28 February 2005

Randall Jarrell touting art

I'm not sure when Jarrell delivered a lecture titled "The Obscurity of the Poet," but I believe it must have been some time in the late 40's or early 50's at a Harvard conference called The Defense of Poetry. I found the lecture in a volume called Poetry and the Age, pub date 1953.

"Art matters not merely because it is the most magnificent ornament and the most nearly unfailing occupation of our lives, but because it is life itself. From Christ to Freud we have believed that, if we know the truth, the truth will set us free: art is indispensable because so much of this truth can be learned through works of art and through works of art alone—for which of us could have learned for himself what Proust and Chekhov, Hardy and Yeats and Rilke, Shakespeare and Homer learned for us? and in what other way could they have made us see the truths which they themselves saw, those differing and contradictory truths which seem nevertheless, to the mind which contains them, in some sense a single truth? And all these things, by their very nature, demand to be shared; if we are satisfied to know these things ourselves, and to look with superiority or indifference at those who do not have that knowledge, we have made a refusal that corrupts us as surely as anything can."

He goes on eloquently to deplore a democracy that shares material but not spiritual goods, and concludes with this:

"If a democracy should offer its citizens a show of education, a sham art, a literacy more dangerous than their old illiteracy, then we should have to say that it is not a democracy at all . . . Goethe said: The only way in which we can come to terms with the great superiority of another person is love. But we can also come to terms with superiority, with true Excellence, by denying that such a thing as Excellence can exist; and, in doing so, we help to destroy it and ourselves."

He ends by quoting Proust:

"All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying the burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be fastidious, to be polite even, nor make the talented artist consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his body devoured by worms, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much knowledge and skill by an artist who must for ever remain unknown and is barely identified under the name Vermeer. All these obligations which have not their sanction in our present life seem to belong to a different world, founded upon kindness, scrupulosity, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this, which we leave in order to be born into this world, before perhaps returning to the other to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we have obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, knowing not whose hand had traced them there—those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer and which are invisible only—and still!—to fools."

You can find this essay and other greats in both of these books:

24 February 2005

Wickett interviews Lit Journal editors

Dan Wickett conducts this interview with the editors of The Kenyon Review, Other Voices, storySouth, Arts & Letters, Ploughshares, Indiana Review, Another Chicago, and Hobart.

20 February 2005

juvenile delinquency

Writing fiction takes me everywhere. This month it's juvenile delinquency, and in reading a book on the topic, a serious book published in 1990, I read this sentence:

"Children in pornography are at risk to be sold into white slavery, sexually or physically abused or contract sexually-transmitted diseases such as AIDS."

And here I thought I was reading non-fiction. I shan't mention the author or title of this book, but I will ask a few questions:

1. Is white slavery an anachronism, an urban myth, or a serious threat to today's children?

2. Are you amazed that children in pornography are at risk to be sexually or physically abused?

3. Can you diagram the sentence I quoted above?

4. Can anyone recommend a decent book on this subject?

Mapquest maps

Yesterday I bought the Roadmaster 2005 Large Print Road Atlas of the United States published by Mapquest. Not that I noticed the Mapquest logo until I arrived back home. Hell, I bought it because I was tired of looking at the country through tiny Mapquest windows. It's a great road atlas. I highly recommend it.

Now, if you wouldn't mind telling me where you live again, I will look you up on the map. And Cliff? I already found you.

Amazon doesn't stock it yet, but here's last year's edition:

the anti-Christo

Thanks to Myfanwy Collins for pointing me to The Somerville Gates. Am whooping here.

19 February 2005

Paul West's Master Class

If you've not decided to buy the book yet, consider these flavors of being Paul West.

West mentions Beckett's advice to immerse oneself in one's own precious ipsissimosity, aka selfhood, aka "what will this particular work do to me?"

