Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Marly has been indisposed with an unpleasant malady. Back, she hopes, in a week.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Image at Trip Advisor:
a corner of Oaks Gallery at the Riverwood Shops in Dillsboro,
owned by Bob Leveille and Susan Morgan Leveille. 
Mea culpa

I have barely returned from three weeks in North Carolina with my mother (yes, the timing seems, given hurricane Florence, just a little odd, though the mountains did not suffer the disastrous havoc of the coast and piedmont) So my blog and my blog readers, I have neglected you. And I am soon to go on another trip. But after that I will be home for a while and send out a Rollipoke and give some attention to my blog and pay a few social calls to other bloggers.

What I did in North Carolina, for the curious:

Ate prodigious quantities of hoppin' John and okra; stayed on the mountaintop and had good views of ranges, clouds, storms, pelting rain (thank you, cruel Lady Florence, for the mercy that we did not need an ark at our end of the state); enjoyed walks in the mountains; was rained on mightily at times but stared at three splendiferous rainbows; went to the Chihuly glass show in the Biltmore Estate gardens and pools and afterward toured the Vanderbilt house once again; hung out with the Cullowhee Baptists on Sunday with my mother; toured the Nature Center and then hiked at the Highlands Biological Station (saw the fabulous mountain bog in lovely fall bloom, all lilies and jewelweed and grass of Parnassus and more); scurried to the Farmers Market for more okra (repeat, repeat); searched for monarchs over about sixty scrumptious miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway with my mother and my eldest son who unexpectedly popped down for a visit (too early for monarchs, as we thought); visited with friends including the wonderful weaver Susan Morgan Leveilledrove the Cherohala Skyway; toured the arts fair at the Jackson County Green Energy Park; watched glass blowers making their glory-hole magic; went to inspect the elk and hike at Oconaluftee in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park; rambled around the North Carolina Arboretum with my son while my mother did her volunteering (and there we did see one, two, three monarchs and loads of swallowtails and fritillaries and sulphurs at the Patchwork Garden.)

Enough? That's all I conjure at this instant but there was more...

Be sure and hit the link to Susan Morgan Leveille; her family has been crucial to the resurgence of crafts in the western region, and she is a North Carolina Heritage Award winner. That's a very big deal in the state, and if you have a yen for anything woven, I recommend her. She has been weaving since she was six. Or maybe it was five... Her work is very fine, and she does take commissions as well. Susan also teaches (my mother has taken a number of classes from her) at the Penland School of Crafts in Spruce Pine, the John C. Campbell Folk School at Brasstown, various other places, and in her own Dillsboro. If you are in the area, stop by her Oaks Gallery, also in Dillsboro. (The link in the article is no longer correct, but the one I included here will give you a picture of what is on offer.)

Read over a bowl of matcha this morning

"If we knew a little more of Shakespeare's self and circumstance how much more complete the Sonnets would be to us, how their strange, torn edges would be softened and merged into a whole body!" --D. H. Lawrence, preface to the Collected Poems of 1928

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Story's freedom

The quote below was trawled from a youtube podcast advertised as discussing, among other things, "the effect that a new ideological thinking is having on art and literature." As that is an interesting subject for a writer, I listened. If you want to listen, go here.
Tim Lott: As a novelist, I've got to be allowed to be wrong without being accused of being twenty-seven different things [i.e. racist, sexist, transphobic, etc.]... I've got to have my characters express the way real people are... 
I can't just say this is the way they should be because that's the death of literature, and that's why literature and the arts in Russia died the moment the Communists took over from a wonderful, rich history of literature and art: suddenly [claps hands] dead.  
* * *

Art: I can't find much about this oil-on-canvas painting, but it's by René de Groux (Belgian, 1888-1953.) And I can't find much about the painter, either!

Thursday, August 09, 2018

I'll be reading my friend Jeffery Beam's poem "An Invocation" (from Skysill Press's Gospel Earth) at 7:30 p.m., "Ensembles Large and Small from the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra Cherry Valley Star Theatre: Artworks Concert Series August 12" and at "The Pierstown Grange Presents: The Annual Florence High Memorial Chamber Music Concert August 13, 7:30 pm Chamber Music presented by members of the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra." 

Locals, get a little bit of North Carolina in your week--see y'all there!

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Happy 4th of July!

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, "Betsy Ross 1777."
Wikipedia, public domain image.
Shown: General Washington with child at left, Robert Morris,
George and Betsy Ross. His name? Ferris's father was a portrait painter
who was an admirer of Jean-Léon Gérôme's artistry.
 The son, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930), is best known
for a series of 78 paintings drawn from American history,
The Pageant of a Nation.
About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.  --Calvin Coolidge, from a speech on the 150th anniversary of The Declaration of Independence at

Monday, July 02, 2018

Empire of Jargon

Anton Chekhov
The title of doctor, nurse, technician all disappeared, and we all became providers. All those patients in our waiting room suddenly became consumers or clients. My grandfather ran a grocery store and had a lot of customers, and my father was a lawyer and had a lot of clients. None of those customers or clients would come to see me as their doctor with their illnesses today if I were a provider. The use of the terminology of “providers” and “customers” lowers all health care staff to the lowest common denominator and demeans the concerns of my patients.
When I sit in my examining room across the desk from my patient I face a human being who has come to see me as a doctor because they’re in search of the treatment of a real illness or concern. --Sidney Goldstein, M. D.
These issues are not unique to doctors, alas; administration burgeons in many places (universities and hospitals leading the way), and administrators are prone to an only-too-understandable postmodern confusion about what is meaningful and who is doing the essential work. This interesting tendency allows them to put administrators first, to eliminate meeting spaces that once belonged to doctors, to increase demands for paperwork so that there is less time for face-to-face communication between doctor and patient, etc. As a poet and novelist married to a physician, I see many changes in how medicine is practiced but also detect parallel changes in my own realm. In mine, the canon of great literature is abolished, all writing is "product" on a "platform," the strength of the writing is no longer uppermost in the minds of publishers, and the idea of a publisher supporting a writer's ongoing work is increasingly absent. In both fields, tradition and the opportunity for plain old human warmth continue to be on the wane.

