random thoughts

17 posts

Talking With George Saunders: Part 1

In many ways, George Saunders’ new book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, hits all my buttons. Chief among them is its use of short stories by four Russians — Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, and Gogol – to illustrate key points on the making and enjoyment of literature. I’ve been reading the Russkies since being knee-high to a praying mantis. Thus, being a Russophile (literary-wise, anyway) and a writer as well, I found myself doing something I seldom do with my books: annotating it as I went along.

Talking to Saunders, is what it amounted to, even though the odds of me ever attending his distant Syracuse writing class lie somewhere between slim and none.

I decided to share a bit here with other readers interested in writing and reading. First, I’ll provide the Saunders remarks that gave rise to some questions and thoughts. Then I’ll offer what I’d say if I were in Saunders class (if my classmates and professor kindy allowed, that is).

For Part 1 of who knows how many, here’s Saunders on one of the simpler “laws” of fiction. You know how laws get one’s ire up. Can you break them? Are they good laws? And what about the caveats, both mentioned and un-?

Saunders:

 

“Earlier, we asked if there might exist certain ‘laws’ in fiction. Are there things that our reading mind just responds to? Physical descriptions seem to be one such thing. Who knows why? We like hearing our world described. And we like hearing it described specifically (‘Two men in green sweaters were playing catch beside a wrecked car’ is better than ‘I drove through this area that was sort of bland and didn’t notice much.’) A specific description, like a prop in a play, helps us believe more fully in that which is entirely invented. It’s sort of a cheap, or at least easy, authorial trick. If I am trying to put you in a certain (invented) house, I might invoke ‘a large white cat, stretching itself out to what seemed like twice its normal length’ on a couch in that house. If you see the cat, the house becomes real.

“But that’s only part of the move. That cat, having been placed in that particular story, is now, also, a metaphorical cat, in relation to all of the other dozens (hundreds) of metaphorical elements floating around in the story.

“And that cat now has to do some story-specific work. Or, we might say, it’s going to be doing some story-specific work, whether it chooses to or not, by its very presence in the story; the question is what work it’s going to be asked to do and how well it will do it.”  (pp. 27-28)

 

On the surface, there seems little to debate here. Of course a more detailed description makes a scene more believable. The writer’s skill of naming things alone counts for much in his ability to create a sustainable dream for readers.

The catch lies in how much description. It might be “easy,” as Saunders allows, to deploy spellbinding description, but the difficulty lies in when to stop describing. Readers, though they may love description, don’t have infinite patience with it. Ditto editors.

I recall, for instance, my first attempt at a novel umpteen years ago. One editor, kind enough to provide a handwritten response, lauded the description throughout but said there might have been too much (for one) and that it often came at the expense of plot, which she found weak.

Then there’s the famous rule of Chekhov’s gun (rifle, what have you). Once mentioned as hanging on the wall over the hearth, it best be used before story’s end. Which brings us to another tricky concept: which details must play a role in the story and which may not?

A gun is fairly obvious. Why bring it up in passing? But the white cat mentioned by Saunders above? Is it equal to the green sweaters also mentioned above? Almost any detail from a setting can be integrated into a future plot development, but I daresay this will hold true for only a few.

Bottom line: the writer has a problem. Two problems, actually. Yes, your writing is richer through description, but when is enough enough? Salt lends flavor, no one will deny, but too much salt can kill a dish. Put description in a shaker next to pepper, and there you have it.

Additionally, it seems a case of overthinking matters to wonder which objects in any given description must do some “story-specific work,” as Saunders states, merely by dint of their presence. What if the description is implying something about a character, for instance? Does that count, or must it be woven into plot?

All of which brings me back to my own writing precept: Nothing is as simple as it seems. Even if George Saunders calls it a “cheap, or at least easy, authorial trick.”

Random Thoughts, Election Cycle

trump

It’s been a while since I’ve given the green light to one of my occasional random thoughts posts, probably because I’ve been preoccupied by things political, and this blog is supposed to be more about writing and poetry and (insert British accent) LIT-er-a-chuh. I’ll try to keep it to a minimum, then, but if you are a fan of orange mold (as in forgotten refrigerator leftovers or tenants in the Accent-on-White House), you might want to skip on to the next blog.

