inevitable. That's one way of saying that the death of Gabriel was not so much chosen as simply dreamed.

But when I think about the book now, I am sure that he was the most vulnerable one--and in the chaos of departure and driving north, he was the one who disturbed the others with what they had lost. He grieves. He weeps. You're right--he is the most lovable character. For the sake of the book, that lovable nature was important. He leaves a Gabriel-shaped hole that can never be filled. For Thalia, surely his death is the beginning of inwardness. It is an event that can never be erased or un-remembered. For all of the young travelers, it brings the kind of quiet in which questions spring up.

You know, I did get some reproaches for Gabriel's disappearance from the book! But no, I did not feel guilty for his loss. Do you feel guilty for what you do in a dream? Most of the time, probably not--and a book is a kind of "guide dream." (I do remember, however, being stirred while writing by the growing knowledge of what was coming toward him.) Besides, I have plenty of real-world errors to feel guilty about; everyone does, eventually, I expect. And we hope to learn from those things and change and grow, rather than feeling frozen by guilt. Certainly the group is challenged and made thoughtful by the loss.


One of Clive's interior vignettes
"Did Gabriel survive or die?" 


Okay, that was a smart-aleck response, but what strikes me is that I held more than one idea in my mind at once. Emma does the same thing. She connects the fearfulness of the great river and the bridge with the sea, where Gabriel would have been with family, and yet would have known the slap and tidal drag of waves, perhaps the cold slide of a shark near his body. It's ominous, that conjunction, and suggestive. Does he throw himself into the water in his panic and fear? Perhaps. She also imagines and even prays (praying for the past is interesting) that he was swept up to some "ashless paradise" by a "messenger." Death and an angelic salvation hang equally in her  mind.

What lay outside my knowing is not in the poem. You see, I am in exactly the same position as Emma. I do not know precisely what happened to Gabriel. I may be afraid that he hurled himself into the water, but I don't know. I may hope that something beyond human knowing intervened. But I still don't know. The fact that I don't know makes the story that the poem tells stronger and more uncanny. A work of art should not give up all its mystery. There should be a kind of residue left afterward. Mystery tugs at us. It has power.

p. s.

It's possible that I didn't answer #2 to your satisfaction. Feel free to ask another question.

p. p. s.

Emma is the name my mother would have named me, had it been her turn to name a child. While I don't have a lot in common with this Emma, we do share a passion for storytelling and books, and the village where I live is the model for hers.

p. p. p. s.

Fr. Dude was my student last summer at Antioch, and he was a splendid one! You are lucky to have such a teacher. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

This is just to say

that I absolutely love this piece about Glimmerglass. It's by writer Scott G. F. Bailey.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Expectations and the Arts

Out of obstinacy, I shall deck
this post with my recent books...
Art: Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Sure, I promised that I wouldn't be back until February, but that was before I came down with The Great Crud, The Very Great and Imaginative Crud. Here I am, day 13, hacking and sneezing and lolling in bed to report on the day's reading, despite the hijacking of my brain by little green men. Well, part of the day's reading--I'm also reading David Young's translation of Petrarch's sonnets.

Skybetter at the Fitch Report: Cultural Unraveling
   Such historicizing neatly situates artistic crises as inevitable and inevitably overcome, but it provides little comfort to culture warriors working in today’s artistic trenches. Many feel (as many have felt) that the aesthetic, economic and technological challenges facing them are titanically different from any that came before. It’s hard to escape the feeling that while, yes, perpetual change is a facet of the arts, something big is happening, something major is unraveling. For those of us invested in traditional categories of performance — usually some sort of show on some sort of stage — we find ourselves competing for the attention of audiences against forms of entertainment and edification we believe empirically inferior. That folks would prefer to sink hours into a YouTube rat-hole of free Miley Cyrus music videos rather than pay for live performance is the new state of the art.
   The term frequently ascribed to this economic scenario is “disruption.” Coined and popularized by Clayton M. Christensen in his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma, the word describes historical innovations that emerge cheaper and of seemingly less quality than the competition, but come to dominate the lower-end of a market nonetheless, and remake entire industries in their image over time. Examples of disrupted industries include the American auto sector (Asian automakers bring cheaper, arguably inferior vehicles to the global market, bankrupting U.S. automakers); computing (micro-computer companies bring cheaper, arguably inferior devices to the global market, bankrupting mainframe makers); and steel (mini-mills bring cheaper, arguably inferior steel to market, bankrupting companies that used integrated steel factories).
   ...Data suggests that audiences are agnostic in their habits of cultural consumption — and increasingly ambivalent about the platform by which they consume that culture. The Innovators Dilemma suggests that those who look with condescension upon the competitive emergence of cheaper, arguably poorer quality cultural products do so at their own peril.
Sydney Skybetter uses live dance performance as his lens here, but it applies to all the arts. Clearly it easily applies to the flood of digital and paperback books pouring into the world. I expect there are a lot of writers who feel a distaste for that Niagara of books. Skybetter would say that it would be a grave mistake to think that they do not matter to an audience that may not really care about traditional and high art.