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Wilder Flap

My husband's maternal grandmother and her parents were half Akwesasne Mohawk and half French Canadian. Nevertheless, Michael's North Country Gram found it in her to complain about tourists who were "so damn French they can't speak English!" It didn't slow her much. Gram was the most talkative woman I have ever known, and the most opinionated, and the quickest to complain to town officials about what she did not approve. She was the most lively person in a clan divided between the reservation and the nearby town, and I still think of her often.

Although Michael has never in any way attempted to use a thread of native ancestry for gain, he has rather enjoyed the idea that he might be related to Kateri Tekakwitha. Come winter, the Roman Catholic saint used to chop a hole in the Raquette River and plunge into the icy waters. Now that's mortifying the flesh in the morning. Now that'll startle the Jesuits!

Human beings of all stripes were tougher back then, it seems. When Mohawks chewed off the fingertips of Isaac Jogues, he sailed back to the Old World to have what was left of his fingers blessed by the pope, so that he could administer the Eucharist. Then he sailed back to the New World because he wasn't done carrying the gospel to the Iroquois. They eventually killed him, of course. Those who chewed and those who were chewed in those times seem considerably more robust and earthy than we expect. The Association of Library Service to Children would probably say that their "legacy is complex" and "not universally embraced." They might like to clean up history and de-access any book touching on those topics because history is so dratted bloody and messy and unjust, and people in various eras have opinions shaped by their own times, culture, and experience.

The latest literary flap is the removal of the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award by The Association of Library Service to Children board. You might suspect that the new name would be simply Award. But no. The new name is nice and bland: Children’s Literature Legacy Award. This is somewhat surprising because the ALSC appears to be uneasy about the legacy of the past, which is invariably complex and includes thoughts different from and often less acceptable than our own, but all right.

Putting aside any immediate hot-blooded reactions flying around the internets, what are the compelling issues rising from this action? Which are interesting tendencies or problems, whether you agree or whether you disagree with the decision? 1. We are judging the past by our present. Let's try flipping that upside down for a change and see what we learn. 2. The current times will look just as strange and wrong (perhaps even stranger and more ridiculous and wrong--who knows?) to the future as Wilder (i.e. the past) looked to a bunch of librarians determined to do the right thing by children. This is obvious and unavoidable, alas. 3. Jettisoning history and knowledge of how people used to see the world has been tried in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, and various other places. It has not proved to be a healthful idea. 4. The bestseller list has often made it extraordinarily clear to us that the "universally embraced" book is not very good. 5. I have noticed that recent college graduates seem to know a minuscule amount of history, including literary history. It seems that English majors can now graduate without knowledge of Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, and various other essential writers. Young writers wielding the English language, young writers of all colors and creeds, have a need to stand and dance and frolic on the shoulders of giants, even when they are a.) dead, b.) white, and c.) males. To say nay on this point is to undermine and harm young writers. Words beget words. Great words beget great words. Young writers will take and reject as needed--even rejection is a spur to new words. 6. The fashionable hyper-insistence on saying nothing that could possibly construed as offensive is leading to the destruction of fiction, particularly historical fiction. 7. One of the pleasures of reading older fiction is the dance between past and present. Times change. People change. The difference between times challenges us and is good for us to navigate. 8. Academia is in love with the power of jargon and the altering of names in order to change essentials. 9. A dire need to listen and learn from one another is growing increasingly more obvious. Let's do that. With civility and love for one another.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Clinched: A Talk with Poet Susan Hankla

Pictures show Susan Hankla, Clinch River, the logo for Groundhog Poetry Press,
and R. H. W. Dillard--poet, writer, stellar teacher, leader of the whistle pigs,
and founder of Groundhog Poetry Press.

I am feeling downright happy about the interview with poet Susan Hankla that went up online this week. Susan and I worked hard on it, and we have received a generous response from social media to the interview, including 40+ shares or re-links of my facebook post, along with promises to buy the book and even a promise from a well-known writer to review!

If you haven't heard my bell-ringing and clamoring on this so far, please hear it now and take a look at our discussion. At the bottom of what I think of as an unusually interesting and revelatory interview, you will find some poems from the book.

Thanks to those of you who take a peek. I've wished for Susan to have a full-length book for a very long time and am pleased to support and recommend her poetry collection, Clinch River, available from Groundhog Poetry Press via SPD, or Small Press Distribution.

* * *

Introduction to the interview with some facts about Susan Hankla:

My review of Susan Hankla’s Clinch River in the October 2017 issue of The Hollins Critic begins like this: “I doubt that any other reviewer of Susan Hankla’s first full-length book, Clinch River, has had the great good luck of seeing her, a young woman, dance playfully with an enormous rattlesnake skin. Such is my sparkling luck.” I have known Susan Hankla for decades; she is one of those attractive, special people who spill over with an abundance of life, and it is a great pleasure to question her about her first full-length poetry collection, its poems bound tightly to her growing-up years and to a coal-mining region in the Appalachian South. As I wrote in the close of my review, the poems “tangle coming-of-age stories with hard times in coal country. They juxtapose the girl who cannot leave, clinched by poverty’s snares, with the girl who goes away and can return for the treasure, the gold that lies buried in her childhood: these poems, these golden apples. Take them!”

