31 January 2005

self-expression vs cultural commentary

Excerpted from Callaloo Volume 27, Number 2, a book review written by Ajuan Mance of Mills College of Zofia Burr’s Of Women, Poetry, and Power: Strategies of Address in Dickinson, Miles, Brooks, Lorede, and Angelou:

[begin quote]

For Burr . . . this race to reveal the real, true Emily [Dickinson] is flawed . . . primarily because it relies on a sloppy equation of her limited publishing record and relative isolation with romanticized notions of the "true poet," unconcerned with the accolades and aesthetics of her cultural moment, and free "to produce a distinct or singular voice that is private, truth-telling, and autobiographical."

. . . the increasing tendency on the part of critics and other readers of women’s poetry “toward a conflation of the genres of poetry and spiritual diary.” This perception, [Burr] contends, has resulted in several decades of scholarly and critical analyses which “privilege those aspects of [women’s] work that can be read as self-expression and . . . devalue those qualities most fundamental to the cultural work these poetries engage in.” . . .

Burr’s line-by-line analysis of the piece that appears in Thomas H. Johnson’s Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson as “Expanse cannot be lost—” reveals the ways that his and other editors’ seemingly arbitrary methods for extricating the “real poems” in Dickinson’s letters from the remainder of the text have served to reinforce the image of Dickinson’s work as enigmatic and unfathomable, an interpretation that conveniently supported the popular notion that hers was pure and uninfluenced self-expression. Burr’s close reading, itself an exploration of the social construction not only of the myth of the poet, but of the poems themselves . . . becomes a way to question those modes of reading that privilege self-expression—often to the exclusion of even the most conspicuous socio-political comment—as the primary goal of U.S. women’s poetry.

[end quote]

I am on a severe Emily Dickinson binge.

23 January 2005

editing a literary journal

Last week I listened to Peter Stitt, Fred Leebron, and Elissa Schappell discuss their experiences in editing literary journals. Today my friend Danielle pointed me to a good online discussion of the same topic. Peter contributes, as do Michelle Herman, Mike Steinbert, R.T. Smith, and others. It's all about labors of love.

22 January 2005

fire spinning with Pele

As the PR agent for my son, Ben, I send you to his latest show:

fire spinning with pele

This took place one evening last week on Kilauea, the erupting volcano on the big island of Hawaii.

21 January 2005

when we create

This quote from Wallace Stevens surprised me:

"The trouble is, however, that men in general do not create in light and warmth alone. They create in darkness and coldness. They create when they are hopeless, in the midst of antagonisms, when they are wrong, when their powers are no longer subject to their control. They create as the ministers of evil."

20 January 2005

from the POV of a rat

This quote is from a short piece written by Jim Thompson in the 1930s:

"The paws of the other animal scooped him up and held him level with its laughing gray eyes. The mouth laughed, too, and saliva dripped from the corners. He came closer to the mouth, saw it open wider. His head passed through the opening, and he gazed down the concave hall of the throat. An instant only. Suddenly there was no light, no sound. Only something hard and sharp closing upon his neck. He felt his eyes leap from their sockets, his tongue crawl through his teeth. He felt the rush of blood from his jugular, jerked with the sudden energy of his heart. He felt. Then he felt no more."

I'm reading an excellent biography of Thompson written by Robert Polito.

09 January 2005


My son Ben (alias Pigboy, aka Swineherd) lives on the Big Island of Hawaii. Last week he and his friend Jet hiked around the erupting areas of Volcano National Park.

Visit his latest gallery of lava shots.

For best viewing, set your window to full screen, then click the "slideshow" button at the top right.

08 January 2005


My recent museum and bookstore immersion in New York City . . .

Poet’s House, a dream come true, a 20-year-old library started by Stanley Kunitz and someone else, 45,000 volumes, every poet's books, literary journals, commentary and biography. Library ladders and high windows. A place to sit, browse, read, write. Friendly, free.