Back to the Star System and the Vast Sea at the 2014 Jaipur Festival

Skybetter's essay reminded me of last year's Jaipur Festival, and the attack on American and British writers and the lack of translation.
     Lahiri believes that "translation is the key" – that it is what has created "the bridge for so many of us to be able to read across our limitation" – but Franzen wasn't so sure.
    "One of the consequences of globalism, it seems to me, and I think we see it even in the literary world, is that things become less horizontal and more vertical," he said. "If you can imagine everything perfectly translated, that we have massive subsidies for translation, that anyone publishing in Romanian in Romania, that is instantly available in all languages everywhere, you are still faced with the finite amount of reading time that an individual reader has … in a funny way you'd think there'd be greater diversity in what is read, but I worry that the trend in a more global literary marketplace is even more towards a kind of star system and a vast sea of people who can't find an audience."
It was curious to hear famous writers from around the world get together and complain (again! don't writers complain a lot?) at Jaipur (of course we need more translation!), but what's completely unclear in the discussion here is that many of the very American writers tarred by this large, sticky brush (you Americans--and Brits--are all hogging the mainstream!) suffer from exactly this sort of problem--the star system, and the difficulty of getting a toehold in such a large, diverse country where publishers at the major houses choose our big sellers for us.

Many American writers flee or are ejected by the Big 5 of publishing and hope to find warmer homes elsewhere, only to discover that it's even harder to be visible outside the New York machine. As readers, we have no idea of the scope and range of writers in our own country, we have few dedicated literary critics these days, and the problem is only becoming worse with a torrent of new work. I doubt that this is anything we should bother to bemoan, as I see no push toward a new generation of devoted critics or a lessening of the Niagara of books.

As for writers, we must be nimble and adaptable to the current scene. That's what is said. I expect most of us don't really know what that means, except that we know one round of bad Bookscan numbers derails the writer for a long time, maybe forever. I look around at my circle of friends in the arts and see some writers who are retiring from making new books and some painters who are no longer full-time. Living a life as "The Artist of the Beautiful" in the manner of Hawthorne is a high, lonely call, and who can blame anyone who finds it insufficient?

Tabachnick at the Skybetter Business Bureau
   As we have transitioned into the 21st century, the demographic and social milieu has fundamentally shifted. resulting in a gap between the expectation of artists and the expectation of audiences. To put it another way, audiences are increasingly skipping the traditional art forms (often referred to as “high” or “fine” arts) because these art forms, at least as they are traditionally presented, no longer deliver the value they once did. The success of our strategies of the past hundred years in increasing the supply of artists has not been matched with strategies to insure sufficient value and demand for the work of those artists. The result is the gap many funders are now seeking to address.
   It is well documented that our country is in the midst of a major demographic shift from a European-based Caucasian culture to a multiethnic culture. The vast majority of the traditional arts that were professionalized in this country flowed from the former — from aesthetic systems that are not the same as that of other heritages, many of which have different (or additional) cultural artifacts and experiences that they value. As the ethnic and racial balance in our country shifts, so do and will the cultural experiences and artifacts from which audiences will find value, a dynamic that links directly to audience demand.
   At the same time, disruptive digital technologies are eviscerating the underpinnings of many industries, not just the creative industries, and our sector’s business models are being turned upside down. The underlying issue brings us back to expectations: the inability to make a living as an artist today. Nor is this limited to the nonprofit sector. Taylor Swift’s recent withdrawal of her catalog from Spotify and the pitched battle between Amazon and Hachette are indications that the pressures from these shifts are wreaking havoc with the commercial segments of the creative industries.
This guest post from Ken Tabachnick is an interesting comparison to the first two essays, and I'm glad I turned to it third. Clearly, the demographic transformation of society has something consoling to say to the writers at the Jaipur Festival. America is more varied, more interested in a range of modes.

