Guest Blog Post, Thomas Legendre: Researching the Stone

Photo Credit: www.migratingmiss.com

Many writers claim you don’t necessarily need to visit the settings depicted in your work, but for me, it’s a good excuse to travel. Perhaps my most memorable “excuse” came when I was researching a novel involving British prehistory and, for one chapter in particular (published as “Ultraviolet” in Superstition Review), some archaeological sites in Orkney.

I was warned about Orkney. “Gale force winds,” a Scottish friend told me. “Cold rain. Rough seas. The ferry ride alone will make you sick for a week. It’s not Hawaii, mate.”

But as an American resident of Edinburgh, known as “The Athens of the North” for its role in the Enlightenment, I had developed a tolerance for such extremes. And I was curious about Orkney, a group of over 70 islands teeming with prehistoric sites that are reputedly the best-preserved in Europe. I had seen photos of the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness, less famous cousins of Stonehenge. I had heard stories about Neolithic tribes, Picts, Vikings, and, most fascinating of all, sailors from the Spanish Armada who had survived a shipwreck off the coast over 400 years ago and gone native, leaving behind a strain of conspicuously dark-eyed Orcadians.

There was history there. And prehistory. And legend and myth. And a couple of whisky distilleries. But what really put my motivation in gear? The Neolithic village of Skara Brae, known as “The Pompeii of the North.”

Pompeii? Ok, it wasn’t exactly Hawaii. But I imagined a volcano smoking on the horizon.

I loaded my bicycle into my car, drove it onto the ferry—let’s call it “The Pacific Princess of the North”—and braced myself for a seven-hour roller-coaster ride. My objective was to visit as many prehistoric sites as possible and, since it was late May, use my bike as much as possible while doing it. I had filled an entire suitcase with thermal layers and raingear. But as we left port, the sky was suspiciously clear. The sea was smooth as glass. Instead of clinging to the bulkhead for dear life, I was standing at the rail with a pint of ale watching the sunset at 10 pm.

The Mainland, as it is known, is the largest island and the home of the local government. The streets of Kirkwall, established by Norse invaders during their 600 year reign, were built narrow against the infamous wind. After some wandering, I managed to find my hotel only to discover Robert, one of the co-owners, tending the bar instead of the reception desk. His attitude, at least, was in the right place.

The next morning I woke to heavy rain, my enthusiasm slightly damp around the edges. At the reception desk a woman named Carol offered encouraging words about the weather. “It’ll lift by afternoon,” she said, in what sounded like a blend of Scottish and Norwegian accents. “The Farm Report on telly—that’s the one to watch. Ignore everything else. The BBC can’t really see this far.”

The accent made sense. And so did the outlook. I had been told that the inhabitants of Orkney, separated from the countries that governed them over the centuries, had a distinct sense of identity. They consider themselves Orcadians first, Scots second. What Americans might call The Texans of the North.

Except this wasn’t Texas weather. I glanced out the window again. I scanned my list of prehistoric sites and noticed one that was far away and relatively isolated from the others. An outlier. A distant target. A good excuse to drive instead of bike. It was called The Tomb of the Eagles:  a Neolithic chambered cairn that was found with over 16,000 human and 725 eagle bones inside. These weren’t intact skeletons, but remains that had been disarticulated by way of a prehistoric practice known as excarnation. In other words, the corpses had been left exposed until they were stripped by animals, then deliberately cracked apart and interred. Archaeologists are still puzzling over exactly what sort of religious practices were involved, let alone the beliefs they signified. Photos of the tomb at the time of discovery show skulls arranged on stone shelves, along with an ankle-deep mix of ribs and femurs and tarsals, not to mention eagle talons.

But this was still 22 miles away. Wipers clicking, I drove across several islands linked by causeways known as the Churchill Barriers, constructed to thwart the Germans during World War II and still displaying the occasional mast or rusting bulk of a ship scuttled to block passage. A different kind of excarnation, perhaps.

Signs pointed beyond sheep pastures to the visitor’s center, where I checked in for a hands-on tutorial of the various relics. The Tomb of the Eagles is privately owned, staffed by guides who take an interactive and somewhat playful approach. I was encouraged to hold stone tools, to feel the contours of ancient bones, and peer closely at the upper molars of a skull that had chewed its last meal 5000 years ago. Then I went off to the tomb itself. I followed the path through fields and along a headland with the North Sea churning at the cliffs below.

