WRITERS ONLINE MAGAZINE
Volume 1, Number 4
Public Radio Book Show, January 24, 1994
Interviewer: Tom Smith, Host of The Book Show
TS: My guest today hardly needs any introduction at all since he is now the world’s best-known poet. All over the globe, the poetry of Allen Ginsberg is read and celebrated, chanted and treasured. Ever since the publication of Howl and Other Poems back in 1956, Allen Ginsberg’s stature as a poet has evolved and expanded so that by this time he is almost universally recognized as one of the great poets, the distinctive voices of our age. In addition to Howl, his many books include Kaddish and Other Poems, The Fall of America, which won the National Book Award in 1974, Collected Poems 1947-1980, and White Shroud: Poems 1980-1985.
Allen Ginsberg, welcome to the Public Radio Book Show and it’s been an absolute delight to have you at the Writers Institute.
AG: Thank you.
TS: Allen, over the years your poetry has evolved and gone through many transformations, your poetry and your poetics. But has the moment of inspiration, the force of inspiration changed at all since you dropped everything and wrote “Howl”? I’m not even sure you wrote in poetry before that. Has that changed at all, the moment of inspiration for your poetry?
AG: Well, you know, let’s use our word inspiration--that means taking in a breath and actually that’s what it is. Inspiration is unobstructed breath, with that feeling of a hollow body, like the body as a reed, a kind of straight spine in a state of complete alertness and awake-ness and the air passing in and out of the column--the body becoming a column of air. Like if you’ve ever seen Bob Dylan at his best, singing, you know, like it’s just a column of air coming out of his mouth. He becomes the song. So, that you could call inspiration where the breath and the thought are one, where the body is joined with the mind as words come out on the breath. The poetry on the breath is a vehicle to join the physical breath and the mental thoughts of the mind. As the Confucians or Daoists say, “The king joins heaven and earth.” The poet or manner of speech joins heaven, the mind, earth, the body. So, how does that come about, though?
TS: I recall that you said that you dropped everything--maybe in the Buddhist sense--all the masks, all the guises, all the enterprises that you were conducting and just wrote “Howl” thinking that perhaps it wasn’t even poetry. But you weren’t aware of it in the same way as a moment of inspiration?
AG: No, but I knew it was a moment of pleasure since I was writing down what I was actually thinking rather than writing down what I thought I was supposed to think. But it’s very difficult to get away from what you’re supposed to think and recollect what you actually think. As I get older it gets easier and easier. It’s probably easier if you’re a kid, too, because it’s just knowing the attitude or trick or perspective or how you approach it. Most people have the anxiety or panic of thinking they have to create something in the poem, “the well-wrought urn” as we used to say. That they have to conceive something and then shape it and revise it and revise it and revise it until it’s some iron-proof, shock-proof vase. However, I think for real inspiration, what it is is, as Kerouac pointed out [speaking] of Shakespeare, it’s really more a question of paying attention to the genius of the mind itself that’s independent of you and that has nothing to do with your ego or your ability of anything like that. Remember, everybody’s mind is four billion years old or two billion or however long it took to evolve. It’s a very complicated sort of system.
TS: Was it Kerouac’s phrase “first thought, best thought” that made such a difference to you--then and now?
AG: No. Actually that’s a phrase concocted in 1972 which covers Kerouac’s notion of spontaneous style, but it was formulated by a Tibetan lama, a very highly professional, well-trained Tantric teacher. . . who himself is a poet, author of a book called, First Thought, Best Thought, 108 poems, like 108 beads in a mala(?), a very intelligent guy who’d studied aesthetics at Oxford and had a perfect, complete education as a Tibetan lama who [was] a specialist in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. But the whole program of Mantrayana Buddhism is reliance on the spontaneous insight of the mind rather than covering it over and trying to outguess the mind. It’s more like listening to your own mind as you might listen to somebody else.
TS: Now I know there were many sources for your poetry, then and now: the poetry of open forms of the past, whether Whitman, William Carlos Williams, certainly the Black Mountain Poets. Jazz was a big force in your poetics as it was with Jack Kerouac--
AG: --And also there is Abstract Expressionist painting, Action Painting--
TS: Painting--yes, Jackson Pollack, etc--.
AG: But for even more classical background--Chinese, Tibetan and Japanese poetry, among other poetries. Classical poetry does rely to a great extent on having studied and disciplined yourself and then, spontaneous utterance.
TS: But there is a kind of pre-history of the spontaneity, if I can put it that way.
AG: Naturally. Also with Kerouac, there is a tremendous pre-history with his spontaneity. He studied Shakespeare at great length with Mark Van Doren and he read omnivorously and was quite learned. When he got into Buddhism, he read enormously in it.
TS: Did you always think of poetry as a form of the unification of being, the unification of personality? Now whether it’s your very autobiographical poems like “Kaddish”, which is the elegy for your mother or “Don’t Grow Old”, the one for your father, or the more expansive poem like “America” or “Wichita Vortex Sutra” and on and on, they all have that sense that you’ve integrated a vision. I wonder if you always felt that way, even back when you were writing your early poems and weren’t quite as sure of your poetics as you are now?
AG: Well, you know, my poetry was very stiff when I was in college, and imitative. And I think the crucial thing was Kerouac, in his house one day, he said, “Why don’t you just take your notebook and type it up just as it is?” I thought I was making notes for poems and I had written something about a trip to the Statue of Liberty on the Staten Island Ferry at night. And I had these notes and so he insisted that I type them up, spotty on the page and scattered on the page as they are in my little pocket notebook. And I resisted that, thinking “oh, these are just notes.” But then when I typed them up, they were just notes, but they were a little bit more live than the rhymed verse that I was trying to turn them into, in fact, unable to turn them into because they were a completely different kind of material. So, that was a moment when I realized there was something wrong with the way I was approaching poetry, that I wasn’t working with what was closest to me. Or as Williams says, “close to the nose.”
TS: “Close to the nose.”
AG: “Close to the nose.” You know, your own mind. So then I began trying to get a little of that, but it was really a failure. I didn’t know how to go about it, ’cause I still thought you had to create something different from what you thought--.
TS: So many of your early poems were rhymed, as I recall, from ’48 to ’52--
AG: Then I went on to non-rhymed, but very even verse lengths, so it looked good on the page. Because I did a little bit of studying with William Carlos Williams and trying to imitate his forms. But I was still trying to calculate it too much. The self-consciousness of the calculation inhibited me from seeing what I was actually thinking or seeing what was passing through my mind during the time when I actually touched the pen nib to the paper. I was still trying to remember what I thought some other time, or trying to reformulate some other thought from ten minutes ago, or two hours ago or yesterday. So finally, I think I wrote one really good poem--let me read it.
TS: Why don’t you? Yes.
AG: It’s a poem from 1955 that I sent to Kenneth Rexroth and I thought it was good because it was a dream and it had this illumination of a dream and it was about William Burroughs’s late wife and so called, “Dream Record, June 8, 1955”: And this is about the last poem I wrote before “Howl.”
A drunken night in my house with a
boy, San Francisco: I lay asleep:
I went back to Mexico City
and saw Joan Burroughs leaning
forward in a garden chair, arms
on her knees. She studied me with
clear eyes and downcast smile, her
face restored to a fine beauty
tequila and salt had made strange
before the bullet in her brow.
We talked of the life since then.
Well, what’s Burroughs doing now?
Bill on earth, he’s in North Africa.
Oh, and Kerouac? Jack still jumps
with the same beat genius as before,
notebooks filled with Buddha.
I hope he makes it, she laughed.
Is Huncke still in the can? No,
last time I saw him on Times Square.
And how is Kenney? Married, drunk
and golden in the East. You? New
loves in the West --
Then I knew
she was a dream: and questioned her
-- Joan, what kind of knowledge have
the dead? can you still love
your mortal acquaintances?
Which do you remember of us?
faded in front of me--The next instant
I saw her rain-stained tombstone
rear an illegible epitaph
under the gnarled branch of a small
tree in the wild grass
of an unvisited garden in Mexico
AG: So there was this dream shift, like a jump-cut in a movie that I set up as we were conversing. Then I realized we were conversing in a dream. Then I realized that in this dream, I could go to some supernatural length of asking a question of the dead. I asked the question and then, as in a dream, the answer comes in the form of the image of an unvisited tomb. So, when I woke I realized, “what a gift!” and I wrote that down. But I made it into very formal verse line. You know, when you look at it on the page it looks very square and even and I sent it to Rexroth. Actually, I don’t think he appreciated the poem. But, what he replied was “Oh, you’re still trying to write like a Columbia college [student].” I don’t think he got the content.
TS: It takes a long time and it’s a great process to learn just to obey our instincts certainly about art and creation--.
AG: Well, I was pretty far along here. But then, he gave me this sort of wet blanket reply. But it was all right because what it did was I said, okay, I’m a failure. I can’t write poetry. I had this gift of this prophetic dream which has a mysterious and significant end and I couldn’t get it and there’s just this little academic poem. Well, what the hell, I might as well quit. And so then the next thing is “Howl” where what I did was I sat down at the typewriter and just said “well, I can’t write poetry so I’ll just write whatever I feel like writing. At least I’m free now.” And I started trying to imitate Williams’s triadic ladder verse. They call them “ladders” in Russia, the kind of verse that skips down the page from the margin to the right-hand side and broken up, like Pound, Williams, Eliot--I mean, like Pound and Williams and Mayakovsky--.
TS: Pound of the “Cantos”, particularly, is that right?
AG: Yeah. Later Pound, of course. The breath I had, the inspiration, the breath I had was much longer and more continuous than the triadic break-up of the line, as you have in Williams and so, after a while, after the first page I just went, I just started writing it out as if it were prose or something. At first I think I was indenting, like prose paragraphs, and then I just started at the margin and indented the run-on of the verse line. And so that formed the form just in response to the inspiration and exhalation.
TS: The great stanzaic form of “Howl” is interesting--I read “Howl” back in 1956, the same year that I saw Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the first American production. And similarly, people didn’t know what to do: “Is this theater? Is this poetry?” Of course, now [these are] great classics.
