Guest Post, Sudha Balagopal: A Foreign Connection

 

Sudha Balagopal bio photoAs a writer straddling continents, I am fascinated by authors who inject foreign words and phrases into their English fiction.  These international words and phrases, I believe, are helpful in lending credibility to a story. They embellish the narrative, bring authenticity and help transport the reader.

Some writers explain the meanings of such words, either in-text or in a glossary.  At times, foreign expressions are used sparingly; at other times more generously. Some authors repeat phrases for consistency, or as a matter of style. No matter. When expressions from another language are used in description or in dialog, they leap out at me.

Take the case of the inimitable Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s enduring Belgian detective. When I was in high school, he taught me French expressions like mon ami and mon cher. Of course, I had no knowledge of French; still, uttering the words made me feel clever and witty.

Agatha Christie expertly used foreign expressions in creating Hercule Poirot. The detective is overlooked and dismissed because of being foreign, and she used his manner of speaking as a tool to tell us about him.

‘Mon cher, am I tonight the fortune-teller who reads the palm and tells the character?’

‘You could do it better than most,’ I rejoined.

‘It is a very pretty faith that you have in me, Hastings. It touches me. Do you not know, my friend, that each one of us is a dark mystery, a maze of conflicting passions and desires and attitudes? Mais oui, c’est vrai. One makes one’s little judgments – but nine times out of ten one is wrong.’ (Agatha Christie, Lord Edgware Dies, Hercule Poirot, Series #9)

Appropriate dialog is a powerful instrument to lend fiction the flavor of a culture or a place. Using the right words makes dialog sing. There’s no big to-do in the way E. M. Forster, in his book A Passage to India, makes use of Indian words.

The first who was in evening dress, glanced at the Indian and turned instinctively away

“Mrs Lesley, it is a tonga,” she cried.

“Ours?” enquired the second, also seeing Aziz and doing likewise.

“Take the gifts the gods provide, anyhow,” she screeched, and both jumped in. “O Tonga wallah, club, club. Why doesn’t the fool go?”

Go, I will pay you tomorrow,” said Aziz to the driver, and as they went off, he called courteously, “You are most welcome, ladies.” They did not reply being full of their own affairs. (chapter 11)

We may gather from the dialog that a tonga is a vehicle, a tonga wallah is one who drives the vehicle. A subtle power play also reveals itself here. The last name reveals that the ladies are English, and Aziz is not. All this from a short piece of dialog.

Not everyone espouses the use of words from another language when writing fiction in English.  In his article, Say ‘Non’ to Phrasebook Foreign Language in Fiction, Daniel Kalder writes,

“Either you render the language in English, or you render it in French. And if your readers are English speakers, then, I dunno, you should probably render it in English. Chucking in a few phrases of first year French adds nothing in terms of meaning and is just daft.” ( theguardian.com, July 13, 2011)

Granted, Agatha Christie was not Belgian and E. M. Forster was not Indian. But what if the author writing in English is reflecting a part of their heritage, representing who they are as a people and as a culture?

Nayomi Munaweera’s novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, is set in Sri Lanka. She uses terms contextually, a natural exclamation here, a term there, which means the reader connects with the cultural milieu even as the story advances. The two Tamil words she uses in the lines below lend authenticity and adorn the dialog.

Nishan must watch his friends being sent to squat at the back of the schoolroom, arms crossed to grasp opposite ears. As they walk home together, these boys say, “Aiyo, she has two eyes in the back of her head.” And only filial devotion keeps him from replying,” Machang, you should see her at home.” (Part One, Chapter 1)

Foreign expressions are used in descriptive text as well. Take Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who uses Igbo words in her narrative. She brings Nigeria to us, her skill making the prose come refreshingly alive.

The goats wandered a lot around the yard, they wandered in, too, while we cousins bathed, scrubbing with ogbo that my grandmother made from sun-dried coconut husks, scooping water from a meal bucket. We bathed near the vegetable garden, in the space enclosed with zinc left over from the last house refurbishing. Mama Nnukwu would shoo the goats away from the vines of ugu and beans that crept up those zinc walls, clucking, clapping her hands. (Recaptured Spirits, Notre Dame Review, Number 18, 2004)

The reader doesn’t need to know exactly what ogbo is, or ugu. We comprehend the scene. The author has sprinkled in just Igbo two words into the paragraph to make it shine.

Junot Diaz takes it a step forward, knitting dialog and text and sprinkling his Spanish into it. He mixes the ingredients as if tossing a salad,  the sweet and the sour, the crunchy and tangy, the veggies and the berries. His scenes come alive, because of the use of his Spanish terms. The reader is instantly drawn into the vividness of his narrative.

You had to be careful with her because she had a habit of sitting down without even checking if there was anything remotely chairlike underneath her, and twice already she’d missed the couch and busted her ass—the last time hollering Dios mío, qué me has hecho?—and I had to drag myself out of the basement to help her to her feet. These viejas were my mother’s only friends—even our relatives had gotten scarce after year two—and when they were over was the only time Mami seemed somewhat like her old self. Loved to tell her stupid campo jokes. Wouldn’t serve them coffee until she was sure each tácita contained the exact same amount. And when one of the Four was fooling herself she let her know it with a simple extended Bueeeeennnnoooo. ( The Pura Principle, New Yorker,  Mar 22, 2010)

Foreign expressions are connectors. But more than that, they enrich us. Through them, the English language elevates itself, becoming a vehicle to understand other people and cultures—helping us accept differences and celebrate similarities. To authors who incorporate them I say, may you continue to do so.