It was a grassy mound about the size of an RV. The passage into the tomb was low and narrow, requiring a hands-and-knees approach—a common Neolithic feature. In this case, though, the owners had strung a rope along the ceiling of the passage, with a trolley on the floor that a mechanic might use to slide underneath a car.

I glanced around nervously. I was alone. The sea crashed and heaved at the base of the cliff. Then I crouched down and pulled myself in.

It was empty, of course, with vacant side cells and a roped-off corner that was considered unsafe. And the original roof was gone, replaced by a concrete dome with skylights. It should have been a letdown. But I thought of all the hands that had stacked the stones, the regiment of skulls, the scree of bones on the floor. I imagined darkness, the air heavy with death. And those eagle talons.

Had bodies been exposed on the nearby cliffs for the eagles to pick at? And had those very same eagles been captured afterward and sealed in the tomb? I realized this was the nature of the Neolithic—or at least the nature of the Neolithic for us. They took everything apart without leaving instructions for putting it back together again. If you want your history intact and obvious, look elsewhere. This was an imaginative puzzle. Some assembly required.

As I walked back along the cliffs the weather began to lift. I checked my watch. Noon. With this confirmation of the farm report, I drove back toward the Mainland and my appointed tour at Maeshowe, the “finest chambered tomb in Orkney,” which turned out to be another grassy mound, but larger. I was beginning to get the picture.

Maeshowe, though, has special significance. It’s located on a low stretch of land surrounded by hills—a natural amphitheater—within sight of the Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, and the Neolithic village of Barnhouse. And it’s impressive.

A guide led a bunch of us down a passageway set with gigantic flagstones into a main chamber about 15 feet high. Still fresh from the Tomb of the Eagles, I recognized the look of the place. The same architect? This tomb, however, had been looted and vandalized long before discovery by our enlightened civilization. The chambers were completely empty, the walls covered in places with “runic inscriptions”—i.e., Viking graffiti. There are references to treasure and, shall we say, unprintable activities.

“Many a woman has gone stooping in here,” one of them reads. “Thorni bedded. Helgi carved,” reads another.

But probably the most remarkable feature of Maeshowe is the alignment of the tomb itself. For several weeks before and after the winter solstice, the sunset shines directly down the passage and illuminates the back wall of the chamber. Historic Scotland, which manages the site, maintains a webcam for those meek souls who want to witness it but don’t care to travel to Orkney at a time of year when dusk occurs during lunch.

I emerged to find it raining again. I pulled up my hood and hiked over to the Stones of Stenness. I crossed the bank and ditch and made my way over to the nearest of the slabs. Originally there had been 12 of them. Now there were only 4. But they had character—thin, sharp, with oblique angles that gave them a certain geological nobility. And there was a central hearth:  a stone box set in the ground, where fires had burned for ceremonial rituals and feasts. I looked down into it and imagined heat. The rain stopped. The clouds parted. The sun shone.

There was only one thing left to do. Skara Brae.

Can you handle the truth? It ain’t Pompeii. But consider this:  we’re closer in time to Pompeii than Pompeii was to Skara Brae. In other words, it’s more than twice as old. And there it was, built into a midden, which today serves as a kind of viewing platform surrounding the houses. The roofs are gone, allowing visitors to peer down into the structures. Walls, hearths, beds, dressers—all made of stone.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Tombs. Standing stones. The remains of Pictish or Viking (or both) hill forts. Wind-swept hills and roaring sea. And it was research. Really. These details are coming to you courtesy of copious notes and photos I took in the field, not to mention hours of additional writing at the hotel every night.

That said, it’s hard to claim any scholarly merit in visiting Highland Park Distillery or the restaurants of Kirkwall, one of which served a prime Orkney fillet steak with pan-seared queen scallops in a light whisky sauce, a kind of locavore extraordinaire, while another, called Dil Se, identified itself as “The Finest Indian Cuisine in Orkney,” which seemed like boasting the Best Mexican Food in Moscow. Or maybe the Tex-Mex of the North? But the saag balti and lamb tikka was worthy of any hemisphere, as was everything else about Orkney. As I boarded the ferry back home, I realized the last place I had enjoyed this much was another group of islands I had visited many years ago. What was the name? Ah yes. Hawaii. The Orkney of the South . . . But that would be a much more expensive novel to write.  