  • First things first, WordPress, my longtime host, has switched their software or something, and count me as a definite NO vote for the new methods of posting. Supposedly clicking CLASSIC makes it like the old set-up, but who are they kidding? It’s a different animal. A wild one. Showing signs of rabies.
  • My daughter is encouraging me to jump to my own site with my own name as the domain name. All the writers are doing it, she says. Well, then, if all of them are doing it, who am I to walk to the beat of my own drummer? (Just don’t tell Thoreau I said so.)
  • Meaning: You’ll be the first to know if I move to greener (and more self-absorbed) pastures.
  • Speaking of self-absorbed, Amazon sales statistics turn authors into so many paper towels. They can’t absorb enough of those lower-is-better numbers on the statistical sales tabulations.
  • Pitiful, no?
  • Yes.
  • Good news: my third poetry book will be out in the summer of 2021.
  • Bad news: the pandemic fall and winter will be long ones.
  • Every time I read about Trump’s campaign for “Law & Order,” I add an asterisk and the words “* Except when the laws apply to him.”
  • Writing is not for the faint of heart, true, but it’s REALLY not for the elderly of heart, as in 80- and 90-somethings. “The wait,” one octogenarian told me, “on submissions will be the death of me.”
  • That’s dark humor, by the way.
  • Wasn’t it delicious to see the Snowflake-in-Chief run away when he stepped onto the Supreme Court steps to supposedly honor Ruth Bader Ginsburg? A chorus of boos from the crowd followed by chants of “Vote him out!” sent him running for the exits ipso fasto, so used to screened audiences of adoring enablers is he.
  • Purple and pink. You might consider them a little girl’s favorite colors, but I stepped outside and noted purplish clouds with pink tinges at the edge due to a light fog and a rising sun.
  • As Ernie once said: “The Sun Also Rises.”
  • Nota Bene: He stole that from Ecclesiastes.
  • Spark Notes hint: God’s favorite colors? Sometimes purple and pink!
  • Grammar maven hint: Do NOT italicize the book title if it happens to be the Bible or any of the books within the Bible. (I should know. I just looked it up.)
  • In the last great pandemic in 1918, the second wave — so much worse than the first — came in October. It can’t be good that today is September 27th.
  • One good thing — no, two good things — about October in New England: foliage and apples.
  • Trump has announced that he will not observe the peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election. I figured that would about do it for those saying they’re voting for him, but the polls haven’t reflected that.
  • So I said to a Trump supporter: “Doesn’t it alarm you when, for the first time in American history, we have a ‘man’ who says he will not follow democratic norms, but instead will seize power from the winner? What’s more important to you: your country or your party?”
  • The answer I got: “My party is my country.”
  • You see the problem. And if you once wondered how so many Germans could fall for the likes of Hitler, wonder no more.
  • When patriotic Americans tell me, “If this tinpot dictator wins re-election, I’m moving to Canada,” I have to remind them that Canada won’t have them. No country will, anymore.
  • Book idea: Sartre’s No Exit.
  • Say… isn’t that the book where Hell is other people?
  • This is why you have to lie down, breath slowly, and don earphones to listen to Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe, Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam, Benjamin Britten, or Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. (Just remember to get up in time to vote.)
  • Writerly goal for Oct. 1st: Get through the upcoming month without paying a single reading fee. If you have to pay people to read you, you’re not writing very well.
  • Readerly goals for Oct. 1st: At least two uninterrupted hours of reading daily after at least 30 minutes of exercise (walking is fine!). And keep a pen and journal by your side as you read. Good writing often gives birth to good ideas!
  • Final thought: Town police forces and national military budgets soak up a lot of taxpayer revenue. Therefore, as a taxpayer, you should never trust a draft-dodging tax evader who refuses to share his tax returns, especially when he claims to love the police and the military and the flag (but is too cheap and venal to pay the taxes required to support them). Follow his actions, not his words, and you’ll get the real story.
  • See? That wasn’t bad. Only one or two political thoughts. Or three. Or four maybe.

