30 December 2004

Marilynne Robinson

As an amateur novelist, I am increasingly stunned—knocked down, squashed flat—by good novels, and I no longer fantasize that a writer like Marilynne Robinson sits down and pumps out a brilliant novel. Instead, I assume years of labor to produce masterpieces: Housekeeping in 1980, Gilead in 2004. From Gilead, page 197:

"In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable—which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us."

I’ve spent this week with Gilead in one hand and Robinson’s collection of essays titled The Death of Adam in the other. I found this a wonderful way to read both. I particularly liked her essay “Puritans and Prigs”—she is so tuned to reality with remarks like this:

"where did the idea come from that society should be without strain and conflict, that it could be satisfying, stable, and harmonious? . . . morality is a covenant with oneself, which can only be imposed and enforced by oneself . . . social conditioning is more likely to discourage than to enhance it."

In both books, Robinson addresses the topics of religion, war, morality as if readers were still willing to consider both sides of those questions. She poses challenges. Of those who dismiss Calvin, who has read him? How have we come to equate Darwinism to economic survival of the fittest?

Three reviews of Gilead are worth reading for their contrasts. James Wood honors Robinson for her intent and her accomplishment. Lee Siegel honestly admits that Robinson’s novel is not likely to appeal to a secular reading audience. Mona Simpson talks about Robinson’s earlier novel instead, because she liked that one, and she offers insulting MFA-workshop advice that might have led to a more saleable novel without acknowledging Robinson has a greater goal.

Tomorrow I'm going to read Housekeeping for at least the third time.

29 December 2004

books you need

The poet Pattiann Rogers -- as my brother said, "Wow, she's good" -- and I say, how can I never have heard of this woman before?

The new translation of Proust, translated by people like Lydia Davis and James Grieve, is superb. I never could stay awake for the Scott Moncrieff translation, but maybe I was too young back then.

Richard Bausch, well, he's one of the best American fiction writers alive, and these are delicious, I mean disturbing novellas.

28 December 2004

Carol Peters

Long-Distance Calling

Occasionally I am sad enough to
Think to call my mother—then I remember
She is dead. My son left a pink stuffed rabbit

On the bathroom windowsill, soft white belly,
Raised chin, limp whiskers. One from her collection—
she marked them for him. I talk to the rabbit

While I sit on the throne. Hi Bunny. Hi Mom.
You don’t miss me, but how I miss you, days like
This when loyal confusions blindside grieve me.

27 December 2004

Carol Peters

Tidal Wave Accounting

One story mentioned nine Japanese tourists
swept away while watching the elephants

in a Sri Lankan zoo. So many people
from so many countries died, most of them

walking distance from home, yet so many
stories decorate the deaths of tourists

as if their lives merit ink over locals—
nine zoo-gazers, nine, ten thousand Sri Lankans—

me thinking about the elephants, how many,
what about mahouts, how do elephants fall?

25 December 2004

not selling out, not that anyone was buying

from William Stafford's Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer's Vocation

Q: Auden and Roethke have both said that when they finish a poem that they know is really good, the satisfaction quickly fades into an anxious question: "Maybe this is the last time?"

A: Those poor guys. I can't imagine what kind of anxiety-ridden life that would be. My own feeling is that we don't have to worry about that. Will we think of something else? Sure we will. We always do. I do not at all have that feeling. I meet people who have done something good and they want to cherish it, to hoard it somehow -- because it might be the only time in their lives. . . . Well, I have this feeling: "No, no, no" . . . all these things are expendable and the more expendable you keep feeling these things are, the more likely you are to have things happen to you.

Q: It doesn't sound as if you are troubled by writing blocks.

A: Writing blocks? I don't believe in them.

Q: But what if somebody has one? Doesn't that person have to believe in them? You may not suffer from them, but surely other people do.

A: No, I've never experienced anything like that. I believe that the so-called "writing block" is a product of some kind of disproportion between your standards and your performance. I can imagine a person beginning to feel that he's not able to write up to that standard he imagines the world has set for him. But to me that's surrealistic. The only standard I can rationally have is the standard I'm meeting right now. Of course I can write. Anybody can write. People might think that their product is not worthy of the person they assume they are. But it is.

Q: Aren't you really talking, in a nice way, about vanity?

A: Yes, I think vanity gets in your way. You begin to feel you've accomplished something once -- and you get afraid that you won't be able to accomplish it again, at least right now. So you don't go into anything. But my own feeling is that you should be more willing to forgive yourself. It really doesn't make any difference if you are good or bad today. The assessment of the product is something that happens after you've done it. You should simply go ahead and do it. And do it, I might add, without being critical.

21 December 2004

Carol Peters

waiting for the cat

a door closed with me inside it signals harbor
until I remember the cat remains out
not punishment call it the cat’s free will

nocturnal though I try to retrain her night
is a time for sleeping over and over
I make my point out there she does her roaming

tonight I join her thinking she might be caught
by her collar in a brush pile the collar
I make her wear the brush pile I left after

cutting down the bushes where small birds nested
beneath my window she strays farther her hunt
diurnal blending into night I lie awake

20 December 2004

The Eleventh Draft

MFA students (or wannabes) would likely enjoy The Eleventh Draft: Craft and the Writing Life from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop edited by Frank Conroy.