Guest Blog Post, Sherrie Flick: 11 Pieces of Good Advice and One I Should Have Ignored

  1. The high school classroom is standard issue. I’ve grown up in this mill town, but it’s really dying now. None of the students around me in this creative writing class have aspirations to become a writer. They want to go to college and get a job that they won’t get laid off from. My teacher Mr. Moore tells me: it doesn’t matter where you go to school. Anywhere you go, you’ll find great professors to work with. He says, yes, I think you have what it takes to become a writer.
  2. I’m in a standard issue professor’s office for my mid-semester conference in fiction 101. It’s probably the first workshop I’ve ever taken in my life. The professor looks up at me, squints, and says: The problem with you is that at some point in your life someone told you you were creative.
  3. I’m 23 years old and about to get into my boyfriend’s puke green Chevy. It’s parked in my parents’ driveway. We’ve stopped to visit them as we head west after I’ve graduated from the University of New Hampshire. We’ll travel across the country for months without any real destination, although we end up in San Francisco for 4 years. My parents don’t understand what in the hell I’m doing, although they wouldn’t say it that way. My dad tells me: always make sure you’re making enough money per month so that one week goes to rent, one goes to utilities and bills, one goes to savings, and one is for spending money. I follow this advice for years and in many ways it’s how I am able to write and work and live and be happy in many different places.
  4. My friend Pam on many different occasions: If you’re not having fun, leave.
  5. I’ve just met my roommate Mallory Tarses at Sewanee Writers’ Conference and by dinner time everyone thinks we’ve been friends forever. I write flash fiction, have been writing it for many years. Everyone tells me I need to write a novel. Everyone. Mallory says, or why not just get really, really good at writing flash fiction?
  6. At that same conference Tim O’Brien says: Don’t forget to look around while you’re in there writing the story, take the time to look around.
  7. My friend Jonah Winter: Knock it off.
  8. I’m four years out of graduate school and living in Pittsburgh with a real job working in museum education. It’s 40+ hours a week and stressful. I feel lost so I email my mentor Marly Swick (See #1) and tell her I’m ungrounded and out of touch with any kind of national writing community. She says, “Why don’t you apply to some writing residencies? I think it’s time for you to do that.”
  9. I’m at Atlantic Center for the Arts studying with Jim Crace and a great group of fiction writers. Armadillos rustle through the grasses below the boardwalks. Jim Crace says: “Slow down. Look at each sentence. Craft each sentence. Vary the length. Think about word choice. Avoid repeated words. Use active verbs. You already do this instinctually, now I want you to do it deliberately.”
  10. Pam Painter: Start with a list. A list is never intimidating.
  11. I’m running the Gist Street Reading Series in Pittsburgh. The writer John Dalton gets up to read from his debut novel Heaven Lake. He finishes and immediately sells out of books. Later he tells me: Summarize the novel in your introduction and then read a strong section that doesn’t logically follow from the summary. People buy books because they want to find out how the two connect.
  12. There’s a big round table and 21 of us sit around it. The Creative Capital retreat is like a boot camp in professionalism for artists. They tell us: Always introduce yourself using your first and last name. They tell us: Have a 1-year plan and a 5-year plan. They tell us: If you’re not being rejected, you’re not working hard enough.

Guest Blog Post, Todd Robinson: Think Think Think

Guest Blog PostThink Think Think

I write most of my poems from a little room on the second floor of a crumbling Spanish colonial in an old neighborhood of Omaha, Nebraska. Two wide windows face west, sky and tree-tops staring me down day after night after day after night. Powerlines and rooftops, rain and robins, and, once—though I was so high I doubted my bleary eyes—a showdown between thirty cardinals and three bluejays, which ended with a jay’s Stuka-dive calamitous slam three feet from my face. Sky must be reflected on the glass, because birds wham into it all the time. I notice with a start, then peer down to see a small, still form on a little sun-room roof one story below. If I look away, they disappear.

For all this weirdness and wonder, the swath of this vista usually bores me. I was very bored the January morning I wrote “Hard-Headed Mantra” (Superstition #20), leafless dark trees throwing up their hands to the wintry whiteout that swaddles Omaha four months of the year, my cold bones wrapped in flannel, brain ricocheting with restless cravings for something to do and to be. For years upon years I had filled those empty hours with intoxicants, churring through the lonely hours like a June-bug, sickly as a summer cold in any weather. But those draughts were done the day I wrote the poem. What to do, then?

My AA sponsor has always said if you have nothing to write about, write about nothing. He says Samuel Beckett won a Nobel Prize for writing about nothing, so I might as well write about nothing, too. So there I was, restless and moody as any addict, with no salve for my jangled nerves. A poem, then.