For the rule lovers, West jams into a paragraph what I needed to break into a helpful bulleted list:

- Sometimes suppress an aspect of your subject so as to reveal it later; readers may compare their guesses with the actual fact.
- Instead of editorializing, exemplify; let the reader construe your images and your selectivity.
- Don’t neglect the irrelevant; bring it in now and then, to turn the reader’s head away; then he or she will force it back with renewed interest in the world outside the story.
- Try not to streamline the world. Regard it as an almost ungraspable maze of unpredictable particulars.
- Ask if there’s a greater degree of specificity than the one you’re busy with.
- By the same token, now and then site a vague image amid fanatical precisions.
- Keep asking what the reader, with a little prompting, can supply; then omit it. Make the reader an industrious accomplice.
- As narrator, don’t be afraid to dominate or to intervene. Take complete charge of your work.
- A thoroughly dominant telling gives a greater illusion of a character’s autonomy than a slack one does.
- Remember how first person traps you. Have your first person narrator guess how a third person might tell things.
- Remember to say how things are done, how said, how responded to, and during what; don’t halt, numb, stifle the simultaneous world while staging dialogue.
- Go for contrast all the way. Describing someone weeping, conjure up someone who’d not feel sympathetic.
- Use what lawyers call the best evidence unless adducing minor but immediate particulars.

From Aeschylus's Prometheus, West quotes:

"HERALD: Submit, you fool. Submit. In agony learn wisdom."

In case you didn't read an earlier post, all these come from this:

18 February 2005

Carol Peters

mixing blood

hiding in Mexico
I crossed to El Paso
to speak Spanish with Cormac
pendejo he would say to my obliggato
wrong tune he would say
try mezcla past well say noon

touching the cat in the night

on my way to the toilet
and on my way back
because what if she's not

getting more from an MFA

Three months away from receiving an MFA from the Queens University of Charlotte low-residency MFA program, I think about what I would do differently if I had the opportunity to do it again. At the top of my list is this. Every month, I would post the feedback I received from my faculty advisor in a place where my fellow students could read it, and I would convince my fellow students to do the same. Here's why.

In this two year program, I will have submitted 24 pieces of work, an average of 1 per month, to faculty. I have studied with 4 faculty advisors, so each advisor read and gave me feedback on 6 pieces. Every advisor gave me excellent help. Each had a unique teaching style. I go back and study their responses. I make lists of ideas and post them. My writing has changed, and I hope it's better.

However, the Queens program has many faculty who teach in the fiction genre, namely:

Jane Alison
Pinckney Benedict
Jonathan Dee
Daniel Jones
Helen Elaine Lee
Fred Leebron
Daniel Mueller
Naeem Murr
Jenny Offill
David Payne
Susan Perabo
Patricia Powell
Steven Rinehart
Elissa Schappell
Elizabeth Strout
Abigail Thomas
Ashley Warlick

[wow. look at the shape of that list; pregnant belly; brimmed hat]

I only studied with 4 of them. I chose 2 more as thesis advisor and thesis reader, and a second thesis reader from the CNF genre. Still, look who I missed. Now imagine doubling or tripling that list if I'd also been able to read the feedback remarks from the CNF and poetry faculty. Should I list them? Go to the Queens website and find out who they are.

I would have been so embarrassed back at the beginning. I was embarrassed anyway, to know that 2-3 other students heard about my gaffes every semester. But if I had been less fragile, more willing, and if everyone else in my class had done the same, we would all have heard from all the faculty, and even when the faculty were not reading our work, we still would have learned things we didn't learn.

Less ego. More ideas. And Monday morning quarterbacking, too.

Note that many Queens faculty also teach workshops at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which is a splendid place to spend time.