Guest Post, Sheila Black: Personal/Political

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the political and the personal. When I was in graduate school, getting my MFA,  my poet friends and I professed a slight scorn for poetry that was too or only or merely political.  We spoke of the need for the individual voice, the lyric, the arena of mystery where a thing could not be defined by politics alone. We spoke with a what I now recognize as typical graduate school over-earnestness about how poetry had to exist in language first, as if language itself were somehow beyond or antithetical to the practice of politics.  This now seems to me terribly naive, sign of  a privilege we didn’t know we had.  Now that I am older, and living in the America that is our America now, it seems to me, on the contrary, that everything is political, and yet the vexed crossing of the political and the personal still stands.

Everything is political.  Everything is personal. This is both true, and untrue, and perhaps the more relevant question is how do they come together? What can we do as persons to speak out or engage in politics; more precisely, how can we do this without losing the distinctive strata of experience the personal gives us?

Recently, I read an article by Isreali philosopher Yuval Noah Harari in which he made a useful distinction.  He said the important task was to look at what was real, and he pointed out how much of our power, our politics come from our capacity as humans to devise collective fictions. He goes on: “The best test to know whether an entity is real or fictional is the test of suffering. A nation cannot suffer, it cannot feel pain, it cannot feel fear, it has no consciousness. Even if it loses a war, the soldier suffers, the civilians suffer, but the nation cannot suffer. Similarly, a corporation cannot suffer, the pound sterling, when it loses its value, it doesn’t suffer.”

I thought of this last week when I saw that President Trump’s approval rating had risen—apparently, for there seemed no other conceivable reason, because he dropped a 22,000 ton bomb—a bomb so enormous commentators referred to it with almost unseemly glee as “the Mother of all Bombs,”—on an Isis training camp in Afghanistan.  And, a few days before, he launched a major airstrike against Syria in retaliation for President Assad’s use of chemical weapons. The airstrike was large enough to make those on the scene feel “the heavens were falling,” and took out a few airplanes, a couple of runways, while not in any real sense impeding President Assad’s ability to wage war against his own citizens. For these acts, Trump was more often than not praised by major media “for finally acting presidential,” “showing the world he could be decisive,” and “demonstrating leadership.”

Track the suffering:  15 were killed in the Syrian airstrikes.  The bombing in Afghanistan killed an estimated 94.  Between 321,358 and 470,00 people have died in Syria’s civil war to date; 1 2,394 US soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001; over 26,000 Afghan civilians have been killed  during the same period, with estimates of total Afghan deaths due to war-related violence or events related to the war rising as high as 360,000.

These numbers suggest the outlines of the “real story,” but for an American writer far from the actual battlefields over there, they leave unsettling questions.  How do I bear witness?  How do I take repsonsbility?  Their suffering is not the same as mine.  Am I qualified to speak of it?  Where does my personal intersect with this political?

***

Here is a story from my life:

When I was a young child, and first went to school, I was relentlessly mocked because I had crooked legs due to a genetic illness. Every day at lunch ,a group of boys and girls would surround make fun of me, and dare me to run across the playground, which made them laugh because I could not for the life of me 1) run fast or 2) run in a straight line.

I had one friend, a girl called  Nicky, who was as outcast as I was, though for less desirable reason. Nicki was thin and scrawny with mousy hair that looked as if it had been cut with nail scissors; she stammered when called on and burst into tears easily when frightened.  When the group of kids on the playground got tired of making fun of me, they made fun of Nicki. Over the course of the year little-by- little I became bolder. I spoke back. I became good at telling tall tales, making jokes. I was still scorned, but ever-so-slightly less so.

One day a popular girl who had long been one of my tormenters took me aside. She wanted me to play a trick with them on Nicki. I was to ask Nicki to go with me to the edge of the plaground, our usual spot, under a large plain tree, where we sat and played with people we made out of seeds and grass. And there the others would jump out and frighten her.

I don’t actually recall the exact mechanics of how this was to work, but I do remember what happened. Nicki ended up facedown on the playground, sobbing as the others surrounded her and prodded at her with sticks. It is a blurred memory and one that, when it comes back to me, always, these fifty-some years later, makes me flinch.  But the point is this—when it came down to it, I wanted to belong, more than I wanted to be true to my friend. I felt myself weak and I wanted to be strong, and I wanted this badly enough to behave just like any other playground bully.

I remember one other thing too. After a few weeks, the other kids got sick of me, and left me with Nicki again, and we resumed as we had before, sitting by ourselves at the edge of the playing field, eating our lunch and playing with our makeshift grass-and-seed dolls, but I don’t think it was ever quite the same as before.

This small story is, of course, not in the slightest “political,” nor does it on the surface have much to do with bombs in Afghanistan or airstrikes in Syria, but there is a kind of affinity, for what is my story, after all. if not an allegory of power or the longing of even the weak to seize it and be strong? It suggests, too, how suffering and cruelty can result from that longing or how little there is in the world to defend the most vulnerable.

***

The personal and the political. One thing they share is both are in some degree made of stories, stories in which it is always hard to parse the lie from the truth.  In her remarkable lecture, given on winning the Nobel Prize, “Every Word Knows Something of a Vicious Circle,” Romanian novelist, Herta Muller, like Yuval Harari, concerns herself with the difficulty of telling our fictions from “reality,” truth from lie.  She  writes of this problem as one bound up in and also, perversely, only able to be solved through language itself—the process of thought, speech, and, especially, writing. The essay begins almost tenderly:

DO YOU HAVE A HANDKERCHIEF was the question my mother asked me every morning, standing by the gate to our house, before I went out onto the street. I didn’t have a handkerchief. And because I didn’t, I would go back inside and get one. I never had a handkerchief because I would always wait for her question. The handkerchief was proof that my mother was looking after me in the morning. For the rest of the day I was on my own. The question DO YOU HAVE A HANDKERCHIEF was an indirect display of affection. Anything more direct would have been embarrassing and not something the farmers practiced.