Ted Kooser once told me he always reads a poem before he attempts to write, as a kind of mental calisthenics, so ever the dutiful acolyte, I soon found myself appraising C. Dale Young’s “Between the Dragon and the Phoenix”, which opens “Fire in the heart, fire in the sky, the sun just / a smallish smudge resting on the horizon / out beyond the reef that breaks the waves” before delving into memories of father and son and the ambiguities therein. I loved his roiling rhythm, his painterly images, the high-tension wire between generations thrumming, and thought I might launch out from his reef into my own, more wintry, reverie.

And so I did, conjuring the not-much around and within me that January of 2017 before leaping into the fraught past I share with a man I once hated but have come somewhat begrudgingly to love. The poem tells the story, so there’s not much need to elaborate, but in my emotion recollected in boredom I did make an epiphanic leap between the casual cruelties he larded upon my youthful head and the dazed drunk I eventually became. I mean to imply no causality, but surely the seeds of my later ruin were planted not by his hard hand, but by the lazing, mazing, dozing days of my youth, when I filled the idle hours with daydreams and space operas, comic books and candy. He seemed to find me and my methods contemptible, and perhaps, I now realize, I protested—to myself only, for he brooked no opposition—too much. I always thought I was unique, especially gifted, golden…but it turned out I was just a drifting boy who became a man adrift.

I haven’t dosed since September 30th, 2014, but still I struggle to incite myself into productive action, and find myself staring out that window at a world built for the whims of others. And eight miles to the west, my father does the very same nothing.

Guest Post, Hannah Lee Jones: Poet Expend Yourself

guest postPoet Expend Yourself 

Several years ago, I was a beginning poet determined to learn the craft of poetry without the rigaramole and expense of earning an MFA. Inspired by my friend Rebecca Wallwork’s model—interviewing accomplished writers to get at the gems of their craft, which she’d then share on her blog, The MFA Project—I launched my own blog, Primal School, where I would do something similar with poets.

What I knew then was that I wanted to connect with and learn from other writers. I was prepared to give myself over to everything the art and craft of poetry would demand of me. I wasn’t as prepared to run into my own resistance to everything else the poetry universe demands of its artists.

With the blog my project began easily enough, beginning with questions for the poets I interviewed: How did you come to write this poem? What did you mean by this particular line? Tell us about your revision process.  As I mined for the poets’ techniques and sources of inspiration and highlighted their work on the site, I got to know the people behind the poems. Relationships blossomed. Poets expressed their appreciation for the blog, for the attention and care being given to their work. In a few cases I even helped boost poets who were just starting their careers and whose credibility would be supported by an interview feature. As young as Primal School was, others had even begun sending their students to the site as a resource.

In the winter of 2017 I began a seasonal stint as an intern at Copper Canyon Press in what was then my backyard of the Pacific Northwest. I regarded this experience as another brick in the growing poetic education that was my self-created MFA. In a drafty building in the middle of Fort Warden State Park I made copies, filled book orders, and read the manuscript submissions that came in. In retrospect what was fascinating and almost funny about this period was how quickly my perceived status in the poetry world grew in a manner which had absolutely nothing to do with anything I’d written or actually done. I watched with fascination the god-like projections poets would lavish on Copper Canyon editors in spaces like AWP, some of which inevitably spilled over onto staff and interns including me. I noticed my ego eating it up. I also observed that something in me had developed an allergy to a disjunction I was seeing — between the artifact that is a poem and the life that is its habitat; between poet and other; between poet and the world. It was around this time that my writing dried up, and with it my personal life and the structures in my world which I had come to regard as given.

The exact source of this disruption is difficult to name. But I suspect that the seeds for it were planted during a trip to South Carolina for a writing residency in late fall of 2016. The election of our new president was around the corner; the lefties who were my peers at the residency were not the least bit concerned that this would be the outcome. I wasn’t so sure. For reasons of curiosity and cultural immersion I formed a deep relationship with a Trump supporter who had been kind to me, and as I got to know him, I understood instinctively that his stories were the life which had been missing from my experience. Life to me could no longer consist only of reclining on my chaise lounge with a volume of Tranströmer poems, so far removed from a world coming undone with its poverty, grief, abuses and addictions. I still wanted my poems, but their fuel source was out.