Random Thoughts for Another Midsummer Night’s Eve

midsummer

  • But two days left to spring and then the longest day of the year on Sat., the 20th. Only why do they call it “Midsummer” (as in “Night’s Eve”) if it’s the first day of summer? I’ve always wanted to ask a learn’d astronomer that, but they all went into hiding after the Walt Whitman poem. Just, meet deserts!
  • Read in the paper where an epidemiologist said that “Covid-19 is only in the 2nd inning, yet people are behaving as if the ballgame is over!” Human nature, I want to say. I mean, people went three whole months without a haircut or manicure so what do you expect! Is it any wonder they have come up with their own ad hoc conclusions? Is it any wonder a few picked up their Second Amendments, stormed state capitals, and whined, “Don’t Tread On Me!” and “Liberty!” (Insert eye roll here.)
  • Speaking of ad hoc conclusions and Midsummer, Saturday also brings the prospect of thousands of people in Tulsa, Not OK, exposing themselves to each other and the president at a political rally that’s about as necessary as mosquitoes.
  • Funny how the president once cancelled bombing raids on Iran because there’d be “too many body bags,” but now is full steam ahead on creating Covid’s favorite conditions (crowds in close proximity shouting and cheering and laughing at horrible jokes) among his fellow Americans, which may lead to body bags (and one would be one too many). Honestly, I hope no one gets seriously ill due to this stupidity, but the collision of irony and ignorance is beyond frustrating.
  • In 2018, I wrote a poem about Blueberry the Duck in Lost Sherpa of Happiness. This duck showed up near my legs as I stood in the water picking from a shoreline blueberry bush (she was patiently waiting for “droppers,” which she promptly scooped up). Today Blueberry D. returned, only with 8 ducklings in tow. I was on the dock reading Carson McCullers when I heard a quack on the dock behind me. There she stood halfway between me and the stairs into the water where her charges were cleaning themselves fastidiously, four ducklings to a step. No other duck would have been so comfortable. Only a duck with blueberry memories, I figured. When I turned in my seat to look at her, she simply looked back with that bill of goods of hers. You know. The kind that says, “S’up? Seen any blueberries lately?”
  • Back in March, I was despondent over the loss of televised March Madness due to Covid-19. I was sad to see Major League Baseball’s spring training disappear, too. Only now, some four months into this mess, I’m not missing baseball (or much any other sport) in the least. Who says pandemics don’t change people? The only question being, is it for the better? (And if more time for reading and writing means “better,” the answer is apparently “yes”!)
  • Today I ate a raw rhubarb stalk for the first time. The leaves are poisonous. The stalks are safe. And sour. Really sour.
  • Also today, the deer fly arrived. When you do a daily four miles in the Maine summer (as is my wont mornings), deer fly are happy to accompany you all the way, constantly buzzing your head and landing where opportunity offers. Deer fly bite. You can read that two ways.
  • Hot black coffee on a 90-degree day oddly cools at about the same rate as it does in a 65-degree house in winter. I think this was a Galileo experiment in the Tower of Pisa (coffee leaning in the mug).
  • Today I received a reply from a prospective poetry publication the same day I sent my submission in. The editor said he was turning it back because, after listing in Submittable, they had been inundated with submissions. I replied, “Why not take the listing off Submittable, then, so as to not waste other writers’ time not to mention yours?” I said it nicely. Really. And like to think he took it that way.
  • But probably it was an auto reply and he never took it any way.
  • An adolescent snapping turtle has moved into the neighborhood. A few years back it was a Northern Water Snake. I’m not sure which is worse, but I’m sure my naturalist friends would tell me both play an important part in the local ecosystem. More important than me, they’d add.
  • It’s always sobering to be told you rate somewhere below amphibians and reptiles in the scheme of things.
  • The further north you travel in Maine, the fewer masks you see in stores. Like New York, Maine has an upstate identity quite different from its southern one. In Massachusetts, its the west (Berkshires) vs. the east (Boston area), but in that case both enclaves are bluer than blue. Not so New York and Maine.
  • I saw a baby mink this week. If you thought puppies and kittens were cute, you haven’t seen a baby mink.
  • This used to be the time of year school ended in the northern U.S. No sooner does summer vacation commence when days start getting shorter. At the time, it seemed like the new play, A Midsummer Night’s Dirty Trick: Shakespeare’s Sequel.
  • What? Friday already? As you age, tempus has a way of fugiting more and more.
  • I’ve heard some older folks grump about 18 months of their lives lost to this damn pandemic thing as they are forced to hunker down, live like hermits, and not have fun or get to see the grandkids, to which I can only logically say, “I hear you and sympathize because I hate it, too. That said, 18 months is better than eternity if you let your guard down and catch this thing. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but E=MC Squared (Eternity = Months & Centuries Squared)!”
  • Somehow that is of little solace. Meanwhile, we await the 3rd inning.

Just Another Random Thoughts Saturday

will shake

What? Time for another “Random Thoughts” post? I thought so.

  • Just finished James Shapiro’s Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future.
  • The answer to that title? A lot. Starting with race, moving on to gender, class warfare, immigration, marriage, same-sex marriage, adultery, and left vs. right.
  • I loved the chapter on Lincoln, who loved Shakespeare over all else. I was probably attracted to the fresh air of a president who not only reads, but memorizes vast stretches of great literature, which he wanted to discuss with people.
  • President Lincoln’s Top 5 Favorite Shakespeare plays: King Lear, Richard III, Henry VIII, Hamlet, and especially Macbeth.
  • Being a fan of effective repetition, he liked to recite the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech from Macbeth.
  • John Wilkes Booth loved Shakespeare every bit as much as his eventual victim, only JWB was partial to Julius Caesar and loved playing the role of Brutus.
  • Can you say “foreshadowing”?
  • No surprise: Booth was a white supremacist.
  • Around 10 days before his assassination, Lincoln told close friends of a dream he had: he got up from bed, walked to the East Room of the White House, and found a corpse guarded by soldiers. When he asked who it was, he was told, “The President. He was killed by an assassin.” A burst of grief from mourners woke Lincoln up from his nightmare.
  • Can you say “foreshadowing” twice in one day?
  • It’s May and states are slowly opening up, depending on the state. Here it amounted to barbers and hairdressers, but my hair had already met its match in the form of the Good Wife with clippers.
  • I hope crew-cuts are back in style.
  • On the plus side, I’ve read a lot of books since Pan came to demic all over the place. On the negative side, I’ve also watched way too much Netflix.
  • In a word: “Overrated.”
  • Watching prime time news for my daily dose of depression, I came to this conclusion: “Imagine the money we’d save on prescription drug costs if Congress banned Big Pharma from airing these #*&$%*&@ drug commercials.
  • You know, the ones that include, in rapid-fire voice-overs, warnings about that little side effect known as “death.”
  • For sanity’s sake, people need to get out of the house, apartment, condo every day, even in the rain (which is kind of fun). Nature is behaving the same as it always has. The bonus? You don’t have to antisocial distance yourself from it.
  • Unless you choose the same “nature” (e.g. the beach on a sunny and warm day) that a thousand other cabin-fevered sorts have.
  • Have you memorized a poem or a slice of Shakespeare (ring on deli) lately? If not, why not? As good as remdesivir, I swear.
  • I know weekends and weekdays have jumped in the smoothie together, but if you’re out of work and reading this at home: Have a great weekend!
  • For old time’s sake, I mean.