Muller parses how words or discourse give us ways of expressing through indirection true or important things about ourselves we won’t or can’t simply say.  How would her mother ever declare “I love you” except by asking the question about the handkerchief?

Yet Muller’s essay quickly darkens. She grows up and works in manufacturing plant. There, she is approached by an agent of the Romanian Securitate.  He uses a variety of tactics  to appeal to her, flattering her first, then abusing her, all with the intent of persuading her to become an informer, spying and reporting on her colleagues at the factory. Muller refuses, and almost instantly finds herself an outcast.  Lies are spread that she is a spy. Everyone knows this is not true, but everyone is afraid.  Her best friend refuses to let Muller into her office: I can’t let you in. Everyone is saying you’re an informer.

Her desk is repossessed, her status stripped away.

Even if most of us have not lived thought such terror, we have experienced situations where the words around us became suddenly a lie, or where we do not know how to assert our own truth in the presence of what seems an overpowering mandate to think or be a certain way.  Or where people or words actively betray us.

Once cast out, Muller spends her days sitting on the factory staircase, reading the dictionary for she has nothing else to do.  Painstakingly, she learns all the words that have to do with stair: “HAND is the direction a stair takes at the first riser. The edge of a tread that projects past the face of the riser is called the NOSING…nosing and hand, so the stair has a body “ In finding the story words tell of the objects around her, she sees how they can create another world—not quite the world; yet a truth of the world:

Whether working with wood or stone, cement or iron: why do humans insist on imposing their face on even the most unwieldy things in the world, why do they name dead matter after their own flesh, personifying it as parts of the body? Is this hidden tenderness necessary to make the harsh work bearable for the technicians? Does every job in every field follow the same principle as my mother’s question about the handkerchief?”

Mueller is fascinated that it is precisely in the slippage of words, their materiality which has an affinity with, but is not the same as, the materiality of the world  that provides words with their curious capacity to see inside or to reform or remake one’s relation with the world, even in the most desperate of circumstances:   

The sound of the words knows that it has no choice but to beguile, because objects deceive with their materials, and feelings mislead with their gestures. The sound of the words, along with the truth this sound invents, resides at the interface, where the deceit of the materials and that of the gestures come together. In writing, it is not a matter of trusting, but rather of the honesty of the deceit

I love the phrase she uses here: “honesty of the deceit,” for when I think of writing, both as a political and a personal act, it is the imperative toward honest deceit that catches me the most. Often, when I write a poem or an essay, and I try to include something I have seen, I am always conscious of my failure, the way in which what I write is  never quite the thing itself. At the same time, I know when the deceit is most honest, the words catch something that is true in a lyrical and political way about experience. Often this occurs when I am furthest from being strong or in control, but rather when my vulnerability is most acute, when the only means I have of bridging the gap I feel between myself and what is around me is through the materiality of the words themselves.

In finding herself under a dictatorship, unable to speak in a way that would be believed, Muller becomes obesesed with writing, with studying, simply, the words for things:

.what can’t be said can be written. Because writing is a silent act, a labor from the head to the hand.I talked a great deal during the dictatorship…Usually my talking led to excruciating consequences. But the writing began in silence, there on the stairs, where I had to come to terms with more than could be said.  I reacted to the deathly fear with a thirst for life. A hunger for words. Nothing but the whirl of words could grasp my condition….

This week when I read of Trump’s newly enhanced presidential mien, and saw the stories about the war that might be coming, and thought about how powerless I—and most of us—feel, and how the language of the public arena itself seems to defeat our efforts to change or mend or heal what the wounded world is doing around us, I thought of Meuller’s speech, and the notion of words as a way of filling the gap, their  honest  deceit, or that they, through their matter, will somehow penetrate or pierce the consequences of the fictions we live by each day.  Muller writes:

The more that which is written takes from me, the more it shows what was missing from the experience that was lived. Only the words make this discovery, because they didn’t know it earlier. And where they catch the lived experience by surprise is where they reflect it best. In the end they become so compelling that the lived experience must cling to them in order not to fall apart

You could mull over what this means for a long time, but I think what I take from it—is simply this, only in the words can we hold the distinction between what is real and the unreal ideologies that make up so much of our lives at this moment. We can remember that it is only persons who suffer and, more, we can without deliberation or foreknowledge begin to trace what is missing from the lived experience of our time.

Guest Post, Patricia Clark: Recalibrating your poetry settings, or using the past to help you write better in the present

You’ve been traveling, let us say, perhaps to France. Your body’s in another time zone and yet you’re back at home base and ready to get back to your writing. There it is, though, a blank page, and you suddenly freeze. Or you’ve come through the winter and you’re tired—of students, colleagues, meetings, papers to grade. Now you can sit down. You’ve just submitted final grades. You want to write and feel ready. But there it is again—a blank computer screen, or a blank page. Where to begin?

Some of the most basic questions loom at such times for me as a writer. What is a poem? How do I write one? How did I ever write one in the past? If these questions don’t loom for you at times, or re-loom after a spate of not writing, I am surprised. Go on about your life as usual, your happy work—the suggestions that follow are for those of us, the troubled ones, who need answers to these questions.

It’s a truism that reading other poems and other poets can help you get going. I want to suggest a particular kind of reading, one that has worked me in the past. Find an anthology—an old anthology (of twenty or thirty years ago, or longer)—one that collected great poems of the past. Two I found near me recently are these: Fifty Years of American Poetry: Anniversary volume for the Academy of American Poets, introduced by Robert Penn Warren, copyright 1984. Another is: 100 Great Poems of the 20th Century, ed. by Mark Strand. Published by W.W. Norton in 2005. Many other anthologies would work for this exercise. Look around, and/or go to a used bookstore and see what you can find.