For the grand embrace of the All that is America, the poet we love returning to time and time again (of course) is Walt Whitman. Revisiting his “Song of Myself,” I detect an inspirational whiff of the thing that was missing and that I’d left behind when I committed my life to poetry:

I am enamoured of growing outdoors,
Of men that live among cattle or taste of the ocean or woods,
Of the builders and steerers of ships, of the wielders of axes and mauls, of the drivers of horses,
I can eat and sleep with them week in and week out.

When the calling came for the open road I knew I had to respond, which I eventually I did. My writing naturally was reignited.

Gary Dop gave a memorable interview on Primal School in which he advocated for poetry as one of the great healing agents in a culture which has lost its spiritual center. I think it’s worthwhile to examine the question of whether the literary community as a function of this wider culture has also strayed from its center — whether that’s in the way we write (towards a style or objective rather than our deepest selves); or in any number of paths we walk unquestioningly (first you publish poems in journals, then they win prizes, then those poems become a book, then the books win you more prizes, and you get to repeat the cycle ad nauseam till the end of your career); to our relentless concern for how others react or what others are thinking or doing, whether that’s in the reviews we write or how we go about sharing our work (we give readings, of course). I see nothing wrong with any of these things on their own; it’s the blind adherence to them as inevitable steps forward in the career every writer that I’ve begun to question.

As an experiment in confronting these time-worn paths and really challenging whether they are for me, I recently took a break from submitting to journals and have been giving my poems and other writing away on social media. I don’t know how long I’ll be doing this. The recent critiques and discussions around “Instapoets” are compelling for the questions they raise: What is “accessible”? Who gets to say what’s good, or what poetry even is? Why is it seen as a waste of a good poem for an author to post it to a social media platform right away (which constitutes publication) instead of submitting it for the formal validation of appearing first in a journal? Bob Dylan’s Nobel win, along similar lines, got me thinking about poetry as a wider arena that in a more inclusive world would encompass songwriters and spoken-word artists and others like them (I’m thinking of people like Gregory Alan Isakov, Cleo Wade and Andrea Gibson). As artists they are all masters of the creative giveaway, a concept worth revisiting in Whitman’s later lines:

What is commonest and cheapest and nearest and easiest is Me,
Me going in for my chances, spending for vast returns,
Adorning myself to bestow myself on the first that will take me,
Not asking the sky to come down to my goodwill,
Scattering it freely forever.

The older I get the more I believe that to expend oneself creatively is an act of communion that burgeons out beyond the individual into something that Gregory Orr describes as “the Beloved that is the world.” Recently I had an exchange with a poet who remarked quite cavalierly that he’d never understood poetry as needing a purpose that was rooted in anything that wasn’t the self. I disagree with him. Poetry demands that the self come to fruition and nothing less. But I think the self is just a conduit for the transmission; the real reason we write is to connect with the Other in as many ways as our tools will allow us. In a world steeped in suffering such as ours is in these times, the reason we write is because of our love and our pain, which are shared; our desire to sustain our belief in a world where goodness and mercy and mutuality have not been exterminated.

I am grateful for and continue to hold in highest respect the institutions and individuals who train our poets, who publish their books, who promote their careers. Without them I wouldn’t still be writing poems. I’ll be culling from their wisdom and ideas as I find my own path forward. But I also care about whether we are connecting to the full with the world around us; whether we are honoring our contract with life by saying yes to our deepest and most colorful possible participation in the universe through everything we create. That would be something worth giving my life over to.

Guest Post, Robert Detman: The Necessity of Writing (and Reading)

guest postThe Necessity of Writing (and Reading)

The need to write can be as essential and sustaining as any healthy addiction. With the commitment comes the inevitable desire to send the work out into the world to be published, perhaps in search of literary glory, or merely in the hope of finding corroboration that what one has written is worthwhile.

Writing is such a compulsion that it justifies itself; I often find myself returning to work that is years old, which nags at me, insisting that I give it another read. The energy in the prose sustains and reasserts the imperative of its creation. Because of the number and variety of these drafts, and how they occasionally mix genres, I never know when–or if–I’ll return to them to try to revise again.

At an AWP panel in Tampa this year, “How to Fail: On Abandoning a Manuscript, and Not”, the writers assembled discussed why or why not one might give up on a piece of writing. The consensus seemed to be that writers don’t easily give up on their work. This may be why William Faulkner advised us to kill our darlings—no one is going to do it for us. If success is only gauged by publication, most writers are serial failures. Yet writers who would never abandon their work seem to have hit upon a truth that lies at the heart of all writing: Only the writer herself can determine if a piece succeeds or fails. And perhaps the inherent stubbornness and persistence it takes to be a published writer means we do not give up projects so easily, or even when we should.