AG: The thing that occurred to me is that poetry, or painting or an art work [as] art is something you call after you do it. If you already know it’s art, it’s already dead, in a sense. If you already know what it is, you haven’t invented something. The key thing that Williams and Pound always said was “make it new” or Williams’s “invention.” By invention he meant going into an aesthetic and formal territory that you don’t know, sort of launching yourself out of your conditioned or habitual formulas and coming up with something that don’t [sic] fit anything except what you were really thinking, or the way you really thought it, or the only way you could formulate this new sort of new insight or new slogan or new run-on or new inspiration.
I wanted to answer your question before. I didn’t know what I was doing and that’s why it was good. I didn’t know what I was doing. Now I sort of know what I’m doing, theoretically, and I’m not sure that that’s so helpful to have a, let us say a formulaic “first thought, best thought,” or slogans like maximum information, minimum number of syllables, observe what’s vivid, catch yourself thinking, vividness is self-selecting. Well, that’s all very well to repeat over and over again, but after a while that also becomes like a conditioning and a repetitive thing so it’s always like a job to escape the conditioned, repetitive self-consciousness. And catch yourself.
TS: I recall about twenty-five years ago, the late Robert Penn Warren gave a talk and I talked to him later and he said, “good poetry begins as prophecy and then it becomes art.” He decided that when he was a student at Vanderbilt back in 1922, he and his buddies chanted “The Wasteland.” They didn’t know it was art. They didn’t know what it meant, but they knew it was prophecy. And he says, now--and this was circa 1965--I see young people going around with “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg and it’s prophetic now. They don’t know what it means. Someday it will be art. And I wonder if that’s more or less what you’re saying about your own poetry.
AG: You call it art, later. But at the beginning it’s what they call now “process.” I don’t know if I like the word or the terminology, but people know what that means: aesthetically, that what’s interesting is a work-in-progress or a process or any poem is like an experiment in the sense that you’re trying to invent something that you don’t know before. Williams always emphasized that, that it’s the invention of something you didn’t figure out, but figures itself out in the process of writing.
TS: Yes. Allen, particularly in American culture and American literary circles you hear that poetry and politics don’t mesh, they’re inimical to each other. And yet your poetry is very, very political. Does your poetry or do you think poetry embodies the politics of radical individualism? I mean, there is the sound of protest and rebellion and the new, but yet, it’s beyond ideology and beyond dogma and certainly beyond propaganda.
AG: Well, my final belief is ivory tower “art for art’s sake” and I don’t think that politics, per se, has any reason for being in poetry. Although I seem to be known as a social or political poet-commentator or something. But the reason is my subject is the mind itself, catching myself thinking, writing the mind, as Trungpa says, “Writing is writing your mind.” So anything that passes through the mind then would enter into the poem. And since, in our day, as things stand, a lot of politics enters my mind, so that goes into the poem, but only as a notation of the texture or an examination of the texture of the mind, primarily. Or maybe that’s a good excuse to bring in politics.
TS: So your “Plutonium Ode” really comes from the same valve as “Kaddish” or any of your erotic poems or whatever?
AG: Well, not quite as deep emotionally, but more--it comes from the scope that Gregory Corso, the poet, gave me when he said that the half-life of plutonium was a twenty-four thousand year space, the same cycle as the great Platonic year--you know, they’re two thousand years each, and Aries or Pisces or whatever and that the plutonium waste would be there. But how about I tell you a story about politics and poetry?
I was in Czechoslovakia this year for May Day. The editor of a book of my poetry that came out, Josef Yara, director of the University of Olomouc in Moravia, invited me to read there with Anne Waldman and Nano Sacoki, a very good Japanese poet. And he gave us as a guide and interpreter, a young, two-year medical student who was a great fan of mine, he said, so he assigned him to take us around and interpret in Czech.
And I met this tall, strong guy who apparently had been the leader of the student radical revolution they had in November, 1989, that put Havel in power in this town of Olomouc. And he introduced himself and said he was happy to meet me because I had had an enormous influence on him. When he was eighteen, he read translations of “Howl” in Czech and it blew his mind and he was in the army and it made him independent of the brainwash of the army and his life had been his own ever since.
And then I said, “well, what happened with the student revolution?” And he said, “well, they had all the students gathered in the armory at the school in the University and there were about 50 official student leaders and they said, ‘no, no, don’t go on strike. They’re going on strike in Prague, but it will only lead to chaos. Over here it’s being taken care of. The authorities are going to bend anyway. You don’t want to cause trouble.’”
And he jumped up and said, “I represent the student strike committee and we voted to have a strike and we’re demanding that the students take a vote. If they don’t want to strike, fine. But if they want to strike, we should do that.” So there was a vote and out of the six thousand people, five thousand, nine hundred and fifty voted to strike and those fifty officials voted not to.
And I said “gee, that’s amazing” and he said “yeah, and the most amazing part was there was no student strike committee. I just did it on my own.” So I said, “how did you ever get the nerve, the chutzpah to do a thing like that in the middle of a dictatorship?” He said, “I don’t know. It was your poetry. When I was young I read On the Road and it inspired me.”
So then I got interested. If poetry can turn people on that way and cause action, what else did he read that contributed to this? And so I said, “who else turns you on, turned you on as a young person?” And he said, “well, Dostoyevsky, naturally.” And he said, Khlebnikov, the Russian Futurist poet in 1921.” And I said, “And French?” And he said, “Oh, Rimbaud! And Baudelaire,” and then, he said, “also, Havel, Letters to Olga. And the Beatles and Bob Dylan and the Fugs, Ed Sanders and the Fugs, and the Velvet Underground, and people like that.” And I said, “gee, that’s amazing. I’m glad to be in this company.” And he said, “But you know, it all begins with Edgar Allen Poe.”
“Poe?” And then a light went on in my head and I realized something really important that’s sort of formulated my head ever since. Poe is the most ivory tower, the most art-for-art’s-sake, the least political of poets. And yet, individuation and independence of mind and a realization and self-awareness begins at the age of twelve or thirteen around the world when people read Poe, whether it’s China, Czechoslovakia, Russia, Paris or America. Poe is the first adult author you read and he’s the first one that makes you think weird thoughts.
He’s the first one that gives you paranoia, like “The Telltale Heart.” He’s the first one that gives you a planetary vision, in “The Descent Into the Maelstrom.” The first one that wakens your conscience, like in “The Cask of Amontillado” or “The Telltale Heart.” The first one that gives you the sense of apocalyptic doom, “The Masque of the Red Death”--AIDS and all that. First one that makes you think strange thoughts and the one that entrances you into pure music and beauty. And so, “All in light-tide I lie down by the side of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride in her sepulcher there by the sea in her tomb by the sounding sea.” Everybody knows Poe, his rhythms and his imagination. All over the world, from China to Albany.
TS: Maybe that’s what I meant by the politics of radical individualism. Poe, it turns out, is one of the great counter-culture poets.
AG: And then if you look at his list, who did Poe turn on? Baudelaire. Baudelaire turned on Rimbaud. So Poe had this enormous influence. Khlebnikov, Dostoyevsky loved Poe. So this kid said, after talking about me or Kerouac or the Beatles, “really, it all begins with Edgar Allen Poe.” And I suddenly realized it is in vain to write political poetry. That the only thing is pure beauty because it is pure beauty that attracts the mind, that breaks you out of the mass brainwash whether it’s totalitarian communist or homogenized semi-totalitarian, American monolithic, monotheistic, fundamentalist crap.
TS: The late forties--
AG: Mid-forties. I met Burroughs and I met Kerouac in 1944 or 45. No we had absolutely no idea, no intention. That’s why it was successful.
TS: If you’d been self-conscious of it, that would be something--
AG: No, that would have been too manipulative. No. All we were doing was we were going to be friends. And we recognized a kind of star on each other’s forehead and some sense of the immortal longings, as they say in Shakespeare, and mutual literary interest--Edgar Allen Poe, Dostoyevsky, Rimbaud, Blake, things like that. Some kind of long-range, eternal artistic fidelity, a sacramental sense of art and a sacramental sense of being alive all together at one time and a sacramental appreciation of each other’s characteristics or unique oddity.
Like say, the Beatles, for instance, everybody recognized there was something sacramentally interesting about Ringo, say. He’s just an ordinary guy, yet he was so ordinary that everybody saw his eternal nature. So I think people can understand it--what ‘'m trying to say when I say, like, “dig Ringo.” So we could dig each other. Whereas most people at the time were not digging each other, as ultimate. Yes, and Sherwood Anderson and all sorts of American literary things, you find it or art things or the jazz musicians were digging each other and recording. Lester Young was digging Roy Eldridge and digging--.
TS: Was it Neal Cassidy who said “dig everything?”
AG: Well, everybody said that. He was just saying it, you know, like everybody else. “Dig everything.” Yes. So, “dig everything” means hold the universe, hold the world you live in as sacred or inhabit a sacred world. And sacred means the quality of your attention. Your attention to it is what makes it appreciated as sacred. What quality, what gives you the attention is the realization that it’s “here today, gone tomorrow.” This is the one and only time. This is the one and only universe. In fact, I have a little poem from 1948.
TS: Do that and then we’ve got about half a minute and I want to ask you one more question before we have to fade away, at least for the time being, anyway.
AG: Well, of course, but the trouble is that I’ve got to thumb through this book to find it, but it’s called “Metaphysics” in early poems, and it was a little statement of that transitoriness.
This is the one and only
it is the absolute world.
There is no other world.
The circle is complete.
I am living in Eternity.
The ways of this world
are the ways of Heaven.
New York, mid-1949
TS: Thank you, Allen Ginsberg. May your indispensable and inimitable voice sing on and on and on through whatever apocalypse we’re coming to. This is Tom Smith saying so long until next time on the Public Radio Book Show.
Jo Page is a Program Assistant at the NYS Writers Institute and Protestant Minister at Chapel House.
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Growing up in Detroit in the 1950’s, poet Carolyn Forché recalls discovering photographs from a Nazi concentration camp in Look Magazine. After her mother confiscated the journal and hid it, young Forche re-confiscated it, marking perhaps the beginning of a poetic vocation devoted to exposing tyranny, injustice, and bearing witness to the atrocities of the 20th century.