Clinch River comes to the world from poet R. H. W. Dillard’s Groundhog Poetry Press, a new small press in Roanoke, Virginia. Richard Dillard serves as publisher, editor, designer, compositor warehouse manager, and shipping director for the new poetry press, which is already shipping out its second “suite” of handsomely-designed paperback books. Distribution is through SPD, which already lists Hankla’s book as “recommended” and a poetry bestseller. Having made “not a snobbish decision but a purely practical one,” Richard Dillard is accepting Groundhog poets by invitation only. A well-known and much-admired writer and professor in the undergraduate and M.F.A.program at Hollins, he has no trouble filling his roster of poets.

A Hollins graduate with an M.F.A. from Brown, Susan Hankla previously published a chapbook with Burning Deck Press of Providence. She has appeared in Gargoyle, Beloit Fiction Journal, Michigan Quarterly Review, Blue Mesa, Artemis, Hollins Critic, Open Places, Southern Poetry Review, Poetry Northwest and New Virginia Review. A resident of Richmond, Virginia, she has received a Virginia Commission grant in fiction and fellowships to the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and the Frost Place.

Now read the interview and poems!
Thank you to editor Jean Holzinger....

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Home again--

Pieter Brueghel the Elder,
The Tower of Babel, circa 1563
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
Public domain usage.

One of many marvelous things seen along the journey...

Just home from Europe early this morning after two full days of being bumped from flights, flight cancellations, delays, and missed connections. I had a wonderful time in Prague, Vienna, Salzburg, and Munich before that, and I will catch up on all things bloggian some time in the next week, after I stop being exhausted and get over the bug I acquired at the close. Friends and passers-by, hope the last few weeks have been sweet to you! Happy to have been away, happy to be home.

detail of The Tower of Babel.
Public domain / Wikipedia.

In several places you can see that the tower is a kind of wrapping around a mountain,
a choice by Brueghel that I think especially interesting, since traditionally a mountain
is the feature where Moses, Christ, and others went to be closer to God. Brueghel takes the
mountain--the natural ladder toward the higher--and transforms it into something
mechanized and belonging to men. Symbolically, then, man transforms the domain of God
into a thing meant to usurp God's prerogatives and tower into the heavens.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Morning thoughts on creation

A good image for a flourishing mind...
by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for Maze of Blood

One of the stranger things about Genesis is that God is shown making the universe, and at its end the universe is good. In fact, very good. But it's not faultless. Genesis never claims such a thing. The universe is order drawn out of chaos. But it's not order drawn all the way out of chaos.

Without some chaos and change, new things would not rise up as time passes. Evolution would never happen. Some elements of perfection sound very attractive. Volcanoes would not erupt, tsunamis not spill over the earth. We wouldn't have to write books about why bad things happen to good people. Perhaps little would happen to anybody, but the world would be tidy and orderly and safe.

Or perhaps the world would be fully anti-narrative and nothing at all would ever occur. Perfection is static. The order of made things grows out of the soil and ferment of chaos.

A book or a poem (not Creation with a big C but a little-c sub-creation) aspires to perfection, aspires to bring order out of chaos. No one can create perfection, and I imagine a writer might just stop if he or she reached perfection in a work. A book or poem also aspires to do something new in the world, though most stories and poems do not.

And who are the best poems and books for? (Here I am skipping the au courant, the trendy, the passing fancies, the bestseller rages--they have their reward!) Are they written for readers? Not exactly, though words are a siren call sent out to readers who bob by in their little ships. At its best, a poem is made from a springing desire that is beyond words but becomes incarnate in words. A novel or other long work is a mixture of conscious decision and labor and that same springing desire which comes and goes like a will o' the wisp.

The new small-c creation may find readers if the work is good or very good but also if the work has luck and a push toward visibility. Then reader and the writer may at last unite, the reader creating in mind a singular, personal version of the work...

Monday, May 07, 2018

A capital choice

The three poetry books
shown on this post all have
jacket art by painter
Clive Hicks-Jenkins of Wales.
My poetry books are Claire, Thaliad, The Foliate 
Head, The Throne of Psyche, and...
a still-secret one, coming out late this year.
Don't skip the preface...

I should preface this little explanation by noting the simple fact that I have many poet friends who write in very different ways from me--who have entirely different ideas about lines and form and poems. And that's fine.

I like many different sorts of books and poems. But I hold that each writer must decide on the building blocks of writing for his or her own work.

* * *

A capital choice

This morning I received a fat paper letter from a writer and friend--it's so marvelous to get a letter on paper! The internet has swept away such things, except for those who rebel against its winding tentacles, its sneaking power. Luckily, I know such persons.

And one of the things he asked me was why I capitalize the start of lines in poetry. It's an excellent question because I started out as a good pupil and inheritor of Modernism, only using a capital letter when beginning a poem or after a period mark. Back then, I accepted the idea that the practice of using capitals at the start of a line was out-dated, artificial, and peculiar in a modern/postmodern context. It still looks peculiar because almost everybody else in the realm of poetry today does as I once did, even those who are obsessed with that weirdly freeing practice, formal poetry.

Why did I stop?