What does one hope to accomplish with this persistent—yet intermittent—revisiting, and revising, of past work? We’re likely not just doing it for its own sake. We can perhaps see a progression in the drafts, that there is more there than we might have recognized in previous drafts; there must have been something there all along. Whatever kernels of truth there are in the work, are worth looking at again. As well, it must increase the chances of publishing if we can make use of the material we have. For myself, it often feels right to reconsider an abandoned piece, as I’m aware that I don’t usually work on something I don’t intend to try to publish. And of course, it’s not always true that what I write gets published, but I understand what it takes. It also makes me aware that writing and revision seems to never end.

Though it’s possibly true that what the writer gets out of producing a piece of writing is not nearly the same as what the reader gets from it, could the need to write have any correlation to what a reader may feel drawn to in the writing? In his groundbreaking 1994 book The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, Sven Birkerts pairs the activity of reading and that of writing as, in essence, one and the same, of existing in a kind of symbiosis in the eye and mind of the beholder—that is, whomever is reading or writing it. Reading and writing could be the proverbial chicken or egg conundrum: which came first?

In relation to other arts, writing may be no less hard won in its creation than painting, or music, or film and drama. Yet these other arts are experienced by their audience with varying degrees of passivity. It’s even possible to experience them obliviously. In fact, it would be possible to experience these works and not engage with them at all. I would guess that not everyone who seeks out cultural artifacts is fully “on” in their presence. The same cannot be said of writing. Reading is a voluntary act of volition, which requires one to fully engage with it. It is almost useless to read passively.

Generally, when I read, I’m looking to be surprised, wowed, or otherwise blown away. I crave that unique experience, which occurs when a narrative is so seamlessly accomplished that it manages to defy precedent. I look for this in fiction, and most often this sustained experience is achieved in novels. Not surprisingly, it’s usually these goals that I aspire to when I write.

I have the compulsion and habit of writing in multiple genres. People argue and make justifications for the superiority of one genre over another. Still, it’s all writing. Lately, I’ve been focused on poetry. Having written poetry for years, I undertook recently to study with an award-winning poet, and I’m encouraged. I read and write poetry with a sense of rediscovery, almost as if working muscles I didn’t know I had. I can sense I’m breaking ground for myself, which is an exciting part of the experiment that is my writing vocation.

My interest in writing across genres—and not being defined by any one—stems from restlessness, and that genre hopping is fed by my frequently broad reading. This restlessness may also just be a way of shaking myself from complacency, keeping fresh what is in front of me. I use writing toward whatever ends my mind craves. Poetry, for me, is the purview of feeling and emotion, and playing with language. Although the same might be said of fiction, I believe fiction is driven by the play of characters. The characters of fiction become real to me, and I become their caretaker. These characters are perhaps stand-ins for my own interests, and I use them to explore motive and action. There is frequently a spiritual depth to this work.

What fiction offers to a reader is story and a possibility of an empathetic identification with the characters in the work. Fiction projects a simulacrum of emotion we might feel, safely in the realm of language. We are safe because it’s only feelings we are “trying on” temporarily. We may be emotionally invested, but we are in our own heads. There are few repercussions. It can also engage the reader in the way that narrative seeks to find resolution. Narrative, which is telling a story, is inherently a form of entertainment.

Nonfiction, of the type you are currently reading, is driven by a desire to clarify my thinking, or to codify an experience. Nonfiction can be intellect driven work. I find that writing in a journal, for example, is essentially the deliberative framing of my thinking. The goal is often to find the energy in a piece with the momentum of a thesis, for an essay or blog.

When I write, I give myself license to not always have a clear objective. Writing is to wrestle and struggle with the unknown. To write to whatever end occurs to me is a search for the objective in the subjective. All of this is a way of trying to explain the motivation to write, the necessity of it. I can’t be sure I am providing for a reader what I look for in writing, but I hope in some way that I’m close.

As much as I am a writer, I am a reader, and vice versa. It seems almost strange to say it, but I really read to learn how I can write better. How to pull off—using an imprecise expression—the tricks that I find in exemplary work that upends precedent. This is not to say I don’t also read for joy, and frisson, and to get a sense of my place in the world. But at the crux of it all is the desire—the necessity–to write, and to hopefully impart that desire to an eager reader.