Born one of seven children to a Czech-American housewife and a tool and die maker, Forché describes herself as a “junkheap Catholic” perennially drawn to issues of social justice. The winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize for her volume Gathering the Tribes (1976), Forché’s work sustained a remarkable shift following a year spent on a Guggenheim fellowship in El Salvador. Working closely with Archbishop Oscar Humberto Romero, human rights activist later killed by right-wing assassins, Forché assisted in finding people who had disappeared and in reporting their whereabouts to Amnesty International.
The shock of witnessing countless atrocities in Central America generated the volume The Country Between Us (1981), which stirred immediate controversy because of its overt politics: “My new works seemed controversial to my American contemporaries who argued against the right of a North American to contemplate such issues in her work, or against any mixing of what they saw as the mutually exclusive realms of the personal and the political.” Forché ’s “orchid-like” reputation was tarnished forever. One publisher agreed to publish the collection only if the poet would agree to balance images of war-torn El Salvador with lighter poems on more traditional subjects. Forché refused. After much encouragement from fellow writer Margaret Atwood, Forché sent the manuscript to Harper and Row and obtained a contract just three days later. Perhaps the most disturbing and memorable poem in the volume is “The Colonel”-- a prose poem in which the speaker conveys with chilling flatness a horrific story:
I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief
commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away.
There was some talk then of how difficult it had become
to govern. The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel
told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the table.
My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing.
The colonel returned with a sack used to
bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears
on the table. They were like dried peach halves.
There is no other way to say this.
In The Angel of History (1994), Forché turns away from first-person, lyric-narrative form in an effort to engage in a poetic meditation which examines, on a broader scale, the accumulation of a century of atrocities. Divided into five parts, the first three sections follow the narrator as she floats like an angel through the ruins of Europe--leading to death camps and across time to more recent events such as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The Angel of History functions as a meditation on the possibility of history itself--evoking the speech of those who have otherwise been forgotten. Taking her title for the volume from Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Forche draws a connection between the poet’s role and that of the angel. Aware of the approaching millennium, the poet/angel warns: “The worst is over/ the worst is yet to come. . .”
Most recently, Forché’s obsession with the human ability to “record, to write, and to speak in the face of atrocities” has continued with the publication of Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness (1995). Here Forché has culled the work of 145 poets, among them Akhmatova, Celan, Milosz, and Pound, all of whom have: “endured conditions of historical and social extremity during the 20th century--through exile, state censorship, political persecution, house arrest, torture.” Commenting on the threads which seem to connect all the disparate voices, Forché notes : “What I discovered was that extremity does mark language. Language fragments at the core of trauma, no matter what the subject matter, if a poet comes out of prison after a long time and writes about snowflakes, I began to sense that you could see the prison in the snowflakes.”
The question of the possibility of poetry in a century of horrors circulates throughout the volume, and poets such as Brecht struggle with the undeniable responsibility which comes with language:
“What kind of times are these/ when a talk about trees is almost a crime/
because it implies silence about so many horrors?”
Over the years Forché’s quest to understand the individual’s struggle with social upheaval and political turmoil has taken her from El Salvador to the occupied West Bank, Lebanon, and South Africa. Her preoccupation with silence is, as Calvin Bedient notes, “so profound it approximates prayer,” and has culminated in a new genre of North American poetry--the poetry of witness.
Christine Atkins is a doctoral student in the English Department, University at Albany
Introduction by Donald W. Faulkner at NYS Summer Writers Institute on 7/2/97
[After a long list of acknowledgements and thanks, the introduction begins.]
I don't know if Detroit produces poets of conscience routinely, but I do know that two of the best such poets, and two of the best poets by any measure are Philip Levine and Carolyn Forché, and both are from Detroit. Oh, Detroit has produced other great "writers," among them Gerry Milligan and John Lee Hooker, and doubtless other great poets, but Carolyn Forché stands in relief.
When Forché's, Gathering the Tribes was published in 1975, Stanley Kunitz's selection that year for the Yale Younger Poet's Prize, Kenneth Rexroth wrote with prescience: "Carolyn Forché is beyond question the best woman poet to appear in the Yale Younger Poet series since Muriel Rukeyser, whom in a special way she somewhat resembles. She is far better education than most poets, not just in school, but in life.. .She is also something nobody ever seemed to be able to find in the 30's when they were in demand--a genuine proletarian poet."
Rexroth was stumbling, more for what Forché herself later called the poetry of witness than the poetry of political class, but the comparison to Rukeyser is nontheless inviting.
I happily remember sitting in the library room of the Yale University Press more than twenty years ago to witness the emergence of a poet of stature, certainly the best writer in the series to have come along in a good while, man or woman. I remember still an electrcity in the room during her reading, an echo of Gertrude Stein's acknowledgement of good writing: the bell rings. What I most remember is the satisfied smile on Kunitz's avuncular and beatific face. He knew his choice was right. Forché's second book, The Country Between Us, published in 1982, focused on El Salvador, and fully announced a poetry of conscience. At the time, she said in an interview, when asked about whether she was an activist writer, and whether such writers have an obligation to speak out for human rights,
"I believe that citizens have an obligation to act upon or voice support for their principles in this regard. No special obligation accrues to writers. My human rights activism has arisen out of this moral and social obligation. I have felt that that is one particular work and my poetry is another work, so rather than referring to myself as an activist poet, I might perhaps accept the idea of being an activitst and a poet. The point at which they intersect is something artistically circumstantial. I didn't determine to write poems with a certain subject matter. Poetry can't be placed in the service of anything other than itself."
That last line is most powerful to me, for it gets at the way in which Forché's poetry never leaves what is at the core of its nature: truth-seeking through memorable speech. And as such, poetry is work that partakes of the transformative vision: to see, transform, and thereby transcend, subsuming all that has come before, a process which is at the heart of all artistic endeavor.
I had organized a reading for Country that was memorable, not just for its poetric jeremiads and the overall stunning brilliance of Carolyn's work, like a light cast upon the reaches of the soul hitherto held in darkness, but also for two young men vying for Carolyn's attention (unbeknownst to her), who ended up in a parking lot fight. At issue was my copy of the book, but it had somehow come to represent, metonymically? synecdochically? Carolyn's attention. The one was arrested, the other got a black eye. I'm not sure who got the book, but I never saw it again.
In the early 90's, Carolyn Forché produced a work of editing almost as moving as her poetry, "Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness." People, save for those who edit, seldom approach an act of editing as anything approaching a work of art, but this work, the design of it, like good cabinetry, or architecture, allows both the poems contained and the reader reading a place, a place to dwell, and to remember. A place to join the stand against forgetting.
In the Introduction to that work, Forché wrote:
"Somethinghappenedd along the way to the introspective poet I had been. My new work seemed controversial to my American contemporaries, who argued against its 'subject matter,' or against the right of a North American to contemplate such issues in her work, or against any mixing of what they saw as the mutually exclusive realms of the personal and the political. Like many other poets, I felt I had no real choice regarding the impulse of my poems, and had only to wait, in meditative expectancy. In attempting to come to terms with the question of poetry and politics, I turned to the work of Anna Akhmatova, Yannis Ritsos, Paul Celan, Fredrico Garcia Lorca, Nazim Hikmet, and others. I began collecting their work, and soon found myself a repository of what began to be called 'the poetry of witness.'"
Forché's most recent book, 1994's The Angel of History works with that sense of witness, within the ruins of twentieth century culture, and its misplaced optimism about perfectibility. It moves through fragmentary elocutions to elegiac wholeness. Toward the end, in the Book Codes poems, she writes of time, its passing, its evolution, and its witness:
an afternoon swallowing down whole years its every hour
Powerful work by a supremely talented writer who has done nothing but deliver on the promise Kunitz saw. Please welcome Carolyn Forché.
troops marching by in the snow until they are transparent
from the woods through tall firs a wood with no apparent end
cathedrals at the tip of our tongues with countries not yet seen
whoever can cry should come here
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Public Radio Book Show, June 27, 1991
Interviewer: Tom Smith, Host of The Book Show
A Conversation Between Tom Smith and Mary Gordon
TS: Welcome to the Public Radio Book Show. I’m your host, Tom Smith, of the New York State Writers Institute, which is located at the University of Albany and is part of the State University of New York system.
My guest today is one of the most gifted and celebrated writers of contemporary fiction, Mary Gordon. Mary Gordon is the author of four highly-acclaimed novels, Final Payments, The Company of Women, Men and Angels, and most recently, The Other Side, and a collection of short stories titled, Temporary Shelter. And Mary Gordon is also a spirited, shrewd and sparkling essayist and WW Norton has recently published her collection of essays, Good Boys and Bad Girls and Other Essays. Mary, welcome once again to the Public Radio Book Show.
MG: You just made two mistakes, Tom.
TS: What were the two mistakes?
MG: First of all, it’s not Norton, it’s Viking.
TS: Oh, I’m sorry. Viking just published Good Boys and Dead Girls and Other Essays.
MG: And it’s Good Boys and Dead Girls. You said “Bad Girls.”
TS: Oh, oh, well--we’ll examine what I meant.
MG: Uh-hunh, what do we mean by this?
TS: Good Boys and Dead Girls and Other Essays which was just recently published by Viking. My apology.
Well, anyway, welcome. And listen, Good Boys and Dead Girls is a dazzling performance of non-fiction prose: intelligent, lively and wide-ranging in its concern. And, the fascinating title essay, Mary, blew my mind because it’s strong stuff and I think it’s strong stuff because I think it’s true. And let me formulate this into some kind of question.
You say that there’s a tradition of American male writers who have been obsessed by what you call “the search for unfettered self” and hence, lapse into a kind of adolescent solipsism. Now, therefore, American literature tends to be full of female corpses because, and I’m quoting some of your lines from that title essay “civilization is no place for a boy. He must be able to move and escape from fate.” Now, Mary, in this scheme, is the female, are women the counterpart to fate and hence, the destroyer of freedom and the American dream? Is that really the overview that you’re talking about through this tradition?