Why does it help if the book is old? I recommend a book where you don’t recognize the writers’ names, and thus their words, cadences, rhythms, forms will be new to you. You want to encounter freshness and be jolted anew by the voices of poets.

Why should I read the poems out loud? I recommend this so you may really hear the poets. Slow down, enjoy the poems, don’t worry about starting to write yourself—but I guarantee that something you hear, some approach to a subject, some way of beginning a poem, will jolt you into action.

What are some of the poems that did this for you? I am referring to the Mark Strand volume mentioned above. Find this and read these. See if you aren’t changed by the encounter.

A.R. Ammons, “The City Limits”

Amy Clampitt, “Marine Surface, Low Overcast”

Hart Crane, “My Grandmother’s Love Letters”

May Swenson, “Question”

Wislawa Szymborska, “The End and the Beginning”

Derek Walcott, “The Season of Phantasmal Peace”

William Carlos Williams, “These”

James Wright, “The Journey

Can you be more specific about what you found reading these poets of the past? Let me try. The Ammons’ opening, for example. I love the confidence with which the poem starts, “When you consider the radiance,” – and the surprise of the word “radiance.” Notice that it could be another word; you could put your own word in. But the poet begins and just starts; he is spinning out his observation of the world and its details, and I suggest that the writer doesn’t know where this poem will end up. The writer is doing what my teacher Richard Hugo suggested: following the music. Start somewhere yourself; start anywhere. Start your sentence and write. Get going. Follow the music.

Ditto the Amy Clampitt poem. I defy you to read the opening stanza and not be simply entranced by her use of vocabulary and sound. What a spin of words!

Out of churned auereoles

this buttermilk, this

herringbone of albatross,

floss of mercury,

déshabille of spun

aluminum, furred with a velouté

of looking-glass. . . .

What happens for me as a reader is a re-centering of my poetic spirit. I can practically hear the gears turning and my brain saying, “Oh, this is poetry. This is not prose. This is amped-up language.” Encountering this poem, I feel washed in the spirit of poetry—re-calibrated is the word I used in my title, and I mean it. Maybe over days of other reading—newspapers, sign, schedules, menus—I need to see the real thing in order to recall how to make it. Yes, I am getting closer. I am also getting the itch to write.

Another example: Hart Crane. I think perhaps it is the utter plainspoken simplicity of his poem’s beginning, the sheer lack of flair, that astounds me and causes me to stop in my tracks. Listen: “There are no stars tonight / But those of memory. / Yet how much room for memory there is / In the loose girdle of soft rain.” Perhaps I have grown tired of my contemporaries, of everyone competing and nearly shouting for attention. “Look at this!” “Notice that!” Again, a re-calibration. Poems may be quiet and still effective. It is not always necessary to shout or to jump around. Just tell it straight (there is no “telling it straight”). You see how I contradict myself. Well, so be it.

A final example: May Swenson. Yes, I know her name; yes, I know she is/was a well known poet. Her poem “Question,” though, is a jolt. Her poem gallops away with energy and punch from the start. I want to go on this ride. Listen again, “Body my house / my horse my hound / what will I do / when you are fallen.” I’m amazed, entranced, and my ear is immensely pleased. It could be that reading these other poets does even more than re-calibration. I find a new music, or my old music made new, through this reading. I feel my sentences tightening, reading May Swenson. I may even decide to start a poem using her direct address, or following her stanzaic pattern or rhythm.

I’ll go out on a limb: I think of all writers, of all genres, poets have the toughest job. Why? They must begin again so often as most poems are short. Thus, we must become experts in beginning. When things freeze, though, and when doubts build up, do feel confident in turning in certain directions. Read poets of the past in an anthology. The difference in years from their time to yours will help you hear their words better. Please try it! Beyond just helping you get started with writing your own poems again, you may find some poets whose work you want to explore more fully. Each of these I mention above are ones I’ve now reading much more fully. After a dry period, re-calibrate and jump start your writing juices by a good dose of reading. Trust me! I hope this works for you as it has for me.

–Patricia Clark

Guest Post: Patrick Madden, Some Notes on Expectations

My daughter loves this riddle I told her:

You are driving a bus. At the first stop, 7 people get on. At the next stop, 3 more get on. At the third, 2 get off and 5 get on. At the fourth, no one gets on and 2 get off. At the fifth, 7 get off and 1 gets on. At the sixth stop, 2 get on and 2 get off. At the seventh, 10 people get on and 3 get off. What is the bus driver’s name?

Reading it here, you can easily figure it out, because you can return to the text and reread, but aloud, this gets people (nearly) every time, because once they hear the numbers, they start trying to do arithmetic, thinking you’re going to ask them how many people are left on the bus. I apologize for stating the obvious. The point of the riddle is misdirection, a subversion of expectations that’s satisfying in its cleverness instead of frustrating. This is just one example of this principle in action. One might easily point to most Hollywood movies, for instance, with their twists and turns to keep viewers guessing. I know this, and you know this, but I hope it’s worth revisiting briefly here, as I retread some of my own path to realizing it (making it real), and applying it to essay writing, specifically.

Over the years, as I read and wrote and taught and critiqued thousands of essays, I formulated an observation into a theory. For context, you should know that, including graduate school, I’ve been at this essay thing semi-professionally for twenty years. Through reading and writing countless good and bad examples, I came to feel that the best essay endings worked their way backwards through the text to shift a reader’s understanding of the whole, to reconfigure interpretation from a new insight. Thus, the endings were a surprise that made sense; they granted an insight beyond what I would have come to on my own, but not beyond what was reasonable. I became fond of saying that this represented a surprising inevitability (or inevitable surprise).