Guest Post, Caleb Nelson: The Oulipian Strategy

guest post, Caleb NelsonTHE OULIPIAN STRATEGY

We might think of Ouilpo as the ultimate writing workshop program. Of course, Ouilpo is more than that. The organization has a longevity few literary groups can claim. In the essay “Raymond Queneau and the Early Oulipo,” scholar Warren Motte writes, “Oulipo has certainly shattered the record of longevity for literary groups, leaving Dada, Surrealism, Futurism, Lettrism, Situationism, and so forth behind like so many sleek but abashed hares bested by the tortoise.” The constant quasi-religious in-fighting of groups like Lettrism and Surrealism made it almost impossible for the members to remain a unit. For example, André Breton’s excommunications of those like Robert Desnos and Raymond Queneau (Oulipo’s cofounder) seems almost tyrannical in hindsight. Ouilpo somehow avoids this. As Motte describes, “No excommunications here, no ritual immolations, no spectacular au·to-da-fé, no gore-drenched seppukus.” Oulipo achieves this relative peace perhaps out of its very ambitions and aims, its structuring.

Raymond Queneau described Oulipo as “Rats who build the labyrinth from which they try to escape.” In an essay called, “Into the Maze: OUILPO,” scholar Mónica de la Torre argues, “The concerns of the original members of the Oulipo were, at least, two-fold: on the one hand, they wanted to write literature that could not be easily consumed and disposed of, literature that was always in the making… Oulipians also wanted to devise a system to guarantee that writers would not run out of innovative formal possibilities.” There’s a playful paradox at work here. The Oulipian literary model attempts to impose arbitrary constraints on the writing process, and, at the same time, hopes to produce lasting, transformative (non-disposable) works of art, which suggests there’s a useful/latent degree of freedom lurking within such constraint. The idea of not running “out of innovative formal possibilities” might seem sort of old hat in our age of algorithms, but it wasn’t in the 1960s.

Oulipians wanted to maintain a system of procedural innovations for writers, but they also wanted their literature to be transformative. They differed from the Surrealists in the sense that they considered “automatic writing” to be a form of cheating. According to Queneau, in his 1963 essay, “Potential Literature,” he says the Oulipian goal is “To propose new ‘structures’ to writers, mathematical in nature, or to invent new artificial or mechanical procedures that will contribute to literary activity: props for inspiration as it were, or rather, in a way, aids for creativity.” Again, it’s kind of like the ultimate writing workshop formula(s)/exercise(s). Torre explains the exciting, if not obvious, possibilities of such a program, “Thanks to the Oulipo, poets with writers’ block can explore lipograms, perverbs, antonymic translations, homophonic translations, spoonerisms, centos, heterograms, pangrams, and a myriad of other forms instead of agonizing over the blank page.” Oulipo didn’t invent these forms or procedures, but rather, according to Torre, they rescued them from “literary oblivion.”

A writer I love and admire comes out of the Oulipian world, the Italian short story writer Italo Calvino. Calvino has a wonderful collection of short stories called Marcovaldo, which are obviously still worth reading today. In an essay called “Cybernetics and Ghosts,” Calvino describes some foundational Oulipian assumptions. He writes, “primitive oral narratives, like the folk tale that has been handed down almost to the present day, is molded on fixed structures, on, we might almost say, prefabricated elements – elements, however, that allow of an enormous number of combinations.” Here, we see again the Oulipian fascination with a predetermined “labyrinth” as a set of literary possibilities. Calvino goes on. He argues, “Even if the folk imagination is therefore not boundless like the ocean, there is no reason to think of it as being like a water tank of small capacity. On an equal level of civilization, the operation of narrative, like those of mathematics, cannot differ all that much from one people to another, but what can be constructed on the basis of these elementary process can present unlimited combinations, permutations, and transformations.” Combinations. Permutations. Transformations. Calvino, rather brilliantly, outlines the Oulipian strategy. I have to say, this program/project may partially explain Oulipo’s longevity. The possibilities within this mazelike framework are unexpectedly open and endless.

Guest Post, Johannah Racz Knudson: Three Difficult Names

In the summer of 1991, I visited Saint Petersburg, Russia, with a group of “youth ambassadors.” The Cold War was melting, the Soviet Empire was crumbling, and efforts were being made to forge personal and political connections between two regions long divided by competition and suspicion.

The city had recently returned to its original name. In 1703, Peter the Great had founded and effectively named the city after himself. Then, in 1914, at war with Germany, the city became Petrograd—a distinctively Russian, rather than Germanic, name. Almost a decade later, after the Bolsheviks took power, the city was dubbed Leningrad, which it remained until 1991.