MG: Yes, I think it is and I think what you have to begin with is the idea and the ideal that, for Americans, the most desirable character, the most desirable type is a boy. Not a man, but a boy. And a boy who is always on the move. A boy who is not constricted, a boy who is not limited by anything outside the self. Women, in that they are vulnerable, susceptible and attached, are the enemy. And they have to be got out of the way in one way or another because if a boy is always going to be moving, he cannot attach himself to the cumbrous, encumbered female. So often he has to kill her.
TS: Now do you think this is a kind of rejection of maturity? I mean, where it comes from in American writers, whether it’s Mark Twain or Melville or the writers you focus on in that title essay--Theodore Dreiser, particularly in An American Tragedy and Faulkner, particularly in Light in August, and John Updike’s Rabbit books--do you think this is a kind of rejection of maturity, rejection of adult responsibility that is peculiar to American males, that, you know, is part of this myth?
MG: I do think both sides of the term have to be examined, “American” and “male” because I think this precisely, as you say, this rejection of maturity, this notion that, rather than live with what you’ve created, you move on to something else, is a particularly American dream. But when we’ve talked about the American dream we’ve always assumed male-ness. And one of the factors about mobile America is that if you have children with you or if you’re pregnant, you’re much less mobile. And so what is it that cuts down mobility? The woman. And if you can’t move, if you can’t get out, you really have to face what you’ve done. And I would say living with and facing what you’ve done is one real good definition for me of maturity.
TS: Yes, yes. As I recall, isn’t there a similar or at least, analogous, theme that thirty years ago Leslie Fiedler developed in Love and Death in the American Novel where he’s talking about this very aspect of the great classics of American fiction, particularly. I think there was a notorious essay in it called, “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck, Honey” which [he says] American males simply want to be together. Whether it’s some kind of suppressed homosexuality or not is another issue. But whether it’s Melville or Twain or Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises in a story, when they’re up in the mountains things are good and they’re fishing, things are good. They go down and they’re in the world of women. Then things get complicated and death and destruction come into it. And I just wonder if that’s really not such a powerful theme.
Now you talk about, also, the American idea of innocence in this connection. Do you want to talk about what you think is the peculiar American concept of innocence which is, as you say “a state of non-pollution?” Not simply being free from moral sin or having done no evil, but some kind of permanent state of election. Do you want to talk about that, Mary?
MG: One of things that I think is remarkable about the American idea of innocence is that it doesn’t seem connected to behavior. So that in another words, you can behave badly, you can even kill and still be called an innocent. And that, to me, is extraordinarily peculiar. That is, I think, a tremendously Protestant notion of innocence, that goodness is something you’re born with and that you don’t lose it by behaving un-innocently.
And I think this is very, very different from a European tradition. So that, if a European innocent loses innocence, he usually is expected to go through some sort of redemptive or expiative process. But that is cut out for Americans. The idea is that you’ve never lost the innocence; it doesn’t have to be re-gained because it’s never been lost, because it’s not lose-able, because it’s not connected to how you act. It’s connected to what you were born with, what you were endowed with in a particular way.
TS: In your theory, then, Billy Budd, by Melville is perhaps the quintessential American text as far as this idea of innocence. Do you see this separated into gender--I’m talking about the American concept of innocence as non-pollution--that either in literature or life or the American culture in general, that the males, particularly the adolescent males, were looked upon as the great innocents and really this is not the case with women characters?
MG: No, I think women characters, the great American women characters are women of experience. Think of Cather’s characters, or Wharton’s characters, for example. They’re all women who have endured and what is important is, I think that they suffer and they learn something through suffering.
What’s remarkable to me is that these boys don’t learn. And learning is as beside the point as good behavior is. If you think of someone like Ellen Olenska in Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, if you think of Antonia in Cather’s My Antonia, they’re all women who endure suffering and the suffering enlarges them in some way. Even in The House of Mirth, Lily does die, but she grows in some way. James’s heroines suffer. They suffer and they take moral responsibility for the world.
TS: I was going to ask you about Henry James who, after all, is an American male writer. Certainly Isabel Archer and Millie Field (?) and characters such as that seem to have more the European idea of going from innocence to experience. European writers do that--you mention, I think, most acutely, that Hardy’s Jude the Obscure is antithetical to the American male protagonist in 19th century novels. I was wondering, in that title essay, “Good Boys and Dead Girls,” you focus on Clyde Griffiths--Dreiser’s An American Tragedy--Clyde Griffiths who killed Roberta--Joe Christmas in Light in August who killed his abolitionist lover, Joanna Burden--and, of course, the Rabbit Angstrom books where this comes about in more complicated ways.
Do you see other exemplars in contemporary fiction of this theme that you’re exploring? I mean, I suppose Norman Mailer’s The American Dream is exhibit A. How about in the work of Roth, Philip Roth? I mean, from Portnoy’s Complaint, My Life as a Man, the Zuckerman books? How do these figure into other contemporary American fiction?
MG: I don’t think Philip Roth wants women to die. I have a lot less trouble with Roth’s portrayal of women than I do with these other men. First of all, it is comic. I’m occasionally quite offended by it, but it’s not hate-filled. And Roth doesn’t do what Updike does, which I find completely unacceptable. Roth says, “Look, you know, I really have this problem with women and here I am and this is who I am and you don’t have to love me for it.”
Updike says, “I adore women. You know, I’m really on their side.” And [he] creates this kind of pseudo-lyrical, extremely false bubble in which he believes he’s being a lovable, protector of women. What I find absolutely unacceptable in literature and in life is that somebody wants to kill you and then they say, “but you have to love me, anyway.” And that’s something that I think men do and that women fall into. I mean, we do go on loving them, even though they abuse us and kill us. And I guess Roth doesn’t say you have to love me anyway. He’s out there and he is what he is. But Updike wants it both ways.
TS: I don’t know whether you’ve gone on, since the publication of that essay, gone on to read the most recent and, I presume, the last of the Rabbit books, Rabbit is Rich.
MG: I don’t think it’s the last. I have a theory. I think that we’re going to have Rabbit Resurrected! There’s a slight possibility at the end that he actually isn’t dead, that he can be brought to life. You know, I’m not ready to. . .
TS: Yes, did you find anything at all redemptive in the last hundred pages--I’m talking about, really, the death of Rabbit--and Rabbit’s awareness of his death and how that, in some ways, his thoughts about his life and particularly the women in his life, was he redeemed at all, you know, in that book?
MG: You know, I didn’t think the book was very good. So, first of all, I am a non-innocent reader of Updike--
TS: I can see that--
MG: and so I don’t think you should ask me about Updike.
TS: Okay, I won’t.
MG: Because, you know, he could probably write “War and Peace” and I wouldn’t like it at this point. So it’s not fair to him. Or to me.
TS: So we’ll wait for the possible 2001 AD, possible Rabbit Resurrected and maybe talk about it then....[Station and show ID]
Mary, your essays on women writers are particularly wonderful in this collection. They’re insightful and acute. Incidentally, I don’t want to rule out your essays on male writers, because the one on Ford Maddox Ford is one of the best in, not only the book, but also the best essays I’ve ever read on Ford Maddox Ford, who was one of my favorite writers, also.
But your essays on women writers, I think, are just terrific--Edna O’Brien and Christa Wolfe. I wonder if you’d talk about two of the writers that you have written on who, it seems to me, have had a tremendous impact and influence on your own development and work. And that’s Mary McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor who are very different from each other, but have certain things in common. Do you want to talk about, first of all, Mary McCarthy and the impact, particularly of her memoirs on your own development?
MG: I think that Mary McCarthy was the ideal literary mother that I dreamed about as a girl beginning to write. She had this marvelous faculty of truth-telling and that sparkling style. And it seemed so bracing and inspiring. It was like a wonderful, shining statue in a green meadow that one could aspire to. And that rigor of hers and the clarity, the classical precision of her thought in her writing were enormously important to me.
Also, she was Catholic. And a bad girl. And had left it and that was extremely encouraging to somebody like me. Because to be Catholic in Protestant America was to feel that you didn’t own the country. And you certainly didn’t own the language. And your stories were not going to be of any interest to anybody. So she was a very, very important model in that she was a bad Catholic girl. She was very, very encouraging.
TS: I think those two books of memoirs, particularly the first one, which had, incidentally, a great impact on me, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. And particularly the second chapter. The angry, bitter eloquence of the injustice of the tin butterfly episode and others, actually were just cathartic. And her integrity as a writer also must have a tremendous impact on you. And Flannery O’Connor also, because one of the things that they share, in addition to being Irish-American Catholics, they both have a certain moral rigor, an intellectual rigor that you must have admired very much.
MG: I admire Flannery O’Connor extravagantly, but I don’t think she’s an influence on me. I always felt very, very different from her. And even her moral rigor is not something--it’s not a moral world that I work out of. It’s very dualistic; it’s beautiful in its dualism.
I had a dream about Flannery O’Connor one time. And I dreamed that we were both on a panel together and she showed up and she looked perfect and her hair was very well-coifed and her dress was terrific. And I came and my hair was filthy, which is always my nightmare in my dreams--my hair is dirty; I never dream of being naked, I only dream of having dirty hair. My hair was dirty, my slip was showing, my notes were in complete chaos. She gave a perfect lecture and mine was a mess. And she said to me, “You’re a mess.” and then she said to me, “Your problem is that you don’t believe in perfection.” And I said to her--because it was my dream and I was directing it, so I got the good lines--I said to her, “No, I do believe in perfection, but we have a different idea of perfection. You think perfection is flawlessness. And I think perfection is completeness.” And there is something in Flannery O’Connor’s fundamentalist vision that is quite inimical to mine. Although I think she’s a great writer.
TS: I must say that I have read Flannery O’Connor many times over the years and used her books in courses. And when I sit down and read, particularly the volumes of short stories, from beginning to end, consecutively, after about I’m three-quarters of the way through, I get a real, very edgy feeling because there’s a kind of moral or spiritual smugness that seems to come through those stories. That somehow, you know what the “right” position is, even though the stories are brilliant. And that’s my only negative thing about Flannery O’Connor.