 

Everything’s Gone Viral (And Other Sad Thoughts)

seuss

It’s been a while since I did a “Random Thoughts” post. On this gloomy, rainy, viral Friday, maybe it’s time to open the stream of consciousness anew…

  • Looking at rain drops wobbling down the window glass always reminds me of Dr. Seuss’s book The Cat in the Hat, which I read frequently as a kid.
  • In fact, I often refer to rainy days as “Cat in the Hat Days.”
  • I feel like saying this is Day #___ of the coronavirus slash Covid-19 hunkering-down slash shelter-in-place slash lockdown crisis, but really, who knows where this really “began”?
  • I’ve a friend who has started a pool on when it “ends,” but again, this means we need to make like Webster and define “ends.”
  • Supposedly the virus has brought on a resurgence in reading.
  • And family sniping.
  • And eating.
  • A lot (thus the toilet paper shortage).
  • Helpful Hint: Food for Thought (packaged in books) brings zero calories. Compare to the nutrition panel on the side of ice cream half gallons.
  • Oh, wait. They don’t make half gallons anymore. Whatever smaller size it is, then. Packaging shrinks. Prices rise. To the tune of “America the Beautiful (Corporatocracy).”
  • It’s times like these that bring us together as a world. If the virus has no use for nationality, religion, race, or class differences, why should we? We’re all in this fight together, and hopefully, when it ends, we won’t forget its lessons.
  • Main lesson: People everywhere just want to be happy, to love their families, to live in peace. They have little use for leaders (of their country or others) who have other ideas, ones that have to do with power, war, and corruption.
  • April is National Poetry Month. Can you feel the joy? I received my final issue of Poetry, the magazine, this week. I let the subscription lapse because I wasn’t feeling a lot of joy over the editorial selections there.
  • That said, the April issue does include a new Ocean Vuong poem.
  • Which includes a stanza that reads: “Once, at a party set on a rooftop in Brooklyn for an “artsy vibe,” a young / woman said, sipping her drink, You’re so lucky. You’re gay plus you get to / write about war and stuff. I’m just white. [Pause.] I got nothing. [Laughter, / glasses clinking.]”
  • Sic semper artsy young white woman writers from Brooklyn. Vuong can be both funny and edgy.
  • Speaking of poetry, have you ever noticed, should you happen to get two acceptances in a row from poetry markets, that you feel invincible, like you’ve finally been “discovered”?
  • “Fool me once…”
  • Or how about those contests you occasionally enter. When you still haven’t heard back and the “decide by” date is but two days away, you conjure a big, shiny conference table surrounded by editors discussing the three finalists, one of which is your baby.
  • “Fool me twice…”
  • It’s hard being creative and flattening curves at the same time. (See previous reference to ice cream.)
  • On rainy days like today, I get my exercise by walking up and down the stairs for 20 minutes.
  • Helpful Hint: It goes much faster to music you like. Your brain focuses more on the rhythm and beat and less on the dog at the foot of the stairs staring at you like you’re some plain fool.
  • Easter approaches and, for many of us, we will be hamming it up alone with our spouses (pass the horseradish). Nearby family might as well be far away family when each person you used to hug and kiss is the sum of every person he or she has met in the past 14 days.
  • Man, do I hate doing math like that. Welcome to 2020, the Year of Living Dangerously.
  • With the libraries out of business, I’ve been scouring my shelves for books I own but haven’t read. A New York Times article on books to read during the Coronavirus Captivity recommended Goncharov’s Oblomov, a book I actually own. “Huzzah!” I said (because I so seldom get a chance to say, “Huzzah!”)
  • The excitement didn’t last, however. The book I am presently reading: Anton Chekhov: A Life in Letters, includes a screed where Chekhov tells a friend that, after rereading Oblomov, he found it entirely lacking.
  • Even dead men can take the wind out of your sails.
  • Poor Chekhov. I cringe every time he coughs up blood and tells his brothers or sister not to tell Mama or Papa!
  • As I sip my morning sanity: Thank God there have been no coffee bean shortages.
  • (Shhh! Don’t give anyone ideas.)
  • Stay safe, be productive, and be kind.