I stood in the city in the midst of this transition, its attempt to reclaim something of its former self by returning to its former name.

The Irony of Leningrad

The irony of Leningrad is that Lenin itself was not the original name of the man it referred to. It was a name intentionally acquired by a revolutionary with big ambitions. The man in question was born Vladimir Ulyanov. To cover its bases, in 1924, the Soviet Union designated a different city Ulyanovsk.

In fact, three major figures of the Bolshevik Revolution had all changed their names. While working to subvert the Russian Empire, Lenin wished to avoid capture by hiding his identity—not coincidentally choosing a pseudonym that was both terse and memorably alliterative. Lev Davidovich Bronstein became Leon Trotsky to distance himself from his Jewish ancestry, an effort that was ultimately unsuccessful, despite even his own antisemitic rhetoric. And Joseph Dzhugashvili became Joseph Stalin because—well—Stalin means steel. It was a statement of personality and philosophy. It was a kind of one-word manifesto.

My Own Contrivance

When my grandfather was born in 1905 in Miskolc, Hungary, his parents gave him a last name different from their own. While my great grandfather’s surname was Rosenzweig, my grandfather’s was Racz. Together with his first name, Zoltan, my grandfather’s name was consummately Hungarian.

I used to think that the name change was an effort to hide the family’s Jewish identity in an atmosphere of antisemitism, but this explanation doesn’t quite compute; my great grandparents were highly religious and my grandfather became a rabbi, hardly an effort to hide his religious identification. Though the family was undeniably subject to antisemitism, the name change in 1905 Hungary most likely was an effort to assimilate in terms of nationality, not religion, in a society that elevated Hungarian national identity above all others.

Ironically, outside of Hungary, the name Racz is a mark of ethnic and national difference. In the U.S., it is typically encountered as unfamiliar and unpronounceable. In effect, because my family immigrated to North America, it became a different name, not one of belonging or sameness, but one of separation.

I’ve spent my life both correcting others’ pronunciation of my name and deciding how to pronounce it myself; would I roll the r, would I say the cz like tz as done in Hungarian—a language I do not speak? Would this be more authentic than an Americanized pronunciation such as Racks or Race or Rahz or Rocks?

I was trying to find my original, authentic name, my “real” name.

But I could not find it. There was no “real” name—by virtue of my grandfather’s name change and then my family’s change of country and context. My name was wholly my own, connected to a history but not predetermined by it.

And then I changed it.

My last name is now Knudson. To be clear, the K is audible, pronounced almost as if it were its own separate syllable, but not quite.

The reason I considered changing my name at all when I married was its history, which taught me that a name is not identical to that which it names. My name was—is—a point of choice rather than an inevitability.

The Name of God

In Hebrew, the most sacred of name of God is never spoken. Rather, one way to refer to God is HaShem, literally, the name.

Within this is an acknowledgement of language’s propensity to limit, the way its inevitable connotations make it unsuitable to refer to that which is beyond definition: God, the infinite.

In this way, theoretically, either by remaining beyond speech, or, alternatively, by being the name instead of a name, God can exist apart from circumstance and context, from concerns of nationality or politics or culture or campaigns for power or control—while also encompassing it all.

The infinity of God remains.

Being There

As human beings, with names, we can’t remain infinite. We take names with histories and connotations, and intentional and unintentional meanings that locate us within a social, political, and historical framework. When we learn someone’s name, it becomes inextricably linked to our sense of who they are.

A sequence of three names identifies me, Johannah Racz Knudson, each term of which is commonly considered difficult to pronounce. Each is subject to misunderstanding or doubt, which reminds me constantly that no name is identical to its owner. I’m constantly negotiating the distance between my self and my name. Even as I’m asking the world to get it—to get me—right, the experience itself shows that there is no perfect union between name and essence.

Via my “difficult” name, I am inscrutable, but also undefined.

A Slippery Medium

As writers, we work in a slippery medium, one that points to something but that is, in essence, nothing. Names, words, are carefully arbitrarily selected. When we write them, we believe we know what we are saying. We do our best. We write and revise. We name and rename. We write a poem and then another.

Regimes rise and fall. People move across borders and oceans. Names change. Languages. Words flow, in flux.

And we write them down, as they are, right now, in this moment. If we’re lucky, someone, somewhere, reads them, and understands.