MG: Well, she’s an Orthodox. And her work has the strength and the limitations of orthodoxy. And the strengths are that, again, the beautiful, shining, classical clarity and the complications. The language is remarkable, the structure is flawless. And she really shows us the complications of evil. She doesn’t give us any middle ground. Nor would she want to. She despised the middle ground.
TS: Well, that’s what gives her stories power, I think, but maybe if you take too many of them at one sitting, why, you get this feeling. And I think even some other, greater admirers of her have told me comparable things.
Talking about writing in recent years, Mary, you must be really very encouraged by the quantity, the quality, the richness and variety of women writers today, particularly American women writers today. I’m thinking of some of the guests on the Book Show--Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley, Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, Ann Beattie, Sue Miller, Jayne Smiley--I could go on. This really is, I think, one of the most exciting things about contemporary letters. Once again, not just the number, but the variety of style and concern. Could you talk about that a bit? I certainly include yourself [sic] in that.
MG: I think it’s tremendously exciting when I look at exactly what you said: the fact that Maxine Hong Kingtson is writing and Toni Morrison is writing and somebody like Cynthia Ozick and even people like Joy Williams and people writing in many different voices, involved in many different enterprises. But not only here--all over the world.
I just came back from a State Department tour of Europe and I found these remarkable correspondences between what women are doing here and what women are doing, particularly in Eastern Europe. And I do feel that there were many years of repressed and untold stories and now it’s our time to tell the stories. And enough of us have learned our craft so that it’s really our time. We’ve got the craft the men used to only have and we’ve got the stories to tell. I’m not sure the men have any stories to tell that aren’t only about themselves any more.
TS: That’s correlated with my next question: Are men getting any better? I mean, you can interpret that various ways!
MG: In life or in art!?
TS: In life or in contemporary American letters. . .But do you find more polyphonic voices in men, as compared to women these days?
MG: Interestingly enough, there are some male writers and the two male writers that I can think of whom I like a lot are both gay, Allen Gurganus and David Plante, I think are both doing very interesting work. Paul Auster is doing interesting work, I think. You know, there are other kinds of other male writers, like Richard Ford, that don’t exactly make my blood race, but I can see--you know, it seems to me kind of an old story--but I can see the value of it in a rather distant way. But I do think that a lot of male writing is pretty self-referential at this point. And the reference does not open out to a wider world.
TS: So there’s not enough “news” in that tradition. There certainly is in women’s writing. Mary, we just have about a half a minute left and I just wanted to ask you another question about some of the essays in Good Boys and Dead Girls. Your two essays on abortion are so honest and searching and large-minded. You point out that the anti-choice people have “the great advantage of a monolithic position.” Do you have any reflections on the future of legal abortion in light of recent soundings and rulings of the Supreme Court?
MG: Nothing makes me despair more than what the Supreme Court did because a lot of women are going to die. I can’t believe that we’ll lose this. We have to fight--every woman and every man of goodwill--has got to say no to this insanity.
TS: (station id and closing) Okay. I’ve been talking with author, Mary Gordon, whose most recent novel is The Other Side and whose new book Good Boys and Dead Girls has just been published by Viking. Thank you, Mary Gordon, for your scintillating work in both fiction and non-fiction. And we’ll be talking with you again.
Jo Page is a Program Assistant at the NYS Writers Institute and Protestant Minister at Chapel House.
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When I was seven or so, my mother began carefully slitting the inside binding edges and discarding the blank pages in the fronts of dozens of our books. Each and every one of those pages was penned with a lengthy inscription from Laurie, the man who had given her the books, and she no longer wanted him in her life.
There seemed to be no end of the books she circumcised in this way. Perhaps my parents had never owned any books until Laurie had started sending them to my mother.
Whether Laurie had been my mother’s lover or not I never figured out--some things children don’t want to know about their parents. But I am sure he adored my mother, whose beauty and charisma made each of us who loved her feel her devotion belonged singularly to each of us.
My mother had met Laurie in the restaurant where she waitressed and sometimes sang. He followed her around like a stray puppy. Over the next few years he hung around our house a lot--a morose-looking man with thinning hair who looked as if he had read all the books he gave us.
As the years went by and Laurie slowly vanished from my mother’s life--my father had been, evidently, a patient man--my mother claimed the books had been used to smuggle drugs. She said he hid the drugs inside the jackets and covered the books with see-through contact paper to seal his stash.
I don’t know if any of that is true. I don’t know what my mother knew about drugs. But I know that this is how I came to the glamour of books, to feel what it is to be under their spell, intoxicated by the possibility in words to make something out of nothing. This is religion, you know.
So, as soon as I was able, I began to peruse the books on the shelves--the photo-essays of Elliot Porter and Ansel Adams, the Peter Pauper Press collections of Buddhist koans, ethnic fairy tales, the fat, illustrated children’s books--The Yearling, Black Beauty, Little Women, Alice In Wonderland, and a mess of Cooper and Robert Louis Stevenson. I would lie on the couch beneath the long pine bookshelves my understanding father had built and read the titles that seemed so seriously purposeful: Anna Karenina, The Red and the Black, Crime and Punishment, Fathers and Sons, Madame Bovary, Wuthering Heights.
Nobody in our house read these books, of course. My mother read Arizona Highways, which Laurie sent, and Woman’s Day, which she bought at the market. My father read Handyman and did his basement carpentry until he died, untimely, in his forties. My sisters weren’t readers, either.
But I vowed to read. And the frustration was that most of those big, important-looking books were well beyond my comprehension. Then later, as my reading skills advanced, they were beyond my interest. So they became reproaches to me--books I wasn’t reading, but should be.
What I wanted to be reading--apart from Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew stories, was the one kind of book we didn’t have in our house--a dirty book. I confess I checked out The Way of All Flesh with some curiosity but was disappointed. It was a different use of flesh I sought.
So I don’t know how I came to have a copy of Peyton Place, except that I think it belonged to my friend, Alicia, whose mother was a divorcee, which might explain it; everyone knew divorced women had an inordinate amount of interest in sex.
My desire to consume this forbidden material waged a close war with the common sense notion of keeping it safely hidden from adult view.
Which is how I came to be reading Peyton Place with bold abandon in Mrs. Meahan’s eighth grade study hall, the book prophylactically sheathed by my French grammar. Mrs. Meahan was a kindly soul, in spite of the fact that she was cough-syrup sweet and called everyone her “cherubs.” It didn’t seem fair to her that I be reading smut in her study hall. And if I were to be discovered, which one of us would be the more disappointed?
Nevertheless, when was I to read Peyton Place? I certainly couldn’t read it during math or social studies when I might be called on to give an answer and would have only salacious thoughts, nascent and inchoate, pockmarking my mind.
Nor could I bring Peyton Place home. My mother had standards. To be sure, they were on the arbitrary side, but I wasn’t taking any chances. So Mrs. Meahan’s was the only logical place for me to read my smut. In hindsight, it seems reasonable to note here that my conjugation of French verbs never suffered as a result of it.
For a while, it’s fun knowing that you’re reading stuff your parents wouldn’t approve of your seeing. But finally, I think one simply outgrows the guilty pleasure of forbidden reading. The adolescent’s frisson at discovering the sexually explicit gives way to a grown-up’s habituation with it; sexually explicit writing is fun to read, but not forbidden.
Sooner or later “forbidden” reading comes to be understood as those books your peers and professors would disapprove of--either because they are politically incorrect or out of literary fashion.
But it gets tiresome trying to calibrate your personal tastes with what’s in political or literary vogue. Coming of age as a feminist-influenced college student in the 1970s, it was clear what writers were considered suitable if your were seeking to be au courant.
I was schooled during the ascendancy of women’s autobiography. So I knew I was safe reading Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy and the confessional, raised consciousness poetry of women’s anthologies, such as Rising Tides and No More Masks. It was more difficult to admit publicly that one read Lawrence or Hemingway, or God forbid, Norman Mailer, with anything other than a censorious eye.
Similarly, it was cool to read Forester and Orwell, uncool to read C. S. Lewis or Waugh. After all, Forester was gay and Orwell was a Socialist, whereas Lewis was a Christian and Waugh was a snob. Strange as it seems to me now, things like that shaped how I felt about what I was reading and depleted it of some of its energy and joy.
For grown-ups who live by arbitrary rules of their own making, the concept of forbidden reading fades like acne scars. Other than the unpublished journals of intimates and friends, most things are pretty much okay to read.
If we were to define what forbidden reading means for grown-ups, it would have a lot to do with the timing of our reading. For example, it is generally unwise to read during conversations or lovemaking, although, depending upon the circumstances, temptations to do so may arise.
For me, graduate school and then seminary nearly convinced me that the best way to break a reader’s spirit was to make her read. And read. I wore a hollow into my sofa back the shape of a glacial esker from all the reading I had to do to get my degrees.
There was something almost ritually penitential about the process of reading: forever losing the highlighter in the lap blanket, scuffling around to get the pencil for margin notes, reading and dozing and waking again in order to read some more.
My brain became congested with plots and dates and theories. I came to believe I would never really enjoy reading again.
But I had a life off the couch as well. After classes, after dinner or drinks with friends, I would crawl into my bed, leaving Heidigger or Mary Daly, the lesser-known novels of Charles Brockton Brown or that long yawn, The Romance of the Rose, on the floor by the couch like a pile of discarded garments.
In bed, the reliable locus of longing and fulfillment, I read what I wasn’t supposed to be reading. And thereby had my faith in reading restored.
It wasn’t that I had re-appropriated the forbidden. It was just that, to the committed graduate student, any book not on the bibliographies counted as wasted time. But wasting time was just what I needed to do, for mental peace and quiet. And I discovered that, long after the adolescent lust for lust in books is gone, the lust for books remains.
The kind of private reading I discovered during my graduate school years is reading of a particular kind; it is indulgent, time-wasting and unfaithful to any one book at a time. It need not be high-minded, high-toned or high-browed; its chief goal is to provide pleasure for the reader. If private reading were a dessert, it would be creme caramel.
But like all fun things, private reading for nothing but pleasure is suspicious business--precisely because you know there is always some task you could be doing, maybe even should be doing--mowing the lawn, sorting the socks, paying the bills. Most of us are governed by an ethic that measures our value in output.