Metropolitan Museum, I went twice, the second time with an ex-Met guard, who ran me through gallery after gallery, "here," she'd say, and "here." The Lehman wing with a huge Balthus of a naked barely pubescent girl. The Egyptian temple. A yellow jasper fragment of an Egyptian head, mostly chin and sharply incised lips.

MOMA, newly open after the Yoshio Taniguchi renovation. We arrived early and with memberships were able to move through it before the crowds overwhelmed. The traditional moderns -- Pollock, Rauschenberg, Giacometti, Rothko, Chirico, Mondrian, Picasso, Miro, Diebenkorn, so many in all their hugeness. I had forgotten how I love Miro.

Guggenheim: an Aztec exhibit, large mythical rock creatures beautifully staged in dark brown caves.

Whitney: Noguchi sculptures I needed to (but didn't) touch (go here and here, settled for moving air around with my hands, and Romare Bearden paintings, collages. Go here and here.

I am so drenched in color and form. I wanted to stay everywhere, sit on the floor and try some verbal transformations, or remain wordless.

Bookstores -- Gotham Book Mart, St. Mark's Bookstore, an uptown Barnes & Noble with more poetry books than my library. My book bag is full.

Amtraked down to DC, ate Brazilian paella, squatting in a dark hotel room this morning. Soon we board a second long slow train to Charlotte, NC. I love trains, the prescribed meander, the sway and rattle.

04 January 2005

leaving the island

I head for the mainland today, with stops in NYC, DC, and Charlotte, NC. What am I packing to read this time? Not much since I intend to buy books along the way, but I'll be on planes for 10-12 hours in the next 24, so what's in my bag?

Well, to start with, stapled pages from 4-5 issues of the New Yorker. I don't read that magazine, I only mine it for poems (too often a waste of time), fiction (reliable), and literary commentary (rarer and rarer). By mining, I leave the weighty bulk of the magazine in the wastebasket at home.

Along with that, three books to take me through the long night:

Okay, I admit it, at the last minute I'll panic and throw in one more book. I'll be away until January 16th, more than likely will post now and again.

Read about literary blogging according to the Denver Post.

03 January 2005

what Michael Martone thinks

The Winter 2004 issue of Indiana Review includes an interview of Michael Martone by Sara Jane Stoner. Martone writes fiction that is more experimental than most, and he challenges the way fiction is taught these days in most MFA programs.

“I think the downside of the prose workshop is all of a sudden you're really talking about the ideas or themes of the story. Or worse, you're talking about the characters, these artifices, as actual people—whether or not ‘Jim Bob’ would do this. ‘You know, he’s twelve-years-old, I don’t think he really would be thinking these thoughts.’ It becomes a kind of analysis of these characters as living humans as opposed to the writing itself. Because again, the strategy of that writing, of realistic narrative writing, is to completely disappear as writing. So you can’t talk about it. It becomes, if it is done well at all, an invisible thing.”

Martone argues against this. He says,

“If you’re a realist, your real problem, your real competitor, is nonfiction, the nonfiction memoir. If you look at the form of realistic writing, it is already in the form of the memoir, a fake one, a fiction of one.”

Martone challenges the author of fiction to be an artist, which for Martone means someone "more self-conscious about [fiction's] forms." He works at shifting workshoppers back into the position of readers instead of critics or editors, people who would ask, "What makes this a well-wrought sentence?" He notes that students workshopping a Barthelme story would be forced to do this, which makes me think of Grace Paley and Lydia Davis stories, Ben Marcus novels. They're not about realism, they are other forms of fiction.

Indiana Review is one of my favorite journals, not because I always like the work published, but because the work pushes boundaries that other first-class journals don't often push. That said, some of the work in the Winter 2004 issue knocked me out, the flash by T. J. Beitelman, short stories by Robin Black and Shaun McGuire -- excerpt here, poems by Deborah Bernhardt, Karen L. Anderson, and others.

I recommend you subscribe to Indiana Review, read Martone's interview, along with the rest of the issue. Read a book by Martone, for example, his The Blue Guide to Indiana, which I haven't read but intend to now.