 

Thoughts at the Dawn of a Pandemic

TP

Random thoughts at the Dawn of a Pandemic:

  • Without realizing the topic, I picked up a copy of Station Eleven ten days ago, started reading, and discovered it is about a flu virus that wipes out 99% of the earth’s population.
  • I’m not sure if this coincidence is a good thing or a bad thing.
  • Why it might be a bad thing: I’ve had it with watching televised news about Covid-19. I don’t think it’s alarmist, but I do think it’s depressing. Reading this book isn’t helping.
  • Until now, I little realized how much I used televised sports as an escapist pastime. I’m not a big TV show or movie buff, so when I watch the tube, it’s usually to enjoy basketball, baseball, or football. Who would’ve ever believed the plug would be pulled on all of it?
  • Silver lining: More time for reading and writing!
  • I wondered if the Covid-Effect would manifest itself on Submittable. Would all the closures and staying indoors mean a faster response from editors reading writers’ work?
  • In a word: No.
  • Though I live in a state with only three recorded cases of the coronavirus, I’m not kidding myself. The lack of tests (way to go, self-proclaimed “greatest country on earth”!) simply means it’s here in bigger numbers that are just not diagnosed yet. Like inconvenient ghosts, maybe.
  • Speaking of depressing, I was at the grocery store yesterday.
  • Bare shelving space report: toilet paper, hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol & aloe gel (used for homemade sanitizer), thermometers, water, flour, sugar.
  • Apparently the cure for Covid-19 is to eat lots of homemade bread and cookies, then take War & Peace into the bathroom for a stretch before washing your hands through two rounds of “Happy Birthday.”
  • And what’s with the bottled water panic? Does Covid-19 take away our power? Shut down our wells? Maybe I need to read more of Station Eleven to understand.
  • Nothing has exposed Trump and his cronies like this virus. Covid-19 is completely impervious to his penchant for bending the truth and gas lighting. Ditto to his advisers on Fox News, some of whom remain adamant that this is “just a cold” and “another attempt to impeach the president.”
  • Sorry, but the president is impeaching himself.
  • And while we’re at it, can we stop blaming other countries for all of this? Holding your leaders accountable for measures (or lack thereof) taken is legitimate. Demonizing other nations is decidedly not.
  • Yesterday someone told me how the closure of public events, the social distancing, and the panic buying are “already getting old.” What? In less than a week? This could last for months or even a year!
  • Silver lining: Obsessive compulsive hand cleaning protects you from garden-variety colds and flus, too.
  • How to make the pandemic work for you: Take on a big goal you can do from home. One you’ve been putting off forever, like reading William Wordsworth’s Preludes or Lucy Ellman’s seemingly endless Ducks, Newburyport.
  • As for your excuse for not writing (“I’m busy!”), it’s looking increasingly lame these days.
  • Covid-19 does not like the great outdoors. The enemy of your enemy is your friend.
  • Meaning: If you don’t have a dog, walk yourself every day.
  • Except during rain, I’ve been walking the beach every morning. There’s something comforting about the eternal sea. It never changes no matter what is going on around you. And its sounds and smells send you back to when you were a kid.
  • Unless you’re from Iowa.
  • Advice: If you’re one of the panic buyers who bought a truckload of toilet paper and canned soup, offer your elderly neighbors some (especially if they finally made it to the store and found nothing but bare shelves).
  • Add an “e” to human, humans, and be humane to each other during these difficult times. We get through hardships better together. Every man for himself only makes a bad situation worse.
  • Happy weekend, and remember the words of the prophet: “This, too, shall pass.”

What Are Poets Writing About?

kimaddonizio

OK, I get it. Asking what today’s poets are writing about is a stupid question. They are writing about whatever they want to write about.

Even amending the question helps but little: What are poets who are getting published writing about?

There is no way one can gain accuracy via a random sample. They’re all too…random. That said, randomness can provide some indications, anyway. And count me curious (thus, this post), because I’ve often noted a chasm between some of my favorite topics and what poetry editors seem to like best these days.

Put it this way. If I were a contestant on Jeopardy!, I wouldn’t fare so well on popular culture topics, and I suspect modern poetry loves popular culture more than I do.

For my sample, then, I turned to the most recent issue of Rattle, a popular poetry magazine that features “approachable” poetry. Better yet, the Spring 2020 issue features a special section dedicated to students of the poet-teacher Kim Addonizio (pictured above). It’s called “Tribute to Kim Addonizio & Her Students.”