Reading is all about input; it is a way of drawing the blind on human interaction. No reading draws the blind on the world that is too much with us better than the reading we really shouldn’t be doing. The eremitic pleasure in private reading hints at indolence and escapism.
Not surprisingly--as I discovered in graduate school--this private kind of reading is best done in bed, though couches and bathtubs also suffice. Reclining is the requisite posture. But Albert Manguel, writing in A History of Reading, makes a strong case for the bed, saying that, “because it takes place between the sheets, in the realm of lust and sinful idleness, has something of the thrill of things forbidden.”
For private reading, comfort is key--a good light, a lofty comforter, zipper-skin tangerines and a full cup. But serendipity in reading material is even more essential.
At various times in my life I have stuck to haphazardly-chosen themes. In graduate school, it was chatty biographies of Katherine Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence. In seminary I read mysteries and ghost stories, which I still can’t resist. After all, some of our best writers wrote ghost stories. So you can sit there reading Wharton, Faulkner, or Poe, Austen, O’Connor or Oates without feeling you’ve sacrificed craftsmanship for creepiness.
But maybe the best kind of private reading is the reading you’ve done before. Like pillowcases washed to baby-skin softness, re-reading what you love gives a very nearly palpable comfort.
There is something deeply edifying about arriving, with Gerard Manley Hopkins, again and again, at “Mine, O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain” or stopping along “The Duino Elegies” at passages that seem to have been fashioned from the poet’s marrow--and somehow your own, as well.
Or to re-visit the old haunts with characters you loved--one more time in the tavern with Ivan, Balliol with Lord Peter, Algiers with Dr. Rieux or New York with Lily Bart--is to discover yourself anew in relation to that which is, unlike most of life, unchanging.
Books are no substitute for real life, of course. But there is something of enduring comfort to be felt when your hands stroke the page and when your eyes find the author’s world through the scrim of print.
I remember all those books my mother strip-searched and trimmed. Did she imagine what was in them besides all that was forbidden, illicit and illegal? Didn’t she know there was so much more than Laurie’s florid confessions of love and dust-jacket stashes?
Or perhaps she knew that her books were, by themselves, vessels for passion, confession and intoxication. They didn’t need the embellishment of narcotic or poetry. And she made sure, for her daughter, the reader, that nothing more than the story itself remained.
Jo Page is a Program Assistant at the NYS Writers Institute and Protestant Minister at Chapel House.
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Wishing for Another Poem:
The Poetry and Essays of Louise Glück
Pulitzer-Prize Winning Poet Louise Glück (pronounced “Glick”) addresses the themes of rejection, loss, and isolation in language that is as deceptively simple as it is technically precise. Author of eight books of poetry as well as a book of essays, Proofs and Theories, Glück is the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award (Triumph of Achilles), the Academy of American Poet’s Prize (Firstborn), as well as numerous Guggenheim fellowships. Glück’s poems engage the reader with a gripping directness that is startling in its colloquial, jagged quality. Central to most poems is a narrator who is isolated from her family, or bitter from rejected love, or disappointed with what life has to offer. As Helen Vendler notes, Glück’s poems invite the reader’s participation by asking us to “fill out the story, substitute ourselves for the fictive personages, invent a scenario from which the speaker can solve the allegory. . .” After numerous readings, her poems consistently betray their original bleakness, offering a glimpse at the lyrical beauty of a fallen world.
The various chapters in Proofs and Theories function as disparate meditations on the craft of writing and the poet’s life. In them Glück contends that the fundamental experience of the writer “is helplessness. . .most writers spend much of their time in various kinds of torment: wanting to write, being unable to write, wanting to write differently, not being able to write differently. It is a life dignified. . .by yearning, not made serene by sensations of achievement.”
The 54 poems which make up the Pulitzer-Prize winning collection, The Wild Iris, were written in ten weeks--a period which lends the book a certain seasonal structure. Beginning in spring and winding towards late summer, the poems reveal a nagging, epistemological dialectic between poet, God, and the natural world. In “Witchgrass,” the unwanted weed grapples defiantly with the gardener, protesting: “I don’t need your praise/ to survive I was here first,/ before you were here, before/ you ever planted a garden/ and I’ll be here when only the sun and the moon/ are left, and the sea, and the wide field./ I will constitute the field.”
The poet repeatedly chronicles her loss at the same time she engages in praise for the thing lost. In “Vespers: Parousia”, she laments: “how lush the world is, how full of things that don’t belong to me--. . .what a nothing you were/ to be changed so quickly/ into an image, an odor--/ you are everywhere, source of wisdom and anguish.” In the absence of a loving God, the poet’s task is to celebrate the splendor of the natural world with language, and to locate the door at the end of suffering where, “from the center of my life came a great fountain, deep blue/ shadows on azure sea water.”
In her most recent volume Meadowlands (1996), Glück intersperses the ancient myth of Odysseus and Penelope in a modern narrative about marital discord and separation. The title evokes both the eternal and the contemporary--alluding to both timeless pastoral beauty and a New Jersey football stadium. The juxtaposition of the two worlds makes an interesting experiment in the mixing of high and low art, with the modern couple providing comic relief: “One thing I’ve always hated/ about you: I hate that you refuse/to have people at the house. Flaubert/ had more friends and Flaubert/ was a recluse. Flaubert was crazy he lived with his mother.”
Glück’s revisionist Penelope bears more resemblance to the modern wife of the doomed couple than to her mythical predecessor, and her cynicism and aggression in matters of love can hardly be contained. Urging her soul to keep watch for Odysseus she adds: “Ah, you must greet him, / you must shake the boughs of the tree to get his attention/ but carefully, carefully, lest/ his beautiful face be marred/ by too many falling needles.”
In both her poetry and essays, Louise Glück’s vision of the artist is one in which despair is transformed into survival through the creation of art. In a sense, the artist strives for that which is nearly impossible to achieve, and is engaged not so much in an occupation as an aspiration. Yet in Glück’s canon, the poet consistently gets in the last word, and the poem disrupts the sorrow and despair which accompanies the modern world, encouraging us, above all, to engage in hope: “I wished what I always wish for/ I wished for another poem.”
Christine Atkins is a doctoral student in the English Department, University at Albany
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Russell Banks: A Passion for Culture
You could say accurately of Russell Banks’s recent novels that they provide enough suspense, misdirection, and intrigue to keep the pot boiling and the pages turning. Equally, you can smell the funk in the bedroom scenes. The fact that Banks can do these things without sacrificing intellectual rewards and emotional range is evidence that “meaningful entertainment” still lives. What needs to be said even more emphatically is that Banks is a gutsy writer with an extraordinary ability to evoke the cultures of America. You might, with some justice, call Banks a regionalist—his imagination frequently returns to New England, where he grew up. But unlike traditional regionalists, his regional sensibility seems able to absorb cultural nuance wherever it sets down. His convincing portrait of life in an Adirondack village, The Sweet Hereafter (the film version recently won three major awards at Cannes) testifies firmly to this.
In fact, after meandering across the northeast, Banks’s regional sensibility takes I-95 south to Florida, and proceeds by air and water to the islands of the Caribbean. Like the Jamaican bobsled team at the Lake Placid Olympics, several of Banks’s works yoke together the seemingly insular domains of the rural northeast and the West Indies. In doing so, he reveals the cultural distance, the geographic nearness, the economic and political inseparability of the two regions.
Insofar as one person can, and from a fully articulated white male perspective, Banks takes on the task of interpreting the borderlands where much of contemporary life unfolds—the intercultural and interethnic frontiers.
This challenge, to look beyond the end of his ethno-cultural nose, is most fully realized to date in Banks’s 1985 novel Continental Drift. This novel features two refugees; one of them, a white New Hampshirite named Bob Dubois, seeks refuge in Florida from the ennui and disgust he has begun to feel for his life in New England. The other refugee—a refugee in the fullest sense—is Vanise Dorsinville, a Haitian woman struggling to reach Florida through a brutal and treacherous smuggling network. Vanise’s journey is a series of boat rides with historical echoes that Banks describes as “a middle passage.” The outstanding feature of her journey is the frequency with which she is raped. Her story and Bob’s are told in alternating episodes, held apart like uninsulated live wires, until, near the end of the novel, Bob Dubois drifts into the smuggling trade and the wires tragically cross.
These plot strands wind through a varied and conflicted cultural landscape, which, it seems, is the very point of the novel. When Bob Dubois, with his wife and two daughters, sees Florida for the first time, one impression rules: he sees “many people of color. Hundreds of them. Thousands!” Bob’s saga eventually takes him, en route to his debacle with the Haitians, through a disastrous love affair with a black Florida woman—an affair that dramatizes the insidious and insistent tensions that have so often plagued American race relations. Banks’s characters and settings, both black and white, Caribbean and North American, are lovingly (sometimes chillingly) rendered, with an astonishing ear for dialect and an appreciation for human complexity. Only a full reading of the novel can do justice to Banks’s finely textured work.
Banks’s most recent novel, Rule of the Bone, continues, somewhat less successfully, the exploration of North meeting South along the eastern seaboard. It features Chapman “Chappie” Dorset, A.K.A. “Bone,” a working class Caucasian youth who, like a ganja-smoking Huck Finn, teams up with an older black man—a Rastafarian—to pursue a journey from the streets and hills of Upstate New York to the streets and hills of Jamaica.
The locales, customs and dialect are no less convincing in Rule of the Bone than in Continental Drift. But Chappie himself is perhaps a bit too savvy and organized for a teenager perpetually stoned on “skunk,” and the Rasta is occasionally so charismatic and wise as to seem more archetype than human. Still, Banks consistently avoids the more serious error of painting these characters as merely “colorful.” Instead, he paints them with an engaging capacity for compassion, grief, and humor. And there are moments in the novel when one realizes that Banks has managed a seemingly contradictory genre—a thoughtful cliffhanger.