02 January 2005

one cookie per day

The Paris Review is offering their collection of author interviews, 300+ they claim: The DNA of Literature.

A 2005 resolution is to read one interview per day. Today's author was Truman Capote.

So far, every interview has been fascinating. Naturally, my reading list will spin out of control.

01 January 2005

Carol Peters

“A Single Yellow Chicken Wing Like an Elephant”
          - nearly attributable to Marilynne Robinson

I thought back to last night when I washed the bird,
sliced elbowed wings from fat breasts,
and tucked them into small spaces in the frypan.
Raw, wings are malleable and fit,
but how is a chicken wing like an elephant?
Is the wing tip trunk or tail?

I remember misreading alphabet books to my children,
“Z is for elephant,
the trunk trumpets high,
the head hangs low,
the body lumbers behind.”
So is the body the wing’s drummette?

Turns out I mistook the line—
she wrote elegant, not elephant.
It’s a function of need, what my children need,
what I need. No child of mine needs elegant.

Seriously, though, whether you're a poet or a novelist or a running back, stop whatever you're doing and read (or reread) Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping. It's far far better than I can say or you can imagine.

holiday gifts

I am too old for them, but I did receive one or two things this year, including a book by Nick Hornby called The Polysyllabic Spree from Believer Books, aka McSweeney's.

I've not been a Nick Hornby fan since I read one of his early novels (High Fidelity?) and thought it modern-Brit-dick-lit, but now I'll try another novel simply to honor and acknowledge these highly entertaining essays.

The MO for his monthly essay is to list the books he's bought and the books he's read and then natter on about them. Turns out in September, 2003, the month coincidentally when I first read Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping along with Antrim, Forche, Freed, Lispector, Norman Rush (speaking of male egos), and Salter (etc.), Nick was reading Ian Hamilton's biographies of Lowell and Salinger, and most of the Salinger oeuvre (etc.).

Here's Hornby on Lowell:

“. . . my baby son is called Lowell. We named him thus partly after various musicians—Lowell George and the blue singer Lowell Fulson—and partly because of Robert Lowell, whose work we had never read (in our defense, he is no longer terribly well-known here in England, and he isn't taught in school [what a pity and how illustrative of the British attitude toward American poetry]), but whose existence persuaded us, in our untrustworthy hormonal state, that the name had a generic artistic connotation. Our Lowell will almost certainly turn out to be a sales manager for a sportswear firm, whose only contact with literature is when he listens to Tom Clancy audiobooks once a year on holiday—not that there's anything wrong with that.”

and Hornby on poetry:

“Two of the unread books, however, are volumes of poetry, and, to my way of thinking, poetry books work more like books of reference. They go up on the shelves straight away (as opposed to onto the bedside table), to be taken down and dipped into every now and then. (And, before any outraged poets explode, I’d like to point out that I’m one of the seventy-three people in the world who buys poetry.) And anyway, anyone who is even contemplating ploughing straight through over a thousand pages of Lowell’s poetry clearly needs a cable TV subscription, or maybe even some friends, a relationship, and a job.”

When we were assigned the collected Lowell for an MFA seminar, I dipped and bobbed, then ploughed straight through (no cable TV) because I was hoping to find something I could like (apparently Hamilton found 50 poems he liked). By the time I finished, I knew more about poetry than I’d collected in the 56 years earlier. Sic transit gloria MFA.

more on Marilynne Robinson

Here's a recent Marilynne Robinson interview by Meghan O'Rourke in The New York Times.

I'm reading Housekeeping. It's better than I remembered, with sentences like this:

"Say there were two or three inches of hard old snow on the ground, with earth here and there oozing through the broken places, and that there was warmth in the sunlight, when the wind did not blow it all away, and say she stooped breathlessly in her corset to lift up a sodden sheet by its hems, and say that when she had pinned three corners to the lines it began to billow and leap in her hands, to flutter and tremble, and to glare with the light, and that the throes of the thing were as gleeful and strong as if a spirit were dancing in its cerements."

I wonder whether Richard Wilbur read this before or after he wrote his poem "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" about laundry.