(And can we interrupt this broadcast to say just how much better these poet-students’ odds for publication became thanks to this oh-so-specific condition? I mean, c’mon. I’ve written Editor Tim Green about having a special section for former 4th-grade students of Mrs. Ann Wilcox in Cowtown, Connecticut, in some future issue. Instead of competing against… basically everybody… I’d need only best a handful of historic writer sorts who traveled through Mrs. W’s storied classroom!)

But where were we? Ah, yes. A list of topics chosen by the 17 Addonizio-trained poets. As noted, it’s a doubly good sample because a.) they were trained by a top name, contemporary poet, and b.) their work was selected by editors of a paying poetry market (“paying” and “poetry market” being such strange bedfellows these days).

Care to play along? Let’s see how you do as I see how I do! Are their topics similar in many ways to yours? Or are you writing just a few too many poems about the Reformation in 16th-century Germany?

Accepted and published poem is loosely about…

  • a woman after her lover has left her
  • a narrator with a girl in the neighboring seat who is now sleeping on her shoulder during a long airplane flight
  • a dying man’s plan to paint vistas of deserts and mountains in his final weeks, months
  • a pair of lovers staying at a romantic place by the sea
  • someone’s updates on their neighbor, a man who unsuccessfully tried to hang himself two months back
  • a series of metaphors comparing a sermon to the neighborhood
  • a narrator who likes to talk about sex and think about turning into a wild animal
  • Penn Station as life: the board, a homeless person, commuters, movement
  • ruminations on love and life as a formerly-married, now single middle-aged sort
  • a quirky look at society post-Election Day (of gee, I wonder who?)
  • lovers sailing near the equator where they dive and photo-shoot creatures of the sea
  • Kafka’s Gregor Samsa reimagined in modern times interfacing with Twitter, tow trucks, protesters, police officers, and (God save us) Starbucks coffee
  • someone’s 16-year-old cat at the veterinarian’s, along with other animals and owners in the waiting room of angst
  • a woman entering a bar, sizing up a man, and deciding “Hell, yeah!”
  • a fraught mom comparing her infant son (cuddly) with the 5-year-old he has become (not so cuddly)
  • a couple in a house of many windows, observed by outsiders but observing themselves as well, concluding that living = being seen

 

I’m not sure how the “popular culture test” works here. Maybe this: Could these poems be developed into reality TV pilots that people would watch? Well, there’s sex, love, despair, death, travel, politics, social networks, coffee baristas, pets, mothers-and-children, alcohol, and, of course, self.

The stuff of traditional poets like, say, Frost? Not so much, really. The topics seem to be more immediate, contemporary, familiar. Ideas that could easily segue into features for popular magazines.

Can we learn from this? Perhaps. It seems the overall notion of sharing your life more openly—a prerequisite of life online— is a good thing, at least for poets aiming to get published.

In that sense, poetry is a reflection of our times, where folks upload not only pictures of their cats, but pictures of what they are eating for dinner, where (jealousy alert!) they are traveling, and (wait for it!) themselves via the now-hackneyed selfie.

Popular culture, then. Out of the confessional box and into open air. Only poetically. Then submit and like your odds a bit more!

Is That All There Is?

peggylee

Being a successful writer may not be the Shangri-La would-be writers think it is. In his fast-paced, anecdotal writer advice book, Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life after Which Everything Was Different, Chuck Palahniuk warns that true success depends on putting a new book out every year. Feed your demanding readers, in other words—or else.

Then he goes into a long story about Stephen King at a signing where the horror master suffered a bloody callus on his signing finger. He was getting bits of blood on the books he was autographing and asked a handler to fetch him some bandages.

No way, the fan behind the guy whose book was presently being signed shouted. He wanted the King’s ink and blood, too!

Turns out, so did the others in the serpentine line behind these two. Seemed everybody wanted that famous blood, thinking it would make their keepsake books not only better keeps but more valuable sakes. Thus, to avoid a mini-riot, the Master of Horror had to endure his own horror show of sorts, signing on in pain.

You guessed it, in Palahniuk’s book, book tours come off as decidedly less romantic than wannabe writers suppose, to the point where many stories have you muttering, “Is that all there is?”

If those words sound familiar, it’s because Peggy Lee sang the song in 1969.

It could be a theme song for writers. The thought came to mind this past week when I received a rejection from a small book publisher.

Think of it: You send five poems to a poetry journal with a reading fee of $3. Ten months later, you get a rejection and say, after the long wait, “Is that all there is?”

The book rejection seemed seven times worse. It cost $20 for the privilege of being read, but you know and I know that some editor reading a book of poetry knows within the first 5-10 poems whether she wants it or not, even if, in fairness, many poetry collections feature a whole that speaks volumes about their parts.