17 February 2005

from Mossman, Book 3

"I stood there, saying nothing. Hating him. Dawes. Thinking. Only: Yes, and he is not the only one who is mad in their way. I, too, am mad in my way. We are all, just standing here, mad in our ways. But it is only HE who is wanting terribly to make us see it, to act it out. For some reason. To make us look at it for hours on end. Without mercy or forgetting. Yes, it is I, Handsaw Williams, who is even better than Dawes, finer and better and madder in every way. More than Dawes. But who will tell him? And finally it will only be HE, the only one, who will make it out of himself someday. HE, not I, who will have the obtuse nerve to make it into something finer than himself. Someday. Someday he will compose a great lie. And call it himself. The possibility of himself. Not I. He is the only one. Something finer than himself. The Bastard. Not me. Only him. Dawes. Who is not even aware of it. Of himself. Of that thin stone of ever-woken seed. Who is not me, but only himself, Dawes. Who is not in me, but in only himself. Selfish. Mindless. Fool. . . He will make it out of himself someday."

15 February 2005

who is this Paul West?

Try this, Paul West's Master Class: Scenes from a Fiction Workshop, instead of dinner.

"I am here to make a point about place-names and to remind [my students] to read intimately into them, make them live the lives of the people who have lived among them . . . I am Uncle Paul."

This after having assigned the class one page of Proust to read all night, it's page 422 in some translation, "my theory of humanity, that we are nature's raw material to be shaped into grotesque works of art."

He calls his students "a vehement motley" and "a hubbub, a maelstrom, a ferment" as he parses the Proust. He calls what happens in workshop "the amorphous sediment of notions exchanged."

When he gets to "really teaching," he starts this way:

"telling them to get what's unique right up front in the sentence. . . Gather up all that is strange . . . a fistful of novelty, and make the reader assimilate it before passing on to the noun or pronoun, thus ensuring the attractive, sensuous part of the sentence gets you off to a good start that keeps its momentum all through, shutting out the rest of the world. . . . I want a dozen sentences . . . that seem to flirt with an ablative absolute but actually specify without much warning the sensuous overture. Celibate gusto wetting his eyes, he . . . You know the rest."

I took this book out from the library, and now I must buy it.

14 February 2005

Dow Mossman continued

Tonight I finished the second of the three books in Mossman's novel, The Stones of Summer. I'm guessing that this is the funniest book, but who knows. Maybe the third will be funnier yet. Funny intense adolescent tragic drunk. Drunk is front and center. Brings back memories, as they say. I'm not going to give anything away because if you want to know what happens in this book, you should read it. I love it. Would not have missed it for the world. Here are a few sentences from the last scene:

" 'I been thinking hell, Travis. I been thinking about Charles J. Chaplin. Charlie Chaplin. Travis! I been thinking about impersonators miming themselves mime themselves! About an endless succession of masks! What the hell do you think about that, Travis, you silly sonofabitch?' "

"But Dawes thought the night, mad, deep, lost, going under, witch-strewn, was his only brother, an idiot, a dwarf. In the foreshortened distance of quarried rock he rustled the nightsounds, like a fine shirt of bells, a vest of rings and frills. Dawes thought he waved him home with a flick of his wrist. An elf, twisted in his own mirrors, cast out from his own house, his illusions of possessing a self, Dawes could see he wore another face. His wink, a jaded star, hung out to dry on the green roof of a flooded barn, recrossed itself without effort. He sailed over the moon. Taking his suitcase full of slingshots and explosive pumpkin balls, he was gone."

"Waking, through a dream of falling timbers, on the epileptic sun of the concrete, Dawes could feel his heart exploding in his mouth. It was very quiet, strangely peaceful. For a moment Dawes thought he needed only a ride back to town. That for some reason he had only gone to sleep in the woods, become lost. Then it all came back in a rush of denser air. . . . Then, for some reason he wouldn't admit, he began walking fast circles in his mind without ever leaving it."

"The place was dead with sound; it was like small things, birds, leaves, sticks in the wind blowing up into a waterfall. It was as if the whole world were water and running up over the sky; and he could hear every drop, every note, every particle and gradation. It was music. Nature was a single sound, a blowing up of blood in his ears until thunder and melody came out in a single running water note. They would come."