While I never thought myself original for noticing this (and creating a handily chiastic catchphrase to describe it), it took me quite a while to discover that Aristotle had theorized essentially the same thing in the Poetics:

Such an effect [Tragedy inspiring fear or pity] is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design. …

A Complex action is one in which the change is accompanied by such Reversal, or by Recognition, or by both. These last should arise from the internal structure of the plot, so that what follows should be the necessary or probable result of the preceding action. It makes all the difference whether any given event is a case of propter hoc or post hoc.

That is, “because of this” versus simply “after this.” We want causation, not simply correlation. “The king died and then the queen died” is not a proper story. No, wait. It is a story, according to Forster, but it’s not a plot. A plot requires not only “a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence,” but a sense of causality (“then the queen died of grief”). For context, you should know that Aristotle’s source texts were epic poems and plays, and Forster’s focus was the novel, primarily. And here we are talking of essays, mostly, though the principles, as I have said, apply broadly.

Expectations affect not only endings, influence not only twists of plot and action. When we read, we bring myriad expectations to the text, from the most basic (that it will be decipherable), through the conventional (that it will exemplify proper grammar), through the contextual (that it will present to us a world we recognize or, sometimes, characters that we “relate to”), to the transcendental (that it will satisfy in us a spiritual yearning we didn’t quite know we had). We read through our expectations at every turn, and every straightaway, too.

No one’s expectations are infallible; no reader is ideal. Yet I am paid to read others’ work and offer my honest critique, asking them questions and suggesting ways to improve. Perhaps the commonest category of misstep I find in draft work has to do with failing to meet or anticipate readers’ expectations, failing to consider the expansiveness of language and the way ambiguities can be detrimental, even antagonistic to readers. I tell my students that I am a lazy, impatient, intentional misreader. I expect them to do the work of considering their words and phrases and rooting out unintentional misreadings. Because I will misread them every chance they give me, I say. We laugh, but they know I’m serious.

I find such problems all the time, but I suppose I ought to include here an example. So I’ve asked permission of one of my students, whose recent essay caused me and her classmates a slight bit of consternated amusement. The essay was titled “Love Bursts,” which pressed play on my mental boom box with a two-song playlist of Def Leppard’s “Love Bites” and Nazareth’s “Love Hurts,” each of which strings together a litany of bad things love does (scars, wounds, marks, bleeds, brings me to my knees, etc.). [I could, too, have remembered the Everly Brothers’ original “Love Hurts,” or covers by Roy Orbison or Cher or… and who can forget the J. Geils Band’s “Love Stinks”? {rip J. Geils, who died a few days ago, and who was raised, I’ve just learned, the next town over from my hometown in New Jersey}]

Anyway. “Love Bursts” seemed obviously a sentence, subject-verb. Bursting was something love did. This determined my reading. And the first section did nothing to revise my expectation, as the author returned to her childhood, to a night she spent with her aunt and cousins in a hotel. Her mother had allowed her to go only on the condition that she not wet the bed. Uh oh. You know what’s going to happen next, don’t you? Our narrative expectations are primed. But they’re also confirmed in their reading of the title. Love bursts… we’ve got a bladder ready to burst in the nighttime, so… It’s obvious.

Only it wasn’t. The section ends in a display of auntly love, with smiles and bubble bath and not a hint of anger or frustration. Only later in the essay, two-thirds of the way through, does the title reconfigure into an adjective-noun phrase. It’s been about bursts of love all along, but I didn’t know it. I felt a bit misled. The author, knowing from the get-go how to apprehend the titular phrase, was surprised at my (and most of the class’s) misreading. It’s important to note that I don’t believe her to be wrong with her title choice; I just want her to think more broadly about potential meanings.

The advice part of this essay will be brief and general (“feeling myself too ill-instructed to instruct others” — Montaigne): Try to be aware of the various readings and meanings readers may come to give your text. Understand language not as denotative but as accumulative and tentative, words in order forming constellations from which meaning emerges. Anticipate your readers’ questions and objections, and avoid problems or address them as you write (perhaps even in direct address; the essay is wonderfully open to such meta-textuality).

If I weren’t already past the respectable word limit for blog posts, I’d talk us through an expert example of managing expectations, but instead, among so many possible models, I will simply exhort you to read Brian Doyle’s “His Last Game,” which was a Best American Essay in 2013. Savor how it both confirms and subverts your expectations throughout. To wrap up, then:

I love this story my mother told us. For context, you should know that for many years she worked as a secretary at a law firm that handled lots of motor vehicle cases.

You need to have uninsured motorist insurance. With the cases I see every day… there’s a lot of people out there driving around without insurance, or without enough insurance. And if one of them hits you… you’ll be on the hook for the damages. For years I kept telling Chris Leone, “Chris, you need to get uninsured motorist insurance,” and she wouldn’t listen. “Liz,” she’d say. “You worry too much.” But I kept telling her, for years, and finally she got uninsured motorist insurance.

You know what’s going to happen next, don’t you? And while you’re sad for Chris, at least you’re glad that she got uninsured motorist insurance just in time.

Except… in time for what? Nothing happened. Nobody hit Chris. Chris didn’t hit anybody. “Mom!” we laughed. “This is the part where an uninsured motorist hits Chris’s car, and…”

“No,” said Mom. “That’s it. She got the insurance. Now she’s covered.”

For context, you should know that almost exactly a year ago, my mother died of cancer. Because she had smoked almost her entire adult life, we long knew that the day would come, yet I echo what many have said: you’re never really prepared. Despite the disarming pain that still catches me unawares and plunges me into a deep melancholy, I am grateful that her whole family, her husband and all of her children and our spouses and her grandchildren, and many of her friends, gathered from near and very far to spend her last days with her, when she was still awake and aware and laughing and praying and telling us all how much she loved us. When she was gone, or nearly gone, I don’t quite remember, we told this story to each other and it was a salve to our wounds.