Essays by Boyle, Canin, Dybek, Leebron, Prose, McPherson, Verghese, Offutt, and many more Iowa graduates.

Fred Leebron [best essay, imho]: “the concept of ‘crisis’ is the concept of loss of control, that a writer needs to lose control . . . all those people in that story, that are coming not to just one conclusion but many conclusions.”

Ethan Canin: “I came to Iowa. I stopped writing. Almost immediately and almost completely. . . . For a year and a half I wrote nothing.”

Barry Hannah: “Without the intense image my work dwindles quickly into dishonest and empty sentences.”

Susan Power: “a strategy I use when I am most desperate: I interview my characters.”

Francine Prose quoting Chekhov: “Best of all is to avoid depicting the hero’s state of mind; you ought to try to make it clear from the hero’s actions.”

Marilynne Robinson: “writers have to think . . . they have to be faithful to everything they know, in the way that they know it, through all the nerves that feed the voracious brain.”

James Hynes: “Good prose is like a window pane.”

Chris Offutt: “The move to revision became so complete that I no longer cared about the story as product. What mattered was the evolution of the act of creation.”

I’d call this a part-bio, part-craft, part-inspirational book. A few essays (Leebron, Livesey, Robinson, McPherson) are probably worth reading five or ten times. Thanks to Linera Lucas for the recommendation.

19 December 2004

Carol Peters

William Stafford and Marvin Bell wrote a series of what they called correspondence poems: one poet wrote a poem and sent it to the other poet; the other poet wrote a poem that was in some way a response. They went at this for some time. Eventually they published the result, Segues: A Correspondence in Poetry, published in 1983.

Thom Ingram, http://poetguru.blogspot.com and I are going to try our own sequence of correspondence poems.

We're writing in form (however-many tercets; 11 syllables per line, stress on the penultimate syllable; rhyming optional but encouraged). Thom says we'll each produce a poem every other day. I say we'll alternate at whatever pace we can manage.

Yesterday Thom wrote the seed poem. Here's my first response poem.

The Mistakes That Led Up to It

Saturday morning, I thought to make pancakes.
Pancakes are for Sundays, but the bread ran out—
you need to know the details—flour, salt, sugar,

mixed with egg and oil—no milk—I used water,
so it goes. All I ate were two small ones plus
a smaller one, then I decided, yes, bike ride—

but my tire was flat. Junior’s fault. On Monday
he warned me off my route, seven flats he had.
Straight-up jinx—one long sharp kiawe thorn—pssss—

no air. Chain-greased fingers broke the back wheel free,
but at the bike shop, I’m fainting, an air-head
seeing floaters and stars. Go to the warehouse,

the clerk said, two blocks down. Bitch to repair it,
the first new tube was a dud. Tire off, tire on,
tire off. I prayed for the fix, paced the sidelines—

my mind dimming like a spent bulb, stampeding
dark shadows, black spots, downshift aimed for coma
until I could get some food. That long thorn saved me

from a low-fuel spill, a braindrain on empty,
spared me the pain of my ass in the gutter.
So yeah, joy, greetings, count my blessings, will ya?

18 December 2004

The Paris Review #171

Anyone read the lead story titled "The Fifth Wall" by Malinda McCollum? Anyone else find it a nearly brilliant story until it ends practically in the middle of a sentence? I have seldom experienced such an unpleasant jolt. Kept fingering the page hoping I'd done a double page turn.

This from the Tobias Wolff interview:

"The one thing I would say to a young writer who wanted counsel is to be patient. Time, which is your enemy in almost everything in this life, is your friend in writing. It is. If you can relax into time, not fight it, not fret at its passing, you will become better. You probably won’t be very good at the beginning, but you will become better and eventually you may become good."

Rebecca McClanahan

Rebecca McClanahan is a poet, an essayist, a memoirist, a writing teacher, and as she is quick to point out, a wife, a stepmother, an aunt, a daughter, a niece. She teaches CNF and poetry in the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program where I am a student of fiction. On a personal basis, I find her intelligent, thoughtful, well-read, humble, lovely, sweet, and people she has mentored speak highly of her.

Since I learned of McClanahan, I have read three of her books:

Tonight I finished Write Your Heart Out: Exploring & Expressing What Matters to You, an inspirational volume on why and how to write. She has given me a raft of new ideas, including passage journals, correspondence poems, joy lists, Mark Doty's question of what noun would you want tattooed on your body, Billy Collins's "log of the body's voyage," Michael Steinberg's shareable idea, William Matthews thanking "my friends, who by loving me freed / my poems from seeking love." Lest I imply that McClanahan only collates the ideas of others, here's a quote from her: "When writing becomes your heart, everything changes. Where you once wanted only to express yourself, you now want to hear what the work has to say."

I place this book with respect next to Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively, which is easily the finest text on how to write description I have come across.