Part of the answer lies in my semi-abandonment of free verse. I say semi- because I recently wrote a whole manuscript of poems that most people would call free verse, though they are heavily influenced by certain Yoruban and ancient Hebrew structures.

The more I moved into forms, the more compelling I found them--the more I liked the way form dislodges this poet from her own limited thoughts. Rhyme can nudge a poet right out of the grooves of where-she-intended-to-go and into surprise. Meter makes the writer consider more closely how to handle the line, how to fit words and thoughts into units of rhythm.

Modernism is packed with theories and statements about poetic line, many having to do with breath, though in reality a great many poets just go by the slippery judgment of what feels like a rightness. (I should say that the work of the first Modernists reveals their own sharp understanding of meter, sound, and shape even when dismantling the old order in free verse.) Unfortunately, not everybody is equal in the matter of poetic rightnesses, as Wallace Stevens called that act of the mind that seeks perfection in freedom. Many poets seem to break unthinkingly at syntactical units or occasionally to make a kind of pun by stopping the line with what seems a complete thought that is then transformed by the next word on the next line. (I've done both of those things in the course of many years of writing poems.) A lot of free verse contains words that appear lonely and slack, abandoned on a line. Not all, of course, but some of recent poetry simply isn't interesting in a line by line consideration. (I'll get to disjunction and fragmentation later.)

Now you may say that a poem is not simply lines but is a whole--just as a novel had better be more than well-crafted sentences and yet sometimes is not much more than pretty sentences--and that is true. Nevertheless, I want the cake and the eating at once; I want good lines and good poems, or at least the best that I can make.

For me, a capital letter at the start of a line frames the line, separates the line, and forces the writer to think about the whole with its relationship to the part in a more focused way. To pluck an image from Modernism, it is like a tiny Joseph Cornell box; it needs a certain richness of sound and meaning, even when spare. Like meter and like rhyme, this framing of the line is yet another form of discipline that I set as a bulwark against the an era in which the short, self-focused lyric has dominated to the point of banishing poetic drama, long narrative, and a whole wide range of once-useful poetic modes. (Although I simply woke one day with it already in my head, Thaliad must also be part of my own rebellion against such a narrowing of poetry.)

In my own writing, I'm not attracted by the syntactical shiftings and disconnections that provide an uneasy order to so many lyrics, often suggested as the natural result of the disjunctions and chaos of "today's world"; I'm concerned with a wholeness and clarity constructed from well-made parts. Whether or not I succeed, the framing of the line makes me more conscious of those parts, sets up a demand that each one work and be worthy. That desire and ideal may or may not be fulfilled. In saying that each line must be worthy, I'm talking about revision because I tend to be an instinctual writer who composes in a sort of tempestuous flood that afterward I inspect and tame as needed, building little weirs and channels.

The capital-letter frame device emphasizes and makes conscious the fact that the riverine path of a poem is spilling through shapes, through lines, that it must flow forward in meaning while falling through each level or line. Why do I desire flowing sense? Why don't I want for my own poems any marked disconnection or scrambled syntax? To me, postmodern modes of discontinuity seem exhausted, vampire-long in the tooth, gone gray-haired or bald. For others, what I see as an ancient trendiness is alive rather than musty, but for me it feels of little use in making a poem.

Moreover, all poets (no matter what sort of poem they choose to write) are aware that such a way of making poems has alienated and still alienates readers who are not poets. It deliberately destroys many of the purposes that are at the heart of poems, which at their start appear to have been oral gifts made by some sort of bard who sang or recited his own or handed-down poems to other people. And I do like, indeed love, to have a range of readers, even though Modernism and its aftershocks have done their best to make poets the primary readers of poets.

My altered preference also stems from writing novels, and perhaps I never would have embraced capitals at the start of lines and many other elements if I had not started to write fiction. My first long fiction--the novella Little Jordan--lacked causality. Back then, I had been persuaded that plot was artificial. But I soon became fond of propulsion, which has an awful lot to do with causality and, hence, plot. I reached a point where I wanted my novels to be as much like novels as they could be, whatever that meant. And what it meant was a thing I wanted to find out for myself.

The counterpoint to that desire was to wish for my poems to be as much like poems as they could be. And that meant going forward by diving back into the tradition because many of the contemporary poets I read appeared to be descended not from the tradition of poetry but from a narrow part of the prose tradition. But I wanted to be a child of poetry. I wanted to come close to singing in my words, and I wanted to be dramatic. Old forms, old techniques, old tropes, old sources of drama: I wanted to make them new for myself. I wanted their strength. I wanted to stand tiptoe on bigger shoulders than my own.

Adding a capital at the start of the line was one of my later choices and a part of the idea of making my poems as much like poems as they could be. And one of the great differences between poetry and prose is that prose is made of sentence units, and poetry is made of line units. To have an initial capital at the start of the line is to insist on and claim with fierceness the line as the unit of poetry, whereas much contemporary poetry says that the sentence or the isolate, broken phrase is the unit of poetry.

Like every obsessed writer, I have made my many choices. Long ago, when such jobs were hard to obtain, I gave up a tenured job to write, to escape from a realm where poets were part of and supported by the many-tentacled system of academia. Since then, writers have made most of their income and their useful connections in academia, so it was a bad decision in a worldly sense--a bad decision in terms of worldly success and support from the system. But I persist in thinking it was the right sacrifice for a poet and writer. Outside those bounds, I have worked and groped and thought my way, making books as I felt it best. Whether I have made my choices rightly or wrongly is not for me to say. But it is essential for me as that odd creature called a writer to have made them. For a writer, for a poet, it is essential to know and follow and sometimes change those choices. That little, seemingly-wrong choice of the initial capital is, for me, one of many decisions that have made me the sort of writer I am.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Oh, for the language of birds!