Russell Banks writes of tragedy and grace, often among the marginal and the working poor. From his early experiments he has evolved a fiction that is contemporary in a rigorous sense, expressing social themes and conflicts even as they unfold in the world. His characters—an oil burner repairman, a mohawked, nose-ringed teenager, a woman who drives a rural school bus, Harley riders, Rastas, Haitian refugees and frequenters of shopping malls, are figures from our own historical landscape, resembling ourselves and our neighbors, people whose mysterious lives we might well ponder on any given day. We are indebted to Russell Banks for his sustained and vivid pondering of such lives.
John LeMay is a Ph.D. student in the English Department at the University at Albany
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Joyce Carol Oates
Introduction by Donald W. Faulkner at NYS Summer Writers Institute on 7/11/97
[After a long list of acknowledgements and thanks, the introduction begins.]
Now, on to our guest reading this evening. Maybe I'm beating around the bush because Joyce Carol Oates will soon publish her twenty-seventh novel in September, entitled Man Crazy, in which the narrator, Ingrid Boone, tells the story of her desperate, unbalanced young life in one long, breathless monologue. That twenty-seven doesn't count the collections of short stories, plays, poetry, essays, editing work, and on. With all this, an introducer is naturally a bit daunted.
Who is this Joyce Carol Oates, this "J. C. O.," as she sometimes refers to her writing self? She once noted in the combined artistic and personal assessment:
"No one wants to believe this obvious truth: The "artist" can inhabit any individual, for the individual is irrelevant to "art." (And what is "art"? A firestorm rushing through Time, arising from no visible source and conforming to no principles of logic or causality." "JCO" occasionally mines, and distorts, my personal history; but only because the history is close at hand, and then only when some idiosyncrasy about it suits her design, or some curious element of the symbolic. If you, a friend of mine, should appear in her work, have no fear--you won't recognize yourself, any more than I would recognize you.
"It would be misleading to describe our relationship as hostile in any emotional sense, for she, being bodiless, having no existence, has no emotions: We are more helpfully defined as diamagnetic, the one repulsing the other as magnetic poles repulse each other, so that "JCO" eclipses me, or, and this is less frequent, I eclipse "JCO," depending on the strength of my will.
"If one or the other of us must be sacrificed, it has always been me."
Later in the same piece, Ms. Oates added, somewhat rhetorically, about getting to the space of her writing:
"Does it matter which entrance you use to enter a walled garden? Once you're inside and have closed the door?"
What a strange and wondrous garden it is, with calla lillies, and deadly nightshade, and flowerings even she hasn't yet named. Books, other strange products of the garden, like We Were the Mulvaneys, her most recent exploration of family, farm, secretiveness, and disintegration; the great stories in Will You Always Love Me?; the emotional inferno of What I Lived For; Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, its title aptly taken from a Stephen Crane poem; or Zombie with its unstinting exploration of the serial killer's mind.
We are always on the edge of, and sometimes immersed in, violence, peculiarly American violence, in Oates's work.
Once, at a reading at Yale, she was asked how she came up with her subjects. She responded laconically: "usually while vacuuming." I've never thought of daydreaming the same way since.
As I admit to being interested in the door that leads into the garden, I have found a couple of particularly interesting portals. One is a marvelous essay in a collection edited by Daniel Halpern called, On Nature. Joyce Carol Oates's piece, Against Nature, stands alone in the collection. It's a masterpiece of style, with many asides ("Come off it, Henry David," she comments after quoting a particularly pantheistic passage from Walden," "that most artfully composed of prose fictions"), and in it she offers up this small gem, which makes me think of Virginia Woolf's interior wrestlings with the death of a moth:
"This morning an invasion of tiny black ants. One by one they appear, out of nowhere--that's their charm too!--moving single file across the white Parsons table where I am sitting, trying without much success to write a poem. A poem of only three or four lines is what I want; something short, tight, mean, I want it to hurt like a white hot wire up the nostrils, small and compact and turn in upon itself with the density of a hunk of rock from the planet Jupiter. . .
"But here come the black ants; harbingers, you might say, of spring. One by one they appear on the dazzling white table and one by one I kill them with a forefinger, my deft right forefinger, mashing each against the surface of the table and then dropping it into a wastebasket at my side. Idle labor, mesmerizing, effortless, and I'm curious as to how long I can do it, sit there in the brilliant March sunshine killing ants with my right forefinger, how long I, and the ants, can keep it up.
"After a while I realize that I can do it a long me. And that I've written my poem."
Here is nature. Here is art.
In 1987, Joyce Carol Oates wrote a book-length essay titled, On Boxing, in which the prizefighter Mike Tyson figured prominently. An odd pairing, these two. But another door to the walled garden. Just last week, in the New York Times, Ms. Oates was moved to comment on what has been called "The Bite," as opposed to "The Fight," the encounter between Tyson and Holyfield. There, she wrote:
"As a young, immensely popular heavyweight contender in the mid-1980's, Mike Tyson spoke of trying to drive his opponent's nose "into his brain." To have done so would have been to perform within the legal parameters of the sport; to have bitten the nose would have been in violation of the sport. Yet surely a brain injury is more serious than a facial laceration."
But, she noted:
"As the notorious welterweight Fritzie Zivic once said, "You're boxing, you're not playing the piano."
And she ended the piece saying,
"Here in 1997, we have the image of Mike Tyson spitting out his mouthpiece and leaning to his opponent's neck, in a clinch, to seize the man's ear in his teeth and try to tear it off.
"This dissolution of the veneer of civilization, the calling into question of publicly sanctioned and rigidly maintained divisions between what is moral and what is not, is a taboo subject.
"Where taboo is violated, reason itself is fractured. We fear and dread the violation of taboo, and yet, as Mike Tyson once said, "Outside of boxing, everything is so boring."
Any good writer takes on taboos, and explores the why of them. It takes courage. That Joyce Carol Oates can reasonably reassemble that fractured reason into endlessly compelling and illuminating stories is something that is at the heart of her strength and ability as a writer. It is also why she is one of our greatest. Please welcome Joyce Carol Oates.
Joyce Carol Oates
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Introduction by Donald W. Faulkner at NYS Summer Writers Institute on 7/18/97
[After a long list of acknowledgements and thanks, the introduction begins.]
As a novelist, short story writer, nonfiction essayist, and editor, Nicholas Delbanco has produced more than twenty books ranging from The Martlet's Tale, Consider Sappo Burning and News through the Sherbrookes trilogy to In the Name of Mercy and his new novel, forthcoming in August, Old Scores from which he will read tonight.
His nonfiction includes The Beaux-Arts Trio, and account of the famed classical music group which included his father-in-law; the excellent Group Portrait, on Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, and H. G. Wells, the nexus of early English modernism; and Running in Place: Scenes from the South of France.
He has taught widely, from Columbia, Iowa, and Skidmore, to Bennington, where with John Gardner he founded the Bennington Writing Program in the 70's, and the University of Michigan, where he now directs the Creative Writing Program. As such, he is the second reader in a week here who runs a writing program at a Big Ten School (the first was Lee Abbott, at Ohio State). What with the long-standing sports rivalry between Ohio State and UM, I wonder if there are Buckeye-Blue literary square-offs. Imagine it: "he's going out long, but no, the epiphany is broken up at the last moment by a minimal realist closure defense!"
Whether Delbanco's writing is infused by political concerns, as in the brilliant and underread News, or a New England sense of traditional family as in the Sherbrookes trilogy (Possession, Sherbrookes, and Stillness), or whether he takes up assisted suicide and murder, as in his Kevorkian-cum-hospice focused recent novel In the Name of Mercy, a book which deftly treads the line between medical thriller and a novel of ideas, or whether he retells the Abelard and Helooise tale, giving it fillips, new twists, and a contemporary setting as he does in the new Old Scores, his stories are, as Richard Eder, one of the most reliable of book reviewers, noted: "written with breathtaking technique and an uncanny ability to bring a penetrating emotion up out of a gesture, a pause, or a random thought."
In a profile of Nick Delbanco which appeared in Poets and Writers, a Don Williams wrote a lead which unfortunately has all the purplish excesses of "as we walked down the garden path" profile prose. Nonetheless, it is illuminating:
"'One thing I make a hobby of is collecting the heads of writers,' says Nicholas Delbanco, as we climb the stairs to the study at his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. 'For instance, here's a head of Baudelaire.' Delbanco speaks in a polished baritone ready-made for symposiums and radio readings. 'Here is a head of Victor Hugo by Rodin.' We pass a portrait of Paul Verlaine, then one of Gustav Fluabert, and arrive at Delbanco's desk. It faces an open window that frames a birch tree in the foreground and a view of the nearby Ann Arbor arboretum. Beside his PC is a deck of cards.
"'I play solitaire while I write. It occupies me enough to keep me at the desk, and doesn't distract enough to interfere.'"
That was tough sledding, reading through the fulsomeness of that prose, but it does get at something about Nicholas Delbanco. Rather than playing solitaire while writing, I think instead that Nicholas Delbanco is engaging in a game of draw poker with the literary forbears he considers so great, writers like the ones in those pictures and busts along his stair, and writers like the ones he has made prose portraits of in his book, Group Portrait and, you know, I think he is drawing very well toward an inside straight.
Delbanco, who published his first novel at the age of twenty-four has perhaps grown more circumspect and modest over the years. Recently, in characterizing two perspectives on his career he offered one, then another: "The first: I was a startling, prodigious child who has been declining steadily and will, at sixty, be worthless," he told an interviewer. "The second: I was a boastful egotist who has been gaining in the attributes of manhood and who may amount to something by the age of sixty. Truth resides between."
It seems that age sixty is well ahead of Nicholas Delbanco still. It will be a pleasure to watch what unfolds. Please welcome Nicholas Delbanco.
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Introduction by Donald W. Faulkner at NYS Summer Writers Institute on 7/21/97
[After a long list of acknowledgements and thanks, the introduction begins.]
There's something to be said for a colonial English education. It teaches one about a world that exists, if you're in Antigua as Jamaica Kincaid was, only in books. As Ms. Kincaid has said, "I live in two worlds in my writing, the landscape of Antigua, and the landscape of English literature. In the latter, Milton, or the Brontes figure prominently," and replace schoolchildren, siblings, and sometimes, sanity.