But, no. In this case it was, “Thanks for the 20 bucks, pal!” And for what? This publisher sent me a one-sentence (!) boiler plate rejection note, almost assuredly after having never read the manuscript in full.

Feedback, even in general terms? None whatsover. That would require I full reading. Instead, it was take the money in run, in broad daylight.

Is that all there is?

Even “success” brings this nagging question around. Got a book accepted and published? As a newbie, you get ridiculous delusions of grandeur. The book tours Palahniuk referred to. The huge sales sure to come. The inevitable demand for another book from your adoring legions.

Truth is, for 99% of writers, it’ll be but a few sales, and most of those to kind friends and family.

Is that all there is?

Palahniuk even shares stories of well-known writers like Ken Kesey doing readings for, wait for it, TWO readers, followed by none whatsoever at a second locale. That and readings where there three dozen people, but they only bought a sum total of three books.

Three.

One could well picture Kesey channeling Peggy Lee as he shuffled back to his hotel room, saying: Is that all there is?

Ah, well. There’s always the song for consolation. If you listen to it, the mood Peggy creates seems perfect for writers and poets who are learning the hard way. Success comes in many shades and, quite often, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Alas.

The Top 9 Posts of 2019

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As we close not only a year but a decade, you might not be wondering what the nine (aren’t you sick of 10 already?) most read posts were on this blog called “Updates on a Free-Verse Life,” to which I can only say, “Mindfulness, buddy! Let’s Zen up and pay attention!” (Translation: “Wonder no more!”)

So, without further ado, let’s amuse you as much as I just amused myself by seeing what posts drew the most lightning this past year. It’s a curious mix but, if nothing else, we are a curious lot. That’s one of the good parts about humans. And one of the few good parts about cats! (Sorry, cat lovers. My dog put me up to that joke.)

Here’s the order, from ninth most read to most read:

  • #9: Teaching an Imitation Poem with The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee All credit to the teachers of the world, who probably helped to propel this into the Top 9 because it’s a great introductory poetry-writing lesson that uses imitation to show kids that they are (wait for it!) imagery and metaphor machines (only they didn’t know it).
  • #8: “Apollo and Marsyas” Zbigniew Herbert Redux  I read a BIG collected works of Zbigniew Herbert, a poet you should know from Poland, and included a translation of one of his famous poems in this post. This cracked the Top 9 by dint of search engines looking for English translations of his Greek myth-based poem, “Apollo and Marsyas.”
  • #7: Poems That End with a Question  I like questions more than answers, maybe because the world is so full of loudmouths with answers. This post riffs on why I like questions, yes, but more importantly it includes the lovely poem “The Inheritance” by Stephen Dunn. This blurb ends with a question, too: Have you read it?
  • #6: Waxing Poetic About Teachers  I’m not sure if this was driven up on the charts by teachers themselves (ha-ha) or by students. Whatever, the post includes three poems about teachers, the best damn difficult job you can get on the planet. Hint: If you must teach, do it in Finland. I hear they treat their educators like true professionals there. Huzzah!
  • #5: Opposition in the Poetry Classroom  Another teaching-based (but can be any ole poetry writer-based) post, this post examines poet/teacher Brendan Constantine’s idea, “The Opposites Game,” wherein creative sorts (students or writers) try to find synonyms for abstract words that resist synonyms. Discuss!
  • #4: Ada Limón’s Stretch Drive  I’ve read a couple of Ada Limón books, and this post features four poems that struck me as wonderful. Keep writing, Ada! You obviously have more fans than just me. Thus the #4 position here!
  • #3: The Pronoun “I” and Poetry  If you’ve followed any of my posts, you know I chafe at the idea of RULES in poetry: that is, things thou shalt do and things thou shalt not do. Whether you’re following rules or breaking them, you just have to do it well. This post discusses some poetry pooh-bah’s insistence that using the pronoun “I” is lame in poetry writing. In it, the pronoun “I” no sooner finishes a marathon then it begins doing 100 push-ups. Sic semper silly rules!
  • #2: How To Review a Poetry Collection Is there any one way to review a poetry collection? There is not. But this is one way, or at least a way to get you started. I do know it is more difficult than reviewing a novel or nonfiction book, so there’s that. I’m not sure what drove this to the runner-up position. Students? Reviewers? Teachers offering students helpful links? Thanks to all of them, wherever they may have originated from.
  • #1 Most Read Post of 2019: Funeral for a Poem  I have always enjoyed Greek poet C. P. Cavafy’s poem, “Ithaka,” but I only learned about it because it was read at Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s funeral. Apparently my voyage to discovering this poem is being replicated every day by many searchers on the Internet, who searched for this “it’s all in the voyage, not the destination” gem through words related to Jackie or her funeral or Cavafy himself. Whenever I’m feeling down, I simply reread this poem and boom. All better! It is based on The Odyssey and Ulysses’ long trip home–a trip so long that it becomes the story. We all know where our home will ultimately be, so it bears repeating here: Let’s focus on the journey and make it a good one.