I also would like to learn the language of birds.
People in fairy tales sometimes have the luck of it.
(Illumination by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for Glimmerglass.)
I've never spoke a second language well, though I'm perfectly willing to give the thing a go when I only have a couple of pages of phrases mastered. So in Cambodian, I spoke a little Khmer / Cambodian, and in Thailand, some Thai. One thing that surprised me in Cambodia is that absolutely everybody seemed to be learning English in order to to better themselves, and so I could have conversations where I inflicted Khmer on people while they tried out English on me. Great fun, much laughter. In Japan, I expected everyone would know English, but only a very few did, especially on Sado Island, but I managed enough Japanese (thank you to my daughter, whose love for all things Japanese meant she could critique my pronunciation) to have odd little conversations and laugh with strangers. In Paris, my schoolgirl French, mostly forgotten, had a tiny revival. And for a trip to Chile, Peru, and Mexico, I had no time at all to study, so listened to recordings the day before and took a list of phrases with me. It's surprising how much communication is possible with fifty phrases and a little boldness and rhythm-mimicry. I did take a little Russian in school (from a colorful White Russian woman who adored the class members so much she didn't push us) but have forgotten it, just as much as I forgot the French or more--and I've never been to Russia. When the the eventual next trip comes along, I'll need a smattering of German, and maybe another language.

My lightly-considered opinion of my brain on the language-learning front is that I don't have a fabulous memory but I'm pretty good with sounds (well, excluding the impossible, twisty language of Wales!) and with picking up vocabulary. I don't retain if I don't continue laboring at it, though. That pesky memory at work...

But I would like to know a second language well, and think I will start studying daily once I decide what language it should be. And there's the question. What's a good second language for an American novelist and poet? Should it be something where there's a great need of translation, so when I'm an ancient, doddery old crone (if I am lucky enough to endure so long) with the risk of having no inspiration, I can always translate? So far I can't really imagine not having the impetus to play with words and make stories and poems, but evidently it happens to many people and therefore may happen to me. Should the language be Spanish because there are so many Spanish speakers? Should it just be a language I love? But they're all so different and interesting, crammed full of wondrous words.

If you have an opinion, tell me! I'll definitely ponder it.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The rage against tips!

An interior illumination
by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for my long-poem and epic adventure,
Thaliad (Phoenicia Publishing)
Amazon reviews: paperback
Hardcover only here
Why on earth do I sometimes fiddle around an answer a question on Quora when I could and probably should do a blog post? Who knows? Here's a Quora question I answered a moment ago, perhaps partly because I'm in a good mood and just wrote a poem when I should have been doing something else entirely, and perhaps partly because I still didn't want to do what I should have been doing.

(And here you can find more Quora-fritterings by me.)

"What are some tips on staying motivated enough to finish writing a book?"

Marly Youmans, novelist and poet
Answered 2m ago

I’m feeling a bit allergic to the word tips: no tip can make you finish writing a book. Only whatever it takes for you can make you finish. And only you can answer the question of what it is that might be whatever it takes for you. That is, you will (or will not, as it turns out) make use of your own inner drive, passion for playing with words, impetus, dogged refusal to stop, anger, joy, or whatever it is that lives and burns in you and will take you to the close.

But I will say that I have known some wonderfully gifted people who began many books and stories and never could finish anything. This was a sadness to me, but they lived other lives, and perhaps it was not a sadness to them. They gave writing books a try and then moved on.

The grand thing about finishing is not having a completed manuscript; it is that you are somehow larger on the inside than you were at the start, and also that only bringing a thing to completion teaches you what you need to know in order to write that book. That sounds circular, and it is. In the realm of making books, much is mysterious.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Family memories

Not the right movie, but the image will do--
1959, Castle's The Tingler 
with Vincent Price.
I've been sorting through boxes of papers, tossing much and often stopping to laugh at some child's drawing or my own notes on a past conversation or an old letter. Here's a note with Nate, my third child, age 5, dated 24 September, 2002. He's almost 21, so I guess that I can quit referring to him as Child no. 3 in blog posts!

                 *     *     *

When I took Nate to kindergarten this morning, I asked him if he wanted to put on his jacket.

Nate:  When my teeth are going up and down, it means I am cold. When my teeth are not going up and down, I'm not cold.

The beginning of wisdom, or something. Scarce as hens' teeth.

Also, some hours earlier, in bed:

Me: Hrrump?

Nate climbs in.

Me: Whassamatter?

Nate: I thought there were ghostes [GHOST-ez, Nate-plural of ghost]  sitting on the bed.

I burble comforting nonsense and go back to sleep.

Nate, still thinking hard, wakes me up: What are you afraid of?


(No doubt I am semi-comatose, as befits a mother of three after a long day.)

Nate: Buffaloes?

I wake up enough to laugh.

Nate: Or moving skeletons?

Which is odd because that's exactly what I was afraid of at the age of 5, my babysitters in Baton Rouge (a childless couple, friends of my parents) having let me see a movie about that very thing... Or was it Gramercy, and I a bit younger?

We didn't have a t.v. at our house, so I suppose it was pretty potent stuff for me, all those glarey-white bones clattering around on the screen. I remember clearly the hospital setting, a skeleton in the back seat of a car coming into life behind the doctor and a pretty nurse, and skeletons pushing baby carriages over a cliff. I expect that was especially horrifying, as I wasn't so many years out of being a baby myself.