And certainly it gives a kind of answer to Skybetter's discussion of cultural disruption: "this is the real message that more and more are suggesting for our sector: changing expectations are required to continue making art and being satisfied with the return on that work for the artist. Such a change, though, may spell the end of the 'professionalized' arts sector we have come to expect."


You know, I'm tired of pondering these issues. If the writing of poetry and novels ends up being as refined and obscure a pursuit as hand lacemaking, so be it. I will make my lace of words.

Think about this: Blake drew a picture of his wife and sang on his deathbed. On his deathbed! He died full of joy and love and still making art. So beautiful.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Glimmerglass, Mons Nubifer retreat, and more

Art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Clip from a new review of Glimmerglass

This is the tale of a woman's journey and the courage required to live a creative life, or any life, to its fullest. Ghosts and "wizened creatures" are just a few of the obstacles for a late bloomer on the verge of giving up on life's dreams. If she is to make a home here, if she is to salvage a family for herself, she will have to stand her ground and maybe go deeper. Cynthia's reserves of strength, belief and imagination will be tested and the dangers are real. But so are the rewards.

Part fairy tale, part cautionary tale with a dash of fantasy and allegory, Youmans has created a special world in Glimmerglass. Cooper Patent is a village rooted in the States, but it shimmers with hints of Neverland, the Land of Oz and a visit through the looking glass. The setting has an eerie beauty to it along with tingling suspense and a real-world mystery clamoring for resolution. The language is spare and illuminating and sparkles a bit at the edges. I finished it late last night "before threading the eye of the needle and sliding head first into the plush midnight fabric of sleep."

--read more of Suzanne Brazil's review at Blogcritics; reprinted at The Seattle Post Intelligencer

St. James Lake Delaware
Next event on my schedule

The next one is a bit different from any event I've done previously... I'll be in residence for a long weekend at the rectory of St. James Lake Delaware. Participation is limited to a maximum of eight participants. Here's a description crafted by one of the world's most unusual Episcopal priests, James Krueger, founder of Mons Nubifer Sanctus (Holy Cloud-bearing Mountain. You can also find Fr. James here as a singer-songwriter.)

Thursday February 26 – Sunday March 1: The Priest-and-Poet Series: Exploring Religious Language
$200 suggested donation, includes program, lodging, and meals. Taught by award winning author and poet Marly Youmans. 
Religious language is not the language of technical manuals and engineer’s reports. Highly symbolic, often obscure and dream-like, and expressing human truths through the twists and turns of narrative rather than linear explanation the language of religion, and more specifically of Christian scripture, is more akin to that of the poet and novelist than that of the researcher – even when it is seemingly giving a report of historical events! This workshop is aimed at both writers and readers, and anyone who wishes to explore the intricacies of religious language in Christian scripture. Through reading, discussion, quiet reflection and journaling, award winning poet and novelist Marly Youmans will guide participants through a lush garden of scriptural readings accented by ancient and contemporary poems, writings which avoid sentimentality and grapple with the chaos and struggle of human lives and the complexities of faith, in order to better appreciate how language is used in the Christian context to speak to and to stir our deepest human longings. Not only will participants gain an augmented appreciation for the language of scripture, but will push towards these same linguistic virtues in their own writing and guided writing projects, with plenty of time for group sharing and feedback. As is the case with all programs at Mons Nubifer Sanctus, participants will be required to take part in the contemplative training schedule of the retreat house, which will include periods of silent and sung prayer throughout the day as well as a brief period of work. Individual spiritual direction with Mons Nubifer Sanctus’s founder and President will also be available upon request. Please see our “Attending a Program” page on our website for details and contact us with any questions or concerns. This retreat is offered in celebration of the feast day of George Herbert, Priest and Poet, on the 26th.

Litera scripta manet
What I am doing in my blogging-break...