Mossman takes all the risks he can think.

12 February 2005

in a word

from The Stones of Summer by Dow Mossman:

“Well then,” she said, “I think it’s almost pure-dee simple finally. I think he was just another mad, run-of-the-mill old Celt, like me, like you I suppose, looking for a place, another deserted wood to stone himself off from them for awhile. For another hill to make walls on. The Celts you know,” she said, “were the Indians and weed smokers of Europe for centuries.”

“Awww, you never tell me anything,” Dawes Williams said, “ ‘Them,’ Who’s all these ‘they’ at least? Tell me about ‘them.’ ”

“Why, Dawes, they’re the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans,” she said, “and the Greeks and the Romans, and they haven’t even got the shit off their shoes yet for thinking about government and concrete hats all the time. You’ll find out about them all right, you won’t be able to help yourself, but when you do, just remember—just go about your business and pretend they was only passing through.”

In the weave of silence, a basket of tall blowing grass, her voice had stopped; but she was still looking at him so intently he had for a moment the illusion that she was still speaking. It was soft, nearly recognized, going through him cold as a knife.

“Is that what you think?” Dawes finally said.

“That, in a word, is what I think.”

“That sounds fine, that doesn’t sound like any word I ever heard,” he said, “but what does it mean?”

“You’re the best student I ever had, in fact the only,” she said, “but I can’t explain that. Fact is, if I had to, you wouldn’t be. You sense it, that’s enough. It’s blood thinking. It’s what they call intuitive, a priori thinking.”

“I don’t understand that either.”

“That’s all right, too,” she said, “no need to, ever, and you sense it, and you’ll figure it out some day and remember me by it. That’s enough.”

Frank Conroy

Frank Conroy interview from Narrative Magazine.

My thanks for Linera Lucas for this link.

11 February 2005

Dow Mossman's novel

I started The Stones of Summer a couple days ago and have loved nearly every word so far, even the words that don't make any sense. Mossman is a stylist. His characters are extreme and extremely wondrous. I could quote by typing the book into this post, but I'll just hand you one paragraph.

"Dawes sat up in bed, feeling worthless, shaking the sand, the early and desolate hill of dog yips from his head. Arthur turned. He stood, leaning against the wooden jamb of the double glass doorway, looking back, and his eyes seemed almost dull, flatter than last year, muted somehow like reptiles not swimming in open water anymore. The doorway was wide and swinging apart and blowing the farm inward like morning fans; hot seepings of dogwood and fertile, silent manure. Arthur stood as if, even slightly slouching, he was holding up the house. A carefully weathered, twenty-five-dollar straw hat was on his head. Dawes decided suddenly that this would be, this must be, this might be the summer he would tell Arthur what a son of a bitch he really was . . ."

10 February 2005

Speak, Vladimir

From the Nabokov interview in The Paris Review:

"In accordance with Nabokov's wishes, all answers are given as he wrote them down. He claims that he needs to write his responses because of his unfamiliarity with English."

07 February 2005

Ellen Bryant Voigt on narrative vs. lyric

From The Flexible Lyric:

"In her [Karen Brennan’s] piece each action in sequence closed out the possibilities for succeeding action, and each descriptive detail narrowed the narrative circumstance: a STORY.

[By contrast, Kevin] McIlvoy’s scene-with piano was established and soon departed from, exaggerated, undermined, as the speaker bullied his sketchy opponents . . . Rather than dragging us forward inexorably . . . time was held in abeyance . . . Although there were many characterizing 'actions' planted shrewdly throughout, there was only a single consequential one, with the barest of circumstantial motivation, placed close to the end with the same deft efficiency as the couplet in a sonnet." [aka LYRIC]

Those were my brackets and my caps.

In my role as a fiction editor for a literary journal (Ink Pot), I read submissions that I reject because the writer seems intent on offering the world in a story instead of narrowing the world deftly to a single intense focus.