Monday, April 09, 2018

The Prince of Egypt and the Sphinx

"The Prince of Egypt and the Sphinx" is up today at Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, where you can read poems, share, like--and where you can also find some other poems by me: "I Met My True Love Walking," "Epistle to F. D.," "Icarus, Icarus, Paratrooper," and "Landscape with Icefall." Thank you to editor Christine Klocek-Lim.

Today at Autumn Sky Poetry DAILY: The Prince of Egypt and the Sphinx by Marly Youmans#poem #formalverse
The Prince of Egypt and the Sphinx On the northern and the southern roads, He reveled, shooting at a bronze target, Pursuing lions and vast herds of beasts Until his chariot was a gold blur And horses changed to coursers of the wind. At noon, the young prince napped between the paws Of Horus-in-the-horizon, the Sphinx Who guards the sun and gates to the beyond. [ 138 more words ]

The Prince of Egypt and the Sphinx On the northern and the southern roads, He reveled, shooting at a bronze target, Pursuing lions and vast herds of beasts Until his chariot was a…

Wednesday, April 04, 2018


Matt Haig ‏ Verified account @matthaig1 Mar 29 More
Be nice if one day people realised writing fiction
was as hard as other art forms.
No celebrity says, hey, I'll write
a piano quartet for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra,
or I'll join Cirque du Soleil.
Always 'I'll write a novel'. *  **


* Tweet of the day.
** Little pleasures of the obscure mid-list writer.
*** “Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe.” 
― Flannery O'Connor. Or some Carroll: "Callooh! Callay!" / He chortled in his joy. Or maybe more O'Connor: “There's many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Fiddling with Water

By Source, Fair use,
I've never tried screen-writing (probably poems, stories, novels, and some nonfiction are quite enough), but a movie often makes me think about how I would write its story differently, even when it is hung with glittering nominations and awards. For example, The Shape of Water was a stylish, often ravishing-looking piece, a lovely Marvellian "green thought in a green shade," but I found myself wanting to tinker with its pieces: I wanted more transformation, metamorphosis, change. Such fiddling, of course, is none of my business, but who can stop a writer from playing with words and stories?

Obviously del Toro's tale (screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor) was indebted, among other sources, to the fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast, which in turn springs beautifully from the ancient Greek myth of the perfectly married body and soul, or Eros (Cupid or Amor) and his beloved, Psyche (Anima.) Portrayals of Eros and Psyche go back to the fourth century B. C. in Greece. (Apuleuis wrote the first full narrative of their story in Latin.)

And so I end up considering The Shape of Water in the light of Eros and Psyche, a story of metamorphosis, of a woman gaining strength as she passed through many trials, of two impossibly-different (one a winged god, one an earthly princess) strangers finding sacred union and giving birth to their child, Pleasure. Through her many tasks and her difficult journey to the Underworld, Psyche becomes more than she was, and at last she wins immortality and becomes the equal of Eros. Eros and Psyche has always been a story of the achievement of wholeness, and through the centuries it has been popular and multivalent, giving rise to varied and rich meanings. I played with the story some years ago in The Throne of Psyche, so I am guilty of adding to that heap of meanings.

Alphonese Legros, Cupid and Psyche (1867)
Public Domain / Wikipedia / Google Art Project

Toying, tinkering with a shape of water

What if the amphibian-with-powers was also, like the Greek god Eros, more complex, more human in his acts? That is, what if he appeared to have a soul, so that Elisa's discovery of his worth appeared more powerful?

What if he refrained from slashing flesh, munching on Giles's cats, and murdering those who do not understand what he is? (As is, it's a possibility that Strickland's harsh, cartoon view is a bit more accurate than the viewer would like--after all, the Amazonian fish-man repeatedly chooses to be violent, even though he is shown as powerful enough to make other choices.)

What if the amphibian lover performed a redemptive, possibly transformative act at the close, giving life and change (redemption? a speck or a peck of penitence?) to Strickland rather than simply killing a baddie drawn too firmly in cardboard? What if Strickland was transformed from something less to something more, and in the process the creature was also elevated to something more in Elisa's mind and in our minds?

The close gives us the pattern of death and resurrection, but the Amazonian is no god for Easter--he's a god for sex and death and a happily-ever-after we had better not examine too closely. For like Psyche, Elisa meets death and is changed somewhat (gills! whether brand new or simply opened because she was already part fish), but it's hard to puzzle out how she and her amphibian love will keep house together underwater in the Amazon.

What if, like Psyche, Elisa had a more complicated relationship with her lover, one that further developed the idea that she is fearful but learning who and what he is, that gave her uncertainty when others were fearful for her, and that showed her changing (in more than gills) to pursue her love?

What if the story was a kind of Eros and Psyche story without side tales that hammered home obvious messages about the patriarchy and How Bad and Illiberal American White People Especially Men Were Not So Long Ago (but now at least we who chose to see the movie are good and love everybody, even Amazonian monsters)? What if the movie didn't pat us on the back in this manner? What if the story didn't tell us how much better we viewers are now than people were before but made us long for our own transformation into something more beautiful and human?

What if...

Note: One of my favorite pieces about Guillermo del Toro is The New Yorker feature by Daniel Zalewski. See it here. And I would like to see a del Toro version of Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness...

Note no. 2: Maybe it's time to re-watch Pan's Labyrinth. And here's a documentary about the Pale Man, the Faun, the toad, and the stick-insect fairies.