Speaking of “good ones,” may 2020 be a safe, happy, and healthy one for all of you loyal fans who read this page now and again. I appreciate your visits!

Stream-of-Thanksgivingness Reprise

turkey

Here’s a reprise of the oft-mentioned and frequently reread 2017 Thanksgiving column with a few additions and minor changes to suit the dying days of 2019. What’s amazing is how many changes were NOT needed. That is, it’s reassuring to know how strong our thankfulness remains in these consistently challenging times.

Some random thoughts, then, before people to my west wake up in their houses to the smell of bread and onions and butter and slowly roasting turkey. Let the madness of Thanksgiving begin anew!

  • First of all, I’m thankful for YOU, the reader. Blogs are like mosquitoes in the Maine woods, so for readers and especially regular readers, I am most thankful.
  • Second of all, I won’t bore you with the usual thankfulness faves. You know, for family and friends and health and roofs over one’s head.
  • Whoops.
  • Has anyone else in Norman Rockwell’s America noticed the rise in Comfort Food Consumption (CFC) since the electoral college’s election of Trump?
  • Of course I’m listening to George Winston’s piano music. Autumn, specifically, on this rainy, 38-degree (Fahrenheit, for those keeping score) Thanksgiving morning. (Note: In the northern hemisphere, it remains autumn until Dec. 21st when a certain solstice elbows in.)
  • Free verse. Whoever set it free it in the first place? And how did its rescue become such a cause célèbre?
  • Sunrises. Always be grateful for sunrises. By comparison, sunsets are rather commonplace. Why? Because more people witness them.
  • Poetic touchstones: Frost, Yeats, Kooser, Wright, Gilbert, Dickinson, Szymborska, Kenyon, Roethke, WCW, Stevens, the Chinese and the Japanese of old.
  • Can we give thanks for the resurgence of print books? As was true with Mark Twain, news of its death was greatly exaggerated. For those who love a book’s heft and smell — its essence, if you will — this is wondrously good news.
  • And what about local bookstores run by mom and pop? If they’re close enough, talk to your economist again and forego that Evil Empire Amazon discount. Less to a conglomerate capitalist behemoth and more to writers. As a reader and patron of the arts, isn’t that what you’re about? Put your money where your principles and precepts are and quit stuffing the turkeys!
  • Has anyone else noticed the rise in people watching Comfort Movies on Hallmark  (CMOH) since the electoral college’s election of Trump? (Note: I think the Hallmark movie formula can be written out like a not-so-scientific equation.)
  • Shakespeare. Always give thanks for Shakespeare. And reread two plays (minimum) a year, one comedy, one tragedy–each metaphors for your life.
  • Speaking of classics, have you ever noticed how many poets read the King James Version of the Bible, especially its most poetic books (e.g. the Psalms) for inspiration and rhythmic tutelage? Amen to that!
  • Personally, I take comfort in Ecclesiastes, easily my favorite Old Testament book.
  • If any of your grandparents are still alive, give thanks. If one or both of your parents are still alive, give thanks. And overlook their shortcomings by reminding yourself of your own.
  • I am thankful for people who are kind on-line, a place where trolls in basements virtually proliferate and pillage virtual villages of good will. It’s easy to be an anonymous bad-ass, but to be an anonymous decent person? Less so.
  • I’m thankful for the first ritual of the day, my daily coffee (bread was otherwise occupied).
  • Let’s hear it for poetry markets, for poetry editors and readers who take huge swaths of their time to read would-be, wanna-be, and is-be poets’ best efforts!
  • Has anyone else noticed the rise in People Drinking Alcoholic Beverages (PDAB) since the electoral college’s election of Trump?
  • Which reminds me, we give thanks for newspapers, journalism, objectivity, facts, and truth… the victims of demagoguery the world over.
  • Speaking of, give thanks for every country in the world where peace rules the land and where good people may sit down to break bread with their families without worrying about bombs and guns and war. May we do our best to spread it to countries where that is not the case.
  • For ars poetica and ars blogica.
  • I’m grateful for two books under the belt, with #3 now finished in manuscript form and dressing itself up for publisher courting.
  • I’m grateful for readers who support new poets whose books are unavailable at local libraries (to the tune of ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me”).
  • And economists who speak up when thrifty sorts balk at the price of poetry books: “That’s only 30 cents a poem! And besides, why aren’t you so thrifty when it comes to your daily ice coffee (size: Honkin’), your monthly phone plan (size: Macy’s Parade balloon), your cable bill (size: outrageous), and your cases of bottled water (size: totally unnecessary)?” (Let’s give thanks for good questions!)
  • I’m grateful for perspective.
  • For any reader who made it this far. Thank you! May you stay cool, calm, collected and well-read as we enter the holiday season!