 

Guest post, Sara Schaff: The Age of Success

My first book came out in the fall, which still feels miraculous to me. The stories took years to write and years to find a home for. Holding the actual book in my hands for the first time, I felt moved by the lovely cover and by the physical presence of words I had labored over in my thirties—which, by then, were almost over.

Next month I’m turning 40, a number that used to seem distant and possible to avoid. As my stepfather likes to remind me, when he turned 40, I made a giant banner that read “Over the Hill” and hung it on the wall as a snide happy birthday greeting. (I was thirteen at the time and probably more concerned with the fact that he was my stepfather than I was with his age, but whatever, he’s right: 40 looked ancient.) Alice Munro was 37 when she published her first book. Toni Morrison was 39. George Eliot 40. As a beginning writer I’d read the bios of brilliant, “late-blooming” writers and feel inspired. But also terrified: I couldn’t imagine waiting that long to find literary success.

When I began graduate school in creative writing almost a decade ago, I considered it reasonable to assume that my two years there would soon lead to the vision I had of “success”, which included not just a published book but tenure-track job and “a viable writing career.” To some of the twenty-somethings in my program, I probably already seemed old at thirty, but forty still seemed so far away. Of course I would publish a book before I was anywhere near forty!

One thing I couldn’t have known is how in my thirties the whole nature of time would change. Days and years used to feel full and incremental and possible to keep track of. Starting in grad school everything began to hurtle past.

Yet somehow the writing continued slowly. Mostly while I was working full time. And though sometimes the slow writing was painful, often it was the opposite: every word I made time for reinforced for me the joy of making art. Every sentence contained the promise of a magic trick—plucking something from my head and making it live on the page.

I’d like to believe that writing while working made me a better writer—or at least a writer who can usually find a few minutes to write, because sometimes that’s all there is. In grad school, I adored listening to professional writers talk about their schedules: the coffee in the hand, the butt in the chair for the hours of 8-to 5, or 9-2 while the kids are at school. It felt like a dreamy formula: caffeine + hours + story = bestselling/award-winning novel. For the majority of us who are working office jobs, or teaching, or taking care of tiny children, that kind of schedule is a luxury, not a mathematical proof.

Sometimes you have to write at work in secret. (I did some of my happiest writing in an office cubicle.) Sometimes you write only while the kid is sleeping or doesn’t realize you’ve slipped upstairs for some writing time but is about to realize it, so better write that sentence real damn quick. Sometimes you have to write late at night when the house is a mess. Sometimes early in the morning. (But never at 4am. Writers who get up that early are masochists and no wonder: they’re totally sleep-deprived!) If you want be a successful writer and you’re neither independently wealthy nor supported by a large advance for your Great American Novel, be flexible. Be kind to yourself. But don’t forget to write.

For me, the idea of success continues to be a moving target. I’ll never win any award for youthful brilliance. Probably not even for brilliance of the “over the hill” variety. My forties might slip by faster even than my thirties. But throughout the next decade I’ll be writing—ten minutes here, an hour there. My second book will come together slowly, and sometimes I will doubt whether it will come together at all. Every minute and every word along the way will be a small gift to myself. And, eventually, I hope to someone else.

Guest Post, Robert Krut: Heroes Are Dead; Long Live Heroes

 

Robert Krut Bio PhotoI have a handwritten postcard from Allen Ginsberg. And not some random handwritten postcard I discovered in an antique desk drawer at a flea market, or bought online somewhere.  It is handwritten to me. It is, needless to say, one of my most prized possessionsAs you might imagine, it is framed and hanging within view of the computer I am typing on at this very moment.

Ginsberg was my first big literary hero—the person I read obsessively, rhapsodized about to others—I carried around my copy of his glorious red-covered Collected Poems everywhere I went.  I drove my high school English teacher crazy by insisting I share “America” with the class, “go fuck yourself” and all. I wanted to write like him, and if I am honest with myself, I wanted to be him—free, wild-bearded, hand to the sky and capturing the lightning of electric lines right to the page.

So, I wrote him a letter.  Certain I was the first teenager to ever write him and tell him how much his poems meant to me, and how my high school just “didn’t get it” (looking back now, my teacher was more than accommodating of my obsession), I told him how I was also from New Jersey and wanted to be a poet.  Much to my surprise, a few weeks later, a postcard was sitting on the kitchen table when I got home (my Mom was smiling when she said “well, you got a postcard today…”).  In a cruel twist of fate, he even suggested I come to a reading in the city and introduce myself—but the card arrived the day after the reading (cursed by slow mail over the December holidays).  But I had my postcard.  My handwritten postcard from my hero.  And that was more than enough.

Naturally, in the coming years, I discovered many literary heroes that led me to want to write, each one stepping into the hero role: Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Denis Johnson, Michael Burkard. . . they all became not only writers I admired, but those that lit fires, guided my own work (often leading to not-so-infrequent unintended homages).  With each new hero, the previous faded a bit into the background–needless to say, when my Carver obsession began, my attempts at poems were stripped-down affairs as opposed to the expansive, no-thought-should-be-discarded Ginsbergian approach.  Denis Johnson, of course, married those two approaches well, in a sort of tough visionary literature–his poem “The Veil” has remained on my office wall for twenty years.  I suppose this sort of admiration is human nature.

Ultimately, the sort of “hero worship” I had early on for Ginsberg was somewhat similar to that of other, earlier incarnations of fandom: my bedroom as a little kid was plastered with posters of Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter; my early teenage years saw U2 and REM on those same walls.  Ultimately, they made room for Bob Dylan memorabilia; Dylan directly pointed me to Ginsberg, who took up the hero mantle.