Well, my eldest came for a longish visit and a local interview, and he made me the present of a monster cold! Nevertheless, I have been trooping around the snowy Yankee hinterlands, going to wrestling tournaments and duals. I celebrated the birthday of my painter friend Yolanda Sharpe with another painter friend, Ashley Cooper. I've been combing through the masses of poems for The Book of the Red King. And I've been reading--translations, Henri Cole's poetry collection Middle Earth (four times in a row to get it right in my mind), some mythic-minded fiction, and several nonfiction books on alchemy, one a present from the aforementioned Ashley and another recommended by New Zealand grad student of alchemy, Sienna Latham. I may even get to some books by flesh-friends and e-friends soon, things I've long said that I would read "when I have time." I'll be back here more frequently next month.

Thursday, January 08, 2015


Hello, friends and passers-by: I am taking a break from the blog and Facebook in order to deal with visits and deadlines. And I also have need for some time to reflect on work accomplished, and whether I will continue in the same modes as in the past. (I will, however, answer notes left anywhere on the blog.) Keep warm.

Lady Liberty has a pen

Tomi Ungerer, marvelous illustrator-writer
on the Charlie Hebdo massacre. See more cartoons here.
And here.  And here.
Let's pull for a world
where the pen can be used in safety.

I don’t think the most important question about what happened is “Do we support Charlie Hebdo?" I think the most important question is, “Do we support, and are we willing to fight for, a society in which people who make things like Charlie Hebdo can work in peace and sleep in their beds each night without fear?” --Alan Jacobs And given the current flight of Jewish citizens from France and the high number of crimes against them (I've read that 40% of racist crimes in France are committed against the 1% of the population that is Jewish), we'd better add where all "people . . . can work in peace and sleep in their beds each night without fear."

Sunday, January 04, 2015

The Book of the Red King on the 11th day of Christmas

iPhone photo by Rebecca Beatrice Miller
A royal sunset on Main Street, Cooperstown

I've finally gotten back to working on The Book of the Red King, long written and finally, now, revised for a final time (and another and another and so on. But it's good to think of it as a final polish. Final polishes are always more complicated than they seemed at the start.) Like Thaliad, it tells a tale in an alternative landscape. Unlike Thaliad, the manuscript is composed of many poems, some of which I have just now cast into the fire, as on some terrible day of judgment (though a fire on the hearth is pleasant.)

Always, it is a severe lesson for a writer to look at a large group of poems. After much time away, I can see that some of these are simply not good enough for a book. They don't leave enough gold in the sieve after I pan through their waters. And then the rest have varying degrees of spark and combustion of language. Some I want to read again because they still manage to surprise me, or because I like the sounds of them. It's the middling ones that I dither over--are they needed for the over-arching story, are they good enough, can I polish them more? Can I wrestle with the angel again, and gain what I seek? Am I just playing in the shallows, or have I managed to swim out to deeper waters? Do the poems, placed together, make a kind of potent journey from darkness into light, through transformation, or are they only dead leaves skittering along the pavement?

And it is strange to read poems so different from my own life, yet so close--threads of self-scorn and old darknesses in the Fool. What a hard time he has becoming a man, becoming a proper Fool with mastery of his foolishness, his tales, his loves... He feels so near, so far. Jots of my own days are here but unrecognizable to any but me.

I am considering using "The Starry Fool" (slightly altered) as the first poem in the book, to be a sort of proem-poem, a kind of preface. You can see it in the original version at Mezzo Cammin here. 

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Glimmering New Year

Here's a little Pinterest board I made on New Year's Day. It's composed of pictures I found on the web (on blogs and twitter and Facebook), all of Glimmerglass at various people's houses. If you send me a link to a picture, I'll put yours up as well. (A lot of people have posted the cover with comments, but it has to be a picture that shows at least a wisp of the setting.)

And here's a #tbt picture for New Year's Day, pilfered from my daughter's twitter and posted on Facebook and now finally here. It's me with my little Rebecca Beatrice, a kindergartner at the time... so I am either 43 or 44, and that's the front porch of our house in Greenville, South Carolina. It was a lovely, ramshackle Arts and Crafts / Tudor, and I hated to leave it behind.

Wishing you love and peace and metaphysical gold on New Year's Day!