I read Voigt as saying that in narrative, aka story, the text acts as a funnel so that every action, every detail, further limits what may follow. A city becomes a street becomes a building becomes an apartment becomes a closet becomes a small child hiding in the folds of a winter coat. Now what? I have no idea, but I am intrigued. I know the story is about the child. I wonder whose coat it is. I anticipate the arrival of someone masquerading as an adult. This is all delightful compared to the story that begins with young people at a party talking back and forth, a scenario in which I don't know who matters and why and when they'll stop talking about football and sex and get down to one person and one problem I can care about.

Am blithering, but specificity is all, and as a writer, I respect the difficulty of putting only the relevant specificity on the page. Not a bar but this bar. Not young people but one young man, dressed in a gas station attendant's overall, limping slightly due to an accident with a parking meter across the street, irate at the noise level that has caused him to miss the cellphone call he's been waiting for since noon of the previous day.

Said another way, give away many secrets as fast as you can. Not only the existence of the secret, but the details of the secret. It's a fast way to funnel.

05 February 2005

off-center reading

While writing along the hot highway of my own novel (pretend it's all at least that bad), I'm trying not to read fiction. Here's what I'm reading instead:

John D'Agata is the lyric essay editor for The Seneca Review, and this is his work. Off beat. How many of you know what happened to Napoleon's penis? Ranges from funny to loonily lost in the wilderness. I am a fan. Particularly liked the essay about the flat earth society.

The Flexible Lyric by Ellen Bryant Voigt has been on my list for some time. It's outstanding. Read it no matter what kind of a writer you think you are. Voigt tidbits:

[Voigt quoting Flannery O'Connor] "Art requires a delicate adjustment of the outer and inner worlds in such a way that, without changing their nature, they can be seen through each other. To know oneself is to know . . . the world, and it is also, paradoxically, a form of exile from that world. . . . And to know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility'" (Mystery and Manners)

[Voigt] "Bishop’s restraint and indirection seem a good deal like O’Connor’s self-knowledge, less a ruse or a withholding, less a way to CONCEAL feelings, than a way to release and honor them."

[Voigt quoting Louise Gluck]: "Poems are autobiography, but divested of the trappings of chronology and comment, the metronomic alternation of anecdote and response" (Proofs and Theories).

[Voigt] "Without chronology and comment, what is autobiography if not character? And on what other grounds should a hero, a model, make a claim on us?"

[Elizabeth Bishop] "Home-made, home-made! But aren’t we all?"

[Voigt] "If the narrative writer is instinctively curious about the individuating 'story,' is hard-wired for the distinct sequence of events preceding that table and that wineglass, the lyric poet may be as naturally drawn to the isolated human moment of frustration, distilled, indelible, the peak in the emotional chart."

As for the Jim Thompson novel, well, I'm weak. I read it to study his style. I believe I need more of the violent and improbable in my work. Thompson is brilliant, and dead. Thank you Robert Polito for introducing Thompson to me (see post below on The Savage Art by RP. A bit from early on in The Killer Inside Me:

. . . The street was dark. I was standing a few doors above the cafe, and the bum was standing and looking at me. He was a young fellow, about my age, and he was wearing what must have been a pretty good suit of clothes at one time.

"Well, how about it, bud?" he was saying. "How about it, huh? I've been on a hell of a binge, and by God if I don't get some food pretty soon--"

"Something to warm you up, eh?" I said.

"Yeah, anything at all you can help me with, I'll . . ."

I took the cigar out of my mouth with one hand and made like I was reaching into my pocket with the other. Then, I grabbed his wrist and ground the cigar butt into his palm."

"Jesus, bud!"--he cursed and jerked away from me. "What the hell you tryin' to do?"

I laughed and let him see my badge. "Beat it," I said.

03 February 2005

late to the Dow Mossman party

Watched Stone Reader last night and reserved Dow Mossman's reissued novel, The Stones of Summer, from the library this morning. Am looking for comments from people who've read the book.