My favorite quote from Write Your Heart Out comes from her nephew, a remark he made after watching her work on an essay: "Oh, I get it now. You just put words down on paper and then you scratch them out. I can do that." My second favorite quote comes from her three-year-old niece, Hanah: "I had a dream. But I wasn't in it. Only the beach was in it."

17 December 2004

Peter Turchi on maps

Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination: The Writer As Cartographer is the latest text about how to write, how writing works, from the folks in the Warren Wilson MFA program, and for me, the most surprising, since it stems at least as strongly from what must be Turchi’s long love of maps and mapmakers as from a desire to teach would-be writers how to write. The illustrations are marvelous, maps in all forms from all times, my only complaint that many reproductions are too small for me to read the inscriptions. I must buy a new loupe.

Turchi discourses thoughtfully about form, silence and blankness, expectation and surprise, imagination and realism, writers and readers. Early on I thought, “please, more about writing, Peter,” but my niggling ceased when time and again I rushed to my latest fiction endeavor to add, subtract, alter. Along with maps and Turchi’s dissertations on their creation, purpose, and use, are quotes from authors of all stripes: Anne Carson and Robert Louis Stevenson; Italo Calvino and Vladimir Nabokov. I make reading lists while working my way through a text like this one, mapping the read that never ends.

This book is a confidence builder: maps are not accurate, Turchi says, maps are belief systems, maps are the way “we chart ourselves,” writing equates to “painfully designing the map to suit the data,” data that changes, destinations that shift. Turchi’s book offers concentrated fuel to sustain the writer’s journey.

Other books on writing by Warren Wilson faculty:

15 December 2004

Frank O'Connor

Frank O'Connor's The Lonely Voice, originally a lecture series at Stanford University in the 60s.

"The short story has never had a hero. . . . What it has instead is a submerged population group . . . [In “The Overcoat”] what Gogol has done . . . is to take the mock-heroic character . . . and impose his image over that of the crucified Jesus, so that even while we laugh we are filled with horror at the resemblance."

O'Connor says we marvel at more than identify with the short story protagonist.

Regarding the difference between novel and short story:

"One character at least in any novel must represent the reader in some aspect of his own conception of himself—as the Wild Boy, the Rebel, the Dreamer, the Misunderstood Idealist—and this process of identification invariably leads to some concept of normality and to some relationship—hostile or friendly—with society as a whole. . . . without the concept of a normal society—the novel is impossible."

O'Connor discusses the short story in the hands of Turgenev, Maupassant, Chekhov, Anderson, Mansfield, Lawrence, Hemingway, Joyce, Kipling, and more.

Eavan Boland

A wonderful book about Eavan Boland's evolution as a poet, and a woman. Here are some quotes to encourage you to read it:

[Boland quoting Matthew Arnold]: "for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact."

[Boland re Arnold]: "I did not understand that to invest the imagination with sacramental powers restores to poetry not its religious force but its magical function. . . . But magic is the search for control over an unruly environment; it is also the most inferior of the past associations of poetry. . . . I did not know that the best such magic could achieve would be a simplification of life based on a dread of it."

[Boland quoting a don at Trinity College in Dublin in response to Boland's question about form]: "The elements of form, he said, were often inseparable from the factors of external compromise. Think of a play. The three hours of spatial construct -- the stage, the lights, the seating -- these influenced even the deepest secrets of the final product."

[Boland after hearing the don's words]: "Already I sensed that real form -- the sort that made time turn and wander when you read a poem -- came from a powerful meeting between a hidden life and a hidden chance in language. If they found each other, then each could come out of hiding."

Much of what she explores in the text is the question of how to become a woman poet in Ireland in a time when all Irish poets were men and control of the nation of Ireland [as now] was in dispute.

[Boland] "what I found was a rhetoric of imagery which alienated me: a fusion of the national and the feminine which seemed to simplify both."

[Boland]: "What, for instance, if I chose to engage with language at the level of my apparent life and not my hidden [female] one? What if I wrote out of the plausible, asexual persona offered to me, obliquely and persuasively, in conversation with other [male] poets? Would it be so wrong to deny a womanhood -- an ordinary condition, after all -- so as to hold on to this extraordinary privilege of being a young poet?"

[Boland on ethics in a poetic tradition]: "Who the poet is, what he or she nominates as a proper theme for poetry, what selves poets discover and confirm through this subject matter -- all of this involves an ethical choice. The more volatile the material -- and a wounded history, public or private, is always volatile -- the more intensely ethical the choice."

[Boland quoting Allen Tate]: "For what is the poet responsible? He is responsible for the virtue proper to him as a poet . . . for the mastery of a disciplined language which will not shun the full report of the reality conveyed to him by his awareness."

[Boland]: "All good poetry depends on an ethical relation between imagination and image. Images are not ornaments; they are truths."

[Boland]: "The final effect of the political poem depends on whether it is viewed by the reader as an act of freedom or an act of power. . . . The mover of the poem's action -- the voice, the speaker -- must be at the same risk from that action as every other component in the poem. If that voice is exempt, then the reader will hear it as omniscient; if it is omniscient, it can still commend the ratio of power to powerlessness -- but with the reduced authority of an observer."