The Minnie Youmans Place

From "19th-century farmhouse, Lexsy" by Brian Brown. This is grander than
my grandparents' house, but it is in Lexsy--my grandmother Kate once had
a fistfight with another woman in Lexsy, back when she lived there for a time.
Evidently Kate "Little Bear" was defending one of the children...
I am hoping Brian will not mind if I "borrow" his image, as he once
borrowed from one of my posts to illuminate something about
the house my maternal grandfather, a house builder, made for his wife
Be sure and visit his wonderful site, Vanishing South Georgia.
     It never belonged to my grandparents, even though they worked the land near Lexsy for decades, plowing with mules, shaping the resistant earth until gullies became flat and usable. Even the girls plowed, at least until the last baby came along. Preston and Kate labored as tenant sharecroppers in south Georgia, and if you have ever read James Agee's passionate Let Us Now Praise Famous Men or seen Walker Evans's photographs wedded to that prose, you have a hint of what that means. It was a postwar world, after all--why wouldn't the neighbors eat dirt, why wouldn't my father see his first jealous, throat-slitting murder before he was ten, why wouldn't he early on see the rural ways of sexual congress in a field, why wouldn't he run to join up with the Army Air Corps at 17?
       A long pale road of packed dust led by swamp and blackberry tangles: then a turn, and a visitor drove between fields of horse corn, tobacco, and cotton. The shack with its burst of trees in the midst of flat fields, its tumbledown outbuildings, the rusted stove that sometimes held rattlers, the gaudy flowers rioting from coffee cans, the half-fallen cedar with tiny scorpions in the cave underneath, the cloyingly sweet but tiny white blooms in the shining hedge that sheltered the porch from a blaze of sun: there is not one picture of the place. Not one. No one thought it worth the cost, I suppose. And later on the four-room house (living room, two bedrooms, kitchen--no bathroom, no hall, no closets or frills) was burned by vandals.
Public domain, Wikipedia. Walker Evans photograph of 3 sharecroppers,
Frank Tengle, Bud Fields, and Floyd Burroughs, Summer 1936
     Long ago I read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as I biked around the perimeter of Ireland on my green Peugeot that German tourists fondled whenever I left it outside a pub. (They seemed to spring into being whenever I lashed the bike to a post.) I left the book behind somewhere in a Derry that, terrorized only hours before, was full of drifting smoke. I hope someone found the book, took it home, read, and passed it on.
     How I still wish there was a photograph somewhere! One of the reasons I wrote A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage was to make a sort of picture for myself. And it is a book where my family slips in--my grandfather's mixed race brothers (my great-grandfather Nathaniel Youmans/Yeomans sired twenty-two legitimate children and at least two illegitimate children, though doesn't know the half of it!) inspired the loss at the start of the book, and Pip contains elements of my father and one of my children. The well with ferns growing inside, the pomegranate trees, the chinaberries, the smolder of summer sun, the graveyard with its stones topped with shells: I wanted to keep those things, as much as I wanted to hold on to people.
     Some years past I went back to the site of Lexsy and then the Minnie farm. No one then lived in Lexsy; perhaps they have come back now, though I doubt it. The farm was now owned by an international corporation; there were signs meant to bar us from a place that was one of my loadstones in this life. My mother and I bumped down the road, still pale dirt, between the blackberry ravels, and turned down the drive toward the house. Nothing built by hands remained, not the shack, not the outbuildings, not the well. Doghobble ran wild in the yard. The chinaberries still stood in a messy row. The fields went on forever under the hot Georgia sky.

Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.
Ecclesiasticus 44:1 King James Bible

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Melt, you snows, melt!

Nor'easters dumping feet of snow, multiple family ER visits, care for the laid-up, busyness to the Nth power: it has been a monster of a Lent so far. In lieu of a proper post, here's a snip from Glimmerglass, a story about the rebirth of a woman in mid-life, Cynthia Sorrel, who thinks of herself as a failed painter, and set in a version of that semi-mythical village, Cooperstown. Ghosts! Faux European castles! Confusion between the real world and the fictional realm invented by James Fenimore Cooper! Etcetera. I picked a bit of a flood scene, since I am longing for our feet of snow to melt and leave me with no car-clearing, no shoveling...

And here's a little snip from a review by Tom Atherton that mentions the flood: "On the surface it’s a real-world drama about a woman’s later-life discovery of adventure, love, ambition, and artistry. In light of its concerns for both coming-of-age and the real rubbing against the magical, it’s fitting that much of the work is given over to images of thresholds being crossed, of locked doors being opened, and of rivers overflowing their banks. And while it’s a literary-critical truism to remark that the source material of many fairytales is much darker than their popular Disney-fied incarnations, Glimmerglass really is an adult fantasy, not in the sense that it’s violent and sexual (though this is an aspect of the text), but in its emotional complexities, and its themes of loss and redemption. It’s brilliantly well-written, shockingly raw, and transportingly—sometimes confusingly (but not in a bad way)—weird." (For more review clips, go here.)
     The art--dragon study, inner illuminations, and jacket images and lettering--is by the marvelous, bookish painter-and-more, Clive Hicks-Jenkins of Wales. Design by Mary-Frances Glover Burt of Burt and Burt of Atlanta. Published by Mercer University Press.