When you admire someone so completely, of course, it is only natural to see them not only replaced, but also drift a bit back.  At times, we even have to discard them to move past their (encouraging, sparkling) grip.  For me, by the end of my undergraduate years, I would say things like “I’ll always love Ginsberg, but…” completing that sentence with phrases like “his Collected Poems could have been half as long” (my precious red book!), or “I’m realizing I can go straight to the source–Whitman!”  As time went on though, I kept a place for my hero in my heart–I had my list of lingering poems that still knocked me out, taught him periodically over the years (a visionary literature class here, a political poetry unit there, etc.), even thrilled at going to City Lights Books in San Francisco.  But it was never truly quite the same as those first few years in the rush of discovering his work.

Now, though, after a recent event, I realized that my love for Ginsberg was never only about the cult of personality or some cartoon of his “character.”  There was–is–real magic in his work, so it was only a matter of time that I would revisit my full force love of his poetry, and role as a poet.  In going back to him after all these years, I can appreciate him on a deeper level–embracing what I love, acknowledging any limitations, and feeling the rush of connecting with poetry for the first time again.  It’s a great feeling–I encourage all readers to go back to their first heroes and see if it happens for them, too.

My renewed fervor grew out of the most common of occurrences for those of us who write poems–a simple conversation where someone asks “who is your favorite poet?” Or, similarly, but with a bit more breathing room: “who are your favorite poets?”  It’s always nice when someone asks this at a party–particularly when you’re the only one there who may write (or publicly acknowledge writing) poems, as you see someone taking an interest in poetry–so often I am pleased to see a real interest out in the “non-poetry” and/or “non-academic” worlds about poems.

That being said, I have also learned over the years that, in those moments, breaking out truly contemporary, or even slightly obscure older, poets leads to blank stares–I have killed many a conversation over the years extolling the virtues of names that didn’t register in the conversation partner.  So, typically now I mention someone relatively well-known that I do love, but that will bridge the discussion.  Typically a response of “well, it all starts with Whitman and Dickinson” is a solid one, and allows for an engaging conversation.  Other names that have worked well in these moments include Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop (for reference, “One Art” and “The Moose” are very popular; “The Man-Moth” tends to unfortunately be a deal breaker).  It should be pointed out, though that mentioning these “classic names” provides a perfect chance to share newer ones, as common ground has been established. Last month I was at a bar where someone asked about poets and I followed up a Whitman reference by saying “and if you want to read some great contemporary work, go find Danez Smith.”  Later in the night, that same person came back to me and asked me to repeat the name so he could enter it into his phone for future reference.

But back to Ginsberg–at a recent party, sensing that my conversation partner might have loved the Beats back in the day, I mentioned my old hero.  To my shock, this was not met with a positive response–the person, laughing in a good natured way, let me know “Oh no!  I can’t stand Ginsberg!”  I was surprised at how quickly I snapped back into being that teenager again, with my Ginsberg love back front and center.  The good thing, though, as I now realize, is that my hero worship had been replaced with admiration–and in defending his legacy, I could feel myself reconnected with him, and what excites me about poetry, all over again.

I made my case.  In a world where everyone can be so cynical, isn’t it refreshing to have his poems out there, in all of their rambling, heart-on-sleeve glory?  In a time when it is so necessary, isn’t it exhilarating to read poems facing capital-A America straight on?  What lover of poetry didn’t want to break out “America” on November 9, 2016?  And have you read “Supermarket in California” recently?  It feels fresh and heartbreaking all over again–only now Ginsberg is the one we meet in the grocery store instead of Whitman.

And, if the poetry/politics intersection doesn’t do it for you, there is the personal and spiritual work.  The teenage version of me read “To Aunt Rose” and loved it.  But as we all get older, and lose people we love, good luck reading it, with its detailed and loving portrait, and not only marveling at its poetry but also tearing up at the emotions.  Additionally, the spirituality that runs through so much of the work, with its mix of Judaism and Buddhism, takes us out of the rough observations of the political work and places American life on a different plane–try listening to his reading of “Wichita Vortex Sutra” with Phillip Glass and not feeling like you are floating five feet above the ground.

All of this came out though that party conversation, and I was back in, full force.  In doing so, I reconnected with something I loved about poetry from when I first started writing.  That night I went home and wrote, and I did the next day, too.

We put our heroes away for a bit for a reason, and we certainly can’t sacrifice what is new in poetry to stay safe in our comfort zones–we would become boring if that happened.  At the right time, though, it is worth revisiting them once again, with the deeper understanding that comes from time as well as the larger world of literature. We see them with added depth, but lit by the spark that first excited us about writing.  In the end, it leaves us admiring them as writers, not heroes.  And I say that as I look up at Allen Ginsberg’s handwriting from 1990 on my wall.

Guest Post, Philip Gross: Beyond Yes or No

Philip Gross HeadshotIt seems so long ago now: Brexit, the British equivalent of America’s Trump moment.  By a similar slight tipping of an almost equally divided electorate, that necessary legal fiction called The British People chose to leave the European Union.

What the fiction concealed was a polity more split than ever, and with no wish to reconcile… not to mention the widening cracks between the four countries of the British union, the United Kingdom, or between regions of England itself.

As for the Yes/No question – making it so simple, you would think – that concealed complexities that would not have fitted on ten sides of ballot paper, let alone that one tick-box. Whichever way you voted, you’d been trying to ignore the fact that half your allies looked for all the world like enemies. Even one word, Yes or No, seemed like the answer, in each voter’s mind, to a whole array of different questions. Were you saying No, or Yes, to complicated bureaucratic legislation… or to globalisation… or to bloody foreigners… or to a gallant attempt to heal the fractiousness of a continent prone to internecine wars?

That was nine months ago – time for something, or at least some understanding, to have come to birth.