Such is reminiscent of the case of the great Nigerian playwright and poet Wole Soyinka, who recalled his schooling, and his memorizing Wordsworth without ever having seen a daffodil. What, indeed, is a daffodil, when you've never laid eyes on one?
And so, imagine a culture in which all sense of locality, all color, all flora and fauna, all names for cloth, and clothing types, all references, indeed, to an extent, all language, has been replaced, supplanted, by images and contexts from another, colonizing culture an ocean away. And then, imagine all emissaries of that culture, all of its officialdom and pomp, just as suddenly disappearing. Not only is an indigenous culture left in a shambles, but its language, even its very landscape is too.
When I say "supplanted," I use the term punningly, thinking of Jamaica Kincaid's essays on the garden, in which she writes, as in her Columbian quadricentenary piece, Flowers of Evil, about how English plantings replaced the native botanicals of her own Caribbean country, a notion that remains richly, and powerfully metaphorical.
Kincaid wrote these pieces, these gardening essays, following in the footsteps of the great Katherine White, for The New Yorker, a magazine with which her work and indeed life, is closely tied, or was. For sadly, as the once great American project of Mr. Ross and Mr. Shawn became recolonized by the British, it no longer felt like any sort of home to our guest tonight.
But in her early writing days, with her first books, like At the Bottom of the River and Annie John, Jamaica Kincaid was a "child" of The New Yorker, a protege of William Shawn, the famously quiet, famously brilliant second editor of that magazine.
"I began writing in my early twenties out of desperation," Jamaica Kincaid has said of her beginnings. There was no other "job" she could hold down. It was William Shawn who took her work, seldom editing--a measure of deep respect--and only providing titles. Gradually those pieces, whether placed with the magazine's various departments, "chronicles," "talk of the town," "reflections," or with fiction, cobbled themselves together to give momentum to a writing life that found its resting palce in books, like those I've mentioned, and on with A Small Place, Lucy, The Autobiography of My Mother, and the forthcoming My Brother, to be published this fall. What marvelous, sparkling, magical, dark, and brilliant work it is.
It is safe to say that Jamaica Kincaid writes about Antigua, but it is also safe to say that she writes about mothers and daughters. She writes, too, from an interior landscape of girlhood and womanhood, often making in her work such paradigms of experience that it's hard not to read oneself in her work, no matter that its locale is small and at times distant from American readers, and no matter that the interiority she presents seems so profoundly private. I imagine it's that particularity-leading-to-universality thing poets so often write about. Regardless, it works, and despite or because of the trials and pains presented, it seems fully realized, palpable, immediate.
I will give you a sample, but I will do no justice to the magic of Kincaid's language, for, as when you hear her read, you will never be able to read her worlds on the page again without hearing that animating voice behind them. It is both stunning and lyrical.
But let me try to give you a sense with this passage from Autobiography, when Xuela talks of her first day at school:
"That morning was a morning like any other, so ordinary it was profound. It was sunny in some places and not in others, and the two (sunny, cloudy) occupied different parts of the sky quite comfortably; there was the green of the leaves, the red burst of the flowers from the flamboyant trees, the sickly yellow fruit of the cashew, the smell of lime, the smell of almonds, the coffee on my breath, Eunice's skirt blowing in my face, and the stirring up of the smells that came from between the legs, which I shall never forget. . ."
Meticulous, lyrical, rendering life's movement impeccably, moving through, and right out of time.
She is a delightful individual who is also fond of Stravinsky, Motown, an occasional very dry Bombay Sapphire martini, and hats. Indeed, I've never seen her in the same hat twice. Please welcome Jamaica Kincaid.
Mother and Child Reunion
Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother
Like other Black women for whom writing is both an act of liberation and salvation, Jamaica Kincaid says she writes to save her life, that if she didn’t, she would be one of those people who throw bombs, who spout revolution, “I can’t imagine what I would do if I didn’t write. I would be dead or I would be in jail because--what else would I do?”
Kincaid is the author of both fiction and on fiction prose including At the Bottom of the River, Annie John, and A Small Place, all focused on life in her birthplace--Antigua, West Indies. Kincaid’s writing employs a highly poetic literary style celebrated for its rhythms, imagery, and characterization. Her third novel, Lucy, launched her into what the New York Times Magazine deemed, “literary eminence.” Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a distinguished critic and black studies scholar, told Emily Listfield in Harper’s Bazaar that the felt comfortable comparing Kincaid’s work to that of Toni Morrison and Wole Soyinka: “There is a self-contained world which they explore with great detail. Not to chart the existence of the world, but to show that human emotions manifest themselves everywhere.
Her fourth and most recent novel, The Autobiography of My Mother, is a haunting memoir of Xuela Clauldette Richardson, a 70-year-old native of Dominica, West Indies. Xuela looks back on her life, starting with the moment of her birth, the moment of her mother’s death. Her father, a corrupt government official with a facade of respectability, placed her under the care of another woman, the woman he paid to wash his clothes. Throughout the story, Xuela tries to unveil the mysteries surrounding her deceased mother and emotionally inaccessible father, who, in Xuela’s eyes, didn’t know how to take care of her, inasmuch as he didn’t know how to wash his own clothes.
A few years later, after her father remarries, she moves into their home but feels isolated in the midst of a stepmother who “wishes her dead” and a father who goes through the motions of being a father to her, but, Xuela sees through this, I was the flesh of someone he believed he had loved. My father could not love, but he believed he could, and that must be enough, because perhaps half the world feels that way.”
Xuela, at the age of 14, has an affair with one of her father’s friends, becomes pregnant and aborts the child. The pain which accompanies this trauma led her to believe that she was a new person, “I knew things I had not know before, I knew things that you can know only if you have been through what I had just been through.” With this experience, she intentionally begins a life of barrenness, eventually marrying a European doctor whom she does not love.
Throughout the story, Xuela continues to pay tribute to the mother she never allowed herself to be, the children she didn’t allow herself to have, the mother she never knew, “I had never known my mother and yet my love for her followed her into eternity. My mother died unable to protect herself in a cruel world beyond ordinary imagining, unable to protect me.”
Kincaid’s prior works, on the whole, concern perplexing and troubled mother/daughter relationships. As a child, she was content and deeply connected to her mother, but when she was nine, her mother bore the first of her three brothers. Her mother’s focus shifted away from Kincaid, thus complicating her life and filling her with resentment; their relationship became turbulent and troubled. Kincaid’s writing gropes with these issues, frankly and unapologetically. In a l990 interview, Kincaid explicated her use of subject matter, “Even before I became a writer, I was obsessed with my mother...I don’t think I’ll ever write about anything else but Mother, or some version of her.
Lori Horvitz is a Ph.D. student in the English Department, University at Albany and was graduate assistant for the Writers Institute.
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Lee K. Abbott
Introduction by Donald W. Faulkner at NYS Summer Writers Institute on 7/14/97
[After a long list of acknowledgements and thanks, the introduction begins.]
Lee K. Abbott recounts a story of how, when he was in college, one of his teachers put a Caedmon recording of Eudora Welty reading Why I Live at the P.O., and of how he knew then and there what makes a short story work. He's gone on to make a lifelong commitment to making good on his insight.
His short story collections--there are six of them--prove his mastery, and they have titles that always speak a strong longing or sense of displacement: The Heart Never Fits Its Wanting, Love Is the Crooked Thing, Strangers in Paradise, Dreams of Distant Lives, Living After Midnight (the title novella of which was recently staged as a play), and the forthcoming Wet Places at Noon.
Like Welty, Abbott often writes first person, each story one headlong zhing of laughter, pathos, and discovery. His focus is often men among men, or men with women (and one hears echoes of his fondness for the early Updike here), and sometimes men and women and extraterrestrials. I think it's a New Mexico thing. Anyway, New Mexico usually provides the horizon of Lee Abbott's stories because, he says, "you can see more there." It's where he lives when he's not teaching in and directing the Creative Writing Program at Ohio State (of Ohio he says, "I've never understood green"). Under his direction that program has quickly become one of the best in the country.
Once, when asked what people should take away form his stories, he said, remarkably prepared,
"Well, I guess the stories all taken together say maybe the following things: 1) Geez, the world's hard. 2) We're limited, finite creatures beset with a consciousness and a memory. 3) We're pretty needy as animals. We want in addition to our food and our shelter, all the other things that can make a hard world more livable. 4) We screw up a lot doing what we know we shouldn't. We have, in addition to this consciousness, we have a conscience that we are at times afflicted with but it's not sufficiently forceful enough to keep us from once again screwing up. 5) There are ways to successfully negotiate this hard life, among them romantic love, familial love, an attention to the msot disagreeable lessons of the past. 6) There are no guarantees.
A notably circumspect estimation. But the short story is a tough, tough form. As unnatural as a villanell. And almost as tough to sell. But is is Abott's métier, his natural form. It is not simply because his last name begins A-B-B that he is at the top of the list of contemporary short story writers, as his frequent appearance in O. Henry Award and Best American Short Story collections attest.
About his loyalty to the short story form, he has said, "I guess it's the one thing I can do, but fundamentally I'm really intrigued by the possibilities that the story offers. FIn the first place you can try it and fail it a whole lot more per year than you can at a novel. In the second place, I use up material at a frenetic kind of pace. The stores are dense. The stories are speedy. . .I do a lot of research for stories, sometimes. Ten books will sh ow up in one twenty-page story somehow. . .I also have this real high stake in an interesting, complicated, important, and significant sentence. . .A sentence like, "He opened the door and went outside," strikes me as possibly dull to write, and too many novel are full of sentences of that kind. So for all those reasons I write stories. It's like being the middle reliever on a baseball team. One's name doesn't come to mind immediately."
The Johnny Podres of American fiction? Hardly.
There's a character in an Abbott story in the new collection, typically driving along a New Mexico highway at night in a pickpu truck, almost typcially worried about finding a space alien, or part of one I refer to it because the situations captures the existential dilemma at the heart of any Abbott story: one never knows quite what to expect, but one figures it out along the way.
Here's one smart man who tends to know pretty well what to do next, one of my favorite writers, Lee K. Abbott.
Lee K. Abbott
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