Mid-way in chapter 8, "The Spring Freshet"

       The creek surged above the bank—the boy was gone—and she flashed away, her feet sliding on patches of ice, past the cottage with its seven doors thrown wide, past the firs, and through the
gateway with its stone pedestals for ironwork arch and griffins.  A wave tangled with her feet, slammed her to the ground.  She picked herself up and raced on in deepening water; gaining the lake road, she jogged on a glaze of muddy liquid until she came to dry pavement.
       There she panted, hands on muddy knees, and surveyed the invasion of her domain.  The stream had flown through the cottage and out the other side, making a shallow lake of the lawn.  For an instant she saw the flooded grounds as magical—the reflective surface gleaming like a jewel, the cottage like a moated castle.
“All my things,” she whispered.
Though the high waters were already subsiding and draining out the doors, many of her pictures and the upholstered furniture might be ruined, even from such a brief soaking.  Had the tide overthrown her tables, broken what was breakable?  She dreaded the thought, recalling that when she had moved here, the chance of flood hadn’t seemed like such a risk.  Less than a year ago, loss had been nothing to her.  Just stuff, she thought, giving a one-sided smile.  Such a quick, fierce dousing wouldn’t ruin everything, surely.  Old photographs, family possessions:  those she couldn’t replace.
       Cynthia squatted at the edge, watching, until she remembered the painting of the boy and sprang up.  She dashed off, heels kicking up spray, slowing as she reached the lake around the house.  Chunks of ice, twigs, and leaf litter bobbled on the surface, and last year’s flattened grass shone green through the meltwater.  Cold lapped against her legs.
        Once a pair of small red dragons made her pause:  salamanders from the cellar!  Having struck the safety of a tree, they now groped upward and, like two drenched flames, sank into fissures of bark.
Inside, the flood was everywhere, though already the depth had sunk to only five or six inches.  The line of the watermark showed that the tide hurled through the open doors must have crested at about three feet.  She told herself that it could have been much worse, that perhaps it was best that the doors had been free to let the flood in and out again.  She slopped down the hall, rescuing a gilt-framed photograph, a set of overturned nesting tables, and a doll-sized dresser that had belonged to her mother.  When she reached the studio, she realized that it had taken the full force of the surge.  Drawings together with miniver, sable, and bristle brushes floated on foot-deep water.  Collecting her flotsam, she dumped it onto a worktable.  The old map chests full of sketches were safe, but anything half-finished had been torn away, the paints pitched out the door and scattered.  Her hand, blind in the murk, closed on a tube of Caput Mortum.  
The painting!  She hadn’t even dreamed that it might have vanished.  Water damage she could deal with, but not total loss.  She waded along the north side of the house, scanning the shadows for a patch of canvas.  It could be anywhere between the walls and the shore—it could even be in the lake, she realized, and perhaps, if face down, could fill with water and sink.
“I’ll swim if I have to,” she said, head bent, as if warning the opaque waters.
She skittered through the yard, twice stumbling to her knees but pushing off again.  Discolored where
the creek had tumbled its cargo, Glimmerglass was sprinkled with uprooted saplings, dead leaves,
and a lone pink plastic frisbee.  But nothing like a picture floated on the waves.  Sticks and stones clogged the mouth of the stream; with unslakable invention, the water continued to murmur its story and found fresh paths into the lake.
“The only thing I ever did that was any good!”
She crawled onto a heap of debris, peering through gaps, and began to work her way up the heavily pouring creek, poking into the depths with a stick.  Nothing.  Not until she came within a hundred yards of the house did she glimpse the oval of the boy’s face in a deep pool.  A mass of wood had forced much of the pell-mell plummet into a nearby channel, although innumerable fingerlets of water felt their way between and over logs.
The banks had been sheared away, so Cynthia climbed downward until she couldn’t find footing and abruptly sat, digging her nails into the muck for purchase until the steep wall collapsed, and she smashed sideways into meltwater.
Bubbles shot from her mouth as a branch raked her side.  She surfaced, choking and splashing, with clay squeezed in her fists.  Something about the clay, soft as raw hanks of flesh in her hands, made the thought of her own death come home to her.  Fright was in her like iron left to frost in the woods, with the nightmare of being overrun by a tumult of wood and water.  Blood made a jagged path down her ribs.  Cold tightened its grip until she gasped.
But she wouldn’t climb up; she wouldn’t crawl back home in fear.  She would claim the boy.
Gingerly she extended her legs, pedaling until her feet found an uneasy perch on the creek bed, and reached for the boy.  With a jerk, the canvas escaped from the grip of mud, though it didn’t float to the top as she had expected.  
Millais’ painting of the drowned Ophelia came into Cynthia’s mind as she looked at the boy’s heartbreaking, beautiful face and at the white hands glowing under water that was spring clear in places but deepened to mud and blackened emerald in others.  Strands of dissolved loam swirled across his chest.  She plunged her arms into ice cold and grappled with the canvas, struggling against earth and roots and the weight of water.  An answer to a question she hadn’t known to ask, memory and desire rose in her like a fountain and then a flood that ravished:  the boy’s backward glance from the hill; the receding shape, half-hidden in trees; Andrew, leaning with his hand on the hill door at Sea House or standing close to the juncture where stone walls yielded to the demand of earth; the sighting of the three beavers, who had perhaps just that day abandoned their dam and gone searching for a new home; Teddy, arm out, gesturing toward the last floes of ice on the lake; Hale, declaring mystery, Lydia in her hat; and even Iz, like a splinter-faced fire demon wrapped in a cocoon of smoke.
If there were tears, they were hidden by the force of spray; if there was regret, it slid away in the spill of pictures.
Mystery.  Something I’m meant to do.  Something remaining.  Enduring. 

Updated: my Catherwood page...