Some fifty years ago, I stumbled on the unappealing-sounding The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. I do care about science, but what it suggested, eye-openingly, was more. It concerned how we change. Why is it that we don’t change smoothly, incrementally, as we gain more information? Largely we don’t, not individuals any more than nations; we move in jolts and lurches, with ideas seeming to seize power in sudden coups.

Kuhn’s insight was that we live in a matrix of information, some of it fitting our current account of things, any things not. In newer terms, we think we know what is the signal, what is noise. We live with the freight of things we tell ourselves might be an error, or irrelevant, or just waiting to be better explained next week. Then one day, someone says What if that’s not the story? What if the exceptions are the story, in the margins of the page?

In Britain’s Brexit moment, we heard a blare of noise. The fact that it was being organised into a cruder, nastier and falser story is not the point. The howl of hurt unfocussed rage, of whole neighbourhoods, whole regions who saw no place for them in the current story, the yearning to uncomplicate things, violently, was going to be heard.

Was it a feeble response then, from some of us stunned by a genuine grief, to pick up our pen or laptop and write poetry? In my case, not even political poetry, not continuing the argument by other means, because my paradigm-shifting moment said: Maybe it’s the story of Yes/No that’s the problem, which we have to get beyond.

Alphabets are how young children come to language. A is for Apple, and so on. Trying to see what it was I felt such grief at losing, I found myself spelling out an alphabet of Europe, in the poem here. It contains some close-up details of European history that rarely feature in the headline stories, but that’s part of the point. Brexit barely features. The letters spelled out a wider story – of Europe already much more various than we tend to think, Europe now reeling at the impact of an age of population shift, of continents spilling, leaking great migrations. (This is not new. It’s the periods of apparent stasis that are the exceptions.) With migrant boats sinking offshore, we were struggling to be the Europe those desperate people dreamed, and we hoped, we might be. We needed to be bigger, in heart and practicality. Instead, nation by nation started backing into fear and defensiveness, into our smaller selves and stories of the way things used to be.

No, poetry is not the answer. It might look towards a better question, one that’s wider, deeper, than the Yes/No story. So few words, such a slight art form. Still, it points a way to being more.

 

               Trying to Spell Europe

                          

Armistice: for a minute or two, we understand each other. Silence. Then the

harder part, a life’s work: language must step in.

 

Banlieux: the writing in the margins of the city. Dark illumination. Yes, and we

will need to read it before we can understand ourselves.

 

Calais: the lost thing that inscribed itself not only on one dead queen’s heart but

thousands, where it translates into any home or hope.

 

Danube: not to forget, there is this other river that shapes half of Europe, that

concentrates its melancholy in the (what else?) Black Sea.

 

E-numbers are a way of knowing, that’s all. Of perceiving what our tongues can’t

tell. Did we think Brussels hid them, microscopic numbers in our food?

 

Frisian: the language most germane to English, of a country on and not on any

map, its heartland those long islands, barely more than shifting dunes.

 

Gross: allow me, please, this little word for Big; not just because it’s mine. Because it’s here.

Because it feels, in its bones, the swash of centuries.

 

Hanseatic: now, there was an empire – without borders, without army. Gabled

houses, and the weighing out of herring shoals, their scales, their silver.

 

Indigenous: for us, the word is affectation, scarcely old enough for habit. It’s no

time at all since the first stragglers happened on a house swept bare by ice.

 

John, Johann, Jean: three guys, three guises of J on our tongues, slipping from one

set of taste buds to another, as in a wine tasting: rinse, spit, taste again.

 

Kick out the Ks, unsettling letters. Tolerable when accompanied, as at each end of

knock. They are the crackling of boots through Northern, Eastern, forest dark.

 

Lulled, on the other hand, by languid sounds of Languedoc (disregard the silenced

voice in that word too) as if L was a lingua franca we could speak.

 

Médecins Sans Frontières, there’s a clue: not that our wounded borders are in need

of healing, but that borders are themselves the wound.

 

Nation: a shape that casts its shadow in the light of something other – maybe the

glare of empire; also the tiny candle of a stranger in the corner of the room.

 

Overseas is a word that comes too easily to islanders. Offshore (yes, with its stain

these days of dodgy dealings), that may be more to the point.

 

Pétanque, pelota, pesäpallo: we should give some time to other people’s games.

Not to compete, just listen to the tunk or whap against the wall next door.

 

Q’ran: he’s learned to write it; it disturbs him still, that letter abroad without its U,

old rules unput, and the sound of its catch in the throat.

 

Renaissance, Reformation, Risorgimento: it seems we never make a move without

the prefix glancing back at what was lost before.

 

Stars in too snug a circle on their blue-sky flag? As we know, it’s only where we’re

standing, looking, that makes any constellation hold.

 

Tundra crisping the Northward edges of our vision. And the South wind on the

windscreen with its gauze of desert sand. Both these define us.

 

Urals: there’s a skyline, and a far one, but why should this crimp in a landmass

make a continent, unless it mirrors some crimp in our minds?

 

Volte face or viva voce or (in acclamation) viva anything… From now, there’ll be

examinations on the border, to turn the voice back, though it only wants to live.

 

West is the wall we’re backed against, with, we would like to think, the setting

sun. Then it too takes ship, off, out. Leaves us standing on the shore.

 

X is that otherness, that and the Z, Basque shows us. As if any easy kinship was

being nixed. It’s a cross in the box, but no one tells us what the question is.

 

Yogh: that Saxon letter, never travelled, still leaves its guttural trace on our Y, a

shadow on each clumsy impulse towards Yes and You.

 

Zero, now, and zenith… Zodiac. I could go on. Wherever did you lay your hands

on words like these, their smell of spice route, alcázar, bazaar?